The Origin of Kenpo Karate
(second revision 8/8/99)
Kenpo is a Japanese unarmed fighting art that was brought from China to Japan about 700 years ago by the Yoshida Clan and was quickly adopted by the Komatsu Clan. The word Kenpo means literally, "Fist Law," and also refers to its Chinese origin. The Japanese adaptation of this Chinese style was well suited to defend against the various unarmed Japanese martial arts of the 12th century. Few modifications were required for Kenpo to overcome the new unarmed systems that developed over the next 7 centuries that came to be known as Karate (Japanese of "Empty Hand"). But for the Yoshida and Komatsu Clans who developed their art into a truly Japanese style, the term was simply Kenpo. During this same period the Chinese system from which Kenpo was derived underwent so many changes that, while most of the Kenpo techniques can be found scattered among the hundreds of Chinese fighting systems, there is no single system in China today that resembles Kenpo.
"Chinese Kenpo" is a term coined by Ed Parker in 1960, when he found there was no kung fu style that resembled Kenpo. But adding Chinese forms and Chinese terms did not change the nature or Japanese origin of Kenpo. It has, however, imbued the "Chinese connection" with an "ignorance is bliss" mentality. One of Ed Parkers students at the time was Jerry Meyers who went on to train with Bruce Lee and Danny Inosanto, and combined their style with Kenpo to make it a true Chinese Kenpo style.
90 years ago Kenpo was so well known as an effective fighting art in Japan that many Japanese styles that had no connection with Kenpo claimed their art was derived from Kenpo. Some even went so far as to claim their masters had training directly under Chinese Kenpo masters. Similar claims have continued to this day, even though there has never been a Chinese Kenpo master; nor has there been a master of the Chinese style that gave rise to Kenpo in centuries. What's even more ridiculous are the Korean schools that claim to teach Kenpo as part of Tai Kwon Do. This Chinese Kenpo is not to be confused with the styles developed by Kenpo students who went on to train with Bruce Lee and created their own systems of Chinese Kenpo.
Ed has his meeting with Terry Robinson wrong where he wrote, "Roy called one day while I was renovating my new studio. He invited me to American Health's Hollywood Gym. He wanted me to meet Terry Robinson a World War II "kill or be killer" combat instructor...'if I had the time.' It was an afternoon well spent and concluded with Terry inviting me to the Beverly Wilshire Health Club where he was the physical director." (Inside Elvis (1979) Rampart House, Ltd. Page 26.
Ed did not open his Pasadena Studio until February 18, 1957, and had been teaching at the Bert Goodrich Bar Bell Gym for about a month when Bert and Roy introduced Ed to Terry Robinson. It's a minor detail, but when taken as a whole, Ed was ignoring how he got started teaching Kenpo for a more determined from the beginning approach.
The Beverly Wilshire Health Club was not a health studio like American Health, but rather more like a spa, social club and health club combined. Its members included most of Hollywood's movers and shakers. Ed did not teach classes as many believe, but rather simi-private lessons to small groups of two or three friends, and many of these had Ed come to their homes to teach private lessons.
Ed made enough money teaching private lessons that he could quit his job with the Probation Department, and open a full-time school. In February, 1957 Ed borrowed $300 from a Mormon friend, rented the building at 1840 E. Walnut Street in Pasadena for $65 a month, and called it the "Kenpo Karate Self Defense Studio". His original mat was made of sawdust covered with canvas, and this was what his students worked out on until he got tatami mats from Japan a few weeks later.
NOTE: Many in American Kenpo believe Ed Parker held some secret knowledge which he only imparted to a select few. In a way, that was true. But it had nothing to do with Kenpo. How to make a sawdust mat was a "secret" Ed only showed to his inner circle. Everyone in Ed Parker's Inner Kenpo Karate Circle knew how the mat is made, the type of canvas used and the details of its construction. This was the type of mat the Tracy brothers used in their first studio in San Francisco, and anyone who does not know how it was made was never in Ed's Inner Circle.
NOTE: The tatami mats were standard 35.5" wide X 71" long and 2.25" thick. They had a vinyl covering to protect the rice straw, and cost $100 each. There were 20 mats in the workout area, and 14 mats used to protect the wall and a couple of extra in storage. That's over $3500 with shipping for mats, (in 1956 dollars = $14,000 in today's money) and they arrived less than three months after Ed opened his studio. These were a gift to Ed from his close friend in Japan.
After moving the school to a new location across the street to 1713 E. Walnut Street in 1958, Ed had his students clean the vinyl covering with soap and water. Unfortunately, the students didn't take the coverings off the mats and the rice straw got mildew and rotted. Ed got another gift of 30+ mats from the same person in Japan, which took longer to get because customs required them to be fumigated and they remain in quarantine for several weeks.
There are many who claim to were close to Ed and knew him well. Few people really knew Ed. I did. I know how Ed was able to get the tatami mats - they didn't cost him anything. I know who that friend is, and I know far more about this matter than anyone alive today (other than that friend). Anyone who does not know who gave Ed the tatami mats, did not really know Ed Parker. It doesn't matter how close someone claims to have been to Ed, if they don't know who Ed lived with in Provo when he first went to BYU, and who later went to Japan where Ed visited them, and later gave Ed the mats, and the relationship Ed had with that family, never really knew Ed, and Ed never really trusted them.
Ed was concerned about how Professor Chow would take his opening a school and wrote Professor Chow in 1957, requesting his permission to open the studio in Pasadena. This was such an important request that Professor Chow showed the letter to Adriano Emperado, and it was Emperado who finally convinced Chow to allow the studio to be opened. But Chow did not give his permission until later 1957.
Sonny Emperado mentioned this letter in his tribute to Ed Parker, and Professor Chow showed me the letter in 1961. Despite the claims that Ed and Professor Chow had planned on opening Kenpo schools on the mainland, the letter stated that after Ed went to California he began teaching at a health club (a slight exaggeration), and got such enthusiastic response that he wanted to open a school on his own. (Ed began teaching at Bert Goodrich's Gym in Aug, 1956, and opened his own studio in February 1957, but did not write Chow until May, 1957 and Chow gave his permission in December 1957.)
This delay between when Ed opened his school and when he wrote Professor Chow may be one of the reasons Ed called his school Kenpo Karate, instead of Go-shinjutsu, which is the name Professor Chow was using at the time. The first time Ed mentioned mention Go-shinjutsu was in his 1960 book, Kenpo Karate, the Law of the Fist and Empty Hand (page 11) as being the system created by Daruma (c. 525 A.D.).
Paul Pung was the only other Kenpo instructor who had run a full-time Kenpo school, and Paul's school like Ed's Pasadena studio, made very little money. Ed only made a marginal living from the school, and his money came from teaching private lessons to Hollywood celebrities whom he met at the Beverly Wilshire Health Club, and through writer, Joe Hyams, and music composer Bronislaw Kaper.
Ed had about twenty regular students training at the studio when my brother Jim and I began training with him in late 1957. However, Ed had at least another twenty private students whom he taught at their homes. Ed's top students were his two brown belts, Jimmy Ibrao and Benny Otake. Shortly after I started, Jimmy Ibrao was promoted to Shodan. Ed was proud that Jimmy (as we called him) had only taken nine months to get his black belt.
About two weeks after my brother and I began, Ed started a day class with just my brother and me, so it was like having semi private lessons. We were going to Pasadena City College which was only a few blocks away, and we quickly progressed in the evening from beginner to intermediate and then advanced class. Ed was organizing the what he would teach, and had all the Kenpo techniques written on 3X5 index cards. After each class Ed would go over the techniques he wanted to teach in the evening classes, and organize them for the article he wrote each month for Ironman Magazine. He wanted to make sure that the techniques were not too difficult to follow and learn for anyone reading his article. The articles were so successful Ironman gave Ed a book deal, and we began organizing the techniques for what would become, Kenpo Karate the Law of the Fist and Empty Hand.
NOTE by Roarke Tracy: My father and Uncle Jim began training in October, 1957, and my Uncle Al was in the Air Force. About two weeks later Uncle Al had over two months of leave time and came went Pasadena where he began training. He came back on another thirty day leave in mid 1958, before going discharged from the Air Force, when the began training each week.
I trained with Ed Parker until the March 1959 and having access to Ed Parker's Kenpo techniques he kept on 3x5 index cards in his desk my brothers and I copied them by hand because there were no copy machines back then. As my brothers an I went through the cards to pick out the techniques he would teach the advanced class each night it became obvious that Ed had taught us just about everything he had on the cards; which was everything he knew. I told Ed I wanted to go to Hawaii to train with Professor Chow and Ed liked the idea, because he knew from the Island boys who had come over, that Professor Chow was not happy with him. Ed wanted to make amends, and he wanted Professor Chow to promote him to a higher rank. But Ed also wanted to add forms to his system. All of the Japanese karate demonstrations were getting great response from their forms, but Ed didn't have any. I suggested that we go to San Francisco where I knew several Kung Fu men, and Ed could see what Chinese forms were like.
In early February, 1959, Ed Parker, and my brother Al Tracy and I went to San Francisco and I introduced Ed to Al Novak who was a friend studying Kung Fu in San Francisco with Professor T.Y. Wong, and it was through Professor Wong that Ed met Jimmy Lee. Ed was impressed with the forms, but considered them to be closer to the Tai Chi I showed him than Japanese Katas.
Ed was claiming 3rd degree black belt at the time, and no one questioned this. I though he wanted to be promoted to 5th degree, because that was the rank of some of the Japanese karate instructors at the time.
I arrived in Hawaii in March and after settling in with a friend went to pay my respects to Professor Chow. Chow, however was not at all receptive when I first met him. Then I went with Tom Loura to pay my respects to Thomas Young; and it was Young who introduced me to Fusae Oshita. Oshita did not teach, and I didn't even think of asking her. But after Tom and I took her out to dinner, she asked to see what I had learned. I was a beginner, and didn't want to show how little I knew to a master, so I did the Yang Tai Chi form. She was impressed. She had wanted to learn Tai Chi for years, but none of the Chinese knew the form, or if they did, they said they didn't. She asked me to teach her the form, and I told her I could only show her the moves, I could never teach it because I wasn't good enough. She agreed to teach me Kenpo in exchange for showing her the Tai Chi moves. Oshita is the only one I ever showed the 9 Yang style forms.
As soon as Professor Chow learned that Oshita had taken me on as a student, he accepted me as a student also. A few months later (September) Ed arrived in Hawaii. This was the first time he had gone to Hawaii since leaving for BYU in 1954.
Ed and I met the day before his meeting with Professor Chow, and I told Ed that Chow was not happy with his success. However, I brokered an agreement with Ed and Chow that Ed would open another school and split the profits with Chow. But Professor Chow first wanted to see results from the new school, and Ed returned to the mainland without the promotion.
Ed had turned the Pasadena studio over to Al and Jim Tracy in August 1959, to finish the photographs for his book so he could go to Hawaii, and Al and Jim raised the first months gross receipts from its usual $600 to over $1,000. When Ed returned from Hawaii in late September 1959, he found the school doing so well that he saw no need to go there to teach, and that gave him time to go over the final draft for his book. Over the next few weeks, Ed taught private lessons to the Beverly Hills students, and train Al and Jim in his back yard each day when they brought the studio receipts to him. By the end of the year, December, which was always the worst month for money in the school, Al and Jim brought in $2000.
The business success my brothers had was the beginning of a change in Kenpo, which began with changing the belt rank system. When we began training with Ed Parker in 1957, there were 5 Kyu grades (white belt was ungraded) but 5th Kyu and 4th Kyu were white belts. As Ed would say, "When you begin you are a white belt, as you learn you belt gets dirtier so when you are dirty, you are a brown belt; then when you are really dirty, you are a black belt." Only Gokyu (5th Kyu) and higher could wear the Club Patch. We suggested that Ed add tips to the white belts to show their rank. Ed wasn't concerned about showing rank, as he did not understand how a visual belt rank would impact student retention. Ed's objection to the tips was how to put them on the belts. We had the solution, iron-on patches that we would cut in strips. These were being sold in black and brown to patch denem work pants, and we told Ed we would iron the tips on all the belts for him. That overcame his objections, but what sold Ed on the idea was the immediate advantage of being able to sell Club Patches to all his students at $5 each. The patches only cost Ed 75 cents, and he sold out in less than a week. This made Gokyu (5th Kyu) one brown tip, and Yonkyu (4th Kyu) two brown tips. Sankyu was the first brown belt and Ed added a brown tip to Nikyu (2nd brown) and two brown tips to Ikkyu (third brown.) Al Tracy would use this belt tip ranking to make Ed Parker's studio the most successful school in the country in 1959.
Al Tracy knew that 90% of beginning students dropped out after one month - even though they paid for three months in advance. He knew that most of the dropouts were discouraged with their progress, so he began calling all the students who had dropped out over the past three months and told them their class payments had been extended so they could complete the rest of their three months without any additional charge. As they came in, he and Jim would take a few minutes to evaluate what they had learned, and when they went to the beginning class, Jim would lead the class and Al would go around and help the students with any problem they were having. The students progressed much faster than just going to class and trying to pick up what the other students were doing.
My brothers thought the techniques that Ed had in his soon-to-be published Kenpo Karate the Law of the Fist and Empty Hand and worked the students hard towards learning all 62 techniques. Al would tell each student how close he was getting to his one brown tip, and it enthused them to where many of them brought in friends to sign up. For each friend who signed up, the student got a month of free lessons.
When Ed returned from Hawaii, Al told Ed he wanted to add two more Kyu (brown tips) to white belt as the Japanese system had. Ed agreed, but wanted to think about it.
Ed had completed, Kenpo Karate the Law of the Fist and Empty Hand and was already planning a second book. But that book required help from Chinese scholars. Ed waited until after his son was born in mid November, and the following week he took several of his students with him to San Francisco. The day before he left, he changed the belt system to add, (7th - 1 brown tips) Shichikyu and (6th - 2 brown tips) Rokkyu.
Rich Montgomery - brown belt
Chuck Pranke - two tips
April 1963: Chuck Pranke
All existing One Tippers were advanced to Two Tippers (but not given certificates because they would have gone from Gokyu, to Rokkyu [5th to 6th]), and all Two Tippers, including Chuck Pranke, and my brothers, Al and Jim, were advanced to Four Tippers which was still Yonkyu.
There was an immediate response to this. Students who had learned more than thirty techniques were now One Tippers, and they began signing up their friends. Unfortunately, Ed Parker never fully grasp the concept that Kenpo students did best when their progress was rewarded.
Rich Montgomery, Ed Parker
T.Y. Wong, James Ibrao
San Francisco was a great success for Ed Parker. He not only met with several more Kung Fu instructors, but from what he saw, he knew he could write a second book - this one on Kung Fu.
Ed received an advance from Ironman for Kenpo Karate and brought his parents to Pasadena to visit. I returned to Los Angeles on the same flight, and my brothers and I took Ed's family to the bull fights in Tijuana. I didn't have a chance to go to Ed's studio at that time because it was Christmas, and I left for Salt Lake City the following week.
©1996, 1999, 2006 by W. Tracy. All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without permission.
The Law Offices of Michael Tracy.
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