In death as in life, 91-year-old Lawrence Michizu Nakamura exhibited the stoicism and self-control he had mastered as a respected martial artist.
“He died like a samurai,” says his daughter Christine Nakamura, a Canadian diplomat with years of service in Japan and Korea. “He just closed his eyes and tilted his head forward. His knees were together, his hands were in his lap; he had a tranquil look on his face. As the Japanese say, it was the type of death to aspire to.”
It was a fitting end for a kendo master who had spent his life teaching the spiritual and practical aspects of the samurai sword. A kendoist since his early teens, Mr. Nakamura established Eastern Canada’s first kendo school in 1964 and spent the next 40 years sharing his knowledge on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
Mr. Nakamura died of heart failure on July 31 while on a family vacation in Fox Harbour, N.S. He leaves his wife and five children, Ken, Christine, Grace, Mark and Muriel.
Donald Campbell, Canada’s ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1997, remembers Mr. Nakamura as a lithe kendo master who taught weekly classes in the embassy’s squash court while living with his diplomat daughter in Tokyo. The classes were for the staff’s children, but members of the embassy’s military security detail also signed up.
“He was poetry in motion,” Mr. Campbell said. “These burly security guys would lunge at him and find he wasn’t there. He could easily sidestep them every time.”
Although the classes were popular, Mr. Campbell said, “few people there knew what a recognized person he was in the martial arts world.”
One of Mr. Nakamura’s regular sparring partners during those Tokyo years was the prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto.
Mr. Nakamura (known formally to martial artists as Sensei Nakamura in respect of his teaching status) was born in Vancouver on June 25, 1922, and given both an English and a Japanese name as a practical effort to bridge his two cultures. His Japanese father, Rinzo, a sign painter and picture framer, had arrived in Canada only four years earlier. In 1928, the senior Mr. Nakamura, ill with tuberculosis, returned to Japan with his wife, Nao, and four children so he could die in his homeland.
The Nakamura children lived in Japan until 1936, when their mother married Taiichiro Yoshimoto, a Japanese industrialist who owned several mines in northern Korea. The family moved to Hamhung, where Mr. Nakamura spent his teenage years at a business high school. He graduated to a desk job at a Korean gunpowder company, but was conscripted into the Japanese army in 1942 despite his Canadian citizenship. By the end of the war, he was a sergeant managing the 26th Field Artillery Regiment’s accounting unit.
Mr. Nakamura spent the war in central Korea, where he met Masako Hashimoto, daughter of a Japanese communications executive living in Seoul. After they married in 1945, his new wife moved north to Hamhung to live with her in-laws. It proved to be a dangerous decision.
Days before the Pacific War’s end in August that year, Russian troops poured into northern Korea, executing Japanese citizens and pillaging property. Fearing for his family, Mr. Nakamura raced to join them and, upon his arrival, discovered 1,000 Japanese refugees sheltering in Hamhung – 100 of them in the Yoshimoto household – desperate to escape the Russians.
In May, 1946, they were allowed to leave for Japan. Many of the weak and elderly refugees, and all of the babies, died during the seven-week trek by train, foot and ship.
The Nakamura newlyweds were determined to move to Toronto, but were trapped for 10 years in Tokyo by Canadian red tape because of Mr. Nakamura’s military service. While they waited for a visa, Mr. Nakamura worked for a construction firm.
Eventually, he found a novel way to speed up the bureaucratic process. After spotting a Canadian-embassy car parked on the street, he waited several hours for its owner to return and then pleaded his case directly to the sympathetic diplomat – who turned out to be a visa officer.
Along with his visa, Mr. Nakamura also received the first government loan to expedite immigrant travel from Japan. After a year of menial jobs, he had saved and borrowed enough money to buy passage on a Japanese ship for Masako and their three children.
In Toronto, Mr. Nakamura became a cabinet maker, but his real aspiration was to start a kendo school, or dojo. He had learned the ancient warrior art in school as a young teen and had followed its chivalrous Bushido doctrine of loyalty, benevolence, courage and honour throughout his life. In the early 1960s, he and George Yun, a Korean student at the University of Toronto, put on a rare Canadian kendo display at York University’s Glendon College. Shortly after, in 1964, Mr. Nakamura answered his true life calling by founding Toka Budokan Kendo Renmei (Eastern Canada Martial Arts Centre Kendo Association) at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in East York.
One of Mr. Nakamura’s most loyal followers was a Czech émigré named Peter Schramek, who stopped by to observe a kendo practice in 1975 at the suggestion of a Buddhist meditation teacher and stayed for more than 20 years.
“His spirit was remarkable. I had tremendous respect for him,” said Mr. Schramek, who left Mr. Nakamura’s dojo in 1995 to take up iaido, the non-competitive ritual movements of the samurai sword. “He was a role model. He taught students to follow your heart, follow your own self.”
Operating a kendo dojo was a passionate pursuit, but not a profitable one. Christine Nakamura jokes the family could have been multimillionaires if not for the money her father spent on his passion.
Mr. Nakamura became manager of Toronto’s first karaoke bar in 1979, and took small acting roles that needed an Asian presence. An early job was co-starring in an American Express commercial with Peter Ustinov.
Mr. Nakamura organized several kendo club tours of Japan, usually finding corporate sponsors to pay travel expenses. On a 1970 trip, he took Japanese university student Shigeo Kimura under his wing when he learned the young man was discouraged by limited career choices. He sponsored his immigration to Canada, offering him accommodation and a job as a kendo teacher at his small Toronto club.
Mr. Kimura’s inability to speak English was partially resolved when Mr. Nakamura made him a member of a Canadian girls’ kendo tour in 1973 so that he could practice his English before immigrating – insisting that he pretend to be Canadian when meeting people of influence, including then-prime minister Kakuei Tanaka.
“He was a crazy kendo man,” Mr. Kimura said with a laugh. “He wanted to start its development in Canada. He was always attracting new blood.” In 1980, Mr. Kimura started the first of three kendo dojos of his own, including one at the University of Toronto.
Tokyo newspaper director Rieko Shibasaki was a member of a one-armed Kendo team Mr. Nakamura toured across Canada in 1987. In a funeral tribute, she wrote, “His straightforward, unwavering approach, deep love and constant encouragement have supported me throughout my life. Sensei’s constant friendly scolding, ‘Rie-chan, you can’t become disabled in the heart too’ have echoed in my ears through the crossroads of my life.”
Mr. Nakamura’s exchange visits were not casual affairs. Students got to practise with leading teachers and mingle with the world’s best kendo practitioners, but Mr. Schramek remembers their Canadian leader ran tours “like a sergeant.”
“You had to be early. If someone was late, they got talked to,” he said. “It was all about learning and practising. Sightseeing was secondary … Nakamura Sensei was dedicated, very kind, but he was not mushy.”
In 2008, Mr. Nakamura gave up his kendo classes. At 85, he felt he could no longer offer opponents a good fight. Despite his disdain for official endorsements, he was later inducted into the Canadian Black Belt Hall of Fame.
Worried about his deteriorating health last winter, he bought a stationary bicycle for daily workouts and pedalled more than 5,000 kilometres in six months, measuring his progress with an imaginary tour of Japan.
Mr. Nakamura was not one to encourage his students to enter competitions or even use Kendo Federation rankings to determine their levels of expertise.
“He always stuck to the basics and he worried the art was losing its original intent,” Mr. Schramek said. “It was not about winning but about making yourself better … he followed his own mind.”