Interview with Mountain View Kendo Dojo Student Richard Kang: In Memoriam of Masami Yamaguchi

Richard Kang of Mountain View Kendo Dojo took some time to talk with us about his kendo journey and remembering Masami Yamaguchi, who passed away earlier this year, and everything he has done for kendo and the Northern California Kendo Federation. All images provided by Richard Kang.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time to join us for this interview.

Richard Kang: Thank you for having me.

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?

RK: I started kendo in 2003 at age thirty-three. Primarily, I was looking for a physical challenge at the time. Kendo appealed to me because it was a Japanese martial art that ended in “DO” which emphasizes personal growth and self-improvement.

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?

RK: At first, training was physically intensive. For beginners, you need to learn how to sit in seiza, stand in kamae, and walk ashisabaki before you can even begin kendo. As you progress and you master the physical moves, then kendo becomes more mental and emotional. There has not been much change to the training in my kendo dojo or governing federation, the Northern California Kendo Federation (NCKF). Kendo is a martial art that stems from samurai training, and much of the training remains unchanged since kendo became codified after World War II.  

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?

Masami Yamaguchi during a break in a regular practice.

RK: Yamaguchi Sensei was the only sensei at my dojo when I started. He just passed away in February 2021. He remains a very influential person in my life. He had many sayings, but the most profound was “kendo is not about hitting.” 

MAYTT: In 1972 Jiro Sakano and Tadachi Kurasawa cofounded Mountain View Kendo Dojo (MVKD) at the local Buddhist temple. Could you tell me about Sakano’s and Kurasawa’s background and how the school came to be?

RK: This was before my time and no one at the dojo has any memory of Sakano and Kurasawa Senseis. As a dojo, we honor their legacy and know there is an unbroken connection to the origins of kendo training. But I couldn’t speak about them personally, or the history of our dojo. 

MAYTT: I see. How long have you been training at MVKD and from your time there, is there anything specific or remarkable in the dojo’s history that only practitioners there would know of?

RK: I started in 2003 and took two hiatuses over the eighteen years of training, mainly due to concerns about the long-term effects of head strikes. The most remarkable thing about our dojo is Yamaguchi Sensei and his dedication to teaching and promoting kendo. He recently passed away and at the memorial service, many people remarked about his “unique” kendo.

MAYTT: You mention that his contemporaries commented on Yamaguchi’s unique kendo. In your opinion, what made his kendo stand out from other instructors? 

RK:His kendo was always evolving. I recall when I first started kendo that he taught “Ki Ken Tai no Ichi” – “spirit, sword, body as one.” This is the kendo fundamental that the strike, fumikomi, and kiai should coincide. But when he studied videos of tournaments, he noticed that was usually not the case for ippon, so he deviated his teaching to match with what he saw in competition. Over the years, he also changed the way to show zanshin. He also made an effort to be inventive and was always innovating. He came up with his own drills that were not taught at other dojos. I think the total of all of these things made his kendo stand out. 

MAYTT: Most recently, Masami Yamaguchi was the Chief Instructor at the dojo, passing earlier this year. What was he like as a teacher and as a person? In your opinion, how has Yamaguchi impacted kendo’s growth in Northern California?

RK: Yamaguchi Sensei passed away on February 18, 2021. Due to the coronavirus, we have not practiced traditional in-person kendo for over a year. Still, his passing is a devastating loss to our dojo. As a teacher, he was very dedicated. He was a seventh dan. Within the Northern California Kendo Federation, he was highly regarded for his shinpan (referee) knowledge and was one of the highest authorities within the federation.

Yamaguchi’s portrait at his recent funeral.

MAYTT: Who do you feel helped pioneer and spread kendo in the mid to late twentieth century to today in Northern California? What set these individuals apart from their contemporaries?

RK: There are many high-ranking and influential sensei in Northern California, and I feel privileged to learn under each of them. But undoubtedly, our federation was blessed to have Dr. Benjamin Hazard of San Jose State University Kendo Dojo. After World War II, kendo was banned as part of the Japanese terms of surrender. Dr. Hazard served in the United States Army during World War II and became a practitioner of kendo, naginata, and kyudo. He petitioned the US government to allow the resumption of kendo. Without him, kendo may still be banned. Anyone who practices kendo today owes a huge debt of gratitude towards Hazard Sensei. As I said, our federation was extremely fortunate to have him.

MAYTT: I can see why. To many observers, kendo is not as popular as other Japanese martial arts like judo or karate. Why do you think the art is not as popular with most of the population and have there been programs or plans, within both MVKD and the Northern California Kendo Federation (NCKF), to remedy the situation?

RK: Many people decide to learn martial arts for self-defense. Judo and karate have practical self-defense applications. Sword fights are not very common these days and, consequently, there may be a belief that kendo is not a practical martial art.

In addition, kendo is hard, and the rewards do not come easy. There is no instant gratification in kendo and most people are unwilling to put in the time to reap the rewards. Kendo doesn’t compromise or lower its standard. As a result, there will be a smaller following. But our dojo or federation cannot remedy this. Kendo cannot be compromised for a larger following.  

The members of Mountain View Kendo Dojo.

MAYTT: Many schools, manuals, and practitioners emphasize kendo’s purpose for self-betterment, however it utilizes matches and, to a further extent, competition to reach such a goal. In your opinion, how does kendo and its community keep the balance between self-betterment and competition in its training? If kendo becomes competition-centered, how will that change the art; would it be considered kendo at that point?

RK: Just before he passed, Yamaguchi Sensei remarked that kendo tournaments are killing the art. It has reduced the art of the sword into a sport or competition. As my sensei said many times, “kendo is not about hitting.” He also said there is no blocking in kendo. But if you watch a kendo tournament, there is a lot of blocking and hitting. The over emphasis on competition has already changed kendo.

MAYTT: With that being said, what was Yamaguchi’s perspective on kendo, as you mentioned that he was not too happy about tournaments and saw the art as more than hitting each other with sticks? How did he convey his perspective and philosophy to his students and the rest of the NCKF?

RK: This is a paradox of Yamaguchi Sensei. Even more than his outstanding kendo, he was probably more renowned for his competitiveness. He made most local tournaments mandatory for dojo members and he competed in almost every tournament. I found it very ironic that he said too many tournaments were degrading kendo, yet he constantly competed and required it from our dojo members. 

MAYTT: Mountain View Kendo Dojo is experiencing what many people may call a double whammy, with the effects of the global situation and the recent passing of Yamaguchi. What does the future hold for the dojo? How will the dojo continue Yamaguchi’s legacy?

RK: Early on, most kendo students are taught the expression that kendo starts and ends with rei. We begin each kendo practice with three bows (to shomen “front,” sensei, and each other) and end practice with three bows. For us, the bow to shomen is to pay respect to the ones who came before you. There is an unbroken lineage in kendo. We might not know everyone in the lineage, but we do pay homage every practice. Whether future students become knowledgeable about Yamaguchi Sensei, we will teach them what Yamaguchi Sensei taught us and that is how his legacy will live on at Mountain View Kendo Dojo.

While Yamaguchi Sensei’s passing is the first succession since I started training at Mountain View Kendo Dojo, this is not unprecedented. And we will continue the tradition like many before us. However, the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented and may have bigger impacts. We have suspended all kendo practice for over a year, and still do not know when we will be able to return to practice. In addition, we are unsure of how the new Covid-19 protocols will change the way we practice. Will we have to wear masks? Will we have to refrain from kiai? Will tai atari change? There are many more unanswered questions of how we will move forward after Covid. Perhaps, I can help with a follow up story down the road when these changes are realized. 🙂 

MAYTT: Absolutely. 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 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?

RK: I think kendo will eventually rebound after covid-19 but will have to undergo some changes. The coronavirus has forever changed this generation’s behavior and it will also have lasting effects on kendo. Kiai can spread saliva, so we may have to wear masks when we return to in-person training. Because kendo is so difficult, the people who practice are committed and dedicated to the art so it will rebound but there will be changes.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking part in this interview. We hope the future of MVKD is bright.

RK: Thank you for having me and your kind words.

The program for Yamaguchi’s virtual memorial service.

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