Miyagi Chojun: His Life and Times
By: K.B. Tallack
(This is an essay I wrote and put away about 20 years ago. I thought I would share it here.)
Miyagi Chojun Sensei, whose life and philosophies have touched millions’ is known as the founder of Goju-Ryu Karate-do, but the driving forces behind his life’s’ achievements are often brushed over.
When I began researching for an article some years ago, I realized that while there were thousands of dojos in whose Shomen photos of the founder of Goju-Ryu photo hung, the quantity of information about Miyagi Sensei as a person was minimal.
Many people know of Miyagi Chojun (1888- 1953) as the founder of Goju-Ryu, but they don’t know his driving passion for Karate-do extended to using it as a vehicle for achieving dignified recognition of Okinawan culture around the world.
His desire for Karate to be recognized as a positive force in the development of mankind led him to seek recognition for his art at the highest levels of Japanese hierarchy.
He successfully canvassed to have Karate recognized by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai who licensed all teachers of martial arts in Japan at that time. This meant that the Japanese people officially recognized Karate as a cultural asset on par with their own great achievements.
Miyagi Chojun Sensei truly believed in the positive nature of Karate learning and that the results could help mankind achieve peace through respect.
It is most often that Miyagi Chojun is presented as the senior student of Higaonna Kanryo (1851-1915), who went on to found his own school of Karate known as Goju-Ryu Karate-do.
Miyagi Sensei formalized physical exercises into a system of instruction capable of leading a single adherent or a group to a high level of physical prowess.
Few people have given consideration to the fact the the Sensei must have been a product of his environment as much as he was to become known as an innovative genius in the field of Okinawan Karate-do.
Being born during the very zenith of the nationalistic movement of Imperialism, in many ways Miyagi Sensei’s life was preordained by the policies of his nation’s leaders, the internationalization of Japan, including the introduction of the products of the Western Industrial Revolution, his position in Okinawan society, and other forces which we will introduce later.
These forces were beyond almost any individuals control but were to meet a passion that lived in Miyagi Sensei, the passionate quest for martial excellence that left no stone unturned in his search, no distance too far to travel, no question too difficult to ask.
The money didn’t matter, he’d spend it. The hardships of international travel didn’t matter; he’d endure them. The difficulties of crossing cultural barriers between Okinawan and Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese didn’t matter, he’d bridge them.
In many ways Miyagi Chojun was to take the unknown art of Karate out of backwater-Okinawa and into the mainstream of Japanese life and culture, obtaining the highest possible status of recognition for his art form when he was accepted by the Imperial Families and National Governments Martial Arts governing body, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai.
The experiences of our youth have a large impact on who we become as adults. Chojun Miyagi received support and encouragement from his family in his study of Okinawan Martial Art.
As a child, Miyagi Chojun was introduced to the ancient martial arts of Okinawa through a family connection. He loved it.
He was raised in an affluent but strict manner where his studies were considered very important. I can imagine his natural energy making the act of sitting at the table and doing his lessons a chore for his Aunt who raised him.
He spent as much time as possible training his body to be as strong as it could be.
Stories of Miyagi Chojun running to school, lifting rocks on the beach and trying anything he thought might improve his physical ability are found in Morio Higaonna’s “The History of Karate”(Dragon Books, 2001).
He loved any combat sport he could play, and apparently excelled at every athletic endeavour he took on.
As young Chojun grew, he must have found that deep feeling of satisfaction so many of us know from his practice of Karate.
The stories that are told demonstrate the love for the art that Chojun grew up with, as his inquisitive personality led him to research that would change that art forever.
Training in the Dojo, talking with friends, listening attentively to the older generations, these are the types of research that absorbed Chojun’s early years.
He trained his body mercilessly under the watchful eye of Higaonna Kanryo, but he applied his native intelligence to the subject as well.
The combination of personal coaching from the era’s’ greatest exponent of Okinawan Martial Arts combined with Chinese Kung-fu along with his quest for understanding the deepest values, methods and historical development of Karate training helped Chojun Miyagi become one of the leading figures of Okinawa Karate as an adult.
In 1908, as a young married man, he was drafted into the Japanese army who were fresh off the win over Russia.
His experience here led him to understand what it was like to be the underdog, as this good-looking young man from a wealthy family, who was a well respected athlete in his hometown, learned first hand of the bigoted attitudes towards provincial Okinawa on the mainland of Japan.
Life in the Japanese Army was deliberately made hard for everyone as a matter of course. Basic training included long marches with heavy packs, hours of combat training, marching drills, weapons drills, and all the other aspects that make boot camp a great place to graduate from.
The Okinawan recruits faced more challenges than many others did, as they usually spoke Japanese with a heavy Okinawan accent and often had a hard time reading any but the simplest of Japanese characters.
This, by the way, is the source for many authors, including myself, to erroneously label Okinawan people as “Illiterate”. It is true that many couldn’t read Japanese, but they could read and write their own language (Uchinanguchi). By this standard, almost everyone born outside Japan would be considered “Illiterate” as we don’t read, write and speak Japanese.
Miyagi Chojun was one of the better educated Okinawan draftees and could converse easily in the mainland dialect. He resented the attitude of bias the mainlanders exhibited towards the Okinawans and did what he could to change their opinions.
Karate provided that vehicle of change.
Through his resolute attitude of keeping himself in the best shape possible, training outside normal hours while others rested, his humble attitude and his willingness to ‘pay for a round of drinks’ he gained acceptance with his peers and superiors.
The skill Miyagi Chojun showed at combat activity (Judo and Jukendo [Unarmed Combat]) separated him from many, and eventually he was asked to lead the group in Karate training.
As the military noticed the effectiveness of his techniques and training methods, Miyagi Chojun noticed a change in their behaviour towards him. He saw, possibly for the first time, that Karate could be used to bring people together.
He certainly saw respect shown to himself and fellow Okinawans who had not known it before, and they owed it to Karate.
I believe that this experience helped form much of Miyagi Sensei’s’ drive to have Karate accepted in Japan and spread it to the rest of the world.
I believe that when he saw the respect given to his native art form, he knew that he could change the way the world looked at Okinawa, if only they experienced Karate.
Miyagi Chojun returned to Okinawa after military service, to continue his life as a student and researcher in the martial arts of Okinawa. His teacher, Higaonna Kanryo did all he could to assist young Chojun with continuing his quest, advising him to visit different experts and even travel to China.
It was possibly the passing of his teacher in 1915 that prompted Miyagi Chojun to travel to China for the first time. He visited his now-deceased teachers former training hall, the grave of his teacher’s teacher, and spent as much time in conversation with Chinese experts as possible.
I believe that once again, Chojun Miyagi saw the power of Karate to bring those of different cultures together; how paradoxically this art of combat helped the process of international peace through understanding.
Miyagi Sensei returned from China to begin probably the most intense era of research in his life. He took the lessons of his teacher Higaonna, combined them with his own experiences, flavoured them with other Chinese exercises he was aware of, and created not only some new exercises (primarily that Kata Tensho) but a whole new system of presenting the information.
Miyagi Sensei continued his own training while his research and experience guided him to formulate the modern methods of teaching Karate.
From 1915 to 1925, Miyagi Chojun taught in a public school gym, the Police training gym, and other locations as he developed his technique and teaching methods.
Miyagi Sensei was said by many to be second to none in the physical techniques of Karate-do.
Richard Kim quotes a story in his work “Weaponless Warriors” of Miyagi Sensei performing Karate exercises for over 2 hours and at the completion remaining seemingly willing to do it all again. He had left footprints on the ceiling from high kicks, torn bamboo poles to shreds and punctured a hole in a kerosene can with his big toe! These physical feats are impressive, but the reasoning for the performance is often overlooked.
Miyagi Sensei hoped his demonstration would encourage others to take up Karate and learn to do these things themselves. He hoped to inspire other Okinawan people to preserve their heritage through the learning of Karate.
This selfless man was willing to put his body on the line to help create interest in the art and get his message of respect for the Okinawan heritage out to the public. Miyagi Sensei shared his knowledge with many, doing his best to systemize the instruction in order to make it possible for everyone to learn. He apparently knew that in order for the classical art of Okinawa to flourish internationally, it would need a system of instruction that could be replicated as needed.
Miyagi Chojun saw positive reinforcement for his life’s work in the reaction of the Okinawan people. They seemed to appreciate not only his skill, but his courage and moral demeanour.
In 1921, he was chosen to represent Karate in a demonstration for the visiting future Emperor Hirohito, a great honour for any citizen of Japan!
In 1925, he demonstrated for visiting royalty, this time for Prince Chichibu (later a sponsor of martial arts groups in Japan) and then again in 1932 when Prince Fushimi (later Governor of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai) and Prince Kuni no Miya visited Okinawa.
This recognition of his art as a valued skill in Okinawa must have helped give him the feeling that the public was on his side, that they recognized the cultural value of his art form.
I hope that Miyagi Sensei was by this time getting a sense that he was being successful in gaining respect for Okinawan culture, and specifically Karate in the eyes of the Japanese public.
Miyagi Sensei was the driving force behind the Naminoue To Te Ken Kyu Kai, or Karate Research Society which when he formed it in 1926 was one of the first public Karate Clubs, if not the very first.
Miyagi Sensei had previously taught at the public school from which he had graduated (Naha Jinjo Koto Shogakko) (Higaonna, pg 59) but having his own facility must have seemed more desirable.
This move was to have some far reaching effects.
On the cusp of an explosion of interest in Karate (largely due to Funakoshi Gichin and others creating interest in Japan) Miyagi Chojun Sensei helped provide a meeting place for the elite of the time.
Yagi Meitoku Sensei told me of when he was a boy and went to the Karate Club, which was within 300 metres of his home. He told me that on Monday night they might have a lesson with Miyagi Sensei, Tuesday maybe Mabuni Genwa, Wednesday Hanashiro Chomo, maybe Thursday Miyagi Sensei again… future Grand Masters sharing and developing their arts together.
As a boy, Yagi Sensei endured the hard training and learned all that would come his way. What a great Dojo it must have been!
The Shihan’s shared responsibilities for teaching and training the students. I can’t help but imagine this club must have been somewhat instrumental in assisting the teachers with identifying their differences which would someday be enshrined as their “style” of Karate.
In the world of Budo having a style name represents more than just an identifying symbol.
The ‘style name’ should indicate the philosophy of the founder (such as Isshin Ryu or One Heart School), or pay homage to its roots (such as Shorin-ji Ryu, Shao-lin Temple Style). In the absence of a name, the practitioner may be seen as an undisciplined scrapper, whereas the adherent of a style is following a discipline which should develop positive personality characteristics along with fighting skill.
The teachers at the To Te Ken Kyu Kai could notice differences in their teachings and methods of practice because they were sharing the space. Students would be able to compare aspects of instruction and I am sure they eventually drifted towards whichever teacher they ‘liked’ the most.
Probably the first person to name a style was the great master Chibana Chosin (John Sells Unante Secrets of Karate 2nd Edition) around 1928, and many others followed suit shortly.
The Shihan of the To Te Ken Kyu Kai would go on to create style names in the 1930s’ that would for many people come to represent the Karate of Okinawa. The creation of these style names has come to represent a watershed in the development of modern Karate, as in “before the style was named’ and ‘after the style was named’. Naming the styles was one of the conditions of having the Japanese Government Official Martial Arts Governing Body (Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, or DNBK) recognize Okinawa Karate as a true Budo. With DNBK recognition came funding and an increased level of respect for the activity in the general public view.
It was the Dojo that Miyagi Sensei created that likely provided a base of comparison allowing the teachers to differentiate one ‘style’ from the other.
Miyagi Sensei did not create, manage and promote the To Te Ken Kyu Kai for personal gain or profit, rather he did it to continue his work in getting the Okinawan people to recognize Karate as part of their own unique culture.
This was at a time when the nation of Japan was embarking on an imperialistic policy, where all things Japanese were to be considered superior, and all foreign objects necessarily inferior.
Miyagi Sensei had to have the Okinawan people accept Karate as something of THEIRS, and not Chinese, as the reading of the characters forming the word “Karate” would have you believe.
(Karate was written as ‘China Hand’ not ‘Empty Hand’ at that time)
The DNBK required change of the characters used to write “Karate” to be the modern “Empty Hand” reading, in order that Karate be recognized as a Japanese art from the island province of Okinawa.
His system of presenting Karate is clearly presented in his 1936 Essay “Karate-Do Gairyaku” translated by Tomano Toshio for Black Belt Magazine.
According to the article, Karate training should include five parts: Preparation exercise (warm up), Basic Forms, Complementary exercises, Kaishu Kata and finally Kumite.
Miyagi Chojun is reputed to be the first person to teach Karate in a system like this, combining warm up and supplementary exercises with a clear and strict Kata and Kumite syllabus.
He was certainly among the first to use these methods, but he was not the last. Within 50 years of this 1936 essay, such Karate classes were being run in virtually every country on the planet, with millions of people following his general outline of class structures.
Throughout the decade of the 1930’s, Chojun Miyagi received much recognition for his Karate. He was awarded the rank of Kyoshi by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, and named the permanent Chief Officer of DNBK in Okinawa.
He was guest instructor at numerous Dojo’s in mainland Japan and even Hawaii.
He had students who had become teachers and it looked like his teachings would spread far and wide.
In 1938, Miyagi Chojun Sensei saw the opening of the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai Okinawa Branch Headquarters in Naha City.
A beautiful Dojo, it was built in a style similar to the Butokuden in Kyoto, next to the Meiji Shrine. It must have been a proud moment in his life when he saw this beautiful Dojo and all it represented open to the public.
It seemed that even with his country at war with China since 1931, Miyagi Chojun was getting everything he had desired.
Then came the war.
Death, devastation and destruction of a pre-war Okinawa lifestyle that would never exist again.
Miyagi Sensei lost two of his children in 1943 due to the war, and the sadness he must have felt is not describable here.
Friends, students, family members, colleagues were all lost during the war years, and as time went on, all activity other than survival ceased for the people of Okinawa.
In April of 1945, Miyagi Chojun, his wife, their surviving children, and other people had taken refuge in a cave in northern Okinawa.
American forces took them to a temporary re-location camp where they stayed for the next nine months.
Chojun Miyagi did what he could to help his friends and neighbours during this difficult time, and stories of his good nature abound.
Morio Higaonna in his work “History of Karate” (Dragon Books, 2001) presents the most complete telling of this time in Miyagi Sensei’s life.
Mr. Higaonna writes about Miyagi Sensei accepting a public post in order to help his neighbours with reconstruction.
One of my favourite tales of Miyagi Sensei was told to me by Hokama Tetusuhiro, a noted historian and author.
He said that at that time, line-ups for food and other necessities were a fact of life. On this day, Miyagi Chojun Sensei had been waiting patiently in line for a couple of hours when he noticed an elderly lady who seemed to be in distress. Miyagi Sensei offered his place in line to her and calmly went to the back to start over again.
This might not seem like much, but remember, If Miyagi Sensei had chosen to, he could have moved right to the front of the line with no waiting. No one would have stopped him, and in fact due to his position in Okinawa some would say it was his right to do so.
That was not him.
He was a humble man, who never thought of forcing his will on others through the use of Karate techniques.
I have mentioned this story to some people who do not seem to get it… why I am so impressed with this.
The fact is, this story speaks volumes on Miyagi Sensei’s character, and it is a story of compassion, caring for others.
I have heard umpteen stories of how so and so the famous Karate teacher fought 4 or 5 American occupiers one night in a bar, or an alley, or somewhere like that, over the honour of a girl, or an insult, or something like that. This is not the story of Miyagi Sensei.
When we hear of Miyagi Chojun Sensei after the war, we hear of a man concerned with his family and his neighbours.
We hear of a man who did his best to assist in the rebuilding of Okinawa, who tried to continue his task of moving Karate into the position of being a cultural asset in Okinawa.
Miyagi Sensei eventually moved back to the city of Naha.
He began teaching again as soon as possible.
It seemed miraculous, but the Butokuden came through the war unscathed.
The Dojo was waiting for him and by 1948 he was teaching the Police at the Butokuden and at his own home nearby.
Yagi Meitoku told me that due to his position with the Police, Miyagi Sensei was able to go back to Karate earlier than many others, and so set an example for many.
Miyagi Sensei seemed to be even more concerned with the intact preservation of Karate for future generations at this time, and dedicated every day to teaching.
In June of 1952, Miyagi Sensei held a meeting at his home. He invited all of his surviving senior students to attend and many did. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss forming an association intended to be named the “ Karate-Do Goju-Ryu Shin Ko Kai” or the Association to spread light on the subject of Goju-Ryu karate-do.
Miyagi Sensei had never given any person a belt.
He left the awarding of certificates to the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai who had the mandate to license all instructors in Japan.
Miyagi Sensei had been awarded the title of Kyoshi in 1936 and several of his students had subsequently been recognized. (Yagi Meitoku received the Renshi Title in 1940).
It is possible that the timing of this meeting relates to the re-establishment of the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai in Kyoto during April of that same year.
Hokama Sensei has published a copy of the cover of the rule book for that association, as well as a list of who was invited/who attended this meeting.
The three Officers of the Shin Ko Kai were :
– Kaicho (Miyagi Chojun)
– Ri Ji Cho (Nakaima Kenko)
– Jommu Riji (Yagi Meitoku)
The members list is a who’s who of Goju-Ryu in Okinawa at the time and includes Tomoyose Kiei, Madanbashi Keio, Toguchi Seikichi, Mr. Arakaki, Higa Seiko, and about 20 others.
Four or five names are usually mentioned as the “Senior Students of Miyagi Chojun”, usually listing Shinzato Jinan, Yagi Meitoku, Miyazato Ieichi, Toguchi Seikichi, Higa Seiko, Yamaguchi Gogen, among others.
All of these men dedicated their lives to Budo and did their best to preserve the ideals and teachings of Miyagi Sensei.
As anyone who has run a Dojo for fourty years or more will know however, there is usually no such thing as “THE” senior student.
There is ALWAYS ‘A SENIOR’ at any given time, and respect is given to whoever joined the Dojo earlier, but as years go on, and attitudes, desires etc change, the life time practitioners ALL follow their own path, eventually to a greater or lesser degree.
The preservation of the techniques will take on the approach that the Dojo’s teacher is following at that time, but due to the nature of Classical Budo practice, students will always want to know the ‘RIGHT” way to perform the technique, which almost necessarily requires all other methods to be the ‘wrong’ way.
My research has led me to believe that this attitude of “we are right and all others are wrong” is probably the opposite of what Miyagi Sensei was looking to propagate.
Miyagi Sensei stated that research into teaching methods was ongoing and that teaching methods were changing in his lifetime.
Miyagi Sensei was an advocate of utilizing new (at the time) information to assist students in learning the ancient forms more efficiently.
As is demonstrated by his introduction of new forms (Geki-sai Ichi and Ni, Tensho) and exercises (Hojo Undo, Yobi Undo) as he learned more his own teaching methods were adapted by his new information.
Miyagi Chojun Sensei as a person seems different from the dogmatic image represented in so many Dojo’s. Miyagi Sensei was a man in a society, a man with hopes, dreams and ambitions as any other, but with qualities that have set him apart from the rest.
His life long passion for teaching, studying and practicing Karate led him to teach many, study in many places, and touch so many lives that his legacy still lives on today.
He was known to have a driving passion for Budo, but beyond its representation as a fighting art and more as a defining characteristic of the Okinawan people.
He was well known and respected in his home province, but when on the mainland of Japan, he was met with the bigoted attitude towards Okinawans that was prevalent there.
He felt in his heart that Okinawan people were as good as any other, and that if he could get Karate its proper respect, he would play his role in improving the perception of Okinawan people everywhere.
So much of his lifes’ work and efforts are represented in the following quote, apparently made by Miyagi Sensei as he explained his reasons for wanting to travel internationally:
He said “ I desire to place Okinawa on an equal footing with the other prefectures of Japan and indeed with other countries. Since our means for doing so are limited, I wish to take Karate, a true cultural treasure of our country, and introduce it to Hawaii and beyond.” (pg 72, History of Karate by Higaonna, Miyagi sensei quoted in conversation with Mr. Kanna).
This quote should be studied by all serious teachers and students of Goju-Ryu to help them understand that the founders intention was not to become the toughest guy on the planet, but to improve the state of human affairs, bring dignity and human rights to those denied them, through the practice of Karate.
Miyagi Chojun: Innovator, forward thinker, humble, man of integrity, who used his means to bring dignity and respect to all of Okinawa through worldwide acceptance of Karate.
Information on Miyagi Sensei’s life and students is presented in the great work produced by Goju-Ryu Master Higaonna Morio in his 1996 work published by Dragon Associates “The History Of Karate – Okinawan Goju-Ryu” and to a lesser extent the earlier work by Farkas and Corcoran in ‘Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People’.(Smith, 1983) ‘Unante” by John Sells gives a more complete picture of Okinawan Karate-Kobudo in its entirety and should be part of any serious students reading.