by Garry Lever (2013)

What is rekishikan? In our small group, as well as studying the physical movements of Goju-Ryu, members are also expected to research the history, culture, and philosophy of Okinawan Karate in general in order to develop a greater appreciation of their art. Although such things can perhaps be studied from a book, it is much more than this, for it has to be learnt with the heart rather than the head. For this reason, the term 'academic studies' was not appropriate, as this would amount to nothing more than being able to memorize a bunch of dates and quotes. Anybody with half a brain could do this, yet still have learnt nothing through the process. We needed a term which would group these studies together, whilst implying that they were to be actively researched in the same manner as one would approach kata, rather than simply learnt by rote. As usual, when puzzled with matters relating to Japanese language or terminology, I troubled my friend Asako, who after consultation with a friend suggested the term rekishikan.

This term is made of two parts. Rekishi () meaning history, and Kan () meaning outlook or perspective. Together they imply 'studying the historical perspective of our art in order to develop a better outlook on today's practices'.

What does it mean to study the history of Goju-Ryu? The recent history of our art, especially since the passing of Miyagi Chojun Sensei, has become particularly messy and controversial, with many conflicting accounts of who did what, was taught what by whom, and trivial matters such as successorship. Such matters bear very little importance upon our study of Miyagi Sensei's art and would probably make him quite embarrassed about such antics being performed under his name. To truly study the history of Goju-Ryu means we have to observe closely the cultural, social, and political goings-on of the time when it was developed. We have to be able to get into the mind of Miyagi Sensei and observe through his eyes in order to understand what may have influenced his thinking and what he might have come into contact with. By studying the life and times of Miyagi Sensei we can learn that he was adopted into a wealthy household, studied Nahadi under Higashionna Kanryo Sensei, served as a soldier, was an influential member of the Tode Kenkyukai which consisted of masters from Shorin-Ryu, Naha-Te, and Udundi. He had close links with members of Naha's Chinese community and travelled extensively to China, Japan, and Hawaii. We can observe from his writing and oral testimonies that he was dissatisfied with his level of understanding after the passing of Higashionna Kanryo Sensei, and so visited other teachers in order to further develop his skill. We know that he was continually evolving his practice, making additions and amendments throughout his life. He was of noble descent and very wealthy, meaning certain doors were opened more easily for him than many of his peers. He was influential in establishing Okinawan Karate as an authentic form of Japanese Budo. These different parts of the story enable the reader to draw certain conclusions and provide helpful clues as to where to research.

One of my major frustrations about Goju-Ryu is that Miyagi Sensei died at such a relatively young age, with so much still to accomplish. In addition to this, his research materials, accumulated over the course of his life and travels were destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa. These two things have left huge holes in the transmission of Miyagi Sensei's art and theories. After a trip to Okinawa some years ago, and having come up against a brick wall with many of my questions, I concluded that Miyagi Sensei had a change of heart in his approach to teaching later in life. Prior to WW2, he had followed the custom of teaching only a couple of kata to each student which were to be studied in depth. Following the war, and again it is important to look at the life of Miyagi Sensei to see what happened to him and his family, Miyagi Sensei changed his approach to teaching by giving away the physical movements of kata more freely, teaching students maybe 5 or 6 kata, but providing little in the way of detailed instruction. That the hojo undo equipment was preserved and passed on to his student Miyazato Eiichi Sensei is quite a metaphor, for Miyagi Sensei in essence decided to preserve the 'tools' one would need to be able to decode his art. The theory and deeper knowledge would hopefully reveal itself over time, but the tools (ie kata, junbi undo, hojo undo, kakie, etc) would set you off in the right direction. Once I realized this, I became much less despondent and saw that all was not lost. There would just be no quick fix approach to developing an understanding. No hidden secrets, just practice!

Miyagi Sensei was an avid reader and collector of books on many different subjects, from martial arts texts, to medical journals. He reportedly brought many books back to Okinawa from China, and so it is also useful to read translations of texts which would have been readily available to him in Okinawa, Japan, and China, to get an idea of the theories his research might have exposed him too. The written word has a great way of capturing the prevalent thoughts of an era, and by reading such works we are transported back in time to see through the eyes of those practicing during the period of modern Karate's development.

Most students of Goju-Ryu will no doubt be aware that Higashionna Kanryo Sensei, after having received his initial training in Okinawa from members of the Chinese community, sought further tuition in Fuzhou where popular history has it that he received tuition from the mysterious Ru Ru Ko in a form of White Crane Boxing. Modern researchers have devoted much time in trying to pin down the exact system studied by Higashionna Sensei, with little success so far. If we can't even be sure about what Miyagi Sensei learnt directly from his teacher, what chance do we have of ever finding out the truth about Higashionna Sensei's training history? I fear that the popular oral testimonies and subsequent efforts to promote a political agenda in both China and Okinawa have all but dashed any hopes of uncovering the true roots of Goju-Ryu. Despite this, all hope is not lost. By researching the various arts which share common roots in the Fukien province, we can find a universal set of basic principles which apply to all these arts, and also to Goju-Ryu. In order to uncover the deeper aspects of Goju-Ryu theory, it is my belief that we need to look to China. The kata might be called different names, or bear little resemblance in their composition, but the ideas and principles contained within are all cut from the same cloth. This provides exciting avenues of research for both martial and health aspects. Miyagi Sensei himself was an advocate of this, establishing important links with bujutsu groups in China and maintaining close friendships with Chinese martial artists based in Naha such as Gokenki and To Daiji.

Despite the physical aspects of Goju-Ryu sharing close links with Chinese and South-East Asian martial traditions in general, the spirit Okinawan Karate is something quite different altogether. This is where it becomes important to study the culture of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom in order to understand the essence of Okinawan bujutsu. It is however, important to note that this spirit is gradually being lost as the art becomes the property of the international community rather than the island it was formed in. It is inevitable that the Karate of the west will gradually become more western, but it is perhaps less obvious that the Karate of Okinawa has also become more western, losing some of the traits which make it unique amongst all martial traditions.

What is the spirit of Okinawan Karate? What do such maxims as Karate ni sente nashi actually mean? Is it even worth preserving the ideals of a long forgotten age in an island hundreds of miles away, with an entirely different culture to ours? Once again, knowing various maxims and the kanji with which they are composed matters little if we cannot find relevance within our own lives. This is the meaning of rekishikan, and why it holds equal importance to the physical aspects of the art.

The term Goju-Ryu in my admittedly biased opinion, carries the deepest meaning of all the different schools of Okinawan Karate. I have no idea how much time I have devoted to contemplating what it truly means to possess Go and Ju qualities in both my physical movements, and my general attitude and personal behavior. In deciding upon this name, Miyagi Chojun Sensei has issued a challenge to all who have chosen to follow in his footsteps. This challenge is one I can see myself struggling with for the rest of my life. The inspiring thing about learning from the past though, is that you will quickly find that Miyagi Sensei himself was by no means perfect, and was facing the same challenge himself as he 'groped along a long dark path'. It is an ongoing challenge with ever deeper levels of complexity which only reveal themselves as you tear away at the surface. Many times, that which you thought was the problem, turns out to be just an illusion as something more profound emerges from underneath. This is why 'there is no end to the way'. By conducting rekishikan, you will find there is always something to study and occupy an idle mind. Just make sure you don't become lost in the past; keep looking at how such things maintain their relevance today.

Enjoy the search!

Garry Lever
Uraniwa Dojo
London England

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”