Red Dragon Karate Studio
The History of American Kenpo
by Gary Ronemus (9th Degree Black Belt)
The most widespread account of the origin of Chinese Martial Arts is credited to the 28th East Indian Patriarch of the Buddhist Faith named Tamo. He was also called Bodhidharma and was known to the Japanese as Daruma Daishi. His arrival in China is dated about 515-530 A.D. In addition to being credited with the development of the Martial Arts, Tamo is also credited with developing principles for using the 80 as a karate weapon of self-defense in 517 A.D. (Demura, 1976). Upon Tamo's arrival in China, he found that the Canton Warlords had disarmed the general public which left them completely defenseless against marauding bandits and other warring factions, Tamo made extensive travels within China endeavoring to teach the Zen philosophy, i.e., that one must coexist with nature and the surrounding environment. He promised that if the people would do so they would have a better understanding of their individual relationship with nature. He was basically rejected by the people initially because such a philosophy did not seem reasonable during war time thus, he began teaching in seclusion at the Shaolin Monastery in the Hunan Province. As a result, his Zen doctrine became the foundation of study for Monk's within China's religious structure. As a note of interest to the reader, the inhabitants of the Shaolin Monastery still practice the Martial Arts as a way of meditation and training today.
The Shaolin Monastery is also called Shorin-ji in Japanese. Tamo was able to get his foot in the door because the monks were constantly harassed by bandits. He told them that peace was within each person and not within the world. Tamo tried to teach the monks, but found that many fell asleep during meditation. As a result, Tamo introduced exercise to improve their fitness levels and taught the original 18 hand movements of the martial arts for both defense and offense. Under Tamo's tutelage, the monks became formidable opponents. To graduate from the Shaolin Monastery, the monk had to compete to travel through, what we term the "corridor of death." This was a corridor equipped with 108 dummies which were triggered into action by the body weight of the monk as he proceeded along the corridor. Each monk could trigger up to 5 dummies at once depending on their weight. Many of the monks died in the process and some were injured and taken to the infirmary. As accounts relate the incidents, no one had ever lived to make it through if they failed during the first journey. This resulted in defection of the monks from the monastery who emigrated to southern China and Okinawa and began teaching the part of the full system they liked best. Thus some would teach straight line power movements and some would teach circular, flowing movements, animal forms, etc. This may explain why there is so much similarity between certain martial arts styles and why there are so many of them. If the monk made it to the end of the corridor, he had to lift a burning metal urn which branded a dragon on his left forearm and a tiger on his right forearm. This should be familiar to many readers who have watched the old "Kung Fu" series on television in the 1970's with David Carradine. The historical setting for the program was taken from Ed Parker's book "Secrets of Chinese Karate" which was published in 1963. It was about 5 years after this book was published that many other Martial Arts systems began tracing their beginnings back to the Shaolin Monastery, no doubt a result of Ed Parker's hard work and research which was of great benefit to Martial Artists.
During the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368 A.D.) there were noticeable improvements in the Martial Arts. Chueh Yuan had increased the original 18 hand movements to 72. Chueh Yuan eventually became partners with Li Ch'eng and Pai Yu-feng and increased the number of movements from 72 to 170. As time passed, Martial Arts training became integral to the Chinese lifestyle because they were in a constant state of war. However, due to its lethal qualities, the Martial Arts were taught only by select clans who had their own master and who would teach only selected individuals in each clan. Great pride was taken by each master in his distinctive style. Family clans were sworn never to divulge the teachings they received from their masters.
The Ming (1368-1644 A.D.) and Ch'ing (1644-1911 A.D.) Dynasties were the golden age of Martial Arts in China and many of the styles taught today were founded and expanded on during this period. In 1372 Chinese-Okinawan relations were consolidated and in 1470 Sho-ha-shi became king of Okinawa and confiscated all weapons from the people. This forced the Okinawans to see other forms of self-defense. As a result, some Okinawans emigrated to China to learn what was then called Chinese Kenpo from top masters. As the years passed, practitioners continued to learn and demonstrate their skills in private and the Martial Arts improved considerably. Then in 1609, the Japanese dominated Okinawa and Lord Shimazu removed all forms of weapons from the public at large. Between 1609-1903 the greatest achievements were made in the Martial Arts. As a result, a variety of styles and systems emerged. The Okinawans had always termed the Martial Arts as "Te" which literally means hand. During this period (1609-1903) "Karate" meaning "hands of China" replaced the word "Te" (during the latter part of the 19th century) until the Chinese character which denoted "hands of China" or "China Hand" (the latter being more correct) was changed by the Japanese to their character which meant "empty hand". This change (officially dated to 1923) angered many of the Okinawan masters who were proud of the term designating their fighting style. They also did not wish to dispense with their loyalty and association with China. However, there was great pressure by the Japanese and the masters very reluctantly accepted the new character change. The change was spearheaded by a student of Chogun Miyagi named Nagashi Hanage of the Goju-ryu style of karate. It was actually Chogun Miyagi himself who desired to make the change and compelled his disciple Nagashi Hanage to pursue the change with great vigor. While the change may have brought a deeper meaning according to Chogun Myagi, in which spiritual overcomes the physical, it is yet another example of how the Japanese managed to make many think that the Art was theirs and not the Chinese from whom it descended. The Bonzai tree is also an example because the Bonzai tree was propagated in China long before anyone ever heard of it in Japan. This has, and still does anger many Chinese which is especially true since the Japanese language descended from their Chinese ancestors. For further clarification, if the reader will observe the last two oriental characters on the right hand side of the Parker System patch, you will note that these are the true Chinese characters referring to "empty" and "hand" respectively. This was done intentionally by Mr. Parker to honor the Chinese from which our system descends. It is not a mixture of Japanese and Chinese. This has always been a primary mistake of many students of the Kenpo system and others. It is due primarily to the fact that both the Chinese and Japanese character for "te" meaning hand, are identical. This is the last character on the right hand side the Parker patch. Consequently, it is easy to mix the two or rather to think they are mixed when you look at both the Chinese and Japanese characters - the character for "kara" is different in both languages. If one uses the word Kenpo, which took on the Japanese meaning when "kara" was added before "te" as described above and has generally been the accepted norm ever since, it literally means fist law. The Pinyin pronunciation in Chinese for fist-law is "Ch'uan Fa" and is sometimes incorrectly called "Ch'uan Shu" which is the Chinese term for Kung Fu. Thus, it may be seen that the term Kenpo Karate as used by William K.S. Chow to describe his art has, and will always be, Chinese since his father (who was Chinese) passed the Art down to him.
Many Chinese began emigrating to the United States about 1840 and began work as common laborers on railroad construction and digging gold mines. The Chinese syndicates, also known as Tongs, came with otherwise honorable Chinese people seeking a better life in the United States. The Tongs had many internal conflicts and began to import top Martial Arts masters from China to protect them and teach their families how to adequately defend themselves. Kenpo was first introduced in Hawaii during the beginning of World War II by James Masayoshi Mitose who had learned it during his early years in Japan. As accounts dictate, Tamo was the founder of his sys- tem; this system was called Shorinji-ryu Kenpo by the Japanese; this the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese "Ch'uan Fa or Ch'uan Shu". This as you recall, coincides with what has been passed down by ancient masters through the centuries. Because of Tamo's contribution to Kenpo it is logical that Mitose's ancestors of the Martial Arts refer to the term of Shorin-ji as the system of Kenpo taught by Tamo. However, the Kenpo system which had been learned from ancient Chinese Masters and than taught by Mitose's ancestors was altered and extensively modified to a form and method more suitable to Japanese understanding and culture. These modifications and extensive changes were made by Choki Motobu who claimed to receive new revelations regarding Kenpo and changed the name of their system to Kosho-ryu Kenpo (Parker, 1982). When Mitose began teaching in Hawaii, he named his art Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu. Today many people call his art Kempo and sometimes use the term Kempo synonymously with Kenpo, but this is in error since Kempo is a linear system of movements much like Shotokan and while it has some similarity to Kenpo it is both distinctively and stylishly different. The "m" in Kempo also refers to its Okinawan origin.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Mitose was residing in Honolulu and had to come to grips with the fact that he was Japanese by birth, but American by citizenship. Thus, one day he asked his students "You are strong believers in Kenpo and Buddha. If the Kenpo founder, Buddha came to attack and conquer your country with soldiers, what would you do? Would you take up arms to defend your country? Or would you assist Buddha in his design?" (Mitose, 1980). While there were many varied answers from his students Mitose replied that: "This is our country so it is our duty to defend and protect it and in the presence of God we are right. So naturally, we must fight against the founder Buddha. We should take the invaders prisoner and make them realize the wrong they have attempted to do. This is the way of the true Kenpo man and this is the Kenpo man's duty." (Mitose, 1980). Mitose went on to open the Official Self-Defense Club where he trained fellow servicemen and civilians and began to expound the merits of his Japanese Kenpo. He hoped that one day Kenpo would become Americanized.
William K.S. Chow cultivated the seeds of American Kenpo. He was primarily a student of his father W.K.S. Chow, but also had some training from Mitose. Chow's father was Chinese and thus, Chow learned mostly the Chinese ancestral art of Kenpo Karate which has been passed down from Tamo. Chow was also a street fighter and while he learned many circular and flowing motions from his father, he incorporated some of the linear movements and take-downs he learned from Mitose. Seeing the value of incorporating both systems, Chow began to modify Kenpo Karate. Chow could see that one day, Kenpo could reach its full potential and once its potential was reached, Kenpo would greatly exceed other systems. Through the efforts of William K.S. Chow and Ed Parker, American Kenpo has reached this potential. American Kenpo is the most sophisticated and scientific Martial Art designed to cope with confrontations on America's streets today. However, if the skill of the Kenpo practitioner utilizing the system falls short of expectation, the outcome would be questionable (Parker, 19892).
Edmund K. Parker began studying Kenpo with William K.S. Chow at the age of 16 which would be about 1947. Ed Parker learned all he could from Master Chow and studied with other well known students of Chow such as Adriano and Joe Emperado who founded their own system called Kajukenbo which is a blend of Kenpo, weapons, and also has influences from other systems. Other practitioners included Bobby Lowe (representative for Mas Oyama in Hawaii), Paul Yamaguchi, Masaichi Oshiro (representative for Gogen Yamaguchi of the Goju-ryu style), and Manny de la Cruz. Parker later attended Brigham Young University and at the outbreak of the Korean War was stationed in Hawaii with the U.S. Coast Guard. This gave him the opportunity to study further with Master Chow. Chow wanted Parker to begin Kenpo full-time on the mainland and was prepared to move to California when Ed Parker opened his second club. However, Chow later declined; possibly because of his strong ties in Hawaii, Ed's formal education which would stand him in good stead with the general public, and possibly Chow's accent which he did not think would be of great asset to Ed Parker's presentations. Chow saw that he could still continue to teach Ed from Hawaii and thus, never moved to the continental U.S. While at Brigham Young University, Ed Parker, 23 years of age at the time, had a closed club, teaching only students of Polynesian descent and law enforcement officers. One of the law enforcement officers was Charles Beeder Sr. who became Ed's permanent assistant.
After graduation from BYU, Ed Parker moved to California and opened his second school in 1956 (ranked as a 3rd degree black belt) and also founded the International Kenpo Karate Association the same year. He continually advanced the Kenpo system which pleased Master Chow very much. Ed Parker had numerous students and friends in the film industry and went on to assist in many films as a Martial Arts technical advisor. He can be seen in most of the "Pink Panther" mov ies in which he not only did the acting, but also the fight scenes. Mr. Parker believed that the Martial Arts did not always have to be serious, but that one should have fun with them as well. This is evident in the "Pink Panther" film series. He also played the bad-guy in a film entitled "The Seven" which showed some great Kenpo moves. In 1964, Mr. Parker held his first "Long Beach International Karate Championship" which became the largest Martial Arts tournament in the U.S. for many years. It was at this tournament that he introduced Bruce Lee to the American Public who became enamored with him. Contradictory to what the film "The Dragon" portrayed, Bruce Lee did not fight anyone at the tournament, but simply gave a demonstration of his style which has since become known as Jeet Koon-do. Mr. Parker helped Bruce Lee obtain the role of Kato in the "Green Hornet" television series. Bruce Lee was later to have a chance as the star in the "Kung Fu" television series. However, it was felt by the film producers that the general public was not yet ready for an Oriental starring actor and the part was given to David Carridine instead. After this, Bruce Lee began making his movies in the Orient instead of the U.S. Shortly before his death, William K.S. Chow promoted Edmund K. Parker to the rank of 10th degree black belt. Ed Parker was the only student Chow ever promoted to 10th degree rank, despite what others claim. This was done not only because of Mr. Parker's skill in the Art, but because of the many innovations and advancements Parker had made to the system with Master Chow's approval. Mr. Parker was the first to open a commercial karate studio in the U.S., the first to conduct a karate class on a college campus, the first faculty member to teach karate on the college campus, the first authentic karate advisor for TV and film, the first to publish a rule booklet on free-style competition, the first to teach karate to law enforcement officers, and many other firsts. He was truly, and has been recognized as such, the Father of American Karate. As Parker "Americanized" (as Chow had envisioned) and further developed the Kenpo system, he developed specific requirements for each rank over a period of about 15 years. He was initially opposed to a belt ranking systems since many of the Chinese systems only had a rope for a novice and a black belt for the advanced student. However, as the needs of each group such as law enforcement compared to the average citizen were more recognized, Mr. Parker introduced a belt ranking system to go along with his requirements. The colors are yellow, orange, purple, blue, green, brown, and black. The colors signify proficiency, achievement, and authority. This belt ranking system has become widely used by most major Martial Arts systems in the U.S. today. Others have claimed to come up with many of Parker's ideas first, but their claims have absolutely no credibility according to historical accounts and published records. Mr. Parker is without question the most innovative Martial Artist that has ever lived. He has often been referred to as a "genius of motion" and was called by many throughout the world as "Mr. Karate".
AI and Jim Tracy (two other Parker students) began taking Kenpo from Mr. Parker in about 1958 and left his tutelage about 1961 to open their own school. Since that time they have created the Tracy Kenpo system with headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky. The Tracy system is essentially the only other Kenpo system with any recognition and is considered a minor system in comparison to the Parker System (which was extensively innovated by Parker with Chow's approval) through Master William K.S. Chow. At the time they broke off, Parker was making significant changes (again, with Master Chow's approval) in the Parker Kenpo System which, because they left after only a few years tutelage, never benefited from. The Tracy system taught many of the principles learned from Mr. Parker during its early years. However, it now teaches only minimal ideas and concepts learned from Mr. Parker. The Tracy's developed their own system as an original branch from Parker, but began to mix the Japanese ancestral teachings of Mitose which did not impress Mr. Parker (see the following paragraphs). On November 18, 1990 they closed out their "old" Tracy System and terminated all roots and ties to both Ed Parker and William K.S. Chow (Tracy, 1993). During this time, AI Tracy promoted Ray Arquilla to 8th degree black belt, the last to be promoted in the "old" Tracy system. Directly after this, Ray Arquilla (who worked as a prison guard in Folsom Prison and who had supposedly been promoted to Master #3 in March 1981 by Mitose while Mitose was incarcerated), immediately promoted AI Tracy to 10th degree black belt. This promotion supposedly gives the Tracy's legal, legitimate succession through the Mitose clan on the Japanese side (Tracy, 1993). It is claimed that Ray Arquilla's rank from Mitose as Master #3 was in the Kosho Shorei system. The name itself appears to be a mixture of the Kosho-ryu (Old Pint Tree Style) and the style of ShorinOji Kenpo which the Mitose clan originally learned from Chinese masters (as passed down from Tamo) and later extensively modified and renamed Kosho-ryu. The rank AI Tracy received is not recognized as rank in the Parker system and is in no way affiliated with the Parker system or what it reaches. It is interesting to note that while the Tracy System claims to teach the original concepts of Grand Master William K.S. Chow, that they have completely and officially cut all ties to both Chow and his most recognized disciple, Ed Parker (Tracy, 1993) to whom Chow passed the mantle of authority. Thus, the concepts which Parker and Chow sought so diligently to combine for over 80 years - the circular and linear - were very easily discarded.
It is commonly believed that many of the students who left Mr. Parker to brave the world on their own did so in great bitterness. However, it is simply analogous to a parent and child. The child grows up doing everything the parent instructs them to do, but the day comes when the child must develop and grow on his own. This is what Mr. Parker anticipated and what has generally happened with many of his advanced students. Chuck Sullivan, Joe Palanzo, Stephen Snelson, Huk Planas, and Larry Tatum are good examples of this. The starting of their separate organizations in no way diminishes the Parker system or the authority to promote. Remember the old adage, "emulation is the sincerest form of flattery". Within the Parker System, Ed Parker gave the authority to promote to two belt levels below a chief instructor's rank. For example, if instructor A is 6th degree, then he/she may promote student B to 4th degree before a 3-5 member panel of advanced ranked black belts. Consequently, as some have suggested, the Parker system is not dead but will live on because the Masters in the system have authority to promote and expand the art. Also, organizations or masters of other systems can separately or band together and with their combined rank, promote another to grandmaster or 10th degree black belt. This in no way diminishes the rank, but makes it more recognizable because the promotion is under the auspices and authority of a board of governors or council of instructors. In established systems, the Grand Master will not likely promote any disciple to 10th degree black belt who does not present his/her-self before a board or council of recognized, advanced ranked masters and other black belts for the purpose of a test questioning the experience, knowledge, and physical teaching ability and application skills of the individual. This gives credibility to any such promotion and has al- ways been the way with the Martial Arts.
The Parker System has expanded to many countries around the world, but as Mr. Parker suggested himself, it is not mere numbers that are important, it is the conscientious and sincere instructors and students which are wanted; those who thirst for knowledge in a truly unique martial art. There have been many myths and untruths espoused about Mr. Parker and the Parker System. His relationship to Chow and Mitose, etc. Mr. Parker was the only student which William K. S. Chow ever promoted to 10th degree black belt in Kenpo (despite claims by others). Legally and in simplistic terms, one can say that Mr. Parker simply failed to protect himself - it's rather ironic. Regardless of this, Mr. Parker was recognized throughout the world in the Martial Arts community and by most Martial Arts masters as a Grand Master because of his significant contributions to the Martial Arts in America, his unrefuted proficiency and skill, and his extensive improvements and innovations of the Kenpo Karate taught to him by Master Chow. This fulfilled Chow's own vision of Kenpo to such an extent that Master Chow was both eager and excited to promote a student who had achieved higher recognized merits in the Martial Arts than Master Chow had ever expected. Mr. Parker was the "Father" of American Kenpo Karate, is the undisputed "Father" of American Karate, and an innovative genius. To obtain the achievements Mr. Parker obtained took over 40 years of hard work; he was truly a first class pioneer of American Karate.
Contrary to widely held accounts, Mr. Parker was never a student of James Mitose. Here are Mr. Parker's own words regarding the subject. "Contrary to some of the claims that have been made in publications, I was never a student of James M. Mitose. However, he did visit me at my home and Kenpo School in Pasadena, California during the early 1970's. His visits extended over a five month period. Each time I saw him, he was dressed as an ordained minister. Many of our conversations lasted hours on end, touching upon an array of topics as well as his proposed money raising projects. He was knowledgeable about the evolution of Kenpo, revealing many interesting historical facts. On occasion, he would take off his shoes, walk on the mat area (of my Pasadena School), demonstrate self-defense techniques and discuss Kenpo principles with some of my Black Belt students; namely, Tom Kelly, Richard "Huk" Planas, Bob Perry, and Mike Pic. I noticed, after Mitose demonstrated techniques, that my students would look at me hoping to detect from my facial expressions some reaction confirming or condemning Mitose's performance. As I gazed into their faces, I could detect telltale expressions of bewilderment and disappointment. Many of Mitose's moves leaned heavily toward impractical methods of application. They seemed to lack continuity and forethought and left him dangerously exposed. My disappointment was heightened when I witnessed an almost total void of circular movements which Chow had so emphatically stressed in his teachings.
During the months that followed, many other unanswered questions surfaced. What had the Mitose (Kosho) Clan so drastically deviated from the original teachings of Tamo (Daruma) and his Chinese disciples in the frequent use of circular movements? Circular moves had certainly been a vital part of the original system that added to the totality of movement. I could not understand why the Mitose Clan, who had so proudly traced their roots to Tamo (Daruma) were willing to discard and abort circular disciplines as well as other rudiments of motion. I support the Mitose (Kosho) Clan's desire to change the Art to suit the needs of the Japanese people during that period of history, but why did the Clan employ moves that were predominately linear in context? Circular moves, used within the framework of reason (logic) and undisputedly balances the blend of motion which, when given time, inevitably leads to useful and practical movements. Lacking this ingredient would be comparable to replacing round tires for square ones on an automobile. Thanks to William Chow and his father, the crucial link has been restored as well as preserved. They have been responsible for circular movements having again found their rightful place in the Kenpo system. Naturally, it is how you apply circular movements in todays environment that will render the true validity of their significance and importance. Now that circular movements have been brought back into perspective, regardless of modern innovations to make them practical, we can truthfully say that American Kenpo salutes China as its original and prime source of ascendancy. However, while respect and credit will always be accorded China, we are not obligated nor compelled to be subservient to them." (Parker, 1982).
Thus, one may see that Ed Parker was never a student of James Mitose. Mr. Parker was to be disappointed several years after this incident in his studio. Mr. Mitose was arrested for conspiracy to commit murder and subsequently died in a California prison. This caused grave distress to Mr. Parker because it did not fit the definition of "Kenpo Man" as given by Mr. Mitose (Mitose, 1980) and was quite out of character; it had brought shame to the art. It saddened Mr. Parker to see a master in such a predicament. There are accounts of students who learned from Mr. Mitose while he was in prison, but according to Mr. Parker, many would not desire to be associated with any Martial Arts Master who had so shamed the art as it would greatly decrease the validity of claims of rank, ethics, and morality of the individual practitioner. How can one trust the message if one can not trust the messenger?
From Parker's own comments, one can ascertain that the Chinese ancestry and not the Japanese ancestry is the more important of the two because in Parker's system a circular movement becomes a linear move and at the same time, a linear move becomes a circular motion so that the system fully incorporates both types. Remember that the Japanese version of Kenpo taught by Mitose was void of circular motion. Mr. Parker was a legend in the Martial Arts and has made a lasting impact on the Martial Arts in America. He has many widely recognized students and some that are very skilled, but not as well known. A good example of one of these is Mr. Gil Hibben. Gil developed his black belt thesis on knife fighting using Kenpo tactics. It was his thesis that was used as a basis for Form VIII (the double dagger form) - which Mr. Parker did not approve - which uses two knives in mock combat. Mr. Hibben's work is well known to any who have seen the "Rambo", "Deep Space Nine", or recent "Star Trek" films. Gil is the craftsman and Kenpo Black Belt who made the knives and edged weapons for these films. Thus, there are worthy and respected black belts in all walks of life who practice and teach the Parker Kenpo System. For a complete history of the Ed Parker Kenpo System, the reader is referred to the books - "Secrets of Chinese Karate" and "Volume 1: Infinite Insights Into Kenpo: Mental Stimulation" by Ed Parker.