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 your students?
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."

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"Unlike karate training outside a combat zone," Cpt. Yoon explained, "it is important here that the troops be able to turn their techniques into devastating, bone-crushing blows. There is no place for mild strikes in combat when a VC is trying to push a bayonet into your stomach."

For that reason, the compound is peppered with makiwara punching boards, and the Korean Tigers spend much time conditioning the weapons of taekwondo. Also, throughout Vietnam there are plenty of sandbags, which are used to protect all kinds of constructions. They make excellent striking bags for a karateman.

The next unit in the schedule is to display free fighting. The commander again explains that this form of fighting is used to test the Tigers' skills against one another rather than to demonstrate the actual methods of close-quarters combat, as a fight on the battlefield is nearly always over in an instant.

The sparring matches are exhibitions of technique and control. Perhaps the only recognizable difference between these and matches held in tournaments is the consistent power the soldiers put behind their blows and their concentration on hard taekwondo techniques rather than elusive ones.

Against Weapons

At last, a final group prepares to show what happens when an unarmed Tiger meets a VC with a knife or a bayonet fixed to his AK-47 rifle. Two pairs of soldiers stride to the center of the hard-dirt arena, face the commander and render a snappy salute. Then they fall into a four-man square and await orders.

Sgt. Lee barks a command, and the best of the best explode into action. One gladiator leaps for a knife that has been thrown into the arena. He jams it, hard, at another, who violently kicks the striking hand and jumps shoulder height, scissoring the attacker's neck and tumbling him forward onto the unyielding ground with a crash. The knife spins away.

Meanwhile, another black belt catches a rifle with a fixed bayonet that is thrown to him from the sidelines. With a guttural shout, he lunges for his opponent. The defender spins to the left, brings his knee sharply inward against the weapon and rolls the attacker onto his own shoulder while tearing at his windpipe. It's over in seconds.

The couples repeat the performance again and again, smashing full tilt against each other. Every time, the attacker thrusts hard with his weapon. It's just less than miraculous that the practice doesn't turn into a blood bath.

Korean Budomen

Initiated as the Capital Infantry Division, the Tiger Division was activated on June 20, 1949, in Seoul with the mission of providing security for the capital. It was charged with additional security of the 38th parallel in Ongjin in September of the same year. When the Korean War began on June 25, 1950, the division began to prove itself in heavy fighting during battles at Ahn-kang and Kyung-joo along the defense line of the Nakdong River in the southeastern part of the country.

Following the successful Inchon landing by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces, the division penetrated deep into the North across the 38th parallel, overrunning enemy strongholds and advancing close to the Korea-Manchuria border. As their ability became recognized, the division was committed repeatedly and saw the armistice signed while fighting at the front in the spring of 1952. They captured more than 9,920 enemy, killed more than 91,000 and seized more than 31,000 weapons. As a result of their valor, the division was awarded five ROK Presidential Citations and a U.S. Presidential Citation, an ROK National Assembly award and 42 other plaudits.

After the armistice, the division had already been dubbed with the Tiger laurel and was deployed along the front line of the central part of the Korea DMZ. They remained under continued training and constant combat readiness.

Upon approval of the National Assembly, the division was directed to combat in the Republic of Vietnam on August 20, 1965. Three separate elements arrived at Qui Nhon on November 1 after four weeks of preliminary training. That month, it received its tactical area of responsibility, which consisted of 1,400 square kilometers in Binh Dinh Province in central Vietnam. The division's general mission objectives are to protect travel routes, military installations and facilities within its TAOR and to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its pacification plan by eliminating Viet Cong in the area and helping the people rebuild their destroyed homes.

Since 1965, the Tiger Division has stabilized security within their area to an impressive degree. The TAOR itself has expanded from 1,400 to 3,800 square kilometers. As of mid-June, the Tigers had killed more than 9,000 enemy, captured nearly 3,000 and counted 4,500 defectors, as well as seizing nearly 4,000 weapons.

All this leaves little room for doubt about whom historians will count as the true elite of Vietnam combat. In the ranks of the VC and the NVA, mention of these ferocious Koreans brings shudders to the comrades. Even as he fights those from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, the Tigerman knows that he has full command of his body and his mind. When he's faced with hand-to-hand combat, he need not rely only on the ferocity of his rifle to equalize the score. He can hammer out punches with machine-gun rapidity or swing a full-flogging kick with sufficient force to gain the advantage. When a man is trained in karate, or to be more specific, taekwondo, he's ahead of the game and the Viet Cong, that crap-shooting armada of insurgent forces, and the crack North Vietnamese troops who come to do battle. They know full well that the Tigers with their taekwondo as well as armaments are tough to beat.

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The roots of taekwondo are in Korea, and for the ROK GIs who enter the Tiger ranks, the intensive routine of training in the martial art is strictly par for the course. No doubt every Tigerman hopes to use his martial arts training sometime in a tournament as well as he does in combat. That's the dream of every GI in the ROK division.

The Tigers, under Maj. Gen. Lew Pyong Hyon and with taekwondo's Capt. Yoon, have been making headlines throughout the world. They are the only troops, it's been said, who fight fire with fire, who use guerrilla techniques and ambush techniques in much the same manner as the Viet Cong. In a war such as this — where the boundary lines are questionable, where there is no front line and where your neighbor can turn into your enemy — such techniques are indispensable. Thanks to the hand-to-hand techniques and the combat-karate emphasis of this militia, the odds are clearly shaping up in the Tiger Division's ledger. Thanks to taekwondo, the Tigers are smashing the enemy with no holds barred and, if anyone doubts it, plenty of contact!

Read Part 1 of this article here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

Scene: A group of soldiers is gathered for a bull session. The subject under discussion is the Tiger Division of the Korean army. The soldiers are engrossed. One, a lean, tanned GI, pushes back his beret, squints into the darkness and looks out to see a mountain of burning embers.

"We were on recon operations in southern Binh Dinh Province," he explains. "One night, we caught the sounds of a skirmish. My squad leader held up his hand and when he smiled, we knew we were in for some action. As we approached the area, we were a little surprised that there was no small-arms fire, but we could hear a lot of guys yelling.

"When we got there, it was an unbelievable sight. Here were those Korean troops in close-quarters combat with what must have been superior forces, as there were [Viet Cong soldiers] all over the place. I've never seen so many broken necks and caved-in ribs in my life. We helped clean up what was left."

So goes the legend, and just in case you're casting a cynical eye as to the Tiger Division's aptitude in the use of martial arts, the record speaks for itself. If there was ever a primer on combat karate, these troops would write it. In two grueling periods daily, every troop in the Tiger Division trains in the taekwondo method, the official karate of Korea.

At one time, there were many factions, but in the past year or so, they've all been absorbed by the International Taekwon-Do Federation, with its headquarters in Seoul. In fact, with the Koreans, and even in many areas in Vietnam, taekwondo is synonymous with karate. Numerous Vietnamese do not even understand the word "karate" — but mention taekwondo and their faces light up with recognition.

Way of Life

At Qui Nhon, division headquarters, visitors are surprised to see sparkling white uniforms — and a sea of black belts — virtually in the middle of a combat zone. While on actual operations away from their base, the Tigers work out in field gear, but at the training center, everyone wears a gi and keeps it as immaculate as any other military uniform.

On the left side of the gi, each person wears the proud division emblem of a roaring tiger. On the other side, if he's an instructor, the soldier wears a black insignia of a fist with white dots above indicating how many degrees of black-belt rank he holds.

Commander of the massive taekwondo corps of the Tiger Division is Capt. Yoon Dong Ho, himself a third dan. But the rugged, intelligent captain is no armchair commander. He's on hand daily at the dirt arena, watching the troops go through their paces and often teaching a special class of officers.

Capt. Yoon is responsible for the official taekwondo training of more than 15,000 Tiger troops in Vietnam. Although popular belief holds otherwise, there are actually more than 200 black-belt holders in the Tiger ranks. Of them, three are fourth dan, 29 are third dan, 57 are second dan and 115 are first dan. There are roughly 600 red belts and 2,300 blue belts, as well as 9,000 troops holding degrees of white belt. Approximately 2,900 men recently began their training in Vietnam. Many of these, of course, already hold rank they won in Korea.

Deployment

Each element of the Tiger infantry arriving in Vietnam goes through intensive schooling at Qui Nhon. The 26th of these classes began in July, to run just over a month. The sessions lead off with classical techniques under the direct supervision of Sgt. Jun Jae Gun, head taekwondo instructor for the Meng Ho in Vietnam. Sgt. Jun, one of the division's tough trio of fourth degrees, displays a certificate signed by Gen. Choi Hong Hi, International Taekwon-Do Federation president.

When a trooper is promoted in Vietnam, however, he's awarded a military certificate of training by his supplement company commander, who acts as a representative of Lt. Col. Jai Chun Ko, division field commander. All promotions are recognized by the federation. In cases of promotion to the higher grades, however, special recognition is often meted out. For example, Sgt. Kim Duk Ki was recently awarded his third dan by Lt. Gen. Chae Myung Shin, field headquarters commander for all ROK Forces in Vietnam.

"The major objective of our formal taekwondo classes," asserted Cpt. Yoon, "is to take the minds of our troops and replace civilian thinking with military spirit and fierceness. 'Tiger' is the nickname the division has been tagged with because of the fierce nature we have demonstrated in combat. We intend to live up to it."

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Cpt. Yoon reinforced that statement with an impromptu demonstration of his own favorite techniques. Choosing a brawny trooper with a bayonet, the captain rushed him, parrying the weapon with an onslaught of power strikes with the elbow, palm, heel and fist. He ended with a forearm strike to the windpipe, which he explained is effective when one wants to silence the enemy quickly.

Key elements in hand-to-hand combat, the commander explained, are attacking the weapon directly or the hand that holds it while simultaneously attacking the most vulnerable spot within reach, then pressing the assault to keep the enemy off-balance while finishing him.

Field Testing

Stressing physical fitness in preparation for the application of these techniques, Cpt. Yoon said his troops rely heavily on powerful, smashing blows against the smaller Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Communists. He explained that the enemies are often undernourished because of their long treks from the North and therefore may fall easily under a strong attack.

"One particular situation where we encounter hand-to-hand fighting," Cpt. Yoon said, "is when the VC hide in bunkers and Tiger patrols do not have heavy weapons available to blow [the bunkers] apart. In such a case, the troops simply go in after them. The VC stand little chance against my men in close-quarters fighting."

In addition to the training of their own infantry, Tiger taekwondo instructors teach U.S. and Republic of Vietnam soldiers, as well as other Allied Forces infantry soldiers. Presently, some 1,250 Vietnamese and 150 U.S. soldiers are being taught by the Tigers at Qui Nhon alone. At other installations throughout South Vietnam, the Koreans teach their art to Allied Forces and Vietnamese civilians of both sexes and all ages.

There are scores of Korean black belts who are not members of the Tiger Division but who teach taekwondo to the local troopers and civilians. Many of these men belong to the larger White Horse Division. Especially in populated places such as the Tan Son Nhut Air Base–Saigon area, taekwondo has become as popular as baseball is to Americans. Today, self-defense is serious business to the Vietnamese, as no one knows when a VC terrorist squad will break into his home.

The Tiger Lair

Several miles away from the main training area on the Qui Nhon Air Base where the new arrivals hold classes, the Tiger instructors have their own compound, carved out of the verdant Vietnam countryside. Bordered on two sides by mountains and banked by the South China Sea, the encampment nestles into a serene and clean-smelling natural cradle, somehow out of place amidst the turmoil of war. The site has never been successfully attacked, and no one remembers the last time even a single mortar landed within the perimeter.

The perimeter itself is defined by roll upon roll of barbed wire, machine-gun posts and sandbag-reinforced bunkers. When not actually leading class, the instructors perform most of their military duties wearing their gi, often barebacked in the all-pervading heat. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to see a fierce fighting man carting pails of water for the makeshift shower or spreading rolls of concertina wire — until you recall how budo masters of ancient times made their charges perform menial tasks before they would be accepted. Perhaps this accounts in part for their dedication and the respectful attitude the troops invariably display.

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Cpt. Yoon decides to review the instructors' training methods, so he has the select corps organize into a squadron to demonstrate their prowess. Sgt. Lee Jin Ho, whose official title is post instructor, leads the formation. They fall swiftly into ranks. The commander steps forward and receives the squadron's salute, then turns the command over to Sgt. Ho.

At a signal, the Tigers break ranks and rush into new formations with precision reminiscent of the Roman legions. The first squad is directed to show taekwondo forms. They snap through the kata in coordinated pairs, demonstrating the adroitness that can only come from military discipline. The forms are technically the same as classical Korean karate but are executed with the confident power of soldiers who have seen what their stuff can do to a man.

The next group forms behind a line of boards, bricks and tiles. Stacks of four and five bricks, up to 15 tiles and four 1-inch boards lie before them. The unit is called to attention, salutes again and assumes a ready posture. Sgt. Lee barks a command, and a dozen heads, hands and fists smash into the solid objects. Not a single one remains unbroken.

Read Part 2 here.

text by Jack E. Swift

(This article first appeared in the November 1968 issue of Black Belt.)

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