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Kenpo & Karate

What is the difference between Karate and Kenpo?

The first teacher to publicly teach Kenpo in Hawaii was...

Chojun Miyagi in 1934. He used the term Kenpo to describe his art. He also used the terms Karate (China Hand) and Goju-Ryu.

We think of James Mitose as the founder of Kenpo in Hawaii. However, he did not teach in Hawaii until the 1940s. Kenpo, as an art, was practiced in Japan from the 1700's or so.

What Mitose taught resembles a mix of Karate and Ju Jutsu. Karate, at that time in Japan, was becoming simplified and was generally more linear than practiced in Okinawa. The simplified form of Karate did not have an extensive grappling and throwing element.

The older form of Karate in Okinawa did have an extensive grappling and throwing element, as did the Naha-Te arts. Goju-Ryu people like to grab before they strike. This is the old way.

It seems to me that Mitose taught a basic form of Karate which also incorporated Ju Jutsu or Kenpo (another name for Ju Jutsu-type arts). There was considerable exchange between Mitose's senior students and students of Henry Seishiro Okazaki, the leading Ju Jutsu instructor in Honolulu who had also learned Ryukyu Karate growing up in Hilo.

Adding basic Karate and Ju Jutsu together would have been a good way to approximate the old style of Karate. I also have indications that there was some form of exchange between Mitose and the early members of the Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, particularly Kamesuke Higashionna and Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, both of whom were direct students of Choki Motobu.

Mitose wrote an excellent book called "What Is Self-Defense (Kempo Jiu-Jitsu)." It was written in 1947, but published in 1953. It was the first karate book published in the United States. The techniques shown in the book are just as useful today as they were 60 years ago! By the way, Kamesuke Higashionna is shown in the book breaking roofing tiles. Choki Motobu is also shown.

So if you ask me what the difference is between Karate and Kenpo I would say that Kenpo is close to the old style of Okinawan Karate. What makes it unique is its application rather than kata emphasis. Kenpo generally starts from applications with kata being a secondary level of training. Karate generally does the opposite. However, I would say that old style Karate was taught like Kenpo, with the applications forming the basis for the kata. The only kata taught by Mitose, to my knowledge, was Naihanchi Shodan, a distinctly Okinawan kata.

I have great respect for the Kenpo arts and the pioneers of Kenpo in Hawaii. The Hawaii Karate Museum recently acquired a book on Kenpo. It was published in 1898. Kenpo enthusiasts should look for Kenpo history before Mitose, or even Miyagi, taught it here in Hawaii.

Karate is not better than Kenpo or vice versa. To me, they are the same thing.


Charles C. Goodin