Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Vintage Profile of Karate Great Gogen Yamaguchi

Black Belt revived an old profile of karate great Gogen Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi was one of the giants of Goju Ryu Karate. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

Journey back in time to March 1966 when Black Belt profiled a well-known Japanese martial artist and featured him on the cover. Thus was goju karate introduced the American martial arts masses.

This vintage piece on a karate icon was first published in Black Belt's March 1966 issue.

They call him the “Cat." Nobody seems to know quite how he got the name. Some say that the American GIs stationed in Japan after World War II were the first to dub him with it because he walked so softly in the dojo they never knew when he glided up behind them.

But however the name first got started, it has stuck. It seems particularly appropriate to the lithe movements of the man himself and to the graceful, beautiful brand of karate he preaches.

The Cat, whose real name is Gogen Yamaguchi, is the head of the famous goju school of karate. With his flowing hair and his piercing black eyes, this remarkable karateka has become a world figure and something of a legend in his own time. Coming out of a Manchurian prison camp after World War II, he picked up the reins of a flagging school and built it into a powerful, sprawling karate empire.

Baffling Figure

At 59, Yamaguchi remains a baffling figure. This descendant of samurai certainly is one of the most complex figures striding the world karate stage, and a bundle of contradictions. A Shinto priest, he is a deeply religious man. He also has the unmistakable flair that, if it were in any other field, he would have to be described as a showman. He is an apostle of calm meditation and philosophy and at the same time a restless, driving and energetic head of a worldwide karate organization.

Deeply suspicious of businessmen, he is himself the business head of what is one of the biggest and most financially successful karate systems in Japan. Domineering, humorless, he keeps a tight karate fist on the operation of the organization and the more than 1,200 dojo and clubs and 600,000 members claimed for the goju system.

Yamaguchi is a fanatic when it comes to the question of karate. He has only two interests in life: his art and his religion. And it's difficult to tell just where the religious man leaves off and the karate man begins. The two have become so intertwined over the years that they are probably one and the same by now.

Mountain Training

Yamaguchi is a small man, just over 5 feet tall, but he gives the impression of great bulk and solemnity. His 160 pounds is spread over a powerful frame. He has been known to smile, but not very often. He is gravely serious and reserved, with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of dignity.

At the same time, he can be a boon companion to close karate companions on their exuberant physical outings. He comes alive best when charging up a mountainside in the dead of winter at the head of a group of followers, sandal-less and clad only in a thin gi.

While his interests are limited now, his has not been a narrow background. Trained in the law, he is also a medical doctor. He has studied all the major branches of the various arts and is a fifth-degree black belt in judo.


Yamaguchi is a vegetarian, but he still has managed to put on a few pounds in the last few years. Yet it doesn't seem to have slowed him down. He still flashes his famous speed when hegoes into action. He can deliver three or four kicks to the stomach, chest and head in one lightning-like lunge.

Yamaguchi was born in Kyushu, Miyazaki Ken, in 1907. The young man was fond of athletics while growing up, and it was here he first began to study karate. But it wasn't until the family moved to Kyoto while he was in his teens that he began the serious study of karate. It was while attending Ritsumeikan University that Yamaguchi first heard of goju karate and of Chojun Miyagi, the Okinawan who was head of the school.

Fateful Meeting

Curious about the system, Yamaguchi wrote to Miyagi and invited him to come to Japan. Miyagi accepted and left shortly thereafter. The meeting of the two was to be a fateful one, not only for goju but for all of karate as well.

Miyagi came from the city of Naha where the development of karate had taken a separate path. The other major schools of karate were centered mainly in Shim in Okinawa. In Shiru, the emphasis had been more on the hard approach. But with Miyagi and goju, the soft style takes equal precedence with the hard.

Hard-Soft Style

Indeed, the word “goju" means hard-soft. Go is the Japanese word for hardness, and ju means softness. The system is based on an Oriental concept that all hardness and stiffness is not good. At the same time, all softness and too much gentleness can be harmful. The two should complement each other.

This combination of the two gives goju karate its beautiful, disciplined movements, filled with grace and flowing form. But lest anyone believe that goju is merely a beautiful style of dance with little of the art of defense, he need only watch two goju practitioners square off in kumite.

The action is fast, extremely fast. It relies on an aggressive style of attack, with the emphasis on delivering blows “hard" but with easy effort and in rapid succession. The opponents don't have much time to stand still and to look cautiously for openings. They are exchanging kicks and punches rapidly, always moving, not only forward and back, but maneuvering from side to side and aiming blows from the outside left or right.

Yamaguchi immediately fell in love with the strange and intricate patterns displayed by Miyagi. From that moment on, the future of Yamaguchi was sealed. He concentrated on the study of goju to the exclusion of almost everything else. When Miyagi left to return to Okinawa, he left behind a well-trained and dedicated follower. Miyagi awarded Yamaguchi the highest rank in goju and made him head of the school in Japan.

Devoted Apostle

Miyagi couldn't have made a better choice. Driving, relentless, Yamaguchi became the apostle of goju in Japan. With single-minded determination, he set about the task of spreading the word throughout Japan.

The first thing he did was to set about establishing dojo. He organized the first karate club at Ritsumeikan University and the first karate dojo in western Japan in 1930. Under his indefatigable leadership the school began to attract new adherents and the goju karate system began to fan out across the island nation.

Early in the Japanese development, Yamaguchi made a fundamental change in the goju school that was to alter radically the course of karate. After observing his students, he came to the conclusion that the strict Okinawan brand of karate, with its ancient Chinese origins, was too static and limited in style.


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