SHORT HISTORY - KEMPO KARATE


The Prehistory of Asian Martial Arts – India and China

Bodhidharma
Bodhidharma

Kalaripayattu is widely regarded as the oldest Asian martial art. It involves a combination of strikes, kicks, grappling, and weaponry techniques. Some of the earliest written references to this art form are several thousand years old, and it is still practiced in India. The Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (Jap. Daruma) traveled around 500 BC from India to the Shaolin Monastery in China to spread his own variant of Buddhism, Zen Buddhism. According to legend, the monks he encountered were in extremely poor physical condition, and he is said to have imparted his martial arts knowledge to them. This martial art, characterized by intricate forms and physical conditioning exercises, was further developed over generations by the monks and became known as Shaolin Kung Fu.

Ng Mui
Ng Mui

In the 1700s, the Shaolin Monastery was burned to the ground by the Chinese imperial forces. One of the few survivors, the warrior nun Ng Mui (who in certain legends was called Fang Qiniang before entering the monestary), is said (according to Chinese myth) to have further developed Shaolin Kung Fu into both Bai Hei Kung Fu, which mimics the movements of a white crane, and Wing Chun Kung Fu, known for its close-range combat techniques and rapid strikes. Wing Chun Kung Fu would be passed down through generations in China until Ip Man and Bruce Lee popularized and spread the art form to Hong Kong and the USA. Shaolin Kung Fu and Bai Hei Kung Fu would spread to a small island kingdom off the coast of Japan.

The Beginnings of Kempo Karate – Okinawa, Japan and Korea

Anko Itosu
Anko Itosu

The Ryukyu Kingdom wasfor a very long time a self-governing state in the Okinawa archipelago, just off Japan. The earliest written sources available mention that a Chinese master (likely in Shaolin Kung Fu) named Kwang Shang Fu (Jap. Kusanku) demonstrated his skills to the local population in the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 18th century, and that another Chinese master (in Bai Hei Kung Fu) named Liu Long Gong trained several Okinawan students. Okinawan Te and Shurite, known for their fast and powerful strikes, emerged from a mix of these Kung Fu influences and native Okinawan combat techniques. The Te master Arakaki Seisho would go on to act as a teacher to various future masters of Kempo Karate. The Shurite master Anko Itosu would later systematize and adapt the fighting form for youth, and he also trained masters such as Gichin Funakoshi (who also studied under Seisho) and Choki Motobu (both Funakoshi and Motobu used the term Kempo Karate).

Gichin Funakoshi
Gichin Funakoshi

Kempo Karate, combining linear and circular movements with an emphasis on strikes and kicks, then spread to Japan via masters like Funakoshi, and from there to Korea via pioneers such as Hwang Kee and Lee Won-Kuk, where it was blended with indigenous combat techniques. "Korean Karate," which includes a variety of high and spinning kicks, is also referred to as Tang Soo Do, Soo Bahk Do, or Tae Kwon Do. At around the same time in Japan the old Samurai fighting arts had a new renaissance with Takeda Sokaku teaching Daito Ryu Aiki Ju-Jitsu (which would spread to Korea under the name of Hapkido via Choi Yong-Sul) and the Ju-Jitsu master Jigoro Kano formulating his art of Kodokan Judo. Both the Korean arts discussed and both of the Japanese arts discussed would find their way to the USA and around the world.

Modern Kempo Karate Emerges – Hawaii and Mainland USA

William K. S. Chow
William K. S. Chow

Choki Motobu visited Hawaii for an extended period to spread Kempo Karate, and his students Thomas Miyashiro and Kamesuke Higaonna in turn trained many students in Hawaii. During this time, James Mitose, who was heavily influenced by Miyashiro and Higaonna, opened a self-defense school in Hawaii. Mitose's approach included practical self-defense techniques and traditional forms. William K. S. Chow was one of Mitose's primary students, and he trained legendary Kempo masters such as Ed Parker Sr. and Adriano D. Emperado. Daniel K. Pai, a master of his family's own style – Pai Lum Kung Fu, which includes fluid movements and animal-inspired techniques, learned from both the Parker and Emperado traditions. 

Ed Parker Sr. and Daniel K. Pai
Ed Parker Sr. and Daniel K. Pai

Over time, Parker developed American Kenpo Karate, emphasizing rapid strikes and fluid transitions, Emperado created Kajukenbo, a hybrid system incorporating striking, grappling, and weapons, and Pai established Bok Leen Pai Kenpo. Eventually, Parker and Pai moved to mainland USA, and their respective Kempo variants spread throughout the country. Over time, more adaptations of Kempo Karate emerged in the USA, influenced by other martial arts such as Ju-Jitsu (both Korean and Japanese variations), known for its grappling and submission techniques, Kung Fu (and other Chinese arts), with its diverse range of forms and styles, and Karate (of Korean descent), focusing on striking and discipline. Some of these styles of Kempo Karate eventually spread to Sweden, including through Tommie Petersson.