InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Oct 2000

A Question Regarding the Number of Kendoka Living in North America before World War II

By Joseph R. Svinth

An earlier version of this article appeared in Journal of Japanese Sword Arts, 11:6-7-8 (June-July-August 1999), 22-24. Copyright © Joseph R. Svinth 2000. The financial assistance of the Japanese American National Museum and King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission is gratefully acknowledged.

During the late 1960s, the Japanese researcher Kazuo Ito asked some elderly Issei how many people had trained in judo in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia before World War II. They replied that there had been perhaps four hundred black belts, plus another thousand of lesser grade. [EN1] This statistic is supported by my own independent research.

So, if perhaps 1,400 boys and men belonged to the thirty or so judo clubs, how many practiced kendo? In Canada, there were perhaps a hundred kendoka. In Washington and Oregon, there were two big clubs in Seattle, six smaller clubs in the Puget Sound region (Bellevue, South Park, Auburn, Sumner, Puyallup, and Tacoma), three in the Portland Metro area, and scattered enthusiasts. The two big Seattle clubs reported several hundred students between them, which was more than everyone else combined. (To give an idea of the size of outlying clubs, South Park reported about twenty members circa 1938, while Tacoma reported about thirty in 1941. Meanwhile, at a promotion tournament held in November 1938 Bellevue advanced its nine current members and welcomed five new members.) Still, to be generous, let’s say there were 400 active kendoka in Washington and Oregon before World War II, and of these, perhaps thirty were female. [EN2]

This is not the figure usually hears, however. Instead, one reads or is told that 10,000 Japanese Americans practiced kendo in the United States before World War II. [EN3] Admittedly there were many kendoka living in California and Hawai’i, but I have seen nothing to convince me that Californian and Hawaiian kendo clubs averaged several hundred members each, or that almost 8 percent of the 126,947 Japanese Americans living in the Continental United States in 1940 practiced kendo. [EN4] So, if we assume this number is exaggerated, the question is to identify who started this story, and why.

One possibility is jingoistic American newspapermen. As early February 1907, the New York World reported that hundreds of Russo-Japanese War veterans living in the Hawaiian Islands drilled with broomsticks by moonlight in anticipation of the arrival of the Japanese fleet. [EN5] While it is true that most Issei referred to the Japanese Navy as "our Navy," it is also true that there was only one kendo club in Hawai’i in 1907 and its members could have been counted on fingers and toes. So, if this is the source, then it is a brilliant example of what Kaiser Wilhelm II used to call "the Yellow Peril." [EN7]

Another possibility is mistranslation. In 1942, for example, US government agents asked Heiji Okuda, the head of the Hokubei Butokukai in Seattle, how many people practiced kendo in the United States. To which Okuda replied, "Ten thousand." [EN7]

Washington State Hokubei Butokukai [North American Martial Virtue
Association] instructors, January 29, 1939. The photo was taken outside
the basketball gymnasium at the Seattle Japanese Language School.
Photograph reprinted courtesy of University of Washington Archives.
Copyright (c) 2000. All rights reserved. If you have further
identifications, please contact the editor at

Front row, left to right

1. Yoshito Harada  2. Maeda 3. Junichi Yoshitomi 4. Unidentified
5. Heiji “Henry” Okuda 6. Takeshi “Bob” Hara 7. Susawara
8. Frank Ogami 9. Richard T. Yamamoto 10. Hara (?) (Tacoma)

Back row, left to right

1. Unidentified 2. Unidentified 3. Unidentified
4. Unidentified 5. Seiichi “Michael” Yasutake 6. Unidentified
7. Itsuro “Bill” Morita 8. Unidentified 9. Unidentified 10. Unidentified

While Okuda’s statement is documented, he may have meant the number figuratively rather than literally. After all, in colloquial Japanese one can say "ten thousand" when in English one would say "a whole lot." So perhaps Okuda meant to say "a whole lot," but the interpreter, who was probably Korean or Nisei rather than a native speaker, misunderstood him to mean an exact number. Since this enormous number of potentially armed Japanese Americans would have supported General John L. De Witt’s theory that military necessity forced the wartime relocation of Japanese Americans, it would have been cited in official documents, and subsequently filtered its way into the public consciousness as fact.

The most likely explanation, however, is that the Hokubei Butokukai leader Tokichi Nakamura was a man who liked to blow his own horn. I say this because as early as July 1940 he told Japanese reporters that his classes had aroused interest "in over 10,000 Nisei living in America." [EN8] This is a blatant falsehood, as Nakamura surely knew, having taught kendo in California during the late 1920s and early 1930s. However, inasmuch as Japanese culture does not encourage juniors to question seniors, it is unlikely that any bamboo sword enthusiast living in North America would have publicly questioned Nakamura’s statistic. [EN9] Nor would the US, Canadian, or Japanese media or governments have bothered to question the calculation. After all, it said what they wanted to hear. Thus casual hyperbole became accepted as fact.

No matter. While regional kendo associations clearly had hundreds of active members and thousands of supporters, the estimate of 10,000 kendoka in North America before World War II must be treated with extreme caution.


EN1. Kazuo Ito, Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America, tr. by Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard (Seattle: Japanese Community Service, 1973), 241.

EN2. R.J. Brenneke, A. Mar, and T. Veatch, "An Outline of the History of Obukan Dojo, Inc. and of Kodokan Judo in Portland" (Portland, OR: Obukan Dojo, Inc., 1979), n.p.; Shuichi Fukui, "History of the Tacoma Japanese" (Tacoma, WA: 1941), unpublished typewritten translation in the Ron Magden collection, n.p.; Great Northern Daily News, November 9, 1938, 8; Japanese-American Courier, September 14, 1935, 3; Japanese-American Courier, December 18, 1937, 3; Japanese-American Courier, March 12, 1938, 4; North American Times, March 12, 1938, 1.

EN3. See, for example, Richard J. Schmidt, "The Historical Development of Kendo in the United States," Beikoku kendo rekishi, Budo Gaku Kenkyu, 14:3 (1982), 4. Members of the Seattle Kendo Kai also quoted me this figure during conversations in February 1998.

EN4. Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps: North America, Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II (Malabar, FL: Krieger, rev. ed., 1981), 21.

EN5. NY World, February 4, 1907, 1.

EN6. Daniels, 1981, 28-30.

EN7. "Henry H. Okuda," Accession Number 2345, Box 1, University of Washington Manuscripts and University Archives Division.

EN8. Japan Times, July 21, 1940, 3.

EN9. Although this statement is a generalization, note that even Japanese professional historians rarely question higher authority. See, for example, John S. Brownlee, Japanese Historians and the National Myth 1600-1945 (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1997).


InYo Oct 2000