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Shoju-kempo ryu Hombu Dojo HQ. USA " this website is solely dedicated to Kempo / Kenpo only "

Early History of Kempo

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Unfortunately it is very difficult to define Kempo in the way that one can define Judo, Aikido or Shotokan Karate, for example. Jigoro Kano formulated a precise curriculum and training method for Judo a century ago and that style continues to exist today. Morihei Ueshiba and Gichin Funakoshi did the same for Aikido and Shotokan Karate, respectively. If you say to someone that you practice Judo, anyone with even a minimal martial arts background will know exactly what you practice. The same unfortunately does not hold true for Kempo.

And while every teacher of Judo will have a different teaching style, or may emphasize different aspects of the art, they are all still teaching the same art. One could switch from one Judo school to another and still be learning the same curriculum. In Kempo things are not nearly so homogenous. Different schools of "Kempo" or "Kenpo" may very well be teaching totally different arts.

The word Kempo means "Fist Law," where the word Law has the connotation of a Law of nature, or a Law of God. Kempo is a translation of the Chinese word "Chuan Fa," which means boxing or fighting. Japanese and Okinawans would use the term Kempo to refer to a martial art that came from China, or was heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts.

Historically speaking, Kempo first came into existence in Japan during the Edo period, which started in roughly 1600. Schools of Jujutsu that combined their art with Chinese Chuan Fa would come to call themselves Kempo.

And in Okinawa as early as the 12th to the 13th century native experts in the indigenous Okinawan art simply called "Te," or "Hand," would combine their art with Chinese Chuan Fa. They called the resulting art "Tode," which means "China hand" (the original meaning of Karate, which now means "empty hand,") or Kempo.


Many martial arts historians would have us all believe that every martial art in existence anywhere in the world at any time in history can trace its roots directly to the Shaolin Temple. This claim is, of course, absurd.

Much historical evidence suggests that systematized methods of combat - both armed and unarmed - existed in China well before the time of the Shaolin temple. In fact, for the first two hundred  years or so of the existence of the Shaolin Temple, it had nothing to do with martial arts at all. The Shaolin Temple was originally built in the 4th century AD but its legendary involvement in the evolution of the martial arts began in the 6th century with the arrival of Bodhidarma from India.

Much of what we know of Bodhidarma comes to us from legend, not historical fact. We do know with some certainty that he was the first patriarch of Chan Buddhism  - which later became known as Zen when it arrived in Japan. It is extremely difficult, however, to confirm with any certainty at all what role he may have played in the history of martial arts. Legend tells us that he founded the very first Shaolin temple martial arts. We do know that Chan Buddhism teaches that we should strive to strengthen our bodies as well as our minds. It is likely that Bodhidarma taught, at the very least, some sort of breathing exercises that involved some type of physical movement - perhaps something similar to yoga or chi kung. But it is impossible today to know for certain exactly what early Shaolin martial arts looked like.

In any event, the Shaolin temple did come to play some role in the evolution of Chinese martial arts, but it most definitely was not the ultimate birthplace of those arts.

Countless styles of Chinese Kung Fu, or Wushu, would ultimately spread throughout China and indeed throughout the world. Many of these styles claim to have their roots in Shaolin temple martial arts, but many others do not. Martial arts styles often sprang up within a village or a family that had nothing at all to do with Shaolin. These families would pass on their art through the generations, and some of these arts would ultimately grow and spread beyond their native village or family.

We do also know that Chinese martial arts would influence the development of martial arts in many other neighboring cultures in Asia.

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The 15th through the 18th centuries saw the early formation of many of the modern ryu or schools of Japanese Jujutsu. Up until that time various systems of unarmed combat using joint locks, throws and submission holds had developed in Japan independent of other Asian fighting systems.

Some claim that Japanese Jujutsu descends directly from Chinese Chin-Na. While it is true that in many instances Japan borrowed elements of Chinese culture and adopted those elements as her own, this does not seem to hold true for Jujutsu. Based on the available evidence, I believe Jujutsu to be native to Japan. It's development and evolution certainly coincided with the history of the great Japanese warrior families.

Evidence suggests that at some point in the history of Japanese Jujutsu some influence came into play from Chinese boxing. Japanese Kempo methods first came into existence as combinations of the native Jujutsu with Chinese boxing. Some stories say that Japanese warriors who knew Jujutsu trained in China for a time, and then returned to Japan, combining the punch and kick methods they had learned with their native art. Other stories say the opposite - that Chinese Kung Fu experts came to Japan and taught their art to native Jujutsu practitioners. Either way, these styles continued to evolve in Japan, not China, and continued to be primarily Jujutsu styles that may have focused somewhat more on striking than most other Jujutsu styles. These styles represent a very tiny minority of the Japanese Jujutsu systems.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries styles such as Aikido and Judo came into existence (founded by Morihei Ueshiba and Jigoro Kano respectively) that would attempt to modernize various traditional Jujutsu systems.

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Martial arts also developed on the island of Okinawa. Today, Okinawa is part of Japan. But this was not always the case.

In its earliest days, an indigenous method of combat developed on Okinawa. Over the years this method would come under the influence of Chinese martial arts. Okinawa often served as a stop on major trade routes throughout Southeast Asia which left it exposed to many other cultures, particularly that of China. The fact that the Chinese martial arts influenced the Okinawan martial arts, which they clearly did, however, does not in any way mean that the Okinawan arts were a direct copy of the Chinese arts. Okinawan martial arts developed in Okinawa as a totally separate entity from any Chinese art.

The martial arts of Okinawa would ultimately be called "Okinawa Te," or "Tode," which means "Chinese hand."  Two main schools of Okinawa Te developed: Shorei-ryu and Shorin-ryu. Eventually the name Tode was changed to "Kara Te," or Karate. People sometimes referred to the Okinawan arts as "Karate Kempo," or "Okinawan Kempo," as well. Kempo simply means "Law of the Fist," and could be a translation of the Chinese term, "Chuan Fa."

Many people believe that Karate is originally Japanese. This is not true. The art of Karate definitely developed entirely on Okinawa. In fact, it would not spread to Japan until the early 20th century, only a short time before it spread to North America. Gichin Funakoshi performed the first public display of Karate in Japan in 1917. He later founded Shotokan Karate in Tokyo in 1938. 

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In the early 20th century Hawaii became a real melting pot of East Asian cultures. Hundreds of Japanese, Chinese, Okinawans, Filipinos, Polynesians, etc. migrated to the Hawaiian Islands at this time. They brought with them countless styles of martial arts.

Much of the martial arts training would go on in a very informal, sometimes secretive way. There were no actual "schools" at first - rather people would simply learn from their neighbors. Usually, at least at first, each martial art would stay within its cultural group, i.e. Okinawans would only teach Karate to other Okinawans, while Filipinos would only teach their arts to other Filipinos.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s some interesting events transpired that may have been extremely significant to modern day Kempo in North America.

First, a series of Okinawan Karate experts arrived in Hawaii to teach their art. (Click here for more details.) These included Kentsu Yabu in 1927, Choki Motobu in 1932 (although he was detained by INS and only trained one person during his short stay), Mizuho Mutsu and Kamesuke Higaonna in 1933 and finally Chojun Miyagi in 1934.

Thomas Miyashiro, born in Hawaii to Okinawan parents, trained in Karate with an Okinawan immigrant by the name of Kuniyoshi. Later, he trained with Motobu, Mutsu and Higaonna during their visits to Hawaii. He continued teaching for some years after their departure.

Also, in 1929 Henry Okazaki, the founder of Danzan Ryu Jujutsu, began teaching Jujutsu in Honolulu. In 1936 he built his own gym in Honolulu which served as his Jujutsu Dojo. Most of the martial arts training at this time was still being done very informally, or at the most as part of a club that would run its classes at a local YMCA or other such establishment. Okazaki's school was one of the first instances of a martial arts school operating in its own space. Okazaki was also one of the very first to teach Jujutsu to non-Japanese. Other Japanese Jujutsu teachers would condemn him for this.

Naha-Te is the name of the particular type of Okinawan martial art that developed in the port town of Naha, the modern-day capital of Okinawa. The martial art that indigenously developed in Okinawa was called Te (”Hands”), and the continuous chinese influences that incorporated Chinese Boxing (Chuan Fa, nowadays known as Kung Fu) were eventually reflected by nameing the Okinawan martial arts To-De, “Chinese Hands”.

Credited for the early development of Naha-Te is Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915). Kanryo Higaonna’s students include Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953), the founder of Goju-Ryu Karate and Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952), the founder of Shito-Ryu Karate.

Early Karate History: Shuri-Te

Shuri-Te is the name of the particular type of Okinawan martial art that developed in the Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa. One of the early Okinawan masters, To-De Sakugawa (1733-1815) is credited as being one of the initial importers of Chinese martial arts to Okinawa, in particular to Shuri, where he started the development of the Shuri-Te style of Okinawan martial arts.

Sakugawa had a student named Sokon Matsumura, who in turn taught Ankoh Itosu, who was destined to become a great martial artist and teacher in the 19th century, who introduced the practice of To-De, as the Okinawan martial arts were called, to the Okinawan school system. Ankoh Itosu’s contribution to To-De was the emphasis of Kata and its practical application, called Bunkai.

Many students of Ankoh Itosu became significant figures in the early development of Karate.
Amongst Itosu’s students are Gichin Funakoshi (1867-1957), who later moved to Japan and founded
Shotokan Karate, and Kenwa Mabuni (1890-1954), combined aspects of Naha-Te and Shuri-Te, also moved to Japan, and founded Shito-Ryu Karate.