Interview with Kenshi Steven Timbrook: Starting a Bit Later

Beginning his kendo journey at the age of fifty-seven, Steven Timbrook enrolled at Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo, studying under Mikio Hattanda. Today, Timbrook discusses his kendo journey. All images supplied by Steven Timbrook.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Timbrook Sensei! Thank you for joining us!

Steven Timbrook: 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?

ST: I began training in kendo at Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo (SBKD) in 1996 at age fifty-seven. I was drawn to kendo as a martial art because it was not focused on self-defense but rather on a self-improvement discipline. I still find that same motivation and as a result have been more interested in the historical aspects of kendo rather in competition that seems to be the stronger focus currently.

MAYTT: That’s amazing! Did you have any prior experience in martial arts before starting kendo? If so, how did that training assist you in the beginning of your kendo journey?

ST: No.

MAYTT: At what time in your training did you begin to focus on the historical aspects of the art? How has that historical knowledge aided you in better understanding kendo?

ST: I was interested in the historical roots of kendo from the beginning of my practice. I did a lot of reading such as Looking at a Far Mountain, This is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing, and others.

MAYTT: You mentioned previously that competition is not a major motivating factor for you and your training. What is your opinion on competition in kendo? Is there a need for it if the art’s focus is self-improvement?

ST: Early in my kendo, I entered several Southern California Kendo Federation tournaments in Senior Divisions 50-60 and then 60+. I took second place twice, but there were not many entered in those divisions. I think some competition is worthwhile, especially early in one’s kendo training so that one moves out of the relative comfort zone of his or her own dojo.

Mikio Hattanda Sensei, seventh dan and a Busen graduate, was my sensei for seventeen years. He felt that the judging in kendo was moving away from the strong kendo basics that he expected his students to strive for. As an example, he expected a lot of his own kendo. He said it had been several years since he had made a men strike that he was happy with. I can only recall one time in seventeen years that he told me, “Nice kote.” He wasn’t critical if I was trying hard, but he expected me to keep a strong focus on correct form.

MAYTT: I can see how that would keep you focused on correct form. With more than twenty years of training in kendo, what aspect of the art draws people in the most: competition or self-improvement?

ST: In my dojo, it is self-improvement, but that is because we have a small dojo, usually only seven to ten people at a practice, and all are adults. Our youngest are from one to three college or university students. We have one person in each ten-year age category (thirty to forty, forty to fifty, fifty to sixty, seventy to eighty and me at eighty-two. So, competition is not the motivating factor for most of us.

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?

ST: When I began training, SBKD had two senior sensei. Masaharu Shimoda Sensei eighth dan was on Team USA for the Second World Kendo Championship held in Los Angeles in 1973. He passed away in 1999, so I only had the benefit of three years of his instruction. Mikio Hattanda Sensei seventh dan began kendo at age five in Japan. He was a graduate of Busen in Kyoto. He passed away in 2012, so I had the privilege of nearly seventeen years of his very strong, traditional kendo instruction.

The three instructors of Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo-July 2017. L-R Steven Timbrook 4 Dan, Head Instructor Howard Babus 4 Dan, Tadao Hashimoto 4 Dan.

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 Southern 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?

ST: I think that kendo will remain strong in regions with large federations, such as southern and northern California, the Seattle region, and large population centers along the Atlantic coast. Many are holding Zoom suburi and other practices remotely. I think it will likely be late 2021 or maybe even 2022 before most dojo are practicing in person. A lot depends upon vaccination rates.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us about your kendo journey!

ST: It was my pleasure.

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