By M the Writer
The most jarring and painful events in our lives can align us with our true purpose. For Kona Bladesmith Neil Kamimura, this came in the form of his mom’s suicide in June 2016. Days after his mom’s death, his friend gave him a forge and anvil, with the instructions to “pound out his feelings”. Kamimura turned to blacksmithing and knife making as a way to cope.
The intense physical act of hammering out red hot metal into something beautiful turned out to be a powerful outlet for the pain, guilt, and trauma that comes with the suicide of a loved one. On June 3rd, 2016, Neil crafted his first knife out of a leaf spring. In the next six months, he made seventy knives.
Then his girlfriend at the time secretly signed him up for the History Channel’s reality show Forged in Fire, which he watched regularly with his son Maddix. Not only did he make it on the show - he won - a total underdog competing against established blacksmiths with years of experience. He went on to compete against four other champions from previous episodes in another season, placing second.
Appearing on Forged in Fire rocketed Kamimura’s knife making to the next level. He had the opportunity to train with master blacksmiths and is currently booked out three years in advance by knife nerds around the world who want one of his custom pieces. He’s been featured in Hana Hou Magazine and his social media following is exploding with over 375,000 followers on Instagram. Suddenly in the spotlight, Kamimura is determined to use his platform to raise awareness about suicide and mental health.
According to the National Insitute of Mental Health, Suicide is on the rise as one of the leading causes of death in the United States, with 47,173 people taking their own lives in 2017. To put this number in context, there were 19,510 deaths by homicide in the U.S. in 2017. Those at high risk of suicide include those who suffer from mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders. Veterans are also heavily affected. Despite these high numbers, suicide, and related struggles with addiction and mental health are topics that people tend to avoid like the plague. It can be hard to separate the person from the disease.
While suicide can seem like a sudden shocking event, for family members with an inside view, this is not always the case. Kamimura’s mom’s battle with mental illness started when he was nine years old. He recalls how his mom - who he describes as the perfect mother early on - suddenly changed after the death of her own mother (his maternal grandmother). Her father (his maternal grandfather) committed suicide when Kamimura’s mom was a child. The death of his grandmother triggered the long buried traumatic memories for his mom, who suffered a mental breakdown and became suicidal. Neil became involved in taking care of his mom from the age of 13, trying to keep her safe.
Being on suicide watch took a toll on Kamimura over the years and had an impact on his own mental health. He struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts as a young adult. He didn’t know the difference between guilt and love. He hit a breaking point in 2013 when he found himself playing Russian roulette with a gun in his mouth. It didn’t go off, and Kamimura realized that it was time to start focusing on fixing himself, and letting go of baggage from the past.
This means the choice between playing victim or owning your own shit, and really getting honest with yourself. You can choose to let negative events of your past define you and hold onto guilt and resentment, or you can use these difficult experiences to shape you and drive you in a positive direction. Like the knives he creates, you can go in the fire, and be pounded by life into something incredibly strong, beautiful, and useful to your fellow humans.
For Kamimura, giving back comes in the form of sharing his story, as well as his craft. He recently spoke at the 12th annual SORINEX SummerStrong event in South Carolina in May, while forging a knife in front of the audience. In addition to motivational speaking, Kamimura recently partnered up with his wife, Chef Flora Kamimura, to found Forged to Table - a Brazillian style live fire cooking experience. The couple offers foodies a feast of local and wild caught ingredients from Hawaii, prepared using Kamimura’s custom blades.
Call it coincidence or destiny, blacksmithing brings Kamimura back full circle to his roots. His paternal great-grandfather Teiji Kamimura was a blacksmith and had a shop in Hilo from the 1930’s to the 1990’s. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one of Kamimura’s custom knives, you’ll see a signature letter “T” stamped into the blade - in honor of Teiji.
Today, if you follow Neil Kamimura on social media, you’ll catch his son Maddix, age 10, making guest appearances behind the anvil, and testing out blades on water bottles and stacks of phone books with gusto. Out of everything in Kamimura’s story, this is what gives me the most heart and inspiration. It’s living proof that we can take the heavy shit life throws at us and forge it into a legacy that is worth holding onto and being proud of.
To learn more about Neil Kamimura and his knives, visit his website https://tkamimurablacksmith.com/, and follow him on Instagram @rpm_neil. To learn more about Forged to Table or purchase a ticket to the next feast, visit https://forgedtotablehawaii.com/.
If you or a loved one is in crisis, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will connect you with a trained counselor in your area to talk, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week , call 1-800-273-8255. For Hawaii specifically, call 808-832-3100 or 1-800-753-6879. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI is a great resource to learn more about mental illness, as well as the National Institute of Mental Health.
M the Writer
Is a writer based in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii who is originally from Philadelphia, PA. She is passionate about raising awareness around mental health, as mental illness is part of her family’s story.