American Kenpo
American Kenpo Double Punch.jpg
Also known asKenpo Karate
Country of originUnited States
CreatorEd Parker
ParenthoodKosho Shorei Ryu Kenpo, Kara-Ho Kenpo, Boxing, Judo
Descendant artsTracy Kenpo, American OkinawaTe
Olympic sportNo
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American Kenpo Karate (/ˈkɛnp/), also known as Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate, American Kenpo and Kenpo Karate, is an all-inclusive system of martial arts based on ancient martial arts methods applied to solve modern-day violent scenarios using logic and practicality to survive nonconsensual, violent altercations. It is often characterized by the use of quick and powerful moves delivered from the body's natural weapons, powered by rapid stance transitions, that make up the footwork in the system. 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 introduced topic. Senior Grand Master Ed Parker's approach to American Kenpo was to teach 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.[2]

The purpose of training in this manner is to increase physical coordination and continuity with linear and circular motion. Each movement, when correctly executed, leads into the next, keeping an adversary's "dimensional zones" in check, which limits their ability to retaliate. Should the adversary not react as anticipated, the skilled Kenpo practitioner, is able to 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. [3][4][5]

Founded and codified by Ed Parker, American Kenpo is primarily a self-defense combat system. Parker made significant modifications to the original art of Kenpo which he learned throughout his life, by introducing or changing principles, theories, and concepts of motion, as well as terminology. At the time of his passing 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),and Long Form 7 (Twin Clubs) the final form developed by Ed Parker only one year before his passing. Note: Mr. Parker had years before created a Knife Set, which he discarded in the late 1980s. However, several senior black belts continue to teach this set, often referring to it as "Long Form 8". (In reality, Mr. Parker never gave the term Long Form 8 to any form or set he created.) Parker also created 154 named (ideal phase) technique sequences with 96 extensions, taught in three phases (Ideal, What-if and Formulation Phases). Parker believed in tailoring Kenpo to the individual and would also encourage his students to explore the unknown areas of martial arts. To his most trusted students the founder taught a more destructive and lethal version of the techniques which also involved killing methods with a knife and they continue to pass on this aspect to their most trusted students.

Parker left behind a large following of instructors who honored his teachings by implementing many different versions of American Kenpo. As Senior Grandmaster, Parker did not name a successor to his art, but instead entrusted his senior students to continue his teachings in their own way.[4]

Etymology and nomenclature

The word Kenpo is an English transliteration of a Ryukyuan and Japanese pronunciation of Chinese characters, the origin of which is Cantonese, pronounced Ken Fat. Due to inaccuracies of Chinese history, many people do not realize that Cantonese predates Mandarin, and it was Cantonese immigrants who first came to Hawaii and California bringing their martial art of Ken Fat with them when they formed Tongs (benevolent organizations) to look after each other. As a result of not understanding the history of Mandarin most people incorrectly think the origin of Kenpo is derived from the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation Chuan Fa. Both Canton (Guangzhou) and Fujian were the only ports in mainland China that were active in trade with neighboring countries and so the Min languages and Cantonese were the prevalent forms of the Chinese language that spread to the surrounding nations. Mandarin on the other hand originated in the Mongol/Yuan Dynasty which is why it only has four tones as compared to the more sophisticated native Chinese dialects that have 10 or more tones. As a result of Beijing being occupied by the Mongols and the later occupation of the Manchu/Qing Dynasty Mandarin became the common dialect of the North while the original Chinese of the North and Central Plains were forced into the South. Thus, Ken Fat was further refined by the Southern Chinese and spread into Fujian and Canton where the various respective styles developed and were imported to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Ryukyu (Okinawa), Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. If you look at the pronunciation of the Chinese characters in all those neighboring countries, you will find that it sounds closer to Ken Fat than to Chuan Fa. Due to the intense hate of the Communists for the secret societies that used Ken Fat to support the Nationalists which began in Fujian and Canton, Mandarin was made the official common language of China. The meaning of Ken Fat is Fist Law but denotes a Fighting Method. It was never a standalone style, but characters added to the end of the formal name of a style. Eventually, the Fat was dropped or rarely used and the character for fist was used alone at the end of a style name. For example, Wing Chun simply means Beautiful Springtime but when adding the character Fist to the end of it lets people know it is a fighting system (Wing Chun Kuen) [6]


The modern history of American Kenpo began in 1933 with Thomas Miyashiro (1915-1977) who began openly teaching Kenpo Karate in 1933 in Hawaii. He was joined by Mizuho Mutsu and Kamesuke Higashiona who were both students of Choki Motobu. 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, that 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 also trained Ken Fat at the Tong HQ when first arriving 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.

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 device counters to the Jujutsu techniques. [7] Chow eventually developed his own unique style of Kenpo Karate that blended his Chinese Martial Arts training with the more focused Ryukyuan Kenpo Karate methods popularized in Hawaii, it was a blend of 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 that he taught but most refer to his method as Kenpo Karate [8][9] Chow experimented and modified his art, adapting it to meet the needs of American students.[8]

Parker, dubbed The Magician of Motion, 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 there 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.[10][11] Al Tracy claims that Chow promoted Parker to sandan (3rd-degree black belt) in December 1961.[12]

Parker started teaching other Hawaiian Islanders attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 1954. By 1956, he was teaching commercially in Provo.[11] Late in 1956, he opened a studio in Pasadena, California.[13] He published a book about his early system in 1960.[10] The book has a heavy 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,[14] published in 1963.

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.[15] He heavily restructured American Kenpo's forms and techniques during this period. He moved away from methods that were recognizable 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 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. Although he was challenged numerous times by experts and masters from multiple other Martial Arts, he remained well respected in the Martial Arts world.

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 didn't continue with Parker's updating, Kenpo today has several different versions of techniques. None of the versions is wrong, as long as it works for the individual practitioner. This is what set Parker apart from many traditionalists who wanted to make students into exact replicas of their instructors. American Kenpo should be tailored to fit each individual student by a competent instructor. While Parker was labeled a rebel when he first introduced his revolutionary ideas, they have since been tested and proven by members of the military, law enforcement, and civilians. Many have successfully survived violent situations due to the training they received in American Kenpo.

One of Parker's best-known students was singer/actor Elvis Presley.[16] to whom he awarded a 9th degree black belt.


American Kenpo emphasizes fast techniques to disable an attacker in seconds. 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, some throwing and joint locking techniques, as well as 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. A soldier may emphasize knife techniques, a police officer may emphasize locks and stick techniques, a civilian interested in competition may emphasize the less lethal options, while some specialize in the more lethal aspects of the system.

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 not necessary to gain functional skill and is primarily for students who wish to become instructors. All American Kenpo students are taught not only how to execute each basic movement in the system, but also when and why to execute each basic movement. Senior Grand Master Ed Parker placed emphasis on concepts and principles over sequences of motion. He did not want his students to mimic him but rather to tailor his American Kenpo system to their own circumstances and needs. Thus American Kenpo is not a traditional art but a combat science that is 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.

Students are encouraged to formulate a logical sequence of action that removed the dangers of what-if scenarios, effectively turning a what-if problem to an even-if solution. Every American Kenpo black belt will have their own unique and tailored style, but Parker published minimum requirements for each belt rank that instructors in his association - the IKKA - were to follow. However, if a Kenpo Instructor starts his own association, he or she is free to select his or her student's base curriculum as they see fit.

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


International Kenpo Karate Association crest
International Kenpo Karate Association crest

The design of the International Kenpo Karate Association crest was completed Dave Parker, Mr. Parker's brother, in 1958, as the art of American Kenpo was gaining international recognition. 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.[8]: 122 

Represents bravery, power, and physical strength. It is the early stage of a martial artist's training. 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 yang aspect of individual.
Represents quintessence, fluidity, and agility, but also spiritual strength. It is 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 and 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 conscience to guide their physical action. Also, the Dragon in Chinese culture represents the celestial guardian of the East cardinal direction. The yin 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.
The colors are representations of proficiency within the art, alluding to the colored belt ranking system. The white represents the beginning stages, black represents expert, and red represents 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.[8]: 122 

Belt rankings

American Kenpo Belts[17]
Ceinture blanche.png
Ceinture jaune.png
Ceinture orange.png
Ceinture violette.png
Ceinture bleue.png
Ceinture verte.png
(3 degrees)
Ceinture marron.png
(10 degrees)
Ceinture noire.png

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.[17] Different Kenpo organizations and schools may have different belt systems. The black belt ranks are indicated by half-inch red 'tips' 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. Parker's IKKA schools stayed with the 24 techniques-per-belt syllabus, 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 exactly the same techniques, but the latter groups them differently so fewer techniques are found at lower belt levels, and there are more belt levels to be found. In addition to self-defense techniques, 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, 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 major consideration in the promotion to a new rank. Promotion after 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 knife violence and brings that knowledge back may be promoted for his excellent contributions.[8]: 122 

Notable practitioners

For practitioners of American Kenpo, see Category:American Kenpo practitioners.

This is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness. You can help by adding missing items with reliable sources.



  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ Corbett, John R. (July 1979). "Secrets of the Magician of Motion: Ed Parker". Black Belt. pp. 21–27. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  3. ^ Corbett, John R. (December 1979). "Lifting the Veil with Kenpo". Black Belt. pp. 23–27. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  4. ^ a b Robinson, D. L. (November 1990). "10 Kenpo Misconceptions". Black Belt. pp. 34–37. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  5. ^ Barboza, Guido (January 1981). "Has the American Revolution of the Martial Arts Begun? The World's Best". Black Belt. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  6. ^ "Kempo's Tai Chi Connection". Kung Fu Magazine. Retrieved 2010-02-06.
  7. ^ Perkins, Jim (July 2005). "William Chow: The Lost Interview". Black Belt Magazine. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. Archived from the original on 2008-02-01.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Parker, Ed (1982). Infinite Insights into Kenpo, Volume 1: Mental Stimulation. Los Angeles, California: Delsby Publications. ISBN 0-910293-00-7.
  9. ^ Wedlake, Lee Jr. (April 1991). "The Life and Times of Ed Parker". Black Belt Magazine. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. – via Google Books.
  10. ^ a b Parker, Ed (1960). Kenpo Karate: Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand. Los Angeles: Delsby Publications.
  11. ^ a b Tracy, Will (March 8, 1997). "Setting History Right 1954-1956". Kenpo Karate. Retrieved 2014-02-17.
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Parker, Ed (1963). Secrets of Chinese Karate. Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-797845-6.
  15. ^ Parker, Ed (1975). Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate Accumulative Journal. Pasadena, California: International Kenpo Karate Association.
  16. ^ Pollard, Edward; Young, Robert W. (2007). "Kenpo 5.0". Black Belt Magazine. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. 45 (1): 76.
  17. ^ a b "Ed Parker's American Kenpo Belt Ranks and Titles". 2010-05-17.