Exclusive Q&A With Andrew Kimura, Son of Taky Kimura and the Leader of the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute of Seattle
by David Tadman
Photos Courtesy of Andrew Kimura
When Bruce Lee opened his school in Seattle in 1960, he wanted to create a place where anyone could learn a self-defense method that was good for the spirit, good for health and good for self-protection. Although many Asian elders opposed his decision to teach foreigners, Lee believed that race should not be a factor. As long as the individual was sincere, Lee said, all were welcome. To this day, his student Taky Kimura and Taky’s son Andrew hold true to that principle.
From 1960 until Lee’s passing in 1973, Taky Kimura has kept the ideas and ideals of Jun Fan gung fu alive and kicking in Seattle. For him, upholding his best friend’s legacy has never been a chore; in fact, he says, it’s been an honor. The gravity of this statement hits home when you consider how Kimura saw his life change after living in an internment camp during World War II. “I couldn’t look at anyone in the face after the camps,” Kimura said. “It wasn’t until Bruce Lee lifted me up again that I would find myself and take on life’s challenges once more.”
For many years, Taky Kimura has groomed his son to take the reins of Jun Fan gung fu. In recent times, the senior
Kimura has needed to rely on Andrew to spread what Lee created and Taky perpetuated.
For Andrew, growing up in a family in which Lee’s legacy has been made a priority was normal. “It is our job and privilege to share what was originally handed down to us by the founder of jeet kune do,” he said.
In this Black Belt exclusive, Andrew Kimura speaks about his life then and now, as well as what’s in store for the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute.
It’s been more than 45 years since Bruce Lee passed away. Can you tell us about the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute and how it’s progressed since your father was appointed instructor so many years ago?
My father kept the school open after Bruce Lee closed all the other schools in or around 1967. He graciously allowed my father to keep our school open for many reasons. My father kept it going as more of a private club, teaching a few dedicated students. That is how it stayed until he passed the mantle on to me.
My father began to groom me to take over for him in the ’90s, although he had been training me privately since I was young. In fact, what I thought was playing was him training me since I could walk. We never played catch like other fathers and sons; we played martial arts.
Not only was your father Lee’s best friend, but he also was the first instructor appointed by him. What has that journey been like for your dad?
I know it has been a rewarding experience to be able to help people as Bruce Lee helped him. His mission has always been to honor Bruce in his own way by passing on the philosophy and the art entrusted to him. He taught for free, and his only interest was helping people and making sure Bruce’s art was carried on in the proper way.
A contract was signed by your father and Lee for your father to run the Seattle institute. Although he offered your dad a salary, he refused. Why?
He wanted to pay Bruce back for helping him become a person again. After the Second World War and all the racism he faced along with being imprisoned in the internment camps, he was a broken man. Bruce helped him get back into the mainstream of life and have faith in himself. Bruce used to remind my father, “You are as good as anyone else, Taky — no better, no worse.”
Few knew that your father, although trained in Jun Fan gung fu, was also being taught by Bruce Lee privately in jeet kune do. Do those JKD teachings have a place in what is being taught within the Jun Fan method handed down to your father?
My father holds a fifth rank in JFGF and also has a Tao of Chinese Gung Fu certificate as a private student of Bruce Lee. While he was never given a jeet kune do certificate officially, he was kept up to date with what Bruce was developing once he left Seattle. My father was one of three people allowed to teach, and [he was] Bruce’s closest friend. So, of course, Bruce Lee not only kept him up on what he was developing martially but often used him as a sounding board for his ideas and theories. I know sifu Dan Inosanto was instrumental in Bruce’s development, as well as my father was in his own way. Bruce was learning from everyone he taught.
You and your father have accepted many students from all walks of life. What have Lee’s teachings done for these people? Have they been life-changing?
Yes, and for us, as well. The greatest reward is having someone tell you that his or her life is better because of having practiced gung fu with us. I know my father has had a positive influence on countless individuals throughout the many years he has taught. He has empowered people to find the medicine for their suffering within themselves.
The real reason we teach gung fu [is] not to be a badass in two easy lessons. The key is in taking what you learn about yourself in class and putting it to use in your everyday life. To become self-actualized is the goal more so than to become a fighter. In fact, if someone came to my father and said, “I want to be a great fighter” or “I want to open a school one day,” he would have told them to go somewhere else. That has never been the reason my father has taught all these years and not charged. It’s never been about the fighting.
What are the main points of the philosophy you teach?
That we can achieve anything we want in life if we believe it’s possible. If we stay positive and keep moving toward our goals, anything is achievable. Bruce would often write my father about something he was working on and maybe how it wasn’t going to work out, but in that same letter, he would be telling him that he was going to do it next. He never let anything stop him from working toward his goals. If he reached a stumbling block, he would remove it or go around it.
Also, that of equality among all races and religions, that under the stars we are one family, that we are all human beings first and all other titles of race, religion and nationalism only serve to separate us as humans.
For your father, what was Lee like as a teacher?
Bruce was a taskmaster, and he demanded perfection. My father told me of times he thought Bruce was trying to kill him when they worked out. I know the feeling, as my father demanded perfection of me. Bruce trusted my father and confided in him about training and life. There were many things Bruce told my father in confidence that he never told anyone else. My father has shared those with me and asked that I not tell anyone.
Who was Lee as a friend?
He was a kind man who helped my father believe in himself again. Bruce, being Chinese, had every reason to dislike my father based on his ethnic background. He told my father about seeing the Japanese fighter planes fly over Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation when Bruce was young. But Bruce judged people on their actions and by what was in their hearts. He depended on my father for a lot of things such as running his club, paying the bills and providing advice on many subjects. In a lot of ways, Dad was a father or big-brother figure to Bruce. Bruce didn’t have a car in the early days, so my father would drive him on dates and pick him up like a parent would.
What was it like being taught by your father?
He has always been different with me than [with] other students. He would never give me praise unless I deserved it. I can remember crying after workouts because he was so hard on me, not getting something to the degree he expected. Much like the stories of Bruce teaching him, my father demanded perfection. I would get so frustrated that I couldn’t get the approval I was working so hard for. He would tell me, “That’s good that you are frustrated — that means you will get it if you don’t give up! Keep trying.”
Also, he didn’t want to give me anything he felt I didn’t earn or deserve. He told me many times, “If I didn’t think you were worthy or didn’t have the ability, I wouldn’t be leaving you in charge.”
Now that he’s older and has fewer filters, I see that same demanding person in class from time to time. He will tell students, “You are punching like a bunch of old ladies. If you aren’t going to do it right, then get out!”
I know some must think he’s just getting old and crabby, but that’s actually the way he was with me and [the way] I think Bruce was with him.
Dad told me a story of Bruce watching him in class when he had just started. He was speaking to someone else and said while pointing toward where my father was, “That guy will never make it.” My father said that made him want to work even harder. In retrospect, he wasn’t actually sure that Bruce was talking about him, but it served the purpose of lighting a fire under his ass and making him work harder than ever.
At some point, you will become the head instructor representing your father and Bruce Lee in Seattle. What does that mean to you?
I have been prepared for the challenge my entire life. My father has groomed me for this purpose since I was old enough to walk. He never pushed it on me or forced me, which was good, as it would have likely turned me off. Instead, he waited until I was ready to accept the responsibility as a teenager. That was when I knew that I wanted to learn all I could and do my part to carry on his legacy.
You and your father are teacher and student, as well as best friends. What’s it like doing chi sao with him?
It is an awesome experience. Even now, I’m in my mid-40s and he’s 94, and [he’s] still so strong and fast. It’s a testament to Bruce Lee’s teachings and my father’s ability as his student that he still retains all he knows to this day.
In fact, my father is most himself when he’s teaching. Between that and muscle memory, he’s the most dangerous 94-year-old around!
Of all that you have learned from your father, what is most important to you?
His positive attitude and strength of character. He is the most honorable and courageous person I have ever met or will ever meet. I have more respect for my father than most people I have met, regardless of position, power, wealth or education. He taught me to be accessible to people of all walks of life and to be in the mainstream of things. He taught me to have the confidence to stand up for myself, speaking up in any situation. This is a major point of martial arts: for us to have the confidence to live our lives the way we want.
As a sifu, what is most important for you to relay to
Respect for the legacy my father has kept alive for so many years. How we behave reflects upon my father and sijo Bruce Lee, Ip Man and so on. I want to set an example that others can follow in a positive and inclusive way and that we must all carry on and create our own legacies — and pay it forward as my father has for so many years.
Lee said that the individual is most important. How does that philosophy apply within your institute?
We encourage introspection and questioning at a higher level. Obviously, at the beginning stages, there isn’t much worth in questioning everything you are doing. Later, as you advance in knowledge and experience, we encourage [you] to question and contest everything. After all, Bruce Lee believed that the only way to learn to swim was to jump in the water. You can’t learn from swimming on land. The last thing I want is for a student to go out and try to use something in defense and [find] it doesn’t work for them.
Your father has gained admiration around the world. What makes him so special in the eyes of so many?
His loyalty to his friend and teacher. He has never capitalized on Bruce’s legacy, and he never wanted anyone else to be able to do that. I know he feels comfortable with me taking over because he knows I will never do anything that goes against all he has learned and taught to others.
What’s in store for the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute of Seattle?
I am working toward finding a permanent location in Seattle where I can have a storefront and a place where people can visit and work out. I am not in a position where I can teach full time right now, but I would like to do so in the near future. It’s important to be able to devote the time the art deserves. I am also starting an affiliates program by invitation only, which would allow those who cannot attend classes here on a regular basis to learn and [then] share what they have learned in their location.
What would your father want to relay to the old and new students about Bruce Lee, Jun Fan gung fu and the Bruce Lee legacy he has preserved for all these years?
That there is more to it than fighting. The greatest lessons learned in the microcosm of the kwoon are lessons best applied in your everyday life and that hopefully we never have to use what we have learned to defend ourselves or our loved ones. We need to be true to what he taught all these years and not stray from the path he has set forth.
In closing, what can you say about Taky Kimura and Bruce Lee and how the martial arts changed the day the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute of Seattle opened its doors in the early 1960s?
Certainly, things have changed since Bruce’s passing — like things changed when he arrived on the scene. The martial arts world has not been the same since Bruce passed away and will never be the same without him. My father has been a part of Bruce Lee’s development from his fight with Wong Jack Man in Oakland to his meeting with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the case of his fight in Oakland, he used to tell my father, “A fight should be over in under a minute, so you don’t have to be in great shape.”
That all ended when he had to chase his opponent around for three minutes. He told my father, “I was so tired, he almost swept my feet once I got him down. I had to pummel him some more and make him admit defeat and that he was the troublemaker.” After that, Bruce started running more, stressing the cardio more to his students and within his own training.
Before Bruce met Kareem, he told my father, “Chi sao is the nucleus of the system and most important prelude to fighting. Furthermore, your leg is always longer than your opponent’s hand and can be used like the boxer’s jab to help control distance.” This was not true with Kareem, so movement became a more universal way with Bruce to deal with any opponent. To paraphrase Bruce, “To not be confined to a straight line or connection, but to be able to stand in the circle and move naturally.”