What is Kenpo Karate? (And Its Shocking History)

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Perhaps you’ve heard about Chuck Lidell’s black belt in Kenpo Karate, but exactly what is Kenpo Karate?

Simply, Kenpo is a Japanese martial art of Chinese origin.  It teaches self-defense, usually against a single opponent, in a style that emphasizes the employment of many techniques and forms utilizing quick punches, snap kicks, powerful blocks, and energy-efficient movement with well-distributed balance.

And it is known as a killing art.

Whoa! What was that last part?

Which part?

The last part.

Oh, yeah, the last part.  Don’t worry.  That’ll make sense soon enough.

So, how did this martial art come to be?  How is it different from others in the self-defense game?  How did it migrate to the United States and evolve into the various forms of American Kenpo of today?

And how does it translate into the modern fighting world of Mixed Martial Arts?

Well, you’ve come to the right place with all your questions.  Let’s dive in!

What’s All This Killing Art Stuff?

Usually, when you hear self-defense, you think, “I’m going to learn how to defend myself and protect my loved ones and stop a bank robber one day.”  And you’d be correct on all three.

But in Kenpo, especially American Kenpo, the mentality can be a little different.  Yes, it does focus on self-defense.  Structure, style, discipline, self-preservation.  All that good stuff.

Yet, it also focuses on the fact that if you have to defend yourself against anything close quarter, well, once engaged, you might as well cause as much damage to your opponent as possible up to, and including, killing them.  That’s why some schools of Kenpo (whether they consider themselves Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu or Kenpo Karate) refer to it as “the killing art of self-defense.”

But lots of martial arts do and say the same thing.

True, but Kenpo really emphasizes it, especially in street fighting.  Face rakes, eye strikes, throat strikes, knee strikes, devastating low kicks, foot stomps, testicle ripping, oh, and, of course, neck-breaking.  If it could teach you to sever someone’s head with a chop, it would.

They even have katas that allow you to meditate on maiming in close-quarter combat in fluid, circular movements, and thought-filled motions.

In the end, though, you really need to go back to the beginning.  Time for something called STORYTIME!

A (Not-So) Brief (But Possibly Convoluted) History of Kenpo

A not-brief but possibly convoluted history of Kenpo.  How’s that for a sub-heading?

You don’t say.

It’s okay, it’ll make sense here in a bit.  The not-so is because it’s impossible to just say Kenpo was born, it migrated, it evolved, and here it is today.  The possibly convoluted is because there are several major branches of Kenpo today, leading to questions like: 

  • Who, what, where, when, why?
  • Why did branches start forming?
  • Is that really true or an exaggeration?
  • How true is American Kenpo today to the Kenpo of yesteryear?
  • Why do some call it Kenpo and others Kempo?

Do you see where I’m going?

Maybe a better way to put it is that it’s complicated.  So, to be brief is impossible, but it doesn’t require a textbook to get to the meat of the story.  And although some things within this history are open to debate, there are many facts that can’t be argued.

So, let’s focus on what is known and how your local Kenpo studio got to where it is today.  Myths and legends can be left for another day (well, at least most can).

Where Did Kenpo Originate?

Japanese Martial Arts

Kenpo originated in China as Quanfa (literal translation is “Fist Method” or “Fist Law”).  It is believed that it then migrated to Japan approximately 700 years ago, where it was enthusiastically embraced by martial artists.  This is where the name Kenpo comes from, and why some refer to it as Chinese Kenpo.

Kenpo can be translated as Fist (Ken) and Method or Law (po).  Some believe that po should translate to Law only.  But in this case, since the original Chinese translates to either one, either translation of Kenpo is appropriate.  Although Law does sound a lot more in line with a killing art (and more badass).

Major practitioners rose among the Komatsu and Yoshida clans, which considered their forms of Kenpo purer than those styles of others.  As unarmed fighting martial arts evolved over the centuries in Japan amongst many warring clans, various Karate disciplines became their dominant form.  However, for the Komatsu and Yoshida clans, the Fist Law became their Law.  Ha-ha.

As the Japanese form of Kenpo developed and took root in the Komatsu and Yoshida clans, the Chinese version went through extensive changes so that, as of today, nothing resembles what originally began in China.  Neither does a lot of the American Kenpo of today, through changes and evolution, resemble much of what the Komatsu and Yoshida clans in Japan perfected and later migrated to the US after the turn of the 19th century.  Change and evolution are going to be continuing themes here.

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Speaking of change…

Kenpo’s Arrival and Development in the USA

American Kenpo developed for street fighting

Kenpo first arrived in the US on the island of Hawaii in the early 20th century.  It was introduced by Kiyoku Komatsu, a young girl from Japan who apparently was what would be considered today a Master or Grand Master in Kenpo.  This is one of those areas where either the thing is vague, confusing, or just not concrete enough to build a house on.

Side Note: The terms Masters or Grand Masters can be a bit confusing.  The easy way to remember is that the Great Grand Master is the founder of the style, the Grand Master is the current head of the style, and the Master is basically next level down but ready to take ownership of said style. 

What is somewhat more solid to build on is that Kiyoku married Otokichi Mitose in 1912 at the age of 22 (which means she was probably somewhere around 12 – 15 when she first arrived in Hawaii).  Later, in 1917, they had a son named James Mitose.  At the age of 3, he was sent back to Japan to be raised by his maternal grandfather, Sakuhi Yoshida.

What is this?  A soap opera?  What happened?

Yeah, it gets better.

So, James went to Japan when he was 3.  While there, his grandfather taught him Kenpo.  In fact, James became the first Mitose to master the Yoshida form of Kenpo.

But his mom…

Wasn’t a Mitose, remember.  And his dad apparently didn’t give a “you know what” about martial arts, let alone his son.  He was sent away at the ripe age of 3, after all.  In fact, James only returned to the US in 1937 upon the death of his father.

That’s heavy.

Indeed!  But return he did, a master of the Yoshida Kenpo style.  After Pearl Harbor, James became the first Kenpo master to start openly teaching what he called Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu to the public in Hawaii.  He did this for another decade and it is from his club that all of Kenpo in the West sprouted.

Side Note: it was also after World War 2 that Shorinji Kempo in Japan was born.  The Shorinji style is considered more along the lines of Shaolin Kung Fu, with more of a religious aspect complementing its style.

Also, note that Kung Fu is a bit of an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts in general.  As is Karate for almost any Japanese martial art.  And Kenpo is for any of its styles in the West.  They really boil down to the individual philosophy of the different masters within each of the different styles.

What is the Difference Between Kenpo and Kempo?

There is no difference between Kenpo and Kempo, as the spelling is all based on the same kanji (a form of Japanese writing) word meaning Fist Law.  The issue is in the transliteration.  Some use Kempo.  Some use Kenpo.  Both are correct and have the same meaning.

Time out!  There is a difference.  Look at the spelling of the two.

Yeah, might as well address this now while we’re delving into the history of Kenpo.  Or is it Kempo?

Just tell me what’s with the spelling!

Okay, okay.  Simply put, it doesn’t matter how it’s spelled.  The meaning remains the same.  You just have to pick one.

Why can’t they just pick one?

Ah, yes.  The proverbial they.  Where’s the fun in that?

Enter William Kwai Sun Chow

William Kwai Sun Chow.  How’s that for a name?  Just screams badass.  Until you learn he preferred to go by “Willy” and the Kwai Sun is usually abbreviated K.S. Willy K.S. Chow? Not as badass.

But don’t let the variations on a name mislead you. Badass he was.  So, let’s meet halfway and simply refer to him as William Chow from now on.

During the years after Pearl Harbor, Chow studied directly under Thomas Young, the first person to be promoted to black belt by Mitose in the US that we know of, as well as Mitose himself.  He also assisted both in their teachings.  Later, Young would promote Chow to black belt and assistant instructor. 

By 1949, Chow had left Mitose’s club and founded his own. Vice opening a dojo, he began teaching in parks and at the YMCA in Hawaii.  Several students of Mitose followed him.

He renamed the style he taught Kenpo Karate.  By doing this, he officially broke away from Mitose’s Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu and can be considered the official founder of Kenpo Karate (or American Kenpo Karate, but Ed Parker would argue that point).

Oh, and he considered it a “War Art”.  Not a martial art.  A War Art that’s tailored for students and practitioners for training in a balance of street fighting and self-defense.

As Chow’s reputation spread (and would later be called a Great Grand Master), so did the number of people arriving to learn Kenpo Karate from him. 

His students, and later instructors, include such names as Ralph Castro (founder of Shaolin Kenpo and also eventual Great Grand Master), Adriano Emperado (Chow’s top student and founder of Kajukenbo), Masaichi Oshiro (Te-Ken Jutsu Kai), and others that would carry both Mitose and Chow’s arts of Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu and Kenpo Karate to the mainland of the US where both styles would evolve greatly.

Oh, and there was one other guy that trained in Hawaii.

Enter Ed Parker

Ed Parker.  What to say?  Well, this will be brief because what could be said or claimed is legendary in and of itself.

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It is easier to get to the main points. Parker was born in Hawaii in 1931.  While growing up there, he studied Judo and supposedly learned Kenpo Karate under William K. S. Chow and his brother Frank Chow while also attending Brigham Young University and later while serving in the Coast Guard.

That’s a lot of stuff going on.

Anyhoo, he later opened his first dojo in Provo, Utah in 1954 and another studio in Pasadena, California in 1956.  Believing Kenpo Karate was not modern enough for the times, he refined the techniques to make them even more “street” intense compared to those taught by Chow.

Parker would officially brand his form Ed Parker’s American Kenpo.  It incorporated more circular motion, multiple techniques that could be employed in combinations based on a specific situation, faster kicks and punches with more intense and disabling effects, and just overall devastation.

Ed Parker’s teachings can be learned through his book Kenpo Karate: Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand, available on Amazon:

This new style also made it more amenable to the adoption and incorporation aspects of not just Jiu-Jitsu but styles such as Muay Thai kickboxing and Escrima.  If you were to visit a Parker school or descendant of Parker’s forms, you wouldn’t just see standard kicks, punches, or the multiple variations of a block.  You’d probably also see ground fighting, kickboxing, and even knife and stick fighting.

Early students and practitioners of Parker included Al and Jim Tracy, who would go on to refine Parker’s system to standardize the order of the techniques for each of the belts along with associated katas.  Later, they would move on to start their own style, aptly named Tracy’s Kenpo Karate.

Parker would also become well known for training celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Robert Conrad, and Warren Beatty.  Later, he would appear in several television shows and films, such as The Revenge of the Pink Panther.  

Whatever the myths, Ed Parker had a hell of a life and is owed a lot of recognition for popularizing Kenpo in America as well as evolving it into a broader style capable of absorbing aspects of other forms.

Whatever Happened to James Mitose?

Whatever did happen to James Mitose?

As stated earlier, he started teaching openly after Pearl Harbor and would do this for another decade.  Then he up and went to Southern California in 1953.  He may have provided private sessions but never again opened a club or dojo to the public.

Then in 1974, he was arrested in Los Angeles and convicted of murder and extortion.

What?!?!

Yep!

Well, he actually talked someone into committing murder due to a conflict over a loan of all things.  Although Mitose didn’t actually strangle the person, he took responsibility because the murderer was his student (Guess he was doing private sessions).

Mitose later died in San Quentin State Prison from diabetes complications in 1981.

The killing art…hmmm.

There it is, the brief history of Kenpo. Well, as stated above, not-so-brief and convoluted in places.  But it is brief in that this just scratches the surface.  Chow and Parker could have articles of their own.  And we didn’t even discuss Jeff Speakman (you know, The Perfect Weapon).

Maybe another day.  Let’s move on.

The Belt System in Kenpo

Kenpo, like many martial arts, has a pretty standard belt system that delineates rank, experience, and overall badassery.  The colors are pretty similar but might not be in the same order as other arts.  However, the point is the same: from newbie to master, starting with white and ending with black.

For most, the colors basically boil down to (in order from starter to master):

  • White
  • Yellow
  • Orange
  • Purple
  • Blue
  • Green
  • Brown (with various degrees once achieved)
  • Black (with various degrees once achieved)

In addition, some schools have different variations for kids and youths.  Others break up the belts with stripes or hash marks to indicate progression within the belt they’re currently holding.  In some, the order of purple belt, blue belt, and the green belt may flip flop in places.  Brown belt usually holds the same place.  And some schools have red belts, usually either just below or even above the black.

All in all, the point remains that there is a progression of belts based on rank and experience, not the Kenpo “discipline” being taught.  Nothing too complicated here.

Kenpo Frequently Asked Questions

In the interest of time and space, and in anticipation of some general questions you might have, below is a list of Frequently Asked Questions that might get to the heart of what you may be asking yourself.

Of course, why would you be asking yourself?  You don’t have the answers.  That’s why an FAQ list is provided.

Is Kenpo Karate Dangerous?

Kenpo Karate is dangerous in that it is a system that doesn’t just emphasize self-defense but self-preservation at all costs.

Really, what is the point of self-defense if there isn’t danger involved to the person attacking? The opponent needs to quickly understand a mistake has been made in choosing this individual as a target. In some cases, they need to learn that hard, deserved education through inflicted punishment.

Yet also remember Kenpo isn’t your ho-hum, everyday discipline. It’s not just block, block, block. Elbow to the body. Knee to the body. Now kicks to the body. Now punches face.

As stated before, there’s a lot more devastation to it.  Eyes, throats, and testicles are all worthy targets. Elbows and knees are well represented.

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The killing art, remember.

Are Kenpo and Kung Fu the Same?

Kung Fu is an all-encompassing name for Chinese martial arts.  Kung Fu roughly translates to any skill “achieved through work.”  So, when it comes to martial arts, this can include Quanfa, Wing Chun, Drunken Boxing, etc.

Because Kenpo is the Japanese version of Quanfa, and because Kenpo migrated to Japan from China, it would technically fall under Kung Fu if taught in China as Quanfa.  However, it is not the same as Kung Fu.

Think of it this way.  Kenpo can be considered an umbrella term for all the schools in Kenpo that fall underneath it.  Shorinji is not the same as Shaolin Kenpo or American Kenpo or even Hawaiian Kempo.  But they all fall under Kenpo.

Is Kenpo Better than Karate?

Kenpo isn’t better than Karate.  More like a co-equal that often incorporates the title Karate as part of its style.  Hence, you have Kenpo Karate of American Kenpo Karate.  Just as you often see Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu.

Here’s a way to remember it best.  If you see Kenpo Karate, there’s a good bet that the school will be emphasizing not just Kenpo but the matter in which kicks and punches are delivered.  It may not focus much on groundwork or submissions.

Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu, on the other hand, still emphasizes punches and kicks but also incorporates a lot of groundwork and submissions.

Then there are the schools that incorporate everything.  Kenpo Karate Jiu-Jitsu is a bit of a mouthful.  These schools usually embrace the MMA title with an emphasis on various styles.

What is American Kenpo?

American Kenpo, specifically, is a derivative of the Kenpo brought to Hawaii by James Mitose and later expounded upon by William Chow.  Chow focused greatly on modernizing Kenpo and adapting it more for the streets.

Later, Ed Parker would take Chow’s approach and refine it even more for the streets, with a focus on urban fighting in closer quarters (imagine fighting on a subway car or in an alley).  He incorporated more circular motions with an emphasis on speed, quick shifts, power, and efficiency of movement while disabling an assailant with multiple techniques in series.  The goal, too, was to disable while minimizing the use of energy where possible.

American Kenpo is the primary form of Kenpo seen in the US today, although there are many styles that have branched off from it.

How to Tie a Kenpo Belt?

Tying a Kenpo belt is pretty straightforward and probably similar to other disciplines.  Follow these steps:

1. Take the middle of the belt and press it against your stomach.
Wrap the belt around your back, crossing over your spine, and bring the ends back forward.
2. Cross the end held by the right hand under the end held by the left.  In effect, by doing this, the ends should cross and switch hands.  The right end should now be in the left hand and vice versa.
3. Loop the end now in the left hand over the end held by the right hand and thread this end between the top of the belt and your stomach, pulling down.  The right hand should not move.
4. By this point, the end in the right hand should be up and away and the end in the left hand should be threaded between the belt and stomach and be positioned down and away, for the first half of an overhand knot.
5. Now cross the left end over the right end in front of you, switching hands again.
6. Pass the end now in the left hand through the hole formed by crossing the ends and pull down while pulling up with the right hand on the other end.
7. You should now have a firm square knot securing your belt in place.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Black Belt in Kenpo?

How long it takes to get your black belt depends on two things: time and effort.  It isn’t just the time you put in, but also how much time you are allotted to learn and how fast your instructor believes you’re picking up the techniques. The effort is based purely on you, as in how much effort you are putting in to master the techniques.

For example, you might be a quick learner and instead of one technique, your instructor might give you three in one week to practice.  If it looks like you’ve got them down, you might get two or three more to add to your fire of burning education.

However, if you’re having problems mastering those first three techniques, you might have to spend more time on them and you may only get one new technique or none at all. Maybe it’s an issue with coordination or balance.  Maybe the speed of the technique is throwing your timing off.

Every student is unique as is their path to Black belt.  But without self-practice outside of your formal lessons or classes, it’ll take a great deal longer to earn your black belt.

But for a rough estimate, do not be surprised if you spend the first three years working toward your Brown belt. And another year, at least, working towards Black. If you achieve it within five years, you’re doing great.

More from this series

This is the starting point for our Kenpo Karate series, in which our very own Kenpo Karate Instructor, Erik from MMA Hive, teaches you more about this martial art that has origins in China, Japan, and eventually Americanized for modern fighting.

Check out more articles about Kenpo Karate:

About the Author

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Erik is a former naval officer and defense contractor (but he's not allowed to talk about it). He is also the author of Demon, Guardian, Bigfoot Crank Stomp, and numerous small press works and short stories. He's also a certified Kenpo instructor in the Tracy Kenpo Karate system. You can find out more about him and his drivel at his blog.

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