Kanryo Higaonna Sensei (1853 - 1915)

Kanryo Higaonna Sensei (Born April, 1853 - Died Oct, 1915)was born in Naha, Nishi-mura (literally West-Village) ,into a Chikudun Pēchin (lower Shizoku) family. As with the common practice of the day, his family retained their Chinese names as well as their Japanese names. The Higaonna family’s Chinese surname was Shèn (慎) ,Kanryo Higaonna Sensei  was the fourth son of Kanyo Higaonna, and his Chinese name was Shen Shan Xi  (慎善熙), alias Kan-Ryo (寬量), and he was the 11th generation descendant of his family after they were ennobled.

Kanryo Higaonna Sensei was a leading authority of Okinawan karate and the foremost master of Naha-te during the Meiji Era. In his life-time he brought about the revival of interest in the Naha-te system in Okinawa, and by doing so he preserved Naha-te as a major element in Okinawan karate through the ages.

Kanryo Higaonna Sensei’s father was a merchant operating from the Nishimura area. He would ferry his goods between Nishimura and the Northern ports of Okinawa and its outlying islands,having sold his merchandise he would return with a cargo of firewood (in those days a main source of fuel for heating) from these northern ports and sell them in the Naha area. Kanryo Sensei’s eldest brother was physically weak and his second and third elder brothers died young, which left him, the fourth son, the responsibility of helping his father on the sailing boats his father owned. He began to assist his father when he was about 10 years old. It is rumoured that around 1867 Kanryo Sensei began 3 years of training under Aragaki Seisho, however, in the oral tradition passed on by Chojun Miyagi Sensei to Anichi Miyagi Sensei, there was never mention of this element of his lineage. Aragaki Seisho was a contemporary of Kanryo Sensei who out-lived Kanryo Sensei by 3 years, yet in all the 13 years when Kanryo Sensei was teaching his student Chojun Miyagi, he never mentioned that he trained with Aragaki Seisho or the Kojo family. Chojun Sensei being a person of influence in Naha society, would have had plenty of opportunity to meet various leading martial artists of the day including the Kojo and Aragaki Seisho, but it never was mentioned by Chojun Sensei to his students that the Goju-Ryu lineage involved anyone else but Ryu Ryuko and Kanryo Higaonna Sensei. In any case Aragaki Seisho acted as the Chinese language interpreter for the Ryukyuan envoy (Mao Wen Cai毛文彩) in Beijing in Sep 1866 (Qing Court Records) and probably did not return for some time. (Qing Court records indicate that the mission was on-going several years later, and had become a lobbying mission after 1877 with the annexation of the Ryukyus by Japan.)

In 1867,Kanryo Sensei’s father, Kanyo Higaonna was killed in a altercation,which greatly affected the young Kanryo Sensei and left him determined to learn the fighting arts. He had longed to travel to China to learn Quanfa (Chinese Boxing), however he lacked the means to do so. In those days, Okinawans travelling to China had to produce the necessary travel permits prior to embarkation as well as upon arrival in China. Between 1867~1868, Kanryo Sensei received assistance from his late father’s acquaintance, Yoshimura Udun Chomei (義村朝明),who was a nobleman of the “Udun” title (Aji Class aristocracy descended from the Royal House) . As the leader of the pro-China political faction in the Ryukyu Kingdom, Yoshimura Chomei had considerable influence and he obtained a travel permit from the Japanese authorities for Kanryo Sensei under the pre-text of sending Kanryo Sensei to China as an official interpreter with the Qing Dynasty government of China (Even though Kanryo Sensei was barely an adult and not literate at that time). With this permit Kanryo Higaonna Sensei was finally able to embark on his journey to China. Yoshimura Udun also granted Kanryo Higaonna Sensei free passage on his ship going to the port city of Fuzhou in China. (YOSHIMURA UDUN CHOMEI SHO SHIREI 義村御殿朝明 向志禮 Born 1830 in Okinawa- Died in 1898 in Fuzhou.) In Fuzhou, Kanryo Sensei stayed at the Ryukyukan (This institution was the Ryukyu Embassy Building in Fuzhou built for officials of the Ryukyu Kingdom on diplomatic missions. It’s official name under the Ming Dynasty was Rouyuanyi – 柔远驿, but it was commonly known as the Ryukyukan).

Legend says that with an introductory letter from Aragaki Seisho, Kanryo Higaonna Sensei was accepted into the Kojo family dojo in Fuzhou. However, the evidence for this is scant and more importantly, none of Kanryo Higaonna Sensei’s students have ever mentioned this aspect of their lineage in a day and age when a school’s lineage was taken more seriously than it is regarded today.  However, with the backing of Yoshimura Chomei, Kanryo Sensei was bound to have been well connected amongst the Ryukyu community in Fuzhou, and it is possible that he had visited the Kojo family in Fuzhou, but never formally trained there. (Around 1870 and 1879 Kojo Tatei and Kojo Isii seemed to have indeed been based in Fuzhou rather than Okinawa as they were known to have been closely linked to the diplomatic missions of Kuchi Uekata Kuzu in Fuzhou between 1877 and 1879 and the mission to lobby the Qing government to act against Japan on behalf  of the Ryukyu Kingdom). What is certain though, is that Kanryo Sensei, through the introductions of the manager of the Ryukyukan, began to train under a Fuzhou martial-art master named Ryu RyuKo (ルールーコウ. Other Okinawans who trained under Ryu Ryuko insist that his surname was Liu, written as 劉). In the oral tradition Kanryo Sensei passed on to his students, he had only ever trained under one teacher, and this was Ryu Ryuko Sensei.

While training under Ryu Ryu Ko in the evenings, Kanryo Sensei worked as an apprentice craftsman to Ryu Ryu Ko in the daytime in-order to supplement his own living. Kanryo Sensei in later life recalled with pride how he once saved Master Ryu Ryuko’s daughter during a flood, and in recognition of this Master Ryu Ryuko formally accepted Kanryo Sensei as disciple. Due to his dedication in training and his positive character, he soon became a senior disciple of Ryu Ryu Ko. Because he was fleet-footed and was able to deliver extremely swift and destructive kicking techniques, the locals nick-named him “Kagin-Ka Ton-onna” which, in local Fuzhou dialect meant “Quick-legged Higaonna”. Between 1881-1882, Ryu Ryuko Sensei was not only becoming advanced in age, he believed he had taught Kanryo Sensei everything Kanryo Sensei should know. Furthermore, as the diplomatic relationship between Japan and China was becoming increasingly tensed, he told Kanryo Sensei to return to Okinawa in case of an outbreak of war between the two nations. (Japan had annexed Okinawa 3 years before and a decade later the two nations went to war.)

When Kanryo Sensei finally returned to Okinawa, the Ryuku Kingdom was no longer in existence. In its place was the Civil Administration of the Okinawan Prefecture of Japan. The Shizoku Caste system, of which his family belonged to was no longer in existence. His circle of pro-China political acquaintances, the erstwhile Shizoku and lords, however, were still active in Okinawan circles. As a gesture of gratitude towards Yoshimura Udun for his sponsorship and backing, Kanryo Higaonna Sensei began teaching martial arts to Yoshimura Udun’s sons and their close circle of acquaintances. Therefore his first students consisted of descendants of the Ryukyu royal household.

Initially Kanryo Sensei followed his father’s footsteps as a merchant and trading ship owner. However, in a career spanning a decade,he lost his cargo on several occasions due to bad weather and could never fully recoup his losses. History records that on one occasion in 1896 when Kanryo Sensei was travelling with Yoshimura Udun Chomei,his eldest son Yoshimura Aji Choshin and Yoshimura’s fourth son to Fuzhou their ship was blown off-course to Wenzhou and floundered, and the Chinese authorities had to escort them overland to Fuzhou, a journey of some weeks in those days. These experiences convinced Kanryo Sensei that he had to seek an alternative means of making a livelihood. He began to focus more on teaching students. In those days they did not charge a fee for teaching students, but an informal system of patronage existed whereby students helped out their sensei in cases when their sensei needed help. In Kanryo Sensei’s case, he received help from Chojun Sensei’s family, Yoshimura’s family and others who trained with him, which allowed him to make a modest living.

In 1901, karate was taught in schools for the first time. In 1905, Kanryo Sensei began teaching in the Naha City Commercial School. At the same time he continued to teach in his dojo at home. According to Chojun Miyagi Sensei, in schools and other public venues, Kanryo Sensei’s teachings always focused on the moral aspects of Karate, whilst in his private dojo he would focus on teaching techniques used to maim or kill an opponent. NAKAMOTO-SEIJIN Sensei recalls how his mother Makato (Born in 1896) had in her recollections of the time when she was a girl and she often went to Kanryo Sensei’s house with her father, Makishi Udun. She had a deep impression of Kanryo Sensei’s students gripping the Nigiri-Game and sliding slowly across the dojo floor whilst Kanryo Sensei performed shime on their bare-shoulders, she clearly remembered the slapping sound of his hands landing on their bodies. Yoshimura Choki (義村朝義, Yoshimura Chomei’s second son) began his training with Kanryo Sensei at the Naha-City Commercial School, where he learnt the Sanchin and Suparimpei Katas.

According to his students including Chojun Miyagi Sensei, Kanryo Sensei was extremely careful in studying a candidate before accepting him as a student. Kanryo Sensei took special care to note the candidate’s personality and character. Kanryo Sensei was a tough teacher who expected his students to undergo long and intense training daily. Many students suffered Hematuria (Blood in one’s urine) from blood-vessel damages in the abdomen area. Students also fainted from fatigue during training. As a result many students dropped out of Kanryo Sensei’s dojo. However,  of those who preserved under his intense training regime,many became famous martial artists in their later lives.

Kanryo Sensei produced many famous and able students in his live-time. Apart from his most senior student Chojun Miyagi Sensei, there were also Yoshimura Choki, Kyoda Juhatsu, Shinpan Shiroma, Kenwa Mabuni, Tōyama Kanken. In that era, most of Kanryo Sensei’s students began training around the age of 14 to 16 and continued their daily training regime until they were about 20 years old when they took on a full-time job and trained on a lesser basis. Hence most students formally trained under Kanryo Sensei’s instruction for about 4 to 6 years. Chojun Miyagi Sensei trained with Kanryo Sensei from 1902 until 1915 when training ceased upon Kanryo Sensei’s death, making him Kanryo Sensei’s most senior student. Kanryo Sensei died in Oct 1915 after naming Chojun Miyagi Sensei as his successor. In the following year, as the most senior on-going student and Senpai of the dojo, Chojun Miyagi Sensei officially inherited Kanryo Higaonna Sensei’s Naha-te school.