Beginning his martial arts journey in Germany in 1957 with judo, Walther von Krenner spent the next sixty years training in various martial arts, from aikido to kendo. Today, Krenner took the time to talk about his aikido journey, which started in 1961 with Isao Takahashi in Los Angeles, and took him to Japan to train under the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, his son, Kisshomaru, and then-chief instructor of Hombu Dojo, Koichi Tohei. All images provided by Walther von Krenner. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time to participate in the interview, Walther von Krenner Sensei!
Walther von Krenner: Thank you for inviting me! I’ll see what I can do to answer your questions.
MAYTT: Many consider training in the Japanese martial arts for more than sixty years is a major accomplishment. What drew you to the martial arts and what continues to drive you to train today? Did the reason change over time?
WK: As long as I can remember I was always interested in Japanese art and history. I started training in judo around 1958 for that reason. One of my first Japanese teachers was Nagaoka Sensei from Kodokan who was living in Germany at that time. He died in a traffic accident in 1959. Aikido was unheard of at this time and karate just getting started. I always considered the study of budo a never-ending journey and so I continued to walk this path.
MAYTT: In 1960, you moved from France to America, in the Los Angeles area to train judo and karate. The next year you begin aikido training. During that time, what was aikido like in the Los Angeles area; was the area a mecca for aikido training, or was the art alive only in small pockets around the city?
WK: In 1960, I continued training judo in Harold Sharp’s dojo and trained for a little while in Karate with Nishioka Sensei. Aikido was just introduced in Hawaii in 1958 by Koichi Tohei Sensei and was practically unknown in the Los Angeles area. If I remember correctly, Bob Nadeau, who trained at Hombu in Japan, arrived in San Francisco around that time and started one of the first dojo in California. A year or two later Isao Takahashi Sensei arrived in LA and started teaching. Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the founder’s son, was coming to California to demonstrate and promote Aikido. He became the second Doshu after O-Sensei died but back then we called him Waka Sensei (Young Teacher). After I meet him and trained with him while he was in the USA, I decided to quit judo and concentrate on aikido at Takahashi Sensei’s dojo and kendo with Miyahara Sr. Sensei. It was then around 1963 or thereabouts that aikido started taking off in Southern California.
MAYTT: I see. What were some of the popular misconceptions of aikido during the 1960s and 1970s in both America and abroad? Did those misconceptions continue through the 1980s and 1990s or did they change with the times?
WK: The popular belief, heavily encouraged by Hombu in Japan, was that aikido was unique, created by O-Sensei, and was not related to any previously known style. Daito Ryu and Takeda did not exist and, if brought up, played only a very minor role in the creation of aikido. It was the research of Stanley Pranin that changed the misconceptions about aikido and its early history. Many aikidoka today don’t know who was who and did what in the history of their art.
MAYTT: In 1967, you took the first of many trips to Japan to train at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Many consider training there both different and more intense than training in America. Did you have a similar experience or were the two countries’ training methods more similar than previously thought?
WK: Training in Japan was totally different then training in the West at that time, training was hard, but the dojo atmosphere was more relaxed and less ritualized then in the West. What we consider different “exotic” customs like bowing, seiza, and the wearing of kimono and hakama were normal everyday behavior in Japan. Also, there were several classes by different teachers one could pick and choose which class or teacher you wanted.
MAYTT: Speaking of training a Hombu Dojo, you had the opportunity to train under O-Sensei, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, and other influential instructors. What was the experience like and how did the three men compare as instructors? Was one more technical than the others or were there no comparison at all?
WK: Kisshomaru Waka Sensei’s waza was very precise and his use of tegatana and timing was fantastic. He was a very serious man and very formal. Tohei Sensei was more relaxed and had a good sense of humor, he focused on ki and soft but powerful techniques. I learned a lot from him and still teach some of his ways of doing techniques. O-Sensei did not have a scheduled class, he came when he felt like it. He showed a waza once and did not give much explanation or technical instruction. Sometimes he only talked about things most students did not understand.
MAYTT: You had the opportunity to train under some of early instructors of the Aikikai in America during your career. Could you tell me more about Isao Takahashi as an instructor and a person?
WK: Takahashi Sensei was the main senior instructor at that time. Besides studying aikido with him I also spent much time at his house and mine talking about swords, calligraphy and related subjects. He was totally dedicated to aikido and also a very good kendoka and swordsman. Besides a teacher student relationship, we also were good friends. It was him who encouraged me to go to Japan while O-Sensei was still alive. He wrote a letter of introduction for me to present to O-Sensei. Unfortunately, as aikido became more popular the politics started and pushed him to the sidelines. In my opinion he deserves a more important place in the history of aikido in the US.
MAYTT: That is unfortunate. Since you were a student of Tohei, what were your thoughts and feelings when you heard he was leaving the Aikikai in 1974? How did the event effect your aikido training?
WK: I was training at Suzuki Sensei’s dojo in Maui, Hawaii at that time and Tohei sensei’s decision to leave Hombu split the Aikido world forever. I think it was a long time coming and, knowing some of the events at Hombu, it was no surprise to me.
MAYTT: What was the overall feeling of Tohei’s departure from the Aikikai here in America? How did practitioners feel that the chief instructor of the Aikikai and the public face of the organization in America was separating? Did the split contradict the art’s core philosophies when practitioners did not have a large organizational affiliation or loyalty in America?
WK: Tohei Sensei was rather young when he became judan and Hombu Chief Instructor, which caused some resentment and jealousy among some of the Hombu instructors. His emphasis on ki in aikido was not appreciated and all sorts of stories were manufactured to disgrace him. He had no reason to stay after O-Sensei was gone.
MAYTT: Since Tohei’s departure, how did you see American aikido change? Did those in America attempt to distance themselves from Tohei’s training methods and style or was his influence too strong to change or fix?
WK: Certain Japanese teachers were only to eager to take over and erase his early work for the promotion of aikido in the US and profit by his departure. Eventually, they split the aikido control into West Coast and East Coast and that started a long series of split off associations and politics, which then led to the deterioration of Aikido quality itself. As Takahashi Sensei once said to me, “the more aikido there is, the less aikido there will be.”
MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With many years in the martial arts, both training and teaching at various schools, what advice would you give to someone looking to open an aikido dojo today?
WK: As to advice about opening an aikido dojo, maybe I am not qualified on that subject, but my opinion is there are too many dojos and not enough students. I think so many people that want to teach and be senseis should, perhaps, make sure they have something to teach.
Kenji Shimizu Sensei at Hombu said to me when I ask the same question: “after fifteen years of training, you gain a slight understanding.” And that answers the question at the beginning of this interview “what continues to drive you to train after sixty plus years?” [Laughs]
To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.