Cain & Abel
Cain & Abel

Cain & Abel

The other day I was thinking about the quagmire that is the legacy of Higaonna Kanryo’s Karate and that of his best-known student, Miyagi Chojun, the founder of Goju-ryu. I remember that my teacher, Kanzaki sensei, and other authors had said that Kyoda was adamant that he was the only one to have learnt Sanseru kata from Higaonna and Miyagi Chojun had learned his version somewhere else (some people have said that it was on his trip to China). Looking at the two versions of Sanseru (Kyoda and Miyagi) it is possible that Higaonna changed it when he taught it to Kyoda and Miyagi to suit their respective physiques and preferences. This is possible as the enbusen is recognizable, yet the execution of technique is so different that they could thought of as different kata.  (I’m not going to talk about the Higa Seiko version as that is a separate blog post I’ll write someday).

That said, I do think Kyoda Juhatsu was not the overly jealous type from what I can piece together but he considered Miyagi a rival for their teacher’s attention. Kyoda lived a quiet and modest life and instructed a handful of students out of his home in Beppu, Oita-ken. Yet Kyoda was a human being (how often we Karateka forget this about our teacher(s)), and everyone has a pet peeve. So perhaps Kyoda’s was Sanseru kata. In general, I do not think Kyoda was envious of Miyagi Chojun, per se, but rather a brother and a rival. Remember, that Kyoda was Miyagi’s sempai, not the other way around. Oral history from Miyagi Chojun’s students says that Chojun was openly favoured by Higaonna, but we cannot verify this for sure. Again, all the testimony to this effect comes from modern Goju-ryu practitioners, but without a counter-narrative we should take these stories at face value. 

One problem with the argument that Miyagi was favored by Higaonna and learned all the kata is that the math just does not add up. Kyoda, by all accounts, was Miyagi’s senior (albeit by only a few months), loyal to his teacher (so much so that he named his style after him, “Tou’on-ryu”) and had more training time with Higaonna (Miyagi did compulsory military training in Kumamoto Prefecture for two years and Kyoda did not because school teachers were exempt). However, Miyagi was wealthy and did devote all his energies to studying under Higaonna.

Taking a closer look at both men’s training history, they entered Higaonna’s dojo sometime between 1902 and 1903. Higaonna’s dojo was reportedly closed by about 1910 according to Gima Shinkin. So, that leaves a total of 7 or 8 years of training for both. Miyagi Chojun is absent for two years because he is in Kumamoto-ken doing military training which reduces his training time to 5 or 6 years. Now the problem. In those 5 to 6 years of total training Miyagi Chojun learns: Sanchin, Saifa, Seiunchin, Sanseru (maybe?), Seipai, Sesan, Kururunfa and Suparempei. In contrast Kyoda Juhatsu, who is “sempai” to Miyagi, learns: San Chin, Sanseru, Sesan and Bechurin. This seems very odd to me. Complicating matters is the fact that other students learned even fewer kata. Yoshimura Chogi, who was Higaonna’s first known student learns: Sanchin, and Bechurin. Mabuni learns: Sanchin. Shiroma Shinpan learns: Sanchin. Toyama Kanken learns: Sanchin. Again, it is strange that such a diverse group of karateka who went on to found their own respective styles, learned only Sanchin kata and no other kata. Only Miyagi seems to have learned all of them. 

Personally, I think that Miyagi Chojun was an exceptional student but so were many of Higaonna’s other students.I do not know of any teachers on Okinawa at the turn of the 20th century deliberately withholding their teachings to a select few students, for example Itosu Anko. Higaonna’s teachings are very much in line with the trend of the time started by his contemporary Itosu Anko. That is a de-emphasis of fighting technique and an emphasis on moral and physical education within the school system. So, I find it odd that, unlike Itosu, Higaonna would have focused on only one student to teach his whole curriculum to. Then again, with failing health, maybe Higaonna thought it would be better to pass on everything he knew to one student. 

This is all speculation on my part and we will never know unless miraculously some documents from that era are discovered. That would be wonderful, but I am not counting on it.

Good training.

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