1 from "American Kenpo Mastery: A Guide for Students and Instructors."
History and Evolution of American Kenpo Karate
American Kenpo Karate is the most complete system of martial arts in the world. It is “an updated and all-inclusive version of Kenpo, based on logic and practicality, that has been designed to cope with the mode of fighting prevalent on our streets today.”1
American Kenpo is an evolving art that promotes change. This is in stark contrast to many traditional martial arts styles which remain bounded by traditional methods of fighting, much of which have proven to be obsolete and ineffective in actual combat.
American Kenpo Karate has many traces of kung fu, karate, boxing, aikido, judo, and jiu-jitsu but is uniquely different from all of them. It utilizes a balance of both hands and feet and is known for its vicious brutality, particularly in its street self-defense techniques. It encompasses such aspects of street fighting as throws, grappling, multiple attackers, stand-up fighting, joint locks, punches, finger strikes, kicks, leg sweeps, weapons, and nerve attacks. Many high-ranked black belts from other martial arts styles end up switching over to American Kenpo to learn more realistic methods of street self-defense.
One of the main differences between American Kenpo and arts that focus primarily on linear motion is that the latter undervalue protection and awareness. By focusing so much on one target and maximizing power, many traditional stylists lose track of what is going on around them. Ed Parker called this the white-dot-focus where one visualizes a white dot on a black background, which ultimately represents unawareness. By contrast, Kenpoists visualize a black dot on a white background (black- dot-focus), thus concerning themselves with power, protection, and total awareness.1
Despite the notion that some people make that American Kenpo trains its students to “overkill”, one must remember the rigid code that goes along with training in the martial arts. William E. Slove describes it this way in 20th Century Warriors (1971), “As a student progresses and his knowledge of karate increases, so does his respect for it; as his self-confidence grows, so does his respect for the rights of others” 2. The author later adds that most martial artists, through the development of self-restraint and assurance, will go through life without ever having to use their skill.
Kenpo originated in China, but over the years has taken on a Japanese, Okinawan, Hawaiian, and American mix. As spelled today, Kenpo with an “N” denotes its original Chinese heritage, while Kempo with an “M” refers to its use in Japanese culture.
The word “Kenpo” means fist law or law of the fist, regardless of its spelling “Kenpo” or “Kempo”. The word comes from the mandarin Chinese term “Chaun Fa” or what the Cantonese refer to as “Ken Fat”. When the art was brought to Okinawa the native tongue of Hogun was used to translate the Chinese characters and the individual kanji into Kenpo. When the Japanese pronounce this term, using the later Japanese syntax, they pronounce it Kempo. In fact, Kempo is a generic reference to Chinese martial arts in Japan.
“Karate” has two different meanings and origins although it has the
same pronunciation. Written in its original form, Karate means "China
Hands" or "T'ang Hands" referring to the Tang Dynasty
(618-907 A.D.). The second meaning of "Karate" is "Empty
Hand" (used by Japan and Okinawa). In the early 1920s Okinawan
masters changed the Chinese character from "China" to the
Japanese for "empty" since much of what was being taught in
Okinawa was no longer Chinese in origin. Today, people tend to refer
to "karate" in conjunction with Japanese or Okinawan based
styles. But, if we really think about it, karate is relatively modern.
Kenpo, on the other hand, has a history that is hundreds of years old.
American Kenpo Karate was created and developed by the late Grandmaster Ed Parker (1931-1990). As the system’s founder, Ed Parker began his study of Chinese Kenpo in Hawaii under Frank Chow in 1947, after having had four years of judo experience, as well as some boxing training. Within a short period of time, Frank introduced and referred Ed to his more experienced brother, Master William Kwai Sun Chow.
Professor William Chow (1914-1987) had a reputation as a top “fighter” and got the nickname “Thunderbolt” because of his speed and power when executing strikes. Despite the obvious ability and influence of this master, William Chow received virtually no credit in major magazines for his role in Kenpo. This may, in part, be due to the fact that Chow never made a living out of Kenpo, had very few students at one time, and taught mostly out of recreation halls, YMCAs, boys clubs, and parks. 3
Ed Parker earned his Black Belt in Chinese Kenpo from William Chow in 1953. His black belt certificate was actually awarded in three styles: Kenpo, Jiu-Jitsu, and Kara-Te. William Chow did not teach forms as part of his curriculum, and Chow’s teacher, James Mitose, only taught one. In addition to teaching the one who would later become the undisputed father of American Kenpo - Ed Parker, William Chow also taught such Kenpo greats as Adriano Emperado (who later promoted Ed Parker to 8th Degree), Joe Emperado, Ralph Castro, and Nick Cerio.
What made Ed Parker unique as a student of William Chow was that he saw a need for change from many of the traditional methods of Kenpo that were being taught. By assessing the advantages and disadvantages of every movement that he had learned, Ed Parker discarded all traditional methods of fighting that were not realistic for street application and added concepts, theories, and principles of motion that were not being employed by other systems.
Some people today argue that Adriano Emperado also created his own system of martial arts. This was not the case. What Emperado did was blend several different arts into his Chinese Kenpo background, which later became the basis for Kajukenbo. In other words, Master Emperado utilized many of the training methods taught by William Chow, but expanded upon them by cross training in other styles. By contrast, Ed Parker restructured the entire system he had originally learned, instead of just blending several different arts. He did this by redefining the methods of execution of his basic fundamentals as well as organizing and creating a new curriculum in a systematized manner.
Ed Parker categorized the Kenpo basics into eight sections: stances, blocks, parries, punches, strikes, finger techniques, kicks, and foot maneuvers. He also divided the Kenpo system into three central components: basics, self-defense techniques, and sparring. This is not to say that Ed Parker was not influenced by other arts in his creation of American Kenpo Karate. In addition to his Chinese Kenpo training, Ed Parker also studied Judo, boxing, and several Kung Fu systems and incorporated many of these movements into his system of fighting. He also exchanged ideas with several Japanese and Okinawan stylists. Through diligent research and physical practice, Ed Parker examined the movements of modern fighting from the viewpoints of the attacker, the defender, and the bystander or spectator.
While many traditional karate stylists contend that their arts are pure and authentic, and that these qualities make them more legitimate than modern martial arts styles, Ed Parker has openly disagreed. In a July 1979 Black Belt Magazine article titled, “Secrets of the Magician of Motion…ED PARKER”, the founder of American Kenpo makes these claims:
Just two years later, a January 1981 Black Belt magazine article titled “THE WORLD’S BEST: Has the American revolution of the Martial Arts begun?” quoted Master Larry Tatum (currently a 10th Degree American Kenpo Karate Black Belt and the person whom I received my 6th Degree from) as saying:
In terms of weaponry, Ed Parker did not see the practicality and realism of traditional weapons, and henceforth excluded them from his system. Instead, he focused his attention on more modern weapons such as clubs, guns, and knives. These, he believed, were the types of weapons that an assailant would be the most likely to attack with, and not weapons like the sai, tonfa, or kama. Moreover, Ed Parker devised American Kenpo as a predominantly open-handed system, with less focus on weapons.
Throughout Ed Parker’s lifetime, and in particular, since his untimely death in December of 1990, many people have tried to create what they call a new system of Kenpo. In most cases, however, these “new systems” simply involve the changing of names, sequences, or order of previously established material as was created by Ed Parker. In a similar manner, some “Kenpo” instructors delete self-defense techniques, sets, and forms due to their own personal preferences. The curriculum that is kept in their style is usually the material that they are best at, while the deleted movements represent a lack of knowledge in those particular areas. At least 90% of the American Kenpo system came from the conceptual design of Ed Parker, while the remainder was related to his previous training under Master Chow.
In 1954, Ed Parker opened one of the first commercial karate schools in the United States, while only in his early twenties. While most authorities claim that his was the first school, there is some evidence suggesting that Robert Trias had opened a commercial school in Phoenix, Arizona in 1948.3 In any case, the word ‘karate’ was not well known, and in the school’s early days, people actually came to his school anticipating a Mexican dinner. Within a short period of time, more people began to understand that karate was a means of learning self-defense and its popularity began to grow. Ed Parker’s earliest black belts, in chronological order, were: James Ibrao, Rich Montgomery, Rick Flores, Al Tracy, Jim Tracy, Chuck Sullivan, John McSweeney, Dave Hebler, and Sterling Peacock.
In the late 1950s, Ed Parker taught all of the advanced classes himself and most of the time was devoted to “hands on” street self-defense (as opposed to forms practice). He usually taught at least two new techniques per class, and Ed Parker felt that the only way to know how well the moves work was to do them virtually full power on a training partner. Frequently Ed Parker would also demonstrate his tremendous breaking power by smashing boards, bricks, concrete and roofing tile with his bare hands 3.
In 1964 Ed Parker hosted a martial arts tournament called the International Karate Championships (IKC) in Long Beach, California. The idea behind it was to showcase the martial arts to the general public, as well as to bring top-rated martial artists for competition from across the globe. It was at this tournament that the late Bruce Lee (age 24 at the time) gave a demonstration of his one-inch and three-inch punch, along with his amazing two finger push-ups. The film of the demonstration was later shown to Bill Dozier, who was the producer of “The Green Hornet”, and landed Bruce the role of Kato on the Green Hornet television series. Other stars of the IKCs included Chuck Norris, Joe Lewis, Mike Stone, and Danny Inosanto. At the time of this writing, the IKC flame carries on, with Grandmaster Frank Trejo (10th Degree American Kenpo Karate Black Belt) hosting the most recent event in the summer of 2004.
During the early 1960s, there were only three different belt colors in American Kenpo: white (four stripes), brown (three stripes), and black (ten stripes). While not directly related to this belt system at the time, it is important to expose a myth about these three belt colors. Many so called “authorities” in the martial arts, in their attempts to show how long it used to take to achieve a black belt, tell their students that in the days of old students would wear white belts until they eventually turned brown from use, and then later would become black. This is nonsense. A white belt would wear out far to quickly before it ever would turn black 3.
By the late 1960s, Ed Parker began to formalize his system by writing out standard curriculums so that all franchised studio owners would be teaching precisely the same material for rank advancement. Richard “Huk” Planas and Tom Kelley, two of Ed
Parker’s black belts, assisted with this endeavor. In a January 1992 interview for Black Belt Magazine, Planas makes the statement, “A lot of the original terminology in the kenpo system is mine, as well as a lot of the technique material. I keep hearing about this "new" kenpo system, but there is nothing new. I defy anyone to show me a new technique. All anyone is ever going to show me is a new ending that someone else made up.” 6
During the late 1960s, there were now four belt colors in the teaching manuals: Orange, Purple, Blue, and Green. There were 32 self-defense techniques required per belt level, as well as forms, sets, and fighting drills. Extensions of techniques were also available for the Orange Belt self defenses. Extensions involve relearning the same techniques previously learned at a lower belt level, but adding more movements to them by prefixing, suffixing or inserting within the technique.
As one might guess, memorizing and being able to effectively perform 32 techniques to obtain a beginner rank was no easy task. As a result, Tom Kelley suggested a lower ranked belt of Yellow to help maintain student enrollment. There were only ten techniques required for advancement, and Ed Parker, Tom Kelley, and Richard Planas all contributed to the development of the movements. This new rank, it was believed, would also help younger students who wanted to learn the system obtain their goals in a shorter amount of time. What is important to note is that the Yellow Belt curriculum was a late addition to the American Kenpo system.
As implicitly stated earlier, the late 1960s was a time that Ed Parker was beginning to franchise his studios. In an April 1991 memorial article from Black Belt magazine titled, “MY FRIEND, ED PARKER: Those Close to Him Remember the “Father of American Karate”7, Frank Trejo recalls a 1969 newspaper advertisement (he was 16 at the time) that said, “Karate Instructors Needed. No Experience Necessary. Earn up to $700 per month.” The idea behind this was that each applicant would go through a three or four week trial period of learning Kenpo, and would be tested on how well he/she could teach the material at the completion of the course. Not only was Frank Trejo one of the persons selected to become a junior instructor, but also he instantly knew that Kenpo was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Eventually more traditions were added to American Kenpo. The belt system, for instance, was updated to the colors that still stand today: White, Yellow, Orange, Purple, Blue, Green, 3rd Degree Brown, 2nd Degree Brown, 1st Degree Brown, 1st Degree Black, 2nd Degree Black, 3rd Degree Black, 4th Degree Black, 5th Degree Black, 6th Degree Black, 7th Degree Black, 8th Degree Black, 9th Degree Black, and 10th Degree Black. The belt knots were also to be placed on the left hip for men, and the right hip for women (most American Kenpo schools today still practice this tradition).
There were two reasons for the differential placement of belt knots between genders. Firstly, from a traditional standpoint, the Chinese believed that chi was stronger on the left for men, and stronger on the right for women. Chi is a Chinese term denoting “that extra inner force created by the precise synchronization of the conscious and subconscious mind, along with an individual’s breath and strength” 1. Secondly, and the more important reason for the shift in belt knots, was that it was a way to distinguish between genders in large groups of people. This was not always as easy as it may seem, especially when long hair became a fad among men. Also, when an instructor was positioned near the back of a class with the students still facing the front, the placement of the belt knots made it easier to decipher who was who.
Perhaps most controversial of all was the introduction of black uniforms into American Kenpo. Ed Parker did this primarily to distinguish between instructors and students. The instructors (brown and black belts) were required to wear black, while students wore their traditional white uniforms. The decision to have instructors wear black uniforms was also completely contrary to the standards of traditional Japanese martial art styles. But there was another “hidden” reason behind its implementation. Ed Parker was sending a clear message to the world that his system was unique, and was not just another traditional style of karate.
It should be noted, however, that Ed Parker’s instructors were not the first to wear black uniforms. Kajukenbo students began wearing black uniforms (implemented by Sijo Adriano Emperado) in the 1950s, including such great fighters as Carlos Bunda, Al Dacascos and Phil Cornan, the latter of which beat both Joe Lewis and Chuck Norris. Today, the negative image of the black uniform has diminished, although most traditional Japanese and Okinawan tournaments would still not allow a competitor to perform his katas (forms) in any other colored uniform besides white.
In any case, the black uniform has given Kenpo its unique identity for over 30 years. In its early years, it also appeared to have a psychological effect on martial artists outside of Kenpo. Chuck Norris used to say that his biggest fear as a brown belt was fighting Kenpoists in black uniforms! Today, of course, the popularity of black uniforms is growing outside of Kenpo as more and more styles (often based on the preference of specific instructors) are beginning to wear uniforms other than the traditional white.
With all of the colored belt ranks added to the American Kenpo system, Kenpo instructors were granted permission to spread the techniques out across the various belt levels. By the time of Ed Parker’s untimely passing, there were three approved methods being used to teach American Kenpo techniques across the globe. The first method was the original 32-technique curriculum, where there were ten techniques required for yellow belt, and 32 techniques required for all of the remaining belts up to green belt. Orange Belt extensions would then begin at 3rd Degree Brown Belt. Once a student obtains a 1st Degree Black Belt, he/she would have already completed the Green Belt extensions, meaning that there would be no remaining techniques to learn in the system, outside of the new forms and sets. The second approved curriculum of teaching is the 24-technique program. The only difference between the 24-technique and 32-technique curriculum is that the self-defense techniques in the former are spread out more across belt levels, and that extensions do not begin until 1st Degree Brown Belt. The last approved curriculum is the 16-technique version. Utilizing this method of teaching, extensions do not begin until 2nd Degree Black Belt, and thus the Green Belt extensions would be required for promotion to 5th Degree Black Belt. For a complete breakdown of the categorization of the three curriculums, please see Appendix A.
One of the most unique aspects of Ed Parker’s American Kenpo techniques is that the system addresses almost every type of attack imaginable. For example, self-defense movements exist for grabs and tackles, punches, pushes, kicks, locks and chokes, bear hugs and holds, weapons, and multiple attackers (the latter of which is often neglected in other systems of martial arts). The system also exploits the advantages of linear Japanese Karate striking methods, as well as the circular movements more representative of Chinese Kung Fu styles.
The distinction between “hard” and “soft” styles, or what are often called external versus internal martial arts is an important one as it relates to American Kenpo. Historically, the origin of martial art styles was inherently internal. Knowledge was slowly lost as arts were passed down from one generation to the next, resulting in the new external or “hard” philosophy. What this meant was that linear force in striking supplanted the inability to create internal energy.
In Ed Parker’s early phases of teaching, the founder of American Kenpo was highly influenced by the external side of martial arts. Many stories exist, for example, of how his students would fight each other with very limited rules, often resulting in physical injuries from one or both students. Over time, as Ed Parker became exposed to various Chinese philosophies of training, the Kenpo founder changed his philosophy somewhat, and became more and more intrigued by the internal elements surrounding martial arts. This is where we get the soft and hard balance in American Kenpo.
One must understand that American Kenpo, like some other modern arts, is constantly in evolution. In “American Kenpo’s New Voice: The Evolution of American Kenpo” 8, Ed Parker Jr. (that is, Ed Parker’s son) notes that Bruce Lee’s demonstration at his father’s 1964 tournament would barely get the attention of anyone today. This is because the martial arts today have moved so much beyond what was done forty years ago. He goes on to state that many champions of Ed Parker’s early tournaments offered his dad large amounts of money to burn the film of their wins because compared to today’s champions, they look like white belts. What this means is that American Kenpo, as taught today, is only a precursor to what he would have eventually have taught had he been alive today.
Since the passing of Ed Parker in 1990, the American Kenpo system has been left without a leader. Furthermore, since Ed Parker did not leave a clear successor, many debates have broken out about who is the true “heir to the throne” 9. Many of Ed Parker’s first generation black belts have gone their separate ways; some have formed their own organizations, and some have made outlandish claims about how close they really were to Ed Parker. It is not uncommon to hear a first generation black belt say that Ed Parker had taught him/her information that was not exposed to by others. Richard Planas correctly notes that:
Instead of arguing over an appropriate successor, it will suffice to say that American Kenpo continues to live on. Many first-generation black belts continue to pass on their knowledge acquired through their training with Ed Parker, and many second-generation black belts are now taking over and leading the Kenpo community into the 21st century. As time passes, I hope that unity in Kenpo will become stronger so that American Kenpo can truly become the art that Ed Parker long envisioned.
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