Article originally written by Bruce Corrigan, hardway@karazenpo.com

Kempo History - Sonny Gascon, "Father" of East Coast Kempo


This is the story of one of the original developers of modern kempo- Sonny Gascon. His contribution to the system lives on in possibly more kempo stylists than will ever be known, largely because they themselves don t know the history of their root. What has kept this story quiet for all of these years is this Master's own desire to remain anonymous and not add to the historical and still present conflict which reigns among varying kempo groups. kempo's history has long been filled with unique, if not incredible stories. The development of this Martial Art is bursting with tales of infighting, migration, development, and unique personalities. Almost all of the founders in one way or another have been involved in some sort of dispute or controversy which spurred them to go out on their own. The most remarkable result from all of this is that we now have multiple forms or methods of kempo, all of which seem to have benefited the system as a whole.

This article will address the migration of kempo to the East Coast of the mainland U.S. which occurred partially in the 1950s, and most strongly in the very early 1960s. However, we must first look at the development of kempo from Hawaii.

Any dedicated student of this Martial Art will be able to tell the legendary story of James Mitose, heir to his family's system. Mitose, born in Hawaii returned to Okinawa at an early age to begin learning the way of his family. Returning to Hawaii, Mitose is said to have been greatly affected by the wartime strife between the Japanese and the U.S. As a result, he became one of the very first Asians to open the doors to the Caucasians known as haoles. Additionally, it appears that Mitose pioneered the way for allowing women to enter the Dojo and begin training. Although his training was harsh, his training scheme and severity was no match for the brutal ways of many of his local students. As seniors of the school, their idea of training was very physical, and many times very bloody. They were always eager to learn anything and everything that was available - both in Mitose Sensei's school and outside. This openness developed by Mitose led to a diverse student population, made up of all races of Asian and non Asian descent. This was a very unique situation which was all but unheard of on the island of Oahu. Previous to this, Chinese trained with Chinese, Filipino with Filipino, and Japanese with Japanese. Those who were left, mainly "haole" trained with whoever was available. As previously stated, Mitose's school began the breakdown of these barriers. What few could see at that time, is that this breakdown formed the root for kempo's diversity and effectiveness.

Somewhere around the age of 30, William K.S. Chow decided to go on his own. He had been an instructor under Mitose, although not the most senior. With him, he brought a young Hawaiian born Filipino by the Name of Adriano Emperado. This was done not as an offensive act toward Mitose Sensei, but with his permission to assist in the spread of the arts of self defense. Chow was very wise in his selection, for he had chosen one of the most dedicated and most skilled of the students. Emperado brought with him a vast knowledge of the Filipino Arts, kempo, and most importantly the knowledge of the streets. Emperado soon took over the main instructional duties of the school as was appropriate to the time. He established a very tough and brutal regimen which few could last through. Whenever the students felt that they had enough, enter Master Chow to deliver the required beatings. This group soon became legendary throughout the islands, and many would come and seek instruction. However, few would last. Another significant influence at this time was "Nonoy" Emperado's younger brother, Joseph. Virtually unknown, Joe also added significant aspects in the development of Kempo. Joe essentially became the stand in for Adriano when Master Chow, and his older brother were unavailable.

During his training time with Chow, Adriano Emperado continued consorting with Martial Artists of all types and styles. He soon began a fastidious friendship with Joe Holk, Frank Ordonez, Peter Choo, and Clarence Chang, each an expert in a particular Martial Art including Korean systems, Kempo, Chinese Boxing (Kung Fu), Judo, Jiu Jitsu, and the Filipino arts. Meeting daily for three years, these young men in their early 20s would continue to evolve their Kempo to the point where it began to implement and employ empty hand leg and trapping technique of many systems. These were men of multiple backgrounds, representing the ethnic skills from many sources. Remember, at this time to reveal the martial secrets of one's race was almost considered blasphemous. However, this did not hinder these brave pioneers of the Martial Arts and they formed the first Kajukembo "Black Belt Society" which exists to this very day Their concern and challenge was defining a Martial Art to beat all Martial Arts. Their principle belief was if you trained to beat the Martial Artist, the street was no problem. Because of his level of skill, coupled with his dominant personality - "Nonoy" Emperado was elected as the leader of the group. In addition, Emperado wished to make this new evolved Kempo available to the general public. All students would be welcome, as long as they could tolerate the initiation and training.

Emperado began training students in the Nuanu YMCA. Later he would establish the KArate, JUjitsu/JUdo, KEMpo, and Chinese BOxing (KAJUKEMBO) Self Defense Institutes. Although kempo, Emperado's methodology soon became known as KAJUKEMBO to distinguish it from the rest. Emperado adopted the wearing of Black Uniforms to distinguish his students from the other traditional Martial Artists of Hawaii. Those early years produced a line of Black Belts which would influence the Kempo world as no one could ever imagine. Among the early pioneer group were Marino Ttiwanak, Sid Asuncion, Tony Ramos, Walter Godin, Joe Halbuna, Sonny Gascon , John Leoning, and others. The art soon spread throughout Hawaii and became known as the most vicious practice of self defense on the islands. Emperado's favorite saying during these years "the training isn't over until there is blood on the floor." Among the early students to begin spreading to the mainland was Sonny Gascon. Sonny, born in 1933, was the son of a Filipino sugar cane worker who came to Hawaii in 1926 in search of prosperity.

While Victor was a child, his father ran chicken fights in the back yard. There always were several old and young Filipinos which could be seen playing sticks during breaks in the fights. Victor especially remembers them showing the "dancing" footwork and empty hand applications. As a child, he thought they were just playing, but later he learned that this was serious martial arts and developed an interest in learning what he could from these secretive Masters. Sonny had an uncle by the name of Bernard who was a fairly renowned martial artist who began the education of the younger Gascon. All of them lived in two houses side by side, one house having 9 bedrooms and the other 3 bedrooms. Due to close proximity of the family, and the large size, an education in the Martial Arts of some sort was always available.

In 1945 , Sonny began the study of Judo from KAMAKUDO and "Rubber Man" Tagami at the local Japanese church. He studied Judo for 3 years form 1945-1948 in NOWANII eventually receiving first level certification. In the early 1950s, one of his neighbors by the name of John Leoning began Sonny's introduction the kempo system. Henry Papa, Julian Blacquerra, John Leoning and Sonny would spend days training in this system. Although not called by the current name at that time, they later would find out it was the Kempo of KAJUKEMBO. Since Victor was the smallest, it became very advantageous for him to become a quick learner to escape the inevitable outcome. Sonny's training would last about 4 years until he left for the mainland and enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. 1952 found Sonny Gascon attending basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. Later he attended advanced training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. During this period, he shared his Martial Arts with his new found Air Force friends, and obtained a slight following of students. Although this fact has remained unpublished to date, it is one of the most significant occurrences in the history of kempo and Kajukembo - this was the birth of these arts on the east coast!

Later Sonny Gascon was assigned to the war zones of Korea attached to the 51st Fighter Squadron "Checkerboards." While assigned to the war area, Sonny became close friends with a local Korean houseboy. As a result, Sonny was introduced to the boy s Grandfather who began teaching him Korean and Chinese principles of Martial Arts. Since this training pre-dated the arrival of Tae Kwon Do, the system was one of soft, smooth movement more attributable to the Chinese Kung Fu Arts than anything Korean.

In 1953, Sonny Gascon was assigned back home to Hawaii. He quickly resumed his Martial Arts studies with the local boys of Kalihi. In 1956, he was discharged from the service and decided to move to Pasadena, California. Having grown up on the same block as Edmund Parker, Sonny renewed his friendship with this young Martial Artist, and the two would meet and exchange technique, along with celebrating many Luaus in the warm Pasadena climate. Later in 1958, John Leoning came to California and asked Sonny to become an instructor at the school he would be opening.

One evening, while working out, 3 Hawaiian instructors from home came to the school. The word was given to John Leoning and Sonny Gascon that they could not use the name "KAJUKEMBO" or the Kajukembo patch since they were not paying a required percentage to the home school in Hawaii. Sonny's response to this was to invite the Black Belts in for a "work out" - an invitation which they refused claiming that they were just passing a message along from home. This began Sonny Gascon s departure from the traditional Kajukembo system and his journey to become independent of Martial Arts politics. In 1960 Sonny Gascon removed the Kajukembo patch from his uniform and replaced it with the patch of the KARAZENPO GO SHINJUTSU. It was not by coincidence that the patch bore the image of Daruma, the founder of all Martial Arts. This was because Sonny subscribed to Daruma s favorite saying "to fall seven times, to rise eight, life starts from now" - Sonny was beginning something new. Since Sonny grew up in the Kalihi district of Hawaii, he was well known among all kempo practitioners of that time. One of his neighbors, and close friends would eventually become very famous and begin his own system - namely, Edmund Parker. Because of Sonny's close associations, he was able to continue obtaining the best knowledge from the myriad of stylists now in California. In those days, Sonny became legendary in the Los Angeles area and was frequently called upon to demonstrate kempo in early television shows, and Screen Actors Guild function. Sonny even made a guest appearance an performed a kempo demonstration during a 1961 Dick Clark s American Bandstand. Sonny Gascon was one of the few asked to officiate at the first Ed Parker Internationals, where Bruce Lee performed his famous one inch punch and Martial Arts demonstration.

Later, Sijo Gascon summoned his Brother-in-Law, Walter L. Niakala Godin, from the islands to help him run the school. During this time, Sijo Godin became a frequent sparring partner for Ed Parker's most famous student - Elvis Presley. Legend has it that Walter Godin had to be very careful not to unleash his true skills and hurt the "King of Rock and Roll"! Sijo Godin later founded Godin s Chinese kempo which exists to this day and is the only Kajukenbo school remaining in the Palama settlement of Hawaii - the founding place of Kajukenbo.

Sijo Gascon returned to his native Hawaii in 1969, but not before leaving a legacy of kempo which lives even to this day. Sijo Gascon is the person who brought the kata, combinations, and techniques now seen in many styles of kempo throughout the United States. If you are familiar with Kempo/Kenpo descriptions such as 1 through 5 Kata, Statue of The Crane, Combinations 1 through 26, etc., then you are a direct descendent of Sonny Gascon. Many systems such as Fred Villari's Shaolin Kempo, (also taught in Villari's Self Defense Centers, Master's Self Defense Centers, United Studios of Self Defense, and Masters of Karate dojos), and even portions of Professor Cerio's Kenpo are either directly or indirectly linked to this unknown Grandmaster. To this day, it is thrilling to see these forms on old film performed by the Grandmaster himself over 40 years ago.

Sijo Sonny Gascon is still very much alive and active today. Recently, he made his first visit to a mainland school since leaving in 1968. This visit was even more exciting in that he was accompanied by Sijo Walter Godin. Sijo Gascon had asked that this first visit remain somewhat quiet since it had been many years, and he wished not to offend anyone, however present for the visit were Professor Nick Cerio, Sigung Paula Pucino of Rhode Island, Master Bruce Corrigan of Virginia, Master Joe Shuras of Massachusetts, and Black Belts from around the U.S. including William Peterson (Virginia), Rafael Perez (Florida), Kathy Shuras (Massachusetts), Lou Faralan (California), Dennis Ocampo (Virginia) and Tony DeLalla (Florida). The visit included a tour of the United States Naval Amphibious Base, home to the U.S. Navy SEALS, and a tour of the largest Navy Base in the world as a guest of the Naval Station Logistics Officer and special forces members Shawn Riqueleme and Marty Riggs. Later, a testing and demonstration was conducted for the three greatest living treasures of Kempo - Sijo Gascon, Sijo Godin, and Professor Cerio. Never had there been this much experience and history alive in one area. Sijo ascon remarked that he was surprised to see his method of Kempo - Karazenpo Go Shinjutsu - so alive and flourishing in students everywhere.


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