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Book Review

The History of Karate: Goju-Ryu by Morio Higaonna
Thousand Oaks, CA: Dragon Books, 1995, 226pp, 6" x 9" illus. (paperback) $34.95

BOOK REVIEW by Dr. Robert Dohrenwend.
Reproduced here by kind permission of Via Media Publishing Company, this review is reprinted from the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 8, Number 2, 1999, pp. 96-99.


Higaonna Morio is a figure of such imposing stature in the world of karate that he genuinely needs no introduction. The result of decades of research into the history of Goju-ryu, his book is based on information he received while training as a young student, hundreds of hours of interviews with senior Okinawan karateka and instructors, and personal research carried out in China. Higaonna's book is the closest thing available in English to primary source for the early period of Okinawan karate. It is fortunate that Higaonna, a native speaker of the Okinawan language and a highly respected karateka of extraordinary skill and understanding, was inspired to do this research during a period when the older Okinawan karateka were still alive. It was a unique combination of opportunity and skills.

The book is of very high quality and well illustrated. The paper is of excellent quality, and the pages are sewn, not merely glued. The cover is durable and attractive. This book is designed to be solid. It will withstand frequent readings without appreciable wear or damage. And this is a good thing.

The book starts with an introduction to the Ryukyu Islands then traces the development of Goju-ryu karate through the careers of Higaonna Kanryu, Miyagi Chojun, Shinzato Ji'nan, and Miyagi An'ichi, rounding off the sequence with a very brief chapter describing Higaonna Morio's training which started in 1955 under Miyagi An'ichi. The book concludes with a biographical section on students, friends, and relatives of both Miyagi Chojun and Higaonna Kanryo, which includes several interviews. There is a final section on relevant Chinese martial arts, as well as an appendix which contains material to amplify some of the footnotes, material which was too extensive for the footnote format. There is a very useful glossary and index.

This book makes it clear that the commonly expressed idea that there are no secrets in the martial arts is incorrect. Although instruction in karate was made public in 1901, there were still secrets in kata, and only very rarely was a student taught all the known applications for a particular kata or all the kata in a particular style. Much in the older traditions was secret, and it was meant to be. Their kata were designed as textbooks for initiates, not for observers who might often prove to be tomorrow's enemy. Some of the lessons hidden in these kata will probably stay secret, as they were taught to very few, and sometimes those few died in the frequent wars of Asia.

Higaonna Kanryo and Miyagi Chojun both restricted the number of their students as they did not want their teachings to be used for the wrong purposes. Because there has been a general tendency to limit instruction for this reason, the different styles of karate often depend on a very slender and fragile base for their transmission to future generations. Frequently, for as much as a decade, only one man might know the full tradition of a particular style, and if he were to die the tradition would die with him. Even historical information was kept secret, and in part, Higaonna's book is a deliberate attempt to reconstruct and preserve at least some of the unpublished historical material that was lost when Miyagi Chojun's collections were destroyed in W.W. II.

Although the author has tried not to neglect anyone of consequence in the history of Goju-ryu karate, more than two thirds of the book deals with the life of Miyagi Chojun. In a sense, the book is almost a biography of Miyagi Chojun, and properly so. It reflects both the relative amount of information available for the different Goju-ryu masters and the pivotal position occupied by Miyagi Chojun in the development of Goju-ryu. Even so, the book also contains a great deal of material on early Okinawan karate in general.

Miyagi Chojun's instructor, Higaonna Kanryo, went to Fuzhou, China, in the late 1860's and spent fourteen years there, mostly training with Ko Ryu Ryu. During this period, Higaonna Kanryu learned most of the kata which characterize modern Goju-ryu karate. The author has made serious efforts to trace the Chinese roots of Goju-ryu karate and quotes Miyagi Chojun as saying "Our style dates from 1828." This tantalizing statement could not be amplified. Higaonna Morio traveled to Fuzhou, China, and attempted to visit every place that he could identify as having any connection with Higaonna Kanryo. Unfortunately, W.W. II destroyed all records of Higaonna Kanryo's teacher, Ko Ryu Ryu, and he is now known only from oral tradition.

Miyagi Chojun was a towering figure in Okinawan karate for much of his life. He was one of the very few men in this century to create a new kata, Tensho Kata, sometime around 1921, and the two Gekisai Kata in 1940. He considered the basic kata to be Sanchin, Tensho, and Naifanchi. Sanchin Kata, has held a central place in Goju-ryu karate right from the first in China, and the importance of Sanchin Kata is emphasized throughout the book. It is interesting that neither Tensho, the two Gekisai Kata, nor the Naifanchi Kata are among the kata originally learned in China by Higaonna Kanryo, and that the Naifanchi Kata are not counted among the kata of Goju-ryu.

There are a number of fascinating contradictions in Miyagi Chojun's life. Although Miyagi restricted his teaching, he also attempted to promote karate in both Okinawa and Japan after 1926, and in Hawaii in 1934. Karate was relatively unknown in the 20's and 30's and there was considerable discrimination against Okinawans in Japan. Miyagi stressed karate as an important intangible Okinawan cultural treasure, and obviously felt that the spread of karate would alleviate some of the discrimination against Okinawans in Japan. He also believed that modern technological advances had to be balanced by moral education through training the human spirit, and that karate was the most suitable vehicle for such training.

Miyagi Chojun created the two Gekisai Kata, in part to improve the adaptability of karate to a wider variety of students, and in the post-war period he gradually changed his teaching methods to accommodate larger groups of students. During this period, he arranged the kata of Goju-ryu into a fixed sequence. Before that, a student would learn Sanchin and often only one other kata, especially selected for that student. However, Miyagi still did not advertise, students still had to be personally recommended, and between 1949 and 1951, he had only one student, Miyagi An'ichi, whom he trained in great detail. Evidently, his fear of teaching karate to those who might abuse it balanced his concern that karate might be lost.

Modern karateka are sure to find that a number of Miyagi Chojun's ideas would be controversial today. For example, he opposed ranking systems in karate, as he believed it would lead to men being judged by their rank and not their character. The dan ranking system was only introduced in Okinawa in 1956 after Miyagi's death, and the first all-style dan grading in Okinawa did not take place until 1960.

Neither Higaonna Kanryo nor Miyagi Chojun charged their students for instruction, and later instructors often did not require fees from particularly gifted students. Miyagi Chojun stressed the need for humility. Neither Higaonna Kanryo nor Miyagi Chojun would advertise, and Miyagi never referred to his style of karate as Goju-ryu, but rather simply as bu or te. Miyagi regarded ignorance as shameful. He would recommend that a student train in a different style for a while, if he felt that the student would benefit from such training. On the 1st and 15th of each month he would invite guest speakers to lecture at his dojo. The term "research groups" used to describe 1930s karate clubs in revealing of the attitude with which karate was studied at that period. It is quite evident that karate was not considered a competitive sport. These attitudes towards dan ranking, money, advertisement, cross-training, and competition show that karate has both gained and lost as it has grown in popularity in the last half century.

Whether there has been a net gain is left up to the reader to ponder. This book is easily one of the best of the very few, serious martial arts histories, and it is full of interesting surprises. For example, the author cites Miyagi Chojun as describing three legends current in China and Okinawa which trace the origins of the martial arts. One of these legends places these origins in Asia Minor. I found this fascinating, as the oldest complete martial art known is the Greek pankration which became an Olympic event in 648 BC. The date antedates documentary or dated archeological sources for any other martial art. The pyrrhic dance, a Greek martial dance which could be performed armed or unarmed, similar to modern kata, existed at the same time and was possibly used as a teaching tool for the techniques of the pankration. The idea that this Greek art is one of the major sources of all Asian unarmed martial arts today is not at all far-fetched. Alexander the Great was a pankration enthusiast, and the pankration, foremost among other Greek martial sports, went into Asia as far as India with Alexander's armies of conquest. Alexander was the greatest general of his time and one of the greatest generals of all time. He and his armies enjoyed enormous prestige everywhere in the ancient world. Instruction in the favored martial art of that army would be highly valued by any soldier or warrior of the period. Isn't is interesting that an Okinawan legend indicates a possible Greek origin for the Asian martial arts?

The History of Karate: Okinawan Goju-ryu is a treasure house of facts concerning the early history of a deservedly popular style of karate, and it contains wonderful descriptions of the early training in Okinawa. But there is much more here. Miyagi Chojun's ethical ideals, teaching methods, and way of life provide a valuable source of guidelines for the modern karateka's approach to karate. This book should be on the shelf of every serious student of karate, and it should be read often.

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