Interview with Sam Combes: Yoshinkan Aikido in Southern California Part I

Currently holding the rank of nanadan in Yoshinkan Aikido and teaching at the Kadokan Dojo, Sam Combes began his aikido journey in 1963, in Hawaii, studying under Yukio Noguchi. After moving to Norwalk, California in 1967, he began his own school and has stayed within the Los Angeles area for more than thirty years. In this transcript of the interview, done in summer of 2017, Combes Sensei discusses his time in California, his first instructor, and his organization, Aikido Yoshinkai of California. This the first part of a two-part interview. You can read the second part here. All images provided by Sam Combes. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.  

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello Sam Combes Sensei! Thank you for coming out to talk about aikido!

Sam Combes: I am grateful to be a part of this project.

MAYTT: How and when did you get involved in aikido, Combes Sensei?

SC: I started aikido in the Police Academy, at the Honolulu Police Department in 1963. They had two hours of judo every day, and at the end of the day, they began to insert techniques that were not judo. The sensei, who was also a sergeant with the police department, said that these techniques were from aikido. And as I started to see the techniques of judo were kind of complex for my understanding because I was a beginner, I realized that that might not be my forte. But I saw aikido as – not to sound too corny – something I could grow old with and still be able to do things. That sort of focused my attention from the beginning.

Then, after I graduated, of course, I didn’t have the chance to partake in martial arts for a while until I met a fellow in my police department. This fellow was George Clemente. He came onto the force after me and he started taking aikido. George took me and introduced me to Yukio Noguchi Sensei. He was training and either had a black belt or was close to achieving one in Yoshinkai Aikido. That was the tradition of the old martial arts – you had to be introduced to someone’s instructor. So, he took me to the dojo and introduced me to Noguchi Sensei, I was accepted, and we started working out shortly.

Since the police department required me to work graveyard shift or really late hours, I went to the morning class a lot of times. This class was mostly filled with businessmen, taxi drivers, and other people in those lines of work. It was a smaller group but a more advanced group, so I slightly privileged to be training with these practitioners. But nonetheless, they were very dedicated because they would come in during their day off or a couple hour’s break to work out. I have a very interesting memory from that class: one of my partners chipped my tooth in yonkajo – you might call it yonkyo. What was ironic was my partner was a dentist was a dentist but didn’t offer to fix my tooth, but that’s, nonetheless.

A quick side note on yonkajo; it’s my favorite technique. I’ve used in police work and I’ve used it a lot. Some people don’t even teach it. A good friend of mine doesn’t teach it because he said he doesn’t work. He’s a police officer, retired too, but somehow, in his development, he didn’t get the confidence in using it. Police officers deal with drunks and drunks don’t respond to anything so you have different or varying degrees of compliance in the law enforcement. Through the years, I have made it a goal of mine to study yonkajo more and it’s still handy!

MAYTT: That’s an interesting take on yonkyo! How were martial arts viewed in America when you first started training? Why do you think they were viewed that way?

SC: When I first did martial arts growing up in Hawaii, martial arts were a way of life. Most people at the younger age took some form of martial arts, be it the Chinese style; Gung Fu/Kung Fu, or the judo or karate. There was a healthy aspect of martial arts in Honolulu. I remember that the martial arts were revered by most and were almost a way of life. There were mostly Japanese and Chinese arts, then some Hawaiian Kapu Kuialua, and then there was an art that was developed by more of a Filipino group called Kajukenbo, which was a combination of karate, judo/jujutsu, kenpo, and boxing. Kajukenbo practitioners used their style as a very aggressive art and is still today a very popular art in Hawaii and elsewhere and still a very aggressive art.

MAYTT: You mentioned previously that your first aikido instructor was Yukio Noguchi Sensei. Can you tell me about him and how he impacted your training?

Yukio Noguchi, early 1970s
Yukio Noguchi in 1973.

SC: Yes. He was a strong leader and had a good strong personality as well. Not an entertainer per say, but he was a commentator for sumo in Hawaii and he did ballroom dancing as a younger and showed that he had that skill. Noguchi Sensei also knew two styles of karate and had a black belt in both, either fifth or sixth degree, I can’t recall. In judo, he was eighth degree black belt. As I mentioned earlier, he was a strong leader and had the respect of the martial arts in Hawaii. He came from Japan on recommendation of Thomas Makiyama, a local Hawaii martial artist who lived in Japan and was instrumental in bringing Noguchi Sensei and Yoshinkan Aikido to Hawaii. That was my introduction to a very dynamic leader, and he was massively strong – amazingly strong.

MAYTT: I see. With Noguchi Sensei’s experience in both judo and karate, did you see any similarities between those two arts and aikido? Did you feel that cross-training provided you a better understanding of each individual art form? Did one work better with another?

SC: Well, I can’t dispute there are some differences between the arts, but the similarities are more than we think. When we talk about karate, they talk about the kuzushi; in aikido we talk about balance and we try to upset that balance by a method of technique. Karate, they do similar things, trying to change the balance of the attack and redirect that energy. In fact, in the style of karate in the dojo where I teach, the sensei that developed that system also studied under Morihei Ueshiba, and Ueshiba Sensei taught them three kata that were based on aiki principles of upsetting balance and redirecting energy. And the kata were more circular than some of the Shotokan, which were more linear. Blending and other movements from aikido is what I think were instrumental in working in the arts. I learned balance and confidence in ukemi while training in judo, but I think there was something in each one of those arts that can help people to become a more rounded individual in the martial arts. Now that we have the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and before the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the art of falling was never quite spelled out as well but it did get you to the ground in a way that would make victory over another person easier.

MAYTT: You moved to California in 1967. What prompted your move?

SC: My first wife got a teaching job in Norwalk, California and so I was forced to resign from the Honolulu Police Department to come over. The initial plan was I was going to take a leave of absence, but the police department didn’t see it that way, so I had to resign. So when we got to California, opportunities opened up that made it pretty clear that we probably shouldn’t go back to Hawaii; we could maybe try and continue in California.

MAYTT: Sensei Combes, when and where did you open your first dojo?

SC: The first dojo was in my living room, in Norwalk. We had a small, two-bedroom house and I had eight students. All of them were from Hawaii and friends of mine. When they came up, they said “oh yeah we can try it.” Aikido was more of a novelty to them, but they decided to try it.

Then we got a new carpet in the living room and my wife said no more aikido in here. One of the students opened his two-car garage. We took the old carpets and placed them in a garage, and we grew to twelve people. That was the second dojo. Both of these were in a house. But while we were in that garage, there was a lady in the neighborhood that was Japanese and belonged to the Japanese Community Center. And she proposed to us, “Why don’t we go to the Japanese Community Center?” She made the introduction and got us involved with the first actual building that we were able to participate in, and the rest was history.

MAYTT: 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?

SC: Yes, many were completely unaware of aikido at that time. David Carradine’s Kung Fu helped showed a few of our similarities. However, other difficulties became present to students at various times, due to factors and conditions like MMA’s attractiveness, conditioning formats, and financial distractions.

Looking back on my teaching career, I hope I grew and matured my own efforts to present a wholesome product to my students. I feel I became more involved into aiki concepts, particularly the “magic of marui” or circular movements.

MAYTT: At the time, what was your average student like? Has that changed from the 1970s to today? Do you see people still training for similar reasons?

SC: The average students were in their twenties and thirties. Has this changed from the 1970s to today? I think it has changed in some respects based on the fact that aikido and other martial arts were more of a novelty activity than a serious endeavor. And the things that were happening back in those days, potential students and the public wanted to do martial arts as more as a social gathering. Even now, some of the students want to socialize. Other reasons that they were attracted to the martial arts include the aesthetic aspect and the self-discipline that one gains from partaking in the martial arts. Some enjoy the way martial arts are structured and their emphasis on respectful attitudes.

However, most of my students were from Hawaii. Since we had a dojo at the Japanese Center, mostly Hawaiian or Asians took up aikido. Some were Korean, some were Okinawan, but the students were more so Asian. Nonetheless, we had a good time at that.

MAYTT: Much like any aikido instructor with a good number of students, they create an organization to help unify other schools in the area and spread aikido to other areas. What was your role in founding the Aikido Yoshinkai of California Association (AYC) in 1974? Who else was involved in the founding of this organization?

SC: We were having some issues with Noguchi Sensei. He would come to us once a year and teach seminars. Of course, we would have to pay for that. And when he would come, we would try and show him a good time and take him out and everything. He thought that we were the land of milk and honey or something and wanted to start coming twice a year. So we had to form a corporation to protect us from unnecessary abuse of our money – of our spending. Whatever we would recoup from our efforts, we would lose by paying for trips. We kind of made it a defensive posture at that time and we still stayed with Noguchi Sensei, but it was more of a controlled matter.

At that time, we had some friends. One was Abel Kaiahua; he was a Hawaiian that had trained in Hawaii and was living in California and working for the phone company. He found out about our gathering and he came down to our second dojo, which was my garage. We also had George Clemente from the police department in Honolulu. He eventually moved to California and became a federal agent. His travels soon expanded, and he joined us in California, being one of my sensei there. At the time, I was still under black belt; I was brown belt.

Joji Shimabokuro throwing in suwariwaza in 1972.

We also had treasurer Joji Shimabokuro and assistant instructor John Chun. Joji was instrumental in getting us the building and property at the Japanese Community Center, probably based on me being from Hawaii. When I went to the board, I was lucky to have a lady to introduce me to the Japanese Community Center in Norwalk, California. From there, the board said, “We don’t know anything about aikido. What is this?” I explained roughly what I thought aikido was. I found out that there were two gentlemen on the committee from Hawaii with black belt – one was a judo black belt and the other was a kendo black belt. Joji was the other. The two gentlemen sort of took the position of, “Well, he’s from Hawaii, let’s give him a chance,” as neither one of them knew what aikido was. So that was a blessing and they made the provisions to get started. They offered us a building on the property that we had sole use of, except for one day a year. They had a carnival, which had a Japanese odori event – Japanese dancing –during the summer. That was a good thing for us as well.

This is the end of the first part of the interview. You can read the second part here.

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

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