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The Life Story of Karate Master
Gogen Yamaguchi
by Graham Noble


Some 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 Cat.

"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 fresh direction.

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 Cho Gaku-ryo.

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 his book:

"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 by 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 arrived.

"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 minutes."(3)

"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).

Reaching 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 achievement."

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," August 1978).

"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 by fire).

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.


NOTES:

1. In an article on Gosei Yamaguchi which appeared in a now defunct American magazine, Self Defence World.

2. 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).

3. Karate. Goju-ryu by the Cat, pp. 113-114.

4.  "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 prisoners.

5. In his book Yamaguchi mentions methods of exorcising spirits, etc.

6. Fighting Arts International, Vol. 3, No. 2.


Discussion: Legendary Battles with Wild Cats

There 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 death .

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 ago (1980):

    Jakarta, 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.


Back 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 5th, 1977:

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:


    "We consider this is a degrading spectacle, not least because the tiger is representative of hundreds of animals threatened with extinction through human action."

Reading 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!