Interview with Kendo Kyoshi Jeff Marsten: Kendo in the Pacific Northwest

With over forty years of kendo experience, Jeff Marsten began his kendo journey in 1971. From then, he founded five clubs and schools in the Pacific Northwest and served as the President of the All United States Kendo Federation from 1994 to 2000, helping to grow the organization’s membership. Today, Marsten took some time to discuss his kendo journey and his contributions to the kendo community of the Pacific Northwest.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello Marsten Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk about kendo in America.

Jeff Marsten: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: Many consider over forty years of training in the martial arts, an accomplishment, and an achievement in its own right. When did you begin training in kendo? What aspect of the art appealed to you at first and has that aspect continued to motivate you in your training?

Jeff Marsten Sensei in the middle of teaching a class. Source: Bellevue Kendo Club.

JM: I started kendo formally in the summer of 1971 not because I particularly had wanted to do kendo but it was available after much research (the old Seattle Kendo Club did not want beginners, was basically a GOB outfit) so it took a lot to find them. I went there for five weeks before someone asked me if I was interested and wanted to start. I just wanted to learn swordsmanship; style didn’t matter. What has changed over the years is, as a kendo sensei, I have been able to make a difference in other’s lives which is not common.

MAYTT: When you began training in kendo, how did the American public view the art? Did that perspective of kendo share the same type of mysticism as empty hand martial arts like karate or judo?

JM: When I started kendo, most people didn’t know what it was. Most individuals could see no use for it because “you don’t carry a sword” but in reality, most empty-handed arts have sword influence in their training. Aikido comes from kendo; the founder did kendo first.

MAYTT: I see. As time passes, many things change, adapt, or modify themselves to stay with the times to some degree. Has kendo experienced such a change in training and if so, how much has the training changed since you began? 

JM: The dojo atmosphere is less oppressive and abusive. In 1979, the All Japan Kendo Federation (now the World Kendo Federation) changed the rules and took out tripping, punching, and throws. This started a change in teaching. Now there is more focus on developing the person, however this is very complex question since it really depends on the area and the dojo. This is worldwide since some areas are really hard core and others are not.

MAYTT: Who do you feel was most instrumental in your training from a “sensei” standpoint? What valuable lesson did they teach to you that carried the most weight and had the heaviest impact? 

JM: Probably Inoue Sensei kudan Kyoto, Japan who took me under his wing. Also, the teachers at Hankyu Dojo in Osaka who worked hard on improving my kendo. I passed up everyone in Seattle.

MAYTT: Throughout your career, you’ve had the opportunity to coach many kendo teams at various tournaments. In your experience, how does coaching a team/an individual differ from teaching a class at the club?

JM: Usually team members are more dedicated because I am really big on goal setting, and regular students have LIFE in the way.

MAYTT: From 1994 to 2000 and from 2011 to 2014, you served as the All United States Kendo Federation’s (AUSKF) president and vice president, respectively. What were those experiences like, working on more of the political and administrative aspect of kendo? What initiatives did you assist in to help grow or sustain kendo in America? 

JM: Frustrating but I feel I accomplished a lot; my professional background was writing procedures and corporate documents so most of the kendo leaders at that time did not have the background training to lead a national corporation. I wrote a detailed study of how to grow kendo and how to start a club. I instituted several programs that the national organization lacked, and our population went from 2,000 members to 5,000 members.

MAYTT: That is an achievement in growing the AUSKF’s membership! You mentioned that you wrote a detailed study on how to grow kendo and start a club that resulted in a major increase of kendoka in the AUSKF. What suggestions and programs did you suggest implementing that the organization was not implementing before your tenure?

JM: Basically: advertise and be more service orientated. I started the first kendo summer camp for kendo bringing instructors from Japan. This led to an annual event, pushed forward the national championship, mentor program, how to start a club, created a world women’s event with the tournament and seminar bringing top women instructors from Japan. Just the attitude changes at the AUSKF board meetings.

MAYTT: In America, there are a plethora of empty hand martial arts schools, ranging from taekwondo and judo, to karate and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. How has kendo managed to maintain its presence in the country? Why do you think the art is not as popular compared to other martial arts in America?

JM: Kendo lacks a practical aspect to the untrained eye and takes way too much time to learn besides being too Japanese for most non-Japanese.

MAYTT: With that in mind, how is kendo “too Japanese” for the average American when other Japanese arts like judo, aikido, and karate seemed to have retained most of their “Japaneseness?”

JM: Actually, I disagree about the other arts retaining Japanese influence since they are really integrated, whereas kendo is not. Typical US citizen votes for Japanese to be AUSKF board when they have no corporate experience (“he is really good at kendo”). I will not put some things in writing because it will come back to bite me but US Kendo is ruled by Japanese immigrants some of whom are not even US citizens after living here for years.

MAYTT: I see. Throughout your training, you’ve established three kendo clubs in the Seattle area: Highline Kendo Kai in 1976, the Bellevue Kendo Club in 1989, and Sno-King Kendo Club in 2002. What prompted your decision to open not one, but three clubs within the Seattle area?

JM: Actually, helped start five clubs, I am a founding member of Kendo Club at UW which started when I was a student there in 1972 and the Everett Kendo Club. As stated earlier, I did a detailed study of demographics on what it takes to start a club. Leadership is crucial and some are not cut out for the task, but parents do not want to drive their child more than twenty minutes to get them to class, the area has to be affluent enough and you need a facility that will support your class. I like park departments because it gives me free advertising, deep pockets and a cheap cost, and in most cases, on-line registration so cuts down on my bookkeeping.

MAYTT: You have two family members teaching alongside you at your three schools. How does it feel to be teaching kendo alongside your kinsmen and what does that say about future Marstens training and teaching kendo?

JM: My son helps me at one of my classes, he is godan and my daughter helps me with another class. She is rokudan and also head coach of our federation. In actuality there are six Marstens teaching kendo at different clubs.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With over thirty-five years of teaching and running three clubs in and around Seattle, what advice would you give to someone who wants to open a club of their own? 

JM: Careful what you ask for and make sure you have the time and desire to do it. Let go of your ego. Additionally, kendo rank does not equate to teaching skill or people skills so not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. Also, after all this time I am still learning new stuff which keeps it interesting.

MAYTT: Thank you again, Marsten Sensei, discussing kendo’s history in America.

JM: It was a pleasure.

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