Interview with Kenshi Jim Nakabara: His Father and Kendo

Jim Nakabara began training kendo at the age of ten under his father, Torataro Nakabara, later earning a yondan in 1977. Today, Nakabara took some time to discuss his father’s contribution to kendo in Southern California. We thank Akira Banchi for his assistance as mediator and Jim Nakabara for providing the images.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Nakabara Sensei and thank you for taking the time to talk about your father with us today!

Jim Nakabara: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: What was your father’s background? Did he grow up in Japan or raised in the United States and how did he come across kendo?

Jim Nakabara, c. 1976

JN: Torataro Nakabara (中原虎太郎) was born in 1913 in Japan, Yamaguchi-ken, Oshimagun, Towa-cho. He started his school years in the Northern Kyushu village of Fukuoka where he studied kendo. He graduated from high school (Fukuoka Kenritsu Wakamatsu Chugaku) in 1930. In 1931, he earned shodan (first degree black belt in kendo). He served as the kendo instructor for the Japanese Police Department in Korea from 1935 through 1945. During that time, in 1940, he attained the rank of Junsa Bucho (Sergeant), Renshi (rokudan) in kendo in 1941, and in 1944 he passed the examination for Chief of Police. In 1945, he returned to Japan, Oshima-gun, Wada, Towa-cho and continued to teach kendo until 1957. In 1955, he earned the rank of Kyoshi (nanadan). Torataro Nakabara with his wife and four children moved to United States of America in February 1957 and settled in West Los Angeles. In his first year in the United States, he was the All-US Kendo Tournament Champion in 1957. He had another child in 1961.

MAYTT: What can you tell us about your father and his commitment to kendo? What was it about the art that made him a prominent figure in its dissemination?

Torataro Nakabara in his 70s.

JN: To me, kendo was his life. Without being able to teach kendo and being an instructor at the West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo, he would not have stayed in the United States. He gladly taught kendo to anyone who was honestly interested in learning the martial art of kendo, regardless of nationality, race, background, or ability. He continued to teach kendo through his mid-1980s and served in various positions in kendo and community organizations; President of the Southern California Kendo Federation (1964-1967), President of the Kendo Federation of the USA (1969-1990) and Vice President of the International Kendo Federation (1990-1992). He also served as the President of the Southern California Yamaguchi Kenjinkai (1977-1978).

Torataro Nakabara was awarded many honors. He achieved the kendo rank of hachidan (eighth degree black belt) in 1970. He received an award of special recognition from the mayor of Los Angeles, Sam Yorty in 1973. He was awarded the highest honorary rank in kendo, the hanshi in 1978. On April 19, 1984, he was honored with Kun Goto Zuihosho Declaration Award from the Emperor Showa of Japan.

MAYTT: What inspired your father to establish the West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo in October 1952? What do you think was missing from the kendo landscape at that time?

JN: He did not establish West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo in October 1952 because he came to the United States in February 1957. I believe Torao Mori sensei established the West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo.

Emperor of Japan Award 1984 (Kun Goto Zuihosho Declaration): the Presidential medal of honor for Torataro Nakabara’s kendo career in abroad

MAYTT: Your father worked in leadership roles in both the Southern California Kendo Federation (SCKF) and the All United States Kendo Federation (AUSKF) for some time. What were some of the actions he took to further spread and solidify kendo in both Southern California and the United States?

JN: I don’t exactly know, because I was not by his side at meetings or when he made those decisions, he did not express them to me or anyone in our family.

MAYTT: Who were some of your father’s contemporaries and how did they assist in propagating the art in both the region and the country?

JN: Torao Mori Sensei, hachidan hanshi (eighth degree black belt). He was the head instructor before my father at West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo and visited to help instruct at other Southern California kendo dojos, as did my father. Mr. Torao Mori also was involved in western fencing while in Los Angeles before passing away at a young age of fifty-four.

Others: Taro Eto, Yutaka Kubota, Masaharu Shimoda, Tsugio Kawaguchi, Haruo Kagawa, Tadashi Onami, Torao Mori, Hiroji Miyahara, Arthur Ichiro Murakami, Yutaka Fukunaga, Saburo Akune, Akio Hara; all worked together to spread the teachings of kendo in the Southern California area. I’m sure there could be others, but those are the names I remember, and I don’t have a list or remember names of others outside of Southern California. I do know that there were people in the United States, other than Southern California that he respected and corresponded and met with many times.

Torataro Nakabara (right) in his teenage years, performing Kendo Kata in Japan

MAYTT: With everything that your father has accomplished and began, what else do you think can be done to further kendo in the United States?

JN: This is my own opinion and not necessarily his: Even though he never expressed it to me in words, I believe my father wanted a strong united spirit in kendo in the United States. Too many people here in the United States and the world just cares about themselves and don’t care what others think or feel. I believe my father wanted and worked for what is best for all and not for just certain individuals or groups. I believe he wanted a strong and united kendo association in the United States that would be respected all over the world.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us in a discussion about your father!

JN: I am glad I could be of some help.

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