There have been numerous articles about Goju Kai founder Yamaguchi Gogen over the decades, but very little about his relationship with Miyagi Chojun. Like most Karate-do history, what was written about Yamaguchi’s life and his Goju Kai was self-serving, but in recent years more information has come out to draw a better picture of the two men and their relationship. According to Yamaguchi’s own recollections, he started learning karate from an Okinawan man named Maruta Takeo who worked as a carpenter in his neighborhood while growing up in Kagoshima. What he learned from this Okinawan gentleman is unclear as Yamaguchi gives virtually no information about this early experience. It was only until he started attending Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto that he began studying what ultimately became Goju-ryu. He even founded the first karate club at Ritsumeikan. Although Yamaguchi was practicing Goju-ryu, he probably didn’t have much direct contact with Miyagi Chojun as he traveled infrequently to Kyoto. It’s therefore unlikely that Yamaguchi would have received in-depth instruction but rather his training probably focused on fundamental technique and basic kata Sanchin or perhaps Seiunchin.
Although Yamaguchi received the lion’s share of the limelight in Goju Kai circles, much of the credit to the success of Goju-ryu at Ritsumeikan University and in the Kyoto area belongs to So Neichu (I promise to write about him more later on, but in the meantime, you can read this very good blog post ). So was Korean and was active in promoting Goju-ryu at Kyoto University and later transferred to Ritsumeikan University, where he continued teaching and training. Unfortunately, So’s contributions are almost unknown due to the prevailing political climate and discrimination against Koreans and Chinese that was so prevalent in Japan at this time.
Be that as it may, I believe Yamaguchi met and trained with Miyagi on a very limited number of occasions. That coupled with the fact that Yamaguchi was sent to Manchuria for military service in 1939 and didn’t return to Japan until his repatriation in 1949 would have basically removed him from any form of serious training in Goju-ryu. We also know (according to Higoanna Morio’s “History of Goju-ryu”) that Miyagi stopped coming to mainland Japan around 1940 after an incident concerning promotions; interestingly enough while he was in Kyoto. Yamaguchi Gogen kept close ties with Meibukan founder Yagi Meitoku and was known to seek him out for instruction. This has been presented in several English language magazine articles as well as in some of the Japanese language publications (complete with photos). It should also be noted that in the autobiography of Yagi Meitoku (which has the regrettable title of ‘The Life Drama of the Man Meitoku’), he mentions visiting Yamaguchi Gogen while working for the customs bureau. On that visit, he was asked by Yamaguchi for a letter of recommendation by Miyagi for promotion to Hanshi by the Butokukai. Given that Miyagi was adamantly against the notion of giving outrank, he flatly refused the request. Below is a translation of what Yagi wrote in his autobiography (Translated from, “The Life Drama of the Man, Meitoku” pg. 165‐166).
I was scheduled for a two‐month training trip for the customs office and would be away from Okinawa. When I went to tell Miyagi sensei about this he told me, “Yamaguchi Gogen is leading Goju‐ryu in mainland Japan and lives in Asakusa, so go and see him. Ask him to introduce you to his senior students. I want you to cooperate with Yamaguchi to develop Goju‐ryu.” Miyagi sensei also gave me a very thick envelope to give to Yamaguchi.
When I went to see Yamaguchi in Asakusa, he wore a red belt and looked a bit sinister as his long hair was pulled back like Yui Shosetsu. I met him often when I was in Tokyo and taught kata to him. There were others on the mainland who wore a red belt then such as Chitose Tsuyoshi and Toyama Kanken. One day, Yamaguchi assembled his senior students and introduced me. They were Okamura from Kyoto, Kizaki from Osaka, and others; about five in all. They seemed to be struggling about how to develop Japanese Goju‐ryu karate ‐ much of what they were doing was through trial and error. By the way, Oyama Masatatsu was a student of So Neichu, while the kickboxer Sawamura was a nidan in Goju‐ryu and a student of Yamaguchi Gogen. When my customs training was over and I was getting ready to return to Okinawa, Yamaguchi said to me, “We need titles such as Hanshi and Kyoshi as well as the dan ranking system like they use in Judo and Kendo so that we can develop Goju‐ryu in Tokyo. Could you please ask Miyagi sensei to promote me to Hanshi?”
Miyagi sensei had received the first Karatedo Kyoshi rank from the Butokukai and became an officer in charge of administering Karate examinations in 1935. This happened when karate fell under the umbrella of the Judo division and became known as Karatedo. After the war, Miyagi sensei remained at the rank of Kyoshi and thought it would be strange for a Kyoshi to promote someone to Hanshi. Nothing more came of it.