Reflecting on Rod Nobuto Omoto’s Autobiography

Omoto, Rod. ‎Autobiography of Rod Omoto, 2015. https://books.apple.com/ar/book/autobiography-of-rod-omoto/id883795766.

As I started this adventure into Nobuto “Rod” Omoto’s life, I thought I would be learning more about his time in the Pacific Northwest and his adventures there. However, I was surprised to take part in another adventure, years before he stepped foot into the region. From Hawaii to all around Japan, his life led to one event after another, from being seasick on the boat ride to Japan to hiding in a closet and eavesdropping on the Japanese Communist Party. Moreover, Omoto’s autobiography showed more of the man and kendo’s philosophical aspects, rather than instructor and “sharer” of kendo. He was a man, trying to understand and apply kendo’s philosophy in his own life.

Omoto began his story with his time in Hawaii, specifically when he started training in kendo at the age of fourteen in 1932. Like many nisei, as he attested to, his father arranged for Omoto to quit football and take up kendo. With the only knowledge of sword work coming from the samurai movies in the local theater and his friends beating on each other with branches, he found himself excited to start. His first kendo instructor, Kenji Miura, drove an Omoto hour to Kaimoki Dojo in Honolulu. After watching the class, he was quickly taken by the art and began training the next time he was with Miura. Omoto would spend the next six years with Miura, achieving nidan by the end of high school, all the while immersing himself in kendo, its training methods, and philosophies.

Shortly after finishing high school, Omoto’s father and Miura made preparations to send Omoto to Japan, to train at the Budo Senmon Gakko, or Busen. This dojo was one of the many martial arts-based schools in Japan that groomed accepted students to better understanding their chosen art at a professional level. Though reluctant, Omoto went anyway, as to not dishonor or disobey his father or kendo instructor. Before leaving, Miura gifted Omoto with a kendo manual that contained Musashi’s A Book of Five Rings, to which Omoto would read and reread and attempt to apply the principles along his kendo journey of a lifetime.

Before being accepted into the Busen under the tutelage of the kendo instructor Kinnosuke Ogawa, Omoto had to take some additional Japanese language and calligraphy courses. Though he and the rest of his family took Japanese language classes in Hawaii, Omoto admited that those classes did not prepare him adequately for Japan. No matter, after being accepted in the Busen, he and his other classmates trained for six hours every day, on top of the chores around the school – a regular uchideshi program.

While he was training at the Busen, Omoto was recruited into the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942. After a joyous send-off party hosted by his classmates, Omoto went straight into basic training. While kendo training was rigorous and exhausting, he described the regimen during basic training much tougher and harder than any kendo training at the Busen. Since he was one of the only foreign-born Japanese at the Busen, he was not sent to the officer corps in Tokyo upon finishing basic training and never saw combat. Instead, he performed many odd jobs around the country, fixing tanks and driving trucks. During his odd jobs, he had a few brushes with death; one was when he was helping transport gasoline. The truck began to slide off the road while Omoto was on the top of the truck. Instinctively, Omoto grabbed for the guardrail and cartwheeled over onto the road. The rest of his comrades were crushed. Another was when he was leading a ragtag unit of older recruits around the southern parts of the country. One of the soldiers asked for the unit to sleep in an abandoned harbor house. Omoto, after pondering the suggested, refused and had the unit sleep on the hillside. Shortly thereafter, an Allied bomb leveled the harbor house to Omoto’s shock.

His luck would not run out of him as he evaded the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by only a day. Cut off from the rest of the country for a few more days, he received word that the War was over. With that, he dispersed his unit and made his way towards Kure, a town about fifty miles south of Hiroshima. With no means of vehicle transportation, Omoto made the journey on foot. Once he arrived, Omoto vividly explained the hunger and hardships that he and others in his extended family faced during the initial years at the conclusion of the War.

It was by chance that an American officer who worked for the United States Occupation Forces found out that Omoto was bilingual, essentially securing a job as an interpreter. The majority of his time was spent translating Japanese communist newspapers and talking with guests who the military wanted to further relations. Within this time, he married and began a family. Soon, by 1960, Omoto and his family found their way to Tacoma, Washington. Once settled in, he began to teach kendo, creating an impact on the local community there. And the rest, as those who knew him, was history.

Omoto closed his autobiography with some thoughts on kendo while connecting the training with the philosophy laid out by Musashi’s manual. It is within his explanations that the reader begins to see Omoto as a man greatly influenced by kendo and trying to make sense of it all while living his life. The theme of reflection shows itself throughout his autobiography, emphasizing that reflection is necessary to advance in budo training. However, once his wife passed, he began to reflect on his life – where everything he did fit into his life. Even a regular routine did not help feel “whole,” however, it was during this reflection that he had another chance to reapply the lessons he learned throughout his kendo training and his life. This was his new “strategy,” or purpose.

Though he mentioned that he was not that great at kendo, he wanted to demonstrate to his students that kendo is more than just hitting an opponent and winning a trophy; it’s about waging that constant war within to become better than you were yesterday.

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