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Masaaki Ikemiyagi
Masaaki Ikemiyagi


The article you are reading is based on credible firsthand information, which was collected in April, 2018, during a trip to Okinawa. We have spent several days with Masaaki Ikemiyagi Sensei, Hanshi 9th dan, Goju-ryu, one of the most famous Okinawan karate masters and Board Chairman of All Okinawa Karate and Kobudo Federation.

Together with the Master we studied documents and photos from his priceless archive, attended trainings, and interviewed his students. We are grateful to our hosts for their contribution during our work on the article. We hope you will enjoy reading it.

Chapter One

To step on a tiger’s tail while smoothing a dragon’s beard

Okinawa faced a challenge in 1987. Shiza Takeshi, Japanese Mixed Shootboxing Champion in two weight classes, stated officially that he had been ready to fight any Okinawan karate master applying the rules of shootboxing, which allow foot and arm work, throws and submissions in fighting stances. The most renowned karate fighters were notified, but no one wanted to fight this battle.

The challenge was accepted by a Goju-ryu master, Masaaki Ikemiyagi, aged 33 at the time. Takeshi was a heavyweight and Ikemiyagi weighted 65 kg. They had wanted to add some weight to the karate master’s gloves, as a head start, but finally both fighters got the same gloves. And in fact the opponent actively used knee punches and throws that had been initially named as foul blows. Nowadays such fight would drive a lot of cash for the organizers and fighters. But those were the times when people were stepping in the ring for quite different reasons.

What made the Okinawan karate master accept such challenge from a well-known champion? Why is Goju-ryu unique, how did it transform with time and what forms does it have now? We decided to ask these questions to Ikemiyagi Sensei himself.

Chapter Two

Meeting the Master

We travelled to Naha, which is the capital of Okinawa Island and a port. Port cities have always been the gates for countries, attracting trade companies and foreign things of all sorts. Naha have never been an exception.

In the second half of the XIX century Okinawa developed close political ties with China. So many Okinawans went to the Middle Kingdom seeking to study secrets of martial arts. Some of them finally managed to create their own fighting styles. Goju-ryu karate is one of those.

We arrived to Okinawa city, where Masaaki Ikemiyagi Sensei, Hanshi 9th dan, one of the most famous Okinawan karate masters and a successor of Goju-ryu tradition, has been living and teaching for many years. Now he is one of the few recognized students of renown Meitoku Yagi Sensei who still runs training sessions.

The Master met as at the entrance to his house. Ikemiyagi-dojo is on the third floor of the house, and the Master lives and works at the second floor. Now the Master is 65 years old, he is not very tall and weights not more than 75 kg. The more impressive is the fact that he is able to defeat even the most skilled opponents.

We had heard that the Master’s practices might turn too rough and exhausting even for well-trained karate students, and that he was second to none in fist hardening — his fists were like stone and would break concrete bricks and wooden panels with ease. Later we learned that Sensei is a quite peace-like person; he grows bonsai trees at the balcony, cooks shrimps and onigiri perfectly, and he even can sew. But at the time we were somewhat worried before a meeting with the Master who had such supernatural powers.

The Sensei keeps a host of artefacts, scrolls, awards, and photos in his study. It’s possible to find all sorts of things here — diplomas and medals from various years, old magazines and newspapers, and even an autograph from Arnold Schwarzenegger. For many years Ikemiyagi personally has been studying the history of Okinawan karate. Our conversation was very warm and unique; not many people have seen his personal archives before and he is not into giving interviews.

Chapter Three

Goju-ryu VS Ikemiyagi-ryu

At present Goju-ryu is one of the prevailing karate styles combining hard and soft technique. Ikemiyagi Sensei is the Chairman of All Okinawa Karate Federation, which is one of the leading organizations representing Okinawan karate.

Okinawan Goju-ryu teaches to hit with crippling force, but to move smoothly avoiding the opponent’s punches. One must skin a raging buffalo with the same lightness as they apply to a brush drawing a calligraphic letter, so to speak. But such elegance of hard punches comes only after years of practice.

Human body is seen as both hard — «go», and soft — «ju». To make a technique efficient one must use «ju» moves to the hard parts and «go» for soft ones. For example, a hard straight fist punch is used to reach the opponent’s stomach, but strikes on the head come with the soft part of hand.

In real life you never know who and when you will fight. That is why there are no competitions or weight classes in traditional Okinawan karate. As well as there is no opportunity to learn about the opponent ahead of time, to get to know his or her tactics or weak points. The idea is to develop flexibility and understanding of the fact that a fighter must be at his or her best 365 days a year.

Goju-ryu is based on kata. The Master says that even if you have never been in a fight and have been studying kata only, in an emergency situation you will be able to use those moves efficiently against a real opponent.

Years ago, when Ikemiyagi Sensei had just began to study karate, there was a certain succession of kata to learn. They would start with the beginner’s Fukyu kata 1 and 2 and then, gradually, come to the highest kata of Goju-ryu, Suparinpei. The Master told us that in old times no one would be taught this kata until he or she had reached fifth dan.

It is possible to learn the technique of all kata in two or three months. But simple ability to repeat them is not the point here. Years of practice and thorough training are necessary for deep understanding and mastery.

Nowadays even children get taught Suparinpei if it is needed for competitions. Well, a child can memorize the sequence of moves, but will he or she truly master those moves?

That is why the same Sanchin will be different when done by a white belt student, by someone who’s been studying for a couple of month, and by those who have been practicing for twenty years.

Karate was perceived as a feared weapon in ancient times. So rude and aggressive people would not get a chance to learn martial arts in Okinawa. Now no one is going to ask about personality of those coming to a dojo and how they are going to use the skills. Karate is taught to anyone willing to learn. However the Master sees a positive side to that too. For example, if practicing martial arts, kids become hard-working, more focused, more kind; they learn a lot of skills they can use for for the benefit of society later on.

In his dojo the Master teaches not only the basics of karate, but variations of their use for each student. This part of learning consists of his own methods and insights concerning various difficult situations during a fight. The students value these teachings the most and even thought of a special name for the original technique of the Master — Ikemiyagi-ryu.

Many of the moves were created after foreign trips. For instance, Ikemiyagi Sensei often met heavy-weight opponents during international seminars. A light-weight fighter would have some trouble dealing with such an opponent. So, he created some moves for this case. Other moves were added to the Master’s technique after his studies and reinterpretation of Goju-ryu history and traditions.

Ikemiyagi Sensei demonstrates his technique only in the dojo and only after the basic training, and here is why: «If I tell about non-traditional moves during regular practices, some of my colleagues will adopt critical attitude, though the moves might seem quite efficient to me. I talk about such things as a matter of analysis of moves only in order not to shift away from the foundations of Goju-ryu».

The Master is humble and unwilling to run counter to the traditional Goju-ryu, so he insists that, in fact, there is no such thing as Ikemiyagi-ryu, and all the talk about it is just students chatting inside the dojo.

Actually, one of my American students, Ron, invented the term Ikemiyagi-ryu. He used to study karate with other teachers, and when he came to me he said that my karate was different, so he thought of this joky name. It spreaded quite quickly. I even heard that someone from India was going to one of my seminars, and he wrote in the questionnaire that his purpose was to study Ikemiyagi-ryu. A man in the consulate said that he had never heard about Ikemiyagi-ryu before.

In the end he did not get the visa. Such a mishap. So, there is no Ikemiyagi-ryu. May be, it will come to be once I am dead. But for now I insist on Goju-ryu in Ikemiyagi-dojo!

The Master’s students say that his dojo offers the same sound approach to the practice as in the old days. The Master always comes to dojo an hour before the students, goes through his basic routine and then he trains together with others.

Kinjyo Satoru is one of the oldest students of Ikemiyagi. He has been training together with the Sensei for more than thirty years, he is 7th dan, and has become a Goju-ryu teacher himself. You can never tell that he is well past sixty by his radiant, movie star-like smile and youthful stature.

Kinjyo calls Ikemiyagi Sensei his hero: «The Sensei is the smallest one in our karate organization, but he’s so good at everything he does. He is, probably, ten times tougher than me. And when I am practicing with him, for example in Yakusoku Kumite, it seems that he can easily break me if he strikes or spars at me».

According to Kinjyo, foreigners, especially from the US, visit the dojo often. They always wonder where does this strength comes from in this small body. Some think that it is a result of persistent training, and others praise natural endowment. His Jiyu Kumite technique is most impressive. If the opponent hits the Sensei, he destabilizes his opponent and finishes him off with a series of lightning-quick blows. It looks strikingly efficient and somewhat terrifying.

Chapter Four

Headstrong teenager becoming Sensei

Masaaki Ikemiyagi liked hand-to-hand fighting from the early childhood. He became Meitoku Yagi’s student at fifteen. From that moment Ikemiyagi had started thorough study of karate.

Yagi Sensei taught not only the right way to perform kata. In his dojo young Ikemiyagi, who had been a headstrong and spoiled teenager according to his own words, dove into the philosophy of karate and found his true calling. He learned to behave with dignity, to treat other people with kindness; he understood that not only his body, but his spirit as well needed everyday training.

The training was very intense back then. The students had to practice five times a week, from Monday to Friday, and the practice sessions lasted for one and a half or two hours. By comparison, now training sessions in dojo take place mainly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or even just two times a week.

«Those days the number of training sessions was two times, or even two thousands times, more than now,» — says Ikemiyagi. While in high school he would go to karate practice to the school club and then to dojo. In college he used to train for two hours in a club and then one and a half hour more in dojo. So, the Sensei had three-four hours of practice every day. Now it is hard to imagine. Only, may be, athletes preparing for the Olympics stick to such training schedule.

Masaaki Ikemiyagi (lower row, third on the right) together with Yagi Sensei (lower row, fourth on the right)
Chapter Five

House of the pure-minded warrior

Ikemiyagi Sensei built and opened his dojo when he was twenty seven, in 1981. He was 5th dan at the time and he wanted to have his own place to practice. At that time not everyone could afford to have a gym; people would train on loans, in cemeteries, even in town squares. Thence opening of a dojo was a huge achievement. The Master told us that he had been designing the dojo together with its architect. There were nuances — punch balls are installed on lifters, and the dojo floor has two layers of wood and a layer of rubber in between to reduce vibration.

The school of Ikemiyagi Sensei is called «Meibukan». Hieroglyphics that are used in it, wrote one of the three talents of the Age of Meyji — Yamaoka Tessyu. They mean: «The house of a warrior, pure soul.»

Family crest of Ikemiyagi with his school on the background. Foreign students of the Sensei had started to wear it on their uniform, so he took after them. The emblem is called «futae kamon» and in the ancient times it would mean that a family is close to the emperor. Mainly such kamons are used by samurai and noble families.

According to the regulations of the International Okinawa Karate-Do Federation, one line on the belt means that it is a renasi (instructor), two lines are kyousi (teacher), three lines are khansi (master). To become a Ransi, a sixth dan is needed, for kyusi — the seventh or eighth dan, for hansi — the ninth or tenth.

After the dojo opening Ikemiyagi Sensei started to travel and teach seminars all over the world. He conducts training sessions in Brazil, Australia, the USA, Russia, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Great Britain, Vietnam, Indonesia, and India. There is a branch of his school in some of these countries. The oldest one is in Australia, it’s been operating for thirty five years. The USA branch was opened fifteen years ago. In Russia the school was established ten years ago. Each branch is headed by a separate leader in each country.

Find a dojo ran by Masaaki Ikemiyagi’s student in your country


Ikemiyagi states that the aim of this branch system is to spread knowledge about Goju-ryu in different countries and to help bring up people who would aspire to work for the benefit of the people.

For as long as thirty seven years the Sensei willingly accepts in his dojo everyone who would come, even when he is hurt or ill. His only regret is that just a handful of students grow to become masters and open their own dojos. Nevertheless, through the students who have opened their dojos in different countries he inspired thousands of Goju-ryu followers to excel in the art of karate.

Chapter Six

From Kanryo Higaonna to Masaaki Ikemiyagi

It is believed that Higaonna Kanryo, born in Naha in 1853, was the founder of Goju-ryu style. At first the style was called Naha-te after the place of Kanryo’s birth.

Kanryo Higaonna portrait

Kanryo Higaonna

originator of the Okinawan Naha-te style

Kanryo Sensei was a part of an extended family of lower rank samurai. When the boy was twelve years old his father was killed in a fight and Kanryo had to take up the role of provider. At fourteen he went to China and started training at Ryu Ru Ko Sensei’s dojo. Ryu Ru Ko Sensei was a basket maker and lived in a two-storey house. In the morning Kanryo would train, during the day he worked at a factory, and in the evening he returned to tough practice. They say that for the first five years the only thing he was doing was Sanchin kata. But Ryu Ru Ko had to send Kanryo back home to Okinawa when the relations between China and Japan worsened.

In 1901 karate for the first time became a part of elementary school curriculum in Okinawa and many masters started thinking about wide-scale teaching programs. In 1905 Kanryo Higaonna started to teach in a Naha town school.

Chojun Miyagi portrait

Chojun Miyagi

originator of Goju-ryu, Higaonna’s student

He offered trainings two times a week at the school yard, so he got first students. Chojun Miyagi, who would later grow into an outstanding martial arts master and name the style as Goju-ryu, was one of them. Later Chojun Miyagi recalled that Kanryo’s Higaonna training program had been so hard he wanted to quit several times. But his natural stubbornness wouldn’t let him, so he dropped out of the school and quit his work in a bank instead and gave all his time to martial arts. At the moment Kanryo Higaonna saw the potential in the young man and his in-depth training started.

There were no styles back then. Karate would be called after some place — Shuri, Naha, Tomari. There was one time when someone at a budokan at the main island asked Yagi Sensei what was the name of his style. He returned to Okinawa and asked the question to Miyagi Sensei. And Miyagi said that there is a phrase in the Bubishi «Ho Goju Donto» describing the harmony between the hard and the soft, so the style should be named Goju-ryu. So that’s how it became the name for the style.

It is known that Kanryo Higaonna did not teach all kata to his students. The mandatory program included Sanchin and one more kata selected individually for each student to fit his needs. Chojun Miyagi got Suparinpei.

Meitoku Yagi portrait

Meitoku Yagi

the closest student of Chojun Miyagi

Also the Master trained Chojun Miyagi individually and opened true secrets of the martial art.

Miyagi Sensei held great authority, so a lot of people wanted to be his students. But there were not more than ten people the Master himself named as such. And he named only a few as his closest followers — Meitoku Yagi, Eiichi Miyazato, Seiko Higa, Tomoyose, and Gogen Yamaguchi.

As legend has it, Chojun Miyagi passed on all the knowledge he had from his teachers to Yagi Sensei. And Miyagi Sensei said that it would be unacceptable if everyone went to war and this knowledge was lost. There was no one to check if the story is true, and I cannot neither confirm it, nor deny.

The Committee for Okinawa Karate was established in 1940. It included the main masters from Okinawa. The Committee was charged with a task to develop kata to be taught in schools. The goal was to bring up future warriors and karate has always been a great way to develop physical strength. The spiritual side of karate was also important. So, that is how the kata for mass learning were created. Those are still being taught in schools.

And there are also a lot of teachings about secret techniques of karate. Those secrets are not meant for everyone.

The World War II had a devastating effect on Okinawan karate. The US attacked Okinawa in October, 1945. A rain of bombs turned the cradle of Goju-ryu into burnt burying ground. Many outstanding masters and students lost their lives. Priceless archives and documents perished in fire.

It took Okinawa a long time to rebuild after such a devastating blow and the years after war were tough. However karate was not forgotten. The masters who were still alive managed to pass their knowledge to new followers and Goju-ryu returned to the path of development.

Masaaki Ikemiyagi portrait

Masaaki Ikemiyagi

student of Meitoku Yagi

Karate has increasingly entered the public domain, and now it is a part of curriculum in many schools in Okinawa.

In 1970 fifteen year old Masaaki started to study karate from Meitoku Yagi in his dojo. Later Yagi has become not only his first and most respected teacher, but also his spiritual advisor who would pass the secrets of Goju-ryu tradition on to Ikemiyagi.

Talking about perspectives of karate in the world Ikemiyagi is excited to note that now many leaders and presidents are into karate. In Japan there are examples of the Cabinet Secretary and current Deputy Governor of Okinawa Prefecture. According to the Sensei’s opinion, a good role model created by the leader will influence people to get into karate more.

Chapter Seven

Don’t let anyone beat you,
but don’t beat anyone either

When discussing the unique nature of the style the Master points out that Goju-ryu has a potential allowing even the ones «who are subtle of body» to become strong fighters. Most Okinawans are not naturally that strong or muscular. But they are very hardworking people. If nature does not bestow Okinawans with some qualities, they are eager to develop those qualities with great perseverance.

The best you can do to become a good karate fighter is to train regularly and to work hard for a long time. Perseverance means talent in karate. You are good at some things not because you were born with it, but because you have the one talent you need — perseverance. Good students are always where people train a lot.

The teachings of Miyagi Sensei, founder of Goju-ryu, say: «Don’t let anyone beat you, but don’t beat anyone either.» It means that one has to avoid conflict as much as possible. «If you like someone — tell them. If you don’t like someone — keep quiet,» — Ikemiyagi Sensei adds his own wisdom.

The Master often participated in fights on the main islands and quite often he fought opponents coming from abroad. Challenges were common among Okinawan young people, and Masaaki Ikemiyagi had always been the first to accept them. When he was young he became well-known as a qualified karate fighter and a dangerous opponent. In some cases, when he was visiting local tournaments, the opponents would just walk out after learning that he was going to take part.

Though the Master was unstoppable in the ring, he would always avoid fights and provocations in everyday life. And there was plenty of opportunities. Having learned that Ikemiyagi was a karate fighter, Okinawans after a few drinks or tourists would seek a fight with him on purpose. He was small and subtle, and that was giving wrong impression to such fail karate fighters. If, after some time, he met the bully in the street, Ikemiyagi would invite them to visit his dojo and show training with punchbags. After that the might-have-been opponents usually went away in silence. «That is the victory without a fight,» — the Sensei says.

We avoid conflicts and prefer peace — that is the legacy of Miyagi Sensei, founder of Goju-ryu. Karate is not for attacking people, there is no way you will deal the first blow in a fight. The greatest secret is defense. One should think of karate as of a culture that encompasses self-defense methods.

Calligraphy helps Ikemiyagi Sensei keep the balance and work on concentration. Yagi Sensei often wrote down his thoughts and teachings. Under his influence Ikemiyagi took to liking such insightful sentences forming the spiritual foundations of karate. The Sensei listed the following among his favourite sentences: «Training is the secret» (written on a picture in Yagi-dojo), «Train for life», «Ten yu shinjo» (Japanese idiom meaning «With the God’s help»), and «Jakunen fudou» (Buddhist idiom meaning «Serenity»).

Chapter Eight

Preserving the true spirit of Okinawa

People often talk about sports karate, which is just a resemblance to a martial art, replacing the traditional karate when discussing the challenges traditional karate faces nowadays. Ikemiyagi Sensei does not think that sports karate is a rival to the traditional styles and sees no problem. He believes these two branches of karate are like two pairs of wheels in a car. Both need careful approach, and both must move ahead at the same time, just like the car’s wheels.

The Master says that competitive karate is a temporary thing. One can be into it when he or she is young. After reaching some certain age one finds it hard to continue with competitions. Then they move on to traditional karate and fully immerse themselves in the study of deep layers and fascination the kata have.

Karate has many aspects to it. Ikemiyagi Sensei and like-minded people see karate as a culture and a martial art. Others value its competitive side; for example, athletes train to win at the Olympics. Sensei thinks that coming to karate as to a sport gives great motivation to gradually open its spiritual aspect.

Sometimes people from karate or other martial arts end up in MMA or other shows by chance. There were such fighters among my students. Most of them return back to thorough study of karate. But there are those who end their paths there, and I feel sorry for that.

Masaaki Ikemiyagi is more concerned with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). In his opinion, it’s not even a sport, but a show with a tinge of exhibition fights.

The Sensei also believes that karate without study of basics in form of kata is not karate. He thinks that the wrongest way for those who want to learn karate is to try to create their own moves and techniques without excellent knowledge of basics.

One more fatal misperception of karate is that one cannot get stronger, no matter how long he has been doing kata. The people who think so even doubt that Goju-ryu can be called a martial art. According to Ikemiyagi such opinions can be expressed by people who do not have enough training, or their training is wrong.

Karate has no end. As long as I am alive and can stand on my feet, I want to continue my training. Life is karate. My ultimate goal is to spread the true Goju-ryu all across the world.

Well, even Okinawa karate could not escape the influence of time. The approach to practice has changed in many dojos and many people tailor the philosophy of karate to their needs, often not taking heed of its core principles. But the history of traditional Okinawan karate is not over. As long as the direct descendants of the founders, such great masters as Masaaki Ikemiyagi, come to dojo every day, the world will not lose the true spirit of Okinawa. The traditions of old karate continue to live, spreading through the whole world through the followers of Ikemiyagi-Sensei, who remember that the true strength of a man is shown by his kind heart.