Interview with Todd Jones: Thomas “Doc” Walker and Growing Aikido in Florida

Todd Jones, founder of American Butokukan, began his martial arts journey in 1971 with taekwondo, moving to aikido two years later. This is a transcript of an interview conducted the fall of 2018 for research of my upcoming American aikido history book. Here, we discuss his time under Thomas “Doc” Walker, the early days of the United States Aikido Federation, and his time at the Aikikiai’s Hombu and Iwama Dojo under Morihiro Saito. 

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you, Todd Jones Sensei for taking the time to talk with us!

Todd Jones: It’s a pleasure.

MAYTT: When did you first come into contact with the martial arts? From there, how did you discover aikido?

TJ: Two of my junior high school friends started taekwondo classes around 1971 on Miami Beach; so, I did too. About two years after I began training in taekwondo, a friend invited me to try aikido classes in Hollywood, Florida. Those classes were very physically intensive and training conditions were primitive.

MAYTT: Speaking of training, how have you seen martial arts training as a whole change since you began your training? How have you seen aikido training change since you began? If so, how?

Todd Jones Butokukan 1
Todd Jones instructing a class. Source: American Butokukan

TJ: It really depended on both whom you trained with, and how you wanted to train, based upon what was available. How particular individuals opt to train is closely tied to their personal objectives. Military Special Ops personnel train to be lethally efficient. Sport players in judo, karate, kendo, and the like, train to win at their game. Those pursuing philosophical ends and artistic expression will train in ways that, hopefully, manifest that elegance. Most every martial art can be expressed as an art, sport, or self-defense.

There is a continuum of physical versus spiritual alternatives. Young people, particularly men, seek intense physical training outlets. Women tend toward a more elegant path. Older people simply can’t continue the intense physical approach, so they become more efficient and thoughtful.

MAYTT: What do you feel is the driving factor that continues to motivate you to train aikido? Is that the same factor that originally drove you to aikido in the beginning?

TJ: Life is short. We all have choices. People train because they get something emotionally gratifying from it. For me, it’s mostly about the fun of sharing and helping others improve.

MAYTT: How did society view the martial arts around the time you began training?

TJ: Judo and karate were the most popular Asian martial arts when I began. Judo had been introduced to the world in 1964 at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. By the early 1970s karate, taekwondo, and kung fu (mostly because of movies and television) had gained in popularity. My impression is that most people regarded Asian martial arts as more effective than western boxing and wrestling. That said, people of good character didn’t, and don’t, engage in physical altercations, except as sport or a last resort in self-defense. As a Boy Scout, I was taught to “Be Prepared,” hence my interest in the martial arts.

MAYTT: My research of aikido in Florida uncovered Thomas Walker, or Doc Walker, as a leading aikido pioneer in Florida. Did you have an opportunity to ever meet and/or train with him, and if so, could you tell me about him?

TJ: Doc and I came to be “best friends” over the last twenty years of his life. I did an interview with him for Aikido Journal. If you can’t find the interview, let me know and I will try to find it in my archives for you because I think it will help you with your research.

MAYTT: That is amazing how you had that type of relationship with Walker Sensei. To you, how did he help disseminate aikido in Florida?

TJ: Doc was the driving force for aikido’s growth in Florida in the 1960s and 1970s. Doc, and his first teacher, Major George Wilson of the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office, were training and teaching before Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei came to New York. Doc began training in aikido in 1962. Doc’s dojo in Titusville, the Sand Drift Aikikai, spawned no less than ten other dojo around the state.

MAYTT: Being that Walker Sensei was aikido’s driving force in the state, he became involved in Yamada Sensei’s United States Aikido Federation (USAF). How much was Walker Sensei involved with the USAF?

TJ: Doc was the very first vice president of the USAF and actually helped create that organization.

MAYTT: I understand that Walker Sensei resigned from the USAF later on. When did he break off from the USAF and what prompted him to do so? How long after did he form the Sand Drift Martial Arts Association?

TJ: Doc stepped away from the USAF in January 1994. The Sand Drift Martial Arts Association died with him. Doc asked me to try and affiliate the SDMAA directly with the Aikikai Hombu, and despite years of trying, it just didn’t happen. But now we have the Aikido Shimbokukai with Lisa Tomoleoni Sensei!

MAYTT: Also in my research, I uncovered another Florida aikido pioneer, Edward Baker. Like Walker Sensei, did you have an opportunity to ever meet and/or train with him, and if so, could you tell me about him?

TJ: I knew Ed, but not nearly as well as Doc. Originally, Ed was part of the USAF. He opted to follow Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, no doubt due to his relationship with Don McIntyre.

MAYTT: Speaking of Don McIntyre, one of Baker’s students, he is credited for bringing Saotome Sensei to Florida. How did he find Saotome Sensei and what motivated McIntyre to find him?

TJ: Yes, this is well known. Don was training at Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. As I understand it, on his own initiative, he asked Saotome Sensei – then senior teacher at Hombu – if there might be a shihan who could be sent from Hombu to teach at his dojo in Sarasota. As I understand it, Saotome Sensei seized the opportunity.

MAYTT: Briefly returning to Baker Sensei, how did he help disseminate aikido in Florida? Did he have a similar impact like Walker Sensei?

TJ: To my knowledge, Ed Baker didn’t have a significant impact on disseminating aikido. Within the ASU, Dennis Hooker and John Messores had much bigger impacts, at least in Florida.

MAYTT: With Saotome Sensei arriving in America and quickly establishing his Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU), it created some tension with Yamada’s USAF, resulting in Saotome sensei leaving the Aikikai. What drove Saotome Sensei to leave the Aikikai and how did Florida schools react to the exodus?

TJ: I was there when it happened. Please read Doc’s Aikido Journal interview and then call me.

MAYTT: With his exodus from the Aikikai in 1975, he focused on his ASU organization. What prompted Saotome Sensei to return the Aikikai in 1988?

TJ: As I understand it, Saotome never “left” the Aikikai. His departure from Hombu Dojo, and the friction with Yamada Sensei, made it difficult for the Aikikai to maintain a relationship until the ASU became a significant influence in the U.S.A.

MAYTT: I see. Being on the East Coast, how did you see aikido grow and evolve? In what ways did American aikidoka differ from their Japanese counterparts?

TJ: Although Yamada Sensei brought many of the senior Hombu Dojo teachers to the US, their expressions of the art were too brief to make a lasting impact. Once Saotome Sensei arrived, perspectives began to change. Although training in the ASU was equally as rigorous as within the USAF in the 1980s, Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei’s knee injuries caused a shift to expression more akin to Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei’s teachings.

In Japan, students could, and still do, earn shodan rank in as little as two years. In the U.S., it would take five to seven years. There was no skill or learning gap. This became obvious as more and more Americans visited Japan for training, whether at Hombu Dojo, Iwama, or elsewhere. Some of America’s finest teachers overcame this disparity by moving to Japan for extended study.

MAYTT: Besides him inviting senior Hombu Dojo instructors to teach, how did you see Yamada Sensei’s and/or the USAF’s role in developing aikido along the East Coast?

TJ: Yamada Sensei is rightly credited with disseminating aikido across America. He grew the organization, with the help of many dedicated practitioners and the eventual enlistment of other Hombu classmates (i.e. Mitsunari Kanai, Kazuo Chiba, Akira Tohei, and Yoshio Sugino Sensei). Yamada Sensei operated out of New York City. Kanai Sensei operated out of Boston. George Kennedy led in Atlanta. Doc Walker led Florida. Prior to Saotome Sensei’s arrival, virtually anyone wanting to progress in aikido on the East Coast was left with no option but to join the USAF. The monopoly helped build a huge organization.

MAYTT: You mention George Kennedy Sensei; I had the opportunity to talk to him about the art’s growth in the Southeast. Kennedy Sensei stated that most schools did not have much contact with others outside their respective regions. Did you experience a similar situation? How did schools within the USAF keep in contact with one another at that time?

TJ: The primary mechanism for interaction and shared experience was through seminars. From the 1960s through the 1980s, most seminars were regularly scheduled events, hosted by the major dojo, featuring instruction by a relatively small number of shihan. Seminar attendance could range from as few as thirty to as many as 200 participants. The summer and winter camps sometimes drew even more. Yamada Sensei deserves credit for exposing USAF members to a number of talented Hombu Dojo shihan and the Doshu.

MAYTT: I can see how it would be difficult to stay in contact during that time. Sensei, when did you establish your school, American Butokukan and what influenced you to begin your own school? How has the original purpose of the school’s foundation changed since its beginning?

TJ: In 1975, as a freshman at the University of Florida, I was approached by other students who had an interest in learning martial arts. We needed an identity. By 1979, we were one of the largest student organizations on campus. We had classes in four different facilities six days per week (seventeen hours per week) servicing over 250 students. The University of Florida program spawned at least twelve other programs, mostly at other universities, across the U.S. and Europe.

MAYTT: American Butokukan teaches both aikido and karate. What lead you to integrate aikido and karate training? How does one art compliment or enhance the other and vice versa?

TJ: I was a student of both arts. It was only natural to become “bilingual.” Each enhances the other, like walking with two feet. Posture, balance, and breathing are critical in both arts. Understanding how, where, and why to strike properly instills martial integrity in aikido training. Understanding timing and movement improves sparring abilities in karate. This topic would require several books to address thoroughly.

MAYTT: Why do you think Americans continue to train in Japanese martial arts even though the arts’ popularity has decreased in recent years?

TJ: Asian martial arts in general offer a unique and valuable perspective on life. The virtues espoused are generally compatible with Judeo-Christian ethics. A life of humble service rooted in honor is compelling. As importantly, the physical skills are effective and adaptable to a myriad of situations; both controlled and unexpected. When is the last time anyone saw an action movie hand-to-hand fight sequence without Asian martial arts?

A short timeline for convenience:

In the late 1960s, judo players were concerned that karate was getting all the attention.

In the late 1970s, karate exponents were concerned that it was kung fu.

In the 1980s, everyone was concerned that there were too many taekwondo schools.

In the 1990s, everyone was concerned that there were too many Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools.

In the early 2000s, many of the BJJ schools morphed into mixed martial arts studios.

The general public’s attention tends to gravitate to the newest shiniest object at hand. The only martial art that allows old, injured exponents to participate in a meaningful way is aikido. I have trained at Hombu Dojo and elsewhere with people in their 90s. You won’t see that often in any other art.

MAYTT: What was your training experience like at Hombu Dojo? How different was the training compared to America’s aikido training at the time? Were there any similarities between the two country’s training methods?

TJ: Training at Hombu Dojo was always very pleasant, and very similar to the classes taught by Yamada Sensei. Classes with Morihiro Saito Sensei in Iwama were decidedly different; I enjoyed the way he required a strong technical and mechanic foundation before blending and flowing movement were taught. For me, Saito Sensei focused and clarified what the Hombu shihan had been exposing us to.

In my experience, students in Japan advance in rank at a faster pace than in America, but to me that’s irrelevant. At the end of the day, it’s about strength of character and how you perform relative to your own abilities that matter.

MAYTT: It sounds like it was an exciting time! In both 2003 and 2005, you had the opportunity to partake in the Aiki Expo of those years, along with many martial artists and experts from different styles and systems. What was it like working with Stanley Pranin throughout the event?

TJ: I was honored to be invited to teach at the 2003 and 2005 Aiki Expos. It was a very rare opportunity to meet and interact with some of the finest martial artists in the world. Many of us have become good friends and stayed in touch. As an historian with a penchant for truth, Stan was a force of nature. On a personal level, Stan was humble, gracious, and hungry for knowledge. Stan’s ability to produce aikido-centric events that bridged political divides was extraordinary, and a talent gravely missing in today’s world.

MAYTT: What was your overall feelings of the event? How did aikidoka receive the non-aikido martial arts and systems?

TJ: The Aiki Expos were simply incredible; they were a buffet of the best. Everyone was just happy to be there. Everyone was interested in meeting one another and learning. No one put on airs.

MAYTT: Amazing. How would you describe budo and does aikido’s training and philosophy parallel the quest to live a budo life?

TJ: Budo, translated as “Way of the Warrior,” is the philosophy adopted by samurai during Japan’s feudal period, as codified during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Many aspects of that philosophy are compatible with the world’s major religions. Aikido aspires to a higher ethic that is particularly consistent with Christianity: permit no harm.

Aikido exponents strive to avoid meeting force with force. The objective is not just self-defense at any cost, or the overcoming of an opponent. The objective is to spontaneously take control of the interaction to assure no one gets hurt. This philosophy can be expressed physically, verbally, or psychologically, as appropriate to the situation at hand.

To me, living a budo life simply means quietly, humbly serving others for the benefit of all.

MAYTT: You were a student of Walker Sensei for almost twenty years. What stands out as one of the most valuable lessons he taught or instilled in you?

TJ: We never stop growing; if we remain curious and make an effort.

MAYTT: Final question Sensei. With over forty years of training and teaching, what advice would you give to an ambitious budoka wanting to open a dojo today?

TJ: Don’t go it alone. Get talented, trustworthy partners and use good business practices. Most sensei have a day job and a reserve fund. Develop a curriculum that engages your students and generates excitement and enthusiasm. Traditions are important, but we live in a rapidly changing world, so be creative while staying true to the art. Your true competition isn’t another aikido dojo, or even another martial arts school. In my experience, the most successful dojo feels like extended family. Members do things outside the dojo together, frequently. Members want to spend time together because they enjoy one another and the activity.

MAYTT: Thank you again Jones Sensei for discussing aikido in Florida!

TJ: It’s been fun!

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

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