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BRUCE KANEGAI


"I am a SANSEI," Bruce Kanegai told me.
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 generation" American.
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 in Japan.

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 my canvases."

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 me too."