The History of Kempo Karate

Used by its inhabitants as a house of worship and meditation, the Shaolin Temple has had the single most significant influence on all martial arts in existence today. The origins of the temple’s fighting arts are largely credited to Bodhidharma, an Indian Prince who traveled from his native land to ancient China sometime between 420 and 520 B.C., in an effort to convert the reigning dynasty to Buddhism. After a failed meeting with the Emperor, Bodhidharma traveled to the Henan province and the illustrious Shaolin Temple. It was there, after many years of meditation, that he began to teach the monks the art of Shih Pa Lo Han Sho (The 18 Hands of Lo Han).

Some 40 years after Bodhidharma’s death, the Shaolin Temple was attacked and successfully defended with the fighting art of Chuan Fa or “Fist Method”, a fighting style derived from Bodhidharma’s original teachings. Over the centuries, the Shaolin Temple grew and was said to house over 400 various arts. In the 1500’s, Master Li and Master Ch’ueh combined these arts into a system of 170 techniques, split into 5 groups. These groups became the basis for the 5 animal forms, and began a new era in the history of the Shaolin Temple.

During the centuries that followed, monks from the Shaolin Temple emigrated east to the Ryukyu Kingdom (mainly Okinawa), and Japan. In the 1700’s, armed with knowledge of Chuan Fa, which had come to be known as Kenpo (“The Law of The Fist”), the Kumamoto and Nagasaki families of Kyushu Japan began their training in the arts, spreading their teachings to a new audience.

Kempo began its journey across the Pacific in 1920, when five-year-old James Mitose left Hawai’i for Kyushu Japan to study his ancestors’ martial arts. In 1936, he returned to Hawai’I, opened the “Official Self-Defense Club”, and began offering instruction in a system he dubbed “Kosho Ryo Kempo”. Before ending his illustrious teaching career, he trained six students through to Black Belt level. Of these, William Chow is perhaps the person most responsible for bringing Kempo to the United States.

Prior to his study with Mitose, Chow grew up studying his family style of Kung Fu, and after years of training with Mitose, combined his knowledge of Kung Fu and Kosho Ryu Kempo to form Kempo Karate. In 1944 he began teaching classes of his own, often in the public parks or YMCA facilities of Hawai’i.

After earning their black belts, some of Chow’s more prominent students emigrated to the mainland, bringing their training with them. Edmund Parker brought his martial art to the western part of the United States, and would eventually become known as “The Father of American Karate”. Adriano Emperado, combined his training with that of Peter Y. Chow, Joe Holck, Frank Ordonez, and George C. Chang to form Kajukenbo. This new art form was a blend of Karate, Judo, Kenpo, and Chinese Boxing. Nick Cerio brought Chow’s teachings to the east coast, where he combined them with various weapons and open-hand katas. The majority of Kempo in the United States can trace its origins back to Professor Chow or one of his more renowned students.