What Is Kenpo Karate?

What Is Kenpo Karate?

Kenpo is one of the many martial arts that developed in Asia throughout history. It has roots both in Chinese and Japanese martial arts. However, it is most commonly associated with Karate in modern times, because of the many different styles that appeared later on. So, what is Kenpo Karate?

Kenpo Karate is a type of Kenpo commonly known as American Kenpo. It was developed after Ed Parker studied Kenpo and refined it into a new style that was influenced by the many martial arts. Other styles of Kenpo have some Karate elements in them but aren’t considered Kenpo Karate.

However, many Kenpo masters don’t consider American Kenpo to be a real style of the martial art they practice. It is a lot more flashy, therefore hardly ever possible to use in combat. Plus, Ed Parker combined so many different techniques into his Kenpo Karate, it barely resembles the original Japanese Kenpo.

History of Kenpo Karate

To understand how Kenpo Karate came to be, we need to go further back in history to the origins of Kenpo itself. The first types of Kenpo were developed in Japan, under the influence of Chinese fighting styles. The founders used the Chinese style of unarmed combat and adapted it to be more effective and practical to use for defense against a lot of other known styles. It was firstly used by the Yoshida and Komatsu Clans.

The literal translation of Kenpo would be Fist Law or Fist Method. Later on, it had to be modified and adjusted to remain effective against new arts and styles that came to life through the years. The influence of Karate began changing it into a craft more similar to the Karate we can see today, so it is also a reason for it to be known as Kenpo Karate.

The style was brought to Hawaii around the 1940s by James Mitose, who spent his childhood in Japan, where he trained and mastered the Yoshida Kenpo style living with his grandfather. Once he came back to Hawaii, he opened his club where he taught a craft he called Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu. When he retired, his head instructor, Thomas Young, continued to teach and lead the club.

His second instructor, however, is considered to be the founder of Kenpo Karate, called William Kwai Sun Chow. He opened his club, where he taught the style he named as such, to Ed Parker – the name that is always the first associated with American Kenpo.

Parker studied with Chow in Hawaii for six whole years before returning to the Brigham Young University in Utah. He taught what he learned from Chow, but over the years changed it and added new elements. He combined different methods and techniques from many other martial arts, namely Kung Fun, Karate, and others.

There is some controversy surrounding Parker and his black belt in Kenpo. His master, Chow, claimed that he never got to the black belt under him, only the purple, but Parker claimed he got his black belt in 1953. He also included a lot of elements into his style that wouldn’t be effective in real combat. 

So, many suggest that he merely capitalized on the huge craze about martial arts in the United States at the time, creating something that looks flashy and appealing. Not everybody believes so, however, and his style is very popular even today.

Is Kenpo a form of Karate?

Originally, Kenpo wasn’t considered a form of Karate, as it developed much earlier. It was stylized through its history to match the new martial arts that started to develop. However, the origins of Kenpo and Karate are quite similar. Both of the techniques developed as a result of the exchange between the Chinese martial arts with Okinawan people in Japan.

That is the reason why the origins of Kenpo are often disputed. Some claim it is Chinese, some claim that it is Japanese. We’ll get back to the origins later on.

The style that Mitose brought to Hawaii from Japan was much different from the one that Parker popularized in the 1960s. It was focused more on Japanese crafts, with hard, brisk, and linear moves and strikes. Parker, on the other hand, used that as a basis but included a lot more of the Chinese styles and forms with circular movements and roundhouse kicking.

So, to answer if Kenpo is a form of Karate, it depends on the point of view you take. If you want to know which style resembles Karate techniques and movements more, it would be Mitose’s Kenpo. But, it was not considered nor called Karate. Parker and his master (Chow) called their style Kenpo Karate, although it uses many techniques and skills from Chinese crafts, such as Shaolin Kung Fu and others.

American Kenpo that is well known even today is known as Kenpo Karate, but it isn’t a true, original form of Karate.

Is Kenpo Japanese or Chinese?

As we mentioned before, there is some dispute and controversy about the origins of Kenpo. It is, indeed, very hard to determine where the grounds of Kenpo are, mainly because it was influenced strongly by both Chinese and Japanese martial arts.

The origins of Kenpo are, indeed, in Chinese martial arts, especially Shaolin Kung Fu. That is why many people consider it to be a Chinese martial art. However, the first forms of real Kenpo were developed in Japan. 

So many changes were made in the method that it barely resembles any of the ancient Chinese martial arts. You can find some elements here and there in various Chinese styles, but overall, the style of Kenpo originated in Japan, even though it used Chinese crafts as a base.

When Kenpo reached the peak of its popularity in the 30s and 40s, many different arts and styles claimed their methodology stems from real Kenpo. Some stated that the masters that taught them the craft they know had training from real, Chinese Kenpo masters.

That is preposterous because Chinese Kenpo didn’t even exist as a type of Kenpo. That term was coined in the 1960s by Ed Parker himself. He realized that, even though Kenpo has roots in Kung Fu, none of the known styles resemble Kenpo. So, he added elements from Chinese martial arts and used some terms that created the connection between China and Kenpo we know today.

To conclude, Kenpo has roots in Chinese martial arts, but it is undoubtedly a Japanese martial art. None of the ancient styles in China resemble Kenpo, even though some moves are similar. Modern use of the term gave this martial art a Chinese connection it didn’t have over the centuries of its history. 

It is still not determined exactly when and where it originated, but strong inclinations and known facts point to it being developed in Japan, namely in Okinawa, practiced by the Yoshida Clan, and taken on by the Koshida Clan not long after.

How many styles of Kenpo are there?

Today, there are so many different styles and forms of Kenpo. It is hard to tell how many styles exist, but there are five main types of Kenpo, each having its derivations and techniques. The five main types are Okinawa-Kenpo, Kosho Ryu Kenpo, Shorinji Kempo, Kajukenbo, and finally, American Kenpo Karate.


Okinawa-Kenpo was developed by Shigeru Nakamura in 1960. It was a style of Kenpo that combined the ancient Japanese martial art Ti with elements of Kenpo and Karate. At the time, there were no schools that reached Okinawa karate, and Nakamura didn’t enjoy the fact that karate is branching into so many different styles, without a unified, traditional Ryuha (school).

Therefore, he developed and taught his karate style which he named Okinawa-Kenpo. He wanted the different styles to be unified into one name, Okinawa-Kenpo. In a meeting held in 1961 between masters and grandmasters of all styles, the Okinawa Kobudo Kyokai has been founded. The association, however, failed to survive and fell apart after Nakamura passed away eight years later.

Okinawa Karate continued to develop, and Okinawa-Kenpo lived on as well. Moreover, it evolved even more. Nowadays, the term is used for a specific karate style and has its own different sub-styles.

Kosho-Ryu Kenpo

One of the first known Kenpo styles to be taught is Kosho-Ryu Kenpo. The Mitose family, which ultimately brought Kenpo to Hawaii, learned Kosho-Ryu Kenpo in the 15th century, around 600 years ago. The style has been passed on through generations until today.

This style combines many different arts gathering the most useful elements from each. You can spot elements of Jujutsu, Kyudo, and Shaolin Chaun Fa while undertaking the Rinzai Zen philosophy. Many more methods were implemented to perfect Kosho-Ryu Kenpo over the years. 

Sometimes, this style is known as the old pine tree, because that is the meaning of the word Kosho. James Mitose was a master that learned this ancient art in Japan while growing up with his grandfather. He refined it a bit more and taught it in Hawaii, naming it Kenpo Jiu-jitsu.

Many styles have derived from this form of Kenpo and Mitose’s teachings, but the core of Kosho-Ryu Kenpo is its philosophy. A human isn’t allowed to harm or injure another human and needs to show his peacefulness by not using weapons, so all of the attacks, pushes, and pulls are performed only with body contact.

Shorinji Kempo

This style of Kenpo (Kempo) was developed in the 40s and was founded by Doshin So. This form of Kempo added new elements in combat as well as in mental preparations and philosophy. So implemented Japanese Zen Buddhism into his craft. The philosophical, and religious segment of the art has been highlighted and are very important. That’s the reason why many consider this form of Kempo to be a religious form of martial art.

That is true, but there is a clear division between the religious side of Shorinji Kempo, and the technical, fighting side of it. They are commonly taught separately and later implemented into one another.

Today, many branches and styles have been developed, but the status of each isn’t the same. If the style branched in Japan, they are named “doing” temples. However, if the style developed outside of Japan, it can only be named a “dojo”.


This style came to be in Hawaii around the beginning of the 50s. William Chow was the teacher of Adriano Emperado, who founded Kajukenbo afterward. To be precise, he is credited for the founding, but the development of this style is the product of the work of five different martial arts masters: Emperado, Peter Choo, Frank Ordonez, Joe Holck, and Clarence Chang.

The term Kajukenbo derived from the five styles themselves: Ka – Karate, Ju – Jujutsu and Judo, Ken – Kenpo, and Bo – Boxing. They took some of the crucial techniques from each martial art and incorporated them into this blend. 

The new-formed style incorporated many different styles of combat and techniques, such as punches, kicks, locks, takedowns, and throws, making it very effective in combat. That is why many famous MMA fighters studied Kajukenbo, most notably the former UFC champion Chuck Liddell and a rising star of the sport, Sage Northcutt.

Unlike other martial arts, once you reach the master level of Kajukenbo, your teachers don’t ask you to follow and mimic them, but rather to develop your version or expression of the art.

American Kenpo Karate

The biggest name in American Kenpo, as we mentioned, is Ed Parker. He was also a student of William Chow in Hawaii for six years, but he developed his craft in a new direction. He was also the one to make it as popular as it is to this day. 

Many Kenpo masters don’t consider his teachings real Kenpo, because of many controversies surrounding his rank and the effectiveness of the teachings in the first place. His master, Chow, stated that Parker never even reached the black belt, but Parker said otherwise.

He used techniques from many different arts and styles, mostly Kung Fu, to develop his own, American Kenpo style. It has very flashy moves and combinations and uses English names for techniques (Thundering Hammers, Prance of The Tiger, etc.) to sound more appealing for the ones riding the bandwagon of popularity that Asian martial arts had in the USA at the time.

He did, however, put the sport on the map by cleverly breaking down Chow’s techniques into a system that was easy to understand and learn. It is still a very popular form of Kenpo, especially in the movie industry, because of its dazzling moves and performances.

There a lot more sub-styles in existence, such as Kara-Ho Kempo, Shaolin Kenpo, Lila Lama, CHA-3 Kenpo, etc., but all of them are derivatives or combinations of the five mentioned above.

How many belts are in Kenpo Karate?

Although the ranking can vary between different Kenpo styles, the belts are always similarly divided into categories. If we are talking strictly about Kenpo Karate – the teachings of Ed Parker – there are 18 belts in total.

Yellow belt

It is acquired after you learned the basics and the foundations of Kenpo. It is of crucial importance to master the first belt, as it is the groundwork for all other levels

Orange belt

You learn new attacks and strikes, but also, you learn how to block and parry the enemy. You also learn how to properly move in Kenpo and battle in general.

Purple Belt

This level of Kenpo training teaches you how not to let your opponent lead the battle, but how to take control of what is going on by traps, grabs, and takedowns. You learn distance and side-to-side movement, along with expanding your striking arsenal.

Blue belt

This is where everything you learned gets put to test. You need to master your movement to gain the most out of your technique. You’ll also start to do sparring.

Green Belt

Here, you’ll have to be able to recognize the flow between movements, implement it in a circular motion and flow through moves seamlessly.

Brown belt

This is the first belt that has ranks in between. You use your power, speed, and precision to the full extent, trying to maximize each to up the level and strength of your technique. There are three classes of the brown belt: Sankyu, Nikyu, and Ikkyu.

Black belt

Once you reach the black belt, you are considered a Shodan, or an Instructor. However, there are still 10 different degrees of the black belt, going from 1st Dan Shodan to 10th Dan Judan.

Is Kenpo effective in a street fight?

Without a doubt, Kenpo can be used in street combat to successfully defend yourself from attacks of all sorts. However, this martial art has so many different styles, so it is important to note that not all of them are equally effective in combat.

The first and original forms of Kenpo, such as Kosho-Ryu Kenpo, are very effective both in battle and in a great physical and mental state. Kojukenbo has also been proven to be quite effective, although it only partially a style of Kenpo.

However, some forms of American Kenpo are known to be more focused on the appearance than the effectiveness of the techniques, so a lot of people consider them ineffective in a street fight. Nevertheless, knowing any martial art gives you an advantage against somebody who has no training at all, so it is never a bad idea to start Kenpo, regardless of the style.

Frequently asked questions on Kenpo Karate

What is Kenpo Karate?

Kenpo Karate is a type of Kenpo commonly known as American Kenpo. It was developed in the United States by Ed Parker and is based on the Japanese martial art of Kenpo, but includes elements from a variety of other martial arts, including Kung Fu and Karate.

What are the roots of Kenpo?

Kenpo has roots in both Chinese and Japanese martial arts. It was developed in Japan, under the influence of Chinese fighting styles, and was later modified and adjusted to remain effective against new martial arts and styles.

Who is considered the founder of Kenpo Karate?

William Kwai Sun Chow is considered the founder of Kenpo Karate. He taught the style to Ed Parker, who is often credited as the founder of American Kenpo.

Is Kenpo Karate considered a true form of Kenpo by all practitioners?

No, many Kenpo masters do not consider American Kenpo to be a true form of the martial art they practice. It is considered more flashy and less practical for use in combat and does not closely resemble the original Japanese Kenpo.

What is the controversy surrounding Ed Parker’s black belt in Kenpo?

There is controversy surrounding Ed Parker’s black belt in Kenpo, as his master, Chow, claimed that he never reached the black belt level under him, only the purple. Parker claimed to have received his black belt in 1953. Some suggest that Parker capitalized on the popularity of martial arts in the United States at the time and created a flashy and appealing style that was not as effective in real combat.

Is Kenpo a form of Karate?

The answer to this question is debated. Some argue that Kenpo is a separate martial art with its own unique techniques and history, while others claim that it is a form of Karate that has evolved and been influenced by other martial arts over time. The specific style of Kenpo in question and one’s definition of Karate may also impact this answer.

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