Kanryo Higaonna was born in Naha, Okinawa, in 1853. He was one of eight children. His father made his living trading firewood between the local islands. Kanryo Sensei helped his father from the age of ten, and the hard work made him very strong. From childhood, Kanryo Higaonna showed great interest in the fighting arts and was eager to learn as much as possible. By all accounts, he was known for being very supple and quick on his feet, despite his small size.
At age fourteen, Kanryo Higaonna began to learn Chinese Kempo. His well-developed and strong body enabled him to master Chinese Kempo, and he quickly built a reputation as a martial arts master in Naha. Unsatisfied with his level of skill, Kanryo Higaonna longed to go to China to study the Chinese martial arts and their culture. Unfortunately, his family´s financial circumstances prevented him from having the freedom to travel.
As chance would have it, Higaonna Sensei´s instructor introduced him to Udon Yoshimura, a shipowner in the port city of Naha. It was Udon Yoshimura who eventually sponsored Higaonna Sensei´s passage to China. At the age of sixteen, he left Naha for the Chinese port of Foochow, where he stayed at the Okinawan settlement called the Ryukyu-kan. It took almost a year for Higaonna Sensei to be introduced to the local master of Chinese Kempo in Foochow, Master Ryu Ryuko.
Even after Higaonna Sensei was introduced, he was not immediately accepted as a disciple. The Chinese masters would take the time to study the personalities and characters of candidates before accepting any disciples. Thus, Higaonna Sensei was given the tasks of tending the garden and cleaning the rooms of the master and did these tasks earnestly and enthusiastically over a long period of time. Impressed by his attitude, Master Ryu Ryuko finally accepted Higaonna Sensei as his personal disciple.
As a disciple, Higaonna Sensei would help his master at his trade as a bamboo craftsman by day and then train after dark. Training began with the practise of Sanchin, then lifting the Nigiri-game (heavy ceramic jars) by their rims to strengthen the student´s grip while practising Unsoku-ho (a pattern of stepping movements) to develop proper footing. Exercises continued using the Muchi-ishi (natural stone) and Makiwara (striking post), as well as an Uki (bamboo basket) where two people would practise close fighting and choking techniques inside. These new tools and training techniques fascinated Higaonna Sensei and increased his interest in karate even more. The harsh training took its toll, however, and his legs, hands, and shoulders were always swollen from overexertion. Nevertheless, it was this harsh training that enabled him to develop his muscles like forged steel. After several years of harsh training, he became his master´s most skilled disciple.
Throughout the city of Foochow, the fame of Higaonna Sensei as a great martial artist gradually spread. An episode involving a discussion between students of two dojos (training places) led to a competition in order to demonstrate who was superior in skill. In order to choose a superior martial artist without anyone getting hurt, each master chose their best student to perform kata instead of freestyle fighting. Higaonna Sensei was chosen to represent his dojo. The students from the other dojo were struck with admiration as they watched Higaonna Sensei perform the Sanchin kata. Afterwards, the master of the other dojo admitted Master Ryu Ryuko´s art was superior to his own, and Higaonna Sensei´s fame spread even further. Many martial artists tried to engage him in a fight to prove their bravery, but Higaonna Sensei kept his promise to his master not to fight to show off his skill and declined these challenges.
Higaonna Sensei stayed as a disciple in Foochow for about thirteen years, after which he returned to Okinawa. Higaonna Sensei visited the owner of the ship, Udon Yoshimura, who had made his passage to China possible. Udon Yoshimura asked Higaonna Sensei to teach his sons some of the skills he had learned in China.
Higaonna Sensei´s fame spread rapidly throughout Naha, attracting the attention of the King of the Ryukyu Dynasty. Thus, for many years, he taught the martial arts to members of the royal family as well. However, many people in the town came to Higaonna Sensei and asked to be taken on as personal disciples. But due to the harshness of the training, only a few remained with him for long. Among his disciples, a young Miyagi Chojun was one of the few that remained. Higaonna Sensei had opened his house in Nishimachi as a dojo and was teaching his art to his disciples without charging any tuition. In addition to his private instruction, Higaona Sensei began teaching at a public high school in Naha at the request of the principal in 1905. He introduced to the students both the physical and spiritual values of his martial art.
During his thirteen years in China, Higoanna Sensei mastered many traditional martial arts, such as the art of the straight sword. His technique in these various martial arts was truly art in motion. His hands and legs possessed extraordinary spring, making his movements as fast as lightning. People were surprised that someone so small, five feet, one inch, could have so much power and strength and referred to him as Kensei, meaning “sacred fists”. Gradually, the art of Higaonna Sensei became known as Naha-te, “Naha” referring to the region of Naha in Okinawa, and “te” meaning hand technique. He devoted his life, along with his disciple Miyagi Chojun Sensei, to the improvement and advancement of the art of Naha-te. Early in 1916, Higaonna Sensei fell ill and passed away in October 1916. Thus, the art of Naha-te was handed over from Higaonna Kanryu Sensei to his disciple, Miyagi Chojun Sensei.
Higaonna Kanryo Sensei is honoured today as the founder of Naha-te karate.
Please note that owing to the different ways Japanese can be translated into English, you may often see Kanryo Hiagaonna referred to as Higashionna Kanryo.