Interview with Kokikai Regional Coordinator Cecelia Ricciotti: Aikido and Philadelphia Pioneer Shuji Maruyama

Cecelia Rocciotti began training under Shuji Maruyama in 1974 in Philadelphia, following him in that year’s Koichi Tohei split from the Aikikai and Maruyama’s exit from the Ki Society in 1986. She currently teaches at Philadelphia Aikido. Today, Rocciotti took some time to talk about her time and experience with Maruyama while he was in the City of Brotherly Love. All images provided by Cecelia Rocciotti.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you and welcome Ricciotti Sensei for taking the time to talk about Shuji Maruyama!

Cecelia Ricciotti: I look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: In 1974, you began training aikido under Shuji Maruyama. What aspects of the art drew you to it and do those still motivate you to continue to train and teach?

CR: I was drawn to aikido after reading about various martial arts. The philosophy was consistent with my values. I visited various Philadelphia martial arts schools just to check things out. Most places made me feel unwelcome. I was dragging my two-year-old son around with me – no sitter. They didn’t like the distraction of a toddler being there. They seemed to be having no fun. When I finally came to Maruyama Sensei’s dojo, I was blown away by the warm, welcoming feeling. The dojo was in a part of town, let’s call it skid row. Clearly, Sensei came to Philadelphia from Japan with nothing. Speaking very little English, trying to educate people about what aikido is, making his way in the world. The dojo was on the third floor of a big creaky warehouse. The students were working very hard on the mat but smiling and even laughing after being thrown very hard. There was no other aikido at that time in Philadelphia.

My motivation to continue throughout my young years was essentially to have fun. I needed to get exercise, to speak with other adults, to learn something new, and face my fears. 

Later, as an instructor, I found meaning in sharing my joy with others while honing my skills.

Cecelia Ricciotti.

MAYTT: How have you seen aikido training change and evolve since you first started? Do you think these adaptations are for the betterment of the art?

CR: Aikido training changes all the time. We are all different, having different takes on the instruction given, having different teachers, interpreting what we see differently. I found myself finding the training way that fit my interpretation of aikido philosophy. It’s what drew me in. But over time, we get caught up in things like making the technique “work,” instead of seeing that it obeys the principles of aikido. When I step back, I realize, lots of things work. Guns, for example, work. But are they aikido? So, I always search for the way to be consistent with aikido principles first and then making sure the technique is effective within that framework. I really think there are as many ways to train as there are instructors.

MAYTT: That is an interesting perspective. What was the aikido community like when you first joined Maruyama’s school? Was it a tight knit group of practitioners or were the members distant with each other? How did your school interact with others, if at all?

CR: It was a welcoming community. We often went out drinking or dancing or noshing after class. We felt like family. I think Maruyama Sensei’s ethic on this was influential. He treated people the same on the mat. He trained men, women, children, blind, deaf – all different people as long as they were serious about learning.

MAYTT: What were your first impressions of Maruyama when you began aikido? What was he like as an instructor and a person? In your opinion, what differentiated him from his contemporaries?

CR: I could go on and on about Maruyama Sensei. Basically, he scared us half to death, even as we knew he would take care of us. I didn’t meet many of his contemporaries, but it was clear he was respected.

MAYTT: Being a longtime student of Maruyama, what was one of the most influential lessons you took from his countless classes? How has that affected you, your perspective of aikido, and how to teach the art?

CR: There are many lessons that I took to heart, and it is difficult to choose just one. So, I will tell you my top three.

On building one’s life: “Make your life like a beautiful bonsai tree. Imagine how you want it to be and grow it that way. When a branch starts to stray, cut it off.” I learned that it’s okay to free yourself from the negative influences that insinuate themselves into your life.

On training strong students: “Push them down; then pull them up, push down, pull up.” Like tempering a fine blade, expose it to fire, then water, fire, and water again and again.

On learning: “Trust your own experience.” Learning from our teachers is essential, or even books or videos are useful, but in the end, we must do what works for us as individuals.

MAYTT: Thank you for sharing those snippets of Maruyama’s philosophy. Maruyama arrived in Philadelphia in 1968. During your time under him, did he relate any of his experiences to you and/or the class and, if so, what were they and how did you react to them?

CR: Maruyama Sensei kept his distance on the mat, but occasionally he would open up while socializing. He often used that time to impart some special wisdom that he thought we needed. He spoke of his life in Japan and the culture shock of trying to make a life here. There have been many things written about these things, by Sensei himself and by Gaku Homma (The Silent Pioneer), his student in Japan who became a famous sensei in Denver and writer of the linked article.

Shuji Maruyama demonstrating a jo technique.

MAYTT: 1974 was a year that shook the international aikido community at the time: Koichi Tohei left the Aikikai to establish his own Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido. Throughout your training, has there been much talk of the split? What was the prevailing view regarding the separation among practitioners?

CR: The breaking off of Tohei Sensei was indeed cataclysmic. Sensei didn’t share much of his thoughts with me on this, but I could sense the turmoil.  During my study with him, we were called Aikikai, then Ki Society, then Kokikai.

MAYTT: Speaking of separations, Muryama also left Tohei’s organization to establish his own Kokikai Aikido in 1986. What were some of the factors that influenced Maruyama’s decision to “go out on his own”? How did the separation affect you and others around you, if at all?

CR: As for Maruyama Sensei’s becoming independent, my view was that his struggle and accomplishments were possible because of his strong independent spirit. This eventually made it impossible for him to remain under anyone’s “thumb.”  I think it’s foolish to make more out of it than that.

MAYTT: I see. In the fall of 2019, the United States Aikido Federation was confronted by gender equality and equity issues from female practitioners within the organization. Being both hachidan and a regional coordinator for Kokikai Aikido, how has the organization represented female members and are these types of concerns more common than most average organizational members are aware of?

CR: As for the gender issue, I was always grateful for Sensei’s treatment of the dojo women. His advice to me was “how to treat women? With not too much salt and not too much sugar.” As for the male members, I always felt the need to work harder, ignore injuries, and be better than the others so I could be accepted. But I believe that was mostly in my own head. As a teacher, I know women can be hurt more easily, but don’t want to be treated like they’re made of eggshells. Students need to be taught to work hard to find everyone’s “edge.” This goes for men too, but especially for women. Work your partner at THEIR edge, without going over it and hurting them and without staying safe on the other side of their edge, so they never get a chance to find out what they’re made of. This skill is what makes an excellent partner.

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?

CR: The negative views are a result of not understanding what aikido is. It cannot be compared to Mixed Martial Arts or the punching and kicking arts. It’s not about winning, but prevailing. Not kicking ass but doing no harm while receiving no harm. And realistically, there is also a lot of junk aikido out there.

I would love to see more written about aikido, its foundation, its roots, its founder, and its priorities. Zen in the Art of Archery may seem unrelated, but it is the most helpful martial arts book I’ve read. Personally, I don’t concern myself with the judgments of others. Life is too short.

MAYTT: Final question. With the current pandemic having its ups and downs, and generally not knowing where the country will be in six months, what do you think the future holds for aikido? How can the art adapt and evolve in a COVID and post-COVID world?

CR: It’s hard to know what the future holds. I think a dojo community should foster a strong sense of responsibility to one another. Eventually the US will reach herd immunity, but it will be excruciatingly slow. Hopefully we can accomplish this before some new dragon strain develops that is impervious to known vaccines. I encourage everyone to be part of the solution and get away from the micro view.

In the meantime, we practice outdoors weather permitting. In the dojo we have air conditioning on, windows open, seven fans blowing, sanitizer every ten ft, and a CO2 monitor to let us know about the quality of our air. Vaccines and masks – all required.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us and sharing your experiences with Maruyama!

CR: Thank you for having me.

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

A seminar with Maruyama at Villanova University in 1997.

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