Interview with Longtime Kenshi Howard Babus: Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo

After training aikido for eight years, Howard Babus was immediately hooked when he saw his first kendo session in 1983. He spent many individualized lessons with Mikio Hattanda at the Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo. Babus inherited the school in 2012. Today, Babus talks a little about his kendo journey, Hattanda, and the art in Southern California. All images provided by Howard Babus.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for joining us today, Babus Sensei!

Howard Babus: I am glad to be here.

MAYTT: You have been training kendo for about thirty years, when did you start training in kendo when did you know that kendo was going to be the art you were going to stick with the longest? What inspired you to begin training and does that inspiration still motivate you to train today?

HB: I began kendo in February 1983. I had practiced Aikido Yoshinkan style for eight years at that time, earning the rank of sandan. I came to the Buddhist Temple on Montecito Street and observed Masaharu Shimoda Sensei and Mikio Hattanda Sensei doing keiko together one evening and decided to begin learning kendo.

MAYTT: That’s an interesting start! 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?

HB: I was taught kendo in the style that Hattanda Sensei was taught when he was a student at Busen in Kyoto before World War II. I still endeavor to practice kendo in that manner. I never trained to compete.

MAYTT: Who do you feel was most instrumental in your training from a “sensei” standpoint? What valuable lesson did they teach you that carried the most weight and had the heaviest impact on your training?

HB: I had the unique privilege of training one on one with Hattanda Sensei for long periods. At times, we were alone at practice. I trained that way with a sensei who attended Busen! [Laughs] This would not be possible anywhere else in the world! I learned to respond without thinking, moving the tip of the shinai in small and large circles, moving fluidly. What a gift! I have never seen anyone else show that fluid style of large kendo.

MAYTT: Can you tell me about the background of the Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo? Who founded the school and how has it sustained its contribution to kendo in Southern California?

HB: I believe it was founded by Masaharu Shimoda Sensei in the 1960s. Shimoda Sensei arrived in the United States after finishing high school, first teaching kendo and Japanese language at a school in Indio, California and later moved to Santa Barbara. Over the forty years of him teaching in the area, he was very active in many Japanese cultural activities, especially shodo and helping form a Japanese Garden in Shoreline Park, Santa Barbara. He also served as the president for the Southern California Kendo Federation.

Masaharu Shimoda (center) teaching kendo kata at the Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo.

In the 1980s, he founded Oxnard Kendo Dojo, but closed a few years later. Luckily, in 1998, he, Hattanda Sensei, and Hirozumi Ariyama established a new one, renaming it Seishin Kendo Dojo.

MAYTT: How long have you been training at the Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo and from your time there, is there anything specific or remarkable in the dojo’s history that only practitioners there would know of?

HB: I began kendo in February 1983. We have always practiced kata before we put on our bogu. Hattanda Sensei said the kata and kendo are the same. Shimoda Sensei was Hachidan Hanshi and former president of Kendo Federation of the U.S.A. And I have written about Hattanda Sensei’s training at Busen.

MAYTT: Interesting. You spend a considerable amount of time training under Mikio Hattanada. Can you tell me about him as a person and as an instructor? What differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries in the Southern California region?

HB: Hattanda Sensei was one of the last students at the Busen in Japan, studying there for almost two years. Once the Allies claimed victory, kendo was banned for seven years, however, Hattanada Sensei was able to continue training because he worked for the United States Army. He was even a bodyguard for the country’s Prime Minister.

He immigrated to the US and started teaching at the Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo in 1960. He had a yondan at the time. Hattanda Sensei became head instructor in 1980 and he earned his nanadan in 1987 through the Kendo Federation of the United States of America.

Please see this web page, especially the comments at the end, where George McCall and I write to each other.

MAYTT: At what time did you inherit the responsibility of Chief Instructor of the Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo? What was the experience like for you? How did your new role within your dojo and local kendo community change your perspective on the art?

HB: I became head instructor after Hattanda Sensei passed away on December 23, 2012. I had already been leading the practices for several years because sensei was no longer able to practice in bogu, and when he became ill, he could not come to our practices.

Here is a photo of myself and other participants in Kendo World magazine kendo tour in April 2019.

MAYTT: Who do you feel helped pioneer and spread kendo in the mid to late twentieth century to today in Southern California? What set these individuals apart from their contemporaries?

HB: I am told that Hachidan, former All Japan Kendo Champion, Torao Mori Sensei was pivotal in the establishment of higher quality kendo in Southern California.

MAYTT: 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 Santa Barbara Kendo Dojo and the Southern California Kendo Federation (SCKF), to remedy the situation?

HB: Why is kendo not as popular? It takes so many years to become proficient.

MAYTT: I see. 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?

HB: Each person who studies kendo must eventually decide why they practice kendo. I am not interested in competition. I am interested in the beauty and spiritual aspects.

Here is my favorite kendo quote from Toshihiko Kaku in Kendo World:

Kendo teaches us how to utilize the heart. This is an important issue to our very existence, and not to try and understand and develop the heart while engaging in Kendo relegates the activity to one of merely waving bamboo sticks about. This is not a true study of Kendo.  To learn the heart is to learn the meaning behind the existence of all things. To learn kendo is to learn about the true self, and then to set out and achieve whatever it is that defines the meaning of your being. To this purpose, the individual will be faced with many problems, and will have to find ways to deal with them. This may result in your progress falling behind others. Nevertheless, as nothing is wasted in the universe, neither are the lives of each individual. Everybody and everything has meaning. Thus, it is permissible to take the scenic route. Everything that transpires in front of the individual does so for a reason, and all will eventually become apparent. In fact, it may be those who do not get directly to their desired destination and take the long way instead who are truly investigating the Way (michi).

Kaku Toshihiko, “Hanshi says” Kendo World, vol 3, no. 2 2005, page 39

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 Southern California, 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?

HB: Kendo is the most practiced martial art in Japan with about 1.8 million kenshi. SCKF will follow the recommendations of our health professionals in reopening. As of today, the Buddhist Temple remains closed, so we are not practicing.

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us about your kendo journey!

HB: I enjoyed the experience.

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