Interview with Aikido Sangenkai Chief Instructor Christopher Li: Internal Martial Arts in Hawaii

Aikido Sangenkai chief instructor Christopher Li began training aikido in the early 1980s under Mitsugi Saotome and Yoshimitsu Yamada, later traveling with the latter to Japan to train at Aikikai Hombu Dojo. By the 1990s, Li began to explore the internal power side of both aikido and the martial arts, ultimately affiliating with Dan Harden. Today, Li took some time to talk about his training in Japan and his views on internal power in the martial arts. All images provided by Christopher Li.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for joining us today, Li Sensei; I look forward to our conversation!

Christopher Li: Thank you for having me!

MAYTT: You began aikido in 1981 with Mitsugi Saotome, later traveling with Yoshimitsu Yamada in 1982 and to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo for a time. Many American practitioners have expressed that the experience was eye-opening. Did you have a similar experience? How would you compare the level of aikido between America and Japan at that time?

CL: I don’t think that I had any eyes to be opened at the time! [Laughs] Really, I didn’t know much of anything about anything. I had just received my fifth kyu from Frank Hreha, under Mitsugi Saotome and decided that I wanted to take a few months in Japan to do Aikido. Saotome and Yamada were more or less at each other’s throats at the time, but I had no idea – I was from New York, so I walked into 18th Street and asked Yamada about going to Japan to train in Aikido. He was very kind to me – took me with him to Hombu Dojo and set me up with a place to live near the dojo, even though he had no idea who I was, just that I had trained under somebody with which he was having some personal difficulties. The training at Hombu Dojo was a little more serious, a little harder, and the classes were much larger, but I had started at a small college club, so that wasn’t surprising. I don’t remember it actually being all that different from what I had experienced in the United States, just in terms of what the training was like, but there was much more variety, of course. Mostly the teachers would just ignore me, except for some of the younger instructors like Yokota and Seki. Seijuro Masuda also paid me some attention.

MAYTT: With that experience in mind, do you think that American aikidoka who have the means should travel to and train at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo today? Is there such a need now to take such a pilgrimage when many of the Japanese and American shihan have done much to raise the standard of aikido in America?

Christopher Li from his Aikido Sangenkai website.

CL: It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. That is, I wouldn’t recommend traveling to Japan exclusively to train at Aikikai Hombu Dojo today, although it’s interesting to go visit of course – I would say that that there is much better training with more personal interaction with the instructors in other places, many of them not even in Japan. The first generation of postwar instructors varied widely in their approaches, and at that time there was more to see. Quite a few of the people who would have been the next generation of instructors ended up going abroad, and Hombu today is much more homogeneous than it was in the early 1980s.

MAYTT: That is interesting. In 1989, you moved to Japan for fifteen years, where you trained and taught aikido. While you were there, you had the opportunity to participate in the various styles of aikido and Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu. What was your greatest takeaway from those training experiences? Were there more differences than similarities between the styles or was it the other way around?

CL: One of the advantages of training in Japan, particularly in a huge metropolitan area like Tokyo, is that there is a lot to see. If folks are going to Japan for a limited time, say one or two years, then that’s usually what I recommend that they do – try out a variety of things that they may not be able to experience when they return home. I’d go to some of the public demonstrations at the Nippon Budokan, for example. They usually had a brochure with information about all of the demonstrators, and their addresses, so I would go look up some of the interesting ones. I went through a number of styles of Daito-ryu, as well as various versions of Aikido from Iwama to Yoshinkan, and some koryu arts. In terms of Daito-ryu/Aikido, I didn’t have that much difficulty moving between the various approaches. In a way, the largest challenges involved the smaller things – slightly different etiquette, or falling in slightly different places while taking ukemi.

MAYTT: How did your new role in the local aikido community as an instructor change your perspective on the art? From that experience, how has your perspective evolved since taking up that role?

CL: I started in a college club, where most of the classes were actually taught by the students, so I ended up teaching almost from the very beginning. I think that kind of situation was much more common back then. Outside of the larger cities, it was hard to find real instructors – often if your instructor was a shodan or a nidan that was pretty hot stuff! [Laughs] I think that’s a large part of why the seminar culture developed on the mainland, often that was the only time that one could have contact with a real instructor. In Hawaii, everything is quite close and there have been instructors locally from early on – there are still seminars, but the culture is different and people aren’t really as committed to them. I found the same thing in the Tokyo area, perhaps for similar reasons.

MAYTT: While you were in Japan, you also translated documents for the Ueshiba family. Could you tell me more about that experience and how you came into such a position?

CL: I actually never translated written documents for them, but I have translated for Kisshomaru, Moriteru, and Mitsuteru Ueshiba while they were speaking on both formal and informal occasions. I don’t think there was anything particular about me – it was mostly that I happened to be around at the time and spoke Japanese and English. They were all used to speaking through interpreters and tend to speak formally, so that makes it much easier. They know to pause, for example, so that the translator can catch up.

Li translating for Moriteru Ueshiba Doshu in Hawaii 2011.

I translated many times for Takeshi Yamashima, and he would never stop talking to let me catch up, he even kept talking while I was taking ukemi and translating at the same time! [Laughs] Eventually, I got used enough to his speech patterns that I was able to keep up, but it wasn’t easy.

Then there are people like Seijuro Matsuda, who I also translated for many times. He understood quite a bit more English then he let on, so he would listen to make sure that you weren’t messing with his speeches. Sometimes he would deliberately set traps to try and trick you into a faux pas. It was all good natured, though, it was part of his shtick. Later on, we would sometimes set up those things before class – sort of an international comedy duo. [Laughs]

MAYTT: It sounded like it was an adventurous experience! You are also a proponent of “internal power” in the martial arts and have discussed this topic at length in many posts on your Aikido Sangenkai blog. What influenced your decision to follow that path of the martial arts instead of the physical/technical aspects?

CL: This is a kind of common misconception. Basically speaking, it’s all physical and it’s all technical. It has to be – biology, physics, and biomechanics apply to everybody. However, within that range there are a lot of different ways to do things. Really, the division between “internal” and “external” training is artificial. Classically, this is just a convenient way to classify generally different methods of training and body usage.

One reason for the confusion is the word “power,” which sounds like we’re talking about some kind of supernatural force, but that’s just a direct translation from the way that it’s spoken about in Chinese or Japanese. For that reason, some folks like to talk about “internal training” or “internal skill.” “Skill” is probably a good way to think about it, since classically you would be talking about force, but about a kind of skilled force. “Gong-fu,” for example, really means a kind of trained skill.

Another reason for confusion is that internal arts tend to talk about “intent” quite a bit. Basically speaking, the mind moves the body – that’s a no-brainer, right? But in internal arts there is usually a greater emphasis on the mind because you’re trying to do things with your body that you aren’t used to doing and the body usage is often very counter-intuitive. So there’s a lot of mental sweat in getting your body to do something differently than it has been for the last however many years. That would be true of any new skill, of course, to a certain degree.

Some of the older folks may remember the old Aikido-L mailing list discussion group. Back in the middle of the 1990s, this guy named Dan Harden came on the list with some odd posts and opinions about Aiki.

Around the same time, Mike Sigman started talking about Aikido and its connection to classical Chinese methods of internal training.

Basically speaking, I thought that they were both full of crap.

Mike would talk about how Morihei Ueshiba’s speeches had antecedents in Chinese classical martial texts, even though he couldn’t actually read the speeches in the original Japanese.

Dan would talk about how none of us had a clue as to what Aiki really was – and he had an odd stream of consciousness style of posting, and had this habit of accidentally sending private emails to the group. It happened so often that we used to call it “Danning” – some people actually accused him of doing it on purpose, but I don’t believe that was actually the case.

Most people didn’t believe either of them, but they kept at it. The discussions were sometimes quite acrimonious, but personally I always maintained a kind of friendliness with both of them. I think that the online only discussions continued for some fifteen years in that manner, before folks began to meet up in person.

Li taking ukemi while translating for Takeshi Yamashima 2009.

We had moved back to Hawaii, but my mother-in-law became ill and we ended up moving back to Japan for a few years. My Japanese was much better by that time, and I started to spend more time on reading Morihei Ueshiba in the original Japanese, and other books as well.

One of the books I read was Kimura Tatsuo’s account of his teacher Yukiyoshi Sagawa – “Transparent Power,” which had just come out in Japanese. Coincidentally, one of the Aikido instructors that I was training with at the time actually went to visit Kimura (he appears in an old Aikido Journal article about a visit to Kimura by Paul Woolos). After he came back from visiting Kimura, he revised everything we were doing based upon what he had experienced there. At the same time, I had a chance to train further in Daito-ryu, including private sessions with a senior member of the Kodokai, which emphasizes a particular type of Aiki in their training.

In any case, I began to get more of a feel for what Dan and Mike were talking about. Maybe they weren’t full of crap after all!

After we moved back to Hawaii, however, I found it difficult to continue along those lines. Most of the Aikido community there was offline, and hadn’t followed the discussions, wasn’t really interested in them. I had an idea of what ought to be going on, but I really had nothing in the way of body skills to show folks what I was talking about with internals in actual practice.

And that’s the way it stayed, business as usual until a fellow named Mert Gambito moved out to Hawaii from California. Mert was a Hakko-ryu practitioner, and had followed the online conversations with some interest – now we had two folks in Hawaii who were interested! Well, we talked it over and decided to try and get Dan and Mike out to Hawaii since, as they say, “it has to be felt.” Worse case, we’d be out the airfare and hotel, but we could split it two ways (or more, if we could talk other folks into it).

So I talked Dan into coming out to Hawaii for a workshop – as you may imagine, workshops in Hawaii are not a hard sell. That was back in 2010. It might sound overdramatic to say, “He opened my eyes to true budo” (as Morihei Ueshiba said about meeting Sokaku Takeda), but that’s really what it was like for me, and a bunch of the other folks who joined us for that first workshop.

Dan Harden with William Gleason Sensei and Li at a workshop in Hawaii from 2013.

A little while later we followed up by having Mike out for a workshop. That was also a positive experience, but Mike’s background was more in Chinese arts, and most of the Hawaii group came from an Aikido background, so we tended to gravitate towards Dan’s approach, which was based upon his experience in Japanese martial arts.

Dan has continued to come out to Hawaii for regular workshops since then, and eventually folks formed groups around the world working on his approach under the Sangenkai organization. The Hawaii location has worked out especially well for the large group of Sangenkai Australia folks, since this is a good halfway point for workshops.

MAYTT: When did you establish Aikido Sangenkai in Hawaii? Did you feel that something was missing in the aikido landscape and only you could help bridge that gap? How was that received in the larger Hawaiian aikido community?

CL: Our group had been training together for some time with a focus on Aiki and internal power, but we felt it would be a good idea to create a more formal group with which to focus the training. I think that there were some hard feelings in some quarters – Hawaii is a very small community, and there is sometimes a tendency for folks to feel that they’re in competition, perhaps, even though we’re really not. Be that as it may, we were (and are) just interested in training with a particular methodology, and that’s not really feasible without a separate group. I was honored that Dan asked me to use the name for the Sangenkai association when it formed later on. I think that both of the groups are just about as informal as you can get without actually falling apart, it’s just groups of people from many different countries and many different arts who are interested in training using the same methodology. At any given workshop, we’ll have folks from eight or nine countries and arts that go from MMA and BJJ to Aikido to koryu budo and back, a full range of experiences.

MAYTT: Your Aikido Sangenkai and Aikido Hawaii blogs have influenced and informed many aikidoka about the history of the art in both Japan and Hawaii. What inspired you to research, translate, chronicle, and publish aikido’s history? Does that inspiration still motivate you?

CL: As I mentioned before, I’ve been participating in online discussions about Aikido, in various venues, for many years. So the blog was kind of an effort to put up the things that we’d been discussing in a more organized manner – something to refer to in conversations rather than having to start over and repeat things each time. I’m not a historian, there really are no historians in Aikido – even Stan Pranin, for all of his achievements, wasn’t really a historian in the formal academic sense. But I think that there is great value in people sharing what they know with each other, that’s one of the great advantages of today’s online world. Really, when I started, we didn’t know anything about anything. There were just a few books about Aikido (most of them filled with erroneous information) and a few copies of Stan Pranin’s Aiki News, which almost looked like it had been made on a copy machine. Movies of Morihei Ueshiba were something that you watched on those little Super-8 film reels that Stan used to sell. Comparatively, the amount of information available is staggering. I’ve still got a long to-do list for the blog, but real life tends to interfere with that kind of thing.

MAYTT: I see. From a historian’s perspective, why do you feel aikido’s history and the larger history of martial arts should be discovered, preserved, and understood? Can studying the history of martial arts provide researchers and practitioners more than just finding techniques that are not used anymore?

CL: I’m more of a history hobbyist with a narrow range of specialization than a true academic historian, but I would argue that knowing one’s history is always valuable, don’t you think? In martial arts, this becomes particularly relevant, since the stories of so many of the arts, the justifications that people use for their beliefs and practices, are so often based upon myth and misinformation. Nowhere is this truer, I would say, than in the case of Aikido and Daito-ryu in general and Morihei Ueshiba and Sokaku Takeda in particular.

The first Sangenkai Hawaii intensive workshop in 2015.

MAYTT: Where do you think American aikido scholarship will go in the next ten years? Do you think that practitioners and researchers will still be pouring over the sources to find another connection to Morihei Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Kenji Tomiki and the like, or will there be a slight refocus to American aikidoka and their actions (and/or reactions) with the Japanese pioneers?

CL: My general impression is that the average person isn’t all that interested in historical figures. Certainly not as interested as we were back in the day, probably because things have moved further away from the first and second generations. That’s fine, of course. In some ways, that may be a good thing, if folks can restrain from enshrining their heroes and commit to moving forward under their own power.

MAYTT: 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?

CL: Sadly, I would say that the criticisms are often warranted. That isn’t helped by the fact that Aikido folks tend to give out mixed messages about what their practice is and what it is meant to be – and of what it may or may not be capable. Many Aikido people seem to live inside the bubble of their own training, and that can lead to the inability to provide good and reasonable answers to their critics, which is one reason why these conversations often seem to be interminable. I don’t see much about that changing in the short term. Some of that is due to the fact that Aikido is not monolithic – something that even Aikido folks seem to have a hard time understanding, much less somebody looking in from the outside. And that means that any changes that occur are unlikely to move the bulk of practitioners in any one way or another.

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?

CL: COVID-19 has been hard on everybody, and particularly on contact activities like martial arts, but traditional martial arts (if Aikido can be called “traditional”) appear to be in a general downturn apart from the problems of the pandemic. There’s certainly a place for archival arts – kyudo, for example, has no real relation to the real world any more, but millions of people can enjoy their training. On the other hand, if one wants to retain some real world relevancy (whether that be martial, psychological, health related, or whatever) then it seems obvious that any training method will have to develop and adapt to changing times. And I think that’s fine – folks ought to train in ways that they enjoy and that they find interesting. There’s a tendency for folks in martial arts, for some reason, to find a need to justify their training that you don’t see in many other hobby activities to which people devote just as much (or more) in time and resources. Golf, for example, or surfing. In the end, I think that folks ought to just do what they enjoy and find interesting and not worry that much about it.

MAYTT: Thank you for the great conversation about aikido!

CL: It was my pleasure!

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


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