Interview with Mushinkan Dojo Founder Mark Uchida: Training with Giants, Part I

Mark Uchida first saw Chūshingura when he was a child and was immediately hooked on Japanese swordsmanship. Unfortunately, he never really found a place to train until 1973. From there, he dived deeply into both kendo and iaido, which he started learning a year after kendo. He would later become the first head of the All United States Kendo Federation’s Iaido Development Committee, setting the groundwork for many within iaido in the United States. Additionally, he established his Mushinkan Dojo in different forms since 1985 and has had extensive experience training in Japan with some of the top kendo and iaido practitioners of the time, including Tadanori Ota and Katsuo Oda. All images provided by Mark Uchida, except when noted. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

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

Mark Uchida: It is my pleasure.

MAYTT: According to your biography, kendo was your first passion. How and when did you find yourself training kendo? What was it about the art that made you want to stay?

Mark Uchida being part of a kendo kata demonstration.

MU: I can’t remember how old I was when my parents took me to see Chūshingura, a 1962 Japanese film based on the revenge of the 47 Rōnin. After that, I became fascinated with samurai budō culture – swordsmanship in particular – but at that time I had no knowledge of modern kendō. Fascination turned to passion every time my father told me the family legends of my great-great-grandfather’s exploits. From that point forward, I yearned to learn swordsmanship. Had I known about kendō, I would have started much earlier, perhaps as early as my fourth or fifth year of elementary school.

When I was maybe nine or ten years old, my mother enrolled me in summer art classes at a studio called The Little Theater in the Applewood residential area of Golden, Colorado. There was a sign in the window advertising kendō classes. I asked my mother what kendō was. She replied that it was “fighting with sticks.” What immediately came to mind was pugil sticks, which I had no interest in. I don’t know why my mother described it the way she did, but I believe all things happen in their own time, and that just wasn’t the time. Over thirty years later, I went back to The Little Theater in an attempt to gather information on the long history of kendō in Colorado. To my surprise, David Thornsberry, a high school classmate, was the proprietor. According to David, who is the son of the original studio owners, the kendō classes were taught by a gentleman named Warren Flickinger. Unfortunately, David didn’t know where and from whom Mr. Flickinger learned his kendō, or if he held any certification or rank. The only information David was able to provide me was that Flickinger taught for several years in the 1960s, and later moved to Europe to pursue his love of auto racing. He did achieve a level of success, based on information I acquired from internet searches.

By the time I learned what kendō was, Warren Flickinger had moved on and The Little Theater no longer offered kendō. Another school of kendō wouldn’t exist in Denver until 1973. That year, one of my mother’s best friends who knew about my wanting to learn kendō told her about two gentlemen, also family acquaintances, who were going to start teaching. I was there for the first class, and I have been practicing ever since.

In the early years of my kendō career, I stayed with the art because it was giving me so much; it was giving me a sense of cultural identity, pride, and success. Being third-generation Japanese American, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in a neighborhood with few other minorities was a challenge. World War II was still fresh in the minds of Americans, especially the Issei and Nisei, first- and second-generation Japanese Americans, who were deprived of their Fifth Amendment rights, stripped of their property and livelihoods, and forced into American concentration camps just because of their ethnicity. My parents wanted us to assimilate into American culture so we would never have to suffer the same hardships. Bottom line, my parents raised us to be Americans, giving us western names and installing in us the culture of the Japanese American experience, which is centered around gaman (我慢), or perseverance – to endure the unendurable without complaint – and the honor, loyalty, and courage, of the Nisei – those who went to war and those who stood up in protest and challenged the government in courts of law. Although proud of this heritage, and admittedly it has had the greatest influence on my life’s path, as a youth it fell short of giving me a clear identity. Kendō filled this void, giving me something through which I could connect with my Japanese roots and also connect with the family culture – the culture that was mine by birthright and which I desperately sought to know more about.

Being the youngest in a family of overachievers, kendō was also my avenue to express myself. As my kendō progressed, it installed in me a sense that I could not just succeed in something but excel; it was the seed of my self-esteem. This kind of confidence boost is huge for a child that is struggling in school, such as I was. Yes, my grades improved, but my three brothers not only excelled academically, but they were also all notable athletes. My two oldest brothers were top competitive swimmers. My second brother held state records and my oldest brother held the Rocky Mountain AAU record in the 100 freestyle, which was one of the top five times in the country and earned him an invitation to the US Olympic trials for the 1964 Tokyo games. But many factors, including my father’s emphasis on academics, precluded his participation in the trials and competing at the world level. My third brother was an exceptional football player and earned a college scholarship but turned it down to focus on his pre-dental studies. Of course, growing up in Colorado, my two older brothers and I were, in all modesty, equaled on the ski slopes by only a very few others, but it was kendō that allowed me to stand apart, and it changed my life in ways too numerous to detail.

Like anything, there have been difficult times throughout my kendō career, and the thought of quitting has crossed my mind from time to time. However, there has always been something to keep me going. In the specific instances I can recall, it was mostly obligations that kept me going. In Japanese, it’s call giri (義理). I have giri to my family to set a good example and never bring shame, giri to the people who taught me and helped me along my way, and giri to my students to support them and pass along the knowledge that has been so graciously passed to me over the years. Probably most of all, I have giri to myself to stay true to my passion – this inspired greatly by the words of Brigadier General Charles McGee spoken to my daughter and passed to me: “If you think negatively, you are taking your eyes off the target.”

MAYTT: Additionally, you practice iaido and kyudo. What about these arts allowed you to gravitate towards them? How do they benefit your kendo practice, if at all, or do they provide benefit elsewhere in your life and training?

MU: Not long after starting kendō, I learned of iaidō and kyūdō. I gravitated toward iaidō because it was a practice of swordsmanship related to kendō. Japanese swords being another of my passions, iaidō has the attraction of using a sword instead of a bamboo fencing stave. It also has a piercing focus, yet calmness that I see in my kendō teacher, Ōta Tadanori.

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I first learned of kyūdō. I do recall my eye being caught by a particular scene in the second samurai movie I ever saw, Seven Samurai. The scene was where the leader of the seven samurai stood on a dirt mound in the pouring rain and shot several bandits from their horses. Although this scene left me questioning why they didn’t use the bow more in the battle, given how effective it was, to this day I still find myself captured by the regal elegance of kyūdō; quite the opposite of the physicality of kendō. It was this elegance that appealed to the artist in me. Perhaps when I retire, I will have time to pick up my bow again.

How do they benefit my kendō practice? Well, each complements the other in infinite ways. As Miyamoto Musashi wrote, once you find the way, you will find the way in all things. Of course, I use examples of kendō in iaidō, kyudo in kendō, etc., but during an iaidō class, it is not unusual for me to also show a video of a Mikhail Baryshnikov dance performance in order to emphasize certain elements of iaidō. Likewise, during a kendō class, I may show a video of Bruce Lee and relate his philosophies and techniques to kendō. They all complement each other once one understands the way. I would like to point out one specific area where kendō benefits iaidō. Through kendō, one learns interaction with an opponent (seme) and spatial interval between oneself and the opponent (maai), elements which I do not believe can be truly learned from practicing iaidō alone.

Uchida, smiling, on the last day of his deployment in Baghdad.

Elsewhere in my life, I have derived profound practical benefits from kendō and iaidō that are on the truest level of budō. Early 2004, I was a Navy Reserve Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG), commissioned from the enlisted ranks four years earlier. I was working as full-time support at a Navy Reserve center when I received mobilization orders in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). While en route to the command that I was assigned, I made a profound change in my budō focus. I had no idea what to expect once I got to my duty station – if I was going to remain in a support role in the States, or forward deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Given this, I concluded that my training needed to focus on iaidō. Kendō had prepared me for strategy and an open fight, but the situation I was most likely going to be in was one in which friend and foe would not be readily discernible and I would have to maintain readiness at all times. I decided iaidō was better suited to prepare me for such an environment, so as I was being in-processed at Naval Station Great Lakes, I went out, bought an oak plank, fashioned it into a practice sword and started honing my iaidō skills. April 2004, I got to my duty station in Tampa, Florida, and was immediately put on the forward deployment list – I was going to Baghdad. My wife sent me my iaitō and I practiced every day as part of my physical and mental preparation. In July 2004, I arrived in Baghdad, Iraq.

My iaidō teacher once jokingly likened iaidō to facing down an opponent in the streets in a Western gunfight. He never knew how true it was. We were attacked daily, and although we were in garrison, we nevertheless had to be constantly on our guard. There were times when walking across the base at night that something would catch my eye or ear and my iaidō instinct would kick in – my left arm clamping down on my shoulder harness as my right hand reached for my M9. Fortunately, the only thing that came of any of the events was a jackal jumping out of the brush, an odd-looking creature, but never was I startled or scared. I had applied my iaidō training in its true budō form.

Part of my duties in Baghdad was answering requests for information and providing assessments. I relied on my experiences in kendō and kendō politics. Once I was off on one of my assessments, and I apologized to the requester of the information. The guy told me not to worry, and that I had been spot-on every other time and I was their go-to-guy for information. At one point, I worked with a British officer who had practiced kendō at Oxford University. Together, we would collaborate on assessing situations, basing our judgements on elements in Musashi’s Book of Five Rings.

At the end of my deployment, I out-processed in Millington, Tennessee. While there, I stopped by to visit a friend. He invited me to his dōjō for their kendō and iaidō practices. Afterward, one of the students asked me if I missed practicing while I was deployed. I replied: “I practiced every day.” I left him with a bewildered look on his face. At a US iaidō camp, I was sitting with a guest instructor from Canada. When he found out I had been in Iraq, he said, “That’s it! I knew there was something different about your iai, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Now I know.” I have had similar comments about my kendō after my deployment. So, kendō and iaidō benefited me in the most practical way, and the experience changed the nature of my kendō and iaidō.

MAYTT: That is a benefit from kendo and iaido that many do not experience. Who was your first kendo teacher?

MU: My first teacher was Takeshi “Dick” Yamamoto. He was a student of Nakamura Tokichi who used to come to the United States to spread kendo along the West Coast. The Norwalk Dōjō 50th Anniversary webpage has a group photo with Yamamoto and Nakamura Tokichi in it. It is under the heading: “San Pedro Dojo at Terminal Island Shrine.” He along with his senpai Hara Akio and others were being groomed by Nakamura Sensei to be professional kendō instructors. Although I trained under Yamaguchi Takeshi Sensei when I was at Norwalk Dōjō, I was under the main tutelage of Hara Sensei, as he was Yamamoto Sensei’s senpai. On a side note, to show what a small world it is, Ōta Tadanori was the instructor of Nakamura Tokichi Sensei’s children. A photo of Nakamura Sensei’s children is directly under the photo with Yamamoto Sensei.

MAYTT: Moreover, you were one of the first chairpersons for the All United States Kendo Federations’s (AUSKF) Iaido Development Committee in 1994. What was that experience like and how would say that first committee helped establish the foundations the AUSKF would later utilize to further solidify and disseminate iaido in the United States?

MU: I was actually the very first to hold the Iaido Committee Chair for the AUSKF, although this fact has been quick to fade away, as many have selectively forgotten this to suit their personal agendas. I am an American, and an outspoken one at that, and my successes and my dissent to the foreign practices in the governance of the AUSKF are not looked upon favorably by the new generation of Japanese immigrants who dominate the board of directors. But the facts are all recorded in the corporate documents of the AUSKF, and elsewhere, and cannot be denied.

The post of Iaidō Development Committee Chairperson came with being the first AUSKF vice-president of Education. Nowadays, the two offices are separate, but back when the AUSKF was first established, it was just the VP of Education with all educational activities falling under the one office. Since iaidō was basically in its infancy, iaidō competitions and examinations also fell under the management of the iaidō committee. This too has since changed.

Uchida demonstrating an iaido kata.

Up until then, the administration of the national organization, the former Kendō Federation of the United States of America (KFUSA), was very much California-centric. For practitioners outside of California, there was little benefit to being affiliated with the KFUSA. As for the directors of the KFUSA, dealing with kendō outside of California was a secondary thought, perhaps even an annoyance. Having started my budō career in Colorado and later moving to Los Angeles for three years, I experienced both the inequity and the privilege. However, even within the borders of California, there was little organization of programs or instruction. It was almost like old Japan where feudal domains fell under the Shōgunate, but for the most part functioned according to their own influences and interests. It was my job to bring together all of kendō and iaidō across America, establish standards, and get the country headed in a unified direction. This proved to be a challenge from the start, with the largest obstacles being an almost non-existent budget and uncompromising opinions. But I had a plan that I had set in motion fifteen years earlier.

I trained in Japan from the summer of 1979 to the summer of 1980. It was during this time I recognized the chasm between Japanese and American kendō in respect to both knowledge and skill. I came up with an idea of holding a seminar in the US, led by the top teachers from Japan where dōjō leaders from across the US could come and learn how to properly instruct kendō while also improving their own kendō skills. An event such as this, led by the voices of authority – teachers at the highest level – even the most hardened attitudes and opinions could be swayed, and a baseline of what to instruct and how to instruct could be established. This, I believed, would elevate the level of kendō throughout the country, which would be followed by growing interest in kendō and in the national organization. Looking back, this was a bold idea for a twenty-two-year-old.

Most have probably forgotten, but until 1985, the leadership of the KFUSA had an isolationist attitude. The suggestion of inviting teachers from outside the US to give instruction was considered absurd. Even ranks received outside the United States were not recognized, which I and fellow kendōist Mark Grivas were repeatedly reminded of after we returned from Japan with our fourth dan. So, when I first proposed my idea of a national seminar led by teachers from Japan, the response was along the lines of, “Why should we invite teachers from Japan when we have our own teachers here?” To break this attitude, I knew I had to somehow make people see the disparities with their own eyes. I tried to find ways of my own to bring my idea to fruition, but support and potential sponsorships all had too many hitches, or simply fell through. Then in 1985, I arranged for Keishichō (Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department) kendō instructor Ōta Tadanori to come to the United States to train me for the 6th World Kendō Championship (WKC).

Such a request was unprecedented and had to go through official channels, meaning the request had to come from the KFUSA to the All Japan Kendō Federation (AJKF), and then from the AJKF to Keishichō. The short story is I had to agree to some very lopsided terms to move the KFUSA side, but it was the only way to get it done. In the end, I was successful in bringing Ōta Sensei to the US. As part of the agreement, Ōta Sensei spent time in Los Angeles. Everyone there was awestruck by his kendō and his refined character. From that point, doors opened before me.

Iaidō education at the national level had not been organized and sponsored by a national governing body until 1994 when I was treasurer and board member of the KFUSA. It was then that I coordinated the first national iaidō seminar and promotion examinations under the auspices of the KFUSA. The event took place in May in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The iaidō seminar had twenty-one participants and was led by Yamaguchi Takeshi from Los Angeles. In 1995, an iaidō seminar and competition was held in New York City, drawing forty-plus participants. Although this event was later touted as a KFUSA national event, it was privately organized and only after the fact was the KFUSA approached to help financially support the event, which it did, but only partially. Later the same year, the KFUSA was dissolved, and the board of directors was put in place for the new AUSKF. Although the AUSKF was legally established in 1994, it wasn’t until 1995 that the first board of directors took their seats. I was elected as the AUSKF’s first Vice-President of Education, which also made me chairperson of the Iaidō Development Committee.

Uchida teaching at a seminar in 2010.

As the VP of Education, I immediately set out to materialize my dream of a national seminar – an instructor summer camp. However, the idea of limiting participation to instructor level practitioners was overruled by the board, and it was decided that the camp should be open to all AUSKF members with focus on basic instruction and skill refinement. This was an easy compromise. Although my original dream involved only kendō, it was simple to incorporate iaidō, especially given the fact that I had already set an iaidō development program in motion under the KFUSA. But, before anything could be done, a framework needed to be established.

With a startup treasury that could provide only a minimal amount for a seed fund for a host group to begin organizing a summer camp event, there had to be checks and balances put in place to keep any potential financial losses to a minimum. Since my plan was for the location of the summer camp to change each year to spread the opportunity to host and attend the event, financial protection for the host organization also needed to be established, otherwise organizations would be reluctant to volunteer to host the camp. I drafted policies and procedures that required submission and board approval of a business plan and itemized budget. Policies also stipulated that profits from registration fees would go to the AUSKF, any losses incurred by the host would be covered by the AUSKF, and that the host organization could use the event to raise funds for itself through the sales of souvenirs, concessions, and the like. But, even with the best laid plans, problems can abound.

Despite efforts to solicit volunteers to host the first AUSKF Kendō Summer Camp, no interest was found. The group that had expressed a desire to host the 1996 Iaidō Summer Camp made insufficient progress. Utterly frustrated and the year near its end, I went to the AUSKF president Jeff Marsten for advice. Our conversation lasted maybe three minutes. I’ll never forget what Jeff told me: “To get the ball rolling, sometimes you just have to drive a stake into the ground and do it yourself.” Genius! I got together with my students and set out to host a summer camp with kendō and iaidō rolled into one. July 1997, the AUSKF held its first summer camp in Colorado Springs, with the iaidō session led by Kobayashi Tadao and Oda Katsuo, and the kendō session led by Nishiyama Yasuhiro and Okushima Yoshio. The summer camp drew participants from across the US, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and even South Africa. There were 127 participants in total: thirty-one for iaidō, ninety-six for kendō.

In all modesty, although the first Iaidō Development Committee had three other members, the initial program was advanced solely by myself. I used the other committee members only for review and approval of whatever I drafted, and to add the weight of their seniority and rank to forward proposals. They were accepting of this arrangement. Two of the members told me directly that they all were happy giving me free rein, but would be there for me if I needed assistance. This worked out, as there was so much to be accomplished in so little time. I did it within my one and only term in office. Although I never completed the policies and procedures for education, the framework I drafted remains to the present day.

MAYTT: Earlier, you mentioned the KFUSA having an isolationist attitude and outlook on their kendo and iaido. Where do you think such attitudes originated from before Ota’s arrival in 1985?

MU: This attitude was explained to me when I returned from Japan. It was probably Yamaguchi Sensei that I posed the question to, but I can’t be certain; nevertheless, I was told that the KFUSA, having roots to some of the most prominent kendo teachers in Japan, the KFUSA leadership believed US kendo to be equal to Japan. In particular, Mori Torao had the greatest influence in shaping this attitude, as the KFUSA was led by many of Mori Sensei’s students. Mori Torao was considered the greatest kendo practitioner of his generation, not just in the US, but also Japan. He was one of the founders of the KFUSA, its first president, and also had a hand in the formation of the International Kendo Federation. On top of all this, he was also a noted European fencer, teacher to movie stars such as Toni Curtis, coach of the Japanese Olympic Fencing Team, and an official at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Given all the influences, it is easy to understand how such a lofty attitude would prevail.

This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.


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