Interview with Longtime Hawaiian Kenshi Braxton Fukutomi: Continuing His Family’s Legacy

Hailing from a multigenerational kendo family, Braxton Fukutomi began training in the art at the age of four. As he progressed through kendo, Fukutomi became the head instructor of the Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club, while his mother continues to run the Waipahu Seibukan Kendo Club. At the Aiea Taiheiji kendo Club, Fukutomi tries to develop his students into productive members of society. Today, MAYTT had the opportunity to talk to Fukutomi about his journey through kendo and the art’s history in Hawaii. All images provided by Braxton Fukutomi.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Fukutomi Sensei! We are glad to have you here to talk about kendo in Hawaii!

Braxton Fukutomi: Yes! Thank you for having me and I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: When did you start training in kendo? What inspired you to begin training and does that inspiration still motivate you to train today?

BF: I come from a family of kendo practitioners with four generations of kendo practitioners on my mother’s side and three generations on my father’s side. My parents were head instructors of two separate kendo clubs and so I began attending practice while in a crib at about six months old and officially started practice around four years old. I didn’t have much say in beginning my kendo career, but similarly to most kids, I was initially drawn toward the competitive aspect of kendo. As I began teaching and especially after I assumed the head instructor role of the Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club after my father’s abrupt passing, I’ve now become motivated to train as a means of developing my students into productive members of our community and using kendo as my means for doing that. 

MAYTT: As you said, you come from a kendo family that had three to four generations training in the art. What was the experience like for you growing up in that type of environment? Was there a pressure for you to continue kendo as you got older or were you free to stop training at any time?

BF: There was a huge expectation for me to continue kendo, especially when I was a kid. I really wasn’t given a choice. It was made clear that I’d attend kendo practice every Wednesday and Saturday. Similarly to most kids that do kendo, there were many times that I wanted to quit, especially when I started high school athletics. Between kendo and basketball, I was attending nine practices per week! [Laughs] As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve really begun to love kendo and have seen the benefits of kendo translate into other aspects of my life. Since then, I really couldn’t imagine kendo ever not being a part of my life.

Group picture of the Aiea Taiheiji and Waipahu Seibukan Kendo Club members.

MAYTT: I see. As time passes, many things change, adapt, or modify themselves to stay with the times to some degree. Has kendo experienced such a change in training and, if so, how much has the training changed since you began?

BF: Kendo has definitely seen a change in the way that it’s practiced, especially in the past five to ten years. I believe that the reason for this is due to the increased interest in applying medical knowledge and concepts of sports science to kendo as a means of making training more efficient and to reduce injury. There is currently a huge trend toward implementing more core and weight training to practice and I think that this will help to achieve the above goals, but there always needs to be a balance in preserving the traditions of kendo.

MAYTT: Kendo is popular in Hawaii, as far as the number of practitioners and schools there are on the island chain are concerned. When you began kendo, how did the public view the martial art? Has that view changed since you started training?

BF: Throughout my life, I’ve found that most people just aren’t aware of what kendo is, despite the large Japanese population in Hawaii and the extreme popularity of Kendo in Japan. For people without an understanding of what kendo is, they often compare it to simple “stick fighting” or to Star Wars but don’t quite grasp the tradition and history to what kendo is. I don’t think this mentality has shifted much over the years.

MAYTT: In comparison to kendo, how has other, empty hand martial arts like karate and judo fared in Hawaii? Is kendo on par with these types of arts in terms of practitioners or is it a minority like it is in the continental United States?

BF: Kendo is still a minority among other martial arts in Hawaii. I believe that this is due to the lack of exposure people have to kendo. Most people are familiar with karate and judo is a sport that our high school students can participate in, similarly to basketball and football. I think if more people were exposed to kendo, the number of practitioners would significantly increase, especially as our Japanese population searches for ways to connect to their culture.

MAYTT: You mention that despite the large Japanese population in Hawaii, most of the inhabitants are not fully aware of kendo. Why do you think the art is not as popular with most of the population and have there been programs or plans to remedy the situation?

BF: I think kendo isn’t as popular mainly because of the lack of exposure compared to other martial arts such as judo and karate. The members of the Hawaii Kendo Federation have tried to remedy this through participation in demonstrations at local elementary to high schools and also Japanese festivals. We have also been talking about trying to get kendo integrated into the school systems. For our club specifically, we’ve really tried to provide new students with a great experience with training tailored to their specific goals. With that in mind, our word of mouth referrals has significantly increased along with our retention of members that do join. 

The Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club lining up for team matches.

MAYTT: That is amazing! Who do you feel was most instrumental in your training from a “sensei” standpoint? What valuable lesson did they teach you that carried the most weight and had the heaviest impact on your training?

BF: This would definitely be my father. He was my first instructor and the person that devoted the most time to the growth of my kendo, from extremely rigorous practices in the dojo to teaching me life lessons outside, simply as my father. Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from him are that “anything can become a habit” and “if you can’t handle the pressure, you’ll never be great.” The first phrase was used primarily during training as a single day of laziness could lead to a lifelong habit of laziness. On the other hand, practicing with full commitment could translate to excellence in all parts of my life.

The second phrase was told to me before every tournament, but I think it is extremely relevant to life right now. To me, it means that at times, life is extremely difficult and you will undoubtedly feel the pressure of the world. If you’re content with being average, you can let life consume you, but if you want to be great, you have to go out and do what others aren’t willing to do.

MAYTT: Your father seems like he was a strong influence on you. Could you tell me more about him, his kendo background, and his teaching philosophy? 

BF: Yeah, he definitely had a strong influence on me. He started kendo around the age of ten at the Aiea Kendo Club. He eventually became the head instructor of the Aiea Kendo Club, was an eight-time competitor, and five-time coach for Team Hawaii at the World Kendo Championships held every three years, and former president of the Hawaii Kendo Federation. In his own words, his goal was “to foster cultural awareness through an environment that promotes and preserves the heritage unique to Japanese ancestry.” He also wanted to “provide opportunities for continuous learning and self-improvement in which personal creativity, excellence and spirit of community are cultivated.” I carry the same philosophies as him along with our sense of creating a strong family-centered atmosphere among our members. 

MAYTT: That is interesting! When were the Aiea Taiheiji and Waipahu Seibukan Kendo clubs founded? How has the two clubs assisted in disseminating kendo to newer and younger practitioners?

BF: The Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club was founded in 1965 by Dr. Noboru Akagi, a highly accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon while the Waipahu Seibukan Kendo Club was founded in 1929 by my maternal great grandfather. The Taiheiji Club was passed down to my father in 1990 and the Seibukan Club passed down to my mother in 1984. Since then, we’ve had joint practices every week and I believe that this has benefited us in bringing our young practitioners together to have a more fulfilling and enjoyable kendo experience. We also try to create a family-oriented atmosphere with many of our current members joining as families. This not only aids in retention of students but allows families to participate in a shared activity together every week.

Dr. Noboru Akagi in the foreground and Braxton’s father, Arnold Fukutomi, in the background (right).

MAYTT: Did your perspective on kendo change once you began teaching and, if so, how? From that perspective, how do you approach teaching today?

BF: My perspective has drastically changed from when I became the head instructor six years ago. Although I am still far from the end of my competing years and still need to focus on my own training, the majority of my time is spent teaching. Overall, I have shifted from practicing for the sake of myself and my own gain to practicing for the sake of others. My goal is to instill the values of kendo and to develop our members (especially the kids) into excellent and productive members of their communities. I merely use kendo as my vehicle toward achieving this goal and it’s extremely satisfying to see my members excel in the unique aspects of each of their own lives.

MAYTT: Hawaii is a hub for prominent kendo practitioners and pioneers. Who do you feel helped pioneer and spread kendo in the mid to late twentieth century to today in the Aloha State? What set these individuals apart from their contemporaries?

BF: I believe that Dr. Noboru Akagi, the founding instructor of the Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club and former Hawaii Kendo Federation President was the most instrumental pioneer for kendo in Hawaii. He is a seventh degree black belt in kendo and garnered considerable respect amongst practitioners across the world. With the respect he earned over his many years of practice, organizational abilities as a physician, and his commanding poise, he played an integral role in establishing Hawaii Kendo Federation as an independent organization of the International Kendo Federation, facilitating relationships between Hawaii and Japan, and was the first person outside of Japan to receive the Yukosho Award, given to only a select few who have contributed greatly to kendo at the local and international levels.

MAYTT: Many kendo clubs and organizations utilize iaido as supplementary learning, with jodo coming in at second, for kenshi. 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?

BF: I think there are a lot of benefits to practicing both iaido and jodo in conjunction with kendo. They both allow for a more complete means of solidifying one’s knowledge of the traditions related to the way of the sword. Although very different in the way they are all practiced, I believe they do complement each other well.

MAYTT: Final question. With COVID-19 affecting every aspect of our society and lives, kendo and other martial arts have experienced a major decline in training facilities and practitioners. How do you think kendo in Hawaii, and perhaps the United States will rebound from this global crisis? Will there be a major revival, or will the art continue in small pockets once free from the effects of the pandemic?

BF: The COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely difficult and put a financial, medical, and social strain onto all of us. It is difficult to predict how kendo will rebound from this and if our pre-pandemic practitioners will return with a stronger desire to resume practice or if their desire will fade, the longer the pandemic continues. With that in mind, I strongly believe that we shouldn’t just “wait and see” what happens. Instead, we should actively try to engage the members at our local clubs to prevent their passion for kendo from waning and to bring back normalcy to each other’s lives, even if it may have to be through the virtual platform for now.

MAYTT: Thank you for this discussion into Hawaiian kendo!

BF: Thank you for having me!

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