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History of Okinawan Hawaiian Kempo Karate-do

Kempo History
by Ken Warner
Updated November, 2004

Kempo history dates back many thousands of years. Kempo history has its roots in Asia - China, Japan and Okinawa. But Kempo's history as far as North America is concerned hit a major turning point in Hawaii in the early 20th century.

Evidence suggests that the first systematized methods of fighting came into existence in India as early as 2,000 B.C. It is also possible that links existed between these ancient Indian forms and the system known as Pankration which was practiced by the ancient Greeks. Historians have documented the existence of ancient trade routes between Greece and India. As a result of this contact, each culture had the power to influence the other. This influence may well have included the transfer of some martial arts methods.

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James Mitose


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.

Empty hand systems of martial arts in Japan were all based on throws and grappling. Japanese Samurai familes developed these empty handed fighting techniques side by side with their armed combat methods. Any empty hand combat they used had to be effective against a warrior wearing full armor. Clearly, striking and kicking techniques would not have worked under such circumstances. While there were some systems called "Kempo," which had some sort of influence from Chinese martial arts, 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.

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James Mitose

James Mitose remains the one truly enigmatic figure in all the history of Kempo. James Masayoshi Mitose was born on December 30th, 1916 in Kaelakekua, North Kona Hawaii. In 1942, soon after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, he opened the "Official Self Defense Club" in Honolulu, Hawaii. The classes took place in a variety of locations such as gyms and churches.

Although Mitose's martial arts background remains quite controversial and somewhat mysterious, most likely he trained in Okinawan Kempo or Karate with Thomas Miyashiro.

Click here for a detailed analysis of James Mitose's martial arts background.

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I must give enormous credit to Bruce Corrigan for many of the details I have included surrounding the history of Adriano Emperado, John Leoning, Walter Godin, Sonny Gascon, George Pesare, Nick Cerio and the history of "Shaolin Kempo." Prior to my contact with Corrigan, I had figured out our history going back only as far as George Pesare, and going forward from James Mitose only as far as Adriano Emperado. For years I could not connect Pesare to Emperado. Corrigan gave me all the information about Gascon, Leoning and Godin, and their connection to Pesare. He also filled out many of the details I had been missing regarding the roles Cerio and Emperado played in our history.

1942 At the age of 25, James Mitose started the "Official Self Defense Club" and began teaching his art to Americans in Hawaii. He did not open a full-time school, rather he taught classes at local gyms and churches in Honolulu. He may have personally promoted only four people to Black Belt. Al Tracy suggests there is evidence that he may have promoted more.

1942-1944 William Chow (age 28-30) began training with James Mitose in his Kempo Jujutsu style in Hawaii. Despite many stories to the contrary, Chow only ever trained in Kempo and possibly Danzan Ryu Jujutsu (at Henry Okazaki's Dojo - at the very least he spent a lot of time there), never in any Chinese Kung Fu style. Neither his father, grandfather, nor his uncle ever trained in or taught Kung Fu. This story was apparently fabricated by Ed Parker. Al Tracy goes so far as to claim that no Chinese would even have considered training William Chow in Kung Fu because he was not pure-blood Chinese.

1946 James Mitose turned over the teaching of his classes to Thomas Young, one of his earliest students. Thomas Young then promoted William Chow to Black Belt that same year - Chow's certificate bears the signature of Thomas Young, not that of James Mitose.

1946 Adriano Emperado began training in Kempo at the age of 20.

1947 By this time William Chow had taken over the teaching of all the classes at the Official Self Defense Club.

1947-1949 Adriano Emperado (in his early 20s), along with several other martial artists (the notorious "Black Belt Society,") first formulated the system of Kajukenbo. This system used Mitose's Kempo as the backbone of the system, but also included Korean Karate (from Peter Choo), Okazaki's Danzan Ryu Jujutsu (from Joe Holck), Sekeino Jujutsu (from Frank Ordonez), Sil-lum Pai Kung Fu (from Clarence Chang) and Escrima (from Emperado himself). The system was designed to be the ultimate in self defense. While they were creating the system members of the Black Belt Society would intentionally get into fights in the Paloma settlement of Hawaii where they lived in order to decide which techniques were good enough to include in the system. The system consisted of self defense techniques that were created from the Kempo, Judo, Jujutsu and Kung Fu systems, forms that were derived from Karate and others that were created by the Society and originally known as the "Paloma sets," and knife and stick fighting from Escrima.

While William Chow did most of the actual teaching by the time Emperado began training in Kempo, Chow was still teaching the Kempo of  James Mitose. Chow would ultimately go on to formulate his own system, and make major changes and additions, but this did not take place until after the birth of Kajukenbo. Thus Emperado used the Kempo of James Mitose, not that of William Chow, as the backbone of the Kajukenbo system.

1948 John Leoning begins training in Kempo at the age of 21. He would go on to earn his Black Belt under William Chow.

1949 Chow opened his own club at the local YMCA and was no longer teaching for James Mitose. Emperado taught many of the actual classes for Chow, just as Chow had done for Mitose. Many of Mitose's former students left to train instead with Chow.

1949 Ed Parker began training in Kempo with William Chow. Although our lineage does not come through Ed Parker, this event is extremely significant as Parker would go on to found American Kenpo, one of the major branches of Kempo/Kenpo taught in North America today.

1950 Adriano Emperado and his brother opened the Kajukenbo Self Defense Institute. Many of Chow's students, including John Leoning, would leave Chow to train instead with Emperado in his new Kajukenbo style.

1950 Victor "Sonny" Gascon began training in Kajukenbo at the age of 17 with John Leoning. (John Leoning played Master Te in the movie, "Kung Fu.") Leoning was a Black Belt under Professor Chow who left Chow soon after Emperado did. Much of Gascon's early Kajukenbo training was "informal," and took place in Leoning's back yard. Gascon had already trained in Judo and Jujutsu from 1945-48. He joined the Air Force in 1952, which temporarily took him out of training. In 1953, however, he was stationed back in Hawaii and resumed his training.

1956 Sonny Gascon moved to Pasadena, California at the age of 23. John Leoning followed suit soon thereafter and opened a school in the Los Angeles area. When Gascon and Leoning moved to the mainland U.S. in 1956 they took with them the knowledge of Kajukenbo Black Belts, and the early Kajukenbo of Adriano Emperado would form the starting point from which they would make their modifications.

1958 Sonny Gascon began teaching in California at John Leoning's school. Leoning had already begun modifying the system, and these modifications continued after Gascon joined him. The forms now known as 1 Kata, 3 Kata and 5 Kata were among the earliest creations in the system. The modification process took place over a period of years and it is uncertain what was created exactly when, and in what order. However it is commonly acknowledged that 1, 3 and 5 Kata came first, and then the combinations, and then 2 and 4 Kata.

1961 Sonny Gascon opened his own school in Burbank, CA. Due to "politics," Gascon left behind the name of Kajukenbo and called his system Karazenpo Go Shinjutsu. Gascon enlisted the aid of his brother-in-law, Walter Godin, in further modifying the system. By 1963 at the latest the system included 1-5 Kata, combinations 1-12 and combinations 13, 22 and 26, although these were not numbered. These forms and fighting techniques were all based on Kajukenbo material. The Katas were combinations of the shorter Kajukenbo forms and the combinations were based on the Kajukenbo punch defenses.

1961 George Pesare began training with Sonny Gascon in California.

1963 George Pesare opened his school in Rhode Island. This event is extremely significant because all Kempo schools in New England that are not affiliated with the Parker or Tracy systems of Kempo can trace their roots to this one, single event. Pesare was the man single-handedly responsible for bringing Kempo from California to New England.

1963 Nick Cerio began training with George Pesare. He had already had some limited training in Judo and Tae Kwon Do.

1966 Nick Cerio earned his Black Belt and opened his own school. The system he was teaching included 1-5 Kata, 6 Kata which George Pesare created, Statue of the Crane, which Pesare added to the system and was adapted from an Okinawan Karate form called, "Rohai", and combinations 1-13, 22 and 26. Nick Cerio did not learn Escrima with Pesare, and never did serious training in the Filipino arts. Whether Pesare included Escrima in his early days is open to debate, but its transmission in our Kempo lineage definitely did not go beyond him.

1967 Nick Cerio first met Professor Chow in Hawaii. Chow promoted Cerio to Shodan in Chinese Kempo. Over time Cerio added to the system 1, 3, 4 and 5 Pinan, which came from Mas Oyama's Kyokushin Kai Karate system, 2 Pinan which Cerio created, and Hon Suki which he learned from Bill Chun, Sr., who was a senior student of Professor Chow. Cerio also added the rest of the 26 combinations from techniques he learned from Professor Chow.

1967 Fred Villari began training with Nick Cerio.

1969 Fred Villari earned his Black Belt from Nick Cerio.

1971 Nick Cerio went to Hawaii to train with William Chow. At this time Chow awarded Cerio his 5th Degree Black Belt. Cerio would go on to formulate his own system. Up until this time he taught Karazenpo as he had learned it from George Pesare, with some modifications and additions.

1971 Fred Villari left Nick Cerio and started his own school in Dedham, MA. By this time he was a 2nd Degree Black Belt. He initially called his organization "United Studios of Self Defense" but changed it to "Fred Villari's Studios of Self Defense" after a lawsuit in 1978. Larry Mangone was a fellow student and friend of Villari at the time and left with with him. By this time the system included 1-6 Kata, 1-5 Pinan, Statue of the Crane, Hon Suki and the combinations up to 26.

1971-1988 Fred Villari formulated his system of Shaolin Kempo and proliferated the system through Fred Villari's Studios of Self Defense. By 1975 he added all the combinations from 27 to 50, and the forms, Two Man Fist Set, Sho Tun Kwok, Nengli South, Nengli North, Swift Tigers, Invincible Wall and Five Dragons Face the Four Winds. Then some time between 1982 and 1987 he added the remainder of the combinations from 51 to 108, and the forms, Branches of the Falling Pine, Lost Leopard, Tai Sing Mon, 1000 Buddhas and Snake. Finally, some time after 1991 he added the forms Immortal Monkey and Wounded Tigers. Swift Tigers is a form Nick Cerio created that he called "Circle of the Panther." Two Man Fist Set came from the Parker system. No one knows for sure where the rest of this material all came from. In all likelihood, Villari made it all up. Some people say that Fred Villari worked with Nick Cerio to put together combinations 27 through 39. This may be possible - according to Alan Cunningham and others, Villari and Cerio did continue to work together to some extent for the first few years after Villari went on his own. But regardless of where it all came from, this material is unique to the Villari system and its splinter organizations.

Until 1971 the material up to Black Belt comprised the whole of the Karazenpo system. The Black Belt Society originally formulated Kajukenbo to be the most effective self defense system in the world. They were not interested in creating a system that anyone would study for a lifetime. When Sonny Gascon began teaching in 1958 he did so with the knowledge of a First Degree Black Belt because that was all that existed. Pesare, Cerio and Villari each also began teaching with the same amount of knowledge. Fred Villari added all the forms and techniques beyond First Degree Black Belt in his system. Cerio, Pesare, Gascon and Emperado would do the same with their systems.

1975 Steve DeMasco began training with Larry Mangone in Brockton, MA. He had already had experience in boxing and also trained with George Mattson in Uechi-Ryu Karate for roughly two years. DeMasco claimed he started his Kempo training in 1973. However, Al Cunningham, who also trained with Larry Mangone, states that DeMasco began in 1975, and in fact Cunningham was DeMasco's instructor until the rank of Brown Belt.

1982 Steve DeMasco earned his 4th Degree Black Belt from Fred Villari and his instructor certification in Praying Mantis Kung Fu.

1985 Steve DeMasco became the regional director for the Villari system in Connecticut and was promoted to 5th Degree Black Belt.

1986 Ken Warner began his Kempo training in East Haven, CT in late August of this year.

1988 Charlie Mattera left Fred Villari and started his own chain of schools called United Studios of Self Defense. This sparked a chain reaction. Most of the top Black Belts in the Villari system would follow suit. Fred Bagley, Cal Carozzi, Jimmy Bryant, Bob Nohelty and ultimately Steve DeMasco would all leave Fred Villari.

1988 Steve DeMasco earned his 6th Degree Black Belt.

1989 Ken Warner established the Kempo club at Wesleyan University in September and began teaching on his own.

1990 Ken Warner earned his Black Belt from Steve DeMasco while DeMasco was still part of the Villari system in July of this year.

1991 Steve DeMasco earned his 7th Degree Black Belt. This would be the last promotion he would ever receive from Fred Villari.

1992 Ken Warner earned his 2nd Degree Black Belt. This took place in October of 1992 while Master DeMasco was still part of the Villari system.

1993 Steve DeMasco left Fred Villari and started the East Coast operations of United Studios, becoming partners with Charlie Mattera. This split took place in January. DeMasco was a part of Mattera's operation in name only. He had secured an agreement with Mattera giving him total autonomy. This was especially true of DeMasco's martial arts. He was far superior to Mattera in martial arts ability, and never trained with Mattera. DeMasco did not add any material to the system. He eliminated the material that Villari taught beyond 4th Degree Black Belt. Villari claimed the advanced forms in the system were Shaolin forms. No one knows where the forms actually came from but they are not Shaolin Kung Fu forms. DeMasco had trained in several systems of Kung Fu, including the Praying Mantis system with Pui Chan and the Black Tiger system with Tak Wah Eng. He did not add Kung Fu to his Kempo system but rather made the Kung Fu forms available to students in the system. DeMasco dramatically changed the way the material is done. He added many advanced techniques for generating power in punches and kicks and also made the Jujutsu aspects of the system much more powerful by always controlling the spine directly.

1993 Ken Warner graduated from Wesleyan University in May. Ken began teaching at the brand new United Studios in North Haven, CT, which served as Master DeMasco's headquarters and opened in July. The United Studios in Glastonbury, CT opened in August. North Haven and Glastonbury were the first two studios to open after Steve DeMasco left Fred Villari.

1995 In April of this year Ken Warner earned his 3rd Degree Black Belt.

1995 Master DeMasco was recognized as an 8th Degree Black Belt by Master Tak Wah Eng. Master Tak Wah Eng also promoted Master DeMasco to Mastery Level in Black Tiger Kung Fu.

1997 Ken Warner left the North Haven United Studios in July and went to teach in Glastonbury.

1997 In December the Shaolin Temple recognized Master DeMasco as a 9th Degree Black Belt.

1998 In January Ken Warner earned his 4th Degree Black Belt.

2000-Present Ken Warner left United Studios on October 1st of 2000 and ultimately established Evolution Karate. Ken earned his 5th Degree Black Belt in March of 2004. He completely overhauled the combinations being taught in the system, eliminating everything that did not follow the Seven Principles of Kempo, combining some techniques and introducing a handful of new techniques. This overhaul has resulted in a much more potent and efficient set of 18 combinations, the first 12 being taught on the way up to Black Belt, and the remaining 6 at Black. In addition, he discarded all the forms being taught at Black Belt level except Honsuki, and created two new forms, Honsuki Nidan and Honsuki Sandan that embody the advanced movement taught at the advanced levels of Black Belt