Let’s progress in reviewing the Iaido and Budo European history through the voice and personal memories of those Sensei who lived and made it. We are proud we can provide today another friendly, passionate and involving chat with another figure of excellence as Louis Vitalis Sensei, a triple seven dan who contribute to make Europe great in front of the international Budo community.
Vitalis Sensei, it’s a pleasure being with you and sharing some time in discussing on martial arts and allowing us to share the story another great key person in budo for our readers. Your biography is dense and founded on martial arts since you were a kid, but let’s start from the beginning of your history: when and where were you born?
I was born August 9th, 1959 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
I read you were introduced to martial arts quite early in your life: can you tell us when and how did you start, what grade are you (incl. other disciplines, in case)? When did you then realise martial arts were an essential part of your life to became a full commitment?
In 1971, at the age of 12, I started to practice Judo and Jujistu, which were very popular in the Netherlands, thanks to Anton Geesink, the first European to beat the Japanese Judo greats at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. I bought my first Shinai in 1975, but only found a Kendo Club in Amsterdam in March 1976. Remember, Google Search did not exist! I continued Judo till I was Ikkyu, then I focused on Kendo and Iaido and later Jodo. My first Kendo teacher was Willem Alexander, a Kendo Ikkyu at the time.In 1971, at the age of 12, I started to practice Judo and Jujistu, which were very popular in the Netherlands, thanks to Anton Geesink, the first European to beat the Japanese Judo greats at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. I bought my first Shinai in 1975, but only found a Kendo Club in Amsterdam in March 1976. Remember, Google Search did not exist! I continued Judo till I was Ikkyu, then I focused on Kendo and Iaido and later Jodo. My first Kendo teacher was Willem Alexander, a Kendo Ikkyu at the time.
Jock and me passed our Iaido 7 Dan together in Japan in 1998. I passed my Kendo 7 Dan in 2000 and my Jodo 7 Dan in 2005 both in Japan. In the old system I could simply apply for Kyoshi grade two years after passing 7th Dan Kendo and Iaido. I passed my Kyoshi Jodo in the UK together with Jock Hopson. After starting Kendo I already realized it was to be my lifelong hobby. I remember I used to calculate how old I would be in order to reach 7th Dan, just after passing Kendo and Iaido Shodan in 1977 😊.
What was Iaido dojo scenario when you started?I’m sure every beginner makes the same calculation when first understanding how the grade progression is connected with years, But surely your beginner times were different compared to today. What was Iaido dojo scenario when you started?
The first lesson of Iaido in Europe as far as I know, was Nakakura Kiyoshi Sensei teaching the first five Omori Ryu forms at the European Kendo Seminar, April 1976. I joined these practices, using my fake made in Spain Iaito imitation sword. This was my first encounter with Iaido. There was no Iaido outside the Kendo Dojo in those days, so I used to practice Iaido by myself in the Kendo Dojo, before the Kendo training would start.
So I understand a passion was triggered from those initial lesson and pushing you to a personal effort toward improvement: what does then Iaido means to you, what does it offer you and how does it integrate in your budo experience with other martial arts?
My main martial art is Kendo, and Iaido and Jodo have always been in support of my pursuit to become a more complete Kendoka. Of course it is possible to practice just one of the three, but if you want to be a complete Budoka, it’s better to learn all three. In Kendo we learn to actually fight an opponent, although it is within the rules of the ZNKR. However, in Kendo we only learn Kendo Kata, mostly done with a Bokuto. So basically you never learn what to do when the sword is still in the Saya. In order to learn this, you have to learn Iaido. This gives a completely new perspective to the handling of the sword and even makes you think about what to do with more than one opponent. The main disadvantage of Iaido is that it it’s all “in your head” , so unless you learn Kendo, you’ll never learn what it’s like to really face an opponent who is keen on trying hit you, just are you are trying to hit the opponent. This feeling of “Shinken Shobu” (real sword fight) cannot be felt in Kata Budo. Most Iaido students of Ishido Sensei have never really faced him in Kendo, so they have no idea how strong he really is. For almost 4 years I regularly fought with him in his Dojo, when I was preparing for my 7th Dan Kendo, and sometimes our fights would grow really intense, so Sensei’s wife would come down from the living room into the Dojo to make sure we were not actually hurting each other 😊.
You already named a few Sensei you learnt from, but let’s try going into more details: who are your Sensei, what ryu, how did you initially get in contact with them?
My Kendo Sensei are Edo Kokichi and Iijima Akira. My Iaido and Jodo Sensei is Ishido Shizufumi. I met Edo Sensei in 1977 on my first trip to Japan, and he has been my main Kendo teacher ever since. Because Edo Sensei was teaching Kendo in Amsterdam just before I started Kendo, he already had a relation with Dutch Kendo when I met him. I Met Iijima Sensei (a student of Edo Sensei himself) on 1979, on my second trip to Japan. Iijima Sensei has been very influential in the development of Dutch Kendo ever since. He is not only my Kendo teacher, also consider him as my older brother. I was introduced to Ishido Sensei because of my long friendship with Jock Hopson, since the mid-seventies. In 1983 Jock invited me to assist at the BKA Iaido/Jodo seminar where Hiroi Sensei came as the main Jodo teacher. Because I had learned Jodo from Edo Sensei during my year in Kanazawa (1981-1982) and I could speak Japanese, I was Hiroi Sensei’s assistant ever since during his seminars in Europe. Ishido Sensei taught me Muso Shinden Ryu and Muso Shinden Jushin Ryu Iaido. Edo Sensei, Ishido Sensei and Hiroi Sensei taught me Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo.
That’s impressive, in a very short time you talked about a whole history in Budo learning. May I ask to tell us a bit mor about your relationship with your Sensei? How did it start and how did it evolve?
When I met Ishido Sensei in the UK in 1983, thanks to Jock’s introduction, I was already 4 Dan in Iaido. I had no fixed Iaido teacher, but I was fortunate enough to have had lessons from famous Iaido teachers, such as Nakakura, Haga, Tanaya, Yamashibu who helped me achieve 4 Dan. After my first meeting with Ishido Sensei in 1983, I consulted with Jock and we agreed that it was ok to invite Ishido for a similar Seminar in The Netherlands as well. For a few years we would do a Seminar in both the UK and The Netherlands, but we soon decided to do alternate Seminars in the two countries. A short time after 1984 Ishido Sensei confirmed me as one of his European Deshi (close student), the first one outside the UK. In present day Budo, an old fashioned Sensei-Deshi relationship doesn’t exist very often any more. Fortunately Edo Sensei, who is now 82, is an old fashioned Budoka himself, and already when I studied with him in Kanazawa in 1981, he confirmed me to be his only European Deshi. The same for Iijima Sensei who confirmed me as his Deshi in the 1980s as well. I call these tree Sensei my “Onshi”, which means teacher to whom you own special gratitude. This means that I consult with my Onshi for every question I have about Budo. I still talk (or mail) to them very regularly, and they also helped me with the online Q&A Zoom meetings that I did earlier this year.
Your connection with Japan and Japanese Sensei seems very solid and long timed: when was your first time in Japan, do you still visit Japan for training, how to do feel about a foreigner it their dojo and is there any memorable experience you would like to share?
My first trip to Japan was in 1977, I turned 18 on 9th August in Kitamoto Kendo/Iaido Summer Camp. Being a foreigner in Japan is a strange thing if you don’t speak the language, which was the case on my first trip in 1977. Because Edo Sensei doesn’t speak a word of English, I decided I needed to learn the language in order to really learn Kendo from him. So in 1979 I could speak a few words because I learned from a Japanese language book by myself. I studied Kendo and Jodo for a year under Edo Sensei in 1981, and after that I have been in Japan almost every year. Jo and me lived in Tokyo as expats for almost 4 years from 1999, and we practiced at Ishido Sensei’s Dojo and at the Nippon Express Kendo Club. Because I learned to speak Japanese already in 1981, I never felt strange in Japan. Of course as a foreigner you will remain a foreigner your whole life, but Jo and me never experienced real problems.
In total I must have spent more than 6 years in Japan, so there are countless memorable experiences. Let me mention my first Iaido experience in Japan as an example. As mentioned I went to Japan at the age of 17, and I brought with me my whole Kendo and Iaido equipment: Shinai, Bogu, Gi, Hakama, Iaito. The Kitamoto Summer Camp in those days lasted for 2 weeks, and we were training more than 6 hours every day. One could chose between Kendokata and Iaido for 2 hours every day, so of course I chose Iaido. Haga Sensei (the younger brother of the famous Haga Junichi Sensei) was my first real Iaido teacher. In these two weeks he taught us the complete Seitei Kata, of which there were only seven in those days. After these two weeks we were allowed to do Shodan exam, and I guess the Japanese were so happy that a young European boy was doing Iaido that they passed my grading. The only thing of Haga Sensei’s teaching that I still remember is the word “Hara”, which he kept repeating during the lessons all the time. I had no idea what he meant, but I finally understood it many years later when I could speak Japanese.
They must have been surely not easy times back then, also considering the cultural differences and the young age, but it’s really a nice story your wife and you could share them together. And this also lead us talking about improvements: so how do you think kendo, iaido and jodo and their relation influenced your overall budo development?
I had many discussions with Ishido Sensei about this topic, and we are thinking the same way about this. In Kendo you learn to actually fight, of course within the rules of the ZNKR. Your opponent is trying as much as possible not to get hit and try to hit you as well. This means you need to develop your offense and defense at the same time. You also need to develop very quick sword movements and footwork in order to be successful. However, because a Shinai is very different from a Katana, and in Kendo you only learn Kendokata with a bokuto, you don’t really learn how to handle a Katana when you practice only Kendo. This was my main reason to start learning Iaido, at the same time with my Kendo practice. Edo Sensei was not only my Kendo teacher, he is also the one who introduced Jodo to me. He learned Shinto Muso Ryu Jodo from Hamaji Sensei (Menkyo Kaiden), and also once trained directly with Shimizu Sensei in Tokyo. The additional benefits of Jodo are that you learn to use your body on both left and right handed side, and you use different forms of Taiatari, which you can use in Kendo as well. The technique of Hikiotoshi is verey useful too, I still use it a lot to hit the opponent’s Shinai out of his/her hands! In my personal experience, if you spend most of the time doing Kendo, you will stay very fit, and your speed and footwork for Iaido and Jodo will greatly benefit from it. Jolanda and me were very successful in Jodo tournaments as well, mainly because of our fighting spirit and speed of footwork and sword movements. I’m convinced that my Kendo training made it possible to achieve 7th Dan in Iaido and Jodo as well, of course with the great teaching and help of Ishido Sensei.
You already explained us how you met you Sensei and become Deshi, but what are the differences between Japanese teaching, as your sensei to you, compared to Western teaching, as you to your students?
Because I learned Kendo in Japan in the mid seventies and early eighties, I still learned the more old fashioned way of Kendo. Present day Kendo is mostly a competitive sports, with speed and timing being the main weapons to win a match. When I last trained at Tsukuba University about ten years ago, I noticed that the young players were quick as lighting, but I could not feel their strikes landing on my Bogu. Because of their superior technique, I could hear the hits clearly, but didn’t feel a thing. When I trained with Edo Sensei in the seventies and early eighties, his hits were very clearly felt on my body. After three months in Kanazawa University, my right wrist was completely swollen up, because he hit me on the same spot all the time, day in day out, with a very powerful hit! When I came back in my Dojo in Amsterdam after one year training in Japan, I just did the same way of training that I was used to in Kanazawa. After six months, there were no more students! They all thought I was much too brutal and wild in our training. Our early Iaido and Jodo trainings in the eighties in Amsterdam were pretty tough as well. In the following years I learned to find a balance between hard and tough training and still enjoy the practice. Although I was never very successful as a Kendo competition player, I was very successful as a trainer and teacher. My students have won European championships in Kendo, Iaido and Jodo, and countless medals in other tournaments. They also achieved high grades in their respective Budo. When Ishido Sensei was preparing Jock and me for our 7 Dan Iaido, the trainings were long and hard. Because Sensei was much younger then, he also had a lot more energy to teach us, so automatically the trainings were very intense. The main difference in my way of teaching now and the Japanese way of teaching is quite simple: I use humor and exaggeration to make a point, Japanese Sensei will almost never do this.
You also raised a very good topic about teaching methods and differences, competitions and technique, but when did you start thinking about teaching and when did you actually start teaching? Is there any preference of yours about, toward a specific class, their unique requirements (kids, competitors, grown ups, …) and the teaching you are delivering?
After my second trip to Japan in 1979, where I stayed for 3 months and won the Fighting Spirit Prize at the World Kendo Championships in Sapporo, I won the Dutch Championships two years in a row. Because there was no one else in The Netherlands who had trained in Japan as much as I did, I was automatically appointed as trainer for the Dutch Kendo Team in 1981, even though I was still very young and unexperienced. After my return from one year in Kanazawa under Edo Sensei, in 1982, I started teaching in various Dojo in The Netherlands. Almost all of the present high grades in our country were my students for a period of time. I can teach any kind of group, but I prefer not to teach small children because the percentage of students that actually continue Budo for a long time is extremely low in Europe. Similar to Jock Sensei, I never teach for money, but I will ask for my travel expenses to be reimbursed in case I am asked to teach somewhere.
Although a multiple nanadan and despite such a vast culture of yours to enjoy a broader conversation covering different martial arts, let’s please focus now a little bit more on Iaido. As you saw it since it’s early days in Europe, do you think it has changed through the years and how?
Iaido itself has not changed since I started learning it in 1976, but the level of Iaido in Europe has changed completely. First of all, the access to Japanese teachers in the seventies for Europeans was still a rare thing. Travel between Japan and Europe was extremely expensive and time consuming (no direct flights yet!), so Europeans such as Jock and me in the mid-seventies with training experience in Japan were pretty rare. One of the main contributions of Jock and me to the development of Kendo/Iaido/Jodo in Europe is the fact that we were able to convince high level teachers to come over to our countries to teach us.
So we also need to thank you for contributing in opening a new era for European practioners, as now it is pretty common having having Japanese Sensei teaching in our seminars. Again about teaching method, how is your typical Iaido lesson?
I’m not teaching Iaido anymore, an elbow surgery in 2005 made it impossible for me to hold a Katana with the right arm.
I’m so sorry to hear about that. Let’s then stay on a theory oriented side of this discussion, as you know Kiryoku Torino Dojo being more dedicated to Iaido: do you think non-Japanese Iaidoka can truly understand the culture and “philosophy” behind this discipline?
It depends on the depth of understanding. Many European 7th Dan Iaido Sensei have no deep knowledge of the Japanese language, so from my point of view their knowledge will always remain somewhat superficial. Technically and theoretically they will know all the necessary things about Iaido, but it will never be the same level as Japanese Sensei because of the language barrier. I have a pretty complete library of Japanese books on Kendo/Iaido/Jodo, so I’m confident that my knowledge is quite good even for Japanese standards. However, I would not dare to compare my knowledge level to that of real good Japanese 8th Dan Sensei, such as Ishido Sensei or a University teacher such as Edo Sensei, they are on another level!
So what do you think about the future of European Iaido?
I’m a very optimistic person by nature, so my idea about the future of Kendo/Iaido/Jodo in Europe is very positive. We already have the first 8th Dan Jodo, the 8th Dan Kendo and Iaido is just a matter of time (it will be years, not months in the future though 😊 ). Competition level in Iaido and Jodo is getting pretty close to Japan already, but for Kendo we are still lightyears behind. It will never be a hobby for large numbers of people, but it’s getting smaller and smaller in Japan as well.
This is definitely a niche across worldwide, nonetheless we see many people approaching this marshall art, maybe as you also said not necessarily being a lifelong passion. What would you suggest to young and beginner Iaidoka?
The first thing I learned from Edo Sensei is: “Katei Enman”. Katei means household, Enman means peaceful. Because Budo nowadays is mostly a hobby, it is necessary to have a stable home environment in order to become successful in Budo (or any other hobby for that matter). The second thing I learned is that it is your own responsibility to find a suitable teacher.
Good feeling with a teacher is another recurring valid argument. What is a budo teaching you particularly like transmitting?
Since 1979 I have been going to Ibaraki Prefecture for my Kendo training because Iijima Sensei lives there. In Mito, the capital of Ibaraki, there is a museum called Kodokan, the old Samurai School. Just before the end of the Edo period, the Daimyo of Ibaraki was a proficient Kenjutsu practitioner. He already knew that the practice of Martial Arts was no longer needed to kill an opponent in a direct fight, but it could be a great source of well being if practiced correctly. In order to continue your lifelong training, it is necessary that you enjoy what you are doing. This is “Gei Ni Asobu”. The calligraphy is a present to me by the former President of Ibaraki Kendo Federation, Miyamoto Sensei, who visited Amsterdam a few times to teach Kendo, together with Iijima Sensei.
I would spend hours in knowing more about you and your story, and I’m so sorry we reached the end of this enjoyable time with you. Thanking you for your availability and support to our interview project, let’s then close with something lighter as is there any funny Iaido anecdote of your life you like to remember?
Besides the fact that I passed my Iaido Shodan after a training course of 14 days in 1977, the most funny one that I remember is when Ishido Sensei’s father was teaching Jolanda (4th Dan Iaido) at a Seminar in Europe. Although Jolanda did not use a Shinken, she did use an Iaito that was almost as sharp as a Shinken. When explaining Soetezuki to Jolanda first he showed her the line of the cut of the body, so his hand crossed Jolanda’s chest. Of course Jolanda’s chest is much bigger than the average Japanese women, so we were watching in full amusement what he was doing. Then he held Jolanda’s sword with his hand and drew the line of the cut on his own Gi. We all shouted “Sensei be careful that sword is sharp”, but he paid no attention (I think he was already a bit deaf by then 😊). I don’t remember if his Gi was actually damaged, but it was a close call!
Louis Vitalis Sensei’s Biography
My full name is Louis François Jacques Vitalis, born August 9th, 1959 in Amsterdam.
Although my father was from Dutch descent, he was born and raised in Indonesia and only moved to Amsterdam when he was in his late twenties. He very much looked like a South Asian person, that’s why I am not the typical blond blue eyed Dutch guy. So my whole youth was a mixture of Dutch and Dutch-Indonesian culture.
I met Jolanda Dekker when we were in the same class in High School. In December 1975 we started dating. I had just started Kendo a few months before that, but it took three years before Jolanda was convinced that Kendo was not the weird sports that she first thought. In August 1988 we married in Amsterdam, and my first Kendo Sensei Edo Kokichi was official witness at our wedding.
After studying Japanology at Leiden University from 1980 to 1986, I worked for a Japanese Travel Agent for 2 years, before joining Nippon Express Nederland in June 1988. I retired 30 years later in 2018 after making quite a career in Global Logistics and Airfreight.
As part of my job, I worked in Japan and Germany for a total of 7 years, which explains why I have so many friends in both countries.
I passed my Shodan Kendo and Iaido at the Kitamoto Foreigners seminar in 1977, but most likely I would not have passed Iaido Ikkyu in present Europe with my level at that time. Except for a few exams, I passed all my grades in Japan. The only grade I ever failed was Kendo Shodan, which I tried when I was in a Bogu for only three months.
Even though my athletic abilities were very limited, my ambitions were high 😊.
Unlike Jolanda, who has won dozens and dozens of medals in Kendo and Jodo, I never was a very talented fighter. I won the Fighting Spirit Prize at the Sapporo World Kendo Championships in 1979, won the Dutch Championships in 1980 and 1981 and the Fighting Spirit Prize at the European Championships in 1983 and 1984. My last tournament as Kendoka was the first edition of the Iijima Cup in 1990, which I won.
After my return from Japan in 1982, I started teaching Kendo/Iaido/Jodo in Amsterdam. In 1984 I started my own Dojo and Edo Sensei gave me the name suggestion “Museido”, which used to be a famous Kendo Dojo in Kanazawa.
I now have one 8 Dan and several 7 Dan Deshi in all three disciplines.
From the 1990’s I devoted much of my Kendo career to teaching and refereeing, and for many years I was referee of the WKC finals.