article in Black Belt Magazine 1966.
call him the "Cat." Nobody seems to know quite how he got the name.
Some say that the American G.I.'s 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.
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
59, Yamaguchi remains a baffling figure. This descendant of samurais
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.
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
is a fanatic when it comes to 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. Yamaguchi is a small man, just over five feet, 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.
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, sandalless 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.
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 he goes into action. He can deliver three
or four kicks to the stomach, chest and head in one lightning-like
Yamaguchi was born in Kyushu, Miyazaki
Ken, in 1907. The young man was fond of athletics while growing 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.
was while attending Ritsumeikan University that Yamaguchi first heard
of Goju karate and of Chojun Miyagi, the Okinawan who was head of the
school. 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 Shiri in Okinawa.
In Shiri, the emphasis had been more on the hard approach. But with
Miyagi's Goju, the soft style was as important as the hard.
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 the dance with little of the art of defense, he need
only watch two Goju practitioners square off in kumite against one
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.
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
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.
He believed that just the practice of
kata (forms) and the prearranged steps in sparring called yakusoku
kumite inhibited too many of the students. Under the movements of the
Okinawan system, he noticed that many of the students could not create
combinations of techniques readily enough or follow through with an
advantage when an opening presented itself. What Yamaguchi wanted to do
was to open up movements to make for faster play and to allow greater
freedom of movement. He wanted a system that could be tailored to
individual needs yet still retain the basic fundamentals of the system.
The idea he hit upon was kumite, or free-style sparring.
first, the kumite was systematized along boxing lines. After that, it
was a natural step to go from free-style sparring to tournament play.
But in going from the dojo to the tournament hall, the system of kumite
underwent further transformation. Yamaguchi called upon his knowledge
of the other martial arts to set up a tournament style. This time he
leaned heavily on the principles of kendo (sword play) in devising
rules of shiai (competitive) jyu kumite for sport. Kendo was favored
for two reasons: it emphasized form when delivering a strike and it
limited the target area. Despite many differences with others over the
areas to be left open for attack, Yamaguchi settled on the stomach and
head as target areas.
he explained in silencing his critics: "In kendo, a real blade can cut
any part of the human body and cause damage or fatal injury. But for
safety purposes, points are made for striking only the head and
stomach." So too for karate, he said, the strike zone should be
limited. And so were the types of blows that could be delivered. For
shiai, the opponents are restricted mainly to kicking and punching.
Elbowing, clawing, and other finger and open hand strikes were
disallowed. However, for dojo free-style sparring, the play is wide
open with no restrictions. For this reason, as has been often observed,
the best player in the dojo may often not be the best tournament
player, and vice versa.
the freeing of karate from the strict adherence to kata and the
addition of the competitive element, karate made tremendous strides in
the next few years. But the war drums were beating during that time,
and under the leadership of the war lords, Japan had embarked on an
expansionist policy. In 1939, Yamaguchi had to leave his school and was
sent to Manchuria as an officer of the Japanese government. He remained
there throughout the war. But while abroad, he took the opportunity to
travel throughout China to study various Chinese martial arts.
the end of the war, the Russians intervened in Manchuria and Yamaguchi
was taken prisoner. At the time, his wife, Midori, was expecting their
third child almost any day. Taking her two other children with her,
Mrs. Yamaguchi walked for miles to another village where she gave
birth. For the next few months, the village was raided constantly by
four different armies.
a calm, sensitive person, Mrs. Yamaguchi displayed during that period
the quiet strength and strong will characteristic of her. There are
those close to the Goju organization who say that if Yamaguchi hadn't
had the strong-willed Midori at his side during all these years he
wouldn't have been able to organize his system. Some of the old-time
students feel greater affection for her than they do for the master.
She encouraged them and kept up their spirits during the years of
had been slated for hard labor in the Russian POW camp. But even his
Russian captors were impressed by the man. When they found out who he
was, they had him give karate lessons to the Russian troops. And so the
captive became the master of the captors, who became his students. When
Yamaguchi was finally released in 1947, he came home to find the
martial arts in disarray. The victorious Allied armies had outlawed the
practice of the martial arts under the terms of their occupation. But
karate was not affected by the ban. At that time, the art was not well
known to Westerners and the army brass believed karate to be a form of
so, Yamaguchi had his work cut out for him. He found his own school
badly disorganized in his absence. He set to work with typical energy
to rebuild. One thing that aided him was his dramatic appearance. He
had taken to wearing his hair long, in the style of older Shinto
priests and the samurais of old. As the ancient ways were being swept
aside in the aftermath of war and the exposure to Western ideas,
Yamaguchi reaffirmed his faith in the country's basic traditions by
affecting the style of the ancient feudal lords.
His striking appearance and his appeal
to ancient pride struck a responsive note in the Japanese people. The
years ahead were to witness a remarkable expansion in karate and all
the arts as well, and not only in Japan, but other nations, too. It is
somewhat ironic that, while Japan was unable to expand its ideas by
force of arms during the war, its system of individual fighting was to
sweep the rest of the world in peacetime. It's also interesting to note
that the military occupation was also to prove advantageous from one
point of view. There were many servicemen who found their way to his
Goju-Kai dojo in Tokyo and studied the art there. When they left to
return home, they took the art with them and aided the expansion
of the first things that Yamaguchi did when he arrived back from
Manchuria was to try to revive interest in the arts again. He decided
to hold a big week-long exhibition in Tokyo featuring all the various
Chinese arts he had discovered during his years there as well as the
traditional Japanese arts. The festival proved to be a great success
and helped reawaken interest. Meanwhile, Yamaguchi's students were
flocking back to him. Today, the Goju school flourishes in Japan. From
his headquarters at the Goju-Kai, Yamaguchi oversees a vast network of
dojo in schools, offices, factories and elsewhere across the country.
And Yamaguchi keeps tight control over the organization.
result is a highly organized school with strong financial resources for
running and expanding the system. To his instructors and top students,
Yamaguchi can hold out the prospect of their opening their own dojo. He
can supply them with the monetary backing they need to tide them over
while becoming established. In return, they owe their allegiance to the
Cat and his school. Partly through financial help and partly through
force of personality,
has been successful in tying his dojo heads to him instead of seeing
them spin off to open up systems on their own. To keep the system
going, there has to be a steady stream of funds moving upward through
the organization to be dispersed at the top for promoting the system.
Times have changed since the old days when a master instructed a few
pupils who came to his home to study. Yamaguchi now has almost 2,000
students at his Goju-Kai dojo alone. It takes organization and
financial liquidity to run a large and successful martial arts
are received in two ways- through the initiation fee each student pays
when he enrolls at a dojo affiliated with the Goju system and through
the purchase of certificates and diplomas of ranking. Part of the funds
go to the local dojo and part is passed along to the central
organization. At the top, Yamaguchi uses the funds to open new dojo,
pay the expenses and salaries of his instructors and to meet
goju brand of karate is as complex as the baffling figure who heads the
system. Its style is a hybrid of Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese
influences. In addition, Goju karate has been influenced by a number of
the other martial arts. Many of the school's movements are very soft,
as in Chinese kenpo. The Okinawan brand of karate was originally
imported from China more than 400 years ago, but had developed into a
hard style during its years on the island. Goju doctrine holds that
certain breathing exercises can harden a man to the point where he can
absorb a kick or a punch without feeling pain.
men will sometimes test themselves by raining blows on each other
during the breathing kata. Their concentration is so. intense that they
continue the exercises, seemingly impervious to the blows. Miyagi
reinstituted the Chinese influence after he made a trip to the mainland
to study the different Chinese arts. Originally, Miyagi had been a
student of the Shorin school, a hard style.
story is told that while visiting a temple, he noticed a crane sitting
on a roof which was made of tile. As he approached the huge bird, the
crane became alarmed and flew away. As it was flying away, the
frightened crane flapped its wings against the tile roof, breaking some
of the tiles in the process. Miyagi was amazed that the soft feathers
of the crane were able to break something as hard as tiles. With that
as the beginning, he devised a whole new approach to karate, mixing in
with the hard techniques many soft ones to be used in countering hard
blows and kicks.
goju techniques today actually look like the flapping of a bird's
wings. Many blocks and strikes are in the form of slaps, though the
slaps usually feel a lot more bear-like when one is on the receiving
end. Though graceful and bird-like in appearance, they are delivered
with a powerful snap. In actual practice, the goju man uses what he
terms the "five power rule" in countering a hard blow with a soft
technique. The five-power rule is used for grading the intensity with
which a blow is delivered. A lightly delivered blow would be using only
one-power or two-power strength. An extremely heavy blow would be
countering a full-force blow, a goju man would never meet the force of
the blow head on with an equally hard block. Instead, he would wait
toward the end of the strike and parry with a three-power block. By
using only moderate power to block, the goju man would conserve
strength. By waiting, the opponent is allowed to commit himself to
following through on his strike. If the opponent is countered too soon,
it gives him a chance to recover and to apply another technique.
course, this waiting until toward the -end of the opponent's blows
requires developing a good sense of timing and split instant reactions
to be able to get the counter blow off quickly and accurately. Hence,
the great emphasis on speed in this school. Blows are delivered swiftly
and in rapid succession. Yamaguchi, for instance, can deliver three or
four kicks to the chest, neck, and side of the face in the same lunge.
His hand strikes are delivered with blinding speed. One of his tricks
is to hang a piece of cardboard by two slender threads and then
withdraw his hand into the sleeve of his gi. His hand can shoot out and
Pierce the cardboard with three finger holes and then be withdrawn into
the sleeve with an observer barely able to notice the flicking
movement. At the same time, the cardboard hasn't moved, though it bears
the telltale three punctures.
overall movements of the entire system are based on speed. There is a
great deal of moving in and out quickly and weaving from side to side,
in contrast to the hard schools which concentrate more on
straightforward movements. Naturally, all this fast motion lends itself
to graceful and artistic techniques. A basic stance, called the cat
stance, is a very soft one with one foot poised on tiptoe, ready to
move quickly in any direction. This is in direct contrast to the solid,
flat-footed stance so often employed in the hard styles.
facet of Goju is the extreme closeness with which the blows are
delivered in kumite. The school emphasizes control of motions and a
student is supposed to be able to stop a punch or kick only fractions
of an inch from target. Yamaguchi himself knows hundreds of techniques.
But his favorite techniques are concerned with kicking and elbow
strikes. He has huge elbows and delivers the elbow blows with great
force. As for kicks, he likes specially a front kick and roundhouse
kick in combination. But even with all this emphasis on speed, the
study of the traditional kata is still underscored. Goju, with its love
of graceful and delicate movements could be expected to venerate the
historical kata. Many Goju men feel that the kata is usually more
dynamic and far more beautiful than kumite, not to mention considerably
is another form of kata for which the school is famous and without
which no explanation of the Goju style would be complete. That is the
school's breathing kata. No one who has ever witnessed a Goju man
practicing his breathing kata under a full head of steam will ever
forget the experience. It is an awesome and, to those of a more timid
turn, sometimes frightening experience. A good Goju man can be heard
half a block away and more while engaged in breathing exercises.
are two types of breathing practiced, the in-ibuki and the yo-ibuki.
The in-ibuki is the soft but firm type of breathing which starts from
deep within the abdomen. This is similar to the type of breathing which
is practiced in Yoga and Zen meditation, and is usually directed
towards spiritual and meditative matters when practiced. Goju adherents
never tire of repeating that this is the normal way a baby breathes. It
is only when we get older that we learn to breathe from our chest.
yo-ibuki is the hard style of breathing. The sound effects are
menacing. The breathing is loud and heavy and comes from deep within,
producing something of the sound of a full-throated lion about to
strike. The inhaling is done in quick intakes through the nose while
the exhaling is a prolonged process of short breaths through the mouth.
In exhaling the whole body is tensed, including the throat and
esophagus. This tightens the air passage and the air is forced from the
abdomen. This whole process is said to be combative or animal-like
tensing that is carried out during the breathing exercises is similar
to that carried on in dynamic tension and isometric exercises. Tensing
is believed to build up physical strength. And that goes internally,
too, where the breathing is said to strengthen the heart and other
vital organs. The student is taught never to exhale all his breath at
once but to ration it out in short breaths. One reason is to always
save a little breath so that an opponent cannot strike when one is out
of breath and at one's weakest just before inhaling. The idea is always
to save a little breath to counter. A good Goju man who is really
warmed up will stride across the floor rippling every muscle from head
to foot while engaged in powerful animal-like breathing. The effect can
be quite spectacular.
there is another side to the breathing exercises, the side concerned
with the mental and spiritual aspects of karate. By its very nature,
this is the side most difficult to grasp for many persons, especially
Westerners. The most advanced type of breathing exercise is that in
which all of one's strength is concentrated on a specific feeling or
thought. It is through concentration and meditation that man learns to
martial- arts are an excellent example of the Oriental approach to
life. In the Western world, great emphasis is placed on team sports.
But the Oriental thinks of life as an individual and personal thing and
trains by himself in his sports. The arts also stress discipline-not
only physical control of the body but control of the mind as well. The
idea is to try to conquer one's own laziness and shortcomings through
mental training and discipline. Whereas in the West we are taught that
the needs of the body are important and not be neglected, the opposite
is true in much of Oriental philosophy. Shintoism and Buddhism deny
people's nature. A person is taught to endure hardness and to shun
bodily pleasure. As a result, many serious students of karate in Japan
go into periods of hard training without eating anything to test their
endurance and patience.
most Orientals tend to be pessimists. They tend to deny their service
as human beings. Religion teaches them that this life is just borrowed
and the really pure and happy life comes after death. As a result, the
Oriental tends to live not for himself but is taught to be
self-sacrificing.(this point is debateable) ed. As this is translated
in the martial arts, it requires much self-sacrificing effort and
disciplining. For instance, in Yamaguchi's place, he goes out into the
mountains once a month to toughen himself up spiritually and
physically. He engages in sanchin (breathing) exercises for several
hours under an icy waterfall to try to make his mind and spirit
impenetrable to adverse physical conditions.
the coldest part of the winter, Yamaguchi sets off for two weeks of
grueling exercises in snow clad mountains. Last winter, the outdoor
excursion was held on the slopes of Mt. Nagano Ontake. Each day started
off with Yamaguchi and his followers pouring ice water over themselves.
After that bracing morning eye opener, they ran around for a while
before doing calisthenics and sanchin exercises under a stream of water
that poured down on them. At the end of the training session,
Yamaguchi, still fresh and bursting with vitality, led his charges on a
barefoot run up the hill to the Ontake Shrine for a little Zazen
Many Australian karate ka have experienced similar training especially
in the latter years at Kashima Jimbu Den.) ed.
away from such a stimulating environment, Yamaguchi still keeps a rigid
schedule at home. He rises early and manages to get in an hour or more
of meditation and more than an hour of kata practice by himself every
morning. After breakfast and catching up on his correspondence and
other business details, he puts in a full day teaching and working at
the dojo. He can be found there most days from noon until 10 p.m.
he's 59 years old now, Yamaguchi shows no signs of slowing down. Just
the opposite. He has big plans afoot which require his energies. He has
one big dream and that is to start a four-year martial arts college in
Japan. He has started construction on the first building already. After
the first two years, the student would receive his black belt. In the
third and fourth year the student would train to be an instructor.
Other subjects studied would be weaponry, chiropody (Yamaguchi is a
bone specialist), religion and Japanese art.(It is this College
that Paul Starling Shihan entered as Sandan Instructor, and graduated
from in 1973 as the first Shihan Graduate.) ed.
Fully realizing the spread of karate
outside Japan, he has reached out to try to expand his school in the
United States. Since the Shotokan school got the jump on Yamaguchi and
has been strongly established in the Los Angeles area for years, he has
made his principal U.S. headquarters at the Goju-Kai Karatedo in San
Francisco. The San Francisco school is under the direction of
Yamaguchi's son, Gosei. Gosei is a black belt, of course, like his two
brothers and two sisters. All five children began instruction at an
early age. But though Gosei studied karate practically every day of his
life from age five onwards, his father did not give him a black belt
until he was 20 years old.
he admonished his son, "we are always students of karate. We can never
be complete masters." He drove his sons relentlessly in their study of
the art to try to make them as expert as possible. The result is as
might be predicted. Though he made them highly proficient, even
brilliant, practitioners of the art, their main interest has not been
in the field of karate, at least in the case of the two oldest sons.
Originally, Gosen Yamaguchi was sent to the United States to establish
the school here. But after two years, he quit and went to work for
Japan Airlines. Gosei Yamaguchi, who took over, is more interested in
literature and acting, and is taking his master's degree in English
literature at San Francisco State College. The third son, Goshi, is the
strongest and best karate fighter of the three, but he has artistic and
photographic interests and it remains to be seen in which field his
interests will lay. (interestingly, it has been Goshi Shihan who has
emerged as the IKGA World Wide leader of the International Goju Kai).ed.
hard with his sons, Yamaguchi has been softer with the girls, which
seems particularly fitting in view of his overall philosophy of
hardness and softness. Whether go or ju in his outlook, one thing can
be expected of the cat man of karate. He will always be on the move,
looking for new and varied ways to expand his beloved Goju system.
(Gogen Yamaguchi Hanshi passed away in 1989,)
By Sonny Palabrica Black Belt,
Copyright 1 Black Belt
Magazine http://www.blackbeltmag.com Sonny Palabrica
March April edition 1966