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:
Yamaguchi Yoshimi studied kendo in school, as did almost all students before the War. During his teens in Kyoto, he linked up with an Okinawan carpenter named Maruta (or possibly Maruyama) Takeo who had been a student of Miyagi Chojun, though no one seems to know how long he had studied with him or how much he had learned.viii Judging from his biography, Yamaguchi's studies with Maruta probably lasted about five years. It should be remembered that Miyagi's teaching style, especially before the War, was to teach his students Sanchin, Tensho, and perhaps one more kata, chosen to "fit" the personality, body type, and character of the student,ix so it is likely that Maruta was able to teach Yamaguchi only a very limited introduction to Goju-ryu, and probably at a fairly superficial level.
Yamaguchi later linked up with a young student of Miyagi named Yogi Jitsuei (1912-1997), another extremely influential teacher of Goju-ryu in Japan during the 20th century who is hardly known outside a small circle of researchers and hard-core practitioners. In 1929, Yamaguchi and Yogi invited Miyagi to visit Japan and teach. Yamaguchi reported that Yogi "introduced" him to Miyagi in 1931 to become a direct student, but there is no evidence that Miyagi visited Japan in 1931 or that Yamaguchi visited Okinawa at that time. This may simply have involved Yogi sending a letter of introduction to Miyagi recommending Yamaguchi as a student, a common practice in Japan. Miyagi, who reportedly hated to travel because he suffered from severe sea-sickness, apparently visited Japan briefly in 1933, but there is no evidence he met Yamaguchi at the time. If he did, Yamaguchi's training would have been short-term and minimal.
Miyagi finally visited Japan in 1935 and met Yamaguchi. The "official line" says that Miyagi was so impressed by Yamaguchi's ardor and mastery of the "hard" aspect of Goju-ryu that he bestowed on him the nickname, "Gogen ," or "Rough." Of course, this may also have been a not-too-subtle comment on the lack of Yamaguchi's refinement in Goju-ryu. Miyagi in 1935, stayed at Yogi's house for several months, teaching Yamaguchi, Yogi and other students. Miyagi again returned to Kyoto in 1936, staying with Yogi and teaching for a short while.
So Neichu's background seems a little easier to untangle because fewer myths have been built around him. Although one source says that So studied karate in high school, this seems unlikely. If true, it almost certainly was not Goju-ryu, but possibly Shotokan. But during his short sojourn at Kyoto Imperial University, So joined the boxing club and began an intensive weight training program, a regimen that ultimately was responsible for his remarkable physique and his later influence over Mas Oyama to likewise engage in intensive weight training. So had an impressive boxing career, winning a number of matches and eventually meeting the famous Japanese boxer, "Piston" Horiguchi.
Having been expelled from Kyoto Imperial for his pro-communist sympathies, So moved to Ritsumeikan and joined Yamaguchi's karate club. His boxing experience and great strength served him well in Yamaguchi's club, which appears to have been devoted almost entirely to rough sparring, or "jissen kumite" ("real battle fighting") as Yamaguchi called it. It appears that kata figured only in a minor way in the Ritsumeikan program. (So later recalled that they mainly practiced Sanchin and Tensho in addition to sparring.x ) Although So was able to dominate many opponents with his boxing skills, he admitted he was flummoxed by the third founding member of the club, one Okamura, whose powerful kicks, especially to the legs and lower body, So had never encountered before.
So was still affiliated with the club in 1935 and 1936 when Miyagi visited and taught, so he had almost as much high-level instruction as Yamaguchi himself and likely more real contact fighting as a result of his boxing experience. So was also said to have attended Miyagi's nightly talks with his students, picking up much of the lore and wisdom Miyagi passed along away from the dojo floor.
Yamaguchi Gogen (left) lifting weights in Manchuria sometime between 1938 and 1945
An 18-year-old Oyama Masutatsu (right)
So's greatest period of influence
Yamaguchi Gogen was sent to Manchuria and Mongolia between 1938-45 on various support missions for the Imperial Army and its intelligence services, and so was absent from the dojo for a prolonged period. So Neichu continued to teach and kept the Osaka dojo open throughout the war. During this period, another overseas Korean (zainichi) with a nidan from Funakoshi walked into the dojo and became excited by the emphasis on hard sparring. Soon the young (18-year-old) Mas Oyama was hooked and became a protégé of So Neichu. By happenstance, both came from the same province in Korea and struck up an immediate relationship as mentor and protégé. So influenced Oyama to train hard, lift weights to increase his strength, and engage in more realistic "jissen kumite," but also urged him along the path of merging spirituality with his martial arts.
During this period, So was also apparently involved in one of the more colorful and controversial exploits of early karate in Japan. Funakoshi Gichin had resisted introducing kumite to his classes ever since his arrival in Tokyo in 1922, but his ardent young students, preparing for what they anticipated would be an inevitable war, demanded a more realistic and exciting training regimen than the repetition of kata and basics. Under the influence of Funakoshi's son, Gigo, and some of the university club presidents, Funakoshi gradually allowed jiyu kumite. With the ardency of youth, "soft" sparring soon became hard contact fighting, and rivalries began to develop between the various schools.
At this time in Japan, all karate styles remained relatively open to interaction with each other, and the Shotokan people in the Tokyo area began to hear about the tough fighters practicing a different style in the Osaka area. Naturally, a competition was arranged. According to a wide-spread story, Funakoshi Gigo picked 10 of his best competitors and traveled to Osaka to engage in an inter-school match. At some point during this competition-apparently in the last match, after all the other Shotokan people had lost to their Goju-ryu counterparts-Funakoshi Gigo squared off against So Neichu. The powerful So simply picked up the smaller Funakoshi and threw him against a wall, injuring not only his body but his dignity. Funakoshi complained that such actions were against the rules, gathered up his group, and departed. It is said that after returning to Tokyo, the Shotokan schools intensified their study of kumite and stepped up its intensity, resulting in their later fearsome reputation in tournament competition.xi
So's leftist political convictions got him in trouble with the authorities, and he was finally arrested in 1944. It was during his imprisonment that he converted to Nichiren Buddhism.xii Upon his release, he moved to Tokyo where he met up with Oyama, who had also settled in Tokyo. Oyama became interested in So's new faith and spirituality. So encouraged Oyama to secrete himself in the mountains for a year of austere training to temper his spirit and mind, and when Oyama's confidence began to waver, So recommended he shave off one eyebrow and vow not to return to society until it had grown back.xiii This austere training resulted in Oyama winning the first All-Japan championship and testing himself through a variety of feats, including fighting bulls and breaking various objects.
After the War and his release from a Russian prison camp, Yamaguchi returned to Japan and also settled in Tokyo. In fact, according to his son, Yamaguchi deliberately picked one of the rougher areas of Tokyo to open his school to showcase the effectiveness of his karate.xiv Mas Oyama trained from time to time with Yamaguchi, even joining the latter's Goju-kai before striking out on his own to establish the Kyokushinkai organization. Nonetheless, the two remained friends and students would sometimes visit each other's dojos. There is a famous picture from the 1950s of Yamaguchi and Oyama engaged in a spirited kumite match.
So Neichu, by contrast, all but disappears from public view. But behind the scenes, he still played an important role in the development of Goju-ryu in Japan. According to one expert, Yogi Jitsuei, the partner and friend of both Yamaguchi and So, attended the meeting in Okinawa after Miyagi died about how to decide the future of the style; Miyagi had never given anyone a black belt nor designated any successor. According to this version, Miyagi had actually designated So as his successor in Japan, but the idea of a Korean taking over a Japanese martial arts style was so unheard-of that it was nixed, and Yamaguchi was named head of Goju-ryu in Japan. So, a humble and religious man, chose not to make an issue of it and withdrew quietly to a lesser and supportive role.
So appears to have remained active in the original Goju-kai set up by Yamaguchi in 1950, apparently as a vice president. In 1972, another senior Goju-ryu practitioner and powerful politician demanded a reorganization of the Goju-ryu organization in Japan.xv Yamaguchi was elected president of the new organization, with Yogi Jitsuei, So Neichu and one other man elected as vice presidents.xvi
So Neichu speaking at the 1973 inauguration of the Nippon Karate Senmon Gakko (Japan Karate-do College) with Yamaguchi Gogen, Ohtsuka Hironori and other dignitaries in attendance.
The reorganization clearly didn't solve the problem, and in 1973, other Goju-ryu masters-mostly Okinawans living in Japan and with close ties to other factions of Okinawan Goju-ryu-reportedly demanded that Yamaguchi step down as head of the Goju Kai. Yamaguchi refused, and Japanese Goju-ryu broke into two separate organizations. So appears to have left with Yamaguchi and remained an advisor to his association until Yamaguchi's death in 1989.xvii At some point, he reportedly was promoted to 9th dan by the Japanese Butokukai. In addition to his karate career, So was also active in the principal association of Koreans in Japan, looking out for their interests. So Neichu apparently died in Japan sometime around 2001, in his early 90s, his major early role in the development and spread of karate in Japan all but forgotten.
So Neichu at age 86
i See, for example, Yamaguchi Gogen, Goju Ryu Karate Do Kyohan. Hamilton, Ontario: Masters Publication, 2000 (a translation from the Japanese).
ii Graham Noble, "An Interview with Goshi Yamaguchi," at http://www.seinenkai.com/articles/noble/noble-gyamaguchi.html.
iii E.g., see "Fighting Arts.com" forum discussion at http://www.fightingarts.com/forums/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat& Number=1584516&site_id=1, accessed 6/5/2010 and "Yamaguchi Family: Gogen Yamaguchi," at http://www.gojuryu.com/lineage.htm.
iv Most ethnic Koreans changed their names to Japanese forms to more easily "pass" in Japanese society. So, strangely, never did, though he changed his Korean name when he moved to Japan. Born Cho Hyung-ju, he thereafter called himself So Neichu. It is not clear to me if this is simply a more "Japanized" pronunciation of his original name or a genuine change, but he never took up a Japanese name. Another zainichi (Korean-Japanese) who also changed his name is the Kyokushinkai master Oyama Shigeru-not related to Oyama Masutatsu, but his longtime student-who is said to have been the nephew of So Neichu. See http://www.martialedge.net/articles.history/a-history-of-modern-taekwondo-part1/1, accessed 6/5/2010 and http://www.kyokushin4life.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6971, accessed 2/27/2010.
v See http://www.martialedge.net/articles.history/a-history-of-modern-taekwondo-part1/1, accessed 6/5/2010
vi Mario McKenna, "So Neichu," in International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Newsletter, No. 2, 2002, pages 5-8.
vii See http://www.kyokushin4life.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6971, accessed 2/27/2010.
viii E.g., see "Yamaguchi Family: Gogen Yamaguchi," at http://www.gojuryu.com/lineage.htm.
ix See, for example, Higaonna Morio, The History of Karate: Okinawan Goju-Ryu. NP: Dragon Books, 1995.
x Mario McKenna, "So Neichu," in International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Newsletter, No. 2, 2002, pages 5-8.
xi See, for example, Harry Cook, Shotokan Karate: A Precise History. NP: NP, 2001; Graham Noble, "Master Funakoshi's Karate," at http://www.dragon-tsunami.org/Dtimes/Pages/articled1.htm, accessed 2/27/2010; and http://www.kyokushin4life.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6971, accessed 2/27/2010.
xii Mario McKenna, "So Neichu," in International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Newsletter, No. 2, 2002, pages 5-8.
xiii On this relationship, see for example, the thread on Oyama on http://www.martialtalk.com/forum/ showthread.php?t=15313 accessed 2/27/2010; http://www.kyokushin4life.com/forums/showthread.php?t=6971, accessed 2/27/2010; http://www.all-karate.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=361&st=15; and Mario McKenna, "So Neichu," in International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Newsletter, No. 2, 2002, pages 5-8.
xiv Graham Noble, "An Interview with Goshi Yamaguchi," at http://www.seinenkai.com/articles/noble/noble-gyamaguchi.html.
xv This individual was Ujita Shozo who started training with Yamaguchi in 1929 but also later trained directly with Miyagi. He not only became a power in the Japan Karate Federation but served as mayor of Wakayama from 1966-1986. See "Shozo Ujita," at http://www.kuyukaikarate.com.za/html/shozo-ujita.html. It is not clear why Ujita and others had become dissatisfied with Yamaguchi but it may have had to do with his increasing intermixture of Shinto, yoga, and karate, a mixture that many seem to have objected to.
xvi see "Fighting Arts.com" forum discussion at http://www.fightingarts.com/forums/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number= 1584516&site_id=1, accessed 6/5/2010. Ujita Shozo was the Chairman of the Board.
xvii Mario McKenna, "So Neichu," in International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Newsletter, No. 2, 2002, pages 5-8 and http://www.traditionalfightingartsforum.com/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=497&start=30, accessed 6/5/2010.