The man known as Gogen Yamaguchi (one of ten children) was born on January 20, 1909 in the city of Kagoshima, which is located on the southern end of Kyushu Japan. He was named Yoshimi Yamaguchi by his father, Tokutaro, who was a merchant, a school teacher and superintendent. His mother, Yoshimatsu, was Tokutaro's assistant. As a boy Yamaguchi trained in the art of Jigen-ryu Kenjutsu (kendo). As a young teen, when his family moved to Kyoto, Yamaguchi began studying Goju-ryu in the Maruta Dojo in Miyazai, Kyushu under Takeo Maruta, a carpenter by trade. Kendo training and his studies with Maruta gave Yamaguchi strong roots in the martial arts.
Later in life he picked up the nickname "The Cat". There are several theories on where the name came from. One is due to his long flowing hair resembling a lion's mane. Then there are those who say it is due to his preference for the cat stance in Goju along with his cat-like gaze he would often lock his opponents with. Another theory attributes the name to his post-war years teaching Allied troops karate in Japan. He would constantly walk up behind students soundlessly and displayed the grace and lithe movements of a cat when practicing Goju-ryu. Others say the name came from his legendary battle with a tiger. No one knows for sure, it could be any one of these; all of them combined or it could be none. Yamaguchi simply was "The Cat".
In 1929 Yamaguchi entered Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and majored in Law. In 1930 he started the first karate club on the Ritsumeikan campus. It was not long before the hard training and distinctive breathing exercises (ibuki) made the club well know throughout the city. It was during this time that Yamaguchi began work on jiyu kumite, which translates as free fighting or sparring. Masters and teachers of this time stressed kata and were not very big on free sparring as techniques were done full force without control. The system Yamaguchi developed was based on the sparring system of kendo where points are scored for striking specific targets, and eventually would become the basis for modern day tournament fighting.
In 1931 Yamaguchi, age 22, was introduced to Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju. Up to this point in his training Yamaguchi had focused on the "hard" aspect of Goju. Yamaguchi was so well trained in the hard side of Goju that Miyagi gave him the name "Gogen" meaning "rough". After meeting Miyagi he became aware of his need to train his "soft" spiritual side as well. This is also when Yamaguchi was appointed as Miyagi's successor for Goju in Japan. According to Yamaguchi, Miyagi said, "Mister Yamaguchi, you are well qualified to be the successor of Goju school karate. I have nothing more to teach you." During a prior visit to China, Miyagi had taken what he learned there and modified some of Goju. Yamaguchi did not agree with these changes, believing the old ways were the best. When Miyagi left Japan to go back to Okinawa Yamaguchi began to do his own thing. This was the start of Goju-kai.
Many Goju practitioners in Okinawa are quite irritated by the statement that Yamaguchi is Miyagi's successor. Miyagi spent most of his time teaching in Okinawa and was only in Japan for periods of two to three months at a time. Some doubt if Yamaguchi ever learned all of the Goju system from Miyagi, he may have actually completed the Goju kata at a later date with the help of some senior students of Miyagi. This does not change the fact that Yamaguchi has done more for Goju and karate than any handful of his dissenters combined. For example, he added Taikyoku kata to the Goju system, which are used as training methods for beginners to help prepare for the more advanced kata of the system. Yamaguchi designed and sketched the now famous Goju-ryu fist insignia, modeled after the right fist of Chojun Miyagi.
In 1934 Yamaguchi graduated from Ritsumeikan University, and also completed his development of rules for free fighting. That next year in 1935 he started the All Japan Goju-kai Karate-do Association (in 1955 it became the International Karate-do Goju-kai Association - IKGA), which has increased popularity of Goju in approximately 35 countries throughout the world. This was also the year Yamaguchi began traveling as an intelligence officer for the Japanese Government.
Not too long after Miyagi's first visit, Yamaguchi made his first trek up to Mount Kuruma for austere training. He acquainted himself with a group of Shinto priests, who were involved in spiritual training of their own. As the great masters always do, Yamaguchi learned from the priests and began the harmonization of his Goju training with nature. Some of Yamaguchi's training on Mount Kuruma involved fasting, meditation as well as sanchin stance training under a waterfall in an attempt to unify his body and mind. During this time his strength and mental abilities increased noticeably. Yamaguchi attributed this training to his ability to, "…move without thinking in a natural and mysterious way while practicing."
Back in 1931 Japanese forces, under the guidance and leadership of General Kanji Ishihara seized control of Manchuria. In 1938 General Ishihara asked his friend Gogen Yamaguchi to take a Governmental post in Manchuria, which had been renamed the Republic of Manchu-kuo. During his tour of duty in Manchuria, from 1938-1945, Yamaguchi continued his Goju training. This was fortunate as he had numerous opportunities to apply his training to real life situations. There were two times while in Manchuria, Yamaguchi said he had to exert himself to the fullest of his abilities.
One of those occasions was in 1945 during the Japanese-Russian war. Yamaguchi had received reports that his post was to be attacked by Communist bandits. When the attack began Yamaguchi and some of his men were inside a building making ready to defend themselves. Yamaguchi decided to defend the lower level alone and ordered everyone else upstairs. After he emptied two revolvers into the two dozen or so attackers bearing down on his position, they broke down the door and hand to hand combat ensued. This was actually to Yamaguchi's advantage as the quarters were close and only 5 or 6 men could fit in the room with him. They also had to worry about injuring each other, being alone Yamaguchi had no such restraints. After a time the attackers sounded retreat and withdrew from the town. Gogen Yamaguchi, in hand to hand combat, had fought for his life for 40 minutes straight and only suffered a cut on his left arm, inflicted by a dagger. This event is a true testament to Yamaguchi's quality of training as well as his devotion to that training.
There is another tale of Gogen Yamaguchi's skill from around this timeframe. The story has it that the Russians captured Yamaguchi. Having tried and failed at breaking Yamaguchi by all the normal methods, someone came up with a novel way to just get rid of him. His captors got a tiger and made sure it was hungry. That is when they threw Yamaguchi into the cage with the tiger. The show they got was not one they expected. Instead of being torn apart Yamaguchi kicked the tiger in the nose and smacked it in the head with an elbow. He then leapt on the big cat's back, applied a strangle hold and choked it to death.
There is much debate as to the truth of this story, but at the end of the Japanese-Russian war the Russians took thousands of Japanese in Manchuria prisoner. Yamaguchi was indeed one of those prisoners. He was held for a few months in a POW camp before being sent to a labor camp in Mongolia. The deplorable conditions in Russian labor camps have been well documented, and what Yamaguchi told of his time there confirms this information. The terrible rations, reduction of rations for work not done, interminable roll calls, death by exposure (Prayer at Dawn) and so on. Even through all of this Yamaguchi continued his training and there is a story that says when the Russians found out who he was they had him teach them karate.
In 1947 after two years as a Russian prisoner Yamaguchi returned to Japan. Upon his return Yamaguchi was shocked and heart broken by the condition of Japan after World War II. Not only the physical destruction but what he perceived as the spiritual decline as well. During the war many Goju schools had closed, there were a few that had remained open with no real leadership to guide them.
On the verge of suicide due to the state of his country and his art form, Yamaguchi experienced a revelation and discovered his purpose in life. He was to teach and spread the martial arts to the youth of his nation. He turned his attentions once more towards nature and religion. To aid in his goal of spreading martial arts Yamaguchi held a week long exhibition in Tokyo. This exhibition showcased the various traditional Japanese arts as well as various Chinese arts he learned while in China. Slowly, Yamaguchi began reconsolidating the Goju schools that had remained open through the war, while constantly opening new ones.
Yamaguchi was focused on the spread of martial arts and the betterment of himself physically, mentally and spiritually. He sought out Reverend Tadaki Yoshimura, Chief Reverend of Shin-shu Shinto, and eventually became a Shinto master as well. Yamaguchi also learned yoga from Tengai Noda, Japan's leading expert and yoga master at the time. Eventually Yamaguchi would meld these together with his Goju to form his personal system of Goju Shinto.
In 1963 there were two non-Asians training under Yamaguchi in Tokyo. One was Merv Oakley an Australian skilled in the art of Jujutsu. The other was Lou Angel an American who held a 2nd Dan in Goju as he had learned it from Peter Urban, another of Yamaguchi's students. Oakley earned his Shodan (1st black belt) in Goju at this time and when he went home he opened the very first Goju dojo in Australia. In 1970 Yamaguchi, at the invitation of Oakley, visited Australia and thus became the first Grandmaster to ever visit that country. At the tournament held in his honor, Yamaguchi amazed the crowd with his demonstration of the Goju Suparunpei kata.
The face of Goju ryu and martial arts in general would be amazingly different if not for the influence of Gogen Yamaguchi. Primarily due to his efforts Goju-ryu was formally registered and recognized by the Butoku-kai, the governing body for Japanese martial arts. This is the same organization that awarded Yamaguchi the title of Renshi (senior expert/5th dan) in 1940. In 1950 he founded the Zen Nippon (All Japan) Karate-do Goju-kai, a national organization in Japan. In 1951 Yamaguchi took enough time for himself to get his Judan (10th black belt) from Chojun Miyagi. All the karate dojos in Japan were united in 1964 under the Federation of All Japan Karate-do Organization (FAJKO), which is today known as the Japan Karate Federation (JKF). While accomplishing all of this Yamaguchi was appointed as Shihan (master) of the karate division of the Kokusai Budo Renmei, the International Martial Arts Federation in Japan. This appointment came from the federation chairman, Prince Higashikuni of the Japanese Imperial Family. Another noteworthy Imperial contact occurred in 1968 when Emperor Hirohito presented Yamaguchi with the Ranju-Hosho (Blue Ribbon Medal) for his contribution to the martial arts.
Even in his late 60's Yamaguchi showed no signs of slowing in his mission to spread the martial arts. He founded and opened the Japan Karate-do College in Suginami, a suburb of Tokyo, Japan. This school served as Yamaguchi's home as well as the Goju-kai headquarters. In order to give students of the college a well rounded martial arts education the ground floor dojo level of the building taught classes in Goju and other styles. The second floor was a yoga-shinto center for the education and practice of those two arts. The top floor served as a dormitory with accommodations for about 12 students.
Yamaguchi accomplished much in his life; he was a lawyer, a military officer, a Shinto priest, martial arts master, husband and father. He breathed life back into the dying art of Goju after WW II, and introduced it to the world. Together he and his wife Midori Yamaguchi raised five children, three sons and two daughters; Norimi Gosei Yamaguchi, Kishio Gosen Yamaguchi, Hirofumi Goshi Yamaguchi, Wakako Gogyoku Yamaguchi and Makiko Yamaguchi. Gogen "The Cat" Yamaguchi passed away on May 20, 1989 having been one of the 20th century's most influential people in the martial arts.