Kanryo Higaonna was born in Naha, Okinawa on March 10, 1851. (Some sources list the year as 1853) Despite being born as a descendant of a prominent family line, his family was impoverished. They earned their meager living transporting firewood from the Kerama Islands in a small junk.
At the age of 10, he began helping his father in the family business. He was small for his age, but very quick and nimble, and showed a keen interest in the fighting arts at an early age. At the age of 14, the same year his father was killed in a fight, he began his formal training in Chinese Kempo with Seisho Arakaki, who had studied the Fukien style. He longed to travel to China and study there, and eventually achieved that aim in 1866, when he convinced the owner of a ship bound for China to grant him passage.
After a year in residence at the Okinawan settlement in Foochow, he was introduced to Ryu Ryuko (Also known as Xie Zhongxiang). He was not allowed to train right away, and had to follow the age-old custom of personal service to his master by attending the garden, cleaning and doing odd chores. After he had satisfied his master's expectations, he was accepted as a disciple.
He assisted him at his trade as a bamboo craftsman by day and trained in the evenings. Training, as was the norm at that time, was very severe. He trained in Sanchin kata and developed his musculature through weight training with the traditional implements we see today in Okinawan styles. Training also included hojo undo, ude tanren, uke harai, kakie and ne waza. The training took it's toll, but he was to gain a reputation among the locals as one of Ryu Ryuko's most skilled students.
It is believed that he spent the first 5 or 6 years practicing Sanchin kata only, and was later taught Saifa, Seiyunchin, Shisochin, Sanseru, Sepai, Kururunfa, Seisan and Suparinpei. He was also trained in the use of several traditional weapons, and herbal medicine.
After 13 years of training, he left Foochow and returned to Okinawa, and began private lessons to the sons of the man who had granted him passage to China. He went back to his old job as a merchant, but his reputation was growing. Sailors and travellers from China brought back stories of his prowess that they had heard there, and before long, many would seek to become his disciples. Training was severe, as he had learned, and only a few who began would continue for long.
In 1905 he began teaching at a public high school, and was considered along with Anko Itosu to be the foremost karateka in Okinawa. He is responsible for developing the Naha-te style, and many of his students went on to form their own systems based on his teachings.
He died on December 23, 1915 at the age of 63. His legacy lives on through his followers, most notably Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju Ryu, and Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito Ryu.