(Note this is a guest post from Leiv Harstad)
Often when an individual thinks of influential characters in kendo, more likely than not, that individual will think of Japanese kenshi like Mochida Moriji or Takano Sasaburo, or even present day heroes like Eiga or Miyazaki (rightfully so as these people have left a tremendous mark). However, few would think of an American named Dr Gordon Warner. Little information is readily available about Dr Warner and therefore his contributions go unnoticed for the most part. Dr Warner was a pioneer and is largely responsible for bridging the western world to Japanese kendo. In the following post I want to share what I discovered about Dr Warner and encourage those with personal knowledge to contribute below (and please correct any mistakes I may have made!).
As a young boy growing up in Southern California Dr Gordon Warner enjoyed watching chambara movies with his nisei friends, which at that time was very rare due to the absence of cultural understanding. Dr Warner often believed the people in the community thought he may have wandered into the theaters by mistake. It was this early exposure to Japanese culture that sparked his interest in Japanese history and eventually budo.
Dr Warner, a social studies major at the University of Southern California, was a large athletic man. Standing at 6’4″Dr Warner was on the varsity swim team. During this time he also decided to pursue judo and kendo at a local dojo. After graduating in June 1936, Dr Warner entered the United States Marine Corps as a 2nd lieutenant. It was during his time in basic training that Dr Warner met two officers Colonel Biddle (at the time a renowned fencer and foremost hand-to-hand combat instructor) and Captain Puller, who both encouraged him to continue studying budo, noting that kendoist were adept at parrying attacks during bayonet drills.
In 1937 Dr Warner returned to Los Angeles and continued his kendo training, this time under Mori Torao, who at the time was a business major at USC. Mori Torao and Dr Warner grew very close. Mori-sensei was impressed by Dr Warner’s physical ability and devotion to the intellectual study of the art.
Mori-sensei gave Dr Warner an invitation to his home dojo in Japan, with which he set sail, landing in Yokohama in September 1937. He presented the letter of invitation to Noma Seiji, founder of Kodansha ltd and the famed Noma Dojo. Under the direct tutelage of legendary men like Mochida Moriji and Masuda Shinsuke, Dr Warner received his shodan from the Dai Nippon Butokuden after two years of training at Noma Dojo. He also began to studying iaido during this time in Japan. Dr Warner returned to the United Stated in 1939, this time relocating to Hawaii breifly, where he continued his kendo training while working as a teacher. As a parting gift he was given a sword that was used in the battle of Sekigahara. That treasure today has been passed on to his children who also practice both kendo and iaido.
With America entering a long and brutal war in both Europe and the Pacific, Dr Warner received orders to report to the USMC school in Virginia, where he became a hand-to-hand combat instructor much like his friend Colonel Biddle. As the war escalated, Dr Warner was swept away to the Pacific theater. Dr Warner took part in the Bougainville campaign (Nov. 1st, 1943), being the first to raise the American flag on the island. Five days later after the initial landing, Dr Warner led an attack against a large force with a dug in position. Beginning at 6 AM the battle raged all day long, with Dr Warner’s company eventually over-running the Japanese opposition. Dr Warner used his Japanese language skills to help win the fight by confusing the enemy, by yelling false orders to those close enough to hear him. Toward the end of the battle, Dr Warner had taken command of a tank and led it into a clearing, where it came under heavy fire from two Japanese machine gun nests. The tank took many hits; some of these rounds penetrated the tank’s armor and hit Dr Warner in the left leg, shattering the bone. Dr Warner was awarded the Navy Cross for taking out the machine gun nests and he was recommended for the Medal of Honor for his actions that day.
Due to the serious injury he sustained, Dr Warner lost his left leg, amputated just below the hip (leaving only approximately 6 inches of his femur remaining), and subsequently spent a long time recovering in the hospital. Despite of all of this Dr Warner remained in high spirits, shrugging it off as “merely a casualty of war” and “incidental”. All the while he attended classes to eventually receive his Master of Arts from USC in 1944. After the war he chose a career as an educator at the University of California, Berkeley, and began studying for his doctorate. He no longer practiced kendo formally because of the loss of his leg but continued to train on his own with a bokuto. Later Mori Torao would convince Dr Warner to begin training again at a dojo. The teacher and student spent time together carefully going over kihon again, until Dr Warner was able fight once more. He and fellow veteran and scholar Benjamin Hazard organized a kendo club at UC Berkeley, with full support from the university department of physical education. This club still exists today.
In 1954, he received his PhD and took a teaching position at Long Beach State College in Southern California. Two years later he would receive 3-dan from the AJKF. Around this time, Sasamori Junzo requested that Dr Warner come to Japan to take part in a four week US-Japan goodwill tournament that would be held in Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, and Osaka. Dr Warner hikiwake-ed twice, lost once, and won his final match in Osaka. One year later (1957) Sasamori Junzo would tour the US with a 13 man an all Japan university team, performing exhibition matches, with Dr Warner’s Long Beach State College being the site of the final match.
Dr Warner would continue to visit Japan several times over the years. In 1959 he would meet and train with Higashiyama Kennosuke (Kendo instructor to the Wakayama prefecture police), who had lost his right leg above the ankle. That year he would continue to train all over Japan, visiting more than 20 different dojo, finalizing his trip with the Imperial Guards kendo training. He was later rewarded 5-dan, making him the highest ranked non-Japanese at the time. In 1961 Dr Warner took a year long sabbatical to return to Asia, traveling to various dojo again and to finish the first draft of his book “This is Kendo: The Art of Japanese Fencing” with his friend Sasamori Junzo. “This is Kendo”, which was eventually published in 1964, would be the first book of its kind in English, and remain one of the few English language resources for many years to come. He would later on publish “Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice” with Donn F. Draeger, along with many other books on Japanese culture and history. He was also the first editor of Black Belt magazine and wrote numerous articles.
Dr Warner would eventually take up residence in Okinawa, Japan, where he would spend the rest of his days. During his time in Japan, Dr Warner participated in many shiai, such as the all Japan high school and university teacher’s tournament and the all Japan medical doctor’s tournament, even winning some of his matches. Much to his delight people would remark on his excellent technique and not his handicap. Dr Warner obtained the rank of Kyoshi 7-dan in kendo and 6-dan in iaido, all (except shodan) were awarded directly from the All Japan Kendo Federation. Remarkably Dr Warner achieved all of this without the use of his left leg, and what’s more did so even though many Japanese believed that a foreigner could not possibly understand kendo let alone physical do it. Dr Warner never put great importance on grades or tournament results, chalking them up to a learning experience, despite his achievements. He was always intrigued by the philosophy of kendo and the direct effect training had on his life. When asked about rank Dr Warner said, “To me a dan [ranks] is nonsense. At that particular point, out of eight [judges] who are watching, they pass [me]. Tomorrow I may be absolutely worthless with someone [else], I may absolutely fail.”
Before airplane travel, at a time when overseas communication was limited to handwritten letters, in the face of limited cross culture understanding, Dr Gordon Warner achieved what only a handful are able to do today with modern conveniences and readily available resources. He traveled to and practiced at legendary dojos, some of which are no longer here today, with many famous kenshi, and established life long relationships with the most important men in kendo history. We as non-Japanese kenshi are directly influenced by his passion for kendo and should give thanks for the cultural bridges he established.