Interview with Ken-Zen Founder and Kenshi Daniel Ebihara: The Beginning of the Journey

Daniel Ebihara first started kendo while he was a youngster in Japan but did not show much interest in it until he moved to New York and sparred a European fencer at a party. Spurred by his new friend and student, Ebihara searched for a certified kendo instructor, finding a Buddhist minister Rev. Shunshin Kan and establishing the first official kendo dojo on the East Coast in 1959. The dojo, Ken-Zen, has grown from being a single dojo, to being a school with six affiliates. Today, Ebihara took some time to talk about his kendo journey in New York. Special thanks to Mark Bieri for his help mediating the interview. Images provided by Daisuke Sugiyama.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Ebihara Sensei! Thank you for joining us to talk about kendo.

Daniel Ebihara: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: You first began your kendo training in Japan but did not have much interest in it. However, once you moved to New York, there was a change of heart. What was it about your new home that ignited the desire in kendo?

Daniel Ebihara at Ken-Zen.

DE: I was invited to a party hosted by a friend of mine, Richard Olden. I didn’t know what he did at first, but when I arrived at his penthouse, I found he had a collection of all sorts of fencing equipment, including Japanese swords. As the party went on, he asked if anybody could play kendo, so I volunteered.

We put on the equipment and subsequently, I knocked him down. He was very surprised because he was a European fencing champion. I beat him three more times. He had a fencing studio on 79th Street at the time and he begged me to teach him there.

Although his studio became the first studio that taught kendo and his students became my unofficial kendo students, I was only a shodan which was the lowest rank kuro-obi, or black belt. Of course, it should be made clear there is not an actual belt-system of ranking in kendo. And I was only nineteen years old so, I couldn’t properly teach.

MAYTT: That is an adventurous way to begin training kendo again! In addition to your commitment to kendo, you worked almost around the clock, taking on two or three jobs at a time when you first arrived. How did you have time for kendo in those early days?

DE: One of my jobs was driving a cab. Every time I drove a cab at night, I stopped by the Buddhist Academy to practice kendo for a couple hours.

MAYTT: As you searched for other kenshi, you found Rev. Shunshin Kan, a Buddhist minister and a former kamikaze pilot, and he led the first official kendo class on the East Coast in 1959. How did you come across Kan and how did you convince him to help you teach?

DE: I looked for a kendo player in the Japanese Community and found Rev. Kan who was a monk at the Buddhist Academy. We offered him a fee to teach us – an amount I don’t recall now – at the studio at first, and then at the academy where we could practice on tatami mats. That’s how it initially started.

MAYYT: Could you tell us more about Kan and what he was like as an instructor and a person?

DE: All Japanese soldiers trained in kendo and judo in those days, and he was a very strong kendo player. He had been a priest in Hiroshima, in the village of Takehara, where his family was from imperial blood. His family maintained an imperial tradition in which, if a boy was a second or third son, he would become a priest. He resided in a temple with huge yanegawara (roof tiles) which is the indication of high class. He was a highly sophisticated and educated person, and I learned from him extremely sophisticated mannerisms.

MAYTT: What was the training like under Kan in those early years? How have you seen kendo practice evolve and adapt from when you started to today?

DE: Rev. Kan embodied real samurai spirit. Training under him was really tough as we were not allowed to express pain, tiredness, hunger, etc., during practice. We were never to rest until the instructor rested, even if we were injured or felt ill. He told me, “In kendo, once you start, you cannot stop until you die.”

MAYTT: Sounds like he was the real deal. Being a lesser-known art at the time, how did you, Kan, and the Ken-Zen Institute attract new students when the country was in a “judo craze?”

DE: Since we were advertised in the papers, many people who were interested in kendo showed up.

MAYTT: Kan later passed away in November 1987 of carcinoma. How did you and the school take the loss of a prominent instructor? How have you and Ken-Zen helped sustain his legacy at the school?

DE: After he passed away, our main core of students, Richard Olden, and I led classes and gradually, the number of students increased.

MAYTT: Being an early kendo practitioner in the United States, how did you see the national kendo community grow and change after you established Ken-Zen? Further, how did the All United States Kendo Federation come together?

DE: California had a greater sized Japanese community, and they were already practicing kendo. They formed a federation, and they approached us to join their federation.

MAYTT: I see. Who do you feel helped disseminate and pioneer kendo in both New York and the East Coast? What was it about these individuals that made them stand out from their peers?

DE: Richard Olden, Jim Coughlin, Tom McGonagall, and I trained under Rev. Kan’s guidance over twenty years.

MAYTT: To date, there are seven schools affiliated with the Ken-Zen Institute. Was having multiple affiliated schools a goal when you first started Ken-Zen or did it gradually and unconsciously happen that way?

DE: We did not intend to have affiliated schools. It just happened naturally and gradually.

MAYTT: In addition to kendo, you also offer iaido classes, which Pam Parker leads, at your school. What do you feel that iaido offers to kenshi that kendo does not? How does iaido practice benefit kendo training?

DE: In Japanese sword fighting, there is a word “jinjo” [尋常] which means “fair and square.” At first, iaido was not popular because, in the samurai’s mind, iaido was not thought to be a “jinjo” way of fighting. So, it took a while to become popular. Both kendo and iaido teach you to develop heightened senses of concentration at the precise moment of striking.

MAYTT: With more than half a century of kendo training and teaching experience, what will kendo look like in the next decade in the US? Will there a distinctive “American style” of kendo or will there be a different evolution to the art?

DE: Since we have made the All United States Kendo Federation, both kendo and iaido players must join it to get properly promoted and certified. It has been proven that rules for getting promoted in the US have become stricter than any other part of the world. For example, we invited examiners from Japan for one year and had them work together with our examiners. The Japanese examiners passed almost everybody, but we passed only four among thirty people that tried. The US is the most difficult place for a kendo player to be promoted. I hope this trend continues in the future.

MAYTT: Final question. Why do you think the rules surrounding promotion have become stricter than any part of the world, especially in Japan?

DE: The words “stricter” may not be correct in this case. More like “careful” or “observable.” Due to not many high rank examiners, examiners are more careful about following the rules. It may ease as time goes by.

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us about kendo, Ebihara Sensei!

DE: You’re welcome.


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