The History of James Mitose’s Martial Arts

James Mitose

James Mitose remains the one truly enigmatic figure in all the history of Kempo. James Masayoshi Mitose was born on December 30th, 1916 in Kaelakekua, North Kona Hawaii. In 1942, soon after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, he opened the “Official Self Defense Club” in Honolulu, Hawaii. The classes took place in a variety of locations such as gyms and churches.

What James Mitose did between 1920 and 1937 remains something of a mystery. At this point, there are two versions of his story. Al Tracy puts forth and defends the first, “romantic” version of the story. Click here for the version of the story the Sei Kosho Shorei Kai currently espouses. Although different in its details, this version also supports the general idea that Mitose learned Kempo at his family’s temple in Japan.

Very few people seem willing to support the second, “cynical” version of the story. I would, however, like to give credit to Matthew Barnes for opening my eyes to this second version. Very few of the facts of this second version of Mitose’s history were unknown to me prior to December of 2003. However despite deep suspicions regarding the “romantic” version of the story, I remain guilty of never before having “put two and two together” where the facts of the “cynical” version of the story are concerned.

James Mitose: Version One
According to Al Tracy, one ryu of Japanese Jujutsu, that of the Yoshida clan, was formulated in the mid 1200’s by Zenko Yoshida as a combination of Jujutsu moves and punch and kick techniques taught by the monks of the Shaolin Temple. This art would come to be known as Kosho Ryu Kempo.

The Yoshida clan was a prominent warrior family in Japan. Kosho Ryu Kempo was their family art and was passed down through the generations. James Mitose learned this art from his maternal grandfather, Sukuhei Yoshida, and became the 21st descendant of his family’s art.

James Mitose left Hawaii on October 22nd, 1920, at the age of three, with his older sister and a friend of his family to travel to Japan, live with his maternal grandparents and receive a formal Japanese education. Starting at age 5 he learned his family art of Kosho Ryu Kempo from his grandfather.

On February 7th of 1937, James Mitose returned to Hawaii. At this time he was the 21st Great Grandmaster of the Kosho Ryu Kempo system.

James Mitose: Version Two (Updated November 2004)
Some serious problems arise from Tracy’s story. To begin with, Tracy claims to have definitive proof that Mitose went back to Japan, and that he was related to the Yoshida clan, but he has yet to make public his alleged proof for either of these claims. He talks around these issues, and says, “HINT: I am not going to give you all the secrets at once! I am going to give you the same clues that we started with! I will hit you on the head with the clue. I will ask: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? (WWWTP).” I suggest that the time has come for Al Tracy to stop talking in circles and put out all his evidence in black and white for all the world to see. (NOTE: As of the Fall of 2004, Tracy has released certain documents that appear to prove that Mitose did travel to Japan. However documentation proving he trained in any form of martial arts while there has yet to surface.)

The Bugei Ryuha Daijiten written by Watatani Kiyoshi and Yamada Tadashi that lists all the ryu of Japan contains absolutely no lineage for a Japanese style named Kosho ryu. (It does list an Okinawan Karate style by that name, but lists no lineage for it.) Furthermore, the ryuha system for organizing training and training principles did not begin until the 15th century – 200 years after the date Tracy claims for the formulation of Kosho ryu. A ryu for the Yoshida clan is listed, but it is called Yoshida ryu, not Kosho ryu. And Yoshida ryu is not a Kempo system. Finally, while there are documented ryu that claim Chinese heritage (i.e. actual Japanese Kempo systems), they did not come into existence until the Edo period, which began in the 17th century.

In addition, the techniques Mitose shows in his book bear little to no resemblance to Japanese Jujutsu techniques. Even Japanese Kempo systems, while influenced by Chinese Chuan Fa, were still primarily Jujutsu systems. Japanese warrior families practiced these systems to be used in battle and the techniques needed to be effective against a warrior wearing full armor. In some cases, some ryu would have taught techniques designed to be used in peace time, or to protect their lords from an attacker away from any sort of battlefield. But these techniques primarily used restraint techniques, and certainly did not use striking techniques. (Click here for a great source of information on the History of Japanese Jujutsu, including pictures of techniques being executed by and against people wearing full armor.)
The vast majority of techniques James Mitose shows in his book include striking techniques that would have been totally useless against an opponent wearing full armor. Mitose repeatedly refers to striking nerve centers – nerve centers that Jujutsu techniques would definitely not strike as they would be covered by armor. Finally, Mitose writes in the beginning of his book, “Masters of Kenpo and also the true masters of jiu-jitsu number their arts, in the order of their importance, as follows: 1. Punching 2. Striking 3. Kicking 4. Throwing and Locking.” This goes totally counter to all Japanese Jujutsu systems. All traditional Japanese systems of Jujutsu place vastly greater importance on throwing and locking than they do on punching, striking or kicking. Again, even those very few systems that may have called themselves “Kempo” were still Jujutsu systems that simply acknowledged that they had some kind of influence from Chinese Chuan Fa – even those systems placed prime importance on throwing and locking.

Coming at the problem from another angle, there are several factors that make it seem likely that Mitose did not learn or teach Japanese Kempo at all – but rather Okinawan Kempo or Karate. First, the Japanese Kempo systems that do have a documented lineage do not make a big deal out of being descended directly from Daruma and the Shaolin temple. (The one notable exception to this would be Shorinji Kempo, founded by Doshin So in the 20th century. However not even Al Tracy tries to claim that Mitose learned from Doshin So.) The Okinawan Karate systems, on the other hand, do make such a claim. Their story goes exactly as James Mitose tells it in the beginning of his book – an early ancestor learned Shaolin Chuan Fa as Daruma taught it and passed it on through the generations. And unlike the earliest formulations of Japanese Kempo, Okinawan Kempo very likely does date back as far as the 12th or 13th centuries.

More specifically, there seems to be some connection between Mitose and Choki Motobu. Motobu’s son, Chosei Motobu, denies that Mitose ever trained with his father, however these connections persist. First, Mitose only ever taught one Kata – the Naihanchi Kata. This is also the one Kata Motobu taught, and the one for which he became quite well known. Next, Mitose prominently displayed a picture of Motobu with the caption, “Great master of Karate Kenpo” in his first book. Finally, both Motobu and Mitose stressed the importance of Makiwara training – strikes and kicks performed on a Makiwara are featured in the beginning of Mitose’s book. The Okinawan systems are unique in their use of Makiwara – Japanese systems did not use it.

It is also intriguing, despite Chosei Motobu’s denials, that both Mitose (if Tracy’s information is accurate) and Motobu were in Japan during the same period – between 1921 and 1936. Not much is known about the whereabouts or activities of either man during that period, so it seems at least possible that Mitose could have trained with Motobu.

On the other hand, Tracy tells us that Mitose was sent to Kyushu, Japan, and it appears Motobu was running his Dojo in Tokyo while he was in Japan. Kyushu and Tokyo are hundreds of miles apart. And Mitose would have been only three years of age when he moved to Japan. It does not seem terribly likely that Motobu would have taken time away from running his Dojo to train a child living hundreds of miles away. And Mitose himself in his murder trial in 1974 testified that while in Japan he spent his entire time at his family’s temple in Kyushu, and that he learned martial arts there, not in Tokyo. (Click here for a map showing these locations.)

However, it is possible that Mitose never went to Japan. If James Mitose did not go to Japan as Al Tracy claims, then he would have been in Hawaii when Choki Motobu, Mizuho Mutsu and Kamesuke Higaonna arrived there. Motobu, Mutsu and Higaonna were all experts in Okinawan Kempo or Karate. They all visited from Japan to try to help spread Karate to Hawaii. Motobu was detained during his visit in 1932, but Thomas Miyashiro (click here for more details) did visit him during that time, and most likely trained with him, learning the Naihanchi Kata.

When Mutsu and Higaonna came to Hawaii in 1933, they taught for a period of time, and Miyashiro continued teaching after their departure. (Miyashiro was 18 years old at the time.) It seems quite likely that if Mitose did not, in fact, live in Japan for many years, he could have trained instead with Miyashiro, Higaonna and Mutsu in Hawaii. It appears Mutsu may have had at least some training with Motobu, and Miyashiro also trained with Motobu during Motobu’s short visit to Hawaii. These connections could explain Mitose’s reference to Motobu as the “great master” in his book.

Or alternately, even if Mitose did grow up in Japan, and came back to Hawaii in 1937 as Al Tracy claims, he still would have had five years to train with Miyashiro before opening the Official Self Defense Club in 1942. Either scenario would have made him a student of Motobu at least indirectly through Miyashiro, Mutsu and Higaonna.

Finally, James Mitose’s book can be entirely reproduced from books by Motobu and Mutsu that came out a decade or more before Mitose’s book. Mitose has an image of Daruma in the beginning of his book that is identical to an image in Mutsu’s book, Karate Kenpo. Also in Mutsu’s book is a picture of Mutsu himself, where the bottom left corner of his picture overlaps a picture of Higaonna. In Mitose’s book, we have the same arrangement, but the picture of Mutsu is replaced by a popular picture of Motobu, which is also found in one of Motobu’s books.

In all of the pictures from Mitose’s book of Mitose striking and kicking the makiwara, we see that he is exactly reproducing pictures Motobu included in his book. And nearly every technique Mitose shows in his book can also be found in Mutsu’s book. I often thought that the techniques Mitose showed were nearly identical to techniques in Motobu’s books, except that none of Motobu’s techniques show any takedowns or joint locks, while some of Mitose’s techniques do show such moves. However, Mutsu’s book does indeed show exactly the same kinds of takedowns and joint locks that Mitose covers in his book. Mutsu’s book is widely considered the definitive authority on classical Okinawan Kempo – more complete in several ways than even Funakoshi’s books. And Mutsu’s book clearly shows that Okinawan Kempo did include takedowns and joint locks that resemble modern forms of Aiki-Jujutsu – a resemblance shared by the takedowns and joint locks in Mitose’s book.

James Mitose: Conclusion
I feel without any doubt at all that James Mitose did not learn Japanese martial arts. He learned and taught Okinawan Kempo Karate. Whether he learned this art from Mutsu, Higaonna and Miyashiro, or whether he simply learned from Mutsu’s and/or Motobu’s books remains unknown. But based on the evidence I have described above, it is quite certain that the martial arts of James Mitose were purely Okinawan in origin.

No matter the history of James Mitose’s martial arts, however, one vitally important fact remains wholly undisputed: Every style of Kempo/Kenpo that exists in North America today can trace its lineage to this one man.

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