The art of Kempo, also written as Kenpo, is unique as far as its history goes in two respects. First it is considered by many to be the first eclectic martial art (i.e. made up of several other martial arts), and second it finds its roots stretching back to 520 BC during the Chou Dynasty. According to Chinese history, one of the first noted catalysts of the way of Kempo was a prince and warrior of Southern India called Bodhidharma. According to the records of the Lo-Yang temple, Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk under the tutelage of Prajnatara. On his deathbed Prajnatara requested Bodhidharma to travel to China, to re-teach the principles of Buddhism and share the knowledge of Dhyana (Zen Koans). Prajnatara was concerned that the principles of Buddhism were on the decline and its ways were being abandoned.
It is estimated that in 520 BC, during the southern dynasties, Bodhidharma entered China and traveled northward to the kingdom of Wei. Here 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 that took place. The meeting was to no avail, his words to the worldly emperor meant nothing and, thus, disappointed with the futility of his attempts, Bodhidharma left the palace of the Emperor and traveled to the Honan province, where he entered the Shaolin temple. It is at this point that he began a new era in martial arts history.
Bodhidharma’s depression grew once he reached the famed Shaolin temple. It turned out that Prajnatra’s concerns were true. The monks were both physically ragged and mentally diminished due to the excess amount of time they were spending in meditation. Many of the monks would often fall asleep in meditation, while others were so feeble physically that they needed assistance in the basic necessities of life.
For an unknown period of time, Bodhidharma meditated in a cave at the outskirts of the temple, seeking for a way to renew the ways of Buddha’s light as well as letting the monks regain control over their lives. Upon his return to the temple, Bodhidharma began to instruct the monks in the courtyard, explaining to them and working with them in the art of Shih Pa Lo Han Sho (the 18 hands of Lo Han). Ironically, while these techniques have become the foundation for almost all of the martial arts today, they were never 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. This is just one of many attacks against the monastery during the early twentieth century. During this first invasion, the monk’s attempts at defending their temple were futile. Their skills were not attuned to fighting techniques. It looked as if the temple would fall. Towards the end of the siege, a single monk of the temple, known as the “begging monk”, 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. Since that time, over 400 art styles are said to have prospered. 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 (taught by Bodhidharma). Until this rediscovery, the original form of the art had been lost for many years. Over a period of time, Ch’ueh integrated his art of Chuan Fa with that of Lo Han, increasing the total number of techniques from the original eighteen to a total of seventy-two. For several years after this period Ch’ueh traveled the countryside of China promoting his art in many grueling fighting matches. He then came upon a man named Li in the province of Shensi. Li was a master of Chuan Fa as well as other martial ways (including rumors of Chin Na). Ch’ueh and Li then traveled and trained together for some time, further developing the curriculum of Chuan Fa to form a total of one hundred and seventy techniques. They are also credited with categorizing these techniques into five distinctive groups, each group distinguished by an animal 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 what they called Wu Xing Quan (the five animal form). This ushered in yet another stage in the Shaolin temple martial arts evolution.
Over the next several centuries, the history of Chuan Fa and its advent to Kenpo/Kempo is ragged in its tales. 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 Japan. In these 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, introducing to them a working knowledge of the art of Kempo. This would explain its widespread 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 and 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 spread among the commoners and nobles alike.
Another reason for the spreading of Kempo beyond China 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. Many times presumed dead by their families, they would later 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. He 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 believed he had died in his journeys. But after much time he did return, much to the surprise of his kin. Sakugawa had learned the secrets of Chuan Fa and had become a master of some repute himself. Over many years of refinement the art that Sakugawa learned, slowly became known as Shuri-te and is considered the predecessor to many forms of modern Karate.
Another member of the village of Shuri was Shionja. Shionja 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. They then began to demonstrate it around Okinawa. It is believed that Kushaku and Shionja had more influence in Okinawian Kempo styles than any other martial artist.
Unfortunately, the history of the evolution of Kempo in Japan is just as ragged. It is documented that a flurry of attention to the art was brought during the reign of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, during his plans of conquering China. It is referred that many a Samurai on their return from China, whether during or after the war, brought with them extensive knowledge of Chuan Fa. Throughout the years the Samurai would modify Chuan Fa to include their own arts of Jujutsu and Aikijutsu. It is at this state, where the greatest evolution of Kempo takes place since the time of Li and Ch’ueh.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century two families, Kumamoto and Nagasaki brought knowledge of Kempo from China to Kyushu in Japan. This art was modified throughout the many years into one of its current forms, Kosho Ryu Kempo or Old Pine Tree School. It is from here that most modern forms of Kempo are derived. In 1921, at the age of five, James Mitose was sent to Kyushu from his birthplace in Hawaii. It is here that he was to be schooled by his uncle in his ancestor’s art of self-defense. The art was known as Kosho Ryu Kempo, a direct descendent of the original Chuan Fa. Mitose’s uncle was a Kempo master named Choki Motobu. For fifteen years Mitose studied this art. After completing his 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); Thomas Young, William Chow, Edmund Howe, Arthur Keawe, Jiro Naramura, and Paul Yamaguchi. It has been noted that William Chow’s black belt certificate was actually signed by Thomas Young. When James Mitose stopped teaching in order to pursue his 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 to Hawaii of Chogun Miyagi, a famous Karateka and founder of Goju Ryu Karate-do. This first use of the term 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 better known.
William Chow is responsible for one of the largest leaps of Kempo to the general public. William K.S. Chow studied Kempo under Mitose for several years and had previously studied his own family ‘s 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 correct 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 his Kung Fu as well as various Kata or forms based on the primary linear and circular techniques of his art.
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 to expand the family art. William Chow’s father, though, and large extended family in Hawaii is given credit for his development and spiritual growth; leading to his strength in becoming a great martial artist.
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 a household name, teaching his art to the likes of 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. He was one of the founders of Kajukenbo. From here, Kempo takes many twists and turns, constantly evolving into new states of being.