Goju Ryu History: the Story of Gogen Yamaguchi
Gogen Yamaguchi holding a katana

Gogen Yamaguchi:
The Man Behind Japanese Goju Ryu



   It's night. Your own network of ninja spies has informed you of an impending attack. You attempt to warn others, but they do not listen. They laugh at you. Still you prepare. Suddenly the enemy falls on you like rain in Scotland. Everyone is caught off guard...everyone...except you and your group of men. You find yourself singled out from your men, and up against many armed opponents. You pull out your pistols and empty them as the enemy closes in on you. The enemy falls in pain all around you. The blood pools at your feet. Yet they still come. But you are not without hope, you are "The Cat" a Goju Ryu Grandmaster. You are attacked by six armed men, you must fight for your life. Having no weapons but your bare hands and feet, you begin fighting your enemies, disarming them and killing them with your bare hands in close quarter combat. The fighting goes on for nearly an hour. Finally, they are defeated. You collapse to your knees bleeding, and panting from exhaustion. You are alive, and your enemies are no more.

   Sound like a movie? Well, according to Gogen Yamaguchi's autobiography, "Gogen "The Cat" Yamaguchi", it actually happened to him in the 1930‘s while he was stationed in China as an officer of the Japanese Government. Gogen Yamaguchi was short muscularly built and powerful martial artist. He was called “The Cat” for many reasons, however the actual reason is unknown. Some say that it was because he favored the Cat Stance, Neko Ashi Dachi. Some say that American Soldiers gave him the name because he walked so lightly in the dojo that no one could hear him coming. Others claim that he once defeated a tiger while caged with it. Whether legend or truth, Gogen Yamaguchi deserved the name. At one time the Chinese set a price of 500,000 yen on his head. However, no one was ever to collect it.

   Eventually the Russians intervened in China and Yamaguchi was taken prisoner. Sentenced to hard labor in a Russian POW camp, Yamaguchi did not despair. His Russian captors recognized him as the head of the Goju school in Japan and forced him to give lessons to Russian soldiers. Eventually he was released from the camp and returned to Japan to continue his work with the Goju School.

   The following is quote from an article in Black Belt Magazine.



"Yamaguchi was born in Kyushu, Miyazaki Ken, in 1907. The young man was fond of athletics while growing and it was here he first began to study karate. But it wasn't until the family moved to Kyoto while he was in his teens that he began the serious study of karate.
It was while attending Ritsumeikan University that Yamaguchi first heard of Goju karate and of Chojun Miyagi, the Okinawan who was head of the school.
Curious about the system, Yamaguchi wrote to Miyagi and invited him to come to Japan. Miyagi accepted and left shortly thereafter. The meeting of the two was to be a fateful one, not only for Goju but for all of karate as well.
Miyagi came from the city of Naha where the development of karate had taken a separate path. The other major schools of karate were centered mainly in Shiru in Okinawa. In Shiru, the emphasis had been more on the hard approach. But with Miyagi's Goju, the soft style was as important as the hard.

Hard-Soft Style
Indeed, the word Goju means hard-soft. Go is the Japanese word for hardness and ju means softness. The system is based on an Oriental concept that all hardness and stiffness is not good. At the same time, all softness and too much gentleness can be harmful. The two should complement each other.
This combination of the two gives Goju karate its beautiful, disciplined movements, filled with grace and flowing form. But lest anyone believe that Goju is merely a beautiful style of the dance with little of the art of defense, he need only watch two Goju practitioners square off in kumite against one another.
The action is fast, extremely fast. It relies on an aggressive style of attack, with the emphasis on delivering blows "hard" but with easy effort and in rapid succession. The opponents don't have much time to stand still and to look cautiously for openings. They are exchanging kicks and punches rapidly, always moving, not only forward and back, but maneuvering from side to side and aiming blows from the outside left or right.
Yamaguchi immediately fell in love with the strange and intricate patterns displayed by Miyagi. From that moment on, the future of Yamaguchi was sealed. He concentrated on the study of Goju to the exclusion of almost everything else. When Miyagi left to return to Okinawa, he left behind a well-trained and dedicated follower. Miyagi awarded Yamaguchi the highest rank in Goju and made him head of the school in Japan.

Devoted Apostle
Miyagi couldn't have made a better choice. Driving, relentless, Yamaguchi became the apostle of Goju in Japan. With single minded determination, he set about the task of spreading the word throughout Japan.
The first thing he did was to set about establishing dojo. He organized the first karate club at Ritsumeikan University and the first karate dojo in western Japan in 1930. Under his indefatigable leadership the school began to attract new adherents and the Goju karate system began to fan out across the island nation.
Early in the Japanese development, Yamaguchi made a fundamental change in the Goju school that was to alter radically the course of karate. After observing his students, he came to the conclusion that the strict Okinawan brand of karate, with its ancient Chinese origins, was too static and limited in style.

Free Sparring Developed
He believed that just the practice of kata (forms) and the prearranged steps in sparring called yajusoku kumite inhibited too many of the students. Under the movements of the Okinawan system, he noticed that many of the students could not create combinations of techniques readily enough or follow through with an advantage when an opening presented itself.
What Yamaguchi wanted to do was to open up movements to make for faster play and to allow greater freedom of movement. He wanted a system that could be tailored to individual needs yet still retain the basic fundamentals of the system. The idea he hit upon was kumite, or free-style sparring.
At first, the kumite was systematized along boxing lines. After that, it was a natural step to go from free-style sparring to tournament play. But in going from the dojo to the tournament hall, the system of kumite underwent further transformation. Yamaguchi called upon his knowledge of the other martial arts to set up a tournament style. This time he leaned heavily on the principles of kendo (sword play) in devising rules of shiai (competitive) jyu kumite for sport. Kendo was favored for two reasons: it emphasized form when delivering a strike and it limited the target area. Despite many differences with others over the areas to be left open for attack, Yamaguchi settled on the stomach and head as target areas.
As he explained in silencing his critics: "In kendo, a real blade can cut any part of the human body and cause damage or fatal injury. But for safety purposes, points are made for striking only the head and stomach." So too for karate, he said, the strike zone should be limited. And so were the types of blows that could be delivered. For shiai, the opponents are restricted mainly to kicking and punching. Elbowing, clawing, and other finger and open hand strikes were disallowed. However, for dojo free-style sparring, the play is wide open with no restrictions. For this reason, as has been often observed, the best player in the dojo may often not be the best tournament player, and vice versa.
With the freeing of karate from the strict adherence to kata and the addition of the competitive element, karate made tremendous strides in the next few years. But the war drums were beating during that time, and under the leadership of the war lords, Japan had embarked on an expansionist policy.
In 1939, Yamaguchi had to leave his school and was sent to Manchuria as an officer of the Japanese government. He remained there throughout the war. But while abroad, he took the opportunity to travel throughout China to study various Chinese martial arts.
Near the end of the war, the Russians intervened in Manchuria and Yamaguchi was taken prisoner. At the time, his wife, Midori, was expecting their third child almost any day. Taking her two other children with her, Mrs. Yamaguchi walked for miles to another village where she gave birth. For the next few months, the village was raided constantly by four different armies.
Though a calm, sensitive person, Mrs. Yamaguchi displayed during that period the quiet strength and strong will characteristic of her. There are those close to the Goju organization who say that if Yamaguchi hadn't had the strong-willed Midori at his side during all these years he wouldn't have been able to organize his system. Some of the old-time students feel greater affection for her than they do for the master. She encouraged them and kept up their spirits during the years of rigorous training.
Yamaguchi had been slated for hard labor in the Russian POW camp. But even his Russian captors were impressed by the man. When they found out who he was, they had him give karate lessons to the Russian troops. And so the captive became the master of the captors, who became his students.
When Yamaguchi was finally released in 1947, he came home to find the martial arts in disarray. The victorious Allied armies had outlawed the practice of the martial arts under the terms of their occupation. But karate was not affected by the ban. At that time, the art was not well known to Westerners and the army brass believed karate to be a form of Oriental dance.
Even so, Yamaguchi had his work cut out for him. He found his own school badly disorganized in his absence. He set to work with typical energy to rebuild. One thing that aided him was his dramatic appearance. He had taken to wearing his hair long, in the style of older Shinto priests and the samurais of old. As the ancient ways were being swept aside in the aftermath of war and the exposure to Western ideas, Yamaguchi reaffirmed his faith in the country's basic traditions by affecting the style of the ancient feudal lords.

Expansion of Arts
His striking appearance and his appeal to ancient pride struck a responsive note in the Japanese people. The years ahead were to witness a remarkable expansion in karate and all the arts as wen, and not only in Japan, but other nations, too.
It is somewhat ironic that, while Japan was unable to expand its ideas by force of arms during the war, its system of individual fighting was to sweep the rest of the world in peacetime. It's also interesting to note that the military occupation was also to prove advantageous from one point of view. There were many servicemen who found their way to his Goju-Kai dojo in Tokyo and studied the art there. When they left to return home, they took the art with them and aided the expansion abroad.
One of the first things that Yamaguchi did when he arrived back from Manchuria was to try to revive interest in the arts again. He decided to hold a big week-long exhibition in Tokyo featuring all the various Chinese arts he had discovered during his years there as well as the traditional Japanese arts. The festival proved to be a great success and helped reawaken interest. Meanwhile, Yamaguchi's students were flocking back to him.
Today, the Goju school flourishes in Japan. From his headquarters at the Goju-Kai, Yamaguchi oversees a vast network of dojo in schools, offices, factories and elsewhere across the country. And Yamaguchi keeps tight control over the organization.
The result is a highly organized school with strong financial resources for running and expanding the system. To his instructors and top students, Yamaguchi can hold out the prospect of their opening their own dojo. He can supply them with the monetary backing they need to tide them over while becoming established. In return, they owe their allegiance to the Cat and his school. Partly through financial help and partly through force of personality,
Yamaguchi has been successful in tying his dojo heads to him instead of seeing them spin off to open up systems on their own.
To keep the system going, there has to be a steady stream of funds moving upward through the organization to be dispersed at the top for promoting the system. Times have changed since the old days when a master instructed a few pupils who came to his home to study. Yamaguchi now has almost 2,000 students at his Goju-Kai dojo alone. It takes organization and financial liquidity to run a large and successful martial arts institution today.
Funds are received in two ways- through the initiation fee each student pays when he enrolls at a dojo affiliated with the Goju system and through the purchase of certificates and diplomas of ranking. Part of the funds go to the local dojo and part is passed along to the central organization. At the top, Yamaguchi uses the funds to open new dojo, pay the expenses and salaries of his instructors and to meet organizational expenses.
The goju brand of karate is as complex as the baffling figure who heads the system. Its style is a hybrid of Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese influences. In addition, Goju karate has been influenced by a number of the other martial arts.
Many of the school's movements are very soft, as in Chinese kenpo. The Okinawan brand of karate was originally imported from China more than 400 years ago, but had developed into a hard style during its years on the island. Goju doctrine holds that certain breathing exercises can harden a man to the point where he can absorb a kick or a punch without feeling pain. Goju men will sometimes test themselves by raining blows on each other during the breathing kata. Their concentration is so. intense that they continue the exercises, seemingly impervious to the blows.
Miyagi reinstituted the Chinese influence after he made a trip to the mainland to study the different Chinese arts. Originally, Miyagi had been a student of the Shorin school, a hard style.
The story is told that while visiting a temple, he 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. With that as the beginning, 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.
Many goju techniques today actually look like the flapping of a bird's wings. Many blocks and strikes are in the form of slaps, though the slaps usually feel a lot more bear-like when one is on the receiving end. Though graceful and bird-like in appearance, they are delivered with a powerful snap.
In actual practice, the goju man uses what he terms the "five power rule" in countering a hard blow with a soft technique. The five-power rule is used for grading the intensity with which a blow is delivered. A lightly delivered blow would be using only one-power or two-power strength. An extremely heavy blow would be five-power.
In countering a full-force blow, a goju man would never meet the force of the blow head on with an equally hard block. Instead, he would wait toward the end of the strike and parry with a three-power block. By using only moderate power to block, the goju man would conserve strength. By waiting, the opponent is allowed to commit himself to following through on his strike. If the opponent is countered too soon, it gives him a chance to recover and to apply another technique.
Of course, this waiting until toward the -end of the opponent's blows requires developing a good sense of timing and split instant reactions to be able to get the counter blow off quickly and accurately. Hence, the great emphasis on speed in this school.
Blows are delivered swiftly and in rapid succession. Yamaguchi, for instance, can deliver three or four kicks to the chest, neck, and side of the face in the same lunge. His hand strikes are delivered with blinding speed. One of his tricks is to hang a piece of cardboard by two slender threads and then withdraw his hand into the sleeve of his gi. His hand can shoot out and Pierce the cardboard with three finger holes and then be withdrawn into the sleeve with an observer barely able to notice the flicking movement. At the same time, the cardboard hasn't moved, though it bears the telltale three punctures.
The overall movements of the entire system are based on speed. There is a great deal of moving in and out quickly and weaving from side to side, in contrast to the hard schools which concentrate more on straightforward movements. Naturally, all this fast motion lends itself to graceful and artistic techniques. A basic stance, called the cat stance, is a very soft one with one foot poised on tiptoe, ready to move quickly in any direction. This is in direct contrast to the solid, flat-footed stance so often employed in the hard styles.
Another facet of Goju is the extreme closeness with which the blows are delivered in kumite. The school emphasizes control of motions and a student is supposed to be able to stop a punch or kick only fractions of an inch from target.
Yamaguchi himself knows hundreds of techniques. But his favorite techniques are concerned with kicking and elbow strikes. He has huge elbows and delivers the elbow blows with great force. As for kicks, he likes specially a front kick and roundhouse kick in combination.
But even with all this emphasis on speed, the study of the traditional kata is still underscored. Goju, with its love of graceful and delicate movements could be expected to venerate the historical kata. Many Goju men feel that the kata is usually more dynamic and far more beautiful than kumite, not to mention considerably more varied.
There is another form of kata for which the school is famous and without which no explanation of the Goju style would be complete. That is the school's breathing kata. No one who has ever witnessed a Goju man practicing his breathing kata under a full head of steam will ever forget the experience. It is an awesome and, to those of a more timid turn, sometimes frightening experience. A good Goju man can be heard half a block away and more while engaged in breathing exercises.
There are two types of breathing practiced, the in-ibuki and the yo-ibuki. The in-ibuki is the soft but firm type of breathing which starts from deep within the abdomen. This is similar to the type of breathing which is practiced in Yoga and Zen meditation, and is usually directed towards spiritual and meditative matters when practiced. Goju adherents never tire of repeating that this is the normal way a baby breathes. It is only when we get older that we learn to breathe from our chest.
The yo-ibuki is the hard style of breathing. The sound effects are menacing. The breathing is loud and heavy and comes from deep within, producing something of the sound of a full-throated lion about to strike. The inhaling is done in quick intakes through the nose while the exhaling is a prolonged process of short breaths through the mouth. In exhaling the whole body is tensed, including the throat and esophagus. This tightens the air passage and the air is forced from the abdomen. This whole process is said to be combative or animal-like breathing.
The tensing that is carried out during the breathing exercises is similar to that carried on in dynamic tension and isometric exercises. Tensing is believed to build up physical strength. And that goes internally, too, where the breathing is said to strengthen the heart and other vital organs.
The student is taught never to exhale all his breath at once but to ration it out in short breaths. One reason is to always save a little breath so that an opponent cannot strike when one is out of breath and at one's weakest just before inhaling. The idea is always to save a little breath to counter.
A good Goju man who is really warmed up will stride across the floor rippling every muscle from head to foot while engaged in powerful animal-like breathing. The effect can be quite spectacular.
But there is another side to the breathing exercises, the side concerned with the mental and spiritual aspects of karate. By its very nature, this is the side most difficult to grasp for many persons, especially Westerners. The most advanced type of breathing exercise is that in which all of one's strength is concentrated on a specific feeling or thought. It is through concentration and meditation that man learns to improve himself.
The martial- arts are an excellent example of the Oriental approach to life. In the Western world, great emphasis is placed on team sports. But the Oriental thinks of life as an individual and personal thing and trains by himself in his sports. The arts also stress discipline-not only physical control of the body but control of the mind as well. The idea is to try to conquer one's own laziness and shortcomings through mental training and discipline.
Whereas in the West we are taught that the needs of the body are important and not be neglected, the opposite is true in much of Oriental philosophy. Shintoism and Buddhism deny people's nature. A person is taught to endure hardness and to shun bodily pleasure. As a result, many serious students of karate in Japan go into periods of hard training without eating anything to test their endurance and patience.
Finally, most Orientals tend to be pessimists. They tend to deny their service as human beings. Religion teaches them that this life is just borrowed and the really pure and happy life comes after death. As a result, the Oriental tends to live not for himself but is taught to be self-sacrificing.
As this is translated in the martial arts, it requires much self-sacrificing effort and disciplining. For instance, in Yamaguchi's place, he goes out into the mountains once a month to toughen himself up spiritually and physically. He engages in sanchin (breathing) exercises for several hours under an icy waterfall to try to make his mind and spirit impenetrable to adverse physical conditions.
During the coldest part of the winter, Yamaguchi sets off for two weeks of grueling exercises in snow clad mountains. Last winter, the outdoor excursion was held on the slopes of Mt. Nagano Ontake. Each day started off with Yamaguchi and his followers pouring ice water over themselves.
After that bracing morning eye opener, they ran around for a while before doing calisthenics and sanchin exercises under a stream of water that poured down on them. At the end of the training session, Yamaguchi, still fresh and bursting with vitality, led his charges on a barefoot run up the hill to the Ontake Shrine for a little Zazen meditation. When away from such a stimulating environment, Yamaguchi still keeps a rigid schedule at home. He rises early and manages to get in an hour or more of meditation and more than an hour of kata practice by himself every morning. After breakfast and catching up on his correspondence and other business details, he puts in a full day teaching and working at the dojo. He can be found there most days from noon until 10 p.m.
Though he's 59 years old now, Yamaguchi shows no signs of slowing down. Just the opposite. He has big plans afoot which require his energies. He has one big dream and that is to start a four-year martial arts college in Japan. He has started construction on the first building already.
After the first two years, the student would receive his black belt. In the third and fourth year the student would train to be an instructor. Other subjects studied would be weaponry, chiropody (Yamaguchi is a bone specialist), religion and Japanese art.,
Fully realizing the spread of karate outside Japan, he has reached out to try to expand his school in the United States. Since the Shotokan school got the jump on Yamaguchi and has been strongly established in the Los Angeles area for years, he has made his principal U.S. headquarters at the Goju-Kai Karatedo in San Francisco.
The San Francisco school is under the direction of Yamaguchi's son, Gosei. Gosei is a black belt, of course, like his two brothers and two sisters. All five children began instruction at an early age. But though Gosei studied karate practically every day of his life from age five onwards, his father did not give him a black belt until he was 20 years old.
"Remember," he admonished his son, "we are always students of karate. We can never be complete masters." He drove his sons relentlessly in their study of the art to try to make them as expert as possible.
The result is as might be predicted. Though he made them highly proficient, even brilliant, practitioners of the art, their main interest has not been in the field of karate, at least in the case of the two oldest sons.
Originally, Gosen Yamaguchi was sent to the United States to establish the school here. But after two years, he quit and went to work for Japan Airlines. Gosei Yamaguchi, who took over, is more interested in literature and acting, and is taking his master's degree in English literature at San Francisco State College. The third son, Goshi, is the strongest and best karate fighter of the three, but he has artistic and photographic interests and it remains to be seen in which field his interests will lay.
Though hard with his sons, Yamaguchi has been softer with the girls, which seems particularly fitting in view of his overall philosophy of hardness and softness.
Whether go or ju in his outlook, one thing can be expected of the cat man of karate. He will always be on the move, looking for new and varied ways to expand his beloved Goju system."

By Sonny Palabrica Black Belt, March-April, 1966



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