Janice Taitel began her aikido journey in 1992, first training under Mitsunari Kanai then Greg O’Connor, before establishing her Aikido Center of Dover. In the summer of 2019, she and others formed the Independent Coalition of USAF Women in an effort to bring awareness and discuss a solution to the gender equity in the organization. Today, Taitel Sensei talks about her early training and the formation of the Coalition. All images provided by Janice Taitel.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time to discuss your aikido journey and the Independent Coalition of USAF Women!
Janice Taitel: Thank you for having me and your interest!
MAYTT: You began your aikido training in 1992. What drew you to aikido as opposed to other martial arts or sports?
JT: Before finding aikido, I trained in Tae Kwon Do for six years at the MIT Tae Kwon Do Club. I was working at the MIT Lincoln Lab at the time, and some of my coworkers were in the club so I tried it out. We worked our butts off, and I liked that as well as the precision, the sparring, and badass stuff like doing kata barefoot in the snow, but eventually the military nature of it started to turn me off. When the instructor asked, “Are you tired?” and we responded, “NO, SIR!” It felt dishonest. I would rather have just said, “Yes, but I’ll keep going. I can do it.” I went to two classes a night, almost every night (except when I was off climbing) and came an hour early to stretch and do pullups in the wrestling room, where there happened to be an aikido club run by Dick Stroud. For years I’d watch their beautiful, flowing movements, people flying this way and that. Coming from a background in gymnastics, it was so appealing, but it didn’t look like good exercise, so I stuck with TKD. I continued to sneak into the gym for Tae Kwon Do when I went on to medical school across the river. I don’t remember exactly when I stopped; I assume it was when clinical rotations got too busy.
When I was thirty, after finishing the first year of my pediatrics residency at Boston City Hospital, I bit the bullet and walked into New England Aikikai and was hooked. I did every class I possibly could. I’d work in the NICU all night, go to morning class, then sleep on a park bench until the next class. I don’t think I thought much about the philosophy initially. I just loved the movement. And it turns out it is great exercise after all, especially when you are an athletic beginner who knows how to work hard but not relax.
MAYTT: By the time you started aikido, it was the height of Steven Seagal’s popularity. How did the general public at the time view aikido? Did they immediately think of Seagal or compare aikido to another martial art?
JT: I wasn’t someone who thought a lot about martial arts or even watched martial arts movies. I was more into Bewitched and Mary Tyler Moore. I just knew that when people heard aikido, they often asked about Steven Seagal. I didn’t pay much attention to what they thought.
MAYTT: You had the opportunity to train under Mitsunari Kanai, one of the leading aikido pioneers in the American Northeast. What was he like as an instructor and as a person?
JT: I was only with Kanai Sensei for my first two years, until I had my daughter and moved to New Jersey. Classes with Kanai Sensei were very serious. I did my best to try to catch everything, but I was so confused. It was humbling. He’d show a technique four times, left, right, omote and ura, then I was supposed to know what he did. I didn’t. He rarely spoke to me, and when he did, every word was powerful.
One day, he stood watching me fumble through a technique, standing as usual in his umpire position with hands on spread knees, and spoke. He said, “You not watch.” I responded, “I not understand.” That probably didn’t earn me more help. But some of his students really mentored me. Sioux Hall and Dolita Cathcart took me under their wings. They pushed me and guided me. They would resist techniques in a way that only let me do it right, and when I found it, it felt like magic. TJ Hinrichs taught me her ragdoll-like high fall and soon I could fly.
MAYTT: I see. I recall in my research that training was hard and tough when the first wave of instructors arrived in America. Was your training similar to that type of hard training when you first started, or did it evolve since then?
JT: When I started, I trained hard. Every class, my gi was soaked through and I was exhausted, then I’d do it again. I trained through my pregnancy and was back on the mat nine days after my c-section. I don’t know if training has evolved since then or if I have. After I popped my ACL in 2008, I was off the mat for six months. That was hard. It was harder coming back and not trusting my own legs. My training changed, I slowed down, gained weight, accepted getting older. But then in 2016, after my mom died, I said screw that and lost the weight, started training harder again and flying. When I needed another knee reconstruction in 2017, I didn’t stay off the mat; I just taught on crutches. So, I think that probably is an evolution in training. There is still hard training but also a lot more room for individual abilities and needs.
MAYTT: You also had the opportunity to train under Greg O’Connor. How did training differ between Kanai and O’Connor and how did two different teaching methods impact your aikido journey?
JT: Kanai Sensei was reserved and fair and modeled what he expected of his students. His dojo was formal but friendly, with kids often playing in the lounge next to the mat, separated by shoji screens. Every now and then, a paper panel of the screens would get ripped. We’d just whip out some glue and rice paper and repair it. This was typical of the respect for the dojo and for each other under Kanai Sensei.
I started training with Greg O’Connor after I had my daughter Sam. I moved to New Jersey to live near my parents, and as a single, working mom I just chose the dojo closest to my home. Aside from having to change how I fell from New England style to New York style, training there felt familiar. Greg was not as taciturn as Kanai Sensei, but training was still very traditional and serious and technically precise. I was more impacted by their personal differences. As a new mom and pediatrician, my focus was on kids, but I also think how people treat kids is very telling of their character. Greg loved my daughter, who went from watching classes from her car seat at two months old, laughing as I threw people, to becoming a star student as a teenager. When I had my son William four years later, however, everything was different. Greg hated him even as a baby. When my son was only eight months old, Greg would cover his ears and yell at him when he laughed – the deep belly laugh of a future baritone – and ask if he’d grown horns yet. Things did not improve. I stayed because I needed the convenience but trained less so I could protect my son. By this time, I was much more interested in and committed to the philosophy of aikido, and I did not see Greg as someone who embodied that. I learned from him technically but, as always, my journey was my own.
When I was at New England Aikikai, I was promoted quickly. However, in New Jersey I waited five to six years between some kyu ranks. I was never perfect enough, and I was never encouraged to test.
Eventually, while still with Greg, I opened my own dojo. He did not object as long as my dojo was affiliated with his schools. Early on, I wanted to have a friend teach, an excellent teacher who happened to have had a falling out with Greg. I did not ask Greg, since I felt no obligation to hate or shun whom he hated. When he found out about the upcoming class, which I had not hidden, he had some senior students try to talk me out of it. When I refused to cancel the class, he immediately severed all ties and told his students to do the same. He never spoke to me again, nor did any of my former dojo-mates reach out. He had treated other students who opened dojos similarly. I soon rejoined the USAF, which Greg had recently seceded from. I was proud and excited to be joining something healthier and to be part of the wider aikido world.
MAYTT: I can see how removing yourself from such an atmosphere can be beneficial to all involved. Having trained under two highly experienced and recognized instructors, what would be the most important lesson they taught you?
JT: I was only with Kanai Sensei for my first two years of aikido, and honestly, I wasn’t in a place mentally to really be able to take everything I could from him back then. I’m a different person now in many ways, thanks to aikido itself. I’m not trying to minimize or disregard the influence of my teachers, but I do credit the nature of aikido and its philosophy – or at least my interpretation of it – as having the biggest effect on my life.
MAYTT: In mid to late 2019, the Independent Coalition of USAF Women started to gain traction and notoriety in the aikido community. What prompted you to form the Coalition and what were your initial goals upon formation?
JT: The final impetus for forming the coalition came at USAF Summer Camp last year. I was sitting by the pool talking to a woman shihan about the upcoming Women’s Camp in Santa Fe. She said that she would like to go, but that Yamada Sensei would be mad at her if she went. I asked her what she thought that would entail, and she couldn’t answer, just that he wouldn’t like it. So, I said to her that he obviously really liked her and that she could use her position to change things for women. She agreed that changes were needed, but she could not go against Yamada Sensei. This conversation came after years of hearing about women passed over for promotions. After seeing the camp registration table year after year “manned” by women doing the work of running camp, while the testing table was restricted to men. After seeing a mat full of people laughing along as female ukes were at times demeaned and sexualized. After being told no woman was “worthy” of being on the technical committee. (This was after I asked at an instructors’ meeting at camp when there would be a woman on the technical committee. I heard a collective gasp when I asked and silence as our unworthiness was explained, but that night several women came to me privately and applauded the question.)
Thinking about all of that and the poolside chat, I realized that individual women would not be heard. When they did speak up, they were ignored, labeled as difficult, or even punished, it seemed, by not being promoted. They then either fell into line or quietly left the USAF or aikido itself, restoring “harmony” and the outward impression that everything was fine. I felt that if I assembled a group of women to stand up together, they could not be so easily dismissed, and then other women could feel empowered to stand up, too. So, the coalition was that first group, six women who were willing to stand up and be named. The petition signers would be the second group, and together we would be able to speak with a voice which could not be ignored, and which would not quietly disappear.
The goal of the petition was to give women a voice and to bring gender equity to the USAF. But the reason it was necessary was the culture of fear which pervaded the organization. I wanted to help make the USAF a fairer, more inclusive place. I did not want to leave it or hurt it, but I was also willing to leave if there was a poor response. Accepting this was freeing because it meant the USAF had no power over me.
MAYTT: I see. What was the initial response to the petition, both from the aikido community and from the USAF? Have these responses/feelings changed since then?
JT: When we wrote the Petition to Support Women in the USAF, we were very careful to word it positively. There was nothing in it about the fear, just the statement that, basically, women are important and five requests:
“A. Recognition that gender equity is a valid issue that needs exploration in the USAF through a Gender Equity Task Force.
- Representation in USAF structures as well as USAF activities/seminars at least proportional to member population.
- Removal of barriers to the advancement of women, at all levels of practice.
- A change in the Technical Committee structure to include women on the Technical Committee.
- Transparency, including publication of statistics about gender in the USAF.”
There were no accusations, only requests which were in line with what many organizations are doing on their own. We truly expected to then be able to meet with the board and discuss these requests. We expected that, with a significant number of signatories, our requests would at least be considered. Instead, it was immediately received as an attack, and the entire focus was on the assertion that we had protested wrong despite the fact that the ensuing reaction showed that we needed to protest exactly as we had, as a group, in the public eye. One Coalition member, Claire Keller, was expelled from New York Aikikai, where she’d trained for 40 years. Ruth Peyser, another senior New York Aikikai member who had forwarded the petition, was also expelled. Yamada Sensei wrote to my daughter Sam, a former NYA uchideshi, saying, “I cannot be your teacher any longer because your mother doesn’t like my leadership or me, so you better stay away from me.” Sam and Ruth were later informed they could come back, with no apology, the message presumably delivered. Shihan close to Yamada Sensei spoke to Coalition members to try to convince us to disavow the Coalition. One did and was quickly promoted. Another who remained saw her already submitted sixth dan promotion suddenly postponed. These are only a few of the repercussions. The full timeline of events is listed on the Independent Coalition of USAF Women Facebook page.
In an early meeting with Yamada Sensei and others, we were told by the Director of Operations that if a student of hers stole from her she’d kick them out, and the same if they signed the petition. She also told us that the signatures didn’t matter; that this was not how to approach the board. This was why we decided not to release the actual names of signatories, only the statistics. In all, 252 people signed, 63% in the USAF plus 19% former USAF members, 53% female, and including twenty-two USAF dojo cho. After the USAF reaction, eight people retracted signatures (not included in the 252), five of whom were from New York Aikikai. The USAF sent letters to members misrepresenting what we’d done, and the Board sent out a response to members which basically rebuffed every request, even the request for statistics which are necessary to even look at these issues rationally.
We received many expressions of support, often whispered in the corners at seminars, and several people wrote letters to the board supporting the petition and condemning the board’s reaction. One was told in a letter from Yamada Sensei that if he was so dissatisfied, perhaps he should return his fifth dan grading. The woman whose poolside conversation prompted the petition wrote a scathing diatribe on Facebook describing the petition as a “punitive mandate.” This was widely shared. Some commenting admitted they hadn’t read the petition but didn’t need to. All comments were positive. Others were removed, including comments by me and by Miles Kessler. Not surprisingly, discussion within the USAF was minimal.
We eventually had a meeting with Yamada Sensei and some board members on October 30, 2019. We were told at the outset of the meeting that there were “other proposals” they were considering. I opened with a statement outlining what I believed were the roots of the conflict over the petition. My statement presented different perspectives on peace, respect and loyalty, in addition to petitions and gender equity. I still stand by it, and I come back to it often in looking at other situations, so I am attaching it as an addendum to this interview. After this, much time was spent in serious discussion of trivial window-dressing changes, but pandemonium broke out when Yamada Sensei stated outright lies about his actions with respect to the ousted students, and we said that it wasn’t true.
We did not yell, but we did remind him and everyone in the room that what he said contradicted what we all knew to be true. We were accused of “elder abuse” for not politely allowing him to lie to our faces. After this meeting, instead of then being heard at the full board meeting at Winter Camp, we were sent a letter accusing us of bad faith and of “fomenting scurrilous activity.”
It concluded, “As stated at our meeting, other concerned members have come forward who share the same goals of promoting gender equity but choosing to do so in a straightforward, honorable and, most importantly, mutually respectful manner. We will continue our discussion of ways to promote the USAF and its policies with these and other individuals since the Independent Coalition has made it impossible to proceed with any trust.”
The Board never said who those other proposals were from, but it did establish a “Working Group.” So far, its only work seems to be to solicit photos to present the USAF in a positive light. And they rewrote the Code of Conduct. Many assumed this was to address mishandled grievances, but an actual reading of the new Code reveals that the changes only serve to limit grievances directed at the USAF.
MAYTT: A very interesting turn of events. The USAF seemed to have dissuaded early and potential supporters from the Coalition once the petition was put forth. In your opinion, why do you think USAF took such action?
JT: In our first meeting with Yamada Sensei and the Director of Operations, she said that we were asking them to change the whole structure of the USAF. I thought this was ridiculous at the time, but now I see that it was actually true. The USAF is not structured to serve its members. It is structured to serve and protect the interests of Yamada Sensei and the Technical Committee, and gender equity and open dialog actually are a threat to that. They could have responded diplomatically and still done nothing, but instead, they apparently panicked, seeing the petition as a threat to their very existence, and responded in a way which clearly demonstrated why the petition was needed and needed to be offered in the way it was. We were threatened and dismissed for speaking up. If we had done this as individuals, nobody would even know. We would have been simply erased.
MAYTT: As of March 1, you and your dojo are no longer a member of the USAF. What influenced your decision to resign from the organization? What does this mean for the future of the Coalition?
JT: I went into this process optimistic that I could help change the USAF and make it more equitable toward women, as it had been in its earlier years. When it became clear that this would not be, and that the problems ran far deeper than the gender equity issues, as evidenced by the reaction to the petition, I resigned from the USAF. Remaining would mean being complicit. In the USAF, everyone is respectful and “harmonious” but that surface calm is obtained at the price of members either being oblivious to the harm done to some or just accepting that harm in exchange for being able to rise themselves. Some say they are staying because if they left, they’d lose their friends and community, but what friends shun you if you leave the group? The USAF functions as a “high-demand organization,” often referred to as a cult. I was told that 20 years ago and dismissed the idea, but the reaction to the petition and what it exposed about the inner workings of the USAF proved that this is actually true. There is no further role for the coalition because the USAF is not amenable to real change. But I am happy to see positive changes in other organizations.
These concerns about the USAF may seem trivial in the midst of a pandemic, and with our country fractured on so many lines, but this is exactly the time for this. Just as I see aikido principles everywhere, I see the toxic dynamics exhibited in the USAF mirrored over and over, from the microcosm of the USAF down to some families and relationships and up to entire nations. Seeing the gaslighting and high-demand structure in one place helps people recognize and stop it everywhere.
MAYTT: Looking towards aikido’s future, how do you think this event will affect future female aikidoka in America?
JT: I think this event has raised people’s awareness of subtle barriers and the importance of active examination of factors which could affect the recruitment, retention, development and promotion of women and all underrepresented groups. Maybe not in the USAF, but in other organizations around the world.
MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With over twenty-five years of training and running a dojo, what advice would you give to someone that’s raring to open an aikido school?
JT: I’d say be ready to give a big part of your life to it or don’t bother. A dojo is like a baby. It is all consuming because you love it. Like a baby, it’ll grow and develop, but it won’t be independent when it grows up like we hope our kids will. It’s hard work and a steep learning curve then more hard work, but also a lot of satisfaction.
Don’t start a dojo to make money or to be admired. Only start one if you feel you have something you feel compelled to share, which couldn’t be shared in another, easier way.
I started my dojo as part of my healing practice. Aikido has changed my life and I want to be able to offer it to my patients and community. I am a pediatrician in a town which is mostly Latino immigrants. When I recommended aikido to my patients and told them about a dojo four miles away, they wouldn’t go. They don’t have cars, don’t speak English, and don’t feel welcomed in that town. So, I opened my dojo in the center of my town, across the street from my clinic. I also wanted to create a space which felt safe and welcoming for people who might not have that in the rest of their lives. I wanted a school where people could feel comfortable training regardless of disability or history of trauma, who they are or where they’re from.
Different dojos have different personalities, which is great. More different dojos mean there is more chance a prospective student will find one that fits. Then more people will do aikido which, despite everything, I still believe will make this world a better place.
MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk. It was a very interesting interview!
JT: Thank you for having me and taking interest in the Coalition!
Appendix: The Coalition’s Opening Statement to the USAF and Petition
Here is the statement I [Janice Taitel] read at our October 30 meeting with Yamada Sensei and board members and representatives:
Between us, the coalition has put 166 years into the USAF and Aikido, and we did not come to this point lightly or naively. We did this out of commitment to and respect for the USAF and respect and faith in its ability to continue to grow and improve.
What I would like to do is to dissect out the areas of conflict we’ve experienced in order to hopefully see that we are actually fighting for the same thing, the health and future of the USAF. These conflicts mostly come down to contradictory definitions of words.
- Peace: We all want peace, but what some of us call peace I see as simply silence. In silence, no one complains, but it doesn’t mean they are tranquil. People can be silent but inwardly seething and griping, creating a toxic undercurrent which eats away at the foundation of the organization. If this is peace, it is an unhealthy peace, which can be worse than healthy, productive conflict. Actually, we should all be comfortable with productive conflict since it is what we have used to train in every Aikido class we’ve ever taken. True peace, as I see it, means that people feel comfortable and safe. Safe enough to speak up if something is bothering them. Safe enough to walk through an open door and express concerns. It is only then that concerns can be addressed. Of course this can cause little ripples in the peace, but they are quickly calmed without turning into quiet poison or a devastating tsunami. An undisturbed pond turns stagnant and dies.
- Respect: “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” Some people feel that questioning someone is a sign of disrespect, but nowhere in the definition does it say infallible, and nowhere does it say fear. When people are afraid to question their leadership, that is not respect, it is fear. Fear is a good enforcer of silence, but respect will maintain peace. Respect is stronger than fear because it can survive being questioned. Fear when questioned loses its power.
Along with respect for leaders comes the inclination, which I believe is appropriate, to hold them to higher standards. While leaders need not be infallible to be respected, there should be at least as much forgiveness of indiscretion in followers as there is for leaders.
I understand that culturally, we look at all this in different ways. I am Jewish, and my tradition is to question everything. Observant Jews will spend their lives analyzing, dissecting, and questioning the Torah, the Jewish Bible, and this is considered the ultimate respect because they know it can stand up to questioning and reveal new truths. And that is the spirit in which we petitioned the USAF, to ask it to look at itself because we knew it was strong enough, we respected it enough, to think it could and would want to continue to improve.
- Petition: “a formal written request, typically one signed by many people, appealing to authority with respect to a particular cause.”
There’s been a lot of misunderstanding about this one.
A petition is not an attack. It is a request. This one was a request purposely made by a group of people together because individuals had not felt heard and had felt there would even be retribution for speaking up. Groups must communicate to assemble, and the internet was the most efficient way to communicate. Because this was public, we were especially careful that there was nothing negative or accusatory in the petition.
The conflict over the meaning of the petition was particularly painful for all of us because one side felt attacked and attacked back while the other side looked at it as being punished for speaking up about not having a voice. Both responses are reasonable when you see where they are starting from. Except there was no attack. But from those two contradictory positions, things escalated with little consideration for what the petition actually said. Once we see where things went wrong, it would be great if we could have a big do-over, and roll back to the petition itself as it was intended. But also recognize that while we should try to reverse any damage that’s been done, a redo is not an undo, and to move forward people cannot be punished for speaking up.
- Loyalty: Loyalty is another tricky word. Loyalty is standing by someone you respect and maybe even love, with honesty and compassion. It is not letting go of your own sense of right and wrong, or supporting them in hurting themselves or others. This blind loyalty can actually hurt those we are trying to protect. True loyalty requires mutual respect, which is not so fragile as to be broken by some hiccups or misguided actions, or by acknowledgement of mistakes. For example, if my father, whom I love dearly, severed a long-time friendship over a disagreement, I could cheer him on and bash the friend in order to agree with him, or I could point out their long history together and help him see things from the friend’s side in order to help him preserve the cherished friendship. Not to presume to tell him what to do, but to support him and protect him from his worst impulses, which we have all succumbed to at times. I believe the first action is blind loyalty, while the second is true loyalty. Returning to the water metaphor, say you have a dam, a big, beautiful dam. But this dam springs a leak. People could gather around, hiding the leak with their bodies. Or someone could put their finger in the gap, pointing out the defect protecting the dam and keeping it functional. That is true loyalty.
- Gender Equity: Equity is fairness. The request to look at gender equity is not an attempt to dismantle the structure of the USAF. It is the modern standard. Many organizations look at issues of gender equity to help them grow – women are a huge resource of human capital which has been under-utilized and wasted. Or they look at it after they’ve gotten into trouble for discrimination. It seems better before than after. The IAF has a Gender Balance Working Group, so this isn’t even just an American thing. I know the USAF has been concerned about how the petition has made us all look, but honestly, publicly and effectively addressing gender equity can only make the USAF look better in the eyes of the world.
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