The Origin of Kenpo Karate
(second revision 8/8/99)
(third revision 6/2/2017)
Kenpo is a Japanese unarmed fighting art that is believed to have been 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 began training with Ed Parker about the same time I did and went on to train with Bruce Lee and Danny Inosanto, and combined their style with Kenpo to make it a "true Chinese Kenpo" Style. His Chinese Kenpo is not to be confused with the styles developed by Ed Parker and his Kenpo students who went on to train with Bruce Lee and created their own systems of Chinese Kenpo.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.
I first went to Korea (TDY) in 1955, and trained in Moo Duk Quan, for two months, then returned and trained from June 1956 to October 1957. Tai Kwon Do did not exist when I was there. My instructor trained directly under the founder who created Moo Duk Quan right after WWII (1945-46), and I learned that original style "goot shun" (soft/flowing/flowery hands) Moo Duk Quan. After I left Korea, the style changed its name to Tang Soo Do.Kenpo was brought to Hawaii shortly after the turn of the century by Kiyoka Komatsu (Master, Grand Master and Great Grand Master were never used before 1961). She was 22 when she married Otokichi Mitose in 1912. In 1920 her 3 year old son, James Mitose, was sent to Japan where he was raised by his maternal grandfather, Sakuhi Yoshida. There he studied Kenpo and became the first Mitose to Master the 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 1937, and 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. James Mitose, was the ranking Kenpo master in Hawaii in 1942, and with the exception of his sisters, Fusae Oshita, and Shizue, the other eight Kenpo Grand Masters, and four Masters, did not teach openly. However, Sadake Takamori and 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.
I use Fusae Oshita Japanese name, because it is the name those in Kenpo used. She had a son my age, and asked that I call her by her American name, because she said, her mother had given her the name at birth so she would pronounce the "l" as Americans do, and not as "r".
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 as 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 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".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.
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.That same year, (1953) Paul Yamaguchi opened his own club in Hawaii, and called his system "Shin-Shin Kenpo".
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.
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, including Sonny Emperado, it is now time to set history right. To do this, I have set out the history by the years that marked the great change in Kenpo Karate. It was Ed Parker who made Kenpo Karate popular, and would make the most changes.
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