Interview with Longtime Kenshi Kenneth Strawn: Starting From Scratch

Kenneth Strawn found kendo while he was in college, training under the American pioneer Benjamin Hazard. Between 1984 and 1986, he helped grow the Obukan Kendo Club. He returned to his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, quickly establishing his Charlotte Kendo Club and helped form the Southeastern United States Kendo Federation in 1988. Today, we had the opportunity to talk with Strawn regarding his amazing kendo journey!

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome, Strawn Sensei, and thank you for talking with us today!

Kenneth Strawn: I am glad to be here!

MAYTT: You started kendo at San Jose State University in 1974; what inspired you to begin training and does that inspiration still motivate you to train today?

Kenneth Strawn. Source: Charlotte Kendo Club

KS: It’s a roundabout story on how I got started. I was taking a karate class sponsored by De Anza Junior College in Cupertino, California to fulfill a physical education requirement. One of my co-workers, Glenn, at the company I worked for had seen a demonstration of kendo when he was young. He asked me to ask my Karate instructor if he knew of any dojos around. The karate instructor said, “You would not like kendo, it is very ritualistic and stratified. Besides, there is no kendo around here.” When I got back to work the next day, Glenn had located the San Jose State Club. He invited me to attend a class with him. I was fascinated with what I saw. I had no knowledge of martial arts, other than that one quarter college class in Kempo Karate. I started up a week later and I’ve been at it ever since. Glenn lasted about a year and quit. He illustrated something that all kendo instructors in America have experienced. Benjamin Hazard Sensei said Glenn quit just as he started getting better. I have seen this happen many times. I warn beginners about trying to judge themselves. Improvement happens so slowly that you don’t notice it yourself. It’s like looking in the mirror each day as you shave. You do it for forty years and you realize how you are changing. When I first started, I looked at it as a sport. I was a pseudo-jock in high school and even in college. I was on the football and wrestling teams, but I was not very good. In college, I actually walked on to the football team. Walk on means I was not recruited but just showed up to a practice one day. I was used as a tackling dummy. These days, I am still inspired to practice kendo for a different set of reasons. I don’t think I can put it into words. It is just something you feel. By the way, there were three kendo dojos in the Cupertino area: San Jose Buddhist temple, San Jose State University, and Mountain View Buddhist Temple.

MAYTT: How did the American public view kendo when you began training? Was there a difference in opinion/perspective between the West and East Coast?

KS: When I first started, most people in the United States had never heard of kendo. Whenever someone asked me what I did, I would say “Kendo” and then have to explain what it was. In time, I began practicing at all the nearby dojos and I gradually learned that the Japanese attitude at the other dojos in California was, “If you want to do kendo, you will find us.” They did not advertise but they would do demonstrations for the local Bon Odori festivals. After I got to be fairly good, I would get asked to do demonstrations with the other clubs that were almost all Japanese or Japanese Americans. I would be matched up with the best guy in the other club (who was a good friend of mine) and when people saw I could hold my own with him, they would ask if they could join.

To understand the differences between East Coast and West Coast, you will need a bit of a history lesson. There had been kendo in the 1920s and 1930s on the West Coast. It died on December 7, 1941. Following the war, a few dojos tried to restart it, but it did not get going well until Torao Mori sensei moved to Southern California in the late forties. I never met Mori Sensei, but Hazard Sensei had been good friends with him. I heard many stories about him. This may be hearsay but what I heard was that Mori Sensei was considered one of the best swordsman of the twentieth century in Japan. He was famous in European Fencing circles as well. He died during a kendo practice in 1969. He did not agree with some of the things that the Japanese Federation was doing. He did not like the quick promotions to shodan. Most people in California who start take three to five years to make shodan. In Japan, the federations would give an adult who started kendo as an adult shodan after one year. They felt that an adult would lose face if he did not have a shodan. Then they got real tough at nidan.

East Coast kendo started in the late fifties and they decided they would be more like the Japanese than California. It’s fairly easy to get to shodan in their federations. What is the best way? Probably does not matter a great deal if you stick with it for more than five years, you will get to the same place. I go with the California model in my Charlotte Dojo. The US Kendo National Championships have been dominated by the California federations and the US team that beat the Japanese was made up of Southern California nisei and sansei.

MAYTT: I see. You began your training under Benjamin Hazard. Could you tell me more about him as an instructor and pioneer in California?

KS: It is a little hard for me to talk about Hazard Sensei. I guess the most important thing I got from him was my great love of kendo. He had started kendo in 1948 when kendo was still outlawed by General MacArthur in Japan. He told me that the community center where they practiced listed it as “Ballet lessons.” I usually got a little more slack from him after practice because I was a combat veteran from the Vietnam War. He was a combat veteran of World War II. He had a great deal of knowledge about kendo but had difficulty passing it on. He put it out there but left it up to the individual to figure it out. He had a couple of students, other than his daughters, who figured it out and they became quite good. I was a slow learner and I had to practice with other sensei and triangulate what they said with what he said. Hazard Sensei was great to talk to, especially after practice when we would go across the street to “the Grande Pizzeria.” He knew many of the top sensei in Japan in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. He told so many stories of Moriji Mochida Sensei that I thought he had trained with him. But he explained to me later that he knew him socially but never got to train with him. When he returned to America in 1952 and entered University of California at Berkeley, he met Gordon Warner, and they started the first kendo club in Northern California. Eventually, they moved off campus to a judo club and that evolved into the Oakland Dojo. Hazard Sensei also taught iai, naginata, and kyudo. He was instrumental in getting all these arts started in Northern California. When I first started, kendo people lined up at one end of the dojo and the naginata students lined up just below us.

MAYTT: According to the Obukan Kendo Club, you were instrumental in its growth between 1984 and 1986. Could you tell me how you helped grow the club during that time?

KS: I came to Portland, Oregon in 1984 when my good job at a computer company in California decided to lay me off. I thought I had a pretty good idea for starting my own business (a print shop) but it fell through. I had met Jeffrey Marsten at the First US National Championship in Los Angeles in 1978. He told me there was a kendo club in Portland so when I got there, I found them and started practicing. The club had been started ten years before by a rokudan named Ogawa and a nidan from Hawai’i named Steven Strauch. Ogawa Sensei had returned to Japan and Steven kept it going. Somewhere along the way, Steven got permission to use the name Obukan from the Obukan Judo Club in Portland. That was the name of the original prewar kendo club in Portland. One of the prewar instructors had been Jiro Sakano who I trained some with in Mountain View, California. When I got there, I got Steven to join the Washington State Kendo Federation. I think that started Obukan on its growth pattern. Robert Stroud was already there when I arrived, and he passed shodan at the next testing they had in Seattle. With Robert and Steven, we worked with the local Buddhist temple to accept us. We did a demonstration for their Bon Odori festival and they loved us. We could demonstrate kendo, kendo kata, and Robert demonstrated iai. We also had a father and son team who did keiko together and I think that was what won the temple over. There was a row of little old Japanese ladies shouting advice and encouragement to twelve-year-old Chris. We had only one Japanese member in our group. After that we got asked to do demonstrations at various places.

At a gun show in Eugene, Steven and I discovered that we could have raffled Robert off to the horny gun-lovers’ wives and made enough to build our own dojo. When we started attending tournaments in Canada, I would get a worried phone call asking who exactly was coming. They received sign-ups naming Strawn, Starch, and Stroud, creating some confusion on their end [Laughs] We also began bringing down sensei from Seattle, Washington to teach our class. We brought down both Rod Omoto Sensei and Shinichi Koike Sensei at different times. I took Omoto Sensei back to the airport afterwards and he carried his bokuto with him (this was well before 9/11). He decided to teach me something about kata while we waited for his plane. We got a lot of odd looks while we were doing Kata in the airport. Years later, Koike Sensei would invite me to Seattle for a month of special training after I lost my leg.

My print shop idea fell through and I had to scrounge around for work. I wound up setting a janitorial service to make ends meet. After cleaning toilets for about six months, I decided this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My original dream was to be a teacher and football coach. So, I started checking into it. I checked with Portland State University and that is where I learned that Oregon teacher licenses are not reciprocal with other states. I was looking at other states and the question of paying for it came up. I knew I could get a scholarship to any state supported institution in North Carolina because my father had been a Prisoner of War of the Germans in World War II. So, I headed back to my hometown.

MAYTT: It sounded like you enjoyed your time at the Obukan! Upon returning to North Carolina in 1986, you quickly established the Charlotte Kendo Club. What was one of the major influences to open your own club? Was there something missing in the kendo landscape that you felt you could offer?

KS: There was no kendo landscape in the South when I got back. There was a small club in Atlanta, Georgia and the next closest one was in Washington, DC. I had met the Atlanta club several years before when I drove cross country, stopping at kendo practices along the way, and wound up in Columbia, Maryland for the third Eastern US Kendo Tournament. As a visitor, I was placed on the Atlanta team because they only had four players. A newly arrived godan in Atlanta named Arata Takizawa and I won all our matches which gave Atlanta their highest finish ever at that time. I had not planned to start a club in Charlotte because I expected to only be there for two years and then head back to California. I had selectively forgot just how bad my grades at Wake Forest University had been and it took me the entire four years to complete my degree. I figured if I was going to get any practice for the next four years, I would have to start a club. So, I contacted Charlotte Parks and Recreation Department and they gave me space in a gym on Saturday morning. Once I had about five students who had stuck with it, I applied to the Eastern United States Kendo Federation (EUSKF) in New York City to join and their Executive Secretary wrote me back that I would be better off to join the federation in Dallas, Texas. Atlanta, two hundred miles south of Charlotte was already a member of EUSKF and it was eight hundred miles from New York City. Dallas was sixteen Hundred miles from Charlotte. I later taught geography as part of my social studies class and I know American kids have no concept of distance in this country so I cannot hold it against a foreign person.

I ran my club based on the way that Yoshinari Miyata Sensei ran the Oakland Dojo. At first, I was the only person who knew anything but as time went by, students came in who had trained elsewhere with different ideas, and we got Japanese students from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. I had decided long ago that I would always be open to new ideas. Hazard Sensei had once told me that even a great sensei could learn from a lesser kendoist if his attitude was right. I tried to take this attitude with me the rest of my kendo career.

A retired Marine named Bill Holt had started the Atlanta club with a local guy named Harry Watanabe, who had done kendo in his youth. They started it about ten years before I returned to Charlotte. Once Takizawa Sensei got there, it started to grow. In 1987, Bill located two other clubs, one in Memphis, Tennessee and another in Miami, Florida. He got these clubs together and he applied to the Kendo Federation of the United States to become a new federation. We, the Southeastern United States Kendo Federation, were accepted as the eighth regional kendo federation in the US in 1987. About that time, the instructor at Tennessee Meiji Gakuin, a Japanese private school south of Knoxville, named Shinobu Maeda joined us and Phoung Hoang, who trained in Hawai’i, started the Richmond, Virginia dojo. Maeda Sensei was our most significant new member. The Memphis club had been started by another retired Marine, Harry Dach. Bill Holt was a rokudan in judo and had been Marine Corps Judo champion five times. Dach Sensei of Memphis was also high ranked in judo and had met Bill in the championships. Bill also studied forms of Karate, boxing, and even played semi-pro football. While in the Marine Corps, he received two college degrees and when he got out, he went to law school and became an attorney. The Miami club was started by Carlos Rivera, whom I met once or twice. He was an older gentleman who organized the group.

I do not think I added anything knowledge wise in kendo in the south. Most of the Japanese who participated knew more than me anyway. I think my biggest contributions were as the South Eastern United States Kendo Federation President. I served four terms of two years each, separated by about twelve years. Our constitution does not allow anyone to be president more than two terms in a row. I think one of the problems in the US is that federations sometimes make their highest ranked sensei their president. This person may or may not have any administrative skills. I have always tried to differentiate between the two. Just like there are sensei who are great competitors but not good teachers. Sometimes the highest ranks are not good administrators. When I went to work at Four-Phase Systems, my job title was junior clerk. I left there as a manager with two departments under me. Because I was up from the ranks, so to speak, I went to every management seminar the company offered and read a great deal of management training books. So, I tried to apply a lot of what I had learned into administrating a kendo organization. I also had to learn how to accommodate Japanese sensibilities, a must for a non-Asian in kendo. I tried to create a sensible approach to admitting new dojos, which I think SEUSKF still uses. You could not be a full-fledged member until you had at least a sandan running the club. I also edited the SEUSKF newsletter for five or six years. I stopped when the Board of Directors voted to save money by doing it electronically online. I guess I just have too much printers’ ink in my blood.

MAYTT: What was the kendo community like on the East Coast during the mid to late 1980s compared to that of the Pacific Northwest? How did you and others help grow the art in the area/region?

KS: Except for attending their tournaments, once they turned down my request for membership, I had little to do with the EUSKF. I had met Noboru Kataoka Sensei somewhere in this time and he was very encouraging to us. We started our own tournament in Charlotte, and he would bring down a team of his students most of the time. We ran six tournaments before our membership numbers fell off that we could not put it on anymore. The Pacific Northwest Federation, which changed its name from Washington State Kendo Federation when Obukan joined, had been in existence much longer than EUSKF. They had worked through their problems and had solutions that were successful. EUSKF has split into three different federations now. My only influence was in the SEUSKF and that was due to my administrative accomplishments. I had held every office in SEUSKF except the one I wanted most. That was VP of Education. One of our early sensei once said to me that the reason our federation had done so well was that most of our sensei were professional teachers. He, Makio Ozawa Sensei, was a teaching surgeon at the Medical college of South Carolina in Charleston. Kunitoshi Arai Sensei of Atlanta owned and taught a kindergarten school. Maeda Sensei and I were both schoolteachers. He may have hit on something there. Bill Holt Sensei took a teaching job in Japan and stayed there for seventeen years.

MAYTT: In 1988, the Charlotte Kendo Club was one of the four founding members of the Southeastern United States Kendo Federation. What prompted the establishment of a federation for that region? How did the federation help promote kendo throughout the area?

KS: The South Eastern United States Kendo Federation (SEUSKF) was the idea of Bill Holt Sensei of Atlanta. The Atlanta dojo, called Georgia Kendo Alliance because it consisted of three different practices in three different locations, had been a member of the Eastern US Kendo Federation. I think EUSKF went along with it because they were probably tired of dealing with a dojo 800 miles away from the rest of the federation. It was, and probably still is, the most widespread regional federation in the All United States Kendo Federation. Charlotte is 200 miles to the north of Atlanta, Memphis is about 600 miles to the west, and Miami is about 700 miles to the southeast of Atlanta. It was hard for us to get together at first, but we started growing. Probably the biggest problem we dealt with was small groups that did not have a sensei to teach them. We helped them as best we could. We developed a procedure that let them become “probationary” dojos until someone in the club achieved the rank of sandan. When I was president the first time, I got a request to join us from a guy that claimed to be a godan from Poland and a European grand champion. Then I got contacts from other locations where this guy had taught and they indicated he was a phony. I replied to his request asking him to answer these charges and pointing out that I could contact the Polish Kendo Federation and ask about him. He never replied. The value of our becoming a federation has been in the promotion of kendo in the South. SEUSKF has grown to be the third largest regional federation in the US. The south is also the only part of the United States that has a tradition of the sword. Southern “gentlemen” fought duels with swords as well as pistols. I think that someday there will be four or five federations where we are one right now. But many of these areas are not ready to be separate federations yet. But they are getting there.

MAYTT: You overcame some personal odds that affected not only your training but your life. Overcoming such challenges is a true test of one’s martial spirit. How did you approach kendo to surmount such an obstacle? Were there many modifications you made to continue and progress with your training?

KS: In 2001, I lost the lower part of my right leg due to a clot in the artery in my right calf and an aneurysm in my right foot. It basically cut off the flow of blood to my foot and it died. When the doctors told me the foot would have to come off, I was prepared for it. I had heard of Gordon Warner Sensei who lost his left leg in the battle of Bougainville in World War II. He was encouraged to keep up his kendo by Torao Mori Sensei. Several people suggested I contact him, and I did exchange a couple of letters with him. He was very encouraging. I did not know if I would be able to continue with kendo, but I knew I would try.

At first, I had trouble with my artificial leg sliding out from under me on a slick wooden floor. A standard problem with artificial legs is that your residual limb, called interestingly a “stump,” shrinks. At first, I had to have a new leg every year or so. After a while, the prosthetic company I was dealing with took one of my old legs and converted it into a leg I could go barefooted within it would not slide out from under me. Later on, I signed up with the Veteran’s Administration and they made me much better leg to do kendo with. I was able to compete in the National Championships in the senior’s division and my California sensei, Miyata Sensei of Oakland, saw me and recommended I use jodan position. He gave me a lesson in the hallway while we were waiting to go into the banquet, using a butterknife for a shinai. Later, the AUSKF had an hachidan who specialized in jodan at their summer camp and I attended and got to learn from him. I used to practice by using a fencepost as my target and doing about twenty to thirty strikes as part of my practice routine.

MAYTT: That is amazing how you overcame that and talked with Gordan Warner about it too! In 2013, you published a book, Kendo Training. What motivated you to begin such an endeavor and what did you hope to convey with your book?

KS: I started the book as a pamphlet when I was in Portland. When I arrived in Portland, Steven Strauch was running the practices and although I outranked him, I did not feel right to take over the club and do things my way. After a couple of months, Steven took a job that took him to somewhere a thousand miles away for five or six months. I began introducing things I learned in California and I wrote the pamphlet to explain to the people in the club what I was doing and why. When I got to Charlotte, I rewrote it and expanded it considerably. As time went by, I changed my opinion of what worked and had to change it. I first made the expanded version available by xeroxing copies which I sold at cost. Then I found out about lulu.com. They put together a more professional copy and took care of making it available through their website and through Amazon. If I live long enough, I will do an update. I am always learning new things.

I guess I was trying to explain in English the many things I had learned in over forty years of practicing and teaching kendo. The “How to start a Kendo dojo” was an advertising hook for lulu.com to hang the book on.

MAYTT: In America, there are a plethora of empty hand martial art schools, ranging from taekwondo and judo, to karate to 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?

KS: There are two reasons that kendo is not as widespread as the empty hand schools. One is the expense of the equipment which must be imported from Japan, Korea, or Taiwan. The other is that it takes a long time to become proficient at it. Most Americans do not have the patience to last out the long early training period. Kendo in this country is very tightly controlled by the AUSKF board of directors. This is good in that our standards have remained pretty high. But our growth in numbers has been slow. I have heard that the French and German Kendo federations have about twice as many members as we do. I also think AUSKF does not know how to present kendo to the American population. The US is the only National team to defeat the Japanese in the World Championships. About three years after the event, AUSKF sent out a DVD of the event. But it was in Japanese. Had it had some commentary in English, we could have used it on television and attracted some new people. My rule of thumb is that out of twenty who start, one or two will stick with it.

MAYTT: Final question. You’ve had the opportunity to train under many influential instructors. Who would you say had the greatest impact on your kendo training and how so?

KS: It is very hard to say who had the most impact on me. Hazard Sensei got me started and gave me the love of kendo. I try to pattern my teaching style on Miyata Sensei. Also practicing at Oakland on Friday nights was Yoshinari Takao Sensei, the best teaching sensei I have ever trained with. Miyata Sensei straightened out my fundamentals and Takao Sensei taught me how to win. I trained for a few years with Charlie Tanaka Sensei at San Jose Buddhist Temple dojo. He gave me the kiai that I still use. He taught me how to teach children. In 1978, I was named to the Northern California team to the National Championships. NorCal brought in a special coach, Mashitaka Ota Sensei from Kokushikan University, to prepare us. I still use the kihon warmups that he taught us. From him, I learned the importance of the kirikaeshi drill. Previously, I thought it was just to loosen up your arms.

At Oakland, there were several people there who had a great influence on me. They were Mark Grivas, Teri Maoki, and Court Tanouye. When I moved to Portland, I would go up to Seattle and train with Rod Omoto Sensei, Shinichi Koike, and Jeffrey Marsten. Years later, I saw Koike Sensei at an AUSKF summer camp, and he invited me to come to Seattle and spend a month training with him. If I had not taken him up on that, I do not think I would have passed the godan test. When I came back to Charlotte, the most influential sensei I have gotten to train with is Shinobu Maeda Sensei. We were very fortunate that he came to live in the South. He helped all of us get better. I am sure there are some I have forgotten but I apologize to them now. There were many of my peers who got to train with other sensei, and I have learned from them. Hazard Sensei once said to me that a great sensei could learn from an inferior kenshi. I have tried to keep that in mind, and I listen to everyone I come into contact with. It has been a long journey and I am still on it.

MAYTT: Thank you for taking us through your eventful martial journey!

KS: It was a pleasure!

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