After studying Kung Fu for several years and moving from Dallas, Texas to Salt Lake City, Utah, Jason Hankins was looking to continue his training. By chance, he found a flier for iaido at a local store and took a chance, eventually learning from Jules Harris, helping establish Zen Bu Kan. In 2002, Harris left for Pennsylvania, leaving the dojo in Hankins’ charge, not without imparting some kendo knowledge. At the time of this interview, Hankins was preparing for a nanadan exam in iaido; he discussed the training for that event, how iai has expanded in the United States, and how the art experienced a revival among kenshi. This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.
MAYTT: Speaking of those benefits, how have you seen your iaido and kendo training assist you in your life, especially your professional life as a firefighter and a paramedic? Would you consider your experiences in both arts to be beneficial?
JH: That’s a deep question. As a firefighter and a paramedic, there’s a lot of life and death; a lot of sick people, people that need help. Seeing that and the reality of that, people of all ages are dying. We get very comfortable thinking, as youthful healthy people, we tend to fall into that mindset of, “There’s tomorrow and tomorrow will always be here.” As a firefighter and a paramedic, you definitely see death on all counts – young people, healthy people, young old, expected and death that is completely out of the blue. Dealing with the Japanese sword, I think it fits both iaido and kendo. You have to consider life and death quite seriously. There’s that component of it. I think handling the Japanese sword, if you are practicing on a very deep level, you have to consider the reality of it. It’s a deadly weapon and there’s a lot there with that. Another component is the discipline portion. To be good at either kendo or iaido, it requires a lot of self-discipline. In being a firefighter and a paramedic, and I’m also on the SWAT team, all that is so self-discipline rich that they completely complement each other. Sometimes, it is hard to make time to train with the sword. Things get busy and crazy and yet it might be a week where I stop and pause and practice dryfiring.
There’s always this disciplined practice coming from some direction. Sometimes I say, “Well, I didn’t get to handle the Japanese sword today, but I did spend half an hour dry firing my firearm and working these components that are very iaido-like.” It’s having to be aware of your posture, your breathing, and your drawing hand. In a lot of ways, the discipline of iai transfers to the discipline of firefighting and certainly the police side of things, having to do those things, and vice versa of those things is true as well. There’s a time where, certainly, handling the Japanese sword raises my level of awareness for those things, like body posture, like breathing, like being able to tell that my back foot is a bit crooked. I might be at the shooting range doing firearms and just be that much more aware of what exactly my body posture is.
Before starting police work in my career, I had not shot a firearm previously, not to any real extent anyway. When I started handling firearms, the firearms instructors were pretty quick to be like, “Wow, you get this.” I think that really spoke true of iaido and kendo and having that body awareness, being able to quickly register that I need to keep my hips at this angle, and I need to have my back foot do this. Being able to immediately implement those kinds of things, that definitely stemmed from kendo and iaido. In a physical sense and a mental sense, both things really complement each other. I’m stronger in each because of my participation in each; each one strengthens the other.
MAYTT: It is really amazing how there is a noticeable benefit and application of both arts into your professional life and vice versa.
JH: I certainly have appreciated it. To have that, it’s been fantastic and to feel like you can practice swordsmanship out on the gun range and to be out on the gun range and actually feel like you’re also practicing swordsmanship is also a very beautiful thing.
MAYTT: According to your biography on the Zen Bu Kan website, you are also a lay practitioner of Zen. What about Zen resonated with you and how has that experience affected your daily and martial lives?
JH: When Jules Harris Sensei started Zen Bu Kan, of course, there was an emphasis on Zen in the dojo, to a degree. Most practices in the dojo were very just swordsmanship focused. He would mention Zen teachings and this and that from the Zendo to the dojo. But eventually, he really wanted to share some of what Zen practice can offer to a practitioner of the sword. He more or less did an introduction to Zen. As a dojo, I think the first time we practiced Zen was at his home and did a whole “hey this is Zen” kind of introduction. He gave us a taste of it and that led to more and more sessions of digging into Zen practice and what that is and how it related to swordsmanship. Until the point where I started going to the Zendo, quite often for several years, Kanzeon Zen Center, the Zendo, you could go there and in the early hours of the morning – four or five in the morning – and just sit on a cushion. I don’t remember if it was six or seven o’clock, they would start a formal Zen session. So, I started to frequent the Zendo quite often. I never became an official member of Kanzeon, for x amount of contribution kind of thing, and have more and more lessons. I never joined as an official member. I attended some of their weekend sessions and seminars. I would do some of those things if they worked out timing wise.
That was my introduction to Zen and learning how to sit on a cushion for hours and, to some degree, turn off that logical mind that’s always labeling things and judging things and trying to digest everything in this very analytical sense, and to just sit and just be. Harris Sensei gave me that introduction and it’s still something that I do today. Kanzeon, over the years, eventually closed its doors. I’m not sure if there’s a Zendo currently functioning in Salt Lake. In a formal sense, I didn’t practice after that, but I still, to this day, take some time and spend a bit on the cushion and let the water settle and breathe and practice a little bit of shikantaza – just sitting.
I think there’s a certain – I think it’s hard to describe; I think there’s a certain something that you get when you learn how to just sit. There’s something about learning to just breathe. But it’s more than that; there’s a quality that comes from doing that. I think it extends itself into everything that you do. On a more superficial level, even just the awareness of your breath, that is huge in kendo practice and in iaido practice. That’s huge in police work and firearms. It’s huge in any type of situation where typical people are running and screaming and panicking. [Laughs] That ability to tune into your breath and to know what breath control can do to you, how to calm things down. In a very physiological sense as well as a mental or emotional sense. That’s huge. I think, certainly, time spent on the cushion has helped with that. In that example, I’m just talking about awareness of breath and what that is, but time on the cushion does something more for your mindset and your ability to think clearly.
Of course, that extends into everything. I think it’s even more vibrantly present when you need to make life and death decisions at a moment’s notice. Certainly, there’s something intangible that comes from being able to shut off everything, sit on a cushion and breathe; there’s something there that transfers to that kind of process where hostage rescue stuff – my gosh, that’s crazy intense stuff. To be right in the midst of absolute chaos. Believe me, there is still stuff I’m working on – by no means am I an expert in that kind of stuff – but it’s something I’m exposed to regularly. There’s a difference in – you look at some people in those situations and there are people that aren’t ready for it and can’t handle it. Then you see the people who you want to emulate in those situations. You see people that are very calm amid absolute chaos and make very clear decisions. I think time spent sitting on the cushion definitely offers you something towards that end.
How to put that into words, I don’t even know. That’s where I think my sensei would say, “In order to understand that; in order to be a part of that experience, it is beyond words. You have to sit. You want to know what it feels like to be in the river, you gotta jump in. if you want to know what that lemon tastes like, you gotta bite it.” There’s definitely something there that’s very hard to describe but it’s certainly, to me undeniably, beneficial and it comes from that time spent on the cushion. Like I said, I’m no expert in hostage rescue, I’m the best, baddest fireman out there either, but I do okay, and I feel more grounded by time spent on the cushion.
MAYTT: What can you tell us about the Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation? When was it formed and who were some of its founding members?
JH: So, the Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation is run by Hideki Iwakabe Sensei in Colorado. He has been in martial arts I don’t know how long – forever. [Laughs]. He was a high-ranking sensei before I knew what a shinai was. The federation has been doing that for a long time. Iwakabe Sensei is, I believe, rokudan renshi. I was telling you how Jules Harris Sensei held on to his connections from New York when he came to Salt Lake. Part of the connection that he held on to was his membership with the regional federation back there. As you know, as far kendo federations go, there’s the regional federations and then there’s the national federation that encompasses everything. So, he held on to his regional federation affiliation as we were starting as a dojo.
When we were starting, he did mention to us that we would have to find our own regional federation for this. We started with a different federation then eventually – there is politics involved in everything. Iaido and kendo are not without that. So, at some point, the highest sensei said, “Wait a minute. You guys are with which federation? No, no, no; you guys are going to be with this federation.” And that federation was Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation. At the time we joined Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation, I didn’t have any knowledge of Iwakabe Sensei or who he was. We just kind of ended up in that federation because that was who we were told to join. That having been said, for Iwakabe Sensei for being in Colorado, having never met us and not knowing who we were, he took us in very readily. We’ve kind of had a semi-long-distance relationship. I’ve met him in person quite often at national level seminars and only a handful of times in person when I was actually at his dojo in Colorado. Monica Iwakabe Sensei, his wife, really helps him run it and helps him out a lot. She’s coming up in rank level and they do a beautiful job of running things in Colorado and keeping a regional federation going – a huge task to keep a regional federation functioning. They have dojo membership all over the place and Zen Bu Kan and Salt Lake are like the far outlier, but he’s been very supportive of us and it’s been a good relationship.
MAYTT: How do you feel the Federation has helped disseminate and solidify kendo’s and iaido’s position in the Rocky Mountain area?
JH: All these federations are based off of their own areas. So, we have the Southwest Kendo Federation, which encompasses a lot of states around us as well. I know that there are dojos within the Colorado area that are members of the Southwest Kendo Federation. In fact, now in Salt Lake, there is, about five or six years ago, another dojo that does teach kendo and iaido and is AUSKF and they’re members of the Southwest Kendo Federation. In comparison to the Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation, I believe that Southwest is a bigger federation. The Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation has always been a bit smaller in comparison but interestingly, our federation always does very well at competition. I’m speaking more towards the iaido side of things because that’s where I have more exposure, but percentage wise of people achieving medals at national tournaments, Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation does, surprisingly, well. I think that speaks to Iwakabe Sensei, his teaching skills, and the way he is able to put into words the things students need to do – how he gets his students to push themselves and to figure things out. He has an amazing talent for teaching. Of course, he’s been doing it for years – longer than I have been training in the Japanese sword. Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation have been around, especially within the Colorado area for a long time. If you compare federation sizes, Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation continues to grow to this day, but it’s the smaller end of things but comparatively it puts out a high-quality product. All the students at Rocky Mountain Kendo and Iaido Federation are doing well, and I think that speaks to Iwakabe Sensei’s ability to teach, his skill level, and the way he relates to people.
MAYTT: Zen Bu Kan is a member of the All United States Kendo Federation (AUSKF), with the iaido portion of the organization formed only in 1994. How do you feel the AUSKF helps propagate iaido compared to kendo? In your opinion, how has the AUSKF helped solidify and organize American iaido?
JH: When you compare iaido and kendo, kendo is very popular. Kendo is very broad. If you compare the number of kendo practitioners to iaido practitioners, you will see a huge disparity. There’s just a ton more people practicing kendo than iaido. At a certain point, the federations in Japan and in the United States recognized that people across the board practicing swordsmanship only in kendo and not iaido, those folks were missing something in their understanding of swordsmanship. This is purely my thinking on this but in Japan and in the US, it was recognized; “We need to do more to keep a truer understanding of swordsmanship going. If we’re going to preserve swordsmanship and keep it going, we cannot lose certain components of handling a Japanese sword.” I think in 1994 is when they held their first Iaido Summer Camp, which they still call it to this day. It’s really the national iaido seminar, even though they haven’t had it for a couple of years due to Covid. As they recognized this and wanted to foster more practice and more people doing iaido, this was one of the steps to doing that – “let’s start to push iaido more.” The iaido national summer camps were a huge step in that direction and I think that has gone tremendously.
I think it was 1999 or 2000 where it was the first national iaido summer camp where they brought iaido instructors from Japan to the US and have them teach, as a part of that. Doing those kinds of things, I think is why I’ve personally seen a greater growing interest in iaido. Without that, if the AUSKF wasn’t doing these things and taking a greater interest in iaido, I don’t know if I would have ever found it myself. I don’t know that it would be growing to the extent it would be growing today. I don’t know first-hand but I hear that fewer and fewer in Japan practice iai and I believe here it’s continuing to grow. It grows very slowly. At least in the United States, if it wasn’t for the AUSKF supporting that, pushing that, and the teachers that have risen – there are several teachers that are higher than me – and the contributions they are making for the growth of iai are invaluable. I don’t think iai would be where it is today if it wasn’t for the passion and drive that these instructors have shown. Some of the instructors are iaido-only instructors and some instructors are going aikido and kendo. Without their support for iai, I wouldn’t know where we are today. Certainly, I don’t think it would be where it currently is. And I think where it currently is, is in a good place. I think every year – excluding the last two years that have been rough on everybody and every art – I just see it growing and getting better and better. Certainly, the last iaido national summer camp they did hold, you just see the quality of iaido practitioners out there continue to rise. The proficiency level of the higher- and higher-ranking people is just getting higher and higher. You look around at the national tournament and you can’t help but go, “Man, look at this up-and-coming person. Man, he’s very sharp.” You find where that used to be kind of rare, nowadays, there’s a higher and higher level of iaido that is more and more common. From my perspective, I’ve been able to see the quality of iaido in my time increase significantly and that’s due to all the efforts of all the people that are playing a role within AUSKF.
MAYTT: Who then would you consider to be instrumental in creating or solidifying iaido in the United States?
JH: I will tell you on a personal level, because their names are not secret; you can look up members of the AUSKF and see the names of these people. Some of them passed away already, which speaks to a whole different line of thought like, “Wow. You gotta learn from these people while they’re still around.” Takeshi Yamaguchi Sensei has passed away. He did tremendous things for iai in the United States. Ichiro Murakami Sensei, he’s passed away. Again, he did tremendous things for iaido in the United States. Still with us, you many, many, many good people; Shozo Kato sensei in New York, just absolutely fundamental to what’s going on kendo and iaido wise. The instructors at Ken Zen in New York; Robert Stroud Sensei in Boise, Idaho; all these instructors that have years and years of practice underneath them and are very passionate about teaching and spreading the word and getting people interested in this. Not only getting them interested but supporting them as they practice it. Like I said, without their willingness to embrace people and foster the growth, certainly iaido would not be what it is today.
MAYTT: With the country seemingly emerging from the confines and limitations of the pandemic, more so this year than ever before, what do you think kendo’s and iaido’s future will look like? Will there be a resurgence of practitioners, or will there be a further decline in numbers? How will the art adapt to these constant changes?
JH: Like you said, we are emerging from all of this stuff. I think that it looks extremely promising. The seminars are already starting to return. We did a Seattle seminar last year on the West Coast and then on the East Coast, it was in February or March where they held a small seminar, so seminars are starting to return, and I think you’ll see that more and more. I’m hopeful that in 2023 that there will be a national iaido summer camp again and that will bring out the national iaido taikai and the national level shinsha where we can offer that higher-level testing. We can’t offer nanadan exam, but we can offer a fairly high level of testing if we can get the national seminar coming back together. As those things occur, I think you’re going to see a renewed excitement from people who haven’t been able to practice, haven’t been able to go to seminars. I think it’s going to be an interesting period coming out of this. We are already looking at people who haven’t been able to get into a dojo for years – seeing where everybody is at and essentially taking two years off of training in a very open and public sense; seeing that we perhaps lost some depth of practice and we’re going to have to get that back. There’s definitely going to be challenges as you arise from this period of isolation and having limited practices. But I think that the AUSKF is set in a good place and has a good enough structure that has a body of high-ranking instructors that are still involved and still passionate for it that I think you’ll see, in time, everything come back to where it was and then, hopefully, push forward with much more enthusiasm about raising the quality and growing the arts. I think its going to be really good. I think everybody out there is hopeful that we never return to this type of isolation and caution ever again – knock on wood. [Laughs] Hopefully the nation learned a lot from this experience and hopefully we go forward and up and up and up.
MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us about iaido and kendo!
JH: It was a great conversation!
This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.