In an effort to better understand the happenings and key characters in aikido’s history in the American Midwest, Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow reached out to Kevin Bradley Sensei to discuss his instructor, Gilbert James Sensei, and Yoshinkan Aikido. All images provided by Kevin Bradley.
MAYTT: Welcome Kevin Bradley Sensei! I appreciate you taking the time to talk.
Kevin Bradley: Thank you for having me. I hope what we discuss here today will help.
MAYTT: According to the Fox Valley Yoshinkai Aikido website, you began aikido in 1983. How did you find aikido?
KB: I had read a book by Eric von Lustbader called The Ninja (1980), which was the first in eight books that he had written about a character who was a modern-day assassin and knew Aikido.
MAYTT: Can you tell me about your sensei, Gilbert James? How and when did he find aikido?
KB: I can only relate from stories he told me, so this is all based on recollection. James Sensei was athletic and proficient in Judo before he found Aikido. Unfortunately, he had to travel for a lot of his training as Chicago was certainly not a hub for the Yoshinkan style, which he obviously liked.
MAYTT: In a short blurb on Yoshikan Aikido in 1982, Black Belt Magazine mentions that a Robert Hackett Sensei was a contemporary of James Sensei. Can you tell me about Hackett Sensei and his possible relation with James Sensei?
KB: Robert Hackett Sensei was a close friend of James Sensei. He was a slightly built, gentle, and soft-spoken man who had an eloquence about him both personally and in his technique. He was so quiet, but quick and effective. Some people would call him “Black Shioda.” [Laughs]
MAYTT: James Sensei was one of the founding members of the Midwest Yoshinkan Aikido Association (MYAA) and many Chicago-based aikido schools consider him a pioneer of Yoshinkin Aikido in the Midwest. What do you feel were some of James Sensei’s deeds in spreading aikido throughout the Midwest?
KB: He would do a demonstration anywhere, in any condition, at any time. I recall even getting thrown off of a stage by him once because our space was so limited, and I wasn’t great at controlled breakfalls just yet. He also was true in his quest to bring the art into underserved communities. I think he would have had a successful commercial dojo had he not stayed in the areas where we had classes. But that was not him and it was not what motivated him. He also was not an organizational “snob” as I recall there was joint admiration and fondness between him and Fumio Toyoda Sensei as well as a local Aikijutsu club that practiced with us on occasion.
MAYTT: How did James Sensei’s and Toyoda Sensei’s respective students view each other? Was it in the same vein of admiration and fondness or was it an “us versus them” mentality?
KB: Please know that we had the greatest respect for Toyoda Sensei and Tohei Sensei. Gilbert Sensei had an actual friendship with Toyoda Sensei but not Tohei Sensei, but don’t read anything into that. It’s just the way it was and I’m not even sure how they met.
There was no rift or “us versus them.” Gilbert Sensei worked, lived, and taught on the South Side of Chicago. Toyoda Sensei’s dojo was on the North Side. It was just geography and circumstances. Nothing political, no rivalry. The other thing is, James Sensei was not a full-time teacher. He worked full time for the US Postal Service as did Hackett Sensei. He didn’t have his own, full-time dojo like Toyoda Sensei and Tohei Sensei had.
MAYTT: From your perspective, what did James Sensei hope to accomplish with the MYAA? Were there any “roadblocks,” so to speak, with achieving those goals?
KB: I think this is where Sensei struggled a little bit. On the one hand, he wanted to see the organization grow. He wanted us to stay true to the Honbu curriculum and ways of doing things. But he was also a stickler for detail and unlike some clubs, he did not produce a lot of black belts who would then go out and form satellite schools. So that stunted the growth part of his vision, in my opinion. I may have been the first one of his students to actually go out and form another club.
MAYTT: What prompted you to begin your own school, Meishinkan Dojo, in 1999? How has that reason or purpose changed twenty-one years later?
KB: Some of it was geography. I had moved about an hour from Chicago. I went to an Aikikai dojo for a while, long enough to reach Ikkyu actually, but was drawn back to Yoshinkan, so I trudged into the city and kept studying. As a brown belt, I started to teach a class for kids with developmental disabilities in my town, and during a visit to Japan, I had a chance to talk to the then Dojo-cho, Kyoichi Inoue Shihan and then later Kazuo Chida Sensei. They liked that my first class was for kids with special needs and that my doors were open to any practitioner of any style, as long as they came in with shoshin or beginner’s mind.
Not much has changed over the years except for the fact that we are not a wildly popular art when everyone either wants to fight in a cage, or get a black belt in a short period of time, and I can’t provide either one of those things.
MAYTT: Also considered a pioneer in the few sources on him, Amos Lee Parker Sensei helped spread and establish Yoshinkan Aikido in the Midwest. Was there any contact between Parker Sensei and James Sensei and/or their respective schools?
KB: Parker Sensei helped to spread the art, but I think in different parts of the county. He was a tireless traveler and was brought to many places to do clinics and establish schools. He and James Sensei were very friendly with each other and had great respect for each other. I think they both really liked the fact that they had additional martial backgrounds.
MAYTT: In my research, it seems that Yoshinkan practitioners form their own organizations within other organizations. Parker Sensei was no different, founding his own, the Aikido Yoshinkan Yoseikai (AYY). In your opinion, what were some of Parker Sensei’s intentions for his AYY and do you think he achieved them?
KB: I honestly can’t speak to that. James Sensei was very much a traditionalist and only wanted to be part of the Honbu organization and not really form his own. The MYAA was more of an administrative model.
MAYTT: Who else would you consider as instrumental in pioneering aikido in the Midwest? How did they spread aikido that would garner the label of pioneer?
KB: As I said, I left Yoshinkan for a while and was part of the Aikikai group that was led by Koichi Tohei Sensei, who had a pretty large following as did Toyoda Sensei. Both of them were on the North Side of Chicago and we were on the South Side. Both groups are still around, with Steven Toyoda carrying on his father’s legacy.
MAYTT: From your recollection, what stands as one of the most valuable lessons James taught?
KB: Humility. He always would say that once I got my black belt, all that would mean is that I would then know what I don’t know. He never believed in “chasing rank,” and I have to say that I am eternally grateful to Takeshi Kimeda Sensei in Toronto for getting Honbu to bestow the rank of rokudan to Sensei James posthumously. He humbly taught and participated as a godan for so many years and never complained when others were getting promoted.
MAYTT: Final question, based on your experience of teaching and training, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to open a dojo today?
KB: Great question! I would say to meet people where they are. In other words, push them to what they can accomplish, not what you want to force them to accomplish. Some people can’t do flips/breakfalls. Some people can’t sit in seiza. But everyone can try. That’s all I ever ask. Try and give me your best spirit.
MAYTT: Thank you for your participation, Bradley Sensei!
KB: It was a pleasure. Again, I hope what I have said helps further your understanding of Yoshinkan Aikido in the Midwest and James Sensei.
To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.