"I am a SANSEI," Bruce Kanegai told
I thought Kanegai, who is Japanese-American, meant
"SENSAI," meaning teacher or master.
That’s what they always called the karate master
in the "Karate Kid" movies. I thought
that because Kanegai is indeed a master teacher,
winner of numerous awards for teaching excellence
during his more than 25 years teaching art at
Simi Valley High School. He is also a 4th degree
karate black belt. But “sansei,” he explained,
means “third generation” Japanese-American. His
father, who served in World War II as a military
intelligence officer interrogating Japanese prisoners
and translating documents, is “nisei” or “second
generation.” And his grandfather, who emigrated
from southern Japan in 1904 and helped build Little
Tokyo in L.A., is an "iisei" or "first
Although he is a third generation American, Bruce
Kanegai was born in Japan while his father was
serving in the U.S. military there. He spent most
of his toddler years there and recalls the stares
he got as a little "Japanese" boy walking
around speaking English, wearing a Davey Crockett
coon skin cap.
Bruce Kanegai graduated from University High
in West L.A. and went on to study education and
art at CSUN. It was during his college years that
he took up the sport of karate. In 1967, he was
a member of the first U.S. national team to compete
Now as someone, whose knowledge of karate comes
from karate movies, I had always thought that
it was a sport native to Japan. Kanegai educated
me. Karate actually began in China in the 1600’s,
was adopted in Okinawa, and only came to the Japanese
mainland in 1922. Karate didn’t come to the U.S.
until the late 1950’s. And since its introduction,
there have been several variations: Shotokan,
Japanese style karate which Kanegai studied; Chinese
Style or Kung Fu made famous by Bruce Lee; Korean
style, Chuck Norris’ forte; and Chinese Kempo.
In 1975, Kanegai won Rotary International’s California
Teacher of the Year award. That award allowed
him to study art at the Ecole des Beaux Artes,
a famous art school outside Paris. During 1976,
he lived in France, studied art, learned French,
and proposed to his future wife, Nancy.
“I then had to make a choice to be an educator
or an artist," he declared. "I chose
to be a teacher. My students are my artwork. They’re
Kanegai has managed to meld his teaching skills,
his martial arts expertise, and outdoor skills
gained as a former Eagle Scout and use them in
other realms. For several years he taught a "survival
system" to police officers - techniques in
arresting and control, handcuffing, weapon retention,
and baton use. He has taken his students river
rafting, backpacking, and cross country skiing.
He teaches karate to the basketball team because
"cross-training can give an edge to any sport."
Bruce Kanegai was a Teacher Astronaut in Space
candidate in 1985. He was an admirer of Christa
McAuliffe, the social studies teacher who lost
her life in the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster.
"I teach because I touch the future,"
Kanegai quotes McAuliffe. "And that inspires