Shorinji Kempo: More Than a Martial Art

You may have heard shorinji kempo mentioned as a legendary martial art or read about it in texts on judo and karate as an ancient Chinese-temple style. But shorinji kempo lives, and, what’s more, it’s growing.

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the May 1978 issue of Black Belt.

At a recent karate exhibition, a high-ranked black belt demonstrated his “art” to a college audience. On command, his assistant lunged with a front punch. “Now, see what I do,” the instructor said, grinning. He twisted and executed an eye gouge, then hurled the assistant to the floor and enthusiastically stomped on his solar plexus.

“We don’t mess around,” he boasted. Several members of the audience walked out.

The demonstration was typical of the terror-of-the-street attitude in much of the American martial arts. Maybe sports and self-defense are all Americans require of the arts. Perhaps the spirit of budo isn’t relevant anymore. But fluctuating attendance at dojo across the country indicates that something is missing. If philosophy is that missing element, then shorinji kempo may become popular.

Mystery Art

Shorinji kempo? You may have heard it mentioned as a legendary martial art or read about it in texts on judo and karate as an ancient Chinese-temple style. But shorinji kempo lives, and, what’s more, it’s growing. Thousands of Japanese practice it in more than 800 training halls. It’s spread through every major Japanese university and many of the nation’s high schools.

The popularity is growing in Europe, as well, and that leads to the question, When will it come to the United States?

Currently, only a handful of qualified instructors teach the art here. Ken Ohashi, a black belt, is one of them. He describes his relationship with the shorinji organization as “very close.” He makes regular trips back to the headquarters at Tadotsu, Japan, where they’re not quite sure how to promote it in America. 

Tight Control

“We are under strict instruction from headquarters about the promotion of shorinji kempo here,” he says. “They have been very active and aggressive in Japan but haven’t yet decided what to do in the United States. There are certain barriers in terms of culture.”

What barriers? Karate, judo and a host of other martial arts came to the United States and thrived. But a difference arises in philosophy. Shorinji kempo cannot be transplanted to America without its philosophy. America is a nation of fast food and sensationalized techniques. And Americans often lack patience. We like to be entertained. Are we ready for a heavily philosophical martial art?

Philosophy Included

The monks at the shorinji headquarters wonder. Yes, monks. Philosophy figures so powerfully in shorinji kempo that the Japanese government registered it as a religion. Doshin So, the founder of modern shorinji kempo, calls this philosophy Kongo Zen.

“Kongo Zen is a philosophy that turns inward as well as radiating outward,” he wrote. “[It] combines gentleness with hardness and compassion with strength.”

Shorinji kempo represents the physical, active aspects of Kongo Zen. To Doshin So, shorinji kempo isn’t just another empty-hand fighting art, but a whole way of life. Ohashi describes Kongo Zen as a “revitalization of fundamental, original ideas of Buddhism. It is rational and has nothing to do with mysticism or life after death.”

They believe that in an ever-changing universe, responsibility for man’s future lies with himself. He must be wise enough to know what’s right and strong enough to enforce it. The ideas relate directly to the precepts of Buddhism.

Indian Roots

Accordingly, Doshin So traces the philosophy and fighting techniques of shorinji kempo to India 5,000 years ago. They were imported into China and eventually institutionalized at the famous Shaolin Ssu. Shorinji means “Shaolin Temple” in Japanese.

The priests at Shorinji practiced kempo as a form of meditation. To them, it provided a means of spiritual training first and a method of self-defense second. For this reason, philosophy and meditation remain central to modern shorinji kempo. Without the ordering principles of Kongo Zen, it would be an empty gesture. The fighting techniques and teaching methods themselves express the philosophy.

“All the techniques are constructed so they can’t be used aggressively,” Ohashi says. “They are geared to getting out of the way of an attack and then controlling the attacker.”

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Submission techniques take precedence over killing techniques. Like in aikido, the wrist- and arm-twisting motions of shorinji kempo can paralyze an assailant with pain without inflicting permanent damage.

“We never talk about killing techniques,” Ohashi says. “Killing somebody is the extreme opposite to our philosophy. It may be necessary to control somebody, but it should never go beyond that. Shorinji kempo is communication. You can’t communicate with somebody once he’s dead.”

The teaching methods illustrate this aspect for others. Practice revolves around embu, or two-man kata. According to Doshin So, practice with a partner encourages respect and understanding for other people. Until you play the guinea pig and get on the receiving end of a technique, you’ll never fully understand its effect.

“If a student becomes aware that he can’t develop without a partner, then he will also realize that he can’t exist without others,” Ohashi says. 


Soon the shorinji kempo practitioners at Tadotsu may decide to take action and promote their art in the United States. If they do, they won’t abandon their philosophy along the way. Doshin So believes the philosophical aspect of shorinji kempo accounts for its immense popularity with Japanese youth. Perhaps they’re not so different from American youth.

Officials at the Shorinji headquarters will carefully watch Ohashi and other stateside shorinji kempo instructors to monitor American reaction to their art. If it’s positive, they’ll promote shorinji kempo heavily in America.

Many people seem satisfied with the state of the martial arts in the United States. Sports and self-defense are enough for most people. But for those who are turned off by fighting method alone and are looking for something more, shorinji kempo may be the answer.

Story by Mike Liu

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