Interview with San Francisco Kenshi Shawn Miller: The Personal Effects of Kendo

Starting kendo at the age of thirteen, Shawn Miller began something that would have a lasting effect on his life. A member of the San Francisco Kendo Dojo, Miller took some time to talk about his kendo journey and some San Francisco Kendo Dojo history that he was privy to. All images provided by Shawn Miller.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk about your kendo journey and the San Francisco Kendo Dojo!

Shawn Miller: 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?

SM: I started practicing kendo shortly after I turned thirteen. At the time, I was in between martial arts, when a friend’s dad mentioned to mine that they practiced kendo at a dojo a few towns over. To be honest, after observing that first practice, I just thought it was cool. Plus, I was excited to be learning something new. I think back then what drove me to practice so hard was that it was fun, that I had a group of friends that pushed me and that I could compete with. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still very much in place today, but what motivates me now is how I can use kendo and its teachings to aid me in my day-to-day life.

MAYTT: 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?

SM: Honestly, I think overall kendo has remained fairly unchanged. I do feel that with the addition of modern sports science and the evolving competitive nature of the art form, some of the technical aspects of training and competition have changed. I would say though, that you’d most definitely see changes and variations on training, not only in other parts of the world, but in other parts of the US as well.

MAYTT: I see. Throughout my research, I have found that practitioners in kendo have many family members training in the art, spanning over a few generations to the present day. Why do you think kendo has that type of familial connection within its practitioners? Would this be tied to Japanese culture and tradition or is it something else that kendo draws families in?

SM: I would definitely agree that there’s a cultural aspect to it. I have friends who started kendo as kids because their parents practiced or started when they were elementary school in Japan. In my case, since I was practicing twice a week and my folks were always driving me to the dojo, so it all just fell into place naturally when they started too. In my experience, the dojo sort of becomes a family of its own. One of the things I find really interesting about kendo is that you can really get to know someone by practicing with them. I feel like I’m just as close to everyone in the dojo as I am with people I grew up and went to school with.

MAYTT: 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?

SM: I would have to say the sensei I grew up with. He was tough as nails, but he always made sure we had fun. It’s hard to pin down one thing he may have taught us, but looking back, I think it was his overall attitude about kendo that’s what really stayed with me. He ran us hard, made sure to push us, but he never let us forget that we’re doing this to get better, to be better.

MAYTT: I can see how that would make a lasting impact. At the San Francisco Kendo Dojo, Eunice Chan is the Chief Instructor there. Could you tell me more about her as an instructor and as a person?

SM: She’s very direct, and not the type to mince words. When she’s in the dojo and teaching, she’s focused, tuned in and very much a hard ass, and I say that with love and respect. But that’s a good thing; it keeps everyone from getting lazy, makes us work harder. Out of the dojo, she’s warm, kind, you know, the usual. She’s also a great source of knowledge; she’s well-traveled and has great bits of insight and stories.

MAYTT: How long have you been training at the San Francisco Kendo Dojo and from your time there, what have you learned about the school’s history?

SM: I’ve been a part of the San Francisco Kendo Dojo for a little over six years now. I believe the dojo was established sometime in the late 1950s and has been home to quite a wide variety of practitioners ever since. As far as history goes, I can’t think of anything extravagant off the top of my head. We’ve had traveling sensei and students come to visit us; and as a part of the Northern California Kendo Federation, we’ve had members train and compete for the All United States Kendo Championships as a part of our federation’s team. 

San Francisco Kendo Dojo

MAYTT: With California being a hotbed for many Asian communities and martial arts, who do you feel helped pioneer and disseminate kendo in Northern California?

SM: As far as pioneers of and the dissemination of kendo throughout Northern California, I would definitely say the sensei who had a big role earlier on would be, Benjamin Hazard Sensei, who in the 1950s and 1960s helped start post-war kendo in Northern California and was involved in the establishment of both the Oakland and San Jose Dojos.

There are also hachidan (8th degree black belts) like Yoshinari Miyata Sensei of Oakland, who also helped found the dojo; Jiro Sakano Sensei, who was instrumental in starting and organizing a lot of dojos, such as Mt. View and San Mateo; and of course Yoshinori Takao Sensei, who was also a head judge in the 1988 World Kendo Championships. That being said, in more recent history, I would definitely say Charlie Tanaka Sensei of San Jose has been a major driving force in molding and guiding Northern California Kendo.

MAYTT: 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?

SM: Kendo literally saved my life. When I was in my early twenties, I let a lot of the negative things in my life spiral out of control. When I was a kid, kendo was a good focus to keep my head straight, as a teen though, I was much like most of America’s youth; angry, lost, confused, and worried about what I was going to do with my life. So, I sort of fell off the kendo train as it were. It wasn’t till mid 2014 when the sensei had growing up suddenly passed that there was a change. I don’t know whether it a calling or if something in me just clicked, but I felt drawn back. I had been back a week or so after the service, just kind of mulling everything over and decided I should at least go to one practice, you know, to honor him and everything he did for me when I was younger. The moment I put everything back on I just knew that this was something that was missing from my life. Since then, I’ve thought about why it felt so right to go back almost every day.

Kendo gave me a place and way to cope and help sort through the things that I felt were, and still, are weighing me down. The structure and the discipline are definitely good for me; they help me clear my head and sort through problems. I think kendo has also given me the skills to analyze and solve problems quickly and on the fly.

For me, what separates kendo from other martial arts or activities in terms of self-betterment is that the lessons you learn about yourself are usually harsh and that there’s no other to confront them than head on. But the practice is just a part of it, you need to apply the things you learn in kendo to your everyday life in order to benefit from them. But everyone’s different right?

MAYTT: It is amazing how you found something in kendo that can work for you! It is obvious that kendo is not as popular as other Japanese martial arts like judo or karate. Why do you think the art is not as popular as the aforementioned arts and have there been programs or plans to remedy the situation?

SM: That’s a tough one; it could be any number of things. I’ve seen budget or money issues, since the equipment can be very expensive; some people don’t see it as a practical form of self-defense; others are left with a bad taste after their romanticized notions of the art are popped; or just general representation in the media. To be honest, I haven’t really given it much thought before. I know that each dojo kind of does its own thing in terms of spreading the word; we do demonstrations during the local Cherry Blossom Festival and Obon Festivals in Japantown here in San Francisco. Nationally speaking, there are collegiate clubs which I believe have been a great way for people to be exposed to kendo. Other than that, I’m sure The All US Kendo Federation has a few initiatives going.

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 Northern California and the rest of 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?

SM: It’s hard to say. With the current situation being so unstable, I can’t really speak to anything in particular. Our board of directors is monitoring the situation closely and keeping up on the city and county codes and regulations. With the way things are right now, the best we can do is the occasional outdoor meet up and Zoom practices. I think we all understand that until concrete measures are in place, we simply won’t be able to practice the way we use to. As for what comes after, I have my doubts that there will be an uptake in interest, I don’t think many people would find grown men and women screaming inches from each other’s faces fun considering the current climate. It’ll be slow, but I think it’ll be just the local kendo community for a while.

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us about kendo!

SM: Thank you for having me; it was a blast answering your questions!

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