Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto: The Kenshikan Kendo Dojo

Garrett Matsumoto began training kendo at the age of seven at the behest of his parents, studying under the late Shigeo Yoshinaga. After taking a short break, he began training under Katsumi Yamada of Kenshikan Dojo. Presently, Matsumoto is the Chief Instructor of Kenshikan Dojo. Today, he took the time to discuss with us Shigeo Yoshinaga and Katsumi Yamada. All images provided by Garrett Matsumoto.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you and welcome Matsumoto Sensei! We are glad to have you here to talk about Shigeo Yoshinaga and Katsumi Yamada!

Garrett Matsumoto: Thanks for having me. I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: When did you start training kendo? What aspect of the art drew you to your first practice and does that aspect continue to motivate you today?

Garrett Matsumoto.

GM: I started when I was seven years old, so that was around 1977. Like any other child going into any martial art or sports, my parents were the ones that took me to kendo, because they thought that judo or karate were too violent [Laughs] We also had a relative that was doing kendo at the time, so that’s what helped me get started in kendo. From that time till now, what made me stay was the friendships that we had. The late Shigeo Yoshinaga Sensei’s son and everyone were pretty much in the same age group and we were all taking kendo, and even to this day we are still friends, with his daughters and son.

What was great to see was the 1979 Sapporo Fourth Kendo World Tournament and we were able to go to Tokyo and compete at the event. We also flew out to Hokkaido to Sapporo and observed the World Championships. The Hawaii Team had taken third place at that time.

In this day and age, my motivation is seeing the kids being able to learn and grow from kendo. Having my three children who are twenty-one, nineteen, and fifteen. They’re all practicing kendo and they started when they were five years old, my daughter also played soccer, took a break from kendo, and came back recently. I also like to see the other kids in the dojo growing in kendo creating new friendships with each other. During these times, it’s pretty hard to do the training we normally do. We had just finished our Saturday Zoom practice. That’s the only way that we can train and stay in touch with everyone.

MAYTT: What was the training like when you first started training? Was it hard and heavy, or was it more a balanced training regimen? How have you seen kendo training evolve and/or change since you began, and, in your opinion, is it for the better?

GM: When I first started, we were kids. Yoshinaga Sensei had a very good kendo concept for kids, so he wasn’t as strict or technical as you would learn when you get older. But it was pretty much to have fun. He would always be smiling during keiko and encouraging at the same time. That wouldn’t mean that we didn’t go hard and do our best. I felt when you do your best, Yoshinaga Sensei would get encouraged and satisfied. I would try my best not to lose my conditioning and keep going. But as far as the technical side and having the proper form, it wasn’t really emphasized at that time, as a beginning student. He just wanted you to keep going, have fun, and the technical side came as we grew into the different stages from a beginner to intermediate to advanced.

As far as what’s being taught, we continue to be more traditional with more emphasis on proper etiquette. That might have always been taught but as a kid, you may not have observed all of the teaching. You might have just looked at the things you wanted to learn. Like the saying goes, “The teacher appears when the student is ready.” So, from a younger aspect, we were just there and did our best to do what we could. As we get older, we understand it takes a little bit more to score a point. It’s not hitting the area, but it’s getting all the elements of kendo: being able to have great posture, kiai, hitting in the right monouchi area, and finishing off in zanshin. Teaching those elements, it’s not something that children will always retain. At least they continually hear it and sooner or later, they’ll understand the concept of what we are teaching. Adults that start as a beginner are able to understand the concept faster. They may not have the same speed or agility as they would if they took kendo at a younger age.

MAYTT: I can see how that would be encouraging to children. Despite kendo being popular within the Japanese population of the Aloha State, the art is not as popular as other Japanese martial arts like karate or judo. 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?

GM: I guess that’s what we are all trying to do at the moment – expose kendo. It’s not as popular as MMA or the UFC, or any other martial art out there. I think what we try to do is to keep it traditional. At this time, it’s not an Olympic sport, but we do have our All World Kendo Championships every three years. We don’t want to lose that traditional martial art and create it into a sport, where you lose all the elements and people try to get just the point — ippon. I think a lot of people get interested in kendo when they see movies like The Last Samurai or when Star Wars , and find out that some of the actors took kendo to learn how to hold a lightsaber.

But what we’ve been trying to do to expose kendo are putting on several demonstrations. Annually, we do a demonstration with adults and kids at the Japanese Culture Center of Hawaii, for the Ohana Festival. We also just started last year doing a kendo class for the Cherry Blossom contestants. The contestants have the culture, Japanese tradition, and they just started learning kendo. The Cherry Blossom asked us again this year if we’re able to host a Zoom Kendo practice as their Japanese Culture in Martial Arts experience. I believe everyone had fun doing this for the first time. There are several other demonstrations that we do throughout the year.

But I guess the many ethnic groups in Hawaii are not aware of kendo. It’s something different and it’s not publicized as much, until they see a demonstration or a tournament. That’s something our president, Masayuki Furutani Sensei, is wanting to have more exposure and expand our membership. Several things that we were trying to do, but COVID has put a hold on it. We were trying to get kendo into high schools and have high school teams like how Japan has in their schools. We want kendo to become part of their curriculum and extra activities. Due to COVID this has been put on hold.

MAYTT: Did your perspective on kendo change once you began teaching and, if so, how? Did that perspective change further when you became Kenshikan’s Chief Instructor and, if so, what was that experience like?

GM: Kendo, from my perspective, is what you say, you have to back it up with the facts. As a student, you tend to just learn and listen to what your sensei says, and apply it. As the teacher, you are the one that’s learning the most, because you have to make sure what you’re saying is correct and show examples. In that aspect I grew in Kendo myself and teaching others. It’s always great when we have visiting Sensei’s from Japan. They are always helpful in teaching us kendo and how I can improve in teaching others. I’m still always learning kendo.

Being able to take over is a big responsibility. I was a bit nervous when I took over because it was also the same time we were hosting a tournament and we had outside guests that came over for respects for Yoshinaga Sensei and for the late Katsumi Yamada Sensei. With that perspective, being able to host them and the tournament at the same time was a pretty big responsibility for my first time. Now understanding what the Chief Instructor’s responsibilities, I’m very grateful and appreciate how Yoshinaga Sensei and Yamada Sensei ran Kenshikan.

MAYTT: Before you were Chief Instructor, there was Katsumi Yamada. Could you tell me more about him as an instructor and as a person?

GM: Well, let me backup a little bit. When I was seven years old to seventeen or eighteen, I was practicing at YBA (Young Buddhist Association) under Shigeo Yoshinaga Sensei. I had taken a break where I went to school and I came back a few years later. The YBA dojo has already transisitoned over to Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii (JCCH) to the Kenshikan Dojo. During that time, Yoshinage Sensei was still going to kendo, but he had let Yamada Sensei do more of the running of the dojo and eventually handed it over to him. Yoshinaga Sensei was about eighty years old, at that time.

Kenshikan Tournament 2017. 1st row: Myles Oh, 2nd row (L-R) Brandyn Matsumoto, Junsei Tanizaki, Cade Matsumoto and Katsumi Yamada Sensei.

Katsumi Yamada Sensei had taken over and retained the same teaching aspects of Yoshinaga Sensei. He continued to teach from what I learned from YBA and also put his own perspective on teaching adult students. In 2016, he had gotten ill and from that time, he had asked me if I could take over Kenshinkan. I told him it was an honor to continue on with Kenshikan.

MAYTT: I see. Both Shigeo Yoshinaga and Kenshiro Otsuka played a major role in establishing the Kenshikan Kendo Dojo as many practitioners know it. Could you tell me more about them, their kendo background, and how they helped to disseminate and solidify kendo in Hawaii?

GM: Some of that I need to get a little more detailed on, because when he was still here, there were several other sensei that were involved with him at the time. Again, when I came back, I went to the Kenshikan. The transition from the YBA to the JCCH was already completed. What I do know that the Otsuka Family wanted to encourage kendo outside of Japan and were funding foreign schools to continue and offer kendo training. They were a big part of the Hawaii Kendo Federation (HKF). Shigeo Yoshinaga started a Kendo school at Kotohira Jinjya in 1963. Then in 1975, he relocated his dojo to YBA. Yoshinaga Sensei met Mr. Kenshiro Otsuka when the JCCH project started. Mr. Otsuka was willing to donate close to a million dollars for a martial art dojo in the JCCH. The name Kenshikan was taken from the first part of Mr. Otsuka’s first name Kenshi and kan meaning dojo. Yoshinaga Sensei moved his YBA dojo to JCCH in 1994 and named his club Kenshikan Kendo Club.

Yoshinaga Sensei’s kendo style, he was not a tall person. Because he was a shorter person, a lot of kenshi would think scoring on his men would be easy. He was still quick; he would always get the kote or the do. And when you least expect it, he would get your men. Even in his later years, he had the same enthusiasm and sharpness, always encouraging others to “keep coming, keep coming.” That was his kendo style of teaching and he made kendo fun.

YBA Tournament 1981. 1st row: (L-R) Dwight Yoshinaga, Neil Arakaki, Garrett Matsumoto, Francis Arakaki, Iris Yoshinaga, Jill Yoshinaga and Shigeo Yoshinaga Sensei. 2nd row: (L-R) Jeff Taniguchi, Clint Tsubota, Carl Sasaki and Dean Shimamoto.

MAYTT: Apart from the prominent Hawaiian kenshi already mentioned, 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?

GM: When I was a kid, we had, as the presidents of the HKF Choichi Furuyama Sensei, Takao Hedani Sensei, Yoshinaga Sensei, then we had Dr. Noboru Akagi Sensei. Pretty much, they were the ones that, from the time I was around, had brought more exposure to Hawaii kendo was Choichi Furuyama Sensei, Dr. Akagi Sensei, Yoshinaga Sensei, and Hedani Sensei. They continued and created relationships from Japan to Hawaii, and when I was younger, they did have international goodwill kids’ tournaments and that brought a lot of internationals form Canada, the United States, Japan, here, hosting tournaments. So, they were pretty much the pioneers that I’ve experienced. Today, we are trying to continue those relationships, internationally. The current president, Masayuki Furatani Sensei, and for us, we have created relationships through the late Arnold Fukutomi Sensei, who was also president and coached as the Hawaii Team coach, we created a relationship with Canada. We continue to have that relationship and friendship outside of Hawaii.

I would say about five years ago, we created a friendship with Melbourne Kenshikan. The Otsuka Family had, again, donated outside of Japan to Australia. During the time there was a kenshi that came over to Hawaii and was observing our practice and throughout the years, we have maintained that relationship through the Otsuka Family that started Kenshikan. We try to keep those international relationships outside of Hawaii alive.

MAYTT: It is amazing how kendo can foster such friendships! Throughout my research, many practitioners and regional federations claim that kendo is a way or a method to developing one’s character and better understanding one’s self. In your experience, what aspects of kendo provide such an avenue for self-betterment? How does kendo differentiate itself from other activities that claim to help build a practitioner’s character, or is kendo just a small part of the holistic approach to self-betterment?

GM: For kendo, martial arts, or sports, kendo especially, has always been about respect. It was always to respect the dojo, respect your sensei, and respect your peers. In that aspect, it’s not a sport but it’s something where we win, we lose, and you respect your competitor. Respect is crucial. Having that behavior and having that understanding of kendo applies to your life. How you respect your parents, your workplace – whether it’s your coworkers or your boss – you have that respect from learning that behavior from kendo. That’s something you want to be able to implement to all of our students, to continue to have that respect. Are they practicing their hardest, are they giving their all or are they just going through the motions; the kind of respect where they think “if I’m not doing my best, the sensei will have to talk to us more and slow the class down.” That’s an example of not respecting others because now they’re taking time away from learning in the limited time we have to practice. I think one of the biggest characteristics is implementing that aspect of respect.

In that respect, we are always learning, and in life, we have different teaching styles of kendo and instructors teaching their way. I’ve always observed other instructors and how they teach. How can I make all these different teaching styles easier for myself? I always try to have an open mind, and how I can learn and implement that into my kendo.

Not everyone has the same skillset, the same ability to do what we do, and how we can implement that. And that will apply to all students as not everyone has the same skillset or move as quickly or as agile as others, but you can take all these good teachings and put together your own kendo style of using what they teach. Applying that towards kendo and life. Anyone can teach you how to do something but how you accomplish it? You take all these good aspects and utilize it for yourself, in your own way.

Aiea Taiheji Tournament 2019. Brandyn, Nicklas and Jacie Matsumoto.

I would say for kendo, the difference would be being able to keep the teachings as traditional and more intimate. Again, you may have team sports that’s focused on getting the win and those players would respect each other but yet they still are participating in a sport. Basically, you play to win. As far as kendo, the reason that it’ll be different is that you’re always learning, so no matter if you win, you can learn something on how you could have done it better during your match or, if you lose, you’re learning on what happened, how did that kenshi score the ippon, or how did I lose and what do I need to work on. You can also learn by watching, by observing class if you’re injured – it is always highly encouraged to observe practice and always continue to learn.

Another difference is a lot of kendo sensei are still active and they’re still hard to hit [Laughs] In sports, you may be able to outsprint your coach, but in kendo, older sensei are much harder to beat and hit. They could be in their seventies or eighties, that’s what makes them different from a coach for a team sport. Coaches are not actively playing that sport, whereas kendo sensei are still actively practicing and show us what we should be doing.

MAYTT: That does help differentiate between a martial art and a sport. 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?

GM: That’s a pretty hard one, because there’re so many different sensei that played a part in my learning. That’s a tough one [Laughs] Firstly, I would have to say Yoshinaga Sensei would be the most instrumental for me learning kendo because of the aspect of the way that he taught and did kendo. He made it fun, as far as kids, you don’t want to keep it too technical and they lose interest; he kept it fun and kept us moving. One of his mottos that he had mentioned before was “Only kendo.” He was a busy guy. He ran his own construction company, on the HKF Board, teaching classes, teaching kendo, and having a family, his motto was “Only kendo.” In all of that, he enjoyed it and everything that he did at the same time. He was one of my initial influencers.

The second one would be, again, when I went to Sapporo in 1979, being able to observe the Hawaii Team members. At that time, the late Arnold Fukutomi Sensei, from Aiea Taiheiji, was the Hawaii Team coach. He was very helpful in the competition aspect, but just having that inspiration of his style of kendo and his teaching and his character was a big influence on me growing more in kendo. Everything he had done was to analyze, see what we do, and how we can get better – just getting the little things tightened up so we can do the best with the abilities we have.

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 in 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?

GM: My take is, because we are doing the best that we can during this time through virtual training, I try to keep kendo in the back of their mind. It’s not going to be the same experience as being able to do it in the dojo or live, but all long as I keep kendo in the back of their minds, it’s good. Not everyone from our dojo shows up or has, since they may not have the technology or the area to practice at their homes, but if we can keep that up, kendo will be around after the pandemic.

As far as reestablishing practice when we are able to, it’ll be slow. I don’t anticipate a lot of kenshi coming back right away. If there’s no vaccine, there might be some hesitation of returning to indoor activity. There will definitely be some caution, especially if they are part of the higher-risk groups, they might not want to return right away until they see how practices have gone. We have guidelines in place to keep the dojo clean, keep our distance, and wear a mask. As we continue, we will have more keiko with face shields and masks on in our men. If there is a vaccine, it might definitely accelerate the members coming back. So initially, it will be slow, depending on having a vaccine or not.

Kenshikan Practice.

I think if we continue to expose kendo during this time where many people are still staying at home, we might be able to attract newer practitioners at the end of this pandemic. We have seen the explosion of at-home exercise equipment and exercise videos purchases, so maybe when those people get tired of doing their daily core routine, they’ll consider taking a traditional martial art like kendo and come in to start their training.

MAYTT: Thank you for the adventure into your kendo journey and Hawaiian kendo!

GM: Thank you for having me!

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