Shihan Morio Higaonna : The lion of Okinawa

Okinawan karate-do, or more correctly karate-jutsu, was once the deadly fighting art of the Ryukyu Islands. Then a feared combative act, it is now Japan's modern (verging on) Olympic Sport. But the modernists are today taking a back seat, traditional karate is again in vogue, and the ancient masters doors are being pounded upon by eager and keen students. Sport karate is still in, but now the people want more - they want the real thing.

Enter one of the leading exponents of Goju-ryu karate in the world today, Morio Higaonna. Higaonna is a quiet, reserved man - quiet with the confidence of years of training and being the best that you could possibly be. -Reserved, because this man has the "power". Higaonna's life is karate, and what he doesn't know about the empty hand art (karate) you could write on a matchbox. Short and powerfully built, Morio Higaonna is the epitome of a karate master instructor.

As a youth, the young Higaonna was fascinated by the empty hand fighting arts of his native Okinawa. His father was a policeman and practitioner of Shorin-Ryu karate, and occasionally he would teach a friend in their home. The young Higaonna would diligently watch these training sessions and would practice over and over again on his own what he had observed. From his observation of the sessions he easily picked up the basics and also remembered the kata (forms) he saw, which he would practice over and over again. His father, recognizing his son's intense interest and dedication, would sometimes invite him to come and train after one of these training sessions had ended and his friend had left. Morio Higaonna was fast becoming strong and powerful due to his diligent training of basics and kata.

Higaonna supplemented his training by developing his technique on the makiwara (striking post) in the garden. The makiwara is famous in the development of karate, or more correctly, Okinawan karate. The enthusiastic Higaonna used it and used it, wearing it out with his continued pounding. His punch, or tsuki, would later become famous around the world as his trademark.

Higaonna's formal training began when he joined the karate club at school. The class was taught by Tsunetaka Shimabukuro, would was also a practitioner of Shorin-ryu, although he did study and teach some Goju kata as well. Higaonna would watch Shimabukuro and other friends perform Goju forms and he began to develop and interest in the style.

The techniques displayed were powerful, yet flowing and subtle like the techniques of the old masters he had heard about from China. This was the kind of karate he wanted to learn. Goju-Ryu was to the young Higaonna his idea of a total martial art.

Shimabukuro, sensing this and also believing that Goju was the strongest style, encouraged his student to begin training in the Goju system. Together with a friend, Higaonna went to the garden dojo of Miyagi Chojun, where he began his training in Goju-Ryu under the tutelage of An'ichi Miyagi.

From that day on he started a lifelong devotion to Goju Ryu karate. It has accumulated into more than 40 years of training. This is the story of a modern Okinawan master, a practitioner and teacher of traditional karate-do.

The More You Went, The More You Learned

At the time when Higaonna began his training, there were no grading systems; no yellow, green, brown or black belts. Everyone just went to the dojo and trained. The training was important not only for the perfection of technique, but for the development of one's character. What you wore to hold your trousers up and how it looked were never a question. The senior practitioners instructed and the younger students learned, and so the training went on. The more you attended the more instruction you got; the more instruction you got the better you became.

The karate of Goju Ryu was quickly taking up all of Higaonna's time. Day and night he trained and when he wasn't training he was studying and learning from anyone and everyone he could. Karate-do was his vocation in life and the more he learned about Chojun Miyagi and the Goju Ryu system, the more fascinated he became and the more intense his training and deeper his research.

Living in Okinawa, Higaonna had many opportunities to meet and discuss martial arts with many senior instructors of various karate and (Okinawa) kobudo (traditional weapons) systems as well as most of the surviving students of Chojun Miyagi.

Higaonna also trained in kobudo, his specialty being the sai (sometimes referred to as a "three pronged truncheon). Higaonna trained hard and often in the discipline of kobudo and reached a high degree of proficiency with the sai. In addition to this, Higaonna Sensei holds a sandan (third rank) in judo.

But of all the teachers he trained with, Master An'ichi Miyagi seemed to Higaonna the one person who could answer the secrets of Goju Ryu. Higaonna sensed a deep connection with master Chojun Miyagi through his teacher An'ichi Miyagi (no relation to the founder) and he was learning more and progressing faster than any of the other students.

An'ichi Miyagi had been an upper-level student (uchi deshi) of grandmaster Chojun Miyagi in the last six years of Chojun's life and often stayed for long hours at his home before and after training. In fact, An'ichi Miyagi became more like a son to Chojun, spending most of his time there, not only training, but also helping out with the chores, eating most of the meals with the family, and so on. This meant longer and more personal instruction in the Ryukyu karate system and a better understanding of Master Miyagi's Goju Ryu.

An'ichi Miyagi's desire to train hard and long paid off and in the closed door sessions with the Goju master he learned much more and had become one of the best of Chojun Miyagi's student. In the first year of An'ichi Miyagi's training, there were only four other people training, all white belts. All of Chojun Sensei's former students were not training at this time since it was after the war and everyone was struggling hard to get by and make a living. Within the year all four other people had quit, leaving only An'ichi. This continued for the next two years. Although other people came to Chojun Sensei requesting his instruction, he would always refer them to other dojo, preferring to concentrate on his one and only pupil.

In 1951 Ryuko Aragaki, who had been Chojun Miyagi's first instructor, brought his grandson, Shuichi Aragaki, to Chojun Sensei's house and requested that Miyagi admit him as a student. He did so out of the respect and fondness he held for his first instructor and for the next year there were only two students of Chojun Miyagi, An'ichi Miyagi and Shuichi Aragaki.

In 1952, Chojun Sensei finally gave in to the numerous requests of people wanting to join the dojo, but gave the teaching responsibilities to An'ichi. After the training sessions were finished and everyone had left, Chojun would instruct An'ichi, not only in technique, but with long sessions of history and philosophy as well.

An'ichi Miyagi could see in the young Higaonna the things he himself strove for when he was a student. He taught Higaonna as he himself had been taught and molded him in the tradition of Chojun Miyagi.

Travel Abroad

In 1960 Morio Higaonna left Naha to travel to Tokyo. His purpose was threefold: he was accepted at Takushoku University (where he graduated with a degree in commerce), to see Tokyo, and to spread Goju Ryu karate to the people there.

The Shotokan style had an established karate club on campus, but because of a terrible fight that one of its members was involved in, the university banned all karate from its campus proper. Because of the ban, Higaonna began teaching Goju Ryu soon after his arrival at the dormitory where he was quartered. Higaonna quickly won favour among the students and developed a large following because of his friendly personality and masterful technique.

Later, after graduation, Higaonna began teaching at other universities around Tokyo and his reputation grew. His training sessions were fast becoming too big for some of the universities' dojo and he decided to move to a more permanent setting. He was invited by the owner of a karate dojo in the Yoyogi district of Tokyo to teach, and thus the now famous Yoyogi Shurenkai Karate Dojo was born.

The Yoyogi Dojo became the centre for Goju Ryu training in the world. The foreign students who went through the Yoyogi Dojo read like a who's who of the martial arts: James Rousseau, Hugh St. John Thompson, and Bakkies Laubscher from South Africa; Ernie Brennecke from the United States; John Jarvis and Dennis May from New Zealand; Dennis Martin from Great Britain; and these are only the Goju Ryu students. Among other students are Terry O'Neil, world champion and Fighting Arts International publisher, who has left skin and blood on the well-used makiwara at the back of the dojo; and even the French national team came to Yoyogi Dojo for a training session with Higaonna during one of their visits to Japan.

During this time Higaonna's training and teaching became even more intense. His Japanese students at that time included such notables as Iwao Abe, Kenzo Nakagi, Yozo Ito, Tomiaki Tadano, Koichi Iwakawa, and Juichi Kokubo along with the powerful Ken Ogawa, who were themselves also developing into excellent karate-ka. Ogawa was considered one of the best Goju Ryu fighters in the world and had developed a fearful reputation on the Tokyo karate scene. He was unfortunately killed in a plane crash in the USA in the late 1970's. Later notable students include Kazuo Terauchi and Tomoyuki Kato (now IOGKF instructor in Japan).

Higaonna's students were fast gaining stature in the tournament circuit as well, with Terauchi and Iwakawa alternating the title of first place champions in kumite (sparring) of the East Japan Championships for seven years in a row. Terauchi was also kumite champion at the All Japan National Championships (all styles) as well as taking first in the kumite event at the 1981 World Goju Championships held in Okinawa. Kato is a two-time first place winner at the All Japan National Goju Championships and also won first place in mens kata at the 1981 Goju Championships; Hitomi Okada , who also began her training under Higaonna Sensei at Yoyogi Dojo in the late seventies, has won many competitions including first place in women's kata at that same 1981 event and went on to win it again 10 years later at the First IOGKF World Championships held in Okinawa in 1991, as well as taking first place in women's kata in the multi-style international event organized by Osamu Ozawa of Shotokan, which is held in Las Vegas annually.

The Spread of Goju, And Return to Roots

In 1979 Higaonna Sensei, along with his top Japanese and international students, formed the International Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate Do Federation (I.O.G.K.F.), a worldwide organization dedicated to the promotion of traditional Okinawan karate. Leaving the politics and money problems that plagued other governing bodies behind them, the I.O.G.K.F's sole aim was the development and promotion of traditional Goju Ryu karate around the world. To achieve this Higaonna began traveling and teaching more regularly than he had in the past. He realized that by traveling, more overseas students would benefit from his direct communication and the strength of Goju Ryu in the western world would grow even more.

In 1980 Higaonna Sensei married a beautiful American student, Alanna Stevens. Higaonna's worldwide reputation was growing, but instead of expanding and opening more and more dojos, he decided to go back home to his roots and the source of traditional karate do, and in May of 1981 he and his wife returned to Okinawa.

With the birth of his son Eric in November of that same year, the family was now living above the dojo at Higaonna's mother's house. Now the young karate master was back and Goju Ryu again had its power source in the home of Goju Ryu karate, the Naha area of Okinawa.

Higaonna built his Honbu Dojo underneath the family house. It was a small, well equipped training centre with every conceivable martial arts training device, traditional and modern, there for the serious karateka.

Higaonna's is the dojo renowned for strong training spirit and excellent technical capabilities of its students, including Takeyuki Kamimura, who is also the teacher of World Goju Ryu Iri Kumi (full contact) Karate Middle Weight Champion and Katsuya Yamashiro (now IOGKF Chief Instructor for Okinawa).

The Move to the US

Higaonna Sensei remained in Okinawa until May of 1985, when he decided that he would move back to Tokyo in order to make himself more accessible to both his Japanese and international students. Unfortunately, the cost of living was quite high in Tokyo and rents were astronomical. This, along with his ever increasing international commitments brought him to the conclusion that if he wanted to have a viable dojo where people could come and train, he would have to make another move. In September of 1987 he and his family moved to the San Diego area of California, USA.

Having settled into his new country and bridging the gap from traditional to modern with comparative ease, he has built the Institute of Traditional Karate in sunny San Marcos (in northern San Diego County). It wasn't long after Higaonna Sensei had established himself on the US karate scene that magazine articles and cover photos on some of the USA's top martial arts periodicals followed. In keeping with his ideals of traditional karate, he began hosting a number of excellent budo festivals in the US, namely the Chojun Miyagi Memorial Martial Arts Festival (MCF), an annual event that attracts instructors and students from all over the karate world.

In 1991, returning once more to the source, Higaonna Sensei hosted the first IOGKF World Championships in Naha, Okinawa. They were a great success and once again attracted a large number of contestants (33 countries in all competed) and some very prominent martial arts instructors were in attendance, giving various seminars during the week long gasshuku (training camp). The event included masters from Shorin-ryu, Uechi-ryu, Shotokan and Okinawan kobudo who, along with Higaonna and Shuichi Aragaki of Goju Ryu, brought the traditional fighting arts alive over the five-day period.

Higaonna Sensei is dedicated to researching the history of and finding the true roots of his life's work, Okinawan Goju Ryu. In his search he has traveled a number of times to the birth place of the empty hand art, Fuzhou in Fukien Province, southern China. Higaonna trained and held long hours of discussions with prominent members of the Fuzhou Wushu Association and has a strong belief that Goju Ryu origins may have stemmed from the White Crane boxing system of southern China. During his visits there he also gave demonstration of Sanchin kata, which Higaonna discovered is contained in many Chinese styles as well.

Higaonna Sensei is now publishing an historical account of the culmination of his research into the roots of Okinawan Goju Ryu, which will be the first of its kind anywhere and an invaluable addition to the library of all serious martial artists.

The modern era is here to stay, and the 1990's have brought an even more hectic schedule, with Higaonna continually jetting, teaching and training in every corner of the globe, including several new republics of the former Soviet Union.

Luckily, his karate time is never limited and like his dojo training of younger years, the training sessions today can become marathon events. The best thing though is, as good a karateka as Higaonna is , he is also an excellent teacher, a virtual "sensei's sensei". You will always learn from this man, and his knowledge is never exhausted. His depth of understanding is bottomless and that knowledge is not just on Goju Ryu karate, but also the many different martial arts and fighting systems from around the world.

Higaonna has many successful students in both traditional and modern fighting sports. The reason for their success the answer is always the same; a strong traditional foundation. The 'source' of their learning is Morio Higaonna, perhaps one of the greatest living karateka alive today. His teaching and training would mold the true karate student into a complete martial artist. His is an epitome of budo, and in his powerful hands lies the future of Goju Ryu karate in the modern world.

Traditional karate today is very secure because its guardian is regarded as a lion in a world of big cats in the martial arts jungle. Strong and powerful,. proud and regal, is like a 'lion' of Okinawa. As one of his longtime students, who is also a former champion fighter said of him: "I now believe in the words of Genesis. There were giants on the earth in those days. I know, because you see, I've met one."