Life Story of Karate Master
readers may have seen a movie which came out a few years ago (1976),
entitled "Way of the Sword." It was only a short film, a supporting
feature, but it was about the traditional Japanese budo. Various martial arts
were shown such as aikido, kendo, and kusarigama but the most intriguing part
was the short section on karate, because this featured Gogen Yamaguchi, the
headmaster of the Japan Karate-do Goju-kai (Goju Association).
Gogen Yamaguchi was shown sitting in front of a crystal ball. He performed
various mudras (mystic hand movements) in the direction of the crystal ball,
while doing special breathing exercises. He beat on a drum to summon up the
spirits. According to the narration, Yamaguchi uses the crystal ball to communicate
with the spirits of fighters past and future. They give him their secrets.
Yamaguchi was also shown doing Tensho kata, a slow, breathing form of the
Goju style--I was unfamiliar with the Goju style at this time, and I thought
the breathing method looked forced and unnatural--and then two young instructors
from the Goju-kai did an exhibition of free style sparring. This looked good,
fast, continuous, and with a sharp staccato-type of power. In fact, it was
nice to watch--exciting and varied. The fighting was carried out at a little
closer distance than, say, in the JKA or Wado-ryu, and the two karatemen stuck
to basic fast and strong attacks, with both hand and foot. The blocking was
sharp and performed with the open hand. No doubt these two had sparred many
times, and it was only a demonstration but still quite impressive.
It was difficult to know what to make of this glimpse of Master Yamaguchi,
but he did have "charisma." He always wears traditional Japanese
dress. And, although he wears his hair long, this does not make him look up
to date, but more like some Yamabushi (mountain warrior) from days gone by,
transported incongruously to the Tokyo suburbs. I knew that he was a sort
of semi-legendary karate master, a practitioner of yoga and a priest of the
Shinto religion. In person I had heard he was generous and helpful.
Peter Urban, in his book "Karate Dojo" tells
a story about how Yamaguchi had killed a tiger bare-handed (throttling it
to death), but this seemed hard to take. All-in-all I didn't know much about
this particular karate master, and so I was pleased to obtain some time later,
a copy of Gogen Yamaguchi's autobiographical book Karate: Goju-ryu by the
"The Cat" is Yamaguchi's nickname. There are several reasons given
for this, such as his long hair, which resembles a lion's mane, his movements
which resemble those of a cat, or his use of the cat stance in sparring. Yamaguchi
himself explained it to interviewer Rolland Gaillac, of the French magazine
"Karate" (April 1977 edition), in the following words: "Even
today, young man, if you were to face me in combat, I would be able to determine
in a second the strength of your Ki. Immediately I would know if you were
a good opponent. It is this quality, and no other, which has given me the
name of The Cat."
In "Karate: Goju-ryu by the Cat," Yamaguchi
tells his life story. It seems that he has been a mixture of karate expert,
man of action, and mystic. In the late 1930s and early 1940s he had been a
Government administrator in Manchuria. After World War ll ended he had served
time as a prisoner of war in a Russian labour camp. When he finally returned
home he had been deeply upset by the state of post-war Japan, and it was only
after he had received a "divine revelation" that his life was given
Since Yamaguchi's autobiography is not generally available, I have tried to
retell his story, and the following owes a lot to the information contained
in his book.
1909 was the year of Gogen Yamaguchi's birth, Kyushu in Japan the place. He
was one of ten children. He writes that his father sold miscellaneous goods,
and later opened up a private school, so it seems as if there was no recent
tradition of martial arts in the family. However, from an early age Yamaguchi
was fascinated by judo, kendo, and the other martial arts.
In his second year of primary school, he began learning Jigen-ryu Kenjutsu
(a famous school of Japanese fencing). Later he met a Mr. Maruta, a carpenter
from Okinawa, who taught him the basics of karate. Young Yamaguchi practiced
fencing during the day, and karate at night. His only interest was in getting
stronger and stronger, and he was well pleased with the results of his karate
training: "I found my physical condition entirely changed after a few
years of karate training. My legs and loins became stronger and my muscles
and bones were greatly developed. Above all, I found myself ready to defend
and counterattack at any instant."
After finishing school, he went on to Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, which
in the 20's and 30's was more or less a college for training administrators
for Japan's "conquered territories." Evidently, Yamaguchi had previously
been expelled from Kansai University because of "roughness."
In Kyoto, he began teaching karate in his spare time and later, in 1930, (age
21) opened a karate club at Ritsumeikan University. Judging from his book,
trouble seemed to follow Yamaguchi around in those days. He and his karate
group had various physical confrontations with other martial artists, and
gangs of toughs. When "leftist" groups started causing trouble at
the University, Yamaguchi and his friends drove them off the Campus. "I
was rough and thoughtless," he remembers of these times.
In 1928 Chojun Miyagi had visited Japan to teach his style of karate, the
Goju style. (He had taught in the Judo Club of Kyoto University). He came
back to teach in Japan on other occasions, and in 1931, Gogen Yamaguchi was
introduced to him. In his autobiography, Yamaguchi puts these words into Chojun
Miyagi's mouth: Ô"Mister Yamaguchi, you are well qualified to be
the successor of Goju school karate. I have nothing more to teach you."
Thereby, we are led to believe, Yamaguchi was designated as Miyagi's successor
in Goju ryu.
Whether Miyagi ever said this is something we can hardly prove or disprove.
However, it irritates some of the Goju men on Okinawa to hear Yamaguchi described
as Chojun Miyagi's karate successor, since Miyagi was never in Japan for periods
of longer than two or three months. By far the larger part of his teaching
was carried out in his native Okinawa. In view of this it may be doubted whether
Yamaguchi ever learned the whole of the Goju system from Miyagi; and it may
well be, as some say, that he picked up the complete range of Goju kata later
from students of Miyagi such as Meitoku Yagi.
When Yamaguchi first began teaching karate, his training was regarded as pretty
wild. Some of the other schools thought it was like "street fighting,"
and according to his son, Gosei Yamaguchi, he (Gogen) more or less "invented
his own way of working out"(see notes) Gogen Yamaguchi also claims the
credit for inventing karate free-sparring, so maybe this has something to
do with it. The senior karate masters of the time emphasised kata training
and were not very enthusiastic about free-style kumite. But anyway, whatever
his early methods, it is a fact that the development of Goju in Japan was
the work of this man, Gogen Yamaguchi.
When Yamaguchi realised his position as the senior Japanese student of Goju-ryu,
he began to take the responsibility seriously. When he could, he would go
up to Mount Kuruma for austere training. He became acquainted with a group
of Shintoists who were engaged in spiritual training, and was able to learn
several things from them. He began to fast. He sat up in meditation through
the night, and stood under a waterfall in sanchin stance to try and unify
his mind and body. "I was surprised to learn," he writes, "that
this (ascetic training) greatly influenced my karate. I found I was able to
move without thinking in a natural and mysterious way while I practiced. Moreover,
I attained a perception and could quickly see things before they occurred.
I could anticipate what was going to happen."
The 1930s were an ominous time for the whole world. In the East, Japan was
on an expansionist course which was to lead to Pearl Harbour, and World War
II. In 1931, the Manchurian Incident occurred. Following this, Japan seized
Manchuria and in 1932 established the Republic of Manchu-kuo, actually a slave
state of Japan. Concerning the Manchurian Incident, Yamaguchi writes only
that Kanto (Kwantung) troops destroyed anti-Japanese troops led by General
Actually, the Manchurian Incident occurred when Japanese troops of the Kwantung
Army faked an attack upon themselves, and used this as a pretext to seize
Manchuria. The plan was the brainchild Col. Kanji Ishihara (1889-1949) a "military
genius" who spent two years planning the strategy to its last detail.
Ishihara, a follower of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, was an idealist who
foresaw harmonious unification of Asia (Japan, Manchuria and China), under
the spiritual leadership of Japan. His idea was to make Manchuria "a
paradise." Gogen Yamaguchi was a friend and devoted follower of General
Ishihara and shared his ideals. "We wanted to make Manchuria the Heavenly
Land, where Japanese, Chinese, Mongolians and Koreans could live together
in peace and prosperity. This idea was created by General Kanji Ishihara.
He had my friend since I became a student and I supported his viewpoint together
with about 200 disciples. (2)
In the event, Ishihara's views were overridden Manchuria was oppressed
and ruthlessly exploited. For the native population, Manchu-kuo was anything
but a heavenly land.
In 1938, Gogen Yamaguchi was asked by General Ishihara to go to Manchu-kuo
to take up Governmental duties. Being a patriot (with a capital P) he went,
and served there until 1945. In his book Yamaguchi is not very specific about
what his duties entailed, but he comes over as something like a mixture of
administrator, trouble-shooter, spymaster and undercover agent. Throughout
his time Manchuria he continued to train in karate, which just as well, since
it pulled him out of tight scrapes several times.
Once, he was patrolling, by himself, the around the bridge over the Nonjan
river Since the bridge was of great strategic importance, it was a prime target
for "Communist Spies." So Yamaguchi would disguise himself as a
Manchurian and keep a look-out for suspicious characters. One evening he came
across two men acting strangely, and when he began to ask them questions,
they must have decided to take him out of there. One of the men went for a
gun but Yamaguchi kicked it out of his hand and then dropped him with a punch.
The other took out a knife, but with a shuto (sword-hand) strike, Yamaguchi
disarmed him. Another time, three guerillas attempted to capture him, but
he knocked them all down and took them prisoner.
These were commonplace tight scrapes for Gogen Yamaguchi, but twice in Manchuria
(he says) he was forced to exert himself to the utmost.
The first occasion was when he had a fight with one Ryu Kaku Rei (Japanese
pronunciation), a master of Chinese boxing. Yamaguchi had heard of Ryu Kaku
Rei from one of his agents and, out of curiosity, went to look him up. But
he probably wasn't expecting much. In 1940 Yamaguchi had led a group of martial
artists, titled "The East Asia Martial Arts Mission" to give exhibitions
in Japan. Included in the group were some experts in Chinese boxing, but they
didn't impress Yamaguchi. When he took them to Ritsumeikan University to watch
the karate training, he suggested that they join in, but they wanted nothing
to do with it.
Anyway, Yamaguchi introduced himself to Ryu, and the two men cordially agreed
to a contest. Ryu Kaku Rei had developed his own style of ch'uan "Dragon
Style." He was aged about 67 (compared to Yamaguchi who would have been
in his early 30s) and looked thin and weedy. But Yamaguchi found out that
Ryu could fight, because the best he (Yamaguchi) got was a draw. Yamaguchi's
account of the fight is somewhat melodramatic--he calls it a draw because
the fight ends in a double knockdown--but obviously the older man impressed
him and pushed him to his limit.
In May 1945, shortly before the end of the war, reports came in that a big
attack was planned by Communists on the town where Yamaguchi was posted. The
Japanese command dismissed the reports, but Yamaguchi waited nervously. Finally,
"one thousand Communist bandits" launched their attack, and a pitched
battle ensued. Yamaguchi gives an exciting account in
"l looked at Mr. Suzuki. 'Well, it's still uncertain' I said.
Just then we heard the sound of guns and battle cries near the castle gate
'Here they come! Take everyone upstairs. I'll defend down here.'
"My men followed my order as I took two revolvers and hid myself downstairs.
I heard cries everywhere as many bandits invaded the city and attacked in
full force, killing many of the inhabitants. Citizens were running and bullets
were flying everywhere as the city was thrown into utter confusion.
"Bandits on horses stopped in front of our office. I took cover as I
fired my revolvers through the window, until both guns were empty. Twenty
bandits with guns and Chinese swords rushed our defence. Five or six bandits
broke the door down with the butts of their guns and rushed into the room.
"With my guns empty, I resorted to Goju school of karate for my defence.
I adjusted myself with breathing and was ready to fight.
"The room was dark and the bandits could not use their guns freely without
possible injury to each other. I had trained myself to see in this amount
of light and knew I would be able to withstand the onslaught of four or five
people at a time. Under such a situation, I had to dispatch the enemy, one
"I avoided the first bandit who tried to strike me with his gun, and
turning quickly to the right, struck him between the thighs with a roundhouse
kick. He cried and fell to the ground. Another fired his gun at me from behind,
but he missed. My elbow found the pit of his stomach with great force. A bloody
Chinese sword slashed at me as I struck, with my right fist, the man who was
wielding this sword. The fighting was confused but the narrow room was to
my advantage. They rushed at me in the close quarters, which made it easy
for me to fight them. When they drew near, I knocked them out using nukite
(finger strikes), hijiate (elbows), shuto (sword hand) and seiken (fists),
against the guns, I used tobi-geri (jumping kicks) and yoko-geri (side kick).
I was able to fight more freely than in practice because I did not have any
regard for my opponent's welfare.
"Some of the bandits started up the stairs but were shot by my men who
were protecting the women and children.
"I attacked the bandits, aiming at their eyes or between their thighs,
moving quickly as I fought. Fighting hard, I hoped we could last until help
"Soon there were cries at the front door and the bandits started to scatter.
It appeared that they had been ordered to retreat.
"My men came down the stairs, asking if I was injured. Luckily, only
my left arm had been injured by the slash of a dagger. I went upstairs to
obtain a better view and observed the bandits fallen back with stolen weapons,
gun powder and supplies. It was now 7 o'clock in the morning.
". . . When I discovered the bandits had gone, I suddenly lost all my
strength and had to sit down. I had fought with them, hand to hand, for forty
"In 1945, even though Russia's war with Japan didn't last three
weeks, great numbers of Japanese war prisoners were raked in for urgent construction
projects in Siberia and central Asia". (Alexander
Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago ). At the end of the war, Russian
troops moved into Manchuria. Thousands of Japanese were taken prisoner, Gogen
Yamaguchi being one. After spending several months in a prisoner of war camp,
he was moved to a labour camp in Mongolia where he spent two years, and there
can be no doubt about it: it was grim.
Solzhenitsyn and others have told us all about life in the Russian labour
camps and the regime Yamaguchi mentions is familiar--the interminable roll
calls, the terrible rations, and the reduction of rations if work norms were
not filled, the "Prayer at Dawn", etc. etc. Thousands of Japanese
died in these camps. (4)
In 1947, Gogen Yamaguchi was released from captivity and repatriated.
On November 18th, 1947, he saw the coastline of his beloved Japan, and by
December, he was back in Tokyo. He was profoundly shocked by the state of
post-war Japan, and not so much by the physical destruction, as by what he
saw as its drastic spiritual decline. It was too much for him to bear. Accordingly,
he wrote his will, and at midnight on January 12th, 1948, walked to the Togo
shrine at Harajuku. Because he had made up his mind. He was going to commit
harakiri (ritual suicide by disembowelment).
the shrine, Yamaguchi sat beside a quiet pond with
his dagger laid before him, and offered a prayer.
He fell into a deep introspection, and then, like
a bolt from the blue he experienced "a divine
revelation" that changed his life.
". . . In the course of time I lost all feeling
and had a sense of walking amidst the clouds, floating
in the sky with no existence of my own. Such feelings
are beyond my ability to describe. All past troubles
were forgotten and I felt as if my soul was floating
in a world of glory and peace.
"Then I found myself stretched out face down
on the floor. How long I had been there I didn't
know. Coming to my senses I found everything appeared
to be shining brightly as if the whole world was
living in happiness. Never will I forget my mental
state at that moment."
When Yamaguchi had this mystical experience a realization
crystallized in his mind: that to commit suicide
would be a waste of his life, and besides, that
he had responsibilities, to his family and to Japan.
He realised that his mission in life was to teach
and spread the martial arts, to teach the youth
of Japan, (as one writer put it) "the flavour
of combat - or simply of life." Accordingly,
in 1948 he opened his first dojo, and in May 1950
established the All Japan Karate-do Goju-kai.
Another effect of his divine revelation was to turn
Yamaguchi's mind once more to religion and mysticism
(5) (I would guess
that it was from this time, too, that he began to
grow his hair long). He visited the Reverend Tadaki
Yoshimura, the Chief Reverend of the Shin-shu sect
of Shinto, and before long became a master of Shinto
himself. He also studied yoga under Tengai Noda,
"Japan's Highest Authority" on the art.
In due course, Yamaguchi formulated his own system
of "Goju Shinto," a combination of Goju
style karate, yoga and shinto, with some zen included
too. We should note, however, that this is more
a personal thing with Gogen Yamaguchi, and the yoga
and shinto aspect does not affect the vast majority
of Goju kai practitioners; they practice their karate
just as other karatemen do.
As we mentioned at the start of this chapter, Yamaguchi
seems fully versed in shinto rituals and practices,
and can communicate with the spirits (kami). He
uses the crystal ball for this, and also for predicting
earthquakes and similar things. He is familiar too
with the various yogas (hatha yoga, raja yoga and
kundalini yoga), and bases his understanding of
the human body on yoga physiology, and its seven
chakras (psychic centers). In his book he outlines
the "eight pillars of yoga," and devotes
eighteen pages to a demonstration (by a yoga expert
named Per Wynter) of yoga asanas (postures). In
all, the subject of Yoga occupies 35 pages of Karate:
Goju-ryu by the Cat., so obviously Yamaguchi
deems it of major importance.
Why? Well, for a start yoga uses breathing techniques
and so does Goju karate. Then, yoga can help in
gaining mental-spiritual-physical balance. Yamaguchi
explained this in an interview with Steve Bellamy,
of Fighting Arts International.
"If one's body, internally or externally. is
out of balance, there is a limit to how far one
can go, and this is where yoga can help. Yoga shows
the way to adjust the body to a more natural and
balanced state. If we use yoga to make a good foundation
then there are no limits to physical and mental
Later, he goes on:
". . . By following the yoga diet, the very
cells of the body change and the seven vital points
of the body called "chakras" are awakened.
Once one becomes aware of these vital points other
changes occur, finally leading to the state of "Bodhisattva"
which could be called the ultimate consciousness.
I have tried to control my diaphragm--which is incidentally
the true centre of the life force--so as to return
to a natural state of structural balance, which
has given me the key to true breathing techniques
opening my mind to cosmic inspiration."
When he used to teach at his "Karate-do College,"
(1970s), Master Yamaguchi would take a weekly yoga
class on a Monday afternoon. The class would consist
of the yoga postures, and meditation, and it would
end in a ritual which went like this. (Description
by James Genovese an American karateman who trained
at the college. See "Official Karate,"
"The students would form a semi-circle round
Yamaguchi and his wife, everyone facing the dojo
altar. All lights except one were turned off. Everyone
bowed three times to the altar, then Yamaguchi clapped
his hands three times, to wake up the spirits. He
uttered an incantation while sprinkling salt on
the students (salt is purifying), and then waved
a sort of wand (a wooden stick with white zigzag
paper strips) over them.
"Next, all the students bowed low while Mr.
& Mrs. Yamaguchi chanted from the Hanya Sutra.
A period of silence ensued, then suddenly Yamaguchi
emitted a long howl that increased in pitch and
loudness, then faded away slowly. This "eerie
howl" was then repeated and, followed by a
period of silence. That ended the class."
The Nippon Goju kai (Japan Goju Association) teaches
an orthodox Goju style, but there are certain differences
vis-a-vis the Okinawan Goju. These are differences
of emphasis rather than anything else the same kata
are used but there are occasional minor variations
in stances, for example. The Goju kai is a somewhat
"lighter'" style, too, and does no make
extensive use of the chashi, chishi and other supplementary
conditioning equipment. Also, like other Japanese
karate styles Goju kai makes more use of kicks,
and has placed more emphasis on free style sparring
as a training method. As we noted earlier, the free
sparring is a bit closer than in some other Japanese
styles. Instructors like to see students use Goju
techniques, such as the distinctive open hand blocks,
and keep the techniques flowing. Another feature
is the high use of groin kicks, the kick is made
with the instep and in sparring it is directed to
the inside thigh.
In the early 1970s Gogen Yamaguchi founded his "Japan
Karate-do College," located in Tokyo's Suginami
suburb. (His previous dojo at Nippori was destroyed
It is a 3-story ferro-concrete construction, which
Yamaguchi had built onto his house. The ground floor
contains a karate dojo; the first floor, a yoga-shinto
centre; and the second floor a dormitory containing
about a dozen beds.
This is Gogen Yamaguchi's Goju kai HQ, although
classes in other styles are also taught, to give
students of the college a well-rounded karate education.
Gogen Yamaguchi himself no longer teaches, (he is
73 years old at time of writing); instruction is
mainly in the hands of his son, Goshi.
Yamaguchi has two other sons; Gosei, who has taught
Goju kai in San Francisco since the sixties, and
Gosen, who occasionally trains at the Karate-do
College. According to an article by Brian Waites
in "Fighting Arts" magazine, (6)
recently the Goju kai has begun to stress
tournament work much more. In previous years they
were not overly concerned with this aspect and consequently
did not have a great deal of success in open tournaments.
Just a few words about Yamaguchi's daughter, Gokyoku,
(formerly Wakako). She too teaches at the Karate-do
College, and is Japan's premier woman in karate
kata. She prefers kihon and kata because she realizes
that women are at a definite disadvantage in kumite--men
are just physically stronger. But Gokyoku Yamaguchi
is an excellent technician and apart from that she
is very good looking, intelligent, charming and
very feminine. She is a fine calligrapher and recently
married her calligraphy teacher.
In an article on Gosei Yamaguchi which appeared
in a now defunct American magazine, Self Defence
Japan's Imperial Conspiracy by David Bergamini (Heinmann,
London, 1971) contains information on Kanji Ishihara,
The Manchurian Incident and Japan's cruel administration
of Manchu-kuo. For Ishihara see pp. 380-383 and
page 1090. Bergamini notes that Ishihara wrote a
book on the righteous course for the Japanese nation.
Entitled The Ultimate World War (Sekai Saishu Senso)
it was in manuscript form and almost complete. In
the manuscript Ishihara saw the harmonious unification
of Japan, Manchuria and China (brought about by
force, no doubt). After this unification of Asia
there would follow, perhaps within a period of 30
years, a "total war" between the yellows
(Asians) and the whites (the West). Kanji Ishihara
believed that Japan could give moral leadership
to Asia and that this total war "would end
inevitably in the annihilation of the West."
(Japan's Imperial Conspiracy, p. 382).
Karate. Goju-ryu by the Cat, pp. 113-114.
"Prayer at Dawn": Prisoners in labour
camps were left outside overnight in sub zero temperatures
to die of exposure. IncidentalIy, Alexander
Solzhenitsyn mentions an example of this in 1928,
in the early years of Communist rule in Russia (The
Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 2), so, evidently,
it was a tried and trusted method of terrorising
5. In his book Yamaguchi mentions methods of exorcising
Fighting Arts International, Vol. 3, No. 2.
Legendary Battles with Wild Cats
is a well known story that, when in Manchuria, Gogen
Yamaguchi fought and killed a tiger bare handed.
The tale appears in Peter Urban's book Karate
Dojo. Urban had studied karate in Japan in
the fifties with Master Yamaguchi.
Urban states that when Yamaguchi was in Manchuria
he was captured by the Chinese, who tried to break
him by solitary confinement, near starvation and
torture. They failed. Hitting on another idea, the
Chinese obtained a tiger and didn't feed it for
three days. Then they put Yamaguchi in the animal's
cage, expecting him to be torn limb from limb.
But instead, Yamaguchi kicked the tiger in the nose
and struck it in the head with his elbow before
diving onto its back. He got the big cat into a
stranglehold and, at the same time, "let out
an intense, shattering scream, right into the ear
of the animal." The tiger was strangled to
Naturally, some people doubt that this ever happened,
and trying to look further into it only deepens
the confusion. For one thing. Urban's details are
shaky. He says that Gogen Yamaguchi was arrested
in Manchuria by "the hostile Chinese Government,"
but at that time there was no Chinese Government
in Manchuria (Manchukuo) it was a Republic controlled
by the Japanese. Yamaguchi in his autobiography,
makes no mention of being captured by the Chinese,
of being tortured (by Chinese or Russians), or of
fighting a tiger.
American karateman, James Genovese, who trained
at the Goju-kai headquarters in the seventies, says
that Yamaguchi denies the story (see Official Karate,
August 1978). Yet, to confuse the matter still more
in his interview with Roland Gaillac in the French
magazine Karate (April
1977) Yamaguchi is quoted as saying: "In Manchuria
one day I went away into the mountains and had a
fight with a tiger. with bare hands. It was a terrible
experience. I repeated this experience later, before
witnesses. ("J'ai renouvele cette experience
par la suite. devant temoins.")
The idea of fighting and killing a tiger is not
a unique one in the martial arts. George Mattson
in The Way of Karate
repeats a story he had been told in Okinawa about
an incident in China of a man-eating tiger being
killed by a venerable Chinese master of karate (or
kung-fu). It is an unbelievable tale in which the
tiger had jumped the old master from behind, whereupon
the master seized its forelegs and threw it over
his back onto the ground with a sort of "flying
mare." Master Kanbun Uechi Sr. the founder
of the Uechi-ryu karate style, purportedly saw both
the Chinese master and the dead tiger which had
left an inch deep impression in the ground where
it had landed.
They say that Chan Heung, the founder of the Choy
Li Fut style of Kung-fu, killed a tiger, bare handed,
when he was 60 years old. The skin of the tiger
used to hang on the wall of his school.
Just recently a troupe of martial artists from Mainland
China visited Great Britain (March 1981). One of
the team was Chao Chi-shu from Hunan Province, whose
occupation was listed as "peasant". Chao
demonstrated various stunts of ying chi kung or
"hardening the body by harnessing the vital
energy" but, more interesting, is the fact
that he too was described as a man who had fought
and killed a tiger with his bare hands. This had
happened when Chao was only 17 years old. According
to one report he knocked the big cat out with "a
right hook," while another said he had wrestled
with the tiger and strangled it. Speaking about
this on the video "Wu Shu. The Chinese Masters"
Chao said that the tiger had attacked him while
he was working in the fields. A struggle ensued
which lasted half an hour before Chao was able to
kill the animal.
Chao was in good shape for his age (48) but he did
not look particularly strong or powerful. I could
not imagine him as man who could outfight a tiger
and I wondered just who was the source for that
story--Chao himself? Well, could a karateman, or
any unarmed man, fight and kill a tiger?
Against a fully-grown tiger, it seems hard to believe.
As most people know it is difficult enough to control
a large dog, or a house cat weighing only a few
pounds, and an Indian ("Bengal") tiger
is 9-10 feet long from head to tail and weighs about
400 Ibs. The Manchurian, or Siberian, tiger can
grow up to 12 feet and is proportionately heavier,
around 500 Ibs. So even if Yamaguchi, who weighed
only about 130 Ibs., fought a small tiger (say 230
Ibs?), he would still be considerably outweighed.
In his huge book on Strongmen and athletes (The
Super Athletes), David Willoughby, a world authority
on feats of physical power, includes a chapter on
"Man vs. Wild Animals." He is very sceptical
about the possibility of an unarmed man overcoming
a big cat. It is not only a question of physical
power but of the animal's teeth and claws which
are, effectively, like knives. Also, "if anything
will fight to its last breath it is a cat."
Willoughby quotes several examples, such as Frank
Merrill, a strongman who was a screen 'Tarzan' in
the silent era. Merrill worked with wild animals
and thought that possibly a man could strangle a
leopard (weighing, say 120 Ibs.), providing he got
behind the animal and kept out of the way of its
claws. However, he thought that a lion or tiger
was beyond the ability of any man to overcome, except
perhaps armed with a knife or other weapon. (In
the Roman Games, there were trained men, called
Bestarii, who fought wild animals in the arena.
They did fight tigers, generally using spears).
Dave Willoughby does mention a case of an American
goldminer back in the 1890s killing a female cougar,
unarmed. After a desperate struggle, and close to
exhaustion, this man managed to bite into the cougar's
throat and right through its jugular vein. "This
is the only apparently authentic instance I have
come across," writes Willoughby,"in which
one of the big cats was killed solely with a man's
own natural weapons."
An interesting news item appeared a couple of years
Indonesia -- Two kung-fu experts fought a battle
to the death with a male tiger in Northern Sumatra
according to Agence France-presse. The victims,
Sunarmin, 62, and Amarlak, 58, experts in Silak,
an Indonesian style of kung-fu, were attacked
by the tiger while harvesting in the jungle. According
to the villagers, the two men were able to kill
the cat before dying from severe loss of blood
caused by deep lacerations received during the
battle. Presumably the two men were armed with
weapons of some sort.
in 1893, in San Francisco, the famous strongman,
Eugen Sandow (5' 8", 185 Ibs.), had a public
match with a circus lion. The lion's mouth was muzzled
and mittens were placed over its paws. Quite what
happened at the "bout" is obscure. Sandow's
account, in his book Strength and How to Obtain
It is ludicrous, and an American journalist, Alexander
Woolcott, wrote an alternative and very unflattering
account in 1929, nearly 40 years after the event.
According to Woolcott, the lion was an old "timid
and toothless vegetarian" who came in and lay
down. The crowd charged the box office and demanded
their money back. (Both versions of the Sandow vs.
Lion fight are reprinted in Leo Gaudreau's excellent
Anvils, Horseshoes and Cannons: The History of Strongmen.)
To round off this whole question of karate masters
vs. tigers, it might be worthwhile looking at another,
more recent, "man vs. wild animal" promotion.
The following is from The Daily Telegraph, January
FIGHT WITH TIGER DEGRADING--
The World Wildlife Fund urged President Duvalier
of Haiti to ban a fight between a Japanese karate
expert and a Bengal tiger, planned to take place
in Port Au Prince in the next few weeks. It said
in a cable to the President:
consider this is a degrading spectacle, not least
because the tiger is representative of hundreds
of animals threatened with extinction through
this, you can't help thinking that somebody had
got things upside down. Because, if fights like
this ever became commonplace, one species definitely
would be threatened with extinction--karate masters!
Mamoru Yamamoto, age 38, headmaster of the Yoshukai
school, was the karate expert. He planned to fight
the tiger, not bare-handed, but with a staff, and
it was planned to transmit the match to American
closed-circuit viewers. Unfortunately --or fortunately,
depending on how you look it at--the fight was called
off. As one more additional point, Don Atyeo (Blood
and Guts: Violence in Sport p. 120) writes
that the "Wild Bengal Tiger" was actually
a broken-down circus reject.
To get back to Gogen Yamaguchi: For all we know,
he may have fought and killed a tiger back in the
1930s. If anybody was going to beat a tiger I suppose
one way to do it would be to stun the animal before
trying to strangle it from behind--although a tiger
has a very thick neck. Since nobody has attempted
to strangle a tiger under scientific conditions
the possibility of succeeding in such a feat can't
be established one way or another. But it seems
a little hard to take!