The origin of American Kenpo.
This topic hits a little close to home for me because this is my art that I've trained
in for 25 years.
Now, there are many different styles of Kenpo out there, each with their own unique characteristics.
Established in the 1950s by senior grandmaster Ed Parker, American Kenpo is the amalgam of
martial arts with roots going back to Japan and China as well as elements that are custom-tailored
for American street fighting.
In this video, we're gonna take a look at where the seeds of inspiration began and how
Mr. Parker went about crafting the system that became a science of motion.
Kenpo karate has a long history of various Japanese, Okinawan, and Chinese roots.
This video is going to explore specifically the type of Kenpo that was brought to the
United States and developed into Ed Parker's American Kenpo system.
Ed Parker does touch upon some of Kenpo's historical development in his infinite insights
book series which can be found in the description below.
This story begins with a man named James M. Mitose.
James Mitose was born to Japanese parents in Kona, Hawaii, in 1916.
Just shy of age four, Mitose was taken back to Japan to receive a formal education and
It was during this time growing up there that he studied and the learned the family system
of Chuan Fa, or Chinese Kenpo.
Mitose's ancestors had continually modified and grew the system to include a balance of
religion and humanities along with a fighting art.
This family Kenpo system is sometimes referred to as Kosho-Ryu, or Old Pine Tree Style.
Mitose's style featured strong kicks and linear techniques.
In 1936, Mitose returned to Hawaii and began teaching his family Kenpo which he sometimes
referred to as Kenpo Jiu Jitsu.
Ed Parker had once stated that he believed Mitose had modified the name so that the general
public understood it was a fighting art as the name Kenpo was not familiar at the time.
However, Jiu Jitsu was.
One of Mitose's most prominent students was a man named William K.S.
Chow had various martial arts training growing up including a background in boxing, Jujitsu,
He trained under his Chinese-born father and eventually under James Mitose.
This is where Ed Parker believed the seeds of the modern system of American Kenpo were
James Mitose taught linear techniques and take downs while Chow's father had taught
him many circular movements.
Having grown up on the streets of Honolulu and in constant street fights, Chow saw value
in merging the two ideals together and into a system designed for American street fighting.
He began to modify and grow this art into what he ultimately called Kara-Ho Kempo.
Now, before going any further, let's talk about the name.
There was a lot of confusion regarding the difference between Kenpo and Kempo.
Going back to the Chinese root word of Chuan Fa, this translates into Fist Law.
When Chuan Fa is translated into Japanese, it becomes Kenpo.
However, in the rules of Kanji, when a character ends with N, it is pronounced with the N sound
except when followed by another character that starts with P. In that instance, the
N will make an M sound.
This would mean that Kenpo is technically spelled with an N, but should be pronounced
with an M. Through Romanization, it is sometimes spelled Kempo, but we are at the point where
translation errors have created two ways to spell and pronounce the same word.
Edmund K. Parker was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1931.
He started his martial arts training at the age of 12 when he began studying Judo, earning
his black belt six years later.
He also later trained in boxing and was even an amateur boxing champion.
But it was at the age of 16 that his martial arts path took it's first major turn.
At a church function, Parker met a man named Frank Chow, who's telling everyone about a
street fight he had just won against a local bully.
Frank Chow had a small build and Parker was doubtful of his claims, until Chow demonstrated
the techniques he had used to defend himself.
Parker was impressed and he became a student of Chow.
Having been involved in multiple altercations himself growing up, he constantly asked Chow
question and showed a great desire to truly understand the system.
One day Frank Chow told Parker that he had taught him everything that he could, and that
he should see out his brother, William, who at this point was a top instructor in Honolulu.
Parker sought out William Chow and knew immediately he was on the right path.
Chow was quick and exhibited an extreme knowledge of human mechanics and motion.
This is where Ed Parker began to develop a deep analysis and critical thinking in the
In 1949, Ed Parker moved to Provo, Utah to attend Brigham Young University.
Two yrs later the Korean war broke out and Parker found himself drafted into the coast
Almost as if fate had planned it, he was stationed in Hawaii, where he would be able to continue
his training with Chow full time.
When the war ended and Parker was returned to the University, he had made plans with
Chow to open kenpo karate schools on the mainland USA, upon his graduation.
The two agreed and Parker returned to Brigham Young University.
While he was there, he established a kenpo karate club and began teaching.
During this experience Parker took every question, comment, and disagreement and began to rework
the kenpo system, implementing key concepts of motion that Chow had taught him.
This was the beginning of the living system that would become American kenpo karate.
Number one, gray humor and probably the most fast individual I have ever encountered in
front of me.
You knew when he was in a room, he was dynamic, he was like a gun exploding.
Realizing that modern American fighting needed further development, he began to cultivate
the seeds that William Chow had planted.
Parker added new concepts, altered existing methods, and removed anything he felt was
He constantly modified his kenpo and implemented the system of laws and principles that would
become the backbone of the art.
As his teaching grew in popularity at BYU, the school asked Parker to conduct a basketball
half time karate demo, which proved very successful.
Soon, Parker was teaching various students, including local law enforcements and even
part time at the local gym.
In 1956, Ed Parker graduated from Brigham Young with a bachelors in sociology and he
accepted a job at the new gym in Pasadena, california.
However the deal fell through.
So Parker made the choice to open up his first kenpo karate school instead and established
the Kenpo Karate Association of America.
In 1957, Ed Parker authored the Kenpo Creed which would be recited at just about every
kenpo school from there on out.
We even have our kids recite this in every class.
Karate, my empty hands.
Things were going as planned for Parker, and anxious to fulfill the promise he had made
with William Chow, he flew back to Hawaii to bring him to California and continue with
their plans to open more kenpo schools.
Chow, however, no longer wished to leave Hawaii, and he gave Ed Parker his blessing and told
him to go forth and build his new American kenpo.
One of Ed Parker's first move was to restructure the KKAA and reform it into the International
Kenpo Karate Association, with the hopes of a global spread of the art.
He reworked the emblem and developed what is today, the most iconic image of the American
kenpo karate system.
The IKKA kenpo karate crest.
This crest, worn over the heart of each practitioner, is infused with symbolism and tributes.
However we will take a closer look at this in the third part of this three episode series.
Ed Parker drove a hard effort forward to spread the art and it wasn't long until kenpo was
becoming a name of it's own.
He became known among Hollywood talent and actors, teaching at different clubs and holding
It was at one of these demonstrations in 1960, that Ed Parker met a man by the name Elvis
Elvis had held an affinity for martial arts and from that point on, the two of the developed
a close friendship.
Elvis became a prominent representative and brought even more awareness to kenpo.
Throughout his professional career, Ed Parker instructed and worked with many of the Hollywood
In 1964, Ed Parker launched the first Long Beach International Karate Championships,
high end tournament that still exists today.
Through out the 70's and 80's, Ed Parker toured and spread the art of kenpo across the United
States and even branched out internationally.
He released several publications and became one of the most notable martial artists in
Described as a living force, Ed Parker touched many lives and created the torch of an art
that would be passed down from generation to generation.
On December 15, 1990, grandmaster Ed Parker suffered a massive heart attack at the Honolulu
airport after returning home, then he passed away.
He was 59 years old and the kenpo community had lost a father.
Throughout his life teaching kenpo, Ed Parker continued to modify and adapt his art.
He liked to take movements apart and put them back together again, in different configurations,
turning the American kenpo into an organic and living art.
And Ed Parker was always evolving, he would do it spontaneously, right there in a class
But he was always doing that and he wanted to really get across about tailoring the art
to fit the individual.
He wanted these to be a template, he didn't want it to be concrete.
Quite honestly, I think Ed Parker would always be changing and always alter ... now he did
say, "Follow the general rules and principles."
I think when Mr. Parker said that the art should be tailored to the individual and not
the other way around, what he was talking about was that rules and principles can be
used by an individual differently from other individuals.
For instance, I'm 5'5".
There are people that are 6'3", bigger.
There's things that they can do that I can't do, and just 'cause the technique says, "It
needs to be done this way," that it's teaching you a concept and a rule.
Borrowing from various Chinese, Okinawan and Japanese systems, he observed the flow and
the patterns of motions, in creating one of kenpo's most iconic emblems.
The universal pattern is a sophisticated study, as the circles and lines are all intertwined
in a way to demonstrate the different paths and methods the human body can move.
It may seem simplistic at face value, however it's easy to see just how volumetric this
design is, once you realize you're only looking at one plane.
In it's full form, the universal pattern of motion exists on nine planes and then you
can begin to see just how dynamic it truly is.
The Universal Pattern was just no more than to teach geometry movement, your body movement,
like your body was a marking pen or pencil.
And he would use the pattern, he would have it on the uniform, talk about the salutation
all the way up where you want your hands like this, and you come up like this.
You can see the heart, well the upside down of that is form six.
He would use that so you understood the movement that you're to illustrate, like a mine.
And he did tell us that it was infinite.
In other words, he, himself, never reached it's potential.
What makes American Kenpo different from other styles of self defense?
The signature difference is the scientific method in academics applied to the art.
American Kenpo is often called, the science of motion, or the science of fighting.
It analyzes all the different ways the human body can move and react, and it applies a
series of principles or laws, of how those movements work, and how they can be utilized.
For example, one of the primary principles of Kenpo is economy of motion.
If I had to pick one principle, I would say economy of motion.
Trying to be as efficient as possible to deliver the effect that you want, without wasting
Other key principles are, point of origin, or being able to execute strikes ad movements
from your current position, without having to load or telegraph movements.
There are also power principles that dictate the different ways the body can generate power,
as well as the dimensional zone concept, which studies ways to manipulate a person's height,
depth and range, along with a zone of obscurity or paths of attack, outside of an opponent's
Kenpo is very heavy on the academics and it takes years to learn and understand it.
Many people often criticize it for being bloated and extraneous.
However, if you can dedicate the time to understanding the science behind the art, then you can mold
the art in many different effective ways.
In the words of Mr. Parker, "Understand the principles that are involved throughout.
You understand principles, you've now become a mechanic of motion.
You became a mechanic of motion, you can dissect it, you can take it apart, put it together
on your own.
Then after a while you're going to try to be an engineer of motion."
Another heavily stressed aspect of American Kenpo is the encouragement of students to
In many traditional forms of martial arts, it is considered disrespectful to question
an instructor on their teaching.
As if asking the question, "Why?"
Is an insult.
William Chow and Ed Parker firmly believed that in order to understand the how, it was
important to know the why.
Kenpo students are encouraged to ask why a technique is done a certain way, or to compare
it with an alternative method.
A kenpo instructor should be able to answer these questions and give reasons, given they
understand the principles that are put into place.
I've done other arts and I feel like Kenpo is a science based art.
You're studying motion.
It's not just, "Hey, do this 'cause I'm doing it," and you're actually allowed to question
your instructor and go, "Why would I do that, instead of this?"
I like the rules and principle behind it.
Kenpo also breaks away from other karate systems and drops the traditional Japanese words and
commands and replaces the with new English terms.
Ed Parker utilized these new terms and memorization tools for self defense techniques.
For example, mace is fist, kimono is shirt grab, talon is a wrist grab, wing is an elbow
strike, and much, much more.
These terms were often used to describe the essence of a technique.
For example, cross the talon means, a crossed wrist grab.
Lone kimono is someone grabbing your shirt, with one hand, or twin kimono is a technique
based off a double hand grab.
The Kenpo syllabus is robust, containing much more curriculum than most other systems.
For each belt level, students must learn a set of basics, a list of self defense techniques,
and a Kata, or form.
Basics include strikes, blocks, stances, perries and foot maneuvers.
Katas are separated into two categories, forms and sets.
Sets are individual katas that focus on an isolated concept, such as blocking or stances.
Forms are a much more dynamic in that they demonstrate many of Kenpo's principles in
motion, highlighting and teaching key concepts, and showing how movement and ideas can flow
smoothly from one technique to another.
American Kenpo's self defense curriculum is one of the system's signature features, and
yet also one that receives the most criticism.
Each belt level has a series of pre-choreographed scenarios in which a partner comes in with
a single attack, and a defender executes a sequence of defensive moves and follows it
with a series of rapid strikes to vital target areas.
These strikes are designed to incapacitate the attacker, so that the defender can escape.
Many tournaments, demonstrations and schools will hold a technique line drill, in which
students line up and take turns performing these techniques on each other.
The line drill serves a couple of different purposes.
First, it teaches the student how to apply the technique on a human body, and understanding
how the body will react to certain strikes.
It also teaches spontaneous thinking, when a person may not react exactly as expected,
or a particular move didn't work so that the student has to adjust their strategy on the
Additionally, it's a major conditioning drill.
Those who have trained in a serious Kenpo skill, especially from a Parker disciple,
know that it is in light contact.
By taking the hits as well as getting them, the Kenpo student becomes conditioned and
is less shocked later when actually hit.
In the classes I studied in, our concept was, we wanted to get hit harder in class, than
we would on the street, so that way it would take away the surprise element of getting
Now this is where the controversy beings.
The two most common criticisms are, "You can't choreograph a fight!"
And, "No one is gonna just stand there while you hit them 20 times."
The answer to that is, absolutely, 100% correct.
A fight will never go as choreographed, and no one is just gonna stand there and let you
tap dance all over them.
However, the kenpo techniques are not actually meant to be performed exactly as they are
I think when people say kenpo is choreographed, they don't realize ... they don't understand
that the techniques are not designed to be followed as a recipe, but they're designed
as teaching tools to teach you the moves and basics and the rules and principles of Kenpo.
So yes, I agree.
You're not gonna be able to do a seven move technique on one person, but you'll definitely
be able to do pieces of those moves, in a circumstance when you need it
It's too choreographed?
So is going to school, learning how to write.
Everything is systematic.
Gotta learn the alphabet, so Ed Parker did it and the martial arts.
Gotta learn the alphabet of motion.
What's funny too, is in boxing they do a thing called shadowboxing, to warm up.
Nobody ever critiques that.
But a Kenpo guy or a martial artist on social media does their form, boy everybody comes
out of the woodwork on how they're the best.
Not realizing forms and kata, is the same as shadowboxing in boxing.
You're just doing solo training without a partner.
Just giving you the memory of sequence.
Each technique sequence is designed to teach specific principles or ideas.
One technique will introduce the attack, while another might demonstrate how a power principle
can be used.
Another may highlight the concept of point of origin, while yet another shows new stance
Each self defense technique teaches nuggets of information that are embedded in a sample
sequence to show how they can be used.
In reality, none of those sequences are meant to work exactly as they are written.
There are actually three phases of kenpo self defense.
The ideal phase, the "what if?"
Phase, and the formulation phase.
The differences between the ideal is, when everything goes according to the way the technique
The attack is perfect, your defense was perfect, the timing is executed perfectly, so it's
You get the response that you wanted.
The what if is, somewhere along that, something changed, they maybe threw in, or they moved
their hand to a different position.
Now you have to alter or change the technique.
Then formulation or the free style is, when you don't know what's coming and then you
just have to react and shift from one technique to anther.
The ideal is to teach them, "This is the threat, this is what we do."
Because in the educational world, this is the word, this is how you pronounce it.
Now let's give you a couple more words, add them to this, and you have it now it's a sentence.
Once you get into the tune of, "I've never been in that position before," and you start
to build a sense of bravery, it's no longer foreign to you.
But if we give you this punch, that punch, this kick, this attack, it's no longer foreign
to you, so we teach you all these possible positions, and the ideal.
Then, what if I go to do an elbow and they block me?
Well, what if?
We teach you that you find your own solution, and we may fix and give that to you too, hence,
A lot of the extensions are just more additional information to complete categories.
If you could do it with your right hand, let's teach you with the left hand.
For the class room setting.
This is our laboratory, by the way.
Out on the street, it's on you.
There's where the last stage comes in, grafting, formulation, spontaneous.
Just go through it.
If I threw this punch, you've seen that before.
If I've done that grab, you've seen it before, if I put you in a reverse arm bar, you've
seen that before.
If I throw a combination, you've seen it before.
For most people who don't study Kenpo, only usually ever see the ideal phase, and judge
a system on misplaced choreography, without understanding that there is a lot more to
it than is not seen at demos or tournaments.
Traditionally, karate black belts are called Dans, and our name, by their translation of
First Dan, Second Dan, and so on.
In the American Kenpo, the word degree is used and each degree actually has a title.
Mr. Parker liked to view Kenpo as an educational and academic system, so black belt rank started
with junior instructor, and worked their way up to senior master.
Depending on which curriculum you followed, by the time you reached third to fifth degree,
you've been through the entire written curriculum and have completed all of the official testing.
From that point on, a person moves up to black belt ranks by teaching, analyzing and implementing
new concepts and by contributing back to the art of Kenpo.
American Kenpo karate can be an amazing system to study.
However, it also has one of the most polarized communities.
When Mr. Parker passed away unexpectedly, he left a major gap in leadership.
He had not appointed a successor, and in his absence, many chiefs stepped up to lead the
However, due to Kenpo's ever changing nature and from constant modifications Mr. Parker
implemented, each generation of his black belts had a different version of Kenpo than
This led to some nasty politics in the system and brought on a lot of, "My version is better,"
The politics in American Kenpo, unfortunately, are just like the real world.
Everyone has their own opinion and if you don't agree with them, then you're not doing
Politics will always be.
If it bothers you, it will.
If it don't, that's why they have a delete button on your keyboard.
The reminds me of a joke about, how many Kenpoists does it take to change a light bulb?
1 to do it, 99 to tell him that's not how Mr. Parker taught him.
This is really unfortunate, because the system can be incredibly flexible as long as you
still here to the mechanics and principles in the foundation of the art.
There are many Kenpoists that recognize this and embrace the difference and share different
tactics with other practitioners.
In that respect, Kenpo has a fantastic sense of brotherhood and camaraderie.
But others lose sight of that and when that clash happens, the politics get ugly and at
times, becomes toxic to the Kenpo community.
American Kenpo Karate, it's heavy in curriculum, there is a lot to learn, and it takes a while
to become good at it.
But if you find a school that can teach you the science and principle behind it, along
with critical thinking and application, then it can be a highly effective art.
I would only encourage anybody listening, go to anyone you can, that's considered part
of that generation that is from the 60's, 70's, 80's and up to 90, that I was a part
of, get them now.
Because they're getting up to the point where, we're losing them.
Either by bad health or just because they're older, or they're retiring.
So they may not be around.
But we do have a responsibility to groom the next generation correctly.
I'd rather have the ability to congratulate a new white belt, or a new yellow belt, versus
someone doing a self promotion.
It's like birth, "Congratulations on your new baby."
We need some more birth.
That's the brief origin of American Kenpo karate, there are so many pieces to this art
that it takes years to learn how they fit together cohesively.
So for those of you who want to learn more about the system, below are several resources,
including Mr. Parker's infinite insights book series, that can give you a much deeper breakdown
of the art.
After Mr. Parker passed away in 1990, the system splintered off into different branches,
and this divide between versions is something of an interesting study in itself.
One that I have had first hand experience with.
So in the next video, we're actually going to continue this discussion with the evolution
of American Kenpo.
Thank you so much for watching.
If you have studied American Kenpo, I would love to hear your experience, and like I mentioned
before, the politics in this art are strong.
So I do ask that discussions be kept civil.
Please share and subscribe, and thank you all for watching.