View Full Version : USA Goju Karate and the enigma of Peter Urban

Juan Perez
5th May 2016, 00:28
My martial arts path began well over 30 years ago when my father walked me into a local karate dojo, dropped me off, and didn't return for three hours. I remained a faithful student of that school for over 7 years before going on to train in other gendai arts, culminating in my 20 year career in the military, 15 of which, I spent with special operations. Certainly, the military arts and techniques I learned and applied while there where varied and oftentimes included a plethora of sources of instructions from across a multitude of disciplines.

But, that initial experience as a karateka was important in my formation as a young man. However, as I grew older, I questioned increasingly the veracity of information passed down to us students as fact. Of course, my formative years did not benefit from social media, Youtube, and the ubiquitous Google. The impetus behind my research was spurred after I viewed some old videos of Peter Urban performing a number of Goju kata, as well as his now legendary point sparring match against Isshin Ryu's Don Nagle. I say legendary because, that match is legendary more for its apparent historical significant than because of its remarkable display of masterful skill in the combat arts.

A discussion of sorts ensued between a number of people and myself regarding the history of USA Goju (or, Urban Goju). I conducted some limited research and engaged in the conversation. I come to this repository of information (e-Budo) in the hopes of facilitating conversation on this subject. It would be my wish that such interaction could be had without ideological fervor so as to limit ourselves to facts sans emotion. Yet, I've been around long enough to know that when one questions someone else's life-long endeavors, especially when these involve the questioning of historical heroes, passions surface in sacrifice of civil discourse. Nevertheless, I've copy/pasted the discussion items I had regarding Peter Urban and Goju Ryu.

First Conversation - Peter Urban's Six Years in Japan

"From what most historically accepted facts show, Peter Urban joined the US Navy in 1952, began his training in martial arts (presumably, karate) with Richard Kim in 1953. Parallel to this, Richard Kim had begun to teach karate, judo, and kobudo, in Yokohama from 1951 to 1957 (we can assume from this that Peter Urban began his martial arts training under Kim in Yokohama). The "Naval Housing Annex Negishi" - later commissioned as the US Navy Housing Activity, Yokohama - was in the U.S. Navy's possession from 1951. So, it is logical that Urban may have been originally assigned there, where he would have had access to Kim in 1953.

The following year - 1954 - Urban was transferred to Tokyo. Richard Kim had previously met both Mas Oyama, as well as Gogen Yamaguchi, in Yokohama in 1948. As both of these gentlemen taught in Tokyo, Kim was able to make the introductions for Urban. Thus, Urban began his training, initially with Mas Oyama, and later with Gogen Yamaguchi, around 1954. Peter Urban completed his enlistment in the US Navy in 1959 and returned to the United States.

Thus, Peter Urban spent roughly 5 years with Gogen Yamaguchi. But, being generous, let's also add the previous 12 months he spent with Kim, for a total of 6 years of training. Let us also consider that Peter Urban was a junior enlisted U.S. Navy sailor. He had daily duties and responsibilities that did not likely allow him the freedom to train all day, everyday. Any current service member can attest to this today. Six years sounds like a lot of time to indulge in extra-curricular activities. But, this is not reality for an active duty service member. The next time we know that Urban traveled back to see his teacher in Japan was for a brief visit, when his intention was to ask permission to open his own Goju organization in the U.S. Shortly after being rebuffed on the request (the legendary "falling out with Yamaguchi"), he returned to the U.S. and founded his USA Goju style.

So, we know that his only active years of training in Japan, with his teacher, amounted to 6 years, if we include the time spent with Kim. I'm skeptical by nature. I fully appreciate that Urban - even according to karateka Jon Bluming - was an imposing figure in his youth, and a notable tournament fighter in Japan during his relatively short stay. Nevertheless, the promotion to 6th dan lines up with the fact that Yamaguchi wanted to promote his own organization in the United States during that time. One must remember that the JKA had already begun to send their best exponents to the U.S. in 1958. There was essentially a "Gold Rush" to arrive and conquer the U.S. and plant organizational flags, if you will.

To me - and this is just based on my interpretation of the facts, nothing more ("grain of salt") - Yamaguchi's promotion of Urban was sheer manipulation to get him (Urban) to be his initial emissary into the U.S. for the Goju Kai. Urban, not being naive, saw this, which is why he yearned for his independence. But, Yamaguchi's intent seems to have always been to prep the situation with Urban, and later send his son to take over. This is one of the reasons I think Urban broke away, and I don't blame him, really.

But, that puts the 6th dan in perspective to me. It also explains huge departures from the core art, as we see in this video. In my opinion, Urban's 6th dan was a politically calculated promotion, and not a rank earned through the normal process. Even in Japan, even if you are particularly good, you do not get from white belt to 6th dan in under six years within any respectable traditional art; especially during a time when Japan is still significantly resentful of the U.S. When one also considers the daily commitments of an active duty service member overseas, those 6 years look different.

Here, I am referring strictly to the rank progression, not natural physical ability. I am convinced that Urban was a formidable fighter and would have been so had he instead become a wrestler, or a boxer. But, as far as the more technical understanding of the fine intricacies of Goju Ryu (whatever they happen to be), I don't think he realistically had time to attain them to the level that we normally confer upon a 6th degree black belt in a traditional Japanese art.

And, let us not forget that, even by Urban's own writings on the matter, Gogen Yamaguchi was particularly ethnocentric when it came to non-Japanese. It is not likely that he would have promoted Urban above his own Japanese inner circle of students unless there was some other purpose behind it. To me that 6th dan was an organizational leadership promotion meant to facilitate Urban's legitimacy as Yamaguchi's U.S. representative at the time... and Urban was having none of it, except for the fact that he not only kept the rank, but later promoted himself to 10th dan as founder of his own art."

Second Conversation - Comparisons of other Karate Masters of the Time

"We are in agreement there, Dennis. To me, Peter Urban had the benefit of being a pioneer. But, in my opinion, five or six years of training time squeezed-in between the demands of military duties overseas do not produce a 6th degree black belt in any serious traditional art that I'm aware of. If anything, Peter Urban left Japan after six years of exposure with a true 2nd or 3rd dan (3rd degree black belt). However, political maneuvering and strategizing had him promoted as 6th dan in order to give him credibility. I'll explain why I believe this below:

Hidetaka Nishiyama was one of the men responsible for the establishment of the Japan Karate Association (JKA). Nishiyama (Shotokan) - who had been training in martial arts since 1933, was promoted to 3rd dan by Gichin Funakoshi in 1950 - three years before Urban even began his own training. By this time, Nishiyama already had dan rankings in judo and kendo. In contrast, Urban had zero martial arts experience prior to 1953. By 1952, a year prior to Urban beginning his own training, Nishiyama began training U.S. service members in Japan. As the JKA began to organize to spread to the U.S., Nishiyama was promoted to 4th, and later, in 1960, 5th dan. But somehow, Peter Urban, who had absolutely no martial arts experience prior to 1953, is promoted to 6th dan in Goju Karate and sent to the U.S. in 1959 to plant the Goju flag for Yamaguchi's organization. Nishiyama already had 26 years of martial arts experience by this time, while Urban had only six years of experience. Another case is that of Tsutomu Oshima, who was also promoted by Funakoshi to 5th dan prior to his own move to the U.S. in 1957, two years ahead of Urban's return home.

So, why did Yamaguchi promote Urban to 6th dan and send him to the U.S. as his representative in 1959? The answer is simple. Fifth dan was the highest rank in the Shotokan system at the time; Funakoshi did not promote any higher. Making Peter Urban a 6th dan made Urban "senior" to the Japanese Shotokan representatives now arriving to the U.S. Also, Urban was a native son - an American. It was a race as to which style/organization would conquer the West. Urban clearly did not rate 6th dan. It was calculated marketing and politics by Yamaguchi [my opinion]. This is why I believe Urban broke away. He saw through this and did not want part of it. What is curious is that rather than seek another teacher, Urban kept his inflated rank and added four more degrees to his pedigree by founding this own system and proclaiming himself a master at the level of Yamaguchi, Funakoshi, or anyone else who was a recognized master at the time."