On March 7th of this year, I received a phone call from the Aikido Center of Los Angeles. That it was 6:00pm, Taipei time, struck me as strange because that meant in Los Angeles it would be around 3:00am. Though this fact should have put me on alert, the news that my old, dear friend Sensei Kensho Furuya suddenly passed away on the 6 th was a huge shock. It was like taking a major blow while in a totally unguarded state.
Though I had to somehow accept the news, for quite awhile I just didn’t know how.
Then other people called to inform me and reality could not be denied.
I would like to start with February 14, Valentine’s Day. My latest English-language book, Lone Sword Against the Cold Cold Sky, had just come out. Furuya Sensei contacted me, very excited, very happy. He phoned, emailed, ordered copies of the book, notified his students and martial arts friends in and outside of Los Angeles and told other mutual acquaintances. Even before February 14 th, my little book had been the focus of tons of correspondence between us—we exchanged more letters, phone calls and emails than at any other time in our thirty-plus years of friendship.
At the time, I attributed all this to the book itself. Sensei had pushed and squeezed me to get it done. He also helped in practical, specific ways: he read through the entire manuscript and returned it with precise, detailed edits and major suggestions, which we implemented with gratitude. Preoccupied with the pressures of daily life, my thoughts and perceptions didn’t expand much beyond our business at hand. Now, looking back, this was the very last time our friendship could connect in this way.
Always along with our specific communications, he expressed his biggest hope and request: “When will you be in Los Angeles?” Of course, he talked about helping me to do a book signing in his dojo, or maybe hosting a party to meet with all our old martial arts friends. Or could I perhaps conduct another workshop for his students? But underneath all of this, I had the clear feeling that aside from specific plans, he was reaching for something very simple and valuable: We just needed to get together, see each other and chat face-to-face in the way of friends, about this and that, about martial arts, culture, society, friends, the joys and frustrations of our work, and about people we love and care deeply for. It had been much too long. It’s so sad to think that now this won’t happen.
I’ve been in Taiwan for ten years. Early on, I could still manage time to travel. But my situation shifted in ways that keep me from leaving. I have been taking care of my elderly, sick mother. I have obligations to Echo Publishing Company to write a series of books. I also have a close engagement with the Cloud Gate Dance Theater, a group that not only produces world-class performances but also runs many dance schools for youth throughout Taiwan. They asked me to create and implement a new traditional wushu program to teach their young students real and correct kung fu—a happy responsibility that unfortunately requires my continued presence.
Alas, though I’ve been forced to postpone my long-overdue trip to the U.S., Furuya Sensei was not able to wait. It’s so difficult to comprehend, as I sit here holding this new book, which is filled with my old articles written from the 1980’s and 90’s on—the exact period of time that marks our friendship.
Sometime after I just moved to the U.S., I met Furuya Sensei at my first performance in Oakland, CA. We sat side-by-side and demonstrated on stage and so began my relationship with this unique individual. Thumbing through my book has brought flashbacks and tons of old memories that really have not been easy to face. In the areas of martial arts careers and just living life, we did many things together. A while ago, Furuya Sensei phoned me to talk about a pleasant reunion he’d just had with a group of old martial arts friends. He laughed as he told me how they always used to chat about new techniques, how to make a punch faster, stronger kicks, a new weapon learned. Now, he said, the information they shared related to blood pressure, good physicians, and joint supplements. He was chuckling and I was laughing too—we all admit that we’re old.
And then, not too long ago, after the book came out, one of his many calls in the morning, Taipei time, came through: “Hello! Did I wake you up? What time is it there? Oh, is it too early? I’m sorry!” He was very excited. He told me he was rearranging things in his office and, “Hey, I found some old pictures of us—you and me—from back then, when our hair was still black!” Of course, we had a good laugh. Our hair, just like leaves, should change color. We tend to forget, but it’s totally natural and the leaves finally will fall.
Sensei Kensho Furuya was born, raised and received his formal education in America. He has a degree from USC (University of Southern California) and I remember teasing him—this person who was so seriously devoted to his career and practice--that he graduated from the University for Spoiled Children. Of course the joke didn’t originate with me but still we had a good laugh.
As I know, his ability in the Japanese language—both writing and speech--was much better than many people now living in Japan who are, like him, of the post-war generation. In martial arts, he absorbed every bit of nutrition from his training—not just technique and practice of Aikido and Iaido, but also the depth of thought and action that comes with these ancient, traditional arts. He built his own character, personality, and style.
He studied Buddhism and eventually qualified as a Japanese Buddhist monk. He served at the Zenshuji Soto Mission for quite some time. He also practiced the Japanese tea ceremony and Chinese calligraphy. He was a gentleman who possessed a well-rounded education.
Some people felt his attunement to the customs, ancient traditions and legacy of his culture made him an anachronism in modern times. But he loved it. He lived, taught and shared his heritage with others in one of the most modern cities in the world, Los Angeles. I would say he faced his surroundings, fought very hard and took his hits with honor and courage. He did not allow modern society and its negative pressures to knock him off his path. He refused to surrender, to compromise his heritage, to leave tradition. I would say he struggled in a gentle way but in fact, very hard. His dream was not to create a huge personal success but rather to help people, the younger generation and society, regain a much-needed balance.
But the sad truth has always been that he worried this could be a losing battle. This was a depressing thought and he had no easy place to release his sorrow. Instead, he assumed a happy face, was nice to people and continued to work hard on his basic purpose. At the same time, unfortunately, this took a toll on his health.
For a time, as a young man, he worked as an officer in a bank. One day a young Chinese gentleman walked in to ask for a loan. We all know banks like to deal with rich people. As the joke goes, banks are like this: If it’s a sunny, fine day, the bank will happily loan you an umbrella. But in a storm, the bank is not going to loan you, someone in real need, an umbrella. Anyway, this young Chinese gentleman, who wanted a loan to publish a martial arts magazine, was lucky to be interviewed by Furuya Sensei. The rest is history. The loan was approved a new star was born: Inside Kung Fu magazine.
Later, Sensei quit the bank to work with Inside Kung Fu as a book editor for their publishing division. I mentioned his abilities in the Japanese language. Well, his English is good too. In this year’s New Year issue of the Aikido Center of Los Angeles Newsletter, he had one or two little poems, very well written. He’s an excellent writer and poet. And of course he wrote a martial arts column called Kodo, Ancient Ways, later published in book form. It’s thoughtful, serious, pointed; yet with moments of humor--just the way he was. It’s very well written and widely read. I highly recommend it to all my students too because he talks about Spirit, the Way, the philosophy of martial arts. I remember sitting in our favorite traditional Chinese teahouse on the outskirts of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Imperial Tea Court, listening to him lament, in a semi-humorous tone, problems relating to the book’s title. Some bookstores stocked it in the music section, mistaking “Kodo” for the traditional Japanese string instrument, the “Koto.”
He also shot a series of videotapes on Aikido. I would love to see it converted to DVD with new sections added on his life, activities, dojo, and interviews of and about him, perhaps footage from his memorial service, to give people some feeling for this great person. This videotape still sells in U.S. and Europe and many aikido practitioners use it. It’s a major reference and I think it’s time to do something more with it.
Of course Sensei has published the Aikido Center of Los Angeles Newsletter for years. It wasn’t intended to just serve himself and his own dojo but to support all dojos in the U.S. He also connected with Japan. Every year several Japanese Aikido masters would be invited to visit the U.S. to promote the art. You can see how sincerely and seriously Sensei worked just from the information in his newsletter.
Some time after leaving his banking job, Sensei started his first dojo, located in Hollywood. When he decided to move to Little Tokyo, the biggest Japan town in the world outside of Japan, he hired traditional carpenters from Kyoto. He himself worked with them learned their craft and literally built the dojo with his own hands, nail by nail, one pull on the saw after another. The Los Angeles department of history and culture should designate this dojo as a historical landmark, to be preserved forever.
Each year, Nisei week is an important event in Japanese communities throughout the nation. Furuya Sensei and his students always supported the Los Angeles activities with their time and effort. We all hope that this year they will do something to honor and appreciate the memory of this good friend.
Furuya Sensei committed his time and efforts to support what he valued. He loved what he did. He wasn’t motivated by profit or fame or just fun. He did what he felt should be done. He did everything with sincerity, with passion, with his heart. Yes, he tortured himself with worry and was overworked and overburdened. Within him, dedication mingled with disappointment. Certainly, he was long overdue for a serious vacation. So although feelings of sadness surround me, so heavy, dense and intense, I am glad that his final moments were in his beloved dojo, laughing with his loyal students. For a soldier, the best place to die is on the battlefield and, even better, with a smile on his face.
What more can I say? He’s taken the big step into his new journey. I like to think that he decided to transform himself into a little angel, keeping an eye on us from above, guiding us as he always did, and hopefully protecting us as well. And now, resed and relaxed, removed from the grinding pressures of life in our society, I hope he can also help us move through the grief of losing such a well-educated gentleman, martial artist, good person and true friend. His passing marks an end of an era.
Here’s my final salute to this true, modern samurai: namu amida butsu!