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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 Mizu.

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.

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About The Author:

Christopher Caile is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of 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.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

kenpo, kempo

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