The Tragedy of Miyagi Chojun
The Karate Tapestry – Part 15
The Tragedy of Miyagi Chojun
By Robert Hunt
Miyagi and Kyoda
One of the tragic characters in modern karate is Miyagi Chojun.
Venerated today by those who follow his path, Miyagi was one of the first to bring karate out from the shadows. He taught in Okinawan schools after the turn of the century, first under Itosu, by the way. He didn’t teach Higoanna’s nascent style until later on.
Miyagi spent his entire life studying karate in one form or another. He became renowned in Okinawa and a sort of national hero. In the Okinawan language, they called him Busaa Maagushiku, “Miyagi the karate master.”
He started with Higaonna at 14 years old in 1902. At times, Higaonna went to Miyagi’s fine house to teach and stayed for dinner. Born poor, Miyagi was adopted by a wealthy uncle who had no sons. This lucky happenstance afforded him the advantage of spending life digging through karate history, rather than scrambling for a living. It also afforded leave to travel to China and to cobble together his system.
Higaonna Kanryo, Miyagi’s most important influence, studied in China in the 1870’s and 80’s, from, he said, a man named Lu Lu Ko (also known as Ryu Ryu Ko, To Ru Ko, Ka Chin Ga Ru Ru and a few other names). This is probably true, although Lu Lu Ko is an illusive character.
Higaonna doesn’t seem to have made a big deal about studying from him, although Higa Seiko, who studied with both Higaonna and Miyagi, said that, as a boy, he listened to Higaonna tell his uncle (Higa Seihu) stories about studying with Lu Lu Ko. His uncle also said that Lu Lu Ko even visited Okinawa at one point, but there doesn’t seem to be any corroboration.
Besides Higaonna’s word and Higa’s memory, the one fact that gives the man’s existence credibility is that Nakaima Kenri, founder of Ryuei Ryu, also said he studied from him. The“Ryu” in Ryuei Ryu, in fact, is in his honor. (The “ei” is the Chinese pronunciation of Nakaima).
One snag is that Higaonna went to China about 40 years after Nakaima. Higa Seiko said that Higaonna described Lu Lu Ko as a very old man, so that could be valid. Miyagi said he saw Lu Lu Ko’s grave on a 1915 visit to China, which may be true.Someone else alleged that the man died in 1930, which most likely isn’t.
Another conundrum is that Higaonna’s katas and Nakaima’s are not the same. Aanan, Heiku, Paiku, Ohan and Pachu, all katas that Ryuei Ryu identifies as coming from Lu Lu Ko, were not taught by Higaonna. Why would he learn less katas so many years later? It would be easier to understand the other way around.
Higaonna most likely taught four kata – Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseiryu and Suparempei (Pechurin), all numbered katas starting with typical White Crane movements. The rest of modern Goju was probably added by Miyagi. Takao Nakaya points out that Kiyoda Juhatsu also studied from Higaonna, and Kiyoda’s style, Tou’on Ryu, only contains those four Higaonna katas (plus Jion from Hanashiro and Nepai, from Go Kenki). Kiyoda was a dedicated student, educated and from a good family. There would be no reason for Higaonna not to teach him the same as Miyagi.
If all this is true, Miyagi literally created Goju Ryu, not just handed down what Higaonna taught. The Goju katas, including the heavy breathing, are different enough from Tou’on Ryu, as described by Mario McKenna, a Tou’on Ryu instructor from Vancouver BC, to lead one to believe that Miyagi innovated, possibly to fit his larger physique.
The other Goju katas apparently came from somewhere else. Seiunchin, for example, is documented to have been around Okinawa at least from the middle of the 19th century so it could have been passed on to Miyagi by numerous people.
The point of this is that the style now known as Goju Ryu was Miyagi’s personal lifework, not just a museum collection of Okinawan katas, like, for example, Mabuni’s. He groomed a successor, Shinzato Jinan to take over the system and kept volumes of work that he had found or written.
It all crashed when Shinzato died in the war and Miyagi’s work was destroyed in the bombing of Okinawa. The war ended in 1945, Miyagi died in 1953. He had only a few years to piece it together again and he was sick.
What we end up with are perspectives of Miyagi’s work and opinions of what he intended. We try to recreate Miyagi’s vision from the remnants of his instruction and the people who knew him.
Miyagi passed on some Goju Ryu to Eiichi Miyazato, who formed the Jundokan upon Miyagi’s death. But Miyazato was only 23 at the end of the war and, for a couple of years, no one in Okinawa was worried about karate training as much as they were about surviving.
Miyagi also taught Yagi Meitoku, founder of the Meibukan. Yagi started studying at age 14 in 1926, stayed allegiant to Miyagi and opened a dojo in 1949. Yagi also traveled to China and created five katas of his own for his “system”, so what he taught and what his heirs teach would probably not be considered “orthodox” Goju Ryu.
Yagi has an interesting story of his own. He was descended from the founders of Kume village, the famous 36 families who emigrated from China in 1392. He is purported to be the 17th generation descendant of the legendary Janna Oyakata, an advisor to the king at the time of the Satsuma invasion, who believed Okinawa should remain tied to China. That didn’t fit the Satsuma plan, so they took Oyakata to Japan and executed him. But,admiring his warrior spirit, they allowed one last request which was to perform kata. Oyakata is revered in Okinawa for this valiant final act.
Yagi was of great assistance to Miyagi’s family at the time of Miyagi’s death. Several years later, in gratitude for his help, the family gave him Miyagi’s black belt and gi which are still displayed in the Meibukan dojo.
A third Miyagi student was Higa Seiko. Higa actually started with Higaonna, himself, in 1911, at age 13. He was, in effect, a dojo mate of Miyagi. After Higaonna’s death four years later, Higa followed a young Miyagi as teacher. Higa was 17,Miyagi about 27.
Higa opened his own dojo in 1931, which years later became known as the Shodokan. He was the only person of whom anyone knows who ever received a certificate from Miyagi to teach. It is proudly displayed in the Higa family home. Although Higa studied from Miyagi, he also studied in China and, like many teachers of the day, developed more or less his own system,adding his own concepts and kata.
This was normal for the times. No one in Okinawa was proclaiming anything like the modern systems we know today.They carried on more or less in the Okinawan tradition of teaching a few students and expanding their own knowledge.
The fourth person of mention as a student of Miyagi is Toguchi Seikichi, although he seems to have been as much a student of Higa as of Miyagi. He started training with Higa in 1932 and trained under both Higa and Miyagi until the war. He was sent to Indonesia in 1942 by the Japanese military and returned to a devastated Okinawa in 1946. He remained part of the Goju circle, later forming his own dojo, the Shoreikan, with his own innovations and eventually moving to Japan.
Until about the war years, karate was an evolving art, not rigid with orthodoxy. This trend is evident in the Goju Ryu styles that exist today that derive from these teachers.
Pre-war styles were fluid. Okinawans were studying and experimenting, traveling to China for more information and trying to understand their heritage, much like we are still doing.It was only after the war and the proliferation of Japanese versions of these systems that karate began to calcify around “Masters” with right and wrong ways of performing. Indeed, performing kata was an odd idea early on. Katas were training tools, not for entertainment or competition.Many still hold to that tradition.
The evolution of karate is reflected in the sad end to Miyagi’s tragic life. Miyagi, himself, was still developing his system when Tojo sacrificed Japan at the altar of Asian domination. Miyagi never finished and his “style” was left incomplete. The only one who really knew it the way Miyagi intended was Shinzato. With Shinzato’s death, as well as the death of three of Miyagi’s children and all of his research destroyed, Miyagi was emotionally broken. He did what he could, but time ran out. The last couple of years he spent teaching from a chair, too sick to stand. When he died, the police escorted his body on the back of an American ammunition wagon and people saluted as he passed.
The Goju world has been trying to figure it all out ever since. Yagi, Miyazato, Higa and Toguchi all spent time with Miyagi and taught versions of his style, but each one seems to have seen different perspectives, like the five blind men and the elephant. That, combined with their own innovations, makes a lot of Goju Ryu history and technique difficult to verify and piece together.
Here’s the lesson – don’t wait. Pass on what you know. There’s no point in taking your “secret” art to the grave. This stuff doesn’t belong to you and me anyway. It belongs to the world. To history. To the human race. We didn’t make it up. We just had the fortunate happenstance of stumbling on a dojo and the lucky wisdom to stay.
Help weave the tapestry.
This article was gleaned from personal research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).