The actual circumstances around his martial arts training remain under scrutiny, but his practices contained marked similarities to Okinawan karate and Japanese jujutsu. Mitose might have had access to training in such arts in both Hawaii and Japan.
James Masayoshi (Masakichi) Mitose was born in Kailua-Kona, North Kona District, Hawaii on December 30, 1916. On October 22, 1920, at the age of three, he was sent to Japan to be given formal education and upbringing with family living there. While there, in addition to his schoolwork and university studies, he trained in the art of Kenpo. He returned to the United States on February 25, 1937, arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii on the SS Tatsuta Maru at the age of 20.
Mitose began teaching Kenpo in Hawaii in 1936, and in 1942 set up a martial arts school. He gave the style he taught a number of different names during his lifetime, including “Shorinji Kempo” and “Kempo Jujutsu,” (both names of recognized Japanese martial arts), but over time, settled on the name Kosho Shōrei-ryū Kenpo. The word “Kenpo” (or “Kempo”) is a Japanese form of “Ch’uan Fa.”
When the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, James Mitose enlisted in the National Guard, and was honorably discharged after three weeks. He spent most of the war teaching Kenpo in Hawaii, to prepare American civilians against a possible Japanese invasion.
Tracy Kenpo claims a martial lineage through Mitose to the Yoshida clan based on Mitose’s claims that his family in Japan lived near a “Mt. Akenkai’s Shaka-In temple”. Mount Akenkai might be Mount Kinkai, near the town of Kinkai, Nagasaki on the island of Kyūshū. This may have been where the Kosho sect of the Yoshida (Urabe) clan taught.
Michael Brown of Rhode Island Martial Arts claims to possess documents showing three families of James Mitose. The first family being from Mitose’s father’s side. This includes his father, Otokichi Mitose and Otokichi’s parents, Kaheiji Mitose, and Kano Kawakami Mitose. The second family, from Mitose’s mother’s side, includes his mother Kiyoka Yoshida Mitose and Kiyoka’s biological father, Sakuhei Yoshida. Sakuhei Yoshida was married to a woman who was not Kiyoka’s biological mother.
Sakuhei Yoshida conceived Kiyoka Yoshida Mitose with a woman outside of his marriage named Toju Kosho. James Mitose would learn Kosho-ryū from the family of Toju Kosho. It is worthwhile to note that on Mitose’s parents’ record of marriage, Kiyoka Yoshida (Mitose’s mother) is not named as Toju Kosho. Instead the name Toju Unknown occupies this position of the document.
To his students and in the book, What is True Self-Defense?, Mitose described his teachings as those of Japanese style. In the book, Mitose describes methods similar to yoga and the tai sabaki principles found in many Japanese arts. The evidence of What Is Self Defense? and accounts and photos strongly suggest, however he got it, Mitose had a background in an Okinawan style. Some modern proponents of Kosho Shōrei-ryū believe that he used an Okinawan art as a vehicle for his teaching of a native Japanese art.
The contents of What Is Self Defense? seem to echo those of an earlier book: Karate Kenpo by Mutsu Mizuho (1933). This includes the arrangement of diagrams and photographs; in one case, a photo (of Higaonna Kamesuke) is reproduced entirely. The earlier book contains the forms Passai-sho, Kushanku-sho, Niseishi, Chinte and Gojūshiho along with the 15 kata which Gichin Funakoshi introduced in his books. The versions are very similar to those found in Shotokan. Mitose’s book also includes a picture of Motobu Chōki, reproduced from Motobu’s book, in a position that usually indicates a student acknowledging his teacher. It is from here that some assume that Mitose was acknowledging Motobu as his teacher. Mitose listed Motobu as a Kenpo master in his book.
Mitose is known to have taught only one Kata at his school: the Naihanchi Kata, which also was Motobu Chōki’s primary form and the only one featured in Motubu’s second book Okinawan Kenpo Kumite Hen. Mitose also taught the use of the Makiwara, a signature Okinawan training method. Okinawans had a thriving community in Hawaii, including martial arts training. Higaonna Kamesuke stayed in Hawaii after 1933 with Thomas Miyashiro, and taught classes in Kona. Higaonna had studied under Mutsu and Motobu, and taught Karate Kenpo in Mitose’s home town of Kona just a few years before Mitose opened his school, although Mitose was still in Japan at the time.
Mitose ultimately called his style Kosho Shorei-ryū Kenpo, which can translate to “Old Pine Tree School of Encouragement”. Bushi Matsumura’s style, which he taught to Ankō Itosu who taught it to Gichin Funakoshi and Motobu Chōki among others, was Okinawan “Shōrin-ryū”, which is often translated as “Little Pine Forest”. In his early days in Hawaii, when Mitose started teaching after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he called his art as simply Kenpo-jujitsu (Nerve Strike method) and would refer to it as Shorinji Kempo or Go shin jitsu. The word “Shorin” is characteristic of styles from Okinawa, although Shorinji Kempo is a Japanese art founded by Doshin So.
Mitose claimed that he learned martial arts and religion in a Buddhist temple, but his descriptions of organization and practices of the temple do not match those practiced by mainstream Japanese Buddhism. It is possible that Mitose came from a heterodox background. Mitose often dressed as a Christian minister. In “What Is True Self Defense?” he stated that one should practice the dominant religion of whatever country one is in, including its application to martial arts and spiritual practices. This book (the original manuscript to his first book, which was completed and published while he was imprisoned and presumably conscious that his writings and actions would influence his release conditions), discourages offensive martial arts techniques completely, presenting its contents as a form of yoga and escape. Mitose even writes that karate is “evil.” The description or lineage Mitose gave for his style also emphasized its Chinese roots. As a Japanese-American emigrating to Hawaii in 1937, he might have prudently downplayed the Japanese side of his background.
Later Years and Conviction
In 1953, James Mitose ceased teaching Kenpo regularly, and dropped out of sight. He privately taught a few students in that time, including Nimr Hassan (formerly Terry Lee). However, in 1974 Mitose was arrested in Los Angeles and convicted on murder and extortion charges stemming from a conflict from repayment over a loan and the murder committed by Hassan. During the case there was conflicting testimony and the court admitted that the Japanese testimony had not been accurately translated.
According to trial transcripts, James Mitose denied inciting Hassan to commit murder but took responsibility as his martial arts instructor. Hassan claimed Mitose had suggested on numerous occasions that Hassan commit murder. Hassan also testified that Mitose and his wife Dorothy, had given Hassan a rope, knife, screwdriver and an air pistol in order to carry out his actions. Mr. Namimatsu was killed by Hassan on March 20, 1974. The official cause of death was strangulation by rope. Namimatsu also suffered a completely collapsed eye, had been stabbed multiple times with a screwdriver and had a shoe imprint on his chest matching the shoes Hassan was wearing. After the assault, Hassan testified he had left Namimatsu breathing. As a note of interest, this murder took place only blocks away from the famous Black Dahlia Murder in 1947. DNA taken from the body of Frank Namimatsu did not match that of Terry Lee (Hassan), leading some to believe that Namimatsu may have been murdered after Lee (Hassan) left the scene.
James Mitose was sentenced to life in prison and died in Folsom State Prison of complications of diabetes on March 26, 1981. While in prison, he taught and ranked his son Thomas Barro Mitose, as well as Bruce Juchnik, Rick Alemany, Ray Arquilla, Eugene Sedeno, and Arnold Golub. In “What is True Self Defense?”, he acknowledges Arnold Golub as “Honorable Headmaster”, and the other four men as “Honorable Masters.” To his son, he gives the title “Honorable Grandmaster. (Page VII, Mitose, J. “What is True Self Defense? Textbook Number 1”, Kosho Shorei Publishing, Sacramento, CA) He maintained his innocence to his death, and many schools which follow in his training lineage still maintain that he was wrongfully convicted. The details of this incident remain controversial in the martial arts community.
By the time of his death, Kenpo had been widely spread throughout the United States and western world. Almost all Kempo schools outside of Japan trace their lineage to the teachings of James Mitose, via William K.S. Chow, Ed Parker, S. George Pesare and Tracy Kenpo.
Jim Perkins, interviewing Chow in an article published in the July 25 issue of Black Belt magazine on page 36, quotes him as saying, “my father(‘s) my teacher, not Mitose!” However, William Chow’s father did not know or practice martial arts. In the same article, Chow went on to say that Ed Parker was only a purple belt when he left him, so the credibility of Chow’s comments are at least questionable. Adriano Emperado has stated that William Chow taught what James Mitose taught, and that Mitose was a “master instructor.”
Although he learned kenpo in Hawaii and knew of Mitose, Ed Parker was never a direct student of James Mitose. According to Infinite Insights into Kenpo Volume 1, Parker stated: “Contrary to some of the claims that have been made in publications, I was never a student of James Mitose.” Parker trained under Chow, and came to know Mitose when he moved to California. By that time, he was already moving away from the kenpo that William Chow had taught him.
Nimr Hassan (Terry Lee) is a free man today and runs the Koga Ha Kosho Shorei Ryu Kempo Association of Philadelphia. Martial arts author William Durbin claims Mitose was familiar with Koga-ryū ninjutsu and that Mitose’s student Nimr Hassan is “probably the only master of the system to know those skills. These statements have never been able to be factually proven and are doubted by many.
Bruce Juchnik and Ray Arquilla base much of their teaching in their respective arts today on what they learned from Mitose, and both use the name “Kosho Shorei” in the name of the arts that they teach. Thomas Mitose publicly taught his version of his father’s art and is considered by some to be the 22nd Great Grandmaster of the family art. Now retired, his son, Mark Mitose, is the 23rd Great Grandmaster of the family art.