Article by Emanuel Giordano

The three terms mean respectively BOXING, CHINESE TECHNIQUE / HAND (the kanji 唐 actually indicates the Chinese Tang dynasty, which was synonymous with “Chinese” for a period) and EMPTY HAND. Although these are not the only terms that were used to define the Okinawan martial art today known as Karate, they are undoubtedly the main ones used during the twentieth century, where already the more generic term Te / Ti 手 had been gradually supplanted (sometimes it was still used to distinguish indigenous art from that imported from China, as in some articles published by various Karate masters).
Kenpo is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term Quanfa (sometimes Romanized in Chuanfa), Tode (Toudi in Uchinaaguchi. In Japanese it can also be read Karate, although with a different meaning from today's) was the term used in Ryukyu to indicate the martial arts of Chinese origin (or supposed such), while Karate is the term used for the first time by Hanashiro Chomo sensei in 1905 to indicate our martial art. This term was later used in mainland Japan and by Funakoshi sensei, finally being officially adopted in Okinawa after the 1936 meeting of the masters.
As emerges from the various written sources, the most used term was a combination of Kenpo and Tode. Funakoshi sensei titled his first book Ryukyu Kenpo Tode (1922); Motobu sensei titled his Okinawa Kenpo Toudi-jutsu Kumite-hen (1926); Kyan sensei used Okinawa Kenpo Tode-do Kihon Kumite (1934), etc. It is therefore evident that this is not a term used only by a teacher. However, in mainland Japan the term Karate written in hiragana か ら て or か ら 手 began to take hold, as also testified in the minutes of the meeting of the Karate masters of 1936 and in some books. In the same report, Gusukuma sensei describes a similar situation in the middle schools of Okinawa, where the term Tode began to be disliked, prompting him to simply use Kenpo. This happened partly because of the growing Japanese nationalism, and partly because of the tensions that were forming between Japan and China, which would lead to the second Sino-Japanese conflict in 1937. Funakoshi sensei himself in his book Karate-do Kyohan (1935) will explain the reason for the change of the kanji from 唐 to 空, although giving a "convenient" explanation, and disavowing the term Tode 唐手.
The term Karate 空手, after the meeting of 1936, supplanted every other term used before, giving more union to our martial art. The fact that Tode 唐手 can also be pronounced Karate greatly helped this transition.
Excluding very rare cases (eg Okinawa Kenpo by Nakamura Shigeru) today all schools use the term Karate 空手. Perhaps, if a meaningful term had not been found (so similar to the one in use at the time) today we too would call our martial art Ryukyu / Okinawa Kenpo. Paradoxically, even the term Kenpo is little used today. Removed the few schools of Karate that still use it, and removed in Nippon Kenpo, it has almost totally fallen into disuse, as even the Chinese martial arts are now conventionally defined as Kung fu or Wushu, instead of Quanfa 拳法.
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata 2" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: The legacy of the bodyguards of the king of Okinawa" (here)
  • "The legend of the masters of Okinawan Karate: Biographies, curiosities and mysteries"  (here)