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

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

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?

TK: He cultivated aikido in this area. Aikido was not popular. Aikido is still not popular. Thank God for Steven Seagal movies. Every time a Steven Seagal movie came out, more people signed up! [Laughs] But, to be honest with you, before that, if you weren’t a practitioner of martial arts, nobody knew what aikido was. Being able to come from Cleveland, Ohio and then ultimately into Philadelphia, and being able to cultivate this community from nothing, and not being able to speak good English, and not having much money is pretty amazing. At the time, there weren’t iPhone or things like that to get the word out, but he became renowned for being a leading martial artist in the Philadelphia area. I think Okazaki, the founder of Shotokan, was around here. He knew Sensei and Sensei knew him. There weren’t many renowned martial artists at that time.

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

But it also took a lot of work. How easy is it now to put something on Facebook or Instagram? Back then, when he was trying to cultivate aikido, you had to hang a sign or poster; he did demonstrations at the civic center and different things back then. Certainly, a lot easier now in that regard.

Another interesting story relates to The Silent Pioneer article. I flew with him to Denver, Colorado and we stayed three nights at Gaku Homma’s dojo on the way to a Seattle camp. That night, Sensei had one hundred people in the class. If you look at some of the pictures from that event, I am uke in some of those pictures. He kicked my ass in front of all those people. [Laugh] It was one of those wham-bam classes. Gaku Homma and Sensei were going out to this special sushi bar, and I was staying with the uchi deshi in the dojo, Sensei said to me, “No. You come with us.” But they only had a reservation for two at the sushi bar with a very famous sushi chef, so I had to sit at a table by myself. Sensei would throw food over to me, one by one, and then drinks, and then I was finally in with Gaku and with Sensei. Gaku had a yurt because he did a lot of things from Mongolia. We would climb in and out of yurt and sing Japanese folk songs, and drink Japan shoju. It was a crazy night. [Laughs] In one of the pictures with Gaku, my sleeve is in that picture – they cut me out but I’m in that picture. I have the original picture and you can see all three of us, and the sleeve of my checker shirt. [Laughs] I was there when Gaku interviewed Sensei for what would become The Silent Pioneer article. The next day, Gaku Homma had class and there were only three people there – I was one of three – because they had such a big night the night before. So, Homma Sensei said, “Ah! I can’t teach you aikido. Maruyama teaches you aikido. But what I can teach you is Daito-ryu Aikijutsu, where aikido came from, and what we used to learn.” It was so cool. We basically did grappling with this Japanese aikido master. That was like an epic experience, and I’ve been back to Gaku’s like four times.

One time, when Sensei was young in Japan, before he came here, he had a dojo in Akita, Japan and Gaku was one of his first students. Gaku was like thirteen when he started. 

MAYTT: That is an interesting story! 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?

TK: The short of it is, tensions got high as other aikido instructors came to the United States. Sensei would help them get settled but did not receive credit for the time and effort he was putting in. Koichi Tohei was also going a different direction than Sensei, which was another reason for the separation. Other senior instructors know more, but I see Tohei’s influence in many things we do such as our warm up and breathing.

MAYTT: When did you begin teaching and how did that experience change your perspective on aikido, if at all?

TK: I’ve been training since either 1991 or 1992. Then I went up to Penn State Main Campus and that was in 1995. They had a very strong aikido club at the time, and I was first kyu. They asked me to teach, and I started teaching up there. At the time, they had probably fifty students at the beginning of the semester and that would wind down to probably about thirty. So, I was teaching one night a week up there and they had classes Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I learned a lot and I made a lot of mistakes. I consider myself a student of Sensei, but at the time, they did some things a little bit differently, so it was a big learning curve. Nobody taught me how to teach aikido; you just went up there, showed what you know, and you did it. And I learned a lot along the way. I think it’s made me a better person. I got used to being in front of people and I don’t get nervous in front of crowds. I’ve probably been teaching now for about twenty-five years. I’ve done demonstrations in Japan; aikido has taken me to Germany to teach over there. It was a wonderful experience. What really gives you energy is the people in the class. The instructor starts the energy in the class, but then it feeds off of the students.

Kupper performing atemi on Jason Martin (right).

During the day, I sell nutrition through a nutrition company and if you ask Sensei, aikido would make me a better salesman; to have better posture in a group of people; a better talker, saying what you need clearly. I also moonlight as a magician. Sensei feels I’m a better magician because I’m calmer because of aikido; because I have better posture, and things like that. He’d think that aikido helps you to be a better doctor; how you focus on this and that patient, it’s like randori.

I have a big passion for teaching. I love teaching, I love big classes. Having done it for so long, it kind of comes naturally for me. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. I was too young – I was like twenty when I started teaching. You learn a lot along the way.

I always tell people when I’m not around, you just teach what you know and what you’re good at. Get up there and be confident in what you teach and what you know.

MAYTT: Sound advice. What inspired you to establish your own school, Keystone Kokikai Dojo? What initial goals did you set out to achieve, how did you reach them, and what does the future hold for your school?

TK: At the time, Sensei was back in Japan and the Northeast neighborhood was changing. Instructors were going their own way and there were different areas of cliques in the dojo. It was time to move and move on. We actually had moved the Northeast Dojo to Elkins Park, Pennsylvania and it went pretty well for a while. And then it wasn’t growing as much. At that same time, there was a lot going on in aikido. On my property, I opened a dojo called The Barn. It wasn’t an open dojo, but I had built a twenty foot by eighteen-foot barn – about twenty tatami mats – I just got all my friends in aikido who wanted to practice with no politics, no issues, and do that. In the meantime, the Elkins Park dojo was basically done, so I opened up a very small dojo in Huntingdon Valley just to continue the dojo one. So, I was in Huntingdon Valley for about five years, and I’ve been at Keystone ever since. Sensei also considers it his home dojo in the United States, or the Hombu Dojo in the United States.

The pandemic is a very trying time. There’s not much money to be made in aikido anyway, then you throw the pandemic our way, which makes it very challenging. I do have some other arts in the dojo to help aikido, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), kendo, and also Kali. It’s all the things I like and am able to practice. [Laughs] During the pandemic, we did Zoom, which was horrible – have you ever tried to do aikido on Zoom? It’s just horrible. Then we went into the park, and then we blackened our windows in the dojo. We tried to do non-touch things, and then just practiced weapons practice. We’ve been through the whole gamut. Coolest thing yet is that we’ve survived. Then we thought it would get better but it got worse. But I have a pretty strong dojo community that sticks together regardless. The future of the dojo and of aikido is what we make it – what I make it. I’m not really sure what’s going to happen if Sensei stops coming over or something else happens to him. They do have an organization that tries to keep that name and organization alive. Hopefully that will go well. But in terms of the dojo’s future, it’s what I make of it and what I do with it. And I’ll continue to do what I’m doing. We have a saying now at the Keystone Dojo: “self-discipline, self-respect, and self-defense.” Those are the things we do at the dojo. And the Jiu-Jitsu we have in there is Gracie Jiu-Jitsu but it compliments aikido really well. It’s not a tournament school or anything like that; it’s more of a self-defense-based school. Same thing with the Kali. But basically, my friends are the instructors. [Laughs] Like I said, it’s my little sandbox.

Kupper leading a meditation before the beginning of class.s

I think the dojo thing is just trying; Sensei has this great saying, “Don’t beat others, beat yourself.” You just keep taking those people that you don’t think aren’t going to make it and it just prides you to bring the best out of everybody.

Aikido is something everybody can practice. Other martial arts, that’s not the case. But it’s not easy. It hurts. [Laughs] We have another saying, “The hardest part is showing up.” That was the thing during the pandemic too is that people got comfortable doing other things and then they noticed that their back or knees or elbows don’t hurt. Most of our people came back, but some didn’t. It was hard and the pandemic singlehandedly really hurt our organization because a lot of our dojo were actually clubs in colleges or YMCAs. There’s not a lot of self-standing dojos but a lot of clubs and Ys. And a lot of those college clubs have come back yet and some of the Ys haven’t come back yet, it’s really rough.

MAYTT: You wrote a book, The Magic of Balanced Living, in 2011. What influenced you to put pen to paper?

TK: Couple of different things, actually. I have, what I consider, a very unique experience, growing up with Sensei and we have these great principles in Kokikai: positive mind, correct posture, keep one point, and relax progressively. I have all these cool experiences: I come from Northeast Philadelphia and was an overweight kid. I basically grew up with a martial art master, which is a unique experience. And I’ve become successful in my job, magic, and some other things and I really contribute that to my aikido training. I really wanted to be a speaker and work on the national speaker circuit and speak about aikido principles. So, I decided to put together this book and The Magic of Balanced Living is how to be successful in this highly stressed world using the principles I learned in aikido. I call it the balanced diet, which is the positive mind, find time for yourself, it’s okay to be a little selfish, correct posture, it’s okay to relax – that’s the hardest thing for me to do – keep one point, and relating that all to life and how that happens. The book is not just for an aikido person.

Sensei often talks about balance, and that’s where I got the title from. It’s really how you can try and find balance in your life. It’s okay to go out and have a hamburger with the guys, you’ll get back on track the next day. Workout and take care of your body but do this – it’s all about balance. Balance is tough for a lot of people.

It’s still on my agenda to go on the speaking circuit with my book, but life gets in the way. Because I think it’s an important message and a lot of life lessons from Sensei and from aikido that can really help other people. I wanted people who weren’t in aikido to apply the principles that I learned from Sensei and aikido.

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?

TK: They just don’t understand aikido. There’s a lot of bad aikido on YouTube, just like there are a lot of bad martial arts or bad performances. I think aikido gets a really bad rap because of some of the few bad things that art out there. Another thing that I know is that aikido needs to be experienced. If you were to come to the dojo and watch me in the class, you’ll question it, “Oh, what is that? That doesn’t make sense. That looks fake.” If I can get you to try a couple of classes, you’ll be like, “Wow, that’s really amazing.” And that’s what needs to happen – it needs to be experienced. Everyone thinks that their martial art is the greatest martial art. Come practice aikido and experience it. The one thing about aikido is that aikido is something everybody can practice, and you can practice forever. Not everybody can practice Mixed Martial Arts, or kickboxing. I think they’re all great martial arts. As I said before, I do BJJ and Kali, kendo, and iaido, so they’re all amazing. I do BJJ and Kali for the need to be a more well-rounded martial artist and those instructors respect my aikido, just like I respect their art. So, it just really needs to be experienced and it’s a lack of understanding. Particularly to my dojo, Kokikai, and Sensei, is the modernization of the art. A lot of the stuff you see out there is the stuff they learned in the 1950s and it has never changed. It was an old budo system – attack against a spear, bayonet, and sword. I just started putting a lot of stuff on YouTube, on Instagram to try and really put Sensei, Kokikai, and myself out there.

Kupper throwing an uke with a jo.

For one, I don’t pay too much attention to those negative comments. I know what aikido has done for me and I have seen what it has done for other people. I guess that’s the other thing that most people don’t understand is that aikido is a way of life. It’s a community. It’s a lifestyle, if you will. You just don’t go to the dojo and come home. You interact with people on the mat, and it just becomes this lifestyle that challenges you to become a better person, be more balanced, more positive. So, it’s not what just happens on the mat but also what happens off the mat. Not every martial art can instill those principles. I don’t pay too much attention to the naysayers, but aikido does get a bad rap and it does need some damage control or some work done. I think at my present age and time, I am making some videos, putting stuff out on Instagram. I think social media might actually help, as opposed to before. Putting out some good aikido and some good martial arts might help change it. I’m not interested in fighting about it with anybody or getting into a conversation battle with it. Come experience aikido. If you like it, great! If you don’t, fine. But I know what it has done for me, my family, my friends, and thousands of other people. If you asked me the one thing that it taught me – the number one thing – is awareness training. That is probably the one thing I talk with Sensei about a lot.

All I ask from people who start is three months of commitment and they’ll get three months of commitment from me. Aikido needs to be experienced and one or two classes doesn’t start to cover the art. Aikido is not easy. If you go to BJJ, you’re doing an armbar the first night. If you go to karate, you sweat from kicking and punching. Aikido you have to manipulate people, have balance, move, roll – it’s something that’s not easy. And there is some horrible aikido online, but I decided not to pay attention. Every once in a while, somebody shows me something and I laugh. You’ve seen them; it’s where they don’t even touch the guy and people are flying off of him. [Laughs]

MAYTT: 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?

TK: I think if you take Sensei’s philosophy of Kokikai Aikido of always growing as an art and as an individual, you’ll always find ways to adapt. We blend with what comes to us – that’s aikido. Growing and blending. So, whatever is thrown at us, we avoid, we blend, we harmonize, and we continue. I think in general for the martial arts, it’s really tough right now. Everyone has iPhones, and iPads. As I mentioned before, in the 1960s and 1970s, when people started, there were iPhones or iPads to occupy people. People are generally lazier now too. It’s hard to walk through that door. Aikido’s not easy. MMA is popular; UFC is popular; BJJ is really popular. They’re really the mainstream things and people that sign up at my dojo, they already know what aikido is or they’ve already researched it. It’s very rare that somebody says, “Oh, what’s this,” and signs up.

I think to really answer your question, I think people need balance. I tell my students that this is only an hour-and-a-half of their night, a couple times a week. Tell your girlfriend or boyfriend that this is something healthy. You walk in the dojo and its moving meditation; you’re learning how to defend yourself. You need to take time to do that. Take time for yourself and learn something like this, but it’s not easy. Everyone needs some balance.

The hard thing, and I tell everybody and my students, before the dojo, I had my fireplace on and sat with my dog. And it’s hard to get up off the coach. You’re comfortable. Or you’re working from home now, it’s hard to get out there. The hardest part, as I say, is showing up and walking through that door. Once you do, you’ll be glad you did, but it’s the hardest thing to do.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us today! We really appreciate it.

TK: My pleasure! It was great to talk with you.

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

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

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