Interview with DFWKIK Historian David Cooper: Reminiscing About the Past and Kendo

David Cooper started later in life, but he was committed. From the beginning, Cooper enrolled in both kendo and iaido, training them side-by-side. He enjoyed both arts that Dallas-Fort Worth Kendo and Iaido Kyokai offered, where he is currently the historian. Today, Cooper walked us through the history of kendo and iaido in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the school’s founding, and some important people in the art’s history. All images provided by David Cooper.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Cooper Sensei! I look forward to our conversation!

David Cooper: Thank you for having me! 

MAYTT: When and how did you begin training in kendo? What is it about kendo that continues to motivate you to practice today?

David Cooper in kendo gear.

DC: I started to study kendo and iaido in 1993 at the age of thirty-four, a bit older than most beginners. I was a fledgling fencer at the time when I happened across a demonstration of iaido and kendo by the Dallas-Fort Worth Kendo and Iaido Kyokai. I remember thinking that this was the training I was looking for because it was much deeper than simply learning how to use a sword.

I could immediately see the spiritual and mental aspects of this new martial art I discovered, and of course the physical aspect was obvious. I think it is the philosophical aspects that motivated me to study. Things like discipline, honesty, courtesy, and respect are things that apply to life in general. And so, it becomes a lifestyle, rather than a sport or hobby.

At one point, I had to leave the dojo because of disease. I was out for over a year, and it took another year to fully reengage. This was a critical point in my study, as it would have been easy to move on. But the things I mentioned before were strong enough to bring me back to the dojo. And if you are a part of this for so long, you develop relationships that matter, the Kendo Family if you will. Eventually, you attain rank and position, and obligations change to focus on others rather than yourself. I certainly feel I have an obligation to pass along the knowledge I’ve learned over the decades to the students of today.

MAYTT: How would you describe the average training routine when you first started kendo? Further, how have you seen kendo practice change since you began, and you think these changes are beneficial to the art?

DC: Here in Dallas, we have a fairly traditional routine that I think you see around the world, and it really hasn’t changed much. We do the normal suburi, we work on fundamentals, we train some waza, and we apply it in keiko. I think we used to do more ashi sabaki, and we got away from it for a while. Then our class hours opened up again after Covid lifted, and we got back to that kind of training.

We have always studied Nihon Kendo Kata every Sunday, and one change over the years was to add the Bokuto Ni Yoru Kendo Kihon Waza Keiko Ho. I think that has been very beneficial for beginning students, but I hope we don’t lose the value of the Nihon Kendo Kata as we move forward.

MAYTT: Glad to hear it! You mentioned that you started training in both kendo and iaido at the same time; many of the kenshi and iaidoka I have spoken to usually started with kendo and moved into iaido as their new focus or as a secondary but beneficial practice to their kendo. What made you choose to start training kendo and iaido simultaneously?

DC: I suppose it was primarily the fact that the dojo offered training in both. For the most part, every class offered iaido before kendo, and that would get me in the dojo for twice as long as those who studied only one art. 

Cooper in his iaido uniform.

I seem to recall that it was iaido that really piqued my interest in the beginning. I liked the intrinsic value that iaido offered, as I could take it with me wherever I was as long as I had good instruction to fall back on. I believed that iaido was a great way to prepare for kendo. It would set me in the right frame of mind. Still, kendo was just as appealing. Over the years, I tend to favor one art a bit more than the other, and that often changes with the seasons if you will.

It’s funny that I’ve changed my mind these days. DFWKIK has split classes with iaido only on Tuesday and kendo only on Thursday. I think I like this format better because it allows us to teach more, rather than just practice. It becomes a class of study rather than just a time to practice.

MAYTT: When did you first begin teaching? How did you react to assuming a new role and responsibility and what was that experience like?

DC: Well, I started teaching, if you can call it that, early on in my kendo life. I held the rank of ikkyu, and the dojo was much smaller in those days in terms of membership. My senpai and the lead instructor at the time, Mark Kerstein Sensei, charged me with leading a few beginners. That is when I started to learn the value of teaching as it relates to one’s own learning. Nevertheless, it didn’t go much further than that for many years.

Formally, I started teaching at the rank of yondan, when our current head instructor, Russell Ichimura Sensei, asked me to move to the front of the class. At that time, it was just the two of us as instructors for both kendo and iaido. I remember telling Sensei that I felt there was a special responsibility when sitting on the instructor’s side of the dojo. That responsibility shifts priority from one’s self to the dojo and its members. I still feel very passionate about this today.

One of Kenshi Nabeshima Sensei’s favorite sayings has become a motto of sorts for our dojo, and I believe it is true: “Ware Igai Mina Waga Shi,” which means “Everyone but Myself is My Teacher.” This sets the stage to understanding that teaching is learning. As a teacher, I have never felt I had to sacrifice personally to help the dojo learn and grow.

MAYTT: Can you tell me about the history of the Dallas/Fort Worth Kendo & Iaido Kyokai (DFWKIK) and its founder, Bill Trevino? What factors lead Trevino to establish the DFWKIK?

DC: Bill Travino was an early pioneer in Japanese sword polishing and such here in North America. Originally from Chicago, he spent a lot of time in Mexico. He spent some time in Japan while in the Navy, and upon his return founded the Nihonto Kemma.

Mr. Travino studied kendo in Japan and was studying kendo in Denton, Texas. He had developed a relationship with Darrell Craig Sensei of Houston. I believe it was Craig Sensei who motivated Mr. Travino to start the Dallas Kendo Dojo in 1976. Bill Travino passed away decades ago, 1982 I believe. The story says he passed away outside the dojo after keiko. Our dojo is still very proud to be associated with such a man, and we believe it is important to acknowledge the historic part he played in the school’s development.

I remember meeting his wife and daughter in the second half of the 1990s. We had just built our first website, and his daughter saw that it mentioned Bill. The two of them visited a class, introduced themselves, and gifted many of us a copy of his book, The Japanese Sword Q&A Book, copyrighted in 1978 while he was living in Denton, Texas.

In 1989, the Dallas Kendo Dojo changed its name to the Dallas-Fort Worth Kendo and Iaido Kyokai to better reflect what the dojo offers and to which area it covers. In the early 1990s, it was formally organized under that name as a not-for-profit organization.

MAYTT: That is an interesting history! In 1989, the DFWKIK, the then Dallas Kendo Club, offered an iaido program into its teaching schedule. What sparked the change to include iaido?

DC: Actually, the Dallas Dojo was studying iaido as early as 1985 under Kenshi Nabeshima Sensei. Later, Tetsuro Inoue Sensei joined the dojo and was instrumental in reorganizing the club’s iaido training methods as the Zen Ken Ren (Seitei Iai) was evolving. Tetsuji Yamaguchi Sensei also came from Japan about this time. These sensei were the most influential of our instructors as the dojo started to mature, and all studied kendo and iaido. I’m not sure what the catalyst for introducing iaido into the dojo curriculum was initially, as this was a few years before I joined the dojo.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how has Trevino helped spread and solidify kendo and iaido in the Dallas/Fort Worth area?

DC: Bill Travino started the dojo, which has grown over the decades. To my knowledge, it was the only “affiliated” dojo in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for a very long time. Without him, it probably would have taken a number of years before kendo and iaido (AJKF affiliated) started to grow in Dallas/Fort Worth.

MAYTT: On the same token, who do you consider to be influential in American Kendo and iaido? What separated them from their contemporaries?

DC: There have been many, many great teachers over the decades, but I think it depends on personal history and interaction. For me, Takeshi Yamaguchi and Arthur Murakami Sensei were influential in my formative years in these arts. The two were very supportive of our region and dojo and would travel from California to our kendo and iaido events frequently.

As things progressed, Jeff Marsten Sensei was extremely supportive of our region, and he would come to Dallas many times as Chief Instructor and Shinpan Cho for our big tournament. He was also instrumental in reorganizing our national group, The All United States Kendo Federation (AUSKF). There are many others who came before this group, and there are many others that came after. Shozo Kato Sensei comes to mind when I think of high-level instructors who have helped develop both kendo and iaido in America.

There was one other individual, Max Minato Sensei, here in Dallas, that had a profound effect on me and my experience in the dojo. Unfortunately, we lost him in January 2021. He was, in a sense, my spiritual teacher in all things kendo and iaido. I miss him dearly.

MAYTT: Could you tell us more about Max Minato Sensei and what lessons he passed to you?

An Enbu of kenod and iaido in Downtwon Dallas.

DC: Yunosuke “Max” Minato Sensei passed away on the 17th of January 2021, during the Covid years. He was a mainstay in the dojo for over forty years. He was a restauranter and a founding member of the Kiyari Daiko Taiko Group here in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. He was liked and respected by many across the United States.

For me, he was the key link to the teachings of Nabeshima and Inoue Sensei. Max Sensei was also my source of learning the koryu in iaido. Sensei was a man with a big heart and grand spirit. He taught me, and others I’m sure, to “fill the dojo with your Ki” when performing Iaido Enbu. He certainly could do this. His presence has been missed in the dojo, and certainly in my heart.

MAYTT: To your knowledge, how can the practice iaido supplement kendo practice and vice versa? Is it something that every kenshi or iaidoka should do to help their main practice?

DC: Ha! It’s a trap question. [Laughs] Just kidding. I think it depends on the individual to discover how valuable iaido is in the study of kendo and vice versa. I’m of the opinion that the ultimate goals of each art are the same, so why wouldn’t you want to study both. Iaido has much to teach the kendoka. Kendo has much to teach the iaidoka. Both teach the practical aspects of the sword, such as tenouchi, hasuji, ki, etc. Both teach people to be disciplined, courteous, and respectful. It’s a great topic to discuss over a cold beer after a hard class.

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?

DC: Ah, another interesting question! [Laughs] Again, I think it depends on who you ask. I’ve always approached it in a straightforward way. If my traditional kendo is good, my shiai kendo is good. Then again, I do believe that competition is a good thing for kendo and iaido, as it presents challenges and stimulates growth. Even performing as a Shinpan [judge] has its challenges.

Max Minato (left), Russell Ichimura (center), Cooper (right).

Shiai are also fun. It’s a great way to meet new friends and enjoy new fellowship. I remember participating in an iaido shiai we held in Dallas in 1998, The Inoue Cup. I won a round robin match against Debbie Farmer Sensei, many times a national champion. We met again in the final, and Farmer Sensei won. After we performed the traditional after match reigi, I looked at her and challenged her to “Two out of three.” Of course, she declined, but we became close friends at that time.

To keep the balance, I think it is up to all to remember the fundamentals, not just of the physical aspects but of the more traditional aspects of these martial arts. This is especially true for reiho. The courtesies and manners associated with the traditional aspects of these arts are critical in its inherent value to society today. It is my hope that competitive kendo never loses sight of this. Shiai kendo is probably more relevant in some parts of the US because there are a lot more youth involved. These dojo may be more “competition-centered” at times, but I’m sure the instructors teach traditional values as well.

The hot topic here is, of course, should kendo be an Olympic sport. In my opinion, no, I hope not. It would probably be overwhelmed by greed and commercialism, and that could create some issues that may conflict with tradition. Of course, it’s just my opinion, and it will be interesting to see where this goes in the coming decade. Another good topic to be had over a cold brew.

MAYTT: Final question. With the pandemic restrictions receding from more and more of daily life, how do you see kendo and iaido recovering from the lack of consistent training? Where do you think kendo and iaido will be in America in the next ten years?

DC: I believe that membership in the AUSKF declined significantly during the Covid years, and it probably will take a few more years to get back to pre-pandemic numbers. I know our dojo is pretty much back to the membership levels prior to 2020. So, I think recovery is moving along, as it is in most aspects of American lives.

As to the future of kendo and iaido, I don’t see it changing much in the short term. It is what it is, and it appeals to a certain group of people. Some of that will depend on our leadership. I think good, strong leadership can set up the national, regional, and local organizations for much success in the next decade. Kendo and iaido have so much to offer in terms of physical fitness, mental development, and spiritual training, it has a special draw in today’s society. Then all we need is “The Last Samurai II” to get people in the dojo! [Laugh] It’s a joke but true.

MAYTT: Thank you for a great discussion about Dallas kendo and iaido!

DC: Thank you for having me! I enjoyed this experience going back through time.


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