Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone: A Sone Kendo History in Hawaii Part I

Like many American Japanese in Hawaii – as Michael Sone terms many like him – Sone began his kendo training at an early age under his grandfather, Tetsunosuke Sone. Under him, he learned traditional kendo, emphasizing on the virtues one’s character through the use of the sword. Now leading the Mitsune Dojo, Sone took some time to discuss some aspects of Hawaiian kendo, such as his grandfather, Arnold Fukutomi, and the future of kendo. All images provided by Michael Sone. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Sone Sensei! We are glad to have you here!

Michael Sone: Thank you; I am glad to be here as well!

MAYTT: When did you first begin training kendo? Was there an aspect you enjoyed that made you keep coming back to practices and does that aspect still motivate you today to train?

Michael Sone with his wife, Phyllis (standing right), and his two daughters, Niki (kneeling left), and Shelia (kneeling right)

MS: I first started kendo at the age of five. In the beginning, I practiced with my grandfather, just a few basic things, as my grandfather thought that I should be exposed at a young age. This happened from the age of five to ten years old. This included what is known today as Bokuto Ni Yoru Kendo Kihon-Waza Keiko-Ho. Many in kendo feel this is a new addition to modern kendo, but it is old. My grandfather’s chu tou bokuto was what he used to practice with. The chu tou is a shortened wooden sword meant for kids. In middle school, I begged my father to teach me kendo with full armor on; the seed of kendo that my grandfather planted had begun to sprout. I found that it wasn’t as easy as I thought because I could now put on the bogu or armor. I now could get hit, resulting in some bumps on the head which hurt. Kakari geiko, attack practice, was fun. It, however, scared a lot of my friends away. Uchikomi geiko, guided striking practice, looked a little more reasonable, but my friend still refused to get in on the fun. I would have a match or two with my dad, always winning in the end after I showed enough fighting spirit. My little brother had joined in for a while, but soon quit preferring something less aggressive. I didn’t want to disappoint my father, so I always practiced out of duty. Sometimes, he wouldn’t teach but just watched. He would get a cup of coffee and sit down and say, “Give me one thousand suburi,” which is swinging the sword overhead and jumping back and forth. This took up all the practice time. “You must become one with the sword,” he would say. The same repetitive routine involved shadow practice. In this COVID-19 environment, these solitary practices are invaluable to polish one’s techniques.

I didn’t have any real kendo training in the Butokukai dojo because it was disbanded in 1957 due bushido being unpopular after World War II. Martial arts and bushido moved to Sumo on Maui and kendo was sidelined. Maui’s Sumo produced “Takamiyama Daigoro,” Jesse James Kuhaulua, who became Sekiwake or junior champion. Takamiyama was able to open a stable and train some of Hawaii’s big boys, the top of which became Akebono, Grand Champion Yokozuna. During that period, I was training at home and spent a short time in Oahu training with Dr. Noboru Akagi seventh dan kyoshi, but at the time was fourth dan. Practice with Dr. Akagi Sensei was interesting in that he recognized how would strike his do, or body, as Chiba style, Hokushin Itto-ryu. There, I also saw two young middle school boys practice at a very high level of kendo. It was the late Arnold Fukutomi first dan at the time, later seventh dan kyoshi, who would become Hawaii’s greatest local born kenshi. You can find more information on him here.

Presently, I love kendo for its stability and unchanging way. My career in IT and telecommunications found it true that every eighteen months or so change or obsolescence would occur. Kendo in that light seemed changeless.

MAYTT: When you first began, what was the training like; was it hard and heavy or was it a more balanced training regimen? How have you seen kendo training change/evolve since then and, if so, is it for the better?

MS: The training was much like today but a little tougher. The kenshi who left the kendo dojo were used to the really hard training of kendo and passed it on to Sumo. There have been changes on how realistically the cuts and strikes were made in kendo from back then. This was done in order to prevent injury. Now only the form of a fatal cut is shown, not the real pressure.  In the old tradition, a small bow and the comment like, “Thank you for showing me my weakness; if that was a real sword, I would be dead,” would be done. The true attitude of budo has been lost in scoring the point. Today, I have only experienced this attitude from hanshi eighth dan that I practiced with. 

One of the early classes held at the Mitsune Kendo Dojo.

Yes, I have seen the changes in kendo. In kata, the pre-rehearsed forms have some changes. One in particular was changed when a young student lost his eve to a careless student stepping forward too soon and stabbing him in the eye. An additional step was added to prevent it happening again. Modern kendo has also reached back to an earlier time and brought back some of the old forms. The Bokuto Ni Yoru Kendo Kihon-Waza Keiko-Ho was brought back in nearly perfect form. During my grandfather’s time, it was used to train the young boys but now it is used for beginners.

MAYTT: 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?

MS: My grandfather set the stage for us. He wanted to pass on the values and virtues of our samurai heritage and kendo was a good way. He would say to me, “Anyone who truly practiced kendo is not ordinary!” I asked my wife and daughters who hold first dan and second dan respectively if kendo had made any difference in their life. “Yes!” they said immediately. “If it wasn’t for kendo, we wouldn’t have taken up the challenges that have brought us our successes.”  My wife said because of kendo’s attributes she as a teacher went way out on the limb to high technology and robotics in Kamehameha’s schools. My daughters challenged and received positions at Hawaiian Airlines as flight attendant and a pilot flying the big heavy AirBus 380 as captain. In their job interviews, mentioning kendo helped them score high marks which allowed them to overcome thousands of other applicants. Their kendo was interesting in that they took to kendo like a duck to water. I never need to correct their kendo. It was as if they had mysteriously been trained before. Scientists call this genomic imprinting which I believe is common in athletics. My dad, Masao, was never tested but in my opinion, he was a renshi of the top rank ability. He had attained top position in government and many of his contemporaries in kendo also achieved high positions.

In the 1937 picture of the Butokukai, is a tall man in the last row, his name is Ralph Kiyosaki PHD and former head of the Department of Education in Hawaii.  He is also Poor Dad of the son’s Robert’s book Rich Dad Poor Dad. My grandfather said that Takaharu Naito sensei told him and Mochida before they left that they would never get rich through martial arts. My grandfather joined up for the Russo-Japanese War and Moriji Mochida I believe, was sent to Korea. He must have taught kendo over there because I can see so much of his style in modern kumdo, but I don’t think anyone in Korea would admit it. Returning to Japan, he joined the Kodansha Noma Dojo and was given a stipend and helped develop new kendo players like the famous Torao Mori, who is pictured in the 1937 Butokukai photo, middle row fifth from the left. He had only one year of practice to prepare for the challenge of western fencing competition. In his visit to Maui, he won second place finish in western fencing at the Pan-American Games. Practicing with the Maui group, Torao said that the renshi were as good as anywhere in Japan. He must have been sincere because my father must have taught me correct kendo, because I was his student and the Hawaii Kendo Federation allowed me to be a sensei of my dojo without any ranking, thanks to Arnold Fukutomi. When I was finally convinced to be tested, the Hawaii Kendo Federation permitted me to skip rank and test to shodan, or first dan, which I passed, then skip again to test to fourth dan, which I also passed. I thought to myself that, indeed, my father and grandfather had the real thing, none of it was fake.

Maui Butokukai 1937. The occasion was the visit by Torao Mori to Michael Sone’s grandfather’s dojo.

My grandfather also shared some of Mochida’s secrets with me, I’ll share one. In training with Mochida, my grandfather would attack, testing Mochida’s defenses and found him nearly impenetrable. Asking him how he had acquired such ability, Mochida explained that it was his father’s special training. When training in fundamentals, large movements are used to develop correct form but after a while his father would teach an abbreviated style. He did this by tying Mochida’s hands with the cords of his hakama so his hand couldn’t be raised above his head, then attack him while he had to defend using smaller movements. The cords were shortened a little at a time until he was using a minimum of motion. This gave Mochida the speedy response time and impenetrable defense. In offence, the training resulted in a very fast attack because the movement was abbreviated. I think that this kind of training is frowned upon by many sensei who don’t understand it, so I generally have kept it to myself.

Through the generations in my family that go as far back as the 1200s or Heian era, gidai, the sword was a practical weapon and symbol of rank and status. My family’s first generation, Bizen Kagemitsu, dates to the Kamakura around the 1330s. My family’s daisho or long and short swords, go back to 1590s the Momoyama era, or just before Tokugawa Ieyesu became Shogun in the Edo period. During this period, the old school style of my family was Shin Kage Ryu. 

MAYTT: That is amazing! Your grandfather, Tetsunosuke Sone, arrived in Hawaii in 1907. Could you tell me more about him, his kendo background, and how he helped spread kendo before the Second World War?

MS: He arrived in Maui, Hawaii after serving in the Russo-Japanese War and saw battle, but never used the sword. My grandfather, Tetsunosuke, was brought up in a samurai home. Having samurai blood, he was privileged to attend a middle and high school for those who had samurai blood. There, he learned kendo from some of Japan’s best sensei; in high school Takano Sasaburo was the senior instructor. When he graduated, he held the rank of nidan in kendo, judo, and kyudo. Around his graduation year, Takano Sasaburo organized a high school tournament for the northern half of Japan which was held in Tokyo. His team took first place, and Tetsunosuke took second place. There, he was told by Takano Sensei that his kendo was good enough to get a job as a policeman in Tokyo and promptly wrote a recommendation for him. At Tokyo’s metropolitan police, he found himself being trained by one of Japan’s greatest kendo sensei, Takaharu Naito. There, his kendo was transformed to Naito’s Hokushin Itto-ryu or NorthStar One Sword style. Training with Japan’s future tenth dan, Moriji Mochida, who was also Hokushin style, he became a disciple of the style. Naito Sensei, a superb teacher, seemed to have eyes in the back of his head. He could hear the mistakes of students while looking the other way by just the rhythm of practice, which was being led by Mochida. The Nihon Kendo Kata was being developed under Naito at the time, which was later adopted for use worldwide even to this day. It was because of this that he got to know of some of Japan’s great sensei of the old schools who were contributing to the development of Nihon Kendo Kata. Naito exclaimed these long dead founding sensei of the koryu will remain teaching their old schools most famous techniques through the forms persevered in their styles and then propagated into the Nihon Kendo Kata. The kata also helped to fulfill Emperor Meiji’s request to unify the old schools through kendo’s practice.

The three roots of Mitsune Kendo Dojo: Masao Sone (left), Michael Sone (center), and Tetsunosuke Sone (right).

Samurai families kept their traditions alive through kendo while those without this heritage desired to participate in the glamor seen on the big screen. Even to this day, movies like The Last Samurai produced a growth in interest in kendo. But in my family, a more secretive side in the art was practiced through the generations. Let me tell you about it. 

One day when I was thirteen, my father and I visited my grandfather at his country farm, I commented about kendo, “What good is kendo anyway?” I exclaimed. “For hand-to-hand, you taught me jujutsu and I am practicing Shotokan Karate. Nobody carries swords anymore.”  “Humm,” my grandfather chuckles. “It is time,” glancing and nodding to my father. My grandfather then asked me, “Where is your big knife, your sword?” I guessed that meant my machete. I brought it to him and followed him to his sharpening stone. I had my file, so I offered it to him, he said, “No good,” and started sharpening on the stone as if it was an expensive knife.  My father walked up to me and said, “Let’s go for a walk down to the lower clearing.” I agreed and followed him to the clearing where he picked up a stick the same length as my machete and started checking its balance and weight. Then he told me to go test my sword on some of the saplings on the other side of the clearing. I thought to myself, “Why is he calling my machete a sword?” I struck a few down low as if I was expanding the clearing. I thought to myself, “Wow, my grandfather sure made my machete sharp.” My father said, “Not those; go try that one over there.” It was a big one standing well over fifteen feet and about three or four inches in diameter.  “We should have brought the chain saw if they’re going to be this big,” I thought to myself. I then took a very strong stroke and stuck my machete deeply into the tree. Seeing this, my father told me to stand and face him about ten paces apart. I took my position and faced him. He said, “You have one cut and make it good.” I wondered, “What was this one cut thing?”  “Take your sword and kiru, kill me!” He stood in chudan hanmi no kamae, a sideways middle position. His face was dead serious, and his presence was as Fudo the immovable.

I took a step forward and hoped it would only be practice or something not so serious, but he remained absolutely stone cold, he was deadly serious. Duty, courage, honour, and the benevolent love being exchanged between us as I took a few more steps. I must do this right, I began to swing my machete in a figure eight pattern in front of me hoping for an opening, but he held his kamae, his stance, and I continued. Then I approached irimi engagement, the one step distance, and swung my machete back behind me in waki no kamae, hidden sword position. His stick’s tip pointed down a bit following my machete in typical saki kage or tip shadowing and now I had an opening. I took a leap with my right foot and swung my machete over my head and aimed at the top of my father’s head and then he disappeared. I remember feeling the press of his stick on the back of my neck, then next thing I knew I was face down in the grass. If that was a real sword, I would have been beheaded. He had used the suriage, or upward sliding parry, of the short sword number two form of the Nihon Kendo Kata but drove me into the ground to keep me from hurting myself and maybe driving the point of exercise into my heart. After I got up, I asked my dad if he had done this with grandfather, he said yes but that he had used a katana and my grandfather used a bokuto or wooden sword. I had found the real meaning of the soul of the samurai. He also said it went back through the generations in our family. I suspect that this tradition found it’s beginning in the family’s practice of Shin Kage Ryu.

Back at the house, I was lectured by my grandfather, he said, “The sword is the most obsolete weapon but contains the virtues that will never be obsolete. Anyone who practices kendo is not an ordinary person because of this.” I asked if he could describe a family member who was not ordinary and he thought back to his grandfather Gonzaemon, he was the last to wear the two swords and the topknot of the samurai, both of which I possess. He remembered back to his childhood being walked over to school one day when two large dogs ran in front of them and began a fierce fight. This was terrifying to my grandfather, who was a child at the time, Gonzaemon gave a loud kiai shout and the dogs yelped and ran away, crying in opposite directions in absolute fear. He said he never looked at his grandfather as ordinary after that. In modern kendo, the kiai is still held up as very important. In closing, my grandfather explained a bit of samurai philosophy, he said, “The greatest ships in the sea will navigate their future by a rudder held strongly in the past. Kendo is that strong place, navigate well.”

This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

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