Morio Higaonna

I think that people start learning Karate with different goals in their minds. However, whatever style they choose, I believe the most important factor is a good instructor… also one must never forget that Karate is not only about fighting.

Morio Higaonna

It could be argued that no one has done more to popularise Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate around the world than Morio Higaonna.

Known in some circles as The Lion of Okinawa, Higaonna has devoted his life to the practice and development of Goju–Ryu Karate. Many have described him as the most complete martial artist they have ever seen. Martial arts historian, Donn Draeger, once described him as

The strongest man in Japan, if it came to a real fight

Morio Higaonna was born on 25 December 1938, in Naha, Okinawa. His father was a policeman.

During World War II, Higaonna and his family evacuated to Kumamoto. Their boat was one of three that tried to escape from Okinawa. Facing heavy gunfire, their boat was the only one to reach the Japanese mainland.

When he was six years old, the young Higaonna saw Karate for the first time at a religious festival. His father had performed a Shorin-Ryu kata.

Following Japan’s defeat in the war, the Higaonna family returned to Okinawa in 1945. Like many families, they encountered tough times. Many families lived in tents provided by the United States Army. Rationing of staple foods was also enforced.

Although Higaonna was a shy child growing up, he was also a little mischievous. He loved to swim. He would sometimes ditch school, and spend the day at the beach.

In 1952 Higaonna began attending middle school. He began learning Karate from his friend Joken Shima. Shima taught him some basic Shorin-Ryu kata. He had previously learned some basic techniques from his father.

Higaonna began training with Tsuntaka Shimabukuro in 1953. Shimabukuro was two years older than him and had been practicing Shorin-Ryu Karate from the age of six. They practiced in Shimabukuro’s garden and sometimes at the school Karate club. For the next two years, Higaonna trained with Shimabukuro.

In March 1955 Higaonna began learning, Goju–Ryu Karate on the advice of Shimabukuro, who had started training at The Garden dojo of Chojun Miyagi sometime earlier.

Chojun Miyagi had died on 8 March 1953. His student Eiichi Miyazato, had taken over the running of the Garden dojo.

Although Miyazato was the Chief Instructor, Higaonna’s main instructor at the dojo was Anichi Miyagi, another direct student of Chojun Miyagi.

Higaonna was surprised by the strength and power on display at the dojo. It was here that his real Karate training began.

One person who impressed Higaonna at the dojo was Saburo Higa. He described Higa’s kicks as frightening and his arms being like steel. He would become his main training partner for the next couple of years.

Training at the Garden dojo was tough. It involved plenty of conditioning; basic techniques; kata; and kumite.

Initially, Higaonna Did not like kata, as he found it difficult. However, through constant repetition and by getting stronger from the conditioning exercises, he came to love kata.

By 1956, Higaonna was training eight hours a day – three hours at the school Karate club and five hours at the Garden dojo.

Higaonna often arrived at the Garden dojo early to clean it and do any chores. He came to know Chojun Miyagi’s widow, Makato, and would listen intently when she talked about her husband.

In 1957 training at the Garden dojo came to an end. Training moved to a purpose-built dojo called the Jundokan. It was headed by Eiichi Miyazato. Most of the teaching at the dojo was done by Anichi Miyagi and other senior instructors.

Many of the Garden dojo practitioners, including Saburo Higa, stopped coming to the Jundokan. They felt that the new dojo lacked the same atmosphere they had enjoyed at the garden dojo. Despite the change, Higaoonna continued training as hard as ever.

Apart from learning Karate, Higaonna also learned Kobudo. Shinkin Taira would visit the dojo once a week to teach weapons like the sai and bo.

In 1957 Higaonna’s main teacher, Anichi Miyagi left the Jundokan to take a job at sea to help support his family.

Higaonna started working in a bank in 1958. However, he gave up the job after a year, as it put severe restrictions on his time to train. He returned to full-time training.

Around 1958 Higaonna was involved in a traffic accident. A motorcycle he was riding collided with a truck. Even though he was flung from the bike, luckily he did not suffer any serious injuries.

Higaonna decided to move to Tokyo in mainland Japan in 1960. Since his teacher Anichi Miyaga had left the Jundokan, he had a desire to learn and experience new things. He gained a place to study at Takushoku University in Tokyo, where he studied Commerce.

In Tokyo, Higaonna supported himself by washing cars and working on construction sites.

On 30 December 1968, a dan grading was held at the Jundokan. It was conducted by the Okinawan Karate Association and was open to all styles. At his first-ever grading, Higaonna was promoted to 3rd Dan.

In 1963 Higaonna graduated from Takashoku University.

While at university Higaonna began training at a dojo in the Yoyogi district of Tokyo. Eventually, the dojo owner asked if he would like to teach some classes.

After graduating from university, Higaonna spent the next 20 years teaching at the Yoyogi dojo. He eventually taught four classes a day, with many students training each day. Training at the dojo was very tough.

The Yoyogi dojo would become a recognized center for Okinawan Goju–Ryu training. It was around this time that Higaonna started teaching foreigners, assisted by Teruo Chinen. Foreigners visiting Japan would make it a point to visit and train at the dojo. Some of the people who trained at the dojo include James Rousseau, Terry O’Neill, Gary Spiers, and Bakkies Laubscher.

In time Higaonna would be recognized as one of the top Okinawan Goju–Ryu instructors. He was soon receiving invitations from around the world to teach.

Higaonna was promoted to 5th Dan in April 1966. The following year he received his Menkyo Kaiden (license of total transmission).

In April 1967 Higaonna was appointed the Karate instructor at Nihon University.

In 1968 Higaonna, was invited by the YMCA to give a series of Karate seminars and demos in the city of Spokane, United States. His trip was very successful. He received an award from the Mayor of Spokane for his promotion of Karate in the United States.

The 1st WUKO World Karate Championships were held at the Budokan in Tokyo, Japan, on 10 October 1970. Higaonna was invited to give a demo of Okinawan Goju-Ryu. The demo was well received.

Between 21-22 April 1972, the 2nd WUKO World Karate Championships was held at the Stade Pierre de Coubertin, in Paris, France. Once again, Higaonna was invited to give a demo of Okinawa Goju-Ryu.

Following his demos at the first two World Championships, Higaonna’s international profile had increased. In May 1995, the French Karate Association invited him to conduct a teaching tour across France.

The 3rd WUKO World Karate Championships were held in Long Beach, California in 1975. Higaonna and Teruo Chinen gave a demo during the championships.

Having been such a success first time, the French Karate Association invited Higaonna to give another teaching tour across France in 1977.

In 1979 Higaonna founded the IOGKF (International Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate-do Federation) alongside Teruo Chinen and James Rousseau. Anichi Miyagi was named Honorary President. By this time Higaonna had been promoted to 7th Dan by Eiichi Miyazato.

1980 was a big year for Higaonna. He married Alanna Stevens who was from the United States. He was also invited by the Japanese government to give a demonstration at the official state reception for the President of Mexico’s state visit to Japan. The year culminated in November, with the birth of his son, Eric.

In May 1981, Higaonna and his family moved to Naha, Okinawa. He established a dojo in his home the following year.

The 1st IOGKF World Budosai and Tournament was held in Naha-City in July 1981. The tournament was in conjunction with the 60th Anniversary of the founding of Naha–City.

In 1983 Higaonna was featured in an episode of the BBC documentary, “The Way of the Warrior“. The episode was on Karate and showed his training methods.

On 29 May 1984, Higaonna was promoted to 8th and 9th Dan by Yuchoku Higa.

Higaonna and his family relocated to Tokyo in May 1985.

In October 1985 Higaonna’s book, “Traditional Karate-Do: Okinawan Goju Ryu – Fundamental Techniques” was published. Two years later “Traditional Karate-Do: Okinawan Goju Ryu – Performances of the Kata“, was published. The third book in the series, “Traditional Karate-Do: Okinawan Goju Ryu – Applications of the Kata“, was published in September 1989.

Higaonna and his family relocated to San Marcos, California in September 1987, after a two-year stay in Tokyo. He established a new dojo in San Marcos, that became the Hombu of the IOGKF.

On 18-22 October 1989, The Miyagi Chojun Memorial Martial Festival was held in San Diego, California. The event was organized by the IOGKF and was the brainchild of Higaonna.

The festival consisted of five days of training and culminated in an international tournament. There were representatives from 24 countries. Around 300 participants attended the seminars. There were over 600 competitors. Anichi Miyagi was the guest of honor. Other guest instructors included Fumio Demura, Hirokazu Kanazawa, and Osamu Ozawa.

On 8 June 1988, Higaonna was invited to give a Karate demo at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The 1st World Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Festival was held in Okinawa on 24 August 1990. Higaonna conducted a masters-level demo at the event.

On 18 October 1991, the IOGKF held a Goju-Ryu Karate Technical Seminar and All-American Tournament in Fort Smith Arkansas. As Chief instructor Higaonna conducted the seminar. Bill Clinton, who was the Governor of Arkansas at the time, awarded him a commendation.

On 19 October 1991, the Mayor of Fort Smith designated 18 October as Morio Higaonna Day. He also made Higaonna an honorary citizen of Fort Smith.

The IOGKF held its first World Championships in 1991 in Naha, Okinawa.

Higaonna continued to receive awards in 1992. In February, the Governor of Texas awarded him with the title of Admiral of the Texas Navy, in recognition of his achievements in promoting Karate in the State of Texas. On 2 June representatives from the United States Vice President’s office and the State of Texas jointly presented him with the award.

In 1994 Higaonna was one of 36 founding members who established the Hokubei Karate-do Shihankai (Japanese Karate Masters of North America). The organization was dedicated to promoting and maintaining the principles and philosophy of Japanese martial arts. Some of the founding members included Fumio Demura, Hirokazu Kanazawa, Takayuki Mikami, Yukiyoshi Marutani, Gosei Yamaguchi, Teruyuki Okazaki, and Tomohiro Arashiro, to name a few.

Higaonna Visited the Russian Federation in 1995. He became the Karate and Uarmed Combat instructor of the Kremlin Guard, the Police Force, and the Secret Police Force of the Russian Federation.

On 25 August 2004, Higaonna stopped in Hawaii on his way back to San Marcos from the IOGKF World Budosai. The purpose of the visit was to conduct research on Chojun Miyagi, who had visited the island in 1934, at the invitation of Chinyei Kinjo. The previous year his book, “The History of Karate” was published.

Together with Hirokazu Kanazawa and Hoshu Ikeda, Higaonna conducted a seminar and demo on 10 February 2007. The well-received event was held at the Tokyo Kudan Kaikan.

Anichi Miyagi and Shuichi Aragaki promoted Higaonna to 10th Dan in 2007. They also presented him with a certificate that named him as the official heir to the style of Goju-Ryu as practiced by Chojun Miyagi.

On 28 April 2009, Higaonna’s Mentor Anichi Miyagi died from a heart attack, aged 79. His funeral was held two days later.

At the 2012 IOGKF World Budosai, Higaonna stepped down from his position as Chief Instructor. However, he did not relinquish his position as overall head of the IOGKF. He appointed Tetsuji Nakamura as Chief Instructor and Chairman of the IOGKF. Ernie Molyneux and Henrik Larsen were appointed World Vice-Chief Instructors.

On 8 May 2013, the Okinawan Government presented Higaonna with an award and title recognizing him as a Cultural Treasure of Okinawa. This was in recognition of his many years of dedication and his promotion of Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate, which was an important part of Okinawan culture and history. The title is the highest an individual may receive in Japan for the martial arts. In modern Japanese history, the award has only been made to a handful of grandmasters.

In September 2022 Higaonna resigned from the IOGKF. This was mainly due to internal politics within the organization. He did not retire as was the common misconception. He established the TOGKF (Traditional Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate-do Federation).

In October 2022, following a meeting with the IOGKF leadership, Higaonna severed all ties with Tetsuji Nakamura, Ernie Molyneux, Henrik, Larsen, and Jorge Monteiro. He no longer acknowledged them as his students.

On 5 March 2023, Higaonna issued a statement regarding his departure from the IOGKF. On 7 March 2023 Tetsuji Nakamura issued a response to this statement.

Morio Higaonna is a legend of Karate. Even though he Is in his 80s. He continues to train every day at his private dojo in Naha, Okinawa. He also supervises the training of his students.

Higaonna has carried on the legacy of Chojun Miyagi and Anichi Miyagi. He has also helped spread Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate around the world. He has also dedicated himself to researching the history and roots of Okinawan Goju-Ryu. He has made several visits to Fuzhou, Southern China, in the footsteps of Chojun Miyagi.

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    • Anonymous on October 11, 2023 at 11:43 pm
    • Reply

    I thank you profoundly for enabling myself and others to remain connected to this fascinating historical unfoldment re Go-Jyu Ryu and the entire Karate-Do world. Burt Gottlieb

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