Interview with New Mexico Kendo Kai Founder Davis Begay: Maki Miyahara’s Influence

Davis Begay began his kendo training while he was in Japan, serving with the Marine Corp Air Station in Iwakuni. He later found a club at the University of New Mexico upon his return stateside, subsequently taking over the club and practice. That soon became the basis for his New Mexico Kendo Kai, receiving much guidance from Californian pioneer Maki Miyahara. Today, Begay took some time to talk about the guidance and his school. All images provided by Davis Begay.

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

Davis Begay: I am excited for the opportunity to be here!

MAYTT: How and when did you first begin your kendo training? What aspect of the sword art caught your attention, and did you know that it was going to become a lifelong endeavor?

DB: I do not remember what year I started to learn kendo but maybe early or late 1980s. When I was stationed in Japan at the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, I would visit Hiroshima a lot. It was during one of my trips I heard and watched some kendo keiko behind a large department store. During the 1970s, I later learned many department stores had kendo clubs. This practice disappeared in time.

The keiko reminded me of a movie. Without knowing at the time, I saw kendo for the first time in a movie back in the 1950s called Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. The movie was about a marine and nun stranded on an island when the Japanese army came.

When I returned to New Mexico, settled down with a job and started to earn a university degree, I saw a group of three practicing kendo outside on a grassy field. Meeting and talking with them started me on a path into kendo. The instructor, K.C. Kim, was a Korean and taught engineering at the university. Unfortunately, he did not stay long after I started and the kendo club fell on the shoulders of a Japanese student attending the university, then later on mine. We were able to practice at a local YMCA, as one of the members had a membership. It was during this time I had my first setback: a ruptured Achilles tendon, just before we ended keiko for the day. Later on, in 2012, I experienced my second set back when I needed complete knee replacement.

After my first return, I was able to make arrangements with the university to use one of the gyms on campus, because one Japanese student was enrolled. We lasted about fourteen years on campus.

My journey as a kendo student has been long and I am still going forward in learning.

Davis Begay (right) drilling with a student.

MAYTT: Which university campus did you move the dojo to, and did it become a club there? If so, how was the club received by the student body and how was that different from your experience holding the dojo at local community centers?

DB: We are at the University of New Mexico (UNM) as a student club. The university allowed fifty percent UNM students and fifty percent non-university students to be members. During the first part of our history on campus, we used the oldest gym, which was great. The wooden floor was perfect for kendo. Visiting sensei(s) really love the floor.

Later in time, other student clubs wanted the gym and the university changed its policy on membership, students only. It became a problem. A UNM staff member asked us to move to another gym to make “peace,” which turned out better. The new area for us was a new dance studio within the gym complex with mirrors. Again, it was perfect. However, policy changed again to use studio, which cut down student memberships. This ended our time at UNM. We still had our other location at the Kirtland Air Force Base, twice a week. Over time, with the base’s new commander and policy, we left but with luck, the city opened a new community center.

MAYTT: Sounds like it was an ordeal! How have you seen kendo training evolve and change since you began practicing the art? Would these changes be for the betterment of the art; how so?

DB: I have seen and experienced changes from the time I started. I had the great opportunity to learn from kendo senseis who really believe in authentic kendo. To me, and others I know have the same opinion: today’s kendo is more towards winning tournaments.

The All Japan Kendo Federation changed some of the kendo katas’ movements, but one change that was beneficial for beginners was adding another kata series, Bokuto no yoru kendo waza. This kata helps the beginning kyu ranks to shodan understand more of the basics in kendo.

Maki Miyahara in the middle of instruction.

MAYTT: According to the New Mexico Kendo Kai (NMKK) website, the school was established in 1990. How did the school come to be and who helped form the school?

DB: I need to go back to the first question and add some information. After my surgery for the ruptured Achilles tendon, I was in rehab when I learned of the AUSKF and the regional federation was holding a national tournament in Dallas, Texas. I went for two reasons as the leader of NMKK: one, to ask permission for New Mexico Kendo Kai to join the national and regional federation; and two, see the event. I was still on crutches at the time when I attended. I was invited to join both federations and over time, became great friends with the members, who are now gone or went different paths.

In time, I became the regional federation’s treasurer. The federation held workshops and seminars, which, during these times, I met Maki Miyahara Sensei, Art Murakami Sensei, Masami Yamaguchi Sensei, Masashi Shikai Sensei, and many others who help NMKK, great deal. Miyahara Sensei was also there for me and others to learn kendo, as he was taught. Miyahara Sensei’s support is what kept us on track. His teaching was recognized, as he received Japan’s Emperor Award for his devotion to teaching kendo.

MAYTT: What led you to assume the role of treasurer for the Southwest Kendo & Iaido Federation and how did that responsibility change your perspective on kendo, if at all?

Miyahara receiving The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays in 2011 due to his contributions to the kendo community and enhancing friendly relationship between Japan and the United States.

DB: The SWKIF was small compared to what it is now. I was able to attend federation meetings as a head representative of NMKK. During one of the board meetings, I was elected as treasurer. Being a small federation was good in everyone helped with organizing events at each dojo during the year. The bigger events were in Phoenix or Dallas, as it was easy for visiting sensei(s). Leadership changed and one of the federation’s goals became to have the most states under its region.

MAYTT: Additionally, the site mentions a connection to Maki Miyahara as a mentor for the school. Could you tell us a little bit more about that connection, how it came about, and how did he help guide the school and its students throughout its history?

DB: The Phoenix Kendo Dojo held workshops and demos for Japanese festivals, which I would attend as Miyahara Sensei would teach and be part of the demonstrations. He would come to New Mexico when I was able to organize workshops and seminars. Sometimes, other sensei would come with him. If you wanted to learn, Sensei was there for you.

One time when I was in California visiting a dojo for practice, one of the sensei told me that some of my movements reminded him of Miyahara Sensei. That comment made me so humble that someone noticed I was still following Sensei’s teachings. I am still trying to follow his teachings.

Miyahara Sensei encouraged one to ask questions if one did not understand a technique. He always emphasized that kendo uses natural movements to help one understand techniques.

MAYTT: Many kenshi in Southern California consider Maki Miyahara as a pioneer of the art. In your opinion, what about him set himself apart from his contemporaries?

DB: Miyahara Sensei taught kendo like he learned from his father – authentic kendo. He always expressed the proper way of kendo and it’s building one’s character. In fact, which many do not know, Miyahara Sensei mentioned to me that he wanted to write a book on kendo. Unfortunately, he was not able to complete it. His method of teaching kendo was different from Japan as they did not explain. You learn by watching. Over time, this has been changed by the All Japan Kendo Federation.

It is hard to explain Miyahara Sensei in words and his devotion to kendo. One had to have been there to understand.

MAYTT: I see. Throughout his mentorship, what were some of the lessons Miyahara taught that resonated the most with you?

DB: Proper kendo and kendo should be as natural as your usual movements.

A 2020 seminar led by Masashi Shikai (front row, second from left) in Taos, New Mexico with Begay (front row, third from left).

MAYTT: What can you tell us about the Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation (RMKIF)? When was it formed and who were some of its founding members? How do you feel the Federation has helped disseminate and solidify kendo’s position in the Rocky Mountain area?

DB: I really don’t know the history of the RMKIF. I joined them as Miyahara Sensei told me to. He also told me to see Hideki Iwakabe Sensei because of some political trouble I had with the other federation. Miyahara Sensei did not like what occurred and asked to see Iwakabe Sensei. I met with Iwakabe Sensei, and he accepted me and NMKK.

I know Iwakabe Sensei has good relationships with top senseis in Japan and was able to have them come to Denver, Colorado. Iwakabe Sensei knows personally high-level sensei from Japan that he learned from and tries to bring them over stateside for seminars and workshops.

MAYTT: When you began teaching, how did that experience change your perspective on kendo? What aspects did you find you needed to improve on and make modifications on? What new responsibilities surprised you when you assumed the role of instructor?

DB: Politics, I tried to stay away from kendo politics, as it is not good for the art of kendo.

From my opportunity to practice in Japan and having sensei from Japan visit me, they made comments that I am too easy. I told them I cannot teach kendo like in Japan as I would not have many students. During the times I was in Japan to practice, training was tough, especially in July and August.

Teaching is difficult as the Japanese and American cultures are different. Japanese upbringing is different than in the United States. California has a better situation compared to other states that have a large community of Japanese and Japanese Americans. These communities hold on to their culture. This makes teaching martial arts easier. For this reason, I do not advertise. If one wants to learn, they will find me.

Like other kendo instructors, finding a location ideal for kendo is tough and sometimes expensive. For this reason, I and others use local community centers, churches, and schools. We recently experienced a shift in location due to expenses. To my surprise, after informing the members and their families, they came back in support. They wanted to help more with the finances. This support showed me how the dojo connected everyone, members and family. It also reminded me of the following section from the The Purpose of Practicing Kendo (AJKF)  “… to hold in esteem human courtesy and honour, to associate with others with sincerity.”

MAYTT: That’s an interesting take on that. 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 New Mexico Kendo Kai and the Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation, to remedy the situation, barring the current situation?

DB: Kendo is not looked at as a martial art for personal protection – that is a big factor. I have students who train for their interest in Japanese culture and the sword. There is some interest in the local and regional tournaments.

Movies create a lot of interest, which is not good for kendo as people expect the same while learning kendo.

A seminar led by Maki Miyahara and Nori Nidda in Phoenix, Arizona. Front row (L-R): Russell Ichimura, Dallas; Charles Riddle, Dallas; Adriane Glaraton, Phoenix; Takeshi Yamaguchi, SCKF; Maki Miyahara, SCKF; Mark Uchida, Colorado; Carl Bashem (Bashum), Dallas. Back row: Davis Begay, NMKK; David Gillette, NMKK; Tami Higure, Phoenix; unknown, unknown, Jerry Hurley, Nori Nidda, NMKK/Japan; unknown.

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?

DB: Like I mentioned before, kendo is experiencing a change from basic kendo. The true meaning of kendo and its origin are left behind. The All Japan Kendo Federation and the International Kendo Federation have been taking steps to hold on to kendo by sending sensei worldwide to teach and monitor federations and dojos.

MAYTT: Final question. With everything that is currently happening in the world in regards to the pandemic, what do you think kendo’s future will look like? Will there be a resurgence of practitioners, or will there be a further decline in numbers? How will the art adapt to these constant changes?

DB: NMKK has seen an increase with membership once we started to hold practice after the city and state lifted some COVID-19 health restrictions. The new members are mostly Asians – Korean and Chinese.

I believe California and other western states along the Pacific Coast are in good shape because of the Japanese and Japanese American communities. They have strong membership within the federations.

Kendo will adapt as it did after World War II.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us, Sensei!

DB: I was glad to be here.

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