Kenpo Karate was once known as the Ed Parker system because many of the Kenpo instructors trained directly under that great martial artists. However, the founder of Kenpo Karate was not Ed Parker but rather his instructor, Professor William (Willie) K. S. Chow, who began calling his system “Kenpo Karate” in 1949. Chow trained in “Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu” under Great Grand Master James Mitose who had learned the Kenpo art in Japan from his grandfather Sakuhi Yoshida. (See A Brief History of Kenpo).
Kenpo Karate is, therefore, a distinct form of Kenpo, although its techniques are virtually indistinguishable from Mistsoe’s Kenpo Jui-Jitsu. The difference is mostly in Katas. There were no Katas in Chow’s Kenpo Karate while Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu has 4 Katas, Nihanchi 1 & 2, the Bear Kata and Old Man Kata.
NOTE: (by Roarke Tracy – 2006) To my knowledge, my father is the only one in the United States who learned all four Katas, though because of a serious back injury, he no longer teaches them. What you will find on kenpokarate.com are what my father, Will Tracy, wrote prior to an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, and the subsequent operation that has left him in so much pain he can’t concentrate on writing. My own comments are added in italic notes as well as information I’ve gotten from my two uncles, Al Tracy and Jim Tracy.
Professor Chow’s “Kenpo Karate” would have become as obscure as James Mitose’s Kenpo Jui-Jitsu, had it not been for Edmund K. Parker (1931-1990) who (while not the first to have a commercial Kenpo school on the Mainland) opened the first “Kenpo Karate” Studio in Pasadena in 1956 and founded the “Kenpo Karate Association of America”.
NOTE: (by Roarke Tracy) The original KKAA emblem was given to my father in 1964 when Ed Parker turned the KKAA over to my father and uncles. This is the “Overhead Club” technique at the top left of this page. This was also on the sign over Ed Parker’s first Kenpo Karate Self Defense Studio located at 1840 E. Walnut, Pasadena.
Professor Chow abandoned the name “Kenpo Karate” as the complete name of his style in 1952 to create his own style which he called “Go-Shinjutsu”. This was more a change in name than technique, and his students still called the system Kenpo Karate; and, the certificate Professor Chow gave me in 1961 awarded me “Kenpo Karate Shodan (next line) Honolulu Go-Shinjutsu Kai”. Others were also teaching Kenpo techniques under different names, but starting in 1956, Ed Parker began teaching Professor Chow’s system of Kenpo Karate, which is now known as Original Kenpo Karate.
Many have tried to give a Chinese origin to Kenpo Karate, but the fact is, Kenpo is a Japanese/Chinese art. The word Kenpo is Japanese (not Chinese) and is loosely translated as “Fist Law”. However, Kenpo in Japanese refers to a Chinese root.
Karate on the other hand is purely a Japanese word that means “Empty Hand”. Karate also shows a Chinese origin as kara in Japanese means both empty and China. The two words Kenpo – Karate together would be, as Ed Parker used it, Law of the Fist and Empty Hand.
There is not a single Chinese system teaching anything that resembles Kenpo today, although nearly all of the Kenpo techniques can be found scattered among the hundreds of Chinese kung fu styles. However, I was told by two Tai Chi masters who had trained with Yang Jain Hao, that the fighting techniques of Yang Ban Hao, who was known as “Yang the Invincible, were very close to Kenpo techniques.
So what is Kenpo Karate?
Kenpo Karate is the oldest style of Kenpo being taught in the United States. It was created in 1949 by William K. S. Chow and taught by his student, Ed Parker, from 1956 to 1961; and, taught by the Tracy brothers from 1962 to the present. In early 1962 Ed Parker changed both the style he taught and renamed his new style “Chinese Kenpo”; and no Ed Parker student was taught Kenpo Karate after January, 1962. Ed dropped “Karate” from the name of his system at that time, even though he continued to issue belt certificates under the Kenpo Karate Association of America (KKAA).
NOTE: Ed Parker taught a closed group of “Island Boys” at Brigham Young University from the fall of 1954 to early 1956. Seven members of the “BYU Kenpo Club” whom I knew personally were: Frank Mohoui and Ralph Mohoui, Tom Loura, and Tom and Kip Kiphunna, and Mark and John Kalima.
NOTE: (by Roarke Tracy) My father and uncle, Jim Tracy, began training with Ed Parker in 1957, and my uncle, Al Tracy, began in 1958 when he was discharged from the Air Force.)
50 Ways to Sunday
The essentials of Kenpo training are in its techniques. Kenpo Karate, as with Kenpo Jujitsu, has over 700 distinct self-defense techniques, in addition to blocks (originally strikes) and 72 kicks. But it is not just the number of techniques, it’s how they are taught that defines Kenpo.
About two weeks after my brother Jim and I began training with Ed Parker, Ed started an afternoon class, with Jim and me as his only students. The class never had more than four students at any one time, so it was like having a semi-private lesson each day with Ed. This allowed us to move quickly in the evening class from beginning to intermediate and advanced class.
One of the first things I learned was the “What if?” rule. It went like this: Ed would teach a technique and we would practice it. But the technique was always limited. “What if” the attacker grabbed you slightly differently? Or “What if” he grabbed with a different hand? Or what if, whatever. Ed would then show you a variation to the technique with lightening speed and a devastating power that sent you reeling and bruised for a week; and, if you were smart, you never asked “What if?” again. But, if you were really smart, you would get a new student to ask “What if?”. You learned that for every technique there are numerous variations which would eventually be taught to cover each variations of the attack. Both Oshita and Chow emphasized that there were many ways and variations to the techniques used to defend against each attack.
At the time (1957-59) many of the Japanese Karate systems had a very limited number of moves, with a right punch being one move, a left punch being a second move, right and left punch being a third move, a block a fourth move, a block and punch a fifth move, a block and two punches a sixth move, and a block with a different hand another move, etc.; and, those styles required each move to be mastered before the next move was taught. Chow, Oshita and Parker all stressed the importance of learning many moves over mastering a single move. Ed Parker was 6′ and 195#, Chow was 5’6″ and 150# of solid muscle, Oshita was slightly over 5′ and weighed about 100# (you never ask a woman Kenpo master her height or weight). What was best for one, was not best for the other, and all three emphasized, what was easy for one student might be difficult for another. One student might have fast hands, another fast feet, another student both and another student, neither; but each student would seek his level of ability.
How Kenpo is taught was put best by Oshita who told me another style would make me master one move at a time, one move a week, and in ten years I would have mastered 500 moves. But she would teach me ten, twenty, thirty or more moves a day, and I would not be very good at most of these when a new move was taught, but in a year I would master 1,000 moves. What’s more, the moves I would master would not be the same as another student who had been taught the same moves. Each student would master what his mind and body found easiest. It was for this reason that there was no brown belt test at that time. For brown belt you had to know all the moves, but only be a master of most. The instructor would know when a student had progressed from Kyu to Dan, and each student would be different. But more importantly, a move that was difficult, or even impossible for the student when it is first taught,
would become easier as he developed his Kenpo skills. When a student had mastered all the techniques, he would then become an Instructor. (Chow had no instructor rank and never used instructor on any of his certificates.)
I remember in April 1960, when I was an Ikkyu (1st degree brown belt) I flew to California where I showed Ed Parker what I had learned from both Chow and Oshita, and related some of the insight I had gained in how to practice the different techniques. Ed told me he had learned the same thing from Chow, and had not thought about it in years. He called the training method, “50 Ways to Sunday,” meaning that a student would practice each techniques 50 Ways to Sunday – so many different ways that it would become natural.
Kenpo teaches that no one defense will work all the time, but the variations are the defense. In addition, as Oshita told me, you can practice a technique a thousand time, and it will only work for one attack; it is better to practice ten variations 100 times, so the mind and body can repeat the same move many different ways. The Way of Kenpo is in training, and one must not deviate from that Way.
A technique, like the 2-hand lapel grab (Kimono Grab), requires you to step back with your left foot when the opponent’s arms are extended. But when his arms are bent, it’s a different technique and you step forward, using different weapons. So “what if” the arms are bent and you can’t straighten them as you step back and strike? Simple. You use a different weapon, striking a different target. Your left foot may have to step slightly to the side, or even directly to the right side. Your right upward strike can change to an asp strike, or go between the arms and twist the opponents arms. You might step back with the right foot and use the left hand defense, or any one of a number of variations – 50 Ways to Sunday.
Because of the numerous variations, the defenses against a “Two Hand Lapel Grab” became different techniques, depending on the foot movement and hand weapons used, with the three major defenses being the Kimono Grab, Swinging Gate and Striking Asp. Of course when Kenpo Karate was originally taught, these names were not used – my brothers and I created the names starting in 1964. But in 1959 the techniques were simply known as defense against “Two Hand Lapel Grabs” technique one (and variations); Technique 2, etc. Swinging Gate and Striking Asp are shown under the title of “COUNTERING A TWO HAND LAPEL GRAB FROM THE FRONT” in Ed Parker’s “Kenpo Karate” (1960 Iron Man Industries) pages 78-81)
The basic technique is, however, the Kimono Grab, in which you pin the attacker’s hands with you left arm (hand) as you step back and use a right upward strike against the attackers elbows. The right hand then swings down and around to strike the radial nerve of the attacker’s forearm, followed by a right chop to the attacker’s throat. In Swinging Gate, the first two moves are the same, but on the third move, the left foot swings counter clockwise so you are on a 45° angle, the right hand pulls back and strikes the attacker
to the mid section, followed by the right hand swinging around to chop the attacker’s forearms, followed by a chop to the attacker’s throat.
But “What if” the attacker pulled you forward? That technique is the Striking Asp.
But “What if” you didn’t straighten the arms with the first strike. You could use the variation of a right reverse elbow strike to the attacker’s left elbow, followed by a strike to the attacker’s forearm.
But “What if” the Elbow Strike didn’t work? You could use the variation of a Back Knuckle rack across the bridge of the nose, etc.
But “What if” his head was turned? Then you would use a hammer fist to the side of his head, or back of his neck.
But “What if”???? You could use any of the 22 Variations to this attack, Fifty Ways to Sunday in any number of combinations to disable your attacker
The basic Kimono Grab technique, has its “follow ups” which include an elbow strike to the attacker’s jaw and hammer fist to the groin and the further follow up of a right heel hook, foot stomp or rear kick; or, an elbow strike followed by a right back knuckle to the right side of the attacker’s head and a chop to the left side of the attacker’s neck, or a reverse hand sword to the groin; or …. 50 Ways to Sunday
Starting in 1963, Ed Parker began calling the second set of Follow Ups (heel hook, foot stomp, rear kick, etc) “Extensions”. Then about 1965 he began calling all the follow ups, “extensions” so that, by 1980, everything after the basic moves was an extension, and the techniques themselves became little more than simple blocks. This was no longer Kenpo, but rather Ed Parker’s own style which he continued to call Kenpo as American Kenpo. But Ed Parker had stopped teaching Kenpo Karate by 1962.
Kenpo techniques are complete techniques. They are taught one move at a time, but the technique is never broken down as being one technique as the beginnings, a second technique as the middle and a third technique as the end as many would-be Kenpo styles are teaching today. But the Way of Kenpo is in training. In Kenpo Karate a technique is a technique. It is complete in and of itself from beginning to end; and further, no technique is ever broken down as a beginning and advanced technique. There are variations to techniques, but those variations are, like the techniques, complete in and of themselves, and because of the sheer number, some are not taught of necessity until the student is more advanced. In other words, a techniques like the “5 Count Chop” [5 Swords] is a single techniques with five moves using only the right hand, and with an elbow, hammer fist, heel hook and/or rear kick follow ups. In Kenpo Karate this technique is never broken down as a block and chop as a technique with so called extensions to compete the
five moves. (However, the block and chop is, by itself a technique – and is the beginning of numerous other techniques.) The “7 Count Chop” [7 Swords] is, however a similar techniques which also uses the left hand. The variations to these techniques have the same moves, with different weapons. For example a variation to the first two moves, block and chop, block and hand sword [Eye of the Tiger], Gifted Palm instead of Cutting Palm, etc.
Put simply, any instructor who does not teach Kenpo Karate as it was originally taught, is not teaching “Kenpo Karate”. They may call it Kenpo Karate, but it is not Kenpo Karate. That is not to say they are not teaching some form of Kenpo, but they are not teaching Kenpo Karate.
Kenpo Karate was only taught by Professor Chow and Ed Parker up to 1962, and Al Tracy and his students from 1962 to the present; and, since Ralph Castro who now teaches Shaolin Kenpo, Sam Kuoha, who taught Kara Ho Kenpo, and I are the only living “Kenpo Karate” students of Professor Chow; and Al Tracy and I are the only living Ed Parker “Kenpo Karate” student who still know the complete system of “Kenpo Karate”, there are no other authorities to say what Kenpo Karate is.
James Ibrao, who learned “Kenpo Karate” under Ed Parker, has modified his system, making it a 5 form system, which, while related to Kenpo, is no longer “Kenpo Karate”.
When Sam Kuoha came to the mainland in the 1970, Professor Chow told him the only ones teaching Kenpo Karate on the Mainland were the Tracy brothers, and Sam went to San Diego where he taught at the Tracy’s Karate school.
None of the BYU “Club” members teaches Kenpo Karate, and while there may be some Utah students Ed Parker taught while he was at BYU, none of those students ever trained with Ed Parker for more than six months, and none attained the rank of black belt until after Ed Parker began teaching Chinese Kenpo. (See A Brief History of Kenpo – BYU)
Two Styles of Kenpo Karate
Kenpo Karate” has two styles, that are in many ways identical. What is now referred to as Original Kenpo Karate, or simply Original Kenpo, is the system Professor Chow taught until 1961 (calling it both Kenpo Karate and Go-Shinjutsu, meaning “Law of the Fist and Art of Self- Defense), and which Ed Parker taught as Kenpo Karate until the end of 1960.
Both men changed their systems after those dates for different reasons, and each took his style in a different direction. However, only the Original Kenpo taught by Ed Parker in Pasadena, California from 1956 to 1960 is important in knowing what Kenpo Karate is
because it was the same original Kenpo style taught by James Mitose and Fusae Oshita, but called Kenpo Karate by William K. S. Chow and Ed Parker.
Beginning in late summer, 1960, Ed Parker began adding forms to his Kenpo Karate and created what became known as “Traditional Kenpo”. However, because all the Ed Parker brown belts and Shodans at that time had been taught the Jiu-Jitsu techniques, making the only real difference, the addition of forms, when Jimmy (James) Wing Woo joined Ed Parker.
The addition of forms to the system has little to do with Kenpo Karate. At best, forms are considered an enhancement to ones training, and forms like the Tiger and Crane, which is borrowed from Hung Gar, are used for mental and physical development, as well as following the Way of Kenpo to become acquainted with all styles.
James Ibrao writes of the Book Set, “…was believed to have been lost. This form was taught to me by Grand master James Wing Woo himself, and I in turn was charged with teaching it to the other students and instructors. Unfortunately, Grand master Woo was only able to teach half of the move to Ed before our days of training together came to an end. Thanks to the efforts of Al and Will Tracy, for the first time in over forty years, many of you will be able to finally see and learn this kata in its entirety.”
Woo left Ed Parker in April 1961 taking all of Ed’s black belts and all but two of his brown belts with him. Ed only continued teaching Traditional Kenpo until the end of 1961 and into January 1962; and, “Traditional Kenpo” was the system Ed was teaching when I returned to California in late 1961. Al and Jim Tracy had been approved for Shodan just before what would become known as the Walnut Street Putsch (Walnut Street was where Ed’s studio was located) in April 1961 and were the only students to receive Shodan ranking from Ed Parker under Traditional Kenpo. Al and Jim Tracy, were promoted to Shodan on January 7, 1962. (SEE Al Tracy Shodan KKAA certificate
Beginning in January 1962, Ed Parker changed his style from Kenpo Karate to Chinese Kenpo and he reduced the total number of self-defense techniques and variation in his system. Later that year Ed change the name to “Chinese Kenpo Karate”, reduced the number of techniques and added more forms; and it can rightly be said that Ed Parker no longer taught “Kenpo Karate” after January 1962. The evolution from James Mitose’s Kenpo Ju-jutsu to Professor Chow’s Kenpo Karate to Ed Parker’s Chinese Kenpo was exemplified in the change from the Overhead Club technique, (one variation of which is shown by James Mitose on the left and the graphic used on Ed Parker’s studio signs) Ed Parker replacing it with the Kenpo crest
Kenpo Karate is a technique based system. Forms were only taught to the most advanced students, not because they were advanced, but because they are part of the Kenpo tradition, and the Way of Kenpo requires knowing traditions. On the other hand, Chinese styles are Form and Set based. And it is worth noting, Professor Chow never learned Mitose’s four katas (forms), and Kenpo Karate never had any forms.
Al and Jim Tracy were the last Ed Parker students to receive Shodan rank under Original Kenpo, and Tracy’s Kenpo Karate is the only system teaching Original and Traditional Kenpo today. The Tracy System teaches Original Kenpo techniques, Traditional Kenpo forms as well as the Kung Fu forms that became part of Kenpo.)
Ed Parker’s Chinese Kenpo was a mere shadow of Original Kenpo. The grappling techniques and mat work were replaced with forms in Traditional Kenpo, and as Ed Parker began to change the system to Chinese Kenpo he not only reduced the number of techniques required for belts, but emphasized forms over techniques. Ed Parker changed his style again in 1964 to Ed Parker’s Kenpo and reduced the number of techniques even further and made what were originally variations of the techniques into techniques.
Ed Parker’s system of Kenpo was changed so much with his Chinese Kenpo, that it was no longer Kenpo Karate.
Jerry Myers who was one of Ed’s students (and the one who got my brother, Jim, in the Army National Guard) would later adapt Traditional Kenpo and Chinese Kenpo to Bruce Lee’s and Danny Inosanto’s systems to create what can rightfully be called true, “Chinese Kenpo”.
Kenpo Karate originally only had Shodan as the black belt rank. But in 1961 Professor Chow adopted the Japanese belt ranking with Godan (5th black) as the highest awarded belt rank and all ranks about Godan being honorary. Because of the rank increasing five fold, the 700 Kenpo Karate techniques were then required for Godan, with lesser numbers for lower dan ranks.
The minimum number of Kenpo Karate techniques and variations required for Shodan (first black belt) is now 400.
The black belt ranking of Kenpo Karate is Shodan (1st dan), Nidan 2nd dan), Sandan (3rd dan), Yodan (4th dan), Godan (5th dan) with a minimum of 700 techniques and variations required for Godan.
There is no& “black belt” rank in either Original or Traditional Kenpo Karate. That is, there is no First Degree Black Belt, Second Degree Black Belt, etc. There are only Dan ranks, Shodan, Nidan, Sandan, etc. Black Belt ranks where given by Ed Parker in Chinese Kenpo when the Kenpo Karate Association of America (KKAA) would not authorize a student to be promoted to a Dan rank.
Sandan (3rd Black) is the lowest rank that can promote a student to Shodan in Kenpo Karate; and, Sandan requires a minimum of 500 Original Kenpo techniques and variations.
Ed Parker only awarded Shodan to six (6) students of Original Kenpo Karate: James Ibrao was Ed Parker’s first Shodan, followed by Rich Montgomery, Rick Flores, Ed Tibayan (mispelled Tibian), Al Tracy and Jim Tracy. Of those original Shodans, Al Tracy is the only one still teaching Ed Parker’s Original Kenpo Karate.
Many others black belts, including Ralph Castro, Bill Ryusaki, Tino Tuiolosega also trained with Ed Parker, and went on to create their own systems of Kenpo.
Some, like Joe Lewis, were famous black belts in other styles before learning Kenpo Karate under Al Tracy. Joe Lewis adapted quickly to the Kenpo and used the Kenpo techniques in a way no others had done before. Joe never took anything away from Kenpo Karate, but added to it, and made Kenpo Karate an even more effective fighting art.
Ed Parker added forms to Kenpo Karate, and at first took nothing away. But he soon took the grappling (mat work) out of the style, and in doing so reduced the effectiveness of Kenpo Karate. At that time, Ed Parker recognized the obvious, that he was no longer teaching Kenpo Karate, and he dropped the Japanese “Karate” and called his style to Chinese Kenpo, and even later he changed so much of Original Kenpo to where he called his new style American Kenpo, yet he continued to give belt promotions, and those who followed still continue to promote their American Kenpo students under the International Kenpo Karate Association. American Kenpo and its progeny is so far removed from Original Kenpo that, like Shorin Kenpo, and Shorinji Kenpo it has, somewhere in the distant past, a common root.
Those who never trained in Kenpo Karate believe I am too harsh in eliminating the entire Ed Parker systems of Kenpo after 1962. This may be harsh, but it’s accurate. You can’t take half of Kenpo Karate and say it is the same as Original Kenpo. Nor can you continue to remove techniques from the style that you do not believe will work, and call your style Kenpo Karate. What will not work for one student will work for another. And again, the Way of Kenpo is in training; and the Way demands that you do not think dishonestly.
Ed Parker used to tell the allegory of the Karate Master who bragged that he could kill anyone with a single blow. A young girl had ridiculed the Master for being a brute and the Master challenged her to a fight. She agreed on the condition that he must first prove his skill by killing an ant. The Master laughed as the girl put the ant on a large lava bolder. The Master’s fist smashed into the lava, but the ant crawled into a deep hole in the porous rock. The Master struck again, breaking away the top layer of lava, but the ant crawled further down in the lava. Blow after blow proved fruitless, and when both his hands were mangled and bloody, the Master
declared that no one could kill the ant. The girl placed her index finger into the hole where the ant was hiding and squashed it. The Way of Kenpo is being aquatinted with every art.
NOTE: Ed actually adopted the allegory from the life of a Hung Gar master (which he modified), and later changed the allegory to the master being challenged by a brutish fighter from another style.
Every body part is a weapon or supports a weapon in Kenpo Karate. Even the eyes perceive what cannot be seen. Every technique has its variations, and every technique and variation is designed as a weapon for the defense, or offense required for the situation.
I have studied Yang Cheng Fu style Tai Chi from my youth and was fortunate to have had three instructors who trained directly under Yang Cheng Fu, and who remained faithful to Cheng Fu’s later style. All three instructors did the postures the same way, without variation, and their postures were the same as those shown in Yang Cheng Fu’s photographs. I also had the good fortune to train with a fourth Cheng Fu student, Tung Ying Chieh, who was considered Yang Cheng Fu’s top student (a distinction claimed by no less than seven other students), and I learned to mimic his slow form.
I learned the style of Yang Jain Hao (the father of Yang Cheng Fu) from a student who had trained directly under him and who had trained as a child with Yang Lu Chan, the founder of the Yang Style.
I mention this because, although I have studied three other Tai Chi styles, I remain dedicated to Yang Cheng Fu’s style, and I am equally critical of those who have changed Cheng Fu’s style and claim him as the founder of their own styles. It doesn’t matter whether it is the Chinese government, or Yang Cheng Fu’s sons, if they do not do the form as Yang Cheng Fu did it, it is not Cheng Fu’s style. It is their own Yang style
In short I am a traditionalist. I have practiced many martial arts styles, and trained under some of the greats, but Kenpo Karate, like Yang Cheng Fu Style Tai Chi, has established techniques or postures and removing any one of those from the style, makes it a different style. To find the Way one must not deviate in the slightest from the path.
I apply the same standard to American Kenpo as Professor Chow set as the standard for Kenpo Karate. Make no mistake, I do not consider American Kenpo to be Kenpo Karate. American Kenpo is the defining style of Ed Parker. I may disagree with its effectiveness, or some of its methods, but I respect it as Ed Parker’s system. Fortunately, Ed Parker memorialized American Kenpo is his five volume Infinite Insights series with Volume I being printed in 1982 and Volume V printed in 1987. Ed evolved during this period, and we had many discussion about what he was writing, both before and after his works were published.
American Kenpo was established in Ed Parker’s 1987 Infinite Insights into Kenpo Mental & Physical Applications. Delsby Publications. Any diviation from what Ed Parker established as American Kenpo in that book is not American Kenpo. American Kenpo is found on the American Kenpo website.
Added by Roarke Tracy 2006: My father wrote this over seven years ago. He asked asked me to edit it so the pages are not so long over a year ago, and post it because he believes Kenpo Karate is in a deplorable state. This was not a single work, but I have gone through several hard drives and many hundreds of printed pages to put this in a finished state. Men he trained with, and many of his students have died, and he wants what he said to be “out there”. My father and Uncle Al have no business connections, but my father believes the only way people can see what Kenpo Karate really is, is by going to my Uncle Al’s tracykarate.com website
©1996, 1999, 2006, 2015 by W. Tracy. All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without permission
A Brief History of Kenpo The Origin of Kenpo Karate