Interview with David Witt: Judo, Aikido, and Karl Geis

Karl Geis became a martial arts force in the Houston, Texas area, training and producing national and international judo champions, and competent aikidoka in the Shodokan variety after studying judo at the Kodokan and aikido under Shodokan founder, Kenji Tomiki. Today, longtime student of Geis, David Witt, talks to Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow about the martial arts journey of Geis and his impact on the martial artists in the Houston area. This interview was referenced in the book Aikido Comes to America. All images provided by David Witt and Karl Geis Ryu Dojo.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome and thank you for taking some time to talk about the late Karl Geis, Witt Sensei!

David Witt: Than you for having me!

MAYTT: In 1955, Geis began training judo and in the next year, he began training in aikido. How did he discover both of these arts and train in them as rigorously as he did?

Karl Geis
A formal portrait of Karl Geis.

DW: Mr. Geis was born in Enid, Oklahoma in 1933, and because of his German ancestry, experienced prejudicial treatment in his early years. Pragmatically, Mr. Geis developed a variety of skills to defend himself and was known to adeptly apply them in the very many situations that presented themselves. He was highly athletic and had played football both in high school and in college and worked at logging camps over the summers.

His introduction to judo occurred when he joined the Air Force in the early 1950s. While stationed at a base in San Antonio, Texas he wandered by a judo club, walked in, and shortly thereafter, was thrown onto the back of his head. Shocked that previous fighting skills were ineffective, he resolved to study judo.

When the Air Force stationed Mr. Geis in Japan, Mr. Geis attended the Kodokan and had the very good fortune of having the great judoka Harold “Hal” Sharp, judan become his mentor. Mr. Sharp had co-authored a number of judo books with leading judo Instructors. Additionally, Mr. Sharp worked for the U.S. government in a civilian capacity and was one of the key Americans whose influence was instrumental in getting the resumption of practice of martial arts approved by the U.S. military authorities. As a result, Mr. Sharp had extensive influence in the Kodokan and Mr. Sharp unselfishly introduced Mr. Geis to the very great judo teachers at that time: Sensei Sumiuki Kotani, judan, Sensei Yoshimi Osawa, judan, and Sensei Toshiro Daigo, judan.

Mr. Geis was known for his rigorous training ethic. A few weeks after he was introduced to Osawa Sensei, Mr. Geis asked Osawa Sensei to teach him a throw. Osawa Sensei showed Mr. Geis the throw and told Mr. Geis to practice the throw 10,000 times before coming back to him. The next week, Osawa Sensei was surprised to see Mr. Geis standing before him and asking to be taught another throw. Osawa Sensei asked Mr. Geis if he had practiced the previous week’s throw 10,000 times, to which Mr. Geis replied he had. Osawa Sensei then asked Mr. Geis to demonstrate the throw. After Mr. Geis demonstrated the throw, Osawa Sensei commented that Mr. Geis indeed had practiced the technique 10,000 times and then taught Mr. Geis another throw.

As Mr. Geis’ reputation as a dedicated student spread, Mr. Geis was able to train in the Waseda University Dojo, under the direct instruction of Mr. Osawa Sensei, the Kodokan Main and Foreign Dojos under the tutelage and direct instruction of Mr. Kotani Sensei, Mr. Osawa Sensei, and Mr. Daigo, Sensei kudan, and in the central police dojo under Mr. Noriyasu Kudo Sensei 8th Dan and after his retirement Mr. Diago Sensei kudan. Mr. Geis’ throwing skills were developed principally under the direct tutelage of Mr. Osawa Sensei as well as significant direct studies with Mr. Diago Sensei. Additionally, Mr. Geis studied Judo Kata exclusively under the direct and extensive private instruction of Mr. Kotani Sensei. Furthermore, Mr. Geis received extensive grappling training from Mr. Tatsukuma Usejima Sensei hachidan.

Lastly, Mr. Sharp introduced Mr. Geis to Mr. Kenki Tomiki Sensei hachidan judo, hachidan aikido and Ms. Tsunako Miyake Sensei, hachidan. In 1956, Mr. Geis was able to briefly study Mr. Tomiki’s Randori no Kata aikido system and he was able to acquire numerous films that enabled him to continue his studies upon his return to the United States.

MAYTT: In the late 1950s, Geis returned to the United States and began his life as a martial arts instructor. When did he open his dojo and what influenced him to do so? Also, according to a 1973 Black Belt Magazine article, “Karl Geis: Judo’s Dojo Psychologist,” the school’s name was “Geis School of Judo.” What prompted the later name change?

DW: Mr. Geis opened his first dojo with a partner, Rick Landers, in 1959 at a YMCA in Houston, Texas. A few years later, he opened his second dojo in a shopping center located in Southwest Houston. Mr. Geis opened his final dojo, in 1970 in Spring Branch located in West Houston.

Rick Landers and Karl Geis
Rick Landers (left) and Karl Geis (right).

Mr. Geis was a full-time, professional martial artist. He believed the teaching of Martial arts was an altruistic endeavor that instilled self-discipline, self-confidence, and self-respect. In his book, Twelve Winds, Mr. Geis wrote that the attainment of these goals gives us the ability to meet any challenges that might be placed on us by the ever changing and expanding world. He felt that the practice of martial arts created a mentally healthy individual who in turn could be a productive member of society.

Without a doubt Mr. Geis was also a pragmatic businessman. Like many martial artists at the time, he lived in the back room of his dojo to save expenses. He advertised, gave demonstrations, ran multiple articles in the local newspapers, traveled for tournaments and taught at seminars. Mr. Geis’ school and organization name changed as Mr. Geis evolved and as the martial arts he taught evolved.

MAYTT: I see. With Geis now back in the United States, how did he develop both his judo and aikido, away from his Japanese instructors? Did he conduct a self-motivated study of both arts or did he have like-minded practitioners to assist and help him in his development?

DW: Upon Mr. Geis’ return to the United States, Mr. Geis continued his studies, both at home and on a number of extended sabbaticals in Japan throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Because Mr. Geis had an active school, many of his students, like-minded practitioners, would accompany him on these sabbaticals both in judo and later aikido. Mr. Geis was a self-motivated student, and he would spend forty hours a week, outside of class-time, often practicing a single technique. Mr. Geis’ efforts were recognized in 1967 with his promotion to judo fourth degree black belt in the Kodokan at the age of 34 (at the time, a rank rarely given to foreigners in Japan).

Geis Foot Sweeps Judo
Karl Geis foot-sweeping the Olympic judo hopefuls.

Mr. Geis’ most notable technical achievement occurred at the Camp Olympus National Training Camp for Olympic judo hopefuls. One afternoon, the seven or eight Training Camp judo instructors decided to give a randori demonstration and throw the 120 judo players in attendance. The last in line of the judo instructors, Mr. Geis was surprised to find ninety judo players that had yet to be thrown. A master of the footsweep, Mr. Geis then spent the next three and a half hours throwing each of the ninety Olympic judo hopefuls – until they didn’t want to be thrown any more.

As Mr. Geis aged, he started focusing on his Judo Coaching abilities. His judo club rapidly began dominating State, National, Pan-American, and International competitions. In time, his competitors reached the Olympic level with one of his more prominent students, Jimmy Wooley, attending the 1972 Olympics as well as the 1976 Olympics. Lastly, Mr. Geis won the Black Belt Magazine Judo Coach of the Year for 1974.

Mr. Geis also had a number of significant judo organizational achievements. He was a founding member of the United States Judo Federation Texas Yudanshakai which consisted of a number of Judo schools throughout Texas. In 1968, Mr. Geis along with George Harris, Robey Reed, Phil Porter, and a few others, founded the United States Judo Association.

MAYTT: That is amazing! The Black Belt article also mentioned that Geis helped “emotionally disturbed” children with his judo, building them as people. What influenced him to use his judo to help children in need and when did he start that program? Did he utilize his aikido in a similar fashion?

DW: In his professional life, the founder of judo, Jigoro Kano, was a Japanese educator. He served in the Ministry of Education and later as the president of the Tokyo Higher normal school. Mr. Kano felt that judo would be an effective means of physical education while also teaching behavioral techniques to better assist the Judo student to integrate into society. Mr. Geis shared that opinion and started teaching children in the early sixties.

Mr. Geis did not teach aikido to children. He felt that children’s skeletal systems were still in the developmental process, and as such, children’s malleable joints would be susceptible to damage from the twisting techniques of aikido.

MAYTT: Between 1970 and 1975, Geis hosted Riki Kogure of Tomiki Aikido at his Houston dojo. What prompted Kogure’s arrival and what was that time like for both Geis and the dojo? How did Geis and his dojo grow from Kogure’s presence?

DW: Also a black belt in judo, Riki Kogure Sensei hachidan aikido was a student of Mr. Tomiki since the 1950s. He was president of the Japan Aikido Association and he established the All-British Aikido Championship games while in Britain. While Mr. Koguri Sensei worked for C. Ito & Co., he was relocated to Houston as the assistant general manager of the firm’s Houston office. Mr. Kogure Sensei was able to teach aikido in Mr. Geis’ dojo, every Friday night, for six years.

Mr. Geis was profoundly appreciative of Mr. Kogure Sensei and studied with him intensively, learning the entirety of Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s aikido system. Mr. Geis received dan rank from Mr. Kogure Sensei as he progressed, and eventually, other members of the school received rank as well.

Geis and School with Kogure
Karl Geis (front center left) and Riki Kogure (front center right) with Geis’ school, c. 1970-1975.

Additionally, Mr. Geis was fortunate to have many opportunities to study with both Ms. Miyake Sensei and Mr. Takeshi Inoue Sensei, rokudan during numerous and extensive training seminars given in Mr. Geis’ dojo. Their support deepened Mr. Geis’ understanding of Mr. Tomiki’s system and furthered the propagation of aikido.

MAYTT: Geis seemed to have a very friendly relationship with Kenji Tomiki, both during and after his stay in Japan. Could you tell me more about the relationship? How did this friendship influence Geis’ judo and aikido?

DW: Mr. Geis did have a very good relationship with Mr. Tomiki Sensei. Both Mr. Geis and Mr. Tomiki Sensei understood each other well because they were both well founded in judo.

Mr. Geis was very fortunate to be able to spend a large part of the summer of 1972 in Tokyo, at Waseda University in intensive direct personal daily study of aikido with Mr. Tomiki Sensei. At that time Mr. Tomiki Sensei asked him to establish his aikido system in the United States. Mr. Tomiki Sensei noted that their backgrounds were the same. He made it clear that this judo background and the understanding of off-balance from the judo viewpoint was needed in aikido in order to make aikido a more effective throwing art, rather than an art depending on pain to achieve its goals.

In July 1973, in Tokyo, Mr. Geis and Mr. Tomiki Sensei, using Mr. Inoue Sensei as an interpreter, discussed the fact that Mr. Geis’ serious students, rather than studying for three years as was typical in the Shodokan college system (because Japanese students had to study for exams in their fourth year), were in fact likely to spend ten years and upward involved in aikido. At one point Mr. Tomiki said that it must be really nice to be able to work with many students who practiced aikido over a really long period of time, studying the many subtle possibilities extant in aikido, especially when the elements of off-balance are applied to a realistic and viable hand randori system. He concluded by saying that he envied Mr. Geis and regretted that he did not have that opportunity because the older judoka in Japan were not interested in his aikido.

Upon Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s promotion of Mr. Geis to aikido yondan, Mr. Tomiki Sensei requested that Mr. Geis develop a safe, free style randori system for aikido similar to the randori system practiced in judo. Mr. Geis completed this task prior to Mr. Tomiki’s death on December 25, 1979. Mr. Geis’ efforts were rewarded when he received Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s rokudan promotion certificate in January 1980. With this promotion, Mr. Geis became the first, and only, foreigner to be promoted to rokudan by Mr. Tomiki Sensei.

MAYTT: That is interesting, Witt Sensei. Tomiki also mentioned to Geis that his aikido could appeal to older judoka who want to still train but not at the same intensity. Tomiki also claimed that judoka could grasp his aikido quickly and therefore learn and spread the system faster. How did Geis go about achieving older judoka as aikido students? What were some of the obstacles he faced attempting to do so?

DW: Mr. Tomiki Sensei was exactly correct. Over the years, we have seen many judo players “crossover” and rapidly adopt Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s aikido system. This is because, fundamentally, the core of our aikido system is built upon judo principles.

For example, in judo, when the uke steps into judo mai, the tori immediately initiates an off-balance condition at the moment uke’s foot strikes the ground – which then leads to a throw. In aikido, when the attacker steps into aikido mai, the defender immediately initiates an off-balance condition at the moment uke’s foot strikes the ground – which then leads to a throw.

In high-level judo, throws occur by translation of the center of mass (like two pool balls bumping), rather than pulling down with the arms. In Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s aikido system, throws occur by translation of the center of mass, rather than pulling down with the arms.

In Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s book, Judo with Aikido Appendix, Mr. Tomiki Sensei explains that the judo “Principle of Gentleness” is used to defeat an opponent when they deliver energy into the defender by expanding or contracting their arms. Consequently, in Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s aikido system, techniques are performed without bending or contracting the arms (to prevent the attacker from throwing the defender).

Many other fundamental principles in judo also apply in aikido: maintaining posture, walking on the balls of the feet, maintaining eye contact, throwing on first contact, the ability to subconsciously react to the attacker, etc. – all of which take years to master.

Being a pragmatic businessman, Mr. Geis, also realized that many of his judo players were reaching the end of their competitive judo careers. He knew, due to the physical demands of the sport on ever-aging bodies, that his judo players would eventually be forced to change the level of their judo training – creating the exposure that a significant portion of the thousand or so judo players in his organization would simply quit.

In conversations with Mr. Tomiki Sensei, and due to the reasons listed above, Mr. Geis recommended that Mr. Tomiki Sensei, recognize judo time-in-grade to satisfy the aikido dan time-in-grade ranking requirement. Mr. Geis Sensei would then conduct a series of week-long seminars with the various students to enable them to meet the technical requirements of the aikido dan ranks. Mr. Tomiki Sensei agreed, and Mr. Geis was able to successfully move hundreds of his judo players into Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s system. In turns out that many of those judoka (now aikidoka), are now in their eighties and are still practicing today.

MAYTT: Geis formed the Fugakukai International Association in 1982. What influenced him to create the organization? What were some of the goals he wanted to achieve when he formed it and did those goals change as time went on?

DW: The Fugakukai International Association came into existence in July of 1982 in Tokyo, Japan as the result of an effort to codify the system that resulted from twenty-five years of on-going general study of aikido conducted by Mr. Geis, Mr. Tomiki Shihan, Ms. Tsunako Miyake Sensei, Mr. Takeshi Inoue Sensei, and Mr. Riki Kogure Sensei, as well as the various teachers and advisors in Mr. Geis’ organization. The principle goal of the organization, the propagation of Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s dream continues. The system and principles that were developed in these formative years were cataloged in an extensive video library and are still taught today.

MAYTT: When did Geis begin learning jodo? Did his involvement in aikido piqued his interest in the quarterstaff and how did he integrate that training into his judo and aikido? 

DW: A quarterstaff is a six to nine-foot weapon, where a jo is five feet long. While both are used in a spear-like manner, both ends of the jo are utilized as attacking surfaces. The quarterstaff is mainly held at one end (similar to a spear), with the other end utilized as an attacking surface.

Geis with Jo
Karl Geis training with his jo.

Mr. Geis started learning jyodo in the 1960s under the instruction of Ms. Miyake Sensei (at her recommendation). Mr. Geis was attracted to Mr. Takaji Shimizu Sensei’s Shindo Muso Ryu Jyodo system because it offered him a viable weapons self-defense system. Mr. Geis would often say that a finite set of motions existed between the center of mass of the body and an object grasped with two hands. Because Mr. Shimizu Sensei’s Shindo Muso Ryu Jyodo system contained all of those motions, mastering jyodo enabled the practitioner to master all hand-held weapons systems.

It turns out, after substantial study, Mr. Geis evolved the jyodo system passed to him by Ms. Miyake Sensei, to include principles from both judo and aikido. For example, the defender applies judo off-balance conditions to the sword attacker, via the jo, at the moment of foot-strike, as the attacker crosses jyodo mai. Additionally, aikido principles were utilized, such as the use of the unbendable arm, to optimize the structural integrity of jyodo techniques. At appropriate moments, jyodo sword trapping techniques were changed to utilize judo air throws. Lastly, judo and aikido principles, such as managing distance, eye contact, proper posture, walking on the balls of the feet, as well as adherence to the judo Principal of Gentleness, were utilized as well.

Ironically, because of aikido and judo principles incorporated into jyodo, Mr. Geis would have both judo and aikido players practice jyodo, as a teaching mechanism to improve the players judo and aikido skills.

MAYTT: I see. As he learned judo, aikido, and jodo, how did Geis reconcile the differences of those three arts? What led him to explore those arts and offer them through Fugakukai International Association?

DW: We once asked Mr. Geis, if he was attacked on the street, if he would use aikido or use judo. At the time, his response shocked us. He said, “In my mind, there is no difference.” He realized we couldn’t see how they were the same, and he spent the last years of his life adjusting the formal kata in the aikido system to build the conscious (and subconscious) skills of the practitioner to realize that as well. He called that system “Kihara.” A martial art, which contains Kihara Aikido, Kihara Judo, and Kihara Jyodo. In many ways, the Kihara martial art system is a cumulation of Mr. Tomiki’s Sensei randori objectives as well as Mr. Kano Sensei’s vision of “judo at two-arms-distance.

For example, a major tenet of judo is that if a judo technique fails in one direction, another technique is available in the opposite direction. The first technique in Mr. Kano Sensei’s Nage-no-Kata is an attempt to throw uke in the forward-direction as soon as uke steps with his foot. If that technique fails (by uke tensing his back muscles) uke can then be thrown backwards (via a reaping throw).

Likewise, the first technique in Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s “17” Kata is an attempt to throw uke in the forward-direction as soon as uke steps with his foot. If that technique fails (by uke tensing his back muscles) uke can then be thrown backwards (via a hand to the face).

Lastly, the first technique in the first Kata of the jyodo system is an attempt to throw uke in the forward-direction, using the jo, as soon as uke steps with his foot. If that technique fails (by uke tensing his back muscles and stepping backwards), uke can then be neutralized by a jo strike to uke’s sword hand.

Mr. Geis explored these arts, and conscientiously developed them, because fundamentally, these were his personal self-defense system. Ironically, throughout his life, he still had occasions where he was required to use them to protect himself or those around him. As a teacher, he felt a moral responsibility to protect his students which is why he offered them throughout the Fugakukai International Association.

MAYTT: One of the main problems that Geis and others wanted to solve was teaching aikido to older participants. How did Geis and his contemporaries approach that challenge and did they come to a solution or something close to one?

DW: Mr. Geis did solve that problem many ways. The first is that he would minimize the extent of falling and throwing activities within his aikido system. He would often say, that the challenge isn’t really throwing the attacker, the challenge was actually getting the attacker to the point of off-balance where they simply were unable to stand up anymore. Once you had the attacker “teed-up,” the throw was quite academic.

This also had a secondary benefit: extended training duration. For example, when uke attacks a defender and is thrown down, it takes time to stand up again. Standing up, over and over, becomes rather exhausting and limits the duration of the training workout to thirty-or-forty repetitions. However, if uke taps out just before the point-of-no-return, the training partners can quickly reset for another attack. This is a much lower energy requirement, consequently, a training workout can extend to hundreds of repetitions. Ironically, because of this training efficiency, the aikido player with the most tenure in the dojo is often the best.

Another approach Mr. Geis would use is the demonstration of aikido techniques while sitting in a chair. This was particularly suitable for Mr. Geis because he had both of his arthritic knees replaced in the 1980s and was unable to perform aikido techniques from the kneeling seiza position. We have continued Mr. Geis’ approach, and teach both Mr. Tomiki Sensei’s aikido kata, and Mr. Kano Sensei’s judo Nage-no-Kata, while sitting in a chair.

MAYTT: From your time under Geis, what would be one of the most valuable lessons he taught and how has that lesson influenced you?

DW: While Mr. Geis Sensei was a profound martial art master, he was foremost a master teacher. His greatest pleasure was in training his students to have self-confidence and a sense of their own destiny. Mr. Geis was highly technical, very logical, and unwavering in his adherence to principled, teaching approaches to produce the very best judo, aikido, and jyodo players and martial artists.

Going forward, I continue to have the highest recommendation for any teacher who received dan rank from Mr. Geis Sensei. While it’s true that Mr. Geis produced thousands of judo players and martial artists in his lifetime, the reality is that there is a much smaller percentage that is still actively teaching.

As such, if a beginner student, or a seasoned martial artist, has the opportunity to train with a Karl Geis dan rank, I would urge them to not pass on the rare opportunity to become uplifted by Mr. Geis Sensei’s teachings and to become a part of Mr. Geis Sensei’s continuing legacy.

From a personal perspective, I trained with Mr. Geis Sensei for over twenty-seven years. He profoundly affected me both as a martial artist and as a human being. Of my Sensei, I can simply say this: “He was my Sensei, and I loved him.”

MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. From your experience, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to open their own dojo today?

DW: Mr. Geis Sensei actually gave a lot of guidance to the very many students that opened their own martial art schools over the years. His advice is still pertinent and applicable today.

Mr. Geis observed that it is fiscally challenging to run a dojo. It can be difficult to fund startup costs and quite difficult to meet the ongoing monthly fees: rent, utilities, insurance, etc.

As such, his first recommendation was to not rely on the dojo as one’s primary source of income – at least not initially. Treating the dojo as a hobby allows it to become a source of enjoyment. Attempting to draw a salary creates tremendous stresses due to the financial pressures related to how viable the dojo is economically. Unfortunately, dojos are economic entities that are marketing a discretionary product. Even the best run dojos can be severely impacted due to an unforeseen economic downturn – sometimes customers simply have to cut back.

His second recommendation, if possible, was to attempt to start a program in an existing fitness facility, such as a YMCA. Doing so, covers rent, utilities, maintenance, and insurance (all for a nominal fee) while ensuring access to a built-in market of potential customers that are in the facility and already dressed to workout.

His third recommendation is to give it time. A viable dojo consists of a teaching cadre of senior rank, and it takes a few years to build those folks up. Dojos are affected by the product they market. Some products may not be the latest “fad,” and it may take some time to build a loyal customer base.

His last recommendation is to have fun. If you are having fun, the trials and tribulations of running a dojo will be easier to deal with.

MAYTT: That was an amazing story of Karl Geis, Witt Sensei! Thank you again for talking to us!

DW: You’re welcome, and from one martial artist to another, best of luck!

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

One thought on “Interview with David Witt: Judo, Aikido, and Karl Geis

  1. I loved the interview. Outstanding. I have backgrounds in grappling, karate, U.S. Army infantry, and law enforcement. I am currently on disability but recently got back into martial arts studying Akiedo.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s