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

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

A young Tom Bolling (sitting right) with his classmates (standing left to right: Hiro Hosojima, Peter Mizuki, Dan Jackson; sitting left: Ken Ogami) in 1979 at the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple. Photo by Aki Yotsuuye.

MAYTT: Could you tell me more about the split and reunification of the KFUSA/AUSKF? What brought on the split and what has the AUSKF done to prevent such a split from occurring again?

TB: So, KFUSA stood for “Kendo Federation of the United States of America.” In those days the menjo (certificates) were in Japanese only, and both of the split parties continued to use the identical menjo.  The words on the top of the menjo (in Japanese) were “Beikoku Kendo Renmei,” which was abbreviated “BKR” by the diehard minority which broke off from the main KFUSA – thus in fact, “KFUSA” is exactly the same meaning as “BKR,” but stating the name in Japanese,  and it would give you a clue as to some of the partisan undercurrents, because the BKR people strongly emphasized the “Japanesiness” of the art of Kendo, while the KFUSA people were very comfortable that this is America.

I really don’t want to give that embarrassing time of the split any legs – most people, probably most of those reading included, have no idea there ever was a split, and it’s best to keep it that way. The split was basically the nonsensical jostling of very old men at the top who were making a big deal out of some money set aside for a so-called “golf club” – not a golf course, just a club of old guys who wanted to get together and play golf as a fundraiser to supplement Kendo donations. Most or all of the people who were having the actual argument are long since dead, so there’s no point in mentioning any names.

The reason it caused a split among the rank-and-file membership was driven by the feudalistic hierarchical nature of old-time Kendo, where all these guys were pretty high-ranking teachers, and so their students divided up to support them.  Taking sides like that was basically stupid, and only caused totally unnecessary heartache.

For a historical clue as to what some of the partisan issues were, all you have to do is take a look at the fifteen regional Federations we now have.

Just ask yourself: why are there TWO “Southern California” Federations?? And why are there so many East Coast, South, and American Southwest Federations? And then look at the addresses of the member Dojo – some of them are in the same city, but in separate Federations!! What’s with that!!?? I mean gads!!

So what did the new AUSKF do to prevent such a split from ever occurring again? Very simple – the new by-laws make it very easy to switch your Dojo from one Federation to another – or even to form a completely new Federation! Yet, still remain relatively comfortably in the one “big tent” of the national AUSKF.

MAYTT: That is an interesting take on the situation. When did you begin writing Kenyu, the month newsletter for the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation (PNKF)? What influenced you to take on such a task? Did you feel that the clubs within the region needed to stay in contact with one another?

TB:  Yes, it came about because I was the Recording Secretary of the PNKF under its earlier name, the Washington State Kendo Federation (WSKF), and our Board was having trouble getting the representatives from the clubs to take back the news from the Board meetings, so the individual members often did not know about important decisions, gatherings, and action items. Since the representatives or in some cases the head instructors were not dependably conveying important news back to their clubs, my thinking was to get stacks of the newsletter directly to each Dojo, and hope that the awareness of newsletter’s existence would make each kenshi take responsibility for finding out what was going on. The core idea was a calendar of upcoming Federation events which people would look for, and stick on their refrigerators at home. Volume 1, number. 1, was May 1987.

MAYTT: That is one way to get started! Outside of the ones discussed, who do you feel was influential in disseminating kendo both in Washington and the Pacific Northwest?

TB: David Sadao Yotsuuye started Kendo at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple in 1967. The Temple had a Boy Scout troupe, and Omoto Sensei, Mas Tanabe, and Yosh Tanabe came up with the idea of giving a merit badge for studying Kendo. At the end of the project, David and the other boys wanted to keep going with the Kendo, so it evolved into the Tacoma Kendo Club. They did things like demonstrate Kendo at the Spokane World’s Fair, where Omoto Sensei and Tanabe Sensei performed the Nippon Kendo Kata – using shinken (since nobody had any mugito back then). By the way, another fine teacher who was one of those original Boy Scouts, Moki Yoshikawa, is still carrying on the Omoto legacy at the Tacoma Kendo Club to this day, and Moki’s children, especially his beautiful and formidable daughter Alisa are splendid kenshi as well.  

In my book, Yotsuuye Sensei is an incredibly strong and steady influence on Washington and PNKF Kendo. In 1984, he was the chair, organizer, and action officer of the KFUSA’s 3rd US Championship, held here at UW.  Over the years he’s served as PNKF President, and for a very long span, PNKF Treasurer. He also served many years as the UW Advisor (head instructor, as explained above). When I joined UW Kendo in January 1979, Konno Sensei was the head sensei, but Yotsuuye Sensei was the sempai detailed to teach the beginners all the basics, so I’ve often described Yotsuuye Sensei as my “Kendo Mom” and my moral compass about everything. I feel a tremendous loyalty to him on every level. He’s quiet, well-spoken, no bombast, no embroidering or exaggerating of any story, very matter-of-fact, unflappable, totally honest. You can take anything he says or promises to the bank. He’s a model of steadiness and dependability, and an extremely hard worker. There’s no one better.

Having said that, all of the Kendo people I know have contributed immensely to PNKF and KFUSA Kendo. A few of the greats would include Kyoshi Yasui, Paul Kurose, Robert Stroud, and Shinichi Koike. 

Koike Sensei is worthy of special mention. My friend Dick Anderson and I helped him set up and file the paperwork for Northwest Kendo Club. He had been the instructor at UW, but gave up on it because of three factors: the UW did not allow children under sixteen, they did not allow adults who had graduated to stay as members, and finally, there were mandatory breaks in the practice because the IMA would not allow Sports Clubs to meet during finals week nor during the break between terms. These strictures were intolerable to Koike Sensei, so that’s why he quit UW and started his own Dojo. Despite being rather undiplomatic in his rigidity about what constitutes “proper Kendo,” Koike Sensei is a very gifted kenshi admired by many.

Two of Seattle Kendo Kai pioneer Umajiro Imanishi’s grandsons are huge in the PNKF. Doug Imanishi, and his son Drake continue to anchor Seattle. His cousin Gary Imanishi split off from Seattle and founded Cascade Kendo Kai on Mercer Island and his children, Bryan and Taryn, strong kenshi who have continued their family’s heritage and contributed greatly to Kendo’s ongoing development.

Rory Elliott is an important teacher here also. He’s a longtime and steady member of Highline, and has helped greatly in other Dojo, such as Sno-King. At Everett, he is actually the head Kendo instructor. Everett, founded by Dick Anderson, was originally an Iai-only Dojo, but then added Kendo. Iai and Kendo are taught on separate nights, with Brian Blomquist the Iai teacher on Mondays, and Rory Elliott the Kendo teacher on Wednesdays.

Another important teacher around here is Jeff Marsten’s younger brother, Curtis, who moved away from active participation at Highline and was one of the first of the new Advisors to the UW Club. From that vantage point he realized he’d like to form his own Dojo, and came up with the Renton Kendo Club, which later faded as it morphed into the current Kent Kendo Club and Federal Way Kendo Club. Meantime, he’d married David Yotsuuye’s sister Vicki, and they have gone on to have two sons, Conor and Tiarnan, who are also active in Kendo.

I should not neglect to mention one prominent instructor – Jeff Marsten Jr., affectionately known as Jeffy. Incredibly powerful in physique, he is excellent in all dimensions of Kendo, most notably Nito Ryu. He is a very important instructor in the pool of rotating sensei for the UW, as is his sister Elizabeth.

MAYTT: That’s a lot of influential people in the region! In researching kendo and other martial arts, female participation seems to be consistently less than their male counterparts. From your experience, why do you think there are smaller numbers of women kendoists than male?

TB: In Japan, the growth rate of women and girls in Kendo is much greater than the growth rate among men, and in fact, there’s a certain element of old unreconstructed men who are not very happy about this. So, yes, the absolute population of men in Kendo is greater than that of women, but the women’s numbers are slowly overtaking the men’s. That’s clearly the case in the US, Canada, Korea, and Mexico, too, and many other countries, such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, to name a few. Our PNKF — and the UW — situation is very parallel with this – more girls and women joining every time. There’s no organic reason women and girls would not love and flourish in Kendo. Every Kendo teacher can experience directly that women are far more intuitive than men at feeling the moment the opponent launches the attack. Women definitely have the well-developed sixth sense and can always understand when someone means them harm. This realization is even embedded in our language – women’s intuition. UW, Bellevue, Sno-King, Highline, Cascade, Seattle, Portland, Oregon State University, and Tacoma all have powerful girls and women in their ranks. Hawaii women often come here and compete strongly, likewise Northern and Southern California, New York, Steveston, Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Montreal, and so on. I am sure the balance will continue to shift to more and more girls and women.

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?

TB: In a word, it’s too aristocratic.

Well, looking closer at it, first I’d like to define a few terms. In Budo (Mandarin Wudao) and Bujutsu (Mandarin Wushu), the component “Bu” or “Wu” does not mean “martial,” but rather “conflict resolution.” The character for “Bu” or “Wu” is shown in the most ancient dictionaries as originally a drawing of a hand reaching up to block a poleaxe or spear. Thus, Budo really means “Conflict resolution Way.” “Bujutsu means “conflict resolution art.” People say, “martial arts” but they miss the most bearing portion of the term, namely “Do” or “Dao,” meaning “Way.” In my lexicon, it’s not happenstance calling it “Way,” because according to my understanding, each of the various Budo is a kind of case study of how the Daido or Great Way works. So, in the example of Kendo, we think we’re just learning a fun art of Japanese sword fencing, but it turns out we are really learning in a small limited transmission how the Great Way itself really works. This is why Kendo is such a positive and healthy addiction – as we practice, it’s gradually dawning on us how the vast, infinite Great Tao and Great Force, which is flowing through everything, actually operates.

And so, it is that all of these Budo and Bujutsu share the same core principles and ethical values.  But they look different because of the opening scenario. For example, Judo (Ju = yielding) is a blameless monk walking peacefully in the woods. He never attacks anyone, but if attacked, he becomes a mirror who reflects back whatever the attacker tried to launch at him. Or there could be a class of people forbidden to train with weapons, so they use their feet and fists and farm implements – that’s Karate-do (Karate = empty hand). And so on. What distinguishes Kendo’s opening scenario is it’s a meeting of two people of the sword bearing class who have decided – for reasons we don’t know – to have a duel to the death. Kendo is not defensive. Kendo is “if you move, I’ll kill you; if you don’t move, I’ll kill you; if you kill me, I’ll kill you too.” Aikido (Aiki = harmonizing ki Way) is an attacker with a sword, and I will neutralize your attack, take the sword away, and nobody gets hurt. All these modern derivative arts are specialized, but if you put them together, for example like Daito Ryu, they’ll be the earlier comprehensive arts from which they came. Naginatado (Naginata = reaper Way), Kyudo (Kyu = bow Way), Kusarigamado (Kusarigama = chain and sickle Way), and actually, this also applies to a number of other seemingly non-martial practices as well, such as Chado (Cha = tea Way), Shodo (Sho = calligraphy Way), and Kado (Ka=flower Way), what they all have in common is they are case studies of how the Great Tao works, and lessons to be learned for our life from its study.

Meantime, Kendo is the way cool Budo. That’s why it’s not only maintained its presence in the country, but in recent years has experienced explosive growth. Those others that you mention may be more popular with the macho set, while Kendo is popular with the cool philosophical aristocratic set.

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?

TB: Kendo and Iaido are one art – they are the same thing. All of my teachers have taught Kendo (Ken = sword Way) and Iaido (Iai = stay and harmonize Way) together. That includes my first two teachers, Konno Sensei and Omoto Sensei. Next one to come along was Mitsuru Asaoka, Tadatoshi Haga, then Pat Yoshitsugu Murosako, Takeshi Yamaguchi, Kunio Hayashi, Ichiro Murakami, Then in Japan, Mamuro Kojima Sensei, who is the very last person to get 9th dan in Iaido. Other Japan sensei have told me Kojima Sensei is Iaido no Kamisama. Others include Hironobu Sato, Masami Matsunaga, and Hiroyuki Shioiri. Then back in the USA, next came Shozo Kato, and his teacher, Yasushi Nakanishi. Among my peer group, Robert Stroud and Dick Anderson also hold this view. I mean, I may have left out some, but the thing all of these teachers have in common is that they do not think Iaido and Kendo are two separate arts, but rather two wheels of the same cart. Many times, Omoto Sensei said to us “Iaido – that’s the original!” He explained that the Kendo Kata was one step away from the original, and shinai keiko was two steps away from the original. That’s the way he described their relationship. It was unthinkable for us to not start class with Iai, go on to Kendo Kata, and finish with shinai keiko.   That’s the foundation I’m coming from.

We like Jodo (Jo = staff Way), because the founder, Gonnosuke, is the only person who ever defeated Musashi Miyamoto in a duel. Gonnosuke had been a swordsman who wanted to give up the sword and stop carrying any weapons, but like reformed gunslingers of the Old West, there were still people challenging him. He looked around and thought of the dowel, which is found in every Japanese house, whose purpose is to lie in the groove of the sliding door and thus lock it from inside. Gonnosuke thought there would always be one of these Jo available anywhere and created a system (it came to him in a dream) of defending against swords using the Jo, and without killing anyone. So, we respect Jodo very much, and as many of us as are able do practice Jodo. We are proud of the PNKF because it’s the only US Federation to have a fully recognized Jodo Dojo as a full member club, where members can develop in this Budo, and gain rank, and so on. But here in the United States we’re a little behind Canada in Jodo development. We still rely on our Canada brothers and sisters to help with our Jodo rank exams.

MAYTT: Given the recent effects of COVID-19 on many kendo and martial arts schools, how do you foresee kendo in the Pacific Northwest reemerging from this pandemic? How do you think the art will survive if such effects and precautions continue?

TB: Kendo always comes back. For example, it was a bit hidden from view for awhile around World War II and following, but it never completely went away. And when it reemerged, it went on to be stronger and more vigorous than ever. I have tremendous faith in Kendo’s staying power. In actual fact, a lot of us are practicing together right now, via Zoom. Canada just concluded an All-Canada Kendo camp the other day, also via Zoom. Nobody I know is expecting to ever give up on Kendo.

MAYTT: Given you many years of training in kendo, what advice would you give to someone who wants to begin their training today, barring the current COVID situation? What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to find the motivation to continue training kendo?

TB: Well, the thing I always tell every beginner is that no one can force oneself to do Kendo – it’s too hard, and too stupid. If you try to force yourself, you won’t be able to. But if the “Kendo bug” bites you, you won’t be able to stay away! Most real kenshi do not know why we do Kendo – maybe we’re crazy. In the early 1980s, Matsunaga Sensei told me: “If somebody comes to your Dojo and says they want to do Kendo, and then after while they quit, don’t be angry with them – they might be a normal human being, not crazy like us!”  I usually tell people that true story right away. You might be surprised that most of them stay.

I don’t think any real kenshi cares at all whether a given person does Kendo or not. We’re definitely not going to argue about it.

MAYTT: Thank you for this exciting discussion on kendo!

TB: The pleasure is all mine.

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


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