Kempo History Q & A


Congratulations; you’re learning Shaolin Kempo, a traditional Chinese style of martial arts. So, then, why do we call our instructors Sensei, the Japanese word for teacher? There are dozens of little details like this scattered throughout your training, and at first they seem so contradictory that you start to wonder, how ‘traditional’ is what you’re learning, really? Once you dig a little deeper, though, you’ll realize that in one way or another, martial arts tradition is at the center of everything we do here.


So… is our style Chinese or Japanese?
The short (and typically confusing) answer here is yes. Because of our commitment to having an updated and up-to-date self-defense system, over the years we’ve picked up a lot of things from both Chinese and Japanese martial arts. And because the traditions behind the movements are an important part of the mental aspects of the martial arts, we’ve adopted a broad range of those as well. That’s why even though our logo says Shaolin and we maintain a strong affiliation with the Shaolin temple (in China), you’ll hear Japanese words like dojo and sensei, and you’ll learn Japanese basics before being introduced to more typically Shaolin movements. Though martial arts tradition is important to us, aim to teach traditional martial arts in the most comprehensive way we know, which means embracing the best of Japanese and Chinese systems.


Kempo or kenpo?
Really, either. The Japanese language uses the same character for n and m (just to put it simply so we don’t have a language lesson take over this post, please don’t come to me later claiming that you’re a mimja), so it doesn’t actually matter which way you choose to spell it; either way, it’s the same word. The whole confusion started when James Mitose, who brought Kempo over to America from Japan in protest for Pearl Harbor, published a book about kempo. Mitose’s editor, confusing kempo with a similarly spelled Japanese name, published it with kempo spelled as kenpo. Although it’s really a minor change, the debate has been raging ever since.


Why do we visit the Shaolin temple?

In general, when we think of martial arts, we think of Asia. For most of us, we think of China specifically. China has long been held up as the birthplace of the martial arts, the land where the beginnings of our various systems took root and grew into the thriving culture that we know today. And of course, the strongest and longest lasting connection we have to the origins of martial arts lies in the Shaolin temple. Unfortunately, none of our instructors are or have been Shaolin monks. Though United Studios has produced and supported very impressive martial artists, none of them quite match the level of skill that a monk’s dedication brings. That’s a large part of the reason we go to train there periodically — and suggest that our students do, too. It’s a rare opportunity to push yourself the way monks do, and your martial arts skill will thrive because of it.


How did we get all these weird weapons?

Of course, each weapon comes with its own unique history. But if you’re wondering why so many of traditional martial arts weapons –nunchaku, tonfas, sais– used to be farming tools, the answer centers around Okinawa. Due to the various quirks in travel and weather patterns, Okinawa became the kind of place a lot of travelers ended up. Which, in a time when martial arts was thriving in China and Japan, meant that many different styles also found their way to the Okinawan people. But in 1470, the Okinawan king outlawed weapons. Instead of giving up on their martial arts entirely, the Okinawan people chose instead to adapt their everyday items — primarily farming tools — to suit their needs. This tradition turned formerly harmless farm tools into the skilled and lethal weapons they’re known as today. Granted, using these weapons today is somewhat impractical–walking down the street with a pair of nunchakus will invariably raise some questions–but the concept of being able to use everyday objects as weapons to protect yourself is still a sound self defense concept.  And of course, we don’t just train with Okinawan weapons; Chinese weapons such as the broadsword, straight sword and long staff, as well as the short sticks whose training systems were refined in the Philippines and have been popularly taught in certain Kempo systems.


Wait, there are other kinds of kempo?
Yep. When Kempo was first introduced to the United States, it was through James Mitose, who trained in Kosho-ryu Kempo, the Japanese adaptation of the original Shaolin Kempo. His knowledge was passed down to William Chow, one of the few to be given a black belt by Mitose himself. Among Chow’s students were Ed Parker, who went on to create his own style called American Kempo, and Nick Cerio, who gravitated towards the Shaolin style of Kempo. Nick Cerio taught his system to professor Charles Mattera, founder of United Studios.


Where do the five animals enter into it?
Martial artists have been studying animal movements and traits from the beginning in order to gain a deeper understanding of the martial arts. Legend states that the traditional five animals started when five monks, forced to the south of China by the Manchurians, started a new Shaolin temple in which to continue their way of living. They focused on emulating the five core animals that we study today, the dragon, tiger, leopard, snake, and crane.  To learn more about the five animals, click here


Do you have more questions? Please ask in the comments section!

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