James Mitose: Martial Arts Master, or Con, Artist
By Kenn Relf[
Those who study the art of Kenpo and other art forms will have undoubtedly heard of the man who brought Kenpo to the West. His name is legendary if not only for the art he taught, but the controversy that surrounded him in life, as well as in death. It has been over a quarter of a century since the passing of James M. Mitose. For some, his skills will live on through his teachings stemmed from his family art. For others, he was something and somebody else all together.
As the story goes, James Mitose was born in Hawaii on December 30th 1916. He was sent to Japan at the age of four years old to learn a way of life that would prepare him to become the 21st Headmaster of Kosho Shorei Ryu Kenpo. In Japan, James Mitose would spend 15 years studying his family art before returning to his birthplace. Upon returning to Hawaii, James Mitose would share his family art with people from all races. He would organize the Official Self Defense Club at the Beretania Mission in Honolulu. In 1953, He published a text called “What Is Self Defense?”, a book that today is still considered by some to be the first book written about Kenpo in English. James Mitose would soon after retire from teaching, and eventually move to Mainland USA. From the early days at the Beretania Mission until today, Kenpo has blossomed into hundreds of schools and thousands of Practioners throughout the world. Of course, not all believe that Kenpo began in this manner, and that James Mitose himself was an opportunist who created his own art form on nothing more than instructions he pulled from unarmed self-defense books and little training he may have incurred in Hawaii.
There been claims through out the years following James Mitose’s death, that he never really went to Japan at all. Internet sites and talk forums dismiss his training that James Mitose never learned or taught Japanese Kenpo, but rather an art form that resembled Okinawan Karate. Others have even went as far as to place James Mitose’s first book “What is Self Defense” under a magnifying lens, and denounce it as nothing more but a reproduction of Choki Motobu’s Kenpo Gaisetsu, as well as Mizhuo Mutso’s Karate Kenpo. Are any of these claims true? Did James Mitose train in Japan a he told the world, or was the whole thing created out by one person who never left Hawaii?
Hawaii-1937 Government documents reveal
Upon his return from Japan to Honolulu, Immigration Services questioned James Mitose about his time in Japan. He would stay in Japan until he was 20 years of age. James Mitose traveled abroad on the SS Tatsuta Maru with various family members, and was listed on the outgoing manifest on the Shiny sailing from Honolulu dated on October 22, 1920. This would prove that James Mitose did indeed travel from Japan to Hawaii, and that any claims he never left the Islands are completely false. James Mitose indeed stayed for 17 years in Japan.
So what was it that James Mitose taught? Was is Okinawan Karate as some proclaim, or was it a family art that has lasted until then over 21 generations?
In his lifetime, James Mitose had written two separate books. The first text, “What is Self Defense?” looked to the average person as another unarmed combat textbook. His second book, “What Is True Self Defense?” took a very philosophical approach to self- defense. A third entitled ”In Search Of Kenpo” was a collection of Japanese stories compiled after Mitose’s death.
James Mitose was against showing the world combative arts, and was in disagreement as to his first books’ structure He felt pressured into having it arranged the way it was because the world was at war, and the publisher wanted a book filled with photos. What was amazing about it was that Professor Mitoses’ art was marbleized throughout the pages in places one might least expect to find it. In fact, James Mitose would display his family art in both of his books in places where only the most dedicated of students are willing to look.
Living in Japan for many years, James Mitose’s training wouldn’t conform to any particular style in the conventional sense. He had stated that that his family art wasn’t karate at all, but a remote ancestor of Shorinji Kempo. In fact, Mitose would study various religions along with Greek philosophy, nutrition, yoga and energy collection escaping patterns, and a body contact art system of self-defense under a heirchial tiered system. He had lived at a temple and performed regular duties as well as farmed rice fields in order to raise money and survive. James Mitose would become minister of his religion and eventually leave the temple. One major point to bring up here is that until James Mitose started teaching in Hawaii, outsiders were never taught this system.
Back in Hawaii, he began to teach his art because he felt a need to share it with his birth nation. James Mitose would find a way to teach his art so those could benefit from his teachings. Professor Mitose would say in both of his books this phrase;
“ When in Rome, do as the Roman’s do…” and took this meaning literally.
He would travel to various training clubs throughout Hawaii and took notice of their movements and techniques. Mitose would look for the similarities in the art forms, and blend his teachings with their structure. James Mitose would adopt the gi and belt system, and opened up his club to the general public. At first, he called his art Shorinji Kempo, pulling many elements from this style into his teachings. He later called it Kenpo Jiu Jitsu feeling that this name would blend his art with those currently teaching similar styles. He would eventually settle on the name he called his family art: Kosho Ryu Kenpo. Most idealists held captive in their own beliefs could look at Mitose’s training methods as Okinawan Karate. Remember that James Mitose’s training wasn’t an art form in the traditional sense. He was taught to blend in with his environment, for which he did very well. Mitose tried to communicate to his students the values of his family’s art and to understand the philosophies of Kosho Ryu. James Mitose brought his art to the west because he believed that his teachings would eventually lead people to peace by assisting others in the struggle against crime. In the end, he felt that the West wasn’t ready to take the next step, and that most students wanted to learn how to kick and punch. He would retire from teaching, and soon after headed for Mainland USA.
James Mitose would continue in his religious studies in Mainland USA through correspondence classes, and eventually led him to his ordination as a Christian minister. He would selectively train throughout the rest of his life, and create what would be his final publication. Entitled “ What Is True Self Defense?” the text would be a continuation from his first book. Mitose wanted to share with the world the true meaning of self-defense. His writings would lend itself to the philosophies of Kosho Ryu, and include various exercises of moving meditation, escaping patterns, yoga, and push/pulling peace exercises. Sadly, James Mitose died the very year his last book was published.
If indeed Mitose never left the island as some skeptics say, then he would have easily been recognized by anyone living in Hawaii at that time. Professor Mitose strategically placed key elements of his family art throughout the pages of his books for the benefit of serious students wanting to learn Kosho Ryu, a task not easily done. Those who are in disbelief about James Mitose’s heritage must first look outside of their own style, keep an open mind to Mitose’s own words and see what he was trying to convey. Kosho Ryu is a complete system of self-defense that has stood the test of time, and will continue to do so for future generations.
From the earliest days at the Beretania Mission to the schools throughout the world today, James Mitose will always be remembered as the man who brought Kenpo to the West. So why is it that others take the opportunity to dismiss any lineage connection of James Mitose and Kosho Ryu in Japan? In his own words, it James Mitose couldn’t be said any better;
Ignore the nick-pickers. It is not wisdom they seek, but rather seek to attract attention away from wisdom and to them by creating artificial arguments and disharmonies.
Government Documents and various photo
Immigration Board of Inquiry dated 1937 shows James Mitose’s departure and return from Japan.—can be expanded for clarity
Birth registration examiner’s report on James Mitose based on file records(4368/9249)—previous document above (courtesy San Jose Kenpo)
Advertisement of the Official Self Defense Club- note listed as kempo ju Jitsu
Add in photos of mitose training to ullistrate book as technique oriented, yet art marbleized throughout it’s pages hidden in author’s notes, stories, and suttle moves in photos
Mitose activity in Hawaii could have readily been seen by all.