To understand this dynamic, we have to look at the origins of Kempo/Kenpo. Before I do that though, let's settle the debate once and for all on how it's spelled. From a linguistic standpoint, when pronouncing the characters 拳法, it should sound like Kempo. However, they should be transliterated as Kenpo when writing it in English according to the Hepburn system of romanization. That being said, James Mitose, the man credited with introducing this art to the Western world and to whom most people trace their lineage, specifically called his art Kempo and stated that Kenpo was a misspelling that he finally accepted rather than trying to continuously correct (he finally began calling it "Kempo/Kenpo" in his writings). So for the purpose of this article, unless I am specifically referring to an art tracing its lineage to Ed Parker, I will use the spelling Kempo as all encompassing. Now that we've cleared that up, let's explore how Kempo became this untouchable art.
The two most well known students of Chow were Adrian Emperado, one of the co-founders of Kajukenbo, and Ed Parker, the founder of American Kenpo Karate. My personal lineage to Chow and Mitose comes through Emperado. Sonny Gascon and Walter Godin studied Kajukenbo (Godin also studied under Chow), then broke away to found Karazenpo Goshinjutsu. George Pesare broke away from them to found Kaito Gakko. Pesare's student, Nick Cerio, founded Cerio's Kempo Karate. From Cerio, Fred Villari broke away to start Shaolin Kempo Karate. Steve DeMasco broke away from Villari to start Shaolin Ch'uan Fa and my first Kempo instructors, Kyoshi Rich Spatola and Renshi Enzo Aliotta, were under DeMasco (they are now independent). I later earned my 2nd Dan in an art called Kempo Jiu Jitsu under Sil Crino, student of Professor "Kimo" Ferreira who is head of Hawaiian Kempo Jutsu and studied under Walter Godin (Professor "Kimo" received his 9th Dan in Kajukenbo under Frank Ordonez). Wow, I got tired just writing that! And that's just my personal lineage, not taking into account the numerous other lineages tracing back to Kajukenbo or even the various Kajukenbo branches themselves (called "Methods").
Now take all of those branches that trace back to Emperado, and let's add in all the lineages that trace back to Ed Parker's American Kenpo Karate. In addition to the various organizations using the name American Kenpo, you have some of Master Parker's students who broke away to start their own Kenpo systems (Tracy's Kenpo, etc.). It's very easy to see how the Kempo/Kenpo family tree can be overwhelming, with James Mitose as the grandfather of us all.
But why is it so acceptable in Kempo to break away from your instructor and start your own branch without question, while in other arts it's taboo to even think of such? The answer is simple. When your instructor did the same thing, as did their instructor, a precedent is set that can't be reversed. The focus of creating a personal expression, making the art work for you, creates an atmosphere of freedom. As long as it works and fits within the well defined principles of the art, it's Kempo.
So now you have these practitioners who break away from their instructors due to philosophical differences or political reasons, or just because they want to be the head of their own organization, and start their own branch of Kempo without really offering anything new. It's the same, repackaged and re-gifted art that they learned and in most cases, miraculously they're wearing a 10th Dan. I'm sorry, but that's ego and nothing more. I'd venture to say that half (and I'm being conservative) of the various branches of Kempo offer nothing innovative compared to the school they came from.
Kempo is a wonderful system, and holds a special place in my heart as one of the first systems I ever earned a black belt in. With the right training methods, its a very effective self defense system and still to this day, Kempo influences a lot of what I do in my school (in addition to Aiki Jujutsu). However, there is a strict process one must go through to become the head of a system, or even a branch of a system. It's not enough to add your last name to the beginning of the art and change a few techniques. You must offer something truly unique, truly innovative. Kajukenbo and American Kenpo are great examples of new arts that better the martial arts community and stand out from the rest. Some of the other guys? Not so much. Up until now, these branches haven't had to answer that question of what they truly offer to separate them from the masses. That ends now. Kempo will no longer be the untouchable martial art.