Shorinji kempo (少林寺拳法; Shaolin-temple boxing) is a Japanese martial art that was founded in 1947 by Doshin So, a Japanese intelligence agent and martial artist. Through his travels in China before and during the second world war, Doshin So had the opportunity to study with many of the "lost" quan fa (kempo) schools that were driven into hiding following the boxer rebellion; schools steeped in history and with a deep connection to zen buddhism. He also experienced first hand many of the horrors of war, terrible acts committed by ordinary people and soldiers, and on his return to Japan after the war, found a nation defeated and in disarray.
These experiences together impressed on him the importance of an individual's strength of character in how they act and treat others. This motivated him to create a system that would teach both practical self defence and the ideals of mutual respect, responsibility and cooperation to the young people of his country, to help with healing and improving society. His art quickly spread, and today Shorinji kempo is practiced in over 40 countries around the world, and continues to promote self improvement and mutual cooperation through the practice of the martial art.
Shorinji kempo combines elements of the styles of jujustu that Doshin So learned from his grandfather, with many techniques and ideas learned from various quan fa masters during his time in China. Doshin So took these elements, and systematised them, incorporating ideas and changes from his own experience. In many ways, Shorinji kempo is one of the original mixed martial arts.
In choosing a name for his martial art, Doshin So picked one that reflected the spirit of the Chinese arts he had learned (epitomised by the Shorin-ji or Shaolin temple), and would stand out in contrast to the classic traditional Japanese arts such as karate, aikido and jujustu.
Being a Japanese art, we of course have our formalities: body position and how you stand or sit is important (called stances), and we also have Japanese words for a bunch of things. At our East London class, while I aim to keep things fairly informal, what we're learning has the potential to cause injury, and so a degree of etiquette and respect for your teacher, practice partner and the training space is important. But don't worry, you'll pick these up as you go.
Shorinji kempo is a very broad system, but is focused on practical and effective self defence techniques. The system relies on an understanding of weak points, balance control, and body mechanics to allow even a smaller or weaker person to overcome a much stronger or larger opponent. You will learn defences against strikes (punches and kicks), grabs (for example to the arms, body or clothing), how to break your fall (rolls), as well as some elements of restorative massage (including resuscitation at higher levels), and we practice meditation every class.
Weapons aren't a major focus, but we will occasionally practice defence against certain weapons, and at senior levels we teach techniques with short and long staffs.
Of course the best way to find out more about Shorinji kempo is to come along and try it out, every Wednesday 7.30-9.30pm and Saturday 12-1.30pm, Qmotion, Stepney Green / Mile End. Sign up for your free trial class today.
Ben is instructor at East London Shorinji Kempo. He has been practicing for 20 years and has reached the rank of 4th dan.
Shorinji kempo stances