Kempo (or kenpo) is the Japanese translation of the Chinese words “chuan fa,” which means “martial arts method” or “way” in English. It’s a generic Japanese term used to describe Chinese martial arts; it’s similar to the way Westerners use kung fu as an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts.
Okinawan-borne To De Sakugawa (1733-1815) traveled to China to learn chuan fa. Upon returning to Okinawa, he created shuri te, which became the foundation for kempo karate. In 1916, Hawaiian-borne James Mitose learned kosho ryu kempo in Japan. When James Mitose returned to Hawaii, he taught koshu ryu karate to William Chow, who then transformed the art and called it kempo karate. After learning kempo karate from William Chow, Ed Parker modified the art and became the father of American kempo after he opened his first dojo in 1954.
To re-instill a sense of national pride in post-WWII Japan, Doshin So created the self-defense system Shorinji kempo (translation: Shaolin kung fu) in 1947. As the name implies, it’s based on the Shaolin martial arts.
Because the term is so broad, many styles that use the word kempo in their names don’t share the same theoretical or technical background.
– October 7, 2013