Interview with Byakkokan Dojo Founder Sang Kim: Toyama-ryu in the United States, Part I

Sang Kim began studying battodo at the age of eighteen, after being inspired by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at a young age. What also helped him join was the fact that he used to hang out consistently at Bob Elder’s East Coast Martial Arts Supplies. From there, he joined the Toyama-ryu battodo dojo at Shindai Aikikai. From that point, Kim was hooked, attending many seminars and winning countless tournaments, eventually becoming the youngest sixth dan in the art. In 2005, Kim established his Byakkokan Dojo in New York City, becoming quick friends with many of the iaido schools in the area. Currently, Kim serves as the president of the United States Battodo Federation. Today, Kim took some time to talk about his time in battodo, training under Elder, and how the Federation has grown under his leadership. All images provided by Sang Kim. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

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

Sang Kim: I’m glad to be here, thank you.

MAYTT: On the surface and from an outsider’s perspective, they seem to be relatively similar. What is the difference between battodo and iaido?

Sang Kim (left) with Bob Elder (right) visiting the Byakkokan Dojo in New York, 2007.

SK: They are very interchangeable in use. However, the characters for the batto and iaido are different. Batto is very straightforward and simple. Draw the sword. Iai: “The way of mental presence and immediate reaction.”

If you go towards more general things, battodo katas are more on the standing side. Iaido tends to be more started from seiza. That’s one of the reasons why I liked Toyama-Ryu because it was standing, not seiza, because my knees were bad. Even back then, I didn’t like seiza. [Laughs]

The term battodo – the characters for it – means “To draw your sword.” It’s a very straightforward, technical term to describe what the art is. Iai, is the art of drawing the sword, but the characters for iai means more like “Ready mindset,” like “Always being ready,” “Always practicing.” While battodo is a more technical and straightforward description, iai is more like what type of mindset you should have to do battodo.

To me, it’s very interchangeable, kind of like being in the military or a cop. Battodo is like learning how to draw the gun, how to point, how to aim, etcetera. Iai, is the mindset of it, kind of like the spider sense of Spider Man: “I feel like the person is…; I feel like I should not turn that corner and get my hand ready in that position.” That’s iai. That’s the similarity I can find.

The person who showed me that, there’s another dojo down in Washington, DC that we’re friends with. Their dojo has mostly military guys; their head teacher used to be CIA or something and I remember one time when I was teaching and I was describing a point of: “Iai is that you bring your hands up slowly towards your center.” You’ll see some people with their thumb on the tsuba, or the handguard, and the thumb is sticking out that much. If that’s the case, that means it’s that much more you would have to move to draw your sword – you lose your time.

Then the practitioner responded “I guess that’s how I have my pistol on my side and how I have my hand, it would take me longer to pull out and push. Some people would do this with the elbow out, but they’re losing time. Keep your elbow in.” When he was talking about that, I saw the match. [Laughs] That was very interesting, and I just had to use that.

MAYTT: You first started training kendo at the age of twelve then moved to Toyama-ryu six years later. What led you to transition from one style of Japanese swordsmanship to another? What was it about Toyama-ryu and battodo that has made you stay with these arts as opposed to kendo?

SK: Kendo was practiced informally at home from lessons from my father who was busy with work, and it became practice I was doing on my own. In regard to Toyama-ryu, I started because there is a very famous martial arts shop in Orlando called East Coast Martial Arts Supplies. I used to hang out there often and learned that the owner, Bob Elder Sensei, was a teacher of Toyama-ryu Battodo. I just thought that was very cool and joined the dojo and started formal training with them.

MAYTT: Could you give us some background on Bob Elder and where he fits into the larger Battodo community?

SK: The big thing about Bob Elder Sensei is that he used to own a martial arts shop down in Central Florida, in Orlando – East Coast Martial Arts Supplies. And if you were in Florida and you asked any of the martial artists down there, they all knew Bob Elder Sensei. Why? Because they would go to his shop to get equipment and supplies. Back then, there wasn’t online where you could buy so easily, so you had to buy a lot of stuff in person, through the phone, or fax. [Laughs] It was kind of old school back then. And his shop was that.

If you practiced or just loved martial arts, you knew about the shop and you would go to the shop and speak with him, talk with him, and hang out with him. One of the big things was – now you can find martial arts clips on YouTube and online so easily. Back then, it was all VHS. And VHS, they weren’t cheap. You had to know which sources, which martial arts video companies to reach out to, or you had to find bootleg VHSs. [Laughs] He used to have all of those at the shop and also, he had all the collections of martial arts movies. You know Zatoichi by any chance?


SK: He had all the Zatoichi movies there. You couldn’t find that at Blockbuster. You didn’t have Netflix back then. His shop was always a cool one to go to.

A group shot of the first class held at Kim’s Byakkokan Dojo.

Before joining Toyama-ryu, I had a kendo background, but I didn’t get to practice it that much because I practiced at home – it was very informal, so I wasn’t part of an official dojo. When I would go to the shop, he and I would chat. “Oh yeah, I do kendo and I like swordsmanship.” “Oh! Well, I teach battodo Toyama-ryu, if you ever want to come by, please feel free to do so.” “Okay, sure!” So, when I was eighteen, I went to the dojo and thought it was amazing. Not just the art itself but the practice, and how they do it, their approach to practice, but the atmosphere. The dojo atmosphere of training together – kind of a family atmosphere. That’s what I really liked the most about it and that’s when I joined Toyama-ryu and that was 2000. [Laughs]

MAYTT: How have you seen American society view battodo and/or Japanese swordsmanship compared to that of other, empty-hand martial arts?

SK: Japanese swordsmanship has a very spiritual mystical element from the general perspective and most only think of it as a way to be involved with the culture and improve yourself which is fair. Practice can be very much used as cultivation of one’s mind and self.

MAYTT: How did you first approach the spiritual/mystical element when you started battodo? Has the practice manifested any sort of spiritualness in the training or in your everyday life?

SK: Aw man, I was a kid, so there wasn’t really much spiritual stuff about it. The real reason why I started swordsmanship – I started the kendo stuff when I was twelve – was because I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Not too much spiritual about that, right? But as I got older, I got to see Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, samurai and ninja images, Shonen anime and movies and stuff. It is cool, mystical stuff. So that’s what your interpretations of those arts are. But then, once you actually start learning the katas and techniques, they are not that fancy! It is not like a thousand slashes, it’s usually one technique and then another.

Joining the dojo and helping newcomers come in – a lot of times when I deal with a new person, I’ll ask them what got them interested. Usually, a lot of times it’s anime or samurai movies. So already, they got this mystical mindset of it, but then when they take the class, they’re like, “Wow, this is a lot simpler and harder than it looks in the movies.” And then they usually don’t last. They’ll come to one or two classes and then jet. [Laughs] It’s a very different mindset. Remember that movie, Last Samurai, with Tom Cruise?

MAYTT: Yes. That’s my top five.

SK: I remember after that movie came out, so many people would come to the dojo to try and check it out. They would take one class and then [snaps fingers], they would disappear. So, me and the dojo would take bets: “Three classes.” “Two classes.” “One class.” So, we would take bets on how long a person should come back after that. But it’s funny to see how much of an element that has.

MAYTT: I’ve talked to kendo people about the same thing about what it actually is to what they see in the movies but to get what they saw in the movies; they have to go through the basics.

SK: Yes, yes.

Kim participating in tameshigiri.

Now, the spiritual stuff has elements to it, but you have to practice a lot to earn it. That is the best way I can put it. One of the biggest things I tell my students is this: “Swordsmanship, there is only so much you can learn that you can use in real life. You’re not going to be able to carry a sword around. But the mindset of doing the techniques that you gotta do, that’s a mindset that you can use for everyday life.” Example: a lot of the sword techniques are not just like random slashes, they’re cuts. You set up your opponents with pressure and most high-level sword techniques are counterattacks. The counter attacks only really work if you hold your ground and are not afraid to be cut. You can’t just back up, dodge it and go – it becomes tag. But the higher-level techniques are counterattacks, where you have to hold your ground and when you do a technique, you can’t be afraid to get hit yourself.

So, the idea behind that is when you are doing the attack, you’re not doing the attack because you are afraid or whatnot, you’re doing the attack because you believe it and put everything into it. It might not work, and you might die as a result of it, but man, you put everything into it, that’s your decision. I mean, think about that for a second: that type of mindset. What can you apply to something outside the dojo? Sometimes, we’ll get people who come to the dojo, and they use that mindset for things like college interviews or a project. It’s like, “I’m putting everything into this. I can’t look back. I’m going to put 120% into it because it is my final decision.” That’s something of the spiritual aspect, but you have to practice hard to earn that. You can’t just go and take a couple of classes and understand that right away. It doesn’t work that way. It’s about that warrior’s mindset – it truly is that. But you have to earn it.

MAYTT: That reminds me of taking ukemi in aikido. People ask what special thing I am doing, and I say I showed up to practice and do it. Two different aspects but the same concept.

SK: To me, I think that’s the most spiritual of it, the mindset. And also, another spiritual mindset of it is that in iai, the techniques, unless you’re a psychopath with the idea that you’re going to actually kill somebody, you’re going to be nervous, you’re going to be afraid. But then, say, you’re doing a kata for a demonstration or you’re testing, you’re going to be nervous; you’re going to be holding your sword and you’re going to be shaking. But, in a real fight, you’re probably going to be nervous too, but can you have the mindset to overcome that and do the techniques for that fight?

Now, that time of composure, that type of mindset, only comes with time and practice. A lot like sports. You know professional basketball players, they can hit a hundred free throws in a row at practice but when the crowd, the pressure is going on, they’re going to miss the easy throws and the easy shots. Imagine back then, but it’s a fight to your death. [Laughs] But then, how do you bring that and use that mindset in everyday life? Well, college interview; you’re going to go and you’re going to be so nervous but man, you gotta sound good. Job interview, same thing; you’re going to be so nervous, but you can’t show it on the outside. So being able to keep that composure because your opponent would be able to read the fact that you’re nervous. So being able to keep that mindset goes back to training as well. So that is another side of the spiritual mindset like iai. It’s just something people don’t see right away; they just see the swords moving around. [Laughs]

MAYTT: What was the training like when you first started Toyama-ryu? How have you seen the training methods change or evolve as time passed?

SK: Coming from kendo to Toyama-ryu was tough at first. The main differences in kendo and iai in general are the grip, swing, and methodology of the swing. So, I had to “restart” in a way and tried to practice in a way where I’m learning from scratch. Funny thing is when I came up to NY and started training kendo again in 2005, I had the same problem but the reverse.

The thing that sets Toyama-ryu apart from other styles is the focus on tameshigiri. What has really changed over time is the availability of shinken. Back when I first started training, the only shinken that were available which were not from Japan directly were old guntos that were refitted or the very few production swords that were out by Paul Chen at that time, which cost a lot.

Now, there are many production swords that can cut which are very cheap and the growth of very talented smiths outside of Japan has led to availability of high-quality custom swords. This makes the access to cut easier and you can see that with backyard cutters. They just enjoy the cutting but do not really understand the mechanics or purpose of the techniques.

MAYTT: I see. That is one thing that gets overlooked when discussing weapons-based martial arts: actual weapons needed for training. Like you have said, there were not many manufacturers or suppliers for shinken. What do you think helped push the growth of these suppliers here in America?

SK: So, one of the things that Bob Elder Sensei did was create the US Federation of Battodo. One of the bad sides about a lot of Japanese arts is: “Uh-huh. Our style doesn’t interact much with other styles.” It’s kind of the old school mindset and thought. But then when Elder Sensei started holding the tournaments, the US Battodo Federation tournaments, it was like it doesn’t matter what style you are, come and let’s train together. We would have two days of seminars that were led by top five teachers of different styles. It gives you a rare chance to be able to learn kata from Mugai-ryu, or kata from Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, or Toyama-ryu. Sometimes even learn how to cut. That is so we’re all training together and then we compete against each other. and afterwards, we drink a lot. So, we all became like friends. So that was the different mindset.

Then, when that started growing, you see manufacturers start saying, “Oh, I can see how this can be something that has more demand for than swords and stuff. Let’s try to find other things.” So, you can kind of see where it starts growing from there. One thing you had back then was this Hanwei Shinto and that thing was like $600. The tang used to be glued inside the handle. I think back and I think, “Oh my god. I can’t believe these things were popular.” And that was like 1998 and 1999. The thing was that Mitsuo Hataya Sensei used to bring over – so there was Elder Sensei, and his sensei was Mitsuo Hataya Sensei, who is currently the president of the All Japan Toyama-ryu Federation. He sold Japanese swords, and they performed really well when they came to cutting, so a lot of people started buying those. But they cost like $3,000 or so. $3,000 is still a lot but $3,000 back then was a big figure. So that’s when mass production sword groups would try and copy the style of blade. I remember they would send off copies to Elder Sensei to check it and see what his thoughts were and get some feedback. So now, if you look at it, it’s the blade styles. What’s popular now is what they call the XL Profile but they were the blade profile that Hataya Sensei used to sell back then but for a much cheaper price. They don’t feel the same level, but they look the same – the form is similar. That’s when it became easier for more people to buy swords. And you can see that with all these different types of swords that were starting to become mass produced.

MAYTT: When the United States Battodo Federation was founded, how did these other styles respond to becoming part of an umbrella organization so to speak? Was there pushback or individuals who wanted to remain alone?

SK: That was about 2003. So, what happened was that Elder Sensei used to hold tournaments. The first one was in 2000 and they would bring over the Japanese and different people would come over from all over the US. When the tournaments were done, they wanted to make a more structured, organized format, that’s why they created the US Federation of Battodo, which was like a sister organization of the All Japan Federation – Zen Nihon Battodo Renmei. The katas and forms were exactly the same, same formats. It was the same mindset, trying to bring multiple groups together and practice together.

A group shot of participants of the 2013 East Coast Tai Kai Kim put together as President of the USFB.

The iaido group is part of the kendo federation, basically, it’s the same exact format. They don’t have their set of katas that their organization follows in one particular style, its sei-tei kata, or standardized set. So, they got like pieces – this part is from this style, this part is from that style. They made standardized sets. Same exact thing with battodo federation, we have a standardized set, which is not a style in itself. It’s not a specific ryuha, it’s just a set of kata that’s like a middle line. Even if you practice a different style, you can learn the middle line kata. So, when we compete, we’re all using that middle line kata to compete against each other, not using our own style to compete against each other. So, it’s the middle line per se.

So, some people were like, “This is great. This is a cool thing to add to our curriculum that we practice.” So, people were more, “Ehh. I feel more comfortable doing our stuff.” But this is cool to learn because a lot of the styles did not do a lot of practice with cutting. So, the sei-tei forms for the Battodo Federation involved cutting into the kata. That’s why they would practice those, “This would be a great addition to our curriculum so that we could practice more cutting.” That was the big thing: cutting! [Laughs]

MAYTT: You brought up “backyard cutters” previously, how often do these “backyard cutters” come into the dojo and how often do they usually last?

SK: In New York, there’s not that many backyard cutters, because in New York, not many people have backyards. [Laughs] There are some people who are backyard cutters. So, here’s the thing, now that a lot of material is shared on YouTube – I post cutting videos – people can watch that and just mimic the movements and then sometimes, if you can figure it out, you can do the same cut. Honestly, cutting is fun. Cutting is the equivalent of going to a shooting range. If you go to a shooting range, it’s fun stuff. I don’t blame them for enjoying cutting. But it’s one thing to enjoy the act of cutting versus understanding why you’re doing that cut. Why do you do this? Why does the form work that way? What’s the point of doing that cut? Yes, it looks cool but why? A lot of people do it because it looks cool, but they don’t understand why. As long as they’re cool with it being at that level, hey, go ahead. Have fun. If you hurt yourself, that’s completely on you. But then when people who are backyard cutters then say, “I practice a martial art.” That’s like, “Come on man. You don’t even know why you’re doing those things. Yes, a cut is a cut, but why are you doing that? Why are you going upwards or sideways? It’s not even clean, so why are you saying you do a martial art?” [Laughs] That’s where the fine line is.

I don’t get a lot of backyard cutters, but I do get people who are into gekken, the sparring part. There were videos of me sparring with one very well-known HEMA instructor, Axel Pettersson. He’s a champion fencer. Man, his reputation is extremely high in tournaments in HEMA. He visited my dojo; he heard of me from Michael Edelson. We had a very friendly sparring session. There were no hostilities or anything at all. He’s a great fencer. I love fighting strong people. To me, that’s what makes it so enjoyable and fun.

The video of that got leaked out. I told him at first, “I took the YouTube video, here’s some links, but we shouldn’t share publicly.” Why? Then it’s going to go online, and people are going to be: “Eastern Martial Arts versus Western Martial Arts!” I really don’t like that type of stuff. He did share it though for a little bit of time, but he took it off. But during that little time, there were people in China, hackers, that were able to get that, got the videos, and it just spread. It spread big time and I wasn’t even aware of this. I would get Chinese students who would come to the dojo: “Oh hi! This is our dojo. If you have any questions, please let me know.” Oh, can we take Instagram pictures with you?” “Sure. Why not?” They’d take a picture and thank me. Later on, though, I had some of those students actually join and they would say, “Sensei, you don’t know? That video of you with Axel Pettersson fighting, it was huge in China!” In China, that was a huge trend. There are not a lot of HEMA practitioners in China, so when they saw that, they wanted to meet me and someone to challenge me. [Laughs]

So, I would get people who would come and challenge me in gekken. It was more so that than backyard cutters. So that was fun and very interesting! [Laughs]

This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s