Kendo in Hawaii: Abridged

This history is based on the Hawaiian kenshi interviews published through this chronicle, while using a handful of outside sources to provide historical or social context. This history, unfortunately, is not a complete one, however, it is one step closer to achieving a clearer picture of how the art evolved and changed on the Hawaiian Islands.

Kendo first appeared in the Hawaiian Islands with the first batches of Japanese immigrants arriving in 1868, along with sumo. The historical records remain silent until early February of 1885, when Japanese immigrants performed a demonstration for King David Kalakaua. According to martial arts historian Joseph Svinth, there was a large dojo in Honolulu in the late 1890s, catering more towards wealthier immigrants, specifically men who did not partake in manual labor, as their main source of income. Additionally, as Svinth continues, these kendo schools or clubs were usually housed in Japanese language schools, churches, gyms, and other community spaces, making stand-alone schools far and few between. The cost of the necessary equipment was expensive; the average price for kendo armor during the late 1800s was around $100 (just over $2,800 in 2021).[1]

The three roots of Mitsune Kendo Dojo: Masao Sone (left), Michael Sone (center), and Tetsunosuke Sone (right). Source: Michael Sone.

One immigrant who arrived on the Hawaiian Islands was Tetsunosuke Sone, grandfather of Mitsune Kendo Dojo founder Michael Sone. Tetsunosuke arrived on Maui in 1907 after serving in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Before traveling to Hawaii, he learned kendo from such pioneers as Takano Sasaburo and Takaharu Naito while in high school and during his time at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Station, respectively. With this background, Tetsunosuke soon established his own school, Maui Butokukai. The school had gained a reputation in Japan that the famous Torao Mori visited there in 1937 when he placed second in Western Fencing in the Pan-American Games. Michael reports Mori complimenting the practitioners at the school, saying the school’s “renshi were as good as anywhere in Japan.”[2]

Even with many Japanese immigrants following suit as Tetsunosuke and others like him, there was still no official, Japan-sanctioned kendo instructor for the Hawaiian Islands. This changed when, in 1915, Hanzaemon Furuyama became the official kendo instructor for the Japanese kenshi. The Hawaii Kendo Federation’s (HKF) website, one of the first would-be American kendo federations, does not offer much in the way of background information on Furuyama or how he came to acquire this position. Svinth notes that, generally, Japanese immigrants who trained in kendo and those willing to teach, were hard to find. Nonetheless, after Furuyama assumed his position, two kenshi, Yonematsu Sugiura and Shoji Mikami united the various practitioners and schools throughout the Islands to establish the Hawaii Kobukai. This formation eventually led to the founding of a Hawaii branch of the Japan-based Dai Nippon Butokukai in 1940, boasting a membership of kenshi roughly 3,500 strong.[3]

As with many Japanese martial arts and cultural activities throughout the United States in the wake of the Japanese Empire’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government soon banned the practice of kendo on the Islands and quickly began rounding up Japanese community leaders in what would be the Japanese American Internment during the Second World War. Michael recalls that the government and FBI sent Tetsunosuke and other martial art instructors to Lordsburg Justice Department Camp, New Mexico. Shortly afterwards, according to Michael, the members of the United States Army arrived at the Maui Butokukai and “gathered up all the judo tatami mats and some of the kendo equipment and burnt them in a pile in the middle of the school ground […] the Maui Butokukai was gone.” Furthermore, both Svinth and nutrition and health science professor Richard Schmidt point out, in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, many, if not all, members of the Japanese communities in Hawaii and mainland America destroyed, discarded, buried, and burned equipment, records, pictures, and anything else related to kendo and Japanese culture. In doing so, much information has been lost on the major happenings and events of prewar kendo in the United States as a whole.[4]

After four long years of Internment, the first kendo school to reopen, according to the HKF website, was the Mikami Dojo in Kapahulu, Honolulu. There is no founder associated with the dojo, but the HKF does mention that the “senior Sensei [of the Federation] remember the rigorous Keiko at this small Dojo on Martha Street.” With a few other schools, the resurrected Hawaiian kendo community formed the Hawaii Budo Kyokai, the predecessor of the HKF, in 1947. During this time, the Sone’s Maui Butokukai reopened its doors, however, it was struggling to maintain itself. Michael recalls that the school did not attract “new youths and reviewing the cost of new gear, bogu, as being too expensive.” Sumo’s popularity, in stark contrast, was growing in leaps and bounds, leaving kendo’s leadership at the time to “conclude [that] kendo was too difficult to promote.” Nonetheless, the Hawaii Budo Kyokai underwent a name change to the Hawaii Kendo Federation in 1955, with Ietoshi Takahashi serving as the federation’s first president. Two years later, Maui Butokukai officially joined the HKF, and by 1959, the HKF became an official member of the All Japan Kendo Federation.[5]

Despite the rebirth of kendo on the Hawaiian Islands, the same spark or flame of the prewar years was almost vacant. The kenshi there had to “await the arrival of a new immigrant group from Japan,” asserts Michael, “to help spark interest in kendo again.” He further explains how “these individuals were absorbed into existing clubs or started their own dojo. As a result, growth began but bitter feuds developed, which has kept stagnations and incessant pit falls away.” It was from the efforts of some of these newly arrived Japanese immigrants that helped reestablish and solidify kendo in the Aloha State.[6]

One such figure who assisted in kendo’s Hawaiian redevelopment was Shigeo Yoshinaga, HKF’s third president and founder of the Kenshikan Dojo. Yoshinaga founded his school in 1963, using the Kotohira Jinja (now Hawaii Kotohira Jinsha, Honolulu) Shinto shrine as a practice space. He later moved the Kenshikan to the Young Buddhist Association (YBA) temple located in Nuuanu, Honolulu in 1975. During this time, Yoshinaga met Kenshiro Otsuka, a financial backer to what would become the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii (JCCH), and quickly became friends. According to both current Kenshikan Dojo Chief Instructor Garrett Matsumoto and longtime Kenshikan member Jack Yamada, Otsuka was willing to donate “close to a million dollars for a martial arts dojo in the JCCH.” When planning and construction was completed, Yoshinaga transferred his school once more to the JCCH in 1994 and honored Otsuka’s assistance by naming the school after him.[7]

Young Buddhists Association Tournament 1981. First row (L-R) Dwight Yoshinaga, Neil Arakaki, Garrett Matsumoto, Francis Arakaki, Iris Yoshinaga, Jill Yoshinaga, and Shigeo Yoshinaga Sensei. Second row (L-R) Jeff Taniguchi, Clint Tsubota, Carl Sasaki, and Dean Shimamoto. Source: Garrett Matsumoto.

Matsumoto recalls the Yoshinaga had a relaxed view on teaching the art to children, mentioning that “it was pretty much to have fun. He would always be smiling during keiko and encouraging at the same time.” Yamada remembers that Yoshinaga would have his students regularly practice the Nihon Kendo Kata, a requirement for exams, as opposed to kendo schools in Japan, “I hardly practice the Nihon Kendo Kata unless my exam was near. Regardless of the exams, Yoshinaga Sensei always had the students do Nihon Kendo Kata.” Yoshinaga’s kendo style was based around his small size and his ability to be quick. In matches with him, Matsumoto recollects always getting hit on the kote and the do; “even in his later years, he had the same enthusiasm and sharpness.”[8]

With his age starting to hinder his ability to train and instruct, Yoshinaga began passing on the school’s responsibilities to Katsumi Yamada in the late 1990s. Katsumi, much like his predecessor, began training kendo in Japan and moved to Oahu during his teenage years, later serving in the Vietnam War from 1971 to 1974. According to his son, Jack Yamada, Katsumi “always supported the late Shigeo Yoshinaga, which built a big trust and loyalty [between the two].” Jack also noticed that whenever his father was teaching, he “always gave a straight answer, scolded people with the right and wrong, never chose favorite people, and was always fair to everyone [original emphasis] and he just did his best to make everyone feel comfortable in the dojo.” Matsumoto adds that Katsumi “retained the same teaching aspects of Yoshinaga Sensei […] and also put his own perspective on teaching adult students.” However, he became ill in 2016 and, much like Yoshinaga, began assigning his responsibilities to the current Kenshikan Chief Instructor, Garrett Matsumoto, saying, “I told him it was an honor to continue on with Kenshikan.”[9]

Kenshikan Tournament 2017. First row: Myles Oh, Second row (L-R) Brandyn Matsumoto, Junsei Tanizaki, Cade Matsumoto, and Katsumi Yamada Sensei. Source: Garrett Matsumoto.

Matsumoto began training in kendo in 1977, when he was seven, mainly because his parents “thought that judo and karate were too violent [for him].” He trained under Yoshinaga at the YBA dojo until Matsumoto went on hiatus around age eighteen. He returned to the art after a few years, following his former instructor to the JCCH. During the time he returned, Matsumoto recalls that “Yoshinaga Sensei was still going to kendo, but he had let Yamada Sensei do more of the running of the dojo […] Yoshinaga Sensei was about eighty years old.” When Matsumoto became the Kenshikan’s Chief Instructor, he “was a bit nervous when [he] took over,” because “as a student, you tend to just learn and listen to what your sensei says, and apply it. As the teacher, you are the one that’s learning the most, because you have to make sure what you’re saying is correct and show examples.” Since assuming his new position, Matsumoto has organized an annual demonstration “with adults and kids” for the Ohana Festival at the JCCH; since 2020, he has offered teaching a kendo class to the contestants of the Cherry Blossom Festival, both in an effort to raise awareness of kendo.[10]

Noboru Akagi is one man who many Hawaiian kenshi consider “the most instrumental pioneer for kendo in Hawaii” and, as such, served as the president of HKF. A “highly accomplished cardiothoracic surgeon,” Akagi moved to the area from Japan in 1954 and founded the Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club in 1965, which was originally named the Aiea Taiheiji Godo Kai, according to Michael Sone. To Sone, after the school’s opening, Akagi “lead [Hawaiian] kendo into true postwar renaissance.” As president of the HKF, according to the current Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club Chief Instructor Braxton Fukutomi, Akagi “played an integral role in establishing Hawaii Kendo Federation as an independent organization of the International Kendo Federation.” Sone asserts that it was the physician’s “determination and regal manner” that convinced the majority of the International Kendo Federation (FIK) to allow the HKF to remain independent of the All United States Kendo Federation. To this day, continues Sone, the HKF must “put in a good showing in the World Kendo Championships as it is always questioned why it is not a part of the All US Kendo Federation.”[11]

In his achievement of gaining recognition for the HFK as an independent kendo organization, Akagi also helped facilitate and grow an international relationship between Japan and Hawaii. By doing so, the kenshi physician created opportunities for Japanese and Hawaiian practitioners to train across the Pacific. Additionally, in the efforts to maintain the relationships, Akagi set a precedence of taking Hawaiian students and traveling with them to train in Japan, which soon led to the HKF hosting international goodwill kendo tournaments. Because of his commitment and achievements within kendo, Akagi was the first person outside of Japan to receive the Yukosho Award, an award, in the words of Fukutomi, “given to only a select few who have contributed greatly to kendo at the local and international levels.”[12]

Dr. Noboru Akagi in the foreground and Arnold Fukutomi in the background (right). Source: Braxton Fukutomi.

After Akagi’s tenure as HKF president, Iwao Sato assumed his role, however, many kenshi consider Sato’s successor Arnold Fukutomi as another pioneer in Hawaiian kendo, having a major impact on the art’s dissemination and development on the Islands. Arnold began training kendo under Akagi at the age of ten when his grandmother enrolled him and his brother, Bryant, after scolding them, “if you’re going to fight with sticks, learn the right way.” Arnold’s training routine was intensive, as Bryant recalls, swinging the shinai close to 1,000 times in one training session: “Usually you swing it 100 times you get tired, but he wanted to see if he could swing it 1,000 times.” Because of his training regimen and his determination, he was the first Hawaiian-born kenshi to receive the rank of nanadan, or seventh degree black belt, in the art. As Akagi grew older, the instructor began giving more school responsibilities to him until Akagi gave Arnold ownership of Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club in 1990. By way of marriage, Arnold also became the chief instructor of Seibukan Kendo Club (now Waipahu Seibukan Kendo Club).[13]

Hawaiian kenshi recall that Arnold would lead by example, saying, “everybody who knew him for any period of time aspired to be like him.” Always a competitor, he won titles while in Canada and at the third World Kendo Championships (WKC) in Sapporo, Japan, in 1979. He would later compete a total of eight times at the WKC, which are held every three years. Arnold stepped down from competing to become the HFK president. When he assumed the new position, his goals were to “foster cultural awareness through an environment that promotes and preserves the heritage unique to Japanese ancestry” and to “provide opportunities for continuous learning and self-improvement in which personal creativity, excellence and spirit of community are cultivated.” His son, Braxton, keeps these two philosophies close to his heart “along with [his] sense of creating a strong family-centered atmosphere” at the Aiea Taiheiji Kendo Club.[14]

In addition to his political and administrative role as president, Arnold also doubled as the Team Hawaii coach, coaching the national kendo team five times at the WKC. A tribute to his love of kendo, he was training the team for the 2015 WKC when he passed away suddenly while jogging in 2014 at the age of fifty-seven. His teams produced four kantosho (fighting spirit) recipients, a testament to his kendo and coaching skill. While president, he helped foster more international relationships, especially with Canada; “we continue to have that relationship and friendship outside of Hawaii,” states Matsumoto.[15]

As others assumed the role of President at the HKF, all of them grappled with the issue of expanding the organization’s membership and piquing the interests of the younger demographics without sacrificing the essence of the art. One factor, as former HKF president Kathleen Nekomoto asserts, is the overall interests of the younger generations, teetering more towards Western sports like soccer, basketball, and football. To others, it is a lack of exposure to and education for people outside of the kendo community, as Braxton puts it, “they often compare it to simple ‘stick fighting’ or to Star Wars.” However, Michael Sone contends that students’ perception of utility in the modern world, citing his time teaching both karate and kendo at the Maui Community College: “My karate class was full […where] students wanted to learn self-defense and on the kendo side, my one student wanted to learn about the samurai.” From these factors, it is safe to assume that the younger demographics are not actively choosing or seeking out kendo as an extracurricular activity.[16]

Evident throughout its history, kendo schools and organizations in Hawaii have utilized the power of demonstrations and tournaments to attract new and potential members, however, this method seems to have the current leadership under Masayuki Furutani considering other options. Furutani and the HKF considers integrating the Japanese sword art into the public school system in Hawaii, very similar to how judo and kendo are offered in schools in Japan. This plan, however, at the time of writing, has been put on hold with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic that caused many countries to cease all nonessential activities in favor of lockdowns. Because of the pandemic, many schools have taken to virtual classes, using the teleconferencing software Zoom to continue instruction and keep in contact with students. The turnout, according to Matsumoto, has been light because many “may not have the technology or the area to practice at their homes, but if we can keep that up, kendo will be around after the pandemic.” Sone hints that this virtual route is a way to reach that young audience kendo has been searching for: “With the advent of YouTube, sharing kendo and kendo information has really improved. This has made for students that are more serious about the practice of kendo.”[17]

At the time of writing, the world is still confronting the various faces of the coronavirus pandemic. Some schools, with the rescinded government mandates, have resumed classes, taking extra precautions to remain safe and healthy. The future of kendo is unknown in the Hawaiian Islands, however, there are some kenshi who remain positive. Braxton suggests taking action by “actively try[ing] to engage the members at our local clubs to prevent their passion for kendo from waning and to bring back normalcy to each other’s lives.” Matsumoto agrees with Braxton’s course of action, saying as “long as I keep kendo in the back of [the students’] minds, it’s good.” Lastly, Sone views the current pandemic as a challenge, asserting that “this challenge offered by the pandemic will only assure an evolution of kendo into a much more vibrant and alluring way. […] I believe it will be a new way of the sword; the heritage of the past provides a strong place for the rudder to be affixed to navigate towards the future destiny of kendo.”[18]

Only time will tell of the evolution and survival of kendo in Hawaii.


[1] Hawaii Kendo Federation, “History,” Hawaii Kendo Federation, 2005, accessed March 20, 2020, http://hawaiikendofederation.org/history; Alexander Bennett, Kendo: Culture of the Sword, 24th ed. (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015), 205; Joseph R Svinth, “Kendo in North America, 1885-1955,” in Martial Arts in the Modern World (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003), 194–150, 153–56.

[2] Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone: A Sone Kendo History in Hawaii Part I,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), June 8, 2021, accessed August 19, 2021, https://maytt.home.blog/2021/06/08/interview-with-hawaiian-kenshi-michael-sone-a-sone-kendo-history-in-hawaii-part-i/.

[3] Hawaii Kendo Federation, “History”; Svinth, “Kendo in North America, 1885-1955,” 149–50.

[4] Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone: A Sone Kendo History of Hawaii Part II,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), June 10, 2021, accessed August 19, 2021, https://maytt.home.blog/2021/06/10/interview-with-hawaiian-kenshi-michael-sone-a-sone-kendo-history-of-hawaii-part-ii/; Svinth, “Kendo in North America, 1885-1955,” 162; Richard Schmidt, “The Historical Development of Kendo in the United States,” Budo Gaku Kenkyu 14, no. 3 (1982): 4.

[5] Hawaii Kendo Federation, “History”; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone,” June 10, 2021.

[6] Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone,” June 10, 2021.

[7] Hawaii Kendo Federation, “History”; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto: The Kenshikan Kendo Dojo,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), January 6, 2021, accessed August 19, 2021, https://maytt.home.blog/2021/01/06/interview-with-hawaiian-kenshi-garrett-matsumoto-the-kenshikan-kendo-dojo/; Antonio Aloia, “Four Strikes with Hawaiian Kenshi Jack Yamada: The Kenshikan,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), December 9, 2020, accessed August 19, 2021https://maytt.home.blog/2020/12/09/four-strikes-with-hawaiian-kenshi-jack-yamada-the-kenshikan/.

[8] Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto”; Aloia, “Four Strikes with Hawaiian Kenshi Jack Yamada.”

[9] Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto”; Aloia, “Four Strikes with Hawaiian Kenshi Jack Yamada”; “Katsumi ‘Kats’ Yamada Obituary,” accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.tributearchive.com/obituaries/2658475/Katsumi-Kats-Yamada.

[10] Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto.”

[11] Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Hawaiian Kenshi Braxton Fukutomi: Continuing His Family’s Legacy,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), November 23, 2020, accessed August 19, 2021, https://maytt.home.blog/2020/11/23/interview-with-longtime-hawaiian-kenshi-braxton-fukutomi-continuing-his-familys-legacy/; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone,” June 10, 2021; Curtis Murayama, “Arnold Fukutomi,1956 – 2014,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 2014, sec. Family Placed Obituaries | Death Notices, accessed April 7, 2021, https://obits.staradvertiser.com/2014/05/04/arnold-fukutomi-1956-2014/.

[12] Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Former Hawaii Kendo Federation President Kathleen Nekomoto: Her Time as President,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), April 28, 2021, accessed August 19, 2021, https://maytt.home.blog/2021/04/28/interview-with-former-hawaii-kendo-federation-president-kathleen-nekomoto-her-time-as-president/; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto”; Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Hawaiian Kenshi Braxton Fukutomi.”

[13] Murayama, “Arnold Fukutomi,1956 – 2014”; Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Hawaiian Kenshi Braxton Fukutomi.”

[14] Murayama, “Arnold Fukutomi,1956 – 2014”; Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Hawaiian Kenshi Braxton Fukutomi.”

[15] Murayama, “Arnold Fukutomi,1956 – 2014”; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone,” June 10, 2021; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto.”

[16] Aloia, “Interview with Former Hawaii Kendo Federation President Kathleen Nekomoto”; Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Hawaiian Kenshi Braxton Fukutomi”; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone,” June 10, 2021.

[17] Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Hawaiian Kenshi Braxton Fukutomi”; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto”; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone,” June 10, 2021.

[18] Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Garrett Matsumoto”; Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Hawaiian Kenshi Braxton Fukutomi”; Aloia, “Interview with Hawaiian Kenshi Michael Sone,” June 10, 2021.

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