Dian Tanaka

A few weeks before my black belt test in September of 2012 I met with Mrs. Dian Tanaka Whitson. While she lives on the East Coast, it just so happened that she was in town for a wedding and when I asked to meet up with her she was happy to oblige.

We met with smiles and hugs, she was warm welcoming and very interested the Kenpo Women Project.  Ms. DiRienzo and she are friends who converse regularly, so Ms. Tanaka was somewhat aware of why I wanted to talk with her and what my ultimate goal was – to honor the many women who have made a strong mark in American Kenpo over the years.

Ms. Tanaka has never owned a studio nor promoted students to a black belt level, yet she is considered one of the pioneers of American Kenpo has been invited to teach at seminars throughout the world. After meeting with Ms. Tanaka the reason became clear. From the moment I met her I sensed her humility and found that she is a forever student, always wanting to learn more, always striving to better herself regardless of what she is working on. This is a trait I find incredibly admirable.  Those traits help create a strong teacher. People want to surround themselves with intelligent, strong, and knowledgeable sources, and Dian Tanaka is clearly one of those people.

She is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to her KENPO FORMS, yet when I let her know that I had watched a video of her doing Form VI and that I was so impressed with what I saw, her first response was “oh did you see my mistakes”? I said “NO”, she replied, “I made them” and laughed.  As someone simply watching her form on video, you would never have known. She stated that during the context of sport competition, it’s natural to conceal your errors, she would keep a straight face and maintain her composure by moving forward, letting no one know she made a mistake. Ms. Tanaka also wanted to be very clear that in any other setting, if she did wrong, she would say so openly and without hesitation.

Mr. Parker promoted Ms. Tanaka to 5th Degree Black belt and she had always been content with that rank though her peers promoted her to the rank of 6th degree. She mentions this as a matter of fact, in her view rank being unimportant, merit is.

If anyone has read “The Journey” (page 25) they would learn Ms. Tanaka’s basic story. She was born in Japan and moved to the United States at the age of 7 and attended UCLA where she achieved her Bachelor’s Degree during the late 1970’s. While at college she found a place to train in karate that suited her needs and was one of a few women at her school. She recalls when Mr. Parker walked into the studio for the first time; she was a purple belt and didn’t know who he was. When they met he seemed to like her, maybe he recognized her slight accent and felt an “Island connection”. After their initial meeting Mr. Parker asked her to participate in demos and essentially put her under his wing. She did know why she was a favorite of Mr. Parker’s, maybe because of her Japanese heritage, but whatever the reason was it didn’t matter to her. She was allowed to watch the advanced classes while the other lower belts weren’t. She was part of Mr. Parker’s forms and demos team, something she took great honor in. It was while watching those advanced classes she learned a valuable lesson. The students were practicing the same material that they did in the beginning class, all Basics, just at a higher, faster level.  She never missed one of those classes, she would sit on the bench to watch, learn and absorb.

Ms. Tanaka’s is also an accomplished Martial Artists in other styles. As she evolves she has learned that there are other styles of martial arts that have a similar result when it comes to self-defense.

She is an 8th degree Black belt in Doce Pares Eskrima , a Filipino martial art that includes stick, knife and empty hands training. Her instructor is SGM Ciriaco “Cacoy Canete”.  She has trained in the home gym of Ciriaco Cacoy Canete in the Philippines, where there is no knowledge of her rank, or reputation, in “the Kenpo World”, she is just a student who is there to learn. While there, they are completely focused on training. They go to no other place but to the hotel to rest, and then back to training.  I appreciate this about her, the constant desire to better her as she surrounds herself with people who she feels make her better her as a whole. This includes her husband Zach Whitson, who has a successful career in his own system of Martial Arts, Full Circle Martial Arts. Mr Whitson is also a prominent Kenpo Black Belt.

Ms. Tanaka has also researched and studied the Internal vs External Martial Arts under Shirfu Zhang Yun.  He teaches Wu-style Tai Chi, a more combative style of Tai Chi that focuses on developing internal energy.   Ms. Tanaka was very animated in this part of our conversation and I could feel the excitement in her explanation.  I can understand this because in Kenpo can be so hard on the body. After further exploration, I learned Ms. Tanaka has endured 4 shoulder surgeries and has had 2 hip replacement operations.  “Injuries; are the “nature of the game” so to speak, with that we find alternative ways of studying and educating ourselves.”  She said “I would like to stress the importance of learning internal martial arts to develop power, and that relying on physical power alone is not enough, especially for women who cannot rely on muscle power only.  Also don’t be like me and learn the healing arts too late… otherwise there will be too many injuries that add up to a lesser quality of life!  The martial arts should enhance your life, not detract from it.  

She adds that “when talking with the great Kenpo GM Yamaguchi (who was an elder brother to Mr. Parker in the arts), he always encourages me to learn the internal martial arts and then combine it with Kenpo.  That, he says will make my Kenpo really effective

At closing I’ll say that Ms. Tanaka is very personal in her life in general but she is humble in her accomplishments and has achieved them solely by merit, by working hard and striving towards the goal of excellence.  She was an incredibly gracious subject to interview, who is the ultimate FOREVER STUDENT in my opinion, as well as someone who passes along her knowledge with nothing expected in return, SHE IS A TRUE PIONEER IN KENPO WOMEN.

Andree Scanlon



4 Responses to “Dian Tanaka”

  1. […] up our conversation, I stated to Mrs. C that there are two women in the 1st Journey Book, you and Dian Tanaka, what are your thoughts on […]

  2. Mike Hagood says:

    I have had the honor of being in some of the seminars that Ms. Tanaka has taught,
    and her knowledge of forms is superb, and her excitement in teaching is very contagious.
    Such a wonderful martial artist and human being.

  3. Prof. Joe Pouza says:

    I have been in martial arts for 56 years and am now 71 and still active. Dian is a very good friend and was one of my teachers in American Kenpo. I was a Sandan for 23 years in Judo and Jujitsu and went to study Kenpo from Mr Vinton Koklich and Dian was one of the instructors. I emptied my cup and put on a white belt and began my studies. She is a true martial artist in every sense of the word. We converse from time to time and i consider her a good friend. I created my system which I call Kensujitsu. Ken represents Kenpo, Ju represents Judo/Jujitsu and Su represents Souza me the founder. The foundation of Kensujitsu is Danzan Ryu Jujitsu, Kodokan Judo, Kenpo Karate, with a Small Circle influence. Kensujitsu brings the full understanding of balance from Judo, high pain compliance and joint manipulation and transitional flow from Jujitsu along with the principles and concepts of American Kenpo Karate to deliver maximum power and efficient use of energy.
    Learning the American Kenpo system has completed my circle and enables me to understand the principles and concepts. Dian has been a great influence in my martial arts experience. I wish you organization the very best and women should be given the notoriety they deserve especially Mrs. Dian Tenaka

    Aloha and God Bless,
    prof Joe Souza

  4. In 2001 I participated (for the last time) at a International Kenpo Karate Championship in Portugal. It was my last tournament as a brown belt and I entered the forms division with my my Long Form 4! One of the judges was Dian Tanaka who was well known at the time as one of the best forms competitors in the IKKA (International Kenpo Karate Association). I became 2nd in my division, dissapointed since I felt (and many with me) that the person who became first wasn’t technically as good as I was at the moment. Looking back at the actual footage of that performance there are like a million things that could be better, but considering the level back then and the performance of the other guy, I still feel I should have won the thing.
    The next day was another day of seminars but the organization of the whole event was poor to say the least and the whole thing fell apart. It was the poorest organized event I had ever been to that point! When there actually should have been a lot of activity with seminars, nothing really happened and I found Dian Tanaka wandering around since no person showed up for her supposed seminar. I took my chance and went to her asking about my performance the day before in the forms competition, not expecting her to remember what it actually looked like. Instead of that I was surprised that she could recall my performance in great detail and the result of this was that I winded up in almost an hour of private instruction in form 4! She took me in great detail to some of the content of the form which stayed with me to this very day. How lucky I was to be able to work out with this great lady of Kenpo, but shy as I was I never dare to ask her for a picture! But today I still feel very fortunate to have been able to learn from such great Masters in Kenpo who all had their time spend with our GrandMaster Ed Parker.

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