Kenpo History and Discussion

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: karate
27 Jan 2010


Thousands of people the world over have studied various forms of Kenpo or Kempo Karate. I remember when I first started learning karate lessons from an actual instructor, he told me about some of the styles of Okinawan karate. Later when I started learning kenpo karate, I was told that there were Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, and Hawaiian styles of Kenpo. Well let me tell you that I was confused then and while searching through the internet for kenpo history – I am still a little fuzzy.


In this post I will discuss the difficulty discerning history because of bias, poor records, frame of reference,  and other research challenges. I will also speak of Kempo/Kenpo’s recent history since James Mitose in Hawaii and the Hawaii Karate Museum’s online records. Here is a video of some of Kenpo’s early history including its spread from China, Okinawa, and Japan.



As you can see the beginnings of modern kenpo winded its way through the orient. Each country put its own special stamp on kenpo. I know little of the Chinese kenpo that migrated to Okinawa but according to this video, the Okinawans developed kenpo before allowing it to spread in the 20th century.

One point to keep in mind is each historian will differ slightly in what and when, so when you see a video like this – don’t take it all as gospel. There is just no way to completely verify everything. My point is karate may have very well spread in the 19th century without common knowledge.

Whenever karate made it to Japan, the Japanese in some cases combined karate with ju-jitsu schools to become the beginnings of what James Mitose learned from the Yoshida clan as a boy. Masayoshi Mitose (later James Mitose) reportedly learned kenpo from his grandfather, Master Sukuhei Yoshida. Professor James Mitose then moved back to Hawaii and started teaching Kosho Ryu Kempo/Kempo Ju Jitsu in 1942 (or earlier). But what was Kempo Ju-Jitsu?

The Yoshida clan were apparently samurai warriors for centuries and had some rudimentary fighting form that consisted of various schools of ju jitsu and some striking I believe. Whenever karate made it to Japan, the Japanese like the Okinawans before them, made karate their own. The result was Mitose taught the hybrid martial art called Kempo-Ju-Jitsu in Hawaii in the early 1940’s.

I was happy to find on one blog that I read (Karate Thoughts Blog, by Charles C. Goodin), a link to the Hawaii Karate Museum! The website (to the museum) has old newspaper articles about contributing masters that brought karate to Hawaii. James Mitose is listed in both the newspaper (starting in 1941) and book links.

In Hawaii like Okinawa and Japan before, kenpo was improved and handed down to the next masters. Professor Mitose taught William Chow. A couple of Professor Chow’s notable students were Ed Parker (Kenpo Karate) and Adriano Emperado (Kajukenbo). Ed Parker brought Kenpo karate to the mainland and the Tracy brothers (Al and Jim) were among master Parker’s first black belts. The brothers open up a chain of Tracy’s Karate Schools.

My instructor, master Richard Willett was taught by Al Tracy and Ray Klingenburg. So now you know the lineage of Dick Willett’s American Kenpo Karate, and like other styles of karate – all descend from some common and some unique influences.

One trend I have noticed in kenpo lately is many styles are re-introducing jiu jitsu back into the martial art! I think this is as it should be as historically from Japan, jiu-jitsu has always been a part of Kenpo. Our association is incorporating some Brazilian jiu jitsu so soon there will be additional belt requirements to achieve kenpo rank.

While I was searching for information on the history of kenpo, I noticed that there were many kenpo trees and information that were incongruent! I also found the detractors that made counter arguments but did not offer a reasonable counter explanation.

I tend to view history as I do the news. Meaning I critically listen to all sources of a topic that interests me and then I extrapolate based on what I presently know – what I think the truth to be. Now the funny thing about my approach is my opinion on issues constantly update as I find out new salient facts of even the most recent events. So when looking into the history of styles of kung fu or karate, know that all of the information is not out there.

One  case in point is Hank Slomanski, who became the third highest ranking karateka in Japan after defeating all 119 of the best fighters in 1956 . Here is a “To Tell The Truth” video clip (below) with master Slomanski. The reason I bring this up is there is very little mention of this fact out there. One might conclude that no American in the 1950’s could beat the best Japanese of the day but I like Al Tracy’s take on this. He said that proves an angry 220 pound man could beat any angry 14o pound man. Up to that point many believed that size did not matter. Well fast forward to MMA today and no one would believe that size does not matter now!

Here is what I know about kenpo karate after researching for this post. Kenpo came to America by way of China, Okinawa, Japan, and Hawaii. Professor James Mitose is the one that introduced kenpo to Hawaii and taught Chow. Professor Chow taught Master Ed Parker and Ed Parker taught Master Al Tracy.

Kenpo was and still is one of the most dynamic of martial arts out there. As I stated in my thesis:

Kenpo Karate is one of many modern fighting systems that is evolving as times change. This innovative style of karate has enveloped many different types of fighting, from Jiu Jitsu to Kung Fu. As all styles are, Kenpo is actually a conglomeration of many different styles, using the best techniques from each. This is the reason Kenpo is so versatile, and flexible, it is constantly updated to be effective as antagonists try new methods of attack.

I hope this cursory look into the exciting history of kenpo karate has been interesting. You know I don’t think the history of karate is all that importaint as martial arts have evolved a lot from what they looked like in the old days. Not that what the old masters did would not work – quite the contrary but modern martial arts have and will continue to evolve and still be relavent into the 21 century.

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6 Responses to “Kenpo History and Discussion”

  1. SueC Says:

    Hi John, An interesting post. I always like to know the history and background of the things I am learning in martial arts so I also spend a lot of time surfing around the internet for information (and find the same problems as you with consistency of information).

    This combination of karate and jujitsu is interesting – makes it sound similar to wado-ryu karate, any connection there? Does American Kenpo karate still maintain links with Japan? Does your style of karate include any kobudo training – I thought kenpo karate and kobudo were closely linked? Sorry! Too many questions!

  2. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Sue,

    I remember spouting off numbers in the 70’s that there were a least 50 styles of karate and 300 styles of kung fu. Well nowadays kung fu has renamed itself apparently to wushu (I’m out of touch I guess). :)

    My point is bringing this up is many karateka that attain the master status are not always satisified with their style but rather seem to tweek it by combining new methods/styles and creating a new style of karate. Lets face it people innovate just as the old masters did back in the day.

    What I am trying to say is I would have no idea now how many of the karate styles combine some jiu jitsu moves. I would guess that many might but I know little of other styles except the ones I’ve trained in (Lima Lama and Kenpo).

    As far as goverence of the arts, as the masters have splintered off many of them have cut ties. Mitose has passed as has Chow and Parker. I do not believe that there is any links from Hawaii to Japan and my guess is that there are no links from Parkers organization to Hawaii. As each style was formed, many of them created there own hirachy and dropped any formal ties.

    Our sytle of American Kenpo Karate still has ties to the Tracy’s organization out of respect but our hirachry is that of a parallel organization. I do not believe that Tracy’s has any formal ties to Parkers organization but we attend many of the same functions as we are all Kenpo brothers and sisters.

    As far a Chinese Kenpo Karate and later American Kenpo as Parker taught it, and later the Tracy’s, there was not an emphsis on weapons. There are offshoot of kenpo that do practice more weapons.

    We have weapons kata such as the hook and spear, staff, and sword but I have not been involved in sparring with said weapons. I have branched out on my own and learned that many of the formal ways of using the staff do not work. For instance twirling the staff and striking with the short half-strikes would hurt and maybe break ones thumbs if they struck anything hard.

    I did a post on this way back and upset some people. You see if I am to use a weapon, I would use it like I fight – with critical distance and inital movement. I tried every strike hard on the bag and found out just as I have with some hand strikes – many moves were impracticle. Too much time on my hands I suppose. :)

    Anyway as one meaning of karate is empty hand, especially in California where almost any weapon is illegal, I do not depend on weapons.

    My best guess is there now might be hundreds of styles of karate that valid stylistic differences from anything else out there. But there are bound to be a lot of similar styles… sorry this got kind of wordy.

  3. Sherry Says:

    What I love about karate is that you don’t have to worry about an attacker being bigger, taller, stronger than you – it’s all about techniqe. As a single woman needing to feel safe out there – I personally recommend this discipline.

    Love this blog – don’t stop blogging, I check this every week for comments.

    I also found a great book on karate that I wanted to share with you – you can find it at
    please take a look – it`s great.


  4. Zara Says:

    Hey John,

    How’ve you been? It’s been a long time since I visited your site. You talked about the connection between jujutsu and kenpo: as you know I’m a jujutsuka so I have a pretty extensive knowledge of grappling techniques but as with all arts there were some deficiencies, mainly in the striking department (not exactly the focus of our original style). Now my sensei has vastly improved upon that system by bringing along elements from the arts he studies: JKD, kali-escrima, thaiboxing… Funny thing is he’s training in kenpo for some time now (a different style from American kenpo but with similar principles and techniques) and he’s talking about adding elements of it to the curriculum too! I trained with him in the material for yellow and orange belt (I checked online and it’s similar to classical AK techniques like delayed sword, alternating maces…) and it’s pretty good stuff: logical sequences, fast striking combo’s and a good theoretical framework in order to generate maximum impact. I look forward to exploring this art further and as my sensei says it’s very compatible with jujutsu since both arts are inherently practical and geared towards self defense. Too bad it has some kata’s (something I detest since I hardly see any point in it) but I guess I just have to grit my teeth and bear with it. If it were classical Japanese karate with low stances, lunch punches and traditional forearm blocks I wouldn’t continue but I like the flow of the techniques and the efficient transitions to other blows, breaking down the opponent’s defenses piece by piece.

    As you know I was pretty sceptical about kenpo before but now I’ve had some experience with it I retract my earlier statements even though I don’t agree with everything that is taught?

    If you’re interested in the practical use of weaponry I’d recommend kali-escrima: bare bones practical art, no kata and with the same kind of flow as kenpo (barrage of checks, strikes and disarms), plus they have some pretty awesome training methods (hubud lubud for example) which garantees an extremely high number of repetitions in a short time. Check it out, I’m sure you’ll be impressed.

  5. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Zara,

    I’m always conflicted, as you are with kata – I think learning the techniques are important, once one has mastered the movements – one can use them in any combination as the situation dictates. I have no issue with how it is taught – just that one evolves… kind of the definition of mastery.

    I checked out some videos out of hubud lubud… looks like of link wing chun sticky hands Bruce Lee used to do.

    I used to practice lima lama and got real good at the hand slapping that all of these guys taught back then. Tino Tuiolosega, Ed Parker and the gang all did similar stuff and then branched out to develop their own martial arts. Kind of why techniques in lima lama were almost the same as kenpo when I started.

    So my normal line is the style does not matter but what you like and what you get something out of. There are many ways to skin a cat. :)

    Thanks for checking out the site again Zara – Happy to have you back!

  6. Zara Says:

    I agree with the viewpoint of looking at techniques as little more than building blocks and a starting point from which to develop your own combo’s: in the end you as an individual with your own unique physical characteristics and mindset are what’s important and not doing anything by the book or copying the style of your teacher. To me that is the meaning behind the saying ‘a black belt is only the beginning’: once you mastered the basics of your style you evolve and research, following Bruce Lee’s maxim of absorbing what is useful, rejecting what is useless and adding what is essentially your own. To me these words represent great wisdom: people who only copy what they learned and aren’t creative (adding or modifying to improve the art and suit their own needs), aren’t an asset to their style nor a credit to their teacher (no matter their belt or rank which is ultimately pointless, at least after reaching a certain level) and are little more than advanced students but not masters. In that we are in total agreement, which to me is a confirmation of what I found out on my own and what I saw in my teacher: you clearly have much experience and an active, inquisitive mind (if that weren’t the case I wouldn’t have revisited this blog after the first time) so if we both reached the same conclusion that means I must be on the right path and maybe one day I’ll reach the same level of mastery my sensei, you and many teachers I look up to have attained.

    Hubud is indeed similar to JKD’s chi sao although there are major differences too: the basic idea is to get as many reps in as fast as possible (really sinking the techniques into your subconscious), however JKD’s sticky hands (based on Wing Chun) tend to be more lineair while Kali’s hubud uses a more angular approach along with what is called limb destructions. Basically it means treating the opponent’s weapon (hand, leg) as a target: by hitting certain nervepoints or muscles you inflict serious pain on the opponent (clouding his mind) and making that weapon more or less useless (at least temporarily). However it’s main use is to gain entry into his defensive sphere as the gunting (limb destruction, it literally means ‘scissoring’) opens up a line of attack, that is why it’s always followed up with boxing combo’s (in itself already a great weapon), trapping the limbs (as in JKD and WC), grappling techniques (pulling him into a strike or pushing him off balance) and low line kicks known as panjakman. Obviously hubud lubud is merely a training tool (as the self defense techniques in kenpo) but the idea behind it is to isolate one minor part of the defense (the first interception) and train that until you reach a very high level of skill that allows you to blast in as soon as the opponent makes a move. Of course there are series too: meaning defenses against set attacks (mainly boxing and kickboxing attacks like the jab-cross) that consists of the gunting followed by attacking techniques and trapping or grappling. One such sequence is the first technique on the jab-cross: you catch or parry the jab (basic boxing defense) then you do an opposite parry on the cross with a simultaneaous back knuckle to the radial nerve on the arm (called inside gunting), followed by a sinking left elbow to the face or sternum, a thumb to the eye (from the position of your hand after the elbow landed, point of origin in kenpo), you then cup the head and deliver a fingerthrust to the throat with your right hand (potentially lethal). This is followed up by a push to the chest (meant do disrupt his possible counterattack and set up the combo by exposing the chin) followed by a cross-hook-cross and a round kick. Very fun to train (it’s practiced both with and without focus-mitts) and very effective too imo, although much depends on your level of skill of course. The same approach is followed with weapons: instead of blocking to the weapon and trying to reach your opponent’s body (trunk) you hit the hand first wtih a full-on strike, if the other hand or leg attacks you destroy that too, giving you an easy entry to the finish if necessary. Of course the original use of Kali-escrima was combat and the strikes (often with swords or machetes instead of the sticks used in training) were usually meant to be lethal. With a sharp weapon one or two strikes, cuts or thrusts would be enough: I’ve seen techniques with the machete that basically consist of hacking off his arm, then his leg and/or his head. Obviously it’s a little hard to actually train that but the basic idea is to waste no time or movement and go straight for the kill, keeping the risk to yourself as low as possible. I very much enjoy escrima training, I just hope I’ll have time for it in september when my evening courses start again.