History of Kenpo

kenpo mitoseAny discussion of the history of Kenpo must begin with James Mitose. While the true history of James Mitose is a subject of debate a commonly believed beginnings of the Kenpo system started when he was in Hawaii in or around 1937.

As the story goes, he did begin teaching at the age of 19 or 20 at a self defense school he opened and stopped formally teaching at the school in 1946. During that time he signed four black belt certificates, one being Thomas Young, who was put in charge of his school after he stopped teaching. Two other black belts came from that club, one of which was William Chow, who began training under Mitose in the early 40’s according to some.

The full story of James Mitose is, as you can see, very much a mystery, there are a few versions of what he really studied, who he learned it from and who he in turn taught it to. Different people in different branches of Kenpo have different versions. Of all the different takes on his story, the following is pretty much believed by most anyone. It involves James Mitose and a man named William Chow and the evolution on Kenpo in the United States.

kenpoAround the beginning of World War II a young man named William Chow enrolled in one of Mitose’s Kenpo classes. For a brief period William Chow also lived with and worked with James Mitose as well and he spent most of his free time training with Mitose and hanging out at a Jiu-Jitsu training dojo owned by Henry S. Okazaki. Okazaki died in 1951 and his school and style was taken over by Sig Kufferath who had known James Mitose longer than anyone else in Hawaii at the time.

William Chow left the Mitose school in 1947 and started his own school, taking a few students with him. Eventually he became known to all that knew him as “Professor Chow”. The black belts he produced took the Kenpo they had learned and taught it to many others who spread Kenpo all over the United States and spawning many different branches of the system each being modified a little by each person that touched it. Professor Chow never created his own kata, and supposedly only taught the Naihanchi kata. While he did not believe kata to be an effective training method (arguably, depending on the history you read) some of his students did create kata which were Chow approved, he did not create them himself. That could explain why some Kenpo systems do not contain kata or very little.

Since James Mitose and Professor Chow popularized Kenpo in the United States, Kenpo has taken on such a wide range of variations to technique and teaching methods by so many notable people, including Adriano Emperado, John Leoning, Victor ‘Sonny’ Gascon, Nick Cerio, Ed Parker, Fred Villari and a few more, it’s hard to cover them all, or, it’s all readily available at other web sites. The only thing that almost every single branch or lineage of Kenpo has in common is that they all end up tracing themselves back to these men.

There continues to be a great deal of debate regarding who learned what from who, who signed whose black belt certificates, who promoted themselves, and the exact lineages of the various branches of the Kenpo tree. It’s quite likely the answers too all of these questions will never be found due to the shrouded nature of the history of the first men that are commonly thought to be the fathers of Kenpo.