Members of the martial arts community — and followers of the arts of Bruce Lee, in particular — suffered a loss on January 7, 2021, when Seattle-based instructor Taky Kimura passed away at age 96. He had been the most senior living student of Lee and one of only three people (along with Dan Inosanto and the late James Yimm Lee) certified by Lee to teach.
He had been the most senior living student of Lee and one of only three people (along with Dan Inosanto and the late James Yimm Lee) certified by Lee to teach. Taky, the son of Japanese immigrants, was born and raised in Washington state. He was the only person of Japanese descent in his high school, but according to his son Andy Kimura, he was treated well in the community and rarely experienced discrimination.
"His parents would try to tell him the family were all really second-class citizens here, but my dad would argue that in school, they taught him everyone was equal in this country," Andy said. "But then the war came along, and my dad realized his parents were right all along."
At the outset of World War II, Taky and his family lost all their possessions and were imprisoned for the duration of the conflict in an internment camp with other Japanese-Americans. When the war ended, they returned to the Seattle area and opened a small grocery store.
But Taky had trouble moving on. His plan to attend college on a scholarship and become a doctor was forgotten. Instead, facing postwar discrimination and hostility, he began to think of himself as being lesser than the white people he dealt with on a daily basis. Consequently, Taky lived his life in a state of constant depression.
"Then one day at the grocery store, someone told him, 'You have to meet this incredible Chinese-American kid who does martial arts,'" Andy said. "My dad had earned a brown belt in judo in the camps, and there were some pretty hardcore teachers there. So he thought, What's this 18-year-old kid going to teach me?
"But then he met Bruce Lee, and when Dad was told to throw a punch at him, Bruce just tied him up, took him down and rained punches on him. Bruce didn't actually hit him, but my dad told me just the force of the wind from Bruce's punches was stunning."
Taky became one of Lee's earliest students as the budding martial arts icon changed locations from parks and makeshift gyms to his first true commercial school. In later years, Taky would recount how the martial arts and Lee's teachings brought him out of the depression he'd been in since the war and made him feel human again.
For his part, Lee seemed to appreciate the fact that Taky, perhaps because he was much older, was not a hanger-on and asked nothing of him other than to learn martial arts. Taky became Lee's closest friend in Seattle and even served as best man at Lee's wedding.
"His friendship was very, very important to Bruce," Cadwell said. "He was a genuine friend who didn't want anything from him and always remained loyal. In a way, Taky was even responsible for us getting married. Bruce had moved to Oakland for a summer and maybe had some trepidation about marrying so young, and I think Taky was a major force in his decision, telling him he should marry me."
When Lee relocated to Oakland and later to Los Angeles, he left his Seattle school, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Taky's hands. Taky would continue to teach what he'd learned from Lee for the next five decades. As Lee shifted into new realms, developing his jeet kune do method, Taky, although aware of these changes, continued to teach the original Jun Fan gung fu he learned from Lee.
While there might have been technical differences between Taky's version of Lee's art and the later version practiced by Lee students like Dan Inosanto, there never seemed to be any strife
."From the beginning of my training in jeet kune do in 1973, Dan always talked quite frequently in glowing terms about Taky, calling him his senior," said longtime jeet kune do instructor Chris Kent. "When I finally met Taky a few years later, I was struck by how very humble he was, talking about Bruce and Dan and their contributions but not his own. He would always build up others and downplay his contributions. That gives you a sense of the humility and depth he had to him."
Although many people with only tangential connections to Lee tried to cash in on their relationships after his death, Taky stood out because he never sought to profit from his association with the martial arts' biggest star.
"My dad always credited Bruce with bringing him back to life, so he taught for free for years," Andy said. "What he was trying to teach was how to live a better life and be a better person. That was what Bruce taught him, and that's what my father was about. He wasn't in magazines talking about himself. He was often humble to his own detriment."
Kent recalled visiting Taky and making a trip with him to the Seattle gravesites of Bruce and Brandon Lee. As they stood there, a pair of young men approached, talking animatedly about Lee and asking Kent and Taky to take a photo of them by the graves.
"Taky didn't say a word about who he was, so finally I had to say to them, 'Do you know who this person is? Taky was Bruce's closest friend and assistant instructor!' They were blown away by that and couldn't believe he would just talk to them like a regular person. But that was Taky, and I hope everyone will see him for who he was, a man of incredible integrity and character. His legacy is in the hands of his son Andy now, and I know he couldn't wish for anything better."
For more information about Taky Kimura and the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute of Seattle, visit kimuraclan-jkd.com.