Interview with West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo President Koichi Suyama: Torataro Nakabara

Koichi Suyama enrolled himself into West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo in 1983 at the invitation of the late Torataro Nakabara. Under Atsushi Hori, Suyama helped establish the bylaws of the Southern California Kendo Organization (SCKO). Today, Suyama, the current president of West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo, took some time to discuss the impact of Torataro Nakabara on California’s kendo community. We thank Akira Banchi for his assistance as mediator and Koichi Suyama for providing the images.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for joining us, Suyama Sensei, to talk about Torataro Nakabara Snesei!

Koichi Suyama: Thank you for inviting me.

MAYTT: How did you know Torataro Nakabara? How would you describe him as a kendo instructor and a person?

Koichi Suyama

KS: I was invited to the West LA Dojo through my wife in 1983. My wife and Nakabara Sensei’s wife became friends and he invited me after knowing I was doing kendo in Japan. It was after five years when I came to the US in 1978. After meeting Nakabara Sensei, I restarted kendo right away, joining West LA Dojo. When I joined there’s Mr. Shunji Asari Sensei (godan) who was a second generation Japanese American.

As Nakabara Sensei was such a great kendo master (hachidan), every move of his kendo was respected, despite his small body size. As a person, I could say he was a very serious person. I heard that Sensei was a policeman in Japan, and after the Second World War, he came to the US seeking an economical fortune. I also heard that he practiced under Moriji Mochida (judan), the grandmaster kendoist at the police station dojo in Korea during the Japanese occupation era. As you know, Torao Mori (hachidan) was in Los Angeles at the same time as Nakabara Sensei. Mori sensei came to WLA Dojo to practice with Nakabara Sensei. Nakabara Sensei was the only kendoist who could practice and fight with Mori evenly in the US.

MAYTT: Nakabara was also a founding member of the West Los Angeles Kendo Dojo in October 1952. What led him to establish a school in West Los Angeles? At that time, what do you think was missing from the kendo landscape?

KS: I heard that the kendo dojo existed before 1952 as a part of the Sawtelle Japanese American Community Center’s activity. West Los Angeles, Sawtelle area has been a small Japanese American community since Japanese immigration to the Los Angeles area since the late 1800s. The Sawtelle area had many Japanese gardeners for the Hollywood industry. Nakabara Sensei was a genuine kendo master and became one of the most influential people at West LA Dojo and kendo community in Los Angeles. No record or details has remained about the history of founding West LA Dojo, unfortunately.

I don’t know much about the kendo environment before I joined the dojo in 1983. I hope that Nakabara Sensei’s sons know much about it.

When I joined West LA Dojo and kendo in the US in 1983, I remember that USA kendo was divided into about three federations. I think there was a “US Kendo Federation.” But there was a political problem among executive board members and they were divided. I do not want to go into the details of the political problem. But I can say that because Nakabara Sensei was a serious kendo person, he tried hard to unite kendo organizations in the US and then helped establish the All US Kendo Federation.

Japan Champion visit at WLA Dojo 1993 with many kenshi from Los Angeles kendo dojos. Suyama is second right in the floor. Nakabara fifth right on the floor next the Japan champion.

MAYTT: I see. What was the political problem that forced executive board members to become so divided and split?

KS: Again, I cannot say any details on this. But, unlike today, the many Japanese immigrants at that time were not so educated, working as gardeners or factory and farm workers in the old days. I think that there were many people trying to obtain their executive roles in the kendo community. That’s one of the major factors of the political conflict among them. That resulted in Nakabara Sensei and some other prominent follower senseis leaving the Southern California Kendo Federation (SCKF) and forming the Southern California Kendo Organization (SCKO). That’s the reason why there are two different federations in southern California.

After the executive board members in the two federations were getting older, the next generation leaders such as Atsushi Hori Sensei helped reform an umbrella organization for all regional federations. That became the All US Kendo Federation (AUSKF), the current umbrella organization. Atsushi Hori Sensei also practiced under Nakabara sensei in LA. Hori Sensei was the best person to work with Nakabara Sensei and establish the AUSKF. Unfortunately, Hori sensei passed away this January. It was a great loss for kendo in the US. I think Hori Sensei also should be mentioned in the history of US Kendo.

MAYTT: With the help of Atsushi Hori, Nakabara and others were able to establish the AUSKF and avoid further political problems. How else did Nakabara help spread the art after the formation of the new umbrella organization?

KS: Nakabara Sensei received hanshi, hachidan, the highest rank and the honor of modern kendo. The recognition of his rank had certainly been respected and helped unifying regional federations 

MAYTT: Hori played a crucial role in American kendo history. Could you tell us a little more about him as a kendo instructor?

KS: Hori Sensei was an kendo elite who served as the captain of the Waseda University Kendo team in Japan. However, he was a person who would sincerely teach kendo to anyone, with children and beginners treated equally. He was loved and respected by everyone. I think he should still continue to play a big role in the American Kendo.  We lost another great sensei, and I miss him very much.

MAYTT: Speaking of prominent figures in kendo, who were some of Nakabara’s contemporaries and how did they, in their own right, assist the dissemination of kendo in either Southern California or the United States?

KS: I can say, Taro Eto Sensei and Akune Sensei who were the disciples of Torao Mori Sensei and were Nakabara Sensei’s contemporaries. I do not know much about the old federation, US Kendo Federation (USAKF), before the AUSKF.

Japan Champion visit at West Los Angeles Dojo 1993 Suyama (right) Nakabara (middle). 2nd left, next Nakabara is Toshiya Ishida, All Japan Champion 1992. Cary Mizobe stands between Suyama and Nakabara.

MAYTT: Final question. Based on the actions of Nakabara, what do you think the future holds for kendo in the United States? How will the art evolve, adapt, and/or change in the next ten years in the country?

KS: I think that the current USA Kendo (AUSKF) was all united by the great contribution of Hori Sensei who passed away early this year. Hori Sensei was a person who loved kendo and was not much interested in obtaining political power or an honorable position. That’s why many kendo leaders in the US had followed him. After his passing, I wonder who could become a true leader like him. On the other hand, I think the kendo population in the US will continue to increase. Even federations who were not part of AUSKF started to join it to compete in national-level tournaments and to obtain an official kendo certificate. Many Korean kendo federations had joined AUSKF in recent years as well.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk about Nakabara, Suyama Sensei!

KS: It was my pleasure.

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