Kenpō (拳法) is the name of several Japanese martial arts. The word kenpō is a Japanese translation of the Chinese word “quán fǎ“. This term is also sometimes 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.
Kenpo is firmly undogmatic, and as such its techniques vary depending upon the preference of the practitioner and the instructor. However, certain characteristics are common to nearly all forms of kenpo.
- Kenpo is a system of self-defense. Its techniques are almost entirely counters; a typical kenpo school does not teach its students how to attack people.
- Kenpo is not about fighting. A Kenpo practitioner does not “feel out” his opponent. Once the kenpoka is attacked, his aim is to end the fight however he can as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Kenpo is set apart from many other martial arts by the sheer size of its curriculum. This varies, of course, from school to school, but several forms and defenses against strikes, weapons, and grabs, are required to advance in rank.
- Kenpo employs a belt ranking system, similar to those of Karate, Judo, or Jiu-Jitsu.
- Kenpo is almost exclusively a stand-up martial art, using various hand strikes, kicks, elbows, knees, throws, and in some cases joint locks.
Some Okinawan martial arts groups use the term kenpō as an alternate name for their karate systems or for a distinct but related art within their association. This can be illustrated by the International Shorin-Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation, where Shōrin-ryū is the actual karate style practiced, whereas “hakutsuru kenpo”, or “hakutsuru kenpo karate” is a related but distinctive style also taught by the association. Both the “n” and “m” romanizations are used by various groups.
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 ofOkinawan 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 spent most of his early years training in Japan learning his family style, Koho Ryu (Old pine tree school). James Mitose would later bring that style to Hawaii where he would teach Chow, who would go on to instruct Ed Parkerand Bobby Lowe. The system of kenpo taught by Mitose employed hard linear strikes and kicks, pressure point manipulation, circular movement patterns, and joint locking and breaking.
Parker is the most prominent name in the Mitose lineage. A student of Chow in Hawaii for nearly six months, Parker moved to the US mainland to attend Brigham Young University. In 1957, he began teaching the kenpo that he had learned from Chow, and throughout his life modified and refined the art until it became Ed Parker’s American Kenpo.
It employs a blend of circular movements and hard linear movements. Parker created techniques with names such as Thundering Hammers, Five Swords,Prance Of The Tiger, and Flashing Mace to provide a memorization tool to the student.
These arts have spread around the world through multiple lineages, not all of which agree on a common historical narrative.
Shaolin Kempo Karate
Shaolin Kempo Karate (or “SKK”) is a martial art style that combines the Five Animals of Shaolin Kung Fu, the core competency of Kempo, the hard-hitting linear explosiveness of traditional Karate, as well as the power of Western Boxing and the felling and grappling arts of Jujutsu, Chin Na, and Mongolian wrestling. This system was founded and developed by Fredrick J. Villari, (a former black belt student of Nick Cerio and William Kwai Sun Chow) who devised a hybrid system which integrated the four ways of fighting:striking, kicking, felling, and grappling to eliminate the inherent weakness of martial arts systems that focus on just one or two of fighting techniques.
Shaolin Kempo Karate is primarily taught through a chain of Villari’s Martial Arts Centers in the United States and Canada, although there are several unaffiliated organizations that teach variations of the style. These include schools founded by former students of Fred Villari.
History & Development
The roots of Shaolin Kempo Karate can be traced back to 3 main sources of Asian Martial arts:
1. The Shaolin Temple – where Kung Fu and other Chinese martial arts are commonly referred to as “boxing” or “temple boxing.” The Chinese aspect of the art is also the source of the 5 basic animal forms: Tiger, Crane, Snake, Leopard, and Dragon which all have very different postures and focuses.
Because of the diversity of Asian, Polynesian, and American culture in Hawaii, the arts of Kenpo, Kajukenbo (which was an early hybrid martial art), and Kenpo Karate were formulated mostly by street fighters like William Chow and Adriano Emperado. Ed Parker helped bring Kenpo to mainstream America through his work in Hollywood and with celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Bruce Lee. Through later work of George Pesare and Nick Cerio, Kenpo was brought to the East Coast of the United States, where Cerio would meet and train Villari. Villari’s use of Kenpo, which he later changed to “Kempo” would be the vehicle by which he would bind together the principles of the traditional martial arts:
“Villari’s martial arts training started early in his life. After being introduced to Western and Chinese boxing by his father, Villari went on to study jiujitsu and wrestling with the LeBlanc brothers in his middle teens. By the time he was 18, Villari realized his martial arts training was stagnating and sought out Nick Cerio as an instructor of Chinese kenpo. After completing his requirements as second degree black belt with Cerio, Villari traveled to the West Indies where he traded his techniques for karate and kung-fu training. While in the islands, Villari also studied under a Chinese-Australian instructor Soo, and gained his third and fourth degrees. After working with another master Len Chou, Villari received his fifth degree and soon decided to open his own school.”
The original Shaolin Kempo Karate school was United Studios of Self Defense, later becoming Fred Villari’s Studio of Self Defense. It was under this name that the SKK style spread across the United States and throughout the world. At its peak, there were more than 300 Villari franchised martial arts schools worldwide.
The development of the system consisted mainly of mastering several existing martial arts, removing movements Villari deemed inefficient, and then integrating the remaining movements into a cohesive system. Fred Villari borrowed heavily from the following in the development of SKK:
1. Shaolin Kung Fu is the “backbone” of SKK for its circular punches and kicks, but mainly for the incorporation of the 5 animals: Tiger, Crane, Dragon, Snake, and Leopard. Shaolin arts also emphasize a sense of balance and a lifestyle of health and fitness. Shaolin animal strikes and methods used by Villari are included more prominently in the higher ranks of SKK and are thus less apparent to a casual observer or low ranking student.
2. Karate for its mechanical style as well as linear and angular movements combined with quick shuffles and explosive attacks. Nearly everything taught in the first 3 levels of SKK is rooted in traditional Karate, which had led to much of the criticism of the system using the term “Shaolin” when the casual observer or young student would be learning little else but Karate stances, strikes, and blocking methods until they have achieved the rank of purple belt.
3. Kempō for its non-dogmatic approach to fighting systems and a mixture of both hard and soft movements that blend nicely in combinations. Kempo is taught slowly to beginners in SKK, but is increasingly prevalent in intermediate, advanced, and master levels of the system. It is also a noticeable source of many black belt forms in SKK.
Aside from use of specific and traceable Asian lineage, a wealth of material was created by Fred Villari himself, and still further material was “Demystified” for the sake of being shared with the masses. From this breadth of source material and original work by Villari, Shaolin Kempo Karate was codified to include 108 fighting combinations and the following katas:
Two Man Fist Set, Sho Tun Kwok, 12 Hands of the Tiger, Nengli South, Nengli North, 11 Hands of Buddha, Invincible Wall, Branches of the Falling Pine, Lost Leopard, Iron Fortress, Tai Sing Mon, 1000 Buddhas, Five Dragons Face the Four Winds, Sneaky Snake, Sad Snails, Wounded Tigers, Immortal Monkey and the Plum Tree Blocking System.
For his contributions to the martial arts world and the spread of Shaolin Kempo Karate to thousands of Americans, Frederick J. Villari was inducted into the World Masters and Black Belt Federation in 2005.