Interview with Robert Stroud: Kendo in Pacific Northwest and Mountain Regions of the United States Part I

Robert Stroud has been commuting between many kendo schools in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain regions of the United States since 1979, becoming one of the first non-Asian US kenshi to receive the rank of seventh dan. In this first part of the interview, Stroud discusses his kendo journey, his time at Noma Dojo in Tokyo, and some influential instructors. All images from Robert Stroud. Read part two here.

 

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome! Thank you, Robert Stroud Sensei, for joining us today!

Robert Stroud: Thank you for inviting me! I look forward to our discussion.

MAYTT: You began your kendo training back in 1979, with martial arts being at a height during that time. What drew you to kendo as opposed to other, more popularized martial arts and physical activities? Did you find something different or unique about it and does that aspect still drive you today to train?

RS: When I was in college at the University of Idaho for my undergraduate studies, I stumbled onto a Shotokan Karate class that was taught by a man named Carl Walker. It was lead by him and his wife, Deb Walker. They ran the club at University of Idaho, and he was a student of Hideki Iwakabe Denver Rocky Mountain Budokan. At the time, I would have been nineteen and it doesn’t take much for a college person to get fired up for some kind of martial arts training. I just kind of found something on campus.

Robert 2017 AUSKF
Robert Stroud ready to partake in a All United States Kendo Federation tournament in 2017.

I used to go to Denver in my summers and I would find some job so that I could  I train at the Rocky Mountain Budokan, essentially their Hombu Dojo. During one of my summers in Denver, I saw kendo. I was a little bit aware of it before. But when I saw it, I just liked it and it seemed interesting. I continued my karate training while training in kendo for about ten years – after that I stopped doing karate in any significant way and just focused on kendo and iaido. It was one of those things that was just interesting, and the more I dug into it, the more it was intriguing to me and I liked it. At some level, when I was in my twenties, I was always getting something messed up when I was training in karate – thumbs dislocated, nosebleeds, and being scuffed up during fighting. You would get the crud beat out of you, but with kendo, there are eighty-year-old instructors that just make short work of a twenty-year-old. That was kind of intriguing to me.

This is a funny aside, but there was actually a discussion I had with Iwakabe Sensei in Denver about starting kendo. He wasn’t the head kendo instructor at RMBK. The head kendo instructor was Hiroshi Umemoto who was originally from Wakayama, Japan and had lived in the Los Angeles area. He was a student of Torao “Tiger” Mori sensei. Umemoto Sensei was running the dojo in Denver for kendo and Iwakabe Sensei was running the dojo for karate. Iwakabe Sensei was also teaching kendo as well. To get into the kendo class, I had essentially a meeting or interview with Iwakabe Sensei and he said something along the lines of, “OK, you can start. But if you start, kendo, you can’t quit.” Years later, I’ve always, probably to his chagrin, I’ve made the comment that he never had me make that same promise with karate. That’s why I can’t quit kendo. I made that commitment. [Laughs]. The truth is I was a bit of a knucklehead. I couldn’t get enough of it. You get to put armor on, and you can beat on each other. That was fun, especially at that young age. [Laughs]

MAYTT: I see. From your point of view, how did society, or the average person of the time you started kendo, view the art compared to that of judo, karate, and other martial arts? Did kendo have the same mysticism and allure as empty hand martial arts once did?

RS: Oh, I’m sure for some people. There are people that get all “oh ah” about swords. There are people that, in fact, who practice that have significant sword collections and they get into trading and selling and repairing for all that. In general, it tends to be a martial art that’s pretty hard to make a case for self-protection, like what happens with karate. There’s a lot of thought about if this will work in a fight and if that would just protect me. That’s kind of why from the 1960s, 1970s, into today, you’ve seen things move into more mixed martial arts type fighting stuff. Because that’s a little bit more widely thought of as something that would work in an actual fight. But as I’ve told my students and other people over many years, the nice thing about kendo is that nobody walks around with a sword. In fact, you’re avoided if you walk around with a sword, and it is rewarding once you get past the idea that it’s a self-protection activity.

Now, having said all that, there is self-defense and real martial arts inside of kendo, but when you’re a beginner or you’re just starting out, those things are just a distraction. I don’t see how you can make the argument that you’re learning how to fight with a sword, especially in the beginning. In many ways I like kendo for that reason. You can just focus on doing “correct kendo,” and you don’t have to be going down the rabbit hole of “will it work in a fight?” You can always come back to that later. At the end of the day, kendo is a martial activity, unless it has that essence of martial thought and technique in the center of it, it’s just dancing, i.e. physical movement.

MAYTT: I can see how that thought or that kind of obsession does it work in a fight cloud the rest of the training. What was the training like when you began in 1979? Has kendo training changed or evolved with the times since you first started and if so how?

RS: You could, in some ways, argue that it hasn’t changed much at all. You could also argue that things have gotten more technical, more precise, and more structured. One of the things in the U.S. is that you have a little bit of a different kendo environment than you do in Japan. I’ve often made the comment to people that the quality of kendo in the U.S. is not that different compared to Japan or around the world, but the quantity of the practice is different. If you have somebody that spent twenty years doing kendo in the US and has their fourth dan, which means they’ve had some serious training in their years. They should be able to do fine training in Japan. However somebody in Japan, with fourth dan, would have probably trained three or more times a week, as many as five or six times a week. They’re going to have a larger reservoir of capacity for that level.

IMG_0919
Robert Stroud performing iaido in Kyoto in 2015.

It’s technically hard for places outside of Japan to function exactly like in Japan. Things are changing; the U.S. National team beat Japan in the World Championships and that’s the only team that’s ever done that. As far as the general practice, I think people have gotten more sophisticated. There are all the Internet resources now available to students. When I started, the only reference material was Gordon Warner’s book, This is Kendo, and there wasn’t a whole lot there – if you look at it, there’s just a description of techniques and it doesn’t go very deep. But now you can order, if you’re so inclined, technical manuals from the All Japan Kendo Federation in English that talk about how to structure classes, what to focus on, and so on. You also see a little more sophistication in the warm-ups, basic drills, and things that weren’t happening in the U.S. back then. Where it was happening, back then, was in Japan and I’ve seen it in my travels, and I’ve experienced it. Normal practices tend to be just open practice in Japan. The kind of stuff people do in the U.S., what they did in the 70s and they do now, it’s a lot of warm-ups, basics, drills, and some amount of keiko and kata work. At the Noma Dojo in Tokyo, it’s just an hour of open practice, where you just line up and try to get matches. Some of that’s in line with your personal development. If you look at Japan compared to the U.S., it’s going to be a little different just because of their opportunities and volume of practice.

It’s an interesting question because you could also look at it like I am now more knowledgeable as to what the heck I’m doing in the dojo and have changing views on how to run a practice. But if you look at what I did when I was yondan, it was just a lot of hardcore drills. The volume of stuff I was trying to cover each practice, where as now my approach is very different. I’ll still do those things (hardcore drills), but I’ll also be focusing on more specific skills for certain people and trying to match each class to things particular people need to work on.

But I think my conclusion is that now, in the U.S., there’s a lot more opportunities to practice. Kendo is still, as you alluded to in the previous question, not a well-known martial art. It’s hard to find an instructor. Here in Idaho, I used to be able to say there was one club, but, there’s now three clubs. There’s one here in Boise, one four hours away in Pocatello; a small club, less than ten people, and University of Idaho six, seven hours north. It’s a club of probably a handful of people. For someone in Idaho, it’s tough. You gotta go to Seattle, Portland, or Salt Lake to get any sort of training outside of your own dojo. If you’re in one of the big areas like L.A., Seattle, or New York, things are pretty much the same as they were back when I started – there’s tons of schools and you can train all the time. I don’t know that I see a big shift, other than higher quality and the technical component. At the end of the day, we’re still trying to hit men and do it correctly. Instructors can show you different ways to do it, but methods and procedures haven’t changed significantly.

MAYTT: Very interesting, Sensei. You have had the fortunate opportunity to train in multiple locations throughout America over the years. Did the training experience differ from club to club and if so, how did it differ? How did such a variety of training perspectives and approaches influence your training?

RS: When I was younger, there weren’t so many places to train, as I mentioned previously. I lived in Portland and we went up to Seattle because I was in the same federation. It was kind of the same group of people. I wasn’t married and I spent a lot of time in my twenties after college, after undergrad, going up there and training. A lot of consistency in what people are doing in their training. To give you an example, I’ve practiced it in Europe, South America, Mexico, Hawaii, and Japan. Every dojo I trained at, they all trained in a way that was consistent with my experience. There’s, like I said, groups in Salt Lake, Oklahoma, and Atlanta. It’s not uncommon to find a third- or fourth-degree black belt teaching in those areas. There was nothing before in those areas. If you had an ikkyu, it was like, “Wow, you’ve got quite a club!” [Laughs] It’s filled out, but kendo is still pretty unknown.

I think when I started a big complaint that I heard was people saying was it’s too expensive, with the bogu. I would point to golf or skiing, and it was about the same cost for equipment. But it took seven months to get my first set of bogu from Japan. Nowadays, there are many suppliers. You can have armor in two days. In that sense, some of those things have changed.

It’s a good question; it could be very deep. To me, I can approach things sort of simplistically. It’s only in my later years that I’ve gotten some level of more complex kendo thought. Before, it was just, bow in and then you just go as hard as you can until the drum hits, and you stop. Now, it’s a little bit more than that. Now I’m focused on what’s correct kendo and how to do it as hard as possible, but correctly. In some ways, you can approach kendo in a very simple fashion. You just apply yourself to the task and do it.

The one way I’m a little different than some of the people in California and some of the other hot spots, in that they’ve had more focus on tournaments. I just have never had those opportunities with competition. I certainly participated and now I do a lot of judging; I do it as much as I can. But, despite lacking a tournament focus, I was fortunate to be able to find good teachers and participate in good quality practice. Essentially, it’s working the process, which is training. It is goal oriented. You don’t have short term goals, just goals. Of course, you’ve got to try and pass tests, and you’ve got to try and win tournaments, but not with the idea that you do so to show how good you are. You’ve got to have goals to motivate your training and that’s how I did mine.

MAYTT: Who do you feel was most instrumental in your training from a “sensei” standpoint? What valuable lesson did they teach to you that carried the most weight and had the heaviest impact?

RS: In my early days with Umemoto Sensei in Denver, as well as Iwakabe Sensei, they were very instrumental because they taught me how to hold center, the way I hit, the way I do things. It is all very much influenced by Umemoto Sensei’s kendo and Iwakabe’s training methods. That was a pretty good foundation.

Then, jumping ahead in the early 1990s, I was fortunate there was a group that came to Portland essentially an All Japan Budo organization. It was all these different martial artists and these were all top instructors – people in their 60s, 50s, 70s, up the 80s – showing karate, judo, aikido, koryu, and naginata. Just lots of martial arts. There was this huge presentation and there was a group of six kendo sensei. Three were seventh dan, three were hachidan – the hachidan rank, that’s a whole other big topic for discussion. They all came to practice at my dojo, Obukan Kendo Club during that visit in Portland, we ended up hosting them  for a few days. Through that, one of them, his name was Tatsuke Honda Sensei and he was from Fukuoka, he became sort of a fixture coming to Portland every year. Once or twice a year, we would bring him in from Fukuoka. He stayed at my house and he was around my family from before my kids and around as they started growing up. He was a pretty consistent and helpful influence and he had very straight correct kendo. At that time, I couldn’t read and write Japanese very well, but we would exchange a lot of letters and things. He was significant in my training until he passed away.

150403 Kyoto Stroud kendo 01
Robert Stroud facing off in a match while in Kyoto in 2015.

When I was in Tokyo in the late 90s to around 2010 or so, Toshihiko Umemura Sensei of Noma Dojo did a lot to help me and he came over a few times to visit my dojo in the US. His main influence was more about creating or forming mature kendo. His coaching was, inside the dojo, how to increase what you’re doing in a more sophisticated, mature way, and how to do things correctly. His coaching outside of the dojo demonstrated an integrated training. He was a big golfer and used kendo principles to help better his golfing – the training seeped throughout his life and activities. He also helped start kendo in Mongolia, but I never had the chance to see him there. He was very significant in my training, probably because I didn’t have a traditional sensei myself.

More recently in my training, I had the good luck to have spent time with Tadao Toda Sensei before he passed away. He was very famous for two swords, Nito style. He had won the All Japan championship in 1961 and 1963 when he was in his early twenties. He passed his hachidan in Nito-Ryu and was considered quite a guy. He was one of those special hanshi sensei who are very unique, and truly bigger than life. He came to Boise a few times before he passed away. He had quite a good influence over my training.

Currently, I’m close with several sensei – it’s become more sort of a peer group. It’s harder to have a sensei because I no longer go to Japan as much as I used to, unfortunately. Ryoichi Fujii Sensei from Yamaguchi, he’s the only second person ever to pass hachidan with nito, has been very supportive and helpful. He, his wife, and a group of other Nito kendoka have come from Japan every year for a seminar. This year would have been the thirteenth year that we’ve been hosting the U.S. Nito Camp, creating a diverse range of instructors.

With iaido, it’s even harder. I had Iwakabe Sensei as my iai instructor when I was young. Then for a long time, there really hasn’t been an instructor. Konno Sensei, up in Seattle, has been quite a big help both in kendo and iai. I wouldn’t call him my sensei, but he’s a sensei I listen to a lot. In recent years, Kazuhisa Kaneda sensei from Japan, has come several times to the U.S. and been very helpful, but it’s a different dynamic.

The sensei-student relationship is a hard thing to have in the U.S., and when you get to my rank and you’re in a remote area, it’s almost impossible. Where as there’s guys in L.A. – people on the Team USA and the US kendo team who can say that they still train under their first instructors. It’s hard (to have close sensei student relationships) given the massive size of the United States, and the sparsity of practioners. There’s only somewhere around 5,000 people in the US Kendo Federation, mainly clustered in the more populated cities. It’s a pity. I’ve always thought that we should be much bigger, but it’s difficult to have that sensei-student relationship with most of the kendo population limited to the large cities.

MAYTT: You mentioned previously training at Noma Dojo for quite a while. Most practitioners consider the Noma Dojo in Tokyo, Japan the mecca of the international kendo community. Why do you feel that is?

RS: The old Noma dojo was a special place – it was one of those places like that. The building was eighty or ninety years old when they took it down. It was something right out of a samurai movie. The construction of the floor was made up of long single planks. They were about a foot and a half wide by two inches thick, and thirty-three or thirty-four feet long. They spanned the width of the dojo. They were butted up one against the other. The floor was all sprung and outside the training hall, Noma Dojo had old tatami rooms and abandoned dormitories upstairs. The dojo also had an ofuro. It was just an ancient building with a small little garden. It had a lot of feel to it.

1985 Hokushin Chiba kendo dojo in Oswaka RS back row Harry Umemoto front, center harutane chiba
A 1985 trip with the Rocky Mountain Budokan Dojo to the Hokushin Chiba kendo dojo in Osaka, Japan. Robert Stroud stands in the back row (center right). His sensei, Harry Umemoto (front row, third from right), next to Harutane Chiba (front row, center).

Over the years, it became well known for hosting visitors and a lot of people began seeking it out. There was always a parade of some high-level visitors and people coming to experience what those sensei had to teach. Noma is one of those places – I’m sure there’s others, but it’s the only place I’ve ever been where you have to be a hachidan to sit on the teacher side. I remember there were two instructors, the Kaburaki brothers and they were there in the 1990s. One of the brothers had been doing kendo for sixty some years at Noma – a combination of the prewar and postwar years in Japan. He was also “only” seventh dan. One day at Noma, the instructors made him sit on the teacher’s side, even though you had to hachidan to do so. That made him so mad; he was just furious. [Laughs] Noma Dojo is quite unique. The new building is a beautiful facility architecturally. It captures a lot of the feeling of the original one, but it’s different. The overall feeling of visiting the dojo has changed.

The aikido community knows the Noma Dojo quite well because Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, in the early days, did a lot of demonstrations there. Probably the most famous tenth dan kendo teacher was Moriji Mochida Sensei who taught there. His picture is always up on the wall. When I started training there, Tateo Morishima Sensei, was still coming to Noma. He was a student of Mochida, as was Gordon Warner, and he was ninth dan. It was quite unique, and it was well regarded not just by foreigners but by everyone. I have one memory: There’s a well-known competitor, Ryoichi Uchimura, a policeman who’s was always placing in the All Japan tournaments. I remember he got second in the All Japan Championship on November third, whatever day it was, and the next day, November fourth, he was at the morning practice at Noma. [Laughs] That’s the other thing about Noma, it was open every morning, seven to eight except for New Year’s.

MAYTT: So, Noma Dojo became like the place to train for kendoka in Tokyo?

RS: In one sense, yes, but there are others, like the Mitsubishi Dojo that are just as famous. Noma Dojo is one of those places that a lot of foreigners would have been able to experience and it had a lot of legitimate and fascinating history. Like I said, outside of Japan, I think because of Ueshiba Sensei’s demonstrations, Noma became quite a well-known venue.

The founder Seiji Noma, he was the one who started the publishing company Kodansha. A lot of the books on Japan and martial arts were books by Kodansha. Kodansha Publishing was his creation and he created that training hall. There were a lot of efforts to teach young people kendo. There’s a lot of patriotic literature and things, and people saying there’s a bigger story of how that all happened. It was unfortunate, however, that Kodansha decided to drop that building because it was a historic site, but the real estate prices kind of dictated what happened.

I think it’s probably a reasonable observation that many kendoka make the journey to Noma, but I think mecca is a funny word. Noma is certainly well-known. A lot of people seek it out. I have a student who was here at Boise State, Shuhei Nakagawa, he’s a yondan and he’s now a member of Noma. He still wears his Idaho zekken, nametag, at the Noma practice. [Laughs] Since he left Boise, he’s been training there; that’s his primary dojo. He’s hosted, every now and then, a group from Seattle via my introduction. He even hosted my friends from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Noma is just one of those places [Laughs]

MAYTT: What was your training experience like at Noma Dojo? How did that differ from the training you received in America?

RS: Let me preface it this way; the old Noma Dojo had no heat or air conditioning. In the summer, it was ungodly hot; in the winter, everyone would huddle around the kerosene stoves in the changing room until just before practice started. Once you got onto the training floor, your feet hurt from fumikomi, from stomping the floor. When you finished with each teacher, you’d stand in line and the humid sweat from your keikogi and armor just starts steaming because it’s so cold. It was challenging that way. It’s probably not something that’s appreciated by lower ranks.

For me, it was constant practice with high-ranking hachidan and nanadan. You would rush to get your armor on, and then go try to get in line with somebody high-ranking, somebody like Tomokawa Sensei or Morishima Sensei. Tomokawa Sensei was a very famous police instructor at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, and became the head instructor at Noma. He would be there every morning and you’d try and get in line with him. On some days, there would be about twenty people that suddenly appeared in front of him during the time you spent putting on your bogu. If you wouldn’t make it to get a practice with him, you’d be in a rush to get to somebody else and you’d wait in line. Once you’re done waiting, then you’d do kiri kaeshi, a repetitive striking drill. After that, it would be kagari geiko, or nonstop attack, and that would run about five minutes each. Then you would go get into another line and wait for somebody to do it again. On a good day, I could get maybe six or seven of those. Others, it would be about four.

That was my training for years. There was no teaching of basics at Noma Dojo. I worked on basics when I was home at my dojo or on my own. Jumping right into training at Noma would be a bit lost on a beginner because you have to know how to move, how to synchronize your hands and your feet, how to understand following through, and correct swinging – all that stuff. In Japan, the reason there are high school sandan is because they covered that stuff when they were kids. They understand the warmups, basics, and drills so that by the time they get to a place like Noma, it’s just free practice, as opposed to here in the U.S., where we emphasizes more of the basics and drills because people didn’t have that experience when they were kids.

Read part two here.

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