Interview with George Clark: Aikido in Florida

A martial artist for sixty-one years, Florida aikidoka George Clark Sensei took the time to talk to Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow about his journey through many different aspects of the martial arts and the growth of aikido in Florida. The interview was conducted in the summer of 2018 for research of my upcoming American aikido history book. All images provided by Clark Sensei. 

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello George Clark Sensei! Thank you for joining us today.

George Clark: Thank you for having me! I’m always happy to discuss aikido with you.

MAYTT: To begin, when did you first come into contact with martial arts? How did society view martial arts around the time you began training?

GC: My first experience with martial arts came in 1959, when I visited a Shotokan Karate dojo in Uniontown, PA. I was fascinated with the class and decided at that time to learn as much about martial arts as I could.

The general public was really ignorant about martial arts at that time. Most practitioners were former military and had the opportunity to study in Japan or Okinawa.

MAYTT: When and where did you begin your aikido training? What was the training like then?

GC: It was 1967, while serving in the United States Air Force (USAF) and stationed on Miyakojima, Okinawa, I had my first encounter with aikido. I was studying two styles of karate at the time. One of my sensei was Roy Suenaka (founder of Wadokai Aikido) who was also a senior yadansha in aikido and had been an uchideshi at the Hombu Dojo. He began teaching me aikido. Unfortunately, he had a change of duty and left Miyakojima to finish his tour on mainland Okinawa, so my training was cut short.

Aikido training was much harder back then. More emphasis was placed on atemi and self-defense. Many of today’s aikido schools seem to exaggerate the flowing and harmony aspects much more. The martial aspect is being neglected and watered down to a point where the techniques have become ineffective as self-defense.

MAYTT: It is interesting that you pointed out that aspect. How did aikido training differ from your other martial arts training? Did find that aspects from aikido enhanced or improved other training and/or vice versa?

GC: Let me preface my answer by saying that the body can only move in so many ways. It is obvious that many of the movements of not only karate, but all other martial arts, are similar in many ways. I personally feel that aikido is a superior martial art. If you observe older karateka, you will see that their execution of technique begins to look more and more like aikido. Rather than removing the attack from the attack line with a strong force, there is more taisabaki (body movement) and ashisabaki (foot movement) involved. Thusly, the attack is redirected with a minimal force being used and more of a connection being established. This also allows for greater control. Many karateka have practiced aikido with me and still do. Most feel that aikido benefits their karate study and enhances their technique.

MAYTT: That is interesting that everything is similar in martial arts. How have you seen martial arts training as a whole change since you began your training? How have you seen aikido training change since you began? If so, how?

GC: With martial arts training in general, the vast majority of facilities that offer martial training are only concerned with making money and not the quality of instruction. The idea of nin, or patience, is no longer a part of our society. People want instant gratification including trophies, belts, rank, and certificates. Their training is made easy so that they will remain as a paying customer. The vast majority looks upon martial training, as a hobby, like tennis, basketball, or bowling and not a way of life. As for aikido, people study for many different reasons, which in itself is fine, but it must be remembered that aikido is first and foremost a martial art and should be taught and studied as such. When teaching at a seminar or my regular class, I find it amazing that students do not know how to kick or punch and those that do are afraid to do so. The general weakness that is growing in aikido and other martial arts seems due to the feelings of society in general. People want things handed to them and feel that they deserve everything without working for it.

MAYTT: Could you tell me about your first instructor, Roy Suenaka Sensei? What was he like as an instructor compared to those you had the chance to learn from later in your training?

GC: I became friends with Roy Suenaka while we were both stationed on Miyakojima. I started studying karate with him. One day, he showed me some aikido techniques. It was much different than anything that I had studied before. I instantly knew that aikido was what I wanted to continue to study. Shortly thereafter, Roy left Miyakojima and began a tour of duty on mainland Okinawa. Roy was a dedicated martial artist in every respect. He was a good instructor and very knowledgeable in many different arts. The Suenaka Family is well known in the martial arts in Hawaii. I believe he was the first non-Japanese to open a dojo on mainland Okinawa, near Naha Air Base.

MAYTT: Who do you feel was a big influence on your aikido during your initial training years?

GC: This question is difficult to answer as there were so many great practitioners that I had the privilege to train with and learn from. I have also learned that regardless of rank and time training, we can all learn from each other. Some aikidoka that I trained with and influenced my aikido were: Roy Suenaka, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Mitsugi Saotome, Hitohiro Saito, Mitsunari Kanai, Henry Kono, Morito Suganuma, Edward Baker, Andy Demko. Thomas Walker, Dennis Hooker and Minoru Oshima. These are a few of the many that come to mind. I would also like to say that not only my aikido but almost everybody I have ever met that was involved with aikido, has been greatly influenced by Stanley Pranin. He was an historian as well as a practitioner that published the Aiki News and Aikido Journal. His impact is still being felt today and will continue to be felt for many years to come.

MAYTT: Absolutely. What do you feel is the driving factor that continues to motivate you to train aikido? Is that the same factor that originally drove you to aikido in the beginning?

GC: I guess you could say the driving factor for me to pursue aikido was to become so technical proficient that I could control and overcome anyone that attacked me. I soon learned that true victory is victory over oneself (masakatsu agatsu). We can train forever but will never be able to control others. Today, I’m happy to feel that I’ve become a better person through aikido training and my driving factor is to become an even better person.

MAYTT: Who do you feel were the most instrumental/influential of American practitioners, in those early days, to help pioneer aikido and the art’s development in the States?

GC: After being discharged from the USAF, I attended Youngstown State University in Ohio. It was there that I met and practiced aikido with Andy Demko. It was a small club with only about five members. The classes were hard and tiring but everyone was excited to train and learn. I still remember the energy level that each class had. I neglected to say that all the members were yudansha except me, so it was a great learning experience for me. After graduating, I moved to Florida. Almost immediately, I found that there was an aikido class near where I lived. Ed Baker, one of the senior aikidoka in Florida at the time, taught this class. I joined the class and studied with Baker sensei for about twenty years. As ranking yudansha, Baker and Thomas (“Doc”) Walker both had a strong impact on aikido in Florida. One of Baker’s students that was instrumental in bringing Mitsugi Saotome to Florida in 1975. That changed aikido forever in the United States.

Thomas Walker
Thomas “Doc” Walker.

MAYTT: Apparently, Andy Demko Sensei and those around him first learned aikido from a book. How true is this peculiar historical aikido fact and, if true, did you how did his aikido and those under him compare to aikidoka that learned from a sensei in person?

GC: Andy Demko, his wife Patty, and a few others were practicing aikido near campus. I joined the group and we enjoyed training together for a period of time before graduation. We used to view old black-and-white videos of O-Sensei, but I never saw learning from a book take place. Andy had a number of aikido books as we all did, but I believe they were used for better understanding of technique and terminology. At this time, Yoshimitsu Yamada was the head of the American Aikido Federation and this group was under him. Each person develops his or her own aikido from their own experiences through training and, although that aspect is similar, each outcome is different. All I can say is that Demko Sensei has solid and strong aikido and it was a pleasure to train with him.

MAYTT: How was Andy Demko Sensei as an instructor compared to that of your first instructor, Roy Suenaka, and later instructors you had the privilege of training under?

GC: Again, each aikidoka is different in his own way. Roy Suenaka was already a very experienced practitioner at this time while Andy Demko was just beginning to scratch the surface of his lifetime study. This in itself makes it hard to compare the tow. Also, their body types are much different; Andy being a tall, big man, while Roy being of a more average height and size.

MAYTT: Taking a few steps back, what made Ed Baker Sensei and Thomas Walker Sensei stand out from others?

GC: Both Baker and Walker were great practitioners and teachers. They were also gentlemen in their own ways. They were dedicated to aikido and traditional keiko. Their aikido was very different, their principals and concepts were the same. Ed was a large, round, rough and tough ex-submarine sailor with a judo background while Tom was a short man, a little more sophisticated and on the small lean side.  He was a dentist, grew bonsai and did ikebana.

MAYTT: It may be obvious but by research uncovered Walker Sensei as a leading aikido pioneer in Florida. It seems you had plenty meetups with him; could you tell me more about him?

GC: Doc Walker was a good friend and I trained many times with him at the Sand Drift dojo in Titusville. As stated previously, he was a dentist in Titusville, Florida and enjoyed growing bonsai. He also enjoyed ikebana (flower arranging). He was also my dentist for many years. I have been an avid collector of Japanese swords and fittings and Doc also had an interest in this hobby. He came to my home in Orlando and I sold him a tanto. This was his first samurai sword. He loved to do tanto dori and wore a large belt buckle that housed a hidden knife. His students can still be found throughout Florida and one has a dojo in Rockledge.

MAYTT: Speaking of Japanese swords and fittings, you have amassed quite a collection. What sparked the interest in collecting and are there any plans to display your collection via books, museums, or other means of publication?

GC: That’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t really know the answer. I became absorbed in Japanese culture while stationed in Okinawa. The bokken and tanto, as well as the jo, are used in aikido training. I wanted to have a real sword and feel the difference from a wooden one. I guess this led to me wanting more and more. Although the swords are similar, each is different in feel. Some seem heavy while others cut almost by themselves. at this stage of my collecting, I primarily collect kinko tosogu (fittings made of soft metals rather than iron). There are so many different schools and types that one could study two lifetimes and still not grasp all the fascinating details that seem to come to life

I have written one book, Kinko Tsuba and Tosogu, and may do another in the future. I exhibit and lecture at some sword shows and some of my collection has been on display at both the Appleton Museum and the Murikami Museum. Both of these museums are in Florida.

MAYTT: Being on the East Coast, how did you see aikido grow and evolve? In what ways did American aikidoka differ from their Japanese counterparts?

George Clark Sensei (left) with Mitsugi Saotome (right) after a seminar.

GC: The biggest growth in aikido for the East Coast was when Mitsugi. Saotome Sensei arrived in Florida. Up until that time, Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei had control of the east coast representing the Aikikai in Tokyo. He was senior aikidoka for the east coast. The Aikikai had divided the U.S. into three sections: west coast, central and east coast with each area having their own senior representative. At that time both Yamada Sensei and Saotome Sensei were both uchideshi at the Hombu Dojo and the same rank. This put a stained relationship with the Hombu Dojo and Yamada Sensei. Saotome Sensei left the Hombu Dojo and formed his own organization, Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU) that began to grow rapidly. Our group under Baker had been with Yamada and the American Aikido Federation, now the United States Aikido Federation. Baker decided to go with Saotome Sensei and so did much of Florida. Saotome Sensei then left Florida and moved to Washington D.C. so we were without his close training. Later, Saotome Sensei rejoined the Aikikai with Yamada Sensei still heading the United States Aikido Federation. Regardless of the political problems that arose from this situation, aikido grew substantially in Florida during that time.

As to the Japanese and American differences in aikido, I did not see any in my training. The techniques were the same, but the teaching was a little different. In the U.S., Americans asked more questions while with the Japanese, there was only learning by doing.  There also seemed to be an attitude of betterment with the Japanese. It was as though you were allowed to train but you really did not deserve it. O-Sensei said, “I will teach you nothing. What you learn you must steal from me.” This was more relevant back in the early years. Now, things are more on par.

MAYTT: I see how that way of thinking can create an elitist attitude. What was some of the factors that made Baker Sensei and other Florida schools leave the United States Aikido Federation for Saotome Sensei’s ASU?

GC: I was training under Edward Baker and where he went, I went. I personally feel that the change from the American Aikido Federation to the ASU was a matter of logistics. It was difficult to have more than a couple of visits from Yamada Sensei each year from training and Saotome Sensei was then living in Florida, where it was much easier to visit him or schedule seminars.

MAYTT: How did you see Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei and/or the United States Aikido Federation’s role in developing aikido along the East Coast?

GC: Yamada Sensei has done a great job in establishing a strong aikido presence not only on the east coast but throughout the U.S. and many other countries. I have attended many seminars with him and have never been disappointed with the outcome. He is always enthusiastic, friendly, and willing to share his views and techniques of aikido. Other than a name change (American Aikido Federation to United States Aikido Federation), I have not seen any major changes in Federation or in the organization. The New York Aikikai is well respected and continues to generate many senior aikido practitioners. The testing standards are very similar to those in Japan at the Hombu Dojo and to my knowledge, little or no weapons training is done at the majority of United States Aikido Federation schools.

MAYTT: Outside of the United States Aikido Federation, were you aware of any influential American-led/formed aikido organizations that helped the spread of aikido during that time?

GC: Other than the United States Aikido Federation, I feel that the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba have had the greatest impact on aikido in the United States. Although Saotome Sensei is Japanese, he was brought over by Don McIntyre from the Sarasota aikido dojo. This school had no yudansha and made trips to Orlando to study with Ed Baker’s group. Don proposed to Ed that while on a trip to Japan he would try to find an aikido sensei that was willing to relocate to Sarasota to live and teach. Ed gave Don his blessing and he left for Japan. Don’s initial thought was to try and find a shodan or nidan to teach at their school. He returned with Saotome Sensei and the rest is history. Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei had studied with Saotome Sensei in Japan and soon followed him to Florida. He then moved to Boulder, Colorado, began teaching aikido and opened a new business called Bujin. Although the business closed a few years ago, Ikeda sensei is still teaching and doing seminars the US. He was recently at the Shindai Dojo in Orlando.

MAYTT: On the topic of martial arts organizations, when we compare aikido to other Japanese martial art organizations (judo, jujutsu, karate-do, etc.), there are many stand-alone American organizations. Why do you think there is not a stand-alone American aikido organization? Do you think America needs a stand-alone organization and do you feel it could survive on its own? If not, why do you feel it would not?

GC: In answering your first question, I will also attempt to answer your second question as well. If I define a “stand-alone” dojo as a self-made independent dojo with no ties of affiliations to or with anyone else. I must express my opinion that there are really no “stand-alone” martial art organizations in America or anywhere else that are of any significance, regardless of the type or style. Many organizations pop up but are very short lived. Anyone can open a dojo or martial arts training facility but soon their linage comes into question. There are a few independent family schools in existence, and they are primarily karate. Their linage has been handed down through family members from one generation to the next. Aikido, although being a relatively new martial art, has many styles and differences but all have the same linage. The Aikikai in Tokyo under the leadership of the Ueshiba family is the largest Aikido organization in the world and all styles result from there in some way. Many independent organizations are still affiliated with the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in some way and have received their training from someone or a student of someone from there. Those groups that have broken away from the Aikikai and have become totally independent of the Aikikai. These students/groups originally received their background training in some way from that organization. In trying to establish an American “stand-alone” organization, the background and linage of this group would revert back to the original teachings of the Aikikai and become nothing more than another independent group.

MAYTT: What is your view on Steven Seagal? Did he help the aikido/martial arts industry with his movies in the late 80s and early 90s as many claim? How do you see Steven Seagal fitting into American aikido history?

GC: Yes, I feel that Steven Seagal’s early movies had an impact on aikido by generating an interest in learning a new martial art. Many people associate aikido with him because of his movies and their lack of knowledge about aikido history. So far as fitting in to American aikido history, Seagal did for aikido what Chuck Norris did for karate. They both brought their arts into the public view. This in itself helped to create an interest in many people who were previously unfamiliar with aikido and karate. I do feel that Seagal has been followed with controversy about his promiscuous lifestyle and has lived under its cloud for many years. Many may respect him as an actor but few as an aikido shihan. It is assumed that one’s integrity should also be considered before achieving the status of shihan.

MAYTT: That’s an interesting take on Seagal’s place in aikido history. Why do you think Americans continue to train in Japanese martial arts even though the arts’ popularity has decreased in recent years?

GC: With those that have been training in aikido for many years, it has become a way of life. It has nothing to do with popularity or fitting into society’s mold. Many continue to train to keep tradition alive and help preserve the art. Many train simply to help maintain their health and flexibility through aikido’s principles and concepts. Fads and trends come and go with time but the study of improving oneself will continue throughout life.

MAYTT: With that in mind, do you feel aikido has impacted your life on a grand scale? How so?

GC: Martial arts including aikido have greatly affected my life. Although my reasons for studying martial arts may have changed with the years my interest has only grown with age. I feel that aikido has truly become a way of life because what is learned in the dojo is not left in the dojo but brought into the light with all that you do. Your training has in essence become who you are. Everything about you will change and develop with continued training. This includes physically socially, emotionally and mentally. Your outlook and philosophy on like will be changed forever and you become one with your environment. Aikido has brought me nin (patience) as I tell my students it only takes two lifetimes to master aikido and find satori (enlightenment).

In addition, aikido embodies the essence of budo. I understand budo as a martial art that is studied and practiced to improve oneself. Budo is derived from bujutsu whose primary objective is combat. Reigi-saho or dojo etiquette is taught and maintained throughout all aikido classes. One must learn self-respect before respecting others. On the streets, as well as in the dojo, rules must be followed. Through aikido training, one develops respect for themselves and others and are better able to accept life’s many challenges with a positive outlook.

MAYTT: Thank you, Clark Sensei, talking about some interesting facets and people in aikido’s history.

GC: It’s been my pleasure! You made me think a lot! [Laughs]

To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.

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