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Black Belt Flashback! Gogen “The Cat” Yamaguchi, Head of Goju Karate

Black Belt Flashback! Gogen “The Cat” Yamaguchi, Head of Goju Karate

This vintage piece on a karate icon was first published in Black Belt’s March 1966 issue.

They call him the “Cat.” Nobody seems to know quite how he got the name. Some say that the American GIs 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.

The 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.

Baffling Figure

At 59, Yamaguchi remains a baffling figure. This descendant of samurai 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.

He 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 system.

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Yamaguchi is a fanatic when it comes to the question of 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.

Mountain Training

Yamaguchi is a small man, just over 5 feet tall, 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.

At 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, sandal-less 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.

Vegetarian

Yamaguchi 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 lunge.

Yamaguchi was born in Kyushu, Miyazaki Ken, in 1907. The young man was fond of athletics while growing up, 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.

It was while attending Ritsumeikan University that Yamaguchi first heard of goju karate and of Chojun Miyagi, the Okinawan who was head of the school.

Fateful Meeting

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 Shim in Okinawa. In Shiru, the emphasis had been more on the hard approach. But with Miyagi and goju, the soft style takes equal precedence with the hard.

Hard-Soft Style

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 dance with little of the art of defense, he need only watch two goju practitioners square off in kumite.

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The 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.

Devoted Apostle

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 island nation.

Early 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.

Free Sparring Developed

He believed that just the practice of kata 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.

Yamaguchi wanted to open up movements to make for faster play and 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 freestyle sparring.

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At first, the kumite was systemized along boxing lines. After that, it was a natural step to go from freestyle 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.

Kendo Principles

This time he leaned heavily on the principles of kendo in devising rules of shiai jiyu (competitive) kumite for sport. Kendo was favored because of 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.

As 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 are disallowed. However, for dojo freestyle 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.

Off to Manchuria

With 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 warlords, 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.

Near 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.

Though 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 rigorous training.

Master to His Captors

Yamaguchi 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 Oriental dance.

Even 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 samurai 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.

Expansion of Arts

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 peace time. 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 abroad.

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One 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 weeklong 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.

Strong School

Today, the goju school is a flourishing one 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.

The 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.

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They in return owe their allegiance to the school and to him personally. Partly through financial help and partly through force of personality, Yamaguchi has been successful in tying his dojo heads to him instead of seeing them spin off to open up systems on their own.

Big Operation

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 institution today.

Funds 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 the organizational expenses incurred in a major operation like his organization.

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