Interview with USAF Technical Committee Member Claude Berthiaume: His Aikido Journey

Beginning his aikido training in 1971, Claude Berthiaume had the opportunity to train and forge connections with Yoshimitsu Yamada and Mitsunari Kanai. Since then, he has helped grow and facilitate the United States Aikido Federation. Today, we had the opportunity to speak with Berthiaume about how he got started in aikido.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Berthiaume Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about your aikido journey!

Claude Berthiaume: Thank you for the invitation!

MAYTT: You began training aikido in 1971, at the age of seventeen. What was it that influenced you to begin aikido at the time and does that aspect still inspire you to train today?

Claude Berthiaume teaching bokken. Source: Aikido Center of Jacksonville

CB: Well, in those days I was playing ice hockey and I was not talented enough to become a professional. My brother was doing Tae Kwon Do so I thought I would do the same thing or Judo. I decided finally to go for Judo but just before I saw an article about a new Martial Art in town, Aikido. It was a very short article beside a 3¨x 4¨ picture. Right away, I knew that was what I wanted to do, and I registered that afternoon.

My first class was at a sport center where they had a very good gymnastic program. I was the first one to arrive for the practice, so I entered the room and I stepped on the mat with my shoes and looked through the glass at the gymnastic class below. At that moment, a tall guy entered the room and told me that I should not be on the mat with my shoes. I stepped off the mat and put my gi on thinking that he is going to be mad at me because I stepped on the mat with my shoes on.

The tall guy was wearing a hakama, but he was not the instructor. The class began and after the warmups, the tall guy turned around and bowed to me. At that moment, I thought, that’s it, he is mad at me and he will beat me up. Instead, he helped me and made me feel welcome. When a beginner comes to my dojo, I remember that anecdote and I do my best to make the beginner feel comfortable. I ask the same of my students.

MAYTT: In 1983, you founded the Centre Métropolitain d’Aikido, and in 1985 you established Aikido de la Montagne. What was one of the major influences for you to begin your own school? Did you find there was something missing in the current aikido landscape and by your doing so, could help fill a void?

CB: In the early 70s, I had the chance to see Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, and Chiba Sensei while they were in their 30s. Their Aikido amazed me, and I went to all the seminars I could, especially those with Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei. I think my instructor at that time was a little concerned with the fact that I loved Kanai Sensei’s style and that I was trying to do many things like him. I always respected my instructor, but I couldn’t resist following Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei.

Finally, one night we were having a dojo meeting. My instructor was complaining about things that he didn’t like in his dojo. I didn’t agree with him and it was then that I realized that my place was no longer there. After the meeting, I shook his hand and thanked him for all his help over the years. This was not planned, and I didn’t try to bring any of his students with me and that’s probably why I am still on good terms with him.

That is how I became a Kanai Sensei student. Twenty-one years later (in 2004), Kanai Sensei gave me the honor of presenting me with the rank of 7th dan and the title of Shihan. I am the only student to whom he gave that honor since he died a few months later.

I also have a strong connection with Yamada Sensei who did a lot for me and for whom I have a lot of respect and love, even though my Aikido style looks more like Kanai Sensei. Yamada Sensei brought me to his seminars in Europe and Latin America. Because of that, I made a lot of friends in many of these countries and I still go there on a regular basis.

MAYTT: That is an interesting start for your school. During the 1980s, you forged a connection with Yoshimitsu Yamada and the United States Aikido Federation (USAF). What led to make such a connection and later affiliation?

CB: I think that it was a privilege for me to join Yamada Sensei and Kanai Sensei’s organization. Since I was young, they were my role models and I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.

MAYTT: Throughout your aikido career, you had the opportunity to travel and teach at seminars all around the world. In your travels, what do you feel differentiates each region’s or continent’s aikido, i.e., is there a specific focus on philosophy in the United States compared to Germany, or a strong emphasis on flow in the Caribbean compared to Canada? Do different cultures focus on different things within aikido based on your experiences?

CB: I think that there is a mix of all kinds of people everywhere. Some people like to practice hard, some people like to talk more, etc., but in general, everybody likes to practice and meet after. The more you travel, the more you realize that there are good people and bad people everywhere. I went to places where the facilities were poor, but the heart of the practitioners was bigger than the building.

MAYTT: From your perspective, how have you seen aikido training transform or evolve since you began? Do you feel that the training has changed, and if so, has it been for the better? Are more proficient practitioners being produced in your opinion?

CB: I started practicing in 1971 and after one year my first instructor, René Gauvin, stopped training. About ten years after, he came back for a short period of time. He was training like we did ten years before and I could see a big difference between that and what we were doing now. In the beginning of the 1980s, we started to have many more seminars with Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Chiba Sensei, Tohei (Akira) Sensei and later with Sugano Sensei and Shibata Sensei. These seminars helped many people to improve their knowledge and abilities. I think that the technique of the students now is more powerful and that the postures are also better. Of course, power and posture are not the only aspects of Aikido that we should look at, but they are the easiest to see. Respect, empathy, humility, generosity, self-control – these are important values in Aikido and in Martial Arts in general, but you need closer contact with the person to observe them.

MAYTT: I see. In addition to training aikido, you train and hold high grades in iaido. From my research, there is a good portion of aikidoka who also study iaido. How did you come to start iaido and why do you think aikidoka take up the practice alongside their aikido training as many have stated that the two arts are somewhat different in movement and stance?

CB: Kanai Sensei was doing Iaido and I found it very interesting. I believe that it’s very good for your concentration and posture. Kanai Sensei’s stances are very similar in Iaido and Aikido, especially in the throwing techniques.

MAYTT: Last year, the USAF was confronted by several concerns regarding a lack of gender equity within the organization. Could you shed some light on that situation? Are there warranted concerns needed to be addressed regarding, and if so, how does the USAF plan on moving forward with tackling such concerns?

CB: Whatever you do, there is always somebody who will criticize you. I am not on social media but of course I get some news of what is going on there and I realized that I made a good choice not to be on it. People are saying so many things online and on social media and sometimes I think that they should read what they are writing before sending it. For example, one guy wrote that the Technical Committee and the Board of Directors of the USAF were incompetent and cowards. After that he wrote me an email asking if it would be ok for him to test in front of me for his Iaido Shodan test!!! My answer was: ¨What would be the value of your shodan if you get it from an incompetent and a coward?” He replied to me that he had never mentioned my name!!!

For me, a behavior like that is hard to follow. If I understood what he said, since he didn’t mention my name, I was not included in what he said about the Board and the TC members. But he didn’t mention any of the names of the people on those two committees. So, I guess nobody was included in what he said!!!

I want to say that the Board of Directors and the TC of the USAF are giving a lot of their time and efforts to make USAF better and they are doing it for free. Are we perfect? No. Can we improve? Yes of course. If you go on the USAF website, you will see that there is now a Working Group for these concerns. They are doing a great job.

MAYTT: From the entertainment industry to the corporate world, the issue of gender equity still has much ground to cover in our culture, unfortunately. Do you feel the aikido community is immune to such issues in your opinion, especially given the deep philosophical nature of aikido and its teachings? Can aikido training offer a valid solution to such concerns both on and off the mat?

CB: I do believe in equity and I do my best to be fair with my students. I don’t ask a student to take care of a class because they are a woman or Black or white or Asian or gay or a trans person. I ask them by rank and if the first one can’t teach, then I ask the next one. All my students can test when they have the correct number of practicing days. Of course, it’s possible to have exceptions. For example, I could ask a female student to take care of a class even if a male student is a higher rank. This could happen if there is no female representation in our group of instructors.

MAYTT: With being a longtime member and contributor to the aikido community, what are your feelings on the mounting negative views and comments targeted at aikido? Are they truly warranted and, in your opinion, are there things the aikido community can do as a whole to counter or debunk such perceptions?

CB: Because Aikido is a Martial Art, I think that it should involve some efficacy, but this doesn’t mean that we should be invincible.

I think that we should have the mentality of a doctor. A doctor does not have the obligation to cure you but they have the obligation to try. I think that every one of us should work on the details that make the techniques works better. Going outside your dojo and participate to seminars is a good way to improve.

MAYTT: That is an interesting perspective on that matter. Many dojo feel that the core of their program are those who have been advanced to yudansha standings. However, a program can become stagnant if new students and participants are not joining regularly and make progress. What are your thoughts on a dojo building and maintaining a solid and thriving core of students?

CB: You need all sorts of people in a dojo. Beginners keeps a dojo alive. I always pay attention to beginners and I usually teach the beginners classes in my dojo. I have a program for them and if I am not there, the other instructor follows the same program. I also tell advanced people to practice with beginners. I say the same thing in the seminars that I give. I really like to teach beginners and watch them improve.

MAYTT: Final question. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has been inundated with restrictions, limitations, and uncertainty for the immediate future. For many aspects of the business world, the future may appear bleak at the moment. There are those who feel this is true for aikido as well as many other martial arts. Do you agree? Can traditional martial arts prevail given the current situation? And if so, where do you see aikido going in the next ten to fifteen years? Can aikido grow, develop, evolve, and adapt in a post-COVID society?

CB: I think that it will be difficult for some dojos to get through the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for economic reasons. I do believe that until there is a vaccine, attendance will be much lower than before. In my dojo, since mid-June, we are open seven days a week with classes in the mornings, afternoons, evenings and weekends. We do a lot of weapons and Iaido. The classes are very popular, but we don’t have as many people on the mat like we used to have. We will also start to practice in bubbles of 4 people in a week or two if the COVID stays under control. Of course, a second wave could require us to stop our activities. But if it’s true that ¨What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” then I believe that we will be pretty strong after!

I think that Aikido also will survive and get stronger after the pandemic. In the USAF, for example, I think that the pandemic has brought us closer. It’s something that we will keep doing after we can go back to training. I had some injuries in the past forty-nine years that obliged me to stop training or slowed me down for a while. Each time I tried to find something positive in that. I think we should do the same with the COVID.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us in this insightful talk!

CB: Thank you for having me!

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

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