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History of Kenpo / Kempo

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The art of Kempo, as it is properly pronounced, Kenpo, if spelled literally from its Japanese translation, has one of the most diverse and aged backgrounds of any existing fighting way. Considered by many to be the first true eclectic martial art, yet having its roots trace back to 520 AD. At that time a man, who is considered the founder of the Kempo system base art of Chuan Fa (Shaolin Kung Fu), named Bodhidharma or Daruma started the ball rolling. Bodhidharma, as he was called by the Buddhists, was a prince and warrior of southern India. He traveled to China, where it was felt Buddhism was in decline, to teach the knowledge of the legendary Zen koans (meditation riddles).

     It is estimated that during the southern dynasties around 520AD Bodhidharma traveled to China. He met with the emperor Wu, but his words for help fell on deaf ears so Bodhidharma traveled from the palace to the Hunan province. This is where he found the now legendary Shaolin temple and the martial history of Kempo truly began. When Bodhidharma arrived he was very disappointed to find the Shaolin monks in poor physical condition and unable to concentrate for any length of time on their meditation.

     Bodhidharma was said to have then gone to a cave in the mountain behind the temple for an unknown period of time to meditate on how to revive the Buddhists teachings and get the Shaolin monks back into shape and on the right path. (This sitting before the wall plays a much larger role in the history of Zen Buddhism) When Bodhidharma returned to the temple from his meditations he instructed the monks in the 18 hands of Lo Han. These postures were given to the monks to make them both physically and mentally stronger. Though their original intent was not for these methods to be utilized as fighting techniques, ironically these movements have served as the foundation for a large majority of martial arts taught today. The Shaolin priests studied and practiced these postures and did see improvements in their over all well-being, as well as, in their meditations.

     About a half a century after the death of Bodhidharma (Daruma), it is recorded that brigands attacked the temple and killed many monks. It is told that it appeared as though the temple would fall when suddenly, a monk known only as “The Begging Monk” defended the grounds and killed many of the attackers while eventually driving the others away. The remaining monks were very impressed with abilities of “the begging monk” and his effective hand and foot techniques against multiple attackers so that they began training under him in this martial system to learn better how to protect themselves and their temple. This method of fighting the begging monk displayed and taught is recorded as Chuan Fa or The Fist Method, and is the first real record of Kempo as a combat system.

     Over the next several centuries the Shaolin priests refined this system of Chuan Fa and began to emulate the fighting movements of the animals they observed in nature. The 18 Lo Han techniques became 72 and then expanded again to 172 techniques. Movements of Chi-na and Five Animal forms evolved in Chuan Fa ( Kempo).

     The history of Chuan Fa and its evolution into Kempo during the following period becomes muddy and records scarce and often conflicting. The art is taught in China to this day and it expanded out to Okinawan Islands, the Rykyu Kingdoms and Japan. There the art of Chuan Fa (which pronounced in Japanese is Kem-po) evolved again. It literally translated to the “Law of The Fist”. It is known that many “wandering monks” traveled to the Islands off Japan and to the mainland teaching their Kempo ways and spreading the system. Many traveled sharing their Buddhists beliefs and the strength of Chuan Fa. This continued to allow the art to adapt and grow to serve the people who practiced it and is to this day why Kempo is often called a “living art”.

      Another factor which helped spread the foundation of Kempo is the many trips the Japanese and Okinawan people would make to China to seek out the secrets of the famed fighting art. Men would often disappear from there villages and families, often presumed dead after not having returned from a journey or fishing trip, when in fact they were training in China in the art of Kempo. They would often return years later with their new abilities and knowledge to teach in their native land. One of these men was named Sakugawa, the father of Shuri-te. He learned the art of Chuan Fa in his travels, brought it back to Shuri where it grew and is recognized by many as becoming the predecessor of many modern karate systems. Men of Shuri also brought their knowledge back to form the foundation of what is now known as Okinawan Kempo.

     The development of Kempo systems in Japan is again vague after this. The art was widely taught and practiced with the addition of Jui Jitsu knowledge. During the feudal times with China many Samurai learned the ways of Chuan Fa and incorporated it into their fighting repertoire.

     The next development is by far the most significant to the history of modern Kempo arts. In the early 1700’s a family head traveled to China and learned the art of Chuan Fa. He returned with this knowledge of Kempo to Kyushu in Japan. Legend has it that he meditated on this new art in front of an old family pine tree where he added the movements of his families ways. The art became his family art and was modified and passed for 22 generations. This art was known as Kosho Ryu Kempo or The Old Pine Tree style and bore the family logo of the Mitose Clan. The majority of the Kempo/Kenpo systems taught in the states today derive from this branch. A young boy in Hawaii at the age of five was sent back to Kyushu, Japan to learn his family art from his "uncle", karate legend Choki Motobu. This boys name was James M. Mitose. The Mitose boy studied his family art, a direct derivative of Chuan Fa, for 15 years before returning to the Islands. Upon his return he established the “Official Self Defense Club”, in Beretania mission in 1936 in Honolulu. Mitose promoted only six students to Blackbelt (Full Instructor Level); Thomas Young, William Chow, Arthur Keawe, Paul Yamaguchi, Edmund Howe, and Jiro Naramura. Simeon Eli was also a direct student of Mitoses at the time and later promoted to Blackbelt by Thomas Young, who was left to head all rankings and instruction when Mitose left the islands to pursue his religious studies.

     The Great Grandmaster James M. Mitose then reappeared in the history of Kempo when he was imprisoned in relation to a stabbing death involving one of his students. While in Folsom State Prison in California, Mitose awarded another rank to a man named Bruce Juchnik, who was made aware of Mitoses imprisonment by a guard who had been training with Juchnik. Juchnik who was already an instructor of Kempo in the Tracy system, as well as, other martial ways, spent 2 to 3 years visiting with the incarcerated Mitose. Juchnik states that Mitose passed him all the teachings of the Old Pine Tree Style-Kosho Ryu Kempo and awarded him a master ranking asking him to keep the system alive. With this Mr. Juchnik claims Great Grandmastership of that line. This is a topic held in controversy by Thomas Barro Mitose, the actual son of James Mitose, who had been given up for adoption. Barro-Mitose later found out about his birthright and stepped forward to claim his position as the 22nd bloodline Great Grandmaster of the Old Pine Tree Style-Kosho Ryu Kempo. Adrian Emperoda, one of the modern Kempo Masters and founders of the Kajukenbo system agrees that Mitose has the legitimate claim to Grandmaster of the line. Both Masters continue to teach and maintain active followings of Kempo students.

      The Mitose blackbelt who probably was most responsible for the spread of Kempo onto the mainland is William “Thunderbolt” Chow. Chow, who had been a student of his family’s Kung Fu art, then like so many Kempo masters before him, combined his existing knowledge with Kosho Ryu Kempo forming a new breed of Kempo. His system was called Chinese Kara-Ho Kempo Karate. Chow ran a dojo at the local YMCA where he taught his art. Some say that Chow used the spelling of Kenpo with an ‘n’ to distinguish his art form from Mitose, but many current descendants of Chows system say he always used the ‘m’ spelling for Kempo Karate. The following decades saw Chow make many innovations to the system adding more circular movements and soft style strikes , as well as, various katas.

     Chow was responsible for training and promoting two of the pioneers of modern Kempo in the mainland Untied States. These men were Edmund Parker and Nicholas Cerio. Adrian Emporado, a Chow Blackbelt and one of the founders of the Kajukenbo System, also played a role of spreading Kempo knowledge on the islands and beyond.

In 1954 Parker earned his Blackbelt in Kara Ho Kempo and began adding and creating a “science” of the kenpo fighting system. He spread his knowledge in the western United States and in 1964 ran his first international martial arts tournament. Parker became well known for teaching such legends as Elvis Presley and Steve McQueen. Parker continued to modify and record his system which he called the American Kenpo Karate System.

      Nicholas Cerio, an east coast based martial artists, began his Kempo training with George Pesare, with whom he earned his Blackbelt. Cerio then traveled to Hawaii to continue his training with Chow. Cerio, in Kempo tradition, took the combined knowledge he learned and created the Nick Cerios Kenpo System. He added some traditional Shotokan forms, modern weapons techniques and more Kung Fu patterns, as well as, creating his own forms. Cerio received his 5th degree blackbelt from Chow and later his 9th Dan from Ed Parker, who Cerio refers to as his coach. Cerio spread his system on the east coast from his base in Rhode Island and became one of the pioneers of Kempo. He also taught and promoted a man named Fred Villari, who went on to form his own system of American Shaolin Kempo Karate and launch a successful commercial chain of dojos. Cerio, as his predecessor Parker, used a series a books and videos to record and help spread their systems of Kenpo.

     Brent J. Crisci, New England based martial arts instructor & competitor is a 20 year veteran of the Kempo/Kenpo Arts. He has a lineage that is totally unique, in that, he shares multiple training and ranks lineages. His first Kosho Ryu Kempo Karate instructors was a man named Robert Hoe. Hoe, Sensei, a Hawaiian native, was a direct student of Simion Eli (one of Mitoses original students and Blackbelts. Crisci received his 6th Degree Blackbelt from Hoe in 1999 after 16 years of study with him. Crisci also trained with Fred Villari directly in the mid-eighties and from there when on to seek Villari's instructor Grandmaster Nick Cerio. Cerio appointed Crisci to the Board of Directors for Nick Cerios International Martial Arts Association and awarded him a 5th degree Blackbelt in American Kenpo. Crisci was then recognized by Thomas Barro Mitose, the son the late Grandmaster James Mitose, as a Kosho ryu Blackbelt. Crisci then sought out the last student of the late grandmaster, Bruce Juchnik. Juchnik, Sensei appointed Crisci as a Regional Director of the Sei Kosho Shorie Kai International Society and awarded Crisci his Yudansha in the direct line of Kosho Shorie Ryu under the Mitose lineage. This gives Shihan Crisci one of the most all around , authentic, and diverse Kempo/kenpo lineage of any living master.

     From here the history of Kempo becomes a living record and too diverse to record in this brief forum. Many branches of the aforementioned masters and their Kempo systems digressed and diverged to their own path, which is what has kept Kempo a “living art”. With such a vivid, long and full history, the art of Kempo will surely continue to grow and flourish around the world.

Authors Note:

     This brief history of Kempo has been researched over 20 years and all dates, facts and names have been confirmed by at least three sources. With that said, there are still many points which are held in controversy and others may have there own versions. I welcome all those with constructive input and facts to support them to contact me and share their knowledge.

The following is a Historical list of Kempo Grandmasters, Masters, and significant figures in the evolution of the art of Kempo Karate. (Apologies to those whom were omitted do to space and time limitations)


“The Begging Monk”

Chu’ueh Taun Shang-jen

Li of Shenshi

Sakugawa of Shuri

Shionja of Shuri

Kushaku of China



Choki Motobu

James Masayoshi Mitose

Thomas Young

William Chow

Simeon Eli

Adrian Emperado

Edmund Parker

Steve Muhammad

Donnie Williams

Sam Kuoha

Nicholas Cerio

Bruce Juchnik

Fred Villari

Thomas Barro Mitose

Robert W. Hoe

Brent J. Crisci

Victor " Sonny " Gascon

George Pasere

Dr. Daniel K. Pai

William R. Gregory

Al Cunningham

Larry S.L. Martin