This is a transcript of an interview with the United States Aikido Federation’s Chairman of the Board of Directors George Kennedy Shihan in the summer of 2017 for research of my upcoming American aikido history book. In it, we discuss his first aikido instructor, Rodney Grantham, as well as Yoshimitsu Yamada and his role in forming the first American aikido organization.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Hello Kennedy Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview!
George Kennedy: Thank you for having me. I look forward to our conversation!
MAYTT: According to the Aikido Center of Atlanta website, you began your aikido training in 1972. How did you find aikido; was it something you sought out or happened to stumble across? And at that time, how did the general public look at the martial arts, specifically Japanese martial arts?
GK: In the late 1950s and early 1960s little was known about Japanese martial arts in the west. A few G.I.s returning from the Korean war, such as Rodney Grantham, had been exposed to judo and so that was really all that was known. An open hand strike, to the American public, was referred to as a “judo chop” when I was a kid. I was small for my age, non-competitive by nature, and had experienced a bit of bullying so I took some judo classes at the local YMCA. I learned enough to boost my confidence but was not interested in competition, so I quit after a few months. A few years later, I heard about this “peaceful martial art” from a hippie friend of mine and, as luck would have it, the only dojo teaching Aikido in the southeast happened to be in my neighborhood!
MAYTT: Can you tell me about your first sensei, Rodney Grantham? Some background on his journey to aikido and to what his relation to Koichi Tohei Sensei and Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei was like?
GK: Grantham Sensei was indeed a pioneer in the evolution of the martial arts in the South. He had practiced judo for several years and was a well-respected competitor. He received his black belt in Japan while stationed there as a surgical scrub nurse during the Korean War. On his off days, he would get on a train and get off at a random stop, get directions to the local police station and go train there. This was shortly after the end of the Second World War and Americans soldiers were not particularly popular. He went where he knew the training would be the toughest!
When he returned, he opened the Black Belt school of Judo with a few partners. Yamada Sensei had come over in 1964 for the World’s Fair and stayed to teach at the New York Aikikai. He invited Tohei Sensei, then still Chief Instructor at Hombu Dojo, to travel around conducting demonstrations. In 1967, Tohei Sensei made his first East Coast visit. At that time, aikido had only just been revealed to the public even in Japan, so they relied on judoka to take ukemi in the demonstrations. Grantham Sensei was one of these judoka. He took several days off from work to assist in the local aikido workshops. He later said that “decades of judo training meant nothing to this guy [Tohei]. He threw me all over the room!”
Grantham Sensei began traveling on weekends to New York to train with Yamada Sensei and brought back what he had learned. He also hooked up with a young soldier named Michael Manley who was stationed at Fort Benning [near Columbus, Georgia] who would come to Atlanta when he had leave to share his knowledge. Soon he was teaching aikido two nights per week and judo the other three. Gradually, he became disenchanted with judo, as he had suffered many injuries over the years and was also fed up with the politics involved. With encouragement from Yamada Sensei, Grantham Sensei left judo behind to pursue only aikido. This was a personal decision that he made which reflected his desire to pursue aikido to the fullest. With that, he changed the school’s name from “Black Belt School of Judo” to “Aikido Center of Atlanta.”
MAYTT: As you mentioned, Grantham Sensei was indeed an aikido pioneer within Atlanta and the South. His efforts demonstrated what can be achieved through diligence and dedication. Can you give some examples as to how his contributions help spread aikido throughout the Atlanta region and beyond?
GK: In those early days, we did demonstrations anywhere that would have us: fairs, festivals, Universities, other martial arts schools, etc. Grantham Sensei also supported other schools that were starting to spring up around the South, traveling to Birmingham, Alabama, Charleston, South Carolina, and other places to help spread the art. He also invited Yamada Sensei, [Mitsunari] Kanai Sensei, and later [Seiichi] Sugano Sensei to come hold regional seminars in Atlanta. When Nidai Doshu [Kisshomaru Ueshiba] made his first visit in 1973 with Yamada, Kanai, and [Morito] Suganuma Sensei, perhaps thirty people attended our seminar. This represented the entire aikido community in the Southeast! In those early days, Yamada Sensei would sometimes travel by bus and the shihan always stayed in the instructor’s home because we couldn’t afford a nice hotel. This fostered close, personal relationships between our leaders which is much more difficult now that the art has grown.
MAYTT: Grantham Sensei stated in a 1973 article in Black Belt Magazine that “one out of three adult aikidoka stay with the art.” Do you feel that static is relevant to today’s martial arts’ climate or has that ratio changed over time? If so, how has it changed and what do you feel would be a more accurate static of that ratio?
GK: I think the ratio is more like one in ten will stay. Younger people in particular are more conditioned to instant gratification and virtual reality and may have a difficult time making the kind of long-term commitment that aikido requires. On the other hand, I have recently noticed that young parents seem to be looking for something for their children that requires “being in your body and the moment” to counter the negative aspects of rampant consumerism and virtual living so I am optimistic about the future of the art.
MAYTT: Aikido has been often historically branded as a “gentleman’s art,” hinting to the manner in which the practitioner holds themselves within society; being more of an intellectual and affluent individual. In that same Black Belt Magazine article, Grantham Sensei also stated that mostly psychology majors trained aikido. Was that an accurate assessment of the average aikido practitioner of the time and does such an assessment still hold true today? From your experience, what types of professions do see currently populating your dojo?
GK: In those days, articles written by individuals like George Leonard emphasized the “magic” of ki development which naturally attracted the attention of people in the field of psychology. aikido today is very diverse. My dojo has everything from college professors in such fields as astronomy and biophysics, as well as police officers, construction workers, artists and, for some reason, quite a few professional musicians.
MAYTT: In 1989, Grantham Sensei retired. What prompted his decision to retire?
GK: He retired from his career with the United States Geological Survey and moved with his wife, Janet, to the mountains of North Carolina. He maintained a small mat space in his basement and continued to teach a few select students and travel to teach seminars.
MAYTT: Upon Grantham Sensei’s retirement, you were appointed as dojo-cho. What were your feelings at the time when you took up the mantle? Was it a welcoming honor on your part or were there some reservations? And within your dojo community, what was the overall atmosphere like following Grantham Sensei retirement?
GK: Frankly, it was not an easy transition. There was a sense of uncertainty and unease in the dojo at that time. Not everyone was prepared to accept me as the Chief Instructor/Dojo-cho. By this time, I had established myself as an educator/department chair and wanted to apply those skills to the daily operation of the dojo. This led to some friction which resulted in some people leaving and starting their own dojo.
MAYTT: After his retirement, how much involvement/participation did Grantham Sensei have at the dojo? Were you in regular contact with him?
GK: Although by this time, I had formed student/teacher relationships with Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, and later Sugano Sensei, but I always considered Grantham Sensei my primary teacher. He would come by the dojo whenever he was in Atlanta and I visited him at his mountain home on many occasions. A quick story: I was once having a hard time getting up Scaly Mountain to visit Sensei in a snow and ice storm. When I arrived, Sensei was standing in several inches of snow wearing zori [Japanese straw sandals] without socks on his feet. “You’re late!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been standing out here waiting for you for an hour!” Confused, I asked “Sensei, aren’t your feet cold?” He replied, without skipping a beat, “I think of warm thoughts about my feet.”
MAYTT: From your recollection, what stands as one of the most valuable lessons Grantham Sensei taught?
GK: Grantham Sensei was very open minded and encouraged me to train with and learn from as many different and qualified people as possible. Some instructors take a didactic, “my way is the only way” approach but Grantham insisted that everyone is different in body type, disposition etc., and we should learn from those closest to the source and make aikido our own. I have tried to maintain this attitude and, as a result, we have two shihan and three other yondan and godan instructors all teaching under one roof. This is a direct result of Grantham Sensei’s foresight and tolerant attitude.
MAYTT: Besides Grantham Sensei, who or what else do you feel has greatly impacted your training over the years?
GK: There have been many influences including Lyn Garland who was an instructor in our school in the early years. He was a Vietnam veteran who had been a student of [Hiroshi] Isoyama Sensei in Japan and had a decidedly martial approach to the art. I have had the incredibly good fortune to train with many of O-Sensei’s uchideshi including Yamada, Kanai, Sugano, Kazuo Chiba and Akira Tohei shihan [no relation to Koichi Tohei]. The most influential have been Kanai Sensei and, of course, my main teacher for all these years, Yamada Sensei. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was in those early days of training but now, since I have witnessed the passing of all but one of these great teachers, I am thankful every day for all that Yamada Sensei has done to spread the true spirit of aikido throughout the world, and I cherish every opportunity I have to train with him.
MAYTT: In 2005, you wrote an article about Yamada Sensei for the now-defunct Journal of Asian Martial Arts. What inspired you to write about Yamada Sensei?
GK: Quite simply, aikido changed the trajectory of my life and Yamada Sensei has been my guide and inspiration for 45 years! I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have met and trained under many of O-Sensei’s direct students (uchideshi) and have always been proud to be one of Yamada Sensei’s students. Although all of the original Japanese instructors who came to the United States were outstanding aikidoka, only Yamada Sensei had the personality and leadership skills to accomplish what he has done; spreading aikido to many countries across the globe while maintaining the highest standards in our training. It is a great privilege to be his student.
MAYTT: What do you believe prompted Yamada Sensei to form the United States Aikido Federation (USAF) in 1964? Was there a need to for such a structured organization that early on?
GK: I believe he saw the need for an organization that would serve as a connection to Hombu Dojo rather than have each dojo trying to establish that relationship. I think he also was concerned about the quality of aikido practice in the future if there was no oversight by established shihan.
MAYTT: In the article, you mentioned Yamada Sensei’s travels to Boston a handful of years before Kanai Mitsunari Sensei arrived on the scene. What made him want to travel there? Was aikido beginning to gain ground in Boston at the time? Is it safe to say that Yamada Sensei’s efforts paved the way for Kanai Sensei’s later arrival to Boston?
GK: There was a small group practicing in the Boston area and Yamada Sensei wanted to support anyone who was interested in aikido at that time. Kanai Sensei was invited to move there and had a very difficult time at first. Yamada Sensei was very supportive of his efforts and helped him to become established.
MAYTT: The article also notes the help that Yamada Sensei offered to many young schools. Who are some of those schools and are they still around today?
GK: There were several dojo in the Northeast that sprang up in the early days. Since we were in the South, we didn’t have much contact with them. You might ask Andy Demko or Steve Pimsler for more detail since they were both around during those early days.
MAYTT: You mentioned Dr. Tom Walker from Titusville, Florida in the article. Could you tell me about him and his influence in Florida?
GK: Doc Walker, as he was known, was a Dentist in Titusville Florida. There was a sheriff named George Wilson who started aikido and Tom was one of his students. Tom was a friend of Rodney Grantham for quite a few years until they had a falling out some time in the 1980s, I think. Tom eventually left the USAF and continued to teach independently at his Sand Drift Aikikai until his death [in 2003]. Like many of the early aikidoka, Doc was quite a character. He had good aikido skills and an outrageous sense of humor.
MAYTT: Speaking of independent schools and organizations, there are many standalone American martial art organizations, regardless of style. Why do you think there is not a similar standalone American aikido organization, like that of karate, judo or jujutsu? Do you think America needs a standalone aikido organization and do you feel it could survive on its own? If not, why do you feel it would not?
GK: I’m not sure what you mean by “standalone” organizations. I am Chairman of the Board of Directors of the largest Aikido organization in the United States, the USAF. There are many other organizations such as Birenkai, World Aikido Alliance, Aikido Schools of Ueshiba, etc. in the United States as well as many “ronin” dojo that don’t belong to any group. There are several issues surrounding aikido organizations. One is that while Hombu Dojo recognizes many organizations in each country and awards rank to their members, the International Aikido Federation only recognizes one organization per country. This creates much confusion. Also, in many countries, particularly in Europe, the government regulates martial arts instruction and sometimes only recognizes and sometimes funds groups that belong to an “umbrella” organization, usually one affiliated with the Olympics. Since aikido is not a sport, in some cases an aikido group must join a judo organization to be allowed to practice!
There are also many cases where the internal politics of an organization – usually power struggles over succession – causes individuals and groups to split off from the original resulting in many different organizations. This happened in aikido after O-Sensei died and has happened several times since then. The big question, of course, is who is awarding rank. I am very proud of my lineage. My teacher, Yamada Sesnei, and others I trained under – Kanai Sensei, Sugano Sensei – were all uchideshi of the founder and all of my rank was approved by his direct descendants. I fear that, for a younger generation, this emphasis on tradition will be less important and our art may suffer the kind of rank shopping and “grade inflation” which has become common in some other arts.
I am afraid my answer may have not made things clearer, but I hope this helps your understanding.
MAYTT: It helps my understanding greatly. Regarding training, how do you see your prevailing aikido style has changed in America since you began training? Has it changed in your opinion or have things remained consistent?
GK: I have to say that the overall level of training, at least in the United States Aikido Federation (USAF), has improved tremendously. In the early days, there were so few people with the rank and experience that anyone with a few years and a shodan or nidan could start teaching. In this case, the instructors’ limitations become the students’ limitations. Now, after fifty years, there are many people who have decades of experience and this has had a very positive impact. Also, in the early days, Koichi Tohei’s emphasis on ki development was very prominent. After his split with Hombu in the early 1970s, Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei’s emphasis on basics and solid martial technique resulted in much more precise and powerful technique which, in turn, resulted in vastly improved ukemi skills. The art is still evolving, as it should be.
MAYTT: What is your view on Steven Seagal; did he help the aikido/martial arts industry with his movies in the late 1980s and early 1990s or have things been slightly blown out of proportion regarding his contributions? Where do you see Steven Seagal fitting into the American aikido picture?
GK: Seagal’s first movie was great for Aikido! It gave the art exposure that it had never had. When I tell people that I teach aikido, I sometimes still get the response “that’s what Steven Seagal does!” When his movies first came out, we did demonstrations in movie lobbies and would sit in the front rows calling out the techniques – “Ikkyo! Sankyo!” Unfortunately, as Mr. Seagal came to believe in his own Hollywood myth, his movies (and his aikido) devolved into something that is barely recognizable to most senior aikidoka.
MAYTT: Though our world has taken on a somewhat digital persona in recent years, there are many people who are still drawn to the traditional ways. Why do you think Americans continue to train in Japanese martial arts? What is the allure?
GK: American culture has to a large extent, devolved into a consumerist, largely virtual culture. Individuals are increasingly disengaged from society, each other and, sometimes, objective reality itself. The benefits of belonging to a tradition with roots in a culture that does not separate the physical world from the spiritual holds much appeal for those who are not comfortable with that western false dichotomy. In Western culture, one goes to a gym to train the body, a school to train the mind, and a house of worship to engage the spirit. In aikido, all of those elements are incorporated into one practice thus making it an antidote to the toxic side effects of the modern western lifestyle.
MAYTT: Martials arts and budo are often linked together, however, they defined entirely different. What are your thoughts on aikido being a budo versus a martial art? What is the distinction?
GK: O-Sensei, and his direct students under whom I have trained, was unequivocal on this. Aiki is indeed budo. Of course, it has evolved to be something more, we hope, than just an effective method of self-defense. But if our practice is divorced from the concept of life and death – and the very real possibility of physical injury – then we are doing a disservice to the art and it will eventually become just another new age fad. Some schools emphasize the “martial” aspect of aikido. For example, if you have ever seen or, better yet, experienced Chiba Sensei’s aikido, you would have no question about the art’s martial effectiveness!
Other schools emphasize the “art” of aikido, like Koichi Tohei’s Shin Shin Toitsu style. In my opinion, one can go too far in either direction. For the sake of the future, we as instructors must always walk the fine line between the two perspectives. In other words, if aikido is not BOTH martial and an art, it is neither.
MAYTT: The things we do throughout life shape the person we are today. How has aikido influenced your life?
GK: Wow! I would need to write an entire book on this subject someday! Aikido literally changed the course of my life. I cannot think of a single aspect of my life that has not been positively impacted by my practice. It led me to successfully integrate the opposing parts of my personality i.e.; the peaceful/non-competitive part of me that is committed to non-violence and the part of me that seeks to live and active and powerful lifestyle. Aikido led me to return to graduate school in my 50s earning a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution. It has helped me in every personal relationship I have had and impacts everything from raising my children to how I drive my car. In short, I would not be the person that I am, had I not discovered this path. Since I cannot repay my teachers for this gift, I strive every day to pass along this wonderful art to new generations. This is my life’s work.
MAYTT: Thank you again Kennedy Sensei, for the exploration in the early days of the USAF!
GK: Thanks for this opportunity to contribute to your project. I hope this is of some value to your readers!
To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.