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

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

MAYTT: Why do you feel that Tomiki decided to include competition and sparring to the aikido Morihei Ueshiba taught? What was the goal he was trying to reach by modifying the art? 

RD: He, of course, started as a judoka. He was one of Kano Sensei’s first students and then when Ueshiba Sensei came down from the mountains after having studied Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu and came to Tokyo and came to Kano Sensei and said, “I’ve really liked what you’ve done with judo.” Kano Sensei had studied many styles of jujutsu. When the Meiji Restoration occurred in 1868, he looked at the situation and said to himself, “The martial arts are a really unique cultural aspect of Japan and now that the samurai class has been abolished and we are no longer warring, if we don’t modify jujutsu, it’s going to disappear.” Jujutsu was a life or death battle. The samurai would travel around Japan to study the different schools of jujutsu to learn the different styles, because each school had something that they specialized in. Kano Sensei saw all of that dying out because there were no more samurai. He wanted to find a way to modernize jujutsu and turn it into a sport. He took the close-in, grappling elements of jujutsu (jujutsu comprised all of the martial arts), and created judo. Ueshiba Sensei, after studying Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu, came to Kano Sensei, liked what he was doing, and told him that he was doing the same with aikijujutsu to create aikido. Ueshiba Sensei demonstrated to Kano Sensei, and Kano Sensei thought it was some really awesome stuff. “Here, why don’t you teach my best student, Tomiki-kun.” He called Tomiki Sensei over and told him to study under Ueshiba Sensei. That’s how Tomiki Sensei started studying with Ueshiba Sensei as one of his original students. Tomiki Sensei ended up in Manchuria, going back to Japan every now and then to compete in judo tournaments, trained with Ueshiba Sensei, who promoted him and the first to give him a menkyo kaiden, which converts into an eighth dan. If I understand it correctly, Tomiki Sensei was the very first one to get that.

Robert Dziubla.

After he was released from the prisoner of war camp in Siberia and went back to Japan to begin his teaching career at Waseda, Ueshiba Sensei had had an epiphany – that’s what he said – in the mid-1930s, saying that God had come to him, and that aikido is peace and there shall not be competition in aikido. Tomiki Sensei didn’t believe that. He was a judo player and judo had competition. He really thought strongly about it. He thought that aikido was a tremendously important and powerful martial art but because it had shunned competition of any stripe after Ueshiba Sensei’s epiphany, aikido had turned into a dance – it wasn’t effective anymore. Tomiki Sensei respected Ueshiba Sensei and what he had done to create aikido, but he really felt that aikido needed competition, because the art will become a dance and not be effective. Ueshiba Sensei was not happy about that and told Tomiki Sensei to get out. And with that, Tomiki Sensei started Tomiki Aikido. And it’s interesting because my own journey through aikido sort of mirrors that. I started with Aikikai and I studied it for a number of years under my original instructor in Chicago and then some others. Over the course of the years, I’ve had multiple interactions with many Aikikai folks. When I was only doing Aikikai, I got the crap kicked out of me – it didn’t work. So, I studied karate and earned a shodan and karate is very effective at what it does – to beat the crap out of the other guy. But I did not like what it did to me spiritually, because it’s a violent and aggressive art. After some unfortunate experiences using my karate in ways I shouldn’t have, I said, “That’s enough. No more karate. I’m really going to focus on aikido.” I really threw myself into Tomiki Aikido. After I had gone to Waseda the first time and I saw how effective it is and can be, I said to myself, “This is what’s for me.” Fifty-five years later, here I am still teaching it.

I remember the first time I walked out of a tournament in Japan, I was twenty-four and it was at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, which was built for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, and it was the All Japan University Championship. I was a member of the Waseda Team, and I was the only gaijin that had ever done it. At the Budokan, which is an enclosed stadium in central Tokyo – it has stands going up the side of it and a big pit in the middle full of tatami mats. I think there were about eight matches going on at the same time. So, I lined up with my team in the locker room along with the other teams, and for the All Japan University Championship, at that time, there were about fifteen or twenty universities competing. There’s this great big Japanese taiko drum beating – Boom! Boom! Boom! We’re all lined up and my heart starts pounding because I was scared out of my mind because I’ve never done a tournament before. [Laughs] So we walk out into the Budokan and there’s all these spectators in the stands, watching us. There are families that came out because it was a big event. It’s the All Japan University Championship, it’s like another Rose Bowl. I walk out and I’m the only round eye in the whole place. That was daunting but also having to compete in a tournament. I, of course, lost, but I survived. It was quite the experience, let me tell you.

MAYTT: Sounds like it for sure!

RD: And it was the experience of going mano y mano – man against man in combat. Of course, I’ve done karate before and karate tournaments, with the pads, gloves and everything else, but in aikido, there are no pads and no gloves, and you can get hurt. We’ve tried to avoid injuries, but you can get hurt. And if you’re not careful, you could get hurt badly. Fortunately, we’ve done a pretty good job tweaking the rules over the years so that we’ve been able to minimize the injuries, but it’s there. The point is, as Tomiki Sensei said, “It is important for a young person to go through the experience of tournament competition so they can develop the confidence in their techniques so they know they can actually work.” I believe that that is absolutely true. A few years ago, I went up to Orange County – I live in San Diego – and visited a well-known dojo and one of its top sensei. He invited me to come up and visit him at his dojo because I had been introduced to him by somebody, I forget who.

I had talked to this sensei over the phone, and he said that they do randori. I mentioned that I’d love to see his randori and with that, he invited me to his dojo. I went and spent a few hours at his dojo with one of my students, who is a very talented competition player, Antonio Gonzalez. Antonio is a very powerful competitor and competed in several world championships and performed very well. So, I took Antonio along with me. We were showing our new colleague tai sabaki and tegatana tai sabaki, which is part of our basic exercise – just getting out of the way. I told him what we do: one person gets the knife and tries to stab the other person. The person defending has to move out of the way and not get stabbed. I’ve done this when I trained in Japan – we would have had joint practices with other, non-Tomiki Aikido clubs in the area.

We would all gather at the Budokan, Tokyo University, or wherever and each school and university would demonstrate their favorite techniques. The Aikikai folks would demonstrate their technique, which we would know, but we called it by a different name. because Tomiki Aikido had evolved to that point where it involved a rubber knife and we attack, and you would have to get out of the way. In a tournament, you’d get a minute and a half as the attacker and a minute and a half as the defender. So, your goal with the knife is to stab the hell out of the other guy and get as many points as you can. The strike zone is from the belt to the armpit level – anywhere on the torso. And if you make contact with the knife with a perpendicular strike that would penetrate the chest cavity, you will get a point. If the defender is able to get out of the way and apply a technique, depending on the effectiveness of the technique, he gets between one and four points. It gets tallied up on the board and at the minute and a half mark the knife changes over and the sides are reversed. And at the end of the match, total up all the points, and whoever has the most points wins. We explained that to our new colleague and he had a couple of his students there. Antonio and I demonstrated tai sabaki, then tegatana tai sabaki, which is blocking with the tegatana so the knife can’t follow you around.

Dziubla (center, in black) judging a randori match at the Brisbane World Aikido Championship in 2015.

Then we invited our new colleague out onto the mat. I had done this in Japan decades ago with the other aikido clubs, with third- and fourth-degree black belts, freezing, on the mats as soon as we would start attacking them aggressively, they’re like, “Eeeeeiiiiii! What’s going on!” [Laughs] Literally, they didn’t know what to do, which is sad – it was really sad. Then with our new colleague, I told him, “It’s understandable. You’ve never really seen this before. It’s not something Aikikai folks are taught to do and it’s certainly a learned skill. Here, what we’ll do is I’ll chase you with the knife gently and you just try to do techniques to me.” So, I stab him slowly and let him grab my hand. He grabbed it and he tried to do kotegaeshi and I blocked it with my other hand – I put my tegatana on his chest so he couldn’t rotate me, and “Oh crap. What do I do?” That’s why we do randori, because you need to be able to move effectively and quickly between techniques when uke is resisting. This was the same exact thing that played out in Tokyo in my twenties, because we would have these joint practices and it would be the same thing. One of the Aikikai guys got so frustrated that when it was his turn to demonstrate his techniques, he did kote hineri and he broke three of my fingers. Instead of grabbing my hand, he grabbed my fingers and snapped the bottom half of my three fingers. All out of spite and pent-up aggression from his frustration because his techniques weren’t working.

MAYTT: You brought up Morihei Ueshiba earlier; what bearing or connection does he have on the practice of Tomiki Aikido? What role does he play within the art today? 

RD: Certainly, Ueshiba Sensei is revered by everybody; he is the founder of modern aikido. I never met Ueshiba Sensei personally myself. He was still alive when I started aikido, but I didn’t meet him when I was in Japan, and I certainly did not train with him. He certainly, from all that I’ve heard, was a wonderful man and very talented. And he did us a great service by learning Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu and bringing it out and creating aikido. Over the course of the years, I’ve had the pleasure of training under some Aikikai sensei who are, in my estimation, very good aikidoka. In particular, I trained with Hirokazu Kobayashi Sensei down in Osaka. He was phenomenal and had taught Tetsuro Nariyama Sensei, who was one of my later on sensei, along with Fumiaki Shishida Sensei, who were the two successors to Tomiki Sensei and Oba Sensei, but Nariyama Sensei trained with Kobayashi Sensei in Osaka [Tomiki Sensei and Kobayashi Sensei were good friends] and earned a godan from him in Aikikai. He invited Kobayashi Sensei to our dojo in Osaka once a month to come and teach classes. He was very good and just a wonderful chap.

I think everybody in Tomiki Aikido respects and reveres Ueshiba Sensei and what he contributed to it. Now we simply wish there weren’t antipathy toward competition. I don’t get it quite frankly. It’s almost a knee jerk reaction without thoughtful reasoning behind it, but that’s my personal opinion.

MAYTT: There is something positive about having the practice or ability to perform your techniques under some type of pressure – it proves something to you. I think there’s another level of the art and of the technique that you can find just by doing that.

RD: You’re absolutely right, Antonio. Because from personal experience I can tell you, once you get good, and you’re in a tournament and you hit the zone, the techniques can be utterly effortless – effortless. Without hardly expending any energy and sending uke flying. It’s a remarkable feeling when you make that happen. [Laughs]

MAYTT: One of the things Tomiki said to you after your first visit was to spread aikido “as much as you can” when you returned to America. In the years after that meeting and his passing, how do you feel you have furthered that goal? What do you still plan to do to spread aikido “as much as you can?”

RD: Well, I came back from Japan, and I was at Northwestern University, a university in Chicago at the time, so I started an aikido club there. I continued that as I went to grad school and law school all during that time, with a two-year break when I had to go to Japan to train for my final time under Tomiki Sensei. Even while I was gone, my students continued the club.

So, after I came back and had practiced law for a couple of years, I wanted to go back to Japan to train under Nariyama Sensei because Tomiki Sensei had passed. I then ended up receiving a senior Fulbright Fellowship and I went to the University of Kyoto to join the law faculty there. I then spent three to four days a week traveling to Osaka, training with Nariyama Sensei at the Shodokan, which I did for two years. I learned a tremendous amount from him. Then I moved up to Tokyo after my fellowship finished and I practiced law in Tokyo for about three years. I started an aikido club in Japan; that was an experience as a gaijin teaching aikido to Japanese in Japanese. It was really quite the spectacle, I’ll tell you.

After my son was born, we moved back to the States and ended up in Los Angeles. I started an aikido club there. Previously, I started an aikido club at University of Washington in Seattle when I was doing my LLM in Asian Law up there, then I went to Japan on the Fulbright, trained there, taught there, moved back and started a club at University of Southern California. I did that for ten years and then I moved to Thailand. I started a club in Thailand. Then I moved back, ended up in San Diego and started a club here. Then in 1990, we formed the original Tomiki Aikido Organization of the United States because up until that point, it had been a dispersed group of folks scattered across the country with various levels of knowledge and no centralized Tomiki Aikido organization. I put on my lawyer hat and helped form a 501(c)3 educational non-profit NPO (non-profit organization. We did that in 1990 and thirty-two years later, here we are, still in existence, trying to survive Covid.

Dziubla (right) with his son (left) and a former student from University of Southern California aikido club at the World Aikido Championships in Osaka, 2001.

When I came back from Japan after they promoted me to godan and I was the first person ever to take and pass the godan exam in Japan in 1988, they said, “Okay Bob, you’re going back to the States. We really want you to form a national organization. We’re authorizing you to promote up to godan yourself. Unilaterally, we are giving you the power to promote up to godan because you’re that good.” When I came back, the United States was horrible. There was no national organization. You had pockets of Tomiki Aikido here and there. Many of them had come to Japan, came back to the States, and spread out without keeping in contact with anyone.

At some point, we had the first World Championship in Japan, and it was before I formed the TAA, so maybe it was 1986 or 1987, we had a world championship in Japan. The Japanese then contacted many aikidoka from the United States that I didn’t know from Adam. So, they made a big deal about this first World Championship and invited everyone they knew from America to come to Japan to compete in the world championship. I was there and I met many people that I had never met before in Tomiki Aikido. We were all riding in the bus together from the venue to the hotel and I said to everyone, “Okay, guys, we Americans need to get our act together and form a national organization.” And it turned out that several of the guys from America were Japanese. What had happened in the early days of Tomiki Aikido is that Tomiki Sensei wanted to propagate Tomiki Aikido and as he thought about how to do that, he turned to his judo buddies and said, “Hey guys. I want to promote Tomiki Aikido. If you have any of your students who are being transferred to the United States for work, send them to me and I will put them through an intensive aikido regimen and give them a black belt in one or two weeks.” That’s what he did. Yoji Kondo Sensei, who was in Washington D.C., was one of those guys. Kondo Sensei passed a few years ago and was a phenomenally smart man – an astrophysicist, worked for NASA, wrote science fiction books under a pen name in English, and was a godan in judo. Tomiki Sensei trained him in Tomiki Aikido for three weeks before moving to the United States permanently and gave him a black belt.

Part three coming soon!

Kondo Sensei was in Japan for that tournament, and I had never seen or heard of him before. Then there was Hirozaki Kobayashi Sensei – not from Osaka [laughs] – but up in New York, who had also been a judo player and Tomiki Sensei trained him. When I set up the TAA, I recruited three Japanese, one who was Seiji Tanaka Sensei, who was the first captain of the Waseda Aikido Club and had disappeared for twenty years in the United States. The Japanese didn’t know where he was; turns out, he was in Denver, Colorado, but he surfaced because one of my students had found him. He came to Japan, and I talked to everybody, “Ok, I’m going to form the Japan Aikido of the United States. I would like you to be on the board of directors. I’ll give you all the face that you want.” They were excited and happy to be on board with the idea. We formed the TAA, and we gradually threw endless effort into it and was able to get the knowledge out there so that by this point, any dojo that’s a member of our organization, the training regimen is going to be very close to what is done in any other dojo. The dojos that are not part of our organization, the training may be a bit dissimilar. But everybody is going to be doing the ju nana hon, the basic seventeen. Because in Tomiki Aikido, we’ve got the basic seventeen and what we call the daisan no kata, the koryu no kata, which is the kata for black belt exams. It’s comprised of five separate parts, a total of fifty-six techniques, and that’s it for Tomiki Aikido, really. You got the basic seventeen and the daisan, and that’s pretty much what we work on all the time.

The question has been about leveling up the United States over the past thirty for forty years. It’s not been easy at times. I remember in either 1989 or 1990, we had a tournament hosted in Baltimore by Kondo Sensei and his dojo. We went there and he put up a couple of his students for promotion: one to yondan and one to godan. I failed both of them; it was just horrible. Just pitiful exams. I mean, those two students wouldn’t have made it to green belt in my dojo and yet they were being put up for fourth- and fifth-degree black belts. Kondo Sensei became quite angry. He called me up and asked, “Bob Sensei. How could you do that?” I said, “Because they’re horrible. They don’t know Tomiki Aikido. What they’re doing doesn’t work.” He said back, “Well, you can’t hold the Americans to the same standards as the Japanese!” “You know what, Kondo Sensei? You’re right. I don’t. I hold them to a higher standard.” With that, he resigned from the board. Politics in aikido. [Laughs]

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

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

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