Interview with Guy Power: His Iaido Journey

After seeing a Black Belt Magazine, Guy Power was hooked on the martial arts, first starting in taekwondo in Thailand. He later took up iaido, which became his life-long art, studying under Toshishiro Obata and Taizaburo Nakamura. Power opened his Kenshinkan Dojo in 1996. Today, Power took some time to discuss his iaido journey, taking him to Los Angeles and Japan. All images provided by Guy Power.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk about iaido, Power Sensei!

Guy Power: Thank you for the invitation!

MAYTT: When did you begin martial arts? What drew you to them as opposed to other physical activities and sports?

Black Belt Mag
The exact copy of Black Belt Guy Power perused when he was younger.

GP: I suppose if there were a fencing club when I was young, or European Martial Arts (rapier, dagger, etc.) I would have gone that route. But the truth of the matter is that in 1966 while visiting grandparents in Charleston Heights South Carolina, I saw a Black Belt Magazine in a drug store and was captivated by it. I’d go to the drug store for a few days to thumb through it until it was sold. Later, while at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (my father was a Special Forces officer), I would babysit for our next-door neighbor and he would let me read through his copy of Oyama Masutasu’s book This is Karate!

One night while watching Saturday Night at the Movies my father called my attention to a scene in Bad Day at Black Rock where Spencer Tracy, a one-armed army veteran, handles Ernest Borgnine using jujutsu. Well, I was determined to learn judo, karate, or jujutsu.

I had my opportunity in 1968 when I began learning Jidokwan taekwondo in Bangkok, Thailand.  My father was an advisor to the Thai Army’s 11th Regiment (Kings Own Bodyguard) and we lived there from 1968-1970; one of my father’s associates had mentioned classes in “karate” and told him where the classes were held. So, as a fifteen-year-old, having the chance to learn “karate” was an opportunity not to be missed. Our instructor was Mr. Kim, who was a third level black belt, and he taught Jidokwan taekwondo. We kids just called it “Korean karate.” After studying for a year, the Jidokwan decided to change all its forms to a different, Korean standardized, set. At the time I was not aware of the politics of it all, but taekwondo was changing. Not wanting to waste my past year and having to learn new hyung (kata/forms), I quit that club and joined the International School of Bangkok’s taekwondo club. The ISB club was Changmukwan taekwondo and they were not then adopting the new forms, sticking instead to the five Kibon Hyung [kihon kata] forms and the five Pyong-an (Pinan/Heian) forms. The school club was run by Mr. Kim Myung-Soo who was a 6th level black belt. Rumor within the club was that Mr. Kim was Korean CIA and at times took trips to South Vietnam. I once asked Mr. Kim what was the difference between taekwondo and karate; his response was, “Karate no good — taekwondo better!” I found out decades later at that time in history, taekwondo was essentially Shotokan karate. That’s why the forms were easy to learn later when I studied Japanese karate.

un day exhibition international school of bangkok chang moo kwon taekwondo 17 october 1969
Guy Power of the International School of Bangkok Chang Moo Kwan taekwondo during UN Day Exhibition, 
 October 17, 1969.

MAYTT: How did you decide to train iaido instead of kendo or other empty hand martial arts? What appealed to you more in iaido than the other martial arts?

GP: During my junior year at ISB most of my friends were Japanese, it was they who introduced me to kendo; I went to the kendo dojo for about six months before returning to the States. During that same period, I saw a Black Belt Magazine that featured a cover shot of the Zen priest, Suhara Koun, with a drawn sword. Although more famous for archery, Suhara Sensei was talking about the spiritual meaning of iaido; it was really over my head, but it sure looked cool! [Laughs] Plus, all the Japanese samurai and ninja movies on local television really whetted my appetite for swordsmanship.

After we returned to the States in 1970, we were living in Charleston, South Carolina again where I finished my senior year of high school. My cousin introduced me to Mr. Albert C. Church who had just returned from Camp Zama, Japan. Church Sensei had trained in Shito-ryu karate, Hakkoryu jujutsu, and Mugai ryu iaido earning teaching certificates from Kuniba Shogo Sensei and Hayashi Teruo Sensei, a sandan in Hakkoryu jujutsu from Okuyama Ryuho Sensei. Incidentally, Church Sensei lived on the next street over and I often visited him.

While transitioning from taekwondo to Mr. Church’s Shitoryu, kenpo, and jujutsu, I found out he was a sandan in Mugai ryu iaido, so asked him to teach me. I began my training in 1970 and continued for a year until my family moved to Illinois, where I continued to practice iai. I continued to practice by myself when I joined the United States Air Force from 1973 through 1978.

learning shin mugai ryu 1970-71
Guy Power learning Shin Mugai ryu, 1970-71, in the hot South Carolina summer.

MAYTT: When you started your iaido training in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, what was the iaido scene like? Was iaido thriving in the city or was the art alive in small pockets around the area?

GP: Iaido was definitely not thriving at that time; it still was an esoteric martial art that offered no practical self-defense value unlike karate, judo, taekwondo, etc. I had “re-enlisted” into the US Army infantry in 1979 and after basic training, received a placement to attended Officer Candidate School from which I was commissioned in 1980. I eventually was assigned to Fort Irwin, California (National Training Center) in 1983. I drove 151 miles to Los Angeles in search of iaido and stumbled upon a Buddhist temple where I asked a priest if he knew of anyone teaching iaido; he showed me an advertisement for aikido. I told the priest that I was interested in IAIdo not AIKIdo; he said the teacher also teaches iaido.

That teacher turned out to be Obata Toshishiro sensei. I went to his class and told him I was interested in iaido, and he said I would be the only iai student so I would have to attend the aikido training before iaido training. So I learned taisabaki, ukemi, etc., which was pretty familiar to the jujutsu I learned from Church sensei (since Hakkoryu, like Aikido, developed from Daito-ryu jujutsu). After the class, Obata sensei then taught me suburi (swinging cuts) and footwork that differed from what I learned in kendo. After a month or so, I began to learn kata.

I remember wanting to show him the Mugai ryu kata that I knew, and he refused — I continued to press and he relented; when I finished my presentation Obata Sensei more or less said I was “dancing” and my cuts were ineffective.  I soon learned what he meant — he was teaching me the Japanese Army method of military swordsmanship: Toyama Ryu iaido. Unlike kendo “taps,” the Toyama Ryu cuts were hard and slicing; also, there was no flowery, showy, or weak techniques. The army method was combat effective and quite unlike the “cosmic dancing” that I had been doing up to then.

Regarding the question about the LA “iaido scene” at that time, from what I recall, I was the first non-Japanese iaido student of Obata Sensei (or one of the first). He had taught a Japanese businessman who settled in LA, and he briefly taught the actor John Fujioka, but I think I was his first iaido-only student. Gradually Obata Sensei’s iai class grew and he opened training at the Sawtell High School gymnasium. By that time, I had been driving twice per week the 302-mile round-trip just to learn; on Fridays I would stay overnight at Obata Sensei’s house and drive back to Ft. Irwin on Saturday. I’m not aware of any other iaido classes; to be sure, there were kendo clubs throughout LA, so I’d be surprised if they were not teaching the All Japan Kendo Federation standardized iaido forms. Likewise, probably there were pockets here and there that taught the All Japan Iaido Federation standardized forms, but I was not personally aware of them.

MAYTT: That’s an interesting way of getting started with Obata Sensei! How did American society view iaido compared to that of judo, karate, and other martial arts? Did iaido have the same mysticism and allure as empty hand martial arts?

GP: I suppose the average person considered iaido an esoteric art that has no function for the modern world — but cool.  Martial artists would view iaido as another aspect of mental or spiritual training. I recall giving a Mugai ryu demonstration in 1971 or 72 at a Bob Trias karate tournament in Illinois and the martial artists were very appreciative; Hidehiko “Hidy” Ochiai, the guest of honor, came over to me afterwards and thanked me for demonstrating “proper iaido, not made-up sword-dancing.”

MAYTT: You had the opportunity to train under Toshishiro Obata, the founder of Shinkendo. What was he like as an instructor and as a person? Were the two roles one in the same or were they separate?

GP: Obata Sensei is a very tough, thorough, demanding, and the ultimate professional instructor.  His Yoshikan Aikido waza is very strong, as is his Toyama ryu and Nakamura ryu battodo (iaido). I would not want to be opposite him in combat! [Laughs] He exudes an aura. Allow me to explain: we would walk on the sidewalks of Little Tokyo and the oncoming crowds of people would just split and go around him. It was like Moses opening the Red Sea; they would magically walk around Obata Sensei as if there were a force field surrounding him. I, on the other hand, was weaving between the people, like a little fish trying not to be swept away by the current.

When I was in Japan sometime around 1991, I received a newspaper clipping mentioning an incident involving Obata Sensei. Obata Sensei was walking back to his van after shopping and he spotted a thief who had broken his van window with a claw hammer.  The thief raised the hammer in a threatening gesture and Obata Sensei easily disarmed him and practiced submission holds on the unfortunate crook until the police arrived. What the crook did not know is that Obata Sensei was uchideshi (live in student) of Shioda Sensei at the Yoshinkan and would periodically be sent to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police (riot police) to teach them street aikido! [Laughs] Obata Sensei also shows up as the antagonist up in Shioda Sensei’s book, Dynamic Aikido. He has lots of experience with “real-world martial arts techniques.”

dynamic aikido
Toshishiro Obata as the antagonist in Gozo Shioda’s Dynamic Aikido manual.

In a way, I was “introduced” to Nakamura Sensei by Obata Sensei — he had Nakamura Sensei’s book and allowed me to look through it for hours. There is a photo of Obata Sensei near the beginning of the book, the caption stating that Tokyo Wakakoma Branch’s Obata-kenshi “has the powerful and splendid force of a No-Bushi [bandit-samurai], individual grand champion.”

t obata image in book
Toshishiro Obata in one of the beginning pages of Taizaburo Nakamura’s book.

Obata Sensei was very proud of that caption, and that his photo appeared in Nakamura Sensei’s book. His photo also appears on the introduction page of Chapter 2. That image was from the studio shots for Nakamura Sensei’s appearance in Einaru Budo [Eternal Martial Arts], a video released in under the English title Budo: The Art of Killing. This happened at the ending of the video where it looks like Nakamura sensei is cutting off the head of his attacker; he said the film lost its endorsement from the Monbusho — Ministry of Education — because of two reasons: (1) it’s depiction of Sumo, a professional sport, and because of (2) his final scene where he lops off Obata Sensei’s head.

MAYTT: In 1985, you coauthored Naked Blade, an iaido manual, by Toshishiro Obata. What was the experience like working with him? Did you have any previous experiences in the publishing world?

GP: Naked Blade was my only venture into book publishing; I’ve since published articles and my master’s thesis, but that’s it. Obata Sensei was great to work with. I made sketches of the Toyama Ryu techniques shown in Nakamura Taizaburo sensei’s book, Nippon-to Tameshigiri no Shinzui [Essentials of Cutting With the Japanese Sword; reprinted in English as The Spirit of the Sword] and put them together in what publishers call a “dummy” and showed it to Mr. David Chambers.  Mr. Chambers liked the concept and contracted with Obata Sensei to publish the book as a “work for hire.” In other words, the publisher would underwrite all the costs of photography, publication, and distribution; the publisher would own the copyright and pay royalties to the author. Obata sensei did all the posing, techniques. Mr. Chambers really liked working with “Big O” (as he referred to Obata Sensei) because of Obata Sensei’s professionalism — when asked to re-do another shot or whatever, Obata Sensei could do it perfectly. Being an actor in Japan’s NHK television probably helped Obata Sensei work with the camera. I think Mr. Chambers published about six books authored by Obata Sensei.

MAYTT: That is interesting! In the early part of the 1990s, you had the occasion to train extensively in Japan. What was that experience like? How did iaido training in Japan differ from iaido training in America? Were there more similarities between the two countries’ training methods?

GP: Training in Japan was the highlight of my budo career; it was essentially the same training I had in the States, but it was in JAPAN! [Laughs] One of the major differences is that bokuto (wooden swords) were not used — you started off with either a live blade or an iaito — the edgeless blade made of aluminum. The cultural experience was just being surrounded by everything Japanese: taking the train from Zama to Yokohama, buying the tickets, reading the Japanese destinations and fares; and, all the lessons were in Japanese. Even the written essay for my renshi license was in Japanese; I think my teachers killed themselves laughing at my “answers.” Fortunately for me I had studied Japanese at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, but I was in no way comfortable with Japanese. At my farewell party, one of my senpai (senior) spoke to me in English; I was floored! “Why didn’t you speak to me in English before?” I asked him. He just smiled and said, “You are in Japan — you need to speak Japanese, even if it is not good.” [Laughs]

Another part of the cultural experience was having to be introduced to the teacher, not just walking in and joining the dojo. My being able to train under Nakamura Sensei was happenstance: a Japanese civil servant at Camp Zama noticed Nakamura Sensei’s book on my desk and asked if I’d like to meet Nakamura Sensei. He introduced me to another Japanese civil servant, a retired Japanese Air Defense Force lieutenant colonel, who was a long-time of acquaintance of Nakamura Sensei; both were high-level masters in the Kokusai Budoin.

So I was introduced to Nakamura Sensei at his house. During my meeting I told Sensei that I was a student of Obata Sensei, and Nakamura Sensei right away invited me to train at his dojo. Here was the major “disappointment” for me: the dojo was a middle-school gymnasium! So my training in Japan mirrored my experience with Obata Sensei in Los Angeles. However, I learned that a dojo is more than a building — it is the students, teachers, and the SPIRIT exuded by them.  Nakamura Sensei did have his own dojo at one time — I think it was one of the first kendo dojo opened after WWII. Nakayama Hakudo Sensei attended its grand opening sometime in the early 1950s. Sadly, Sensei lost the dojo because he was a guarantor for a friend’s loan; the friend defaulted, and Nakamura Sensei’s dojo was repossessed.

I trained under some fine senior teachers (Sato Shimeo Sensei, Suzuki Kunio Sensei) while Nakamura Sensei watched. At this time, he was eighty-eight years old, and he had a voice like a lion! He’d spot something wrong, shout, and everybody would stop and watch while he made corrections. Everybody loved and respected Nakamura Sensei. Eventually he would slow down, but as soon as he held a sword, he would become like a young man again. Everybody would worry about Sensei because he still rode his motor scooter to and from the dojo. I can still see him in his brown hakama, brown keikogi, and his white crash helmet. One night he was thrown from the scooter and he was hospitalized for a few days; Sensei just laughed about that, saying the reason he wasn’t seriously hurt was because he was sandan in judo (pre-war judo) and he did a proper forward roll when he hit the pavement.

I returned to the States in October 1994 and saw one of Nakamura Sensei’s last performances on video, filmed sometime around 2000 — when he was ninety. Nakamura Sensei was at a competition and he was moving very slowly, unlike what I recalled. However, as soon as he got to a target: EH! YA! TOH!! He drew his sword and delivered three perfect cuts on that target. Re-sheathing, he’d totter off to the next target and do the same. He did this to six targets, finished with a bow, then ambled off backstage. You would not think someone who was ninety years old could wield a sword in such a manner, but he did.

MAYTT: In 1996, you established Kenshinkan Dojo in Mountain View, California. What helped influence your decision to open your school?

GP: When I departed Japan, I had tested for my renshi (coach) license and rokudan; Nakamura sensei presented me with a kanban (wooden sign) that stated I was the US representative for the International Iai-Battodo Federation; I was told to spread Nakamura ryu in the States. So that is why I established the Kenshinkan Dojo.

The senior teachers were very concerned about how to word my kanban because a Toyama Ryu kanban was issued to Obata Sensei when he immigrated to America, so they wanted to ensure there were no misunderstandings in the United States.

kenshinkan dojo 1996
Kenshinkan Dojo, 1996. Guy Power kneels in the front row, with the white “x.”

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 iaido managed to maintain its presence in the country? Why do you think the art is not as popular compared to other martial arts in America?

GP: Comparatively speaking, the fighting/wrestling arts are far more abundant than iaido because they teach self-defense (ergo, self-confidence). Proper swordsmanship is not so easy to find. Kendo is readily found in the older established Japanese communities in the US — Los Angeles, San Jose, Seattle, etc. — because it was part of the Japanese schooling tradition.

I think iaido maintains its presence today because of its history and traditions; perhaps also a bit of romanticism (the “Cool Factor™”) as observed in the modern re-created rapier-and-dagger and sword-and-buckler schools that have been proliferated in the past score of years. I was drawn to Mugai ryu (1970) because it was cool. As an infantry officer, I was drawn to Toyama ryu (1983) because of its streamlined combat-effectiveness; I didn’t carry a sword, but a knife or dismounted bayonet could substitute for a sword (if I were out of ammunition). Whilst studying Nakamura ryu in Japan (1990-94) I also studied Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu because I wanted to participate in a traditional system, be part of an ancient lineage; the names of techniques were poetic (e.g., Yokogumo, Cloud Bank; horizontal clouds). Toyama ryu’s lineage goes back to 1925 and has only practical names for its techniques (e.g., Ippon-me, Mae no Teki — No. 1, frontal enemy).

Iaido is not as popular as the “fighting arts” probably for two reasons: (1) you can’t use swordsmanship for self-defense, and (2) the equipment is expensive. The outlay for uniforms and equipment in judo/karate/taekwondo is around $50, whereas an entry-level aluminum-edged training sword costs upward of $300; a high-quality one upwards of $1,500 if you get nice fittings. Some students buy the $60 wall-hangers, but the handles are plastic, and the wrapping loosens after a month or so; they also have poor balance.

MAYTT: I see. Speaking of spreading iaido, who do you feel had a great impact on the art’s dissemination in America? Is there someone, or a handful of people, that stand out and has set an example for others to follow?

GP: The following named teachers are the ones I feel are responsible for the spread of iaido:

  • Donn F. Draeger (Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu)
  • Obata Toshishiro (Toyama Ryu, Shinkendo)
  • Albert C. Church (Shin-Mugai Ryu)
  • Kuniba Shogo (Mugai Ryu)
  • Shimabukuro Masayuki (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu)
  • Rick Polland (Muso Shinden Ryu)
  • Phil Relnick (Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu)
  • Toby Threadgill (Shindo Yoshin Ryu)
  • Bob Elder (Toyama Ryu)
  • Peer Halperin (Nakamura Ryu)
  • Carl McClafferty (Nakamura Ryu)
  • Dave Drawdy (Nakamura Ryu)
  • Ron Zediker (Nakamura Ryu)
  • Meik Skoss (Yagyu Shinkage Ryu)
  • Nick Suino (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu)
  • Derek Morris (Nakamura Ryu)

MAYTT: In my research, I have noticed that many iaido schools and practitioners are part of kendo organizations, as those organizations have a subsection or committee for the art. Kenshinkan Dojo is not affiliated with any kendo organization, but with the International Battodo Federation. In your opinion, why do you think many iaido schools affiliate themselves with kendo organizations rather than forming an iaido-specific organization or affiliating themselves with a Japan-based organization?

GP: Perhaps the reason many iai practitioners are affiliated with kendo organizations is because kendo teaches “kendo kata” as one of its curricula; these are swordsmanship forms using wooden swords to parry and strike. Some kendo dojo also teach All Japan Kendo Federation Iai — 12 forms that are based from koryu (ancient) styles; these “Seitei-gata” (standardized forms) are taught to complement kendo; “Kendo Iai” has become quite wide-spread throughout the world. I think other schools of iaido that are affiliated with kendo dojo are associated because one or more of the teachers have learned either Zen Nippon Iaido Federation forms or are additionally students of koryu iaido (ancient styles of iaido).

Some students who have studied just iaido feel something is lacking in their training — they know how to cut the air but have no experience against an opponent who will strike back. Nakamura Sensei’s philosophy was that in order to be a competent swordsman, one should study iaido, kendo, and test cutting: “Three Entities, One Body.” Iai/battodo gives a person capabilities in handling and wielding a blade; kendo gives one the experience of using a “sword like object” (the bamboo “foil”) against an un-cooperative live opponent; finally, test cutting gives you the experience of actually using a sword: like rifle marksmanship in the military, you have to actually hit your target in order to be effective. Of course, after all this practical knowledge is learnt and becomes second-nature, then the student can concentrate on the “self-development” aspect of swordsmanship.

MAYTT: Since the founding of your school, you have retired from Kenshinkan Dojo. What prompted your retirement and how did your students feel about the decision? How well did the students take the transition from you to the current head of the dojo?

coming out of retirement 14 march 2020 CA
Coming out of retirement, March 14, 2020, for a tameshigiri.

GP: After about forty years of learning martial arts, including the ten years of teaching, I reached a point in my skill development where I felt that I was not a good teacher. I turned over the dojo to my senior student, Arthur Leung, who had been with me from 1995; when he moved out of state, Jay Mijares took over teaching. I can honestly say that these two long-term students were excellent teachers and did not change anything in the Nakamura Ryu/Toyama Ryu curriculum. I am proud of my “budo children,” and proud of their students who are my “budo grandchildren” — they are my legacy, and the legacy of Nakamura Taizaburo Sensei.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With over thirty years of training and teaching iaido, what advice would you give to someone wishing to begin their own dojo today?

GP: Do not open a dojo before obtaining the proper training. Have the appropriate license — at least renshi — or rank (godan) and permission from one’s instructor. It is fine for a student of a few years and solid foundation to lead study groups — but not to open a “dojo.” Having a dojo reflects on one’s own teacher and art; people will judge your teacher and style by how you run your dojo. Opening a dojo is a great challenge, ensuring the proper space and equipment, and maintaining records for the Headquarters, etc. But most of all, it is important for you to be selective in accepting students into the dojo. We deal with razor-sharp swords, so a student must be mature; it was my personal policy not to allow anyone under 18 years old to become a student; no children allowed! The greatest satisfaction, apart from the students, is becoming part of the Ryu’s legacy. The dojo is all about the Ryu and maintaining that tradition; the dojo is not about one’s ego. We teachers are custodians of the tradition and it is our responsibility to pass along the techniques with no self-created embellishments.

MAYTT: Thank you again for discussing your iaido journey and the growth of the art in America!

GP: It was my pleasure!

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