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 forever.

 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 examined.

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,
Ed Parker was hooked. He began to study with Frank Chow.

 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 Provo…”

Graduation from BYU proved to be another crossroads for Parker. He was torn between furthering his education or expanding the world of Kenpo Karate.

We, in the Kenpo family, are grateful for the decision he made.

In September of 1956, Ed Parker opened his first school in Pasadena, California.

Among Parker’s students were those who would become some of the most respected and legendary martial artists who ever lived.

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 techniques.

“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 School Kenpo.

This is what makes our system the most effective and most versatile
of all of the martial arts.