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

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 Kaithe 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 second of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

MAYTT: That is a funny story! When did you assume leadership of Seattle Kendo Kai? Could you tell me about that experience and how that changed your perspective on kendo, if it did at all?

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Doug Imanishi lecturing during a class at Seattle Kendo Kai.

DI: Before I was the head, Gary was actually the head of the school. A short while after I came back from training in Japan, Gary started his own club. That’s when Joe Cuendet Sensei suggested that the school needed a more senior person, so we had Yabe Sensei through 2004. Then in 2004, I officially took over the dojo.

Upon being head of the school, it changed my perspective on kendo. How? It’s difficult to explain sometimes, but being the head instructor, all the aspects of legacy of the Imanishis and the obligation that we talked about before all converged at once for me and it became a big responsibility to the dojo. Yabe Sensei told me that it’s lonely being the head instructor. I understood what that meant when I took it over in 2004. You can’t be just like everybody else when you’re the head instructor. You have to show by example; you have to watch your step so you don’t trip up. You can’t make mistakes and being the face of the dojo, you can’t bring embarrassing attention to the dojo. You have to also show that you are capable of doing. I think all those come to a different sense of priorities.

When you just show up and somebody else is leading, it’s so much easier, but when you’re up there and have to direct and instruct practice, you have to know all the correct terms or methods. Now it’s all up to you – that’s totally a different thing. I think some people might not understand the responsibility or the obligation that I’m talking about.

How I interpret things as a head instructor comes from my own experiences and interpretation of kendo and what it should be – that’s very personal. I think people get the difference of expectations and develop their own expectations independently and they try to apply it to other people. That is one thing that has created a lot of disparities over the years, not just in kendo. There’s one approach where a sensei may talk and discuss topics or things that they have accepted but doesn’t ask questions or allow their students to ask certain types of questions. What’s unique about kendo, and most martial arts, is you need to do kendo to teach kendo.

My distinct individual feeling is that I’m going to train just as hard as anybody, I’m going to try and be better than anybody in the dojo at most things, not everything. [Laughs] I have this responsibility to be the best. I may not be able to swing as fast or as much as someone else, but I certainly am doing as much as anybody out there.

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Doug Imanishi pointing out areas of focus during one of his classes at Seattle Kendo Kai.

You can’t talk during kendo. You basically train and that’s hard for a lot of people. I would say it’s hard for most Americans. When you train, when outside of training, or when you’re thinking about training, you may ask why the sensei said this, or mean by that, or just some technical, emotional, or spiritual questions relating to training. When people get together after practice to “hang out” and talk, that’s called tsukiai. Usually, you have practice, you do your best. Before you go home, you may have little conversations with each other. Or you can go out with a few kendoka to train, and on the ride up, talk about kendo. That probably makes for a lot of repetitious storytelling, [Laughs] but you get the sense of the do part of the kendo. Do is michi. Ken no michi – it’s not just about the technical.

MAYTT: That is a very interesting way of looking at the role of head instructor. When you began training, you had two family members training alongside you. Currently, that number has increased. How does it feel to be teaching kendo alongside your kinsmen and what does that say about future Imanishis training and teaching kendo?

DI: When I started, Gary was the only other family member actively doing kendo. Sometime after that, his brother joined. Two years after I began kendo, my brother joined. A couple years into training, I had two cousins and a brother in kendo. Our grandfather would come out and watch the tournaments. My grandfather was pretty old around that time. He was born in 1890 and in 1975, he was eighty-five. My grandfather had a stroke in 1964, the year I was born, when he was seventy-four. I never got to see him practice. My sister also did kendo, both she and my brother achieved yondan, and Gary’s children do kendo as well.

At the time, a lot of people associated kendo in the region with my grandfather and the Imanishi name and Gary helped to continue that, being a predecessor of mine. I feel there’s a certain kind of giri or obligation and sense of duty to something. You feel you have some sort of feeling towards something. In my case, my grandfather was dojo kantoku, the main manager who ran the practices. I heard that and I said to myself, “Someday, I’ll be there.” There is something to be proud here with my cousins and siblings. There’s a kinship in kendo. Having your family members know what kendo is, understand it, and support each other through this dedication to it does give me a sense of family pride. At one time, it was great, because during the 1980s, there were five-man teams at the kendo tournaments in the region, and I remember specifically that there were four Imanishis out of five on the team. That, looking back, is still pretty cool.

MAYTT: Many kendo clubs and organizations utilize iaido as supplementary learning, with jodo coming in at second, for kendoka. In your opinion, what are the benefits of partaking in these other arts? Is it looked at as an extension of the kendo training or is it more of a way to round out the kendo practitioner by developing a greater understanding and ability of man and weapon?

DI: Kendo is mostly a shinai, with some bokken work. The shinai is rounder, longer, and lighter than a sword. If you truly want to understand the sword, you need the other training. Jodo, I don’t know about it as much. Many people practice jodo. The Jodo Federation is part of the FIK and the All Japan Kendo Federation, but jodo doesn’t have the same consistency that kendo has.

There is quite a bit of iai, with the drawing and cutting. We don’t do much of the battojutsu, which is just cutting. Iai is very prominent with kendo. I feel that it helps ground kendo. I personally don’t train much in iai, but back in 1983, at the Foreign Leaders Seminar, we practiced quite a bit. The fundamentals of the Japanese sword that you learn in iai are really helpful to proper sword technique in shinai kendo. There are other aspects in iai that you don’t normally see in kendo. In kendo, you’re mostly forward; in iai, you have to understand the eight directions: front, back, right left, front right, front left, rear right, and rear left. Those are the main directions of any fundamental sword work – defense, offense, and positioning to your opponent. You must have those aspects in mind to truly understand kendo.

With that being said, how much should you train and how much can you train and gain those aspects? I think there are many people that can be very singularly focused. For example, if you did jodo, and that was the only art you did, that’s very similar to somebody that only does shinai kendo. However, if you’re doing jodo and you want to understand how to counter against a person with a sword, you must understand kendo.

So, if you know about jodo, you know what it may be like to oppose a person from that other discipline. Growing up, I used to watch a lot of the chanbara films – the samurai sword films – and sometimes it wasn’t just sword against sword, it might be sword against spear, sword against jo, sword against bowmen, or sword against sickle-chain and ball. Those types of encounters are apparent in the Miyamoto Musashi story.

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Doug Imanishi demonstrating a way to strike.

Take the policemen during the samurai times, all they had was a sai because they were not of the samurai class. The policemen would have to subdue somebody that had a sword. They would have to understand the weapons they were up against. So, you have to understand the weapons in context to be true to your own art. There are some arts that have sword disarms that don’t take into account how a person with a sword would strike or move and such. This is sort of judgmental but if you don’t understand it, then you can’t really practice your art, in regard to that aspect.

MAYTT: That is exactly how Musashi put it in his Book of Five Rings. If you’re going to face someone that has experience with a jo or spear, you cannot be ignorant of those styles in order to succeed.

DI: That is a very core martial art philosophy called shu-ha-ri. You understand your school’s techniques and you become the top at your school. Then you go around and use the learning from your school to challenge and/or defeat other schools and their techniques. Now you have that experience and you develop your own school and waza.

What we do in kendo is degeiko – you need to get out of your group; you need to practice with people you haven’t practiced with before. You’re going to learn that much more. That’s very similar to what I said about the other disciplines.

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?

DI: I can only guess, really. To me, as a person who does kendo as much as I do, it’s kind of like “Why don’t you read as much I read? Or “Why don’t you watch television as much as I watch it?” [Laughs] Everybody has their own reasons and it’s hard to speak to the individual interpretation why they feel like they do to any of the martial arts, let alone kendo.

But I will say that there’s a lot of popularity around what you see in the movies and in MMA. You see the occasional reference to kendo, with people actually wearing and doing kendo right in some of the movies. Unfortunately, we don’t walk around in armor and we don’t usually have a stick [Laughs] Even if we have a shinai, it would probably piss you off rather than hurt you. People don’t think of it as a martial art in a self-defense sense. There’s some romanticism around something with the sword. We are between being a little bit popular – people know about it, they see it, they’re intrigued by it – but I don’t know if they’re really into doing it because it is hard, it smells, it’s not fun – it can’t be considered fun. If you have fun at the dojo, you’re not training [Laughs]

You have movies like The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise and that has a draw. You’ll see a resurgence in something like that, with Star Wars and the like, where they give kendo credit. We’ll do a demonstration to increase awareness around kendo. I’ll say, “Who has seen The Last Samurai?” and people raise their hands. They are very proud about seeing it. Then I tell them, “Yeah, kendo’s nothing like that.” [Laughs] You can just see the smile get turned upside-down.

If you want to get good at kendo, you have to do it for a long time. This is a lifelong pursuit. That aspect does turn a lot of people away. You can do karate for awhile and get your black belt and say that you’re a karate black belt, but in kendo, we don’t wear black belts. You don’t see our rank. You can learn how to fall from judo and learn how to throw somebody and you have a certain proficiency, and that’s going to get you someplace. You have to do a number of years in order to do anything. Even then, it may not be that practical. What I’m trying to explain is the overall difficulty of kendo.

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Doug Imanishi partaking in a shiai.

With other martial arts, you just wear a uniform and that’s all you need to do, in addition to coming to train and paying fees. Kendo, you have to buy armor and buy a sword. It can be expensive, or cost can be prohibitive to some people. It’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive, but that depends on your idea of expensive.

Also, if you think about it, our typical practice will have between twenty-five and forty people, maybe fifty people. If you have less than a dozen, it feels like there’s not that many people. In some schools there are between three and five people practicing at one time. Obviously, everyone has their own lives to live and make money. You don’t make money with kendo. Having four or five people at one time, that’s not much of a draw. If you were interested in kendo, and you heard about kendo, and you show up with only three or four people at the school, that’s not a big attraction. When you see thirty people practicing, that’s more interesting.

Think about the Olympics; what do you like to watch? If you like watching judo, you can see the guy get thrown. In kendo, how many times have you said, “Wow, I think he hit him!” and “How come that is not a point?” It’s very difficult to score. Part of it is the art itself that requires the requirement for a point. It’s very difficult for most people to watch because they don’t understand it.

Let me give you another example, European Fencing in the Olympics has the electronic touch sensors. Can you actually see what the technique they’re doing? Sometimes the only time you know somebody won is when the light goes on. I’m going to say this is what kendo shares with European Fencing, is that it’s so fast and people don’t understand what they are seeing. How much televised coverage of European Fencing goes on – almost zero. But you can watch volleyball – you can see the ball going back and forth. You can watch karate and generally tell when a guy hits somebody or in MMA, you can see when the guy is getting pummeled. You can’t see that in kendo, which also contributes to a lack of interest.

Even kendo people, when they hit you, they don’t understand why they didn’t get a point [Laughs] My experience as a world championship judge showed me just how very difficult it is to call matches. You have to practice, and you have to know kendo to be able to referee. They do not allow referees that don’t practice. That is probably one difference between kendo matches and most other martial art matches. If you don’t do kendo, it’s obvious you can’t call a match.

MAYTT: I can see how all that can complicate someone’s interest in kendo. Given the recent effects of COVID-19 on martial art schools, how do you foresee Seattle Kendo Kai and other kendo clubs reemerging from this pandemic? What plans or actions would you suggest kendo schools use in a post-COVID-19 society?

DI: That’s a tough question to answer. I really thought about this. People have asked us how we are going to plan for this and I don’t even know what we can plan for. You heard early on that there are six factors for determining if you might have COVID or not, and even then, you only know when you’re testing. The United States CDC and epidemiologists said that if you have a fever, chills, a dry cough, these are the symptoms that may indicate you have COVID, but we won’t know until you get tested. Then you may say if you get tested, can you catch it again? There are so many scientific unknowns that it’s very difficult for us to plan. Part of that are the aerosol particles and the other particles that contain the COVID virus on surfaces; if we don’t know about that, then it’s going to be difficult to know what we can and can’t do.

We’ve already received really well thought-through plans from the All Japan Kendo Federation, which includes no face-to-face, traditional kendo practice and doubling up on face coverings, but all of that is short term. For long term, if we can’t do the type of training we’ve done in the past, who knows what’s going to happen in kendo and all of these other activities like football. Are we going to have air-conditioned head gear, because we as kendoka, can’t have a completely closed off face front? [Laughs]

MAYTT: With that in mind, how do you think kendo will survive if such social distancing practices continue?

DI: That’s a great question; I don’t know. Kendo requires people to face off against each other and kiai is integral to that. It’s no different than a boxer grunting when they strike or a football guy grunting when they go off the scrimmage line. It’s at the heart of what we do. Can we continue to do training? Yes we can. But there’s training and then there’s training. Training like swinging the sword, running, footwork, and other things, but if I’m not hitting somebody – if i’m not going up against somebody – then, is that really fully training? Is that all what kendo is? Part of it is not knowing what the opponent is going to do, what you do when the opponent does move this way or that. There are knowns and unknowns in the face off that you temper yourself against, time and time again. Sometimes, you falter and sometimes you do better than other times, unknowingly or unconsciously.

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

If it comes out if COVID doesn’t have a vaccine, or we are not able to know without putting ourselves at risk when we face off, I’m not sure how it will ultimately affect kendo. I used to practice three to four times a week, and that’s moderate. But being the head instructor, what do I tell people? I can’t tell those that want to take a risk and put the people in their household at risk to come to training – really can’t do that.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With over forty years of training, teaching, and heading a kendo school, what advice would you give to someone wanting to start a school today?

DI: I’m going to sound blunt: train hard, study hard; that means yourself. You don’t get other people to do it. You need to show up; you need to show up as much as anybody. If you’re not there, and your students showed up, you’re not being a sensei, in my opinion.

You need to be kind, honest, and you need to be fair. You need to know what it takes to win, but what is winning? There are tournaments – and there are some people driven by tournaments and some are not – but there’s always winning. Winning is very individual. For example, if you’re a shodan or a nidan for ten or fifteen years, and people pass you up and you love the art that you do, then that’s winning. You show up to practice and you’re a winner; that’s what you love. As a sensei, you need to be true to the art and what the art provides for a person. Treat people with respect. I say this in the dojo, mostly because people get it: in kendo, you treat the higher rank and the elder person with respect. It doesn’t matter if you’re a twenty-five-year-old doctor in the outside world, if you just started kendo, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. And I think that’s hard for Americans in a very egoistic society, what’s normally produced in the United States. But of the training; that’s part of tradition; that’s part of kendo culture.

As the instructor, you need to learn to listen and observe what people are doing and how they feel. You need to inspire them. Keep it all simple. That last one is hard – keeping it simple.

Take this example: if you’re teaching someone a particular move, what if their stance is all wrong? What if many things they’re doing are all wrong? How do you teach a person like that and not discourage them? You have to inspire them. There is a quote from Isoroku Yamamoto [the mastermind that planned the attack on Pearl Harbor] where he says essentially, “You have to do it by showing, have people do it, and praise them for it, otherwise, the person will not move.”

So when you teach a beginner, you start by teaching them correct and proper stance. If the stance isn’t working, you move onto body movement and where the center of gravity is – you keep moving down the line of things to teach the beginner. But all these can overwhelm somebody, that’s why you keep it simple and you will help people develop these skills. It is really, really deceptively difficult to teach with simplicity.

MAYTT: Thank you for taking us on your kendo journey and the art’s history in the Seattle area!

DI: Thank you for having me! I really enjoyed our discussion!

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

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