This isn’t always a bad thing. Movies can inspire people to try the martial arts and from the many, a few will stay on to discover what martial arts truly has to offer. That’s why, for the serious martial artist, a teacher who really existed is so much more inspiring than any fictional character can ever be. The reason for this is found in the Japanese word for teacher: Sensei – which means ‘one who has gone before.’ From the point of view of a student, it is always good to know that whatever hardships you may be enduring at the moment, your teachers has endured the same in the past.

So serious martial artists may be interested to know that the fictional Mr. Miyagi was inspired by the real-life karate master Chojun Miyagi, and unlike his Hollywood namesake, Chojun Miyagi lived and died in Okinawa. Okinawa has a rich and proud history of karate, however Miyagi’s name is one of a small handful of masters who can be said to have had a truly global influence.

Who is Chojun Miyagi?

Most of what is known about Miyagi has been pieced together from accounts written by his former students. Miyagi’s own extensive writings were destroyed in the fires of World War II. The students’ records paint a very appealing portrait of the man: meticulous and fastidious about details, studious, open-minded, obsessive about karate, demanding of his students yet warm-hearted and taking a keen personal interest in their health and development.

A few records of Miyagi’s own writings also remain. These take the form of articles that appeared in martial arts publications. They confirm the portrait created by his students, revealing him to be remarkably humble, especially considering he was the head of a family of Okinawa nobility and a karate master of wide renown. In his writings, he lays out several versions of karate’s history and its links to kung fu and allows the reader to decide which is true. He is also open about what he knows and what he is still seeking to fully comprehend:

“I feel as if I walk alone on a distant path in the darkness. The further I go, the more distant the path will become, but that is why the truth is precious. If we go forward to find the truth of karate by all our strength of mind and body, we will be rewarded little by little and day by day. The truth is near, but hard to reach.

At the time of writing Miyagi was 54 years old and he had been training in karate since the age of five. He was also the founder of a respected karate school and president of the Okinawa karate branch of the prestigious Dai Nippon Butokukai. This shows that Miyagi, even at this advanced stage in his martial arts career, felt he was still grasping at the true meaning of his art. It is hard to image that he was wondering about the meaning of basic techniques, kata or bunkai (applications) at such an elevated stage in his martial arts career. More likely, the ‘truth’ he was seeking was karate’s connection to Zen and indeed life itself. In his 1936 article, he wrote:

“I have heard that the principles of Zen and other sitting meditations are the same as Sanchin.”

He goes on to say:

“When I see karate-do in Okinawa, I think we tend to pay too little attention to Heishu Kata (internal-focused kata) such as Sanchin. What do you think of this? Therefore, even if I see your best performance of Kaishu Kata (external-focused kata), I would not be satisfied with it and I feel something is lacking for perfection, as you do not have a stable and fundamental base powered by Sanchin.”

In Search of The Real Mr. Miyagi

Admittedly, Miyagi is relating Sanchin to martial arts, saying that it gives the practitioner a deep and fundamental power (achieved by Sanchin’s sense of ‘rooting’ to create a strong connection to the ground). However this connection is more than simply physical, it is mental and spiritual too. The deep breathing of Sanchin is the same as practised in yoga, chi-gung and Zen meditation. The straight posture and stacking of the spine are a standing form of seated meditation.

This link between combative practise and meditative practise is one that Miyagi sought to emphasise in his writing:

“According to oral history in the old days, the teaching policy of karate put emphasis on self-defence techniques. With just a motto of "no first attack in karate," teachers showed their students the moral aspects. However, I heard that in reality they tended to neglect such moral principles. So gradually the teaching policy was improved with the change of the times. Now we have discontinued and abolished the wrong tradition of so-called "body first, and mind second," and we made our way toward Tao of fighting arts or the truth of karate. Eventually we have obtained the correct motto "mind first, and body second" which means karate and Zen are the same.”

The assertion that karate and Zen are the same was part of Miyagi’s drive to gaining wider acceptance for his art. At the time Okinawa karate was considered inferior by the leading martial arts authorities in Tokyo. The arts of Kendo, Kyudo, Iaido and Aikido were closely associated with Zen and the perfection of the mind and the self. Even Judo was, according to its founder Dr Kano, ultimately concerned with perfecting the character of the practitioner. Karate was, by contrast, a fragmented and ungoverned native art with no unified standards. That is not to say it was of low quality, but rather of varied quality, with small dojos and family styles scattered around Okinawa in a haphazard synthesis of local Okinawan ‘Te’ (Hand) and Chinese arts.

Elevate Karate To An Art Form

Miyagi’s aim was to elevate karate from a native self-defence system to an art that would be respected in Tokyo and beyond. Miyagi did not introduce Zen into karate – with its origins in kung fu that traces its history to the Shaolin Temple, Zen was already present – Miyagi simply sought to emphasise it. But to emphasise it, he also needed to understand it and explain it. This is easier said than done, and it seems this was the ‘ultimate truth of karate’ he was seeking, and struggling to put his finger on. This was the truth that was, “near, but hard to reach.

In Zen, even seemingly everyday acts like tea making and flower arranging are elevated to an art form and governed by kata or ‘ways of doing things.’ The acts vary, but the recurring theme is that they should be performed with the right ‘mind,’ or as we might say today in the West, the correct approach. The implication is that if you can learn to approach one thing correctly, you will approach all things correctly, including life itself.

In the final paragraph of the last known writings of Chojun Miyagi, he writes:

“At the end of this essay, I will give you a phrase which is quoted from the famous book "Bubishi" or "Wubeizhi" written by Mao Yuan-yi in the late Ming era, in which he commented on the martial arts by taking examples of calligraphy and horsemanship. ‘If you master how to stroke Chinese letters, then I can teach you all the techniques of calligraphy. If you master how to take the saddle, then I can teach you all the techniques of horsemanship.’”

For further reading, two translations of articles by Chojun Miyagi can be found on the blogsite of Sanzinsoo, under the heading ‘Miyagi’s Essay’.