Interview with Former Hawaii Kendo Federation President Kathleen Nekomoto: Her Time as President

Kathleen Nekomoto began training kendo in 1990, under the guidance of Dick Okaji. She became a secretary for the Hawaii Kendo Federation, later serving as the organization’s president between 2008 to 2019. Teaching out of her Kenyukai Dojo, Nekomoto took some time to talk about her time as president of the Hawaii Kendo Federation. All images provided by Kathleen Nekomoto.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Nekomoto Sensei and thank you for taking the time to talk with us about kendo!

Kathleen Nekomoto: Thank you for having me and 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?

KN: I started kendo in 1990, in my late thirties.

Being a Japanese, I was interested in the cultural arts of my race. I am a second generation, or a Nisei Japanese, and the art of kendo became attractive to me because of the self-discipline, etiquette or manners, and respect for others became very clear to me. I felt I needed to grow in these areas. My parents were very strict towards me, so I felt it was a natural attraction. I grew up watching samurai shows and I think that interested me in the practice of the sword.  

Kendo and iaido continue to motivate me. Our dojo is currently being led by our shihan, or chief instructor, Yoshiro Takahashi Sensei. I am unable to practice and compete like I used to due to my many injuries (corrective surgeries) from my years of training in running, kendo, and iaido. I retired to a much quieter life of tending to our dojo (Ken Yu Kai), along with our shihan instructor and teaching my students. I have students of all ages from five years of age to adults. I would like to teach them that kendo is not only about hitting one another with a shinai (bamboo sword), but more importantly to learn self-discipline, self-reflectance, respect for one another, manners, responsibilities to pass on to the younger students or colleagues, and lead by being a good example and conduct oneself to be a good citizen. My wish is they learn all these good habits and pass this on to others.

Our sensei, Yoshiro Takahashi, kyoshi seventh dan in kendo has studied the art of kendo since he was a young child in Yokohama, Japan. He now is a permanent resident in Hawaii.

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?

KN: When I first started kendo, I did have a difficult time hitting someone in practice. Coming from a medical background, I had a difficult time inflicting pain on someone. My sensei at that time told me not to worry, that I would get over it and he was right. I did not like being hit, so I learned to strike back. Training at the beginning was difficult for me but I became used to the kendo movements. As time passed, practice became more intense for me. I wanted to develop skills and techniques as a kendoist, so I practiced on my own a lot. The most difficult and heaviest practices were in preparation all for competitions in both the local and international arenas.

At the beginning, kendo training was quite harsh with the older senseis. My sensei and mentor, whom I inherited the dojo from upon his death, always told me, “Students need to love kendo, so just let them enjoy it.” I think I was too harsh as an instructor. I understand what he meant by that and became a better instructor. 

Each dojo teaches kendo a little differently, and as time passed, training techniques have changed a little. Kendo kata and shimpan methods have changed a fraction over the last thirty plus years. Our shihan oversees all training, and he has a high expectation of lessons and of our students.

MAYTT: That sounded like there was some hard training then. 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?

KN: The late Dick Okaji Sensei was influential in my growth as a person. He was my mentor in daily living and maintaining general relationships with people. He was kind, yet very strict when it came to self-discipline. 

MAYTT: What inspired you to first partake in the administrative/organizational side of kendo? Did you feel something was missing or was not being adequately addressed in Hawaiian kendo?

KN: My first experience in the Hawaii Kendo Federation, a non-profit organization was as the Secretary for approximately twelve years. I became President from 2008 to 2019. The organization had executive leaders and had approximately two representative board members from each dojo. Everyone took part in the organization. Dr. Noboru Akagi Sensei had begun the Hawaii Kendo Federation for many years and became the person who was responsible to develop it into the organization it is today. 

Sensei Hidetoshi Miyagawa, Hanshi hachidan from Japan, joined Kenyukai’s keiko and taught them many useful lessons.

MAYTT: With kendo being a minority activity in Hawaii, how did you raise awareness to the art while you were president of the Hawaii Kendo Federation (HFK)? What were some of the obstacles you overcame in growing the HFK and the public’s awareness of kendo?

KN: Kendo was brought over with the Japanese immigrants approximately 200 years ago. With modernization, the kendo population decreased due to the youth league being interested in other sports such as soccer, baseball, basketball, and football. 

MAYTT: I see. 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?

KN: When I first started in kendo, there must have been approximately five female kendo practitioners in the state. Today, the women are gaining in kendo population but still remain less than the males.   

MAYTT: When was Kenyukai Kendo Club established? How has the club assisted in the dissemination of kendo to newer and younger practitioners?

KN: Ken Yu Kai was established in 1995 by the late Dick Okaji Sensei. We both were at the Young Buddhist Association kendo club and Kenshikan club until 1995. The late Okaji Sensei was very helpful and generous in getting the students outfitted with their kendo equipment. He was very attentive to their needs. He taught from the heart. I think, like all dojos, we have turnover rates due to age groups, moving and going off to college, or just other interests. 

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

KN: I worked as a manager of a department and my first responsibilities were to see to the needs of the staff. As a kendo instructor, seeing to the needs of the students became natural. I think my perspective changed when I followed the students very closely and became involved with them personally. Many of our students needed attention in techniques and developing skills. I always made sure to talk about attitudes, manners, and respect for others. I have learned from my students and the tools of observation was my study. My students are all very good people and I respect them as I have learned more from them and they have from me. They are all growing in age and with it came some personal questions. I have learned from them. Our shihan, Takahashi Sensei is very meticulous about what they learn. His goal is to teach them the right kendo including all the manners, self-discipline, and respect for all our students.

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

KN: I was very fortunate to meet and do kendo with some of the members from the sugar plantations. They had a lot of stories to tell. Sundays were a day when all members joined in practice. It was proper to go to each sensei for a lesson. I learned many different techniques from each sensei. There are too numerous to name but Dr. Noboru Akagi and the late Mr. H. Tamura both devoted their time to enrich the students by taking them on kendo trips to Japan and other places. It opened the students’ world to foreign kendoists. Kendo is an international language by itself. You don’t have to know any foreign language, just join them in keiko and you have made a friend. 

Hawaii’s history of kendo was discontinued during World War II and was started up again in 1955. The Hawaii Kendo Federation was active since then and continues to thrive. Today, we have many ethnic populations taking part in kendo and iaido.

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?

KN: Our dojo teaches kendo, as these are the arts most of our students are interested in. I was fortunate enough to learn iaido. I believe iaido should be taken when the student has perfected kendo, since iaido may be more difficult to understand. One has an opponent in kendo but in iaido, the opponent is somewhat imaginary. It is performed solely by you. 

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?

KN: I am not sure how the post pandemic will be affecting kendo and iaido. In Hawaii, many of the dojos are doing virtual practice and have included other dojos. We have not practiced since the end of March and time has passed. Our students continue to do basic practices of footwork and shinai use where one can perform self-practice. Of course, other contact sports are included in the lockdowns. I would think many of the kendo students are doing basic practice (no contact) by themselves. Iaido can be practiced solely so if they can find somewhere outside of the home, iaido is possible.

MAYTT: Thank you Nekomoto Sensei for this interesting conversation about Hawaiian kendo!

KN: You’re welcome and it was an enjoyable time!

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