James Mitose, Ph.D., Hanshi

The following request came to me from Andy Prouty who trains at the Scripps Ranch Dojo with Sensei Paul Billimoria.

“Sensei Neville and Sensei Paul were saying that the Hen Shu Ho that we learn many basic self-defense principles and techniques from actually originated from a Kata called ‘Hen Shu Ho’, nobody else in our group knew of this and that was all that the Billimorias seemed to know as well. What is the origin of the Hen Shu Ho self defense techniques?, and could you please tell us about their transformation into what we know and practice today?”

There once was a kata named Henshuho. It lived a very long time ago. It probably developed in the 18th century in Kyushu, the lower island of Japan proper.

The creator is unknown to me, but surely it was one of the forefathers of James Mitose. The system that was used was Kosho-ryu. Kosho means old pine tree (ko=old; sho=pine tree). Ryu means school.

The style, unlike so many karate schools in Okinawa, was named after a particular object. It was a tall and majestic old pine tree that grew in the forest behind the Mitose family residence. Mitose’s ancestors cherished this particular tree more than any other in the forest because it had lived there since before the founding of the Kosho-ryu in the early 1600s. This tree symbolized eternal life to the Mitose family the same as did pine trees to the Japanese people. James Mitose said, “After much meditation under the old pine tree, my first ancestor received the revelation to the secret of the art of Kenpo which he called Kosho-ryu Kempo.”

It is not unusual that the Mitose family took pine leaves as a part of the Kosho-ryu coat-of-arms. The pine tree is an evergreen and is a symbol of good omen.

What is unusual is that there are two other plants on the Kosho-ryu coat-of-arms. They are bamboo leaves and plum blossoms. To Japanese bamboo leaves symbolize honesty, dependability, purity and love for fellow man while plum blossoms symbolize lofty thoughts and beautiful spirit.

(As an aside here I would like to draw your attention the obvious intent here in Kosho ryu. Where so many modern people see karate as violent it is very hard to interpret anything about the symbols of the Kosho-ryu coat-of-arms as even vaguely violent. Pine trees, bamboo leaves and plum blossoms; what beautiful symbols. They are not by any stretch of the imagination violent. Could it be that modern man has misinterpreted the purposes of martial arts to suit modern mans’ need?)

In addition to the three plant symbols there are three sets of hands on the coat-of-arms; hiken, ogamite and mute. These three positions are hardly violent either.

Hiken (hi=cover; ken=fist) means “to cover the fist.” This hand position is the hand position used at the beginning of Tenshin kata. Mitose says, “the fist is like a treasure in the pocket… [it] should not be used except in the protection and promotion of happiness among one’s fellow men.”

Ogamite (ogami=pray; te = hand) Mitose figuratively interprets as “to pray to God.” The hand position is the prayer hand position usually associated with Christianity. Mitose further states that ogamite symbolizes our responsibility to “pray to God to intercede so that the problem of contention may be amicably settled, and to extend mercy to one’s opponent for he knows not right from wrong.”

Mute (mu=empty; te=hand) means empty hand just as karate means empty hand. This hand symbol is like the beginning movements to Kosokun where the sun is viewed thru the hole made by the two hands. Mitose states, “the fingers represent Mount Fuji[yama] with lofty ideals, love for peace and beauty, and strength to defend the human rights. The opening represents a panoramic view through which one may see only that [which] is beautiful and good.” This symbol also means that the person is without weapons physically and without ill will spiritually.

(Another aside: It really begins to get difficult to see the modern view of martial arts as violent, insensitive and amoral in light of these concepts directly imprinted on a coat-of-arms several hundred years old. What do you think?)

Kosho-ryu was one of those ultra-secret martial arts schools that for hundreds of years taught only family and very close friends. It would have remained so had it not been for one event in human history; the bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. James Mitose, who had been raised in Japan from 1921-34, was by 1941 an American citizen. He was in Honolulu on that fateful Sunday morning. He heard the explosions while in church. Rushing out to the street he and many others were shocked to see “the sky was raining death, and bombs were ushering in a period of bloodshed and horror perhaps without parallel in history.”

Later that afternoon Mitose wrote in his journal, “It was one of those rare moments in a person’s life when he stands face to face with destiny. When a problem, clear and plain in all it component parts, confront him and cries aloud for solution. And on that morning I was obliged to sit down with the tangled skein of my affections, my childhood memories, my obligations and patriotism and make a momentous decision.”

It was time to fight.

On December 8, 1941 at 8:00 AM James Mitose entered the Hawaii Territorial Guard. He knew the Japanese would attempt a landing on Hawaii immediately. He had faced his fear that he would be fighting against the side his mother, father and brothers. He knew from out of his own family he stood alone in America for America. He was ready to die for what he believed in.

December 1941 was a very frightening time in Hawaii. There were rumors of invasion landings on the north shore of Oahu. The military was mobilized (but, believe it or not, didn’t always have ammunition available for what guns were issued. They would be commanded to hold a position under all cost and not have save a few workable rounds of ammunition!!!) James Mitose was out there with only a few hours of military training, ready to live or die fighting his own brothers while having little ammunition.

In 1942 Mitose opened what he called the Official Self-Defense Club, a self-defense club at the Beretania Mission in Honolulu in which he taught Kosho-ryu GoShinJitsu. But it wasn’t the same as the family Kosho-ryu. It was streamlined to fit the needs of the day. He aimed at what to do when a person attack with a punch, lance, bayonette or sword. He knew the Japanese hand-to-hand arts and what the Japanese soldiers would most likely be using against the American soldiers. He trimmed what he taught to a defense tactic (GoshinJitsu) and taught it to “servicemen and civilians regardless of their race, color, creed or religion.”

This is where the Henshuho came into the public knowledge for the first time in history. Mitose needed a way to teach Americans how to fight the Japanese hand-to-hand. He knew that the strikes of the Japanese would be lightning fast and straight, unlike the boxer’s right hook punch so familiar in the sport of boxing. So he took one of his family kata, a kata named Henshuho and extracted from that kata a set of 25 movements that would teach Americans about the kind of attacks the Japanese would lunge. He refined them. He continued to teach them. He named them from the kata he had extracted them; Henshuho. But the kata, well, not many people were interested in the kata in face of Japanese invasion. The kata was taught only to a very few.

The end of the war came in four grueling years. Japan surrendered in August 1945. Mitose had taught men to fight. But, in his own words, “I was not satisfied…I wanted to teach everyone in the world the true meaning of self-defense. For I know that if everyone could know this meaning there would cease to be racial trouble, and there would cease to be strife among nations. No matter what difficulty confronts them people would be able to live in harmony and happiness. There would be mutual understanding, cooperation and friendship between America, the countries of Europe, and those of the Far East. There would be peaceful participation by all in religion, physical culture and sports.”

Now, if that is not optimistic, what is? What a great positive power he had! What belief in the goodness of mankind!

And so in early 1947 Sensei James Mitose opened a full-fledged Kosho-ryu Goshin-jitsu dojo with practice in jitsute (combat practice like our kumite) and kata. One of the kata he taught was a kata named Henshuho. Still he taught this kata to very few people. People were more interested in the jitsute (as they still are in modern culture) like the Henshuho “tricks”. Among those who learned the Henshuho kata and keiko was a young upstart man by the name of Al Kahalekulu.

James Mitose retired from teaching his family art in 1953. He left one of his prime students, a Mr. Thomas Young (who had received his shodan in about1947) in charge of the Official Self-Defense Club. In the ten years that Sensei James Mitose taught he awarded only five black-belts; Thomas Young, William Chow, Paul Yamaguchi, Arthur Keawe and Edward “Bobby” Lowe.

Mr. Al Kahalekulu received his shodan from Thomas Young in 1953. Mr. Kahalekulu taught Mr. Del Saito who taught me. The Henshuho keiko set was taught to me in 1972 and the kata in 1973. When Mr. Saito switched to Mr. Kotaka in 1973 he left behind the Henshuho kata of Kosho-ryu for the Shito-ryu Karate of Kotaka-ha.

When I joined the Butokukai I was flabbergasted to find that Sensei Richard Kim knew the kata Henshuho…..where did he learn it? I know he knew it, because I saw him do it…It still boggles my mind where he learned it, but he knew it and I was amazed. It is, however, not a kata he teaches (in 25 years I have never seen him teach it).

There is only a very small window for open to the public for learning Kosho-ryu in the time and place. To my knowledge it has been taught for 400 years only to the Mitose family and friends in Kumamoto, Kyushu, Japan and in one ten-year period from 1942-1953 by one member of the Mitose family in Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, United States. Thomas Young did not know Henshuho, nor did William Chow or Bobby Lowe. So Mr. Kim learned it in Japan from the Mitose family or he learned it from James Mitose after 1959 (the year Mr. Kim returned to the US), a real unlikelihood because of James Mitose’s retirement in 1953. In reality, the most likely explanation is that Mr. Kim learned it in Kyushu after being introduced to the Mitose family by some prominent and well-trusted martial artist.

Kosho-ryu was a minor and secret art in Japan. It was held in the Mitose family line for more than 400 years. The founder travelled to China and studied Chinese chuan-fa in the late 1500s. He brought back the chuan-fa and adapted the unarmed fighting to the Japanese need. Japan was closed in the early 1600s so that anyone visiting Japan from outside was decapitated. Also, anyone leaving Japan and returning was decapitated. The Mitose family remained in Kyushu but were not in favor with the in-power Tokugawa government. Their martial art was not sanctioned by the Tokugawa. In addition, Kyushu, the southern-most true Japanese island, was a melting pot of various renegade samurai and ronin. It was a rather desperate place. In this tenuous position Kosho-ryu became secretive, being learned and practiced by only the Mitose family and their friends with long histories in Kumamoto region.

Unlike much of modern karate, Kosho-ryu was very eclectic. The ryu taught unarmed self-defense, but it also taught armed self-defense. Then, if you will allow me to introduce you to the concept of eclecticism in martial arts, it taught “the human body and its systems, as well as training in kendo (fencing), kyu-do (archery), ikebana (flower arranging), swimming, tree-climbing, horsemanship, use of the blow-gun, and…” (Taken from Bruce A. Haines “Karate’s History and Traditions)

Sensei James Mitose went to the mainland US in 1953. He studied christianity and became a minister. He gained his PhD in christian theology and remained faithful to the tenants of Kosho-ryu all of his life. After 1953 he only taught family and very close friends but never opened another public dojo in any form.