Battle of Okinawa

By: David Lambert – IOGKF Australia

The Battle of Okinawa was a brutal and horrific battle which proved to be the greatest threat to the survival of Goju-ryu Karate. Miyagi Chojun Sensei’s live during this time was intense and busy. From losing his own children through the perils of war, to running in political campaigns, the future and fate of Goju-ryu was sealed on Chojun Sensei’s story of survival and motivation. The author of this article presents a deeply researched study into the battle and Miyagi Chojun Sensei’s life during this time...

Foreword by author:

War and battle is always a sensitive subject for not only the many who are or were involved someway, but also for their ancestors and their countries. This article stemmed from my own personal research into the Pacific war and the Battle of Okinawa, completed over three years ago. It was something I had ‘shelved’ so to speak, but never intended to write about. In early 2010, I watched a television miniseries entitled ‘the Pacific’, which followed the lives of 3 American marines, one of which fought in the Battle of Okinawa. This program was the motivation for me to pull my old notes off the shelf and write the below article. The purpose of the article is not intended to take sides or condone conflict in any way shape or form, but merely ‘paint a picture’ if you will of what the Okinawan people went through and the actual Battle of Okinawa’s relation in regards to Miyagi Chojun Sensei and Goju-ryu Karate.

Goju-ryu Karate & Okinawa before the Battle:

“World War II played a significant role in the history of Goju-ryu Karate.”

Master Morio Higaonna

War had broken out in Europe, which at the time was a world away to Okinawa and Miyagi Chojun Sensei. However when Japan sided with Nazi Germany and was deeply entrenched in battle with China, Chojun Sensei feared that the brutal war of the Pacific theatre would eventually spread its violent shroud over Okinawa.

Fearsome battles had already taken place, where Japanese troops basically died to the man defending island bases on Iwo Jima, Peleliu, Saipan and Guam. The American takeover of the Pacific to drive Japanese forces back was most definitely planned to end with an invasion of the mainland itself. Only one stepping stone remained, the island of Okinawa.

During this period with war looming to sweep upon Okinawa’s boarders, Miyagi Chojun Sensei moved his residence around quite a bit. However Chojun Sensei kept his position as Shihan (master) for the Okinawan Prefectural Teachers College’s Karate club. This was a position that he began in 1937 when he replaced the late Yabe Kentsu Sensei and one he remained in until just before the war broke out on Okinawa.

Chojun Sensei’s top student at this time was Jin’an Shinzato. He was a police man, but an excellent Karate-ka, who’s Sesan Kata was said to be near perfect. Chojun Sensei had intended to leave Goju-ryu Karate in the hands of Shinzato Sensei after his passing.

In 1940, before Chojun Sensei left his teaching position at College, a Tokyo Doctor by the name of Muneyoshi Yanagi, brought a team of his assistants to Okinawa to research the culture and folk craft, one such past time being Karate. It was Dr. Yanagi that videoed the below footage at the Teachers College – In the Hojo Undo footage, Chojun Sensei’s top student – Jin’an Shinzato is on the far left practicing with the Chishi. I often wonder if there is more of this footage and possible footage of Chojun Sensei out there some where?

1940 was also a big year for Goju-ryu, as it was really the time where the system was completed. Chojun Sensei created the Gekisai Kata’s in 1940. With definite hardship ahead for Okinawa, Chojun Sensei wanted to bolster the spirits of the younger generation. He made these Kata’s with powerful basic combinations, which would not only improve the strength and technique of the student, but also make them feel powerful and strong at the same time. He decided to finish Gekisai Dai Ichi with a step forward to show pride and encourage the spirit of the Okinawan people. Chojun Sensei first began teaching these at the Naha commercial high school and the police academy.

(This famous photo originated from Dr.Yanagi’s visit.)

The Battle Begins:

The invasion of American troops onto the island began on April 1st, 1945. The day was a suppositious one for the American’s as this day was also Easter Sunday and April fools. Many American marines were left wondering whether they would rise to victory again or be made fools of by taking on the Japanese on turf so close to their enemies. The invasion was entitled Operation: Iceberg.

In the first hour alone of the American landing, 16,000 troops touched down on the beaches of Okinawa. The US marines were told they could expect up to 80 – 85% casualties on the beaches. This didn’t happen.

The Japanese army had about 110,000 – 115,000 men ready to do battle on Okinawa. However, they knew there was no way they could hold the beaches. Strategically, the Japanese forces moved inland where they could battle their enemy for the high mountains, deep valleys and hidden caves that lay across the island nation.

Never in another point in history had so many US Navy vessels been together, as there had been off the coast of Okinawa during the Battle. This military might was described in one Japanese soldier’s diary:

“It’s like a Frog meeting a Snake & the Snake waiting to eat it.”

Japanese soldier

Bushido – the Samurai code:

“When a state of surrender occurred, some of the remaining Japanese went to the Southern tip of the island, a place that was very precipitous and jumped off...jumped off. What sort of a guy would do that?”

Lt. Gen. Victor Krulak

Japan, under the rule of its Emperor, Hirohito, brought forth a weapon that American forces had never considered, backed by a code that would continue to make the Japanese the toughest enemy they had ever faced. To the Japanese the Emperor was considered a living God. One whose physical protection and honour was to be defended at all costs.

The code of the Samurai, by which most traditional martial artists live their lives, was and still is called Bushido. It is almost a silent code to yourself to never give up and really never surrender to an enemy or difficult task. I think modern day cinema probably captured this best for western audiences in the scene below from the film – the Last Samurai.

Although it is an American character displaying the Bushido concept, the principles still apply. Tom Cruise’s character would not admit defeat in this scene, even when he had clearly been defeated and wounded. The Japanese soldiers fought by the same code, in honour of their Emperor. They refused to go quietly and would not bare the shame of defeat, often committing ritual suicide or ‘seipukku’.

This attitude is also depicted in the Pacific miniseries, but in much more graphic detail.

The Divine Wind:

“The Kamikaze came like Witches on broomsticks.”

US Marine

(A Kamikaze fighter plane en route to strike a US Battleship)

But the most dangerous weapon in the Emperors loyal army was the divine wind, probably better known to most people reading this as the Kamikaze. The Kamikaze had basically been unseen by the American’s up until this point in battles with Japan. There had been the occasional collision between ships and enemy aircraft, but nothing ever planned like the Kamikaze attacks were.

An operation or plan entitled ‘Ten-go’ would see 4,000 suicide Kamikaze pilots attacked the American fleet. But Kamikaze applied to ground and sea troops as well. Their general devised a code for this self sacrificing method of attack:

1 man: for 10 enemies or 1 tank

1 boat: for 1 ship

1 plane: for 1 warship

Warning: The below documentary does show some War violence & victims

Parental Discretion is advised.

Kamikaze Documentary Clip

April 11th, 1945 was the first time a planned Kamikaze pilot attack got through the American defences and it struck the USS Missouri. 10 other waves followed in the coming days. The members of the Missouri gave the Kamikaze pilot a traditional at sea burial the next day. It is said that the young pilots, many of them drafted, would attend their own funerals before taking off to their grim fate.

The Battle of Okinawa:

“Okinawa was the most intense and famous battle in military history.”

Winston Churchill

There were now basically two battles happening but this time - One with the Kamikaze pilots taking on the US Navy and the other with American troops fighting against Japanese numbers on the ground.

I could go into great detail on the actual movements of troops during the battle of Okinawa itself, however that might be something for another article. But to tell it as basic as possible, most of the fighting took place in the South, working its way up North to the Motobu peninsula, which became known Shuri line. It was actually inside Shuri castle where the Japanese based themselves quite heavily. If you are after in depth detail of the actual battle, I highly recommend reading ‘With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa’, by Dr. E.B Sledge. It was from this book that most of the television series ‘The pacific’ was based.

The Battle of Okinawa was one of, if not the, most violent and horrifying conflicts in history. Young men on both sides, along with countless innocent Japanese were caught up in the kayos and destruction that nearly destroyed such a beautiful nation and its culture. The facts on the Battle say it all:

  •  Including Pearl Harbour, the United States Navy never lost as many ships and men as it did in the Battle of Okinawa.
  • The two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, would not kill as many Japanese people as did the Battle of Okinawa.
  •  And in a battle that lasted 82 gruelling days, 3,000 people would die every 24 hours. 246,000 people in total.

All of this loss, to gain only (on average) 133 yards each day...

With the Old Breed:

“There’s not a day goes by when I don’t think about it. But then you remember the dead & how many of them there were. They were just ‘snuffed’ out...and there’s no way you could ever forget them.”

Eugene B. Sledge,

US Marine who fought on Okinawa

(Eugene B. Sledge)

I mentioned before about the ‘with the old breed’ book. US Marine E.B. Sledge kept notes during the battle inside his copy of the Bible and years after returning home wrote down his terrifying and heart wrenching experiences. Sledge tells many stories that really show how tough the going really was on Okinawa during the war. Stories about 10 days of torrential rain, about the Battles with the Japanese, about the effects it had on the men. Sledge, along with many other American, Japanese and Okinawan people experienced things that no person should ever have too. One such scene from the Pacific that is mostly true to the ‘With the Old Breed’ book has been placed below. It really paints the picture of the hardship all involved in the Okinawa campaign went through.

Warning: The below scene shows war victims and war scenes,

 Parental discretion is advised.

From ‘The Pacific’ – Battle of Okinawa episode

The effects on Goju-Ryu Karate & Miyagi Chojun Sensei’s story:

“Dead bodies lay all around; it was like hell on Earth”

Master Anichi Miyagi

As the Battle was preparing to begin, Miyagi Chojun Sensei had great fears for the safety and future of Goju-ryu Karate. I believe that even a scholar as wise as Chojun Sensei could not have predicted the hard times the Okinawan people were about face, along with having any idea of the personal loses he was about to go through.

There was a large air raid on October 10th, 1945, which hit Naha quite hard. Chojun Sensei decided he would take measures to protect his Karate records. He gathered up all his books and papers, along with a few Hojo Undo implements (like Chishi and Nigire Game) and travelled to Matsushita-Cho (a district of Naha) and buried them in what he assumed would be a safe location. He then travelled to Urasoe and did a similar thing again with some of his other material. Inside those baskets were every Master’s and historians dream – it is even said there were entries on Chojun Sensei’s own dreams and ambitions for Karate within these baskets. All this effort proved to be in vain.

I often thought to myself for many years, that these baskets could possibly be intact somewhere underground, but after researching and understanding a little more about mortar fire I believe it is pretty safe to say that there is no way these records to have survived.

At this time, residents living in Naha, Shuri, Mawashi and Aza evacuated to Northern Okinawa, which was considered the safest part of the island. Chojun Sensei and his family followed a similar method. However Chojun Sensei sent his family on ahead of him under the cover of night. He would then follow along after, most probably in the early hours of the morning. I’m not entirely sure of Chojun Sensei’s mentality for this process, but it is widely known he was very famous across the island and it was probably to protect his family.

(Okinawan’s fleeing their homes and the kayos of the Battle.)

It took about 3 days to reach the top of the island on foot in this manner and it was on the second night that Chojun Sensei had an encounter with a US fighter pilot. Chojun Sensei was walking through the middle of two rice paddy fields when he heard the roar of an American fighter plane. The US pilot must have believed that Chojun Sensei was a Japanese soldier, because he came down hard on him with guns blazing. Chojun Sensei had to dive for cover in the rice fields. The fighter realising he hadn’t killed his target, came around for another pass. Chojun Sensei evaded the fire by running in a zig zag formation. The pilot also made other passes until I assume he realised he was wasting a great deal of ammunition on one very agile target. He eventually arrived safely in Henoki to meet his family.

However, he could not keep all his family and students safe. His 3rd and 4th daughters were killed trying to reach the safety of the mainland and his top student, Jin’an Shinzato was literally blown to pieces by a grenade. These deaths really affected Chojun Sensei deeply and many often comment that he became really upset when reflecting on these people.

Like many innocent Okinawa’s the Miyagi family concealed themselves from the American’s and Japanese in caves. However on April 26 (also the Emperor’s birthday), US marines announced via loud speaker for the Okinawan’s to come out of the caves. Chojun Sensei, his family and many others obeyed. There were taken away to a POW camp, where, eventually, he and his family were based for nine months. In the district of Taira, where the POW camp was based, most houses had straw roofs. However due to the high respect people held Chojun Sensei in, he was given a house with a tiled roof. Seisuke Nakamoto (a student of Chojun Sensei living in the same area) told of how he was given a pillow by villagers to give to Chojun Sensei to ensure his comfort. He also told of a time when an American jeep pulled him up and the soldiers inside asked if he knew of anyone important living in the area. Nakamoto assumed the soldiers were looking for the Goju-ryu Master and said he knew of no one.

(A POW camp during the later stages of the Battle of Okinawa)

End of the War and Chojun Sensei’s entry into politics:

“War doesn’t determine who is right, War determines who is left.”


On August 15th, 1945, Japan unconditionally surrendered and World War II had come to its official end. In September the same year, various committees were set up all across the island to rebuild Okinawa. Chojun Sensei was not a fan of politics, but many people across the island really respected him and looked to his determined spirit as a source of inspiration during the aftermath of the Battle. For this reason he decided to run for one such committee.

Chojun Sensei decided to avoid the usual speech making and public appearances that go hand in hand with running for a position in politics. His main opponent was a school teacher, who said publically that Chojun Sensei was a great bushi (gentlemen warrior), but no politician. Either way Chojun Sensei won by a landslide vote and served in his position for a period of 7 months.

After this period he and his family moved to Gushikawa, where he became chief instructor for Karate at the police academy. It was around this time that Chojun Sensei had another dangerous encounter in the rice paddy fields. One day while walking between two fields, three Filipino men blocked Chojun Sensei’s way. They were being quite hostile and got the surprise of their life when they pulled a knife on him. Chojun Sensei, sent all three men flying into the rice fields. Later that evening, the men visited Chojun Sensei’s house and presented him with a gift as an apology for their actions.

In 1947, Chojun Sensei moved his family back to Naha and more specifically to Tsuboya. This is where he established the garden dojo.

I believe the effects of the battle of Okinawa, as tragic and terrible as they were, really helped to form the indomitable spirit that Goju-ryu Karate is so commonly associated with today. Anichi Sensei was an orphan of the War, left to fend for his younger siblings; it could almost be deemed as fate, that he found Chojun Sensei who became a responsible and strict role model for him. Higaonna Morio Sensei’s family fled the turmoil of Okinawa to the mainland. I was told out of the three boats that left for Kyushu that day, Higaonna Sensei’s boat was the only one that made it. This could also be deemed as fate. Either way the loss of life and utter destruction of such a peaceful country and the loss of countless instructors that could have added to the future of Karate can never be replaced. But Chojun Sensei did exactly what the Bubishi stated. He acted in accordance with time and change and placed the future of Goju-ryu Karate in the hands of a 19 year old boy, who, because of the war had been mentally toughened to withstand the hard training and who’s character suited Chojun Sensei’s needs.


History of Karate – Goju-ryu                               By: Master Morio Higaonna - Book

With the Old Breed at Peleliu & Okinawa         By: Eugene B. Sledge - Book

Okinawa: the Last Battle of WWII                       By: Robert Leckie – Book

Okinawa – the Final Battle                                  Documentary: the history channel

War in the Pacific                                                 By: Richard Overy – Research kit

The Pacific                                                            Mini series – HBO, 2010.

Profiles of the Pacific                                          Documentary: HBO DVD