James Mitose was a Japanese-American martial artist who brought Kenpo karate to the United States in 1936.
James Mitose (Profile) – Episode 142
It’s time for episode 142 of whistlekick Martial Arts radio, and we’re going to profile a man who’s come up in several conversations over the last few months, James Mitose.
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Who Was James Mitose?
We’ve heard now from two people that knew the late, great, James Mitose – Hanshi Bruce Juchnik and Grandmaster Rick Alemany. You may not have recognized that name, though, so we thought it was a good opportunity to put forth a profile of the man. It’s a good bet that even if you don’t know it, your martial arts life has been touched by this man.
Masayoshi Mitose, who later took the name James, was born in Hawaii in 1916.
At age 4 his Mother brought him to Japan with his two sisters for formal education and upbringing by his Grandfather. This training included everything from religion to anatomy, language, philosophy and Kenpo. After his training and some time to reflect, he returned to Hawaii in 1935
Hawaii’s Kenpo Origin
Shortly after he started teaching in 1936, and became friends with Robert Trias, the karate legend who founded the first karate school on the mainland of the US.
He gave his style several names during his lifetime, including Shorinji Kenpo, Kenpo Jujitsu and, finally, Kosho Shorei-ryu Kenpo. Kenpo is a Japanese version of the Chinese term, Ch’uan Fa, which means way of the fist. Kosho Shorei-Ryū Kenpo can be translated as “Old Pine Style of Fist Law” according to James Mitose’s son, Thomas Barro Mitose.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he jumped to enlist in the National guard, signing up only 24 hours after. It was only 3 weeks later he was honorably discharged, then interned at Sand Island, a camp on the north side of Oahu. Formerly known as Quarantine Island and Kush Island, it lies at the entrance to Honolulu harbor, more than 600 Hawaiian residents were housed there during the two years the camp was open.
After his release in 1942, Mitose spent most of the war teaching his martial art to American civilians in case of a Japanese invasion. During that time, he worked as an herbalist and was known as a wonderful healer as well the owner of a brothel.
During his time teaching in Hawaii, the demanding system he taught yielded only 6 black belts, including Thomas Young and William Chow. It was Chow who went on to teach Ed Parker, Manny Delacruz, Ralph Castro and others.
He was one of the first to instruct people of any ethnic background, a rarity at a time when most instructors kept their arts within their own heritage.
James Mitose’s Writings & Influence
Though he denies the influence, it seems clear from his books and art that there was Okinawan martial arts influence on Mitose. In his book, What is Self Defense, Mitose references Mutsu Mizuho, even calling him his teacher. Mizuho wrote a book titled Karate Kenpo in 1933. Some say Mitose’s book, written in 1947 and published in 1953, is the first English karate book written.
Mitose was known to have taught only one kata or form at his school, and it’s one that survives today in various forms, Naihanchi. He was also a big fan of the makiwara – a traditional Okinawan hand conditioning tool. Here we see even more Okinawan influence.
In 1953 James Mitose stopped teaching regularly, passed his school over to Thomas Young, and moved to southern California where he taught a few students privately. There’s speculation as to why he stopped, even among his family, with the most believed notion being that he felt his students were unwilling to dedicate enough of their lives to the art. Another theory says that the accidental death of a student by another student in his class led him to believe that his followers were too focused on the aggressive side of his art, ignoring the philosophical elements that had been so important during his childhood in Japan.
In 1974 he was arrested in Los Angeles on the charges of murder and extortion related to crimes committed by one of his students, Terry Lee. There was conflicting testimony during the trial and even the court admitted that Mitose’s testimony, conducted in Japanese, was translated improperly. The only thing Mitose admitted to was being Lee’s martial arts instructor, maintaining his innocence until his death.
Lee claimed that Mitose had asked him to commit the murder several times, because the victim, Mr. Namimatsu, owed Mitose money.
Mitose was sentenced to life in prison and served most his term at Folsom State Prison in Folsom California. Lee, on the other hand, received only three years in exchange for his testimony against Mitose. The level of his involvement in the murder is still debated today.
During his incarceration, Mitose attempted to pass on his knowledge. First, to his son, Thomas Barro Mitose, who originally refused to accept his father’s teachings. Later, verbally, Mitose instructed four men, two of whom have been on this show – Hanshi Bruce Juchnik, Grandmaster Rick Alemany, Ray Arquila and Eugene Sedeno. Mitose referred to them as “Honorable Masters 1-4.”
James Mitose later died 1981 in prison of complications from diabetes.
Is there any Kenpo in your martial arts lineage? Have you had the chance to work with any of the 1st or 2nd generation kenpo masters that trained under Mitose or his influence? How about your thoughts on such an influential man? I want to know what you think, and you can post your thoughts in the comments at the website – You can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest & Instagram – just search whistlekick. Or, just leave us a comment on the show notes page at whistlekickMartialArtsRadio.com
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That’s all for today. Until next time, Train hard, smile and have a great day.