“Kenpo is my family’s art.”
On December 30, 1916, in the rural North Kona district of Hawaii, a Japanese couple gave birth to a child they named Masayoshi Mitose. In the years that followed, he adopted the given name James and rose to fame as the man who brought kenpo to the West. Through his own words (in italics) and actions, we can trace the steps of this remarkable martial artist.
Born on a coffee plantation, James Mitose remained there until October 22, 1920, when he traveled with his sister to Japan and lived under the care of their grandfather.
“I was to take over the family business, including religious activity.”
Their destination was a village named Kumamoto-Higashi-Tomochi.
“I learned kenpo in a large temple on a mountain named Akenkai.”
For two years, he cleaned the temple, swept the floors and served the monks and members. Only then was he allowed to receive an education.
“The temple was serving as a school, in which we had some ritual of Indian style.”
Half of each day focused on religious activities, including the study of Sanskrit. The other half focused on kenpo.
“There are many grades or classes in the organization, starting from, say, archbishop or bishop [and] down to a monk. It is different from karate, different from black belts [and] brown belts.”
James Mitose had his head shaved in the tradition of Buddhist monks. He learned the Japanese interpretation of Buddhism, as well as Christianity and various religions from India and Tibet. He prayed to his ancestors and the Buddha so that all things would succeed. He studied the Bible and learned Greek philosophy. The philosophical aspect of kosho-ryu kenpo, the art he later founded, was heavily influenced by those studies, especially the edicts to do no harm and to blend in with the environment.
“There was a time in the temple [when I] planted a vegetable [and] killed earthworms by mistake, and I was not allowed to eat for three days. In Japan, [it] is known that if you kill anyone, it would for seven generations be suffering with the child. Everybody suffers, so you cannot do such things.”
Japanese stories were told to the youth. Those tales would later define the essence of kosho-ryu kenpo and the way it related its philosophical views to everyday living. The stories eventually found their way into James Mitose’s books, which he wrote to convey his message of peace.
James Mitose’s training at the temple included lessons in human anatomy, escaping patterns, energy collection, Japanese yoga and nutrition, as well as a body-contact art that revolved around pushing and pulling skills. He also learned balance, coordination, timing, and concepts of motion and movement.
“When there was a funeral in the village in the winter, I accompanied [the procession] as a pallbearer.”
The temple monks always strived to give back to the community. Because even the closest hospital was too far for the villagers to walk to, the monks often worked as doctors when illnesses arose. James Mitose became a natural-food specialist. He learned about herbs and used his skills to help the villagers. In the surrounding areas, he and his peers often traded manual labor for food and other goods.
“I was educated to take care of myself. Unless I work for the day, I should not eat. So rather than go out begging for the foods, I tried to raise foods myself, in group activities with other members of the organization. Except Archbishop, all others were engaged in such physical work, in the planting of rice, in the field, cooking the rice, chopping the firewood.”
A turning point came in James Mitose’s life when his training and dedication helped him transition from monk to minister at age 18. His mind began to wander from the temple, however, and his body soon followed.
“I was relieved from the group life and became free.”
For the next two years, he toured the countryside with others from the temple. He worked with local law enforcement and eventually came across a military exercise being conducted on the mountainside to ready citizens for battle.
“At the time, even the elementary schools were taught military training in preparation for war with America.”
Propaganda spread throughout Japan. Every citizen was ordered to take up arms and, if need be, defend the nation. Violation meant immediate prosecution and likely imprisonment. That, of course, stood in opposition to the monastic way of nonviolence.
“In our Law of Fists, we are not supposed to obey the order of even the emperor or the supreme commander of the military forces. My brother and I were against those military operations. Some were arrested. The people around me suggested I return to Hawaii as quickly as possible. Otherwise, I might be jailed [in] a …