The History of Kenpo Karate
There is no more versatile karate system than Kenpo.
When the legendary Kenpo grandmaster, Ed Parker, opened
his first studio in 1956, the heart of American martial arts was changed
Although Kenpo is considered a Chinese based style, the name is of Japanese origin; ken meaning “fist,” and po meaning “law”…fist law…a strong, no-nonsense name for a strong, no-nonsense art.
The actual origin and lineage of the martial arts goes
back further than recorded history can document, but there are Chinese
legends that make reference to self-defense activities based upon the
movements of animals as early as the 2nd century A.D.
The genesis of Ed Parker’s Kenpo system is more easily
James Mitose was born in Hawaii in 1915. Mitose spent the
years prior to World War II living with relatives in Japan. There he learned
a system of martial arts from his family, a system that they explained had
been founded by Daruma Daishi (also known as “Tamo”) who was trained at the
revered Shaolin Temple in China.
Mitose returned to Hawaii just prior to the outbreak of
the war. After the Pearl Harbor attack, he joined the Hawaii Territorial
Guard. There he opened the Official Self-Defense Club, where he trained
fellow servicemen and civilians who were of all ethnic descents; a concept
that was quite revolutionary for its time.
One of James Mitose’s students was William Chow. Chow had
also studied under his martial artist father.
From his father, Chow had learned Chinese concepts and
principles…from Mitose he developed an understanding of Japanese
fundamentals and philosophies.
William Chow’s younger brother, Frank happened to meet
16-year-old Hawaiian native, Edmund Kealoha Parker, in church. Frank Chow
was small and thinly built, but Parker had heard of his recent encounter
with a large local bully.
Frank easily took care of his attacker.
After seeing some of Chow’s moves and techniques,
Eventually Frank stopped training Parker, explaining that
he had taught Ed everything he knew. It was at this point that Frank
introduced Parker to the older Chow brother, William, and Ed Parker’s
journey into Kenpo truly began.
Even though he began his college years in Utah at Brigham
Young University and served in the United States Coast Guard, Parker
remained a loyal and intense student of William Chow.
When Ed Parker was discharged from the Coast Guard in
1954 he returned to complete his college education in Utah.
He was also about to become a martial arts instructor, utilizing all
that he had learned from William and Frank Chow.
While at Brigham Young,
Parker was asked to perform a Kenpo demonstration during the half-time
activities at a BYU basketball game.
“The success of this
demonstration,” said Parker, “launched an entirely new dimension in my
life…in a matter of a week; I began teaching commercially in downtown
Graduation from BYU proved to be another crossroads for Parker.
He was torn between furthering his education or expanding the world of
We, in the Kenpo family, are grateful for the decision he
In September of 1956, Ed Parker opened his first school in
Among Parker’s students were those who would
become some of the most respected and legendary martial artists who
That included Chuck Sullivan.
Chuck began to study with Ed
Parker in February of 1959.
On September 27th of 1962, Ed Parker
promoted Chuck Sullivan to the rank of Black Belt.
Years later Chuck teamed up with Vic LeRoux and the two masters founded
the IKCA (the International Karate Connection Association); the parent
governing body of Old School Kenpo.
The Kenpo legacy is a never-ending continuum.
And one of the most
important aspects of the Kenpo system is its fluidity; it is an art
that is constantly in motion, while retaining the fundamental roots
that go back to the beginning.
Ed Parker seemed to regard this quality
of Kenpo as one of its main benefits:
“Like Mitose’s family who had
changed the art they had learned to suit the needs of the people of
their time, Chow also felt there was a need to change the art to meet
the needs of the American people at this time.”
Of William Chow, Parker
said: “The ‘Professor’ was a simple man, but his simplicity was also
his virtue. His philosophy can be summed up: learn what you can, use
what works, and train hard.”
This fluidity and “use what works” attitude is what drove
Chuck Sullivan and his successor, Vic LeRoux, to begin to explore the
possibility of instituting a “streamlining” process on many of Ed Parker’s
“The way was simple,” said Sullivan, “Cut down the
material and go back to our roots. Reformulating the long list of Kenpo
techniques (and thus the forms) made sense to me because in meticulously
examining them I felt that the techniques had far too many repetitions of
the same thing. I thought that instead of spending all this time working on
all these techniques and forms, why not put more stress on the basics and
emphasize the concepts and principles, then give the student enough
techniques to make him effective?”
This is the philosophy that drives the artistry of Old
This is what makes our system the most effective and most versatile of all of the martial arts.