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Topic: Kenpo or Kempo
"From the literature I have read, I believe the letter n,
represents Japanese style and the letter m represents Chinese style? Please
reply if you have any information on this subject. Thank you."
Answer by Christopher Caile
There is a lot of confusion about the use of kenpo with an "n"
versus kempo with an "m." First it should be said that from
a Japanese linguistical point of view, kenpo and kempo are entirely interchangeable.
The Japanese don't distinguish between the sounds "ken" and
"kem." It's one and the same to them, no matter what the character
is. And when you hear it in Japanese, you should hear kenpo, not kempo,
but Japanese speakers seem to say both. It makes no difference to them
because it is the same.
In Japanese there are quite a few kanji (characters) with this same pronunciation.
You may find some dialectical differences, but ken is ken. "N"
is the only final consonant sound that exists in Japanese, although the
sound is influenced somewhat by the sound of the following syllable. When
the Japanese are speaking amongst themselves, they are able to make the
distinction either by the context of the conversation, or they ask, and
describe the kanji of the word they are talking about. It is confusing
sometimes, but they are used to it. You'll often see them writing on their
hand to explain a point when it isn't clear.
How you write it (kenpo or kempo) in the West, however, depends on which
romanization system you use. Both "Ken" and "Kem"
represent the same hiragana or kanji character in Japanese. It is similar
to how the Japanese sound "sha" used to be written "shya"
by some. Thus, as noted above, while different groups in America use the
different transliterations to identify their styles, they are the same
thing in the original Japanese.
Some Western martial arts groups, however, do consider the differences
important. Kempo with an "m" is often used to refer to Chinese
and Okinawan branches of the karate or kung fu, whereas Kenpo, with an
"n," has come to be accepted by many as referring to Mitose's
Karate (Chow, Parker et al. See below). In fact some Western groups as
well as Okinawans get upset if you describe what they do as Kenpo (such
as Okinawan Kempo founded by Shigero Nakamura and Ryuku Kempo groups,
which includes several different organizations).
Kempo is also often used as an alternative for Ch'uan fa, or what is
better known today as Kung Fu. Many Western writers, however, often prefer
to use the term Chinese Kempo. Included are the many styles that influenced
development of karate on Okinawa including the Shaolin Kung Fu and Fujian
Kung Fu styles (White Crane, Monk Fist, Five Ancestor Fist and many others).
The translators of several early karate books written by Okinawan masters
also chose the spelling "Kempo." This included Funakoshi's (founder
of Shotokan Karate) 1922 book Ryukyu Kempo: Tode (Okinawan Fist Fighting
Karate), the 1926 book by Motobu, Okinawan Kempo Tode-jutsu Kumite (Karate
Techniques for Sparring), and the 1930 book called Kempo Gaisetsu by Hotakada
As noted above, the Kenpo transliteration or spelling (of Japanese Characters)
was chosen by some American groups to identify their style and its derivatives.
"Ken" is translated as fist, and "po" means the way.
Thus Kenpo was used instead of Kempo when adopted by Kosho-ryu Kenpo (a
family art of Ch'uan Fa said to be based on Shaolin Kung Fu) as brought
to Hawaii from Japan in (1939-1941) and taught by James Mitose. William
K. S. Chow (a student of Mitose and one of only five who Mitose promoted
to black belt) also started teaching his own Kenpo Karate (Fist Way) in
1944. He trained many students (beginning in 1949) including Ed Parker
(often referred to as the Father of American Kenpo) who founded his own
Kenpo Karate organization and Joseph Emperado, a co-founder of Kajukenbo
(a combined art of karate, Judo, jujutsu and Chinese Boxing).
However, some such as Kuda Yuichi OShinsh, head of Matsumura Kenpo in
Okinawa prefers the term "kenpo," although he acknowledges both
"Kenpo" and "Kempo" are interchangeable terms. He
prefers "ken" since it has to do with the meaning of fist. He
also notes, however, that either term (kenpo or kempo) indicates that
the art being described has its roots in the Chinese arts.
It should also be noted that many Western writers also use the term kenpo
to refer to the " Japanese sword arts." As to the art of fencing
(kenjutsu), "ken" is often used as a general term meaning sword.
More specifically, however, "ken" refers to an ancient double
edged sword with a center ridge. "Po" refers to way. Donn Draeger
in his works more narrowly refers to kenpo as a medieval form of kenjutsu
in the tradition of Maniwa Non Ryu.
Other Western authorities, however, don't really distinguish between
the two terms, although one is usually chosen for consistency. John Sells,
for example, in his book Unante uses Kempo, although he notes it is just
another spelling of Kenpo. For Sells, the Kempo is used in two ways --
as a Japanese equivalent for Chinese Ch'uan Fa which in modern days is
better known as Kung Fu (also a general term referring to Chinese martial
arts but most commonly represented by the Shaolin heritage) -- and to
describe the interchangeable terms referring to the Okinawan arts, such
as karate, te, tode and unante. On the other hand, Mark Bishop in his
book Okinawan Karate uses the "n" spelling when he refers to
the book Kenpo Haku as an illustrated Chinese Boxing Manual (the Japanese
name for the Bubishi.)
I would like to thank Tom Ross and Deborah Klens-Bigman on their assistance
in helping me answer this question.
About The Author:
Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of FightingArts.com.
He has been a student of the martial arts for over 50 years and a teacher
of karate since 1962. He is the author of over 300 articles and columns
on the martial arts and editor of several martial arts books. Over the
last 20 years he has conducts seminars on street self-defense to community
and student groups in both the United States and Canada. His seminars
topics also include his specialty areas of kata applications and joint
locks and other jujutsu-like techniques found within karate. Caile started
his martial arts career in judo. Then he added karate as a student of
Phil Koeppel in 1959. Caile introduced karate to Finland in 1960 and then
hitch-hiked eastward. In Japan (1961) he studied under Mas Oyama and later
in the US became a Kyokushinkai Branch Chief. In 1976 he followed Kaicho
Tadashi Nakamura when he formed Seido karate and is now a 6th degree black
belt (Sei Shihan) in that organization's honbu dojo (NYC). He is also
Sensei in Wadokai Aikido under Roy Suenaka Sensei. Other experience includes
diato-ryu aikijujutsu, Hakuho-Ryu Aiki-jujutsu, kenjutsu, kobudo, Shinto
Muso-ryu jodo, kobudo, boxing and several Chinese fighting arts including
Praying Mantis, Pak Mei (White Eyebrow), Wing Chun, Chin Na and Shuai
Chiao. He is also a student of Zen. A long-term student of one branch
of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong, he is a personal disciple of
the qi gong master and teacher of acupuncture Dr. Zaiwen Shen (M.D., Ph.D.).
He holds an M.A. in International Relations from American University in
Washington D.C. and has traveled extensively through South and Southeast
Asia. He frequently returns to Japan and Okinawa to continue his studies
in the martial arts, their history and tradition. In his professional
life he has been a businessman, newspaper journalist, inventor and entrepreneur.