Interview with Longtime Kenshi Masaharu Makino: Kendo and University

Masaharu Makino began training kendo in Japan at a young age, later joining the Kagoshima Police Department, continuing his training. In the late 1970s, Masaharu relocated to Los Angeles, taking an administrative role in both the All United States Kendo Federation and the Southern California Kendo Organization. With the help of his son, Nathan, he helped establish the UCLA Kendo Club. Today, Masaharu took some time to talk about his kendo background and the establishment of a collegiate kendo club. Special thanks to Nathan Makino for proctoring this interview. All images provided by Masaharu and Nathan Makino.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk about collegiate kendo!

Masaharu Makino: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: When did you first start kendo and how have you seen the art change from when you first began? Would these changes be considered for the betterment or the corrosion of the art?

Masaharu Makino stands ready for the next strike.

MM: At ten years of age, I started kendo in Kagoshima without much thought due to the influence of my parents and manga (Akado Suzunosuke). 

It may be considered that one focuses on ‘shiai kendo’ (competitive matches) in their prime years, and later it becomes necessary to train in the ‘proper kendo’ once one retires from competition. Actually, it is essential to receive coaching in both practices simultaneously throughout one’s journey.

Kendo training requires many years, so for one to focus and pontificate about mid-progress kendo is to lose sight of “proper kendo.” At the present, as far as I can see at the World Kendo Championships (WKC), participants are excessively concerned about the outcome (victory or defeat) and have lost the original kendo form. I cannot bear watching it.

However, the participants selected to represent Japan have an understanding of ‘proper kendo’ and should undoubtedly become magnificent kendo leaders upon retirement from competition.

MAYTT: What was the kendo community like in Southern California when you first began training/teaching in the region? Was it a robust community where members could freely speak and train with each other or was it pockets of isolated schools and members, training amongst themselves?

MM: Back in those days, the kendo community equated to the Japanese community, and many Nikkei connected through kendo practice. Most keiko (practice) locations were at Japanese schools established by Nikkei Americans. Regardless of race, anyone who wanted to practice kendo was welcome to participate.

MAYTT: It sounded like it was a united community. Before helping to establish the UCLA Kendo club, you taught at Long Beach Kendo Dojo. Could you tell us some more of your teaching background and how you helped disseminate and solidify kendo in Southern California?

MM: Before coming to America, I studied kendo in Japan under Hiroshi Osawa Sensei at Asia University in Tokyo. Upon graduation, I joined the Kagoshima Police Department and continued kendo there. I moved to Los Angeles for business in the late 1970s and initially joined Chuo Dojo as a member and later became an instructor at Covina Dojo in the late 1980s after Akio Hara Sensei retired.

In the early 1990s, I joined Long Beach Dojo. Above me was Atsushi Hori Sensei (deceased), a splendid practitioner, who also learned kendo in Japan from Yoshiaki Tamari Sensei of Waseda University. Since both of our senseis were well renowned in Japan and Hori Sensei taught the proper kendo he learned, I placed my membership in Long Beach Dojo.

Members of the UCLA Kendo Club.

MAYTT: Your son, Nathan, mentioned that you were a major figure in the kendo federations/organizations, both in the state and the country. Could you elaborate on some of the positions you held and policies/actions you put into place that benefited the larger kendo community?

MM: At the present, I have left all official managerial positions due to my age. Mainly, my positions included:

Director & Auditor, All United States Kendo Federation (AUSKF)
President, Southern California Kendo Organization (SCKO)
Team USA Manager, World Kendo Championship (WKC)
Referee Judge, World Kendo Championship (WKC)

At that time, AUSKF was still a fledgling organization, and their financial management was loose. In order to clearly manage funds, I implemented the membership card system. Through this, the massive financial deficit was neutralized. 

The first work tackled in SCKO was to establish the organizational structure to include departments for shinsa (promotion), competition, education, etc.

MAYTT: Who would you consider having helped disseminate and solidify kendo within Southern California and beyond? What set these individuals apart from their contemporaries?

MM: The many immigrants who studied kendo in Japan.

MAYTT: You and Nathan founded the kendo club at UCLA. What influenced your decision to build up a club and program in a university? What were some of the goals you were trying to achieve by going through the University?

MM: When Nathan was admitted to UCLA, he took the opportunity to create a kendo club during his freshman year and invited me to be the shihan (head instructor). I felt it would be nice for UCLA to have the University Kendo I experienced in Japan, so I consented to be shihan.

When observing kendo lovers from around here, I notice that manners and etiquette are not emphasized, and practices are predominantly conducted with a sports mentality. So, the Yuhihai Intercollegiate Kendo Tournaments organized by UCLA Kendo serve as an example for other university students to learn kendo etiquette and courtesy.

The objective goals for UCLA students, who are mostly kendo beginners, to achieve by graduation time are: 1) to obtain the rank of shodan, 2) to use something learned from kendo after graduation in one’s work, and 3) to be lifelong friends with members who graduate from UCLA Kendo and maintain that bond between seniors and juniors for life.

MAYTT: Interesting. What are some of the advantages of holding a kendo club through the University? How do you see collegiate clubs impacting the larger American kendo community? Is the future of kendo, or part of the art, through university clubs?

MM: When grouped together with the same generation and tasked with managing the kendo club over the course of four years, students make strong bonds and friendships that last a lifetime. Furthermore, through reciprocal exchange of information and exposure to a breadth of people and experiences, one becomes capable of a wider range of activity in one’s vocation.

Graduates may find local dojos close to their workplace and proceed to practice there. Then they will meld into that regional kendo community.

Since American kendo is supported by local people, without major support from American Universities, we cannot expect widespread development in national collegiate kendo at this time.

Makino (right) preparing to engage.

MAYTT: In speaking with other kenshi, many have emphasized self-cultivation over competition while others asserted that competition is slowly corrupting the art. What are your views on this issue and how has the UCLA Kendo club tried to balance competition and self-cultivation in its training?

MM: When you state that many people in America have emphasized self-cultivation over competition, it is questionable whether they comprehend the meaning.

I am still inexperienced myself, and the road to kendo mastery is still distant. I question whether one who does not fully understand can say that competition is destroying proper kendo. Those who understand proper kendo should be able to use the appropriate kendo technique based on the situation. Just as it can be said about any competitive event that draws a crowd, competition is absolutely essential to increase the kendo population.

At UCLA practices, the balance between competition and personal development is as follows:  Form, style, and valid points are visible on the surface, and coaching is provided if there are deficient areas. When it comes to self-development, it is difficult to provide guidance for what does not appear as an external form. Even if students practice amongst themselves, they will not arrive at the discovery of proper kendo. Instead, it will just be a striking match. 

I think proper kendo is acquired for the first time after practicing with one’s teacher over a long period of time. Additionally, one should increase the practice quantity of proper Nihon Kendo Kata (forms) under the direct guidance of one’s teacher. Kendo kata uses a bokuto (wooden sword) and even though there is an opponent, it is a mental battle with oneself. By practicing correct kata, one starts to recognize proper kendo form, and this naturally translates to improvement in shinai based matches.

The recent Olympics had kata contests within the karate competition event, and I thought it was a very good thing. If time permits, kendo tournaments can include kata contests, and it will likely change the mindset towards kendo. There are already some regions in Japan that have incorporated kata competitions into tournaments.

Given the current circumstances in America, although I think it is difficult for there to be 100% complete comprehension of kendo, it can at least be considered ‘OK’ that kendo has carried on via competition.

MAYTT: Final question. With restrictions slowly being lifted from daily life, what do you think kendo’s future will look like in both the short term and the long term? How do you think kendo as an art with rebound here in the United States from the recent pandemic?

MM: The initial goals for kendo members are the acquisition of dan (rank) and participation in tournaments, but the pandemic prevented these events for more than a year. Recently however, practices have resumed like before, and very few people have left kendo. I even heard the number of participants is similar to that of pre-covid times.

From now on, it is increasingly difficult to obtain visas from Japan. The number of Nikkei Americans, Japanese expatriates, and the general Japanese population is declining. Unlike endemic European nations, America is a country of immigrants, so I think the spread of kendo will be difficult.

The UCLA Kendo club experienced an abrupt halt to practice, and many students graduated without practicing again.  Then another year went by without access to the campus gym or new members, so it will be challenging going forward.

Even if the kendo activity is subdued, as it adapts and copes with the circumstances, I am confident that Kendo as an art will be preserved.

MAYTT: Thank you for joining us, Sensei! We enjoyed the discussion!

MM: It was a pleasure.

Makino (left) participating in a two-person kendo kata.

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