Goju Ryu karate was founded by Miyagi Chojun Sensei, a personal disciple of Kanryo Higaonna Sensei. Miyagi Chojun was born on April 25th, 1888, in Naha, the capital of Okinawa. His family was wealthy and belonged to the upper class. They owned two trading ships that imported medicine from China for both the government and private individuals. Chojun Miyagi was chosen to take over the business after the death of the family leader.
At age 11 Chojun Miyagi’s mother took him karate master Argaki Ryoku. She felt that if young Chojun were to function as head of the family he would have to be strong both mentally and physically, and that martial arts training would help him to achieve this goal.
In Sensei Ryokyu’s dojo Chojun learned Naha-te and worked primarily at strengthening exercises, aided by the Makiwara, Chishi and Nigiri Game. At age 14 his teacher brought him to Kanryo Higaonna Sensei.
Before being accepted as a student, Chojun Miyagi had to prove himself worthy by performing all sorts of household tasks in the home of Kanryo Higaoanna, such as cleaning, gardening, chopping wood and fetching water from the well. Once Higaonna Sensei determined that the lad was serious and of good character, the training began.
They spent 13 years together until Kanryo Higaonna Sensei passed away in 1916. The same year, Miyagi Chojun Sensei left for China to discover the roots of Naha-te in the city of Foochow. Although many of the top martial artists had fled the area during the war, he was able to connect with an elderly resident who assisted him in his research. He visited the home of Ryu Ryu Ko and spent two months doing intensive research before returning to Okinawa.
Miyagi Chojun Sensei was a strong-willed man who excelled in his studies. He trained daily, drawing inspiration from nature, often training in harsh and rigorous conditions. Sometimes he practiced kata Sanchin in the ocean or on a mountaintop, or in the snow for days at a time. Other times he would practice his Kiai on the beach and stare at the horizon without blinking. Miyagi Chojun Sensei worked on ways of developing all five senses and being on guard at all times; he learned to sense “through his skin” when people approached from behind.
Sensei Miyagi devoted 24 hours a day to the art of karate. His accomplishments included developing the kata Rokyusho into Tensho (representing the soft aspect of the art), and creating a second version of Sanchin (representing hardness). In 1940 he would develop the Kata Gekisai Dai Ichi and Gekisai Dai Ni, and at times received revelations about the kata through his dreams. Miyagi Chojun Sensei consulted with doctors and other experts in an analytical, scientific approach in researching karate exercises.
In addition to his personal training and development of Naha-te, Miyagi Chojun Sensei spent a great deal of his time promoting the art. In 1921, he performed a demonstration of Naha-te in Okinawa for the visiting Prince Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, and in 1925 for Prince Chichibu. Miyagi Chojun Sensei had already envisioned the development of Naha-te not only in Japan but also around the world. It became increasingly important to organize and unify Okinawan karate as a cultural treasure to be passed on to future generations.
In 1926, Miyagi Chojun Sensei established the Karate Research Club in Wakas-Cho. Four instructors, Miyagi Chojun, Hanashiro, Motobu and Mabuni, taught, alternately, preliminary exercises and supplemental exercises. Afterwards, Miyagi Chojun Sensei gave talks to the students about mankind, daily life, and the Samurai Code of Ethics in order to improve their moral development as well. In 1927, Kano Jigoro Sensei, founder of Judo, saw a kata demonstration by Miyagi Chojun Sensei and was impressed by the advanced technique and sophistication of Naha-te. Kano Sensei’s influence allowed Miyagi Chojun Sensei to perform Okinawan Karate at leading Japanese Budo tournaments sponsored by the government. In 1930, Miyagi Chojun Sensei performed at the Butoku-kai Tournament and at the Sainei Budo Tournament in 1932.
As its exposure increased, many became interested in Miyagi Chojun Sensei’s art. One of Miyagi Chojun Sensei’s senior disciples, Shinzato Sensei, gave a performance of kata at a Japanese martial arts tournament. Afterwards, a master asked the name of his school. Shinzato Sensei had no answer for him. Upon his return to Okinawa he told Miyagi Chojun Sensei about the encounter.
In order to promote his art as well as cooperate with other schools of Japanese martial arts, Miyagi Chojun Sensei decided it was necessary formalize a name. He chose “Goju-Ryu Karate,” meaning Hard and Soft Karate. The name was taken from the third precept of traditional Chinese Kempo (see About Goju-Ryu). He was the first among different schools of karate to name his art and in 1933 the art of Goju-Ryu was formally registered at the Butoku-kai, Japanese Martial Arts Association.
During the 1930s, Miyagi Chojun Sensei actively developed and promoted karate-do in Japan and throughout the world. In 1934, a Hawaiian newspaper company invited him to Hawaii in order to introduce karate there. In 1936, Miyagi Chojun Sensei spent two months in Shanghai, China, for further study of Chinese martial arts. In 1937, he was awarded a commendation by the Butoku-kai for his kata.
During World War II Okinawa fell under attack. There was devastating violence and poverty. Miyagi Chojun Sensei stopped teaching. He lost a son, two daughters and a beloved senior student, while enduring the horrors of war, hunger and poverty. After the war, Okinawan karate spread rapidly throughout mainland Japan. Miyagi Chojun Sensei taught karate in Kansai, Japan, for a short time. In 1946, however, he started teaching karate at the Okinawan Police Academy as well as in the backyard of his home in Tsuboya where his son still lives today.
From the beginning, Miyagi Chujun Sensei recognized karate as a valuable social treasure of Okinawa. He devoted his entire life to the study, development and transmission of Okinawan Karate for the sake of future generations and is truly known as the founder of Goju-Ryu Karate-Do. During his lifetime, Miyagi Chojun Sensei was known and respected by everyone not only in Okinawa but also throughout the world as one of karate’s leading authorities. Sensei Miyagi passed away on October 8th, 1953, leaving a tremendous legacy behind.