Boy Scouts practice Kendo in California, 1928. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.


Of Boy Scouts and Kendo

A recent post focused on the role of the global scouting movement in promoting the spread of the Asian martial arts during the first half of the 20th century. In that essay I mentioned a photograph of Japanese-American and Caucasian scouts practicing Kendo together in California during the 1920s. Yet observant readers may have noticed I did not actually include that photo in the post.

Sadly I had misplaced that particular photo so it didn’t make it into that piece. But it recently resurfaced as I was shuffling through my collection. Better yet, I came across another related item which also helps to add detail to our understanding of Kendo in America prior to 1941.

I quite like the first of these press photos. In it we see two figures seemingly locked in a bind. Both boys wear a complete set of kendo gear over western clothing and shoes. While Kendo is traditionally practiced barefoot, the shoes are probably necessary in this case as the boys are practicing on an asphalt rooftop. While the publisher’s caption doesn’t say where the photograph was taken, our young combatants are framed by a well-developed cityscape in the background. The composition of this photograph is excellent, and it lends a real sense of drama to this moment of martial exchange.

The publisher’s complete caption (pasted to the verso of the photograph) reads as follows:


Japanese Boy Scouts of the Pacific Coast have taught white scouts some of the sports of ancient Japan. Here are a couple of the scouts practicing the ancient Samurai sport of sword play with bamboo swords.

April 17, 1928

While brief, this caption is quite revealing. It is likely that any Boy Scout of this age would have been born in the United States, yet the author seems unsure as to whether they should rightly be classified as “Americans” or not. If one were to read this description too quickly it might be possible to assume that it is discussing the visit of scouts from Japan to California, when in fact this was an exchange between two local troops, both comprised of US citizens. This same sense of self-inflicted confusion as to the actual identity of Japanese-American citizens would bear tragic fruit following the commencement of hostilities in the Pacific.

The irony is that whoever organized this activity likely believed that throwing scout troops from the white and Japanese-American communities together would lead to a greater sense of understanding and civic empathy. That sort of bridge building has long been a core function of the Boy Scouts. Yet rather than simply educating the public about their community, practices such as Kendo could be interpreted as markers of the “indelible strangeness” of the Japanese American community.

Nevertheless, the popularity of Kendo expanded rapidly on the West coast after the 1920s. Anyone interested in an overview of this period should be sure to check out Joseph Svinth’s 2003 chapter “Kendo in North America, 1985-1955” in Thomas and Svinth’s Martial Arts in the Modern World. This chapter is an excellent example of the ways in which a focused study of martial arts communities can make important contributions to our understanding of local and regional history. Svith’s comparison of the ultimate fate of the pre-war Kendo communities in the USA and Canada is also a nice case study in the politicization of the martial arts.

As Svinth notes, during the late 19th and early 20th century American kendo was mostly dominated by visiting elites from Japan rather than local immigrants. The expense of establishing schools, hiring instructors and importing gear from Japan was more than struggling local communities could bear. Yet by the end of the1920s things start to change. The growing economic security of the Japanese American community, as well as the immigration of a handful of instructors from Japan, set the stage for a kendo boom. By the middle of the next decade there were dozens of clubs up and down the west coast of Canada and the US, most of which were led by local instructors. The following photograph, also collected from a newspaper archive, records this moment in history.


T. Shimada leads a Kendo class in Los Angeles, 1933. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.


Los Angeles.

[A] new sport gains vogue in America, Kendo, the Japanese art of fencing with bamboo swords finds enthusiastic devotees in Los Angeles, under T. Shimo who is said to conduct the only class in the ancient sport outside of Japan. Young American born sons of Japanese residents are his pupils but so many occidentals have been attracted by the spectacular fencing that Shimo may break the traditional president and initiate a class of Americans, anticipating future international competition. Heavily padded headgear, gloves and breastplates are used to prevent injury in the sword duels which call for a high degree of skill and physical endurance. These young Japanese fencers, shown with Shimo. Have been studying under the fencing master for two years at Los Angeles.


One of the basic questions that Svinth attempts to tackle in his chapter is the actual popularity of Kendo on the West Coast. Certain sources indicated that more than 10,000 people were studying Kendo by the end of the 1930s. Svinth, however, is unconvinced that a handful of clubs could support such numbers. He views such reports as a self-reinforcing cycle of over-enthusiasm on the part of ambitious Kendo instructors and latent “yellow peril” fears on the part of Western reporters and government officials who were predisposed to worry about the growing strength of the Japanese American community.

The caption that circulated with this photo seems to touch on many of these same issues. It is certainly true that the practice of Kendo in America expanded rapidly between the time of our first and second photographs. At the same time there is an air of self-serving exaggeration in all of this. If Shimo’s class really started in 1931 it was far from the first Kendo class in Southern California, let alone “outside of Japan.” Still, it would be interesting to know if his plans to expand instruction to the local Caucasian community ever came to fruition.

Svinth notes that by the middle of the 1930s local merchants had started to stock Kendo gear and this dropped some of the economic barriers to participation. Proud parents, eager to use Kendo as a means of preserving their national identity, were quick to take formal photos of their children in Kendo gear and send them to relatives in the US and Japan. Unfortunately, between the internment of these citizens in North America, and the firebombing of Japanese cities, few of these photos now survive. Thus the newspaper photographs discussed here are an important visual record of what is largely a lost era of martial arts history.

While Kendo has a healthy following on the West Coast, Svinth notes that in the US the entire art had to be re-introduced and re-organized following the Second World War. While young students during the 1930s may have viewed their practice as a way of competing, winning trophies and making friends, their parents tended to associate these practices strongly with Japanese cultural identity. It was this sort of identity work that inspired the community to throw its support behind the rapid expansion of the practice in the first place.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor this became the source of an immediate crisis. All of the West Coast kendo schools were shut down and many of their instructors were detained by both the Canadian and US governments. Faced with a crisis of identity, many Japanese-Americans responded by destroying anything too closely linked with traditional Japanese culture or militarism. This included the burning of Kendo gear, photographs, books and the destruction of ancestral swords. While some individuals continued to practice Judo in the internment camps (which was deemed permissible as the art was adopted as part of American military training in 1943), Svinth notes that Kendo was largely shunned except by those seeking a form of passive resistance.

Such a path was not that popular in the American camps, where large numbers of young Japanese-Americans enlisted to fight in the pacific. As a result Kendo largely faded as part of the community’s identity. Its popularity in the second half of the 20th century was due to its re-introduction by returning veterans who had studied the art in occupied Japan, or later immigrants. Interestingly the path of peaceful resistance proved to be much more popular in the Canadian camps. As a result much of the pre-War Kendo community managed to survive in that country.



Its comforting to think that the more two communities learn about each other the less likely conflict becomes. This hope often functions as an implicit assumption within many discussions of value of the global spread of the Asian martial arts. It is simply one more facet of the ever-popular paradox of the “fighting arts” functioning as a pathway for peace.

Political scientists, however, have known for quite some time that greater empathy does not always lead to more peaceful outcomes. Sometimes additional information just ends in more finely calibrated attacks. Simply put, the exchange of knowledge (embodied or otherwise) never happens in a vacuum. Structure matters, and so does discourse. One must think carefully about the larger frameworks surrounding martial exchanges to understand likely outcomes.

The case of kendo’s rapid expansion on the West Coast in the early 1930s is an interesting case study. While press coverage of these clubs may have created a more informed reading public, it probably wasn’t a more sympathetic one. Perhaps things would have been different if greater efforts had been made to racially integrate classes. Indeed, both of the photos discussed above hint hopefully at that possibility. But in an era when Kendo itself was being promoted as a way to reconnect with one’s Japanese roots, and American life was dominated by the institutions of segregation, such an outcome was unlikely. Still, the visual record of these historical moments lead us to wonder about what might have been?



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Conceptualizing the Asian Martial Arts: Ancient Origins, Social Institutions and Leung Jan’s Wing Chun.