The Kanji (The Japanese language characters for Kenpo) can be transliterated into English as either “Kempo” or “Kenpo”. The first character “Ken” means “fist”, while the second one “ho” means “law”. However, the current standard for translating Japanese into English is the Hepburn romanization method for creating Romaji, where the “Ken” would become “Kem” when it precedes an “h” sound, and the “h” takes on a “p” sound. Thus, “Kenho” becomes “Kempo”. The common reference to “Kenpo” comes from the book that James Mitose produced in 1953 entitled What is Self-Defense? Kenpo JiuJitsu as a textbook on martial arts and due to a spelling mistake by the printers who printed an N instead of M the spelling of kenpo came about. In English, it is correct to use either term, though their particular usages have become somewhat stylized. The term stayed with his students, and when William Chow and Edmund Parker went to create their own Kempo schools, they took the “Kenpo” name with them.
Both “Kempo” and “Kenpo” are acceptable forms of transliterating the Japanese name however, and the meaning is not changed by the slight change in pronunciation. Technically “Kempo” may be more linguistically correct, although the term “Kenpo” has entered widespread use.
The use of “m” instead of “n” in the word Kenpo/Kempo may be attributed to the fact that in Japanese the sound is that of a soft “n”, while in many Western countries, especially in many parts of the United States, the “n” sound tends to be much more nasal, therefore, to the Japanese ear, “m” is closer to correct when dealing with western languages.
In the West, Kempo is mostly known as a mixed style that combines a heritage in Chinese martial arts, especially Shaolin, with Karate (and sometimes called ‘Kenpo Karate’), often mixed with elements of other Japanese arts like Jujutsu and Aikijujutsu. In Japan, Kempo can refer to a large number of different (and mostly unrelated) systems of martial arts, mostly stemming from families in the feudal period – the term Kempo being used as an abbreviation, since the names are long.
Some practitioners follow that Kempo uses much of the same path as Chinese martial arts, but in order to shorten the amount of time to train a person, methods from Karate were used as the basis to quickly allow a person to learn the basics, and techniques. As it often takes 10 to 20 years of continuous effort to master one form of kung fu, Kempo practitioners often can be black belted in around 3 to 5 years, depending on the instructor and system. Today the “style” of kempo/kenpo has become diverse. It has evolved into hybrid versions of jujitsu (kempo / kenpo Jujitsu).
Skewed History of Kenpo Coming to America