Kempo, Kenpo, Kendo, …

For those not familiar with the Japanese language (which, let’s face it, is most westerners), it can be hard to keep straight the names of martial arts.

Is Kempo the same as Kenpo? What is the difference between Kenpo and Kendo? Is American Kempo the same as Shorinji Kempo?

Part of the problem is that there are only so many things you can sensibly call a martial art. “Kempo” (拳法) means “Fist Method”, so it is reasonable that several martial arts might have similar sounding names!

Kempo / Kenpo

Another confusion arises because Japanese is not written in roman script, so when you transliterate it into something westerners can read you encounter problems. Like n and m being (in some circumstances) the same letter, ん.

So yes, Kenpo and Kempo can be the same thing. If your friend tells you they are learning Shorinji Kenpo, it’s likely they are talking about the same thing as Shorinji Kempo.

The “Shorinji” part is important, though – Shorinji Kempo, Nippon Kempo, Okinawan Kempo, and American Kempo are all different.

Kenpo / Kendo

Japanese has several words which sound the same (to people not fluent in Japanese, that is – they themselves seem to have no problem telling them apart). So, ken (拳) means fist, but ken (剣) means sword.

Kempo 拳法 and kendo 剣道 are not the same thing.

(As a side note, the “do” in kendo is the same as the “do” in judo and aikido, and means “way” – so kendo is the “way of the sword”.)

(As another side note, this problem also occurs in martial arts instructions. For example “uchi”, which means both “inside” (内) and “strike” (打). Context is important for figuring out which is which!)

I’m still confused!


“The way of the sword”. A Japanese sword fighting style, usually practiced with bamboo swords and protective equipment. Not at all similar to the others listed here, except in name. [Kendo]

Shorinji Kempo

“Little forest temple fist method”. A Japanese (mostly) empty hand style (i.e. no weapons, at least in the lower grades). Contains both “goho” (the hard way) and “juho” (the soft way). This is what we teach at Bristol Shorinji Kempo Dojo, and you can read all about it here.

Goho, the hard way, consists of strikes and blocks.

Nippon Kempo

“Nippon” means “Japan”, so this is literally “Japanese Fist Method”. It’s usually practiced with protective equipment and includes strikes, throws and ground fighting. There is a heavier emphasis on full-contact sparring than in Shorinji Kempo, and sparring matches include throws as well as strikes. [Nippon Kempo]

Okinawan Kempo

A subset of Okinawan Karate styles. Often referred to as “kenpo karate” or “kempo karate”. Okinawa is an island chain to the south of Japan, which is considered to be the original home of Karate, and Okinawan Karate tends to be traditional, with emphasis on perfecting kata (single form practice) as a way of disciplining your mind and body. [Okinawan Kempo]

Karate training with Shinpan Gusukuma sensei at Shuri Castle c.1938, Okinawa PrefectureJapan.

American Kempo

Also, confusingly, often referred to as “kempo karate”, American Kempo is an umbrella term for several martial arts developed in Hawaii by mixing Okinawan, Chinese, Filipino and Japanese martial arts. There is quite a lot of variety in styles so I won’t try to describe them all, but they tend to be closer to karate than Shorinji Kempo. [American Kempo]


There’s a lot of Kempo going on in the world. I’m biased of course, but I believe that Shorinji Kempo is one of the better ones. If you want to learn more about it, sign up to our mailing list or come to a class!

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. * please note that "ten or more" is still something.

One thought on “Kempo, Kenpo, Kendo, …

  1. I’d also like to note that the definition of karate is any Japanese style that came from China via Okinawa, whereas a kempo is any Japanese style that came from China directly to the Japanese mainland without passing through Okinawa (and, presumably, not collecting $200), so the phrase “kempo karate” is actually an oxymoron–but not even most Japanese know that.


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