An Appreciation of Lawrence Nakamura-sensei
By Ron Fox
I want to thank Kendo World for asking me to contribute to their website on a regular basis. It’s humbling for a bumbling kenshi like me to be invited to write for what is one of the best things to come along for non-Japanese speaking kenshi since kendo leaked out of Japan.
For my first column I want to acknowledge the contributions of one of the sensei most influential to my kendo, and my outlook on life – Lawrence Nakamura of Toronto. Before I start that, however I need to set the scene and, as us old fogies are prone to, do some reminiscing. Sorry for that but bear with me.
USA Midwest Kendo Federation (MWKF) members often believe that I founded the Michigan State University (MSU) Kendo club. Nothing could be further from the truth. Charlie Kondek has written a Kendo World magazine article on the history of the MWKF and includes some paragraphs about the MSU Club that set that record straight.
MSU kendo club was established sometime around 1972 by Furuichi Kenzo who at the time was an ESL student at MSU. He was followed later by Hayashi Tatsuo-sensei. That name will be familiar to people who have been to Kitamoto recently, as it’s the same Hayashi Tatsuo-sensei who, along with Alex Bennett, has been translating at Kitamoto for the last several years. There will be more about Hayashi-sensei in at least one later article.
I came into the picture about 1976 or so. At that time Hayashi-sensei had returned to Japan and Masamitsu Wake (3-dan at the time I believe) was the head instructor at MSU. Two other people, Bonnie Stein and Steve Johnson (the same Steve Johnson in whose memory the East Central U.S. Kendo federation holds an annual tournament) helped out as well.
I practiced at MSU for three years and then, as students do, I graduated. After graduation, I went to graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Upon finishing grad school, I was offered and accepted a job at MSU. Starving for kendo, I went hunting for the MSU kendo club. What I found was a few people tentatively waving shinai at each other. Reluctantly, I was not yet even shodan, I was forced to lead the club.
Thanks to David Christman of the Battle Creek Kendo Kai, I was re-introduced to the MWKF (unaware that MSU was one of the founding dojos of the MWKF). Bit by bit we grew and one night I got a phone call from someone named Lawrence Nakamura in Toronto. He asked if he could come and visit MSU and told me that he had been involved in the early years of MSU kendo.
That was the beginning of a long, long-distance friendship and instructor student relationship. While he was in Toronto, I visited him many times. He always invited me to his home after practice and we would stay up (I’m sorry Mrs. Nakamura) until the wee hours of the morning talking kendo, analyzing videos of kendo, and talking about the future of kendo and how to prevent it from degenerating into just another sport (Ok I confess drinking was involved). It was through those visits, the tough keiko and late night talks that I began to evolve some idea of what I wanted my kendo to be like and, just as important, what I wanted kendo itself to be like.
To give a typical example of sensei’s outlook on life, after WWII, he served time in a Korean prisoner of war camp. That experience, rather than embittering him, resulted in a genuine love of Korean culture, language and art. During our karaoke soirées, he was as likely to sing a Korean song as an enka.
Nakamura-sensei’s interests were as broad as his kendo was deep. I remember when he told me that my shisei (posture) was terrible and that I needed to improve it. I asked him how he worked on his posture which was always straight and beautiful. He told me it was through his career as a competitive ballroom dancer. He would go to the dance studio and watch his movement in three mirrors to continuously check his posture. It was then that I took my first good look at his trophy case and realized that it contained not kendo trophies and medals, but medals and trophies from dance competitions he’d entered throughout the years.
Nakamura-sensei generously helped MSU organize several tournaments including at least one MWKF championship tournament. While never shy of offering corrections, he suffered our ignorance with infinite patience. His keiko was fierce but seemed always relaxed and easy. One of his favorite sayings at the beginning of practice was, “OK, now let’s work up a good sweat.”
One of Nakamura-sensei’s daughters is a member of the Canadian Diplomatic Corps. In his mid-70s and early 80s, Nakamura-sensei travelled with her to her postings around the world so that he and his wife could be ‘nannies’ to his grandchildren. When I had a chance to spend the three months of the summer of 1998 at Osaka University, I knew that Nakamura-sensei was in Tokyo and of course visited him there. That was probably one of the few times we did not practice with each other, though we certainly continued our tradition of long late night kendo talks.
As Nakamura-sensei travelled I am ashamed to admit that we were only sporadically in contact (even though he was a great e-mail user for someone his age). Eventually I lost track of where he was.
In the summer of 2011, as I was on my way back from the first MWKF iaido summer camp which I was attending as MWKF Vice-President of Education, I got a phone call from Mike Murphy, one of the MSU members who was attending the Toronto Kendo Club’s 30th anniversary celebration. Mike’s news was that Nakamura-sensei was also at the event. Mike gave me a phone number for Nakamura-sensei and, as soon as I got back home I called it. From that moment on, we re-started our sessions of kendo conversation as if they had never been interrupted, though they were now via phone and email rather than in person.
In Fall of 2012, we invited Hayashi Tatuso-sensei and his brother Hayashi Nobuo-sensei (both K8-dan) to visit MSU to help us celebrate the 40th anniversary of the MSU kendo club. As part of that event, we visited Nakamura-sensei (now 90 years old) in Toronto. To me it was remarkable how healthy he was in mind and body.
In late June of this year, I injured my left leg putting me out of kendo practice until early next year. I was thankful for Nakamura-sensei’s email correspondence during the early days of my recovery. He helped me to keep my spirits up and showed me how to continue my study of kendo in spite of this injury.
One exchange sticks in my memory as being typical of Nakamura-sensei. When I was giving him an update on my physical therapy (it was the first time I could walk unassisted), he told me how I was young and could therefore heal very quickly. When I protested that I am 55, he countered that he never felt old until after he turned 80 and that age was really just a matter of mind and attitude. Sensei was 91 by then.
A bit later in that same exchange Nakamura-sensei told me how twice a week he was getting on a stationary bicycle for 40 minutes and running 12-14km. He said that he really enjoyed this exercise and that he supposed he would continue that routine until the day he died.
The week after I received that email, I learned through one of his students that Nakamura-sensei had passed away peacefully in his sleep while visiting family on the east coast of Canada.
Rather than mourn him, I want to celebrate the life he led, and thank him for helping me find the path I now follow. Thank you Nakamura-sensei for all you did for me and for others who follow your teaching, not only in kendo but in life.
Nakamura-sensei 1922-2013 RIP