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The History of Gojuryu - as written by Yamaguchi Sensei

Yamaguchi was the legendary and colourful early 20th century karate master who founded Japanese Goju Ryu – one of Japan’s largest and most successful karate organizations. Among the many famous martial artists who were influenced by his teachings was Mas Oyama, who went on to form his own organization, Kyokyushin karate. Such organizations as Seido Juku karate, founded by Tadashi Nakamura, one of Oyama’s top students, still practice many Goju Ryu kata.


Karatedo was born combining kakutojutsu [fighting martial arts], which had been studied in Okinawa 500 years ago, and kempo, which was introduced from China. As you can see in many countries, fighting martial arts have been handed down in each country. Some remain a national sport and others remain just a sport among others.

In Okinawa, for a long time, using any kinds of weapons was prohibited because of a policy of prohibiting weapons. For that reason, they had to invent toshukuken, the way to fight without a weapon. This was especially true in the beginning of the 17th century since it was thought that fighting martial arts, referring to Chinese kempo, was invented among Ryukyu [Okinawa] samurai because their weapons were banned. In Okinawa, before it was called karate, it had two names, one was Naha-te and the other was Shuri-te.

These are the names of regions. The source of present day styles are these two te. Naha-te was invented by Tono [Higaonna] Kanryo Shihan, who went to Fuku-ken-sho [also Fuken-sho, Fujian Province] in China and learned Chinese kempo, which was combined with Naha-te and named Shorei-ryu.

Shuri-te was represented by Matsumura Soken Shihan. It has been separated as Matsu-Toukan-ryu, Shito-ryu, and Wado-ryu. The history of Goju Ryu begins with Miyagi Chojun Shihan who is an unparalleled saint [fuseishutsu no kensei].

Miyagi Shihan was born in Meiji era 20 [1888] to a famous house in Naha, Okinawa. He had practiced karate since he was 14-years old with Tono Kanryo Shihan. In Meiji 36 [1904], when he was 16 years old, he was ordered to go to Fuku-ken-sho, China, and practiced Chinese kempo.

In China, Miyagi received rough and strict training. At the same time he studied theory from old books. After he came back from China, he compared Chinese kempo and Okinawa-te. Miyagi adopted his unique and effective way of breathing, which he called ikibuki [also ibuki], a way of preliminary exercise that is necessary for mastering karatedo. Ikibuki is also a supportive scientific exercise that is related to the structure of the body and its movement.

After that, Miyagi continued studying and reorganized both Chinese kempo and Okinawa-te’s merits and added his own ideas. This is how Goju Ryu was born. Goju Ryu’s name was extracted from the Bubishi, a Chinese documentary record.

One of eight Kyo phrases (precepts of Chinese martial arts) in the Bubishi (the once secret White Crane and Monk Fist Boxing text owned by many Okinawan karate masters) is called “Hogoju.” Because it means “the method of absorbing and releasing hard [go] and soft [ju],” the style was named Goju Ryu. Miyagi taught karate at an Okinawan police training school, a Naha public business school, an Okinawan teachers’ school, and an Okinawan health centre. In Showa 4 [1929], Miyagi was invited by a karate club at Kyoto University and by Kansai University, with honour, to become an advising teacher. He was then invited to teach permanently by Ritsumeikan University. Over time, Miyagi spread his methods throughout Japan and took the initiative of Goju Ryu.

By that time, the author of this book was recognized by Miyagi Shihan and was left the responsibility of spreading Miyagi’s method of guidance, creating a family of Goju Ryu, and organizing the All-Japan Karatedo Goju Association. Moreover, Miyagi Shihan was invited to Hawaii by a newspaper company, where he taught karate for one year and contributed to Goju Ryu Karatedo in and outside of Japan. After World War II, Miyagi went back to Okinawa and quietly worked for the civil administration as a physical education coach. In October of Showa 28 [1953], he passed away.

Fundamental Idea of Goju Ryu Karatedo

Goju Ryu Karatedo is composed of Yo [Yang], which is positive; and In [Yin], which is negative, as the ideographs [kanji] “Go” and “Ju” indicate. This is why the fundamental idea is so unique and has beauty. The eternal life of the universe develops with positive and negative working together. This is the same for the lives of humans. Life has Yo and In, or Go and Ju, both sides for all our lives, sometimes connected by becoming the will and harmony. The ancients who chose karate as a means of fighting endured their strict and rough practice to protect themselves and to win.

You can see that Goju Ryu is still keeping a primitive form for actual fighting when you practice the Sanchin and Tensho kata, which represent Go and Ju. In Sanchin, you make the whole body, all the nerves, etc. extremely tense and do not let your guard down even for a moment. On the other hand, in Tensho, you do not show a gush of fighting spirit, you keep it inside your body and wait for a chance to use it. As a result, Tensho draws a gentle curve and flows. The techniques of Goju Ryu use its own unique method of breathing, which is called ikibuki. The technique can be changed from Go to Ju or Ju to Go; and while you move without distraction, you still go along with the movements of the opponent. If the opponent comes by Go, you respond with Ju and restrain him. If the opponent comes by Ju, you use Go and temper him. Ikibuki is the way of breathing that controls conscious breathing from ordinary unconscious breathing. You go with the movement and breathing of the opponent and lead your physical condition to most advantageous situation. It is useful for concentrating your muscles and mind.

Goju Ryu has many postures that use the names of animals, like the cat, dog, crane, tiger, and dragon. In ikibuki, you imagine that a lion is roaring. When animals stand ready to fight, they are on their guard and all their power is concentrated for fighting. That form does not have anxiety or fear. They are just thinking about defeating the enemy. There is no desire of self-gratification and no dishonesty. You can say that they are desperate. The reason that the colour of the old budo is very strong in modern budo is that we see the importance in the forms and the ikibuki of these animals. These aspects are the original aspects of Go, however, it is not perfect to emphasize the aspect of Go, in other words, the height of the form. If a strife of Go is one side, there has to be Ju on the other that avoids strife. That is how character building can be accomplished by Goju Ryu.

In the future, karatedo should not be a technique to defeat humans. When it gives an edge to others and yourself, then initially, it becomes a precept as Do and practice becomes valuable. In modern times, there is a method of instruction and a way of studying karatedo as a sport, but I do not know how the readers interpret karatedo, as a budo or just a sport in common with the West. Certainly, you can think that there is no difference from other sports when you refer to the rules of the game. Also, the main purpose of sports is to train the mind and body at the same time. It applies to budo as well. Yet, it is difficult to say that the many events that have been invented in the West are simply sport and that only Japanese ancient grappling games are called budo. Presently, there are Olympic games and many kinds of events. Judo, kendo, and karatedo have been introduced as sports. Their sporting elements are emphasized and introduced by many people and have also been reformed to become a sport. Still, there will be a big difference in the mental attitudes between people who practice karate as a sport and as a budo. This is because our society is formed into many organizations, sometimes in a family, school, or workshop. In these societies, the purpose of sports is to make healthy minds and bodies, to bring together a sense of cooperation to make a member of society adapt to this human society. Moreover, it promotes the improvement of a member of society. By having characteristics common to all by sports, the events are used to encourage making peace in the world.

What about budo? Budo did not originate in a peaceful atmosphere. It was necessary to protect one’s life at the time, and to learn how to use budo as a weapon and achieve one’s responsibility as a warrior. It was the warrior’s duty to develop spirit. This rule was established in the hierarchy. It was the theory of a warrior to desire winning a war.

Modern budo is not the extension of ancient budo. Right now, there is no hierarchy like in samurai society. Society does not force you to destroy human life; however, one of the conceptions of ancient budo is skill inherited in modern budo. Before, warriors practiced budo and respected it as Do, suffering, and facing death. In spite of the fact that death is the destiny of all human beings, the idea of death is dreadful. I do not doubt that the ancient budo philosophy was resisted by human beings facing death and yet also the way of character building to learn to overcome death. For a living thing, instead of knowing that life is the most precious thing, death was the naught. As a result of putting oneself in the naught, they could ignore their fear of death.

In the ancient budo book, Hagakure, it is written that budo is death. In these words, you can find the spirit of budo, which is superior to death. In other words, an object of the fear of death is neither others, nor weapons — it is oneself. As a result, it was necessary to obtain a technique to protect oneself and one had to have a strong spirit to correspond to that. When one could overcome a conception of death, there was an improvement of a human being as a samurai. When it was developed, karatedo was used in place of weapons and studied that way so that the spirit of the samurai was needed at the beginning of its conception to learn karate. Now there are rules, but the techniques and elements have not changed.

The goal of many sports is competition; however, there is a sense of entertainment or hobby. On the other hand, karate is the fight against one’s self without having an object. In sports, records are saved and defeating these records becomes the success. They are introduced to many people as a means of character building and harmonizing mankind, and they are kept. In karatedo, there is nothing to be recorded. The more superior is judged by the technique used. Now, karate is the battle against one’s self and a means of the way of one’s life not to defeat others or to die. This solitary fight is to know one’s own spirit and the desire to the naught that is superior to the limitation of the body. If one’s aspiration is a formal victory or defeat, that is just a stage of learning techniques, not a faith of kyo or mu. As an author, I also studied Yoga and Shinto to seek this faith. I also trained myself to get closer to the strictness and mystery of Do.

In conclusion, it is not necessary to be strong even though you practice karatedo. You want to be stronger than others because you compare your strength with others. The object of karatedo is Do, not comparing with someone else, and this Do will continue forever and ever.

This excerpt from Yamaguchi’s book, “Goju Ryu Karatedo Kyohan,” was submitted by Masters Publications. This is the fourth book in the Limited Edition series translated from Japanese into English and published by Masters Publication; the first was “To-Te Jitsu” by Funakoshi Gichin, followed by “Okinawan Kempo” by Motobu Choki and “Wado Ryu Karate” by Otsuka Hiroki.

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