Form – Mabuni and Miyagi

The Karate Tapestry – Part 9
Mabuni and Miyagi
By Robert Hunt

If Itosu and Higaonna brought karate out of darkness, it was Miyagi and Mabuni who gave it light, or at least a light that shines on many of us. Where they learned their kata, who taught them, where those kata came from is still a considerable mystery. We thought we knew once, back when we knew everything. But, the more we learn, the less we know. In his latest book, Karatedo History and Philosophy, Takao Nakaya postulates that Higaonna may have never learned any kata in China at all during his alleged “draft dodger” years. Maybe there never was a Lu Lu Ko or maybe he was long gone when Higaonna arrived and Higaonna just needed a cover story. Maybe that’s why Nakaima claimed the same teacher 40 years earlier and why Miyagi never found Lu Lu Ko on his quest after Higaonna’s death.

The trail of kata from Higaonna and Itosu to Miyagi, Mabuni and the rest is not, as noted, linear. Mabuni, for example, is alleged to have learned all Higaonna’s kata from Higaonna directly and incorporated them in Shito Ryu. That was the story. But Mabuni started with Higaonna about 1909 and went to the military about 1910 for three years. Higaonna died in 1915. Seems like a short time to learn 8 kata (well). Whatever the case, these two men, Miyagi Chojun and Mabuni Kenwa, were central to the development of Okinawan karate. Miyagi trekked to China in search of more hidden knowledge. They formed, along with the likes of Hanashiro, Kyan, Chibana and others, training groups to study and research karate, its history and its techniques – compare notes so to speak.

Miyagi teaching Seiunchin
Miyagi teaching Seiunchin

Mabuni stitched together a virtual encyclopedia of Okinawan karate with his Shito style, based on the work of his two teachers, Itosu and Higaonna, hence the name (look it up). But, in many cases, Shito is superficial and requires more research to plumb the depth of the kata. Like an encyclopedia, however, it introduces – lets us know what exists. It was during these years, the 1920’s, that karate sacrificed much of its “martial” essence. It grew into more of a pastime than a way of fighting. The differences in styles revolve around variations in movement, not effectiveness of technique. A hundred years earlier karate fighters were feared. I get the feeling that, although respected, Mabuni, Miyagi, Hanashiro, and the rest, with the possible exception of Kyan, were not feared. Karate in 1925 was a jumble. Higaonna, Itosu and Aragaki were gone down the river of life and their protégés were left to sort it all out, master the language without a book. They had to paste together some semblance of organization, create it out of thin air. And none of them thought to right the story of their own efforts down, or, if they did, it was annihilated in 1945. So we still flounder from one tidbit of information to another even about them, believing shadow as fact.

For almost 40 years I have wondered, for example, why, if they both studied from Higaonna, did Miyagi and Mabuni’s versions of what were supposedly Higaonna’s kata, differ so, and which was closer to the original. I still don’t know. Gives me a headache. What we do know is that Miyagi and Mabuni made a commendable effort to sort it all out for us. Miyagi cobbled together an approach based on Higaonna’s work and other stuff he later picked up in China. Mabuni based his on everything he could dig up. On October 25, 1936, a few of the leading Okinawan karate teachers had a meeting that was thought important enough for the Okinawan press to attend. You can read about it in Patrick McCarthy’s book. A few years ago, the Okinawan government dubbed that day “The Day of Karate”. It was a formational meeting to lay out what, for one thing, the word karate was going to mean. Would it maintain the original meaning of “Chinese Hand” or assume the new one of “Empty Hand” that was being bandied around?

Okinawa was now a part of Japan and many were eager to be loyal subjects. The Japanese were at war with China. You figure it out. Miyagi returned to China twice after his teacher’s death and fetched other information for his newly cobbled style. No one is really sure what Higaonna had brought back when he went and what he learned in Okinawa, what Miyagi brought back, what he learned in Okinawa and what they made up. But we try. Miyagi and Mabuni, good friends whose families knew each other well (Mabuni’s son remembers sitting on Miyagi’s lap as a child), were driven to organize what they could glean from whatever source, into “styles”. In order to do so, they, along with the other aspiring Soke’s, developed a syllabus, a uniform and testing procedures to satisfy the anal demands of Japanese culture, and the dictates of the government body that oversaw the Japanese martial arts – the Butokukai. That systemization is what we have inherited. Not karate, but rather someone’s reimagining of it into a recognizable form we can digest. A shell within which to grow.

Mabuni followed Funakoshi to Japan. Miyagi, except for a couple months in Japan and a brief visit to Hawaii, mostly remained in Okinawa. Because of this, it was Funakoshi’s karate and Mabuni’s that first saw light in the west. The adaptation of Miyagi’s Goju that arrived there first was a version lead by Yamaguchi Gogen, who claimed to be Miyagi’s anointed. Karate became so popular in Japan that, according to our friend Doug Jepperson, over 100 petitions were submitted to the Butokukai for recognition as styles. The four that emerged as “major” styles were Funakoshi’s Shotokan, Mabuni’s Shito Ryu, Yamaguchi’s “Japanese” Goju, and, Ohtsuka Hironori’s newly minted crossover style, Wado, “The Japanese Way”. A solid case can be made that the systemization of karate was the death knell for the fighting art. Large groups of students marching before a testing board is a far cry from a couple fanatics in a cemetery learning how to kill. But, had the organization part not happened, you and I would probably never have had the chance to taste this timeless art.

The fact that it became organized, opened it up to soldiers like George Mattson and Lee Gray, stationed in Okinawa, and to the rest of us upon their return. The Japan Karate Federation also had a significant effect, dispatching emissaries throughout the world to spread “Japanese” karate and polish Japan’s image, so tarnished from WWII. Miyagi honed his system in Okinawa during the 1920’s and 30’s. World War II squashed his plans. The man whom he was grooming to take over, Shinzato Jinan, was killed in 1945. Three of Miyagi’s children also died and Miyagi, sick with hypertension, was a broken man. Somewhere around 1948, when McArthur allowed the Japanese to practice their martial arts, Miyagi started all over again.

Man plans and God laughs.

For the last couple years of his life Miyagi taught in his garden, because his house had been destroyed. It came to be called the “Garden Dojo”. He tried to pass it all on to a new crop of students, lead by Miyazato Eichi, an earlier student and judo player. When Miyagi died in 1953, Miyazato moved the few students into his own place and opened the Jundokan. Miyagi’s other pre World War II students eventually opened up their own dojos and taught their version. Today there exists an “old” version of Goju and a “new” version. The old one reflecting Goju prior to the war. The new one smoothed out to fit modern karate sensibilities. Mabuni’s encyclopedic system got itself restructured by a half dozen disciples in Japan, including, among others, Iwata, Hayashi, Sakagami, Tani, Kuniba and Mabuni’s own two sons.

By 1950 the karate torch had drifted from Okinawa to Japan and another new generation of martial artists took over, ones you and I may even havemet. Modern Japanese, looking for the “real” karate, still travel to Okinawa, much like the Okinawans traveled to China for three centuries. Let’s thank Mabuni and Miyagi for taking the time to lay out a blueprint for us to follow to begin to grasp it all, to taste, even in its watered down form, the fighting art that developed in the Shaolin monastery, thrived during the Ming dynasty, gestated in Okinawa with the Japanese occupation, saw the light of the world after the Meiji restoration and brightens our lives so much today.

Miyagi Chojun “I feel as if I walk alone on a distant path in the darkness. The further I go, the more distant the path will become, but that is why the truth is precious. If we go forward to find the truth of karate by all our strength of mind and body, we will be rewarded little by little and day by day. The truth is near, but hard to reach.”