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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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