American Kenpo

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American Kenpo
Also known asKenpo Karate, American-style Karate[1]
Country of originUnited States
CreatorEd Parker[1]
ParenthoodKosho Shorei Ryu Kenpo,[1] Kara-Ho Kenpo,[1] Boxing,[1] Judo[1]
Descendant artsTracy Kenpo, American OkinawaTe
Olympic sportNo

American Kenpo Karate (/ˈkɛnp/), also known as American Kenpo or Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate, is an American hybrid martial art,[2][3] founded and codified by Ed Parker. It is synthesized mainly from Japanese and Okinawan martial arts such as karate, kenpo, and judo,[1] with influence from Chinese martial arts.[4][5]

As Senior Grandmaster, Parker did not name a successor and instead entrusted his senior students to continue his teachings in their own ways.[6]

Etymology and Early History[edit]

The word Kenpo is an English transliteration of a Ryukyuan and Japanese pronunciation of Chinese characters 拳法, the origin of which in Cantonese is pronounced Ken Fat.

Cantonese immigrants first came to Hawaii and California and brought their martial art of Ken Fat with them through the creation of Tongs. At the time, the Min languages and Cantonese were the prevalent forms of the Chinese language that spread overseas. Ken Fat was refined by the Southern Chinese and spread into Fujian and Canton, from where the various styles developed in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ryukyu (Okinawa), Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan.[7]


The de facto modern history of American Kenpo began in 1933 with Thomas Miyashiro (1915-1977), who began openly teaching Kenpo Karate in 1933 in Hawaii. Mizuho Mutsu and Kamesuke Higashiona, students of Choki Motobu, joined him. They toured Hawaii giving public demonstrations of Kenpo Karate in support of the first public Kenpo Karate Dojo in Hawaii. They were featured in numerous local newspapers, and Kenpo Karate became very popular in Hawaii. These sensei also brought books written by Mizuho Mutsu and Choki Motobu to Hawaii, which were the most detailed books on Kenpo Karate at that time.

While they were teaching Kenpo Karate publicly, the Chee Kong Tong in Maui had been teaching Cantonese Ken Fat since the 1920s to Cantonese immigrants. Willam Chow's father, Sun Chow Hoon, immigrated from Canton and trained Ken Fat at the Tong HQ when he first arrived in Maui. He also taught his eldest son William Chow. William Chow became an enforcer for the Tong. His nickname, "the Thunderbolt", comes from a common punishment for those members who break the vows of the Tongs (death by Five Thunderbolts). Those who enforce the justice of the Tongs on members who violate their vows are often nicknamed Thunderbolt.[citation needed]

William Chow studied multiple martial arts in Hawaii, including Danzan Ryu Jujutsu, by observing his little brother John Chow's classes and working out with him, often using his knowledge of Ken Fat to devise counters to the Jujutsu techniques.[8] Chow eventually developed his unique style of Kenpo Karate that blended his Chinese Martial Arts training with the more focused Ryukyuan Kenpo Karate methods popularized in Hawaii. It agreed with a linear and circular motion and emphasized practical fighting techniques designed to outperform the various martial arts in the melting pot of Hawaii. William Chow called his style by many different names over the years he taught, but most refer to his method as Kenpo Karate.[4][5] Chow experimented and modified his art, adapting it to meet the needs of American students.[4]

Ed Parker[edit]

American Kenpo originates from Ed Parker, the de jure founder of the style.[9][10] Parker started his martial arts training in Judo, earning a black belt. He then studied western boxing from his father, a boxing commissioner in Hawaii, before eventually training and earning a black belt from Chow in Kenpo Karate. After Ed Parker moved to California, he cross-referenced his martial arts knowledge with Chinese martial arts masters living in California like Lau Bun, Ark Wong, Ming Lum, James Lee, Bruce Lee and many more. Parker hosted a large martial arts tournament, the Long Beach Internationals, where he popularized the martial artists and gave many legends their start, eventually founding American Kenpo. Parker founded his own Kenpo association, The International Kenpo Karate Association (IKKA), after his students started teaching his art in other countries.[11][12] Al Tracy claims Chow promoted Parker to Sandan (3rd-degree black belt) in December 1961.[13]

Parker started teaching other Hawaiian Islanders attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, in 1954. By 1956, he was teaching commercially in Provo.[12] Late in 1956, he opened a studio in Pasadena, California.[14] He published a book about his early system in 1960.[11] The book has a heavy Japanese influence, including linear and circular movements, "focused" techniques and jujutsu-style locks, holds, and throws. When Parker increased the Chinese arts content of his system, he began to refer to his art as Chinese Kenpo. Based on this influence, he wrote Secrets of Chinese Karate,[15] published in 1963.

The system, which came to be known as American Kenpo, was developed by Parker as his specific system and featured his revisions of older methods to work in more modern fighting scenarios.[16] He heavily restructured American Kenpo's forms and techniques during this period. He moved away from techniques recognizable from other arts (such as forms familiar to Hung Gar). He established a more definitive relationship between forms and the self-defense technique curriculum of American Kenpo. Parker also eschewed esoteric Eastern concepts and sought to express the art through Western scientific principles and metaphors. During this time, Parker also dropped most Asian language elements and altered traditions favoring American English. Although he was challenged numerous times by experts and masters from multiple other martial arts, he remained well-respected in the martial arts world.[citation needed]

Parker continually developed his art, causing students to learn different curriculum interpretations and arrangements depending on when they studied with him. Since many instructors had gone their own ways and did not continue with Parker's updating, American Kenpo today has several different versions of techniques.

After Parker's Death[edit]


I come to you with only karate [meaning empty hands]. I have no weapons, but should I be forced to defend myself, my principles, or my honor, should it be a matter of life or death, of right or wrong, then here are my weapons -- karate, my empty hands.

— Ed Parker, the American Kenpo creed from 1957.[1]

Although each American Kenpo school will differ somewhat, some common elements are:

  • Basic principles, concepts, and theories such as "Marriage of Gravity" — settling one's body weight to increase striking force.[4]: 5 
  • Every block is a strike; every strike is a block — a block should be directed and forceful enough to injure an opponent, decreasing their ability to continue an attack. Every strike should counter an opponent's movement, reducing their ability to mount an attack.
  • Point of origin — refers to moving any natural weapon from wherever it originates rather than cocking it before deploying it. This helps to eliminate the telegraphing of moves.
  • The economy of motion — choose the best available target, choose the best available weapon, and choose the best open angle in the least amount of time to get the desired result.
  • Personalization — Parker always suggested that once a student learns the lesson embodied in the "ideal phase" of the technique, they should search for some aspect that can be tailored to their needs and strengths.

Function and technique[edit]

American Kenpo emphasizes fast techniques to disable an attacker in seconds.[1] Kicks are less common and are usually directed at the lower body because high kicks are slower to execute and potentially compromise the practitioner's balance; higher kicks are taught to more advanced and capable practitioners. American Kenpo contains a wide array of kicks, punches, open-hand, elbow, and knee strikes, finger strikes, throwing and joint locking techniques, and club and knife training. The mountain of motion and principles are available, but after learning the basics, students specialize in whatever areas fit their needs and desires.[citation needed]

Physically, American Kenpo develops environmental awareness, structural stability, balance, coordination, flow, speed, power, and timing in that order as the student progresses through a step-by-step curriculum. Memorization of the system is optional for gaining functional skills and primarily for students who wish to become instructors. All American Kenpo students are taught how to execute each basic movement in the system and when and why to execute each basic movement. Senior Grand Master Ed Parker emphasized concepts and principles over sequences of motion. He did not want his students to mimic him but to tailor his American Kenpo system to their circumstances and needs. Thus American Kenpo is not a traditional art but a combat science designed to evolve as the practitioners' understanding improves. This also placed the burden of effectiveness on the individual practitioner. It was up to them to make their American Kenpo applications effective by correctly applying the concepts and principles to the instructor's ideal phase techniques.[citation needed]


At the time of his death in December 1990, Parker had created Short Form 1, Long Form 1, Short Form 2, Long Form 2, Short Form 3, Long Form 3, Long Form 4, Long Form 5 (surprise attacks), Long Form 6 (bare hands vs weapons), Long Form 7 (twin clubs) and Long Form 8 (twin knives), the final form developed by Parker.[citation needed]

Parker also created 154 named (ideal phase) technique sequences with 96 extensions, taught in three stages (Ideal, What-if, and Formulation Phases).[citation needed]


Beginners are introduced to the concepts and principles of the system taught through scripted scenarios that serve as starting points for further exploration into the presented topic. Senior Grand Master Ed Parker's approach to American Kenpo was to introduce an updated and practical science of Martial Arts tailored to the needs of the individual and in a manner that would take a practitioner from being a mere follower to an innovator.[17]

Training in this manner aims to increase physical coordination and continuity with linear and circular motion. When correctly executed, each movement leads into the next, keeping an adversary's "dimensional zones" in check, limiting their ability to retaliate. Should the adversary not react as anticipated, the skilled Kenpo practitioner can seamlessly transition into an alternative and appropriate action drawn spontaneously from the trained subconscious. In American Kenpo, you never try to select a specific technique in the middle of a sudden, violent altercation but just let your body do what the Kenpo training has already ingrained in you.[18][6][19]

Students are encouraged to formulate a logical sequence of action that removes the dangers of what-if scenarios, effectively turning a what-if problem into an even-if solution. Every American Kenpo black belt will have its unique and tailored style. However, Parker published minimum requirements for each belt rank instructor in his association - the IKKA - to follow. However, if a Kenpo Instructor starts his association, they can select their student's base curriculum as they see fit.


International Kenpo Karate Association crest

The International Kenpo Karate Association logo was designed by Dave Parker, Ed Parker's brother, in 1958, as the art of American Kenpo was gaining international recognition. The design was meant to symbolically represent the art's modernized form while simultaneously acknowledging the roots of American Kenpo in traditional Chinese and Japanese martial arts.[4]: 122 

Represents bravery, power, and physical strength. It is the early stage of a martial artist's training. It is essential to work on the basics (e.g., to have a good horse stance) to prepare the body for later advancement. Also, the Tiger in Chinese culture represents the celestial guardian of the West cardinal direction. The yang aspect of an individual.
Represents quintessence, fluidity, agility, and spiritual strength. It is the later stage of a martial artist's training. The dragon is placed above the tiger on the crest to symbolize the importance of mental and spiritual strength over physical strength. Physical strength is essential. It implies that martial artists must have a good conscience to guide their biological actions. Also, the Dragon in Chinese culture represents the celestial guardian of the East cardinal direction. The yin aspect of an individual.
The circle represents continuity.
Dividing lines
The lines within the circle represent the original methods of attack first learned by ancient practitioners of Chinese martial arts. They also demonstrate the pathways through which an object could travel.
The colors are representations of proficiency within the art, alluding to the colored belt ranking system. The white represents the beginning stages, the black represents the expert, and the red represents professorship.
Chinese characters
The writing acknowledges the art's Eastern roots. The characters on the right of the logo are 拳法 ("Law of the Fist", i.e. Kenpo) and 唐手 ("Tang/Chinese Hand", i.e., Karate. (The latter is now replaced by 空手 or "Empty Hand" in Japanese Karate.) The characters on the left translate to "Spirit of the Dragon and the Tiger".
The shape of the logo represents the structure of a house. The walls and roof are curved to keep evil from intruding. The axe at the bottom of the crest is a solemn reminder that should a martial artist tarnish the reputation of the organization, they will be "cut off" completely.[4]: 122 

Belt rankings[edit]

American Kenpo Belts[20]
(3 degrees)
(10 degrees)

American Kenpo has a graded colored belt system consisting of white, yellow, orange, purple, blue, green, 3rd-degree brown, 2nd-degree brown, 1st-degree brown and 1st through 10th-degree black.[20] Different Kenpo organizations and schools may have other belt systems. The black belt ranks are indicated by half-inch red 'tips' up to the 4th degree, then a 5-inch 'block' for the 5th. After that, additional half-inch stripes are added up to the 9th degree. For 10th degree black belt, two 5-inch 'blocks' separated by a half-inch space are used. In some styles, an increasing number of stripes on both sides of the belt can indicate black belt ranks.


There are different requirements per belt depending on the school. Parker's IKKA schools stayed with the 24 techniques-per-belt syllabi, though some schools today have adopted a 16–20–24 technique syllabus as their standard. The 24 and the 16–20–24 technique syllabuses contain precisely the same techniques, but the latter groups them differently, so fewer techniques are found at lower belt levels and more belt levels to be found. In addition to self-defense techniques, Parker set specific criteria for proficiency at each level. The requirements included basics categorized by stances, blocks, parries, punches, strikes, finger techniques, kicks, and foot manoeuvres, as well as the much neglected specialized moves and methods category, which includes joint dislocations, chokes, take-downs, throws, and other grappling components.

Beyond proficiency, a student's character and attitude can also be analyzed as a significant consideration in the promotion to a new rank. Promotion after a 3rd-degree black belt has more to do with contributions made back to the art, such as teaching or other great works of exploration. For example, a third-degree black belt who further explores defending against a knife and brings that knowledge back may be promoted for his excellent contributions.[4]: 122 

Notable practitioners[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Chris Crudelli (2008). The Way of the Warrior. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p. 315. ISBN 978-14-0533-750-2.
  2. ^ a b Franck, Loren (November 1985). "Ed Parker on Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley, Full-Contact Karate and...Ed Parker". Black Belt. pp. 26–31. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  3. ^ Writer, Author Staff (2022-01-04). "What Is American Kenpo Karate? A Basic Guide To American Kenpo". MMA Channel. Retrieved 2023-09-14. {{cite web}}: |first= has generic name (help)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Parker, Ed (1982). Infinite Insights into Kenpo, Volume 1: Mental Stimulation. Los Angeles, California: Delsby Publications. ISBN 0-910293-00-7.
  5. ^ a b Wedlake, Lee Jr. (April 1991). "The Life and Times of Ed Parker". Black Belt Magazine. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. – via Google Books.
  6. ^ a b Robinson, D. L. (November 1990). "10 Kenpo Misconceptions". Black Belt. pp. 34–37. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  7. ^ "Kempo's Tai Chi Connection". Kung Fu Magazine. Retrieved 2010-02-06.
  8. ^ Perkins, Jim (July 2005). "William Chow: The Lost Interview". Black Belt Magazine. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. Archived from the original on 2008-02-01.
  9. ^ Yates, Keith D. (2008). The Complete Guide to American Karate & Tae Kwon Do. Forewords by Jhoon Rhee and Chuck Norris. Blue Snake Books. p. 13. ISBN 9781583942154. Born in Hawaii, Ed Parker... He began training in kenpo in 1940s under Frank Chow and later William Chow... He opened his first dojo in Pasadena, California, in 1956. He developed his system of karate, calling it American Kenpo.
  10. ^ Conway, Scot (May 1991). Who Will Succeed Ed Parker? Politics and Power Plays Threaten to Fragment Kenpo Karate (Black Belt Magazine, May 1991 Issue). pp. 20–22. Parker was the founder and leader of American kenpo karate and had been teaching martial arts for longer than many American martial artists have been alive.
  11. ^ a b Parker, Ed (1960). Kenpo Karate: Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand. Los Angeles: Delsby Publications.
  12. ^ a b Tracy, Will (March 8, 1997). "Setting History Right 1954-1956". Kenpo Karate. Retrieved 2014-02-17.
  13. ^ Tracy, Will (1999-08-08). "Kenpo Karate Setting History Right - The Blackbelted Mormon". A Brief History of Kenpo. Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-08 – via
  14. ^ Tracy, Will (1999-08-08). "Kenpo Karate Setting History Right 1956-1959". A Brief History of Kenpo. Kenpo Karate. Archived from the original on 1 November 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-08.
  15. ^ Parker, Ed (1963). Secrets of Chinese Karate. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-797845-6.
  16. ^ Parker, Ed (1975). Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate Accumulative Journal. Pasadena, California: International Kenpo Karate Association.
  17. ^ Corbett, John R. (July 1979). "Secrets of the Magician of Motion: Ed Parker". Black Belt. pp. 21–27. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  18. ^ Corbett, John R. (December 1979). "Lifting the Veil with Kenpo". Black Belt. pp. 23–27. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  19. ^ Barboza, Guido (January 1981). "Has the American Revolution of the Martial Arts Begun? The World's Best". Black Belt. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  20. ^ a b "Ed Parker's American Kenpo Belt Ranks and Titles". 2010-05-17.
  21. ^ Pollard, Edward; Young, Robert W. (2007). "Kenpo 5.0". Black Belt Magazine. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. 45 (1): 76.
  22. ^ "2017 Inductees – Kenpo Karate Hall of Fame". Kenpo Karate Hall of Fame. Retrieved May 28, 2018.
  23. ^ Holgate, Steve (September 14, 2006). "Guitarist Dick Dale Brought Arabic Folk Song to Surf Music". The Washington File. Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Archived from the original on June 10, 2013. Retrieved August 29, 2010.
  24. ^ "At 80 and with myriad health issues, surf-rock legend Dick Dale plays through the pain Archived March 17, 2016, at the Wayback Machine" Pittsburgh City Paper, July 29, 2015.
  25. ^ Clary, David W. (March 1993). "Meet the Karate Kid's Worst Enemy". Black Belt. p. 18. Griffith, 32... [interview necessarily conducted before March 1993 publication date]

External links[edit]

  • KenpoTech.Net—A site dedicated to preserving Ed Parker's American Kenpo Karate. Includes full details on techniques, forms, sets & more.