History of International Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate-do Federation:

History of Okinawan Goju-ryu

A legacy of tradition

Few fighting arts have a history as deep and fascinating as that of Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate-do. From Shaolin temple and Chinese boxing origins, to the style of Naha-te, its further development into Okinawan Goju-Ryu and the formation of the International Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate-do Federation, the history of our art spans hundreds of years. Passed from Master to student, the art was trained and the history was transmitted orally. In the late 20th century Sensei Morio Higaonna documented this information into the now famous Goju-Ryu text book: The History of Karate. All the history documented below comes directly from The History of Karate and Sensei Higaonna’s lifelong research into the subject… 

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Kanryo Higaonna

Kanryo Higaonna created the Naha-te style of Karate. He was born on March 10th, 1853 in Nishimura, Okinawa. He was one of eight siblings and his family were of a lower economic class. Kanryo Higaonna’s father was a sailor and he made his living shipping and trading items between the Ryukyu chain of islands and further afield to China. Upon his return he would always tell stories of the marvels of China and their martial arts. At the age of 10, Kanryo Higaonna began assisting his father with his work on the boats. In 1867 when Kanryo Higaonna was 14, his father was killed in a fight, the reason for which still remains unknown. This was a terrible blow to the family, especially to a young Kanryo Higaonna and his focus quickly turned from grief to revenge. He made the decision to travel to China to learn the deadly fighting arts and return to exact revenge on his father’s killer.

He arrived in the port of Fuzhou in Southern China and once there sought out other Okinawan’s living in the area. He questioned them about great martial arts masters living in Fuzhou. Introductions were organised and Kanryo Higaonna was introduced to his eventual teacher; a man named Ryu Ryu Ko. Ryu Ryu Ko accepted the young teenager and made him swear an oath to follow his philosophies, principles and to promise never to misuse the martial arts he would learn.

Kanryo Higaonna would arrive to Ryu Ryu Ko’s house every morning. He would assist his teacher in his work as a bamboo craftsman, cutting and carting bamboo and making all manner of things out of it. Ryu Ryu Ko lived in a two story dwelling. The top floor was his house, the bottom his workshop and all training took place outside in the garden. Through many hours of hard training and through his dedicated assistance with his teacher’s work, Kanryo Higaonna eventually became a ‘live in’ student. He took up residence inside his teacher’s home and dedicated every waking moment to his master. He endured much hardship through the often brutal training and quickly developed an unbelievable level of power, strength and speed. He also learned about herbal medicines and studied the use of weapons.

After 14 years of loyal study, Ryu Ryu Ko had grown older and told Kanryo Higaonna it was time for him to return to his homeland of Okinawa. In 1891 the two parted ways as Kanryo Higaonna followed the wishes of his master and they were never to see each other again. Kanryo Higaonna left China an accomplished martial artist and with 9 of the current Goju-ryu kata. Upon returning to Okinawa, his father’s killer heard of the great martial arts skills Kanryo Higaonna now possessed. The killer begged him for forgiveness and remembering the oath he had made to his master, he very graciously forgave the man.

Kanryo Higaonna continued his training in Okinawa, firstly on his own and then eventually began teaching students in his home. He called his martial art Naha-te after the capital city of Okinawa where he was based and following the example of the other main Okinawan styles of the time: Shuri-te and Tomari-te. He also eventually took a position as a karate instructor at the Naha commercial high school in 1905.

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Chojun Miyagi

Chojun Miyagi systemised and improved Naha-te to create Goju-ryu.

Chojun Miyagi was born on April 25th, 1888. He was born into a wealthy family, but as a youth was at times unruly. At the age of 11 he was taken to RyukoAragaki (the grandfather of Goju-ryu Master Shuichi Aragaki, IOGKF Technical Advisor), who was 24 at the time, to learn karate from him in hopes to instil discipline in the mischievous boy. Chojun Miyagi immediately developed a love for karate and became a very serious student. Aragaki recognised this and decided that he needed to study under a strict teacher, whose karate was second to none, to unlock Chojun Miyagi’s full potential.

In 1902 at the age of 14 he was taken and introduced to Kanryo Higaonna and was accepted as a student. Kanryo Sensei was 49 years old at this point and known by the nick name ‘Ashi no Higaonna’ (meaning ”Legs” Higaonna) because of his exceptionally strong legs. Although warned of the severity of the training, Chojun Miyagi’s expectations were far exceeded when he began his training in Naha-te. The training he received was intense and very brutal and he trained extra outside of his classes to strengthen his body to aid in his fast improvement. Kanryo Sensei observed this and eventually Chojun Sensei became the student he chose to learn the entire art of Naha-te. At the time, students only learned Sanchin and one other kata. Training took place at the Kanryo Sensei’s home each evening and after the usual two hour session, Kanryo Sensei would keep Chojun Miyagi behind for personal one on one instruction in the entire system.

In 1910 World War I swept across the globe and Chojun Miyagi was called upon for mandatory military service. He became a soldier at the age of 20 and was discharged at the age of 22. He rushed back home to Okinawa upon hearing that his teacher’s health had deteriorated. Chojun Miyagi desperately wanted to learn the rest of the Naha-te style from his teacher and also care for him in his later years. Everyday Chojun Miyagi would bring Kanryo Sensei to his own home to care for and learn from him. He became the only student to learn all the Naha-te kata from Kanryo Sensei, who passed away three years later in 1915. Many Okinawans referred to Kanryo Higaonna by the title of Bushi, meaning a distinguished master of the martial arts. Also in 1915, Chojun Miyagi fulfilled the final wish his teacher had for him and made the trip to Fuzhou in China. He travelled by boat on the same route Kanryo Sensei had many years before him. He explored and researched the area, visiting the house of Ryu Ryu Ko and demonstrating the kata he had learned to an old man who was a student of Ryu Ryu Ko. During his two month stay, Chojun Miyagi recorded much information about Ryu Ryu Ko.

Upon his return to Okinawa he was now 29 years old and he took his teacher’s place and began teaching Naha-te. He worked to further develop the fighting system he had inherited. Chojun Sensei had learned the kata Rokkishu in China and his further development of this resulted in the creation of Tensho Kata. He also researched and created warm up exercises for the body. FurthermoreChojun Miyagi revised Sanchin Kata to be performed in a straight line, moving both forward and backwards, instead of turning around. Tensho kata emphasised the softness of the art whereas Sanchin kata emphasizes the hardness.

He taught out of both his home, the now famous Garden Dojo, and also at a space he rented at the Naha Commercial High School.

The local police force became concerned about Chojun Miyagi’s reputation and warned him of the consequences of misusing karate. Chojun Miyagi explained the true nature of his teachings, and in doing so he was hired to teach at the Okinawan Police academy. In 1926 Chojun Miyagi founded the Karate Kenkyu Club, bringing together the top Masters of the main styles of karate to unite under the common goal of spreading true karate to future generations. The Masters in this club were Chojun Miyagi, Chomo Hanashiro, Choyu Motobu and KenwaMabuni.

In 1930 an invitation was received to perform a demonstration in Tokyo at the celebration of Crown Prince Hirohito’s succession to the throne. Chojun Miyagi couldn’t attend, but instead sent his top student, Jin’an Shinzato, in his place. After Shinzato’s demonstration, he was asked by someone who viewed his performance what the name of his style was. Shinzato wasn’t sure how to answer, as Naha-te was more of an informal name. He related this story to Chojun Miyagi who thought long and hard about this and on what to name his karate style. Within the famous martial arts text, the Bubishi, is a poem called the Kenpo Haku (the eight poems of the fist) and Chojun Sensei was quite fond of it:

  • The mind is one with heaven and earth.
  • The circulatory rhythm of the body is similar to the cycle of the sun and the moon.
  • The way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness.
  • Act in accordance with time and change.
  • Techniques will occur in the absence of conscious thought.
  • The feet must advance and retreat, separate and meet.
  • The eyes do not miss even the slightest change.
  • The ears listen well in all directions.

The third poem, ‘Ho Go Ju donto’, is where Chojun Miyagi took the name ‘Go Ju’. He then added ‘Ryu’ to the name to formally name the style Goju-Ryu (literally meaning Hard and Soft Style) in 1930. Chojun Miyagi began promoting Goju-Ryu Karate even more heavily. In 1934 he spent almost a full year teaching Goju-Ryu Karate in Hawaii. He also performed demonstrations on the Japanese mainland to popularize karate. In 1940 he created and added two new kata to the Goju-Ryu system, Gekisai Dai Ichi and Gekisai Dai Ni. He wanted karate to be more accessible to people of all ages and wanted a basic kata to make training more popular – Chojun Miyagi’s Gekisai Kata’s succeeded in doing this.

His promotional work to spread Goju-ryu was so successful that the Japanese Butokukai recognised his style as an official martial art and he as its official master. Chojun Sensei’s legendary Goju-ryu grip also earned him the nickname ‘NukituiMagushiku’ for his ability to tear raw meat apart with his bare hands and he became quite famous for this in Okinawa.

World War II then cast its shadow over the world and towards the end of the war, the Battle of Okinawa took place and along with it the slaughter of thousands of Okinawans. Chojun Miyagi and most of his family were lucky to escape to the north of the island, however many of his students were not. Jin’an Shinzato’s death in particular was a great loss to Chojun Miyagi and suddenly the future of his karate was uncertain. Once the war was over he returned to Naha to find that a majority of the city had been destroyed and that his historical records on Ryu Ryu Ko had been wiped out and lost forever. It was a desperate time for the survival of Goju-ryu and Okinawa.

From the beginning, Miyagi Chujun Sensei recognized karate as a valuable social treasure of Okinawa. He devoted his entire life to the study, development and transmission of Okinawan karate for the sake of future generations and is truly known as the founder of Goju-Ryu karate-do. During his lifetime, Miyagi Chojun Sensei was known and respected by everyone not only in Okinawa but also respected throughout the world as one of karate’s greatest authorities.

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He started the practice of Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate in 1977 and has been training with Sensei Bakkies Laubscher since 1978. Today he is a full time 5th Dan (Godan) karate instructor. With dojo's in Somerset-West, Franschhoek, Paarl and Wellington you will be close to a training facility or dojo as it is called. Currently the largest number of karateka train weekly in Paarl.


Cell: 083 956 1845
Email: info@gojuryukarate.co.za