The development of Gōjū-ryū goes back to Higaonna Kanryō, (1853–1916), a native of Naha, Okinawa. Higaonna began studying Shuri-te as a child. He was first exposed to martial arts in 1867 when he began training in Luohan or "Arhat boxing" under Arakaki Seishō, a fluent Chinese speaker and translator for the court of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
In 1870, Arakaki went to Beijing to translate for Ryukyuan officials. It was then that he recommended Higaonna to Kojo Taitei, under whom Higaonna began training.
With the help of Taitei and a family friend, Higaonna eventually managed to set up safe passage to China, lodging, and martial arts instruction. In 1873 he left for Fuzhou in Fujian, China, where he began studying Chinese martial arts under various teachers.
Higaonna Kanryō, circa early 1900s
In 1877 he began to study under Ryū Ryū Ko. Tokashiki Iken has identified him as Xie Zhongxiang, founder of Whooping Crane Kung Fu. Zhongxiang taught several Okinawan students who went on to become karate legends.
Higaonna returned to Okinawa in 1882 and continued in the family business of selling firewood, while teaching a new school of martial arts, distinguished by its integration of gō-no (hard) and jū-no (soft) kenpō into one system. Higaonna's style was known as Naha-te. Gōjū-kai history considers that Chinese Nanpa Shorin-ken was the strain of kung fu that influenced this style.
Higaonna Morio noted that in 1905, Higaonna Kanryō taught martial arts in two different ways, according to the type of student: At home, he taught Naha-te as a martial art whose ultimate goal was to be able to kill the opponent; however, at Naha Commercial High School, he taught karate as a form of physical, intellectual and moral education.
Higaonna's most prominent student was Chōjun Miyagi (1888–1953), the son of a wealthy shop owner in Naha, who began training under Higaonna at the age of 14. Miyagi had begun his martial arts training under Arakaki at age 11, and it was through Arakaki that he was introduced to Higaonna. Miyagi trained under Higaonna for 15 years until Higaonna's death in 1916.
In 1915 Miyagi and a friend Gokenki went to Fuzhou in search of Higaonna's teacher. They stayed for a year and studied under several masters but the old school was gone due to the Boxer Rebellion. Shortly after their return, Higaonna died. Many of Higaonna's students continued to train with Miyagi and he introduced a kata called Tensho which he had adapted from Rokkishu of Fujian White Crane.
Higaonna's most senior student Juhatsu Kyoda formed a school he called Tōon-ryū (Tōon is another way of pronouncing the Chinese characters of Higaonna's name, so Tōon-ryū means "Higaonna's style"), preserving more of Higaonna's approach to Naha-te.
In 1929 delegates from around Japan were meeting in Kyoto for the All Japan Martial Arts Demonstration. Miyagi was unable to attend, and so he in turn asked his top student Jin’an Shinsato to go. While Shinsato was there, one of the other demonstrators asked him the name of the martial art he practiced. At this time, Miyagi had not yet named his style. Not wanting to be embarrassed, Shinsato improvised the name hanko-ryu ("half-hard style"). On his return to Okinawa Prefecture, he reported this incident to Chōjun Miyagi, who decided on the name Gōjū-ryū ("hard soft style") as a name for his style.
Chojun Miyagi took the name from a line of the poem Hakku Kenpo, which roughly means: "The eight laws of the fist," and describes the eight precepts of the martial arts. This poem was part of the Bubishi and reads, Ho wa Gōjū wa Donto su "the way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness," or "everything in the universe inhales soft and exhales hard."
In March 1934, Miyagi wrote Karate-do Gaisetsu ("Outline of Karate-do (Chinese Hand Way)"), to introduce karate-do and to provide a general explanation of its history, philosophy, and application. This handwritten monograph is one of the few written works composed by Miyagi himself.