What is Kenpo?
Kenpo (or Kempo) is a term that can be applied to a wide range of martial arts. Just as the word 'dance' is very general - there are many, many types of dance - the word Kenpo is also very general. However, in modern times, there are some things that can differentiate the Kenpo arts from others, such as Karate, Kung-Fu, or Jiu Jitsu, all of which also have many different styles or systems.
Generally, Kenpo/Kempo arts have several, identifiable aspects:
They are usually hybrid, or combination arts comprised of several different source systems from more than one culture;
Usually, there will be a strong, identifiable influence from Chinese and Okinawan sources. These will be combined with methods from a wide variety of other cultures, depending on the Kenpo system;
Virtually all Kenpo systems contain a mix of striking, throwing, grappling and weapons methods:
Most Kenpo systems are very strongly oriented toward personal self-defense. While some may also include sport, health or spiritual growth, practical self-defense is usually emphasized;
Unlike many martial arts developed by warriors, soldiers, athletes or other professionals, most Kenpo arts were developed by and for average people. Consequently, the techniques, strategies, and the tactics are based on the fact that an average person may not have the power, endurance or skill level of a professional;
One of the most disconcerting things for many people outside of the Kenpo world is the fact that every Kenpo school seems different from every other. Even within the same Kenpo system one school can vary quite widely from another in the training methods and the way techniques are practiced and applied. This is because Kenpo emphasizes and adapts itself to the needs, talents and personality of each individual as well as to the culture and circumstances of the practitioner. The nature of Kenpo is such that, if it is understood and used correctly, every individual practitioner will be different from every other, even when using similar strategies, tactics and even techniques;
A specific difference between Kenpo and many Karate styles is that most Kenpo systems don't use the concept of Ikken Hisatsu (to destroy with one strike). As mentioned above, Kenpo was developed by, and for average people who generally won't have the ability to strike with the force needed to accomplish such a result in one strike. Thus, the striking portion of most Kenpo systems emphasize multiple strikes in multiple zones, ultimately leading to incapacitation of one's opponent(s);
Kenpo self-defence always assumes multiple, larger, stronger, weapon wielding opponents. This is considered the basic situation for which we are training. This assumption has a profound effect on the strategies and tactics employed in Kenpo. The sport oriented, one-on-one, weaponless training of many arts, is radically different from the Kenpo mentality and affects it's practices right from the outset;
Finally, one of the main features of most Kenpo/Kempo arts is the absolutely HUGE number of techniques and methods contained in the systems. Because of their long eclectic history, and the necessity to adapt to cultures, circumstances, and individuals, Kenpo systems have collected an enormous number and range of techniques. This is one of the aspects of the systems that many people find quite daunting;
As mentioned above, just as there are many styles, or systems of Karate (e.g. Shotokan, Goju Ryu, Kyokushin, Uechi Ryu, etc.), there are also many styles of Kenpo. It is a mistake to think that any particular style is representative of all because some can be quite different from each other. A few examples of systems that use the term Kenpo/Kempo are:
Kosho Ryu Kenpo
Kenpo Jiu Jitsu
...and many, many more.
If you are interested, you can look into any of the above with a simple search. There are also many National and International Kenpo/Kempo organizations, each with differing agendae.
Obviously, it is not realistic to be able truly to answer a question like, "What Is Kenpo?," in a short space such as this. Hopefully, this article and the accompanying video will be of some help in giving an overview. Beyond that, the only way to really answer the question is to give it a try, for about 10 years or so. Then you'll have a pretty good idea.