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Grandmaster Kanryo Higaonna was born on March 10, 1853, in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa. His father worked as a merchant sailing between the small islands of Okinawa, trading everyday goods. From a young age, Kanryo helped his father in his work and developed a strong body through the physical labor that was involved.
Kanryo was still in his teens when his father suddenly died. Afterwards, he decided he wanted to study the martial arts and set his heart on traveling to Fuzhou, China in 1869. Once in Fuzhou, he studied the Chinese martial arts under the great master Ryu Ryu Ko. He soon became his “uchi deshi” (private disciple) and remained under the grueling instruction of his teacher for roughly 13 years. He also became proficient in weapons techniques and Chinese herbal medicine, in addition to his empty-handed training. Master Ryu Ryu Ko held his pupil in such high esteem that he sanctioned Kanryo’s mastery of these arts – a rare honor. Kanryo’s skill in the martial arts was so profound that his fame became widespread throughout Fuzhou and the surrounding areas.
Chojun Miyagi (founder of Goju-Ryu and successor to Kanryo Higaonna) said of him, “My Sensei possessed incredible strength; the severity of the training he underwent in China is beyond comprehension…. Kanryo Sensei’s speed and power were truly superhuman; his hands and feet moved faster than lightning.” Words are not enough to express his real ability. We can only say that his skill was incredible, but even this fails to do him justice.
In the year 1881, after 13 years of diligent study with his teacher, Kanryo returned to Okinawa and Naha where his martial arts became known as Naha-te (these arts were also referred to as “Tode,” referring to Chinese martial arts). Higaonna taught these martial arts to the people of Okinawa and at the same time continued his own research and practice. In order to teach the youth of Okinawa he developed a teaching method which was specifically designed to develop the mind and body — to improve both physical and spiritual well-being. As a result, the previously secretive art of Naha-te was opened to society in general in October 1905 when Kanryo began teaching it in high schools.
Kanryo Higaonna was an extremely hard taskmaster while teaching. In his everyday life, however, he was a quiet and humble man and was known for his virtuous character. He was a man who had no need or desire for worldly things. He led a simple life, completely devoted to the study and practice of the martial arts.
There are many praises tied to Kanryo Higaonna’s life and training. The power of his legs was legendary, so much so that he was often referred to as “Ashi no Higaonna” (“Legs Higaonna”) in Okinawa. His virtuous character was widely known and respected, and because of his popularity the people of Naha bestowed upon him the name, “Obushi Higaonna Tanmei,” a name which reflected the affection and respect they had for this great man and supreme martial artist.
Besides his unparalleled skill in the martial arts, Kanryo’s most influential work was in bringing the Chinese martial arts to Okinawa, while devoting his whole life to karate. He passed away in December, 1915 at the age of 63. He now bears the title “Kensei (sacred fists) Higaonna Kanryo,” a well-suited title in light of his many accomplishments. To Okinawans, his name is synonymous with Okinawan martial arts and Naha-te. He will live on forever as a great and valued treasure within the Okinawan culture.