Interview with Las Vegas Kenshi Stefan Locklair: A Kendo Journey from Coast to Coast

Stefan Locklair began kendo at the age of seventeen, gaining multiple perspectives from training in different schools throughout the United States and Japan. He is currently the chief instructor of the Las Vegas Kendo Club and has joined us to discuss his kendo journey. All images provided by Stefan Locklair.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome, Locklair Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to speak with us!

Stefan Locklair: It is my pleasure!

MAYTT: What drew you to kendo as opposed to other, more popularized martial arts and physical activities? Did you find something different or unique about it and does that aspect still drive you today to train?

SL: I’m always a bit drawn to things outside of the norm, but I remember seeing a really old set of bogu (armor) in a martial arts store window when I was seventeen. It was all faded and gray, but I had never seen something like that before. I popped in and asked the store owner what it was, and he said, “It’s something for Kendo.” I started looking into Kendo as soon as I could and found out it was related to Japanese swordsmanship, which I was interested in as a teen. I was lucky enough that Citadel University in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina had a club. I started practice there and after seeing a practice was fascinated with how different it was from other martial arts I had seen. I decided to stick with it when I was told by my sensei that kendo could be practiced from the age of five to over ninety-five. As something that could be a lifelong pursuit, I felt a certain appeal and still do. The aspect of it as a lifelong pursuit of continuous improvement has been a core aspect that has really stuck with me after twenty-plus years.

MAYTT: What was the training like when you first began? Was it a hard and heavy regimen or balanced? Additionally, how have you seen kendo training change since you first started?

SL: The club I started with was primarily made up of older members, and being Southerners, it was a bit more laid back in intensity. I would say it was balanced since training was always focused on developing good fundamentals but was more on quality of training over quantity (not that we didn’t have both). It wasn’t until much later in my development that I turned to harder training, but at that time I was at more of a competitive age for my federation and since I had moved cities to Charlotte, North Carolina, which has a different dojo with a more competitive pedigree. That experience and exposure, along with practice in Japan during a semester abroad really opened my eyes to hard training and its benefits. One thing I have seen change in Kendo training, at least from my perspective, is there is now more promotion around supplemental physical training outside of Kendo.

MAYTT: You bring up training in Japan; many of the kenshi I spoke with mention how different the training sessions were compared to those in the United States. How were those classes different from those here in the States, and were there any similarities between the two countries’ kendo?

SL: The classes I participated in were different, but it was more because of the group that the practice was for – were all very experienced practitioners. The practices I participated in were mostly rank restricted (5-dan and up) and were only for an hour of open practice (sparring). This is quite different from what I have seen in the U.S. where the practices are geared towards all levels, emphasizing basics, and very structured in the allotment of time. There are practices like that in Japan, and attending them is important, but similar to the comment on lifestyle, there are also more opportunities for different kinds of practices similar to what I encountered. For example, I attended an evening practice for students at Osaka University a few years ago and it was similarly structured to how we practice here in the U.S. I would add though that there is also an early morning practice that, to my knowledge, is shorter and more targeted for experienced members and professors. 

Las Vegas Kendo Club. Stefan Locklair is in the back row, center.

MAYTT: What can you share about the club’s founder, Tetsuo Watanabe, and his kendo background? What made him stand out as an instructor and what prompted him to establish the Las Vegas Kendo Club (LVKC)?

SL: Unfortunately, I did not join LVKC until after Watanabe Sensei’s departure. Having come in later my knowledge is more anecdotal, but from the more senior members stories I can tell he was very enthusiastic about Kendo and very generous with his effort and time. Having later practiced with him, his Kendo is exceptional and is beautiful to watch. There is a great confidence and elegant efficiency to the correctness of his movements, but also a kindness and openness. He always has a smile and wants to share his knowledge when he visits. Even though it has been several years since he moved back to Japan, he visits every year, and we can still feel his enthusiasm and spirit in the core of the club. We are deeply grateful for all the hard work he and my other predecessors put into the club.

MAYTT: Speaking of the club, how did you come to lead the LVKC? What was that experience like for you and how did your new role as chief instructor change your perspective on kendo?

SL: I came to lead LVKC more due to being the last man standing and of my rank than any kind of teaching attributes. People come and go, and life happens so naturally through this process I was left to step in to managing the club and taking on instruction. This was rather overwhelming at first and I put quite a bit of pressure on myself because my predecessors had done so well in growing and guiding the club. Thankfully, the families of members and members themselves have really stepped up and helped with running the club and it is very much a group effort, and decisions are made in a more democratic way now. On having to teach in my role as instructor, my focus became on growing others rather than pushing my own limits and focusing on my own development. I really came to understand that to grow yourself you should invest in others. Rather than just push myself more and more (though I still need to), I have to pull others up to a higher level so they can then push me up in return. This for me was a very fundamental change. 

MAYTT: The club has hosted many kenshi from Japan, including its founder, over the years. Many American kenshi feel that Japanese kendo is lightyears ahead of their American counterparts. What do you think differentiates Japanese kendo and American kendo? What are some of the ways that American kenshi can catch up, so to speak, with their Japanese colleagues, or should they not even try?

SL: I’ve had these same questions the more I was exposed to high-level kenshi when practicing during my semester in Japan. I was at a local dojo in Kyoto, and my sensei kindly took me out to dinner after my last practice. I asked him, “Do you think there will ever be any non-Japanese 8-dan Hanshi?” He hesitated a bit before answering, “It’s possible, but difficult.” When I pressed him why he said it’s not a Japanese v. non-Japanese issue, it’s a “lifestyle” issue. His thinking was that Japan and the relative abundance of Kendo allows for a lot of training opportunities with high-level teachers, and few other countries have that. Looking back, I think he has a good point. It’s not something that can’t be overcome, but it is something that differentiates Japanese Kendo and American Kendo and may lead some to think that Japan is further ahead. With Kendo’s growth, as well as information being more easily shared thanks to technology, I feel this can be partially overcome.

From a competitive aspect, the U.S. national team consistently finishes top three in the World Kendo Championship and at the 13th WKC the U.S. men’s team beat Japan’s in the semi-finals (the only time Japan had lost). Competitively, it is definitely do-able, but the dedication and training are very demanding. All national team members, coaches, and supporters/families have a level of dedication that is inspiring, and I have a deep respect for. Also, I see European kenshi becoming more competitive as time goes. We should, of course, strive for the highest level, but in a way that level of dedication is up to the individual.

MAYTT: I see how that could be a challenge for American kenshi. From your recollection, what was kendo like in the Las Vegas area before Watanabe founded the club? Who were some of the pioneers that helped shape what kendo is today in the area?

SL: As I was not here that far back, so I can’t really speak to it. I will say that thanks to the efforts of Watanabe Sensei, Kentaro Nagamine Sensei, Takaya Zembayashi Sensei, and Stan Indarto the club was in a strong position when I came to inherit it from them. We also receive a lot of support from within our federation, in particular from Yamasaki Sensei at Pasadena Cultural Institute, which we are actually members of. Outside our club, I would have to thank the Las Vegas Araki-Mujinsai Ryu Iaido group and the instructor Stephen Parr Sensei for all his work and dedication to the dojo, as well as Shiina Kazue Sensei from Hokushin Itto-Ryu Kenjutsu in Ibaraki, Japan who advised construction and instructs the Kenjutsu practitioners here.

Also, we have several kid members and thanks to their families’ support, the club has been kept alive and from a youth standpoint does very well competitively. Their enthusiasm and support have been instrumental for me. Looking forward, I think the goal will be to grow as best we can and strengthen our membership.

MAYTT: You mention here iaido. Many within the kendo community feel that the two arts are similar and connected. Have you practiced iaido and what role do you think the sword-drawing art has to compliment kendo training?

SL: I did practice Muso-Shinden Ryu Iaido early on in my kendo career, but due to moves and circumstances, I stopped practicing under an instructor. I agree that the two arts are connected. In kendo, we use the shinai for the great majority of practice and supplement sometimes with suburi with bokuto and kata using bokuto, but we don’t spend much time holding an actual sword (or even iaito). Iaido can help in that we spend time holding an iaito or sword and gain a feeling for what true cutting is and then apply that feeling to shinai. I think it helps to gain a feeling for how heavy an actual sword is, how important the cutting edge is, how different the shape of the grip can be, etc. Once this is understood, we should always be applying kendo as if using an actual sword.  

MAYTT: 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?

SL: Much of what Makio Ogawa Sensei (my first sensei) taught me early on has continued to be instrumental in my training and development, even from a sensei standpoint. The key things he taught me were to:

1) Always work on basics/fundamentals. You need to have a strong and proper foundation from which you can branch out and tie back too.

2) Develop an analytical mind. Understand and study yourself and in turn you can understand others. Also find one solution that can remedy multiple problems at once.

3) Always be training for a goal. You need to have a purpose to the actions you take.

4) Pick one thing each practice and focus on only that. Kendo can be overwhelming if you try to think of too many corrective measures at once. Instead choose the best thing that fixes the most problems (going back to point #2).

I share these points with everyone at our dojo and encourage them to reflect on these as they develop.

Over time, I have had several other sensei, and each has taught me a great deal. From them, I have learned that I now want to promote others to excel. I want to demonstrate that continued practice is key and to always be training (I tell my kid students to do footwork when they walk around at home or practice breathing techniques when riding in the car). Our dojo has a motto that Watanabe Sensei gave us of 継続は力なり“Keizoku wa chikara nari,” which translates to “perseverance brings strength.” We also cultivate an environment of openness and kindness. I’m also still learning on removing my ego from practice (and it’s been difficult).

Shiina Sensei gave me a motto to follow myself that hangs in our dojo and I stare at before every practice. The phrase is 一髮千金引 “Ippatsu Sen Gin Biki” which roughly translates as “one God’s hair lifts a thousand treasures.” This phrase and its meaning are very special to me, but I’ll leave it there as a teaser.

MAYTT: I see. To many observers, kendo is not as popular as other Japanese martial arts like judo or karate. Why do you think the art is not as popular with most of the population and have there been programs or plans, within both the Las Vegas Kendo Dojo and the Southern California Kendo Federation (SCKF), to remedy the situation?

SL: From what I can tell, it is a matter of exposure and perhaps cost (though I think that is a misconception). Kendo is not mainstream like many other martial arts in media, so not many people even know about it. Occasionally, you see some glimpses of it in film, but I don’t think it’s enough to really hook people. On the cost front, the equipment can seem like a large investment, but it’s not really any more expensive than other martial arts or hobbies and advancements in materials have allowed for affordability. Most dojos, including ours, have equipment available until you can afford your own and we do as much as we can to not have an up-front investment just to try. I remember my first bogu cost about $400 and lasted me for ten years. I think that’s pretty good. We do some promotional events/demos (Aki-matsuri, demonstrating at the Los Vegas Japanese School, etc.) but I admit, there is more that needs to be done on the promotional front.

MAYTT: Many schools, manuals, and practitioners emphasize kendo’s purpose for self-betterment, however it utilizes matches and, to a further extent, competition to reach such a goal. In your opinion, how does kendo and its community keep the balance between self-betterment and competition in its training? If kendo becomes competition-centered, how will that change the art; would it be considered kendo at that point?

SL: For me, it really comes down to the purpose of competition. Do you go to a competition to win all your matches or is there some other purpose to it? As I am approaching forty, I know I will slow down eventually, (though I fight it as much as I can) but I still want to compete at every opportunity. I don’t view competition for myself as an opportunity to win, but as an opportunity to reflect on my own development. For me, competition is a measure of where you are personally by interacting with opponents and everyone is trying their all. If I lose a match, I was not defeated, but was instead taught a lesson about a weakness I have in myself. Defeat only comes when I don’t learn or I give up. My opponent is a teacher regardless of age, rank, size, etc. With this mindset, competition and self-improvement aren’t opposing goals to be balanced, but rather integrated. In kendo, we bow to each other at the beginning and end of encounters. This should be done with the spirit of thanking the opponent for what we have learned and received from them.

MAYTT: Final question. With COVID-19 affecting every aspect of our society and lives, kendo and other martial arts have experienced a major decline in training facilities and practitioners. How do you think kendo in the Southwest, and perhaps in the United States, will rebound from this global crisis? Will there be a major revival, or will the art continue in small pockets once free from the effects of the pandemic?

SL: With COVID-19, many groups have online practices thanks to the internet, but these are obviously limited. Thanks to this and everyone’s efforts to stay connected, training has not been neglected, just focused in a different way and the relative isolation has led a lot of us to be more introspective on our development and training. My main concern with COVID-19 has been that the youth members are not getting the in-person practice and advice they need and that precious time before life gets too busy has slipped away. Fortunately, with the warmer weather and with vaccinations, we meet on occasion for outdoor practice. For safety, these practices are socially distanced and limited to suburi (practice swinging), but it has allowed for feedback and advising that was difficult over a webcam.

I think Kendo will definitely rebound and many of us are chomping at the bit to compete and undergo promotional testing and get back to practicing with all our might. My hope is that we can all harness our enthusiasm and energy like never before to grow and look to the future of the Kendo we love so much.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your kendo journey!

SF: Thank you for including me!

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