SHORINJI KEMPO: Strength and serenity

SPIRITUAL GROWTH AND SELF-RESTRAINT — Sensei Yuji Harada teaches students principles of mutual respect and self-improvement through martial arts.        photo by  Daisuke Tagawa

SPIRITUAL GROWTH AND SELF-RESTRAINT — Sensei Yuji Harada teaches students principles of mutual respect and self-improvement through martial arts.
photo by
Daisuke Tagawa

In the basement of Sokoji Soto  Mission in San Francisco’s Japantown, 16 men and women, clad all in white, are fighting. In pairs, they send strong kicks to their opponents’ chests, hurling loud, menacing shouts. Kicks and punches are blocked with quick arm thrusts and, fairly often, grown men are lifted off their feet, hurdle through mid-air and land on the ground, where they are pinned by their opponent.

To an outside observer, these actions appear violent, aggressive and most certainly painful. But these students of shorinji kempo, under the guidance of Yuji Harada-sensei, are actually practicing an art of non-violence, spiritual growth and self-restraint.

Shorinji kempo was created in Japan in 1947 by Doshin So, who had studied martial arts in China, as a training method aimed at self-improvement, with the intent of rebuilding a society demoralized by World War II.

The physical actions of shorinji kempo, which are designed to incur minimal pain on the opponent, help an individual improve breath control, focus, balance and achieve a calm state of mind. The practice advocates restraint in its attacks and defense, using techniques of pinning or catching an opponent off balance to gain advantage rather than inflicting pain.

Tim Yoshida, who has been studying with Harada for about 20 years, said that the philosophy behind the martial art is important to understand in order to recognize the deeper meanings behind the actions. Doshin So, he said, believed that the principles espoused in shorinji kempo would have a positive effect on society.

“If everyone can achieve his or her full potential and further the cause of justice, we can create a community and society with mutual respect,” Yoshida said of the teachings. “Our physical style is based on cooperation, not competition. We typically have to cooperate to get better.”

And while Harada does coach students on offensive and defensive techniques, gathering them in a circle to demonstrate proper ways to kick and block, the concepts of self-improvement and the sport’s meditative aspects frequently rise to the surface.

“Thinking too much, hesitation, no good,” Harada instructs his students. “I just want you to make your physical and spiritual condition higher than usual. I want to help you find some kind of possibility inside your body.”

Drills continue, with advanced students guiding beginners, mixing encouragement and direction: “Keep those hands up,” “You gotta be on your toes,” and “Chin up, there we go.” The class is then concluded with a sitting meditation, ended with the bang of a wooden stick that reverberates through the dojo. Students rise and thank each other with closed palms, again evoking the sense of mutual appreciation and cooperation.

Harada, who has attained the rank of seventh dan, founded the San Francisco branch approximately 35 years ago, he said, and has been practicing the martial art for more than 45 years. The captain of Fukuoka University’s shorinji kempo team, Harada moved to America in 1979 and opened the San Francisco dojo in Japantown. Since its founding, Harada has even trained black belts who have gone on to open their own dojo.

“I just keep on, that’s it,” Harada said of his decades of teaching. “I have no reason to stop. It’s like asking someone why they eat breakfast every morning.”

While some students, like Yoshida, have been benefiting from Harada’s work for decades, the class still draws new recruits.

Jason Trinh, who has been practicing at the dojo for one month, said that he has been enjoying the “friendly” and “supportive” environment.

“We don’t have competition, we are helping each other,” Trinh said. “We have a concept of ‘half for self and half for others.’ We think of ourselves and the benefit of others.”

It is this spirit, more than the quick high kicks and impressive throws, which Yoshida said should be emphasized when considering the art of shorinji kempo.

“Martial arts are often portrayed on a superficial level as being all about speed, strength and fighting, overlooking the fact that martial arts were designed to promote spiritual development and tranquility,” Yoshida said. “Most people see the flashy moves and don’t realize there’s something much deeper.”

Classes are held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and Saturdays (excluding the months June through August) from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Sokoji Soto Mission which is located at 1691 Laguna St, (at Sutter) in San Francisco’s Japantown. New students are accepted and may participate in their first class on a complimentary basis. For more information, e-mail

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