Interview with Keystone Kokikai Founder Todd Kupper: An Intimate Look Into Shuji Maruyama, Part I

Todd Kupper began aikido in the early 1990s, with Steven Seagal’s popularity reaching a high point in the United States. He did not find Seagal, but rather Shuji Maruyama, founder of Kokikai Aikido. From his teenage years until now, Kupper experienced many things under Maruyama, including a very close, almost father-son type of relationship. Today, Kupper took some time to talk about that relationship, his training, and the future of his dojo. All images provided by Todd Kupper. This is the first part of a two part interview. View the second part here.

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

Todd Kupper: Thanks for having me!

MAYTT: You began aikido training at the age fifteen. How and when did you come to find the art and what kept your interest for so long?

Todd Kupper holding a bokken in his early years of training.

TK: My uncle, Joe Joyce, had taken me to the Longcrest Recreation Center when I was nine years old, and they had a program called Stomackin Jujitsu. It was the old Philadelphia Jujitsu Club and Doc Stomackin was in the War, and they used to trade whiskey and cigarettes for martial arts lessons with the prisoners they had in Okinawa. It was a mix of old-style jujutsu with a lot of hip throws and finishes and things like that. My uncle was there for a long period of time, and he had taken me there and I trained there for a while in that organization. Then Doc Stomackin passed away and it was tough for somebody to keep it going at the time, so it went on the backburner. Years later, I wanted to get back into it and I asked my uncle what he thought. Turns out, my grandmother lived about a block and a half from Shuji Maruyama Sensei’s Northeast Dojo. My uncle said, “You know that guy down there? That guy has been there for a long time. That’s the closest thing you’ll get to jujitsu; you should go check it out.” I walked in, signed up the first night, and have been there ever since. During that time, there were Steven Seagal movies and aikido was getting a little bit popular. But really, for me, I wanted to get back into martial arts and something like the jujitsu that I practiced. This was all in 1991 or 1992.

My first class was not with Maruyama. He was probably in Japan at the time, but he came back during this time quite often, usually three or four months out of the year and stayed for long periods of time. My first instructor when I joined was probably Tom Potsupack and John Soliwada. I didn’t have much money back then. He brought me onto something like an uchi deshi program, where I cleaned the dojo and took care of things, and I paid what I could. From that, I quickly became close to him. And because I was young, I was trained to be uke. If he wasn’t there, there were always his senior students who taught. I was at the dojo four days a week.

This was Sensei’s dojo. Sensei, at the time, moved back to Japan. He had different instructors filling in the classes when he wasn’t there. Then when he came back, which was about three or four months a year, he was at the dojo every night. So, when he wasn’t there, there was a gentleman by the name of Dave Sands who taught Mondays and Thursdays; Tom Postupack taught Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; Another guy named Rich Gerner taught Wednesdays. There were multiple different instructors, and it was a very unique time because nobody was like Sensei – that was a big thing. Sensei was sensei, that was it. Even senior instructor Tom Postupack was just Tom-san, or Dave-san – no one was called sensei, only Sensei. It was very unique to that dojo.

MAYTT: 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?

TK: You were scared of him. [Laughs] He had quite the presence and had an aura coming off of him. I was a little nervous and a little scared. Everyone heard about this “Sensei, Sensei, Sensei,” and then when you finally met him it was like, “Oh my god, Sensei’s here!” He just had this energy, this spirit, and this aura. So, you would be a little nervous and a little scared.

As I got to know him and got a little more comfortable and understood his ways and his lessons – everything for me, being young, was a lesson. I carried his bags, I opened the door for him, I cleaned the dojo – if the dojo wasn’t clean, that was on me, and I would get in trouble. I would clean outside the dojo and my sole responsibility during my training was to take care of the dojo and look out for Sensei. Even to this day when he stays in my home, I always try to stay one step ahead of him. When you think back on it, it’s all lessons in awareness. “Oh! Here comes Sensei. Go open the door and grab his bag.” Part of it is a respect thing and part of it is awareness training as well.

Kupper (left) posing with Shuji Maruyama (right).

Up until more recently and having lived with him now and spending a lot of time with him, the stories of how he brought aikido here in 1966, he didn’t speak much English. He had a really hard time coming here – he didn’t have much money. He changed aikido – we say he modernized aikido for Americans, basically. For example, we don’t use suwari waza anymore, because he said that no one sits like that anymore. We do a lot against kicks and sucker punches and jabs. You’ll find that in Japan, sometimes they don’t train in those kinds of techniques.

Thinking about it more, I would describe Sensei as the renegade of aikido. He’s always had a chip on his shoulder. He’s always been different from all of the other aikido. He doesn’t care what anybody else in aikido thinks; he’s still working on that canvas. He was always pretty badass and always did it his way and didn’t care what anybody else thought. I think Sensei and his organization could have been ten times bigger, but he was an artist. And he is always working on his canvas. 

MAYTT: What were some of those stories he would tell you about during the early days in Philadelphia?

TK: He said he was hungry. [Laughs] True story. I asked him many times about this topic. When he was sent to the United States to teach aikido at the Cleveland Martial Arts School in 1966, I don’t think he made much money at the time. I asked him why he chose Philadelphia and he said that he chose it because it was a good place on the map for him. I think he said something about the fact that Yoshimitsu Yamada was in New York City and Mitsunari Kanai was in Boston, and nobody was in Philadelphia, so that was where he was going to build his school. He said it was hard – he didn’t speak much English and he didn’t have much money. He did a lot of stuff to try and get people from the YMCA and different students that way.

He told this story a lot about his early days in Cleveland: when they say punch in Japan, it’s a straight punch, a tsuki, towards the stomach or the chest area – it’s a long punch. When he was in Cleveland, he asked somebody to punch him and the guy gave him a right hook, knocking a lot of his teeth out. He said he wrote a letter saying that he wanted to go home. [Laughs] He had to learn the American ways and adapt to that. Americans are a lot bigger than the Japanese – stiffer and bigger, things like that. And then in the 1970s, he had gotten hit by a car, and he was in the hospital for a long time with a lot of injuries. He couldn’t do a lot of the stuff that he used to do when he started back in aikido and started training again. He wound up adapting a lot of his aikido to a lot of what he was feeling – not being able to do certain techniques and things that he did prior, so he adapted his aikido to that which, as he said, made him stronger.

He also said at the time, he was going to either open a sushi bar here or back in Japan. He got a little nervous about the sushi bar – he didn’t have enough support – and he went back to Japan. If you think about it, there were no sushi restaurants around at the time. There was one place in New Jersey called Sugami’s which I think has been there since 1975 or 1976. Other than that, there was really no Japanese food around whatsoever.  

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?

TK: I definitely feel that we threw a lot harder back then than we do now. [Laughs] I remember, many times getting my butt kicked, if you will. That was the style back then – kote gaeshi was hard; shiho nage was hard; kokyu nage was hard. Sensei has progressed his technique much differently from the 1990s till 2022. Not completely different, but certainly different. I remember waking up and knowing that you went to practice the night before; knowing that your wrist, your neck, back, or your arms were sore. There were some tough guys in the Northeast Dojo and, I will tell you this much, the Northeast Dojo has a huge lineage, so if anyone hears of the Northeast Dojo, they know that the guys from there are kind of tough; they had good tests and that it was Sensei’s dojo. And that’s a great lineage to have and I think I instill that in my students today, saying, “Hey, we’re going to test well, train at a high level, and train hard.” Those kinds of things.

I train Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, then sometimes Mondays every week. Tuesdays are regular class and advanced class are Thursdays and Saturdays. Sometimes we go all in on Saturdays.

Speaking specifically to Maruyama Sensei and Kokikai and experiencing many different types of aikido in Japan – I’ve gone to many dojos in Japan that weren’t Kokikai – Kokikai Aikido and Maruyama Sensei have definitely progressed. Like I’ve said, they’ve modernized aikido for today’s age. As I mentioned before, we don’t do suwari waza anymore. Sensei even said that many people in Japan don’t sit like that anymore. We do kicks, we do front punches, we do jabs, and a lot of the newer things we do are more natural. We don’t use a “stiff sword arm,” as Sensei calls it, with arms and fingers extended. How would you pick up a glass and drink; how would you pick up a beer and drink? That’s how you do shomenuchi ikkyo and things like that. How did you walk? You don’t walk stiff, you walk naturally. A lot of what he says is natural. No unnecessary stiff movements or, he uses this analogy, if you touch a hot frying pan, what do you do with your hand? It’s not stiff, right? When you touch a hot frying pan you pull it back quickly. Or, if you wipe a bug off your sleeve – those are all the different kinds of natural movements. Kokikai is always about growing – that’s always what he preached, whether it’s growing through technique or growing as an individual, he’s always fascinated with humans. One of the best things about aikido, particularly our aikido, is that if you take somebody you think is never going to make it – they walk through the door and have horrible posture, no confidence, low athleticism – and then all of a sudden, five, six, seven years later, you look at the person from the day they walked in the door till now, then that’s a success story. They have more confidence; they have more posture; they come three days a week and do this. That’s the ultimate test.

Kupper taking ukemi for Maruyama during a seminar.

Sensei told me one time that O-Sensei Ueshiba told him to always keep growing. That’s one of his big philosophies. The way I picture Sensei is as an artist and he’s been working on this canvas for fifty-five years. His canvas is not finished. When we go to Aikido Camp – he has about three or four a year – he teaches all the classes. That’s unheard of in some of the other camps. If you go to an Aikikai camp, Yamada would be like one class a day and there would be other senior instructors teaching. Sensei would teach six hours a day. He still wants to challenge himself, that’s what makes him amazing. He’s going to be eighty-four years old on April 1 and he’s still out there throwing people around, moving big people around, and challenging himself. Just when you think he’s going to slow down, he never does! [Laughs]

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?

TK: I think it was a tight group. The one thing that attracted people to aikido, and specifically Kokikai, from then to this day now was a huge, strong community. We’re like this great village. At the time, there was the Northeast Dojo and Sensei’s old Arch Street dojo in Center City. Even though they worked independently, they were still his dojos. After class on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we went to lunch, grabbed a beer when I was old enough, and grabbed a sandwich. We did things together; we watched aikido videos together. We had Welcome Home Sensei parties together. The one thing about the aikido is their community is super strong. It was strong then and it’s even stronger now. Even my dojo now, my dojo goes out as a tradition every Tuesday and Thursday. Then people wanted to do other things and do trips together, and do things together. It really is about the community. Some people come for self-defense, some people come for mind-body-spirit, and at the end of the day, they all find that this a wonderful community where anybody is welcome, and anybody can come and train and be a part of this community. It’s pretty well accepted, and I think that is really cool. It doesn’t happen in every martial arts school.

But that also starts with the leader. Sensei brings everybody together. I want to emphasize that my best friends are from aikido. They are, to this day, my best friends. My groomsmen at my wedding, they’re aikido people. I sometimes forget that the common denominator in all of that was Sensei – he brought us all together.

MAYTT: What was Maruyama like as an instructor and as a person? What set himself apart from his contemporaries?

TK: As an instructor, I think he’s pretty tough and expected a lot, but at the same time, he was super patient. He had a high expectation, like any good instructor, but he had the patience of a saint. Every time he would come back from Japan – just as you thought you had tsuki kote gaeshi or shomenuchi kokyu nage right – he would just change one little thing here or there. [Laughs] It was all a matter of progress, progress, progress. I think, as a person, off the mat, he was always Sensei, on and off the mat. For me, being close to him, I think he is very approachable. My father said to Sensei at my wedding, and I’m very close to my dad, that he really made a man out of me, because I grew up at the dojo during some crucial years of my life – fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I was training four days a week. Sensei was willing to teach many different things with lessons on and off the mat. To this day, most of the lessons come off the mat. We have more lessons driving to and from another dojo, or driving to Rhode Island, Maryland, on the way to different seminars, or over tea – he basically taught me the tea ceremony at my house. Or even over a bottle of saké; we have many different conversations and lessons over a myriad of things and those are some wonderful experiences that I’ve been fortunate enough to have.

MAYTT: It’s great that you have those types of experiences. You mentioned previously that you have a close relationship with Maruyama, allowing him to stay in your home when he returns to the area. How did that such a relationship form and have you seen another side of him that is usually not shown on the mat?

TK: I’m a constant with Sensei, meaning that I have always been there and have always been training. I trained hard and I always showed up. When I uke-d for him back in the early days, I traveled with him to Seattle, Washington a few times, to different dojos, even going to Japan and eventually meeting his family there – we consider Sensei family, and I am assuming that he may consider me in that way as well. Having him live at the house, I’ve seen him in his most vulnerable state, whether he’s tired, hungover, or hurting from a four-day aikido camp and eating dinner with him in casual clothes and in a relaxed atmosphere. I’ve learned a lot about him that way – he’s always my sensei and always my teacher. I, as I mentioned before, try to stay a couple steps ahead of him when he’s in the home, but he’s definitely human as well.

Kupper and Maruyama sightseeing in Japan.

It’s not easy sometimes to have a Japanese martial arts master in your home. He’s also eighty-three years old. [Laughs] They’re kind of set in their ways, but at the same time, he’s a martial arts master. I don’t know how to express that in writing, but it can be difficult sometimes. [Laughs] Some of the most beautiful things I’ve seen at my house, other than learning about tea from him and different saké, is that he still does the calligraphy for all the black belt certificates by hand – that is a beautiful thing to see that he still puts time and effort into them. The one thing that we do a lot and discuss a lot here, at my home, are breathing exercises. It’s called ki breathing, where you slowly inhale and slowly exhale. He’s a big believer in that. He still breathes two hours a day. We’ll have breathing contests with a stopwatch over some saké or in between Turnpike signs. He’ll be like, “Todd-san, ready, go!” We’ll see who can breathe the longest. A lot of what he does is centered around those breathing exercises.

I’ve been to his Zen temple in his hometown two or three times – his cousin is the priest there. I’ve meditated and that was a cool experience. He always told me, “Todd-san, meditation doesn’t have to be sitting at a temple for hours at a time.” He said that when you walk into the dojo, that’s moving meditation. You don’t think about work, school, girlfriend, or anything. As soon as you walk into that dojo door, that is a form of meditation. Same thing with breathing exercises. You don’t have to sit in a temple or in zazen to breathe, you can be breathing when you are studying, cooking, driving, and with other activities and experience the great benefits associated with it.

There is a great saying that aikido is Zen in motion and Zen is aikido at rest.

This is the first part of a two part interview. View the second part here.

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

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