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American Kenpo or Kenpo Karate is a system of martial arts created by Ed Parker, characterized by the use of quick moves in rapid-fire succession intended to overwhelm an opponent. It is largely marketed as a self-defense system, and is derived from traditional Southern Chinese kung fu and other martial arts found in the cultural melting pot of Hawaii. Parker introduced significant modifications in his art, including principles, theories, and concepts of motion as well as terminology, throughout his life. He left behind a large number of instructors who teach many different versions of American Kenpo.
– Ed Parker – March, 1957
The modern history of American Kenpo began in the 1940s, when Great Grandmaster James M. Mitose (1916-1981) started teaching his ancestral Japanese martial art, Kosho-Ryu Kenpo, in Hawaii. Mitose’s art, later called Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu, traditionally traces its origin to Shaolin Kung Fu and Bodhidharma. Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu emphasizes punching, striking, kicking, locking, and throwing. Mitose’s art was very linear, lacking the circular motions in American Kenpo.
William K. S. Chow studied Kenpo under James Mitose, eventually earning a first-degree black belt. He had also studied Chinese Kung Fu from his father. Chow began teaching an art, which he called Kenpo Karate, that blended the circular movements he had learned from his father with the system he had learned from Mitose. Chow experimented and modified his art, adapting it to meet the needs of American students.
Ed Parker learned Kenpo Karate from William Chow, eventually earning a black belt, though Chow was later to claim Parker had only earned a purple belt. Others have claimed Parker had only earned a brown belt from Chow, possibly because this was his rank when he started teaching in Utah in 1955. Al Tracy claims that Chow promoted Parker to sandan (3rd-degree black belt) in December 1961.
The system known as American Kenpo was developed by Ed Parker as a successor to Chow’s art. Parker revised older methods to work in modern day fighting scenarios. He heavily restructured American Kenpo’s forms and techniques during this period. He moved away from methods that were recognizably descended from other arts (such as forms that were familiar within Hung Gar) and established a more definitive relationship between forms and the self-defense technique curriculum of American Kenpo. Parker also eschewed esoteric Eastern concepts (e.g. qi) and sought to express the art in terms of scientific principles and western metaphors.
Although there were varying degrees of crossover from one evolving method to another, there were at least three clear and distinct philosophies or styles created by Ed Parker Sr.
Ed Parker initially called his art Kenpo Karate. He started teaching other Hawaiian Islanders attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 1954. By 1956, he was teaching commercially in Provo. Late in 1956, he opened a studio in Pasadena.. He published a book about his early system in 1960. This has been characterized as having a very Japanese influence, including the use of linear and circular movements, “focused” techniques and jujutsu-style locks, holds, and throws.
Ed Parker’s Kenpo techniques were modifications of the techniques taught by William Chow, combined with modifications that incorporated moves from Boxing, Judo, and Lua.
When Ed Parker embraced the Chinese Arts he began to refer to his art as “Chinese Kenpo.” Based on this influence he wrote Secrets of Chinese Karate, published in 1963, only very shortly after Kenpo Karate. The technical syllabus has recognizable similarities to Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, and other Southern Chinese Martial Arts, including two forms, Tiger-Crane and Panther (or “Book Set”), and one training practice (“Star Block”) that can be traced back to Hung Gar.