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 the relationship between Aikikai and Yoshinkan, his relationship with Jujitsu pioneer George Kirby, and some memorable students. This the second part of a two-part interview. You can read the first part here. All images provided by Sam Combes. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.
MAYTT: It was lucky you got the chance! In a 1975 Black Belt Magazine article entitled “Martial Arts Missionaries,” you state that aikido has its uses in the law enforcement profession, citing your own experiences. How did you reach that conclusion?
SC: I found that moving a person from the cell to the courtroom; moving a person from the car to jail; moving a person from the street to the police car, became very handy in my control hold techniques based on aikido. That’s kind of a basis for the Yoshinkai system in the sense that Shioda Sensei developed Yoshinkan as a martial art but also for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. He taught several groups from the police department – especially the riot police – and he also had a group of the women police that would train there. All of this was mandatory training for the police officers. They had to get their training and get a black belt in aikido.
MAYTT: In the same Black Belt Magazine article, you mention that aikido philosophy and ki scare people away. Why do you think that would be the case? What is it that people find intimidating?
SC: I believe some of that is a religious perspective or the religious aspect of ki. The ki in the bowing, in the clapping of hands, which they still follow somewhat in many of the dojo. It becomes more of a religious ceremony, beginning and ending. Also, some people thought it might be parlor tricks, because ki being so free of force and free of physical power, that the techniques and ki looked like it was not real.
MAYTT: I see. What are your personal aikido philosophy and your thoughts on ki?
SC: I attempt to soften my techniques through the years. I’m studying much more relaxed techniques. I recall when I was in Japan, I once asked Shioda Sensei “What about ki?” He looked at me and said, “If you want ki, go to the temple.” That was his answer. I remember Michio Mikitsushi Sensei, tenth degree black belt, was asked about ki at a demonstration at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), he said, “I have house keys, car keys, etc.” and the audience chuckled and laughed. One of my friends walked out of the dojo at the time. He was a Ki Society guy – a Tohei student. He just left and that was too bad because there was a lot of sensitivity in the Ki Society, I believe, on that type of an answer – a feeling that the question was being rebuffed.
MAYTT: The same article mentions two other Yoshinkan aikidoka, then-assistant instructor John Chun and then-treasurer Joji Shimabukuro of the AYC. Can you tell me about them and their roles in spreading Yoshinkan aikido?
SC: Joji was a golden glove boxer in the military and, as I mentioned before, was also a kendo black belt. John Chun was open to anything. He was not a martial artist, per say. He came from Hawaii and he learned whatever the Hawaiians learned in the streets, not necessarily in a martial art discipline. They became among my first black belts. We had a couple others but, but they Joji and John became the first. Then they became officers in the Association.
MAYTT: Who were the others that were part of your first crop of black belts? How did they help spread Yoshinkan Aikido in California?
SC: From 1970 to 1980, following up on the names that I gave you, Joji Shimabukuro, John Chun, and Sueo Kuraoka. Sueo went on to open a dojo in Garden Grove, California. George Clemente introduced me to the Yoshinkai Aikido in Hawaii and later followed his job to Norwalk Dojo in the area of Los Angeles. I met Abel Kaiahua and his friend, Wayne Kealalio, who never was promoted to black belt but was very strong supporter of the dojo and aikido.
The next group also studied at Norwalk Dojo, but during that time we had a female black belt Jun Yamazumi Pace, a U.S. Navy widow, who came from Japan and who was affiliated with Noguchi Sensei in Japan and was a black belt. She lived near Torrance, California. Morris Sasaki, Doug Okada and Glen Kadoi were black belts too. They all moved to the new Gardena, California dojo.
From 1980 forward, Noguchi Sensei met Kiyoshi Yamazaki, a karate-do instructor that also had been a student of Gozo Shioda during his university time. He invited me to join Yamazaki Sensei at his new dojo in Anaheim, California. This dojo would be our headquarters for more than thirty years.
Black belts from that dojo include: Arthur MACH, yondan, who Hombu Dojo promoted. He remains the highest-ranking black belt thus far. Another student, Robert Parker, became a very advanced candidate and moved to Kansas to start physical therapy and also teaching aikido. He was promoted to sandan by Honbu Dojo in Japan. One of his students became shodan and later moved to Portland, Oregon. I promoted him to nidan after several visits to Anaheim. David King, while in the United States Air Force traveled almost 100 miles each time to the Dojo in Anaheim. He later became nidan, opening a dojo in Rialto, California. Charlotte Higa, formerly Aikikai black belt, joined the Norwalk dojo and became an instructor there. Her daughter, JoAnn, also eventually rose to shodan. Michael Kurihara, Nelson Tan, who later moved to San Francisco, Pat Maher, Jared Moen, who moved to the Stockton, California area, and John Johnson.
A couple of Ryobukai [Shindo Jinen Ryu] karate-do yudansha opened the Fullerton Dojo and invited us to teach there.
Our most recent group of yudansha were developed there. Sensei Ray Galarze, Senpai Gina Galarze, who also teaching physical defense at California State Fullerton, Emory Bestenlehner, who moved to Florida for a while, Claudia DeLeon, Bruce Nguyen, Jacob Aguirre (our first hearing impaired yudansha), and lastly, Thomas Hsieh, who is currently studying medicine.
Apologies if I missed anyone, but I’ve been at it for a long time [Laughs].
MAYTT: Since we are on the topic of organizations: when we compare aikido to other Japanese martial art organizations (judo, jujutsu, karate-do, etc.), there are many standalone American organizations. Why do you think there is not a standalone American aikido organization? Do you think America needs a standalone organization and do you feel it could survive on its own? If not, why do you feel it would not?
SC: In many ways, we are a standalone dojo although Soke Shioda is still our head. I cannot speak for other Aikido schools, but we enjoy an autonomous relationship essentially. Aikikai, Ki Society, Tomiki, Yoshinkan, and Shioda International Aikido Federation hover over many of the styles as the dynamic presence with varying degrees of control.
MAYTT: How do you feel Yoshinkan Aikido gained a foothold in America? Did Yoshinkan aikido have their own Koichi Tohei and Yoshimitsu Yamada that Yoshinkan aikidoka flocked to?
SC: I would give some credit to Takashi Kushida in Detroit, Michigan. He came from Japan and started a following that was rather substantial near the East Coast. He even went on the east side of Canada. Kushida was very dynamic. He was one of the two uchideshi of Shioda, so he was the highest ranking to come out of Japan, and he had a pretty good personality so he would lead the coast on that side of the country.
MAYTT: How did Yoshinkan compete with the Aikikai for potential students?
SC: There was no competition. Aikikai was soft and Yoshinkan was hard, so it was not a difficult thing. You chose based on what your observations were and where you wanted to go. We didn’t know too much about Aikikai and they didn’t know much about us, with the exception of the high-ranking ones, like Koichi Tohei. Tohei knew Yoshinkai very well but didn’t like Shioda Sensei. There was a little bit of separation there in a way. But when Shioda Sensei was training with O-Sensei, Tohei was Shioda’s uke – Tohei took falls for Shioda. So that was another reason probably there were some difficulty in getting the two styles together.
MAYTT: In terms of students, would you say there has been a decrease in American aikidoka and potential students since the late 2000s? What do you think the reason for decreasing aikidoka numbers in America?
SC: Yes, there is a decreasing number, at least in the styles of Yoshinkai that I know of. There are some coming up, in fact they just opened a new one in Irvine, California for Takemusu Aikido or Morihiro Saito Sensei and they’re on Facebook, I guess. I can kind of sum it up in this way: the television shows Kung Fu, Above the Law, UFC, and MMA, over the past forty years, each ten-year period, there seems to be an influx of different martial arts awareness, based on the TV shows and the movies. And therefore, interests have changed over those blocks of roughly ten years.
MAYTT: Can you tell me about the Keisatsu Aikido program and co-founder Dr. Stephen Hamilton?
SC: Dr. Stephen Hamilton was a high school classmate of mine. He trained Yoshinkai in Hawaii before I was and then he moved to Oregon, becoming became a college professor there. I linked up with him through a fellow black belt that had come up to train with Stephen and stopped by Los Angeles to see me. That’s how I made the connection and we started corresponding and talking about the police techniques and how they should be taught for aikido purposes. I told him that I had a dream that I’d like to make an “aikido for police” program. He expressed interest and got involved. He was very instrumental in forming the corporation. It was an Oregon corporation. He made the effort to bring in several police officers and he actually started the one and only Keisatsu Aikido group that we were able to get off the ground. I had problems in California because of regulations in teaching police in anything that wasn’t approved by the Peace Officer Standard and Training (POST), so the limitations kind of put a wet blanket on things. I did, however, have a few police officers join the dojo, but unfortunately, we never got to go much further.
MAYTT: It is unfortunate that your endeavor never got off the ground, per say, because it sounded like the officers could have really benefited from the program. You are listed as a member of the Senior Advisory Board on the Budoshin Ju-Jitsu Yudanshakai (BJJY) website. What is your relation to the BJJY and how did you get involved?
SC: George Kirby was very open to me when I met one of his black belts at a demonstration while I was in the army reserve. We were doing a demonstration for “Family Day” or something like that. George Kirby’s black belt student saw me do some techniques, came over, and introduced himself and said, “I’d like you to meet my teacher.” I got to be an official at several tournaments in jujitsu after that, based on the introduction. I was an honor to be able to do that.
MAYTT: What is your view on Steven Seagal? Did he help the aikido/martial arts industry with his films in the late 80s and early 90s? Where does Steven Seagal fit into the American aikido picture?
SC: Steven Seagal is fantastic! He brought students every time he had a new movie. We got students because of him; he was a good recruiter. Personally, I never met him, but I saw him in Japantown – we call it J-Town in Los Angeles – when he was a green belt and he was helping out in a demonstration of aikido years ago. I saw him because he was the tallest guy in the class. They made him to do the deadlift so he could lift and show the power of ki and things like that. He moved onto japan and did us a favor in showing aikido to the world.
MAYTT: Being a part of aikido for more than five decades, you have obviously seen, participated in, and performed many things, events, and programs. Within those five decades of training and running both a dojo and an organization, what do you feel is your greatest contribution to American aikido?
SC: I’d say fifty-two years of dedication and an open mind to other waza. Still not changing my fundamentals used in Yoshinkan, but I think I had years study with people who have different points of view and sharing my points of view. Another thing I think I was able to do was create something called the “OSU Festival” and that was at the urging of Thomas Makiyama. He came up with the plan and brought serval aikido groups together to practice and to demonstrate. As a result of that, after that happening, we made the OSU Festival happen. Each year we would have a gathering of Ki Society and whatever other aikido styles were around the area. It started out as a weekend, with two days of sharing and training. Then it became a one day because some people didn’t come back the second day. We just shared techniques, which was a beautiful exchange of ideas and workouts. No one saying, “Join us! Join us!” and no one saying, “You have to do our system.” I went to an aikido demonstration once where the sensei said, “Every city has a Chinese restaurant; every cook is different. Today, this is my Chinese food – my aikido.” He had a good point, so we went and learned from him a jo kata I didn’t know that day. So that was a good thing.
MAYTT: That sounded like it was an exciting time! How do you see that your prevailing aikido style has changed in America since you began training? What do you see as the greatest impact Yoshinkan Aikido has had in America?
SC: The police have too many restrictions due to publicity and lack of administrative support. Aikido could be a much better thing. Unfortunately, many of our officers don’t get the benefit of the Yoshinkai system. Yoshinkai is part of the Japanese police system. Our officers don’t get the benefit doing this because they’ve been inundated with the Gracie’s Brazilian Ju-jitsu and other styles of things that distract from basic technique. It’s unfortunate that it’s too – and I’m not trying to be political here, I’m just saying – I see the prevailing aikido style has been limited to what we can do, based on POST.
MAYTT: Besides your direct instructors, who/what else do you feel has impacted your personal training?
SC: Bob Koga Sensei, who was also a Los Angeles Police Department officer, was influential while teaching at the police academy for sharing his knowledge and techniques. In fact, I chose to make fun of him and tease him a bit when I say, “You’re going to Tohei Sensei for training, but you’re doing Yoshinkai Aikido!” This was because he would take the Aikikai system – because back then it was not Ki Society, it was more Aikikai – and teach the police techniques, which became a more forceful use of the techniques. Smaller circles, more direct application. I’d used to tease him about that, and he’d just smile. Because he kind of knew there was something there. But he was also a jujitsu guy, so he understood that. Kiyoshi Yamazaki Sensei was influential in getting the main dojo for almost thirty-five or forty years in Anaheim, California. He studied with Shioda Sensei in college and he had a reverence for the Yoshinkai system. And George Kirby Sensei for opening his mind to aikido because he was a jujitsu sensei and allowed me to come to his events as an equal.
MAYTT: There is a growing claim within the martial arts that if your style does not spar or have a competitive aspect to it, then it cannot be functional outside the dojo. Some aikidoka have asserted they want some sort of competition in aikido. What are your views on competitive aikido?
SC: Exciting! I’ve been working on some ideas that I want to put into operation that aikido could be an Olympic event. Much like gymnastics, we perform many of our techniques in such a way that it is beautiful to watch and effective to be applied. Tony Kull Sensei, who lives in Hesperia, California, and I have been discussing this for some years, and we’re taking the idea, much like the jujitsu tournaments that I was officiating at, we can do aikido in the Olympics, if we can just get all the politics of aikido people to understand we are not trying to make it a competitive art, but rather an art of display. Showing, like a gymnastic, showing our professional performance and validity. That I like.
MAYTT: Final question, Combes Sensei. Given your extensive experience as a dojo owner and in school operations, what advice would you give to those who wish to open their own aikido school?
SC: Personally, I have a problem with guys trying to make money off of martial arts. Currently, I am not doing too well but I know, whenever i step into the dojo, I become happy, especially when I teach Aikido. I believe it has to come from the heart. Without it, we lose the essence of aikido.
MAYTT: Thank you again, Combes Sensei for talking with us!
SC: You’re quite welcome! Thank you for reaching out to me.
This the end of the second part of a two-part interview. You can read the first part here.
To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.