Ruth Peyser began training aikido in 1980 after observing a class at the New York Aikikai. For the better part of forty years, she trained under Yoshimitsu Yamada, Seiichi Sugano and Donovan Waite. In late 2019, she signed the Independent Coalition of USAF Women’s petition, resulting in her banishment from the New York Aikikai. Today, Peyser discusses that experience and the Coalition-USAF event. All images provided by Ruth Peyser.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Peyser Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk about your experience during the Coalition-USAF event!
Ruth Peyser: Thanks for inviting me!
MAYTT: You began training aikido in 1980, at New York Aikikai, and after one class, you were hooked. What aspect of aikido did you find intriguing and does that aspect continue to motivate your training today?
RP: I enjoyed the movement and I was curious to understand this strange thing. It was a challenge to see if I could learn to do what the advanced practitioners were doing. At that stage, I only saw it on a physical level and the athleticism involved seemed out of reach. Nowadays, I still love the feeling of the movement but the aspects that motivate me to keep training are the philosophical ones.
MAYTT: The 1980s was the height of Japanese martial arts’ popularity here in America. From your perspective, how did the general American public view the martial arts? Was there a certain mystique surrounding martial arts in general? Do you feel that same mystique still exists today or have perceptions radically changed?
RP: When I started, the martial arts were on the fringe. I didn’t know anyone who did a martial art and when I told friends I did aikido, they didn’t express interest in knowing anything about it. People knew about the well-known ones like karate and judo, but their concept of them was shallow. Martial arts movies were popular, but the art portrayed in the film was done stereotypically. It’s very much changed now. The fitness trend is huge and incorporates the whole gamut: spiritually based, endurance, strength, and stamina; and as so much is written about all of them, and we all have friends who do some kind of physical activity our knowledge about them is greater. As for mystique, I’ve never felt there was a mystique surrounding martial arts. Celebrities like Bruce Lee drew a lot of attention, but it seemed less about mystique and more about spectacle and misperception of the deeper meaning of these practices.
MAYTT: I see. In training at New York Aikikai, you had the opportunity to learn from some high-level and well known aikidoka: Yoshimitsu Yamada, Seiichi Sugano, Steve Pimsler, just to name a few. Who, in your opinion, had the most impact on your aikido training, and how did they create such an impact?
RP: I’ve been fortunate to study under some amazing teachers. I can’t measure who had the most impact. I learn different things from each teacher, which has formed whatever my style is. Yamada Sensei was my first teacher and his beautiful circular and powerful movements have had a profound effect.
When Sugano Sensei came to New York, I was fascinated by his approach. I had never seen anything like it and was a devoted student for the 20+ years he taught here. His focus on hamni, distance, and timing opened my eyes to a way of studying aikido I hadn’t experienced before. He expected the class to be attentive and it always was, because he always was. He used aikido as a vehicle to impart something way larger than training on the mat that is still slowly revealing itself in my life all these years after his passing.
I had other, very significant teachers whose teaching has had a big impact on my aikido training: Harvey Konigsberg Sensei, Hal Lehrman Sensei, and Donovan Waite Sensei.
MAYTT: 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?
RP: I don’t know how it compared to the first wave of instructors, but training was hard and often rough when I started. There were two mat areas at New York Aikikai at that time: one for beginner’s classes and the other for everyone else. I stayed on the beginner’s mat for more than a year. I was terrified of moving to the general class, but as other beginners had made the move I eventually did too.
People trained hard and very few accommodated people at my level. Within a few days, some huge guy threw me in koshinage. I’d never done koshinage before and I landed flat on my back. I could barely walk for a few days but luckily, it healed pretty quickly after that. That first experience wasn’t unique. I got injured a lot. At the time, I felt it was because I wasn’t good enough. In hindsight, of course, it was because people threw me way too hard for my experience level. As unpleasant as it was, it did help me learn how to take ukemi.
MAYTT: In September 2019, you received a copy of the Independent Coalition of USAF Women’s petition, signed it, and passed it onto to others who were interested. What prompted you to sign the petition?
RP: I have encountered gender discrimination for my entire life. Women are acutely aware of how our gender influences the way people behave towards us. I had heard that some women tried to address gender issues at USAF East Coast summer camp and were treated dismissively. The organization is run by men and male dominated.
Since the petition was respectfully written, I didn’t hesitate signing it. I felt it was way past due for these issues to be discussed and hoped that if enough people signed it, it might convince the people at the top that this is an issue that many people want addressed. The #MeToo movement has had a profound effect on our understanding of the discrimination that women face so I thought that might contribute to a more open approach to discussing these same issues in the aikido community. It was worth a try and the worst-case scenario that I foresaw would be they would ignore or pay some lip service to it and not do anything.
MAYTT: Shortly after signing, you had a meeting with Yamada and, much like fellow New York Aikikai member Claire Keller, you were expelled from the school. What were your initial feelings upon hearing that and do you think he was within his jurisdiction?
RP: My first meeting with Yamada Sensei lasted less than a minute. He told me he was very angry that I had signed and shared the petition, and he didn’t want me teaching at his dojo. I taught at New York Aikikai for about thirty-three years. Obviously, I was extremely upset, and I wanted to talk to him about it. As I opened my mouth to say something, he told me that he didn’t want to hear a word I had to say and left the room. The following week, I received an email expelling me from the dojo. No one seemed interested in having any kind of discussion. At first, I was completely numb. Over the next few days, the grief swept over me. It was a terrible loss. It had been part of my life for forty years, the practice and the community brought me a lot of joy, and it was gone.
Was he within his jurisdiction to kick me out for signing a petition? It depends whether you interpret “jurisdiction” in a legal or moral sense. From a legal standpoint, it’s his dojo. But does that mean he has absolute power without accountability? Or can we give him the respect he deserves, but also ask him to respect us? He can run the New York Aikikai however he wants, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily behaving justly.
MAYTT: That’s an interesting way of viewing it. 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?
RP: You should do an interview with a representative of the USAF and ask them. Their reaction was counterproductive not only to the goals of the Women’s Coalition, but the USAF’s goals, and it reflected poorly on them. That’s why there was a backlash on social media. It’s hard to understand why the USAF did what they did.
MAYTT: In the aftermath of Yamada expelling you from New York Aikikai, he allegedly went on a “mudslinging” campaign to discredit you and dissuaded other schools to accept you as a training partner. In your opinion, why do you think he would want to tarnish the reputation of a longtime student from his personal school; what end would that have served him?
RP: I don’t think his behavior was strategic or thought out at all. It was impulsive, spurred by overwhelming emotion. It’s not like his mudslinging campaign served him well, other than pushing me out of the dojo. It was very painful to have so much animosity directed toward me. I would also like to know why he did what he did.
MAYTT: About a month after being expelled, Yamada retracted his earlier statement and allowed you to return to the school, but not Claire. What were your initial reactions to the invitation and why do you think Claire was not invited back along with you? Was it to demonstrate a sense of forgiveness or sympathy to those who signed the petition?
RP: A month after I was kicked out, I received a two-line email telling me that I could return as a student or train there as a visitor from another dojo. There was no attempt to work toward reconciliation. I love the community at New York Aikikai, but I didn’t want to return to a dojo where there was no desire to address difficult issues, work through conflict, or gain a better understanding of diverse viewpoints. It’s so counter to what we learn on the mat. Even though Claire and I train at New York Aikikai, we are in different situations there. Claire has her own dojo and taught at New York Aikikai but hasn’t trained there regularly for a long time. I was a student and instructor at New York Aikikai, and I went there almost every day. I don’t know why only I was asked back, but I don’t think it was because I only signed and forwarded it. If they wanted to “demonstrate a sense of forgiveness or sympathy to those who signed the petition,” they would have made that clear. It would have served them well. Instead, they sent an email with a tone that was far from conciliatory.
MAYTT: I see. In light of the Coalition-USAF event, what does this mean for female aikidoka currently and future female practitioners? Do you believe such a problem relating to female practitioners exists in the aikido community as a whole and, if so, should more members of the community band together to address this issue?
RP: Of course issues relating to gender exist in the aikido community just as they exist in the workplace, in politics, and every area in our lives. It’s been a frequent topic of discussion among women for most of my life. Nowadays, the #MeToo movement has brought it into focus in many communities throughout the world. I think we are in a transition where people are gaining an awareness that gender plays into all our interactions and women’s voices should be valued and listened to.
The USAF response had the opposite effect than they intended. They wanted to make the petition go away, but their extreme reaction drew attention to the gender issues that the petition presented and affirmed the validity of the complaints that were laid out. Their hostile response was widely discussed on social media, which led to an awareness of the issues within many dojos and aikido organizations both here and abroad. It brought issues of gender into the light and what happens to organizations that don’t acknowledge them. So, the entire episode has been beneficial for current and future women practitioners. Hopefully, this will be a starting point for all practitioners to notice gender discrimination, and for organizations to realize this is a very real issue to take into account to thrive. It’s important to keep the discussion going, in whatever way is appropriate for each specific school.
MAYTT: In moving forward, from a practitioner’s perspective, how should organizations, schools, and the overall aikido community make steps to ensure something like the Coalition-USAF event does not occur again?
RP: It isn’t really possible to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again. If there are issues like this at your dojo or within your organization and you are fearful of addressing them, take that as a sign that things aren’t good and try to work out a way to communicate depending on how you think it would be best received. And if you are fortunate enough to be training where you are comfortable having these discussions, take that as a sign that you are training in an open and healthy environment.
MAYTT: I think that’s a good starting point for people to address said issues. In late June, both the USAF and the International Aikido Federation added a new member to the latter’s Gender Balance Working Group. How do you foresee this new addition tackling and handling the issues and points laid out in the Coalition’s petition? Would this be a step in the right direction?
RP: The people chosen to be part of the USAF Working Group are insiders who, from what I’ve seen so far, are more likely to toe the party line than to support the women in the organization when issues arise. That could well extend to the IAF. It’s very disappointing that the USAF did not include independent voices from the organization to be part of their working group and the IAF’s Gender Balance Working Group.
MAYTT: Final question Sensei. With over forty years of training and teaching in aikido, what advice would you give to someone who wants to begin their training today, barring the current COVID situation? What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to find the motivation to continue training in aikido?
RP: It’s best to begin training with curiosity and openness and without preconceived ideas. Aikido is a journey of self-discovery and each practitioner creates his or her own path. It’s challenging, and navigating it requires developing an awareness of what’s around you and within you and how they are unified. It’s randori. The same goes for motivation. There are highs and lows and, for those struggling with motivation, they need to develop their own strategies to deal with it.
The experience I went through being expelled from my home dojo of forty years has been very traumatic. I never considered quitting, as I didn’t see aikido as the problem. It was fragility and fear—the human condition that we all share. I am a deeply flawed person and I would hate to be judged by the things I’ve done that I’m least proud of. I try to have that attitude toward other people as well. It can be difficult. I get angry, hurt, disappointed, but the last thing I want to do is to lash out impulsively, to judge, to condemn. So, if you mean motivation in terms of training at the dojo each day, once you get to a point where aikido is part of all aspects of your life, practicing becomes instinctive.
MAYTT: Thank you for partaking in this discussion! It was a pleasure talking with you!
RP: Thank you again; I enjoyed talking with you as well!
To find out more about aikido and its history in America, click here.