Interview with Aikido Shimbokukai Founder Lisa Tomoleoni: Aikido Training and Future

Lisa Tomoleoni, founder of Aikido Shimbokukai, began her aikido training in the early 1990s and traveled to Japan shortly after. In her time there, she trained under both Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Third Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. Upon returning America, she co-published Along the Way with Michelle Tate. In this interview, we discuss her initial years of training, her time in Japan, and aspects of the art’s future. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.  

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello Lisa Tomoleoni Sensei! Thank you for being here with us!

Lisa Tomoleoni: Thank you for inviting me!

MAYTT: How and when did you get involved in aikido? What was your martial arts background before aikido?

LT: I started training in aikido in the very early 1990s. I had no other martial arts training before that.

MAYTT: What drew you to aikido as opposed to other martial arts and activities that were readily available at the time?

LT: I liked that I could learn to take care of myself without having to cause more violence in the world. I liked the aspect of ukemi.

Lisa Tomoleoni Sensei instructing at an Asahikan Dojo seminar in 2017

MAYTT: How were martial arts viewed in America when you first started training? Why do you think they were viewed that way?

LT: I’m not sure how they were viewed when I first started training. I was very inexperienced and knew nothing about any martial arts.

MAYYT: What was aikido like in America? How did people view aikido compared to other martial arts? Has that view changed?

LT: Like I said previously, I was inexperienced and didn’t know much about the martial arts. My experience was based solely on the dojo I began training in. We, the students, were discouraged from visiting other dojo, so I can’t comment on how people viewed aikido compared to other arts.

MAYTT: That seems like it could hinder an aikidoka’s growth and awareness of the larger aikido community. Why were you discouraged form visiting other aikido schools? Was it your instructor or higher-ranking students that discouraged the idea?

LT: Our instructor felt that people should dedicate themselves to their home dojo, and not go to other places.

MAYTT: When did you go to Japan? What was the desire to go to Japan? Did that desire ultimately get fulfilled?

LT: The desire did get fulfilled! I went to Japan a couple years after I began training, so still in the early part of 1990s. I wanted to experience aikido as close to its roots as possible. I had a lot of questions. I’m a reader, and read a lot of books about aikido, which raised my interest in the Japanese culture.

MAYTT: How was the aikido in Japan different from the aikido in America? Did the students have a different perspective? Were there any similarities between the two countries’ aikido? How so?

LT: In my experience, the training at Hombu Dojo differed by the sheer number of people training. There were many more people on the mat than I was accustomed to. Students seemed to train more vigorously at Hombu Dojo than I was used to. Also, there were many, many more higher-ranking people on the mat than I was used to. Other than the vigorous training, there were similarities in the etiquette and in the execution of technique.

MAYTT: Interesting how the two countries view training so differently. What was it like training at Hombu Dojo under the both the second and third Doshu?

LT: Wonderful! Both were/are experts, and very giving people. Their classes were inspiring and exciting to me.

MAYTT: What was it like being an American woman in Japan, in a male-dominated martial art?

LT: I didn’t notice much discrimination. I recall seeing some women treated differently, but they weren’t training a lot or very hard compared to others. I saw women who trained hard treated in the same manner as men who trained hard.

Tomoleoni Sensei overlooking a children’s class an Asahikan Dojo seminar in 2017.

MAYTT: What prompted you to return to America, Sensei?

LT: Family reasons brought me back to the U.S.

MAYTT: I see. When and where did you open your first dojo? Did you find it difficult to enroll and maintain students during a time when aikido was not well known? Has your original vision of the dojo changed since its opening?

LT: My first dojo I opened in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Yes, it was difficult to start, as any new endeavor is. My original vision has changed somewhat since first opening. I’ve become a less rigid in my training and teaching, and less harsh or severe in training. Also, recently I’ve relocated to San Diego to help out a dojo there, so my senior students in Illinois are teaching classes in my absence. I return for one week each month and teach.

MAYTT: At the time, what was your average student like? Did you see any similarities in your students to yourself when you were a new student? Has your average student changed from then to today?

LT: The average age of our students is mid-thirties. I see very similar people compared to when I started. I don’t think there’s been much change from then to now. Maybe one change is people seem busier, so work and family don’t allow for training every day, let alone multiple hours in a day.

MAYTT: Between your dojo in Chicago and dojo in San Diego, do you see any similarities or differences between each locations’ students? For example, do students in one dojo train harder than the other or is the overall age of students enrolling the same between the two schools?

LT: You know, ever dojo has its own “flavor,” if you will. The training is never the same in any two places. The students in each dojo will take on the feeling of the instructor’s or instructors’ approach to training. Having said that, I don’t think it’s about better or worse, just different. And differences are good!

MAYTT: When did you form the Aikido Shimbokukai? What was the driving factor? Who else was involved in the founding of the organization?

LT: Aikido Shimbokukai was formed in 2005. The driving factor was that we become a group of more than one dojo. A student of ours started another location, and a few other dojo asked to join with us, so we needed some further structure to function as a group.

MAYTT: What are the goals of Aikido Shimbokukai? Do you feel you are moving in the direction of completing those goals?

LT: The goals of Aikido Shimbokukai are to provide support to our members and a connection to the Aikikai and Hombu Dojo, and to empower our members to develop their own aikido in the manner they wish. I do feel we are accomplishing those goals.

MAYTT: What actions have the organization taken in light of the recent COVID-19 outbreak and almost complete shutdown of the country?

LT: Dojo are closed due to COVID-19. We have canceled many seminars, both dojo seminars and organization seminars. We have created a Facebook group for our member dojo instructors, so they can exchange ideas, conversation, share videos, etc. We are trying our best to keep community feeling going, even in these times where we cannot gather together.

MAYTT: In 2014, you co-published a book with fellow aikidoka Michelle Tate Sensei entitled Along the Way. What aspect of your training inspired you to co-publish a book?

LT: Tate Sensei was the driving force behind that book, asking me to create it with her, as our students had been asking about my experiences in Japan for years. The book was created as an expression of gratitude to our teachers and to the art of aikido.

MAYTT: Would you say there has been a decrease in American aikidoka since the late 2000s? Where would you place the starting point of decrease, if there is at all? What do you think the reason for decreasing aikidoka numbers in America?

LT: It seems that there has been a decrease in the number of people training in recent years in the U.S. I think the reasons for that may be the difficult financial situation many people are experiencing since the 2008 Recession. Disposable income is limited, and people are working longer hours. Also, I think the prevalence of electronic media and the like has adversely affected people’s desire to go out and do activity. Additionally, an art such as aikido, which takes years to master, seems a different path from today’s immediacy-oriented society.

MAYTT: I can see how that would affect potential aikidoka. Who or what else do you feel has impacted your training the most?

LT: My training has been impacted by many, many people. These include all the teachers I’ve been fortunate enough to learn from, especially Kisshomaru Ueshiba Doshu and Moriteru Ueshiba Doshu, and Mitsuteru Ueshiba Hombu Dojo-cho. Also included in the people who have impacted my training are my sempai, both here in the U.S. and in Japan, and my kohai. I’ve learned from everyone I’ve trained with, and without them could not have had opportunities to train or to grow. I’m grateful to everyone I’ve ever met in aikido, for various reasons

MAYTT: Why do you think Americans continue to have a fascination with Japanese martial arts?

LT: Honestly, I have absolutely no idea why. For me, aikido brings a richness to my life, and enhances my life. It helps me to grow I many ways and become a better person. It gives me the opportunity to look at my weaknesses – my ego, my fears, my anxieties, my dysfunctions – and to make changes to how I handle myself and how I interact with others.

MAYTT: What are your views on competitive aikido?

LT: I’ve trained in judo and in iaido so have experienced competitions before. I don’t think they are bad. I think they can offer opportunities for some good experience and good development. I think that sometimes what people do with competitions isn’t necessarily a positive thing.

MAYTT: How would you respond to statements regarding aikido as a “fake” and “invalid” martial art? How can the new generation of aikido disprove these statements?

LT: I think that if we are going to say aikido is a martial art, then we need to ensure that it is effective as such, and it’s up to the current generation to pass that on to the new generation. However, we would need to be careful about fitting aikido into the modern era. There is a major possibility that we might lose what makes aikido uniquely aikido in the process of modernizing.

MAYTT: I see. Sensei, what do you think the instructors of today should instill in the students – the instructors of tomorrow? What should they be equipped with to sustain and further disseminate aikido?

LT: I think the instructors of today should instill in the students, the instructors of tomorrow, a desire to train hard. “Training hard” means different things to different people, of course. I also think it’s important to encourage people for the future, and to give younger instructors opportunities to grow, but at the same time it’s important not to lose our tradition – our history. I think that the instructors of today must empower the up and coming folks and be willing to give them opportunities and guidance. This is the only way aikido will sustain.

MAYTT: Final Question Sensei. Given your experience in aikido and being a dojo-cho during a time when digital technologies were becoming more accessible, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to open a dojo today?

LT: I don’t know much, but some advice would be to make sure you have someone on hand who can navigate the digital technology. I think that we are at a place where we need to be facile with more than a website. Online classes are here, due to COVID-19 especially, and I think they will be here for some time. We need to find a way to bridge traditional training with modern training. I’m not talking only about technique, but also transmission methods.

MAYTT: Thank you for discussing your aikido journey with us today!

LT: It was an enjoyable experience! Thank you for the opportunity.

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

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