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American Kenpo

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American Kenpo

American Kenpo
Focus Hybrid
Country of origin United States of America
Creator Ed Parker
Famous practitioners Thomas Carroll, Graciela Casillas, Raymond Daniels, Zane Frazier, Keith Hackney, Chuck Liddell, Frank Mir, K.J. Noons, Elvis Presley, Patrick Smith, Jeff Speakman, Bart Vale, Jay T. Will, Attila Vegh
Parenthood Kosho Shorei Ryu Kempo, Chu'an Fa
Olympic sport No

American Kenpo sometimes written as Kempo is a martial art characterized by the use of quick hand strikes in rapid succession. The multitude of fast strikes has a dual purpose, perhaps overwhelming an opponent, while attempting to ensure that at least some strikes effectively hit their target, akin to a striking combination.

Originally codified by Ed Parker, American Kenpo is largely viewed and marketed as a self-defense system. Parker made significant modifications to the art throughout his life, introducing or changing principles, theories, and concepts of motion, as well as terminology. He left behind a large number of instructors who teach many different versions of American Kenpo, as Parker died before he named a single successor to his art.

Etymology and nomenclature

The word kenpō is originally a Japanese translation of the Chinese word "quán fǎ". Its widespread, cross-cultural adaptation has led to many divergent definitions of its exact meaning.[1]

American Kenpo is often seen written as ‘American Kempo’, leading to some confusion over the term's pronunciation. However, both are pronounced as if they had an 'm'. Kenpo is an example of romanization, while kempo results either because of straightforward anglicization or as a result of applying Traditional Hepburn romanization,[2] but failing to use a macron to indicate the long vowel.


The modern history of American Kenpo began in the 1940s, when James Mitose (1916–1981) started teaching his ancestral Japanese martial art, Kosho-Ryu Kempo, in Hawaii.[3] Mitose's art, later called Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu, traditionally traces its origin to Shaolin kung fu and Bodhidharma.[4] Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu emphasized punching, striking, kicking, locking, and throwing.[4] Mitose's art was very linear, refraining from the circular motions common in American Kenpo.[5]

William K. S. Chow studied kenpo under James Mitose, eventually earning a first-degree black belt.,[4] and also studied Chinese kung fu from his father.[6] Chow eventually taught 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.[5][7] Chow experimented and modified his art, adapting it to meet the needs of American students.[5]

Ed Parker learned Kenpo Karate from Chow, eventually earning a black belt,[8][9] Al Tracy claims that Chow promoted Parker to sandan (3rd-degree black belt) in December 1961.[10]

Parker initially called his art Kenpo Jujitsu. He started teaching other Hawaiian Islanders attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 1954. By 1956, he was teaching commercially in Provo.[9] Late in 1956, he opened a studio in Pasadena, California.[11] He published a book about his early system in 1960.[8] 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. 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,[12] published in 1963, only very shortly after Kenpo Karate.

The system which came to be known as American Kenpo was developed by Parker as his Specific System, and featured Parker's revisions of older methods to work in more modern fighting scenarios.[13] He developed new or 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, such as ki, and sought instead to express the art in terms of Western scientific principles and metaphors. During this time Parker also dropped most Asian language elements and altered traditions in favor of American English.

Because Parker continually developed/evolved his art, students learned different curriculum interpretations and arrangements depending on the time period (era) in which they studied with him. Since many instructors had gone their own ways but didn't continue with his continual "updating", consequently Kenpo today has several differing "versions" of technique examples or arrangements.

One of the best-known students of Ed Parker was Elvis Presley.[14]


American Kenpo emphasizes fast hand techniques used in rapid succession. Kicks are less common, and usually directed at the lower body because high kicks are slower to execute and potentially compromise the practitioner's balance.

Physically, American Kenpo develops strength, speed, balance, and stamina.

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 in order to increase striking force, and many others out lined in his Infinite Insights Books (5).
  • Every block is a strike, every strike is a block — a block should be hard and directed enough to injure an opponent, decreasing their ability to continue an attack. Every strike should counter an opponent's movement, decreasing 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 telegraphing of moves.
  • Economy of Motion — make sure every move counts and is efficient.
  • Personalization — Parker always suggested that once a student learned the lesson embodied in the "ideal phase" of the technique, they should then search for some aspect that can be tailored to their own personal needs and strengths.


International Kenpo Karate Association crest

The design of the I.K.K.A Crest was completed in 1958 when the art of American Kenpo was gaining international notoriety. The crest 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.[15]

Represents bravery, power, and physical strength. It is the early stage of a martial artist's learning. It is important 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 represent the celestial guardian of the West cardinal direction. The yin aspect of individual.
Represents quintessence, fluidity, and agility, but also spiritual strength and the later stage of a martial artist's training. The dragon is placed above the tiger in the crest to symbolize the importance of mental/spiritual strength over physical strength. This does not mean that physical strength is unimportant. What it does imply is that martial artists need to have a good moral to guide their physical action. Also, the Dragon in Chinese culture represent the celestial guardian of the East cardinal direction. The yang aspect of individual.
The circle represents continuity.
Dividing Lines
The lines within the circle represent the original methods of attack first learned by ancient practitioners of the Chinese martial arts. They also demonstrate the pathways which an object could travel by.
The colors are representations of proficiency within the art alluding to the colored belt ranking system. The white represents the beginning stages and progresses through to black (expert level) and then red (professorship).
Chinese Characters
The writing acknowledges the art's Eastern roots. The characters on the right of the crest translate to "Law of the Fist, "Tang/Chinese Hand (唐手)" or "Empty Hand"(空手)" a.k.a. "Kenpo Karate". The characters on the left translate to "Spirit of the Dragon and the Tiger."
The shape of the crest represents the structure of a house. The walls and roof are curved to keep evil from intruding. The ax 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.


Belt rankings

American Kenpo Belts
(3 degrees)
(10 degrees)

American Kenpo has a graded colored belt system consisting of White, Yellow, Orange, Purple, Blue, Green, Third degree Brown, Second degree Brown, First degree Brown (Sometimes First, Second and then Third Degree Brown indicated by an increasing number of stripes on both sides of the belt) and First through Tenth degree Black. Different Kenpo organizations and schools may have different belt systems. For example, the W.K.K.A (World Kenpo Karate Association) includes an "advanced" rank for each belt (except White), signified by a stripe of the next full belt's color worn on one end of the belt. They also include a 3 degree Red belt prior to first degree black. The black belt ranks are indicated by half-inch red 'strips' up to the 4th degree, then a 5 inch 'block' for 5th. Thereafter, 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. Most popular are the 24 techniques per belt system, but a couple of years before his death, Ed Parker had told those close to him that he considered to change to a 16-20-24 syllabus technique system. He gave the syllabus to a few close students to "try out" (e.g. Dennis Conatser, John Sepulveda, Brian Duffy), and report the results. Some schools today have adopted the new 16-20-24 syllabus technique system as their standard. The 24 and the 16-20-24 Technique syllabus' contain exactly the same criteria, only rearranged. In addition to Self-Defense Techniques Ed Parker set specific criteria required for proficiency at each level. The criteria included basics categorized by stances, blocks, parries, punches, strikes, finger techniques, kicks, and foot maneuvers. Beyond proficiency, a student's character and attitude can also be analyzed as a major consideration in the promotion to a new rank.[16]

Belt Ranks Proficiency Level
White, Yellow Beginner
Orange, Purple Intermediate
Blue, Green Skilled
Brown Advanced or Semi-expert
Black Highly Advanced or Expert
Black Belt Degree Instructor Level (Can vary by style)
First Degree Junior Instructor
Second Degree Associate Instructor
Third Degree Head Instructor
Fourth Degree Senior Instructor
Fifth Degree Associate Professor
Sixth Degree Professor
Seventh Degree Senior Professor
Eighth Degree Associate Master
Ninth Degree Master
Tenth Degree Senior Master of the Arts/Grand Master (if head of an Association)


  1. ^ "Kempo's Tai Chi Connection". Kung Fu Magazine. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  2. ^ Hepburn romanization provides for the use of the letter "m" when precedes a labial consonant such as "p",
  3. ^ Corcoran, J.; Farkas, E (1988). Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People. New York City: Gallery Books.  
  4. ^ a b c Mitose, James M. (1981). What Is Self Defense? (Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu) (2nd ed.). Sacramento, California: Kosho-Shorei Publishing Company.  
  5. ^ a b c  
  6. ^ Perkins, Jim (July 2005). "William Chow: The Lost Interview". Black Belt Magazine (Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc). 
  7. ^ Wedlake, Lee Jr. (April 1991). "The Life and Times of Ed Parker". Black Belt Magazine (Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc). 
  8. ^ a b Parker, Ed 1960, Kenpo Karate: Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand, Delsby Publications, Los Angeles, CA
  9. ^ a b "Setting History Right 1954-1956". Kenpo Karate. Retrieved 2014-02-17. 
  10. ^ Tracy, Will (1999-08-08). "Kenpo Karate Setting History Right - The Blackbelted Mormon". A Brief History of Kenpo. Kenpo Karate. Archived from the original on 19 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-08. 
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^  
  13. ^  
  14. ^ Pollard, Edward; Young, Robert W. (2007). "Kenpo 5.0". Black Belt Magazine (Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc) 45 (1): 76. 
  15. ^ Parker, Ed (1982). Infinite Insights Into Kenpo vol.1. Los Angeles, California: Delsby Publications. p. 122.  
  16. ^ a b Parker, Ed (1982). Infinite Insights into Kenpo Vol.1. Los Angeles, California: Delsby Publications. p. 122.  

Further reading

  • Parker, E. (1982). Ed Parker's Infinite Insights into Kenpo, Vol. 1: Mental Stimulation. Delsby Publications ISBN 0-910293-00-7
  • Parker, E. (1983). Ed Parker's Infinite Insights into Kenpo, Vol. 2: Physical Analyzation I. Delsby Publications ISBN 0-910293-02-3
  • Parker, E. (1985). Ed Parker's Infinite Insights into Kenpo, Vol. 3: Physical Analyzation II. Delsby Publications ISBN 0-910293-04-X
  • Parker, E. (1986). Ed Parker's Infinite Insights Into Kenpo, Vol. 4: Mental and Physical Constituents. Delsby Publications ISBN 0-910293-06-6
  • Parker, E. (1987). Ed Parker's Infinite Insights Into Kenpo: Vol. 5: Mental and Physical Applications. Delsby Publications ISBN 0-910293-08-2
  • Parker, L. (1997). Memories of Ed Parker - Sr. Grandmaster of American Kenpo Karate. Delsby Publications ISBN 0-910293-14-7

External links

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