Kajukenbo is a hybrid martial art that combines Western Boxing, Judo, Jujutsu, Kenpo Karate, Eskrima, Tang Soo Do, and Kung Fu. It was founded in 1947 in Oahu, Hawaii, at the Palama Settlement. The original purpose of the art was to deal with local crime and to help the people defend themselves from U.S. Navy sailors who would drink and start fights. The founders were Sijo (“founder”) Adriano Emperado, Peter Young Yil Choo, Joe Holck, Frank Ordonez, and George Chang (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Clarence Chang) who called themselves the Black Belt Society. The founders of Kajukenbo wanted to develop an art that would “make them invincible in the most difficult streets of Hawaii”.

Kajukenbo uses hard, fast strikes to vital points throughout the body, take-downs involving high impact throws, and many joint and limb destruction techniques, usually as follow-ups to take-downs. There are also blocks from attacks, such as punches and defenses and disarmament of offensive weapons. The name works in two ways: “ka” (“long life”), “ju” (“happiness”), “ken” (“fist”), “bo” (“style”) or “ka” (“karate”), “ju” (“judo”/”jujutsu”), “ken” (“kenpo”), “bo” (Boxing and/or Chinese Boxing Kung Fu), leading to the art’s philosophical meaning: “Through this fist style, one gains long life and happiness.”

Kenpo emerged as the core around which this new art was built. Although uncredited by name, other influences included American Boxing (Choo was US Army Welterweight Champion) and Escrima (Emperado also studied Kali and Arnis Escrima). From its beginnings Kajukenbo was an eclectic and adaptive art. As time has passed Kajukenbo has continued to change and evolve. Currently there are a few distinct “recognized” branches of Kajukenbo: Kenpo (“Emperado Method” or “Traditional Hard Style”), Tum Pai, Chu’an Fa, Wun Hop Kuen Do, and the Gaylord Method. In addition there are numerous “unrecognized” branches, including CHA-3 and Kenkabo. While this may be confusing for an outsider, it is the essence of the art. Students are not required to mimic the teacher, but are encouraged to develop their own “expression” of the art.

In the late 1940s, Palama Settlement was a violent area and fist-fights or stabbings were commonplace. In 1947, Adriano D. Emperado and three other martial artists made a secret pact to create a street fighting combination of their arts. The foundation would consist of the following:

  • Adriano Directo Emperado — Kenpo (Kosho Ryu) and Escrima
  • Joseph Holck]] — Judo (Danzan Ryu Jujitsu)
  • Peter Young Yil Choo — Kaheka Lane Kenpo Karate (Tang Soo Do) and Boxing
  • Frank F. Ordonez — Kaheka Lane Danzan Ryu Jujitsu
  • George “Clarence” Chang — Chu’an-Fa Chinese boxing

When the Korean War broke out, Joe Holck, Peter Choo, Frank Ordonez, and Clarence Chang were drafted, leaving only Adriano Emperado to carry the system on. Sijo Emperado and his brother Joe introduced Kajukenbo to the public by opening the Palama Settlement School in 1950. They called the school the Kajukenbo Self Defense Institute (K.S.D.I.). The training there was notoriously brutal. Their goal was to be invincible on the street, thus the students sparred with full contact. Professor Emperado had a motto, “The workout isn’t over until I see blood on the floor”. His philosophy was that if someone was afraid of pain they would be defeated the first time they were hit. Those who remained developed into tough fighters with a reputation for employing their art in street fights with little provocation. Several students who came out of the school would become very prominent martial artists themselves, such as Sid Asuncion, Aleju Reyes, Joe Halbuna, Charles Gaylord, and Tony Ramos.

In 1959, Sijo Emperado continued to add more Kung Fu into Kajukenbo, shifting the art to a more fluid combination of hard and soft techniques. Since then, Kajukenbo has proved to be an improvement-based, continuously evolving and open form, willing to accept whatever works. John Leoning, who taught Doug Bunda, the brother of Carlos Bunda, also helped bring out the “bo” of kajukenbo. John Leoning pointed out that there should be no wasted motion.

The art slowly began to grow in popularity, and soon Emperado had 12 Kajukenbo schools in Hawaii, making it the second largest string of schools at the time. Joe Halbuna, Charles Gaylord, Tony Ramos and Aleju Reyes, who all earned a black belt from Emperado, brought Kajukenbo to the mainland in 1960. They each opened Kajukenbo schools in California. In 1969 Tony Ramos trained with and exchanged ideas and methods with Bruce Lee. Tony’s version of Kajukenbo became known as the “Ramos Method” and is kept alive by numerous instructors. Aleju Reyes died in 1977 and Tony Ramos died in Hawaii in 1999. Sr. Professor David V. Amiccuci is the successor of the Ramos Method today. Charles Gaylord continued with the art and developed the “Gaylord Method”. He was the President of the Kajukenbo Association of America and, in teaching the art, carried on the legacy of his Sijo. He died in August 2009.

In a 1991 interview with Black Belt Emperado was asked who some of the Kajukenbo tournament stars were and said “Al and Malia Dacascos won many tournament championships. Al Gene Caraulia won the 1st Karate World Championship in Chicago in 1963 when he was still a brown belt. Purple belt Victor Raposa knocked out world rated Everett “monster man” Eddy at the 1975 “World Series of Martial Arts”. Carlos Bunda was the first lightweight champion at the Long Beach International Karate Championship (IKC) in 1964. Bunda once defeated TV star Chuck Norris in competition where he broke Chuck’s cup involving a kenpo groin kick.” According to Norris, in his book Against All Odds: My Story he won the middleweight title in 1967 at the Long Beach Internationals, then beat Bunda who had won the lightweight title.

Kajukenbo, as it stands today, has more grappling moves than regular kenpo and incorporates joint-breaking, low blows, and combination attacks. While it does include some competitive elements its primary focus is on realism and practicality. It is generally thought that “unfair” moves, such as strikes to the eyes or groin, are perfectly acceptable as is whatever else the practitioner feels is necessary to get home that day.

Training workouts emphasize cardio conditioning and functional strength. While individual schools may show variation, it would not be unusual to train with sandbags or boxing gloves. There are core self-defense techniques at the heart of Kajukenbo and most schools eschew impractical, flashy moves and acrobatics. Most kajukenbo curriculae feature counter-attacks to punches, kicks, grabs, as well as using knives, sticks and guns. While this base of common knowledge will keep schools’ styles similar, there is plenty of room for variation. Given how different the four foundational styles of Kajukenbo are it is impossible to fully incorporate everything and some specialization is inevitable. This openness tends to encourage schools to incorporate other arts, such as escrima or aikido, into their practice.

Some schools of Kajukenbo feature 26 katas that are broken down into 13 “pinyans” (also called “Palama sets” in some schools) and 13 “concentrations”. Each of the concentrations have their own name. For example concentration number one is titled “crane strike/tiger claw”, as it features that particular strike. Katas are incorporated into Kajukenbo to help the student refine their skill. Every movement in the katas has a function. For example the first movement in pinyan 1 is a right outward strike while moving to a left back stance. This movement would be used to block a punch. Some katas also focus on multiple enemy combat.

An important part of some kajukenbo classes is the Kajukenbo Prayer, written by Frank Ordonez, although a fair number of schools are completely secular. In some classes it is customary to end class with reference to the Kajukenbo trinity: spirit, mind, and body (each with their own hand sign). After the trinity students and instructors alike open their hands to represent peace and then bow their heads in respect. A stylized Kajukenbo salute is also part of many school customs: students salute the American flag and their instructors to show respect. Students and instructors alike salute black belts when they enter the training floor.

Ranking hierarchies vary widely from school to school. One common belt order is as follows: white, yellow, orange, purple, blue, green, brown (3 levels), student black, followed by the various degrees of black belt. Some schools have “in-between” belts that feature a white or black stripe running down the center of the belt. Black belt rankings and titles can also vary, but student black belts through to second degree students are usually given the title of “Sibak” or “Sisuk”. Third through fifth degree are given the title of “Sifu”. Sixth and seventh are called “Sigung”. Eighth degree black belts are “Professors”, and ninth degree is a “Grandmaster”. The founder, Adriano Emperado, held the title of “Sijo” and is a 10th degree black belt. The titles given to the black belt ranks are Chinese names. Sijo, being the highest rank, means founder. Sigung means the teacher’s teacher, Sifu means teacher, Sibak means teacher’s assistant. The literal translations are: Sijo—Founder or grand master (Great Grandfather); Sigung—Instructor’s Uncle; Sifu—Instructor (Grandfather); Simu—(female) Instructor, or wife of instructor; Sibak—Instructor’s brother (Elder Uncle); Sisok—Junior (or assistant) instructor. There are also other titles that, while used, are much less likely to be found in a training environment or used by students.

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