Goju-Ryu Karate: (Japanese for “Hard-soft style”) is a style of karate that uses a combination of hard and soft techniques. It is commonly believed that the concept of combining the two extremes originated in a Chinese martial arts doctrine known as wu bei ji (pronounced bubishi in Japanese.) Goju-ryu combines hard striking attacks such as kicks and punches with softer circular techniques for blocking and controlling the opponent, including locks, grappling, takedowns and throws. Major emphasis is given to breathing correctly. Goju-ryu practices methods that include body strengthening and conditioning, its basic approach to fighting (distance, stickiness, power generation, etc.), and partner drills. Goju-ryu incorporates both circular and linear movements into its curriculum.
What’s in the name?
“Go” means hardness or external force; “jū” means softness or internal force.
The naming of Gojū-Ryū came about more by accident than design. In 1930, numerous martial arts masters asked Chojun Miyagi’s top student, Jin’an Shinzato, while in Tokyo as to what school of martial arts he practiced. As Naha-Te had no formal name he came up with the impromptu name Hanko Ryū (Half-Hard Style). On his return to Okinawa he reported this incident to Chojun Miyagi. After much consideration Chojun Miyagi decided on the name Gojū-Ryū (hard and soft school) as a name for his style. This name he took from a line in the Bubishi (a classical Chinese text on martial arts and other subjects). This line, which appears in a poem, the Hakku Kenpo (roughly, “The eight laws of the fist”), describing the eight precepts of the martial arts, reads, “Ho wa Gojū wa Donto su” (the way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness, or everything in the universe inhales soft and exhales hard).
The development of Gojū-ryū goes back to Kanryo Higaonna, (1850–1915), a native of Naha, Okinawa. As a teenager he trained with an Okinawan master named Arakaki Seisho. Later in life he travelled to Fuzhou in Fujian Province, China, where he studied Wushu and kempo from various teachers, primarily a kung fu master called Ryu Ryu Ko (or Liu Liu Ko, or To Ru Ko; the name is uncertain.)
Higaonna returned to Okinawa during the middle of the Meiji Era (1868–1911) and continued in the family business of selling firewood, while teaching a new school of martial arts, distinguished by its integration of go-no (hard) and jū-no (soft) kempo in one system. The word karate (empty hand) was not in common use at that time, and Higashionna’s style was known as Naha-te. It is accepted that Chinese Nanpa Shorin-ken was the strain of kung fu that influenced this style 1. As such, this style and that of Uechi Ryū were built upon a similar foundation.
Higaonna’s most prominent student was Chojun Miyagi (1888–1953) who began training under Higaonna at the age of 12. After Higaonna’s death Miyagi sailed to China and studied there for several years, returning to Naha in 1918. Many of Higaonna’s students continued to train with him, including Higa Seiko (1898–1966). However, Higaonna’s most senior student Juhatsu Kyoda, who studied under Higaonna one month longer than Miyagi, formed a school he called Tōon-ryū (Tōon is another way of pronouncing the Chinese characters of Higaonna’s name, so Tōon-ryū means “Higaonna’s style”), preserving more of Higaonna’s approach to Naha-te.
Gojū-Ryū was the first officially recognized style of Karate in Japan by Dai Nippon Butoku Kai and the only style of Karate with a full historical representation in both Okinawa and Japan.
The history of karate itself is one of cultural and social exchanges with China going back to the Tang dynasty—-hence the Korean name for karate, “Tang Soo” or “Chinese hands.” Before the development of modern Karate started by Gichin Funakoshi, Okinawan karate styles generally took after the names of the towns they came from, thus “Naha-te,” “Shuri-te” and “Tomari-te” were karate styles that came from the towns of Naha, Shuri and Tomari, respectively.
The late 19th century saw the great karate masters going back to China for a “martial-arts pilgrimage” of sorts. The great Chinese pugilist Liu Liu Ko (“Ryū Ryū Ko” in Japanese) in Southern China taught a handful of these Okinawan students who went on to become karate legends.
The use of tensho or “soft” techniques in Goju-ryu reveals an obvious influence from the Fujian White Crane style (known as “Fujian Bai He” in Chinese). From White Crane, Goju takes the circular movements and fast strikes. From Tiger Style, Goju takes the strong linear attacks and the tiger claw pinching (especially in kyusho-jitsu). Also, one of the main components and sources of Okinawan karate is the native tradition called “tuite“: grappling, joint locks and breaks, throws, sweeps, which often led to ground fighting. These techniques were widely practiced in Ryūkyū’s small villages and were blended with Chinese martial arts to give birth to karate. In kata, usually low stances and/or hands in chambers are the signs of a technique of this kind.
Kata / bunkai
A kata is a record of techniques organized as a set of pre-arranged movements that simulates a fight. Okinawan kata have traditionally been used to preserve sets of techniques and fighting principles, and they have also served as the basis upon Okinawan fighting systems (such as Goju Ryu) are taught.
In kata, each movement can be interpreted as different techniques and its applications. Kata is to be understood as a “living textbook” in which karate proper—its techniques and philosophy—is passed down. The practice of kata itself provides the practitioner a sense of structure and possibilities to use in a real fight. Bunkai, on the other hand, is the analysis—or interpretation (oyo-bunkai)—of kata movements. After the analysis of bunkai, karateka usually practice two or more person drills to ingrain the application in the muscle memory, which makes sense of sequences of movements in kata forms. Techniques-within-techniques are revealed through constant practice of kata and bunkai.
The kata taught in Gojū-Ryū are rather traditional and in most organizations are emphasized more than actual kumite (or free sparring). This emphasis in kata is also an emphasis in bunkai, the actual self-defense application of the kata movements. The self-defense approach explains why Gojū Ryū does not emphasize free sparring and its limiting rules.
Kata detractors say that these kata are useless in a real fighting situation, while proponents say they are failing to realize what the purpose of kata and bunkai is.
Kihongata means a “kata of basics”. It is intended to teach basic movements and technique so that the karate-ka is ready for the Heishugata learning stage.
Sanchin kata is the foundation to all other Gojū kata, it is also the foundation of body conditioning. First variation of Sanchin-kata (sanchingata dai-ichi) serves as Kihongata. See more on Sanchin kata below.
Heishugata means “kata with closed hands” or “fundamental kata”. This kata teaches fundamentals (i.e. not only basics of movement but also principles) of the style while basics are learned during Kihongata. Traditionally, Kaishugata was taught as a second kata, or a “specialty kata” of a student, after Heishugata (e.g. Sanchin-kata and/or Tensho-kata for Naha-te or Naifanchi-kata for Shuri-te and Tomari-te is learned (sometimes it could take up to three years). Ranking (dan/kyu) and current kata curriculum with grading was established only after 1953, i.e. after Miyagi-sensei’s death.
Sanchin kata (三戦, サンチン) has the simplest techniques, and yet is arguably the most difficult to master of all Goju kata. Sanchin is often taught as a black belt kata, yet it is simple enough to teach at the white belt level. This is often done in order to prepare the student for this kata by the time he or she reaches black belt.
Only one stance is used—the sanchin (meaning “three battles”) stance, from which a name of the kata is derivative now (initially it was named as Peppuren 1. Sanchin-dachi is a practical stance, and yet is the most difficult stance to master. The legs protect the body from sweep kicks, the thighs are to trap low kicks. According to a tai chi manual (“Zhuangzi 13 postures“), the punch draws its power from the earth through the legs—the flip of the hips enables the strength of the whole body to be channeled and focused into one punch.
Properly employed, Sanchin kata follows the “hard” style of karate—all the muscles are to be flexed and tensed throughout the kata—actually making it the most strenuous kata. This type of strength training, taught for thousands of years, is only recently understood in Western science and is known as “isometric training” in bodybuilding.
In Chinese training, Sanchin kata also introduces the student to the use of “qi” (Japanese “ki”) for training and fighting applications. It can be understood to be a form of “qigong” as employed in Chinese Wushu. Many western interpretations of qi/ki explain it as an enhanced understanding of internal body dynamics and muscle control through repeated and strenuous training.
In Gojū, there are two sanchin kata: the first one, Miyagi’s sanchin (or “sanchin dai ichi”), the most widely taught as initial and Kihongata, was created for such purpose by Chojun Miyagi, and has no turns so the karateka goes forward and then backwards. The second sanchin, Higaonna’s sanchin (or “sanchin dai ni”) is a full-version Sanchingata and is older and was taught by Higaonna Kanryo. In this kata the karateka always goes forward, but turns 180 degrees twice. Initially it was taught with open hands, as sanchin-kata still is in Uechi-ryu, but later it was also revised to closed fists by Miyagi’s co-student Juhatsu Kyoda, founder of To’on-ryu, and adopted by Chojun Miyagi as well.
Tensho (転掌, テンショウ) was created on 1921 as “softer sanchin” by Chojun Miyagi to balance Go aspect of Heishugata (Sanchin-kata) with Ju variation for Heishugata. Tensho means “revolving hands.” It is a combination of hard dynamic tension with deep breathing and soft flowing hand movements, and is very characteristic of the Goju-ryu style. Some styles calls it as Rokkishu and it was created from some movements taken from Hakutsuru, although more careful analysis suggest that it might be Miyagi’s personal interpretation of Kakufa-kata that was in Higaonna’s syllabus but is omitted in Goju-ryu now.
Kaishugata means a “kata with open hands.” This is a more advanced from Heishugata type. Kaishugata serves as a “combat application reference” kata and is open to vast interpretation (Bunkai) of its movements purpose (hence, “open hands”).
Sai-fa (砕破, サイファー) means “to destroy and defeat.” This kata is the first traditional Gojū-Ryū’s Kaishugata. It is usually first taught at gokyu to sankyu levels (green to brown belt). The first three moves are the signature of the kata—a wrist-grab-throw technique that is very similar to Aikido’s iriminage technique. Saifa teaches, among other things, how to counter being grabbed by one or two opponents. The centrepiece of the kata is the crane kick movement. The layout of the footwork is similar to Taikokyū kata.
Sei-un-chin (制引戦, セイユンチン) means “Attack, Conquer, suppress (also referred to as “to control and pull into battle”)”. This kata is typically taught at sankyu to ikkyu levels (brown belt). Seiunchin kata demonstrates the use of techniques to unbalance, throw and grapple, contains close-quartered striking, sweeps, take-downs and throws. Though the kata itself is devoid of kicks, many practitioners make the grave mistake by missing the opportunity to apply any leg technique, not discovering a “hidden bunkai” in it. Though almost invisible to the untrained eye, the subtleness of ashi barai and suri ashi can represent footsweeps, parries and traps. The centrepiece of Seiunchin kata is a stance taken directly from the White Crane style.
Shi-so-chin (四向戦, シソーチン) means “to destroy in four directions” or “fight in four directions” and emphasizes the power of Goju-ryu, the hard and the soft, and integrates it into one. It is a switch between long distance combat (Shotei zuki-palm punch) and close quarter combat (Nukite – or knife hand – and armlocks).
Miyagi Chojun called Shisochin his favorite kata when he was getting old, as he believed it to be best suited to his body type at that time.
San-sei-ru (三十六手, サンセイルー) means “36 Hands” and is taught at higher black belt levels. The number 36, as are numbers 13, 18, 54 (e.g. kata Gojushiho in other styles), and 108 that provided names to other kata, is based on Buddhist mythology. Thirty-six representing 6×6, the first six being eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and spirit and the second six, colour, voice, smell, taste, touch and justice. The kata teaches complex punching combinations, employs many entry, joint attacks and defenses against kicking attacks.
Se-pai (十八手, セイパイ) means “18 Hands”. Eighteen being 6×3 (colour, voice, smell, taste, touch and justice as in sanseru) and three representing good, bad and peace. This kata is one of four (Sepai, Kururunfa, Seisan, and Suparinpei) that are more subtle and contain more hidden moves. The true meaning of a kata becomes clear only when one learns the application of it (Bunkai). In Sepai, and the three that follow, the applications are not immediately clear. Techniques were deliberately masked within these kata so that bystanders were not able to fully comprehend the depth of the applications being practiced. Sepai kata incorporates both the four directional movements and 45° angular attacks and, as in Shisochin, implements techniques for both long distance and close quarter combat. This was a Seikichi Toguchi’s specialty kata.
Sei-san (十三手, セイサン) means “13 Hands.” Thirteen is also a number representing good luck and prosperity in Chinese numerology. This kata contains many unusual techniques and demonstrates the difference between Go (Hard) and Ju (Soft). Seisan is thought to be one of the oldest kata quite spread among other Nahate schools. Shito-ryu has its own version and different versions are now practised even in Shurite derivatives like Shotokan (called Hangetsu) and in Wado-ryu (called Seishan). Seisan was a favourite kata of Jin’an Shinzato and his specialty kata initially.
Ku-ru-rum-fa (久留頓破, クルルンファー) means “holding on long and striking suddenly” and its techniques are based on Chinese Praying Mantis style. Initial idea was to have a “counter-style” against other “traditional Shaolin-type styles” where each kata could be considered as a representative of such particular “style” (or expression of certain strategy in fighting). It was Ei’ichi Miyazato’s specialty kata.
Su-pa-rim-pei (壱百零八, スーパーリンペイ) means “108 Hands”—6×6×3, combining the elements represented in the meanings of Sanseru and Sepai. One hundred eight also has special significance in Buddhist beliefs from where the kata originated. The most advanced and intricate kata of the Goju Ryu system now. While initially it was known as Pitchurrin and had three levels to master (Go, Chu, and Jo), later Miyagi left only one, the highest, “Jo” level. This was a Meitoku Yagi’s specialty kata.
This type of kata is not traditional Gojū-ryū kata and means “promotional kata” or “common kata for the all styles of karate”. The purpose of Fukyugata was to unify all karate styles in one so to make Karate as a general and more standardized Japanese-like art for the sake of popularization as was done with Kendo and Judo.
Ge-ki-sai (撃砕, げきさい) means “to destroy” or “attack and destroy”. The first Gekisai was developed as a Fūkyū Kata to be practiced by Gojū-ryu and other Ryu (notably, Shorin-Ryū). This Fūkyū Kata (Gekisai-dai-ichi, the first) was created by Miyagi Chojun after 1936 as Fukyugata Ni, while another Fūkyū Kata, not practiced by Gojū-Ryū nowadays, was developed by Nagamine Shoshin (Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryū) as Fukyugata Ichi. Miyagi created also Gekisai-dai-ni, richer in Gojū-Ryū stances and techniques and was intended by him to become common kata Fukyugata San. However, WWII put all revisions on hold and works were not resumed after the war was over.
The Gekisai kata (Gekisai Ichi and Gekisai Ni) are usually first taught at hachikyū or rokukyū levels (yellow to green belt). Gekisai kata integrates kicking with blocks, strikes, and punches. It introduces the use of tensho technique, how to move in eight directions, side-stepping, back-stepping, and the use of the cat stance (Gekisai-dai-ni, the second). It comes close to the idea of irimi, or “entering” techniques, used in Aikido. It should be noted that there are now in some schools three versions of this Kata, Gekisai Dai Ichi, Gekisai Dai Ni and Gekisai Dai San. Gekisai Dai Ni incorporates slightly “softer” techniques, although it follows a similar pattern to that of Gekisai Dai Ichi. Gekisai Dai Ni involves the use of techniques of higher difficulty (especially open-handed techniques), thus making it applicable to only blue, brown and black belts in some schools.
Other non-traditional Goju-ryu Kata
Taikyoku katas were created by Yamaguchi Gogen who founded Goju Kai and is credited with popularising Goju in Japan. Therefore, it is not accurate to consider these kata as traditional Goju-ryu kata (passed or created by Miyagi). Okinawan kaiha usually do not teach them. Taikyoku are usually first taught in jukyu to ikkyu levels (white belt to brown belt). The Taikyoku katas teach basic block and attack pattern, and how to move in four directions.
Taikyoku Kata list
- Taikyoku Jodan
- Taikyoku Chudan
- Taikyoku Gedan
- Taikyoku Kake Uke
- Taikyoku Mawashi Uke
Some other Goju-ryu schools, like Meibukan, could also have their additional, style-based kata, that are not in other Goju-ryu kata curriculums.