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History of Kempo / Kenpo

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Introduction Into Kenpo, Kempo....

There are over 300 styles of martial arts in China and they are referred to as
Quan fa in Mandarin (also spelled in the Wade-Gilles system as Ch'uan fa), and Kuen Fat in Cantonese, meaning "fist law".

In Japanese, the Kanji (Japanese word for Chinese written ideograms or characters) for Quan fa is pronounced Kem Po (spelled Kenpo). There are many styles or systems of Kenpo, as Kenpo/Quan fa is a generic term describing martial arts with Chinese influence.

This history deals with the style of Kenpo brought to the west by James Masayoshi Mitose that would influence the direct development of systems such as American Kenpo, Tracy Kenpo, Kara Ho Kenpo, Kajukenbo, etc.

Like other systems of martial arts, the history of the Kenpo system brought by James M. Mitose is shrouded in mystery and confusion. There are several hypotheses surrounding the advent of this sytem of Kenpo in the West. Unfortunately, none can be collaborated. The true origins are probably lost to antiquity forever.


Orgins of Kempo, Kenpo...

  1. One story states that around 1235, at the Shaka-In Temple, Mount Kinkai, Kumamoto, Japan, Kenpo as we know it today was first developed. This art was a combination of Shaolin kung fu (Quan fa), brought by a monk fleeing China who sought refuge with the Yoshida family (clan), and the family's art, which was similar to Aiki-Jujutsu. They named their system Kosho-ryu (Old Pine Tree Style).

    Kosho-ryu consists of instruction in philosophy, human anatomy, kendo, kyudo, ikebana, suiei, tree-climbing, horsemanship, weapons, and hand to hand combat.

  2. Another version states that James Masayoshi Mitose himself created the Kosho-ryu name/style, as there are no direct links to a previous family art of the same name. He came up with the style after he had studied Okinawan Kempo Tode Jutsu for some time under Choki Motobu and studying Koga-ryu Ninjutsu and Sato-ryu kempo under Seiko Fujita.

    Fujita Seiko was the last Koga-ryu Ninpo grandmaster. He died in a car crash in the 1960's with his three top students. He was the grandmaster of Koga-ryu Ninjutsu and 14th Soke of Sato-ryu Kempo.

    The Choki Motobu family style can be called Motobu-ryu. It is rumored that Choki Motobu ended up becoming James Mitose's uncle through marriage, this has not been verified. The Motobu family art of Motobu-ryu continues today, as it was learned from his father, by Chosei Motobu.

  3. I have also heard rumours that Mitose may have intentionally put clues in his Kenpo as to the "true" origins of his system of Kenpo, and that the Kosho-ryu and the Kosho monk he spoke of may have been the Chinese Gong fu master Kusankun (also known as Koshokan and Koshankun). This would explain the Okinawan connection, i.e. Motobu, makiwara training, etc., as well as the Chinese influence.

    According to Patrick McCarthy, in what is know as the "Oshima Incident", Confucian scholar Tobe Ryoen compiled a cronical about a disaster which took place in 1762, when an Okinawan tribute ship en route to Satsuma was blown off course during a typhoon and drifted to Oshima beach in the jurisdiction of Tosa-han (Kochi Prefecture) on Shikoku Island.

    In a discussion with the Okinawan officer in charge of warehousing the kingdom's rice supply, reference is made to a Chinese named Kusankun.

    He is described as an expert in Kenpo, or more specifically kumiai-jutsu, it is believed that Kusankun, with a few personal disciples, traveled to the Rykyu Kingdom with the Qing Sapposhi Quan Kui in 1756. Shiohira's description of Kusankun's Kumiai-jutsu demonstration leaves little to question.

    Oral tradition maintains that Kusankun was one of the teachers of the great Okinawan master Sakugawa Chikudan Pechin (the father of Okinawan karate). There is also a hypothesis that Kusankun or Sakugawa may have been responsible for bringing the Bubishi (Wu Bei Zhi in Mandarin) to Okinawa, which directly was the largest influence on karate. The Bubishi is known as the Bible of karate and is a classic Chinese work on philosophy, strategy, medicine, and techniques as they relate to the martial arts, including the obscure technique called the Dian Xue (Dim Mak in Cantonese), and cavity striking.


So which version is true...? 

    1. One thing I have found out for fact is: Kosho-ryu can not date back to 1235 CE. The ryuha pattern of organizing training and training principles originated in the 1400s. There are no verified documents referring to bugei ryuha in the 13th century. The majority of the ryuha that claim pre-15th century origins, in fact, can be traced back only to the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries.

    2. The Bugei Ryuha Daijiten written by Watatani Kiyoshi and Yamada Tadashi that list all the ryu of Japan (which usually errs on the side of over-inclusion) lists a Kosho-ryu (written "old pine tree") and identifies it as a karate system, but doesn't say anything else about it. Which usually indicates that the editors either couldn't find any information other than the name or dismissed whatever information the school itself provided as completely fantastic.

    3. James Mitose was supposed to be the 21st generation descendant of the founder. The Katori Shinto-ryu is the oldest proven ryu, founded in the 1400s, and they are only on the 20th headmaster (with Maniwa Nen-ryu possibly being older). Although, it is possible they founded the style back in 1235 but didn't organize it into a ryu until later. This is true of other ryu. That would explain a lot of things, including the generation gap.

    4. The only Chinese, Shaolin-type influence I have heard of (aside from Okinawa) is actually from the Edo period (fairly recent in Budo terms) and related to Kito-ryu or Yoshin-ryu jujutsu. Also the mixture of arts in Kosho-ryu seems kind of odd. It definitely deviates from the traditional "Bugei Juhappan" (18 arts of bugei): sword, iai, bo, jujutsu, etc., unless it was passed on in a REALLY important and rich family, and if that was the case, the ryu would be well documented.

    5. There has been much speculation about the relationship between James Mitose and Choki Motobu, going so far as to question that there even was a relationship.

Did Mitose learn from Motobu...? 

    A.  They were both in Japan from 1921-1936.

    B.  It is rumored Choki Motobu was James Mitose's uncle through

    C.  Both Motobu and Mitose used the same family crest
         (which is pictured at the top of this page).

    D.  They both emphasized Makiwara use (an Okinawan method, neither       Japanese nor Chinese).

    E.  Mitose gave Motobu a prominent picture and credit as a master of      Karate- Kenpo in his first book, What is Self-Defense? Kenpo


So which story is true...?

Another person who had a huge impact on the development of the Kenpo practiced today in the West, was William Kwai Sun Chow.

William K.S. Chow studied Kempo under James Mitose for several years and in 1949 opened a school of his own at a local YMCA, to teach students his own variation of Kenpo (one of those students being Edmund K. Parker). To distinguish his system from James Mitose's Kempo Jiu-jitsu, Chow referred to his art as Kenpo Karate.

It is unknown what William K. S. Chow's martial arts background was prior to his involvement with James M. Mitose. That in it's self has been an ongoing debate for some time.

Although many times throughout his life William Chow claimed that Mitose was his only "Teacher", Chow observed and exchanged information with several different instructors, one very notable teacher was professor Henry Seishiro Okazaki in Danzan-ryu Jujutsu William K.S. Chow Kara Ho Kenpo



I leave it up to you to make your own decisions on the history of Kempo, but it should not affect the way you feel about your art or system! Kenpo today is still one of the best forms of self-defense available, regardless of its origins. Mitosi Kosho ryu Kempo.


Note: Kenpo is pronounced
KeM-po in Japanese
Quan fa in Mandarin
Kuen fat in Cantonese

Ko   Old
Sho   Pine Tree
Ryu   Style or School
Kem   Fist or Quan(Chinese)
Po   Law or Fa (Chinese)

It is also interesting to note that what we now refer to as Kenpo Karate (using the Kanji characters which are found on most Kenpo organizations’ crests-see
figure 1
) does not mean "Law of the Fist and Empty Hand." It actually means "Law of the Fist and Chinese/China Hand."

figure 1: wpe41.jpg (1202 bytes)wpe44.jpg (916 bytes)wpe43.jpg (849 bytes)

When we (meaning the Kenpo community) spell Karate, we use the original form of Kanji for writing "Kara." (see figure 2) Not the character which is now used by the Japanese (see figure 3). The Japanese changed the Chinese character for "Kara" in 1923 to the new one which would mean "empty." They felt the art that they now practiced was more Japanese then what had bean brought from China and mixed with Okinawa's "Bushi No-Te" (Warrior’s Hands) or Okinawan-Te. It was no longer Chinese; it was now a new style!?

Note: there are those who practice martial arts in Okinawa who still refuse to use the new character; they still use the one which means China/Chinese.

figure 2: wpe44.jpg (916 bytes)

figure 3: wpe42.jpg (886 bytes)

To recap, the word Kara-te can have two different meanings, reflecting the word's history. When written in its original form, Kara means "China" (or Tang--pronounced "tong"--referring to the Tang Dynasty). In the second meaning, which is more commonly used now, Kara means "Empty." Thus, Karate became "Empty Hand." Note that Kara is pronounced the same regardless of which character is used.

Japanese (Modern)


wpe41.jpg (1202 bytes)wpe42.jpg (886 bytes)wpe43.jpg (849 bytes)

Okinawan  (Original)

Kempo  or
Kempo Tode

wpe41.jpg (1202 bytes)wpe44.jpg (916 bytes)wpe43.jpg (849 bytes)

Chinese Mandarin

Quan-fa Tang-Shou

wpe41.jpg (1202 bytes)wpe44.jpg (916 bytes)wpe43.jpg (849 bytes)


Kenpo Fist Law China Hand or
Law of the Fist and China (Chinese) Hand

For an overview of the people involved in the history and future of Kenpo, please visit the  Who's Who of Kenpo page.
If you would like to learn more about this and the history of Okinawan-Te, I highly recommend Patrick McCarthy's book "Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: Koryu Uchinadai Vol.2" and his site, the International Ryukyu Karate Research Society. 

I have found some new info. on the Kenpo / Kempo lineage from the Tracy system. I hope you will injoy what I have found!

The Origin of Kenpo Karate
Will Tracy
(revised 1/11/98)
(second revision 8/8/99)

Kenpo is a Japanese unarmed fighting art that was brought from China to Japan about 700 years ago by the Yoshida Clan and was quickly adopted by the Komatsu Clan. The word Kenpo means literally, "Fist Law," and also refers to its Chinese origin. The Japanese adaptation of this Chinese style was well suited to defend against the various unarmed Japanese martial arts of the 12th century. Few modifications were required for Kenpo to overcome the new unarmed systems that developed over the next 7 centuries that came to be known as Karate (Japanese of "Empty Hand"). But for the Yoshida and Komatsu Clans who developed their art into a truly Japanese style, the term was simply Kenpo. During this same period the Chinese system from which Kenpo was derived underwent so many changes that, while most of the Kenpo techniques can be found scattered among the hundreds of Chinese fighting systems, there is no single system in China today that resembles Kenpo.
"Chinese Kenpo" is a term coined by Ed Parker in 1960, when he found there was no kung fu style that resembled Kenpo. But adding Chinese forms and Chinese terms did not change the nature or Japanese origin of Kenpo. It has, however, imbued the "Chinese connection" with an "ignorance is bliss" mentality. One of Ed Parkers students at the time was Jerry Meyers who went on to train with Bruce Lee and Danny Inosanto, and combined their style with Kenpo to make it a true Chinese Kenpo style.
90 years ago Kenpo was so well known as an effective fighting art in Japan that many Japanese styles that had no connection with Kenpo claimed their art was derived from Kenpo. Some even went so far as to claim their masters had training directly under Chinese Kenpo masters. Similar claims have continued to this day, even though there has never been a Chinese Kenpo master; nor has there been a master of the Chinese style that gave rise to Kenpo in centuries. What's even more ridiculous are the Korean schools that claim to teach Kenpo as part of Tai Kwon Do. This Chinese Kenpo is not to be confused with the styles developed by Kenpo students who went on to train with Bruce Lee and created their own systems of Chinese Kenpo.
Kenpo was brought to Hawaii shortly after the turn of the century by Great Grand Master Kiyoka Komatsu. In 1920 her 3 year old son, James Mitose, was sent to Japan where he was raised by his maternal grandfather, Great Grand Master Sakuhi Yoshida. There he studied Kenpo and became the first Mitose to Master the Komatsu/Yoshida art of Kenpo. His father, Otokichi Mitose, never trained in Kenpo, or any martial art for that matter, and since his son was sent to Japan when he was only 3 years old, Otokichi Mitose had no influence on his training. James Mitose returned to Hawaii after his father's death in 1936, then after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, James Mitose began openly teaching what he called Kempo Ju-Jitsu, though the spelling was later changed to Kenpo Jiu Jitsu. Great Grand Master James Mitose, was the ranking Kenpo master in Hawaii in 1942, and with the exception of his sisters, Great Grand Master Fusae, and Shizue, the other eight Kenpo Grand Masters, and four Masters, did not teach openly. However, Grand Master Sadake Takamori and Grand Master Matsuichi Yamashito did teach exclusively to close members of the Hawaiian Japanese community. Mitose retired in 1953, and his Head Instructor (and first Shodan), Thomas Young, took over his club. This left Shizue and Fusae as the ranking Great Grand Masters of Kenpo, but neither taught openly as their brother had. In 1959, Fusae took on a single non Japanese student, and awarded him the rank of Shodan/Instructor and then Sandan in 1961.
NOTE:"Kenpo", while spelled with an N is pronounced Kempo (with an M); and either kenpo or kempo is acceptable. The general rule for Japanese to English translation is, when N is followed by P, the N is pronounced M. There are some who claim the spelling was changed from Kenpo to Kempo by one master or another. This is true. Some instructors wanted to distinguish their style from Kenpo, and some changed from Kempo to Kenpo when they learned what the more acceptable spelling was. Often, however, Mitose's students spelled Kenpo as Kempo, because that's the way is sounded.
One of Mitose's top students was William, "Willy", K. S. Chow, who became Mitose's second Shodan (black belt) and Assistant Instructor; although Chow was actually promoted to Shodan by Thomas Young who was Mitose's first Shodan. After being promoted to the rank of Instructor William K. S. Chow taught with Mitose and Young until mid 1949 (May/June), when he opened his own Kenpo club and called his style, "Kenpo Karate". In doing so, Chow is rightfully credited as being the founder of Kenpo Karate, although the term, Kenpo Karate, had probably been used as early at the 1920 in promoting karate demonstrations.
By adopting Kenpo Karate, Chow distinguished his system from Mitose's Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu. Kenpo Karate and Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu where, however, virtually identical except for forms, or katas. There were no forms in Chow's Kenpo Karate, while Kenpo Ju-Jitsu had four katas, Nihanchi 1 & 2, the Bear Kata and Old Man Kata.

Paul Yamaguchi had originally trained with Henry Okazaki before going to James Mitose, where William Chow was his instructor. When Chow opened his own club in 1949, Yamaguchi went with him and received his Shodan from Chow in 1950. Mitose, however, refused to recognize the rank, and Yamaguchi went back to study with Mitose where he received his Shodan that same year, and two years later, (1952) he received the rank of Head Instructor.
This was a blow to Chow, as Paul Yamaguchi, his student, now had a higher rank (Head Instructor) while he was only an Instructor. But there was more. Not only was Yamaguchi a higher rank than Chow, but Mitose had refused to recognize Chow's Shodan rank. A Shodan could promote Shodan's because Shodan was the only Kenpo black belt rank at the time. However, only Mitose could make a Shodan an Instructor. Chow avoided this instructor problem by taking the title "Professor", which is the title Professor James Mitose had given himself.
Chow then renamed his system, "Go-Shinjutsu", (sometimes spelled Go-Shinjitsu) which he said was the name Daruma had called his original system in 525 A.D. The name is, of course, Japanese, but Go-Shinjutsu is the name Professor Chow used on the 1953 Shodan certificate of his top student, Masaichi Oshiro. Oshiro, however, received his Instructor rank from Mitose, which was granted without the objection Mitose had to Yamaguchi. It should also be noted that James Mitose used the term Go Shinjutsu to mean the Art of self-defense and Mitose only attributes the Kenpo style, and not the name Kenpo to Daruma.
NOTE: Mitose's title was "Professor" Grand Master, Great Grand Master and the like are not titles in Kenpo, but are used as signs of generational respect. Mitose only called himself "Professor" while he was teaching in Hawaii. Once he moved to the Mainland he developed the "Master" ranking.

NOTE: Professor Chow continued to call his system Go-Shinjutsu into the 1960's and made a slight change in the name to "Go-Shinjutsu kai" (kai meaning school) in 1959, and that was the name that appeared on my 1961 Shodan certificate. Some time later Professor Chow began to use the name "Kara Ho Kenpo", and although some of his later students would claim Kara Ho was Chow's original system, Professor Chow did not call his system Kara Ho when I studied with him, and there is nothing in writing that uses Kara Ho before the 1970's. My 1965 Godan certificate signed by Professor Chow awarded me "Kenpo Karate Godan Hawaii Go-Shinjutsu Kai".

There has been a great deal of criticism of James Mitose's Kenpo abilities. If, as some claim, Mitose was so inept, then one has to ask why so many of Henry Okazaki's students came to train with Mitose. Okazaki and Mitose were close friends, and Okazaki is, even today, considered to be one of the greatest Jiu Jitsu instructors in Hawaii. Both Professor Chow and Sonny Emperado have told me that Mitose was the best Jiu-Jitsu instructor in Hawaii. It would be wise for those who claim a Kenpo heritage to heed the claims of those who know, and put aside their petty disdain for someone who was not their instructor, and about whom they have no personal knowledge.

There is an obscure insight into Mitose told me by his sister, and that is that Mitose founded the White Tigers at the beginning of the Second World War and was held in high esteem and honor by the United States government for this.

Adriano (Sonny) Emperado was Professor Chow's top student when he and his brother Joe Emperado left Chow in late 1950 to create "Kajukenbo" with Frank Ordonez, P.Y.Y. Choo, Joe Holck and Clarence Changhis. Ed Parker began his Kenpo training with Sonny Emperado where he trained for two weeks before going to learn from Professor Chow in 1952.

Another Mitose Shodan, Edward "Boddy" Lowe had originally trained with Okazaki before going with Mitose. In 1952 he became a devoted student of Mas Oyama, and trained with him in Japan before returning to Hawaii where he opened the first Kyokushin Kai (school) in 1959.

In March 1953 another Young/Mitose Shodan, Paul Pung, was promoted to Head Instructor by Mitose, and moved to San Francisco where he opened the "Paul's Karate" school. This was the first commercial Kenpo school (Mitose style) on the mainland. Paul's Karate had its own building and was open to the public and held classes four nights a week.
NOTE: The first commercial Karate school in the United States was founded by Robert Trais in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1946, and the first karate organization was the United States Karate Association (USJA), founded by Trais in 1948. There was some controversy over who had the first commercial karate school in the United States until the late 1970's. This was mostly fueled by Ed Parker students who were claiming Ed Parker was the first to teach on the Mainland. That argument was put to rest the Chief Justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, stepped forward and stated that he had begun training with Trais in 1947.

NOTE: Paul Pung, not Ed Parker, was the first to open a commercial Kenpo school on the mainland which was in 1953. Ed Parker was still in the Coast Guard until August, 1954 and did not start teaching commercially until 1956. Again, many ignorant Ed Parker students make the false claim that Ed Parker was the first.
That same year, (1953) Paul Yamaguchi opened his own club in Hawaii, and called his system "Shin-Shin Kenpo".

In 1955, Masaichi Oshiro left Professor Chow and opened the "Go-Shin-Kenpo Club", which was a variation of Professor Chow's Go-Shinjutsu Club; and the following year, (1956) he changed the name to the "Te-Ken Jutsu Kai," (hand-fist jutsu school).

Then in 1959, Oshiro went to Japan to train in Goju-Ryu under Gogen Yamaguchi. It was at this time that Chow created the "Go-Shinjutsu Kai", (adding Kai to the name) with Bill Chun, who was his highest ranked black belt student at the time and who had been made Instructor by Mitose.

Ed Parker, was a Judo Shodan by the time he was 18 (1949), and took his first Kenpo lesson at Adriano (Sonny) Emperado's club when he was in the Coast Guard in 1952. Ed Parker trained with Emperado for two weeks before going to train with Professor Chow.

This is of course quite different from what Ed Parker has written and from what I had previously written. But after asking the right questions of the right people, it is now time to set history right. To do this, I have set out the history by the years that marked great change in Kenpo Karate.