Interview with Longtime Kenshi Bryan Imanishi: Kendo Training and Cascade Kendo Kai

Bryan Imanishi of Cascade Kendo Kai feels like he was born into kendo, starting his training at the age of eight. With most of his family participating in the art, to him, it felt like the right thing to do. Today, Imanishi discusses his kendo journey, from childhood to adulthood, some history of the Cascade Kendo Kai, and practicing kendo in a COVD-19 society. All images provided by Bryan Imanishi and David Carroll Photography.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Bryan Sensei! We are excited to have you here!

Bryan Imanishi: Thank you having me and for taking interest in my family’s kendo activities!

MAYTT: When did you first begin training in kendo? Were there specific aspects of the art you found intriguing compared to other martial arts? Did the presence of family members participating in kendo sway your decision?

Bryan Imanishi (left), his father, Gary (center), and his sister, Taryn (right) at the Kendo Nationals at Las Vegas in 2010.

BI: I took my first class when I was eight and a half years-old but growing up seeing and hearing kendo because of my dad’s training, I would say my training started even earlier. I actually thought karate was cooler, but my dad was the sensei of our dojo; I always felt that I was born into kendo although I think my parents gave me the choice to do karate. I was an introvert and too scared to try something outside my living room emulating the Ninja Turtles, so I never went to a karate class. My relatives, including my dad’s brother, cousins, uncle, and grandfather didn’t have anything to do with my decision to start kendo. I think I was open to going because it was normal to see my dad go all the time. I also grew up with a rolled-up newspaper placed in my hands for make believe samurai duels with my uncle. I graduated into a plastic sword and then shinai.

MAYTT: What was the American perception of kendo at the time you began training? Was there a sense of mysticism much like the empty hand martial arts like karate or judo?

BI: From an eight-and-a-half-year-old’s perspective, all I know was that when other kids found out I do a martial art they demanded that I show them a “move.” I got tired of telling them that I don’t do that stuff and them thinking I’m lame for backing out. 

MAYTT: From talking to many kenshi, they all mention that training is hard and intense. What was the training like when you started? How has kendo training changed since you began?

BI: How do I measure what’s hard and intense as an eight and half year-old in kendo? Well, the things that made me cry could be one. I remember their names, too. There was Mr. Suzuki from Japan. He was here for work; I think he was a researcher. He might’ve been researching effective ways to break children’s bones because he hit so hard! [Laughs] I just remember my head and my elbow needing some TLC after keiko with him. And then there was Hasanuma Sensei, also here for work from Japan. He laid down the straight Japanese style keiko. He brought the pain. Kakarigeiko was like his middle name and as children, when you don’t zanshin through your cuts fast enough, you’d better believe you’re going to feel his shinai on the small of your back folding you backwards, picking you up like a French crepe and flinging you across the floor. I tell you what, the community center should have paid that man for his janitorial services. He mopped the gym with my body and a bucket of my tears. I don’t know if he did that to the other kids; I couldn’t see past my swollen eyes. You can find him on many YouTube videos of the All Japan Kendo Championships as a court administrator. When I see him, I sometimes wonder what keiko would be like with him today. Secretly, I’m too afraid to find out.

Today, we can’t do any of that without the fear of being sued, although some parents of a certain ethnic background have encouraged me to build up their child’s resiliency through similar training. The next generation will be softer than me. And skilled, but not strong.

MAYTT: That is a more intense and grueling training session than anyone as mentioned before! Throughout your years of training, what was the most memorable or most influential lesson that impacted your kendo? Who was the most instrumental in your training from a “sensei” perspective?

BI: Most memorable lesson; it’s not a lesson but a feeling. There is strength, honor, respect, perseverance, gratitude, generosity, mercy, and righteousness that I felt from many sensei. They influenced my positive actions.

The senpai, or the older students, of Cascade Kendo Kai. Courtesy of David Carroll Photography.

Most instrumental in my training: Paul Hiromi Kurose Sensei was like seventy or eighty years old when he was my sensei and he brought kata to life for me. He made it part of my winning recipe. I thought kata was so boring, but I have to give him credit. Now I love to teach waza.

MAYTT: The Imanishi kendo legacy begins with your great-grandfather, Umajiro Imanishi, who was one of the early members of the Seattle Kendo Kai in the late 1920/early 1930s. Could you tell me more about him and his impact on kendo’s growth in both the Seattle area and the Pacific Northwest?

BI: I don’t know a lot about him except for his character, based on stories I hear from my dad and some World War II veterans who did kendo with him before the war. My dad and relative Doug Imanishi of Seattle Dojo would know more. Even Tom Bolling Sensei, I think. From what I’ve heard is that basically I wouldn’t survive keiko under him. He was a soldier in the Japanese Imperial army. Super strict. I don’t think smiling was allowed in the dojo. Might’ve been illegal. [Laughs]

MAYTT: You also have a father, Gary Imanishi, that continues to teach in the art. What was it like training under him and how did he further the Imanishi’s kendo legacy?

BI: I hated when he always said, “One more (strike). One more. One more.” I was like nine years-old during these keiko with him, kind of fat and really tired. I always thought, “You broke your promise! You said one more like twenty times!” He tried to make kendo fun for Garrett, Travis, Devan, and the other kids and me. It was frustrating to do kendo under him and teaching with him because we didn’t see eye to eye on methods. I shouldn’t have been so opinionated because he was the sensei, but he’s also my dad, so we butt heads. He must have done something right though, because my sister and brother-in-law do kendo too. My baby sister did, and she would’ve been the best of all of us. He passed down kendo well to us, I think. I’ll give him credit for that.

MAYTT: I know the feeling. Outside of your family, who do you feel was most influential in disseminating kendo in the Seattle area and Pacific Northwest?

BI: In terms of numbers and demographically, the Marsten family made kendo accessible to a lot of people in different parts of the region.

A chaotic kendo class at Cascade Kendo Kai. Courtesy of David Carroll Photography.

MAYTT: When did you assume leadership of Cascade Kendo Kai? Could you tell me about that experience and how did that experience change your perspective on kendo, if it did at all?

BI: In 2015, I moved back from Los Angeles and re-established a presence at my home dojo. There were a lot of new faces. By 2017, I took on the majority of teaching and setting the next generation’s tone for CKK. In the pre-COVID times, we had more than fifty members. My sister, Taryn, and brother-in-law, Jake, were huge in keeping the dojo together and advancing us. My perspective wasn’t changed because I’d often been in leadership within the dojo, just now I could do my thing, run it very close to what I want. I’m still working on that today, considering how to create a program for our seniors, recreational, and competitive members.

MAYTT: 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?

BI: I don’t know. We have lots of strong and beautiful ladies at Cascade. I don’t have that problem. [Laughs] Kind of kidding, kind of not. Kendo has been male dominant since the beginning. Perhaps the idea of self-defense is more marketable to women in empty hand martial arts. I’ve never seen a handbag large enough for a shinai.

MAYTT: In America, there are a plethora of empty hand martial arts schools, ranging from taekwondo and judo, to karate and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. How has kendo managed to maintain its presence in the country? Why do you think the art is not as popular compared to other martial arts in America?

BI: The families and individuals in Japanese and Korean communities who value the idea of what we teach keep us going, as well as folks interested in Japanese culture. There’s a good number of members who’ve seen kendo in a drama, anime, or versions of it through movies like Star Wars that give membership a temporary boost, but our membership has been sustained mostly by recent immigrants from Korea, Japan, recent college grads who started kendo in university looking for a home dojo, and general interest from the local population. As a city recreation program, we get good exposure through the catalogs the city produces.

Why isn’t kendo as popular? Kendo isn’t for profit. Most of us sensei don’t do it for money, so we don’t have an incentive to grow membership and market the art. It’s also not as prominent in media. If Cobra Kai were a kendo Netflix series, we’d be getting somewhere.

MAYTT: I can see how those two factors would be crucial to spreading a martial art. 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?

BI: I haven’t seriously practiced either art so I shouldn’t answer this question.

Bryan (front, center) with some Cascade Kendo Kai students.

MAYTT: Given the recent effects of COVID-19 on martial art schools, how do you see Cascade Kendo Kai and other kendo clubs reemerging from this pandemic? How do you think kendo will survive if such effects and current precautions continue?

BI: Kendo has taught me to find and create opportunities in any situation. There’s an opportunity now to use virtual lessons to complement in-person training. Fundamentals and the waza can be refined in a virtual group setting. Taking mastery of the body from practice in that format into in-person practice I think will improve the quality of kendo and the execution of waza in shiai. I’ve seen the extremely positive effect in my members now who’ve been consistent at practice.

MAYTT: Final question. With your many years of training and teaching kendo, what advice would you give to someone wanting to start a school today?

BI: Follow the purpose of kendo and do you

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

BI: It was a pleasure!

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