Canadian black-belt takes pride in action not words

Sword-hunting martial artist Hughes also drafts students to help the needy in Philippines

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

For Robert Hughes, the shortest answer is doing. From his early determination to procure a traditional Japanese sword to his more recent work with Japanese students in the poverty-stricken streets of the Philippines, Hughes, 54, has spent over 30 years in Japan allowing his actions to speak eloquently for him.

Hughes had only been in Japan a year when he walked into a police station in Niigata Prefecture with a straightforward request. “I was studying Musoshinden-ryu iaido and asked my Japanese friends at the dojo where to buy a traditional sword. They suggested I talk to the police. I arranged for an interpreter and walked into the police station, announcing I was interested in buying a Japanese sword. As soon as they heard that, there were telephone calls and two guys in suits came down from the upstairs detective section. My request turned into two hours of interrogation, and ultimately, they told me it was not possible for a foreigner to own a Japanese sword. It turned out to be completely erroneous information.”

Growing up in the tiny town of Eston, in Canada’s Saskatchewan Province, Hughes’ only connection to Japan was when he joined the Shotokan Karate Club as a freshman at the University of Saskatchewan. Newly graduated with two degrees — a double major in English literature and psychology and a BEd in secondary education — Hughes hoped to teach literature and composition at a Canadian high school.

However, a friend of a friend was in town from Japan, recruiting for his own language school and for an organization in Niigata that was expanding English programs in the vocational schools and colleges that it was operating. “My brother, sister and I all went to a party and met this gentleman. In the space of one evening, he basically told us if we wanted teaching positions in Japan, we could have them. Between the three of us, we probably couldn’t have conjured up a dozen Japanese words, but we were game for the adventure, and that’s what mattered.”

The three siblings quickly settled into life in Niigata in 1981. Hughes’ work was more demanding, since he was the only one of the three with a degree in education. “I ended up being a pretty much full-time teacher right from the beginning,” teaching English alternately at the college and local companies, he recalls. His brother and sister returned home after two years, although they both subsequently spent time back here.

While in Niigata, Hughes joined the university karate club, which led to lessons in iaido, or Japanese swordsmanship.

“In the same place where we practiced karate there was a class practicing with real Japanese swords,” he recalls. “My friend and I would wait after our training and watch. The instructors of the class were two brothers, and we eventually realized they were inviting us to take their class.”

Learning iaido led naturally to Hughes’ interest in swords and his first encounter with adversity in Japan — at the police station. He did not realize foreigners can legally own swords until he moved to Tokyo a few years later in 1985.

“I had wanted to experience life in Tokyo but moving from a rural environment to Tokyo was a complete culture crash again, the intensity and pace of life in Tokyo. Still, there were so many different opportunities, especially for martial arts.”

Hughes had already earned a third dan in iaido while in Niigata. Since his instructors were traditional sword polishers, he also studied the artistry of the sword.

“The art of sword polishing is an even more sophisticated study than sword-smithing,” he says. “The sword smith can make a Japanese sword in two or three days, but the polisher must work on it probably a week to bring out all the features to give the sword artistic significance.”

Hughes continued teaching English, but also started working part-time at Seikodo, a sword shop in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza shopping district, which widened his knowledge of sword artistry.

“I realized the information I had been given in Niigata was not correct at all. Swords are not even licensed through the police, since swords are licensed as art objects and not weapons.”

Hughes also learned that a significant number of traditional Japanese swords were now in the United States.

“At the end of the second World War, the occupation forces had a mandate to disarm the country, so their mission was to confiscate all swords. The soldiers had no awareness of artistic value or merit. For a few years, barge loads of swords were dumped in Tokyo Bay and hundreds of thousands were shoveled into blast furnaces.”

Hughes cites the efforts of Junji Honma, founder of the Society for the Preservation of Japanese Swords, who personally convinced Gen. Douglas MacArthur to stop the destruction by showing him various artistic swords from Japanese history. Although the mass drive to collect swords stopped, American servicemen began taking them as wartime souvenirs, and even conservative estimates determine over 1 million swords went to across the Pacific in the postwar period.

Hughes became a sword hunter, first for the shop in Ginza and then independently, determined to return Japanese swords back to Japan. “It was easier for me to recover swords on my own. There were still racial issues in the U.S. A lot of the swords were being sold at gun shows, and the gun dealers did not want to sell to Japanese buyers.”

Hughes estimates he repatriated over 800 swords to Japan. He licensed the swords back in Japan, which were then taken to dealer auctions for distribution across the country.

In the process, Hughes slowly became an expert himself, and learned to read the obscure signatures engraved on the blades.

“You must learn sword scholarship in order to get involved in this business or you can’t sort out the real swords from the fake,” Hughes explains. “With Japanese swords, there are so many fake signatures like a Gucci handbag. The sword smiths have been making forgeries for several hundred years. The better known a particular sword or sword maker, the more copies that would spring up. Even if the stroke pattern chiseled in the metal tang is completely different, the signature would be copied from the more famous sword-maker.”

Sword hunting was always a part-time passion, however, as Hughes continued his teaching career, earning a master’s in education from Temple University in 1996. He also continued his study of martial arts, eventually earning four different black belts, in iaido, Jigen-ryu swordsmanship, karate and ninjutsu.

In 2002 he accepted a position in the department of regional development at Toyo University. There, Hughes discovered real life adversity on the streets of the Philippines. “I became more interested in community development and poverty studies, everything that I was teaching on a content basis for this department.”

Hughes faced his next challenge armed only with creativity. “Toyo needed an alternative for English-language study, so we thought if we set up a program at a university in the Philippines, where the English level is high in the university setting itself, that we could combine some of the content ideas of poverty studies with English study.”

First, Hughes helped establish contact at a medical university in Cebu, flew there to train up language teachers, and finally organized one-on-one conversational tutoring by Philippine medical students for the Japanese students.

Next, he searched for a way for the Japanese students to become involved in the wider community through volunteer work. Hughes visited over 18 nongovernment organizations in the Philippines, exploring possible environments where the Japanese students could safely volunteer. He chose Christ for Asia, a nonprofit group that runs an orphanage and delivers food to street children in the rougher districts.

Even Hughes was surprised at his students’ reactions.

“Because of their involvement and concern, many of the Japanese students, when they come back to Japan, are still numb. The four-week program happens so fast and they are so busy, but when they return, it is almost like a post-traumatic shock. They want to do something more for these children. They need to talk about it.”

Hughes therefore started a circle at Toyo named Salamat, which means “thank you” in Tagalog. The circle returns to the Philippines each summer for volunteer work.

Through the three components he helped to establish — the English study program, the volunteer field work in the impoverished districts, and finally, with Salamat — Hughes has taken over 250 students in the past six years, himself traveling to the Philippines over 25 times.

Expanding their NGO connection, the group also worked with a local foundation to build a day care center for the urban poor. Hughes credits his students. “Their response has been incredible. They give up their time and pay most of the expenses themselves or through fundraising.”

Although his responsibilities at university keep him busy, Hughes stays true to his passion for martial arts and weaponry. Living now in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, with his wife and three children, in a traditional house he built himself with the help of a few tradesman and a Japanese carpenter, Hughes challenges his knowledge with new forms of martial arts, taking classes in both Okinawan-style karate and traditional Okinawan weaponry.

He also entertains friends with stories of famous swords. “The most important sword I ever offered for sale was one sold by Steven Seagal, the movie star and former aikido instructor in Japan. It was a Heian Period Masatsune blade, already considered a precious cultural asset.”

Hughes did eventually own his own Japanese sword — many, in fact, alongside his collection of over 200 books on swords and swordsmanship.

Hughes feels his study of martial arts, his work with swords and his teaching all unite in a common attitude.

“I had an expression chiseled into the tang on my custom-made sword. In addition to the name of the smith, and the date when the sword was made, the characters for “fugen jikko” were inscribed. The words literally mean, “Actions speak louder than words.” The study of the martial arts is the lifelong goal of the perfection of your own character, and this can only be accomplished by applying yourself with complete devotion to everything you do.”