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 second part of the interview, Stroud discusses his kendo journey, his time as head instructor of both the Obukan Kendo Club and Idaho Kendo Club, and kendo in America. All images from Robert Stroud. Read part one here.
MAYTT: How did the Idaho Kendo Club come about at Boise State University? Who were some of the club’s founding members?
RS: When I moved to Portland, I became involved with the city’s kendo club, the Obukan Kendo Club, as a shodan. I left as a godan, moving back to Idaho – after twenty-five years of living in constant rain [Laughs] When I moved back to Idaho, around 2004, there was a kendo club at the Boise West YMCA. The person who started that club was Max Callao who most unfortunately passed away in 2007. He was a very strong European fencer and also a very strong kendoka. When I moved back to Idaho the senior group consisted of Mike Cooper and the two Atagi brothers, Ryan and Rhett. Surprisingly, the club is under the same federation as Obukan, the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation. After visiting them, I asked them if I could join practice. They agreed and after finding out my rank, they kind of nudged me to teach, even though I just wanted to practice [Laughs] After that, I eventually began running the club from 2004. Of those senior students, the two Atagi brothers are still active. Mike has gone on to do other things.
We have had a small satellite club at Boise State for a number of years. It never really attracted a lot of college students. It’s quite interesting to me. I haven’t figured out how to attract students. We don’t get a lot of students who are interested, and I don’t know why. I look at other universities that have really big groups, like University of Washington, Harvard, University of Houston and colleges in California like UCLA. Our club is small and it just continues. Because of the small club, we focus more on our main practice, which is now with the local parks department. We were actually starting to hold practice at a new facility, and things were ramping up, but then this whole COVID-19 crisis came, and we’ve been on shut down for a while. We’ll see what happens once we get through this whole crisis.
But, in Idaho, we hold a couple of big events every year like the U.S. Nito Camp, where I bring a group of Nito specialists. We probably have eighty or ninety people every year come from around the world. Kazuhisa Kaneda Sensei comes and teaches iai. There’s a lot of nice events and fun things we do ourselves, not unlike other dojo. [Laughs]
MAYTT: You were also the Head Instructor of the Obukan Dojo in Portland, Oregon for almost twenty years. Could you tell me about that experience and elaborate a bit on the club’s formation and history?
RS: I was the head instructor at Obukan in Portland from 1986 to 2004. It was the biggest dojo I had the pleasure of training at. The sheer numbers of students were amazing with about one hundred enrolled at the peak. Portland was very active in regard to kendo. Obukan still exists today. There are three clubs in Portland at this time. Before that, there was just one and that was Obukan. Obukan was an interesting club, dating back to 1932. The name Obukan was bestowed upon the Portland Kendo Club by Jigoro Kano (founder of Judo) when he was visiting the judo club in Portland, where the city’s kendoka also practiced. During his visit, Kano Sensei suggested to change the name to Obukan. The “O” comes from the Japanese name for Oregon, “O-shu.”
In the 1970s, there was a man by the name of Steven Strauch, who helped get the club going again in the 70s. When I arrived in Portland in 1983 as a shodan I was able to just practice. We would do all kinds of crazy things together. There was a core group of probably six to eight people that were all in their early and mid-twenties and ran around Portland, getting into trouble after practice together. As we got older and started having more rank, I kind of became the guy to lead and created a connection with the Tualatin Hills Parks Department, that continues to this day. That’s still where most new students are recruited. Obukan continues to have classes at the Parks Department Recreation Center in Beaverton (near Portland).
Portland was nice. It was close enough to Seattle to attend practices regularly. There wasn’t a lot of traffic back then, and we used to go out up on club trips to attend a federation practice called Godo Keiko and get together. Practice would be in Seattle and we would go up there and practice quite a bit. In Portland, there was a lot of enthusiastic people. Now, we had some interesting people from Japan come through. We had a guy named Yutaka Katai who was going to school in Willamette University in Salem, and he was a twenty-four-year-old kendo yondan. It was highly unusual at that time to see such high level of kendo in Portland. Amazingly he had been captain of the Chuo University team, and Chuo was one of the bigger colleges with big kendo teams. He was in the U.S. taking classes with the idea of going back to Japan and eventually work at Chuo as a kendo sensei. He passed his godon exam when he was twenty-five and he never lost a match in any of the tournaments he entered during his time in the U.S. At one point, he made the comment to me that he was going to stop competing in the individual division because it wasn’t fair to the local competition. [Laughs] But he continued on competing as captain of the Obukan team.
We had a pretty strong group. We had a lot of people from Japan and it was a lot of fun. There was a lot of interaction with other people like Michio Kajitani, who is a cardiac surgeon and used to be one of my students. Now he’s a seventh dan instructor and living in California. He is currently the secretary of the US kendo federation. There has been Hiroshi Ichimura, he was a young college student I taught him how to water ski up, in Coeur d’Alene (Idaho). He’s a sixth dan instructor in Palo Alto, California now. I have been fortunate to make lot of connections with people through kendo, especially at the Obukan.
To me, kendo has been quite fun because it allows you to create these connections and meet these different people. It was a fun time. We did a lot and it was quite active. We had a strong junior team – we used to go to the junior tournaments in Seattle and won a few of them. There was the Bellevue Junior Taikai, hosted by Jeffrey Marston Sensei, who is a very significant person in American kendo. He was the former All U.S. Kendo Federation president. We used to go up there and participate in tournaments with just the juniors from Obukan.
At Obukan, we had what we called a PSA, a Parent Sensei Association. It was quite strong at Obukan. Obukan was neat when I was there, because you had some of the aspects of what a community dojo would be in Japan. Obukan had that feeling with the family always involved with the club. It was a nice mix of people; people who did a lot. We had lots of dojo activities and produced some quality kendoka out on the floor.
MAYTT: Many kendo clubs and organizations utilize iaido as supplementary learning, with jodo coming in at second, for kendoka. In your opinion, what are the benefits of partaking in these other arts? Is it looked at as an extension of the kendo training or is it more of a way to round out the kendo practitioner by developing a greater understanding and ability of man and weapon?
RS: That’s the marketing pitch that iaido supports kendo. [Laughs] But I don’t see it as the norm. In practice, there’s very few people that do both. There are people that have done very well in iaido and competed very strongly in the U.S. There’re very high-level people that have done really well, like Pam Parker in New York who is 7 dan, which is very hard to pass for iaido. Susan Sukreta made seventh dan, Mark Uchida in Denver also made seventh dan. He is unique in that he is both seventh dan in kendo and iaido; Konno Sensei in Seattle seventh dan iaido and kendo; Russell Ichimura in Texas sixth dan kendo, and iaido; Kato Sensei in New York is one of the most senior people; he is eighth dan in kendo, which his has a 0.4% pass rate by the way. That’s pretty impressive. He’s also seventh dan iai.
There are not many people that do both. There are some people in California, but the majority of the All US Kendo Federation population to do that. Within even my own students, there is a group that would rather just do kendo. It’s the rare individual who does both. It’s often said that kendo and iaido are like two wheels on a cart; you need both wheels to move. If you got only one, then you’re just spinning around. For that reason, I like doing both. I find them different, but to me, it just makes sense to do both. The way I teach, I like teaching both, but a lot of people barely spend enough time on kata in kendo much less iai. If you go to a national iaido event, it’s mostly iai people and the jodo people. I’ve been fiddling around at jodo. I’m a proud ikkyu in jodo. [Laughs] I was considering trying to make shodan this year, but then the whole COVID-19 thing happened, so we’ll see.
For me, it’s just for fun. Jodo’s a whole another experience and I don’t see many kendo people doing jodo, although I do see some overlap with iai and jodo. That overlap is the reason that iai and jodo are a part of the All Japan Kendo Federation. Also, after World War Two, Benjamin Hazard, who was part of the General Headquarters in Tokyo, argued successfully for allowing kendo to start up again. When the Japanese kendoka received the “all clear” order, they brought iai and jodo in a kind of supporting role, and the federation structure has been maintained that way ever since.
The answer to your question is a bit philosophical, as the idea was to supplement kendo with iaido. I just don’t know how to convince people to do both unless they’re really passionate about learning both. But, to me, it makes just logical sense that you need to use the sword correctly in both arts. There’s probably another thing in there that I don’t do often which is tameshigiri, or cutting. There are some people in Seattle and Portland that do quite a bit of it. They try and bring mats into the dojo and do all that sometimes. It’s hard outside of Japan to do some of the aspects of every art. And there’s only so many hours in every day.
Part of the reason people don’t do both in my club is that we have such little time to use the space we have. We have kendo class twice a week; we might have an iaido class that’s on a separate day or sometimes it’s been before the kendo class. It’s really hard to work in another day for jodo. On top of this, most people don’t know how to do kendo kata correctly and to properly teach kata takes a lot of effort. It’s tough to get people inspired to do that. What I see is the kendo guys that like iai, something clicks with like a real sword and everything comes together. Iai teaches you how to use the sword correctly. In kendo, you actually understand the distance and you’re actually striking something; you’re actually getting a real opponent that’s giving you pressure – it’s not just the imaginary kasoteki.
MAYTT: In 2013, you coached the Mexican National Kendo Team for the Latin American Championships. Was this your first experience coaching a national team? How was coaching a team different from teaching a class at the club?
RS: The Latin American Championship is called CLAK, or Confederação Latino-Americana de Kendô. It’s all of the South American countries, which includes Trinidad and Tobago, the Dutch Antilles, countries in Central America, Mexico, Chile, and Brazil; Brazil is a dominant place force in kendo because there where a lot of Japanese immigrants who relocated there. It’s a lot like how the U.S. received many Japanese immigrants from quite a while ago. From those immigrants, there’s a big population of kendo, and they’ve been there for quite a while. The only non-Japanese person to ever pass the hachidan kendo test was Roberto Kishikawa. He’s from Brazil, and lives in Hong Kong now. Roberto has been doing kendo since he was about two and competed on the Brazilian national team and everything for years.
I was going to CLAK events quite a bite, mostly due to a friend of mine. Jesús Maya who was president of the Mexican Kendo Federation at the time. I’d met him in 1985, when I was at the Kitomoto Foreign Leadership Cams outside of Tokyo. You get two weeks at a time – it was two weeks of about six to seven hours of training with no breaks. Now, it’s ten days with a break day, but it was pretty hard and a really long fourteen days. I met a lot of people there and Jesús Maya was one of them. We were both still in our mid-twenties. Years later, he had me start coming to Mexico and visit for kendo events. I think he wanted to have someone with my rank to come and help them. I did that for a while, then one thing led to another and he had me be the coach one year. That was a way of getting me to go down and participate in the Latin American Nationals. I judged and helped, doing different things.
I like the Mexican team. They’re really fun. I go down there once or twice a year to coach seminars and things, but unfortunately, I wasn’t down there really training everyone, but it was a good experience. I think I’d be happy to do it again. The guys in South America train really hard. It was a delight to work with them.
MAYTT: With that in mind, would you say they train harder than their American counterparts or just as hard as their Japanese counterparts?
RS: All I can tell you is that the people that I tend to connect with are very serious. They’re fun to push because they’ll step up in the training. It’s something I enjoy a lot, to have a group of people that I can push. Sometimes it’s hard, like in my little club, it’s not that there can’t be pushed, but sometimes the level of people can’t be pushed that way. They’re not at that skill level. To come across students like these guys in Mexico, I see that they are sufficient rank and physical ability that you can push them a little bit. That’s fun; I like that. Obviously, you can’t drive people into the ground. There are certain ranks that when they have you as an instructor, you can tire them out. Martial arts and kendo should be physically demanding, but there’s certain, high-level ways of training that are quite tough that you have to have a skill set to do it. That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to grow kendo. It takes three years to get a black belt, if your serious and probably another six or seven years after that before it really gets interesting. [Laughs]
In Latin America, with these national events, you get practitioners who are reasonably skilled and it’s just a meeting ground for high-quality kendoka.
MAYTT: With you being one of only three non-Asians to hold a seventh dan out of the overall fifty seventh dan holders, it is an amazing achievement. What level of responsibility comes with such an accomplishment in terms of representing the art and its ideologies?
RS: There’s a little bit of irony in my situation; I didn’t want to be a teacher. I didn’t want to be a sensei. I just want to do kendo. [Laughs] The only reason I’m leading this club is because it helps ensure that there is a club here. I made this rank, kyoshi nanadan, you have to take responsibility for participating, helping, and doing things at the end of the day.
The demographics at this level, or even in the overall kendo population, there’s not a lot of non-Asian Americans. I don’t know if it is very beneficial, outside of discussing that amongst friends. I think that the overall pool of non-Asian Americans in kendo is small. Of course, I put Gordon Warner, Don Trent, Benjamin Hazard, Jeffrey Marsten Sensei, Josh Carrol, and Mark Grivas in this category, and past and present dan holders. As far as total American instructors, it’s still a small group of people, really at less than 100 total. I think it’s hard to grow kendo without a larger pool of people that have grown up here doing kendo and promoting it – it’s hard to find them. It’s also hard to have classes because you need people that know what they’re doing. I think I’m just starting to figure out what I’m doing after forty some years. [Laughs]
What’s my responsibility at this point? There’s a personal responsibility that I do things correctly. That’s my approach; I’m going to do it correct, but it may not be the same as Japanese kendo, but it’s not different, if that makes sense. Whatever I teach my students, I want to be correct, but I’m not Japanese and I don’t feel like I have to become Japanese do kendo. I want to do kendo as part of my life and to show how it can be a part of someone’s life. That’s another responsibility, to show how to integrate it into something you do. It’s not how to make kendo into this “Ooh! Ahh!” martial art or learn how to fight people; it’s more about doing kendo, and that’s the end of the description. Let’s do it correctly – that’s it. I don’t know what other responsibilities I have other than just to be correct, and to make sure that whoever I interact with, I do my best to help out where I can.
Maybe at the national level I should participate more, but I don’t. Let me go back a little bit, locally I’ve been a board member in the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation (PNKF), and I’ve been quite involved. I’m sixty, I don’t want to be running things. I’m not on the board of the PNKF anymore – I don’t do all that anymore. Right before this COVID thing clamped down everything, my last trip was to Seattle. I was the head examiner on the dan board for the February PNKF shinsa test. I’ll do all those things; I’ll referee. But running the board, I want people that are younger to do that. I think they’ve got the energy and the ideas, and I’ll do whatever I can to help them out. I don’t think it’s needed for me to be doing those kinds of things anymore. I try and do this Nito seminar every year because, the way that it’s done is kendo, with one sword or two. What happens here is extremely high-level teaching of kendo, even though it’s a nito camp. That’s a responsibility I have to try and keep that going and to get people to come so they can learn correct kendo. We also have a lot of fun partaking in these seminars. When you’re able to do world class events that are not part of a major federation, through All Japan or All U.S., you can have a lot more flexibility in how you can do it. We can have things that are in a different format than you might have at other national events.
That’s the long-winded way of answering your question. Maybe the quick answer is to try and show correct kendo to those that are interested in my version of what I think correct kendo is. I don’t want to be so bold as to suggest I really know, but I have some ideas. [Laughs]
MAYTT: In America, there are a plethora of empty hand martial arts schools, ranging from taekwondo and judo, to karate and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. How has kendo managed to maintain its presence in the country?
RS: I can tell you when the Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai, came out, I was teaching in Portland and we had about seventy beginners sign up for one class. None of my black belts wanted to teach it – they all wanted to put a cap on the number of people attending. I said that I’ll teach it and I taught the beginner class. Doing this over the years, you realize that there’s a small percentage of people that stick with it and this becomes their thing. Everybody’s got their thing and I don’t care if kendo’s not your thing. If it is, there is a way to do it and you dig in and embrace it. Out all of that group of seventy-five, we ended up with a handful or so of serious students. Although, I can say that the Kill Bill series didn’t produce the numbers like The Last Samurai did despite everyone thinking it was going to be the next membership bump.
I think when I started, there was a lot of Bruce Lee activity and that was the buzz with people. What’s happened lately are the Mixed Martial Arts and the UFC. All that really has people’s attention. You don’t see as many beginners, but you do tend to see kind of the same number of serious people. It’s about who really wants to do kendo and who’s really going to pursue it. I think the numbers are somewhat the same. But from some of the popular spikes you don’t see a lot of serious people come in through the door. There was a television special on ESPN where they showed how Star Wars was influenced by kendo. They had the Team USA guys there and all this other stuff. Let’s face it, Darth Vader’s armor is kendo gear and the lightsabers are shinai – that’s where that all came from. We thought we’d see a bump but that never really happened. I think there’s just so much media out there that you get people that are seeking it out. You don’t create a buzz or artificial bump. You don’t see it that much. The UFC, there’s just a ton of people that like that kind of stuff and I think that’s great.
I think that one of the things that held the U.S. back is that there is not enough American leadership – it tends to lean Japanese. That’s bit hard because you don’t attract the same kind of people. That’s a bit of a political statement, but you probably ought to understand it. It is unique that not many typical Americans make up much of the teacher ranks. It’s hard to get up there.
I’m also at an age where I don’t think too much about how to attract students anymore. When I was younger, I used this threat how to get students and how to grow the club. Now I’m just focusing on, “If you guys seek me out, I’ll teach it.” Maybe that’s lazy of me? I don’t know. [Laughs]
MAYTT: In your opinion, who do you feel has had the greatest impact on kendo’s dissemination in America? Is there someone, or a handful of people, who stands out and has set a precedent example for others to strive for and follow?
RS: Gosh, that’s hard one to answer. It tends to be more regional. The Team USA guys have certainly done a lot because they’re focused on competition and that gets people’s attention. All the guys that have been on the Team USA that competed in the world, have done a lot for kendo. Regionally, there’s people in each group that have done a lot. There’s really not a handful of kendoka that influenced the entire country. One I can think of right now is Torao “Tiger” Mori Sensei, back in the day, which was before I was around in the kendo world. It’s hard to pick someone that really did a lot like that. I can drop some sensei names, but then if I don’t mention certain ones, they’re going to get their feelings hurt. There’s not one single personality that’s truly driving the U.S. in kendo.
In Seattle, it’s a lot easier to describe because there’s Jeffrey Marsten, and his family/relative like his daughter, Elizabeth Marsten, or his son Jeff Marsten and his brother, Curtis Marsten. Those guys have all been significant in Seattle kendo. There’s another large family that have done some significant things, the Imanishi family who was involved with the Seattle Kendo Kai back in the day, even when Shoji Sensei and other founders were around.
Still, it’s a really hard question to answer, even ignoring politics. There’re people that have affected me personally and I think that’s probably the same for everyone else. There’re little sub-networks of instructors. If you talk to somebody from Oklahoma or from Salt Lake or California, they’re going to give you some names of people that definitely did influence them. It’s probably easy to point to some of the people that are no longer with us, like Murakami Sensei in California.
It’s not so much a cult of personality in kendo like in the aikido world. You have the heads of different groups within aikido. There are some big names, but kendo is a lot less like that. I think even in Japan, you’re going to have people talk about, in their experience, their choice of names that were significant to them.
There’s one now that comes to mind, Rod Nobuto Omoto from Seattle. He started what’s now the PNKF federation. He started it as the Washington State Kendo Federation. He was a peer of Mori Sensei and all the guys back in the day. He grew up in Hawaii and got sent to Japan to attend the Budo Senmon Gakko. It was a very famous martial arts institute where a lot of the stuff that we do now came from. All of the famous kendo teachers were graduates of the Busen. Omoto sensei was actually trapped in World War Two in Japan until the end of the war because they didn’t want him to go back to Hawaii. But after the war, he was a significant influence in Seattle. I can definitely contest that he was one of those people that really drove kendo in that region.
There were others too, like George Izui Sensei and Shoji Sensei, but I didn’t have the experience of training with them so I can’t talk of them like that. In my training experience, there is Umemoto Sensei, who was very active when I started and only up until his nineties was still doing kendo. You also had Takeshi Yamaguchi Sensei, who did a lot in Southern California.
The one interesting thing about kendo is that unlike karate, kendo schools all do the same thing, anywhere in the U.S. There’s different procedures and different drills and different emphasis, but everywhere you go kendo’s kendo. With karate, when I practiced at other dojo, I never felt as comfortable as Shotokan Karate, because that was more my roots. It was hard to just drop in and practice. That’s one of the cool things with kendo, if you’ve got a teacher that teaching you correctly, just do what they showed, and you’ll fit in anywhere. That’s kind of a neat thing about the kendo compared to other martial arts.
MAYTT: Given that most people are now homebound in the current world state given the COVID-19 pandemic, do you have any suggestions or words of encouragement for practitioners who cannot train at the dojo?
RS: Reach out to your friends in the dojo and reach out to your sensei. Call them up and talk to them. In this day and age, people just send text if they contact at all. Otherwise, we just wait till something happens on Facebook. Make those personal contacts, talk about it, and share what’s going on. In my club, we’re doing a suburi challenge. I’ve got people that are doing 1,000 or 1,200 a day and I’ve got people doing a hundred a day. A couple little kids are doing thirty a day. For me, it’s not about competition, it’s more about the camaraderie. If you can find something like that or if you want to do it all yourself, make a routine. Make something that’s related to practice. I watch a lot of Japanese YouTube and there is Uga Sensei, who does a lot of interesting things on YouTube, like his suburi challenge. There’s a lot of people doing like a thousand a day in Japan. He said that it’s not the volume, it’s about the quality of doing something and keeping at it. He even described how when he had an injury, he was doing it, but he was seated. If you don’t have room in your house, you can do it with just your hands or a rolled-up newspaper around a shinai. He had all these ideas of how to do something. It’s kind of like that – find something to do that that allows you to supplement normal practice and take some time even if it’s walking or just do something on a regular basis.
Let’s face it, that’s one of the things about kendo because there’s good days and bad days. There are days where you hate it and days you love it. If you don’t allow yourself to stop and you keep going, eventually it gets easier and easier. I think with this homebound thing, you need to have a routine and find a way of connecting with people so that you’re not feeling you’re lost in your training.
I haven’t held any Zoom classes yet. I live in a small home now that’s about 2,000 square feet. I used to have a big place over 4,000 square feet. There was an acre in that place. I had a dojo that I built that had a sprung floor. It was reasonably big for a private dojo. It was pretty big. I haven’t had it for about four years. I haven’t missed it until now. [Laughs] There’s a lot of people making training videos or doing similar things. I’ve participated in a couple of Zoom meetings in Japan where they led a class where. But my new house, I really don’t have the space, ignoring the cameras and the mics, I just don’t have a space that lends itself to that. That’s one of the disappointments with having this COVID thing going on now. In going back to responsibility, I feel like I could probably put some things together that would help give people ideas of what to do or follow along. It would have to be outside for. The weather here is getting good enough to do that. [Laughs]
MAYTT: For more than thirty years of teaching, leading, and sustaining kendo clubs around the Northwestern part of America, what advice would you give to anyone wishing to start their own club or open their own school today?
RS: You could put down the cynical response. [Laughs] But to be serious I think the best way if you have a supporting group. That makes it easy. If you’re just trying to start something on your own, and it looks like it makes sense for where you’re at or if you’re somewhere where nothing exists and you want to start it and you have support of the right people, then jump in. Running a club or a dojo, it’s, just like all these Japanese martial arts. It’s not something you do for a while and then you do something else. It’s a commitment and if you do it well, it’s rewarding. I know so many people from this. I know it’s gotten me my first sales job and helped me all over the world. It’s kind of opened a lot of doors to meet new people and experience new opportunities. If you’re wanting to run a group or run a dojo of like-minded individuals, don’t shy away if you’re committed, just embrace it and keep at it.
MAYTT: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Sensei! Is there anything else you would like add before we close out?
RS: Thank you for inviting me! I have two things I always say to my students when we talk about kendo. The first is to make sure your priorities in life are family, work, and kendo – never forsake the first two for kendo training. Secondly, train hard and have fun.
MAYTT: Thank you Stroud Sensei!
Read part one here.