Interview with Arielle Herman, Part II: The Independent Coalition of USAF Women and the Future of Aikido in America

Arielle Herman of Rivertide Martial Arts and Yoga became a part of the Independent Coalition of USAF Women in late 2019, and soon became a representative of the Coalition in meetings with the USAF. Today, Arielle talks about her experiences with the Coalition and the future of aikido in America in relation to the event. All images provided by Arielle Herman. This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

MAYTT: Fast forward to October 30, you were part of the meeting with USAF leadership to discuss the petition and gender equality in the organization. That meeting did not go as planned, to say the least. What goals or agreements did you and the Coalition representatives wanted to reach in the meeting? Why do you think the USAF was unwilling to help the Coalition reach those goals?

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Arielle Herman, training iaido, at Rivertide Martial Arts and Yoga.

AH: The USAF was unwilling to work with the Coalition to attain any of our central goals because the USAF is a high-demand organization, otherwise known as a cult. Ironically, they had already admitted to being a cult, as described above, in the Sept. 29 meeting, but we were still somewhat in denial. During the October 30 meeting, George Kennedy reiterated this admission by stating that the singular requirement of any discussion or action is that it does not question or contradict Yamada in any way. Every Board of Directors member at the table nodded or verbally agreed with this assertion. This same description of purpose of the USAF had also been offered by Harvey Konigsberg in personal conversations in which he explained that the entire and only reason the 501c3 called the United States Aikido Federation, as well as New York Aikikai, also a 501c3, were formed was to “take care of” Yamada.

The Coalition’s goals were, frankly, to give them one last chance to not behave like a cult. Some members of the Coalition were more hopeful than others. The USAF leadership had, leading up to the meeting, displayed an elaborate performance art of victimhood while committing repeated acts of abuse, promoting manipulative propaganda, issuing both veiled and not-veiled threats including threats of physical assault, slandering members and supporters of the coalition, and otherwise following the abuser’s DARVO playbook, literally letter by letter. (DARVO is a common behavioral practice of abusers. It stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” In the negotiations for setting up the meeting, we requested a neutral venue. They refused. We requested that a professional mediator attend, and we offered to share the cost. They refused.

The day of the meeting, we entered the room, with Yamada literally reclining in his chair with his eyes closed and his bare feet pointed directly at us. (Anyone familiar with Asian and specifically Japanese cultures will know that this is a horrific breach of etiquette, though even from an American perspective it was disrespectful to say the least.) As the meeting began, one member of the USAF leadership began an in-depth excavation underneath his fingernails. Two others passed notes back and forth. One literally nodded off, head bobbing as if to a gentle lullaby. (This was in addition to Yamada’s eyes-closed display, which I was later told was a performance of disregard that he has been practicing for many years.) I don’t know whose plan this was, but from the start it felt like a comedy sketch gone very, very wrong.

MAYTT: That must’ve been frustrating. Also during that meeting, you had the honor, so to speak, of correcting Yamada on what he said on the September 24 meeting with Claire Keller at the New York Aikikai. What were your thoughts and feelings when you were rebutting some of Yamada’s comments?

AH: I would like to offer a point of clarification in regard to Claire’s Sept. 24 meeting and the topic of meetings being recorded by Coalition members in general, as there are many stories and misinformation circulating on this topic. I pushed hard, and repeatedly, for every interaction with any member of USAF leadership or representative to be recorded. So whatever fallout or dissatisfaction resulted from the actual recordings that were made, I accept full responsibility for that.

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Arielle Herman taking ukemi from Janice Taitel at the One Love Aikikai Retreat in Jamaica.

It had become apparent to me that the behavior of USAF leadership included lying, bullying, and gaslighting, and I wanted to make sure we had evidence of everything that they said and everything that we said so that there would be no question as to the facts. I never told anyone that they should make a secret recording, but I did research New York State law (under which such recordings are perfectly legal) on the topic in case anyone felt it to be necessary, and I requested that Coalition members record these meetings. In Claire’s case, I pushed extra hard because of what I had learned about her exchanges with Yamada over the years. I was concerned not just about maintaining the clarity of our work, but as a friend, I was concerned for her personal safety. The record demonstrates clearly that I was right to be concerned on both counts, since in this meeting he verbally abused her and threw her out of NYA and then proceeded to lie about what occurred in the meeting.

Additionally, the Sept. 29 meeting, as mentioned, was recorded, as was the Oct. 30 meeting, along with my own private meeting with Harvey Konigsberg. Each of these three meetings were recorded with the full knowledge and consent of each person present. Unfortunately, I have received numerous reports that Harvey Konigsberg has told people that I recorded him without his consent, clearly belied by the recording itself. In fact, listening to the recording of that meeting, you can hear numerous times that he requested that I pause the recording so he could speak to a sensitive topic, and you can hear the recording turned off and then back on to comply with that request. As I mentioned, I did push for each of these interactions to be recorded (though not all were) and advised Coalition members that if they felt unsafe recording openly that doing so without the other party’s consent was a legal option.

During this October 30 meeting, Yamada blatantly lied about what actually happened in his meeting with Claire Keller. So, what was I feeling as he slandered and abused my friend and teacher who I greatly respect, trying to gaslight a room full of people into accepting this story? I’ll be honest; what I felt was pure rage. Luckily it was a cold rage, not a blind rage. I kept myself together, spoke slowly and carefully, and stated that everyone in the room knew that there was a recording that belied every word Yamada had just said.

The room erupted into chaos once I spoke. Multiple people in the room were yelling at me and one lunged toward me while another acted as if he were holding her back. I was poised with my backpack on, ready to walk out, as I assumed that I was no longer welcome. Janice was next to me, telling me, “sit down, sit down, Arielle, sit down.” I focused in on Janice’s voice but still was unwilling to trespass per se, so I asked Yamada whether he wanted me to go or stay. His response, “Did I tell you to go?” didn’t offer complete clarity but I sat down and, believe it or not, we continued with our meeting.

MAYTT: As of March 9, 2020, you and your dojo resigned from the USAF. What prompted your resignation and what does this mean for the future of the Coalition? Are there talks or plans for creating its own aikido organization to prevent what occurred with the USAF?

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Arielle Herman throwing Janice Taitel at the One Love Aikikai Retreat in Jamaica.

AH: The October 30 meeting was the decision point for me. I had promised certain people I would do everything I could to keep an open mind leading up to that meeting. The meeting itself made the decision easy for Patrick (my partner and the chief instructor of Rivertide) and me. Funny story about that though—While Patrick and I were preparing to resign, some members of the USAF leadership, in conjunction with our sibling dojo Kingston Aikido, run by Kim Koenig and Brian Mizerak, were concocting a plan to try to isolate and force me out of the USAF. I won’t go into it here—my resignation letter is public and explicates the whole gory episode. But the irony is that in trying to force me out, they actually forced me to remain in the USAF even longer so that I could properly and fully refute and make public their nonsensical accusations. (First thing I learned in debate class in high school: No matter how idiotic an argument is, if you fail to refute it, it stands as the truth.)

MAYTT: Looking towards aikido’s future, how do you think this event will affect future female aikidoka in America?

AH: I like to think we cracked open the door for a new level of ethical evolution and greater inclusivity overall in the world of aikido, even though it clearly will not happen on any level in the USAF. We have heard from other organizations that the events triggered by the Coalition’s work, as well as the “outing” of the USAF as a high-demand organization, has led them to put more thought into their policies and structures, that they are working harder to listen to and accept input from their members. I do fear the trap of good intentions—that without understanding why something so broken can come from largely well-intentioned people, without deep analysis or deconstruction of these entities, we may be doomed to repeat these cycles of abuse in different incarnations.

A group of aikidoka, including some of the Coalition members, began to brainstorm possibilities for continuing and expanding on the work of the Coalition during Rivertide’s One Love Aikikai Retreat in Jamaica this past February. The ideas and vibrancy and powerful loving-kindness of the non-hierarchical community that I felt coalescing was breathtaking to me and gave me an infusion of hope for moving forward.

Shortly after we returned home, the pandemic turned all our lives upside down and sharply halted the physical practice of aikido as we knew it. After all the upheaval of the previous six months of Coalition work, I have spent the past few COVID-informed months deliberately turning my attention and energies inward to grieve, heal, reflect, and reassess what aikido means to me personally.

But the energy that arose from the Coalition work is tangible. Even with the pandemic stifling our practice, I see numerous individuals, dojos, and organizations fired up and carrying this work forward in diverse ways.

Others have kept the momentum going. The Aikido Solstice Seminar was a beautiful example of this—a cross-organizational/multi-lineage seminar open to all aikido practitioners and organized, led, and taught by women, offering the joy of practicing as a community and addressing the needs of the community with discussion panels such as “Aikido and Race,” “Aikido Principles and Protest,” and “Aikido in the Covid Era.”

In a different but overlapping track, Shin Kaze is an impressive new aikido organization formed with a relatively traditional structure and linked with Hombu, yet it is actively working to encourage ongoing input from and dialogue with members, to respect and welcome differences in lineage and style, and to enhance diversity of membership and leadership.

I think changes such as those reflected by these two examples, along with pulling back the veil on high-demand organizations, will help to create more opportunities for a more evolved aikido practice and community for aikidoka of all genders.

MAYTT: Final question. You mentioned previously that you have some reservations about the title “sensei.” In your opinion, what makes a person a sensei? What qualities distinguish a sensei from a student?

AH: What makes a person a teacher is not just having a desire and the skills to share something of one’s self, but a willingness to examine, analyze, and understand the dynamics of a teacher-student relationship. Understanding and communicating scope of practice is critical. Garnering consent for the interactions involved in the practice is critical. Setting and respecting appropriate boundaries is critical. This is a huge set of knowledge and skills that are just as important as the skill in practicing or imparting a particular art. It is just as important as a teaching pedagogy (which is also missing from a great deal of aikido and martial arts in general). I don’t believe anyone should call themselves a teacher without putting the work into developing all of these skill sets. It is not easy. And it probably means that 90% of people who call themselves teachers, shouldn’t. Good intentions are wonderful, but they are not magic fairy dust that makes all of your efforts perfect and pure. We talk of the importance of regular aikido practice. These other skill sets require practice and study as well.

I am sure there are qualities that make someone more apt to be good at teaching—I see and greatly admire so many of these types of people in the world of aikido. Sharing skills and knowledge is beautiful, and I believe we can do that with each other without necessarily claiming the role of “teacher.” To me, it is the work that one puts into creating a student-teacher relationship that is the foundation of being a teacher. Honestly, at this point I am not sure where I place myself along this analysis. All I do know is that I have so much more to learn, and so I keep reflecting on these questions and trying to figure out how to practice these different skill sets that I find so important to teaching and being a teacher.

My growing resistance to using or hearing the word sensei is integrally connected with the idea of Post-Lineage Aikido. I notice that we adhere to the structures and expectations of our lineage largely without question. Yet using the words of another language and another culture can be deeply problematic. What does “sensei” mean? From my understanding, it just means teacher. So then why can’t we just say teacher? Obviously, “sensei” has a huge significance in the world of Japanese martial arts (as does “guru” in other somewhat similar realms), and it has a huge cultural significance to Americans practicing a martial art with its origins in Japan. To what extent are we practicing cultural appropriation? To what extent are we making up nonsense? To what extent are we being super gullible to those trying to claim power over us? We learn, perhaps subconsciously, that the word “sensei” signifies respect, authority, knowledge, power. In its best incarnations, we believe it also signifies humility, caring, generosity, and compassion.

But I think our lack of questioning the meaning of “sensei” is tied to our lack of questioning other crucial elements in the teacher-student relationship. If we are not delineating what we are teachers of and what is outside our scope of practice, we are not being honest or transparent with our students, which then muddies the waters of consent. What are you consenting to? In what role? Delineated by what boundaries? What are your physical limitations? What are your mental or emotional limitations? As a student, are you looking to learn a physical practice or a spiritual practice? Are you looking for a life mentor? For someone to be in service to? To give up some of your decision-making agency? As a teacher, which of these roles are you willing and capable of offering/taking on?

In the midst of the Coalition’s work, I had an aikidoka tell me that they found the dynamic of fully giving themselves over to a teacher in a guru-type relationship to be important and fulfilling on a spiritual level. This is a person who I have found to be intelligent and self-reflective, yet this viewpoint felt problematic to me, particularly within the context of the abusive behaviors of the USAF leadership. I think a lot of people quietly feel the same way this person does. Many people who practice martial arts have a strong drive to submit their bodies—or even their bodies and minds—to an authoritative figure. I absolutely respect and understand that.

Without communication and informed consent, however, that relationship loses meaning. As part of a spiritual practice, it becomes hollow. It becomes dangerous. To give up one’s bodily autonomy without self-reflection and conscious decision-making is to refuse to be an adult. A student dishonors a teacher by not communicating their needs, desires, boundaries, concerns, and abilities. A teacher who does not actively attain informed consent and seek out information regarding their student’s needs, boundaries, concerns, and abilities, as well as communicate their own, is on a slippery slope toward abuse. It may work out fine by happenstance for some people and create horrible or even abusive dynamics for others. On a structural level, these patterns get layered in and reinforced to such a degree that folx who are not consenting to that kind of relationship inadvertently get drawn in. Even if the dishonesty and manipulation is not part of the intent of an organization, it becomes inevitable, as this is how people in power will reflexively reinforce their power/security once they have abdicated moral authority and personal responsibility.

Frankly, I think that the aikido community (along with other martial arts, yoga, and other mind-body practices) could learn a lot from the BDSM community, where communication and consent are the foundation of any physical, mental, and/or spiritual intimacy. This correlation is not farfetched; in aikido we already use tapping, a wonderfully useful and efficient way to communicate our physical limits and personal boundaries, as a safe word. To encourage self-awareness and safety, I instruct beginning students to tap early and often, and only if and when they choose, to experiment with extending their tolerance to pins and joint locks once they have familiarized themselves with both the sensations in their own bodies and the response accuracy of their nage. As a teacher, one carries the responsibility for making sure that the appropriate communication takes place, that consent is informed and active, and that boundaries are clear and understood.

We are going through so many intense changes in aikido, in the U.S., and in the world at large. I think that, developmentally, we are facing adulthood, and the growing pains of our collective adolescence are excruciating. As an adult, you may choose to give up certain elements of bodily autonomy. You may choose even to give up certain elements of decision-making authority. But as an adult, you simply do not get to give up moral responsibility. We have the knowledge, tools, and sophistication of communication to go to the next phase of human interaction. Some may argue that these unarticulated teacher-student interactions had their value in a certain time and place. If so, that time is over, and it is now time to become adults.

MAYTT: Thank you Arielle for providing a thought-provoking interview! It was a pleasure to have you here!

AH: Thank you for having me and for your questions!

This is the second part of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

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

2 thoughts on “Interview with Arielle Herman, Part II: The Independent Coalition of USAF Women and the Future of Aikido in America

  1. The interviews are interesting- they seem to all reflect the USAF in a very negative light, especially this one and the Janice Taitel one. It would be a good idea to also interview someone – a woman in the USAF. There are a number of high ranking ones that would be interesting to hear from, Penny Bernath sensei, for example, or Sylvie Firestone. If you want to show other points of view, that is. Thank you for considering this. Sonia Rapaport

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Sonia! We are in the process of researching potential people to interview from the USAF. We will look into them and see if they would be open to an interview.

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