4. More on Miyagi (B)

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4. More on Miyagi (B)

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By Graham Noble

There is a well-known story about an encounter between Miyagi and Choki Motobu. In his “History of Karate, Goju Ryu” Morio Higaonna wrote that this took place when Miyagi was around twenty five or twenty six (1913 or 1914) and a friend, Zenko Tokeshi (“Tokeshi no Mimi Unchu”) took him to see a cockfight at Motobu’s house. In a discussion on karate technique, Motobu, took hold of Miyagi’s lapel and without warning threw a punch at Miyagi – who grabbed Motobu’s wrist and forced him to the ground, making him submit. In an earlier book, (“Traditional Karatedo. Okinawan Goju Ryu. Volume 4”) Higaonna did not say that Motobu actually threw the punch, but rather that Miyagi applied a counter hold on Motobu’s hand “just as Motobu was about to aim a powerful punch” at him.

The same story had also been told in the newsletter of Higaonna’s IOGKF (International Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate Federation) in the late 1980s. Here again, it was Mintami Tokeshi, “a well-known instigator”, who had taken Miyagi to see the cockfight at Motobu’s house. Miyagi was then twenty seven, so that is a date of 1915. Motobu had been in a fight the previous day and had a plaster on his cheek. Motobu began talking about karate technique and Mintami asked him to demonstrate. Motobu told Miyagi to get up and then asked him who would win in a match, the one who grabbed or the one who is grabbed. Miyagi replied that it would depend on circumstances. Motobu said, “Well let’s find out,” and made a move on Miyagi to grab him, but as he did Miyagi “stopped him and held him down in an arm lock from which Motobu Saru could not get up.” In this version, Motobu cried out “You are bullying an old man”, as he was being held down by Miyagi.

Morio Higaonna did not mention a Motobu punch in this account, nor did he mention a punch when I met him in Liverpool (1982) and he told me this story. According to the notes I made at that time, Higaonna told me that Motobu was jealous of Miyagi’s reputation and made a fierce grab at the lapels of Miyagi’s kimono, to show who was boss, I suppose. Choki Motobu was a powerful person but Miyagi instantly applied a reverse hold and bent back Motobu’s fingers and wrist, forcing him to submit.

This Miyagi and Motobu encounter was described earlier by Bunichi Ishikawa in his 1979 “Ryukyu no Karate Monogatari”. Ichikawa described Chojun Miyagi as quiet and rather reserved, with a well-rounded personality, and Choki Motobu as a member of the former Okinawan upper classes who never had a real job but idled his time away, gambling on cockfights and engaging in kakedamashi in the Tsuji red-light district: “He was a Teijikun Bushi (Fist Bushi) who constantly got into street fights with his karate. Winning fights was always on his mind.”

In Ichikawa’s account, which contains a lot of imagined dialogue, the young Chojun Miyagi and his friend. Tokeshi Memewenchuu (Old Man Tokeshi) were heading back from Shuri when they stopped off at the cockfights being held at the old Yawata temple. Choki Motobu was there, gambling and carousing with the locals. When the cockfights had ended some awamori, (the strong Okinawa liquor), was brought in and everyone began to talk in an idle way. Miyagi and Tokeshi just sat there. No one knew who Miyagi was, but when the talk turned to karate someone asked if there were any strong bujin among the practitioners of Naha-te. Another replied that there was a youth called Chojun Miyagi, a student of Higaonna Tanme, who was said to be quite strong.

Choki Motobu, however, was dismissive. “These green youths are of no importance,“ he said.” Just because they know a little Teguwa people start calling them bushi. It’s laughable.” Going along with Motobu, an older peasant added “That is so right. From the eyes of a member of the upper classes they must seem like wet-nosed brats, (Hanadayaawarabaa).”

“I don’t mean to brag” Motobu went on, “but I am confident of making my opponent’s body like gravel just by touching his body with this hand.”

Sitting on the side, though, Tokeshi Memewenchu was sceptical, saying “I wonder if you could really so easily make the body like gravel just by touching?”

“I said I can do it”, Motobu responded, beginning to get annoyed.


“Hand strength. If you think I’m lying, let me try it.”

“Are you going to try it on me?”

“It would make no sense doing that to an old man like you. But your young companion there looks like he has a good physique. Let me try on him. That could be interesting.”

Tokeshi, thinking that things might be going too far, said, “Umee, this young man is the Chojun Miyagi you were talking about earlier.”

“If this young man is Chojun Miyagi, then all the better. Let me test him.” It seemed like Motobu wanted to put the younger Miyagi in his place.

Miyagi stood up. Motobu walked up to him and made as if to grab his shoulder, but at that instant Miyagi grabbed Motobu’s wrist with his right hand and twisted it hard. Motobu cried out in pain and conceded defeat.

Miyagi then bowed and apologised to Tokeshi. “Please excuse me. Unchuu (uncle),” he said. “It is late. Let us go home.” Tokeshi bowed to Motobu and then he and Miyagi left.

On the way back home Miyagi asked Tokeshi not to talk to anyone about what had happened. Tokeshi said he would not talk about it, but no doubt the story would get out anyway. “Today’s incident will soon be spread around by the people who witnessed it,” he said. “The other party was Udoun Motobu Saaruu Umee after all.”

Saburo Kinjo, a student of Seko Higa, had also heard that Miyagi “had a match of applying joint locks with Kentsu Yabu and Choki Motobu.” The Yabu match is unknown.

Seikichi Toguchi wrote about the Miyagi – Motobu encounter too, referring to Choki Motobu as “Master M”. In this Toguchi version the incident took place at a gathering of karate experts and happened when Motobu boasted that if he took a grip on anyone’s collar, no one could break the hold. He challenged anyone to try this, and a silence followed until someone, maybe out of mischief, volunteered Chojun Miyagi for the test. Miyagi accepted, and then “Standing quite still, with both hands hanging limply at his side, Master Miyagi let Sensei M get a good firm grip on his collar. When Sensei M signalled he was ready and the sign to begin was given, everyone was astounded to hear the big man screaming with pain and fold over, holding his groin and letting go his grip completely. Sensei M’s famous two-handed grip was unlocked by Master Miyagi with a simple knee to the groin.”

Sakiyama reference/source.

Tatsunori Sakiyama, a student of Chojun Miyagi, added a little more background to the story, though how accurate this is we can’t say. He referred to two brothers called Tokeshi who lived in Shuri at that time. The older was Tokeshi no Meitama (“Big Eyes”) and the younger Tokeshi no Mimi. They were older than Miyagi, about 5 foot 10 tall, and known for their violent temperament. “Also in Shuri at this time,” wrote Sakiyama, “there were the Motobu brothers, both of whom had reputations in karate. The older was Motobu no Ume, and the younger Motobu no Saru (Choki Motobu). They were noted for being quarrelsome, powerful and violent. They came from a rich family with many servants and had plenty of time for training as they did not work. They also played with unkaku (prostitutes), got into a lot of fights and beat many people. At this time Miyagi Sensei was twenty five years old and he had just left the army. He was a deshi of the famous Kanryo Higaonna and his power and strength were renowned.

“The Tokeshi brothers, who often acted as promoters, arranged a match between Miyagi Sensei and Motobu no Saru, who was ten years older than Miyagi. Miyagi Sensei fought him and beat him: the proud, boastful Motobu was completely defeated. After the match the Tokeshi brothers spread the story of how strong Miyagi Sensei really was. Miyagi Sensei, in conversation with me later, said, ‘Oh yes, Saru, I remember him. I had a match with him.’ “

Choki Motobu was actually eighteen years older than Chojun Miyagi, not ten, and if the incident occurred when Miyagi was twenty five then that would have been in 1913. Sakiyama, who was too young to have witnessed it, didn’t go into the detail of the match and it’s questionable what actually happened when the two famous karate masters met. As suggested in some of the accounts it may not have been an actual match but a rather edgy exchange of technique, perhaps engineered by one or both of the Tokeshi brothers. And of course, all these accounts come from just one side, the students or grand-students of Chojun Miyagi.

The various accounts, incidentally, say that Choki Motobu was much bigger than Miyagi, but judging from photos the two men would have been pretty much the same size. Of course, the purpose of exaggerating Motobu’s size (as often happened with stories about him) was to emphasize Chojun Miyagi’s superiority ability.

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“Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.”
- John Adams
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