Interview with Longtime Aikidoka Jane Ozeki: New York Aikikai and Family

Jane Ozeki began her aikido journey in 1971, becoming a student under Yoshimitsu Yamada at his New York Aikikai. Today, we had the chance to talk with Ozeki, discussing what the training was like at the New York Aikikai, along with her family. All images provided by Jane Ozeki.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Ozeki Sensei! It is great to have you here!

Jane Ozeki: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here!

MAYTT: You began training aikido in 1971 at the New York Aikikai, under the direction of Yoshimitsu Yamada. How did you come to find aikido and what aspect drew you to the art as opposed to other martial arts and/or physical activities? Does the aspect that originally drew you back then still inspire and motivate you to train today?

Jane Ozeki.

JO: I was looking for something to keep me physically active after graduating from college. I visited various martial arts dojos, kendo, Kung fu, tai chi. and a friend of mine mentioned aikido. I was curious so I stopped by the New York Aikikai dojo one Sunday afternoon. Yamada Sensei was doing a photo shoot for a book (Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere). I watched him demonstrating various techniques for that book’s stop action photos. I immediately wanted to join the club. It was the fluidity of the techniques — strong, but not in an aggressive way — that attracted me the most. I still appreciate aikido’s martial form, but I live far away from any dojo now, on a farm where I have many activities that keep me busy. Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to teach my granddaughter aikido, when she gets a little older.

MAYTT: Were you aware at the time that aikido would have such a major impact in your life? How soon after beginning your training do you realize that aikido was for you and was here to stay?

JO: When starting, I didn’t expect that it would have such an influence in my life. But, by the time I took my first kyu test, I realized aikido would become a major role in my life’s development.  

MAYTT: Many early aikidoka describe training in those days under Yamada and others like him as hard and tough training, sometimes even leading to injury. Was it a Spartan-like training environment as some claim or have such declarations been grossly exaggerated in your opinion? Was training safety always a concern? 

JO: I didn’t consider training at New York Aikikai to be Spartan-like. It did require discipline and a serious attitude. But there was also considerable humor on the mat. Sensei would often interject a joke between techniques. I considered the training to be relatively safe. In any physical activity there’s always some risk of injury. In my experience, everyone took care not to injure others, and every tap on the mat (to stop) was respected. There may have been other dojos with a culture where injuries were more common.

Jane Ozeki throwing at a 2003 seminar at Swarthmore College. By David J. Cyr.

MAYTT: I see. Has aikido training evolved since those early years? Has the mindset of the practitioner as to what the art offers also changed in your point of view? If so, has said changes been for the overall betterment of both the art and practitioner in your opinion?

JO: There’s surely been change, but what evolves is not always necessarily better. The class size was smaller in those early years, and more often taught by the head instructor. We were learning from Yamada, who was trained by O-Sensei. Our morning class instruction back then was likely more consistent, regardless of instructor, whether by Yamada Sensei or a lower ranking shihan in our dojo. Nowadays there are so many more dojos and generations of instructors that may have quite different styles. For some, the question might be, is it still aikido?

MAYTT: Three years after you began training, you became a morning class instructor at the New York Aikikai. What lead to you moving into such a position? As well, what was the experience like going from student to teacher per se? Did you find that your perception or perspective of aikido changed once becoming an instructor and if so, how did it change and was it a welcomed change? Were there any issues to contend with among fellow dojo members as to your new role at the time?

JO: I became a morning class instructor before I received my black belt. Yamada Sensei had the Tuesday morning class slot and chose me to be his substitute when he travelled. After Sensei’s schedule changed, I began teaching Tuesday mornings regularly. I felt honored that my teaching ability was recognized by Sensei. I tried my best to teach consistent with his classic style. Teaching surely helped me to become a better aikidoist. I came to understand the techniques better when I needed to demonstrate them to others. Being an instructor is a big responsibility, because how you teach affects those who receive your instruction. It’s easier for your students to learn well if you teach well. A person might have great aikido technique, but not have the ability to teach well. I don’t recall having any issues being an instructor, even though usually teaching a male-dominant class. There were many big guys who were happy to have me throw them around.

Jane Ozeki applying a joint lock at a 2007 seminar at Harvard University. By Mieko A. Ozeki.

MAYTT: How do you feel women were looked at in the early days of aikido in America? Was there a level of separation among the genders, given training methods or standards, or was everyone equal on the mat?

JO: Most students were men. Some did avoid working out with women on the mat. That could have been for different reasons — not necessarily discriminatory. Some may have feared they might hurt a female partner smaller than themselves, or just felt awkward grappling with a female. We didn’t have separate classes for men and women. Everyone was entitled to the training equally. Most men paired up with the student next to them on the mat, regardless of gender.

MAYTT: Being a longtime student of Yamada, what do you feel are his greatest qualities as a person and as an aikido instructor? What, in your opinion, differentiated him from both his American contemporaries and his Japanese peers within the American aikido community?

JO: I found Yamada Sensei to be fair, kind, and generous. As an instructor, he respected different approaches by students, as long as they maintained the essential elements. Different body types need to adapt techniques for themselves (i.e., the famous Tohei skip). That may have differentiated Yamada Sensei from his peers. He didn’t require his students to execute their techniques exactly like himself. He respected the need to adapt style to fit an individual’s body abilities.

MAYTT: I can see how that would be different from his contemporaries. Outside of Yamada, and in addition to his many accomplishments and contributions to the aikido world community, from your point of view, who or what groups of aikidoka were essential, past and present, to the art’s dissemination in America, both American and Japanese, especially in those early years? What sets these people and pioneers apart from their contemporaries in your opinion?

JO: For me, it was Luqman Abdul Hakeem.

MAYTT: In your many years at the New York Aikikai, are there any specific, remarkable, or little-known facts about the dojo and its history that only inside practitioners would have knowledge of that outsides would not? If so, can you share some with us?

JO:  The dojo building had a fire some years ago. An uchideshi from Japan who was a heavy smoker, dropped a cigarette in the office’s wastebasket and set the building a blaze. The insurance money only partially helped the dojo to renovate the upper floor for office space. Sensei lost many years of dojo mementos and photos.

MAYTT: As you continued to train, your late husband and, later, your daughter participated in aikido as well. What was the experience like having the whole family train in aikido? Was it a bonding experience? What were some of the positives and negatives of having your entire immediate family participating in the same activity?

JO: My late husband, Phil Ozeki, and I joined the dojo at the same time. I practiced throughout my pregnancy and gave birth a day after I was teaching on the mat. We first brought our daughter, Mieko, to the dojo just a month later. She was “the dojo baby.” We used to get up well before 6 AM; gather our baby and take a fast taxi ride to the dojo, arriving by 6:30. The class started at 6:45. It was a family affair. We got Mieko on the mat before she was 6, and she continued to practice until she was a teen, when she needed to then commute to high school. At the dojo, Mieko had an extended aikido family! She also participated with us in many dojo events, like seminars and summer camps. It was all good.

Jane Ozeki throwing at one of her many seminars.

MAYTT: Last fall, the United States Aikido Federation (USAF) was unfortunately confronted by several concerns regarding a lack of gender equity within the organization. Is there any truth in such accusations? Are these warranted concerns by female aikidoka or have things been blown out of proportion by some accounts? If they are warranted to some degree, why do you believe specific members waited so long to voice their grievances?

JO: I can only speak regarding my own experience, not to that of others. I never felt I was gender discriminated against, or disrespected at New York Aikikai, nor at any other dojo I traveled to in several other states and countries.

MAYTT: Additionally, during the aforementioned commotion, there were a handful of negative comments directed towards Yamada, questioning both his character and practices. Being a longtime student of Yamada, has any of these remarks or allegations changed or reinforced your perspective of him? Could it just simply be a misunderstanding?

JO: I’m not aware of these negative comments. Personally, Yamada Sensei always treated me with respect as a student and friend. When my late husband Phil died suddenly, Sensei was very supportive in that difficult time. He opened up opportunities for me to teach seminars in South America and France, to be a representative of his dojo and to sharpen my teaching skills.

MAYTT: I see. 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 specifically, such as its use, practices, and its overall validity as a martial art? Are they truly warranted in any respects or are these comments and criticisms coming from individuals who know nothing about the arts? Furthermore, and for the sake of the argument, in your opinion, are there things the aikido community can do as a whole to counter or debunk such perceptions?

JO: Out here on my farm, far from any dojo now, I’m not aware of such allegations. It may really be about one’s frame of mind. If you use aikido as your exercise, instead of Zumba, then yes it may not be useful when it comes to self-defense. But if your mind set is to use it to protect yourself, and you have reached a no-mind level, then yes, it is a martial art. A well trained aikidoist, with many years of practice at the advanced level can effectively use it as a self-defense. This is why police academies offer aikido classes to their officers. It’s a means for them to control an aggressive person, rather than shoot them. Most martial arts require strength and force. Aikido uses the opponent’s strength, channeling it against himself/herself. It may look like a dance, but when properly executed it will disable an attacker. The harder they come, the harder they will fall. Similarly, gentle tai chi movements are used by millions of people, as a healthy low impact exercise. But, for others, with advanced training it becomes a martial art.

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, including the entire martial arts industry, especially traditional martial arts like aikido, the future may appear bleak at the moment. Do you agree? Can traditional martial arts prevail given the current situation? Can dojo survive operating primarily on a virtual format with limited to no physical contact? 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?

JO: COVID-19 adversely affected near all matters of social gathering, and employment. This is certainly a difficult time for aikido dojos. Since practice requires a partner in close contact on the mat, it may not be safe now. Many millions of Americans have fallen into circumstances where they can’t pay their rent or mortgage, and they’re not even certain where their next meal will come from. Dojo fees will surely suffer. The faster we get most people to consider the safety of everyone the sooner we will be able to return to all those activities with others we used to safely have. The longer that takes the less likely dojos will survive.

MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us about your aikido journey!

JO: Thank you for having me!

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

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