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Kenpo (???) is the name of several martial arts. The word kenpo is a Japanese translation of the Chinese word “quánfa. This term is often informally transliterated as “kempo,” as a result of applying Traditional Hepburn romanization (which provides for use of the letter “m” when ? precedes a labial consonant such as “p”), but failing to use a macron to indicate the long vowel. The generic nature of the term combined with its widespread, cross-cultural adoption in the martial arts community has led to many divergent definitions.

In Japanese martial arts, kenpo is used to designate Chinese martial arts, (much as the term kung fu is used in English-speaking countries), some koryu jujutsu styles as well as several gendai budo such as Shorinji Kempo and Nippon Kempo. The “m” romanization is often preferred when describing such arts in a Japanese context to avoid confusion with terms romanized as “kenpo” in the government of Japan and some forms of kenjutsu, such as that practiced within the Bujinkan. The various arts that are called “kenpo” or “kempo” in Japan do not necessarily share any lineage, theory or technical corpus.

Kenpo has also been appropriated as a modern term: a name for multiple martial arts that developed in Hawaii due to cross-cultural exchange between practitioners of Ryukyuan martial arts, Chinese martial arts, Japanese martial arts and multiple additional influences. In the United States, kenpo is often referred to as Kenpo Karate. The most widespread styles have their origin in the teachings of James Mitose and William Kwai Sun Chow. Mitose was nominally Chow’s senior, but the true nature and extent of their relationship is controversial. This lineage also includes Kajukenbo, an art that does not use the kenpo name itself, but which possesses recognized offshoots that do. These arts have spread around the world through multiple lineages, not all of which agree on a common historical narrative. Notable styles such as Kajukenbo and American Kenpo employ linear and circular movements with a signature “rapid fire” combination of blows to vital areas of the body.

Some Okinawan martial arts groups use the term kenpo as an alternate name for their karate system or for a distinct but related art within their association. American karate practitioners have also adopted the term, sometimes using it to describe a form that is purportedly older, more authentic or possessed of secret teachings such as pressure point attacks. The authenticity of these claims are controversial. Both the “n” and “m” romanizations are used by various groups.

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