Higashionna, Higaonna, Toonna

Sensei Paul Billimoria observed that many kata were created by or passed through karate’s great Naha-te Sensei Kanryo Higashionna.

Sensei Billimoria asked the following:

“When I saw the list of our 54 kata by author I was stunned by how many of the kata were attributed to Sensei Higashioona. In addition, many of my favorite kata appear to have been created by him. I have heard you lecture on many of the historical masters of karate but I don’t recall hearing much about Higashioona other than that he taught karate in Naha and had visited the Fukien Province in China. Could you tell us more about him. What was he like, his personality, his profession, what things are remembered about him, and how in the world did he become such a genius in kata creation? Did he really create all of these kata or are they translations to karate from chinese forms from various masters that he picked up in Fukien province?”

Well, first let me talk about his name. Higashionna is a combination of two Chinese kanji. The first kanji character is higashi which means east as in the compass direction. It may also be said Higa omitting the shi. It may also be said To. So there are three variations to the first kanji character; higashi, higa and to. All mean the same thing, i.e., east. The second kanji character is onna which means woman. Thus, in combination, the name Higashionna, Higaonna and Toonna mean “east woman.”

It may be interesting for some of you to note at this time the To in Toonna is where the to in Shito comes from. Shito is a combination of the first characters of Kenwa Mabuni’s two foremost instructors; Shi-su and To-onna.

Kanryo Higashionna was the ninth generation successor of the bushi Shin family line. His father, Shinzoku Higashionna, was a well-respected samurai in Nishimura, Naha, Okinawa prior to the Meiji Restoration where the bushi class was eliminated.

The son Kanryo was born between 1848 and 1853. In 1853 Admiral Perry’s Black Ships visited and opened Okinawa for the first time in 250 years. By 1867 the feudal system in Okinawa had been destroyed. The samurai class was unemployed. They had to fend for themselves, some legally, some illegally. The father Higashionna got hold of a small junk (boat) and proceeded to haul firewood from the Kerama Islands to Naha, some eighty miles. Kanryo was part of the family workforce and was needed for family survival. His education was neglected. Some say he never learned to read or write.

Mr. Kim tells the following story. The Higashionna family managed to secure a position for Kanryo on board a wealthy tea merchant’s vessel which went to-an-fro Fukien, China. On one of these trips the tea merchant, while he was purchasing tea to take to Okinawa, was accosted by bandits. He was badly beaten while Kanryo was tossed about like a leaf in the wind. The experience shook Higashionna and he determined to learn martial arts so that this would never happen to him or his friends again.

Although Higashionna was a bushi family member he had difficulty gaining entrance into a martial arts school. At the time, 1867 or so, karate was still held closely by a set of secretive and protective masters. The feudal era had been closed but no one really knew what would happen and martial arts had had a hard time for many centuries in Okinawa. The masters preferred to keep their karate secret.

In 1867 Kanryo gained entrance into the dojo of the great Seisho Arakaki. He trained there for three years when, legend has it that Arakaki went to China to further his studies in Chinese martial arts (wushu, specifically the Crane Style). Higashionna was now probably about 17 years old.

In 1870 Kanryo was introduced to Kojo Taitai who had a small dojo in Kumemura, just south of Naha. Higashionna trained here for about two years becoming familiar with the Chinese system which Kojo Taitai had learned from Xie Xinxian.

Higashionna’s appetite was insatiable. He learned everything quickly. He practiced many hours a day. His sensei, Kojo, recommended him to a local trade official by the name of Yoshimura who got Higashionna passage to China to train with the famous, albeit nebulous, Woo Lu Chin, a martial arts instructor in Fukien, China. After a year of hard work Higashionna was accepted by Chin as a student, but in the meantime Higashionna had to learn to speak Chinese, clean the dojo, do the washing, and be a general errand-boy.

His learning went fast. He was “a natural” with a gift of quick hip actions and fast kicks. Chin was impressed and asked Higashionna if the people of Okinawa had an art like he was learning from Chin. Higashionna assured Chin that Okinawa had no similar art, although there was a form of Tode (karate) practiced in the hills around Shuri. Chin offered to teach Higashionna his complete art if the young lad wanted to take it back to Okinawa and teach the Okinawans. Higashionna was ecstatic. He intensified his studies.

His boat-ride back to Okinawa came after a two year absence. The tea merchant told Chin he would return Higashionna to home. Chin objected saying that he was not yet finished with the boy. He wanted to have Higashionna with him for at least five more years. The tea merchant asked Higashionna what he wanted to do. Higashionna stayed for 15 years and made several later trips over the next 30 years to train with Chin.

Chin was more than a pugilist. He wanted Higashionna to learn about China. Chin took Higashionna, who was raised on a small island, across the vast stretches of Asia. Higashionna was introduced to the extensive expanses of a mainland for the first time in his life. He was also introduced to the violence of the people of the mainland. One day he and Chin were accosted by a robber who demanded their money and clothes. A violent confrontation occurred. Higashionna won but he learned a lesson which he would never forget; “When two tigers fight one is sure to be killed and the other one injured.”

Higashionna learned from Chin the following Fuzchow Crane forms; Nipaipo, Papuren, Donquan, Roujin, Quijing. It is commonly accepted that he taught none of these kata. At Aoinagi karate we believe Higashionna was creator or the translator of the following kata; Suparumpei, Seiunchin, Kururunfa, Seipai, Shisochin, Sanseiryu, Saifa, Sanchin. It is highly unlikely that Higashionna created all of these kata, although it is possible. It is more likely that Higashionna learned them from Chin and others in China, perhaps modified them and then taught them to his students in Naha. At any rate the history of each of these kata passes thru Higashionna one way or another. Either he created them or he was responsible as an early promoter of them.

When Higashionna finally returned to Okinawa his prowess as a “finished” martial artist spread rapidly. He shined so brightly that other martial arts dojo soon dimmed into the background and much of what they offered has been lost. Higashionna’s trainings were highly intense, rigorous workouts with no thrills and few rests. He wanted only the best to continue and only the best did continue. He trained with such enthusiasm that he lit on fire the next generation of martial artist; the ones who were to skyrocket martial arts into the world’s awareness; Chojun Miyagi, Kenwa Mabuni, Kyoda Juhatsu, Toyama Kanken and Higa Seko. In addition, Gichin Funakoshi made numerous visits to Higashionna to learn his style.

So what was Kanryo Higashionna like? He was a big man with thin features. He trained with intensity, believing in the inner spirit of man and the need for man to learn about his own inner spirit. He practiced what he preached as well; on festival days he would tie ropes to his feet and stand on the roof-top allowing others to try to pull him off of the roof. Incidentally, legend has it that no one ever pulled him off. Did he marry and have children? I don’t know. He seemed to be a man with a purpose; the passing on of an art to his beloved countrymen.

If we look at the kata which he passed to us we may get a glimpse into his personality. Suparumpei and Shisochin indicate that he was probably a religious man. Seiunchin, Saifa and Kururunfa indicate he was ready to take on almost any task with rigorous commitment, with the bigger the task the better he liked it. Sanseiryu indicates he knew his position as emissary to the Okinawan people and Seipai, well, Seipai indicates he knew defeat but was not about to allow himself to be defeated….again.