The Giants of Traditional Karate

An interview with Higaonna Sensei and Kyuna Sensei

Giants of Traditional Karate – Part 1

Translated by: Sensei Tetsuji Nakamura

Interview by: Sensei David Lambert

Recently our IOGKF International Chief Instructor and Editor sat down with Master Morio Higaonna and Master Choko Kyuna (10th Dan in Shorin-ryu) to discuss many aspects of traditional Karate...

During the 2013 MCF Event, I was invited by Nakamura Sensei to join Higaonna Sensei and Kyuna Sensei for a day of touring Niagara Falls, Canada. Three giants of traditional Karate, disguised under a deep cloak of humility, kindness and mutual respect for one another and for every other person they came across. They are three happy and relaxed people. However when we sat down to discuss traditional Karate, they became serious and focused on their goal of helping people to understand and protect true traditional Karate & I hope this insight into their thoughts will help do just that...

Taken at MCF 2013


(For Profiles on both Masters, more photos (including Higaonna Sensei as a white belt) and improved layout, check out the IOGKF International Magazine where this interview is featured)

Please tell us about the Okinawan Traditional Karate-do Development Association?

Kyuna Sensei: Six years ago, the Okinawan traditional Karate promotional association was established. The head of this association is also the head of the Okinawan prefecture. There are currently four major traditional Karate groups right now in Okinawa, however this association has helped to bring them all closer together.

The purpose of the group itself is to protect traditional Karate. Right now we estimate that Karate is being practiced in 180 different countries across the globe and that around 500,000 people are currently practicing Karate. We want to bring them all to Okinawa to learn the true Karate.

There is currently sports/competition Karate and traditional Karate being practiced in the world today. The association is trying to establish and inform people across the globe about traditional Karate.

Because the head of the association is the Okinawan governor, the government has come on board to help find representatives for traditional Karate and Higaonna Morio Sensei is definitely one of those.

The associations focus has also turned to the construction of an Okinawan Karate hall. Construction is planned to start this year, with the hope that it will be completed in two years time. The Okinawan government has an official office set up for this project and once the hall is complete they are going to have a big festival in Okinawa to celebrate.

Higaonna Sensei and I are very good friends and on this trip in particular we have had the chance to discuss the future of traditional Okinawan Karate. Before of four main styles all had a little ego, but now they have pushed this aside and have an open mind to work together to produce the next generation of Karate people, so true Karate will survive.


Today there are so many martial arts styles for people to choose from especially for people in the west. What do you think traditional Karate has to offer that other martial arts styles do not?

Kyuna Sensei: Well, when something happens in Japan or any other country, like a natural or economic disaster, it is traditional cultures that save us. Traditional cultures gives people power and respect and fortitude. Also in mainland Japan there are many other martial arts like Judo and Kendo, and they originally came from bushido. However Okinawan Karate has different roots with the underlying philosophy being respect. Even if you are strong in martial arts, doesn’t matter if you are older or younger, you show everyone respect. So by teaching this traditional spirit of respect, traditional Karate can offer peace and harmony in each country and also between countries.


From the time you began training until now, has traditional Karate evolved or changed in anyway?

Kyuna Sensei: When I began training, Karate was still a secret. There was no open practice, doors were always closed.  After World War II Karate started to be taught to foreigners and they were also asked to start paying fees. From this point the mentality became more open and Karate became more accessible. Also after the War, Karate became more sports orientated and it started to grow bigger and bigger. That’s when we first realised we needed to develop traditional Karate to make it stronger and stronger. It is really important that we make sure people understand and learn about traditional Karate and its values and now little by little, traditional Karate is getting stronger.

Modern Karate is more about how it looks and pleasing the audience. But traditional Karate is different; we don’t care how it looks to other people. Some sports Karate-ka change the blocks slightly so it makes their gi create a noise to make it look better. Or they perform movements with a really big motion to make it look better, when traditional Karate-do is about small movements, just moving and protecting your own body – we don’t need big movements.

It’s also important to practice for someone who is stronger than you. You develop the skill to use your opponents’ power against them.

0_0_0_0_250_350_csupload_16589868 Higaonna Sensei: Karate was still practiced in secret at this time and to even join a Dojo you needed someone’s reference, you couldn’t just show up. Karate instructors back then felt they were giving a dangerous weapon to students, so they wanted to be sure they could trust the people they were going to teach. The instructors felt responsible for all of their students, because if they fought outside, they may kill someone and they didn’t want this.

Sometimes people with ego’s would come to training and the instructor would send them away saying no you’re too strong already, you don’t need Karate training. The same would go for street fighters who would come to training, they would be turned away and told you’re good enough already [laughs].

Miyagi Chojun Sensei learned from Ryuko Aragaki Sensei from when he was 12-14 years old. Because Chojun Sensei was studying so hard and taking his training so serious, Ryuko Aragaki Sensei wrote a reference letter for him to take to Kanryo Higaonna Sensei. It is only because of this that Chojun Sensei would have been allowed to become a student of Kanryo Higaonna Sensei.

Back then it was different. Karate was always practiced behind closed doors, you didn’t show anyone anything. People would always come trying to steal your techniques.

Kyuna Sensei: Yes, people were always coming trying to look in on training to steal techniques. Also people who were training for one year, were taught differently to people who continued on for two or three years.

Higaonna Sensei: Yes, yes that right.

Kyuna Sensei: A person who had been training for only one year was taught Kata slightly different to those who had been training for two or three or more years. They were all taught slightly different.

Higaonna Sensei: That’s why in Goju-ryu all the Sensei’s Kata are slightly different.

Kyuna Sensei: Naifanchi in Shorin-ryu for example is a three year Kata, you had to study it for at least three years. But people who training for three years and people who trained for ten years had different Kata. So to determine why a person did their Kata the way they did, you would look at which Sensei they were training with. To be taught a higher level, the Sensei would look at how many years of continuous training they had done and also how many hours they were training alone everyday.

In the sport Karate world, you train hard because you’re hungry for something or because you want to make money. But traditional Karate is different; you have to really love it, because you can’t make heaps of money or win anything from it, you have to love it to get better.

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