An Interview With Goshi Yamaguchi

The following article, by Graham Noble, is extracted from Hawaii Karate Seinenkai website.


I met Goshi Yamaguchi at the IKGA (International Karate Do Goju Kai Association) gasshaku held in England in 2008. I was interested in meeting and interviewing him because, besides being an important figure in karate in his own right, he is of course the third son of the famous Gogen Yamaguchi and the inheritor of his school. When we met he was immediately very friendly and open and patiently answered all my questions about Goju-ryu and his legendary father.

Goshi Yamaguchi himself has added a lot to the style. This can be seen in the comprehensive three part instructional video he did a few years ago, and it was evident in the training he gave at the gasshaku: work on the basic Goju techniques led into combinations of attack and defence which then fed into two man applications of kata techniques. The course was well attended and had a friendly, hard working group atmosphere.

In a book published for Gogen Yamaguchi’s funeral Goshi remembered how his father had been strict in teaching him and his brothers: “As my older brother Gosen said, our relationship was more like that of a student to a teacher rather than sons to a father. . . . To my father I was not only his child but his student as well, so he did not want to show any weakness in front of me. As long as I can remember I never heard him complaining, whether it was hard on him or if he didn’t want to do anything. Just before his passing I felt I wanted him to accept and show his difficulties in order to reduce his pain. But even then he never showed any weakness, he never showed it was hard. When I asked him if he was ok he just said he was fine. When I tried to support him to walk he said he could walk by himself just fine. So my memory of him was the image of a very strong father in many ways.

“The day before he died I carried him. When my brother in law asked if he knew who was carrying him, I heard he just smiled. I had never imagined that I was going to carry my father to the hospital, but then I wished I had been a better son to him. . . . He devoted his entire life to karate. Of course he did other things like business, but he was constantly thinking about karate. He wanted his sons to continue his karate so he named the oldest son Gosei with the word Sei, to do his karate correctly. For the second son, Gosen, he wanted to improve his karate to the higher level. He named his third son Goshi, with the word Shi from Rekishi (history), so he could pass his karate to the later generations. As my father passed and I continue teaching, I am determined to fulfil his wish with my life in karate.”

(Thanks to Tony Childs and Mark Adams for allowing me to attend the gasshaku, and for looking after me when I was there, and to Brian Sekiya for the translation from the Gogen Yamaguchi memorial booklet).

This interview took place at Potter’s Leisure Resort,
near Great Yarmouth. 14 July 2008, IKGA European Gasshaku
Graham Noble: Sensei, you were born Showa 17, 1942?
Goshi Yamaguchi: Yes.

GN: And that was in Manchukuo – Manchuria?
GY: Yes.

GN: Do you remember anything of Manchuria?
GY: Yes, of course, but I was only 4 years old. I don’t remember exactly but I remember my mother taking us (children) back to Japan, and the train journey then, because my younger sister died when we were going back to Japan.

GN: And that was when the Russian invaded Manchuria at the end of the war?
GY: Yes, most of the Japanese people then had to go back to Japan.

GN: But your father was taken prisoner.
GY: Yes at that time he was taken prisoner and sent to Siberia.

GN: So when your father came back to Japan you started karate training at, what, six years old?
GY: No, not six. I started at seven or eight, but at six years old I was watching the training because my father took me to the training and I would just sit down and watch.

GN: So did you want to do karate then, or was it just expected of you?
GY: Well, this is a secret (laughing), but I didn’t like it! But I had no choice of course, this was the idea of my father.

GN: When you trained at seven or eight was that in the normal class?
GY: Yes, of course, because at that time there was no children’s class, only adults, only a few students, and my brothers, no kids. At the finish it was late at night and already I should have been in bed. After training I couldn’t go back myself so some seniors would carry me home on their backs, and I was already asleep.

GN: The training was in the Asakusa dojo, was that the first dojo after the war?
GY: No, Asakusa was the second dojo. The first dojo was very small, just a small room, not really like a dojo, then my father moved to Asakusa, this was a big dojo.

GN: And at the start he only had a few students?
GY: Yes, at the start just a few members, maybe only four or five, then when he started the Asakusa dojo we had training four days a week, and more students came.

GN: Why did your father have a dojo in Tokyo, because before the war he was in Kyoto, Ritsumeikan University?
GY: He would have liked to have gone back to Kyoto, but my mother had taken the family to Tokyo.

GN: And Goju was new to Tokyo then, because before the was it had only been in Kyoto and the Kansai area?
GY: Yes, my father had many friends in Kyoto because he graduated from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. But in Tokyo that was the first time Goju karate started teaching there.

GN: Did he have any trouble with the other styles that were already there, like Shotokan and Wado-ryu?
GY: I don’t think so, many people came to train at the dojo, Shotokan, other martial arts.

GN: So after the was there were only a few karate dojos?
GY: Yes, very few, I think so.

GN: Why did he choose Asakusa? That’s a very rough area –
GY: Right, correct.

GN: – and a Yakuza area?
GY: It is.

GN: So how did he have a dojo there?
GY: Well, something was supposed to have happened with my father in (the prisoner of war camp in) Siberia, because at that time he met a man, he was in a very high position in like a group, or yakuza, and my father helped him, I think maybe helping him in fighting. So maybe that man said, if you can come back to Japan please come to Asakusa in Tokyo. So he was visiting Asakusa, and that’s how he started. So he was lucky to start that new life in Asakusa.

GN: What was the training like in Asakusa?
GY: Well of course he had been teaching karate a long time in Kyoto and also in Manchuria, so not much different from now, basics, kata, kumite. But I know the people then liked much more sparring, so they would spar with different groups, not just Goju.

GN: I spoke to Kase sensei, Harada sensei, Suzuki sensei and they all talked about the old days of kokan-geiki –
GY: Oh yes, we had many kokan geiko –

GN: – and they all said that the Goju fighters were very tough.
GY: Oh yes, because at that time there was no karate competition (tournaments), so my father had many good friends in martial arts, so the Asakusa dojo had good connections with other groups, I remember when they would spar, so, oh sometimes very dangerous training.

GN: Did people sometimes get hurt?
GY: Yes, breaks (broken arms, noses etc) sometimes. At that time Goju had a good connection with the Shotokan group. Ritsumelkan University in Kyoto had had a good connection with Takushoku University. Kanazawa sensei and many others graduated from Takushoku University, so still we had a good connection with Shotokan and Nakayama sensei. And my oldest brother, he went to Takushoku University.

GN: The Shotokan people and the Wado people said the Goju students were very difficult to fight because they would use techniques like haito and kin geri, and they would fight close in.
GY: Yes, very close. Now people all fight similar, but at that time Goju used to use cat stance, neko ashi, and Shotokan would use a big stance and take a long distance (to fight). So this is something funny, Goju like to come in close and Shotokan like to keep a long distance. I saw many fighting injuries.

GN: So the fighting was hard?
GY: Yes, we did very hard training but afterwards, when we finish, good friendships.

GN: When they fought Wado-ryu and Shotokan people, how did the Goju fighters get in on them, because Shotokan is a long distance style?
GY: My father used cat stance, and so (inaudible) control the distance. Also we used many low licks like groin kicks and knee joint kicks, while Shotokan people liked to do more dynamic (?) kicks, so when they were coming close they could not use those kicks.

GN: Kase sensei and Kanazawa sensei also told me that the Goju people were good at throwing people down when they got close in –
GY: That’s right, throwing techniques, and they would also do things like standing on the opponent’s foot, so they couldn’t move – very surprising. My father said also that you should not step backwards and forwards in a straight line, so we can make more subtle movement –

GN: Tai-sabaki?
GY: Tai sabaki, right.

GN: So this is like ju (soft) in defence?
GY: Well (inaudible) and of course Goju has two ideas, hard and soft, for hitting. So if somebody punches you, you can block hard and damage the arm, but you can also catch (divert) the power.

GN: So you can block two ways, hard and soft?
GY: Right.

GN: Asakusa remained the main dojo in Tokyo at that time?
GY: Yes. And of course in Showa 23 (1948) my father started the Goju-kai in Asakusa. At that time many members were coming back to Japan after the war and he started the organisation for Goju-kai.

GN: And there were seniors like Ujita sensei in Wakayama, and Uchiage sensei, and they came together with your father in the Goju-kai?
GY: Yes, the 23rd year of Showa.

GN: Did your father do all the teaching at the Asakusa dojo?
GY: Yes, that is correct.

GN: What was his teaching like?
GY: Well obviously he taught Goju technique, and the kata. His sparring (teaching) was not so much contact, he liked controlled kumite, good technique.

GN: And he did jyu-kumite with the students?
GY: Oh yes. And at that time (early 1950’s) sensei Oyama, Masutatsu Oyama, was also at the dojo.

GN: There’s a well known photograph of Gogen Yamaguchi and Oyama doing kumite.
GY: Yes, I know that photograph. At that time Oyama sensei was an Asakusa dojo member.

GN: He was an actual member of the dojo?
GY: Yes, he got 6th dan from my father.(Looking at an old group photo of the dojo -). . . Ah, this is me, the small boy in the front. This is sensei Kei Miyagi, the son of Chojun Miyagi sensei. And this is my oldest brother, and the second brother –

GN: Gosei and Gosen.
GY: Gosei and Gosen yes, and me, and most of the senior members (are in the photo).

GN: So did your father teach Mas Oyama?
GY: Yes, because you know sensei Oyama started (Goju) karate with sensei So Neichu, a Korean instructor. Now So Neichu was a kohai (junior) to my father at Ritsumeikan University. So Oyama sensei came to the Asakusa dojo. Not so many times, but he was a member of the Goju-kai.

GN: What was his Goju technique like, very strong?
GY: It was, very powerful. Before he separated and started his own group, he discussed with my father many times about karate. Oyama sensei had different ideas. My father liked controlled technique, but Oyama sensei liked to develop a strong body for hitting –

GN: Contact –
GY: Yes, contact, so one time they discussed very strongly – I’m not sure which one correct! (laughing). So Oyama sensei made his own club, Kyoshushin. But at time still my father understood, he had his own ideas and could form his own club.

GN: But when he started Kyokushin Oyama kept Goju kata like Selunchin and Saifa. (Looking here at the kata in Oyama’s first book, “What is Karate?” (1959)
GY: Yes, many senior members (of Goju) visited his club. This here in the book, sensei …

GN: Eiji Yasuda.
GY: Yasuda sensei, yes, he was my father’s student.

GN: Oh yes?
GY: Yes, he is a Korean. He was 2nd dan with my father, Asakusa Goju. He moved to Oyama sensei.

GN: Masashi Ishibashi, one of the early Kyokushinka sensei, he was from Goju also.
GY: Yes, he graduated from the same university as me. In fact, he is still a member of our Goju-kai. But Ishibashi sensei too moved to Oyama sensei’s club after he set up his group. So many senior (Goju) members visited his club, and so there were good connections before he started Kyokushin.

GN: In the early photos of Kyokushin, when they do jyu-kumite they take up neko-ashi stance, like Goju-kai.
GY: That’s right, very similar.

GN: Is it right you saw Oyama sensei bend a coin?
GY: Yes, I saw many times. I still believe because at that time I was a little kid and he showed me how to break (a coin). Some people say something different, but I didn’t know that. At that time I was surprised, you know. He showed us many strong techniques. He would wrap bamboo together and hit it with his fingers. He showed us many breaking techniques.

GN: Did you see him do kumite? What was it like?
GY: Oh, very strong. He liked to grab, (and throw people down). Of course, he used big techniques, but he did “kumite” with me, when I was just a child… that’s a very nice memory for me.

GN: Did you know the early foreign students of Goju, like Peter Urban?
GY: Yes, I knew him.

GN: He was at the dojo when you were there?
GY: Yes, he came training with sensei Oyama. The funny thing about Peter Urban was normally he could not come to that area of Asakusa. Because he was an officer in the army. But he came anyway.

GN: So Asakusa was off limits for the American Military?
GY: Yes. He married a Japanese wife. Peter Urban was the first instructor to start Goju-ryu in the United States, but his ideas were a bit different.

GN: So when you were training, you were Gogen Yamaguchi’s son, did that put pressure on you to be good?
GY: Yes, of course, but also I was the third son. So already the first and second sons had done more the hard training. So in my case it was a little different. I also had many senior members supporting me, and of course I was proud to be the son of Gogen Yamaguchi.

GN: And that would make you train harder?
GY: Of course.

GN: So when did you begin to like karate training?
GY: When I was ten years old I started studying judo and kendo with my father, and I was happy to be doing karate then.

GN: When did you become chief instructor?
GY: Well, this was after my father died in 1989. After two years I was made president of Goju kai, All Japan, and the International Goju-kai.

GN: So when did your father stop doing most of the classes and pass the teaching on to other people, like Tazaki sensei, Yamamoto sensei, maybe?
GY: Many people trained at the Goju-kai like Tazaki sensei, Yamomoto sensei, Mayama sensei also, but later my father had a big problem with the senior members of the Goju kai, Ujita sensei, Uchiage sensei, so they went away in a separate group. At that time, of course, I couldn’t choose, I had to go with my father. Of course, Yamamoto sensei and Tazaki sensei were students of my father, but Tazaki sensei is now joined to the Renmei Goju. But in the old days we had good training together with senseis Tazaki and Yamamoto, because we made up the Goju-kai team for the first and second All Japan Tournament. I was on the same team (Looking through the book “Goju-ryu by the Cat” and a photo taken at the 1963 tournament:) Yes, this is the team – Tazaki, Yamamoto, Yabe, Shimatoku and me. That time we got first prize in Goju-kai for the whole of Japan.

GN: Okinawan Goju was mainly kata practice, but your father introduced jyu-kumite to Japanese Goju?
GY: Well, of course you know Okinawa was very traditional. So Okinawa Goju didn’t free spar, only kihon, kata and some kote-kitae, so my father started jyu-kumite, free sparring at Ritsumeikan University. Chojun Miyagi sensei understood. But we didn’t have enough good connection with Okinawan Goju members at that time. And (after the war) Okinawa was not part of Japan. We couldn’t go there because it was controlled by America. So my father had no chance to go to Okinawa.

GN: I see, because the American Forces were stationed there.
GY: Yes, but we had a good connection with (Meitoku) Yagi sensei Yagi sensei was a senior student of Miyagi sensei. So later when we went to Okinawa we were visiting Yagi sensei, not Miyazato sensei.

GN: In Shotokan basics you do forearm blocks, but in Goju-kai you also do open-hand blacks from the beginning.
GY: Yes, because of course, Go-Ju must be both, hard and soft. So my father said we must be more soft way. So my father used open hand and more subtle (supple?) movement. And neko-ashi, cat-stance, is good for subtle movement. Then also traditionally Goju-ryu comes from Chinese kung-fu and kung-fu also has many subtle movements, so we also respect that (tradition).

GN: And your father liked Tensho kata?
GY: Yes, he did. Me too, I like Tensho.

GN: And in Goju-kai Sanchin is the Go (hard) and Tensho is the Ju (soft)?
GY: Well, some people say Go and Ju are separate, but my father used to say that Sanchin and Tensho are kihon and this kihon must be balanced altogether, soft and hard. In Tensho we demonstrate the same way as Sanchin: it looks (from the outside) very strong breathing, but inside is different.

GN: So can you say that Sanchin is more attack and Tensho more defence?
GY: That’s right, this is true. So Okinawa people say Tensho is heishu kata, and Sanchin is kihon kata, and all the other kata from Saifa to Suparimpel are kaishu kata. But my father said that Tensho must be together with Sanchin: that’s a good balance.

GN: And he did Sanchin-Tensho, the two forms put together?
GY: Yes, that was my father’s idea, he liked to show together.

GN: What was his favourite kata – Suparimpei?
GY: Yes, he liked Suparimpei. He demonstrated Suparimpei many times.

GN: Do you have a favourite kata?
GY: Well, when I was young I liked to show kata Seisan. Now, I cannot say which one. And now we have special kata Genkaku and Chikaku. They are only shihan (masters) kata.

GN: Genkaku and Chikaku, they were developed by you and your father?
GY: Yes, my father, before he died he made these kata.

GN: He developed those kata with you?
GY: Yes, we did together.

GN: In Goju-kai, Japanese Goju, you have kata that are not in Okinawa karate, the Taikyoku kata. These were developed for basic training?
GY: Right, because for beginners Gekisai kata can be difficult. So my father liked to start beginners with Taikyoku kata. We have five Taikyoku kata, and after you have done them it is easy to start Gekisai. My father started from Gekisai kata, and the techniques from Taikyoku Jodan to Taikyoku Mawashi-uke take the techniques from Gekisai kata.

GN: So they’re a preparation for the other kata.
GY: Yes, so the beginner starts with Taikyoku Jodan and works through to Taikyoku Mawashi-uke, then it’s easy to start on Gekisai.

GN: Japanese Goju also uses more kicks than traditional Okinawan Goju.
GY: Yes, but of course Goju had not so many high kicks, just kicks below the belt and to the knee joint, kansetsu geri. And so in Taikyoku kata we only use maegeri.

GN: In your association, you have kept the old style Goju jyu-kumite as well as the modern tournament style fighting. Is it important for you to keep that traditional Goju-Kumite, the fighting from neko-ashi, and using techniques like haito?
GY: Yes, that’s right. My father didn’t like point-kumite training, but of course he understood that the young generation like to do sport training. But karate is not only for sport, right? So he liked to teach also the traditional way. So my Goju-kai now has two different competitions: point and free sparring.

GN: What were your favourite techniques in jyu-kumite?
GY: Well I liked haito, and snapping techniques, uraken and fura-uchi (?).

GN: What were your father’s favourite techniques?
GY: He liked the elbow, very close technique. Also he used many open hand techniques.

GN: Techniques like nukite (spearhand)?
GY: Yes, and teisho, (palm heel). And he had a technique of putting his hand on the elbow or knee, so people couldn’t do anything. So it was funny, if people sparred with my father, everybody said, “I couldn’t do my best, but I don’t know why”.

GN: That was because he controlled the elbow?
GY: Yes, he controlled them. He would keep distance, and when they attacked he would put pressure on the elbow or knee.

GN: That’s interesting.
GY: Yes, I think so too.

GN: Did your father ever talk about his training with Miyagi sensei?
GY: My father said that at the time he met Miyagi sensei he wasn’t a good karateka.

GN: Your father wasn’t a good karateka?
GY: Yes, that’s right, but then when he met Miyagi sensei he thought he must change his character because Miyagi sensei was such a big person. So my father respected him very much, and after he met Miyagi sensei he changed a lot.

GN: In his book he said he did a lot of fighting when he was younger.
GY: Yes, too much fighting, when he was young! But then he stopped smoking, stopped drinking alcohol.

GN: Did your father ever talk about his time in Manchuria?
GY: He didn’t tell me everything, but I think he had a very hard job in Manchuria. But also he had a good connection with many Mongolian and Manchurian martial artists.

GN: He brought a demonstration team of martial artists from Manchuria to Japan.
GY: Right. That was very special.

GN: Did he ever talk about Chinese Kempo from when he was in Manchuria?
GY: Yes, he saw many times. He never studied Chinese Kung-fu, but he told me that if I had the chance I should study some. Then I did study some Chinese Kung-fu and I found many similarities to Goju.

GN: Similar circular movements?
GY: Right, and also they study more ki power.

GN: (Looking at a photo of Gogen Yamaguchi using the kusari (chain)). Does anyone practice the kusari nowadays?
GY: No, nobody. But of course I have my father’s kusari. He said this was a traditional weapon, and it was good to study traditional martial arts, not just karate. So he taught me judo and kendo and now I like kyudo (archery) too.

GN: Oh yes? Is that for the mind?
GY: Yes, and also I like the idea. Kyudo is a good weapon, but not to kill. It is good for (inaudible) traditional ceremony and form, you know.

GN: Where did your father learn the kusari? Was that in Manchuria or Japan?
GY: Not Manchuria, but from a sensei in Japan. I don’t know the name. And also he studied kendo.

GN: Jigen-ryu?
GY: Jigen-ryu from Kawashima, right. The same time he studied kusari.

GN: In his later years your father became interested in Yoga and Shinto.
GY: Yes, his idea was martial arts should not just be for fighting. So he became more interested in mental development, and he studied Yoga and Shinto, very traditional Shinto. So this was his main ‘way’ as he got old. I remember that in the years before he died he taught many students, but he didn’t like to show karate, he taught meditation and more mental training.

GN: There are photos of your father in India. Did he actually study Yoga in India?
GY: Yes, he studied from some yogi, Yoga instructor. I haven’t studied Yoga – very difficult.

GN: Do you think the Yoga influenced your father’s karate, or is it a different thing?
GY: Well, this was his special idea: he wanted to mix martial arts, Yoga and Shinto. But that idea, I’m sorry, I don’t understand it. So I’m now separating them: Yoga is Yoga, Shinto must be a religion, karate is training. So I don’t do Yoga, and Shinto not too much.

GN: So that was his personal way.
GY: Yes, of course, I still respect my father’s study of Yoga very much, because maybe he was doing breathing from karate and he also wanted to study breathing from Yoga, I think.

GN: And he taught Yoga?
GY: Yes, he taught yoga to some of the members, but he didn’t say “You must study Yoga” to the karate members. So you could choose.

GN: In the 1970’s your father set up the Japan Karate do College.
GY: Right, that was his dream.

GN: And he wanted to bring all the styles together in the College?
GY: Right. At that time we had good relationships with Ohtsuka sensei or Wado-ryu and Nakayama sensei of Shotokan, and other styles, and his idea was that karate should be all together. So then he started the Senmon-Gakku (the College). But it was very difficult to organise, you know?

GN: It was difficult to bring the groups together?
GY: Yes it was, very difficult. But many members who came from outside (Japan), they had a chance to study different styles. It is easy to talk about, but very difficult doing every style, because Goju-ryu, Shotokan, there is always something different, even in the basics. Now we have good relationships (between styles) at competitions and at seminars, but at that time my father’s idea was to study everything at the Senmon-Gakku … but I couldn’t!

GN: You saw the masters of other styles like Ohtsuka sensei (Wado-ryu) and Nakayama sensei (JKA)?
GY: Yes, I knew them very well. I respected them very much.

GN: What did you think of Ohtsuka’s technique? He had a soft technique also.
GY: Well of course Ohtsuka sensei studied ju-jutsu so his technique was not pure karate, I think. He had good ideas for movement, and took some techniques from ju-jutsu.

GN: So you think that was like karate and ju-jutsu mixed together?
GY: Right, yes.

GN: And what did you think of Shotokan? Strong basics?
GY: Right. But Nakayama sensei told me once that Shotokan and Goju are both karate, but they have different ideas. So he said that their competitions should be separate, not put together. Because, if you take examples like a tree, Shotokan is a palm tree, and Goju is like bamboo. So bamboo and palm tree can’t mix.

GN: So he thought the styles should be kept separate?
GY: Yes, he told me that.

GN: Did you see Mabuni sensei or Iwata sensei of Shito-ryu?
GY: Yes, I know Shito-ryu.

GN: They do many of the same kata as Goju-ryu.
GY: Yes, very similar, because Mabuni sensei studied Higaonna sensei Goju, and also Itosu sensei karate, so his ideas (inaudible). So now the Shito-ryu kata…not so easy, but I can understand. But Shotokan kata are very difficult for me!

GN: The feeling of the technique is different?
GY: That’s right, I guess so. But when they made the All Japan Karate Federation my father had good relationships with sensei Nakayama, Mabuni sensei, Ohtsuka sensei, so at that time all the top masters talked together and so now all karate is going one way.

GN: People practice a lot of bunkai of kata today.
GY: Yes, of course, bunkai is (inaudible) they can make good connexion with the partner, and it’s good for harmony. So bunkai is I think very important for understanding kata, and also we can use some techniques from kata, so we don’t only have point training punch and kick.

GN: Did your father teach you bunkai or has most of the bunkai now been developed by you?
GY: Now the bunkai we do in Goju-kai is my way, because my father’s style of bunkai was more like traditional Okinawan, not soft, very hard, hitting. Then he said we can do training more soft from kata, and then we developed bunkai from Gekisai to Suparimpei.

GN: You said earlier that it was important to keep the traditional side of Goju, even though tournaments are popular now.
GY: Yes, we must teach both. Of course, the young generation can do the training for point fighting and competition, but senior members can do the traditional training. So we must keep that.

GN: And karate is for your whole life?
GY: Yes, this is my life.

GN: Do you have to travel much teaching Goju?
GY: Yes, I have the JKGA in Japan and the IKGA internationally. After here I must go to North America, South America, Africa… so that everywhere does Goju-kai the same way.

GN: Sensei, thank you for your time.
GY: OK. Thank you very much.

Copyright © Graham Noble. All rights reserved.