Martial Arts

Dave Smeds is a senior black belt in goju-ryu karate. This page is devoted to a little discussion and background about that artform, specifically an essay on its origins. If you'd like to see more here, email the author with your suggestions.

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For those of you accessing this page via a web search: If you've found this page by searching under such keywords as "karate" or "goju-ryu" or "Goju-Kai," then you should know that this is a subsidiary "hobby" page belonging to the sff.net website devoted to science fiction and fantasy author Dave Smeds. This is not a full-fledged "martial arts" page.


Here is a capsule history of karate, and of goju-ryu karate in particular:

Some people think the term "karate" describes all the empty-hand martial arts that come from the Orient. In reality, they aren't all one group and they spring from separate corners of Asia--such as judo from Japan, tae kwon do from Korea, or tai chi chuan from China. Most of these forms are quite different from karate, which originated on Okinawa, an island in the Ryukyu chain south of Japan.

The Okinawans developed karate during a time when they were dominated by the Satsuma clan of southern Japan. These overlords enforced their control by forbidding anyone but their occupying soldiers to carry weapons. Ordinary native residents had no choice but to learn to fight well without blades or firearms.

Over the centuries, individuals and small groups trained in secret, often in private gardens or patios. The "underground" nature of this activity means that no one recorded where the forms came from. They probably were first borrowed from the arts practiced by the bodyguards of the diplomats who regularly visited Okinawa from the Chinese capital of Beijing. Some modern styles of karate show traces of northern Chinese kung fu. Over time, the Okinawans fashioned a distinct martial art all their own. This is the true karate, a word currently translated as "empty hand". (The original name of the artform referred to its Chinese origins, and is no longer politically correct in an era when Japan wants to claim karate as an ethnic artform springing from its own culture.)

Naturally, any skill developing over generations produces variations. For instance, teachers in the port city of Naha concentrated on practical moves, diverging from the more stylized, artistic approach favored by the upper caste living in the nearby capital of Shuri. However, in the beginning all karate emphasized the sort of driving, powerful, punching-kicking-blocking moves known in martial arts circles as "hard" style.

In the late 1860s, a teenager from Naha named Kanryo Higaonna left for the city of Fuzhou, China, where he spent many years studying a southern style of kung fu, probably a variation of the White Crane discipline. When he returned, he combined the purely "hard" Okinawan karate with "soft" Chinese elements. This brought more circular, evasive, mobile maneuvers into what became known as "Naha-te," or Naha-fist.

Higaonna's greatest disciple was Chojun Miyagi, who renamed the system goju-ryu, meaning "hard and soft style." During Miyagi's lifetime, the mainland Japanese acquired an intense interest in karate, so that what had once been a secret craft practiced by a handful of remote islanders became a staple of courses at universities, military bases, police academies, and private clubs, enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of practitioners. This surge of popularity was renewed by the American military men stationed in Japan after World War II. By the 1960s, karate had spread throughout the world.

This tidal wave of interest benefitted four karate systems most of all. They are shotokan (widely seen in the U.S.A.), shito-ryu, wado-ryu, and goju-ryu (the most common in Japan). In Tokyo, Chojun Miyagi's legacy was furthered by Gogen ("the Cat") Yamaguchi, who added freestyle sparring to the art. His followers belong to an organization known as Goju-Kai.

Goju-Kai's U.S. branch is directed by N. Gosei Yamaguchi, eldest son of Gogen Yamaguchi. Gosei's senior student is H. Donald Buck (son of the late Donald I. Buck, one of the senior masters of kyokushinkai karate), who teaches in Sonoma County. Dave Smeds is Don Buck's senior student. After twenty-six years of study, Dave has risen to the national board of examiners within Goju-Kai Karate-Do U.S.A., and serves on the senior panel during promotional examinations at the Goju-Kai national headquarters in San Francisco.

Dave Smeds with H. Donald Buck, left, and N. Gosei Yamaguchi, center, serving as a judge at the summer promotional examination at Goju-Kai Karate-Do National Headquarters, San Francisco, June, 1998. Photo by Roy Lizama.