The Most Important Japanese Goju-ryu Master You've Never Heard Of

Yamaguchi Yoshimi (or Jitsumi, 1909-1989), better known in the West as "The Cat" or Yamaguchi Gogen, has virtually monopolized the press and legends about the development and spread of Goju-ryu karate in Japan and was its most visible and recognizable figure until his death in 1989.i Yamaguchi was also one of the most controversial figures in Goju-ryu, not only for mixing his martial art with the Japanese native religion of Shinto and with Yoga-neither of which innovations survived his passing-ii and for his mysterious and perhaps dark wartime activities, but because he built the largest international Goju-ryu "empire" based on very limited actual exposure to real experts in the Goju-ryu karate created and taught by Miyagi Chojun. Although many outsiders looked down on Yamaguchi and his form of Goju-ryu as of questionable authenticity and authority, he maintained close ties with several genuine Okinawan masters and students of Miyagi, including Miyagi's most senior disciple and successor, Yagi Meitoku (1912-2003), and was accepted by them as an equal. iii

But Yamaguchi never would have gotten his start without a little known partner-their exact relationship as student/teacher and sempai/kohai has remained very difficult to disentangle-named So Neichu. iv So, an ethnic Korean, was extremely important in helping Yamaguchi become established and in building his reputation. So kept Yamaguchi's fledgling Goju school alive while Yamaguchi was stationed overseas during World War II and subsequently held as a prisoner of war. So remained a high-ranking official in Japanese Goju-ryu organizations after the War, even as Yamaguchi eclipsed him in fame.

Quiet and unassuming, So was enormously strong and a powerful fighter who remained an important behind-the-scenes influence over Japanese Goju-ryu until his death in Japan around 2001. Yet, aside from a few references to his huge influence on another young Korean karate student-Choi Yongyi, who later changed his name to Oyama Masutatsu and created the worldwide hard-style karate empire, Kyokushinkai-little is known about So Neichu. This article attempts to piece together the few facts and many rumors or recollections about So in an effort to elevate him to the recognition and dignity he deserves as a founding member of Goju-ryu in Japan and one of its leading teachers as late as the 1980s and 1990s, when he was in his 80s.

So Neichu in his prime

Zainichi (Korean-Japanese) before the War

Before the Second World War, Korea was under the domination of the Japanese empire. Even as Japan exploited the region for its natural resources and built it up as an industrial center, many Koreans emigrated to Japan to advance their education and careers. Traditionally-and still today-most Japanese look down on Koreans and discriminate against them. Despite this, many ambitious Korean youths traveled to Japan in the 1920s and 1930s in search of education, jobs, and upward mobility. Not a few of these Koreans later became founding fathers of Korean martial arts such as Tang Soo Do, Tae Kwon Do, and Hapkido.v But that's another story. Several stayed in Japan and became famous as martial artists. Most changed their names to Japanese: Choi Yongyi, for example, went to Japan in 1938, at the age of 15, and joined the Yamanishi Youth Air Force Academy, intending to become a pilot in the Imperial Army. Linking up with Funakoshi Gichin at Takushoku University, however, he became fascinated with the Japanese martial arts, studied Shotokan and Goju-ryu as well as Judo, changed his name to Oyama Masutatsu, and eventually created his own Kyokushinkai association, fully integrated into both Japanese society and the Japanese martial arts scene.

So Neichu's journey is much less clear. Born in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1908, he became a leftist thinker and agitator for Korean independence as a student. vi Strangely, given his desire for Korean freedom from Japanese occupation, he moved to Osaka in 1931 and enrolled in Naniwa High School in Osaka to further his education. Apparently retaining his leftist leanings, he matriculated in Kyoto Imperial University a few years later, but within six months was expelled for his socialist activities and support of the communist movement. He moved to Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto where he entered a karate club organized off campus and not recognized by the school, which was run by Yamaguchi Yoshimi, who was just a year younger than So.

So's mysterious early karate journey

Accounts differ significantly about exactly what So's relationship was with Yamaguchi. The "official" line from the later Yamaguchi camp has it that So was Yamaguchi's top pupil and dai sempai, who helped teach at the club. Others have argued, however, that So was actually senior to Yamaguchi in karate, but that Yamaguchi-as a Japanese and because of his outgoing personality-took on the leadership role, relegating So to a subordinate position.vii Here are the facts, as best as I can discern them: