Interview with Tomiki Aikido of the Americas Cofounder Robert Dziubla: Tomiki Aikido on the International Stage, Part I

Robert Dziubla entered the martial arts out of necessity, studying both aikido and karate as a teenager. In an effort to earn his black belt, he traveled to Japan in the early 1970s, training directly under Tomiki aikido founder Kenji Tomiki. Later, Tomiki tasked Dziubla with spreading Tomiki Aikido and the ensuing interview is his journey to help spread and solidify Tomiki Aikido not only in the United States but on the international stage. All images provided by Robert Dziubla. This is the first part of a three part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Dziubla Sensei! Thank you for joining us to talk about Tomiki Aikido!

Robert Dziubla: Thank you for having me and I look forward to our conversation!

MAYTT: You began your aikido training at thirteen after losing a fight defending your family’s newspaper stand. What inspired you to continue training after you stopped working at your family’s business?

RD: I started at thirteen, however I did not fight over my family’s newspaper stand. I got beat up by a couple of older high school boys when I was thirteen and was put in the hospital with a ruptured kidney. That’s when I started studying aikido. I did use aikido later on when I was probably around twenty-five defending my family’s newspaper stand in downtown Chicago when a group of street thugs decided to steal money and attack my dad and my uncle.

Robert Dziubla, happy to teach Tomiki Aikido.

In any event, I didn’t find getting put into the hospital much fun and coming from a poor, blue-collar family in Chicago, we didn’t have any money to afford professional martial arts training. My uncle, who was a Chicago policeman, said that there was this guy teaching aikido at the local park for free, why don’t I check it out? I did that, and being a young, naïve kid with no prior martial arts experience, I took the sensei at face value and subsequently found out that he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. I knew part of this at the time, but I subsequently knew more later on; he had been part of the Occupation forces in Japan after World War II. He worked with the quartermasters, who were running the camp’s laundry. He learned judo while in Japan and came back to the United States to Chicago, where he was from, and did judo here. Apparently, from what I understand, he fell out with the senior judo people in Chicago because he had a pretty abrasive personality as it turned out. After that, he taught himself aikido from a book and pawned himself off as an aikido instructor which he taught at the local park. And I was one of his Guinea pigs. [Laughs] Unfortunately, what he taught me did not work because I continued to get beat up, so I switched over to karate for a few years as well.

My sensei could not promote me to black belt. He had started with Aikikai Hombu Aikido, which he had learned from a book and then he got fed up with the fees that Aikikai was charging for black belt promotions for his students. He then switched over to Yoshikan, which he also learned from a book. When Yoshinkan started charging too much, he wrote to Kenji Tomiki Sensei and asked if he could promote Tomiki Aikido in the United States. Tomiki Sensei, who was trying to expand the reach of Tomiki Aikido around the world, said sure, why not. At that point, Senta Yamada Sensei had published a book in English on Tomiki Aikido and so we used that book to learn Tomiki Aikido in Chicago, at least to the extent to which Yamada Sensei knew it. Because my sensei could not promote me to black belt when I was seventeen, he said if I wanted to become a black belt, I would need to go to Japan. I had saved up my pennies working at my dad’s store and doing other jobs, and I went off to Japan with one of my buddies from the club, who was a few years older than me. We went to Tokyo to Waseda University, which was where Tomiki Sensei was teaching and studied there for a few months over the summer. That’s when I started training and that’s where they cleaned my clock six ways to Sunday because the folks in Japan know what they’re doing, and it really does work. At the end of the summer, Tomiki Sensei, more out of pity than any ability on my part promoted me to shodan. He said to go back to the States and keep on practicing and expanding Tomiki Aikido, which is what I did.

MAYTT: Your first true aikido teacher was Kenji Tomiki himself. How did you find yourself under his tutelage and what was it like training under him? What was his average training regimen like?

RD: It was my sensei in Chicago that wrote to Tomiki Sensei, because he had switched his affiliation from Yoshinkan to Tomiki a couple of years prior to my going to Japan. After my sensei prompted me to brown belt, he himself was only recognized as shodan and he could not promote me to shodan, because the standing rule is that you have to be two ranks above someone to promote them. He said if I wanted my black belt, I would have to go to Japan and get it directly from Tomiki Sensei. So, he wrote me a letter to Tomiki Sensei and asked if two brown belts could come to Japan and train with him and test for their shodan. Tomiki Sensei said sure, send them on over. We went over and trained at Waseda because Tomiki Sensei was a professor there. As you may know, Waseda is one of the top universities – it’s considered like Yale, Havard, or Columbia here. He was a tremendously famous and renowned martial artist and scholar in Japan. He had the aikido club at Waseda, which he had started in the mid to late 1950s. When I went, it was around 1970 or 1971.

I showed up and met him at the dojo at Waseda, and he welcomed us, saying to put on our dogis and join the club! That’s what I did. Historical and really forever, because it was his home really, Waseda had a tremendously strong aikido club. At the time I was there, they had probably fifty black belts in the club among the four years. The training was six days a week, three to four hours a day. Tomiki Sensei was seventy-ish. At that time, he is the age I am now [in 2022], but he was still in remarkable shape. [Laughs] I remember at the end of my visit and after a really intense class, he invited me and my buddy John out to dinner at the faculty club at Waseda as a going away present. He met us outside the dojo. We were exhausted and it was the middle of summer, which makes Tokyo brutally hot and humid. We had changed out of our dogis, taken our bath, and got into our clothes. When we were walking across the campus, we came up to a set of really old stairs and there had to be about thirty or forty stairs in this staircase – old stone, wore from all the tread that had gone up and down the stairs over the centuries. Tomiki Sensei turned to me and said, “I’ll race you up to the top!” [Laughs] I looked at him and said okay. He beat me. [Laughs] I was pretty impressed by that. He was a remarkable man.

When I trained under Tomiki Sensei, he was already seventy, but he did not personally lead the class. That’s not how university training in Japan works. Tomiki Sensei was faculty advisor to the club, and he would come to many practices and supervise just to make sure we were doing what we were supposed to be doing. But he left the actual training to the coach, who was typically someone who had graduated from the Waseda Aikido Club in the past few years or, most importantly, the captain of the club, who was generally a senior. What the club would do is that they would recruit students during Club Rush, just before the school started in April, which typically brought in about thirty or forty kids and trained them mercilessly for three or four hours a day, six days a week. Those who survived…the attrition rate was pretty high. Those forty freshmen would be down about fifty percent or so – from forty to about twenty or twenty-five. Over the course of the ensuing couple years, they would lose more. By the time you got to a fourth-year student, they were down to about ten students. So, you would have about ten in the fourth-year class, twenty in the third-year class, thirty in the second-year class, and maybe twenty or thirty left in the first-year class. But a usual practice, you would have about forty or fifty students practicing. The typical practice was the following: seiza, meditate, bow in, about a half hour or forty-five minutes of stretching or calisthenics, then we would do several hundred falls – a hundred back falls, side falls, forward rolls – we would shikko (knee-walking) around the dojo a couple of times, and then we would start training.

Tomiki explaining a pin.

After we do the warmup, we do unsoku no dosa, the tegatana no dosa, shikko, all the basic exercises, then we do kata for half an hour or an hour, depending on the length of the practice. And typically, the last portion of class is – at least every class I teach and the ones I’ve always attended in Japan – its followed by five or ten minutes of tai sabaki, where one person attacks another with a tanto, or a rubber knife, and practice getting out of the way, which is a tremendously crucial skill. Then we get into randori. And in randori in Tomiki Aikido, we have three levels of competition – we have three levels of randori.

We have kakari geiko, which is the basic level where somebody attacks with an open hand towards your face, and you get out of the way and apply a technique. The attacker does not resist – he doesn’t fight it. If toshu, the person applying the technique, looks at him cross-eyed, he falls down. It simply allows toshu the ability to connect the dots of how to apply the technique in a dynamic fashion against someone who is attacking you. That’s really important for yellow belts and orange belts because they’re all new to this stuff. There’s a big difference between doing kata and doing randori. Tomiki Sensei always used to say, “In aikido, we have kata, the theory, and randori, which is the practice. Combined together they create a synthesis that is much more powerful than either of them by themselves.” This is very true. Every single practice we have kata, and we have randori.

We have the second level, which is called hikitate. “Hikitateru,” means to help somebody up, literally in Japanese. So, in hikitate practice is where the attacker (uke) resists, but even though he is resisting as toshu (the defender) is trying to apply the technique, after a couple of seconds, uke will say, “Why don’t you try this instead?” to help toshu figure out what he is doing. Of course, as you know, aikido uses the attacker’s energy against them while trying to do that in a dynamic setting and you have somebody who’s aggressively attacking you is really hard to do. By having hikitate where you’re practicing with somebody who is better than you and resisting, but after a few moments of resistance, they say, “Why don’t you try doing this evolution of the technique because I’m bending my arm this way and you’re trying to take it the other. Just follow my arm the way you want to take it and take it that way.” That then helps toshu connect the dots better so they can apply the techniques.

A kohai of Dziubla successfully performs a shomen-ate during a 1980s tournament. Not pictured is Dziubla performing the role of corner judge.

The final level of competition is full-scale randori where the attacker goes down only if he has no other choice. The final evolution of that is a full-scale tournament, which is randori in a match ring, with umpires, referees, a scoreboard, and a timekeeper, against a committed opponent. Let me tell you, that, as Tomiki Sensei puts it, really paints the eyes in the dragon because if you can effectively do aikido techniques against another black belt who is resisting you, knowing what it is you’re likely to be trying to do, your aikido really works. Believe me, it works. I’ve had to use aikido many times in real life, as recently as five years ago [2017] – it works. It really is incredibly effective.

What I like so much about it is the philosophy. Your attacker is a misguided individual, out of harmony with himself and the world, and you don’t need to kill or maim him to defend yourself or your loved ones. What you need to do is get out of the way, redirect his energy, and subdue him. Sometimes that process can be a little more painful for uke than other times, but that’s his choice, not yours. I’m sure too, as you’ve been doing aikido for so long, you can appreciate that in order to do aikido well against a dedicated attacker, it takes tremendous mental, emotional, and physical control. It really does.

Every class we would focus on one set of techniques. Typically, the captain of the club and along with one of the seniors would demonstrate that. Tomiki Sensei would be typically sitting off on the sidelines and if he had any corrections or comments, he would step out and make those comments and corrections. Then we would practice. Once a month at the Kanda YMCA, he would have an all-morning seminar for third degree black belts and above, which once I became a sandan, I attended. There would be forty or fifty sandans and above for the Sunday morning lectures at the Kanda YMCA. At those sessions, he would teach the entire class because there were people from all over Japan. He was a fascinating man. He was an educator; he would go up to the chalkboard and diagram stuff on the chalkboard. He would put up diagrams like a football coach almost and say how you would do the technique; this is this, and that is that. Then he would demonstrate it and, remarkably, unlike most traditional aikido sensei, he would talk and explain the technique. Many traditional aikido sensei and Ueshiba Sensei in Japan wouldn’t talk. They would demonstrate the technique and say, “Go out and do that.” Tomiki Sensei, conversely, would talk about what he was going to be demonstrating. He would demonstrate it and say, “With that, please go out and research it.” Tomiki Sensei’s fundamental belief is that aikido was a tremendously powerful yet subtle martial art and that nobody has a hammerlock on it. We have to develop our aikido for ourselves to suit our bodies and our personalities and to make it effective against people who would attack us, which is a really remarkable evolution of aikido, I think.

Tomiki giving a lecture on the mat.

And as part of that, he also shunned the wearing of hakama. I never ever saw Tomiki Sensei in a hakama. When I asked him about it, “Sensei, why don’t we wear hakama in Tomiki Aikido?” He said, “You know, Bob-kun, back in feudal Japan and even to this day, the senseis teach for a living. This is their livelihood. This is how they make their money. This is how they support their families. They wear the hakama to hide their feet because if you can’t see the feet, you can’t see eighty percent of what’s going on.” Certainly, it looks elegant and beautiful and adds to the flow and gracefulness and perception of aikido, but it hides the feet. I’m not at all criticizing Aikikai style of aikido, I’m just explaining what Tomiki Sensei’s philosophical and pedagogical approach was. He said, “We’re not going to have hakama because it hides the feet and I teach at Waseda. I don’t teach aikido for my livelihood. Waseda pays me to teach this and I’m going to teach it as effectively as I can. So, I’m not going to wear a hakama and I’m not going to have my students wear a hakama because I want people to see the feet.”

And we do randori all the time in Tomiki Aikido, and you can’t do randori in a hakama, let me tell you. Your feet get tangled up so badly, you’d kill yourself. And the other part of it is, that the traditional senseis, they wore the hakama to hide their feet and many of them chose not to explain what they are doing because they did not want their students to learn quickly and effectively, so that they would continue to pay tuition and not become future competitors. Think about it. If you’re wearing a hakama to hide your feet so your students can’t see want you’re doing and if you’re not providing any cogent, thoughtful explanations of what it is you’re teaching as you’re demonstrating it, your students are going to learn at a glacial pace and causes them to pay you tuition for years and years and not set up a competing dojo down the street because they are younger and stronger than you are because now you are ancient. Tomiki Sensei had no time for any of that. He was supremely confident in his abilities and, let me tell you, he was a phenomenal martial artist.

That’s a long winded way to tell you about our practices. That was pretty much a standard practice in Japan at the university level. It’s a fulltime job for the kids because once they get into university, they’re good. Empirically when they get into Waseda University, they’re on top of the world because they know they’ll get a great lifetime job and play aikido five days a week, four to five hours a day and then training camps two to three times a year, training three times a day. It’s rigorous but it’s a lot of fun.

How much do you know about Tomiki Aikido?

MAYTT: Not as much as I would know about Aikikai or Yoshinkan.

RD: So, by way of background, Tomiki Sensei was a professional educator and he had very strong opinions about education, because of his job. One of his concerns about the way traditional aikido was taught is that it was not a pedagogical format, and the nomenclature was not useful for telling people what it was they were doing. As you know, in traditional aikido, the techniques are called ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, and so on, but that means number one, number two, number three, number four, and so on. But that doesn’t tell you what the technique is. Tomiki Sensei thought that was doing a disservice to the students. He developed names for the techniques that told you what they are.

Also, Tomiki Sensei was an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, and he was sent by Japan to Manchuria, which Japan had invaded in the early 1930s. As part of the occupying force of Manchuria, Tomiki Sensei taught at the university that the Japanese Army set up in Manchuria. He taught martial arts – aikido, judo, and calligraphy. He was captured by the Russians at the end of World War II and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Siberia and spent time in solitary confinement for a couple of years that he was there. During his confinement, he reflected back on his many years of judo – as one of the original students of Jigoro Kano Sensei – and on his aikido career – as one of the original students of Ueshiba Sensei. During his confinement, he thought back on that and developed his style of aikido: Tomiki Aikido. He said to himself he had to come up with something. In traditional aikido, there are about 2,753 techniques, or whatever the number is, and the old-time masters would walk around bragging about how much they knew – 1,942 techniques, or 1,753 techniques, or however many. Tomiki Sensei would look at them and say, “That’s impressive, but don’t you think it would be great to learn one technique really well?” Because, in aikido, there are basically twenty or twenty-five techniques and the 2,000 plus techniques that make up traditional aikido were just those basic twenty or twenty-five techniques done against a myriad of different attacks. You think about it and that’s a really important realization. Tomiki Sensei came to that realization while he was in solitary confinement and he developed a basic footwork in the tegatana no dosa, which comprises every practice that we do.

Tomiki (sitting left) with Morihei Ueshiba (sitting right) and Hideo Oba (standing right) taken in front of the Shimbuden Hall of Kenkoku University, Manchuria in 1942.

Tomiki Sensei also said that in aikido, there are really twenty to twenty-five techniques. Originally, he had nineteen that he considered to be fundamental techniques that he taught. Then he cut it down to fifteen, and ultimately, he refined it to the basic seventeen, the ju nana hon, that we continue to this day. In Tomiki Aikido, there are seventeen techniques that comprise the ju nana hon. So, the typical practice at Waseda would be the warmup, the falls, the shikko, and then the unsoku; the footwork, and the tegatana no dosa – the hand-sword exercises. Then we would do the kata, and it would depend if we were working on atemi waza or hiji waza, tekubi waza, or the uki waza. Because within Tomiki Aikido, the seventeen are divided into two basic groups: the first five are the atemi waza, the last twelve are the kensetsu waza, the joint techniques. And those joint techniques are subdivided into the elbow techniques, the wrist techniques, and the uki waza – the floating or timing techniques.

This is the first part of a three part interview. Read the second part here.

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

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