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CONTACT: Kenpo

Kenpo Seniority

by
Will Tracy
6/8/98
(revised 8/9/2007)

Kenpo seniority is confusing to some. But while it can become complicated, there is a simple basic principle that follows Oriental martial arts training. It's best to think of Kenpo as a brotherhood. A son is born, and two years later a second son is born. The first born will always be the elder son, even if he dies in infancy he will be considered the elder son. In Kung Fu there is the Sihing (big brother) and Siuhing (little brother), and a similar principle is found in Kenpo. The big brother begins training with his instructor. All students who begin after him are his little brothers. He is their "senior" Sihing. In Kenpo if one never achieve any rank beyond white belt, but he will always be senior to all other white belts, even if others go on to attain the highest rank in Kenpo he will be their Sihing, which for all practical purposes is meaningless. This applies to all students of the instructor or school. They are little brothers to all who began training before them, and big brothers to all who begin after them.

Where this becomes confusing is with Kenpo Dan ranking, because you can have a Shodan who began training in 1956, being senior to a Nidan who began training in 1957. That does not mean the Shodan outranks the Nidan, but only that he is a "senior student." To put this in perspective, Ed Parker began teaching haoles (non Hawaiian or Islanders) at BYU in January 1956 and he left BYU in June 1956. All of his Utah students are, therefore, senior (Sihing) to all of Ed Parker's California non ranked students. (That is if they were "his" students.) That does not mean they out rank them, but only that they are senior because they began training with Ed Parker first. However, none of Ed Parker's Utah students is senior in rank to any of Ed Parker's first Pasadena Shodans, because none of them ever attained the rank of Shodan. And this is where seniority becomes complicated.

Dan rank is the only rank in Kenpo. Kyu is technically a grade, but for the purpose of seniority it is treated as a lower rank. and the Sihing/Siuhing (big brother/little brother) kung fu designation really does not apply. To make it even more confusing, there are four (4) levels of seniority. First is when one begins training (the big brother/little brother relationship) with the one who began training first being senior to those who began later. That seniority disappears with the first Kyu rank (originally Gokyu - 5th Kyu), (2nd time) and a Gokyu becomes senior to all non Kyu students, no matter when they began training.

Seniority changes again (3nd time) with Sankyu (3rd kyu) with is the lowest brown belt rank. One who began training a number of years after a Gokyu will become his senior if he is promoted to Sankyu first. Seniority changes again (4nd time) when one attains Shodan (1st Dan). That makes him senior to all who have not attained Shodan, no matter when they began training, and that seniority remains as of the date of his Shodan, no matter what Dan ranking others might attain.

There is no such thing as a black belt rank, and until October 1961 Shodan was the only Dan rank in Kenpo. Prior to that, after one became a Shodan there was Assistant Instructor then Head Instructor. Ed Parker did not award any black belt or Shodan rank to any of his students while he was at BYU. His first Shodan was James Ibrao, followed by Rich Montgomery, Ralph Castro, Rick Flores and Ed Tobian, all of whom were promoted prior to November 1961. That means they were all Shodan and because Ed Parker was Shodan, they were all equal to Ed Parker in Dan rank, but he was their senior.

In November 1961 Godan was made the highest Kenpo rank and Ed Parker was advanced from Shodan to Sandan in March 1962. That was the last rank Professor Chow ever gave Ed Parker. Anyone who claims Professor Chow promoted Ed Parker to any rank above Sandan is wrong. And I will go even further to say there might be serious legal consequences attach for anyone in the martial arts business who makes that claim as part of their own belt rank.

On January 7, 1962 Al and Jim Tracy were promoted to Shodan. Ed Parker was still a Shodan himself at the time, although he was claiming Sandan, and Godan was the highest rank in Kenpo. For the purpose of rank seniority it does not matter that Godan was Kenpo's highest rank, as Ed Parker went his own way after he was promoted to Sandan. Thus, Ed Parker's first five Shodan were promoted when Ed Parker was only a Shodan, and Shodan was the highest rank in Kenpo. Al and Jim Tracy were also promoted to Shodan when Ed Parker was technically still a Shodan, but Godan was the highest rank in Kenpo at that time, so their Shodan rank is senior only to those who held a higher rank during the time Godan was the highest Kenpo rank. No Shodan or any Dan who followed could be senior in belt rank to them because they held the highest Dan ranking that existed in Ed Parker at that time, and seniority begins with the Shodan rank.

There has been a great deal of controversy over who Ed Parker's first black belt was. That controversy did not exist when Ed was alive. Everyone at Ed's Pasadena school back in 1958 knew it was Jimmy Ibrao, because Ed would brag about Ibrao being his first black belt. After Ed's death, I mentioned in some of my writings on the web, that James Ibrao was the first black belt. People who were never there, or who had no actual knowledge, began saying I was wrong. They claimed Charles Beeder, who was Ed Parkers "permanent assistant" at BYU, was his first black belt. That was impossible for several reasons. But the controversy became little more than my word against Mrs. Parker and her followers.

Here is what I based my assertion on: Ed Parker never promoted anyone to black belt in Utah, or anywhere else, including California. Let me make that even more encompassing. Ed Parker never promoted anyone to black belt or any Dan rank; at least not at any time between 1954 and 1964 when I left Ed Parker.

People who did not know Ed Parker will dispute that. But I challenge anyone to present a black belt or Shodan or any Dan certificate that states that Ed Parker personally promoted anyone to any belt rank. Ed Parker never had such a certificate printed, and he never signed such a certificate. I knew how Ed Parker thought, and hopefully the readers will also gain some insight into Ed Parker's belt rank reasoning.

To help all the disbelievers, here are the links to two Kenpo Karate belt certificates. Al Tracy's KKAA Shodan and John McSweeney's IKKA Shodan

It's been my (sad) experience that most people only see what they want to see, and many, especially far too many in Kenpo, do not see what is actually there. Instead they see what is not there. The really deluded, and those with an agenda, will look at the two certificates and believe they are both International Kenpo Karate Association certificates because they have the Kenpo emblem. Others will look at the certificates and say, "See. It's right there. Ed Parker promoted Al Tracy and John McSweeney to Shodan."

No, he did not! The certificates do not say anything about a promotion anyone to any rank. The word "promote", "promotes" or any derivation of the word is nowhere to be found on any Kenpo Karate certificate signed by Ed Parker.

What the certificates says is the certificates "confers upon" (not promotes) Al Tracy and John McSweeny to the Rank of Shodan. This is found on all Kenpo Karate Association of America and International Kenpo Karate Association certificates

This is not semantics, and it is important to understanding how Ed Parker though and why he did things this way. But to make it perfectly clear, Ed Parker not only did not promote anyone, he never conferred any black belt or Dan rank on any student either. Belt rank was always given through the association, never by Ed Parker personally. He signed the certificates as instructor and the other position he held in each respective association, but he personally never promoted anyone to any rank. (Read that as "period".)

Shortly after graduating BYU, Ed Parker founded the Kenpo Karate Association of America (which he registered with the County of Los Angeles at that time) and shortly after that (October) he opened his Pasadena studio. The first KKAA certificate conferred a Gokyu (5th Kyu) on Ben Otake in December 1956. This promotion allowed Ben to wear the Club Patch, but he still wore a plane white belt. Ed did not add tips to the white belts until the Tracy brothers began training in 1957, and suggested there be some way to show the kyu rank of a student. Ed saw the immediate advantage of this, not in showing rank, but in being able to sell Club Patches to all the students at $5 each. These original KKAA certificates had the emblem seen at the top of this page (only in red) and the following words: "Upon recommendation of the Kenpo Karate Self Defense Studios and its instructors and by authority of the Kenpo Karate Association of America this certificate confers upon (two drawn lines about 1/3 the width of the certificate and centered ) for proficiency in Kenpo Karate" (with lines for the date, "Instructor" "Branch" and to the far right of that a line for "Authorized Member of the K.K.K.A." to sign.

This can be seen in Jerry Meyers KKAA 1959 Yonkyu certificate (NOTE: The promotion is to Yonkyu (Fourth White). There is no tip mentioned because Ed still did not care for the idea of tips.

Ed Parker had always stressed the importance of having an association make all promotions. One reason for this was the fact that if Ed Parker promoted someone to black belt, he could not remove that belt or strip the person of that rank. An association, however, could. After all, an association can remove anyone from its membership; and this is the main reason Ed Parker did not want to be associated with the Kenpo Yudansha (Yuudansha) in Hawaii. Under the Yudansha, the instructor promoted the student and the Yudansha authorized, then recognized the rank the instructor awarded.

I was given the KKAA promotion records when Ed Parker turned the Kenpo Karate Association of America over to my brothers and me in 1964. So when Mrs. Parker and others claimed Charles Beeder was a black belt in Utah, I knew "Ed Parker" had not promoted anyone to black belt, that he only promoted people through the KKAA, and I knew there was no KKAA record of Charles Beeder, or any of Ed's BYU students.

Also, I knew several of Ed Parker's Island boys who trained with Ed at BYU between 1954-1956. One of them, Tom Loura assisted Ed Parker when he taught the BYU course for law enforcement officers. He, as well as two other Parker Island boys, Mark and John Kalima, told me that Ed Parker never promoted anyone to black belt at BYU. I believe them over Mrs. Parker, or anyone else who claims black belt while Ed Parker was at BYU. They told me that Ed Parker only taught at the Prove gym for about three months before it was sold. Further, they told me Ed did not award any certificates at BYU. Certificates were awarded by Brigham Young University as certificates of completion of the BYU law enforcement self defense course, and Tom Loura signed several of those certificates as witness for Ed Parker. Tom also said that BYU gave permission for Ed Parker to give brown belts to some of those who complete his BYU course, but he never gave a black belt. Tom Loura knew Charles Beeder, and thought he was a very good Kenpo student, and he assured me that Ed Parker never gave Beeder a Black Belt. In Pasadena Ed always refer to the BYU students as his "Utah brown belts." So I was willing to stand by my claim that James Ibrao was Ed Parker's first black belt.

Unfortunately for those who claimed Charles Beeder was Ed Parker's first black belt, his son, Charles Beeder Jr. came forward and confirmed that his father did not receive his Shodan until 1963. Since his name was not in the KKAA records I have to assume he received his rank under the IKKA.

This wasn't really a matter of me being right and Mrs. Parker being wrong. I was going by what I knew and what I had been told by Ed Parker and others who were there at the time. I had no agenda. What difference does it really make who Ed Parker's first black belt was?

None!

And except for being accurate, the controversy should never have existed. The problem is, this false information was used not just to discredit me, but more importantly, it was used to give others in America Kenpo a greater standing for claiming to be the successor to Ed Parker's system.

There is no doubt that Charles Beeder is senior to James Ibrao, and all of Ed Parker's Pasadena students, but he is only senior as a big brother, not in rank. That applies to all of Ed Parker's BYU students. But who were Ed Parker's BYU students?

That presents an interesting question on seniority. Let's say Ed Parker gave a seminar while at BYU, would those who attended the seminar be senior students? The answer is obviously, no. But what about those students who took the BYU law enforcement course Ed Parker taught? Would they be senior students? Professor Chow gave me an insight on how this worked in an interesting way.

Most people don't know that Professor Chow was the first martial artist to teach self defense to the Honolulu police department. This was something he was proud of. Kip Kiphunna was one of Emperado's students who had trained with Ed Parker at BYU, along with his good friend Tom Loura, who was a Thomas Young student. They introduced me to Professor Chow when I first went to Hawaii in 1959. Not long after I began training with Professor Chow, he asked me about the people Parker had worked out with at BYU. I told him about the ones I had met when they came to Ed's Pasadena studio shortly after I began training with Parker, and then I mentioned that Ed had taught the Sheriffs in Utah while he was at BYU. The next day, Chow showed me a letter Ed Parker had written him in December 1956, where he asked permission of Professor Chow to teach Kenpo in California.

The letter was interesting for many reasons. First, there was no mention of Ed Parker and Chow having agreed that Ed would open Kenpo schools on the Mainland after he graduated BYU, as Ed would later claim. To the contrary, Ed apologized for not being able to return to Hawaii to continue his training with Chow. Next, Ed mentioned that he had practiced with only Island boys at BYU and that Professor Chow would be proud to know that like Professor Chow, who was the first to teach the Honolulu police, he, (Ed Parker) was the first to teach Professor Chow's Kenpo to the police in Utah.

NOTE: Ed Parker would later claim that he and Chow had planned on opening Kenpo schools on the mainland when Ed returned to BYU in 1954. However, in Ed Parker's Inside Elvis Rampart House 1978 on page 25 Ed Parker says nothing about any plan to open Kenpo school, instead he writes:

"Graduation was decision time ... should I further my education or seek employment? Roy Woodward was now the manager of a health studio in Southern California. He extended an offer, which I accepted: however, through a chain of circumstances, I suddenly found myself unemployed."

Chow was a humble man, and I'm sure he let me read the letter so he would not have to tell me about being the first to teach the Honolulu Police. I and asked him about this, and I could see the pride he had in this. From that time on whenever there was any person who did not know Chow, I would always embarrass Chow by telling the person that Chow was the first to teach self defense to the Honolulu police. He would hang his head slightly and move it from side to side, but I knew it was his way of showing pride through humility.

I'll come back to this because it is what deals with seniority, but the letter went on to say that because of the experience Ed Parker gained teaching the college course at BYU, he would like to open a school in Pasadena. It was written in December 1956. What Ed did not say, and what I did not know at the time, was he had already opened the school in September, and as I would find out when I got the KKAA records, Ben Otake had already been promoted to Gokyu when the letter was written. He also mentioned that if the school was successful he would bring Professor Chow to the Mainland to test their students, because Ed was saying it would really be Professor Chow's school Ed would be running.

Chow had shown the letter to Sonny Emperado, and it was Sonny who convinced Chow to allow Parker to open the school, so Chow gave Ed permission about three months later. When I read the letter again in 1961 I found other interesting things that are not relevant here.

What does this have to do with seniority? I asked Professor Chow if he had many police as students. He told me he taught many, but only three had become his students. The police he taught at the police station were not his students, only the three who came to study with him were his students. These were the only three of the many police Chow taught who were seniors. He later introduced me to one of them, Jack Manahoa, as my big brother. A couple of months later I met one of Chow's students who had begun training with Chow about three months before I came to Hawaii. I asked Chow if I was his big brother because I had begun training two years earlier. He said, no, I was the student's little brother; that my training with Parker only made me a big brother for Ed Parker's students.

What this means is the students Ed Parker taught through the BYU law enforcement course would not be his students, unless they also trained with him outside the BYU course, as Charles Beeder did. And of course, any students Ed had taught outside the BYU course would be senior students. This would also include Mills Crenshaw whom Ed Parker said was one of his BYU students. We accept this on its face, but Ed Parker never told me or my brothers anything about Mills Crenshaw except that he was one of his BYU students. His name is nowhere to be found in the KKAA records and I never heard of him or his school in Salt Lake City until August 1963. Mills Crenshaw would, like Charles Beeder, be a senior "big brother" to all of Ed Parker's Pasadena students. As for rank seniority, those Utah students never held rank in the KKAA, and therefore have no rank seniority over anyone who was promoted to any rank in the KKAA.

Seniority does not generally transfer when you go from one instructor to another.

The exception to this is when a student begins training at a school under one instructor, and then moves on to another instructor in the same school. For example, at Ed Parker's Pasadena sdtudio back in 1958 nearly all of the new students were in the beginning classes that were taught either by my brothers or me. When they went to the intermediate class they might then be taught by Jimmy Ibrao. My brother, Al Tracy, was John McSweeney's first instructor, and he remained his instructor until John got his Brown Belt. He was senior all of Ed Parker's students who started after him, which means that he was eventually senior to all of Ed Parker's Pasadena students except my brothers and me, even though Al Tracy was his original instructor in Ed Parker's studio.

Seniority also moves down, but not up. That is, Professor Chow was Ed Parker's instructor. That means that all of Professor Chow's students retained their seniority with Ed Parker's students, until the time Ed Parker and Professor Chow broke. Ralph Castor began training with Professor Chow in 1955, and therefore he is senior to all of Ed Parker's students because the Island boys at BYU were not Ed Parker's students, they only trained with Ed Parker, and Ed Parker did not begin teaching his own students until after the UCLA/BYU basketball game in December 1955.

Where Seniority Ends

Seniority continues in line from the first instructor to the last. But it may end when the system changes. James Mitose was the first to openly teach Kenpo in Hawaii. (Mitose was not the first to teach Kenpo in Hawaii, only the first to teach it openly.) All of his students are therefore senior to all who followed.

The direct line of seniority runs from James Mitose to Professor Chow. All of Mitose's and all of Chow's Kenpo Karate students are senior to all of Ed Parker's students. Seniority ended when Professor Chow stopped teaching Kenpo Karate, and changed to a new style, because seniority only passed through Kenpo Karate, not the new style.

Ed Parker was Professor Chow's student, and is therefore senior to all Kenpo Karate in his line. My brothers and I were Ed Parker's student and our seniority began in 1957, all of Ed Parker's students prior to that are our seniors and all who began after that are our juniors. So all of Ed Parker's students who trained with Ed Parker from 1956 to the time Ed Parker changed to "Chinese Kenpo" in 1962 are definitely senior to all who followed. Those between 1962 and 1965 may or may not be senior, depending on how one looks at what Ed Parker taught. In 1965 Tracy's started their own Tracy's International System of Self Defense, and therefore all seniority from Ed Parker's line ended. That means there were two different lines at that point, just as there were two different lines from Professor Chow and Ed Parker beginning in 1963.

Putting this in perspective, when Bobby Low left Professor Chow to train with Mas Oyama, he remained a Chow senior student, but none of his students under Oyama were in the Kenpo Karate line, and Kenpo seniority did not exist for them. Likewise, when some of Al Tracy's students who had trained with him in San Francisco later went to train with Ed Parker (after 1965) they retained their Mitose, Chow, Parker, Tracy seniority, but seniority in the Kenpo Karate line ended and did not exist for any of their students. This would also apply to my brothers and me in relations to Ed Parker's students. We would be senior to all of Ed Parker's students after 1957, no matter what Ed Parker called his system. However, none of our students after 1965 would be in Ed Parker's new system's (whatever he called it) seniority, and none of Ed Parker's students would be in the Kenpo Karate line after 1963. That means that even though Ed Parker was a student of Professor Chow, those students would not be in Chow's line of seniority, and traditionally, their system of training began with Ed Parker, and not with Professor Chow.

The question then arises as to whether Tracy's System of Kenpo is still Kenpo and follows the Mitose Kenpo line. The answer is, as long as Original Kenpo is being taught, the lines of seniority goes from Mitose to Chow to Parker to Tracy's to their students. Sonny Emperado put it best when he said, "You add to Kenpo, you never take away from it." Tracy's has added much to Kenpo with forms and techniques, yet it has taken nothing from Kenpo. That cannot be said for any other system of Kenpo.

There is one twist to this, however. Because Al Tracy is and has been the head of the Tracy system (elder brother) since 1962, and he established the Tracy certification system, only those students who actually receive a certificate signed by Al Tracy are in his line. It doesn't matter if they train with any of Al Tracy's top students, or if those students gave them their own certificates, unless, or until they have a certificate signed by Al Tracy, they have no claim to the Tracy Kenpo Karate line. It was for this reason that I had all of my Shodan get their rank certification directly from my brother. Any rank I gave my students was from my line, and that would have divided Kenpo even further. But more importantly, this had kept the Tracy Kenpo ranking system uniform and consistent.


©1996, 1999, 2006, 2015 by W. Tracy. All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced without permission. The Law Offices of Michael Tracy.