Upset applecarts and the question of lineage

In traditional martial arts the question of lineage is often seen as paramount. I remember well the debates that raged from issue to issue on the letters page of the (now defunct) Australasian Fighting Arts Magazine. Various taijiquan schools would send in letters that stated: "X does not do authentic Yang style because he only studied with Y and Z while I studied with A, B and C" etc. Eventually the editor would chime in and and say "I'm not printing any more letters on this topic". But before long another, similar, debate would fire up.

The question of lineage is by no means confined to taijiquan schools. Most recently I have been made aware of a huge "lineage upset" in Okinawan goju ryu karate circles, caused by the video below:

The controversial video of Alexandr Filimonov's and Kato Tomoyuki's "succession" to the late An'ichi Miyagi

For those who don't know, An'ichi Miyagi was student of the legendary Chojun Miyagi, having trained with him from the age of 16 to 22. An'ichi Miyagi's most famous student, Morio Higaonna, is one of the most celebrated goju practitioners and teachers in the world today. He is reknowned for his power and effectiveness as well as his deep knowledge.

Higaonna's lineage is not without controversy. It is known that he trained for a lengthy period under Jundokan founder and senior student of Chojun Miyagi, Ei'ichi Miyazato. Miyazato is on record as stating that Higaonna was his student - not An'ichi Miyagi's.1 Indeed, Higaonna's early dan gradings appear to have been given to him by Miyazato.2 Higaonna meanwhile has steadfastly maintained that his main teacher was An'ichi Miyagi;3 he makes little to no mention of Miyazato when referring to his lineage.

Higaonna was awarded his tenth dan (judan) and the title "Hanshi" by An'ichi Miyagi and Shuichi Aragaki on 25 September 2007.4

So imagine the surprise of the goju world when the above video surfaced proclaiming 2 former students of Higaonna,5 Alexandr Filimonov and Kato Tomoyuki, as the successors of An'ichi Miyagi. Both are also judan grade and have the title "Hanshi". In Kato's case I note that his grading was in 20026 predating Higaonna's by about 5 years. It seems that Filimonov received his grade in 2008, as can be seen in the video below:

Another video featuring An'ichi Miyagi and Alexandr Filimonov

What does all this mean? Is Higaonna's status affected by the "surprise" elevation of other, less experienced, karateka over him? On paper, yes (disregarding the fact that the videos above are open to criticism as lacking in modesty and courtesy 7).

However in my opinion the whole business about succession is much ado about nothing.

It is far more pertinent to focus on the abilities and knowledge of a teacher than it is focus on particulars of the teacher's lineage. The latter is really only of academic/historical interest. While it might give a prospective student an indication of whether he or she will learn something preserved from the past, it really doesn't reflect the usefulness of the material the student will acquire. In some cases it will give some indication of the likely framework of the syllabus and training methods. For example, if you go to an IOGKF school (Higaonna's association) you are likely to encounter a consistent emphasis on hojo undo (conditioning) and a particular set of bunkai (applications of kata).

Whatever indication you might get from lineage, it starts to break down significantly after one generation. Ultimately every teacher has his or her own "style". A teacher can never pass down an exact copy of his teacher's style (nor would it necessarily be desirable to do so).

In Higaonna's case, I tend to ignore the lineage questions. He is a master in his own right and whether you like his approach or not, he is arguably the most influential goju practitioner of his generation. He was/is also one of the most effective martial artists around - again, whether you like his approach or not. To the extent that he has focussed and commented on his own lineage, I think it is a shame that he has felt it necessary to do so. Questions about lineage potentially distract one from his ability, knowledge and contribution. They can also distract one from his general approach/method - which should be the primary issue for consideration, irrespective of whether one is happy with the lineage issue.

Higaonna might or might not be Chojun Miyagi's lineal successor, but he arguably has a status in karate similar to that enjoyed by Chojun Miyagi when the latter was alive. This reputation is due to the fact that he is both an innovator as well as an effective martial artist. The fact that his innovations are not my preference (I prefer a softer style and consider some of his innovations to have moved further to the "hard" side of the spectrum) doesn't affect this assessment. It is worth noting that many argued that Chojun Miyagi was too "hard" for their liking in as much as he focussed on hojo undo, changed open hand techniques into closed fist ones, etc.

Accordingly, I think it is a shame that lineage preoccupies so many people. If Higaonna's style appeals to you, then it is more relevant that you follow his style than whether it is truly representative of the style of An'ichi Miyagi or Chojun Miyagi or Kanryo Higaonna, etc. After all, a day will come when people will argue about who is the true successor to Morio Higaonna...

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic


1. See this interview with Ei'ichi Miyazato.

2. In the above interview Miyazato talks about awarding Higaonna dan grades up to 6th dan and signing off for him to be awarded his 7th dan by the Goju Kai organization.

3. See for example this article in the Dragon Times online magazine.

4. See this page on the English Goju Ryu site.

5. See this article listing Filimonov as a student of Higaonna and the video below of Kato with Higaonna:

6. See Kato Tomoyuki's site.

7. See the various comments about this issue on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum.