Interview with Aikido Shihan Bill Witt: The Early Days of Aikido in Northern California

Bill Witt Sensei began training in aikido in 1967, under Ueshiba Morihei – O-Sensei – at Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. After O-Sensei passed away in 1969, Witt Sensei began training under Saito Morihiro Sensei in Iwama, Japan. He cofounded the Takemusu Aikido Association in 2002, based in California, and currently has been teaching at Aikido of Silicon Valley since 1998. In this interview, Witt Sensei talks about the early days of aikido in Northern California, his partnerships with Robert Nadeau and Frank Doran, and the founding of his Takemusu Aikido Association. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America.  

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time, Bill Witt Sensei, for joining us to talk about the early years of aikido in Northern California!

Bill Witt: I’ll see if I can try and remember more than fifty years of aikido effort! [Laughs]

MAYTT: With more than fifty years of training in aikido, many would consider such time and dedication 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?

BW: I developed an interest in Japan because I had friends who were stationed there while in the army.  One friend after he returned asked me to go with him to see a Japanese movie—a Samurai film, of course. We used to go for some Japanese food after our cinema outings.

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Bill Witt Sensei in his Aikido of Silicon Valley Dojo. Source: Silicon Valley Dojo.

A few years later in 1966, my job took me to Japan to a company located outside of Tokyo.  After about six months, the job didn’t pan out. I decided to stay for a while and began a two-month accelerated program in Japanese. In my class was a fellow from Hawaii who was training at the Kodokan. I decided then, since I was in Japan “The Land of the Martial Arts” that it would be a good opportunity to begin one. One day, I went to visit a kendo class at the Budokan but felt it was not for me. That afternoon I visited the aikido dojo in Shinjuku. I walked in the door and saw the Founder sitting in the office. I figured it would be a singular opportunity to begin training with the founder of a martial art, although I didn’t know anything about it. I was asked to come back and watch a class. I did, and after class the Founder came out of the office and demonstrated and talked for about an hour. I didn’t know if it was for my benefit or not, but I signed up to begin training on July 24, 1967. Since I was not working, I began training five days a week. That was my schedule until I returned to the States in December of 1968. I was fortunate to return to the San Francisco area where a friend I met at the dojo in Tokyo had a small dojo in Mountain View which is south of San Francisco.

By then, I was hooked on aikido and working as a mechanical engineer for my former boss for whom I worked when I went to Japan in the first place. After about nine months we parted ways, and I returned to Tokyo to train at Hombu Dojo. The Founder had passed away about six months before. I was awarded my shodan in October of 1969. I had developed a training relationship with Saito Morihiro Sensei and asked to become his student out in Iwama at the Founder’s dojo and also where the aikido shrine is located. He accepted me, and I began to train in the Ibaraki Dojo.

MAYTT: Very interesting start to your aikido journey! When you opened your dojo in 1973 in San Francisco, what was the aikido scene like in the city and in Northern California? Was it a mecca of aikido training, or was the art alive in small pockets around the area?

BW: After my second trip to Japan, I returned again to the San Francisco Bay Area and began training at the dojo in Mountain View. In the Bay Area, if I recall correctly, there were only about four dojos in the area. At that time there were no high ranks locally and the most senior person actively teaching was a yondan. There was no senior leader and the dojos were fairly small and separated. Aikido was a little more active in Los Angeles and there was a teacher who was a student of Tohei Koichi Sensei who taught there. Through him Tohei Sensei used to come to scheduled seminars which we would all attend. I had trained with Tohei Sensei in Tokyo. Compared to judo and karate, aikido dojos were very small. It was difficult to teach professionally and make a living.

I made several more trips to Japan for training with Saito Sensei, using my vacation time from work to do so. Need I say that I was single at the time. On my return to the San Francisco area in 1973, Bob Nadeau, Frank Doran and I partnered up to open up Aikido of San Francisco.

MAYTT: How did you acquire new and potential students when you opened your dojo and what was a common tactic used to try and retain such students?

BW: We opened up at the end of 1973 just after Bruce Lee’s movie came out. Nadeau and Doran Senseis were teaching a small class at the Unitarian Church and wanted to expand. I recall they brought about twenty-five or so students with them, and the first month we opened we easily doubled our enrollment. I was sure we were going to be a big success. I was sandan at the time.

We didn’t have to advertise. The Human Potential Movement was in full swing and students kept knocking on the door. We were doing well with adult classes, but our location meant children’s classes were almost out of the question. As I recall, most of the dojos I was associated with, except one, had few children training.  Compare this with the present when a successful dojo has big children’s classes compared to the adults.

MAYTT: In my research, I have found instructors who mention that either one in five or one in ten potential students stays committed to learning aikido, or any martial art for that matter. From your experience, did this statistic hold true in 1973 and does it hold true today, pre-COVID-19?

BW: While at the San Francisco dojo, I kept track of people training. Men trained about four months and women on average trained about six months. Yudansha were scarce. I would say your statement of one in five or ten is about right. We did develop a dedicated group who progressed to shodan and above, but I would say it was only about ten percent of the enrollment. I continue to see my old students and occasionally meet people from then who are still training. I usually remember them when they were beginners and am very surprised at how skilled they have become. That proves to me that constant practice is the key to advancement.

At this time, social media is a much better way to reach potential students. At the dojo where I now teach, our main source of students find us on social media. Back between 1973 and 1977 students usually came through word of mouth. What is interesting about at the dojo is entering students are fewer than before, but they stay much longer. Many more are advancing to shodan and above.

MAYTT: I see. During the 1970s, with Bruce Lee and Kung Fu films having widespread popularity in the country, how did the American public view martial arts? Did these films create any misconceptions of aikido and Japanese martial arts during that time? Did those misconceptions continue through the 1980s and 1990s or did they change with the times?

BW: As I mentioned before, Bruce Lee movies were key to attracting students, but also the Human Potential Movement was a great source of students as well. Aikido was fairly unknown compared to Judo and Karate and required some explanation at the beginning. I don’t think people understood how much effort is required at the beginning. Conditioning and practice can make for aches and pains at the outset. I would say it takes at least six months of practice to overcome body stiffness, if one is training about three times a week. With students working full time jobs and dealing with other influences as well, one can see it may take an exceptional sense of vision and dedication to overcome the initial discomfort.

MAYTT: Within the Northern California area, my research uncovered Frank Doran and Robert Nadeau as two of the main pioneers and disseminators of aikido. Being in the upper part of the state, did you have any interaction with either of the men and, if so, how did such relations develop for the art’s growth? In your opinion, what made them stand out as influential aikido forerunners as opposed to some of their contemporaries?

BW: As I mentioned before, both Frank Doran and Bob Nadeau and I were equal partners in the San Francisco dojo. We were partners for about fourteen years. We made common cause because aikido was small, and we felt a dojo in San Francisco (there were none at the time) with several senseis would be a draw. And it was. Eventually each one of us developed students who gravitated toward a preferred instructor.

Doran Sensei began his aikido training while in the Marine Corps. Nadeau Sensei originally went to Japan to train at the Kodokan in Judo but wound up training in Aikido with the Founder several years before I began. Both sensei are my sempai in terms of training time.

MAYTT: Your Takemusu Aikido Association (TAA) and the California Aikido Association (CAA) came into existence in 2002; before then, there was Aikido Association of Northern California (AANC) in 1980, and before that it was the Aikido of Northern California Yudansha Kai in 1974.What and/or who prompted the formation of the Aikido of Northern California Yudansha Kai? Was it a way to unify schools and practitioners in the state?

BW: Let me discuss this in the reverse order. After the Founder passed away there was a leadership vacuum in California. The small group of sensei who were trying to develop dojos were virtually invisible to Japan, even though several of them had trained in Japan. Japan was just starting to send out teachers from Hombu Dojo with Yamada Yoshimitsu Sensei in New York, Kanai Mitsunari Sensei in Boston, Chiba Kazuo Sensei in England, Tamura Nobuyoshi Sensei in France, and Tada Hiroshi Sensei in Italy. In other words, the overseas connections between Japan and the U.S., for instance, were still nascent as far as local senseis were concerned.

There were several dojos in Los Angeles in the Japanese community there. Rod Kobayashi Sensei teaching in Santa Monica (I think) was connected with Tohei Sensei and senior to all of us in California in rank. He would come up to teach occasionally. Those of us who were teaching in the North had experience with other teachers and there was some friction as to teaching styles. In 1974 Tohei Sensei left the Aikikai to branch out on his own. Kobayashi Sensei went with him. We decided to band together as the Northern California Yudansha Kai to try and develop a relationship with Aikido Hombu Dojo. I had a very strong relationship with Saito Sensei at the time which helped us to get notice from the Aikikai.

In 1980 we began to see more dojos opening up from students of ours who went on their own.  We renamed the organization Aikido Association of Northern California wanting to emphasize our “area of influence.” Since Doran Sensei, Nadeau Sensei and I were the senior people—we were yondan by then—we formed three groups of dojos separated by the senior instructors. The association gradually grew to about eighty dojos.

In 2002, I left with about eighteen member dojos to form the Takemusu Aikido Association while the California Aikido Association retained the rest. All of us in this group had trained seriously in the Ibaraki Dojo and considered Saito Sensei as our teacher. Currently our association has about seventy-two member dojos in the United States and abroad. We maintain close contact with the Aikikai and the Ibaraki Dojo.

MAYTT: It is interesting to see how the organization adapted with the changes in Northern California. As mentioned previously, your TAA and the CAA come out of the AANC in 2002. What led to the reorganizing/reforming of the AANC and the formation of the TAA?

BW: It wasn’t obvious at the time, but with three different instructors leading the association it became apparent there were different visions of the direction the association should take. I don’t wish to elaborate further on this subject.

MAYTT: During those early years of disseminating aikido and forming state-wide organizations, how much contact did California/West Coast have with other regions/areas in America, if any? Did geographical location hinder such communication and possible growth of the art?

BW: Our first organization actually associated with the USAF under Yamada Sensei. We had some organizational issues between the USAF and ours. We applied to and were accepted by the Aikikai which helped in communication with Japan immensely.

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. In 1974, Kochi Tohei separated from the Aikikai to create his Ki Society. What were your thoughts and feelings on the event? What was the overall feeling of Tohei’s departure here in America? Did the split contradict the art’s core philosophies when practitioners did not have a large organizational affiliation or loyalty in America?

BW: By 1974, I had known Tohei Sensei through training for about six years both in Tokyo and locally when he visited. While Tohei Sensei had influence in Hawaii and Los Angeles it was not as strong in Northern California. When the split occurred, almost every aikido instructor in Northern California elected to stay with the Aikikai. Before he left the Aikikai he probably came to the Bay Area about three or four times for short stays. My experience with him was that he was a very strong, skilled aikidoka. I simply preferred Saito Sensei.

You should understand there are many outstanding teachers in aikido, and I trained with a number of them in Tokyo. Their teaching styles are somewhat different in appearance but the same in principle. However, I asked to become Saito Sensei’s student and have been loyal to him since.

It is always difficult to see a senior instructor leave to off on their own, and I felt somewhat sad that Tohei Sensei and the Aikikai parted ways. When people train in aikido for a long time they develop personal relationships which are very strong, because sharing training hardships (for lack of a better word) form close bonds. I feel that even today with my old training partners in the Ibaraki Dojo. That all said, the split between him and the Aikikai was a very Japanese thing to do and not surprising. What was disappointing was the acrimony. Even after the split, however, there was some contact between Tohei Sensei and other Aikido instructors in Japan.  It was just not on an aikido basis as far as I know.

In some respect, with Tohei Sensei’s departure from the Aikikai, the resident Japanese teachers in the U.S. were able to develop more on their own as were the young American organizations which were springing up.

MAYTT: Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences in the early years of aikido, Witt Sensei!

 BW: Thank you for allowing to be a part of your project!

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

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