History of the Obukan Kendo Dojo

The history of the Obukan Kendo Dojo is an interesting one. After interviewing a few members of the dojo, it seemed appropriate to pen a brief history of the dojo from its first establishment in 1926 to the present day.

Officially, the Obukan began teaching kendo in 1926, however, the school has its roots even earlier, stretching back to 1905 with the Obukan Judo Dojo. The judo dojo participated in a Lewis and Clark Exhibition, with Bunuyemon Nii and Shiroye Sato demonstrating to the crowd that gathered at the event. About twenty years later, Nii established the Portland Judo Dojo, Obukan Judo’s predecessor. During Nii’s tenure as the head instructor, the school hosted the art’s founder, Jigoro Kano. It was on August 20, 1932 that Kano suggested to change the school name to Obukan (Oregon Martial Training Hall). By 1936, both the Obukan Judo and Kendo schools were operating out of the ground floor of the Foster Hotel. At the time, Jiro Sakano headed the kendo portion of the school.[1]

A seminar in 2017 with Tsuchida from Hiroshima, who was John Hancock’s close instructor. Source: Yuriko Lee.

By 1942, the Japanese American communities along the West Coast found themselves in Internment Camps around the western portion of America which hindered the training of kendo. Many kenshi and relatives of trainees began to discard, bury, or destroy equipment, records, and anything that would allow the War Relocation Authority to make their lives any more miserable.[2]

Though many kendo schools began reappearing in the two decades after the Second World War, the Obukan reappeared much in the same manner as when it came into existence before the War, through a judo dojo. Stephen Strauch, a kenshi from Hawaii, formed Portland Kendo in 1975. About five years later, Obukan Judo instructors Al Mar and Jim Onchi approached Strauch to help reestablish kendo classes at the Obukan Judo Dojo, which initially began teaching classes in 1954. Strauch agreed and helped formed a kendo leadership board for the school, consisting of himself, Onchi, and Sueo “Buddy” Ikata. In addition to holding classes at the Obukan Judo Dojo, Strauch and Seijin Kamegawa taught kendo at Portland State University.[3]

Kenneth Strawn at his Charlotte Kendo Club. Source: Charlotte Kendo Club

By 1984, Kenneth Strawn of North Carolina arrived at the club’s doors. Having already trained under kendo pioneer Benjamin Hazard at San Jose State University since 1974, Strawn quickly took to helping his newfound training grounds. With the combined efforts of Strauch, Strawn, and a newly promoted shodan Robert Stroud, the three kenshi helped the Obukan join the Washington State Kendo Federation, the forerunner to the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation. Afterwards, the trio secured a relationship with the local Buddhist temple, allowing Obukan kenshi to demonstrate at the temple’s annual Bon Odori festival. The trio began performing more demonstrations for the club, gaining more students and creating connections for future events. [4]

Robert Stroud performing iaido in Kyoto in 2015. Source: Robert Stroud.

However, Strawn returned to Charlotte, North Carolina to pursue a career in teaching in November 1986; he later established the Charlotte Kendo Club the same year. With Strawn on the other side of the country, Stroud assumed the role of Chief Instructor. According to Stroud, he did not intentionally set out to become the Chief Instructor, saying, “as [I] got older and started having more rank, I kind of became the guy to lead.” Under his tutelage, the Obukan moved its training hall to a few different locations, finally settling on Conestoga Recreation Center, where practices are currently located. By the early 2000s, the Obukan expanded its association into Oregon State University, helping to form the university’s kendo club, which grew greatly with the association. Additionally, Stroud made an effort to have the Obukan have an “aspect of what a community dojo would be in Japan,” reflecting on his time in the country while he trained at the famed Noma Dojo in Tokyo. He further recalls that the club “had that feeling with the family always involved.”[5]

John Hancock focusing on iaido. Source: John Hancock.

After twenty-five years in Oregon, Stroud moved to Idaho in 2004, unintentionally taking over the Idaho Kendo Club there. Taking Stroud’s place was John Hancock, a former student of James Oka in Hawaii. In his own words, “I felt honored to be selected to lead the Obukan […] I felt it became my responsibility to teach our students and carry on.” As Hancock took over the dojo, he relied on two longtime students to assist with class instruction. Additionally, according to Hancock, Kichibei Tsuchida of Hiroshima Prefecture “saw that the Obukan needed help teaching, so each summer he would come with a few teachers for a week-long seminar.” The two had formed a friendship during their time in Hawaii, fostering a relationship between the Obukan and Tsuchida’s dojo.[6]

By 2013, according to Obukan student Yuriko Lee, the club was suffering from disorganization, resulting in beginner students not staying or transitioning to the more advanced classes; “every time I went to practice , it looked sort of chaotic […] no one was telling me what I was supposed to do […] there was no clear guidance.” Part of the issue came from the chaotic nature of the beginner’s class and the high dropout rate of students. While Hancock and other senior member were attempting to solve the issue, Lee, once she transitioned from the beginner’s class, offered her assistance in establishing a clear line of communication from the Obukan’s leadership to the students and vice versa.[7]

Members of the Obukan demonstrating at the Chinese Garden in May 2017. Source: Yuriko Lee.

Also occurring during this period, Hancock had asked one of the longtime students to take over; however, life events prohibited the transfer of Chief Instructor duties. This event then left Hancock to continue as Chief Instructor. Additionally, two career Obukan students left the school, joining the Portland Kendo Club, which was founded by a former Obukan student, Steve Choi, in 2009. Despite this exodus of senior members, Hancock found help in Motoya Nakamura, another longtime and senior Obukan member. With Nakamura’s help, Hancock continues to push forward with Obukan training sessions.[8]

Though Hancock and Nakamura have different views on kendo and instruction style, both have, in the words of Lee, “somehow transformed [the Obukan] into a small but tight family with several solid committed members.” At the time of writing, the coronavirus has cancelled the Obukan’s training sessions, and the future of the club, kendo, and the Pacific Northwest Kendo Federation is unclear. However, the school’s spirit is quite strong, especially in the senior students.[9]

The youngest generation of Okuban kenshi receiving first place in the 2019 Rose City Taikai from John Hancock. Source: Yuriko Lee.

[1] Obukan Kendo Club, “About,” Obukan Kendo Club, 2020, https://www.obukan.com/about/; Joseph R Svinth, “Kendo in North America, 1885-1955,” in Martial Arts in the Modern World (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003), 188–89; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Robert Stroud: Kendo in Pacific Northwest and Mountain Regions of the United States Part II,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), June 5, 2020, https://maytt.home.blog/2020/06/05/interview-with-robert-stroud-kendo-in-pacific-northwest-and-mountain-regions-of-the-united-states-part-ii/.

[2] Svinth, “Kendo in North America, 1885-1955,” 162; Richard Schmidt, “The Historical Development of Kendo in the United States,” Budo Gaku Kenkyu 14, no. 3 (1982): 4.

[3] Obukan Kendo Club, “About”; Aloia, “Interview with Robert Stroud”; Joseph R Svinth, “Knightly Spirit: Ninety-Five Years of Pacific Northwest Kendo,” 1999, http://staff.washington.edu/kendo/PNKFhist.html.

[4] Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Kenshi Kenneth Strawn: Starting From Scratch,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), November 11, 2020, https://maytt.home.blog/2020/11/11/interview-with-longtime-kenshi-kenneth-strawn-starting-from-scratch/.

[5] Aloia; Aloia, “Interview with Robert Stroud”; Obukan Kendo Club, “About.”

[6] Aloia, “Interview with Robert Stroud”; Yuriko Lee, Interview with Yuriko Lee, interview by Antonio Aloia, Email, June 2020; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Obukan Head Instructor John Hancock: From Hawaii to Oregon,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), September 30, 2020, https://maytt.home.blog/2020/09/30/interview-with-obukan-head-instructor-john-hancock-from-hawaii-to-oregon/; Obukan Kendo Club, “About.”

[7] Lee, Interview with Yuriko Lee.

[8] Lee.

[9] Lee.

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