Interview with Seattle Kendo Kai Head Instructor Doug Imanishi: Kendo in the Pacific Northwest, Part I

Beginning his training at a young age, Doug Imanishi took up kendo in a way to win a newspaper sword match with his older cousin when they played. From there, his desire to train kendo grew, as did his family membership in the art. In 2004, he took over Seattle Kendo Kai,the one his grandfather helped establish in the late 1920s. Today, Doug took some time to talk about his kendo journey, his grandfather’s impact on kendo in the Pacific Northwest, and the lack of kendo’s popularity in America. All images provided by Doug Imanishi. This is the first of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for coming in to talk about your kendo journey and the Imanishi connection to kendo!

Doug Imanishi: Thank you for having me here!

MAYTT: You began your kendo training at the age of eleven, in 1975. What made you want to begin training in kendo at the time? Did you hear stories of family members training or was it a way, as many have cited, to reconnect with the Japanese culture?

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Doug Imanishi lecturing during a class at Seattle Kendo Kai.

DI: Probably all the above. The story I remember the most that really got me involved was when I was at a family function with my cousin Gary and somehow, we got to fooling around with a rolled up newspaper, trying to hit each other. Gary was very dominant in that game. After beating me, he asked me, “You want to learn to figure that out? Come to kendo.” That started the stories of grandfather and him doing kendo. I thought to myself, “Let’s see what this is.”

MAYTT: The 1970s was a popular time for many martial art schools, leading to many Americans to try out and take up various arts. From your recollection, how did Americans view kendo? Did that perspective of kendo share the same type of mysticism as empty hand martial arts like karate or judo?

DI: I really think not many people knew what kendo was. I grew up in Seattle and there are a lot of Asians in Seattle. Maybe not as many as there are now, but there were the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino ethnicities; not as many Koreans or Vietnamese that I remember. But there were a lot of Asians, nonetheless. I think in the 1970s, there was a lot of hype around kung fu and the movies. Bruce Lee represented kung fu and Chuck Norris represented karate. I think those were the two main ones. Not a lot of people knew what kendo was. In fact, even though judo was pretty popular among Japanese Americans, and people had more exposure to it, not a lot of people knew about kendo, even though it was a Japanese art like judo and karate.

When I started, there were probably thirty to forty people training in the Seattle area. It was almost completely unknown by most people. When we say, “Way of the Sword,” people really didn’t know what that meant. They just associated our sword or shinai with the staff, or the nunchaku, or some other weapon that they would see in the movies. Other than that, it had no real exposure.

MAYTT: I see. What was the training like when you began in 1975? Has kendo training changed or evolved with the times since you first started and, if so, how?

DI: It’s hard to remember, to be honest with you, that long ago, partly because it was that long ago, and partly because of how old I was. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with this or if anyone else you interviewed has told you this but, when you’re a young person, training regularly, you grow. To you, it doesn’t seem like anything is changing much, but it is changing a little bit, hence when somebody sees you and says, “Look at how much you’ve grown!” That sort of thing.

My memory of training back then was a lot of drills – we did a lot of drills. That aspect of training hasn’t really changed that much. We would use the length of the gym, working on footwork drills and hitting drills. Sometimes, we would have the sword and do what people call uchikomi, where people would hold up the sword for you and in succession, hit several strikes in a row, over the length of the gym. Some of those things don’t change. Of course, you’d have the armor, put it on, and face off with your opponent.

I want to say that kendo training is a little bit more varied now than it was when I began training. I say varied because I think there were a lot of people that interrupted practice, asking for constructive criticism and feedback from senior students. As time went on, that action was frowned upon, perhaps a dozen years from when I started training. I think the biggest training change has been the amount of media and supplementary information that’s out there that people can learn from.

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Doug Imanishi striking at an opponent’s men during a shiai.

Back when I was in the 1970s, there were no books, certainly no books in English. There was maybe one, This is Kendo by Junzo Sasamori and translated by Gordon Warner. It was the goal of many a kendoka to get a copy of that book and you held onto it like gold. [Laughs] There were no movies; there were no videos of kendo training. Nowadays, there’s a lot of translated material. There’s a lot of video, there’s YouTube, there’s stuff on the internet that people have translated from another language into English. There’s a lot of supplementary learning.

The last difference that I would note or noticed in kendo training was the “purity” of kendo. Back in the early days of my training, the “pure” training we did was from not worrying what people thought about our kendo – kendo is what kendo is. When people came to practice, the mindset was you’re here for practice or you’re not. And with that, we would go pretty hard. I remember practicing so hard all the time and being encouraged to do so all the time, we could go as far as we could without losing our breath, being winded, or, in some cases, going to the point of throwing up. You don’t see that much nowadays. People could argue that they’re in better shape, but I don’t think they’re in that much better shape. I think a lot of people don’t push themselves as hard and, as instructors, we’re a little bit more sensitive to people complaining and saying, “This is too hard,” and quitting. We want people to continue training in kendo and we want kendo to continue, so we might have made the art a little bit easier, but don’t quote me on that one. [Laughs]

MAYTT: It’s funny that you bring up the concept of “making it easier” for students. I’ve talked to people of different arts who started in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and mentioned that the intensity of training decreased over the years.

DI: Right. We have to be a little more lenient. I can recall people saying, “This is too tough” and then they quit. When my son started, and this might bleed into one of your other questions, he was a little bit more sensitive. There were other kids in the class that were a little bit sensitive too. I wanted him and the rest of the class to continue and, to be honest with you, about three or four of the younger, more timid students stuck around. You would be surprised that some of the timid ones have really flourished. There’s something to be said about adjusting the practice format and intensity a little bit.

MAYTT: Throughout your years of training, what was the most memorable or most influential lesson that impacted your kendo? Who was the most instrumental in your training from a “sensei” perspective?

DI: Well, hands down, it would be Rod Omoto Sensei. Let me explain that a little bit before I talk about the most influential lesson. I’ve had many sensei beyond Omoto Sensei, but I was probably spoiled to have a sensei like Omoto Sensei because he was such a great person. He was skillful and wise, and he was always positive; he never said a negative thing. He knew kendo, through and through; he knew the technical parts, the historical parts, the people involved. He made you feel special and inspired you. Because he inspired you, you did your best.

This is an anecdotal thing again, but at the end of practice, he would say something about the day’s lesson, but he would be looking at a particular person, or a few people. He would say something like, “When you change your clothes, you shouldn’t leave them in a pile. You should do it like a good kendo person; fold them up and put them neatly on the floor, waiting for you to put them back on.” He might be looking at me while saying this, and I get the feeling he’s talking about me, to me, and this is something that I should work on. But, everybody in the student line would believe that Omoto Sensei would be talking about them and what they should be doing. [Laughs]

He was always one-half level above you when you practiced with him. A lot of times, you would go against him, get winded within thirty second to a minute, and you couldn’t touch him – except, maybe, once in a blue moon. Then you’d say, “I hit Omoto Sensei!” everyone around you would snicker because they know that he let you hit him. [Laughs] There was no way you could hit him unless he let you.

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Doug Imanishi focusing on what’s about to come next.

My single, most important lesson was when I was turning nineteen in 1983, when I went to Japan for the Foreign Leaders Camp. All the teachers there were contemporary famous people – the best of the best at the time. Unfortunately, many have passed. They taught you all the basics of kendo. That’s one of the things that I also referred to as a resurgence in the All Japan Kendo Federation to help provide consistency and grow kendo around the world. There were two particular sensei that I remember well; one was Masami Matsunaga Sensei, who has been with the International Kendo Federation (FIK) and the All Japan Kendo Federation for years and was one of the senior people there. The second was Nariaki Sato. Those two were the famous of the famous. I remember at the camp, Sato Sensei talked to me about grading, saying, “You have to have lots of kiai, but you cannot pass by kiai alone.” He talked to me about his exam and how he failed because he had such great kiai where he scared his opponents, forcing them to back out of the ring; he failed because he didn’t strike his opponents at all. I’ll never forget stories like that.

Though he may never remember me, I remember all of the sensei that was there at the camp. There was Yasuo Yamashibu, kendo and iaido nanadan; he seemed very short but demonstrated powerful iai despite his stature. One lesson was battojutsu and striking the rolled-up bamboo – tameshigiri. He would be talking to us about the technique and then, before we knew it, he swung his sword and cut the bamboo in half. He would explain, after cutting the bamboo, “Ah! This is a good sword!” as if he didn’t cut it at lightning speed. [Laughs]

Certainly, those two weeks, we trained five-and-a-half hours a day in July, with humidity at ninety-five percent or better, at probably one hundred degrees. Just standing there, your hands would just sweat. It was an incredible experience.

MAYTT: That is amazing you had an influential instructor like Rod Omoto. Your grandfather, Umajiro Imanishi, was one of the early members of the Seattle Kendo Kai when it was founded in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Could you tell me more about him and his impact on kendo’s growth in both the Seattle area and the Pacific Northwest?

DI: I only know a lot of that information mostly thirdhand. He was quite a bit older than my generation and siblings. I knew a little about what my father told me. My grandfather didn’t speak English. I remember, however, he had an award from the Emperor of Japan, for Third Order of the Rising Sun for promoting Japanese culture in a foreign country – the United States – through kendo. Someone in our family might still have that particular certificate, but I don’t remember when it was given to him.

My grandfather had his tough guy air around him and I think that was pretty much what I gathered from everybody. You mentioned that you read some of Joseph Svinth’s articles, and he has a lot of firsthand accounts of those people that practiced in the early 1900s with my grandfather. Many of those accounts relate that he was a tough guy and he would keep the students in order with some strict practice. He maintained a tradition and he kept true to kendo.

He was also a jukendo person, a bayonet instructor having been previously from the Japanese Imperial Army. There was a bit of hype around who he was, and I know that through my sensei, Rod Nobuto Omoto Sensei. He said, “I came to Seattle to practice with Imanishi Sensei,” but unfortunately, he didn’t make it in time before my grandfather had the stroke.

I think there’s a legacy there. How much is carried into present-day kendo – it’s a little bit obscure. I feel like it’s more legendary and anecdotal than a direct effect, but certainly, it was very important because he was a guy that lived here and became the kantoku of the club.

I can only guess at some of it because I don’t know their history but associated with the Nippon Butokukai, there was the Budo Senmon Gakko, which was a professional martial arts school in Kyoto. It was established to create some type of longevity of the martial arts, especially kendo. In that time period, which was the end of the Meiji Period and the beginning of the Showa Period you had that effort. There was a resurgence in the 1980s in reestablishing some guidelines, continuity, and consistency throughout the kendo community with the All Japan Kendo Federation. We’re benefiting from all of those efforts. I do put them parallel with a little bit of ignorance there because I obviously don’t know much about the early 1900s.

MAYTT: At the end of the Second World War and the traumatic experience in the Internment camps, many Japanese communities began the long process of rebuilding what they had before the conflict. What influenced your grandfather to reestablish Seattle Kendo Kai? Was it a way for him to give a sense of hope or normalcy to his fellow community members or did he feel he needed to train once more?

DI: I’m going to guess at that, as I mentioned I didn’t have a conversation with him on this type of subject. I try to live a life without regret, but I regret not having certain conversations with my own father. From what I understand, kendo is a tradition and once you do kendo, you are dedicated to it. If you practice regularly, you are contributing and maintaining a tradition. I’m going to guess that was part of it for my grandfather to start up kendo again. As you mentioned, kendo was one of the few martial arts or activities that were included in the Japanese public-school system that was considered to help build a person’s character. These activities then help develop the body and the spirit.

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Doug Imanishi partaking in a shiai.

My grandfather was rounded up pretty early on and one of the first people to be taken away from home. He was taken to Tule Lake and treated like a criminal. There are some relatively recent declassified documents from the FBI about some that. As my father, an American-born person who served in World War Two, there was a fierce thing to show that you’re American, but also you don’t deny your Japanese heritage – you embrace your ethnicity. being what I know from him, kendo was to add a sense of normalcy.

I think you hit that right on the head – probably reestablishing normalcy and stability in the community. From his perspective, he also had that obligation as an instructor to be able to lend to that. My grandfather, having the very well-established ability to teach and do kendo, I’m sure he felt somewhat obligated and felt it was his duty to restart kendo.

MAYTT: Like you said, once you’ve trained it, it’s kind of hard to stop. Outside of your grandfather, who do you feel was influential in disseminating kendo from the Seattle Kendo Kai in the Seattle area and the Pacific Northwest?

DI: There weren’t a whole lot of people that wanted to do kendo. Kendo is not any easy activity to take on. I think those people that restarted after World War Two deserve the most credit. Certainly, there are people in contemporary life that have done a lot to add to it. I feel like my grandfather was one of those to keep kendo alive following World War II and Internment. Others included Kazuo Shoji, who was here at the Seattle Kendo Kai. There’s Rod Omoto, Mas Tanabe, Kiyoshi Yasui, Paul Kurose, Yosh Tanabe. Those guys were very high ranked, sixth and seventh dan. They were the core teachers in the sixties and the seventies. It’s because of them that we were able to have kendo. All contemporary teachers and instructors learned from them.

Expanding on Rod Omoto, he was the real deal. He was from Hawaii and went to Japan at the age of sixteen. He went to the Budo Senmon Gakko and he was one tough guy. This is not to discount any of the other sensei, but he was a very influential sensei. He was conscripted out of school into the Japanese Army (I believe he was a sergeant) and he worked for the Occupation Force for the United States, under General Douglas MacArthur.

He went to places like Izumo, Shimane-ken, Japan and at times, all over Japan. There’s one episode of his travels that I find really funny. While walking, he hears people training kendo and goes to find the source of the training. He finds the dojo, goes in, and asks the group if he can join their training. The group, having no idea who he was, began talking down to him. One thing led to another, and Omoto Sensei beats them all in keiko. Then the group asked him to become their sensei. [Laughs]

This is the first of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

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