Hopson Sensei, it is a pleasure to be able to begin a series of interviews at the highest European levels with one of the few who have obtained the seventh dan in three different disciplines, Kendo, Iaido and Jodo. We have in front of us a fundamental figure for the European Iaido and so let’s start with the usual ritual question: when was he born and where?
Northampton Town (East Midland) on May 21st, 1944.
Many years have passed since you started your journey in Budo: when and how did you start, what grades did you reach and when did you realize that it had become a total commitment for you?
I started Kendo at the age of 17 in 1961 under Roald M Knutsen at the Shinto Ryu Dojo in Vauxhall, South London.
Before that I had trained in Judo at a local club to my home in South London but never advanced beyond yellow belt.
While training Kendo at Vauxhall I also practiced Judo and Aikido with Senta Yamada Sensei but I quickly made Kendo my only area of study.
What was the typical scenario of the Iaido dojos when you started practicing?
Although Roald Knutsen practiced Iaido by himself I had very little interest in his practice at that time. At that time the British Kendo Association, founded in 1962 by Roald Knutsen, was in its infancy and was competing for members and influence with the British Judo Council which had been founded in 1958. The Kendo and Iaido section, run by one of the Otani brothers, Tomio , son of the influential Judo teacher Matsutaro “Pops” Otani, operated under the guidance of Kenshiro Abe sensei, a graduate of the pre-war Budo Senmon Gakko (Budo Specialist University).
To the best of my knowledge this was the only Iaido practice at all in the UK at that time.
Remaining in the field of Iaido, who is your reference sensei, to which ryu does he belong and how did he come into contact with his teacher?
My Iaido sensei is of course Ishido Sensei, from my first lesson until now. He has taught me what little knowledge I have of Muso Shinden Ryu, and Muso Shinden Jushin Ryu.
Let’s get into the heart of the interview and then let’s start talking about this discipline. What is Iaido for you, what is its meaning and what does this discipline offer you?
Iaido, to me, is useful as a counterbalance to Kendo (sei chu do and do chu sei). Frankly I cannot understand anyone doing one and not the other, however, it wasn’t until I had reached Godan in Kendo that I met Ishido Sensei and started to appreciate what Iaido could add.
Going into a deeper level of detailed insight, can you tell us about your relationship with Ishido sensei? For example, how did it start and how did it evolve?
In 1979 I had the free use of an apartment owned by a Japanese doctor who I had met in the UK for a “fact finding tour” of European Kendo and Iaido. As the hot and sticky summer temperature rose, my enthusiasm for Kendo keiko fell. The big crunch came though, one day in June when Dr. Hatakeyama invited me for a “nice friendly keiko” at the local police dojo who were doing their Shochu geiko or hot weather training, and I could think of no way to wriggle out of it. Then came the blessed sentence “well, if you don’t want to do Kendo, we could always go to an Iai dojo, it’s air conditioned “– what an offer!
Now from the time with Roald Knutsen doing Iai in the early ‘60’s I had looked on the practice of Iaido as slow, boring activity just for old guys but when we got to the Shinbukan Ishido Dojo in Kawasaki and I saw Ishido sensei’s Iaido and experienced his clear, concise and logical method of teaching, I thought “yes, this is for me”. For the first time, under Ishido sensei’s tutelage, the cuts and thrusts of Iai made sense, and having already spent eighteen years doing Kendo at that stage, it was fairly straightforward to pick up. I worried about how training and teaching English in the evenings would work but Sensei explained that, having paid my dojo fee for the month, the dojo was there for me to use and that if he were free when I turned up in the daytime then I’d get a one to one lesson, an unbelievable bargain!
Along with just about everyone else in the Shinbukan dojo I was entered for the Kanagawa Ken Summer Taikai and, to my amazement, went home with a first in the Mudan division. Mind you, I don’t think there are ever more than a handful of people in Kanagawa who are Mudan at any one time, but nevertheless, it was nice.
It is always fascinating to trace the historical phases of an evolution from the memories of those who lived them and I would like to deepen a little more your Japanese experience: how did you live it as a foreigner and especially as one of the first foreigners to train at Ishido Sensei’s Shinbukan dojo? Have you any memorable experience that you would like to tell us?
Actually my first experience in a Japanese dojo was in 1965 when I spent several months home-stay at a Kendo dojo in Fukuoka run by Oura Yoshihiko Sensei. The daily training was physically tough for me, usual for the Japanese kids of course, and at the age of 21 and being away from home for a long period for the first time, it was also hard mentally too. I had no Japanese at all at that point and no return ticket to the UK either! At that time foreigners in rural Fukuoka were pretty rare and I had to endure quite a lot of stares and comments whenever I went out.
Definitely a hard experience, but it was the beginning of a journey that led you to be one of the very few triple-seventh dan in Europe: how do you think the relationship between Kendo, Iaido and Jodo influenced your overall Budo development?
I believe it’s just Louis Vitalis and myself who have all three at the moment, but how they have influenced me is difficult to judge. I suppose one thing that does spring to mind is that however good we might think we are in any discipline there will always be thousands and thousands of Budoka who are even better. It does make me wonder when I see the posturing and self aggrandisement of people in the dojo and on Facebook quite what they have actually learned from Budo other than lots and lots of technique. I actually heard an Iaido rokudan complain “I didn’t get my nanadan again, I think I’ll learn another Koryu for next time” – DOH!
It is certainly not easy for us to fully learn the concepts of Budo, but at this point what do you think the difference is between Japanese teaching, from Ishido Sensei to you, compared to Western teaching, for example yours towards your students?
I think the difference is not between the teachers but between the students. We Europeans like to progress quickly and add more and more techniques as quickly and possible whereas Japanese are possibly more able to persevere and learn slowly but with more depth. When I first came to the UK with Ishido Sensei we realised quickly that different cultures could easily lead to massive misunderstandings and we made a mutual promise to talk freely and openly to avoid such problems arising. Ishido Sensei and my residency guarantor in Japan, Dr. Ohmura, are among the very few people to have taken the time and trouble to explain to me in detail how and why relationships are made , or broken, according to Japanese society and its rules. As for me, unlike the way I taught as a young man,
I try to teach in a way that students are happy, even they are working hard to make steady progress (gei ni asobu).
The theme of teaching is fundamental to progress and to pass on culture to future generations: again on this theme and about this responsibility, when did you start thinking about teaching and when did you actually start teaching? Have you any preferences regarding a specific class and the unique requirements of practitioners, such as children, competitors, or adults, and regarding the teaching your are imparting?
As you see from my CV I am a trained schoolteacher, though my actual experience in schools is very short. Conversely I have been teaching first Kendo, later Iaido and Jodo, since my return to the UK as a Kendo Nidan back in 1965. Having started virtually on the ground floor of Budo in the UK I felt it was my responsibility to pass on anything I learned as openly and responsibly as possible. My personal preference for students is total beginners and those students who find learning really difficult. Beginners because a good understanding of the basics goes a long way to ultimate success, and students who struggle because they really tend to value the progress that they make, especially when they have tried so hard to get there. I have little admiration for anyone who finds Budo so easy that they change between disciplines at the drop of a hat and who have tried different martial arts for no more than a month or two at the most. My personal choice is that I don’t teach for money, basically because I see Budo as a gift, not something to be sold, and it also gives me the freedom not to teach people I dislike or don’t trust with the knowledge.
Can you describe one of your typical Iaido lessons?
I try, but don’t always succeed, in making the lessons both fun and hard work at the same time. I am very strict about dojo etiquette and the proper respect shown to the dojo, fellow students and the instructors.
Speaking of experience and changes, do you think Iaido has changed over the years, and how?
Without doubt. From a rather amateurish level when equipment was virtually unobtainable and people made their own hakama and keikogi (back in the 1960’s people even made their own Kendo armour), to competitors at the European Taikai, Kendo, Iai, or Jodo, with Coaches, Managers, team tracksuits etc. And many seniors too having a very good working knowledge of written and spoken Japanese. So many different Ryu-ha are now practiced in Europe and America, with deep study of various Koryu, regular training trips to Japan, Europeans participating at the Kyoto Taikai and attempting Hachidan grading as well – unbelievable. To have reached the point in European Budo history where there are now a few full time professional Budo teachers outside the more usual Karate and Judo indicates the popularity of Japanese martial arts. Unfortunately though, things have also got worse to the extent where several European high grades have so failed to understand Budo history and Japanese culture that they have reluctantly been hamon’d by their Japanese Shisho. A huge embarrassment to European Budoka.
So there are important differences attributable to different cultures: do you think a non-Japanese iaidoka can intimately understand the culture and philosophy behind Iaido?
Yes, some, depending on the individual of course. Having a Japanese sensei prepared to teach the “why”, as well as “how” of Budo is essential. I remember very well the late Namitome Sensei at the EJC in Bologna telling us that as a young man he believed that foreigners could never understand Budo. After the war he saw the Budo spirit of his youth gradually dilute and start to die. However, the spirit he saw during the matches made him so happy to see that the Budo spirit of his youth could still be seen in Europe.
Through your experience we have traveled the past and present of the art of the sword, inside and outside Japan: what do you think about the future of the European Iaido instead?
Very uncertain. Iaido will always be a minority activity compared to tennis, angling etc. the number of people wanting to start Iai, Jodo or Kendo will always be relatively small. When senior iaidoka start competing for a limited number of students for financial stability I can see Iaido becoming like the professional Karate, Kung Fu, MMA groups seen in America and Europe. Dan grades will become easier and easier to obtain, iaito being sold to beginners by the instructors for profit and large “Budo empires” being formed may eventually lead to the total commercialisation of Iaido if we aren’t very careful.
So what would you recommend to a young beginner iaidoka?
Very simple, find an instructor who is both skilled and kind. Find someone who you like as a person and don’t be swayed by how many dojo they run or how many ryu-ha they can do. Technique is something that you can learn through training but if your instructor is the kind of person who makes you want to give up training then find another instructor.
We are now at the end of the interview. Thank you for sharing all these experiences with us and for showing us the evolution of these disciplines. To conclude, how would you sum up in two words a particular precept of Budo that you like to convey?
Ki-Shu-Bu-Shin. A demon’s skill, and a Buddha’s heart.
Jock Hopson Sensei’s Biography
Anthony Patrick (Jock) Hopson was born in Northampton Town (East Midland, UK) on May 21st, 1944 .
After an education spanning through different disciplines as English Language, Mathematics, Physics, he started his teaching career after attending Goldsmith College at the University of London , obtaining his Teacher Training Certificate from the Department of Education and Science in 1967: During a year’s sabbatical he travelled to Japan, where he researched “The Development and Manufacture of Japanese Armour” and trained daily in Kendo.
Fond of model making, furniture design and craftmanship, in 1969 Hopson got several diplomas for Furniture Production and Design at the London College of Furniture where he was also awarded the Horatio Meyer Design Prize.
The Seventies featured employment as a teacher both in the UK and in Japan, where he got the Intermediate Certificate in Japanese Language at Waseda University . Back in the UK, his passions led him getting a Higher Certificate Post Diploma Studies in Carving and Gilding Certificate and Heraldry, working as Conservation Officer for the Framing Department at The National Gallery in London., At the end of the Eighties he set up the Jock Hopson Conservation Service, specialising in carved and gilded frames and mirrors.
His career in Budo is not less dense than his professional life, starting as Kendo Ikkyu in 1962 and up to Nanadan in 1994 through grading exams in UK, Japan and France, appointed Renshi in 1979 when he was Godan and Kyoshi in 1987 when he was Rokudan, both in Kanagawa, Japan.
In different years from 1977 to 1995 he was Assistant Coach, Coach, Senior Coach and Coach Tutor for the British Kendo Association (BKA). As a Kendo competitor his career was not less brilliant, attending Taikai across Europe and Japan, going several times on the top step of the podium in national and international competitions, as well as being selected as Referee for both European- and World- Kendo Championships up to 1995.
He was Senior Kendo Instructor at London Kendo Club from 1965 to 1971, and at Eishinkan Dojo from 1982 until today, while he also covered roles at BKA as Chairman and Vice Chairman.
In 1979 he was acknowledged Iaido Ikkyu, under the guidance of his Sensei, Ishido Shizufumi, finally gaining Nanadan in 1998, appointed Renshi in 1992 when he was Rokudan and then Kyoshi in 1998 when he was Nanadan, all dan and shogo gradings obtained in Japan, aside Yondan in France. His first competitive Iaido success is dated back in 1979 in Japan when he scored first place in Mudan category at the Kanagawa Ken Summer Taikai, starting an Iaido career that led him being Senior Iaido Instructor at Eishinkan Dojo from 1982, as well a European Iaido Championship referee on several occasions.
Hopson’s Jodo career started with Ikkyu grading in 1981 in Japan, under the guidance of Hiroi Tsunetsugu Sensei, reaching Yondan level in 1986 guided under Ishido Shizufumi Sensei and up to Nanadan in 2000: he was acknowledged Renshi in 1994 when he was Rokudan and Kyoshi in 2015 when he was Nanadan, all gradings obtained in Japan aside Nidan, Sandan and Kyoshi in UK. He has also been Senior Jodo Instructor at Eishinkan Dojo since 1982.