Interview with Longtime Kenshi Tom Bolling: Kendo in the Pacific Northwest, Part I

Beginning his kendo training in the late 1970s, Tom Bolling saw the kendo community of the Pacific Northwest grow. He currently teaches at a number of kendo clubs in the Washington area. Bolling took some time from his busy teaching schedule to talk to us about the growth of kendo in the Pacific Northwest, notable pioneers of the art, and kendo’s future. All Images provided by Tom Bolling. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking some time to talk about kendo in the Pacific Northwest, Bolling Sensei!

Tom Bolling: I am delighted to be here!

Tom Bolling in 2006 at Bellevue Dojo. Photo by Dick Anderson.

MAYTT: 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?

TB: On January 5, 1979 I joined the Kendo Club at the University of Washington when my friend, Peter Mizuki, explained to me that what I was seeing may look violent but what is really going on is spiritual development. There’s no opponent – your partner is just providing you with the opportunity to work on your spiritual development, and you are doing the same thing for your partner. What Peter said to me is what appealed to me, and why I have continued for forty-one plus years.

MAYTT: How did the American public view kendo when you began training? Did the public’s perspective of kendo share the same impression as empty hand martial arts like karate or judo?

TB: I don’t think the general American public even knew about Kendo back then. People who did find out it was a kind of fencing asked if it had any application to self-defense, and we told them it was for self-development.  If they asked follow-up questions about self-defense, then we told them we know Kendo helped us develop a kind of “sixth sense” about the intentions of others, and the vibe of a given environment.

MAYTT: I see. What was the training like when you first began kendo? Since then, how have you seen the art change and evolve since you started? Do you feel it has changed/evolved for the better?

TB: After bowing in, warmups of stretching, jogging, suburi, then pairing up for kirikaeshi and kihon drills, then jigeiko, waza practice, then rotational keiko. That was on Fridays. Wednesdays were slightly different. First, after bowing in, the head instructor, Tatsuhiko Konno Sensei, would have us do come Iai, then Nippon Kendo Kata, and then jigeiko, with waza lessons. Training has slowly evolved over the decades, mostly in the direction of eliminating the more ballistic types of warmups in favor of warmups designed for better flexibility and aerobic character. Waza lessons have become much more intentional and applicable. In recent years, much more use of instructional or instructive videos has come into the teaching. Another change is that in earlier years, most Dojo did not seem to have any curriculum thought out to cover the essential elements beginners should learn, but now all of the Dojo in the clubs Jeff Marsten has built have a very systematic and well-thought-out curriculum to move beginners into bogu very early on.

MAYTT: Before we move on, I would like to ask a question regarding vocabulary. How do kendo practitioners refer to themselves? Is it kenshi or kendoka?

TB: Well, “ken do ka” translates to “sword way person” while “ken shi” translates to “sword knight.” As you’ve seen, they are interchangeable in the way they’re used.   Personally, I always say “kenshi” because I’m influenced by poets and songwriters who always say “it’s about syllables” —  also Ockham’s Razor, whereby “entities are not multiplied needlessly.” In other words, keep it simple. For me “kendoka” is inelegant, too much of a mouthful, and slows down my explanations. So “kenshi” is cool – “kendoka” is clunky.

MAYTT: You cite Nobuto Rod Omoto as one of your main influences in kendo. Could you tell me about him as an instructor and as a person?

TB: Yes, soon after starting Kendo at UW, I began driving down to Tacoma every Tuesday to Omoto Sensei’s practice in the basement of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple. His routine sequence was similar to the UW Wednesdays, first Iai, then Kendo Kata, and then Omoto Sensei would draw some particular lesson from either the Iai kata or the Kendo kata, which he asked us to apply to our jigeiko that evening. It had a very classical and philosophical atmosphere.  

MAYTT: In my research, Rod Omoto is listed as some of the leading figures in kendo’s growth and dissemination in the Pacific Northwest. In your opinion, what set Omoto apart from the rest of his contemporaries?

TB: Yes, Omoto Sensei is an immense hero in my personal hagiography.

He’s huge in the memory of many who knew him, too. For example, in 1984 when Peter Mizuki and I practiced with his old classmate from Busen, Takeo Maruta, at the Butokuden, Maruta Sensei said to me: “How’s Omoto Sensei these days? Please tell him I said hi!” All of his Busen friends remembered him vividly, as “that Hawaii kid.”

Here’s what I wrote at the time of his death:  Kendo Kyoshi 7th Dan, a major figure in the history of American Kendo, died peacefully on June 1, 2013 at the age of 94. He famously always accentuated the positive in everything he did, unfailingly cheerful and optimistic no matter what. Born eldest son of seven children September 9, 1918 in Wahiawa, Hawaii, the happy-go-lucky Hawaii boy started Kendo at age 14 in 1932 with Miura Kenji, and was 2nd dan when he graduated from Leilehua High School in 1938. On recommendation of Miura Sensei, he was sent to Ogawa Kinnosuke’s own personal training hall, Kodo Kan, in Kyoto, where he lived and waited on Ogawa Sensei while studying at Ritsumeikan, prior to entering Budo Senmon Gakko. Omoto Sensei was to have graduated in Busen’s 31st class, but the school closed in 1942 and all the teachers, students, and Omoto Sensei were drafted into the Japanese army. There he taught Kendo and Jukendo and commanded a transportation unit as a second lieutenant in Hiroshima. By good luck he and his four-truck company were out in the country the Monday morning when the atom bomb exploded. He served as translator for various Allied occupation organizations, married Mutsuko Mildred Kawakami, and they had two daughters. For some years banned by the Allied Powers, Kendo gradually rose back to the surface. For example, Omoto Sensei was active in the “Shinai Kyogi” movement, a sportive version of Kendo practiced in western athletic clothes. In Matsue City Omoto Sensei encountered the great Ono Soichiro, whose student, Mori Torao, is another legend of American Kendo. Other teachers in Omoto Sensei’s Japan period include Miyazaki Mosaburo, Tsuzaki Kenkei, Sato Chuzo, Kurozumi Ryushiro, Wakabayashi Shinji, Sato Toyonosuke, and Shido Taisuke. In 1960, the family moved to the US, where he earned his BS in Engineering at Oregon State University in 1966. They moved to Tacoma, where Kendo was re-started at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple in 1967 as a Boy Scout activity and continued from there. In 1972 he began helping the Kendo Club at UW to form, and also was elected to the Board of the Kendo Federation of the USA. In 1973 he competed in the 2WKC at Los Angeles. In 1974/1975 he helped establish the Washington State Kendo Federation (now the PNKF) and was Founding Charter President. For a Kendo demonstration at the 1974 Spokane World’s Fair he and Tanabe Sensei used shinken, as they had no habiki. Some of Omoto Sensei’s classic sayings include: “In Kendo, you have to be wide awake.” “Don’t anticipate. Be cool.” “I want to encourage, not discourage.” “Whoever holds a shinai is a friend of mine.” Our deepest condolences to his daughters Charlotte Kazumi Omoto and Norma Miyuki Wakatsuki, grandson Ryan Wakatsuki, and many nieces and nephews.

Omoto Sensei was simply sui generis – in a class by himself. 

MAYTT: It is incredible how much of an influence he had on you. Throughout your kendo career, you had the opportunity to train with a number of instructors. What was the most valuable or memorable lesson they taught to you that carried the most weight and had the heaviest impact on your kendo training?

TB:  You can teach what you can do. Relax completely. Enzan no metsuke. Don’t anticipate – be cool.  Whoever holds a shinai is a friend of mine.

MAYTT: In your local area, you help teach kendo and iaido at four clubs. What encouraged or influenced you to teach? How did your perspective on the art change once you started teaching, if it did at all?

TB: Well, no one would ever call oneself “sensei,” but as one continues on over the years, many people are coming along later, and it’s part of the sharing of the art that we have to share what we know, and encourage those coming along behind. Then there are teachers who make a point of asking one to coach or teach specific things to newcomers. As soon as you try to teach something, your own Kendo immediately takes a jump up, because unconsciously you try harder to embody the correct posture and so on. After a few years, one realizes that our teachers were promoting “staff development” by making intermediate or advanced people show others the way to do. Also, if you’re the main teacher, you quickly start to see the beginners and intermediates unconsciously looking like YOU! Whatever bad habits you have, there they are, embodied in the students! This is a kind of feedback or mirror which really helps one improve oneself. With Omoto Sensei’s good coaching, I also learned not to give in to the temptation to teach several things at one time. His approach was, teach one thing each time. Next time teach the same thing again. When you see that they’ve internalized that thing, then teach the next dimension of it. If you pepper them and overwhelm them, they end up forgetting all of it. Teach things that are more foundational at first, then slowly build on those elements.

MAYTT: One of those clubs your help instruct is the kendo club at the University of Washington. Could you tell me a little bit more about the club and its founding members? How has the club become one of the focal points in Washington Kendo?

TB:  The Kendo Club at UW was started by five UW people in 1974: John Sullivan, 1st kyu, was from the Hawaii Kendo Federation, and later became a lawyer; Jeff Marsten, 3rd kyu, Peter Mizuki, 2nd kyu, Denny Wong, 2nd kyu, and a UW staff member Luke Shindo, 3rd kyu from Japan. Jeff Marsten was elected Club President. They put on the first ever UW Taikai. It was a round robin format. Luke Shindo did not participate in the taikai, and the fifth person was Koichi Ito, an import kid from Seattle Kendo Kai, who won first place. Jeff Marsten came in fourth place. This was a year before the Washington State Kendo Federation (WSKF) had its first taikai in 1975. In those days, UW practices were in the handball courts of Hec Ed Pavilion.  The first taikai was in the Hec Ed Pavilion proper. 

The UW is very invested in the Kendo Club. It’s had a few venues, but great loyalty from the UW. When I first started, practice was in Hutchinson Hall, a classic gymnasium from the 1930s with beautiful leaded glass windows which we opened for the fresh air year-round. Hutchinson also had a ballet studio, small, but with a sprung floor where we sometimes trained. Hutchinson was the headquarters for the Kinesiology Department, but that whole department was axed in about 1982 in one of the State of Washington’s budget crises, and the building turned over to the Drama Department, who cut up that gorgeous satiny smooth gym floor into four acting “studios” and we were thrown out. Then we were in the Hec Ed Addition while they were upgrading the main building for Intramural Activities (the IMA), and the Sports Clubs administration is proud that Kendo has been a prominent feature since the early 1970s. For the newly enlarged and expanded IMA they created not just one but TWO special spaces designed specifically for Kendo, sprung hardwood floors to absorb the shock of the footwork, with floor to ceiling mirrors on two sides and floor to ceiling windows on the other two sides. The Kendo Club’s numbers had grown so much that they reserve both of these gyms for Kendo – though, of course, they are excellent for dance, ballet, step aerobics, and so on, as well. Every Sports Club is allowed to host a general meet or tournament each year, but Kendo has several times been granted two such events in a year – and with many participants from Canada and Mexico, the UW can brag that they are international competitions. Because the Kendo Club at UW is not actually a Dojo, in that children are not allowed by the University’s insurance, and only UW students, faculty, and staff can technically join, since the end of 1989 the Club has been a ward of the PNKF, with the head instructor, called the UW Advisor, appointed each year by the Board.  

MAYTT: I see. the club was a spring board for others. In addition to the university’s kendo club, you also teach at two of Jeff Marsten’s clubs, who has created a kendo legacy, which many of his kinsmen continue today. How has Marsten influenced kendo’s growth in the region? What makes him stand out from the rest of his contemporaries, in your opinion?

TB: Jeff Marsten is an immense influence in the growth and development of Kendo in the WSKF/PNKF, as well as in the Kendo Federation of United States of America (KFUSA)/All United States Kendo Federation (AUSKF). In fact, when a few old diehards in the hierarchy got in a squabble with each other about the “Golf Kendo Club” leading to the famous split in US Kendo, it was Jeff who committed himself to the diplomatic travel back and forth and all the heavy negotiations which eventually resulted in both the KFUSA and the so-called “Beikoku Kendo Renmei” (BKR) each dissolving, to form the new AUSKF. He really was the chief negotiator and kept going back to the parties after everyone else had given up, even bringing to bear several of his very influential friends from the International Kendo Federation, and ended up taking on being the President of the new AUSKF, because he was the only person all the other crankies in the argument trusted. If it hadn’t been for Jeff Marsten, the United States could still very well have two rather dysfunctional factions dividing it.

By background, Jeff Marsten is a nuclear and mechanical engineer, and a former diver and submariner, tremendously stable and unflappable psychologically, with an extremely alert and quick mind.

Jeff Marsten started Kendo at the Seattle Kendo Kai. The first few times he went there, the people there ignored him completely, but he kept going. Finally, somebody asked him if he was interested in Kendo. He started right away, but they didn’t give him much in the way of instruction. He was mostly on his own to follow along with warmups, and then try going up and down the floor. He was able to get a shinai, but there wasn’t any good pipeline back then for gear, so he essentially had to invent his own, including making his own do (that do is still around somewhere in the large library of miscellaneous equipment upstairs in the attic of Highline Dojo and has been used by many aspiring kenshi over the years). Marsten Sensei was very self-motivating and began doing suburi on his lunch breaks at work. But he wanted to move the Seattle Kendo Kai to open a branch practice in his own neighborhood in order to add more keiko to each week. He negotiated with the White Center Community Center to have practice there in their beautiful old WPA hand-built gymnasium. Unfortunately, some of the regulars at Seattle were not enthusiastic supporters of this branch practice, so in 1976 he ended up founding a new club there, the Highline Kendo Kai. Meantime, he proactively formed the habit of going to Japan to seek out expert instruction, and overall has taken at least fourteen trips there to train with and be taught by some of the greatest Kendo practitioners and instructors in the world. He also worked to create active pipelines to Japan for every kind of Kendo equipment – predating the emergence of e-bogu and the other options now available.

He didn’t hesitate to actively create lasting personal connections with anyone he met, whether in Japan, California, the Midwest, East Coast, or Canada, and thus his political network is huge, and he does not hesitate to call upon it, very influential nationally and internationally. He became very engaged and active in the old KFUSA and helped greatly with the birth of the new AUSKF, even on the Board of the FIK for a while.

At the same time, as Kendo was becoming better known among the general public, he realized that people would be much more inclined to join Kendo if it were offered in their own neighborhood, so he was eager to open practices on the east side of Lake Washington, and in the large suburban areas north of the University of Washington  That’s why Bellevue, Everett, Sno-King, and Edmonds appeared – essentially in response to demographics we developed.

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

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