American Kenpo

Ed Parker’s American Kenpo or Kenpo Karate is a system of martial arts 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.

Kenpo Creed :  I come to you with only “KARATE” – empty hands. I have no weapons, but should I be forced to defend myself, my principles or my honor; should it be a matter of life or death, of right or wrong; then here are my weapons – “KARATE” – my empty hands. – Ed Parker – March, 1957

Origins of American Kenpo: Once Parker had received his brown belt and decided to create his own “art”, he decided to title it “American Kenpo” because the system was created on American soil. Although the word ‘karate’ was later less favored by Parker, the general public better understood that word than it understood ‘Kenpo’. Continued efforts to shape the art into a distinct form led to replacing most Asian language terms with English terms.

This also involved inventing entirely new principles to express ideas that had previously been encapsulated within traditional metaphors such as qi, but which Parker aimed to harmonize with Western principles and American culture.

Parker also heavily restructured American Kenpo’s forms and techniques during this period. In many cases, he moved away from methods that were recognizably descended from another art (such as forms that were familiar within Hung Gar) and established a more definitive relationship between forms and the technique curriculum.

Ed Parker continued to grow. He experimented with the use of film and video as a training tool, leaving records of his work. In the final 4 years of his life Ed Parker Sr. put down the final version of his art, American Kenpo.

Evolution of American Kenpo: 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.

Kenpo Karate: Ed Parker initially called his art Kenpo Karate. He opened the first commercial Kenpo Karate dojo in America, in Provo, Utah in 1954. He later opened another studio in Pasadena in 1956 and published a book of the same name in 1961.[citation needed] 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.

Kenpo techniques were modifications to boxing techniques (Parker had learned from his father), judo techniques (learned in Hawaii), and lots of techniques from Chinese Systems (Two-Man Set, Dance of Death, Thundering Hammers, Sleeper e.g.). Use of linear and circular movements also came from Chinese systems: in Chinese systems the idea of circular motion was used to regain once energy: re-energizing important.

Chinese Kenpo: 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.

American Kenpo: Parker began codifiying his early understandings of Chinese Kenpo into a distinct and evolving personal interpretation of the art. Here he dropped all Asian language elements and many traditions in favor of American English. During this period, he de-emphasized techniques and principles organized in the same manner as in Chinese and Japanese arts in favor of his own curriculum of forms and techniques. Parker took his art through continual changes.

Parker always suggested that once a student learns the lesson embodied in the “ideal phase” of the technique he should search for some aspect that can be tailored to his own personal needs and strengths. Furthermore, Parker’s students learned a different curriculum depending on when they studied with him. Some students preferred older material to newer material, wanted to maintain older material that Parker intended to replace, or wanted to supplement the kenpo they learned from a particular period with other martial arts training. Well-known students of Ed Parker include Jeff Speakman and Elvis Presley.

Belt Rankings: Within American Kenpo, there exists a basic belt system consisting of White, Yellow, Orange, Purple, Blue, Green, Brown (3 levels), and Black. Different organizations have different belt systems.

The black belt ranks are designated by half-inch red ‘stripes’ up to 4th degree, then a 5 inch ‘strip’ is for 5th. Thereafter, additional half-inch stripes are added up to 9th degree. For 10th degree, two 5 inch ‘strips’ separated by a half-inch space are used.

The striped system was adopted from Judo where the same system is used of 1 inch stripes, each 1 inch apart – where the first stripe (at end / bottom of belt) is 1/2 inch from the end / bottom of that belt. Also, female students wear knot of belt on right side, male students wear knot of belt on left side – this is taken from the Chinese systems were the same system is used. In these systems this was a way of showing respect to the instructor (who wore the belt with the knot located in the center / middle).

American Kenpo and Ed Parker: American Kenpo began with Ed Parker. But it is not a single system as Ed went through five transitions before arriving at what would become the Ed Parker Style of American Kenpo. It might rightfully be said that Ed Parker’s new system sprang full grown from the head of Ed Parker, much like Athena sprang fully armored when Prometheus split the head of Zeus with a two man beetle at Lake Tritonis. At least Ed was pleased with this analogy when it was presented to him in 1990.

Ed Parker’s martial arts training under Professor Chow, his teaching of Kenpo and study of the Chinese systems, his education and his life experience all, like the wisdom of a swallowed Metis, grew in Ed until the past became too confining for his new gift to the world. Thus, in 1965, Ed Parker’s new system (his fourth) began to emerge from his genius.

But Ed did not reveal this new system completely that early. He was still using the term Chinese Kenpo, which he would soon change to Ed Parker Kenpo. He recognized that his students would not be able to assimilate all of his new knowledge and theories immediately, so he gradually introduced his new concepts and movements over the next several years–“line upon line, precept upon precept… here a little, there a little,” that he could “prove” his students “herewith.” Ed often spoke in parables and reminded others that even Jesus had said that you cannot put new wine in old bottles.

Ed knew that the future of American Kenpo would not be with the his existing students, because they would resist breaking their ties to the past, and most had already gone beyond Kenpo to study kung fu, first under James Wing Woo, and then under Bruce Lee. And as a prophet of the new order, Ed Parker would rightfully foresee that most of his black belts and advanced students would either reject the new system, or forsake it after a few years.

Ed felt no great bitterness toward this, because American Kenpo was not created to replace Ed Parker Kenpo. It was created as a way to advance his standard for Kenpo. Ed knew his existing students would not serve two masters. They would not learn a system that was designed to take them where they already were, and most would go on to other systems where they could continue to develop.

What Ed eventually created as “American Kenpo” was like, and yet very much unlike, the Kenpo of his former styles. The differences were those of style and theory. His new system would have its critics. And while much of their criticism was valid, no one could deny the genius of the man who was its father.

Critics who do not understand Kenpo often ask why Ed Parker did not release videos or films of him personally demonstrating his system. There were several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Ed would have to slow down so people could see his moves. Ed knew from experience that his students would mimic whatever they saw him do, and one thing Ed was not, was slow.

But more importantly, Ed realized that no two people are alike and the new system was to be tailored to the individual. After all, it was the individual who would advance through American Kenpo to where he met the standards Ed Parker wanted. There were also many different ways of doing a movement. Many of his black belts would find that the way Ed taught them was completely different from all the others. To put a technique on film or video would freeze the technique for all time. The move or technique was a framework within which the individual worked.

A video would freeze frame the move which would become the way the Master did it; and the only way it should be done. The 5 foot, 98 pound woman would have to emulate the 6 foot, 220 pound Ed Parker. This would go against one of Ed’s fundamental principle that he would teach correct principles and let the individual govern himself.

The way Ed moved was right for Ed. The way his students should move would not be the same. Thus, he taught his new system differently to each person, and each way was right for the student. Just as Ed realized that there was only one Bruce Lee, or one Mohammed Ali, there would only be one Ed Parker. He did not want his students to mimic him, or to become puppets. He wanted them to become great in their own right.

To this end, Ed designed his new system as a method for teaching principles and not just as a way to teach techniques. Rather than teaching 30 techniques and an equal number of variations for each belt as he had done with the Kenpo Karate Association of American and early International Kenpo Karate Association, Ed reduced the number of techniques to 24, eliminated the variations and created what he called “extensions”. He also simplified each technique, teaching only the first part of the technique to the beginning student who could now concentrate on the principle of the movement. No longer would a student practice move after move, time after time, like a boxer using the same move time after time to perfect it. He was to learn the “why” of the move and concentrate on, why, as he practiced the move. When the student was prepared for brown belt and black belt he was to learn the extensions and the advanced applications and theories of the moves.

Not only was the student to learn the “why” of the move, but by simplifying the techniques, Ed believed his new system could be tailored to the individual who would perfect it according to his own physical size and athletic ability. American Kenpo forms were taught with hipen meaning so only the perspicacious would see what was intended. The system was designed to lead the student through tangled and obscure paths, where the instructor was to point out the meaning of each twist or turn. Then, when it all came together, the student–the Ed Parker black belt–was to emerge from the darkness into the light of new understanding. The black belt would only need to know about 100 applications of his new system, as Ed believed his understanding of the “why” of the movement would replace all of the “techniques” of other Kenpo systems.

This was in marked contrast to True Kenpo, where a student was taught hundreds of “techniques” and hundreds of variations–over 400 for first degree black belt alone. This was the system Ed no longer taught. It was the old way, the past, and breaking from this past was the very reason for the existence of the new system of American Kenpo. But it sapened Ed that few students of this new style were able to compete successfully with the old system fighters in tournaments.

It would have been even more disappointing for Ed to see the dismal record of not one American Kenpo practitioner being able to stand up in the new ultimate and extreme fighting forms. And where Ed Parker had taken all the Jujitsu moves out of True Kenpo, those in American Kenpo now find they must train in Jujitsu because American Kenpo while great in theory, is greatly lacking in application.

Those who understand the “Parker principle” also understand why Ed chose no one to succeed him. Ed didn’t intend on dying when he did. After all he wasn’t yet 60 years old, and he had not planned for his death. He had formed a living trust to protect his assets while alive, without much concern for when he died. Ed told Will Tracy he was looking for someone to follow in his footsteps, but like Diogenes walking through the streets carrying a lamp in the daytime looking for an honest man, Ed had yet to find one.

In mid 1990, Ed Parker told Will Tracy he had five requirements for a disciple to take his place:

  1. He (not a female) had to have at least a bachlors degree in sociology, psychology or history:
  2. He had to be under 30 years of age:
  3. He had to be extreme competent in all styles of Kenpo, and at least three other martial arts styles:
  4. He had to be as good a writer as Ed Parker:
  5. He had to be LDS (Mormon):

Ed Parker believed it would take 10-15 years to train a disciple and at the time of his death, there was no one even close to being able to replace him; and so American Kenpo was his legacy to the world. He had taught what he believed to be correct principles, and like Alexander the Great, he would leave succession to those who were best qualified to carry on their own style, but not his. Ed no longer taught in the decade before his premature death. Rather he taught through his writings.

He had seen the failure of his new American Kenpo, but he did not believe it was a failure of the system. Rather it was a failure of the black belts of his new system to apply the principles he had established. Some of these black belts left him to found their own organizations where they would teach their versions of his new system, never realizing that they could never teach the principles correctly. They took with them the techniques, but for the most part, they left his “correct principles” behind; and for the most part they have abandoned Ed’s system for their own style.

Since the death of Ed Parker December 15, 1990, his American Kenpo empire has fragmented and shattered. The IKKA has floundered due to defections, internal politics and divisiveness. American Kenpo been interpreted and reinterpreted by Ed Parker’s new system black belts. Yet as Ed stated just three months before he died, none of his black belts knew the meaning of the flower he showed them. (Referring to the Bupha.)

In death Ed Parker has become a legend, bigger than life. His black belts first scrambled to fill the void in the system he created by making themselves his successor. But American Kenpo is not just a system. It is the visible expression of Ed Parker’s philosophy, a philosophy that holds that correct principles replace style; a philosophy that allows the same move to be taught a myriad of ways with each way being the right way. Ed lamented, some three months before his death that he had awarded black belts, but few Shodan ranks, and none had earned his philosopher’s cloak. None had learned to think for himself. Few were innovative.

When asked about some of his ideas which seemed absurd, Ed laughed and said he had purposefully taught and written absurdities as a test. But none of his new system students had ever questioned him. He wanted each student to prove or disprove every concept. He wanted them to think for themselves. And he most certainly did not want them to become the puppets they had become. Had his American Kenpo students understood Ed’s principles, they would have discovered that the absurd concepts were little more than stumbling blocks put in the way to prove them, and catapults to launch them into thinking for themselves.

Ed often lamented that his American Kenpo students knew what to think, but they didn’t know how to think, and only a rare few of his True Kenpo students had fully understood Ed Parker Kenpo. For this reason, Ed Parker did not create American Kenpo as a system, but as an idea, an idea that encompassed all of his teachings and styles, from his first students to his last. Some were a part and some were the whole of what he taught, but only those who continued to teach what he taught, the way he taught it either in the beginning or the end are American Kenpo.