Lee Gray and Goju Ryu Karate

Karate tournaments tumble and flow. In the end, who cares? Who even remembers? What tingle do we derive from having a set of frail humans choose us over another person? It doesn’t really make any sense, but, for some reason, we kleegrayeep going. Its part of the human spirit, I suppose. The quest to vanquish, to be the superior. Sometimes its hard to understand.

Sensei Shintani held a small Canadian tournament every year that was billed as “International” because a few of us Americans showed up. One year there were a total of three black belt contestants, me among them. I lost the first round, then won the second because I didn’t block very well, got hit, and the other guy was disqualified. I ended up with a trophy with a plaque on it that said I won second place at an International karate tournament and I never scored a point. Go figure.

In 1974, I was teaching in heavenly Prescott, Arizona, on one of the early legs of my quest to figure it all out. Hank Aaron tied Babe Ruth’s record that year with his 714th at Riverview Stadium, in Cincinnati. The IRA was bombing Ireland to rubble. Nixon resigned. A Japanese soldier, Teruo Nakamura, surrendered on the Indonesian island of Morota, 34 years after beginning service in World War II. No fanatic there.

Tournament karate was young and exciting, fresh and still new, full of undiscovered challenge. No one knew where we were going, but it was a great ride.

I went to Dan Ivan’s Orange County tournament that February. I remember it well. I was sitting in the bleachers. The afternoon sun still drifted through the dirty windows at the end of the gym, offering a smidgen of hazy twilight to my corner of the room. This tournament was finishing up early, unlike many which often endured until midnight.

Contestants, judges and spectators buzzed about. I squirmed on the hard oak bench alongside a friend and watched the competition. Having studied for a whole 10 years, first Shotokan, (sort of), then Wado (sort of), I was fairly certain I knew most of what there was to know about the karate. My friend, with the same years in Japanese Goju Ryu, seemed even better qualified. We passed the time in random, sophisticated conversation about our martial observations.

We were still chatting, when I heard bangs and crashes, in the center ring that sounded like a broken corn threshing machine gearing up for harvest. I glanced in that direction in time to see a long, lanky, Texan, Marine-cut black belt stomping, snapping and shouting his way across the floor through the Goju kata, Seisan, with enough power to light up a small town grid. I watched in amazement, wondering if there was possibly something I had missed in karate 101.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s Lee Gray and it’s supposed to be Goju Ryu,” my friend answered “but I’ve never seen Goju that looked anything like that before.”

I eventually came to realize the significance of that statement, and how typical of the karate circle within which I moved. We all thought we knew so much. I get embarrassed thinking about it.

What he said was painfully accurate. We hadn’t ever seen Goju like that before and neither had a lot of people in the karate world of the day. A lot of people who thought they knew a lot didn’t know a lot. But it was real Goju, authentic and straight out of Okinawa, right where it all began.

I had become accustomed to Shotokan – adapted from karate by the JKA to win tournaments – and soft Japanese Goju with its hint of mysticism and its long haired guru, Yamaguchi Gogen, the “Cat”. But this was something different. This guy looked and sounded like he could actually hurt somebody.

Lee topped off his kata with a bow, strode from the floor and my life quest took one of those sudden angular twists that happen so abruptly they leave you almost off balance.

There’s something about Lee’s stretched out legs and arms that combine with Goju principals to fire up a power not born of weight-trained muscles, but of proper application and decades haunting sweaty dojos. I wanted to know more. Would this be a teacher?

I stumbled down the bleachers, ambled across the floor and offered my hand. We recently reminisced about that long ago day, at my kitchen table in Scottsdale, over a Corona and a Cuervo. (We also reminisced about the time he did the Funky Chicken in a dim Mexican bar and almost got us kicked out, but that’s for another book.)

In those days most people thought of Goju, if they thought about it at all, in terms of the aforementioned Yamaguchi, popularized by the martial arts media of the era and the originator of “Japanese” Goju Ryu. The “Cat” sported the proper sixties shoulder length hairstyle and a catchy moniker, so he made for good press. Those who knew karate and karate history in more depth might have thought of Chojun Miyagi, the legendary Okinawan founder of Goju, or perhaps Eiichi Miyazato, his student.

But, there weren’t a lot of people around then who knew anything about karate, let alone the difference between the Goju of Okinawa and the Goju of Japan, light years apart. That hazy day in California, Lee Gray laid out the difference in plain, easy-to-understand terms – power.

Miyagi coined the name Goju in 1936 for his style. When he abandoned life in 1953 he left several students and contemporaries who had studied with him. Higa, Yagi, Toguchi, and Miyazato all carried on Miyagai’s song, but to their own beat. Miyazato’s dojo, the Jundokan, is probably the most renowned, but there are others equally as devoted to Miyagi tradition.

A quiet strongman named Masanobu Shinjo started one – the Shobukan. Shinjo was born on Rota Island in Micronesia in 1938 and emigrated to Okinawa as a child. His father, a sumo wrestler, was one of the few Okinawans invited to wrestle for a Japanese stable. Shinjo dabbled at sumo as a young boy, his overstuffed muscles reflecting his father’s genes.

Shinjo began training in 1953, the year Miyagi died. As time passed, he searched out Miyagi students to learn their take on Miyagi’s katas and system. It ended up giving him a perspective that you don’t get staying in one dojo under one teacher. An old Miyagi disciple offered the thought that Shinjo’s movement looked more like Miyagi’s than anyone he had ever seen, a result, no doubt, of that perspective.

Because of the fact that Shinjo didn’t study directly from Miyagi or Miyazato, he passed on a style that is slightly different from what might be considered “orthodox” Goju, although, human individuality being what it is, that term really has little meaning to karate.

Lee Gray met up with a Marine recruiter in Amarillo Texas, while Eisenhower was still president, and shipped off to Okinawa. He found his way to Shingo’s dojo, where he had to prove his metal before anybody would give him the time of day. He spent the next 50 years punching and kicking and stomping through the kata he learned there, sometimes directly with Shinjo, sometimes with other students, sometimes on his own – pretty much the same story as the rest of us.

Two tours of duty in Viet Nam nurtured within him zanshin, ever present awareness, the key to survival for medieval Samurai and modern Marines. Nothing develops zanshin in a warrior more than wading through Vietnamese elephant grass, passionately aware that a Viet Cong is out there intent on slicing your throat to the bone. It’s a consciousness soldiers in combat regularly acquire, regardless of the century in which they fight. Most of us, fortunately, never undergo such deadly training.

After the Marines he became a prison guard, a job where zanshin is a way of life, and then a defense instructor for prisons and police departments. Practical application imbues Lee’s classes and seminars with a gritty edge. This worked – that didn’t.

Gray-haired now, he runs a dojo back in Amarillo. His kata still sounds like a thresher in high gear, and he stomps ever the harder. The hard and the soft of Goju Ryu are embodied in his manner. His kata and his steel gaze tell the martial story, his quiet demeanor reflects his gentle heart.

Shinjo passed away in 1993, a victim of leukemia. I had the opportunity to interview him at a Las Vegas event before that sad day. The first thing that struck me was the strength he exuded, like standing next to a bear. The second thing was his gentle, casual demeanor. He epitomized Okinawan karate attitude as much as karate power. Shinjo was as unassuming and relaxed as a worn out old chair.

He leaned sprawled back against the head board of his hotel bed with his gi top hanging open and talked about how much he liked the United States and its people and how Okinawa and Japan had no corner on the mastery of karate. He gestured towards Lee.

Modern warriors define modern karate. Sensei Gray has defined Goju for me.

Picture of Lee Grey
Lee Gray


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