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There are some encounters in life that give you something more, somehow they enter your heart. This is what happened to me with Nakano Sensei, a meeting that I will never forget and an affection towards her and her husband George that binds me to them in a special way.

I remember they came to Italy in Turin for a Naginata seminar, I don’t even remember the year, they were guests at our house and all I can say is that I met wonderful people, two people with a big heart who I got quickly attached to and whom I love very much.

Fantastic teacher, fantastic woman, fantastic family, moreover her dedication to martial arts was another very important example for me. I am very happy and moved that she has decided to share these thoughts with us and has answered Gabriele’s questions. I believe it is another great testimony of what the desire to practice and teach is.

For me, the name Nakano has many important meanings also for Iaido and just writing this name provokes emotions that are difficult to describe, so I conclude with an American phrase:

I love you Sensei

Claudio Zanoni

Can you tell us about when you started to practice budo? At what age did that happen? What made you decide to start practicing?

In November 1966, I traveled to Japan with my husband, George, who was a member of the U.S. Kendo Team for the 2nd World Kendo Championship that was held in Okinawa, Japan.  I attended as a spectator and planned to take photos of the events and practices.  The first time I ever saw Naginata was at the Kendo Goodwill Tournament which was held at the Budokan in Tokyo.  It was a Kendo vs. Naginata demonstration called Isshujiai.  It was exciting to watch!  While at Osaka Castle taking photos of the Kendo keiko, I was approached by several Naginata Sensei.  They convinced me that since the Kendo keiko would be lengthy, I should try Naginata.  They dressed me in white keiko gi and hakama.  I can recall the comment they made about the importance of the hakama being securely tied so that your back would be straight.  After learning some basic movements, I recall striking “men” (strike to the head)  many, many times and had an exhilarating feeling on one particular strike.  It was at that moment that the Sensei all shouted out, “That’s it”.  I was hooked from that time on.  I was 27 years old when I had my first taste of budo.

We know you studied under several teachers, including Chiyoko Tokunaga Sensei, Yoko Yamao Sensei, and Sachiko Wada Sensei, as well as Torao Mori Sensei. How was their teaching style? Anything specific that you feel you own to any of them?

My very first lesson in Naginata was at Osaka Castle with Tokunaga Sensei, Yamao Sensei and Wada Sensei. When I returned home to California, I started training with Mori Torao Sensei, a renowned Kendo Sensei.  Since his expertise was in Kendo and Iaido (as well as foil and saber fencing), training in Naginata was done through books and video at the time.  Mori Sensei taught me all my kihon.  Additionally, I took Kendo, as well as Iaido, from Mori Sensei.  Japanese Naginata Sensei visited us on an annual  basis to train us in Naginata, and I traveled to Japan as often as I was able to in order to continue my training.  It was a difficult time since there was no one here who taught Naginata.  Unfortunately, Mori Sensei died at a very young age in 1969.  Over the years, I was privileged to be able to train and learn from a number of Japanese sensei, many of whom became good friends to this day. 

During your early budo development, did you have any “role model”, source of inspiration or goal that made you want to keep up the keiko and progress more and more?

This is a very difficult question to respond to.  There were very few of us in the United States who were learning Naginata during those early years.  A few of us were trying to “grow” Naginata.  I can only say that it was for the love of a beautiful art form that kept me going.  I wanted to help spread Naginata in the USA.  I was grateful to the Japanese sensei who came and taught us.  I was also grateful to my family who permitted me to travel to Japan on numerous occasions to continue learning and growing in Naginata. 

Nakano Sensei

We know that, other than Naginata, you also studied Iaido and Kendo. What relationship exists between these different arts?

If I had had the time, I would have studied more Iaido.  Next to Naginata, I loved Iaido.  At the time, however, I was raising two young children which kept me busy, along with my part-time job and teaching naginata 3 times a week.. The heart/core of all of these budo arts (Naginata, Iaido, Kendo) are all the same.  They all follow the budo philosophy  (the process to develop oneself and practice etiquette, self-discipline, honor, respect, courage, compassion, humility).

In your opinion, what is the correct mindset to adopt to progress in Naginata and, more generally, in budo?

What is your purpose in learning Naginata, or any other budo art?  If it’s to be better and stronger than anyone else, perhaps it would be better to engage in a sport.  Naginata and other budo arts is a progression of becoming a better person, building character, being kind and considerate to your fellow person.  At least, these are my thoughts.

Why should someone start practicing Naginata today?

Starting Naginata practice at any age is beneficial to anyone.  Regardless of age, you are able to develop mental awareness and physical strength and agility.

We know that the Naginata grading system stops at the 5th Dan. This is different compared to other budo, like Iaido or Kendo. What is the reason behind this structure?

It was my understanding that in Pre-WWII in Japan, the grading system was very much like Kendo, starting with Kyu and going up to Hachidan Hanshi and even higher.  I may be wrong on this, but I believe Naginata’s grading system changed after the re-formation of Naginata in Japan around 1955-56.  At that time, they developed a system of Dan ranking only to 5-Dan; thereafter, the teaching titles of Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi.  I had heard that Japan did not feel the necessity of continuing number ranks after 5-Dan.  The time span currently for obtaining Kyoshi after Renshi is a minimum of 10 years; from Kyoshi to Hanshi is a minimum of 20 years.

Nakano Sensei

You hold very important positions for the development of Naginata in Japan and in the rest of the world. In your opinion, what are the main differences between studying Naginata and budo in Japan and outside of it?

The obvious challenges and differences between studying Naginata and other budo arts in Japan as compared to a non-Japanese country is the mindset of most people.       Unless you were brought up in a typical Japanese home, Reigi (etiquette) was not as big and important, other than the perfunctory “thank you”, “please”, “you’re welcome”, etc.  In almost all Japanese families, Reigi was absolutely necessary.  Then, there is also “Giri” and “On”.  Obviously, being able to study in Japan is the optimum in really learning/understanding budo.  For those of us outside of Japan, we do our best.

In your opinion, what is the good recipe for a healthy and authentic teacher-student relationship?

In my years of teaching Naginata, I have tried to develop my higher ranking students to be good instructors in the future.  Currently, here in Southern California, I have three 5-Dan students, eight 4-Dan students, etc. I strive to teach them Reigi, which I feel is the #1 element needed in Naginata and all budo arts.  I hope I have achieved that for the most part.  Some/many are drawn into the sporting aspects.  I want them to be as humble, as they are talented.  I continue to do my utmost to instill this in them.  I try to have an open relationship with my upper ranks and hope we are all on the same page with the advancement of Naginata in the USA.  For beginner and intermediate students, I try to continually encourage them in their efforts.

In Europe, at some point a lot of people stop practicing budo even after several years. Not sure if  the same happens in the United States as well, but it seems people struggle to keep practicing budo their whole life. In your opinion, what are the major challenges blocking people to keep practicing budo? What advice can you give both to them and to their teachers?

When I look back over the years, I have had many talented students who stopped practicing Naginata for a variety of reasons.  Several had to stop because of health and physical conditions, marital problems, relationship problems, moving out of the area, etc. All of them loved Naginata and stopped continuing practice because of these issues.  For those who had relationship problems, I have been able to get a few of them to return after they sufficiently recovered from their loss.

In Europe there are people and groups that think competitions are superfluous in budo. What do you think about that? How did competing shape your budo development?

I, personally, have never wanted to have attention called to my performance in Naginata.  In my younger years, I was expected to compete (although there were no competitions in the USA in my younger years) and usually did so with Isshujiai (kendo vs. naginata) or demonstrations held at kendo tournaments.  My official time at competitions was very limited.  I was a member of a 3-person team from the USA in 1975 and 1980 where we competed in Japan, via invitation.  In 1978, I was asked to demonstrate in Isshujiai with a kendoist from Japan who placed 2nd in the World Kendo Championship. I enjoyed “kata” which I felt was a form of self-development.  So, personally, competition had very little to do with my involvement in Naginata. 

What are your goals and future challenges?

I hope to continue teaching Naginata at the Dojo level and at El Camino College.  I feel honored to have had the opportunity to introduce Naginata to the students at El Camino College beginning in Summer 1997.  It is the only college-accredited Naginata class in the USA.  Since that time, I have taught college-aged students, except during the Covid-19 shutdown from March 2020 – January 2023.  I have been approved to teach Intermediate Naginata, concurrently with Beginner Naginata, in Fall 2023.  I hope to continue to make a difference to my senior students who have developed into becoming instructors at the various dojo in Southern California, Nebraska and Arizona.

Nakano Sensei


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