Interview with San Diego Kendo Bu Head Instructor Henry Kikunaga: Kendo in Universities – UCSD Recreational Class for Kendo

Henry Kikunaga began his kendo training as a boy, starting with his father and older brother. Once in college, he enrolled in San Diego Kendo Bu under the joint tutelage of John Yamamoto and Kikuo Uyeji. In 2014, Kikunaga assumed the role of Head Instructor. Today, Kikunaga took some time to talk about his kendo journey, helping form a kendo club at the University of California, San Diego, and being a competitor. All images provided by Henry Kikunaga.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Kikunaga Sensei! Thank you for joining us today!

Henry Kikunaga: Thank you for having me! I look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: You began training at the young age of seven. What led you to begin at such a young age and how has your motivation to train changed over the years?

Henry Kikunaga (right) next to former head instructor John Yamamoto (left).

HK: It was actually my father that got me into kendo. He had just turned forty years of age and he wanted to do something together as a family, so he started along with my older brother and myself at the same time. I am unsure of the reason for kendo specifically, and at that time, I was just a seven-year-old kid doing something new.

I caught on relatively quickly, as I won third place in my third tournament I participated in. And as with any young child with competitive fire, this motivated me to keep practicing, to continue placing or winning tournaments. I do recall looking at the initial trophies and awards and replaying my matches in my head, to learn from my mistakes, but to also learn from the successes as well because I felt I was just getting started.

Currently, my motivation to train is very similar in regard to “How can I get better?” The competition part with tournaments may not be the main motivating factor to get better, however, things change as you get older, and it is to gain more mastery and knowledge of kendo to be able to pass my experiences, expertise, and passion to the rest of the dojo.

MAYTT: You started training under Charlie Tanaka, a pioneer of kendo in his own right. What was he like as an instructor and how did he help disseminate kendo in Northern California? What made him stand out from the rest of his contemporaries?

HK: Charlie Tanaka Sensei is a less vocal instructor but expressed his approval or disapproval through his kendo while practicing with him or through his facial expressions and individual stares. He didn’t have to say anything, however, you knew if he approved of your technique or not. He pushed me to perfect my technique and basics (kihon) all the time.

Tanaka Sensei emphasizes absolutely strong kihon and footwork. To have a strong foundation of kihon, your kendo will be strong at all skill levels and do well at promotion tests as well as tournaments.

Tanaka Sensei was very active in the propagation of kendo in Northern California as well as the United States. His involvement in the leadership team(s) not only with the dojo, but in Northern California Kendo Federation as well as the All United States Kendo Federation, also formerly known as the Kendo Federation of the United States of America, helped spread the teachings and level of kendo in the USA. He was former President of both organizations.

MAYTT: I see. Once enrolled in the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), you began training at the San Diego Kendo Bu (SDKB), taking you to Southern California. When you first began training in the new dojo, did you notice any differences in the way that you used to train in with Tanaka Sensei in Northern California? What were some of the similarities between the two parts of the Golden State?

HK: When I moved to San Diego to attend UCSD Undergraduate, I did continue practicing with Kikuo Uyeji Sensei (rokudan) and Dr. John Yamamoto Sensei (yondan) at San Diego Kendo Bu to keep up my kendo conditioning and shape, since I was still an active participant in the regional and national tournaments. The basis of the practices between SDKB and San Jose Kendo Dojo were similar, which is why I think I was recommended to practice at SDKB. There was the emphasis on kihon and footwork. The only difference was the level of intensity of the practice at SDKB. SDKB was a more laid-back environment in expected San Diego fashion. [Laughs]

MAYTT: Once you arrived at the SDKB, John Yamamoto was the head instructor. Could you tell me more about him and his contribution to kendo in Southern California?

HK: Dr. John Yamamoto Sensei was an absolutely welcoming, humble, hardworking, and dedicated man, sensei, father, grandfather, and doctor. In his day career, he was a family general dentist that served the Chula Vista community for decades.

He had many passions outside of kendo like fishing, rock climbing, karate, and supporting all the people around him.

Yamamoto Sensei had a lot of involvement with the SCKF events for years. Also in 1998, he established the UCSD Recreational Kendo Class in their Recreational Martial Arts program.

MAYTT: In 2014, you assumed the responsibility of head instructor of the SDKB. What was the transition like for you? How did your perception of kendo change when you began teaching regularly?

HK: The transition in becoming shihan (Head Instructor) of SDKB wasn’t much of a change. In fact, when I moved back to San Diego in 2006, Yamamoto Sensei immediately approached me to take over as shihan. At the time, I was not in the right mindset nor ready to take on such a role. In 2009, my triplet girls were born. That’s right, triplets. So, becoming shihan of SDKB was out of the question. I always emphasize family and education take precedence over kendo, so I had to keep declining Yamamoto Sensei until I was “ready” to take on that role. He completely understood. However, I would try to make practice when I could to help him out, despite being busy. And when I did attend practice, he would have me lead the practice every time. In 2014, I felt I was in a good place with my family and career, and I told Yamamoto Sensei I was ready to take over as shihan. So, the transition was pretty seamless as I was already leading classes when I was there and we both were mentally ready, in my case, to take on the responsibilities and for him, to pass on the responsibilities.

Bowing in.

Once I started and was able to teach regularly, my perception of kendo did change a bit where I had the responsibility to not only teach kendo at all levels, but also to make sure that everyone at the dojo had some place to come to practice and their loved ones to watch them practice. By teaching regularly, you must know how to do the techniques, footwork, and the philosophies behind them to be able to teach them. Therefore, by teaching regularly, my kendo had expanded and matured.

MAYTT: That is an interesting take on teaching! What was your relationship like with Yamamoto that made him immediately ask you to take over the dojo for him? How did that relationship grow, evolve and change over the course of training and working with him?

HK: When I started practicing at San Diego Kendo Bu in 1993, I had no idea how long I would be in San Diego, and I had no intention of staying in San Diego. I was just there to practice kendo and go to school. At the time, I was still very active in competition, so I was focused more on keeping up my skills and stamina. After a handful of years practicing with the dojo, I grew to really love the dojo and have much more appreciation of what Yamamoto Sensei and Uyeji Sensei did for the dojo. They always had open arms and so welcoming for any visitors and those that wanted to practice with the dojo. Being felt welcomed made me want to be more vested into the growth of the dojo. I believe with Yamamoto Sensei’s belief in my disciplined approach in teaching and training, he had no problems with me taking over the dojo once I knew in 2008 that I would be in San Diego for long term. With that, my duty is to not only to train all of the kenshi in the dojo, but also to uphold Yamamoto Sensei’s and Uyeji Sensei’s legacy. 

MAYTT: Additionally, you helped start a recreational kendo class at UCSD in 1998. How did that class come about and how has it assisted in the development of kendo in Southern California?

HK: That recreational class started out as an idea by him and myself in wanting to start a dojo or university club at UCSD. It was mainly to help SDKB and Yamamoto Sensei out with a “farm system” of new kenshi and to introduce kendo to the university population, which we felt was lacking. And with that, the UCSD Recreational Class was born and the UCSD Kendo Team developed.

With his instruction over several years, the UCSD Recreational Class grew and matured. Many of the kenshi that practiced or started at UCSD under Yamamoto Sensei have gone on to represent Team USA Kendo or now sensei at other dojos.

For example, Scott Chang Sensei, who was in the first class of UCSD Kendo, is now godan in kendo and head instructor of Covina Kendo Dojo. Also, Keri Chen Sensei (kendo yondan) had started kendo in 2003 with the UCSD Recreational Class and went on to represent the USA at the World Championships. Dr. Matt Schultzel Sensei (kendo godan) and Dr. Mark Schultzel (kendo sandan) also started with UCSD and are now an integral part of San Diego Kendo Bu. Lastly, Matt Schultzel Sensei is now currently the instructor of the UCSD Recreational Class after Yamamoto Sensei let him take over in 2016.

MAYTT: With your experience forming and teaching kendo at the university level, do you feel that higher education could be new territory for kendo and an opportunity to raise awareness and attract potential students? How can the AUSKF help make this a possibility, if at all?

HK: I do feel that two populations that are an opportunity for kendo in the USA for growth are kids and those in universities. The AUSKF has done a very good job establishing the Junior Open National Tournament and helping to grow the population of kenshi in the youth. 

I have seen a surge of the college population wanting to learn kendo. In the early 2000s, UCSD had about twenty to thirty students. By 2015, it was consistently about fifty. In 2021, however, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the class grew to ninety and has a waiting list to join. 

It is my belief that success at any level or population has to do with the motivation and enthusiasm of those involved to attract new members. It is difficult for the AUSKF to get involved and help out a lot, as they just need to trust those involved in those populations to foster kendo. 

MAYTT: That is amazing! 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?

HK: Many of the current dojos in Southern California were started or helped greatly by a few sensei approximately twenty to forty years ago. Those sensei were Maki Miyahara Sensei, Arthur Murakami Sensei, Yamaguchi Sensei, Torao Mori Sensei, and Yutaka Kubota Sensei, just to name a few. These sensei, as well as other sensei, helped to propagate kendo and offered the exposure of kendo to different areas of Southern California. Many of the current sensei and students wouldn’t be around kendo if it weren’t for their actions and efforts to teach kendo.

In fact, Miyahara Sensei helped SDKB back in its infancy of a dojo, as well as holding a seminar for the UCSD Recreational Class in its early years of existence.

2020 San Diego Kendo Bu Annual New Year Dojo Tournament. The event had enough and a variety of members participated to warrant divisions such as non-bogu division, womens, over 40, open kyu championships, and open yudansha championships. 

MAYTT: Being a competitor at the United States Kendo Championships, how does competition fit into the overall package or art of kendo? How does the American kendo community balance between the competition and the self-betterment aspects of the art?

HK: I went to five Nationals over the course of fifteen years. The National Championships are held every three years here in the USA. In my opinion, learning the art of kendo involves not only learning the philosophies, culture, and artform of kendo, but also the techniques and intricacies of fighting an opponent. Where competitions fit in are the tournaments. They are a measuring stick of those teams’ training and dojo practices; they are also a measurement of your individual skill physically, with the techniques and mentally, with an immovable spirit.

Kendo in America has improved over the decades. This was in part due to the increased level of competition and everyone pushing each other to get better, but also the SCKF holding seminars to learn more about proper kendo, kihon, and kata. With all of these events and activities, the one theme was to maintain the art and cultural aspect of kendo intact.

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 SDKB and the Southern California Kendo Federation (SCKF), to remedy the situation?

HK: Kendo may not be as popular as judo or karate possibly due to American pop culture and movies. With kendo, the majority of dojos are non-for-profit and that is also another possible reason it isn’t as popular. One would think that if the fees were lower, that it would attract more people. However, in many dojos there is a low retention rate of beginners, especially after getting their bogu. It takes quite a while to get proper footwork and kihon learned in kendo. Maybe people get impatient and just want “to hit” someone from day one, however, to their surprise, they don’t realize kendo is more difficult than perceived. It isn’t just hitting the other person; a simple men strike is much more involved and takes proper training and commitment.

With that being said, there has been an influx of people learning kendo over the past handful of years. It is becoming more popular or even just known for what it is. When I was younger, nobody knew what kendo was. However today, as I meet other people for the first time at patients in my office, kendo sometimes is brought up and they know what it is.

I do believe it is pretty difficult for the normal person to find a dojo to this day. So SDKB adopted ways to utilize current technologies and societal trends to attract new members and make that connection with them to learn kendo at the dojo.

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?

HK: I know martial arts in general have experienced a decline in practitioners and facilities. That was going to be a given with COVID-19. However, it depends on the facility and focus of those leading the dojos of kendo or other martial arts to adjust. Kendo will rebound from COVID-19. I am confident in that.

I do have a different perspective though. I learned from owning a business that things can change on a dime so you must adjust and move on. What had worked yesterday may not work today.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had a practice in person on March 12, 2020, and on March 13, 2020, all of California was on shutdown. I immediately notified the members of the dojo and instructed them to keep up with their shape with suburi at home, as we had no idea how long this shutdown would last. Being in healthcare, I knew we were not coming back to practice for at least a few months. Therefore, within a few days, I attempted to get people in the dojo to participate in an Instagram Live kendo workout session. It was very restrictive as more people wanted to participate than what was allowed to come stream live. So, by the following week, I set up the dojo to come together online via Zoom to do a dojo practice. No one knew what to expect as the pandemic landscape was changing daily. SDKB was one of the first, if not the first, to start the infamous Zoom practices in the United States. Our first Zoom practice was a success as everyone could be involved with multiple split screens. But best of all, we all wanted to see each other’s faces.

SDKB students after a demonstration at the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego (Balboa Park) for the 2018 Obon Festival. 

We kept doing Zoom practices at the same times and days as pre-COVID. We had Zoom practices three times a week and kept it going until the end of May 2021. This was to keep a sense of normalcy to everyone. Kendo is a large part of everyone’s life in our dojo, so I wanted to keep it going for them to feel normal.

Through the dojo’s persistence of keeping in shape and also simply wanting to see everyone because we actually like each other, this attracted people to reach out to want to learn kendo. During the Zoom practices sessions, over ten people were taught kendo by us with absolutely no experience in kendo beforehand. I commend them in trusting us to teach them and learn something online when it is a contact martial art. As a result, we gained membership during the pandemic and since we went back in person to kendo practice in the beginning of May 2021, SDKB has grown over thirty-five to forty percent in membership.

At our UCSD Recreational Class, the class has a waiting list of people wanting to learn kendo. The class maxed out at ninety people registered to learn kendo.

With all that being said, this is why I believe kendo will bounce back just fine, just as long as the dojos put in the effort to reach out to connect with those that want to learn kendo. People in general are itching to do some kind of extracurricular activity after being for the most part confined to their homes.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us about your journey through kendo!

HK: It was a pleasure to be here!

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