Chojun Miyagi was born on April 25, 1888 in the city of Naha, Okinawa to an aristocratic family. He began his martial arts training at the age of 12 with Aragaki Ryuko Sensei. Aragaki Ryuko’s approach was only to teach the fighting itself and not too much emphasis was placed on the martial art.
After seeing the dedication of Chojun Miyagi, Aragaki Ryuko decided to introduce him to Kanryo Higaonna. In 1902, at the age of 14, Chojun Miyagi Sensei commenced training with Kanryo Higaonna Sensei. It was severe, with lots of running and strength exercises. It is said that Higaonna Sensei was so demanding of his student’s performance that Chojun Miyagi sometimes passed out performing Sanchin kata. At the age of 20 Chojun Miyagi became Higaonna’s top student.
At the age of 22 he travelled to the main island of Kyushu for his military service. After 2 years of service he returned to Okinawa. For the next 3 years Kanryo Higaonna taught him privately until Higaonna died in 1915.
With his death Chojun Miyagi decided to follow the steps of his Sensei and travel to Fuchow, China, where Higaonna had learned the martial arts. On his first trip in 1915 he went to Fuchow and visited the grave of Ryu Ryu Ko Sensei as well as the temple where he trained. He also trained for two months with a student of Ryu Ryu Ko Sensei.
A story is told that while visiting a temple in China, Chojun Miyagi noticed a crane sitting on a roof, which was made of tile. As he approached the huge bird, the crane became alarmed and flew away. As it was flying away, the frightened crane flapped its wings against the tile roof, breaking some of the tiles in the process. Miyagi was amazed that the soft feathers of the crane were able to break something as hard as tiles. Inspired by this, he devised a whole new approach to Karate, mixing in with the hard techniques many soft ones to be used in countering hard blows and kicks.
On his return from China, Miyagi began to take on students. He introduced a kata called Saifa (literally: “smash and tear”) which has arm and leg movements similar to White Crane that he learned from his friend Gokenki (who was a ‘White Crane’ stylist). He also practiced and researched a White Crane kata called Rokkishu (which he also may have learned from Gokenki) eventually adapting its arm movements to form a kata he called Tensho (literally: “revolving palms”) which utilized the same steps as Sanchin kata.
In 1921 he was chosen to represent Naha-Te in a presentation to the visiting crown prince Hirohito. He repeated this in 1925 for prince Chichibu.
In the 1920’s Chojun Miyagi developed the characteristic Goju Ryu warming up exercises or Junbi Undo with the help of a friend of his, who was a doctor. This series of exercises were based on not only martial arts fundamentals but also on medical research. It was also around this time that Chojun Miyagi began to teach in a high school in Okinawa.
In 1926 he set up the Karate Research Club along with Chomo Hanashiro (Shuri-Te), Kenwa Mabuni (Shito Ryu) and Motobu Choko, spending the next three years training in basics, kata, fitness and philosophy. Unfortunately the club disbanded in 1929.
In 1929 he was invited to Japan by Gogen Yamaguchi, who would promote the Goju style in Japan.
Jigoro Kano (founder of Judo) began visiting Okinawa in 1927, and was so impressed with Sensei Miyagi, he invited him to Japan in 1930 and 1932 to demonstrate at several tournaments.
It was at one of these tournaments that one of his senior students, Jin’an Shinzato was asked which school of Karate he belonged to. Unable to answer as styles were only known by their geographical reference at that time, he approached Sensei Miyagi, who agreed that a name should be chosen for their unique style.
There is a Chinese text called the Bubishi, a very popular historical reference among karateka of the day, and in it are the Eight Poems of the Fists.
The 3rd precept reads:
Go means hard and Ju means soft. Since his style was a combination of these ideals, he began referring to his art as Goju Ryu, and in 1933 it was officially registered as such at the Butoku-Kai, the Japanese Martial Arts Association. In the same year, he presented his article “An Outline of Karate-Do”.
In 1934 Miyagi Sensei was appointed as head of the Okinawan branch of the Butoku-Kai Association and traveled to Hawaii later the same year to introduce Karate there. Upon his return to Naha, he was awarded a commendation from the Ministry of Education for outstanding service in the field of physical culture. In 1936, he returned to China for more study, this time in Shanghai.
He returned in 1937 and was awarded the Japanese equivalent to the commendation he had received at home.
In 1940, Chojun Miyagi developed a Kata which was initially called Fukyugata-ni and was intended to supplement Itosu’s Fukyugata. At this time Japan was entrenched in a war with China and on the brink of entering World War II. Schools, military and police authorities were already using Itosu’s kata as Itosu had intended way back at the beginning of the century and were now looking at an additional kata. Their requirements were for a simple but aggressive kata to bolster the spirit and fighting ability of the younger generation. Miyagi responded with a kata that accomplished this even to the extent that for the first time in a kata the finishing move was a step forward. Miyagi felt that this would portray a boldness that was required in the difficult times ahead. Later he renamed the kata Gekisai (literally: to “break and smash”) and later still developed a second variation – renaming the kata(s) Gekisai daiichi and Gekisai dai ni (“Gekisai number one and two”) using them to teach beginners.
The Second World War cost Miyagi dearly. Along with all of his books, manuscripts and other martial arts relics lost in bombing raids during the battle of Okinawa, he had lost three of his children and many of his students. His best student and his likely successor Jin’an Shinzato was killed when his unit, fighting in the defence of Okinawa, was hit by cluster bombs dropped by an American fighter-plane. Despite all of this, Miyagi resumed teaching after the War.
He passed away on October 8, 1953 at the age of 65.