Interview of Morio Higaonna
Morio Higaonna Sensei needs no introduction to serious karate enthusiasts as his name is known throughout the world as the premier exponent of Chojun Miyagi’s Okinawan Goju Ryu karate.
This interview of Morio Higaonna sensei was first published in issue No.10 of Dragon Times. It is republished here for the benefit of the karate world in general, and for those in particular who may have been confused by the latest campaign of rumour, innuendo, and misinformation aimed at discrediting this very senior karate instructor.
It should not go unnoticed that, despite being treated universally with disdain by the serious martial arts journals, the stories continue to make the rounds with monotonous regularity. It should be concluded therefore that this campaign is not so much designed to discredit Morio Higaonna, but rather an attempt to bring to the attention of the public several insignificant instructors by linking their names with his.
Since this interview was first published, Dragon Times has obtained legal documents showing that the allegations made against An'ichi Miyagi were categorically denied by the source of record.
Dragon Times: Sensei, I would like to ask you about some of the criticisms of yourself and your teacher An'ichi Miyagi. Specifically, it is said that An'ichi sensei was only a child when he trained with Chojun Miyagi Sensei, that he learned only part of the system, and that his character is, shall we say, flawed.
Morio Higaonna: If it wasn't so funny, this would make me very angry. It's also very ironic. People seem unwilling to accept my word that my teacher is the little known An'ichi Miyagi, but willing to accept the claims of one of my former students that his teacher was Chojun Miyagi the Founder of Goju Ryu. This even though he would have been barely more than an infant when Chojun sensei died. They ignore the truth but accept the ludicrous.
The fact of the matter is very simple. When, full of nervous excitement and with the money my mother had given me clenched in my fist, I first went to the garden dojo of Chojun Miyagi sensei as a boy of sixteen, I was told by Koshin Iha, a student of Chojun Miyagi sensei, "if you want to train seriously An'ichi will teach you." He has taught me ever since; I only have one teacher.
At first, I was not particularly impressed by An'ichi sensei. Although his movements were very smooth and powerful, I was more impressed by the naked power of the younger students, Saburo Higa particularly. You could feel the rush of wind when he kicked and punched and the physique he developed from Sanchin training was awe-inspiring. It was only as I progressed and began to understand Chojun Miyagi Sensei's Goju Ryu that I became aware of An'ichi Sensei's mastery of it.
Dragon Times: I've seen it quoted that An'ichi sensei was only twenty when Chojun Sensei died, the implication being that he was not old enough to have developed any significant ability.
Morio Higaonna: People should check their facts before they speak publicly When Chojun Sensei died on October 8th, 1953 An'ichi sensei was, in fact, twenty-two years old; his birth date is February 9th, 1931. His formative years, from 1948 until 1953 were spent in intense personal training with Chojun sensei daily, at times he was the Founder's only student. How better to learn Goju Ryu karate than to acquire it from the Founder at a young age and spend the rest of your life perfecting your skill!
Dragon Times: Other instructors have claimed to be your primary instructor; how do you respond to this suggestion.
Morio Higaonna: Why would they suggest this? I know who taught me and even now when I need my kata checked, I return to the same source, An'ichi Miyagi. There is no doubt in my mind, so why would there be doubt in the minds of others.
Of course, when I started karate, all the sempai taught us. The training was very different then, it was more like an extended family arrangement, older brothers helping younger brothers. If you really stretch the point, all of them could say that they taught me.
Dragon Times: Actually I was hoping that you would address the question of your training at the Jundokan after the garden dojo of Chojun Sensei was closed.
Morio Higaonna: It seems like only yesterday that An'ichi sensei would call at my house and ask me to help him repair makiwara at the Jundokan dojo, or clean up the yard and the hojo undo equipment. It was at the Jundokan that An'ichi sensei really started to teach me seriously. He explained to me every tiny detail he had learned from the Founder about our method, and I was fascinated by his knowledge. When I think of it, I experience the thrill and excitement again of my training in those days. An'ichi sensei gave everything he had when training, and expected us to do the same. Unfortunately, this led to disagreements with Miyazato sensei the dojo cho. Miyazato Sensei felt that An'ichi sensei was much too tough, and his iron discipline, together with the physical demands he made on students, would lose us members and therefore income.
Dragon Times: At the risk of repeating myself, can I say that you were never taught by anyone except An'ichi sensei?
Morio Higaonna: That's correct. However, others would indeed offer their advice from time to time, even as I got older. For example, Miyazato sensei checked my Sanchin perhaps two or three times in all the years I was at the Jundokan, but my teacher was and is An'ichi sensei. I have to say that Miyazato sensei was always kind to me personally but had a habit of saying unkind things about people behind their backs which always made me feel uncomfortable.
Dragon Times: Is that why you left the Jundokan?
Morio Higaonna: There were several reasons for leaving the Jundokan.
An'ichi sensei was not shown the respect he deserved. Also, when Miyazato sensei would change details of the kata, An'ichi sensei would protest, and a heated discussion would then take place which was very unpleasant.
I didn't like the board that was displayed publicly with the names of those who had not paid their dojo fees, I thought this was demeaning, and then there was the matter of the loan that was taken out to build the Jundokan. An'ichi sensei paid for the Jundokan building lot to be cleared with his own money and didn't expect to recover anything. However, the actual building costs were paid for by a loan guaranteed by Harno Kochi and this, I understand, was never repaid which angered An'ichi sensei a great deal. He left to join the merchant marine, and the Jundokan changed a lot for me as a result. However, I stayed on even after that, for a while, at least.
Dragon Times: Is this where the accusation came from that An'ichi left Okinawa to avoid paying his debts?
Morio Higaonna: Exactly! In fact, things were the other way around. He spent a lot of his own money on the Jundokan then left to join the merchant marine to earn a decent living-life was still very hard in Okinawa at that time. When the source of this allegation-that An'ichi sensei had left Okinawa to avoid paying his debts-was confronted about this quite recently, he denied saying anything of the sort!
Dragon Times: This allegation seems to have become something of a cultural tradition in Okinawan karate society. Gichin Funakoshi's critics claimed, also in the absence of any credible evidence, that he left Okinawa to avoid paying his debts. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of being a successful karate master, particularly if you train students that became internationally famous.
Morio Higaonna: You may be right. An'ichi sensei told me that Miyazato sensei was upset when he heard that my Yoyogi (Tokyo) dojo was busy because he assumed that I was making a lot of money. In fact, all the fees went to the owner of the dojo, and I only received a small salary and a place to sleep. The salary was only paid for the days I taught, if I went away for a gasshuku, for example, I was not paid.
I didn't realize what the problem was, or that there was a problem with money or anything else until in July 1981 Ryosei Aragaki asked me to come back to the Jundokan. I told him that I had made up my mind, and I couldn't change it. Then in August 1981 at the championship in Osaka, I was asked to attend a meeting and was surprised to find Miyazato sensei there.
He complained that when I went home to Okinawa, I never went to see him. I really didn't understand what he was talking about as I had no reason to go and see him. While I respect him as a student of Chojun sensei, he wasn't my teacher or anything like that, and I really didn't know what to do under the circumstances. Mr. Arimoto who was also at the meeting said that I should apologize to Miyazato sensei, so I did, and thought no more about it.
Dragon Times: Another accusation is that you don't have a dojo in Japan or Okinawa, and are unknown there.
Morio Higaonna: I don't know how or where these stories come from. My dojo in Okinawa was established in the Makishi district of Naha in 1981 and has operated continuously since then. In fact, I am leaving tomorrow for a gasshuku in Japan. The Makishi Dojo became particularly well known because the British Broadcasting Corporation made a television documentary about Okinawan karate there in 1982.
Dragon Times: That's why I asked the question. I saw the BBC documentary, and while I admire your modesty, it was more about your karate than anything else. Dennis Waterman was the narrator which meant that the BBC must have spent a lot of money on the program, and I remember that most of it was shot in the Makishi Dojo and the surrounding area.
In fact, your dojo appears to be so well known in Okinawa that a British karateka who went to train there wrote about it in Fighting Arts International magazine. He said that after clearing immigration when he asked how he could get to the Higaonna dojo, was actually put in a taxi by the officials who had processed his visa and the driver was given directions to the Makishi dojo.
Morio Higaonna: I saw that article as well, and I think he exaggerated a little. A case of youthful enthusiasm perhaps.
Dragon Times: I would like to move on the somewhat contentious subject of dan grades. I know that you have rather strong views on this subject, but have publicly said very little. May we hear your opinion?
Morio Higaonna: Dan grades have only become important because they cause so many problems. Chojun Miyagi sensei refused to award dan grades, and the martial arts didn't have dan grades until judo adopted them. I was given third dan by Miyazato sensei at the first grading I attended when I was little more than a kid, and it meant nothing to me, then or now. I never wore the belt.
I agree that for students, they are a way of measuring progress but at a high price. They cause discontent, disputes, and lead to excessive pride in self which is the opposite of what martial arts training should develop in a student. Everyone has different standards so, inevitably there are differences between the level of students from various dojo even when they have the same grade, and then the politics start. I believe that there should be black belts and white belts only and that the focus should be on training, not on accumulating rank.
Dragon Times: On the subject of training, please tell me something about your own.
Morio Higaonna: I am pleased to say my training has hardly changed over the years. Recently I started to study meditation with Sakiyama Sensei, who is a famous Zen priest. Every day I run, practice hojo undo, kata, and also meditation. My family is as supportive as ever, so I am free to train for at least six hours each day.
Of course, you must remember that physical training is just the gateway to mastery of the mind. That's why you must strive to achieve true humility through training. If you don't, it's difficult if not impossible to rise above the purely physical because your mind is forever clouded by thoughts of material things, pride and scorn for others, and similar negative feelings.
Good karate makes good people, and I feel a responsibility to pass on what was given to me as a way of thanking my teacher, An'ichi Miyagi, and, hopefully, produce more good karate people by doing so. Because I teach so much, I have a responsibility to train as hard as I can to pass on my knowledge in as pure a form as possible. If you do not train hard, you should not teach!
Dragon Times: Finally, we have all heard about the acceptance of Goju Ryu as an ancient martial art by the Nihon Ko Budo Kyo Kai, how did that come about and what does it mean?
Morio Higaonna: It really doesn't matter how it happened, just that it did. The committee of the Ko Budo Kyo Kai accepted, by a unanimous vote, that the Goju Ryu of Kanryo Higaonna and Chojun Miyagi was a genuine and ancient martial art, and that its history had now been correctly delineated as a budo and not a sport. We are all delighted with the result as it records the work of our founders in the most appropriate fashion.
Dragon Times: One last question about the future. Is there anything else that we should know about?
Morio Higaonna: All being well my book will be published in Japanese with the cooperation of my U.S. publisher and as you know I have just finished the Goju Ryu Technical video series. I am always very busy, but still feel that I have barely begun what I set out to do.
I would urge anyone who has the slightest doubts about the ability, knowledge, character, or ethics of Higaonna sensei to train with him and decide, based on their own experiences, what is true and what is not.
Morio Higaonna is the instructor that Don Draeger referred to as "The most dangerous man in Japan in a real fight." Who Terry O'Neill, the famous European Shotokan champion (kata and kumite) called "As close as one can come to the model of the classical karate master."
Another expert remarked: "Of the Japanese teachers I would have to say Morio Higaonna. Higaonna sensei can do it all; his basics are very powerful, his kata is excellent, and he can demonstrate many bunkai for all the kata. There is no doubt about his fighting ability, and he is exciting to watch. We used to watch him do demonstrations in Tokyo, and you were always glad that you weren't his assistant! He's also very good at grappling; when he gets you in close, you are in trouble."
My assessment-the karate aside. When a man flies thousands of miles just to do a brief demonstration; has to be persuaded to get into the limousine sent to collect him from the airport (where he was waiting in the bus line), then refuses payment and expenses because "it was for a friend," that's the sort of man Morio Higaonna is!