Interview with Longtime Kenshi Cary Mizobe: Kendo and Life, Part I

Cary Mizobe began kendo training later than most, however, his love for the art has remained strong. Starting out at the Torrance Kendo Dojo, he later established his Westside Kendo Dojo in 1987. Today, Mizobe talks about his time training under Chris Mori, Torao Mori’s son, the philosophical side of kendo, and some personal experiences within the art in Southern California. All images provided by Cary Mizobe.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today, Mizobe Sensei!

Cary Mizobe: I am looking forward to your questions! I am always open to disseminate information, especially in regards to kendo.

MAYTT: Before we get into the meat of everything, can you tell us a little bit about the background of the art of kendo?

Cary Mizobe

CM: People’s concept of kendo is different; a lot of them confuse kendo with Kenpo style karate. Kendo is one of the oldest Japanese martial arts, yet it’s probably the least known of the Japanese martial arts. Although, that has been changing because there has been a World Championship that’s been going on for about twenty years now. The World Kendo Championships moves to different venues. One year it might be in Japan; I think the third World Tournament was in Los Angeles, California. I think they’re on the twelfth – it’s been around for quite a while. Nobody can quite beat Japan [Laughs] The United States came close – they came in third place, I think, in one of the tournaments. Japan practices every day. The guys that are in the police department, kendo is part of their physical training.

As I said earlier, it is one of the oldest of the Japanese martial arts. It actually traces its roots back to the time of the samurai warriors. Back in that day, the samurai needed a way to safely train in swordsmanship. In the beginning, they were using live steel blades, kind of like: “Oh! Sorry! I didn’t mean to cut your arm off!” [Laughs] That eventually progressed to the bokuto or the bokken, the solid wood sword, but you still ended up with injuries, broken bones, bruises, and that kind of stuff. All of this eventually led up to the bamboo sword, the shinai, that we use today. The protective body armor that we use today is based on the armor the samurai warriors wore way back in the day.

The target areas in kendo are specific. People who see kendo for the very first time think it’s just a couple of guys whacking and hacking at each other, but there are definite target areas. The head is one of the main target areas, but it’s not just the head; it’s the center of the head, and the right and left side of the head, all at a downward angle. The right wrist, or the kote, is also a main target because cutting the right wrist of a samurai warrior would incapacitate them from using a sword. Lastly, cuts to the side of the body were fatal cuts. There is a method to the supposed madness, as the novice will see when they begin kendo – plus all the yelling and screaming, or kiai as it’s known in the martial arts. There is purpose for that too. In kendo, the kiai is specifically called out for the target that you’re aiming at. If you’re trying to hit the opponent’s head, that would be called men. Men is the Japanese word for mask.

MAYTT: According to the Westside Kendo Dojo website, you began training kendo at the Torrance Kendo Dojo under both George Nakano and Chris Mori, the son of the famous Torao Mori. What initially drew you to taking up kendo and when did you decide to begin your training?

CM: I started relatively late. I started when I was twenty-three. A majority of people who start kendo is mostly because their parents say to them, “you’re going to kendo.” “But I don’t wanna!” [Laughs] Those students are normally eight years old.

For me, prior to doing kendo, I was doing judo. I had typical Japanese American parents that told me that I need to do something to keep myself out of trouble. My younger brother and I went into judo at the Japanese Community Center, which wasn’t that far from us at the time. But I wanted to do karate, but my dad kept telling me that I was too young, though I was just starting high school at the time.

Using my favorite judo throw, which is tai otoshi – a throw where you use your leg – I got my leg halfway over to where it’s supposed to go, and it slipped on the mat. My partner, who was falling from the throw, came down on my extended leg. I have never felt that kind of pain in my entire life. After practice, my dad told me to get in the car and let’s go home – he thought nothing of it. I told him over and over again that I couldn’t walk, and I was in so much pain. My dad thought I was just making excuses, “Quit complaining and I’ll meet you in the car!” I literally could not walk. I soon found out that I tore some ligament and ruptured cartilage in my right knee.

When I got home, I told my dad that I needed an ice pack, continuing to tell him and mother how bad the pain was. The next day, my knee was so blown up that you couldn’t tell it was a knee. It was really an extended version of my thigh. I My mother took me to the doctor, and he sent me to a specialist. I went to the orthopedic and he immediately said that needed surgery after taking one look at my knee. He barely inspected my knee, and he came to that conclusion and it seemed really premature for such a conclusion. He also said, “If you don’t believe me, you can take these crutches and come back in two or three days.” I hobbled from class to class for the next few days and when I went back to the specialist, he said the same conclusion: surgery. The swelling had not gone down. So, I wound up going to the hospital and got the surgery.

I couldn’t do judo anymore and I tried going back to karate, but I threw a front snap kick and my knee locked. So, I couldn’t do karate anymore. I didn’t do anything for a lot of years until I found kendo. I was jogging by the middle school I used to attend, and I saw a friend of mine there. I started talking with him and asked him, “How hard is kendo on a bum knee?” I could see the gears turning in his head about how to answer that question. While he was thinking, I asked if he could take me to his dojo, Gardena Dojo.” Instead, he responded by suggesting I go to Torrance Dojo. We took a trip up there together and I explained my situation to the head instructor and founder. He said, “Don’t do anything that would make you uncomfortable. If you start to feel your knee hurt, stop.” And from there, I kept with kendo until today.

MAYTT: In addition to training at the Torrance Kendo Dojo, you also trained at the West LA Dojo under both Torataro Nakabara and Shunji Asari. How did you see kendo training change and evolve throughout your kendo journey?

CM: Back in the day, kendo, judo, karate, it was all different. When I was doing karate, the teacher was throwing a front punch and I was blocking, and he was telling me that it was “Not enough.” “What do you mean not enough?” I asked back, “Blocked it.” “You think so? Okay, this time, I punch for real, and you block the same way.” Now the little voice in my head is saying “Oh man, what did we do? We should have kept our mouth shut!” So, he threw the punch and I blocked it the same way and I ended up getting hit in the face. Quickly, I said, “Okay Sensei! Point taken! I’m sorry for questioning you!” [Laughs]

That was the same way in judo. If you didn’t throw or have enough follow through on that throw, Sensei would just kind of just wipe the floor up with you. He’d throw you like five times in a row, and, on occasion, would let go and not break your fall. You’d be flying through the air, cursing yourself, then you’d hit the floor and if you didn’t remember to tuck your chin and slam the back of your head, you’d get knocked out – that’s how I got knocked out the first time. Sensei went for this throw. I went this way to counter; Sensei countered my counter and threw me in this throw totally out of left field. Next thing I know, I was waking up to the sight of my feet and the ceiling. Everything happened so fast, I didn’t have time to tuck my chin and I got knocked out. When I came to, the last thing I remember seeing was the ceiling and my feet, and then everything went black; how did I get to the side of the dojo? Turns out, I was dragged to the side of the dojo after I was unconscious. The only thing that sensei told me after was to make sure my chin is tucked the next time. Well, I wasn’t going to forget that [Laughs]

That’s the way I would like to teach kendo, but nowadays, everybody is lawsuit happy and if I clock some teenager or a young kid on the head, I’m sure their parents would take me to court and try to sue me for abusing their kid.

In terms of kendo, it has – I don’t want to say devolved – changed from the time when I first started. When I first started, Chris Sensei taught me the way that his father taught him, which was more old school and strict – you don’t talk back, you don’t criticize. I’m a little more easygoing. I’ve found, over the years, if I’m too strict, especially if it’s a younger student, they don’t want to come back to practice anymore. Rather, I’ll try to make it fun for them. I won’t spend all my time with the other students – I’ll let another black belt work the majority of students while I work with the newer, younger student(s).

MAYTT: I understand where you’re coming from, however, it also helps battle against super abusive instructors. Though, it is getting harder and harder to push students to get better.

CM: Yes. That’s when I get a younger student and the parents bring him or her, I tell the parents that I am not a babysitting service. I expect you to come to half of the practices and stay for the whole practice. They shouldn’t drop their kid off and go home and watch TV and then come back to pick them up an hour and a half later. This is because if the parents are not watching their kids, how do they know their kids are progressing? How do they know if they enjoy it or not? How are they going to get encouragement if the parents don’t even know what they are doing? This also helps the kids to become more attentive at class or understand that isn’t what they want to do. For me, if the parents pull out their kid and they quit, that’s fine with me because I’m not teaching kendo to make money. I’m not like a McDojo where, after Karate Kid, all those dojos began popping up. These schools promote students in, probably, too soon of a time, and that’s why they don’t get better. These professional dojos don’t care if the kid doesn’t get better, that just means the kid will stay there longer and make more money from the parents. That’s why I tell the parents what I tell them, so it’s not a McDojo atmosphere. I want it this way because I’m not getting paid a penny. My late father always thought I was crazy because I’m not making any money teaching kendo. I told him many times that it’s not about the money because that was the way Japanese martial arts used to be back in the day. The sensei of whichever martial art volunteered their time. It’s a different matter if I’m working as a technical advisor on a movie or a TV show, then I charge a lot [Laughs] I’m not going to say that with five hours with the star, I’m going to get paid twenty dollars – that just doesn’t happen.

Mizobe performing tameshigiri at one of the many kendo demonstrations.

MAYTT: Could you tell me a little more about Torao Mori, one of the most famous kenshi on the West Coast? How did he help bring awareness to kendo and further disseminated the art? What, in your opinion, sets him apart from his contemporaries?

CM: At first, I didn’t know who Torao Mori was. The more I learned about Mori Sensei, I was amazed when he came over to the US and there was no kendo to speak of. I will always be grateful for having a sensei tell me about him. As part of my teaching, whenever I have a new student, I always include talking about Mori Sensei. When we used to have regular practices, I used to put Mori Sensei’s picture up on the wall so they could actually see Mori Sensei and could see who I was always talking about.

Mori Sensei passed away in 1969, he was relatively young. He was barely into his sixties, I believe. He didn’t tell anybody at the dojo that he had a heart condition. During kendo practice, he had a heart attack and back then, there were no such things as a paramedic. Everybody there just loaded him into somebody’s car and drove him to the hospital. If there were such a thing as a paramedic at that time, somebody could have come out and could have started doing therapy or whatever they needed to do, and he might have survived.

The other interesting thing is when Mori Sensei first came out to the United States, there wasn’t any kendo to speak of. He was already well known in Japan. He wanted to do something that was sword related, but what did was take up Western style or European style fencing. In trying to choose what he wanted to do – epee, foil, or saber – he picked the saber because it wasn’t just poking and thrusting, it was cutting. If you ever seen a fencing saber, the blade is actually triangular shaped. The saber was the closest thing he could actually get to do something kendo related. As he progressed, he started combining fencing techniques into kendo techniques. His way of parrying a strike to the kote, before it was a big move – you would physically move both your hands and bamboo sword trying to knock your opponent’s shinai out of the way. But Mori Sensei, in fencing, a block is just a turn of the wrist. That’s the way he would teach his students.

He was such a prominent Western-style fencer that he actually taught fencing to actors like Errol Flynn and the others in Hollywood who had Three Musketeers-type of films. He had a fencing academy that specialized in teaching fencing. I had a friend from Idaho who took fencing down here in California before he moved and had a foil from Mori Sensei’s fencing company. I’m actually holding it in my hand right now as we speak. After I drove him back to his home, he gave the foil to me. I tried to persuade him to keep it because it was Mori Sensei’s – it’s something special. My friend weas really adamant about having me accept it as a gift. That foil is one of treasures from that time period, even though I never took up Western fencing.

MAYTT: That is really cool that you have a piece of history with you like that. Torao Mori was also an avid European fencer. From your observations, how did he combine the different aspects of kendo and European fencing into his own style? To the trained eye, would one see some European fencing in his kendo and some kendo in his European fencing?

CM: I remember when I started in kendo and I finally got into armor, one of my higher ups said that we were going to practice at another dojo to get some extra practice – I didn’t know you could do that, go and visit another kendo dojo and actually be allowed to practice. I was practicing with a very high-ranking instructor there, which I didn’t know he was at the time, and he attacked my kote. I really don’t remember how I did it, but I parried his strike. He stopped the practice and I thought I did something wrong. He’s just looking at me and I’m thinking to myself, “Ok…what did I do?” Finally, he asks where I learned how to do that. I asked if I did the parry wrong, but he said that I wasn’t wrong and that was the way Mori Sensei used to parry a kote strike. I told him that his son, Chris, was one of my instructors. It finally made sense to this high-ranking instructor. He then tells me to never forget how to do that move, “When you become an instructor, you teach that to your students. That way, Mori Sensei’s spirit will always be alive.” This was the first time I had ever put on armor and all of a sudden, I’ve inherited this mission and I have no idea what I’m doing with the shinai! [Laughs] At this time, I didn’t even know how to put on my armor. Chris Sensei had to help me put it on and tie it for me, saying to myself, “I’m not going to remember how to tie this armor up again the next time.”

MAYTT: Speaking of the Mori family, could you tell me more about Torao’s son, Chris. What was he like as an instructor?

CM: Chris Sensei had started kendo when he was a kid, as did many Japanese Americans. He was pretty tough on me as an instructor. He was more old school like how his father taught kendo – he would show you how to do it, but never really explain to you how to do it. If you didn’t pick up on whatever he was showing, like parrying a strike to the wrist, he would just pound you. That whole mentality rubbed off on Chris Sensei and he would be pretty rough on me. I remember this one time he knocked me down once and kept baiting me with, “You wanna quit!? Then quit! Get up!” Those sorts of baits. He was also kicking me while I was getting back up off the floor. Eventually, as I stuck with the art and when I got into the armor, he said to me, “You know what? I’m proud of you because I didn’t think you were going to last. Kendo’s one of the toughest Japanese martial arts. People want to start kendo because they think they are going to wear the cool armor on day one. No. You gotta do footwork.” I was grateful to hear those words.

Mizobe on the cover of Black Belt Magazine (right).

MAYTT: Chris also ceased kendo training when George Nakano continued pursuing his political career as a Californian State Assemblyman. Was this the main reason for Chris to stop training altogether or were there other reasons that prompted his end of kendo training?

CM: I was very fortunate in regard to Chris. Unfortunately, Chris stopped doing kendo; I’m not sure if it was because everybody was comparing him to his father. To this day, I still see him once a month. A friend of mine got tired of seeing his friends at weddings and funerals, so he started a breakfast club. We all get together at this one restaurant for breakfast, and it started off with a dozen guys, then it started growing. I think the last time we had our monthly breakfast, we had something like forty guys. It’s called the Buddha Head Breakfast Club. We take up the whole main room of the restaurant that we go to. Every time I see Chris, I always ask him to come back to kendo, even though I know it’s mission impossible. I tell him that he has stuff to teach, and people would be willing to pay to learn those things from him and his father. I really think he got tired being compared to his father.

MAYTT: While at West LA Dojo, you assumed the role of both assistant head instructor and head instructor, starting in 1987. How did your perspective of kendo change, if at all, when you began teaching students more regularly? Were there old habits you had to break or change and new ones to include to your training/teaching routine?

CM: In kendo specifically, just because you get your first-degree black belt doesn’t qualify you to teach. In kendo, you’re not considered an instructor until you’re a fourth-degree black belt. At the third-degree black belt level, you’re considered an assistant instructor, and you can help teach, but you’re not going to students, “Alright guys. All of you come over here and I’m going to teach you this!” No, you’re there to help the main sensei that’s teaching there, especially if there is a big membership in the dojo, because Sensei can’t be there with everybody all the time. When I became sensei rank, that was one of the things I committed myself to. I wanted to spend time with each student, as much as I can. And I know it’s not always possible, especially if you have a large dojo membership, but I will spend that time helping students, whether it’s on their footwork and the grip on the shinai. I try to make it interesting for the students, so they don’t lose interest.

That’s another reason I tell the parents that I’m not a babysitting service and their kids should come to at least half of the practices. Having the parents coming to watch classes also helps the students practice on their off time, when they’re at home, so their kids aren’t waiting for practice to happen once or twice a week to get to the dojo. Everybody forgets about that aspect of training. That is why there is so much repetition in all of the martial arts. You don’t throw a reverse punch once and that’s it. No, you do it over and over and over again until it becomes muscle memory. Thinking takes time. Even if it’s a fraction of a second, it takes time. Thinking about what kind of stance or the footwork takes up time and that’s enough time for your opponent in whatever martial art you train in to score the point on you. I always tell the parents that there is a lot their child can gain from any martial art, like the spirit of not giving up, of not quitting, and of trying to do your best – this is not just at the dojo, but in school too.

Also, I tell the parents to let me know what’s going on with their child in school. If their grades start to drop, I want them to tell me because they’re not coming to practice. I don’t care how much they love doing kendo, karate, or whatever martial art, they don’t need to be here because schoolwork and education are the most important things.

I’ve had students stop practicing and gone on to go to college and elsewhere – some of those students actually come back and take up kendo again. Others might stop by the dojo just to say hello. I’ve had students come to visit after they’ve quit for years and actually thanked me for what I taught them because they used the lessons in college, in work, and their life. There’s only two times where you stop doing anything: when you quit and when you die. That’s what Chris told me when he was still teaching. He kept goading me about quitting when it got too hard, especially when I was having trouble learning to block.

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