Interview with Obukan Head Instructor John Hancock: From Hawaii to Oregon

Currently the head instructor of the Obukan Dojo in Portland Oregon, John Hancock began kendo training in 1986 in California, quickly moving to Hawaii to continue his training under James Oka. Heading to Portland in 1994, he became a student at the Obukan while Robert Stroud was head instructor until 2004. Today, Hancock discusses his kendo journey from California to Hawaii then Oregon! All images courtesy of John Hancock.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

John Hancock: I am happy to answer all of your questions!

MAYTT: You began your kendo training back in 1986, at the height of the ninja-craze at the time. What drew you to kendo as opposed to other martial arts or sports? Did you find something different or unique about the art and does that aspect still drive you today to train?

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John Hancock focusing on iaido.

JH: I was studying Okinawa Goju Kai Karate before kendo under Tora Nitanai Sensei. That’s when I started to learn iaido. My mother gave me my first Katana; it was so beautiful to hold in my hands for the first time. Then she told me I should learn kendo. My mother, Kazuko Sasao, is from Japan and at the time, was teaching shigin [chanting Japanese poems] in Mt. View, California. She introduced me to a student of hers, Jiro Sakano Sensei who was about eighty years old and a nanadan from San Mateo Dojo. After watching him doing shiai keiko so gracefully and smiling while doing it, I knew I would like to be that way when I’m eighty years old too.

MAYTT: When you began training in kendo, how did the American public view the art? Did that perspective of kendo share the same type of mysticism as empty hand martial arts like karate or judo?

JH: To me, it seems most people in the US don’t know of kendo unless they train in martial arts or have interests in the Japanese culture. When I visited San Jose Dojo for the first time, there was a large number of students and families in the Buddhist temple area in San Jose’s Japan Town, so the cultural influence was very strong. The Americans that do come to watch kendo seem very thrilled to see the art.

MAYTT: I see; you had to be in it to know about it. In the same year when you began training kendo, you moved to Hawaii for ten years, studying under James Oka. What prompted your move to the Aloha State and what was the kendo scene and community like on the Hawaiian Islands? Was it a different culture and emphasis than on mainland America?

JH: I have an older brother that lived in Oahu that wanted my mother to come live in Honolulu. I was happy to move there too. The Hawaiian Kendo Federation is very big with over twelve dojos on Oahu alone, with more on other islands too. The Asian population is much more in Hawaii compared to the US. At a typical practice I had, maybe three nanadan teachers in each class. This is including all of the other yudansha members. I could practice six days a week visiting various dojos. Being closer to Japan, also, Hawaii has many visiting teachers and students coming all year long to practice kendo.

MAYTT: Could you tell me about James Oka, as an instructor and as a person? What set him apart from other contemporary instructors in Hawaii and how involved was he in the state’s kendo community?

JH: I was very fortunate to join Mililani Dojo under Oka Sensei; again, another smiling kindhearted sensei! [Laughs] He was famous (to me) in his waza of being able to strike your do twice in a single attack (men kaishi do). Still to this day, I have never seen anyone else who could do it. And he was in his seventies when I started learning from him.

MAYTT: What influenced your move to Oregon and how did you find the Obukan? What attracted you to the club as opposed to some of the other clubs in the Portland area?

JH: In my line of work as a carpenter, there was not much work in Hawaii after the Kobe earthquake in Japan 1994. Portland, Oregon was at that time the fourth largest growing city in the US. With that, I moved to Portland. The Obukan was the only kendo dojo in Oregon also. Stroud Sensei has visited Honolulu a few times for our annual Mililani Leeward taikai.

MAYTT: Once enrolled into the club, you began training under Robert Stroud until his departure to Idaho in 2004. In talking with him previously, he was very knowledgeable about the art and enjoyed his time at the Obukan. What was Stroud like as an instructor? What did he do that differentiated himself from your previous instructor, James Oka?

JH: Stroud Sensei has a very good form in kendo, i.e. good posture, large swing, and very strong strikes; everything you need to learn to be a good kendoka. He was also much younger than Oka Sensei. [Laughs]

MAYTT: Very interesting [Laughs] 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 on your training?

JH: I was lucky to meet Kichibee Tsuchida Sensei from the Hiroshima prefecture (Joge). He would come to Oregon each summer with other teachers to help Obukan train through seminars. I was very close to him and would go visit Japan a few times with my son.

As I became Obukan Chief Instructor after Stroud Sensei moved to Idaho, Tsuchida Sensei saw that the Obukan needed help teaching so, each summer he would come with a few teachers for a week-long seminar.

MAYTT: In addition to training kendo, you also had the opportunity to study Muso Shinden-ryu iaido. Given that many kendo clubs and organizations utilize iaido as supplementary learning for kendoka, with jodo coming in at second, what are the benefits of partaking in these other arts? Are these arts looked at as extensions of 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?

JH: Ken means sword in Japanese, so it only seems natural learning kendo that iaido gives you a more thorough training with a katana. Holding a katana to me is so real, you learn how to really use a sword properly compared to a bamboo shinai. It is said when a kendoka reaches sandan, they should also study iaido.

MAYTT: In 2004, you assumed the role of chief instructor of the club. What were your feelings at the time when you took up the mantle? Was it a welcoming honor on your part or were there some reservations for your new responsibilities? During the transition, what was the overall atmosphere in the club following Stroud’s exit?

JH: Yes, I felt honored to be selected to lead the Obukan. Stroud Sensei had some very close friends I know some who were heartbroken as he departed. I felt it became my responsibility to teach our students and carry on.

MAYTT: Since then, what have you learned about the Obukan’s history that only those who practice in its training halls would know?

JH: Only those members that have been here as long as myself or longer know that the Obukan’s relationship with Hiroshima prefecture has been very fortunate. Portland is actually a sister city to Sapporo, Japan. I was not here when Stroud Sensei had some of Obukan students visit Sapporo.

I also go to Hawaii each year to train, a few Obukan members have also visited Hawaii to train and meet some of my former instructors.

MAYTT: That is something not many outsiders would know! As time passes, many things change, adapt, or modify themselves to stay with the times to some degree. Has kendo experienced such a change in training and if so, how much has the training changed since you began?

JH: I can’t say training is much different than twenty years ago. When I was younger, I felt training was much more disciplined, slightly more aggressive than how we train today. Training with most all instructors all strongly teach kihon now and thirty years ago.

MAYTT: Given your time in both Hawaii and in the Pacific Northwest, who, in your opinion, do you feel has had the greatest impact on kendo’s dissemination in both of those locations? Is there someone, or a handful of people, who stands out and has set a precedent example for others to strive for and follow?

JH: My son, Lonny Hancock now godan, he started kendo in Hawaii at Mililani Dojo. As we moved to Portland, he became a great competitor in the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation. He helped win the All US High School Championship one year. Now he is back at Mililani training with the Hawaii world team. I’ve watched many of his matches. He is one of the very best kendoka I believe that had the opportunity of training in Hawaii, Japan, Pacific Northwest.

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? Why do you think the art is not as popular compared to other martial arts in America?

JH: Kendo practiced all over the world is basically the same. I can go to Canada, Brazil, U.K., etc., and all kihon kendo is the same! Compared to karate, there are hundreds of different styles.

That is one reason kendo is not an Olympic sport. Maybe someday it will become an Olympic event, until then they want to keep kendo the same. I know in Japan, kendo is very popular.  Also, Olympic sports are about winning, that’s the difference about kendo; you don’t just focus to win. Win or lose, you still focus on becoming a better person. Here in the USA, I believe you need to know and have interest in where to find Japanese like culture to find a kendo dojo.

MAYTT: Final question. With over thirty years of training and teaching both kendo and iaido, what advice would you give to those who desire to begin their own kendo club today?

JH: I think to start a dojo, you need to commit a lot of time and devotion into having a successful club, just like a business. You also need a few members that are truly devoted to the art; it takes good teamwork to have a good dojo. Students come in all ages, you need the basic skills and patience to teach them, and with a good team you will prosper.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking us through your kendo journey!

JH: It was my pleasure!


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