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

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.

MAYTT: In 1999, you founded your current school: Westside Kendo Dojo. What prompted you to strike it out on your own and establish your own school? Did you feel that something was missing from the kendo in the area that only you could bridge that gap?

Cary Mizobe

CM: When I started kendo, I was at Torrance dojo – that’s where I met Mori Sensei’s son, because he was a member there. After a while, Nakano Sensei, who started Torrance dojo, started getting involved in city politics, running for city councilman. Then he stopped coming because he was getting busy. Eventually Chris Sensei quit coming. Afterwards, I left the dojo – it was a much smaller dojo when I started, with only a dozen people at the time. At this time, I was going to West LA because I had a relationship with the instructor there. I wound up joining West LA when Nakano Sensei stopped coming and Chris Sensei quit kendo. Eventually, I became the head instructor there. There was a guy from Japan who joined the dojo. He outranked me and kept telling me that I should only teach Japanese people. We had all different kinds of ethnicities in the dojo. I told him, “If I refuse to teach somebody, they can take me to court and sue me. I’m going to teach whoever walks through the door; if they’re interested in learning, I’m going to teach them.” Well, this sensei from Japan apparently didn’t like that. He made it his mission in life to make my life at West LA miserable. He would critique me in front of all the other students – yes, he outranked me, and maybe I need to improve on these aspects, but I didn’t need him criticizing me in front of everybody. A few months went by and I showed up at the dojo to practice and he told me, “We took a vote, and you are no longer head instructor. In fact, you’re no longer a member of this dojo. Get out.” Who took the vote? Who voted to kick me out of the dojo? He answered my questions with a shove and commanded me to get out of the dojo. At that point, I was going to kick his ass; I was cocked, and locked and ready to go at him then and there. One of my students grabbed me from behind and put me in a rear bear hug. I shouted to let me go but the student kept telling me that it wasn’t worth it and led me out of the dojo. That’s what led me to start Westside. I told myself that I was going to teach whoever wants to learn; I don’t care if they’re white, black, brown, purple, polka dots, or green, if they want to learn, it’s my job to teach them. That’s been my philosophy ever since I started Westside.

MAYTT: That is something that you would see on a TV series that would prompt the hero to do something. That is very intense of how you started Westside.

CM: The last thing I wanted to do was to start my own dojo because I knew what was involved when I became head instructor at West LA. There’s a lot of responsibilities and you have to be able to spend time with all the students, not just the guys that are higher rank and all that. You have to start with the beginners. If there’s a new person that wants to join the dojo and has never done kendo before, if it’s a kid or an adult, I will spend time with them. The parents ask me if I want to spend time with my other students and I tell them that their son or daughter is just as important. Eventually, if they stick with it, they’re going to advance and hopefully one day get their black belt and start their own dojo. I’ll be there at their grand opening giving them support! That’s my philosophy because the old days of only teaching Japanese people are long gone, not to mention the possibility of getting sued.

MAYTT: Besides those already mentioned above, what individuals or groups helped pioneer kendo in the Southern California area? What actions or deeds set these individuals and groups apart from others?

CM: Kendo was around World War II. Once the War started and Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, all Japanese, whether you were American or from Japan, all thought they were the enemy and that’s what led to the Relocation Camps, where they scooped up all the Japanese Americans who had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor. They put them into one of ten – they called them Relocation Camps but if you talk to anybody who were in one of the camps, they will say the camps were concentration camps. These camps were in the middle of nowhere. They could only take what they could carry. The majority of Japanese Americans, when released from the Relocation Camps when the War was over, they lost everything. They would go to their houses and they would find somebody living there, if their homes had not been burned down.

One of the older sensei I got to know very well, Herbert Higuchi, was one of Mori Sensei’s original students. Actually, I think he was the last one to train with Mori Sensei. I really appreciated Higuchi Sensei because he took the time to explain things to me. He gave me encouragement. There was never a time that he was critical of me, other than using too much of my right hand when I’m swinging my shinai. As he got older and he stopped practicing, I would periodically drive over to his house to see how he was doing and talk to his wife. One day, he said to me, “There’s something I want to give you. I appreciate you teaching Mori’s Sensei’s kendo and keeping true to the tradition of the art.” He had all of these 8”x10” pictures of Mori Sensei that I don’t know who took them or why they were taken – think they were taken for a magazine, maybe Black Belt Magazine. So, he gave me those pictures and told him that he should keep them because he knew Mori Sensei, but he replied, “You are honoring him.” I wound up donating a few of them to the Martial Arts Museum.

MAYTT: 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 the Westside Kendo Dojo and the Southern California Kendo Federation (SCKF), to remedy the situation?

CM: The general public here looks at kendo as a bunch of guys dressed up in funny looking armor and whacking each other with bamboo sticks, like I said earlier. People think it’s easy until they actually take the plunge and start to learn kendo. The majority of people, maybe ninety percent of the people, think that the very first day that they start learning kendo, they are going to put on the cool looking armor and the uniform, and whack and hack each other. It’s a long process. You might be doing just basic footwork and basic swings of the shinai before you get to strike anybody. So, a lot of the people in the beginning drop out because they want to go out there and play Toshiro Mifune and whack and hack and scream and yell like they’ve seen in bad samurai movies [Laughs] They forget that they have to hit with control. Take this as an example: if I swing my bamboo sword as hard as I can, and even though you’re wearing armor, it’s going to hurt or I’m going to injure you. It’s all done with specific control. You’re using enough force when you’re cutting the men, or the top of the head, or the kote, or the do, you’re using enough force to cut maybe four inches down and then stopping. You’re not trying to physically cut the person in half, or physically cut their hand off.

So, there is a lot of finesse that needs to be used to prevent people from hurting each other. When somebody takes the plunge to learn kendo, they realize that it isn’t as easy as they thought it was going to be. Plus, there is specific footwork that has to be learned, and then there is the timing between the footwork and the actual strike of the bamboo sword. That, in conjunction with the kiai, all has to be happening at the same time. They call that in kendo “ki-ken-tai-ichi.” Ki means spirit, or the vocalization of the spirit; ken means sword, or in kendo’s case, the bamboo representation of the sword; and tai means body. So, all three of those elements have to occur at the same time in order for a strike to be considered valid, especially in a tournament situation. If I hit the top of your head, if I hit your men, and then I move forward with my body, and then I kiai, I’m not going to get the point no matter how good that initial strike to your head would have been because all the other elements weren’t happening at the same time.

So, after a beginner’s been doing kendo for a while, the first thing I always hear is, “Man, this isn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be.” I say to them, kind of like Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid, “Ah, you watch too much TV!” [Laughs] So that’s why there’s a big attrition rate in kendo. Out of maybe ten people who started around the same time, maybe three or four might stick with it to get to the uniform stage. Then, out of those three or four, maybe two might actually get to the armor phase and actually compete.

And when they get to that phase, it becomes an investment. The armor is not cheap – even little kids’ stuff. You have to spend at least a couple hundred dollars. I always encourage new students to look into finding used stuff. The fact that somebody wore it is just temporary. After they get accustomed to wearing the armor, they can always go out and get a fancier set – now they really feel like a samurai going out to battle with their newly purchased armor! [Laughs] My first set of armor was a used set that one of my instructors had when he felt I was ready. Man, this set of armor was so stinky I thought I was going to puke! Sensei kept telling me that I had to yell and kiai louder, though I might have barfed all over the place.

I also donated some kendo material to the Martial Arts Museum that’s by me here, in Burbank, California. That’s a cool story too: when I first heard about it, I went there to check it out. When I went, it was all karate, judo, kung fu, and jujitsu, but absolutely nothing on kendo. I wound up meeting with the guy who founded the museum, Michael Matsuda, and I asked him about kendo. He knew about kendo but couldn’t seem to find kendo schools in the area. I reassured him that there was a ton, just in California alone! After the meeting, I donated copies of pictures of Mori Sensei. I had a set of kid’s-sized armor that I bought with the hopes that my son, as he got older, would take kendo, but he never did. So, in addition to the pictures of Mori Sensei, I donated that set of kids’ armor. At least there is a small representation of kendo at the Martial Arts Museum.

MAYTT: The Martial Arts Museum is on my bucket list to go and visit, so I hope I get to see the pictures of Mori Sensei and the child’s set of armor there!

CM: I think I also donated a copy of Black Belt Magazine. I was on the cover of Black Belt Magazine with Mori Sensei’s son-in-law.

MAYTT: Which issue were you on?

CM: It was years ago…I have the copy of the magazine on my wall, but the print on the cover is so darn small, I can’t see [Laughs] But if you go online, I think the article was “Swordsmanship in Two Societies.” If you see the cover, there’s a picture of two guys doing kendo.

MAYTT: Is it April 1982?

CM: Could be…

MAYTT: Yes, it is; I just found it here.

CM: I’m kind of in a lower position, on the right. Then, the guy on the left, that’s Mori Sensei’s son-in-law.

MAYTT: That is awesome, to say the least [Laughs] How did you on the front cover of Black Belt Magazine?

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

CM: I actually wrote to the magazine because I’ve been reading the magazine since my judo days, and it’s always been karate, kung fu, judo, jujitsu – especially the Gracies. I contacted them because they didn’t have much, if anything, about kendo. Their response was perplexing: “There isn’t any kendo in the United States, is there?” I had to tell them the same thing I told the owner of the Martial Arts Museum – there’s kendo all across the United States! In California alone, there are three major federations and organizations. In the Southern California Kendo Federation, there are about thirty dojos alone. The response just opened their eyes, not realizing what they had in their backyard. They asked me if I’d be willing to pose for the cover. Sadly, nobody knows it’s me because it’s my backside [Laughs] The article was interesting because it did compare western style swordsmanship to the Japanese style.

MAYTT: It seems like the kendo community has a knack for creating almost lifelong friendships between practitioners. Have you formed such bonds throughout your kendo journey?

CM: I met this doctor, who has become a really good friend online, because he’s up in Boise, Idaho. At that time, when he started kendo, his club didn’t have a qualified instructor. I think the person who formed the club was only a second-degree black belt. He had many questions and he found on my dojo’s website a Q&A page and asked his questions. In my book, there’s no such thing as a stupid question, so I was all ears with him. Eventually, I gave him my personal email address and phone number because it was faster for me to answer his questions that way than going through the website.

One day, he invited me to come up and teach a seminar up his way. I was very interested; however, I didn’t have the finances to do so. He said not to worry about it. So, I went up to Idaho to teach. Before I got there, I never saw what this guy looked like. I only knew his name, which was Steven. We finally meet face to face when he picks me up at the airport. While we’re driving over to his place, which was where I was staying for the duration of the seminar, we stopped at his office because he needed to pick something up. He shows me his office, which was closed that day, and I see his name on the office door. “Wait a minute. Your first name is Theodore? I’ve been calling you Steven all this time. And your last name is Roosevelt. Are you related to THE Theodore Roosevelt?” “Yes I am. Every first-born son is named Theodore.” They all hate the name Theodore, so they all go by their middle name [Laughs] I’m standing there with the realization hitting me with my mouth open.

We’ve gotten to become real good friends. He actually saved my life. One of the times when I was up in Idaho teaching, he took me to his office, and he was looking me over like a doctor would a patient. He asked me when the last time I had my blood drawn and tested. I will admit, it’s not often so he drew my blood and tested. A couple days later, he brings me to his office after an outing at the local mall. In the office he tells me that the tests have come back, and I have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetic. The last one took me by complete surprise. At this point, I didn’t have a regular doctor, because he retired a while back and I didn’t know what to do. Steven told me not to worry about it and he sent me my medication. He literally saved my life because I had no clue that this was happening in my body.

I was able to repay him back a few years ago. He called me up letting me know that he has colon cancer, but the doctors caught it in time. Though the whole experience took him by surprise, he didn’t lose that optimism. He told me that he was going to fly me up to Idaho and we were going to drive down to the city of Hope in Los Angeles, where the number one cancer hospital in the United States is located. I said, “Whatever I can do to help you out, sure!” We took turns driving down from Boise to Los Angeles. After he had his colon cancer surgery, it was all me on the way back. Plus, before he was well enough to travel, I was going up there every day to empty out his waste bag, which was tons of fun [Laughs] This was me returning the favor; it was the least that I could do because he saved my life. After these two experiences, we call ourselves “brothers from different mothers” [Laughs] One day, long after this episode, he called me up to let me know that he was coming down with the entire family and invited me out for dinner when he arrived. At that dinner, I met his father. This was the Pearl Harbor survivor, I was afraid he was going to kill me with his salad fork when he saw my face [Laughs] Turns out, he was not like that, but I was still on edge, so I answered everything with “sir.” But it wound up being an enjoyable experience.

I always tell people that you never know where life is going to take you.

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?

CM: We have, in Southern California, maybe five or six tournaments a year. It’s not like you’re going to a McDojo and they’re having a tournament every week or month. The tournaments are spread out and usually tournaments are involved with the regional kendo federation. The federation that I am a part of, we have three or four tournaments that are held in memorial of high-ranked instructors that have passed away.

Mizobe performing tameshigiri at one of the many kendo demonstrations.

Kendo has already gone through changes, especially with the Korean community. There are Koreans that started their own schools and they have become commercial, whereas the traditional, Japanese American kendo dojo are all non-profit – the instructors don’t take a penny to teach kendo. It’s all about giving back to the community. When more Koreans started to immigrate to the United States, especially to Los Angeles, they started opening up Kumdo schools. They are charging big money for their students.

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?

CM: I don’t think there’s been any practice in the kendo world for as long as this pandemic has been going on. Kendo is one of the martial arts where you need someone to practice with. You can practice swinging the shinai by yourself, but you need to actually strike so you can work on control, because anybody can swing a bamboo sword as hard or as fast as they can. If you use that type of swing, when you’re actually practicing with somebody, regardless of how much armor they are wearing, you’re going to hurt somebody.

It’s going to be tough because the Southern California Kendo Federation is the largest federation in the United States and none of the dojos are practicing. I went from practicing three or four times a week to zero since this whole quarantine started, so I haven’t practiced in six or seven months. Some of the kendo dojos have actually shut their doors permanently. I used to help out a friend out at his own dojo at the San Fernando Japanese Community Center. He would have his own practices for his students on Saturdays and they ended up closing that Japanese community center permanently. So, he has no place for his students to practice. I live about three blocks away from the Gardena Japanese Cultural Institute and used to go down there on Fridays to help teach kendo. The facility had judo and karate too and the whole place shut its doors – I’m not sure if it’s permanent, but I’ve been down there helping pass food boxes to seniors in need recently. This pandemic has had a greater effect, not just on kendo, but on the surrounding community centers and other martial arts as well.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us, Mizobe Sensei!

CM: It was my pleasure!

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