Interview with Longtime Aikidoka Kiyoshi Yasutake: His Time With Midwest Pioneer Akira Tohei

Kiyoshi Yasutake was Akira Tohei’s first student to go from white belt to black belt under him. Beginning in 1973, Yasutake took to aikido with much vigor, learning from and supporting Tohei in his many endeavors through the Midwest Aikido Center and the Midwest Aikido Federation. Today, Yasutake took some time to discuss his time and some memories with Tohei. All images provided by Kiyoshi Yasutake.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about Akira Tohei, Yasutake Sensei!

Kiyoshi Yasutake: I am happy to be here and look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: You began training under Midwest aikido pioneer Akira Tohei in August 1973. What first drew you to aikido and what about the art made you want to pursue it further? What continues to motivate you to train and teach aikido today?

KY: First a little background to place things in context. I was born in 1953, eight years after the end of World War II. I am what is known as a sansei or third generation Japanese American. My grandparents were originally from Japan (i.e., Issei, first generation), and my parents were born here (i.e., Nisei, second generation). During World War II, they were incarcerated in the relocation camps. Several of my uncles served in the famous 442 Division of the army. After the War, both sides of my family settled in Chicago (both families were originally in Seattle).

Because of the War, my generation were brought up without learning Japanese and living an “American” lifestyle. My dad, as a child, practiced kudo and kendo, as many of that generation did. I knew of this and always had a certain fascination with Japanese martial arts. However, we lived in Oak Lawn, Illinois, a small suburban city just south of Chicago and exposure to Japanese martial arts was non-existent. We later moved to Evanston, Illinois where I completed my primary and secondary educational studies.

In college, at Northwestern University where I was a music major in organ performance. I still was interested in martial arts, but my parents did not think it was a good idea because of the possible injury to my hands (as in karate). Anyway, I was fitted for contact lenses in my junior year (1973). The person who fitted me was rubbing his wrist and grimacing. His name was Bill Hiyani and he was a native Hawaiian. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he did this martial art of aikido. He said they had a new Japanese instructor from Japan. He said this Buddha head (a common term Hawaiians used for Japanese nationals! [Laughs]) had applied a technique (i.e., kote gaeshi) and had really cranked it. I found it interesting, so I thought I might look into it.

My parents thought it would be OK, so I visited the Illinois Aikido Club, watched practice and began practicing August 13, 1973. Tohei Sensei’s wife was also a yudansha and was the first person I spoke to at the dojo. On hearing my last name, she asked me if I was related to Michael Yasutake (my father), who was well known in the Chicago Japanese community as he was an Episcopal priest. At the time, there were several Nisei practicing and it was the first time where I was engaged in something with a tie to my Japanese culture. Up to that point, such ties were only because of my family. Now it felt good to have something outside of that sphere that involved my Japanese heritage.

Akira Tohei demonstrating at his Aikido Midwest Center in 1979.

Like many, I was motivated with achieving shodan and being able to wear a hakama! [Laughs] Being a music student, I knew the value of practice and learning from my teachers. Tohei Sensei was a strong figure and I naturally gravitated to him and his instruction. He had very high expectations and demanded a lot. However, his approval and my advancement were a great reward that I valued.

I think what motivated me and continued to motivate me was the desire to constantly learn and grow. Now, as I am older, when I teach, I am constantly reflecting and refining my aikido. When I was young, I practiced very physically and liked strong, powerful techniques. Now that I am older; when I teach, I look at refining small areas such as footwork and concentrate on controlling my movements rather than uke’s movement.

A good example of this growth has occurred as a function of this pandemic. Like many places, we were shut down. When we reopened, practice required masks and no person-to-person contact. Therefore, when we taught it was such things as jo kata, suburi, kumi jo, and kumi tachi. I found such practice forced me to focus on body movement, footwork, and focus. It also allowed me to look at those areas of which Tohei Sensei did not include in his teaching. I believe that this striving for constant growth and insight is why people practice the martial arts for decades. They also adjust to their ever changing lives. For example, we have been fortunate that Yoshiaki Yokota Sensei from Hombu has been teaching a seminar in October at the dojo. Each year, I try to focus on one thing to focus on for the year. Just one thing, such as a certain way a turn of the hip or the shifting of weight on a foot movement occurs. I focus on this for the year until it becomes “mine.” When I was younger, I tried to get everything and never learned anything! Over the years these little steps add up to a big gain.

Tohei (left) and Kisaburo Osawa (right) performing kumi tachi.

When I was twenty, I wondered how Tohei Sensei could get better if he never “practiced” like us! I now understand. Being a twenty-year-old college student and practicing aikido is different than my life now: a retired sixty-eight-year-old university professor with three grown children whose aikido “practice” is far different than before!

I have always said that if your aikido is the same as it was ten years before, then something must be wrong. That is why people often achieve shodan or nidan and end up quitting. I think this happens because they have achieved their original goal and are now unable to further reflect and grow and their aikido becomes stagnant, and they leave.

MAYTT: When you first began, what was the aikido community like in Chicago and the Midwest? Was it an interactive community that fostered camaraderie and harmony or was it more of small pockets of isolated practitioners keeping to themselves?

KY: When I started in 1973, Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsunari Kanai, Tohei, and Sadao Yoshioka (Hawaii) were the major instructors in the US. They had been dispatched from Hombu Dojo (with the exception of Yoshioka, who was a native Hawaiian) and these were the strongest influences in aikido. Koichi Tohei was still the chief instructor at Hombu. Therefore, things were strongly united. The founder had died in 1969 and there was still a strong unified aikido organization under Hombu Dojo.

In 1974, the split between Hombu Dojo and Koichi Tohei occurred and this was when you started to see different aikido groups (i.e., Ki Society) being formed. Finally, in 1975 the board of the Illinois Aikido Club terminated Tohei Sensei. There had been a rift growing between the older members of the dojo and the goals that Tohei Sensei had. In addition, many of the younger members (myself included) sided with Tohei Sensei. After his leaving the Illinois Aikido Club, we formed the Midwest Aikido Center, which opened in December 1975. It seems crazy now. Sensei had put his faith in a largely young group of students. When the MAC was formed, there were about two yudansha, the older members, and the rest of us were kyu rank.

MAYTT: You bring up Koichi Tohei’s departure from the Aikikai in 1974. Did Akira Tohei and/or the school’s senior students talk about the split and, if so, how did they view the event? Though new to aikido at the time, how did you view the schism and its aftermath?

KY: There was actually not much discussion about the split. Tohei Sensei stayed with Aikikai, and he strongly condemned Koichi Tohei’s action. Because of Koichi Tohei’s strong influence on the development of aikido in this country, I think that many remained Aikikai surprised some people. Yoshioka Sensei was also strongly influenced by Koichi Tohei. He told me that when the split occurred Yoshioka and Tohei Sensei both laughed and said they both thought that the other would go with Koichi Tohei! [Laughs]

MAYTT: I see. Furthermore, what prompted the sudden dismissal of Tohei from the Illinois Aikido Club? Was it in direct relation to Koichi Tohei’s split from the Aikikai or was it something else entirely?

KY: Tohei Sensei’s dismissal from the Illinois Aikido Club was in no way related to the split of Koichi Tohei and the Aikikai. Rather, it dealt with the growing philosophical difference between Tohei Sensei and the club’s board of directors. Tohei Sensei’s charge from Hombu when he was sent to Chicago was to form the Midwest Aikido Federation and work in conjunction with the other regions (e.g., East Coast) to unify Aikido within the US. The board viewed Sensei as their employee and therefore focusing mainly on the dojo’s needs. Sensei became frustrated with the board and the feeling was mutual. Sensei also had the support of most of the “younger” members (such as myself) and we had begun to be a more vocal element within the dojo. We had even succeeded in becoming members of the board, as a minority element. This split continued to grow, and it became clear that the end was inevitable. Yamada Sensei came from New York to talk to the board but was unsuccessful in closing the gap. This was difficult for Yamada Sensei, as he was very familiar with the older members, as he used to travel New York to Chicago (via bus) to teach to a handful of students in the early years of the dojo. Kisaburo Osawa gave a seminar in Chicago and expressed his displeasure with the board in their treatment of Tohei Sensei. Tohei and Osawa Sensei were very close. Osawa Sensei told them in no uncertain terms that the dismissal of a Hombu dojo shihan would sever all ties with Japan. He also said that if they were not happy with Tohei Sensei then he “would take him back to Japan with him.”

As you know, this later proved to not be true. Mitsugi Saotome Sensei came in and affiliated with the dojo under his independent organization (Aikido Schools of Ueshiba).

Akira Tohei with his wife, Joanne, at a 1974 demonstration.

MAYTT: To your knowledge, who was the previous instructor of Illinois Aikido Club? What prompted their absence that Tohei needed to travel to Chicago?

KY: Isao Takahashi was the previous instructor at the dojo. He was retiring and moving to California. His son, Francis, lived there and he was also an aikidoist. Tohei Sensei’s wife (Joanne) was a Nisei who had moved to Japan. She started practicing at Hombu where she met and married Tohei Sensei. She actually became very involved with aikido and even acted as O-Sensei’s otomo at times when he traveled. At this time, Hombu dojo was still sending instructors outside of Japan. I suspect that when Chicago’s request came in, Joanne’s American citizenship may have played some part in their accepting the relocation.

MAYTT: I am sure that would have been helpful. How have you seen aikido training evolve and change since you began the art? Have these changes in training methods and curriculum helped produce a more well-rounded aikidoka or have they shortchanged the modern aikidoka?

Akira Tohei (left) seated with Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba (right).

KY: I think that there has been training and teaching that has evolved over time. I think this reflects changes in society as a whole. For example, when I started, one never got a drink of water during practice. It was never said, but it was just understood. Due to the internet, everything is out there. I think this has had a detrimental effect on some aspects of learning. Before this, one had to closely watch what was being taught trying to retain it in one’s mind. This was especially evident at seminars. For example, when Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba came to Chicago for the first time in 1973, I remember staring, trying to retain what was being demonstrated. There was no “rewind.” It forced one to pay attention.

I think there has been more sharing among practitioners. I also think there is a great deal of mutual respect. In this respect, the internet has helped make connections. For example, because of the pandemic, the United States Aikido Federation held Zoom sessions featuring three different instructors for a total of sixty minutes where the instructors taught different things. For example, when I taught a segment, I demonstrated happo giri from Morihiro Saito Sensei’s Iwama curriculum. This gave practitioners from across the country the opportunity to share and participate.

MAYTT: What was your initial impression of Tohei as an instructor and as a person? In your opinion, what differentiated him from the rest of his contemporaries into both his individual style and his contributions to aikido?

KY: Tohei Sensei was a first-rate instructor. He taught all classes (including children’s) at the dojo, unless he was out of town. Being a professional educator allows me to look back and appreciate his instruction. He focused on the beginning students. He made sure that they were paired with a more senior student. When we began the MAC, we senior students were still young (twenty-somethings) and still of kyu ranks. We wanted a hard, physical practice. Sensei would break us up (two experienced partners) and pair us with beginners. This was frustrating at the time, but he later explained it to me. He said that the beginners held the future of the dojo. They should be taken care of as you would with your brothers and sisters. His relationship with the other shihan was interesting. He was the senior instructor in the US (despite being here the least), and it was reflected in his interactions with the others. For example, everyone always addressed him as Sensei while he referred to them as Yamada-kun, for example, in private. Tohei Sensei was still a very traditional Japanese man. His aikido evolved over time. Koichi Tohei was his first instructor, and his influence was evident when I began.

The Tohei family in 1977.

Personally, Tohei Sensei could be a very warm person. You especially saw it when he was with his son Aikihiko, who was born in 1974. At social events, such as picnics and dojo parties, he was friendly and enjoyed himself. While he was the master of the dojo at other times outside of the dojo, he could be dependent on others. For example, I was the one who drove Sensei and Joanne to the hospital when Aki was born. When we got to the hospital, Joanne gave us instructions and handed me a small notebook. She said she would go upstairs to the maternity ward and instructed me to take Sensei to check in at intake. The notebook contained all the required information needed to complete all the necessary forms. It also contained family contact information. She said after that there was a Benihana’s restaurant down the street and we should go eat dinner and then return to the hospital. We waited in the waiting room for the fathers. Sensei would go in sometimes and come out and say he didn’t understand what was going on! He would smoke and go back in. This was when smoking in the waiting rooms was still allowed.

MAYTT: One of his contributions to aikido was the establishment of the Midwest Aikido Federation (MAF). Could you tell us more about the MAF, how it was founded, and how it aided the solidification of aikido in the Midwest?

KY: The MAF bore his influence. It was traditional and strongly influenced by Sensei. The MAF summer camps brought together the various members from around the Midwest. Sensei brought such instructors as Rinjiro Shirata Sensei, Moriteru Ueshiba (now sandai doshu), Yukio Kawahara, and Yoshioka. This brought great exposure to the aikido world. Seminars with such instructors also occurred for our O’Sensei memorial seminars. These events, and summer camps, included public demonstrations.

MAYTT: In many histories of aikido in America, Tohei seems to be overshadowed by other Japanese pioneers like Koichi Tohei, Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsugi Saotome, and Kazuo Chiba. Why do you think Akira Tohei is not often mentioned in discussions relating to the art’s history in this country?

KY: I think it had to do with Tohei Sensei’s view of his role in teaching aikido. He viewed the dojo and the Midwest as his family. As I mentioned earlier, he taught EVERY class at the dojo. This was highly unusual for a high-ranking chief instructor. I often taught Saturday (the only weekend class at the time) because he was traveling at various MAF dojos. He gave seminars at various dojo across the country and Canada and at the East Coast Summer camps. His approach to ranks also was a bit different.

As I mentioned earlier to you, I was his first student in the US to go from beginner to shodan in the US. He viewed yudansha as having a great deal of responsibility. He once told me that in the US, a black belt was viewed in a much higher status than in Japan. He told me in Japan, black belts were just part of being in a martial art, whereas here, it was held in a much higher regard. He was very conservative in the advancement of his black belts.

His first focus was the MAC and then then the MAF. That was his family and though he was involved in many other high-profile seminars and events, he did not have the spotlight on him as much as the other high-profile Japanese instructors.

MAYTT: With Tohei’s passing in 1999, what was the overall atmosphere among his students and the MAF? How was the succession of the MAF and the Midwest Aikido Center handled? How did his passing the subsequent mourning period affect the students?

KY: Here I need to be clear. Before his death, about two years before, I had very little involvement with the dojo. I would occasionally practice but was not involved with the transition. My close friend the late Walter Van Enck was highly involved and kept me apprised of the situation. After Sensei’s death, I still did not take an active role. I felt at that point I did not want to give the impression that I was stepping back in for some personal gain. Walter was aware of it and did not push me. Eventually, Walter asked me to teach some classes and I became involved once again in the dojo. Of course, there was a great deal of mourning and reflection. The instruction was distributed among the senior students and the dojo carried on. I think that the senior students also had experience dealing with death and mourning. We were now at the age where my generation, for example, were also seeing death in grandparents and parents. A teaching committee was formed to handle instructional matters. Also, Yamada Sensei was a great support as the dojo transitioned to the next stage. He had established a very close relationship with Walter which helped a great deal. They had a unique relationship that was often more like friendship.

MAYTT: What role did Yoshimitsu Yamada play in helping during the transition phase of the Midwest Aikido Center? Did you feel that many of Tohei’s students went to learn from Yamada after Tohei’s passing, and if so, how were they viewed by others within the school?

KY: Yamada Sensei was a great support for the MAC during the transition. He helped with clarifying the dojo structure and its relationship with the USAF. There was really no one “aligning” with Yamada Sensei. The focus was on how to maintain the dojo and continue Tohei Sensei’s legacy. It remains the same today. Yamada Sensei has always supported us by having major USAF seminars scheduled for Chicago. He said that the structure and running of the dojo needed to be decided by us to meet our needs.

Akira Tohei with Yoshimitsu Yamada relaxing in 1975.

MAYTT: I see. In your opinion, what helped solidify Tohei’s legacy as being an aikido pioneer in the Midwest? What was it about this course of action that was important in establishing Tohei’s legacy?

KY: I think one thing that helped was how Tohei Sensei did not allow his students’ egos to become too overinflated. I think our strongest aspect of our dojo is that all of the instructors have a great deal of respect for each other. We have all developed differently and have our own strengths and weaknesses. Some dojos have had power struggles upon the death of their chief instructor and end up splitting. We, fortunately, have not had that occur. Our paradigm is much like a university department. The chief instructor is similar to a department chair, and the instructors carry out the instructional needs of the department. One big aspect of his legacy is the dojo itself. It is one of the largest traditional Aikido dojos in the US. The practice area is a tatami area of approximately 200 tatami. We keep it immaculate and everyone from the beginners to the senior yudansha keep it up. Sensei once explained to me the importance of cleaning, or dojo shoji. He said the dojo was like a mother’s womb. If the womb was “dirty,” then it did not bode well for the baby. He said that in the old days, aikido training began with cleaning the toilets. Values like this are a small but a very important part of his legacy.

MAYTT: Final question. What do you think the future holds for the art? Taking into consideration the effects of the current pandemic, how will aikido recover from the loss of members and schools around the country? Will American aikido ever recover?

KY: I think the art will continue to evolve. However, I do wonder about the influence of society as a whole. Many people now have become used to instant gratification. If you want to know something, you go to Wikipedia rather than spending time researching something. As you know, there is no instant gratification in the martial arts. It requires hard work and perseverance and I wonder if our current generation, as a whole, is up to the task. Of course, past generations probably thought the same thing! [Laughs] We were fortunate to survive this pandemic, to date. We have even seen an increase of new members than before the pandemic. However, I know many dojos were not so fortunate. Only time will tell if aikido will return to pre-pandemic numbers. I have faith that will happen.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us today for an amazing conversation!

KY: Thank you for having me and I enjoyed our conversation.

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

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