Interview with Chester County Kokikai Founder Jason Martin: The Silent Pioneer and Kokikai Aikido

Growing up with a fascination for the martial arts, it was no wonder Jason Martin found himself in an aikido school under Philadelphia pioneer Shuji Maruyama. Since then, he has continued following the teachings of Maruyama, even opening his own school, Chester County Kokikai Dojo in 2010, spreading what he learned from the Silent Aikido Pioneer. Today, Martin took some time to talk about the influence of Maruyama on him and the Philadelphia region. All images provided by Jason Martin.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome, Martin Sensei! Thank you for joining us to talk about Shuji Maruyama.

Jason Martin: I am happy to participate and look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: How and when did you come to find the art? What was it about aikido that kept you motivated for this long?

JM: Ever since I was a child, all I wanted was to train in the martial arts. I grew up watching kung fu movies at my grandmother’s house every Sunday afternoon for hours at a time. I loved that it didn’t matter how small or weak someone was, that once they found a martial art master to teach them and they trained hard, they were able to defeat the antagonist of the films. Unfortunately, my parents didn’t have much money and I wasn’t able to take karate lessons. It wasn’t until I was much older and working myself that I was able to afford them. 

In the meantime, my younger brother had epilepsy and as a result, the kids in my neighborhood tried to take advantage of him. My mother would often have me walk with him to the store to get Swedish Fish candy and other snacks. I got into many street fights at home and at school because of bullies trying to push us around. I would like to say that I won all the fights, but many times I came home with scrapes and bruises which upset my mother a lot.

In high school, I spent most of my free time after school and on weekends helping my uncle work on his house. He taught me how to use tools and how to work hard on various home construction jobs. Afterwards, we would get takeout for dinner and watch action and karate movies. I can remember watching Above the Law, a Steven Segal film as my first introduction to aikido and being enthralled with the aikido movements. I knew at that moment, I wanted to train in aikido. My uncle told me that he had taken a couple aikido classes previously and agreed to sign up with me at a school close by. Unfortunately, I went away to college in Florida and had to temporarily put that on hold.

Jason Martin (right) being uke for Shuji Maruyama (left).

During college, I found an Isshin-Ryū instructor who claimed he knew aikido. So, I started to practice martial arts under him. I quickly found out that I was only learning his karate forms and the “aikido” part was so modified that it hardly resembled the true aikido art form. I dabbled in a couple other fighting styles with my friends, but never was satisfied.

So, during my sophomore year at school, I went home for holiday break and signed up at the local aikido school. Little did I know that it was going to change my life forever. The Northeast Philadelphia Dojo was Sensei Shuji Maruyama’s Hombu Dojo in the United States.

At first, training in Kokikai Aikido was exhilarating to me and learning how to ukemi better became a passion of mine. As I advanced, I then found my love of the art shifted to learning different subtleties in techniques, which changed the quality and increased the overall effectiveness of the throw or submission. There is always something to learn while practicing and Kokikai helps me grow as a human being to my fullest potential. Kokikai Aikido is truly Budō (武道), and I live that lifestyle on and off the mat.

MAYTT: That is an interesting turn of events to get you to aikido! Your first instructor when you joined was Shuji Maruyama. What were your first impressions of him and how did continued training under him solidified or change your initial impression of him?

JM: My first impression of Sensei was amazement. I couldn’t understand how this small, skinny Japanese man was tossing people around like rag dolls. I couldn’t wait to learn more martial art techniques from him. At the time I started practicing, there were several other instructors under Sensei in the dojo who taught as well. Sensei would travel back and forth from Japan to the U.S. three times a year. He would spend months teaching us and I always valued those times the most. The more I trained with Sensei, the more my love of aikido grew. I was very lucky to become one of his personal ukes and I got to travel with him to demonstrate aikido techniques at other dojos, camps, and ultimately the highlight for me, Japan. 

MAYTT: What was the average training regimen like when you first joined? Was it hard and heavy or refined and differentiated? How did you see aikido training change and evolve as time passed?

Martin (standing) receiving his yondan from Maruyama (seated).

JM: When I first started training, I went to the dojo about two to three times a week. Later as I progressed, I found myself practicing five or more times a week. Practice was always scaled to the abilities of the student. The harder you attacked, the harder you were thrown. I was determined to learn and get better, so I always gave it my all. At the end of a night of training, I went home exhausted, bruised and aching but my persistence and tenacity kept me going. My aikido gi (uniform) was usually so full of sweat from the night’s activities that it looked as if I had jumped into a swimming pool.

I feel that training is hugely impacted by the quality of your instructor and I was very fortunate to have Sensei Shuji Maruyama to instruct me. Sensei continuously revises technique for the better and encourages us to be “always growing” in our training.

MAYTT: What was the aikido community like in the Philadelphia area 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?

JM: The students that practiced together at the Northeast Dojo were family. We trained and sweated together, ate together, and oftentimes drank and partied together. Some of my lifelong friends I met through aikido. I knew that if I ever had any issues in life, the dojo family had my back.

MAYTT: Sounds like it was a very welcoming community. What was Maruyama like as an instructor and as a person? What set himself apart from his contemporaries? 

JM: Sensei is a fantastic instructor. His charisma and charm give him the unique ability to captivate a student’s mind during class. He also has a great sense of humor, which often makes class entertaining and fun.

There were times he was very tough with me though. He knew just how much to challenge me physically and would push me to my limits and then some. All the while, saying, “If I can do it, you can do it!” Sensei is fascinated by the human condition and he always taught me how to improve my character both on and off the mat. I learned many life lessons driving him to seminars and camps. I think what sets him apart from his contemporaries is his genius mind and his ability to grow and evolve his technique.

MAYTT: Maruyama is considered a pioneer – a silent pioneer – to many aikidoka, especially in the Philadelphia region. In your opinion, what has he done that earned him such a title?

JM: Sensei left his home in Japan in 1966 to come to the United States to teach aikido. He was not only a pioneer but also a visionary leader who fought through many hardships to spread his aikido training here, which he successfully did. The physiological differences alone between Japanese and American students among other things caused Sensei to modify and grow his techniques to be even stronger and more effective. 

MAYTT: In 1974, Maruyama, along with other aikidoka, followed Koichi Tohei as he left the Aikikai, forming Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido. Later, in 1986, Maruyama went on to form his current Kokikai Aikido. 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?

JM: There is a great article written by Gaku Homma, founder of Aikido Nippon Kan Dojo, which details some of the history of Sensei leaving Aikikai with Koichi Tohei and then ultimately starting his Kokikai Aikido. He writes that Sensei had no issues with Aikikai Hombu Headquarters, just that Sensei believed it was the honorable thing to follow your Sensei without hesitation.

As my practice started much later, it didn’t impact me as much personally. However, I believe Sensei’s decision to follow Koichi Tohei, who was his chief instructor at the time, had a huge effect on his aikido. You can definitely see the influence of focusing on one-point and ki development in Kokikai training today. 

Martin (right) attempting to push Maruyama (left).

MAYTT: In 2001, you began to teach both beginner and advanced adult classes. How did the new role change your perspective on aikido, if at all? Did the experience better hone your own aikido?

JM: At the time that I started to teach, I was very well trained, but I still remember feeling nervous and unsure of myself in front of the class. Teaching completely changed my perspective on aikido, because I had to prove myself on the mat every class. In my mind, my technique had to work no matter what, I couldn’t falter or stumble. I also had to bring out the energy in my students even if I myself felt tired or off. I soon realized that I had extremely high expectations for myself and it wasn’t realistic. I made plenty of mistakes and had plenty of stubborn students giving me challenges along the way. The funny thing is that through those experiences, I did hone my aikido skills. Teaching also gave me a desire to better myself even more which spurred me on in my own training.

MAYTT: It’s amazing how stepping out of our comfort zone allows us to grow. What influenced your decision to establish your Chester County Kokikai? What goals did you look to achieve at the time and how have those goals merged with others? 

JM:  My decision to start Chester County Kokikai was kind of thrust upon me. I had been working in the Malvern/Exton, Pennsylvania area since the year 2000. Throughout the years, many of my coworkers discovered that I practiced and taught martial arts. I was asked over and over again by some of them to start a dojo close to work so they could train. So, one day I decided to do it because I wanted to help grow Kokikai into an untapped area. I felt like it was the next logical step for my personal growth and a way for me to give back to Sensei and the organization as a whole. 

Thankfully many of my goals have already been realized. My dojo is going on its twelfth year, and is still thriving and growing even in these unprecedented times. We host and attend seminars with other Kokikai dojo families in the area and continue to further spread Sensei Shuji Maruyama’s aikido. 

Martin (right) performing a throw in front of Maruyama (left).

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?

JM: I think the majority of negative views targeting the aikido community stem from a bunch of different factors. Right now, for one thing, mixed martial arts and jujitsu are very popular these days. I recently have seen some former aikidoka post blogs or videos online saying how aikido has failed them when they choose to step into the ring with trained MMA fighters. Aikido has always been primarily a defensive art based on the assumption of a committed attack. We don’t usually spar like a boxer or fighter does in our practice. Technically we don’t really practice to fight, we practice to end the fight. 

Do I think there are things we can do in our community to strengthen our image and debunk negative perceptions? Of course I do. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of people posting content on the internet that is showing poor quality or weak aikido techniques. This hurts our image a lot when people are looking to evaluate our martial art. We need to inspect what we do with a critical eye and only publish content that will show the benefits of aikido to the world.

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?

JM: Covid has definitely hit all of the world very hard. It has shut down businesses and restaurants that have been around for a very long time. As far as the aikido community, I know several dojos had to close their doors due to the pandemic. Kokikai is very fortunate to have such a great community. 

When the pandemic first hit, several other instructors and myself started to do aikido weapons classes over Zoom and other teleconferencing software. When things got a little better, we met in various parks while socially distanced and continued to practice aikido principles, warmups and weapon katas. After a while doing that, some of us went back to practicing inside with wearing masks and cleaning hands after techniques or partner changes. 

Aikido is all about blending and harmonizing with the opponent’s movements and I feel that in this case we need to continue to blend and adapt to evolve our dojos in a Covid and post-Covid world. One of our four principles of practice is to have a positive mind. In this day and age, we need to foster that mindset and continue to train and grow our dojos with the future of aikido in mind. 

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us and discussing Maruyama!

JM: Thank you for having me!

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.

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