Origin of Kenpo


Senior Master
MTS Alumni
Apr 24, 2002
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Everything I've read online says the origin of Parker Kenpo is primarily Chinese, with some stuff borrowed from other styles... is this true? I have a black belt friend of mine who is insisting that I am dead wrong, and since I'm only a brown belt, he's acting like I couldn't possibly know anything at all about kenpo. I just know what I've read, and it could be wrong, because I haven't managed to get a hold of any of Mr. Parker's books yet, I can't check the original source. Could someone who knows settle this for us?

<sigh> help please.

Try researching William K. S. Chow, maybe there'll be something
there that'll help??? I'm like you, I just know what I've read, and
have come up with the same conclusions that you have.
I did...I guess the messages are too old or I didn't search for the right thing...I didnt' find anything that exactly answered my question.
Nightingale, I would recommend going to www.google.com and doing a search on "kenpo + history". That should take you to a few sites that can at least begin your search.

Here is one of the sites I found from that list: http://www.geocities.com/kenpomanual/history.htm . It is a fairly brief overview that will give you a good starting point.

Essentially, yes, Kenpo started from Chinese roots, as have *most* martial arts, in one form or another. That having been said, if you do the research and follow it as far as you want, it can be really rewarding. Then you can outsmart your Black Belt friend and back up your comments with some proof...;)

Also, for some additional Kenpo history/information, you can also check out the Tracy's Kenpo page (http://www.tracyskarate.com ). They have some interesting stuff there on K.S. Chow and James Mitose. Makes for good reading, anyway....

Good luck, and enjoy the journey. If you still come up emptyhanded, let me know. I have a boatload more links for you, but, like I said, I think you will have a better experience following your own search.

I think part of the problem with all of this history stuff is that you are looking at a style that has its roots in a Chinese style, but was communicated through a Japanese family (Mitose). A good number of the Japanese and Okinawan arts arose after the arts "migrated" from China to Japan and Okinawa through a number of means.

When the "original" art from China was taken abroad, say to Japan, those who learned modified their teachings somewhat, and so on. This is a *real* generic history of martial arts, not meant to spark a lot of debate. The general point is that, yes, Kenpo has Chinese roots, if you go back far enough. You could also say it has Japanese roots, since Mitose was Japanese. By the same token, you could say it is Hawaiian, because Mr. Parker was Hawaiian, or purely American, because Mr. Parker was an American citizen. See?

Sounds like both you and friend are right. However, it depends on where in the historical timeline you want to stop.

What I really wanted to know was what does Mr. Parker himself have to say about the origin of the style...I've read on certain websites that he actually called it "Chinese Kenpo" for a while. I'd heard that Mr. Parker's Kenpo was primarily Chinese, because that was what Mr. Parker learned from Mr. Chow, with influences from other styles (Mr. Parker borrowed the stuff he liked). Is this true? I've been told he talks about it in Infinite Insights Vol 1, but I can't seem to find the book at any of my local libraries, so if someone out there has it and could enlighten me, I'd appreciate it.
I can get that information for you tonight--I just have to read up on it (books are at home, I'm at work), and I can respond.

Also, if you can't get ahold of the books, zip me an email. I can get one for you, no problem. The Infinite Insights books are really good to have, and the first one is a good rundown of the history.

For the real deep insights as to how the style got created, things might get a bit harder. Mr. Parker "added" a lot of things to his original style, so it evolved from what he was taught. Some ideas, he incorporated from other styles, and some he incorporated by trial and error. A lot of the terms, philosophy, and "science" that was brought in was pure Ed Parker, from what I understand, from his own mind and then putting it into use.

Lastly, of the things that were "added" to the style: from what I have read (and interpreted), Mr. Parker kept things he liked from other styles, but then "Kenpoized" them. For example, kenpo sticks have similarities with escrima, kali, and the like, but they are *kenpo* sticks--similar, but an entity unto themselves.

Anyway, that's my understanding, and I may be wrong on some counts. Still, lemme know if you need the book, and I'll mail one out to you.



You can check out my website for a fairly brief history.


and go to the History link in the table in the middle of the page. Or you can link here directly to:


I borrowed from Bob White (tried to link but it changed so I copied and gave credit then linked later), and a very nice little piece by a good friend of mine, Xena, and another bit I had in my archives from when I did Chinese Kenpo, via a Tracy based system.

I was originally (1979-1993) under Brian Duffy. His lineage was Gary Swan, Steven LaBounty, Ed Parker, before Mr. Duffy began studying with Mr. Parker circa 1985-1986.

Then I was with Tommy Burks (1990-present), who was also with the SGM. There is lots of info on this forum and on KenpoNet regarding history of Kenpo/Kempo etc. Not all of it agrees, but you get the general idea and a lot of the specifics from those closest to Mr. Parker. Fortunatly I have been around long enough to remember Mr. Parker and some of the stories he told, and gotten a lot more from his Senior students. On this forum Dennis Conatser seems to be the most willing to share his memories and expertise with us regarding Mr. Parker and Kenpo. Give him an email and see if he is willing to talk to you some about it?

Good luck,
-Michael Billings:asian:
One of Ed Parker's first books is title "Secrets of Chinese Karate". It was published in 1963 & the ISBN 0-13-797845-6pbk. If he taught anything differently wouldn't you think he would of titled it, Japanese Karate, Hawaii Karate etc.

Bob Thomas
One of the things Mr. Parker did say, was in the early days, when he opened the Pasadena school, the business guy next door ask him what Kenpo was ... a restraunt. Mr. Parker told him it was a martial art, and the guy predicted he would be out of business within a few months. Well the school is still there.

He named it Chinese Kenpo Karate for marketing reasons. Most Americans had heard of Karate as service men returned from Korea, Okinawa, and Japan. The WW-II guys stationed in Japan after the war, were exposed to Jui-Jitsu and Karate. Mr. Parker was a very sharp businessman ... albeit he had some ups and downs. He knew to market the art it had to be recognizable. Hence you got "Chinese Kenpo Jui-Jitsu Karate" amongst others.

I heard this story from him directly so feel pretty secure in relating it on.

-Michael Billings
United Kenpo Systems-Texas
Originally posted by nightingale8472

Everything I've read online says the origin of Parker Kenpo is primarily Chinese, with some stuff borrowed from other styles... is this true? <sigh> help please.-N-

The following is from my own site, and deals primarily with the more recent history of Westernized Kenpo, with most focus on Mitose. I will go further and say there is a lot of Chinese influence in modern Westernized Kenpo, some from Chow, but most from Mr. Parker's time with Chinese instructors in the California area, i.e. Jimmy Wing Woo, James Woo, and many many others.

As a side note, William Chows father was NOT a Shaolin monk as others have stated. If you dont believe, ask his brothers who are still alive and practicing Japanese martial arts!?

Anyway, the following is from direct research I have compiled:

Introduction Into Kenpo....

There are over 300 styles of martial arts in China and they are referred to as Quan fa in Mandarin (also spelled in the Wade-Gilles system as Ch'uan fa), and Kuen Fat in Cantonese, meaning "fist law".

In Japanese, the Kanji (Japanese word for Chinese written ideograms or characters) for Quan fa is pronounced Kem Po (spelled Kenpo). There are many styles or systems of Kenpo, as Kenpo/Quan fa is a generic term describing martial arts with Chinese influence.

This history deals with the style of Kenpo brought to the west by James Masayoshi Mitose that would influence the direct development of systems such as American Kenpo, Tracy Kenpo, Kara Ho Kenpo, Kajukenbo, etc.

Like other systems of martial arts, the history of the Kenpo system brought by James M. Mitose is shrouded in mystery and confusion. There are several hypotheses surrounding the advent of this sytem of Kenpo in the West. Unfortunately, none can be collaborated. The true origins are probably lost to antiquity forever.

Orgins of Kenpo....

1. One story states that around 1235, at the Shaka-In Temple, Mount Kinkai, Kumamoto, Japan, Kenpo as we know it today was first developed. This art was a combination of Shaolin Gong fu (Quan fa), brought by a monk fleeing China who sought refuge with the Yoshida family (clan), and the family's art, which was similar to Aiki-Jujutsu. They named their system Kosho-ryu (Old Pine Tree Style).

Kosho-ryu consists of instruction in philosophy, human anatomy, kendo, kyudo, ikebana, suiei, tree-climbing, horsemanship, weapons, and hand to hand combat.

2. Another version states that James Masayoshi Mitose himself created the Kosho-ryu name/style, as there are no direct links to a previous family art of the same name. He came up with the style after he had studied Okinawan Kempo Tode Jutsu for some time under Choki Motobu and studying Koga-ryu Ninjutsu and Sato-ryu kempo under Seiko Fujita.

Fujita Seiko was the last Koga-ryu Ninpo grandmaster. He died in a car crash in the 1960's with his three top students. He was the grandmaster of Koga-ryu Ninjutsu and 14th Soke of Sato-ryu Kempo.

The Choki Motobu family style can be called Motobu-ryu. It is rumored that Choki Motobu ended up becoming James Mitose's uncle through marriage, this has not been verified. The Motobu family art of Motobu-ryu continues today, as it was learned from his father, by Chosei Motobu.

3. I have also heard rumours that Mitose may have intentionally put clues in his Kenpo as to the "true" origins of his system of Kenpo, and that the Kosho-ryu and the Kosho monk he spoke of may have been the Chinese Gong fu master Kusankun (also known as Koshokan and Koshankun). This would explain the Okinawan connection, i.e. Motobu, makiwara training, etc., as well as the Chinese influence.

According to Patrick McCarthy, in what is know as the "Oshima Incident", Confucian scholar Tobe Ryoen compiled a cronical about a disaster which took place in 1762, when an Okinawan tribute ship en route to Satsuma was blown off course during a typhoon and drifted to Oshima beach in the jurisdiction of Tosa-han (Kochi Prefecture) on Shikoku Island.

In a discussion with the Okinawan officer in charge of warehousing the kingdom's rice supply, reference is made to a Chinese named Kusankun.

He is described as an expert in Kenpo, or more specifically kumiai-jutsu, it is believed that Kusankun, with a few personal disciples, traveled to the Rykyu Kingdom with the Qing Sapposhi Quan Kui in 1756. Shiohira's description of Kusankun's Kumiai-jutsu demonstration leaves little to question.

Oral tradition maintains that Kusankun was one of the teachers of the great Okinawan master Sakugawa Chikudan Pechin (the father of Okinawan karate). There is also a hypothesis that Kusankun or Sakugawa may have been responsible for bringing the Bubishi (Wu Bei Zhi in Mandarin) to Okinawa, which directly was the largest influence on karate. The Bubishi is known as the Bible of karate and is a classic Chinese work on philosophy, strategy, medicine, and techniques as they relate to the martial arts, including the obscure technique called the Dian Xue (Dim Mak in Cantonese), and cavity striking.

So which version is true...?

1. One thing I have found out for fact is: Kosho-ryu can not date back to 1235 CE. The ryuha pattern of organizing training and training principles originated in the 1400s. There are no verified documents referring to bugei ryuha in the 13th century. The majority of the ryuha that claim pre-15th century origins, in fact, can be traced back only to the 18th, 19th, or 20th centuries.

2. The Bugei Ryuha Daijiten written by Watatani Kiyoshi and Yamada Tadashi that list all the ryu of Japan (which usually errs on the side of over-inclusion) lists a Kosho-ryu (written "old pine tree") and identifies it as a karate system, but doesn't say anything else about it. Which usually indicates that the editors either couldn't find any information other than the name or dismissed whatever information the school itself provided as completely fantastic.

3. James Mitose was supposed to be the 21st generation descendant of the founder. The Katori Shinto-ryu is the oldest proven ryu, founded in the 1400s, and they are only on the 20th headmaster (with Maniwa Nen-ryu possibly being older). Although, it is possible they founded the style back in 1235 but didn't organize it into a ryu until later. This is true of other ryu. That would explain a lot of things, including the generation gap.

4. The only Chinese, Shaolin-type influence I have heard of (aside from Okinawa) is actually from the Edo period (fairly recent in Budo terms) and related to Kito-ryu or Yoshin-ryu jujutsu. Also the mixture of arts in Kosho-ryu seems kind of odd. It definitely deviates from the traditional "Bugei Juhappan" (18 arts of bugei): sword, iai, bo, jujutsu, etc., unless it was passed on in a REALLY important and rich family, and if that was the case, the ryu would be well documented.

5. There has been much speculation about the relationship between James Mitose and Choki Motobu, going so far as to question that there even was a relationship.

Did Mitose learn from Motobu...?

A. They were both in Japan from 1921-1936.

B. It is rumored Choki Motobu was James Mitose's uncle through

C. Both Motobu and Mitose used the same family crest.

D. They both emphasized Makiwara use (an Okinawan method, neither Japanese nor Chinese).

E. Mitose gave Motobu a prominent picture and credit as a master of Karate- Kenpo in his first book, What is Self-Defense? Kenpo Jiu-jitsu.

So which story is true...?

Another person who had a huge impact on the development of the Kenpo practiced today in the West, was William Kwai Sun Chow.

William K.S. Chow studied Kenpo under James Mitose for several years and in 1949 opened a school of his own at a local YMCA, to teach students his own variation of Kenpo (one of those students being Edmund K. Parker). To distinguish his system from James Mitose's Kenpo Jiu-jitsu, Chow referred to his art as Kenpo Karate.

It is unknown what William K. S. Chow's martial arts background was prior to his involvement with James M. Mitose. That in it's self has been an ongoing debate for some time.

Although many times throughout his life William Chow claimed that Mitose was his only "Teacher", Chow observed and exchanged information with several different instructors, one very notable teacher was professor Henry Seishiro Okazaki in Danzan-ryu Jujutsu

I leave it up to you to make your own decisions on the history of Kenpo, but it should not affect the way you feel about your art or system! Kenpo today is still one of the best forms of self-defense available, regardless of its origins.

The Kenpo Exchange
Kudos, Sanxiawuyi for a great attempt at being as non biased
as possible! It still leans, but you can't be faulted for that.
Good job!
But American Kenpo starts with Ed Parker there is no past tie in to other systems. It was solely developed by Ed Parker. No other system contains the meat of what American Kenpo does. Sure, the basics are generic as is for all martial arts but the main thrust of the curriculum is solely Ed Parkers. What we do with it depends on us from this point on.

End of story.