Here’s an article giving a perspective not often taken by kempo / kenpo practitioners. Let’s hold the ‘great grandmaster’ up to the light of truth. This is my opinion, and will be expanded as I have time.
If you are sure that I am wrong, feel free to send me some proof – real actual documentation – and I will post it accordingly.
James Mitose: Conman and partner in a murder conspiracy or innocent victim of a vast conspiracy that was probably orchestrated by the real killer in the O.J. Simpson case?
Over the years, various versions of the James Mitose story have been proffered, often by people who have a vested interest in the value of the “great grandmaster’s” reputation. The most common story involves a young boy who travels to Japan to begin extensive training in a secret family art at a rinzai temple. Further details emerge, naming a famous Oknawan karateka as a potential source for the material, or involving a different family name to explain the complete lack of evidence in Japan of this family style. In the later years of his life, Mitose encountered legal troubles. By legal troubles, I mean he was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. This part of the history is usually downplayed, as it is inconvenient to have one’s esteemed master die in prison. If this part is mentioned, it is usually done in the context of ‘the student did the deed, and he was so remorseful that he took the blame’. It is also usually further offered that he was the victim of racism and was railroaded as an ‘ asian charles manson’.
How could this have happened? The events in question should be fairly verifiable – he was born in 1916 – and there should be a paper trail to confirm or refute these stories. Is it possible that this man was unjustly accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit? Did his story unfold like he said? Was he framed? How could someone who preached non-violence and humility get involved in a murder? Let’s take a look at some of these questions and apply some critical thinking.
James Mitose allegedly went to Japan as a youth, and there finally appear to be some documents indicating this. During each of the times he was arrested during his life, he does mention having gone to Japan for 17 years, and returning to the US around 1937. I hope to go to the national archives to retrieve passport applications, as the presence of an application will lend some weight to the travel story, and a lack of passport will refute it. If he did go to Japan, did he study at Shaka-in? According to his history, he claims to have trained at the Shaka-in temple in Kumamoto, Kyosho Japan. There is evidence that jujutsu training was held there, but there is no record of kosho ryu in the listing of arts, and no evidence of anyone named Mitose. As to the implication that he was trained by noted Okinawan Karate Master Choki Motobu, this would be unlikely, at least personally. They were in Japan at about the same times, but Motobu was in Osaka and Tokyo. Both these cities are hundreds of miles from Kumamoto, and I don’t feel that Motobu would take time from training the police and running his dojo to trek hundreds of miles to train an american born 5 year old.If you have any doubt, please see this map I have prepared and make your own judgement.
I suppose there is the off chance that he might have, but then, Choki Motobu’s son Chosei might have heard about it. Apparently they keep records of who trained with them, and Mitose does not appear to be listed. Chosei Motobu has also emphatically denied any family connection with Mitose. There is, however, a photo at a seminar in Tokyo that may have a picture of Mitose in it, so he may have at least taken a seminar with Motobu. That’s pretty similar to 15 years of intensive training, right?
There is another way he might have been trained, although indirectly, by Motobu. Mitose was born in Kona, Hawaii. Motobu came to Hawaii, but was detained by INS. He did however bring copies of his books, Okinawan Kenpo Kumite Hen and Watashi no Tode Jutsu. The second book, published right before his trip featured the kata naihanchi, coincidentally enough, the only form that Mitose taught at his self defense club. After Motobu’s failed visit (during which Mitose did not visit), Mizhuo Mutsu came with his deschi Higaonna (aka Higashionna) to teach karate in Hawaii, bringing copies of Mutsu’s newly published book, Karate Kenpo.
Books? More on that later. He might have even trained with people. Higashionna stayed in Hawaii with Thomas Miyashiro, and taught classes in Kona. Shockingly enough, Higashionna studied under Mutsu and Motobu, appeared in Mutsu and Mitose’s books (same picture, more later), and taught Karate Kenpo in Mitose’s home town of Kona just a few years before the opening of the “Official Self-defense Club”. He also had a habit of dressing up as a reverend even though he was not ordained. Sound Familiar? So, even if Mitose never went to Japan, he could have studied under Higashionna for a year or two, learned Naihanchi, and hopped over an Island setting himself up as the long lost grandmaster along the way.
The Grandmaster’s return to Hawaii: The Early Days
Before he set up shop as a martial arts teacher, according to his Hawaiian Territorial Guard application, he spent 7 years ‘massaging’ as a living, but had also acquired the skill of truck driving. That wasn’t the whole of his ‘money making’ skills. As reported in the Honolulu Advisor, the Panama City News-Herald (in an AP article) and the Nippu Jiji – the leading Japanese language newspaper in Hawaii – on August 19th, 1941 a 25 year old James Mitose, along with two other accomplices were arrested by the FBI and charged with swindling and conspiracy to impersonate an army intelligence operative. Here’s the way the scam worked: Mitose collected signatures and Japanese addresses from two Hawaiian-Japanese businessmen, under the pretense of ‘paying respects’ to relatives for them on an upcoming trip to Japan. The conspirators then inserted statements above the signatures saying that the businessmen would help Japanese spies. The second conspirator posed as a Military Intelligence officer, told the businessmen that Mitose had been apprehended by the military, but also told the businessmen that if they gave $1000 to a third ‘officer’ – the third conspirator – they would all be off the hook.
Speaking of the Hawaiian Territorial Guard, Mitose had a very brief career. He enlisted on December 10th, 1941 only a few months after his arrest by the FBI. He says ‘no’ on his application as to whether he has been convicted of anything, so perhaps they didn’t look to closely. I don’t think it mattered too much, as his paperwork indicates that three days after enlisting, he was disqualified from serving due to difficulties with the English language. His Honorable Discharge is dated 12/31/1941.
Books: Writing them is a lot of work, so hey, why not borrow some of somebody else’s?
Mitose’s book “What is Self Defense: Kenpo Jiujutsu” is an interesting piece of work. Having seen Mizhuo Mutsu’s book Karate Kenpo, and Motobu’s book Kempo Gaisetsu, it becomes plain that Mitose plagiarized his book. Most notably, the pictures of Motobu and of Karate Kenpo master breaking roofing tiles are lifted from Mutsu’s text. One would think if they lifted the photos they would have at least lifted the captions to get Higashionna’s name correct when referring to the picture of him smashing roofing tiles. Many of the pages are reenactments of photos of other books, and many of the self defense sequences have been picked apart as questionable by foks more experienced than I in both the Kempo / Kenpo and the jujutsu communities. The format of the book, even down to the ‘letters of review / commendation’ seems to be heavily borrowed from Henry Okizaki’s 1929 book/pamphlet The Science of Self Defense for Girls and Women, and the order of techniques in his defenses for women section seems to be a direct lift of the table of contents of Okizaki’s book. The techniques vary slightly, as Okizaki was a jujutsu stylist. This does not come as a big surprise, as Okizaki, Mitose and Chow were well acquainted.
The Official Self Defense Club:
Sometime after the Pearl Harbor attack, Mitose founded the ‘Official Self Defense Club’. This would apparently follow his brief stint in the Hawaiian Territorial Guard, if the accepted date of 1942 is accurate. If he trained until he ‘returned from Japan’ and then began teaching in 1942, then there is a five or six year gap between training and teaching. In this club, he taught the Kata Naihanchi. I have often wondered, and have asked many who are ‘in the know’ as far as Kempo history goes, the same question over and over again, and have never received any answer that makes any sense: Why would the heir to a seven hundred year old system of Japanese martial arts teach Naihianchi? Why would this be unusual? Naihanchi is an Okinawan karate kata, whose first historical reference was circa 1760, and did not reach Japan until about 1920. Until the pinan series took hold, it was the beginner kata. In fact, as there are references to Okinawan karate being practiced by Okinawans who had immigrated to Hawaii in 1900, the kata had been available in hawaii longer than it had been in Japan. In fact, a beginner in Hawaii would learn the Naihanchi kata, as the pinan kata were introduced to Hawaii during Mutsu’s tour in 1933. Had Mitose’s ancestors been sitting around twiddling their collective thumbs for 700 years saying “I sure hope those Okinawans hurry and invent our kata for us”? I perhaps think not. According to Bobby Lowe, in addition to Naihanchi, the only empty hand kata he taught until others were appropriated from Karate students who joined the school, Mitose taught a bo form. The bo is an okinawan weapon, and old Japanese arts would have taught the naginata or sword. Current bo practitioners in Japan perform forms from okinawan kobudo.
Mitose, the holy man:
James Mitose often wore religious garb,and spoke of peace. Although he often spoke of helping the world achieve peace, he actually spent alot of his time helping WWII sailors get a piece. WWII Hawaii was a wild place and had a flourishing red light district. This operated with the understanding of the local police chief until the enforcement duties were turned over to the military. During his criminal trial for conspiracy to commit murder, he was asked questions about his finances. When they asked how he had lived without a job after he moved to California, the prosecutor inquired as to whether he had been teaching lessons for pay since he had been living in California. He replied in the negative. He was then asked if he was living off the proceeds of his book. Again, not enough money. He had however made one million dollars while in Hawaii, running a brothel. No wonder the fees at the ‘official self defense club’ were so low. He also, after moving to California, inquired with some individuals, like Ed Parker and Koichi Tohei about creating temples for Peace and Martial arts training. Mitose even managed to get an Honorary 10th dan in Aikido to help him raise money. The reverend Kensho Furuya had a comment or two on this, and it wasnt “Gosh his Aikido was just great and he and O’Sensei were best buddies!”. In addition, Mitose raised money to create a Japanese-American friendship monument in order to ‘repair the rift’ after world war two. No temples were ever built, and the Japanese American friendship monument he proposed never came to fruition, but he certainly was diligent about the gathering money portion. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are still unaccounted for. Sometimes, perhaps, he was too diligent, as one of the charges in addition to conspiracy to commit murder was extortion. He even described the affair he had with the spouse of one of the people he kidnapped in order to extort money. Holy man indeed. The trial transcript is very informative.