History of Goju Ryu Karate

This report is a summary of the information contained in Morio Higaonna’s book “The History of Karate”. While this report’s information is useful as an introduction to the history of Goju Ryu, serious students should read the entire book to obtain a better knowledge and understanding of the history of their art. There are many facts and details in the book (and not covered in this report) that clearly highlight the character and skills of the masters of Goju Ryu karate.

Okinawan History

Today, many people think of Okinawa simply as a province of Japan. However, Okinawa has only recently become part of Japan, and has a long and colorful history of its own. For centuries, Okinawa was a separate nation. Okinawa did not have good relations with Japan, but did have diplomatic and trade relations with China. This relationship created a considerable amount of economic and cultural trade between the two nations. Many Chinese traveled to Okinawa, and many Okinawans traveled to China. Ultimately, these Okinawan/Chinese relations would play a major role in the development and attributes of what would eventually become Goju Ryu karate.

Kanryo Higaonna

Kanryo Higaonna was born in 1853 in Nishimura, Okinawa. Nishimura was a port city that saw many travelers from China and abroad. At an early age, Kanryo was exposed to many Chinese influences, including their martial arts. When Higaonna was fourteen, his father was killed in a fight. Eager for revenge against his father’s killer, young Kanryo sought travel to Fuzhou (pronounced “foo chow”), a city in southern China, to learn the Chinese martial arts. However, he kept his desires for revenge a secret from his family and friends, and traveled to Fuzhou under the guise of being a student.

Upon arrival in Fuzhou, Higaonna acclimated himself to the local culture, and began looking for a martial arts instructor. Back in those days, it was difficult to become accepted in any martial arts school because the instructors would only accept students of the highest moral character. The instructors took their martial arts very seriously, and went to great lengths to avoid teaching the deadly arts to the wrong people. In many cases, the instructor required the potential student to do chores and other menial labor so that the student’s true character could be seen. Training would begin only after the instructor was pleased with the student and his character. The instructor also made sure that the student understood the value of what was being taught, and that the student understood the training would be rigorous.

Kanryo eventually discovered a local instructor named Ryu Ryu Ko, who taught Kanryo the martial art that would eventually be named Goju Ryu karate. Every day Kanryo trained in kata and hoju undo (supplementary training. ) The training he endured was very tough, but Higaonna persevered and learned well. Ultimately, young Kanryo became well known in Fuzhou as a highly skilled martial artist. He was also trained in herbal medicine, especially for the treatment of injuries. He remained in Fuzhou for approximately fourteen years at which point Ryu Ryu Ko told him it was time for him to return to Okinawa. Toward the end of the fourteen years of training, Higaonna learned the entire system, including all katas, kakie, hoju undo, etc. Ryu Ryu Ko did this with the intention of having Kanryo pass it to further generations. In those days, students rarely learned all the katas of the system. They spent several years just learning Sanchin and perhaps one other kata.

It is believed he returned to Okinawa sometime around 1881. His local fame in Fuzhou had spread, eventually making it back to Okinawa before he actually returned. Upon his return, he received many requests to begin training students, which he refused for several years. He eventually changed his mind and began accepting students, but many quit due to the severity of his training. Since Kanryo Higaonna had settled in the port city of Naha, his style of martial arts became known as “Naha Te”.

Chojun Miyagi – the early years

Chojun Miyagi was born in 1888, and began training in Naha-Te at the age of fourteen with Kanryo Higaonna. Miyagi was a very disciplined person, but still found the training with Higaonna to be severe. However, he persevered and grew stronger. Chojun Miyagi was naturally athletic, strong, and well disciplined. As he trained in karate, he became very proficient and was well known locally as a talented martial artist.

Miyagi was drafted into the Japanese army in 1910. His physical fitness, toughness, fighting skills, and character would eventually earn him a great deal of respect from his Japanese superiors, despite the fact that Okinawans were openly discriminated against.

Upon his return from military service in 1912, Miyagi continued to study Naha-te with Kanryo Higaonna until his death in 1915. After Higaonna’s death, Miyagi continued to rigorously study and practice Naha-te. Since he had been entrusted with passing Naha-te down to future generations, he dedicated his life to it. He went to great effort to advance and promote the martial art, and was responsible for giving it a name – “Goju Ryu”, which was derived from a poem called The Haku. Goju means “hard and soft”, which accurately describes the style. He also made trips abroad, including travel to Japan, China, and even Hawaii. The trips to China were to research and document the history of Goju, while the trips to Japan and Hawaii were to promote Goju Ryu. At that time, karate was not well respected on the Japanese mainland, and it was primarily Miyagi’s efforts that helped it gain much needed credibility. Chojun Miyagi didn’t develop Goju Ryu, but he is often referred to as the founder, due to his efforts to preserve, develop, and promote it. Without his efforts, it is likely that Naha-te karate would have disappeared forever.

World War II and its impact on Okinawa

The Second World War had a major impact on the island of Okinawa and ultimately Goju Ryu as well. Before the war, Miyagi Sensei had chosen Jin’an Shinzato to succeed him as the head of Goju Ryu. Unfortunately, Jin’an and many of Miyagi’s friends were killed in the war. Additionally, the majority of Miyagi’s written Goju historical records were destroyed.

The war, caused largely by Japanese aggression, brought a great deal of death and suffering to Okinawa. Thousands of people were killed and many buildings and businesses were destroyed. It would be many years before Okinawa was reconstructed. During this time, practice of the martial arts ceased as people focused on surviving.

Chojun Miyagi – after the war

Miyagi was devastated by the losses of the war, including the loss of many close friends and family members. He realized that if he had been killed, Goju-Ryu might have died with him. So he resumed training students as quickly as he could, and changed some of the ways he was teaching.

The great Chojun Miyagi died in 1953. Okinawans gave him the title of Bushi, which is a title that is given to a great karate master.

An’ichi Miyagi

An’ichi Miyagi was born in Naha in 1931. He lost both his parents in the war, and at the age of fourteen he was an orphan who had to help provide for younger brothers. Despite having the same last name as Chojun Miyagi, the two are not related.

An’ichi was very dedicated, and was eventually selected by Chojun Miyagi to be the head of Goju-Ryu. As of the writing of this report (2008), he is still alive and is active in teaching and promoting Goju.


Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate is one of the most traditional and most respected martial arts in the world today. Its roots can be traced back to the political and social ties between Okinawa and China in the 1500’s. Ryu Ryu Ko, Kanryo Higaonna, and Chojun Miyagi were instrumental in the development and preservation of Goju. Today’s students owe it to themselves (and the ancient masters) to read and understand Morio Higaonna’s book “The History of Karate”.

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