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Kempo: The Ancient Ultimate Weapon

There is an old legend that tells of a rural Samurai, who once while intoxicated ran afoul of a Buddhist monk. The monk had no weapons and the Samurai insisted on a fight. The monk first placed his joined, prayerful hands up saying he had no desire to fight. The Samurai laughed and drew his sword. The monk then turned his open hands towards the warrior, saying I have no weapons, where is the honor of killing an unarmed opponent. Honor would be served by riding the earth of yet another cowardly monk, replied the Samurai. At that the monk smiled and covered his right fist with his left hand, stating that his weapons were always with him.

Naturally, the legend records that the monk then soundly defeated the Samurai, who then repented of his behavior and gave up drinking in order to become a disciple of the monk, adding the monk's martial art of Kempo to his training. It is from the teachings of Kempo brought by this legendary monk, and it is believed many others, that such Japanese skills as Torite, Muto, and Aiki, were developed. Many styles continued to call the skills Kempo, while others derived new names to express their relationship to the new master's martial arts.

Kempo – The Great Secret

Legend holds that to the Japanese martial artist, and the Okinawan ones as well, that Kempo was the great, most ancient, and powerful of all martial arts. Ancient scrolls and old masters that were of the Kempo lineage were sought by Japanese and Okinawan martial artists from which to learn. Even in modern times true Kempo, meaning the complete martial art with all aspects of techniques and skills, is thought to be the superior and most dangerous fighting art. In 1985, a report was done in Japan that stated that Kempo trained practitioners, both Japanese and Okinawan, were considered the most dangerous fighters, and as such were required to monitor their skills more heavily in that if they were in a self defense situation their skills would be considered as bearing a weapon.

The Kempo trained monks of ancient time, being of the Buddhist tradition, were under the directive to 'do no unnecessary harm' to any living creature. There are stories of monks who carried this to such an extreme that they would not even kill the bugs, which inhabited their temples, or even clothing. Yet Buddhism tends towards a strong principle of practicality, especially those of the Zen sect, and thus they knew that when life was threatened there were times when action must be taken.


This tradition is reputed to have begun with the great patriarch Bodhidharma. It is said that he was a Kshatriya, warrior, of India, who was trained in the fighting art of Vajra Mushti, diamond fist, and became the twenty-eighth patriarch of Buddhism. He then traveled to China to teach his version of Buddhism which emphasized meditation, which he felt was the real tradition of Shakyamuni Buddha. Ending up at the Shaolin monastery, he meditated strongly for nine years, noting the poor health and mental laxity of the acolytes. During this time he also noted that many bandits plied the Honan area, terrorizing the local villages, as well as, harassing the temple itself.

It is said that at the end of the nine years of meditation, Bodhidharma felt that the monks at the temple were ready to learn from him, having witnessed his strength and dedication to the faith. He is reputed to have said, something along these lines, 'Fighting and killing are wrong, but it is also wrong not to be able to defend yourselves. Though we do not believe in the weapons of war, in order to protect ourselves from those who would harm us, let us make each finger a knife, each hand a sword, and each arm a spear'.

Mushti + Dharma = Chuan Fa / Kempo

He then began to teach the monks movements based on the Vajra Mushti, at the early times being simply a method of using the fist, palm, and feet. It was originally called Shih Pa Lo Han Shou; or in Japanese, Juhachi Rakan Shu, 'the eighteen hands of an enlightened man'. Later it was called Chuan Fa, merging the ideas of the Vajra Mushti and the Dharma (or law of Buddhism). Thus Chuan/Mushti, meaning fist, and Fa/Dharma, meaning law. Chuan Fa, fist law, which in Japanese is Kempo.

There has been some criticism of the Bodhidharma legend, saying that while he in fact did found the concept of Zen, he had nothing to do with the establishment of the martial arts. Those who have this contention point out the fact that the two writings of Bodhidharma are merely exercise and philosophy books. But what must be realized is that Bodhidharma felt that the fighting skills were too dangerous to put down into manuals. Thus he wrote an exercise book, which could prepare the individual for martial arts training and a philosophy book to prepare a mind of peace to receive and not abuse the training. Bodhidharma changed the fighting art he had learned as an Indian warrior, Kshatriya, into a martial art. He did this by adding what is called Wu Te in Chinese or Butoku in Japanese, meaning peaceful virtue, to the training. In these early years of Shaolinssu Chuan Fa, Shorinji Kempo, training, all teaching was done personally from senior monk to junior monk, senior nun to novice nun. Nothing about the martial art was written down.

Shaolin and the Orient

After Shaolinssu Chuan Fa spread throughout China, and eventually to other Asian nations, manuals did in fact begin to be written down by monks, warriors, and martial families, but even then the masters of these arts felt that their skills were too dangerous for public dispersal, and these manuals were only for disciples or family members. In some cases only the actual successor to the headmaster of the system was allowed to see the ‘secret’ manual.

In Japan and Okinawa many different styles of Chugoku Kempo, Chinese martial arts, found their way to the Buddhist temples and eventually was spread from there to the warrior families. There was always a close relation between the temples of Japan and the warrior clans. Most of the martial arts of China to influence Japanese martial arts were those developed prior to the sixteenth century. This is why the five animal forms never influenced the Japanese arts. In Okinawa, however, both the early and later styles of Chinese martial arts were influential.

Shorinji Kempo, Shin Kempo, Rakan Kempo, Hokuha Kempo

Some of the systems believed to have been influential in the development of Japanese martial arts were; Shorinji (Shaolinssu) Kempo, Shin (Divine) Kempo, Rakan (Lo Han) Kempo, and Hokuha (Northern school) Kempo. These arts were basically palm and fist skills, and in these early years, without set patterns. Thus the Japanese monks and marital artists began to develop their own ways and methods of developing the skills, making them uniquely Japanese. Most of all the skills developed along the cultural lines of Japan, adapting them to deal with the Japanese methods of fighting. The Sohei, warrior monk's, Kempo was very comprehensive, since they never knew what kind of battle they might find themselves involved in. The Ashigaru, foot soldiers, developed strong throwing skills, since most strikes would have been ineffective against the light armor worn by their opponents. The Bushi, Samurai warriors, who fought in heavy armor, developed the skills of attacking the wrist, arms, and shoulder joints, which became the foundation of the Aiki arts. Kempo even developed into Ninjutsu in certain rural areas of Japan, especially in the Iga and Koga region.

Some of the Japanese Ryu which are supposed to have close ties to Chinese martial arts; Kosho Ryu Kempo, Koga Ryu Ninjutsu, Togakure Ryu Nimpo, Fukuno Ryu Jujutsu, Ryoi Shinto Ryu Jujutsu, Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu, and Kito Ryu Jujutsu. There are many others that either have a strong Chinese influence or actually developed from these styles.

Okinawa and Kempo

In Okinawa, there were three main points of influence; twelfth century, fourteenth century, and eighteenth/nineteenth centuries. Among the many Chinese styles to influence Okinawan martial arts development were; in the twelfth century, Shorinji Kempo, Shin Kempo, Rakan Kempo, and Shoreiji (southern temple style) Kempo. In the fourteenth century it is believed these styles were introduced; Tai (Korean) Kempo, Butosan (Wu Tang mountain) Kempo, and possibly, Rikugo (universal) Kempo.

It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that Okinawa became truly fascinated with the training being done in China. Up till that time, the Okinawans had practiced their indigenous art of Te, which had been influenced by Minamoto Bujutsu in the twelfth century, and the Kempo influences of China. The Okinawan practitioners began to do a more in-depth study of all martial arts, adding in the Jigen Ryu Bujutsu of the Satsuma clan and researching the current Chinese styles. Interestingly enough, while they studied each of the arts in depth, they never just adopted a style from another country, but rather picked what was useful and adapted it to suit their particular needs. The Chinese styles to influence the Okinawan martial arts at this time were, from the external styles; Goken (five animal form) Shorinji Kempo, Sekka (red spear) Kempo, Ko (tiger) Kempo, Ryu (dragon) Kempo, Hakutsuru (white crane) Kempo, Shi (snake) Kempo, Hyo (leopard) Kempo, Cho (long fist) Kempo, and Koke (Hung family) Kempo. The internal styles to influence Okinawan martial arts were; Taikyoku (Tai Chi) Kempo, Hakke (Pa Kua) Kempo, Hekikai (Pi Kua) Kempo, and Kei I (Hsing I) Kempo.

The external styles were the main influence of the Okinawan schools of; Shorin Ryu, Shorei Ryu, Okinawan Kempo Kai, Shorinji Ryu, and Kushin Ryu. While there is an underlying external influence on the following systems, they also have a strong influence from the internal schools of China; Goju Ryu, Uechi Ryu, and Hankonan Ryu. Finally there are several Ryu which are a balance between the external and internal schools, having elements of both lines of Okinawan development. These are; Isshin Ryu, Shito Ryu Karate, Tozan Ryu, and Mabuni Shito Ryu Kempo Karate. One final style, which merits supreme consideration, is Motobu Ryu, which preserves the ancient Minamoto influence of Aiki skills, along with all three internal Chinese elements, and all superior aspects of Okinawan martial arts development.

One point that has been glossed over is the reason why the Okinawans studied the Chinese and Japanese martial arts to such a high degree.  Some think it was to strengthen their martial art and make it more complete, but that is not the real reason.  Rather, the Okinawan warriors who protected envoys, protected the king, and acted as police officers, knew they’d likely face people trained in Chinese and Japanese martial arts to varying degrees.  They studied these arts in order to develop counters against them, following the admonition from Sonshi Heiho (Sun Tzu Art of War) which they learned as part of their Bumbu Ryodo, education and martial the two ways.

Sonshi Heiho said, ‘know yourself and know your enemy and you will win in a hundred battle, know only yourself and not your enemy and you will win fifty percent of the time, know neither yourself nor your enemy and you are doomed to defeat.’  With their superior knowledge, which was developed from years of experience by Okinawan Meijin (martial geniuses), they knew their ability and skill, thus they sought to know their enemy, by studying the styles they used, in order to be capable of defeating anyone they might face.

The Okinawa royalty who were put into position of leadership by the Japanese, after the takeover in 1609, were allowed to study Jigen Ryu Bujutsu, since the Japanese thought the Okinawan royal knew no martial arts, which the Okinawans encouraged them to believe.  When those who were trained by the Japanese used their martial art, the Japanese assumed they were good because of the Jigen Ryu.  Any other Okinawa warrior hid his knowledge and if he had to defend himself, he made the technique look like an accident, to keep the secret of Okinawan martial arts.

Okinawan Factions of Kempo and Japan

When Okinawan martial arts were first introduced to Japan, they were known as Kempo, which is one of the reasons that the Japanese originally gave the art so much credence. If an art was one of the Kempo lineage, then the Okinawans knew that the Japanese would give it serious consideration. Choki Motobu, Gichin Funakoshi, Kanbun Uechi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Kanken Toyama, all used the Japanese fascination with Kempo to help draw attention to their Okinawan martial arts.

Both Japanese and Okinawan practitioners of Kempo realized that they would possibly face the Katana (long sword), or the Wakizashi (short sword), and thus had defenses specifically designed to defend against these weapons. Another weapon that a Kempoka, practitioner, might have to face was the Bo, a typical weapon of the common man. The Kempo practitioner learned to use all the weapons that they might have to face, for to know the weapon, was to also know its weaknesses. Then there was the fact that once engaged in a battle, if possible the Kempoka would take the weapon away from the attacker, for future use, if there were more than one attacker.

Kempo: Combat Effectiveness, Technical Proficiency, Superior Ability

Ever since the first Kempo trained monk battled an attacker, the legend of the temple martial arts began to grow. Kempo has a rich legacy of combat effectiveness, technical proficiency, and superior ability. Tall tales grew up around the practice of the Kempo masters. The secret skills of the Yamabushi (mountain ascetics), Sohei (warrior monks), and Tengu (goblin, heavenly messenger, literally, heaven's dogs), were sought by many martial artists in the hopes that through the special skills they gained they would become invincible. The legendary beginnings of many Ryu are steeped in the stories of masters meeting outstanding masters of esoteric or divine nature, and learning the Kempo skills they had to offer.

Yet the real secret of Kempo was always in the fact that it inspired in the practitioner a willingness to be dedicated to hard and consistent training. And this is the lesson modern practitioners need to learn today. If anyone would be a great martial artist, they must be willing to put in the hard work and daily practice that is a part of all the stories of the great Kempo masters. Regardless of the source of the Kempo style, the lesson always came down to dedicated practice. So be like the masters of old and practice hard, seeking the secrets of Kempo.

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