The word kenpō is a Japanese word used to designate the Chinese word "quan fa(拳法)", it means manly art. This term is often informally transliterated as "kempo", as a result of applying Traditional Hepburn romanization, 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 the 13th century, Kenpo is a Japanese unarmed fighting art that was brought from China to Japan by the Yoshida Clan and was quickly adopted by the Komatsu Clan. The Japanese adaptation of this Chinese style was well suited to defend against the various unarmed Japanese martial arts of the 12th century. Few modifications were required for Kenpo to overcome the new unarmed systems that developed over the next 7 centuries that came to be known as Karate (Japanese of "Empty Hand"). But for the Yoshida and Komatsu Clans who developed their art into a truly Japanese style, the term was simply Kenpo. During the same period the Chinese system from which Kenpo was derived underwent so many changes that, while most of the Kenpo techniques can be found scattered among the hundreds of Chinese fighting systems, there is no single system in China today that resembles Kenpo.

In the United States, kenpo is often referred to as Kenpo Karate. Kenpo has also been appropriated as a modern term: a name for multiple martial arts that was practiced and passed down in the Mitose line until James Mitose, who lived in Hawaii in 1940, began teaching publicly, Chinese martial arts, Japanese martial arts and multiple additional influences. Mitose was nominally William Chow's senior, but the true nature and extent of their relationship is controversial. William Chow extensively studied Chinese martial arts from his own family, took over teaching the classes. William Chow taught a young Hawaiian named Edmund Parker who eventually developed Kenpo into the art people know and practice today.

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