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According to legend, the monk Bodhidharma travelled to Hunan province in China around 500 A.D. He spent nine years in the Shaolin temple, where after he started to teach different breathing techniques and physical exercises to the monks of Shaolin. He also explained to the monks how to develop their mental and spiritual strength, in order to endure the demanding meditation exercises. Bodhiharmas teaching is considered as the birth of Chinese Kempo. When Kempo was spread throughout China, it was divided in two main styles, the Northern and the Southern styles. The Northern style was characterized by straight and hard techniques, while the Southern had circular and softer techniques. The Kempo techniques were often inherited within the family as a well-preserved secret.

To understand the history of Karate one has to go to the birth place of Karate itself. Situated in the China Sea about half way between Southern Japan and Fukien Province of China lies a small string of islands called the Rykyu Islands, Okinawa being the largest and the home of Karate.

Being situated where it was, in the middle of a major trade route, Okinawa was strongly influenced by China, Japan and south Asia. The Okinawans were a very quiet and peace loving people, but like all ancient cultures they had to protect themselves from thieves and pirates, especially when on the merchant ships ploughing the China Sea. As in other cultures, Okinawans had their own early self defence art called "te". In the twelfth century the islands were divided into three kingdoms and in the early fifteenth century Sho Hashi united all the kingdoms. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries trade flourished and the influence of China was very strong. In fact for a long time Okinawa paid tribute to the Chinese. At that time all weapons were barred from the common people. This situation led to an increase in the development of empty hand fighting techniques as well as a strong development of Kobudo (using every day utensils as weapons). All this was done in great secrecy. At this time there was also a very large Chinese community living in Okinawa including Monks and Kung Fu masters. A blending of the Chinese martial arts occurred and the Okinawans called this art "tote" (Chinese hand).

In 1609 Okinawa was invaded by the Japanese Satsuma Clan and due to the political centralization of King Shoshin (1477-1526) for 270 years remained their protectorate. To keep control of the population they continued the ban of all weapons and fighting arts for all Okinawans. Martial artists were always very secretive and this drove them even more underground, but probably also increased the necessity for promoting the use of te and Kobudo. The techniques of karate and Kobudo were also hidden in Okinawan dance. In secret the kata could be performed alone or in groups keeping the art alive. By this time there were three distinct styles of karate developing, each named after the city where it was practised. Naha te, from the port city of Naha, Shurei te from the capital city of Shurei, and Tomarei te, from the city of Tomarei, half way between Shurei City and the port city of Naha.

It later developed further through a process of systematization into 'Modern Karate', which actually had a lot to do with the efforts of the men known as the Chuko no so (The Revivers), including Sokon Matsumura (1828-1898) of the Shuri-te style, Kosaku Matsumora (1829-1898) of the Tomari-te style and Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915) of the Naha-te style. In 1908, 'The 10 Articles of Karate' prepared by Anko Itosu were submitted to the Educational Affairs Section of Okinawa Prefecture. After that, karate started being introduced into the school gymnastics curriculum, thus acquiring broad accessibility, in contrast to the previously secret principles of Isshi-soden (the complete transmission of a ryu's techniques only to your heir).

Commemorating the establishment of the basic kata of karate-do (1937)
(Front, from right) Chojun Miyagi, Chomo Hanashiro, Kentsu Yabu, Chotoku Kyan
(Back, from right) Genwa Nakasone, Choshin Chibana, Choryo Maeshiro, Shinpan Shiroma.

Higaonna Kanryo Sensei was born in the village of Naha on March 10, 1853. He belonged to the lower gentry and went by the name "Machu" as a small boy. From childhood Machu showed great interest in the fighting arts and was eager to learn as much as possible. Despite his small size for his age, Machu could move very quickly and his body was extremely limber.

At age fourteen Machu began to learn Chinese Kempo. His well developed and strong body enabled him to master Chinese Kempo rather quickly. After only a short period of time, Machu was able to achieve a level of expertise in both skill and technique comparable to that of his teacher. He became well known as a master martial artist in Naha at a young age. However, Machu was unsatisfied with his level of skill and longed to go to China and study the Chinese martial arts and culture. Unfortunately, his father had six children to look after and was unable to offer him financial assistance. But Higaonna Kanryo Sensei did not give up hope.

With some persistence and determination, Higaonna Sensei reached his goal. Through his instructor, he was introduced to and was able to convince the owner of a ship, in the port city of Naha, to grant him a passage to China. His dream to study in China, restricted to the well to do at that time, was finally fulfilled. At age sixteen he left Naha for the Chinese port of Foochow where he stayed at the Okinawan settlement called the Ryukyu-kan. It took almost a year for Higaonna Kanryu Sensei to be introduced to the master of Chinese kempo, Master Ryu Ryuko.

Even after Higaonna Sensei was introduced, he was not immediately accepted as a disciple. The Chinese masters would take the time to study the personality and character of candidates before accepting any disciples. Thus, Higaonna Sensei was given tasks of tending the garden and cleaning the rooms of the master and did these tasks earnestly and enthusiastically over a long period of time. Impressed by his attitude, Master Ryu Ryuko finally accepted Higaonna Sensei as his personal disciple.

As a disciple, Higaonna Sensei would help his master at his trade as a bamboo craftsman by day and then train after dark. Training began with the practice of Sanchin, then lifting the Nigiri-game (heavy ceramic jars) by their rims to strengthen the student's grip while practicing Unsoku-ho (a pattern of stepping movements) to develop proper footing. Exercises continued using the Muchi-ishi (natural stone) and Makiwara (striking post) as well as an Uki (bamboo basket) where two persons would practice close fighting and choking techniques inside. These new tools and training techniques fascinated Higaonna Sensei and increased his interest in karate even more. The harsh training took its toll, however, and his legs, hands and shoulders were always swollen from over exertion. Nevertheless, it was this harsh training that enabled him to develop his muscles like forged steel. After several years of harsh training, he became his master's most skillful disciple.

Throughout the city of Foochow, the fame of Higaonna Kanryo Sensei as a great martial artist gradually spread. An episode involving a discussion between students of two dojos (training place) lead to a competition in order to demonstrate who was superior in skill. In order to choose a superior martial artist without anyone getting hurt, each master chose their best student to perform kata instead of free style fighting. Higaonna Sensei was chosen to represent his dojo. The students from the other dojo were struck with admiration as they watched Higaonna Sensei perform the Sanchin kata. Afterwards, the master of the other dojo admitted Master Ryu Ryuko's art was superior to his own and Higaonna Sensei's fame spread even further. Many martial artists tried to engage him in a fight to prove their bravery but Higaonna Sensei kept his promise to his master not to fight to show off his skill and declined these challenges.

Master Ryu Ryuko watched over Higaonna Sensei as if her were his own son. Higaonna Sensei stayed as a disciple for about thirteen years, living at his master's home and practicing daily in his yard. After this period of time, he left his master and the city of Foochow to return to Okinawa. Upon his return, Higaonna Sensei visited the owner of the ship, Udon Yoshimura, who had made his passage to China possible. Udon Yoshimura was very impressed by the modest yet dignified person Higaonna Sensei had grown up to be and asked him to teach his sons some of the skills he had learned in China. The second son, Yoshimura Chogi, took great interest in the martial arts and practiced eagerly.

Higaonna Sensei's fame spread rapidly throughout Naha, attracting the attention of the King of the Ryukyu Dynasty. Thus for many years, he taught the martial arts to the members of the royal family as well. However, many people in the town came to Higaonna Sensei and asked to be taken on as personal disciples. But due to the harshness of the training, only a few remained with him for long. Among his disciples, young Miyagi Chojun was one of the few that remained. Higaonna Sensei had opened his house in Nishimachi as a dojo and was teaching his art to his disciples without charging any tuition. In addition to his private instruction, Higaona Sensei began teaching at a public high school in Naha at the request of the principal in 1905. He inculcated the students with both the physical and spiritual value of his art.

During his thirteen years in China, Higoanna Sensei mastered many traditional martial arts, such as, the art of the straight sword. His technique in these various martial arts was truly art in motion. His hands and legs possessed extraordinary spring making his movements fast as lightening. People were surprised that one so small, five foot one inch, could have so much power and strength and referred to him as Kensei, meaning "sacred fists." Gradually, the art of Higaonna Sensei became known as "Naha-dee (te)" meaning "Naha hand (technique)." He devoted his life along with his disciple Miyagi Chojun Sensei to the improvement and advancement of the art of Naha-te. Early in 1916, Higaonna Sensei fell ill. Miyagi Chojun Sensei looked after his master, nursing him devotedly. But Higaonna passed away in October 1916. Thus, the art of Naha-te was handed over from Higaonna Kanryu Sensei to his disciple Miyagi Chojun Sensei. Higaonna Kanryo Sensei is honored today as the founder of Okinawan karate.

The founder of Goju-Ryu Karate was Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953). At the age of twelve he started to train karate with Aragaki Ryuko Sensei. After spending two years with Aragaki Ryuko Sensei he then became a student at age 14, of Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1916), who was the founder of the Naha-te style (Shorei Ryu) as can be seen above. He endured very harsh ascetic practices from Kanryo Higaonna, under Higaonna Sensei students would learn only one kata suited to their temperament and body type, becoming highly proficient. Chojun Miyagi however was able to learn all aspects of Naha Te. He was the only student of Higaonna Sensei to learn all the kata’s of Naha Te. Given his financial status Chojun Miyagi was able to house Higaonna Sensei and remained in his constant company. Miyagi Sensei studied under Higaonna Sensei until the Masters death in October 1916. After his master’s death, Chojun Miyagi Sensei journeyed to the Fujian Province in China to perfect his skills in the martial arts. During his time in China in addition to his physical training he undertook a great deal of research on noted Chinese warriors. As a result, he was able to take over and organize karate techniques with a great deal of detail based on the principles of the Chinese martial arts that he had been taught. He consolidated modern karate-do, incorporating effective elements of both athletics and the martial arts in addition to the principles of reason and science.

Chojun Miyagi's most promising disciple was Jinan Shinzato. In 1929 Jinan Shinzato gave a demonstration at the 'All Japan Martial Arts Tournament Offering Congratulations on the Emperor's Accession' held in Meiji Jingu Shrine. After the demonstration he was asked what school of martial art he belonged to, at the time there was not a name for the system other than the fact that it came from Naha-Te (which was the name of a city in Okinawa – translated to Naha hand). When he returned home, he told master Miyagi about this and Miyagi decided to choose the name Goju-Ryu (the hard-soft style), this name was inspired by one of the 'Eight Precepts' of Kempo, written in the Bubishi. In the Bubushi Go-Ju appears in the sentence, "Ho Goju Dont", meaning 'The way embraces both hard and soft, both inhalation and exhalation. Thus the name Goju-Ryu was given to his school.

The main characteristic of Goju-ryu is the 'respiration method' accompanied by vocal exclamations, emphasizing 'inhaling and exhaling' and 'bringing force in and sending force out'.

The kata of Goju-ryu are broadly divided into: Sanchin (basics), Kaishu-gata (open hand forms), and Heishu-gata (closed hand forms).

The traditional kata passed down from Kanryo Higaonna to the present include: Sanchin, Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Sanseiryu, Seipai, Kururunfa, Seisan, and Suparinpi (or Pecchurin).

In addition to such traditional kata, Goju-ryu has added Kokumin Fukyugata, a series of kata created by Chojun Miyagi for the nationwide popularization of the school – these are Gekisai I, Gekisai II and Tensho, which complete all the kata of Goju-ryu school for Tanren.

A pioneer in internationalising karate, Miyagi Chojun also travelled to mainland Japan and Hawaii to spread the system of Hard and Soft style.

Also throughout Okinawa, karate was taught by masters such as Yasutsune Itosu "Anko" (1831-1915). Itosu Sensei is credited with the development of modern Karatedo. He developed the "Pinan Katas" which are now the foundation Katas of most modern Karate styles stemming from Shuri-te. Itosu Sensei is responsible for introducing Karatedo into the Okinawan school system. In 1905 Itosu took a position of part-time teacher of To-te at Okinawa's First Junior Prefectural High School. It was here that he developed the systematic method of teaching Karate techniques that are still in practice today. Other teachers include Chotoku Kyan (1870-1945), Choki Motobu (1870-1941), Choshin Chibana (1885-1969, Founder of Shorin-ryu) and Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957 founder of Shotokan karate )

It has been said that the original name of Tode (China Hand) was changed to the name 'Karate' (empty hand) around the time of its spreading.

Karate began spreading around the world after the war. The biggest contributors were the many emigrants who went to live abroad full of ambition, and the U.S. military personnel occupying Japan at the time.

These lines are taken from the Bubishi, a collection of writings on Chinese martial arts that was very popular with a number of Okinawan teachers, including Chojun Miyagi sensei. They are said to convey the essence of practicing karate. In the Bubishi they are written as an 8 line poem on martial training.

The mind and spirit are like heaven and earth.

The blood moves through the veins like the rhythm of the sun and moon.

All breathing is both hard and soft.

One must adapt to all changes and situations.

Technique comes in the absence of conscious thought or emotion.

Advance or withdraw the center the proper distance, connect and disconnect with the

The eyes watch in four directions.

The ears listen in eight directions.

Movie – The History of Okinawa Karate
Courtesy of the Okinawa Prefectural Government 2003.

width – 26.5mb)


Bubishi - The Bible of Karate (1995) translated and with commentary by Patrick McCarthy. ISBN 0-8048-2015-5

Okinawan Karate (1989) Mark Bishop. A& C Black Publishers, Ltd., London. c. ISBN 0-7136-5666-2

Web: Okinawa Prefectural Government 2003. www.wonder-okinawa.jp

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