My name is George Ledyard. I run Aikido Eastside, which I founded in 1989 in Bellvue, WA just outside of Seattle
In the early 70s, I did Shotokan Karate while at college. After college, I went to live in Washington, DC and that is where I encountered Mitsugi Saotome Sensei and Aikido. His dojo was newly opened and I was one of his first students there. That would have been 1977.
I was moved by my company to Seattle in 1981. There I continued my Aikido training at two dojos. Mary Heiny Sensei had a well-established dojo which she had founded and Saotome Sensei told me I should train with her as he knew her from Japan.
That same year, Bruce Brookman Sensei came back to the States from training under Chiba Sensei at Hombu Dojo so I paid dues at both dojos and both teachers were kind enough to allow me to train even though I was Saotome Sensei’s student.
A bit later I was able to train in Buko Ryu Naginata and Araki Ryu under Ellis Amdur Sensei who had come to Seattle from training in Japan. I also dabbled a bit in Doce Pares Escrime under Chris Patrilli, Grandmaster Canete’s senior American student.
I did Police Defensive Tactics training for law enforcement and security personnel for about ten years as well.
Most recently I have trained in Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu under Howard Popkin Sensei, Okamoto Sensei’s senior American student and I have also had quite a bit of exposure to Dan Harden’s work in internal power.
Saotome Sensei initially came to the US and took over an existing dojo in Sarasota, Florida at their invitation. His first students trained with him at that dojo. That would have been around 1975. My friend, John Messores Sensei, 7th Dan, is Sensei’s oldest student from that time.
In late 1976 Sensei came to DC. Five yudansha moved from various places to help him open his new dojo. It had been open for six months when I started there. Sensei chose Washington, DC because he felt that it would be symbolic to have the Headquarters of his newly established Aikido Schools of Ueshiba be in the nation’s capital.
Saotome Sensei felt very strongly that Aikido is a real martial art, a form of Budo. Our training was very hard and martially oriented. Lots of atemi waza work, daily sword and jo work. Saotome Sensei is known for not making any distinction between weapons work and empty hand training. To him, it is all Aikido.
Saotome Sensei’s first Aikido teacher was Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei. Yamaguchi Sensei’s “aiki”, his soft and effortless waza made a deep impression on Sensei. Then he was accepted as an uchideshi at Hombu under O-Sensei and Kissomaru Ueshiba. Sensei trained with the Founder for the next fifteen years. He was a key instructor at Hombu Dojo in the late sixties, especially after Tohei left.
Several things stand about what I got from Sensei. First, is that there is no “style” to Aikido. Sensei seldom, if ever, explained how to do a technique. He would show you, and then when he did it again it would be a bit different. And then it would vary again. I finally realized that for Sensei each execution of a technique was really a unique event. It was appropriate for what was needed at that moment. There was no cookie-cutter approach.
He taught much the same way O-Sensei taught. He showed principle but not technique. Each student was expected to find his or her own Aikido. While there are certain things that most of Sensei’s students do that one might recognize as coming from Saotome Sensei, if you look at Sensei’s most senior students, his 7th Dans, none of us look alike. And Sensei is quite proud of that fact. It was intentional.
Well, Saotome Sensei’s senior student is Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei. Now independent. It would be impossible to adequately say how much I owe him. Mary Henry Sensei and Tom Read Sensei were both very influential. They were both students of Hikitsuchi Sensei at Shingu and I absorbed a lot from them, especially in treating Aikido as a spiritual practice.
But, I would have to say that in terms of Aikido, aside from Saotome Sensei and Ikeda Sensei, I owe the most to William Gleason Sensei who has a dojo in Boston. He was a student for ten years in Japan under Yamaguchi Sensei and has recently taken the internal power training of Dan Harden and digested it for Aikido. I have hosted him at my dojo for over fifteen years and each year he has simply gotten better. I consider him to be a mentor and close friend.
Ah, “system”. That is a word that I would not use when talking about Saotome Sensei’s Aikido. His weapons training is largely unique. We do a set of kumi-jo which are similar. But not identical to Saito Sensei’s kumi-jo. I suspect that that is where the forms came from and then Sensei made them his own with some variations.
There is a huge repertoire of jo forms that are uniquely Sensei’s. “Hidden” Jo forms, “Single Hand” Jo Forms, the “Patrol Forms” and the “Attack Forms”. The ASU’s top jo instructors who have a good handle on these forms would be Robert Deppe sensei in DC and John Messores Sensei in Florida. Much of this material is not well known or practiced outside of the main dojos were Sensei taught… DC, Chicago, and Sarasota.
Sensei created a whole set of Kumitachi forms which we have to demonstrate in Dan tests. But he has a vast repertoire that isn’t widely practiced, largely because it isn’t required. Again, it is only the students he trained directly that tend to know this work. He has a whole set of forms he calls his “Kasumi” forms or the “Deceptive” Forms. The principles in these forms largely come from Kashima Ryu although Sensei would never tell anyone where he got the inspiration for his weapons work.
There is a huge two sword program of which Sensei is very proud. It was his own creation and would be unique in Aikido. He told us that he had once asked O-Sensei about two sword work and the Founder had replied that he should go out and investigate this on his own. So, there are over fifty exercises and forms that make up this two sword work.
I have spent most of my time working on a sword over the last few decades. I have left the jo work to my senior friends. All of Sensei’s weapons work is now on video. I made it a project to try to get it all recorded so that it would not disappear when he passes. So I invited John Messores, Wendy Whited, and Robert Deppe to my dojo to do seminars which we recorded. And I have recorded what I know of the sword work as well.
This is a particularly difficult time to try to start a dojo. When I was coming up, there was virtually no one ahead of us. You know the names of everyone senior top you in the country and there were a dozen of them maybe. So, we were all out running our own dojos at San Dan. Now, there are fifth, sixth, even seventh Dans all over the place. Seattle, which is my city, has over 20 dojos in the immediate metro area. That’s great for practitioners but hard for getting enough students to keep the doors open.
I have been a professional teacher since 1986. But I do not think that it will be possible for people who are not independently wealthy to follow that path in the future. The expenses of running a dojo have skyrocketed and, at least in the US, young men do not wish to train in traditional arts like Aikido. They want to do BJJ and MMA. So, memberships have fallen over the years and the average age in Aikido has risen dramatically.
I do not know how it is where you are. If there is money available from the government, that may make things possible but we don’t have that here.
The main obstacle for teaching I think is that students do not, in general, train the same way we did back in the day. In DC and in Seattle, the serious folks trained six or seven days a week. Aikido was the central focus of our lives. Now, a serious student trains three times a week, maybe.
I have been taught so much by Saotome Sensei. But I have realized that the only reason he could give us hat much was that we trained every day. When students are only going to train twice or three times a week, I have to decide what to teach them and what not to teach them. If I try to teach some of the more arcane material Sensei gave us, they aren’t getting enough basics. If they do the basics, they never get advanced material.
This is not just Aikido. I have a good friend who is a serious Tibetan Buddhist. She says she sees the same thing we see. Retreats are largely Baby Boomers with few young people. They just are not interested.
Aikido training is essentially cooperative. It is not a contest. At the same time, it is the uke’s job to enhance the partner’s learning. So it the uke is tanking for nage, then nage has no idea what he knows or does no. On the other hand, you hear people talk about “resistant” training. That is also very bad. It forces a whole range of bad habits.
Being an uke is very difficult. It is uke’s job to give a good strong attack with a unified structure. If nage runs into that structure, uke should not take the fall. If, however, nage gets kuzushi then uke should take the fall. There is no intention to stop nage or counter him. A good uke will adjust the amount of structure he gives his partner based on the partner’s level. If uke stops a partner’s technique, then he should then dial down the amount of structure he is giving so that the partner can succeed, assuming he is on the right track. Only dial back up the amount of structure when the partner can succeed. No one learns anything aby being stopped over and over. You learn by succeeding. But it has to be accomplished properly. If everyone is just flying around then Aikido is nothing but dance and is not Budo.
Saotome Sensei felt that more experience is better. Period. He encouraged us to get as much training as possible in every art that was available. The great Aikido teacher almost all did this. Saotome Sensei, Nishio sensei, Imaizumi Sensei, Chiba Sensei, Hikitsuchi Sensei, almost all of the 30s deshi cross-trained extensively.
That is one of the problems in modern post-war Aikido. Originally O-Sensei would not accept students who were not advanced at other arts. Nowadays, many Aikido practitioners only know Aikido. All their martial arts training is from Aikido. That shows in their Aikido. Often they are good at the Aikido form but have less than no idea how to apply those principles in any other form.
You are also known for taking ethical instances regarding Aikido and its role in the world. That’s a controversial topic, although in my opinion we shouldn’t ignore it. Do you believe that there are ethical values attached to Aikido, that every aikidoka should follow? If that is so, what are these values in your opinion?
As far as I am concerned, the whole point of Aikido is to be a man or woman of “honor”. We are on this planet just a short time, something I am increasingly aware of as I am losing family and friends, some younger than me.
I think that what we should expect of ourselves, and this is reflected in how I teach people to train, is that we should try to leave each person we interact with a little better off. And when we pass away, the world should be at least a little better because we had come through it.
Aikido and all traditional spiritual practices are threatened. The Covid-19 outbreak is a potentially extinction-level event for many dojos. I am seeing them closing right and left. The fall-off in membership made them vulnerable and now, the outbreak is finishing them off.
I think that Aikido may go back to its roots. People will have small dojos in their garages. They will have only a few students and everything will bve very personal; and intimate. That is how it all started. If a nice large beautiful dojo like my own closes, it will never open again. Maybe we will have some classes at the YMCA or community center. But dojos where one can train every day and hold seminars with 30 – 50 people may be going the way of the Dodo Bird.
Linked to that, it looks like there is a growing trend within the Aikido community to actively recover the somehow missed training in aiki, that elusive internal power. What are your thoughts regarding that? Do you believe that this trend will change the Aikido, or will it just fade out?
I think that the “aiki” and Internal power side of Aikido will survive and thrive in a limited fashion. It is, in my opinion, what makes Aikido, aikido. Most Aikido one sees is just physical movement with no actual “aiki”. There will always be someone who wants to go deeper. But there are not a lot of teachers who can instruct at that level so I do not expect that it will spread widely. You are going to have to look for the right teacher, and perhaps move to work with him or her. But that has always been true.
Train as much as you can, as hard as you can. And look for the best teachers you can find. If you are serious and there is not a top-level teacher where you are, then move. Look for a dojo where the senior students are the kind of people you wish to emulate. And become educated about what real skill looks like. Because everyone looks good when you are new. But the real “masters” if you want to call them that are few and far between. If you want to get to the highest levels, you have to train with teachers who can take you there.
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