TIJ: Tell us a bit about your background please Mr. Mears.
When and where were you born?
Bill Mears: The fifties he said coyly, in Southern England.
Yes - I've been married for 28 wonderful years - was that right, dear?
When did you come over to Canada and why?
The short answer would be Margaret Thatcher - I didn't want my kids growing up in her England or having to rely on the kind of luck I'd been fortunate enough to find. I wanted them to be able to succeed through a good education and an honest day's work. A head-hunter had approached my boss; he told me about it as a joke (I wasn't qualified); I contacted the head-hunter and for some inexplicable reason, he persuaded the company to interview me and give me a job over here. Best decision I've ever made - we love Canada and all became proud Canadian citizens the minute we could.
When did you start your iaido training?
Iaido-proper started for me in 1987 with Malcolm Copp-Taylor in the squash courts in Bridgewater, Somerset on a Saturday morning.
Did you practice any martial arts before iaido?
Yes, I originally started with Wado Ryu karate in the late 1960's as part of Suzuki's organization, but eventually my chronic back problems stopped me from doing the crazy warm-up and strength exercises that were part of 60's karate training. I dabbled in Praying Mantis King Fu and did Tai Chi for quite a while, but neither came close to the joy I'd experienced from karate kata. I 'rediscovered' karate (Shotokan) thanks to Pete Huddlestone; former British Team-mate of Ticky Donovan and a senior instructor in an organization created by the legendary Frank Cope - one of the original karateka in England. That's what led me eventually to iai.
What other stuff did you get up to?
As anyone who's had the misfortune to buy me too many beers will know, I have plenty of outrageous stories from my past - from travelling across Europe with hair down to my waist to catching reptiles and amphibians through Yugoslavia and Greece (at one time I had more species of pet toads than the London Zoo - my mum was SO happy; they all lived in my bedroom!). Riding a 1958 Harley Davidson around English roads in the days when my beard almost reached my waist (most of the hair had fallen out by then!) was fun - I made a lot of good true honest friends doing that (and lost a few along the way unfortunately) - some even became Hells Angels!
I'm afraid we'll need to insist on at least one story from you about travelling around Europe with long hair... if just for the nostalgia of hearing about having hair once.
In your dreams! Like I said, I need plenty of beer inside me first. Six of us drove right down to the south of Greece in a mini bus and let's just say we were lucky to get out of Yugoslavia and Greece without being arrested or scalped - I was always fighting off old ladies with scissors who wanted to give me a free trim most every day!. Mind you, that was a long time ago - we only met one other couple from England during the whole 2 months - Greece was still a military dictatorship and Yugoslavia still one dictator-controlled communist country: we must have been nuts! We survived wild dogs, government agents, sea urchins, dysentary, had fruit thrown at us and even woke one morning to find that we'd camped overnight on a tank firing range!
I understand you still dabble in a hobby involving cold blooded animals?
Yes, I breed Bearded Dragons; a kind of Australian lizard that makes a wonderful pet. They have their own room attached to my house where they live loose among a landscape of rocks, plants and old fence posts. Sit down in there for a few minutes and one will be sure to climb onto your lap looking for food!
How long did you study iaido in England before coming to Canada?
Well, my first taste of iaido came in the spring of 1986 when I attended a weekend martial arts seminar where a number of instructors of other arts gave everyone a couple of hours 'taste' of the different disciplines. Among other things we rolled around on the floor with a member of the British Judo Team, did some street self-defence with an instructor from Liverpool - at the time the heroin capital of England and there was one instructor there with a big bag of sawn off broom handles which we got to twirl and stab in most menacing manner; not too sure it was legit but it got my interest going. Eventually after months of searching I found Malcolm.
Tell us about your training once you hit Canada?
I remember my first week over here getting Ohmi Sensei's name from the Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto after a whole string of phone calls had led me there telling me that someone practised iai on Sunday mornings. I drove up through freezing rain and met Ohmi Sensei, Stephen Cruise and Bruce Morito and just a few weeks later I was up at Guelph where I met you, Chris Nunan and later Carole Galligan - Ohmi Sensei referred to us all once as his 'first' students - I always feel like the four of us were like the 3 musketeers (plus me). I still remember that first session - we did Seitei which I kind of knew, Omori Ryu which Malcolm had shown me in case I met anyone else who knew it and then Eishin and Oku iai, by which time Ohmi sensei realised I was completely out of my depth and told me just to sit and watch! I wrote an excited letter to Malcolm that evening, telling him about this extraordinary Japanese sensei who knew ALL the MJER kata and he wrote back, telling me to forget everything he had ever taught me, to count my blessings and to stick with Ohmi Sensei. I took his advice; well almost - I never forget that Malcolm taught me not to take myself or martial arts too seriously.
I spent most of that spring looking for a house to buy and carried on training on my own in the local squash courts and by the time I was able to come to Guelph regularly, it was closed for the summer! I reluctantly agreed to let someone else train with me during the week and so Chris Sora became the first 'student' of what was to become 'Yugenkan Dojo' - the name and mon came from Malcolm's dojo of the same name in England.
Was iaido what you expected?
No - it was better beyond my wildest dreams! From the minute I swung a bokuto I was hooked! Although I had really enjoyed karate (especially kata), the insistence on regular regimented attendance and gradings went against the reason I had become interested in Budo in the first place. Added to that was the fact that kumite was compulsory for gradings and as I am not competitive I really hated it - I did OK; maybe the fact that I didn't care about the outcome made me relax, but the fact that someone else had to lose in order for me to succeed never really sat well with me.
The first time I met Malcolm, I asked him how often I had to attend iai classes and what his expectations were with regard to gradings. To my delight he replied that he didn't care if I trained or not and that gradings didn't exist below Shodan and he didn't care if I never graded either!
Did you get back to England much to train after coming to Canada?
Malcolm invited me back in 1989 to attend a seminar with Haruna Sensei and I also went the following year - that time with Ohmi Sensei.
So you were the first to meet Haruna sensei and introduce him to Canada?
I suppose in a way I was, but that was really the culmination of a lot of other people's hard work. In 1989 I asked (through Fujii sensei as translator) if Haruna Sensei would come to Canada. He seemed a bit reticent and Fujii sensei explained that because Haruna Sensei had only just met me and had never met Ohmi Sensei, he was very uneasy and I shouldn't ask; I learned all about "eeto...chotto desu" that day!
When I went over in 1990, I was joined by Ohmi Sensei and while he was over there, he managed to get things rolling properly and in 1991 (the year of the WKC in Toronto) Haruna Sensei came over with Mano Sensei and Trevor Jones and we had the first of many annual seminars at the University of Guelph. Haruna Sensei was too ill to come last year and unfortunately has since passed away, but I have a feeling the seminar will always be 'his'; he sent someone in his place last year and we have a great contingent coming again this May.
What other characters do you remember from English iaido?
Lots! I met Trevor for the first time - I still remember our conversation. He was sitting in the change room getting treatment for a neck injury from Phil Courtney ; a budoka and an osteopath. I'd gone in there because my hakama had fallen off (again) and I said "you must be Jones Sensei" to which he replied "that's alright, just call me Trev". I've never forgotten that - if someone as skilled and senior as him was happy to be called Trev by me then what right do I have to want people to give me a fancy title? In fact, if you really want to tick me off - just keep calling me sensei. Just because I happen to have my own dojo and a few students only means I've been screwing up longer than other people and when you think about how abused the word 'sensei' is in the west, it makes no sense. He and Phil got me to the big party so late that we had to sit at a separate table. It was a real eye opener as to how much fun senior budoka can have!
I also met Don Harvey; he has since dropped out of iai which is a real loss - he was a fine teacher and an extraordinary swordsman. Unfortunately, Malcolm has also vanished without a trace; he always was elusive, but I miss his bizarre sense of humour. I remember that when we practised zazen on Sunday afternoons in Glastonbury, he would lead us with a pair of wooden ‘clappers'. He had written something on one of them in Japanese and when someone finally plucked up the nerve to ask what it meant, he told us it said ‘piece of wood' - classic!
Where do you teach now?
I have a small family dojo at my house in southern Ontario where I have regular classes and I also travel to dojo's in the 'States and elsewhere in Canada occasionally. I'm also hoping to teach at Brock University where I have been learning to mangle the Japanese language; some of my fellow classmates have somehow got 50 names together and are petitioning the Student's Union to allow them to form a club with me as instructor.
Tell us about making your own dojo.
The first house we owned didn't have anywhere big enough to practise and I discovered that to build a dojo tall enough I'd have to apply for a Building Variance (expensive), so when we moved I wanted to make sure that a tall enough building was already there. Every time we'd meet the realtor at the next viewing, the first thing I'd do is check the height of the garage with a bokuto! Eventually, she bought a length of dowel and didn't bother calling us unless she'd checked the garage out first herself! We found the house we liked (with a 2-4 car garage). It took several years to convert the garage into a dojo, but once I'd started I made sure I did at least 15 minutes a day 7 days a week. After my second back operation I couldn't do much physically, but it gave me time to plan and design, day after day and then, when I was rehabbing, I'd still try and put in 15 minutes work at least once a day, even if all I did was make a few measurements.
What advice would you give to other people who would like to make their own dojo?
Take your time! I was fortunate that circumstances at the beginning of the project forced me to take it easy, but even before that I'd spent several years planning, looking at every picture of Japanese buildings I could find and watching home improvement programmes on TV to learn about North American construction methods. As I said, while I was recovering from my second back surgery I basically could do very little, but I was able to go over the sketches and designs time and time again, making small alterations on paper first.
On a practical level I'd say; make sure the ceiling is tall enough and you have enough floor space for what you will be doing. Try and be restrained when ‘decorating' it. Mine is white with dark oak trim and although there is some rather nice calligraphy and some pictures of the dojo ‘family tree' you won't find a picture of me in there OR my menjo - Ohmi Sensei said that the only time you hang up your certificate is when you quit! When I asked him originally what there should be in my dojo, his answer was "You. Training!" I also have air conditioning and heating - I do iai because I enjoy it and I DON'T enjoy freezing or roasting!
How are your students?
Great (but don't tell them!). They've come and gone over the years and currently there are about 8 of us 'on the books'. A really good crowd, they all try really hard and above all, they fill my beer glass at parties without being asked.
What do you stress when teaching iaido?
Good question - I'm not much of a technician so I leave the more 'refined' teaching to others like yourself. I once told Ohmi Sensei I'd rather 'do ugly iaido that kills instead of pretty iaido which doesn't' - he agreed with me (actually, thinking about it, maybe he just agreed my iaido was ugly!) However, I'm a big believer in 'feeling' so I always try and explain how any particular move feels and also try and remind people about what might be going on around them in the kata. Seitei iai has been criticized as 'not real' - all I can say is that they must be doing it wrong- I have to restrain my students from being too 'fierce' sometimes! I use what I call 'mind pictures' to describe the way something feels and as every student is different from the next, I've probably conjured up thousands of 'pictures' over the years - I wish I'd written them all down; they'd probably make some pretty funny reading. Each kata has it's own 'song' - anyone who's trained with me will know what I mean by that!
Intriguing, can you explain the "song" theory a bit further?
It's tough but each kata is one move, not a whole series of jerky ones. Even when the body is apparently still, it is still moving inside and the energy should be flowing. A kata can be ‘vocalised' by using the voice to accompany the movements as you would if doing audible breath control. If you stop, the sound will stop too, so I try and show the kata with it's own sound and get students to do the same- it can work really well. I'm not really very orthodox in my methods; when I visit a group for the first time they always seem amazed that I teach the way I do! I'm off to Fredericton this year- that should be a load of fun; I'm sure they're all a bit apprehensive but I'll soon have them enjoying themselves. I was in Montreal with Ohmi Sensei last year - that's when he found out I could speak French - his face was a real treat to see when I started instructing in another language!
Do many of your students come from the USA?
It's about 50-50. We're 15 minutes from the border and Buffalo is a big city so there's always a few crazy people who want to come and train with us.
I also look after a group from Rochester, New York - they come over when they can and we get together socially too. They have a good instructor already but he likes me to keep an eye on them in case they stray too far off the ‘path'. I was recently approached by a group in Syracuse NY who are interested in getting together with me - I suppose I'm going to be rather busy for a while.
We called you a "hard bastard" earlier, can you tell us where you got that nickname?
After I had come over here, my original sensei, Malcolm wrote a series of articles in a UK iai newsletter, purporting to be from this fictitious organisation called 'Hard Bastard'. Some of them were very funny - Malcolm is a very funny person; and somehow someone else heard about it, knew I was uncompromising at gradings and decided to refer to me in print as a 'hard bastard'. The name stuck - I even formed a totally meaningless North American branch of Hard Bastards over here and named myself Soke - mainly in protest at people in the martial arts who give themselves fancy titles, but also because quite frankly I thought it would be a bit of a laugh. We have several members in Canada and the USA now - but I can't tell you who they are; it's a secret!
So how does one become a "hard bastard"?
I can't really tell you that either - it would be a breach of the rules that I never wrote. It takes a particularly bizarre personality or approach to life to get my attention and qualify and above all, wanting to become a Hard Bastard pretty much guarantees you never will be - honestly, I can't believe you've managed to get me to prattle on about something so meaningless!
Just part of the job. You sit on the CKF iaido grading panel, what do you look for in a student who is challenging for rank?
Obviously it varies from rank to rank. The technical requirements laid down by the IKF MUST be adhered to, but I also try and look at a person's spirit; I watch their eyes to see if they are seeing anything or at least trying to. I'm a stickler for reiho - it's as much a part of iaido as anything else and if anyone comes to a grading not knowing (and I mean 'knowing') their etiquette, they're wasting my time (which has no real value anyway) but also insulting all the other students who have made the effort to come fully prepared. There's also a difference between 'bad' and 'wrong' and for me, someone who makes a couple of minor shoddy moves is still better than someone who makes a huge gaff (such as a wrong kamae, turn, step or chiburi). In my eye, the slightly shabby person at least knows everything he should be doing. That said, I keep notes frantically during a grading and tend to come down hard on anyone who has comments in every section from reiho though kata to reiho. From the minute you enter the dojo, you are being judged - it's where the fight will be. It's where the enemies are, so clowning around or slouching against a wall at a grading will just make me mad. Ohmi Sensei told me he likes having me on the panel because I'm 'one mean son of a bitch' - his words and probably the biggest compliment he could have paid me!
How would you compare Canadian iaido students to those you've seen elsewhere?
Getting better and better. It's not fair to make comparisons, but I honestly feel that we are very fortunate to have some of the best instructors there are over here, as well as some of the best from Japan visiting regularly. That quality of instruction is reflected in the students I see - some of the newer ones are going to be exceptional. The other thing that really pleases me is that we're so far devoid of any of the usual budo political bullshit - we go to other organization's seminars; they come to ours; we all get together for weekends and there's never a hint of ego; just the desire to enjoy each other's 'way'.
What should students starting now in iaido do to become good students?
That's easy. Haruna sensei always had a good answer for questions like that - keiko - right on the button! You have to be honest with yourself; iai magnifies all the ugly stuff so any false pretence will find you out. People call me a hard bastard but we still manage to have a lot of fun training - I mean we do it because we enjoy it, right? I'm not really a hard bastard I'm just a big teddy bear - honest - ask any of my victims!
What are your plans for iaido in the future?
To become even more old and decrepit and grouchy. I want to see iai in Canada continue to grow along the lines it has since the 80's. There's a new generation of potential instructors coming along and I'm hoping that they'll all have the same kind of integrity, dedication and humanity (not to forget sense of humour) that I'm lucky enough to be associated with right now.
Many thanks for taking the time to talk with us sensei, and we'll all head to the dojo now for an hour or so of hard training!
Visit our sponsor: SDKsupplies