YuYu interview Maki H. Miyahara


Can you tell me how you got involved with kendo?

My kendo training started in May of 1921, the day I was born. My father, Hiroji Miyahara trained me. He, like so many others, had come to the U.S. from Japan in 1918 to make money and to seek a better life here. At that time it wasn't uncommon for Japanese immigrants to decide to stay here rather than go back to Japan, especially after starting families and establishing their lives here. My father was one of them and he decided to stay in the U.S. and teach kendo. He had achieved the rank of Sho-dan, which was pretty good at the time, and so he began teaching kendo in Southern California. Kendo was introduced and started being taught in the U.S. in the early 1900's as a result of the wave of Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants in the U.S.) immigration. Most of them being born in the later part of the Meiji Era, were taught kendo in grade school and middle school. Naturally when they arrived here they continued practicing and even held kendo tournaments for recreation.

—— As a child, did you enjoy studying kendo?

34_1.jpgNo, I hated it! My father taught at six different kendo dojos, in Pomona, Baldwin Park, El Monte, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Coachella, and so I had no choice in the matter. He was the boss of the house and his word was final, so I went and practiced at every one of the six dojos five or six times a week. If you were a kid and had to go to kendo practice almost everyday, you wouldn't like it either. Back then, Japanese kids usually studied either kendo or judo... and my father disliked judo. In judo, there is a lot of throwing and for young kids it's okay, because their bones are kind of soft, but when you get to be 40 all the injuries surface. That's why my father didn't allow me to take judo. However, I did study judo for a couple of years when I was 16, because in the old days of kendo if you dropped your Shinai, you had to wrestle or do judo. I remember that I always got headaches or had a sore back after judo practice, so I quit it as soon as I could.

—— Did you study under anyone besides your father?

You have to remember that we had Torao Mori Sensei here as well. He first came to the U.S. in 1938 and stayed for about two or three years and again in 1950. I learned a lot from Mori Sensei. When he first came to the U.S. my father picked him up and drove him to each of the six dojos. We went from one dojo to the next and for hours all they talked about was kendo. “Do this. This is the way you do kendo.” they would say, and I had no choice but to listen to them. That's one of the ways I learned.

Mori Sensei taught me, "Do Suriashi. Don't stomp your feet.” He told me that he used to throw soy beans all over the floor when he practiced and said that if you do Suriashi, you will chase the beans with your feet, but if you don't, you'll get hurt. I never tried that, but I thought it was an interesting idea and made sense. Everybody told me that his footwork was terrific, and my father always reminded me to watch Mori Sensei's footwork, but I couldn't see his feet. One day, I asked Mori Sensei “Why do you wear your Hakama so long?” and he answered with a slight smile, “That is my secret!” with no further explanation. A number of years later, another Sensei came here and said, “Watch Mori Sensei's feet” and I said, “I can't see them. I can't catch them.” Finally, that Sensei explained that if your body is facing a certain way, your feet will move a certain way as well. No matter what you do, your toes should be facing toward your opponent. That's what you need to catch. “Oh, now I understand!”

Pomona Dojo winners of the Miyahara Kendo Tournament in 1936 (Mr. Miyahara is pictured 2nd row, center)
—— Was there ever a time in your life that didn't practice kendo?

The only time I stopped practicing kendo was during World War II. I was about to receive Yon-dan (4th rank) in December of 1941, but the war started on December 7th and that put an end to our kendo practice. I wanted to become an Aeronautical Engineer, but when I graduated from college in 1947, I was drafted. My rank was 4F, which is Enemy Alien. At that time, if you got drafted, you had to serve three years, but I didn't want to serve that long, so I chose to volunteer for the Army / Air Force which allowed you to get out in 18 months. The first day we all lined up at 3 o'clock in the morning, and an officer said, “Miyahara step up. You're not going to Air Force Basics.” I asked him “Why?” but all he said was, “Stay with me.” The next day, I was called again to line up and I noticed so many other Nisei soldiers there. I don't know how, but they had all of our histories and they knew that I had attended Pomona Japanese School. Then, all of a sudden they opened up a Japanese book and asked us to read it. I couldn't, but after that they told me that they were going to send me to the Presidio Monterey Japanese Language School. I remember saying, “I don't want to volunteer for Japanese Language School!” but they replied, “You're in the Army now, so you'll do as the Army says!”

The U.S. needed interpreters badly in Japan. I had two weeks of basic training at the Japanese school, where four military companies consisting entirely of Nisei soldiers were also trained. After they tested our Japanese skills they divided us into three groups. One group took a three-month class, the other group took a six-month class, and the last group took a nine-month class. I was placed in the six-month class and after I spent four months there, the student office told me that I had to reenlist for six more months if I wanted to go overseas. I really didn't want to extend, but I agreed so I could go overseas. Six months later they asked me, “Why don't you extend for one more year, and they'll send you to officer's candidate school?” I didn't need that. I didn't want to be an officer.

I just wanted to get in and out, so I declined. Later I found out that hundreds of others were in the same situation. Finally after accepting a year of overseas duty I was sent to Japan and landed at Yokosuka on December 7, 1948, the day that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

—— Can you tell us a little about the time you spent in Japan?

I was stationed in Japan for six years, starting in 1948. As soon as we arrived in Japan, they tested our Japanese skills us by giving us an Asahi Newspaper to read and translate. From the results of that test, they divided us into three groups and shipped us off to Tokyo and Korea, among others. I was stationed in Tokyo and started working out of Camp Zama in Kanagawa. One day after I had been in Japan for three months or so I was walking by the Tsukiji Police Station and I could hear the sounds of Shinai going “kacha-kacha-kacha.” So I went up and asked the guy at the main desk, “What’s that noise back there? Your practicing kendo here, aren't you?” and he answered, “No!” You see kendo was outlawed at that time because it was supposedly connected with the Black Dragon or something. But I insisted, “I know you're doing kendo back there...” so finally he walked me back and showed me where they were practicing. I told him that I had a kendo practice in the U.S., and he allowed me to come over and practice. I had to borrow everything, including a Shinai, which was much shorter than those used in the U.S. After watching me practice, the Sensei asked if I was ranked in the U.S. and I told him that I was San-dan (3rd rank), and he was surprised. I went there four or five times, but after the first practice I noticed they didn't have any drinks, because even the police couldn't get anything. So every time I went, I brought a case of beer and we all had beer after practice.

I also met my wife and got married in Zama, but they wouldn't let me bring her back to the States, so I decided to stay in Japan with my wife. I was discharged from Zama in 1949 and fortunately got a job with the military government office in Ishikawa as a Welfare Officer and worked there until I returned to the U.S. 1954.

—— When did you start teaching kendo?

34_4.jpgI didn't start off wanting to become a teacher, but in 1955, a year after I returned to the States, people started asking me if I could help out at their dojos. That started the whole thing. It was amazing. Lots of dojos asked me to come and give lessons. One day, a Sensei had come from St. Stevens, Canada. He had heard about me and asked if I could come to Canada and teach a seminar. It was a long way to go, but I agreed and we held seminars there 10 years in a row, starting in 1979. The first year we had only 7 people, but by the late ‘80s there were 50 people making the trip from California.

I have a student whom I have been teaching for about 20 years. One year he went to St. Stevens by himself to attend a three-day seminar, and naturally he didn't know anybody there. The first day, nobody paid much attention to him, but on the second day, someone asked where and with whom he studied, and he replied, “Miyahara-Sensei.” From that moment on, everyone welcomed him warmly.

—— How popular is kendo in the U.S.?

Currently there are about 1,500 kendo students in the Southern California area, but in 1941 we had over 2,000 students and we needed two days to hold a kendo tournament. The Issei parents used to force their children to study kendo, but most of them quit and times got tough for the dojos. Even now, with liability insurance and medical insurance being so expensive that makes it tough. Nobody really gets hurt, like breaking a bone or dislocating a limb, if they are practicing kendo in the proper way. Once in a while, someone might tear their Achilles tendon, but that's about the worst thing that ever happens. Usually, it's their fault when that happens, because when somebody hits you, you've got to force yourself to hold your ground. If you try to go forward and you can't go anywhere... that's wrong. In kendo you learn to avoid injuries by using the proper techniques.

—— Can you tell us some of your goals for the future?

34_3.jpgI've been writing a kendo book for many years. There are many kendo books, but they all say the same thing. They just tell you the basics, how to hold a Shinai, how to put on a Tenugui, and things like that. They don't give you any of the reasoning behind why you have to hold the Shinai a certain way. Knowing the basics is fine, but I also want to tell people the reason why you do it that way and how you defend yourself. I go down to San Diego once or twice a year to give lectures and demonstrations and the last time I was there I demonstrated defensive movements.

Theoretically, you're attacking 50% of the time and your opponent is attacking you 50% of the time. If you don't know how to attack and how to defend yourself, you'll lose. All Senseis who come around never teach defense, so I thought I should teach it. Whatever kind of sport you participate in you have to understand what you're doing and why. You have to mentally rehearse it and practice it over and over until you get it. It seems every time I write one part of my book I get some new ideas and so I have to go back and edit it again and again. I don't know when I'll ever be able to finish it, but I'm looking forward to seeing it at the bookstores someday.

Maki H Miyahara

Maki H. Miyahara is an instructor at the Pasadena Cultural Institute Kendo Dojo and Valley Kendo Dojo, and a member of All United States Kendo Federation and Southern California Kendo Federation. He was born in May 8, 1921 in Montebello, California and studied kendo under his father, Hiroji Miyahara and instructor at six kendo dojos in Southern California. As a member of the US Army Mr. Miyahara was stationed in Japan for six years, from 1948. He began teaching kendo in the U.S. in 1955 and was inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame n 1971. In 1994, he was awarded the Shogo of Hanshi and Hachi-dan (8th rank) and was the first American Instructor in the U.S. to achieve this rank. He currently resides in Hacienda Heights, CA with his wife Noriko.

(02-01-2004 issue)