The Karate Legacy of Pearl Harbor
By Robert Hunt
Somewhere around the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, Miyagi Chojun got a spark to study with Higaonna Kanryo, taking on the martial art Higaonna had picked up in China from the illusive Lu Lu Ko 30 years earlier. Higaonna died in 1916 and Miyagi devoted the rest of his life to cobbling together an organized approach to karate based on what he had learned from the old master and stuff he picked up from subsequent trips to China. By the 30’s he had assembled a set of kata and techniques that would become Goju Ryu, his legacy to the world and had started passing it on to a couple of selected students. He spent years working with those students on the 12 kata that made up his “system” and their meaning.
Then Pearl Harbor.
By the time the war was over, three of Miyagi’s children were dead as was his chosen disciple Shinzato Jinan. Miyagi ended up, by all accounts, a sad and broken man. He spent the last few years of his life plagued by high blood pressure sitting sadly in a chair in the middle of his dojo trying, mostly in vain, to bring it all to life again. In 1953 at age 65, just a few years after the end of the war, he died of a double heart attack, some would say a broken heart.
I sat listening to this well known story of karate history one more time at lunch the other day with Dejan Rajic, who carries on Miyagi’s legacy in a small dojo in north Phoenix. Dejan studies from a long time martial artist named Kino Wall who, in turn, studied in Okinawa in the 60’s and with whom I happened to coincidently become acquainted about 1969 in a backwater western New York hamlet called Jamestown, on the Pennsylvania border.
One of Miyagi’s senior students was Higa Seiko. Sensei Wall had studied in Okinawa from Higa Seiko during the last stretch of Higa’s life, for about 5 or 6 years. Kimo now travels the world mentoring an allegiant cadre of followers.
As for Higa, when he died, his dojo went to his top student, Takamine, then to Higa’s son Higa Sekichi and finally to another senior student, Kiyuna, who oversees it today.
Part of the reason that the dojo has remained consistent is that Higa’s son, Seikichi, was wise enough to know that Takamine was his senior and that Sekichi had no title to leadership just because of his father. Many dojos fall apart because the son wants to take over when the father dies, but there are people senior to him who deserve it more.
Dejan told me the story of how Higa Seiko, born around 1895, had been a junior to Miyagi in Higaonna’s very dojo in the early 1900’s and, when Higaonna, himself, died, had followed Miyagi as his teacher. Higa was with Miyagi as he developed Goju Ryu and beyond.
After the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, however, Higa, like many Okinawans, fled to Saipan to survive, returning around 1945 to a war torn, devastated island. He went back to Miyagi and trained when they started up again, and, after Miyagi’s death, started his own school – the Shodokan.
Dejan told of visiting Higa Sekichi’s house in Okinawa. He was invited in and upstairs for refreshment. Glancing around the room, he noticed a framed certificate on the wall and asked about it. To his surprise, he was told that it was a Higa family heirloom – a certificate that authorized Higa Seiko to teach Miyagi’s Goju Ryu karate, hand written by Miyagi himself and bearing his signature and stamp. He had given it to Higa before Pearl Harbor – a priceless link to Goju’s past.
Dejan has carried on Miyagi and Higa’s lineage for almost 40 years and leads a small band of very dedicated and very adept young students at his home in Phoenix. In the face of tournament karate and mimicry of Goju kata for medal’s sake, Dejan insists on teaching the real thing. If you look into the depth of Miyagi’s vision, you can see Dejan’s kata. Watching him perform Suparinpe is itself a lesson in Goju Ryu for the seer willing to see.
The Second World War devastated the world and karate. Hundreds of karate’s greatest proponents lost their lives in pointless, doomed aggression. After the war, karate drifted off in a direction probably never envisioned by it’s organizers.
It is said that Funakoshi, the first person to carry karate from Okinawa to Japan, cried at each announcement of one of his students’ deaths in battle.
Would you cry at your student’s death in a pointless war?
Funakoshi was a major supporter of Japan, in contrast to many of his Okinawan countrymen. One can only imagine that his final years were spent in regret at supporting the Japanese war effort with young karate bodies.
The Okinawan Itosu Ankoh, Funakoshi’s teacher and one of the originators of modern karate, died long before Pearl harbor, but he was also an advocate of building “strong citizens” for Japan through karate. Would he have cried? I think so.
Japan was lead by a coven of military charlatans in the first part of the 20th century bent on Asian dominance and they dragged the country to ruin. Like the cowards they were, they took their own lives at the end of the war. They would tell you it was out of duty or honor or samurai spirit that they killed themselves. It was none of these. It was blatant cowardice, so that they wouldn’t have to face the havoc they had caused their own country and the world to endure.
Karate lost a generation of teachers. Where would we be today if Shinzato Jinan had survived and carried on Miyagi’s legacy as he intended it, had brought the “secrets” of Goju Ryu to the modern world?
There are scant vestiges of written information about karate that survived the war.
Miyagi had compiled a collection of books and artifacts from his trips to China which he planned to include in his system. Okinawa was obliterated at the end of the war and that precious collection lost forever. Imagine what it might have told us about the origins of this art.
Where would we be today if Funakoshi’s lamented followers had a chance to show us his way? As it turned out, his student, Nakayama, was most instrumental in creating Shotokan karate. What would have happened if the other students had lived.
Today Dejan Rajic and a fraternity of sensei like him across the world seek the answers through the bits and pieces of Okinawan martial arts we can glean from one another other. Pearl Harbor took away a magnitude of our karate legacy.
The world is the end result of the sum of its honor and its evil.