The History and Style Guide of Kenpo Karate

This martial art is about self-defense

International headquarters of Shorinji Kempo
Floris Leeuwenberg/Getty Images

Most Kenpo Karate practitioners study forms. They also involve themselves in pre-ordained fighting movements against a partner. But here's the bottom line: Kenpo is about real life street self-defense.

And here's how the art got to where it is today.

Kenpo Karate History

The martial arts have a long and storied history in China, but it's near impossible to trace most style lineages completely. Though Kung Fu gets a lot of press as an all-encompassing name denoting the Chinese arts outside of the country, in China the original term was actually 'Ch'uan-fa.' Ch'uan means "fist" and fa means "law." So when the Chinese arts made it to Japan during the 1600s, the literal translation of fist (Ken) and law (Po) turned the name into Kenpo.

Of course, the original Chinese arts were influenced by all types of exchanges in Japan (Ryukyuan martial arts and the Japanese martial arts). However, in 1920, something important happened. Namely, a three-year-old Japanese American boy named James Mitose was sent to Japan (from Hawaii), where he studied what Americans now call Kenpo type fighting forms. Mitose returned to Japan on subsequent occasions and eventually began teaching what he called Kempo Jiu-Jitsu or Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu (Kenpo is pronounced with an 'm', but some have actually changed the spelling to Kempo to differentiate their art). William Kwai Sun Chow was one of Mitose's top students (second Shodan). Along with Thomas Young (Mitose's first Shodan), Chow helped him teach in Hawaii until around 1949.

The kind of Kenpo practiced by Mitose and the like was more of a linear style. However, Ed Parker, a judo shodan introduced to Kenpo by Frank Chow and trained under William Kwai Sun Chow, received training while working in the Coast Guard and attending Brigham Young University. In 1953, he was supposedly promoted to black belt, but controversy surrounds this claim. 

Chow said that Parker only earned a purple belt under him, and others have suspected that he only achieved a brown belt. That said, not all subscribe to the controversy. Student Al Tracy has claimed that Chow did, in fact, promote Parker to 3rd-degree black belt in 1961.

In any case, Parker changed Kenpo's form to make it a more street-wise style. These changes morphed into a new kind of Kenpo that soon became known as American Kenpo.

Later, Parker began to stress more circular, Chinese movements in his teachings. And since he never named a successor to his style, there are several offshoots of his (and Mitose's) Kenpo teachings today.

Characteristics of Kenpo

Kenpo is a style that emphasizes punches, kicks and throws/standing locks. The original Kenpo that came to the United States from Mitose and Chow emphasized more linear or hard-line movements, whereas Parker's later derivation, usually termed American Kenpo, emphasized more Chinese circular movements.

Though forms are taught at many Kenpo schools, the style is often defined by its more hands on and flowing approach to self-defense. Ed Parker's American Kenpo, in particular, stressed that if you only learn one kind of defense against an attack, you're setting yourself up for failure. After all, you never know if the particular attack that you trained for will be the exact one that comes at you.

Goal of Kenpo Karate

In general, the goal of Kenpo Karate is self-defense. It teaches practitioners to block the strikes of opponents if needed and then disable them quickly with pinpoint strikes. Takedowns (usually with pinpoint strikes afterward) and standing joint locks are also staples of the art.

Kenpo Karate Sub-Styles

There are really two distinct styles of Kenpo, even if there are several offshoots like Kajukenbo or Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu (what Mitose ended up personally calling his art). These distinct styles are:

  • Original Kenpo (Mitose and Chow)
  • American Kenpo (Ed Parker)

Famous Kenpo Practitioners

  • William Kwai Sun Chow: Along with Mitose -- who was in name Chow's senior -- brought Kenpo to the American masses and expanded it as an instructor.
  • Chuck Liddell: The former UFC light heavyweight champion learned an offshoot of Kenpo from his longtime instructor/trainer John Hackleman (a 10th-degree black belt in Kajukenbo, an offshoot of Kenpo). Hackleman later named his art Hawaiian Kempo. Liddell is known for his powerful striking and outstanding takedown defense.
  • James Mitose: A Japanese American that brought the art of Kenpo to Hawaii after training in Japan. He began teaching in Hawaii in 1936.