Interview with Kendo Renshi David Yotsuuye: Influential Kenshi in the Pacific Northwest

David Yotsuuye began kendo training while he was a Boy Scout under the tutelage of Rod Omoto, Mas Tanabe, and Yosh Tanabe. Picking the art back up while attending the University of Washington, he has not stopped training since. Today, he currently teaches with Jeff Marsten at Bellevue Kendo Dojo. All images provided by David Yotsuuye.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Yotsuuye Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

David Yotsuuye: I’m glad to be here.

MAYTT: I understand that you began kendo as a boy scout under Rod Omoto, Mas Tanabe, and Yosh Tanabe in 1967. Afterwards, you and others wanted to continue training. What was it about kendo that you wanted to try it out first and then continue? What continues to motivate you to train and teach, even during the current global situation?

DY: You are correct that I started kendo under Omoto Sensei, Yosh Tanabe Sensei and Mas Tanabe Sensei, note that the Tanabe Senseis were not related, most likely in 1967, as far as I can recall. Back then, the Boy Scouts in Tacoma had an event where all the local scout troops would gather, have booths and a stage for demonstrations. Troop 115, which was the Troop at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, but included scouts from the Whitney Memorial Methodist Church, a Japanese American Church, decided to do a kendo demonstration. As I recall, Mas Tanabe Sensei was our Scout Master at the time. So, we probably trained for about three months before the event, with Omoto Sensei’s assistance.  Others like Yosh Tanabe Sensei also had a son in the Boy Scouts, so he helped with the training too since many of the parents had participated in kendo in their youth before World War II.  Before World War II, there were many kendo and judo dojo in the Puget Sound area.

After the Boy Scout event, the parents decided that since the kids had been training and we had equipment, a kendo club should be formed with Omoto Sensei as the head sensei, since he had professional training in Japan. So, it was not by choice that I began my kendo career, but by circumstance. If I was not in Boy Scouts at that particular time, I may not have participated in kendo at all. I may have joined kendo later as others did that were too young to be in Boy Scouts at the time of the Boy Scout event.

I continued kendo until just before High School. The main reason I continued kendo from my Boy Scout beginnings until then was that Yosh Tanabe Sensei, was a neighbor. I could see his house and farm from the backyard of my family’s house/farm. His son, Rick, and I were in the same year in school. Note, Rick Tanabe went to the Fife schools while my family went to Puyallup schools, so we were not school classmates, but were in kendo, Boy Scouts, and went to Temple together. Yosh Tanabe Sensei would come by my house with Rick and pickup me and my younger brother, Gene, to go to kendo practice.

David Yotsuuye is in the second row, third from the left. His brother, Gene, is in the middle row, third from the right. Rick Tanabe is middle row second from the right. Taken by Aki Yotsuuye

So, in the beginning, it was not by choice that I started kendo or continued kendo. It was the parents that thought it was a good idea to have a kendo club. The main motivation for us to keep going to kendo was that on the way home from kendo class, Tanabe Sensei would stop at the Dairy Queen in Tacoma on Highway 99 and buy us ice cream cones. Go to practice and get ice cream, back then, that was motivation enough for us [Laughs]

This routine continued until the summer before I went to Puyallup High School. I joined the football team and had summer practice before the start of school, so I dropped out of kendo before going to Puyallup High School. I also turned out for wrestling. About this same time, my brother Gene dropped out and that left Rick as one of the last kids from the Boy Scouts that continued with kendo.

Once I was done with high school and was going to go to the University of Washington (UW), I was looking for some sort of athletic thing to do. I tried intramural flag football and I decided to restart kendo. I knew there was a club at UW and I had equipment, so I joined the UW Kendo Club (now called the Kendo Club at the University of Washington). Since I joined the UW Kendo Club in the fall of 1975, I have participated in kendo continuously. There have been a couple of breaks, when I have been injured, been sick, or had a change of dojo. But these were usually not long breaks. The longest is when I had a minor stroke in 2016. It took me about two years to get strong enough to return to full kendo practice.

I have continued kendo because I like the self-development aspect of kendo. One is never perfect at kendo – there is always more to learn and more to practice. As your body changes, we have to change our kendo. So, it is a never-ending challenge to maintain our kendo skills at a high level. I do enjoy teaching to keep the flow of kendo practitioners growing. The more individuals that learn kendo, the more people we have to practice with.

Another aspect that keeps me in kendo is the respect that even former students have for kendo and those currently in kendo. I have had former students greet me and say that they enjoyed their time in kendo, even if it was fairly short. To be truthful, I do not have a great memory when it comes to former students [Laughs] When I was an advisor to the Kendo Club at the University of Washington and the instructor for beginners at Bellevue Kendo Club, I might have 100 to 125 new students every year. Usually, less than ten percent of these students make it past a year in kendo. So, it was hard to remember everyone’s name or even face. If someone makes it through two years, I start to really remember their name.

MAYTT: That is an interesting start! Omoto is cited by many in the Pacific Northwest as a major influence on the revival and resurgence of kendo in the postwar years, especially helping to establish the Washington State Kendo Federation in 1974/1975, now the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation (PNKF). In your opinion, what differentiated Omoto from the rest of his contemporaries in the Pacific Northwest?

DY: Busen; Omoto Sensei had trained at Busen. He was to become a professional kendoist in Japan and then return home to Hawaii to teach kendo. Even though Omoto Sensei did not finish his schooling because of World War II, he had the most training out of anyone in the Pacific Northwest at that time. Everyone else had learned at their local dojo and I am assuming that those sensei were not professionally trained. They just practiced a couple of days a week, so the average skill level of the local sensei was not that high, and their most intensive training would have been before World War II. I do not recall when Seattle Kendo Kai restarted, but it was before the Tacoma Kendo Club.

Omoto Sensei was very skilled at kendo, and this earned him respect from the other local sensei. Omoto Sensei was also taught by some of the most respected sensei in Japan.

But I think that Yosh Tanabe Sensei was very influential behind the scenes. I believe that Yosh Tanabe Sensei worked with Omoto Sensei and helped encourage Omoto Sensei to push for the formation of Tacoma Kendo Club and Washington State Kendo Federation (WSKF). I was too young to understand all that was going on during the time of the Tacoma Kendo Club and WSKF formation, but from observations in the years after this time, Yosh Tanabe Sensei would help move ideas forward. He did this with myself in my early years getting into kendo politics.

MAYTT: Additionally, you trained under Mas Tanabe and Yosh Tanabe. Could you tell me about them as kendo instructors – what made them unique to their students? Where do they fit into kendo’s history in the region?

DY: Yes, I did train under Yosh Tanabe Sensei and Mas Tanabe Sensei. As mentioned earlier, Mas Tanabe Sensei was our Scout Master and had more than just kendo influence in my life. I already mentioned Yosh Tanabe Sensei’s major influence on my kendo career. I may not have continued with kendo if he did not pick me up every week.

I do not know for sure, but I am certain that both Tanabe Sensei’s had a lot of influence on Omoto Sensei agreeing to help with the kendo training for the Boy Scout Troop. Without them, Omoto Sensei may not have agreed to come back to kendo. I believe that since Omoto Sensei was in the Japanese Army, there might have been some resentment among the Boy Scout parents having Omoto Sensei teaching Kendo to their kids. But with Tanabe Sensei’s support, this was not an issue.

Since Mas Tanabe Sensei was involved with the Boy Scouts, he could work with the Boy Scout parents to get the OK to have kendo as the Boy Scout project. Both Mas and Yosh Tanabe Sensei were members of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, but I think that Yosh Tanabe Sensei had influence with the Tacoma Buddhist Temple’s Board of Directors and probably pushed for the approval of using Tacoma Buddhist Temple’s social hall as the location for the Tacoma Kendo Club.

So, their history is very important to getting kendo organized and expanded in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle had started a Club before Tacoma, but I think that without Omoto Sensei’s influence and the Tanabe Sensei’s having Omoto Sensei teach the Boy Scouts and starting the Tacoma Dojo, the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation would not exist today.

MAYTT: I see. Today, you teach at Bellevue Kendo Dojo, headed by Jeff Marsten. How did your perspective of kendo change when you began teaching, if at all? Were there old habits you had to break in order to create new and better ones?

DY: People say that when you teach something, you really begin to understand that thing better. You have to understand kendo better to be able to teach it. I really had to think about my kendo more when I began teaching. In order to answer students’ questions, I needed a better understanding of kendo. So, teaching has improved my kendo. I guess my footwork had to improve in order to teach. I knew how to do the footwork, but I had to improve mine so that I would be a better example to the students. It seems like students naturally pick up their sensei’s bad habits. So, I needed to reduce mine as not to pass the bad habits on to the students.

David Yotsuuye (right) and Jeff Marsten (left) perform a kendo kata before a tournament.

Teaching and being a higher rank gives me motivation to continue to improve and to keep improving my level. I think this is common in all kendoist. I am motivated since I need to improve to keep ahead of my students, being better than them helps pull them up. Also, my pride keeps me motivated to continue to improve. I believe that I have continued to improve over the years, but I know that I have not caught up to my Sensei. To keep that tradition going, I need to keep getting better to stay ahead of my students. A good teacher wants their student to be able to surpass him, but you do not have to let them.

I learned that I needed to understand why we do things and be able to technically explain how to do something and why, not just tell someone to do an action and not really understand why.

MAYTT: Speaking of Jeff Marsten, he has created his own kendo legacy that many of his kinsmen continue today. In your opinion, how has he influenced the art’s growth in the region? What makes him stand out from the rest of his associates?

DY: I believe that each of the sensei in each dojo had a hand in disseminating kendo in the Pacific Northwest. Each dojo is very important since most dojo members, at the beginning of their kendo journey, are reluctant to travel very far to practice. Without the many dojo available in the Pacific Northwest, the number of members would not have grown as it has.

I do believe that Jeffrey Marsten Sensei has had a very large influence on the growth of kendo, not just here in the Pacific Northwest but also in the US. Marsten Sensei has a long-term view of kendo development ideas. He has focused on promoting women in kendo and on getting national attention on women’s issues. Traditionally, the California federations have had strong women’s presence at the national tournaments. This was logical since they had the largest pool of women participants. Marsten Sensei wanted to improve PNKF’s women’s standing at the national level and put together an ongoing plan to improve Women’s kendo. He instituted a year-round training plan.

The World championships are scheduled every three years, so this model was adopted by the US when the US Championships were established. The year before the World Championships, the US Championships are held. This way the US Champion can be on the US Team at the World’s.

Marsten Sensei is a past US Federation president.  During his time as President, he pushed to have separate Women’s divisions. Before this, all division were Opens. After establishment of the women divisions, the California federations dominated. To improve PNKF’s performances, the year-round periodic team practices were established and a Women’s only tournament was also established and hosted by PNKF. This tournament is held the year before the US Championships. This gives the women that have been participating in the year-round practices some national competition. This also includes international competition; competitors and teams from Canada are invited as well as US Federations. Mexico has also participated. This tournament was initially organized by Marsten Sensei. There are opportunities for competition by travelling to tournaments around the country, but this gives a local opportunity for a high level of competition.

Marsten Sensei also helps develop and encourages his students to improve, whether it was encouraging practicing for the next rank or participating in practices to improve. Some sensei are afraid of pushing their students up; these sensei fear that they will be loose status. Marsten Sensei has a different attitude, if his students move up and can surpass him, he has done his job. Though none has matched his rank yet, he has given up control of some activities, like running the Highline Kendo Kai Tournament and the Bellevue Junior’s Tournament.

Marsten Sensei also helped the US Federation during a time when there was a split in the national organization. Two factions formed and were claiming to be the main national organization. It was important to be the recognized national organization since that would be the organization that would be allowed to send competitors to the World Championships. The International Kendo Federation (IKF, now known as FIK Federation of International Kendo) told the two US factions that there could only be one US mainland Federation. If the differences were not worked out and two Federations were in existence when team information had to be sent to the IKF for the next World Championships, both Federations would be kicked out. Marsten Sensei helped broker an agreement and update Constitutions and By-Laws to have a single organization AUSKF (All United States Kendo Federation). There is still an anomaly in IKF/FIK membership, Hawaii has an independent membership to FIK. Hawaii’s membership has been grandfathered since they were one of the original Federations that formed IKF. There are other countries that have multiple Federations in FIK, like Mainland China and Hong Kong. These issues will be addressed in the future.

Marsten Sensei has gone to Japan to train about fifteen times. During these trips, he has cultivated personal relationships that he has been able to use to invite Sensei to PNKF to train with us or send students to Japan to train with top level Sensei or at top level schools.

MAYTT: It seems like Marsten Sensei is very active in the larger kendo community! With more than fifty years in the art of the sword, how have you seen kendo training change, adapt, and/or evolve since you first began?

DY: Kendo is more organized. Locally, we have had more influence from individuals that studied in Japan under a school program, whether in lower levels or college. After kendo was reestablished in Japan, it was done as a physical fitness class in schools, so I believe that the training became formalized to fit the classroom structure. Training became less watch and learn, as there are drills that you can do to improve your kendo. As kendoist from Japan spread out from Japan, they brought with them these updated training methods that they were taught in school. I believe this improved the training methods and also appealed to the US tastes.

Over the years, we have had increased access to higher level sensei from Japan. This has helped us locally improve our level of kendo. At the University of Washington, one sensei I had was Tatsuhiko Konno. He was from Kokushikan University. This was one of the top universities for kendo in Japan. When Konno Sensei first got to the US and participated in tournaments, it was about two years before anyone could even score a point on him. Konno Sensei’s skill level helped pull up our local level, by setting an example of what can be achieve and what one could teach us. It is much easier to see what might be able to achieve than to just imagine it.

MAYTT: Over the years, you have served many positions and roles within the PNKF and its community, such as president, treasurer, and even organizing the Third United States Kendo Championships in 1984. What were those experiences like, and did they have the desired results you attempted to achieve? How did those experiences influence your perspective on kendo as a whole?

DY:  In addition to the positions you mention, I was also on the Board of Directors of the KFUSA (former name of AUSKF, Kendo Federation of USA). This was in the 1980s. Before this time, I had limited exposure to the US national kendo scene. I was more aware of kendo in Canada, at least the British Columbia Kendo since we would usually go to two tournaments in BC every year, Steveston and Vancouver. And they would come to our annual WSKF tournament. So, I was able to see other sensei and kendoist, got to see their kendo level and how they performed and acted.

Yosh Tanabe Sensei is the second from the left, Omoto Sensei is third from the left, and Mas Tanabe Sensei is second from the right. taken by Aki Yotsuuye

Being on the KFUSA Board of Directors gave me exposure to members from the other regions of the US, but mostly to the California members. One of my main observations, and I think this has influence on the development of kendo in our region, is that most of the those in kendo in Canada and California could speak Japanese. In the Pacific Northwest most of the third generation (sansei) Japanese did not and do not speak Japanese. But in California and Canada, most of the Sansei do speak Japanese. A majority of the nisei (second generation) can/could speak Japanese, but only used it when they needed to or when they did not want the kids to understand what they were talking about.

In the Pacific Northwest, I believe, there was more of a push for those returning from the World War II Internment Camps to more quickly integrate back into the general population. One way to do that was to have their kids speak English as their first language. Even if this meant that their kids could not easily converse with their grandparents. So, I was surprised that a majority of my contemporaries spoke fluent Japanese in California and Canada. 

In Seattle, we have the International District, which started from Seattle’s Japan Town. In Tacoma, its Japan Town never came back. In California, Los Angeles has its Japan Town and in Steveston, Canada, it was primarily a Japanese fishing village. Since the Pacific Northwest lacked some of its original ties to Japan based on language, I believe, it took longer for kendo to re-develop and spread here.

My main observation is the growth in kendo participation. In 1984, there were seven US regional federations, now there are fifteen.

During my time in kendo, I have participated in all but one US Championship. I missed the one in 1987 since it was held around the same time my son was to be born. My participation has been as a team member, coach, team manager, or shinpan (referee). I was also fortunate to be a member of the US Team that participated in the 1985 World Championships held in Paris, France.

All these experiences showed me that no matter where you practice kendo, everyone in the world has the same core kendo ideals and every kendoist is your friend.

MAYTT: Outside of the ones discussed above, who do you feel had the most influence in disseminating kendo throughout the Pacific Northwest? What made these kenshi stand out from their colleagues?

DY: As noted already, anyone that starts a dojo and works to pass on kendo is very important to kendo’s development in their area. Without that opportunity to experience kendo, kendo could not spread.

Some others that come to mind are noted below:

Tom Bolling has played a large part in disseminating kendo, not just in the Pacific Northwest but all over. This is done via our PNKF newsletter Kenyu (Kendo Friends). Not only is PNKF news and activities passed along, but any other kendo news that Tom finds relevant or that is sent to him. So, members can learn of upcoming tournaments or seminars they might have not known about other than the listing in the Kenyu. Tom also keeps up correspondence with people from all over, people know that the PNKF exists.

Robert Stroud Sensei, now in Idaho, was important to the development of kendo in the Portland area. There was kendo there already, but it was dying out. Stroud Sensei brought it back and got them involved with the PNKF. This is the reason WSKF was changed to PNKF since we became larger than just Washington State.

Masa Ando Sensei in Alaska has maintained a presence in Alaska.

I have had other various sensei during my years in kendo, they all had an impact on my kendo as anyone we practice with does. But those listed above stand out for me.

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 Bellevue Kendo Dojo and the PNKF, to remedy the situation, barring the current situation?

DY: I agree that kendo is not as popular as judo or karate. I believe that judo is more popular because of the exposure from the Olympics, but this exposure has also changed judo dramatically. Judo is now more like a lot of other sports rather than a martial art. With the Olympics and other organizations controlling a lot of judo, the focus is mainly on competition and moves away from the martial art aspects. Also, Japan does not control the direction of judo and karate. As mentioned, a lot of judo’s direction is controlled by Olympic entities, so the martial art aspect gets put on the back burner, I believe. Karate is different. Karate is focused on making money for the owners of dojo, again in my opinion. So, there is more focus on how to get students and keep the income flowing. Again, the martial art aspect of karate suffers.

In the US, the majority of US kendo dojo are not-for-profit dojo. So, the dojo are led by people that are focused on teaching and propagating kendo, not going for Olympic glory or making a living. This way, the sensei can focus on keeping the martial art aspect of kendo a focus of the dojo. We do participate in tournaments, but with the correct perspective: tournaments are just part of the training and a way to test oneself.  It is nice to win a tournament, but this glory is fleeting. In the next tournament, I could lose in the first round. In every competition, after the first round, half of the competitors are eliminated. So, realizing this helps develop humility and proper focus on the intent of competition. Competition is another tool in my toolbox to improve myself.

Kendo is not for everyone, and we do not try to make it so. It would be nice to have more participation, but to change kendo to have more students would defeat the reason we do kendo. We do try to make kendo more appealing by having seminars, tournaments, and promotions, but we will not change the essence of Kendo.

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?

DY: Kendo uses competition as a way to measure one’s self-improvement. If I do well in a competition, it is one indication that I may have improved since tournaments are usually divided into divisions of similar skill. But one will also realize that you cannot get too big of a head just because you did well in one tournament because at the next tournament you could be out in the first round. So, over several tournaments, an indication of kendo skill improvement can be recognized. But it can also indicate that more effort is needed if the results do not change.

So, we do not emphasize just winning. Winning is the result of the efforts expend to improve. The emphasis on the training to gain results is what, I believe, keeps the balance between self- betterment and competition.

If kendo is only focused on competition, it becomes as Marsten Sensei puts it, just “stick fighting.” So, competition-centered kendo would not be a martial art anymore. It is a fine balance to maintain enthusiasm for competition and being mindful of the martial arts and the self-development aspects of kendo.

Tournaments are a good test of one’s development. During regular training sessions, we will practice with others, and we call our own points. Not actually calling out a point, but mentally thinking that I just scored a point or beat my opponent. In a tournament, independent judges determine a good point. This can be very good and humbling feedback. Points that I might have thought were good during a practice session may not be good in the eyes of an independent judge. So, tournaments can serve as a very good reality check. It never hurts to have the pressure of a tournament challenge either. If you lose you are out. Nothing helps focus one’s mind knowing that if you mess up, you are out.

All these experiences will teach us different lessons. Participating in tournaments with the proper attitude can teach a good lesson.

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 the Pacific Northwest, and perhaps 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?

DY: I believe that kendo will survive this pandemic. At first, the numbers will be reduced, but I think a majority of the past members will return. Kendo is a life endeavor. So, events like my stroke or other, more minor injuries that prevented me from actively participating, did not prevent me from coming back. It is true that some, after the long layoff, will find it difficult to find the motivation and desire to go through the physical challenges of getting back into kendo shape, but more than not will find that spark that keep them in kendo in the first place re-ignited. I think those that have less than two or three years of experience would have the highest number of those not returning. After that, most have the kendo bug and not much would keep them away from the dojo.

Until the pandemic is mostly clear and we can safely return to a full regular practice, I can see some members being hesitant to return. In our regular practice, we have a position called tsuba-zeriai. This is when two kendoist are close together, fist to fist and can kiai (yell) directly into your opponent’s face to establish dominance over your opponent. Initially, we will teach and practice not maintaining the tsuba-zeriai position and avoid doing kiai directly into someone’s face, to reduce the possibility of spreading COVID, but this will be difficult to do since for our entire kendo career we have always done this.

But these minor changes to maintain safety will be learned and we will be able to continue practicing kendo until it is safe to practice as it was before the pandemic.

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