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

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

MAYTT: It sounds interesting! In 2005, you founded your current school, Byakkokan Dojo. What factors led you to pursue this course of action?

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

SK: I moved up in 2005 and honestly, I was homesick. One of the best things about the dojo that I was part of in Orlando was the feeling of family. That is why I started kendo again and got that feeling. But when people found out that I had experience in the art, and interest grew, it led me to start a study group. The main difference between our school and others is our focus on cutting which no other dojos in NYC really did. Also, were the relationships I had with teachers of other styles that helped me to get recognition since I was young when I started the dojo.

One of the big things that was kind of nerve wracking was being young and opening a school, but when I came to New York, I didn’t open up the school right away, but I joined a kendo dojo. Joining a kendo dojo is great because while in Toyama-ryu in Orlando, I was a senior up. But in the kendo dojo, I was mudan – I had no rank. It felt so good to be a beginner. I don’t have any of the responsibility, I just went and practiced. I get to listen to the teacher and learn. That was a refreshing start, but also the fact that the kendo teacher there was also kind of in a similar situation to me. Ken Kishino Sensei was very young for his age, but his skill in kendo was just so strong. There were a lot of times where he would practice with other visiting instructors and everybody knows that he could beat that person, but he never really does it. He would say, “It’s okay. I don’t need to prove anything.” He just practices. He always had this type of strength – he knows how to guide that line between being too humble and being too arrogant, how to play the crew. He didn’t test – “I’m not in a rush. I’m young for my age for it.” He was one of the youngest godans too for kendo, but his skill was immense. But how he carried himself, how he interacted with other teachers, even though he’s more skilled than them, but he never made it feel that way. I learned a lot of that from him as well. I did kind of the same exact approach.

MAYTT: What do you mean by recognition? Were there barriers you had to go through because you were a younger instructor?

SK: So, for me, the big thing was, at those tournaments, a lot of iai practitioners were older. Most of the people that I’ve competed against were all – most of the dojo people I am close with, I could call them dad or uncle. They are all above my age. When I started Toyama-ryu I was eighteen. And at these tournaments, I’m going against these older people, and I would be winning at the tournaments.

To back up: in most martial arts, what do you expect from your teacher? To be kind of on the older looking side. [Laughs] Just the spiritual aspect. It’s just that people expect the teacher to be older. When they find me to be the teacher, some people are like, “Oh, you’re the teacher?” for my rank in Toyama-ryu, I’m the youngest to hold this rank, and I’ve been the youngest to hold this rank for a long time. I met Hataya Sensei and he said, “I can give you this rank because you are mature enough and you have enough respect from people to have this rank, but it’s not really normal to have this type of rank at your age.” I’m forty, but I got sixth dan when I was thirty-six. [Laughs] The fact that at the tournament I was competing against these other teachers and practitioners who were all very high up in their styles, high up in the martial arts community, they knew it. “Hey, he’s a young guy, he won, he has skill, but he’s a nice guy. You have to take him seriously.” So, when you can get that recognition from other teachers who are already up there, it gives you extra levity for it.

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

That’s something that I’ve always really, really appreciated. Another thing that they did was because I was so young, I was always kind of nervous. When I was teaching, I was too humble for my own good. That’s what Elder Sensei used to tell me, “You need to stop being too humble for your own good. You have this knowledge; don’t be afraid to share it.” Most of the people that I’m helping are older than me, so how was I supposed to approach this? They were the ones that were like, “Hey, don’t worry about it.” They would always be helping and pushing me and giving me advice. “Just tell them that you beat me in this tournament. You’ll be fine!” [Laughs] They would help me garner that confidence to teach and understand the line between being humble, too humble, arrogant, too arrogant, and what’s the balance between. That helped me a lot.

Luckily for me, when I opened the dojo in New York, there were other iai schools. But the difference between the schools and the one that I created was the fact that we were cutters; we understood cutting, which none of the other schools really did. Because of the fact that the skill level was big enough of a difference, they couldn’t really talk. But I think the biggest thing was my approach to it: even if you are better than somebody at something, you never act that way per se. You understand the proper manners, the proper persona to have. That helped me a lot. So, my persona is that I’m always kind of chill and too humble anyways, so that definitely helped out. I made friends with all the other dojos, so it became where we’re not in competition with each other. Sometimes, when I’m doing a cutting session at our school, they’ll come and visit. Or sometimes they’ll be like, “Kim Sensei. Could you do a cutting class for us?” “Oh sure!” I’ll go there and I’ll teach cutting. If anything, that creates a good tight community, and for the battodo federation, that’s a goal to have and it just works out that way.

MAYTT: Byakkokan Dojo covers three aspects of Japanese swordsmanship: kata, tameshigiri, and gekken. In your opinion, how do these three parts create the sum that is Japanese swordsmanship?

SK: Kata is the art itself and the techniques to practice. You’re learning the basics of how to respond to a possible situation and the blueprint of fundamentals.

Tameshigiri is a way to practice the techniques. Air is easy to cut. Tameshigiri is a way to see if the swing that you’re practicing while doing kata actually works. I see it as a shooting range and what I see commonly is that a person has a beautiful form and kata but when they go to cut, they change their form. If that’s the case, do they not have confidence in the technique they’re practicing? The way you swing in kata should be the same in cutting. And vice versa.

Gekken is another form to practice techniques against a live opponent in a freeform setting. Many people think that kata is all about the cut, but really, it’s about your presence and strategy to set your opponent up to do the cut. Like cutting, it’s easy to do that to an imaginary opponent so you have to test to see if you can make the kata work against a live opponent. Once you see that, you can bring that feeling back over to kata.

This leads to making the kata feel more “live”. That’s where you can see if someone truly understands the kata. Does it feel live or just a basic set of technical steps? This is why our dojo kamon is three segments in one circle.

MAYTT: Diving into gekken a bit more, how would you differentiate it between the modern form of kendo?

SK: Gekken is very broad. Gekken just means the practice of freeform sparring. So, some groups would use these types of tools and other groups would use these types of tools. It’s very broad. But the biggest difference between gekken and kendo is that in gekken, everything’s a target, unless the dojo you’re practicing in is trying to practice with a certain rule set so that they can format your training. In kendo, it’s the head, the throat, the wrist, or the body, and you also have to hit in a certain way. You can’t just hit and then you get the point; you have to hit, showing full spirit, full control, that’s intentional, with good, strong kiai. In gekken, you make a small, quick movement without kiai. It’s all these different techniques that you can do. It’s a very open game for it.

Kim (left) participating in a gekken tournament in Japan.

Most of the time, the gekken tools that we use are much heavier than a shinai. The shinai are very light. Sometimes you’ll see in kendo do jodan and they’ll do a lot of one-handed strikes. But in gekken, the gekken swords are heavier and unless your forearms are that strong – man, if you miss with that, you’re screwed. [Laughs] Another thing about it is the fact of ai uchi; in kendo, if there are two strong practitioners that are fighting and both set each up very well but then they both hit, it’s ai uchi. The crowd will still cheer because it was amazing technique and spirit shown. In gekken, for us, that means you’re both dead. [Laughs] So it’s a different mindset from that. So, you try to avoid ai uchi as much as possible.

It’s kind of the mindset where we try to be more on the realistic side of it. In kendo, you’ll see people go for men and the guy, who doesn’t want to give the point, turns his head so this gets hit [hits shoulder]. If the shoulder got his and the head didn’t get hit, no point. But in gekken, man, the gekken swords are heavy! We’ve had broken hands, swollen wrists, we’ve had people get knocked out. So, then this [turning of the head] is just asking for your neck or collarbone to get broken. So, you don’t do that, so your opponent does not get the point. [Laughs] So those are some of the big differences for gekken.

MAYTT: Where did gekken originate within Japanese swordsmanship? Did it originate in Toyama-ryu, or did it originate further back?

SK: Further back, back in the old days, back before World War II, Japanese swordsmen would practice sparring. The big thing in Japanese swordsmanship is that most of the techniques, obviously, were made for fighting. But when the shogun took over with the Edo Period, it was peace time. Sword schools aren’t going to fight each other, but they needed to keep the practice alive. So, they found different ways to practice sparring without trying to kill each other. And that was gekken.

Some old styles, mainly it was done with Itto-ryu. Itto-ryu kind of created the idea of gekken, wearing armor, and sparring and practicing; the idea of gekken: freeform sparring. And eventually, that is what led to becoming kendo. So, after World War II, they had to figure out a more peaceful way of doing it, because after World War II, America was like, “Japan cannot practice martial arts because we don’t want you guys to have that.” That is why the term “do” became much more prominent. Before, most arts were jutsu – art of. Then after World War II – “oh man, we have to change the mindset so we can start practicing again” – so that’s why they changed things to “do.” Instead of kenjustsu, it’s going to be kendo. Jujutsu is going to become judo. Aiki jujutsu is going to become aikido. Much more peaceful and spiritual. [Laughs] So kendo’s become much like that.

Kim participating in tameshigiri.

That was before World War II, where gekken was a much more historical thing. The gekken that we practice now, one of the big things is that not many iai styles practice gekken. Some sensei said that they needed to practice gekken, so Hataya Sensei really liked the idea of sparring. There is something called chambara, those foam practice things that you smack each other with. Hataya Sensei said that that format is great, but they were too floppy. So, then he made gekken swords that are stronger. Like, if you get hit, it shouldn’t be just a plop; if you got hit, you should know you got hit, and training so you don’t get hit there again. He made stronger, tougher, gekken swords. So that’s what we use. But he liked the idea of the fact that you can practice openly, and you can test things. That’s why it’s not Toyama-ryu specific, it’s that Hataya Sensei, who’s part of Toyama-ryu. [Laughs] He teaches it and a lot of Toyama-ryu schools do it. Some people will say it’s Toyama–ryu – it’s not. It’s no different from tameshigiri. Tameshigiri itself is not the art, it’s a form of practice that people in the art might do. Gekken is the same exact thing.

One thing about gekken is to practice – it’s a way to practice. You learn kata, which is all kinds of theoretical. If the opponent attacks like this, you should do this. If the opponent does this, you should do this. Easy to do, like aikido. A lot of techniques work because people are doing that motion, but what if they don’t do that motion? How do you set people up to do that motion? But it’s all very controlled. Kata is the same exact way, but in gekken, it’s a way to say, “I learned this. Can I make this actually happen and work?”

In gekken, you’ll see different types of people do gekken. You’ll see people who just want to win a point. It’s kind of like modern sports fencing – they’re willing to take a hit so that they can score a hit. “I tagged you. I tagged you.” They’re willing to take a tag to give a tag. Or they’ll not do actual martial arts techniques but they’re like tag techniques. Best are the people who have the mindset like, “Hey, let me try to experiment learning with these forms and techniques.” That’s very rare, because a lot of time, people can’t control that mindset, “I just want to win.” [Laughs] They can’t control themselves and tell themselves, “Let me practice what I’m learning and experiment. It’s okay to lose as long as I’m learning something.” Not, “I don’t want to lose. I want to win. I’ll do whatever I can to win.”

Some of the students, they practice other styles too. So, when I see them get to gekken, I’m like, “hey, try some of those katas from those other styles. Experiment. See what it feels like. See if it works.” That’s the whole point of gekken, not just tag to win, but you’re supposed to practice techniques that you’re learning. That’s one huge thing about gekken. That’s the good and the bad. You’ll see people practicing gekken and they’re just playing tag. It’s almost LARPing if you think about it. [Laughs] That’s the one thing that Hataya Sensei didn’t like about chambaras; people wouldn’t do actual martial arts techniques, but they were just doing things to score a point, versus actually practicing technique. That’s where the gekken can go, good or bad. That’s no different from the backyard cutters. There are people who cut with actual martial arts purpose and intention versus people who want to have fun and cut stuff in the backyard. It goes both ways.

MAYTT: I see. When did you first start teaching? What was that experience like, and did it change your perspective on battodo, if at all?

SK: While at the Orlando dojo, I held a senior role and was often teaching beginners and helping to lead class. However, with my accomplishments at tournaments, my reputation grew, and some dojos were interested in lessons from me. Bob Elder Sensei gave me encouragement to do so and let me know I could learn a lot from teaching itself. My first seminar that I taught was in DC with another dojo group. The teacher there and I competed against each other and became good friends, so he gave me insight on teaching as well.

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

It didn’t change my opinion on battodo specifically but more about learning an art. The way you teach might be understood by some but not all, so as a teacher you start looking to find new methods to help people improve.

MAYTT: You are also the president of the United States Federation of Battodo. Could you tell us a little bit about the federation’s history and how you came to such a position?

SK: The US Federation of Battodo was created in about 2003 by Bob Elder Sensei in collaboration with then president of the Zen Nihon Battodo Renmei, Seiji Ueki Sensei and Hataya Sensei. The goal of the Batto Federation was to hold events where groups from different styles can come together to train together and compete. At the events, seminars are taught by heads of different styles and then compete the next day. At that time, it was rare for styles to be open to other groups, so this was kind of a big first step.

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

The friends that you make with people from other styles cannot be replaced. That is one of the main reasons I was able to grow so much in my own personal growth through understanding different perspectives in training approaches. The great memories of competing against each other and drinking together can’t be forgotten.

Elder Sensei ran the Federation up till 2011 in which he was feeling that the responsibility of creating and holding events should be passed on to the next generation and referred me to take over his position. That is the same approach it carries now and won’t forget!

MAYTT: Final question; with Elder stepping down and you taking the role of president, how much have you seen the larger battodo community follow suit in having the “next generation” or the younger generation start to become more involved?

SK: That one is kind of tough. Definitely being in the Northeast, and I’m based in the Northeast, so the group has grown in the Northeast. But when Elder Sensei was the president down in Florida, the group was the biggest in the Southeast. But then when the group came to me, the group became bigger in the Northeast. We still hold tournaments and events, and we still get involved a lot with other schools. Before, it used to be about, “How can we get more members?” But now, the federation is more about, “How can we create events to still have that mindset of getting different styles to come together, to train together, and become friends?” Especially now with the internet, now that so many people from different countries talk to each other online but they’ve never had a chance to meet. So, we try to hold events where we can do that. And also, for some schools that don’t practice swords at all, but want to learn the basics of swords, we try to help out smaller schools like that. It’s like new branches, new approaches for our federation.

Speaking of which, we are holding an event in the Tri-state area in mid-June [2023].

MAYTT: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us more about battodo! It was very informative!

SK: Thank you for having me! It was fun!

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


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