Interview with Former Independent Coalition of USAF Women Member Claire Keller: The Cause and the Future

Claire Keller began her aikido journey in 1980, having the chance to train under Kazuo Chiba, Mitsunari Kanai, Seichi Sugano, and Yoshimitsu Yamada. She trained with the latter until she became the only signatory on the Independent Coalition of USAF Women from the New York Aikikai and was subsequently expelled in late 2019. In this interview, Keller discusses her aikido journey and her part in the Coalition, specifically her meeting with Yamada in September 2019. All images provided by Claire Keller.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk about your time in the Independent Coalition of USAF Women!

Claire Keller: Thank you for your interest and the invitation!

MAYTT: You began your aikido journey in 1980, starting in college. Did you have any prior martial arts training or background before starting aikido? What drew you to aikido over other martial arts and physical activities?

Claire Keller and Kazuo Chiba in summer of 1984, in San Diego. Photo: Jouba Nour.

CK: I like to joke that I fell into aikido. It was offered as a month-long intensive between semesters at my school, Hampshire College. I went because my boyfriend at the time was interested and I wanted to lose weight. As a young child, I studied ballet several times a week. Aikido fulfilled the void left when I stopped ballet. Like ballet, aikido had special clothing, a rigorous set of fundamental basics and was consistently challenging.

My first teachers, Paul Sylvain and Lorraine DiAnne, gave a demonstration during the first class of the workshop. They had just returned from over three years of intensive training at Hombu Dojo and were at the top of their game. The beauty of aikido drew me in instantly. I also remember thinking I could never do it. I stayed because I was determined to overcome my fear.

MAYTT: Throughout your aikido career and journey, you had the opportunity to train under four direct students of Morihei Ueshiba and aikido pioneers in their own rights: Kazuo Chiba, Mitsunari Kanai, Yoshimitsu Yamada, and Seichi Sugano. How did all of these instructors’ training methods compare and impacted your own training?

CK: My first teachers were Chiba Sensei students, so it was Chiba Sensei’s approach which shaped my basic training. The emphasis was on connection and commitment. Connection to the floor, connection to your partner, connection to yourself. Commitment to the attack, commitment to ukemi, training, and total focus. My teachers threw really hard, so my ukemi had to be fast, sticky, and responsive. Chiba Sensei required uke to commit fully which is difficult to do especially when you know it’s going to hurt. Your spine has to be very flexible. I remember the first time I ever went to a seminar in Lowell, Massachusetts taught by Chiba Sensei. He threw me in jujinage. I had never seen jujinage and I had no idea what just happened to me. He laughed after throwing me, and it was exciting to have his attention. His energy was so focused and scary, the threat of violence lurked always just under the surface. I wanted to look just like him when I threw, powerful and still. He was easier to imitate for me than my teachers, because he was short, and I am shorter. Later on, I visited Chiba Sensei in San Diego on my own to train for a week or so. Those brutal trainings with some of his students are indelibly etched in my memory. Lorraine used to say that taking ukemi for Chiba Sensei required giving him your life and him giving it back. That kind of intensity was how I came up in aikido. After attending his seminars around the country and in Bermuda for years, I decided to stop taking his classes. Despite being somewhat close to him personally, I wasn’t willing to commit to training with him exclusively, he was too controlling and too violent.

I remember the first time I saw Kanai Sensei at a seminar at UMASS Amherst in the wrestling room. He had this shiny black hair that reached just beneath his ears that he flipped out of his eyes every time he’d throw. He was very quiet, but smiled a lot and I thought he was nice. I would visit his dojo in Cambridge, and it was intimidating because they did a lot of koshinage and did tons of breakfalls. It took me a couple of years to be able to take breakfalls, so I felt anxious about going there, plus his aikido seemed so complex. My teachers, Paul and Lorraine, were vocally critical of Kanai Sensei’s elaborate throws and so I internalized that to some degree. Paul countered Kanai Sensei’s senior students and seemed to delight in stopping and smashing them to the mat. Paul and Lorraine knew what they didn’t like (a lot) and were vocal about their opinions. Unfortunately for me, I adopted their judgmental and negative approach and shared way too much of that attitude with whoever would listen. For that, I am sorry.

After I left my first dojo, I trained in Cambridge for a little less than a year. During that time, Kanai Sensei never threw me or talked to me. So, although I learned his style, I didn’t feel his throws. I remember his warmup was exactly the same each class accompanied, by throbbing disco beats blaring up from the aerobics studio downstairs. He excelled in complicated koshinages. When taking back falls, he liked his students to fall down on the outside leg rather than tucking the leg closest to nage. That didn’t make sense to me and despite being told to change my ukemi by a senior student, I didn’t. His students were very fit and worked out hard. He was serious as well, but in a different way than Chiba. He struck me as an artist, and he had developed his own particular style that was close to judo. He had a workshop behind the kamiza where he made things. 

He failed my first black belt test in 1985. When I asked him why, he told me I was arrogant and out of shape. He was right, and I knew it, but I also knew his aikido was not for me. I quit his dojo and moved to New York City and joined New York Aikikai. It took me ten years to admit to myself that Kanai Sensei had done me a favor by failing me.

When I arrived in New York, I felt welcomed. The dojo was in disarray, undergoing its first renovation in many years. Yamada Sensei was on the road constantly, and most classes were taught by students. The mid-1980s in New York City was reflected in the dojo membership; it was wild there and populated by actors, dancers, artists and musicians. We were young and it was a lot of fun. Then Donovan Waite arrived, which was fantastic, because he was so good. He took every class that he didn’t teach and training with him was great.

Claire Keller performing a nikkyo on Gillian MacLeod, and instructor at Bushwick Dojo.

Then Sugano Sensei arrived. Sugano Sensei was the greatest teacher I’ve ever trained with. His aikido was dynamic and unpredictable, completely different from Chiba Sensei, but just as effective. He demanded maximum effort and energy. He didn’t explain much and if he laughed at you, that wasn’t good. His weapons work was so different from Chiba Sensei’s, so dynamic and fluid. He didn’t believe in kata, I heard him say if you want self-defense, get a gun (he liked guns, by the way). He could be mean, but he wasn’t violent. Taking ukemi for him involved running and running and ending up on the mat. He was a seeker and a true bohemian, and although I didn’t hang out with him, I loved him.

Learning to imitate different teachers gave me the opportunity to decipher techniques. I developed my analytical skills and worked on seeing and translating movement into my body. I wanted to create chaos like Sugano Sensei but not hurt anyone or dominate them in a scary way. After decades, I began to gain confidence in my own approach, and I continue to explore and teach basic techniques because I find in them limitless challenge. I also believe to fully express yourself you need to have an extensive, grounded vocabulary.

MAYTT: I can see how having four different aikido perspectives was helpful in creating your own style. Having trained under four high-profile aikidoka, what was the most important or most memorable lesson that taught you?

CK: Chiba taught me commitment and connection. Kanai taught me to be honest with myself. Sugano taught me to challenge and push myself, never be complacent.

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 join the Coalition and what were your initial goals upon joining?

CK: Janice Taitel called me and asked me if I would join the Coalition. I agreed somewhat reluctantly, because I was convinced the petition had no chance of being considered. This pessimism was based on my experience trying to build a teaching career and get recognition for my skills. I felt that in addition to receiving little support from the powers that be, I was actively prevented from pursuing opportunities often because they included non-USAF dojos. There is also my blunt, critical personality, which has been a liability.

Throughout my aikido career, I noticed that students would get dragged into beefs between the Japanese teachers, as if we were their property. This kind of strife seemed antithetical to the principles of aikido, but regardless I followed most of the rules, while complaining about this seeming hypocrisy to whoever would listen and sneaking off to train outside the fold.

Ultimately, I joined the coalition to support Janice and the petition simply because it was the right thing to do. After four decades I felt I had nothing to lose. My husband, Chip, also an aikidoist, predicted I would blow my aikido career out of the USAF water if I signed the petition. I signed on anyway, ignoring the fact that I was the highest-ranking name on the petition and the only one from New York Aikikai.

Claire Keller in class at Bushwick.

MAYTT: As the Coalition was beginning to take shape, what was the overall atmosphere of the New York Aikikai? Did you feel you had to hide what you were doing from peers and instructors? Additionally, outside of the meeting with Yamada, how did the rest of the school treat you once they learned you signed the petition and joined the Coalition?

CK: I had been feeling an increasingly repressive atmosphere at New York Aikikai even before Sugano Sensei’s death in 2010. My reaction was to withdraw from training and in the past few years I showed up very little. I talked to people in the dressing room and after class, but I felt isolated and frustrated. I told myself I was a dissenter, so I wasn’t really complicit, but I was. My anger and resentment were tremendously off-putting to other dojo members. This is probably one reason I received almost no support after Yamada Sensei expelled me except from Elizabeth Albin, a longtime member who bravely resigned in support of my getting kicked out and one or two others. I feel very sad about this, but I need to be honest with myself about my actions before, during and after this upheaval. I continue to question myself about what I may have done to contribute to the loss of a community I was part of for forty years.

MAYTT: In late September, you met with Yoshimitsu Yamada to discuss details relating to the petition and the Coalition. That meeting did not go well, to say the least. How did your perception of Yamada change from when you first began training under him and how did that meeting set the tone for future meetings between the Coalition and the USAF?

CK: I was called in to meet with Yamada Sensei. My sister members strongly encouraged me to record the meeting which I did. A few days later, Yamada Sensei was told about the recording and became further enraged at me as a result. I understand his feeling of betrayal, but I do not regret making the recording. I never planned to publicize it. Although I was apprehensive about the meeting, I told myself Yamada Sensei would yell a bit and then move on. I underestimated how furious he was. He immediately told me I was out, and I tried unsuccessfully to talk him out of it. He took the petition as a personal attack and I couldn’t persuade him otherwise. While I was naively surprised at being thrown out, ultimately, it’s his dojo and he is the boss. I knew when I left New York Aikikai, Yamada Sensei would never invite me back into the dojo community.

MAYTT: I see. With the petition sent to the USAF, the organization seemed to have discouraged early and potential signers and supporters of both the petition and Coalition. In your opinion, why do you think the USAF took such action?

CK: The USAF is a high demand organization and it crushes dissent, even when it’s relatively innocuous, as the petition was.

MAYTT: In regard to the USAF’s ability to “crush dissent,” how should the ideal aikido organization, or an organization of USAF status, respond to such petitions/complaints?

CK: If the USAF had responded to the Petition in a reasonable, measured way, any controversy generated would have been instantly defused. I believe membership organizations should be transparent and bottom up, welcoming input from all levels because we can all learn from each other. Since people are involved in organizations, disagreements are inevitable, but we need to be able to agree to disagree and conduct a constructive, respectful debate. That sort of open communication, warts and all, seems to me to be the mark of a healthy organization.

MAYTT: Regarding the future of the Coalition, are there plans or talks about creating its own aikido organization to ensure, or at least attempt to not have what occurred in the USAF? In your opinion, what would be the pros and cons of forming such an organization?

Claire Keller performing a sankyo.

CK: I am not involved any longer with the Coalition. After a few months, I decided that the bitterness of the debate was no longer healthy for me, and I withdrew. The polarization of the debate made me miserable, and that polarization is echoed in the debates of our dominant culture.  In my view, whether or not the coalition went about the petition properly or not does not matter. We tried to inject some positive change and we were soundly rejected. It’s time to move on. I have joined Shin Kaze and am excited so far to have a say in the development of a healthy, transparent aikido organization. Unfortunately, in the midst of this pandemic, I’m not at all sure when training will again be possible.

MAYTT: I hope this pandemic ends soon so we all can resume our training. Looking towards aikido’s future, how do you think this event will affect future female aikidoka in America?

CK: I don’t think the fracas, as some have labeled it, will be very consequential. People can dismiss what happened to us either by believing the USAF perspective, or saying that they just want to train and avoid “politics,” and the whole effort is then erased, along with the women whose signatures were visible.

Sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia and intolerance run rampant in this country and all need to be addressed. I hope that women and men avoid organizations that treat them disrespectfully, period. While I believe aikido is a valuable practice, if it is imbued with any kind of mystical, worshipful or spiritual overlay, unscrupulous people may use that as a way to take advantage of others. I have seen abuse in the name of aikido and it needs to stop. Everyone should be respected, regardless of rank or stature.

MAYTT: When did you open your Bushwick Dojo and what prompted you to do so? Did someone casually suggest the venture or did an instructor convince you to “open up shop?”

CK: Bushwick Dojo came about in early 2016, when a group of people who were taking my classes at New York Aikikai and Aikido of Park Slope decided to help me find my own dojo where I could focus on basics. I had been complaining (too much) about the lack of basics in aikido. I am grateful to all who supported and helped me find my voice. I strive to make Bushwick Dojo a place where everyone is respected. It’s an abuse-free zone.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. With forty years of training, teaching, and running a dojo, what advice would you give someone who desires to open an aikido school?

CK: I am relatively new to running a dojo and it is humbling, especially now when aikido is so much less popular than when I was young. I think continuing to train is key. I try to get out of my comfort zone and train with different people.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk and further the information around the Coalition and USAF event!

CK: Thank you for your thoughtful questions!

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

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