The term Densho means to pass on, hand down, or can refer to oral tradition. It is a way to pass on information about things that occurred in the past to future generations. It is important to have some understanding of where the martial arts have come from and the traditions from which your training has been derived. In this belt, we will explore many of the people who provided tremendous influence in the development of the martial arts. You do not need to memorize every detail of each person, but you should know generally who they are and the systems with which they were or have become affiliated. These influential martial artists are presented below in no particular order. This is only a partial list of influential martial artists. A complete list would be quite extensive indeed and we cannot possibly cover everyone in a manual such as this. But, if you hear of a martial artist not listed below, we encourage you to look them up to learn how they influenced the development of the martial arts. There are a great many people you might wish to investigate.
Please note that the persons discussed below often trained and learned from multiple individuals. When we say that a person was a student of another individual, we do not mean to imply that this was the only individual with whom the person trained or from whom he or she received instruction, experience, or insights.
We encourage you to explore any of the following individuals and their contributions to the martial arts in greater detail. In doing so you will find a great deal of interconnectivity between these individuals, the people they have trained, and the instructors they have sought out.
Gichin Funakoshi was born in Okinawa in 1868. At a young age, he began to train with Anko Azato and Anko Itosu in Shorin Ryu and Shorei Ryu Karate. Eventually, Mr. Funakoshi began teaching and developed a large following in Okinawa. The art form he taught soon became known as Shotokan Karate.
In the 1920s Mr. Funakoshi moved to Japan and introduced his form of Karate to that nation. His teachings were widely accepted and adopted in Japan and his Shotokan system is now one of the most widely recognized forms of Karate in the world.
Before Mr. Funakoshi, the term ‘Karate’ was interpreted to mean ‘Chinese Hands’. Funakoshi changed this definition to mean ‘Empty Hands’ since ‘Kara’ can mean, among other things, either China or Empty. His definition remains the most common way that the term Karate is interpreted.
As we have previously noted, Mr. Funakoshi was also responsible for inverting the order of the first two Pinan (Heian) Kata. This is why you may find practitioners doing them in a different order among various martial arts styles.
Mas Oyama was the founder of Kyokushin Karate. He was born in Korea in 1923 and given the name Choi Yeong-eui. He spent most of his life in Japan, where he adopted the name Oyama Masutatsu.
Mas Oyama studied Shotokan Karate under Gigo Funakoshi, son of Gichin Funakoshi. He also studied Goju Ryu as a student of So Nei Chu. Mas Oyama ultimately founded a Dojo and created the system of Kyokushin Karate which is known to be powerful and highly focused. Training under Oyama was said to be quite grueling, with a strong emphasis on full-contact fighting. Oyama was well known for killing bulls with his bare hands in a variety of different demonstrations.
Kano Jigoro studied many different forms of Jujitsu in Japan during the latter two decades of the 19th century. He combined his knowledge from these various styles with the knowledge he had himself acquired during training to form the system we now know as Judo.
Mr. Jigoro is not only noted as the founder of Judo but is also responsible for introducing the concept of belt rankings to the martial arts. His Judo system was the first martial arts system to be widely adopted and accepted outside of Japan. He was a highly decorated public educator, the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee, and an opponent of Japanese militarism before World War II. He died aboard ship in 1938 from disputed causes.
Morihei Ueshiba studied various forms of Jujitsu at around the same time as Kano Jigoro. Mr. Ueshiba also established his interpretations of movement and how to readily overcome an aggressive opponent. This led him to ultimately establish the art of Aikido. He remains highly revered by practitioners of Aikido and others both as a visionary and exceptional martial artist. He died in 1969 of liver cancer.
James Mitose was born in Hawaii in 1916. At a young age, he was sent by his family back to Japan to be educated by family members. Upon his return to Hawaii at the age of twenty-one he claimed to be the 21st grandmaster of his family’s martial art style.
James Mitose is a very controversial figure in the martial arts. He opened a Dojo in Hawaii in 1941 (he had some students before that as well) and taught there for approximately fifteen years. He did not teach again until he informally taught a few students beginning in the 1970s. Mitose was convicted of murder in 1974 and spent the remainder of his life in prison. He informally taught several additional individuals while in prison.
Most martial arts styles that involve the name ‘Kempo’ or ‘Kenpo’ are derived, at least in part, from the teachings of Mitose and his various students.
Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco, California in 1940. He was raised by his parents in Hong Kong until he was eighteen. While in Hong Kong, Mr. Lee trained with Yip Man in the art of Wing Chung.
At the age of eighteen, Mr. Lee moved back to the United States, eventually attending the University of Washington. Mr. Lee began teaching martial arts, ultimately calling his system Jeet Kune Do.
Mr. Lee is perhaps best known for his television and movie appearances. He played the role of Kato in the television series “The Green Hornet” and starred in several extremely successful martial arts movies. These propelled Mr. Lee to superstar status and were a major influence in the adoption of martial arts training throughout the world.
Mr. Lee is still considered to be one of the most influential and capable martial artists of all time.
William Chow was one of the original students of James Mitose in Hawaii. Mr. Chow earned his black belt at the Mitose Dojo and eventually moved on to create a style he called Kenpo Karate. He had some very prominent students, including Joseph and Adriano Emperado, Bobby Lowe, Ralph Castro, Nick Cerio, Edmund Parker, and Ron Alo. Each of these students was instrumental in introducing and/or creating various martial arts forms to the world.
Mr. Chow was known to be extremely intense. He was an accomplished street fighter and developed a set of techniques designed to deal with common events one might encounter on the streets.
Edmund Parker was the founder of American Kenpo Karate. He was born in Hawaii in 1931 and eventually went to college at Brigham Young University in Utah. During his years in Hawaii, Mr. Parker was a student of William Chow, who was, in turn, a student of James Mitose. Mr. Parker opened his first school in Provo, Utah in 1953. By 1956 he had moved his Dojo to Pasadena, California.
Mr. Parker invented hundreds of self-defense techniques and numerous Kata that became the fundamental basis for his martial arts style. Today this system is widely practiced throughout the world and is known to be a direct, effective, and often brutal form of martial arts.
In 1962 Mr. Parker transferred his original Kenpo Karate Association of America system to Al and Jim Tracy (the Tracy Brothers). Mr. Parker revised much of his curriculum and created the International Kenpo Karate Association. Both systems are quite large, well established, and fully active today.
Mr. Trias studied Okinawan Shuri-te Karate while stationed overseas during World War II. He was also an accomplished Judo practitioner and had extensive experience with Jujitsu systems and other martial arts styles. After the war, Mr. Trias opened the first Karate school in the United States in Phoenix, Arizona. He called the style he taught Shorei Goju Ryu.
Mr. Trias is also credited with creating the United States Karate Association (USKA), the first martial arts organization in the United States. He organized the first national Karate tournament in the United States and was a key liaison between martial arts organizations in the United States, Japan, Okinawa, China, and Korea.
Thomas Young was the first student to achieve a black belt ranking under James Mitose in Hawaii. He then continued teaching at the Mitose Dojo after Mr. Mitose stopped teaching. Eventually, Mr. Young also stopped teaching and remained inactive in the martial arts until he became part of the Sei Kosho Shorei Kai International (SKSKI) organization founded by Bruce Juchnik. Mr. Juchnik sought out Mr. Young so that earlier teachings of Kosho Ryu Kempo could be incorporated into the system promoted by Mr. Juchnik.
Mr. Juchnik achieved a black belt ranking in the Tracy Brothers system and opened a few Dojo’s to teach the system to others. One of his students, George Santana, introduced Mr. Juchnik to James Mitose. Mr. Juchnik then trained, verbally, with Mr. Mitose when visiting Mr. Mitose in prison.
After the death of Mr. Mitose, Mr. Juchnik formed the Sei Kosho Shorei Ryu Kempo system to promote and foster the teachings of Mr. Mitose. He has also been instrumental in fostering cooperation and cross-training efforts among the various martial arts of the world.
Mr. Juchnik is also quite accomplished in a variety of martial arts systems, including Arnis, Tang Soo-do, Tracy Brothers Kenpo, and Kosho Kempo.
Carlos Gracie studied Jiu-jitsu under Mitsuyo Maeda in the early 1900s. He is credited with being one of the primary founders of what is today the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu system of martial arts. His style has evolved to become the famous Gracie Jiu-jitsu System taught by Gracie family members and senior practitioners throughout the world.
Miyamoto Musashi is the most famous swordsman in Japanese history. He was undefeated in some sixty duals, participated in major army battles, survived attempted assassination attempts from a large group of swordsmen, and wrote the famous text “The Book of Five Rings”. He invented numerous creative fighting strategies and eventually taught his system to students.
Choi Hong Hi
General Choi Hong Hi, who eventually became a Major General in the Korean Army, studied under Gichin Funakoshi when Korea was occupied by Japan. In 1955 he founded a martial art system that was ultimately called Taekwon-do based in part on Shotokan principles, but with greater emphasis on hand and foot techniques.
The art eventually fractured into competing factions. One, the International Taekwon-do Federation, maintained General Choi as the founder of Taekwon-do. Others, such as the World Taekwondo Federation viewed General Choi as dishonest and disreputable.
Today the various forms of Taekwondo comprise one of the largest martial arts systems in the world. Taekwondo schools can be found in virtually every community and Taekwondo has become an Olympic sport.
Eventually, General Choi moved to North Korea, where he died in 2002.
Dosin So was stationed in Manchuria during WWII and while there studied various forms of Quan Fa. He eventually fled back to Japan at the end of the war and, in 1947, founded the martial art of Shorinji Kempo. Today Shorinji Kempo can be found in over thirty different countries.
Choi Yong-sool founded the martial art of Hapkido in 1948. The art was originally called Yu Sul, but eventually, the name was changed to Hapkido. Like Choi Hong Hi, Choi Yong-sool studied in Japan during the period when Korea was occupied by the Japanese. While in Japan he may have studied with Takeda Sokaku, though there is much controversy surrounding what training, he received while in Japan.
Hapkido is now widely taught throughout the world. Choi Yong-sool died in 1986.
The art of Taichichuan was originally a family art developed and practiced for many generations by the Chen family in China. For many generations, only Chen famil-members or members of the Chen village were taught this art.
In the mid-1800s Yang Lu-ch’an was visiting the village of Chen and was able to convince Ch’en Chang-hsing to teach him the family martial art. After becoming quite proficient at the art Yang Lu-ch’an departed, and with permission, went to the capital to teach the art to others. He eventually taught at the Forbidden City and made evolutionary changes to the system he had learned. The modified system ultimately came to be called Yang Style Taichichuan. It is by far the most widely practiced martial arts form in the world.
The Chen family form of Taichichuan is also widely practiced but represents a much smaller proportion of the number of adherents to Taichichuan training.