Interview with Ken-Zen Iaido Instructor Pam Parker: Her American Iaido Journey

Pam Parker first started martial arts with taekwondo, then moving to aikido at the New York Aikikai. At one class at the New York Aikikai, she attended an iaido class and she was hooked. She found the late John Prough of Nichibukan, and later Shunshin Kan of Ken-Zen. In July 2014, she passed her nanadan, becoming the first Cacausian woman from the United States to pass the nanadan exam in iaido. Parker took some time to talk about that experience and more today. Special thanks to Mark Bieri for his help mediating this interview. All images provided by Pam Parker.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Parker Sensei! Thank you for joining us!

Pam Parker: I am happy to be here.

MAYTT: How did you come to find iaido as opposed to other martial arts or physical activities? What about the art currently motivates you to continue training to this day?

Pam Parker. Source: Pintrest.

PP: Before I practiced iaido, or even knew about it, I studied taekwondo and later aikido. One day, the New York Aikikai was holding a sword practice. I was completely fascinated! I had to do that! I remember taking an introductory set of lessons at the YMCA, taught by John Prough Sensei, of Japanese Swordsmanship Society, which is now Nichibukan. From there, I found Ken-Zen Dojo – which was only about three blocks from the YMCA. I’ve never left.

These days, I have lots of responsibility, to students, events, etc. But the thing that keeps me practicing is that it still, after all this time, makes me happy to practice iaido. Iaido is both physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional. The kata, though unchanging, keep revealing new things to me.

MAYTT: How did your prior martial arts experience in taekwondo and aikido help you with your iaido training, if at all?

PP: Studying taekwondo and aikido before starting iaido gave me some idea of the range of Asian martial arts. TKD is a “hard” style, aikido is “soft,” but I got beat up and injured in both. I’ve been injured in iaido as well, of course.

After TKD, I looked for something softer. After aikido, I looked for something less interactive. Iaido was what I found – detail-oriented, high levels of fine motor skills required, and the “cool” factor of the sword. My journey from starting TKD to starting iaido took less than ten years. I feel lucky to have been able to begin iaido while still in my young thirties. I did go back to aikido for a couple of years after about fifteen years of only doing iaido. I also studied Yagyu Shinkage-ryu kenjutsu for about eight years. This old style of interactive swordsmanship taught me a great deal about how sword techniques actually work.

MAYTT: How would you describe iaido training when you first began? How have you seen the practice change and evolve in the United States?

PP: Iaido training, when I first began, was always an afterthought to kendo. Actually, it was a before-thought, since iaido had forty-five minutes of practice before kendo class. That was twice a week. Now, at Ken-Zen, we practice iaido two hours, two days a week. But I know that many kendo dojos still don’t give iaido much time or attention. It normally requires that the head kendo instructor also be a high-ranking iaidoka. Of course, most dojos rent space by the hour, and kendo pays the bills, as it is much more popular.

MAYTT: That seems like you had to rush practices. You bring up popularity between the two arts; why do you think iaido is not as popular or well-known as kendo?

PP: Kendo, after WWII, was unified, and publicly supported; kendo, with judo, was required in high schools in Japan. Iaido is now taught in some Japanese universities, as an optimal club activity. Kendo can be, and in Japanese communities in the US is, taught to children, starting as young as six years old. Iaido is normally taught to adults, with only a few teenagers or children. Kendo is interactive, and in Japanese communities, family-based. Iaido much less so.

Nowadays one can use a good quality replica – not sharp – sword, at least to start. This makes iaido more accessible. A replica sword will cost at least ten times as much as a kendo shinai; of course, it will last a lot longer. But it does pose a higher start-up cost. The recent introduction of plastic saya – scabbard – to be used with a wooden sword has lowered the entering costs even more. The most recent thing to affect the relative popularity of kendo and iaido is the coronavirus epidemic. Iaido can be practiced alone, without close physical interaction. It does not use kiai, shouting, in the All Japan Kendo Federation style; though some classical styles have kiai.

MAYTT: What was the American iaido community like when you first started? Were there isolated schools and practitioners around the region and country or were there open lines of communication between both schools and practitioners?

PP: When I started iaido, there was no national kendo or iaido organization. There was a division among the kendo high ranks that did not heal enough to produce a single organization until 1995. I did not know about other dojos, or other teachers, until then. All my early exams and ranks were in-dojo only. This was true for everyone at that time, as far as I know, at least for Iaido students. Now we have a lot of communication among dojos and teachers in our region, and nationally. During Covid shutdown, we held virtual high-rank seminars, with people signed on from all over the country.

AUSKF Group Photo in Texas, 1998. From right to left: Harry Dach, Arthur Ichiro Murakami, Walter Takeshi Yamaguchi, Pat Yoshigustu Murosako, Tatsuhiko Konn, Tom Hooper, and Parker.

MAYTT: I am glad there was a positive during the pandemic. When did you first begin teaching? How did you first approach this new responsibility and what did this new role teach you about yourself as an iaido practitioner?

PP: I began to teach before the year 2000, as an apprentice to Tom Hooper Sensei. Mostly I copied what he did, and every time, his advice was the same: “Don’t talk so much.” I appreciate that advice much more now than I did then. I started to teach more creatively when I became the head instructor, in 2003. I feel that iaido can be taught very individually, by paying attention to what works to help students improve. I also feel that it is the teacher’s responsibility to pay attention, to be flexible and creative, and to keep an eye out for where students are headed. It’s also important to show good examples of technique, feeling, and behavior. Students are always watching; so, it’s necessary to always be doing your best. Teaching has taught me that it’s always possible to learn, even from the rawest beginner, if you keep your mind and heart open.

MAYTT: You first tested for the nanadan exam in November 2013, failed, and then tested again in July the next year, passing. What were your emotions when you first failed the test to when you passed the second attempt?

PP: At the end of the first attempt, I thought that I had done ninety-eight percent of what I could do. But it wasn’t quite enough. For the next attempt, I was in somewhat better physical condition, and had more support from my teacher. He was able to travel to the exam location with me, after a week of intensive practice. I had time, between the two attempts, to better understand, and incorporate the corrections I received during the preparation for the first test. In both cases, I felt humbled, by the scope of the task I was attempting. I didn’t quite believe it when I saw my testing number up on the list of those who passed. Within hours, I had emails from all over the world, congratulating me. Again, I felt humbled that so many people cared.

MAYTT: In this passing, you became the first iaido practitioner from the United States and the first woman to do so. What do you feel such a promotion did for the art and for female practitioners as a whole?

PP: I was not the first United States citizen to pass the nanadan exam in Japan. Mark Uchida passed the nanadan exam in November 2013. Also, we have two Japanese nationals who were nanadan long before Mr. Uchida or me. I was the first woman, and the first Caucasian from the US to pass the nanadan exam.

I felt then, and continue to feel, that my passing of the nanadan showed that women can pass the nanadan exam, and that non-Japanese (or non-Japanese descent) can pass the nanadan exam. At the time I passed, there were two (non-Japanese) women nanadans in Europe. Since 2014, there are five more women – two in North America, three in Europe – who have passed the nanadan exam. Of these, only one (my student!) passed the test in Japan.

I trained as the sole female iaidoka in my dojo for many years. Now I have many female students, up to a quarter of the active student population. I believe that my nanadan is part of why they come to Ken-Zen. 

MAYTT: Ken-Zen 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?

PP: AUSKF has organized national iaido seminars, shinsa, and taikai starting in 1995. We have invited All Japan Kendo Federation instructors to teach the seminars, and to sit on the upper rank examination boards. These events have been popular and very useful for the support and improvement of iaido in the US. Additionally, AUSKF has provided support for regional iaido seminars, with shinsa and taikai.

The front of Ken-Zen. Source: Pam Parker.

MAYTT: Ken-Zen Dojo has been in operation since 1959. How has the dojo withstood the test of time? What do you think that says about the school, its instructors, and students?

PP: Ken-Zen Dojo is very fortunate in having long-term, dedicated instructors. Shunshin Kan Sensei, my first teacher, nanadan in kendo and iaido, set the tone for a serious, traditional practice. Daniel Ebihara Sensei has carried on this traditional way. Over the years, I have seen the student population grow and shrink, change its ethnic and gender makeup. We have added separate children’s instruction. In addition, we host, in our space, Atarashi Naginata, and Yagyu Shinkage-ryu. We added instruction in AJKF Jodo thirteen or fourteen years ago. Our newest head kendo instructor, Koji Takahashi, nanadan renshi, was a student at Ken-Zen as a child. This is a testament, I think, to the dojo’s continued dedication to high-quality, traditional teaching.  

MAYTT: Who would you consider to be instrumental in spreading or solidifying iaido in the United States? What made these individuals stand out from the rest of their contemporaries?

PP: Walter Yamaguchi Sensei and Arthur Murakami Sensei both supported iaido very strongly during their terms as iaido chairman and AUSKF president, respectively. They both practiced iaido, Yamaguchi Sensei holding nanadan.

MAYTT: Final question. With the global pandemic slowly receding from public concern, how will you think iaido will recover and expand in a post-Covid society? What do you think American iaido will look like in the next decade?

PP: I think American Iaido will recover well. At Ken-Zen, we have actually increased the number of iaido students since we re-opened in Spring of 2021. I believe we will continue to see women rise to high grades, and that AUSKF will continue to deepen our ties with high-level teachers in Japan.

MAYTT: Thank you for this great conversation, Parker Sensei!

PP: Thank you for having me.


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