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KEMPO/KENPO FAQ: A BRIEF HISTORY


version 5.2.0 - December 31, 2013


Maintained & updated by: Mark Urbin


The following FAQ is for the Kempo/Kenpo arts in general and is not specific to one particular Kempo/Kenpo school. Most of the history and information has a focus towards Kempo systems descending from James Mitose's Kosho-Ryu Kempo. There are other Kempo systems mentioned in this document. In most cases, throughout this FAQ, the word "Kempo" is used, though either Kempo or Kenpo could have been used. The reasoning is explained in this FAQ. Remember that this document is a "Frequently Ask Questions" list. It is not intended as in in depth study, just a starting point. Most of the URL's of sites linked in this document can be found near the end of the document. Please send any feedback, questions, complaints, etc. about this FAQ to the maintainer. Please note, that this FAQ, in no way (just in case anyone thinks it is), was not meant to be offensive and if you think it is...well...sorry! Any corrections to any information given, as well as additions, is much appreciated.

A Brief History Of Kempo

NOTE: Certain names in time are in conflict and the most common ones are used in this document. This history is not the final word, just a starting point. Where I have found conflicts; I have tried to list all the variations, with links to sources.

The art of Kempo, also written as It is estimated that in 520 AD, during the southern dynasties that Bodhidharma entered China and traveled northward to the kingdom of Wei, where the fabled meeting with Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty began. This meeting is recorded, due to the intense conversation and discussion of Buddhism and Dhyana, which took place. The meeting was to no avail, his words to the worldly emperor meant nothing and, thus, sullened by his attempts, Bodhidharma left the palace of the Emperor and traveled to the Honan province, where he entered the Shaolin temple and began an important period martial arts history.

depression grew once he reached the famed Shaolin temple for Prajnatra's telling was true. The monks were in a ragged condition physically and mentally diminished, due to the excess amount of time the monks spent in meditation and little else. Many of the monks would often fell asleep in meditation, while others needed assistance in the basic necessities of life - so feeble was their condition.

For an unknown period of time, Bodhidharma meditated in a cave at the outskirts of the temple; seeking for a way to renew the feat of Buddha's light as well as letting the monks regain control over their lives. Upon his return, Bodhidharma instructed the monks in the courtyard, from the strong to the feeble, and began to explain and work with them in the art of Shih Pa Lo Han Sho or the 18 hands of Lo Han. These techniques which are the foundation for almost all of the martial arts, today, were never originally intended to be utilized as methods of fighting. They were a manner in which the monks could attain enlightenment, while preserving their physical health.

During the Sui period, approximately forty years or so after the death of Bodhidharma, it is told that brigands assaulted the Shaolin monastery; one of many attacks that would occur until the early twentieth century. During this first invasion, the monks attempts at defending their temple was futile, their skills were not attuned to fighting techniques.  It looked as if the temple would fall. A monk of the temple, with reference only as the "begging monk", during the last siege of the temple by the brigands, attacked several of the outlaws with an array of aggressive hand and foot techniques killing some and driving the remaining attackers away. The other monks were so inspired, by the display of this single priest, that they requested tutelage in this martial style as a means of protection. In later scripts, this fighting art was recorded as Chuan Fa or Fist Method.

Over several decades, the fighting arts of the Shaolin temple grew and, it is said that, over 400 art styles prospered, over the next several centuries. Several decades after the fight of the begging monk, a master of Chuan Fa, called Ch'ueh Taun Shang-jen, was said to have rediscovered the original Shih Pa Lo Han Sho, which had been lost for many years. Ch'ueh, over a period of time, integrated his art of Chuan Fa with that of Lo Han, increasing the total number of techniques from the original eighteen to total of seventy-two. For several years after this period, Ch'ueh traveled the country side of China promoting his art in several grueling fighting matches, until he came upon a man named Li in the province of Shensi. Li, a master of Chuan Fa as well as other martial ways (including rumors of Chin Na), traveled and trained with Ch'ueh for some time, developing the curriculum of Chuan Fa to form a total of one-hundred and seventy techniques. Furthermore, they categorized these techniques into five distinctive groups distinguished by various animals whose instinctive reactions best reflected the movements of this new Chuan Fa. Upon their return to the Shaolin temple, of which both Li and Ch'ueh belonged, they presented to the other monks, wu xing quan,the five animal form s and brought to the Shaolin temple a new stage in martial arts evolution.

Over the next several centuries, the history of Chuan Fa and its advent to Kenpo/Kempo is ragged in its tales and difficult to ascertain an accurate description. What is known is that the art of Chuan Fa remained and is still practiced in China, but its teaching found its way to the Okinawian Islands, the Ryukyu kingdom, and then to Japan. In both places, the art was referred to as Kempo or Law of the fist. Between the Sui and Ming periods (an 800 year gap), it is considered that, many a wandering monk traveled across Japan and Okinawa bringing with them a working knowledge of the art of Kempo; which explains its wide-spread distribution. The art of Chuan Fa, which translates into Kempo, would have been taught as a supplement to the daily spiritual training the monks endured. Many of the monks would often choose disciples or teach at various Buddhist temples, bringing forth the word of Buddha and the power of Chuan Fa. From this source, the art of Kempo easily could have spread among the commoners and nobles alike.

Another reason for the founding of Kempo can be seen in the numerous trips the Japanese and Okinawians made to China to learn the fabled art of Chuan Fa. Some people would disappear for many years, presumed dead by their families, only to resurface as a master of Kempo and other martial arts. One such man was named Sakugawa. Sakugawa lived in the village of Shuri on the island of Okinawa and traveled to China, during the 18th century to learn the martial secrets of the Chuan Fa masters. For many years Sakugawa had not been seen and many believe he had died in his journeys, but after much time he did return, much to the surprise of his kin. Sakugawa has learned the secrets of Chuan Fa and had become a master of some repute himself. Over many years of refinement the art Sakugawa had learned, slowly, was renamed to Shuri-te and is considered the predecessor to many forms of modern Karate.

Another member of Shuri, Shionja, also traveled to China as Sakugawa did, but on his return in 1784 brought with him a Chinese companion named Kushanku. Both men brought with them the art of Chuan Fa, which they had studied together in China and began to demonstrate it around Okinawa. It is believed that Kushaku and Shionja had the greatest influence in Okinawian Kempo styles than any other martial artist.

For more details on the evolution of Chinese Chuan Fa to the linear style of Karate Okinawa is famous for, I recommend Bruce Clayton’s book, Shotokan’s Secret.

Unfortunately, the evolution of Kempo in Japan is just as abrupt and mysterious, although a flurry of attention to the art was brought during the reign of Hideyoshi Toyotomi's plans of conquering China. It is claimed that many samurai on their return from China, whether during or after the war, brought with them extensive knowledge of Chuan Fa and throughout the years modified it to include their own arts of Jujutsu and Aikijutsu. It is at this time, where it is believed that the greatest evolution of Kempo takes place since the time of Li and Ch'ueh.

Yet another set of histories claim that at the beginning of the seventeenth century two families, Kumamoto and Nagasaki, brought knowledge of Kempo from China to Kyushu, Japan. This art was modified throughout the many years into one of the current forms, Kosho Ryu Kempo or Old Pine Tree school. One theory states that it is from here that most modern forms of Kempo are derived. In 1921, at the age of five, it is claimed that, James Mitose was sent to Kyushu from his birthplace in Hawaii, for schooling in his ancestor's art of self-defense, called Kosho Ryu Kempo. There are those who claim that James Mitose studied from a Kempo master named Choki Motobu. He remained there for fifteen years, where he studied the family art, which was a direct descendent of the original Chuan Fa.

There are however, some questions about Mr. Motobu actually training Mr. Mitose. Note the following data points:

Ken Warner has a good summary of the "cynical" version of James Mitose's history.

There is another theory 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 (Ch’uan-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).

After completing training in Japan, Mitose returned to Hawaii in 1936, and opened the "Official Self-Defense" club in a Beretania mission in Honolulu. It was here that he promoted six of his students to black belt (instructor status);

(Note that while Mr. Mitose has awarded other certificates of rank, only these six were issued while he was the head of the Honolulu Official Self-Defense Club) It has been noted that William Chow's black belt certificate was actually signed by Thomas Young, and not James Mitose. Even though Mr. Mitose did not sign the certificate, he was the head of instructor of the school at the time. It is unlikely that Mr. Young would have signed it without Mr. Mitose's approval. When James Mitose stopped teaching in order to pursue religious studies, he left his Hawaii Dojo in the hands of Thomas Young.

In 1934, before Mitose's return to the United States, the term Kempo-Karate was first seen in the US press. An issue of the Yoen Jiho Sha newspaper carried an advertisement of the visit of Chogun Miyagi, a famous Karate ka and founder of Goju Ryu Karate-do, to the island of Hawaii. The first use of the term, here, is under speculation. Some suspect it was simply an advertising scheme, while others believe that Chogun Miyagi's Goju Ryu was actually a pure form of Kempo and that the term karate was simply more well-known.

William Chow is considered by many to be responsible for the largest leap forward in Kempo's exposure to the general public. William K.S. Chow studied Kempo under Mitose for several years and previously had studied his family art of Kung Fu. Chow united, like many Kempo masters before and after him, the arts of Kosho Ryu Kempo and his family Kung Fu to form a new art which would eventually be referred to as Chinese Kara-Ho Kempo Karate. In 1949, Chow had attracted a number of students to his own teachings and opened a Dojo of his own at a local YMCA. To make a distinct variation from Mitose's Kempo, Chow referred to his art as Kenpo Karate (The official romanization of the character).  Current members of Chinese Kara-Ho Kempo Karate organization have stated that Grandmaster Chow had always spelled Kempo with a 'm'... possibly doing so as to not offend the Japanese community and the Mitose Kosho. Throughout the next few decades, Chow made many innovations to the system, including the use of circular techniques of Kung Fu as well as various kata or forms.

There has been some debate over William Chow's martial arts training prior to studying Kenpo from James Mitose. The Chinese Kara-Ho Kempo Karate organization states that the history as stated above is mostly true. Will & Al Tracy put forth that William Chow's father did not know any Kung Fu.  Others, also, state that Mr. Chow had no martial arts experience prior to training in Kosho-Ryu Kempo, but trained widely in other arts, after starting Kempo.  One example of this can be seen when William Chow sent one of his brothers to learn Danzin Ryu Jujitsu in order expand the family art.  Another group puts forth that while William Chow's father was not a Shaolin Monk, he did know some Kung Fu that he taught to his son.

One of Chow's best known students was a Hawaii native named Edmund Parker. Ed Parker was one of the significant figures in the current tale of modern Kempo. In 1954, Edmund Parker earned his black belt in Chinese Kenpo (This is what William Chow was calling his art at the time). In 1964, when he held his first tournament, he became widely known to the American public.  Mr. Parker's dojo was in the Hollywood area, allowing him to teach his art to celebrities, including Elvis Presley, and Steve McQueen. Ed Parker further refined and defined the techniques of Kara-ho Kempo, till he perfected his American Kenpo Karate system.

Another student of William Chow was Adrian Emperado. Adrian, along with his brother Joe, were students who followed William Chow from the Mitose/Young dojo. Edmund Parker states in one of his books that the Emperado brothers were black belt instructors when he was a colored belt in Mr. Chow's dojo. Adrian Emperado was one of the founders of Kajukenbo. There are some histories that put forth that Adrian Emperado, after receiving his Shodan from William Chow, also received an instructor's certificate from James Mitose.

From here, Kempo continues to make many twists and turns, constantly evolving into new states of being.

One of the sources for this material was American Kenpo Grandmaster Edmund Parker's book Infinite Insights into Kenpo Volume 1. That book reprints material from Koshu-Ryu Kempo Great Grandmaster James Mitose's book What is Self-Defense: Kempo-Jujitsu, which is now out of print.


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This page is maintained and operated by Mark Urbin. The contents of the Kempo/Kenpo FAQ may only be reproduced for non-profit, personal use of students and teachers of Kempo. I request that you inform me if you wish to link to this site, as well as mention the site, or reproduce its contents when using this material. If you are going to clone the site anyway, please at least provide a link back, do not remove the version number or author's names, and don't put your copyright on it.


All original material in the Kempo/Kenpo FAQ are Copyright © Mark Urbin, 1995.

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