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

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 third part in a three part interview. Read the first part here and the second part here.

MAYTT: Speaking about the Tomiki Aikido of the Americas, previously the Japan Aikido Association (USA). Could you tell us the history about the organization and its plans for the future?

Robert Dziubla.

RD: So, I formed the TAA, the Tomiki Aikido of the Americas, with the help of many of my original students from Chicago. We spread nationally.

What happened next was that our dear friends in Japan, there was a major schism between Nariyama Sensei and Shishida Sensei, who were the two successors to Tomiki Sensei. They split in 2012. By that time, we already had fifteen to twenty years of world championships and we had them every four years in Japan. The Japanese made the rules and in the first many years, they comprised all of the judges. Then beginning with my ascension, especially since after I got promoted to godan in 1984, I then became a judge and referee in the tournaments and we continued to have international tournaments. There had been dissatisfaction growing in the international community about the rules, the rulemaking, and the judging because the Japanese were clearly tailoring the rules and the judging to favor the Japanese players. When the schism happened, and because I know both Nariyama Sensei and Shishida Sensei so very well, I talked to my aikido friends in England and in Europe, Russia, Singapore, Czech Republic, Ireland, Brazil, I said, “I think it’s time to form a new governing body, worldwide, for Tomiki Aikido.” We set that up in 2016 as a Swiss Verein, a voluntary mutual benefit association. We have about fifteen or twenty countries that are members. We had the first world championship in 2017 under the WSAF, the Worldwide Sport Aikido Federation, which is our organizational name. We had the tournament in London. We had a precursor tournament in Brisbane, Australia in 2015 before I had finished setting up the WSAF and we completed the establishment of the WSAF in 2016. We had the first world championship in London in 2017 and the second world championship in 2019 in San Diego at Mesa College, which is where I teach. We were supposed to have a third one last year [2021] but Covid interrupted that. The next one is scheduled for 2023 in Osaka.

MAYTT: I have a question regarding affiliation. Is the TAA and WASF their own organization, independent from Japan?

RD: That’s a good question. Each member country independently establishes their grading policies and their promotion policies – that’s outside the purview of the WSAF, which is to sponsor world championships. That’s what it does. It’s still important to have an international governing body. It’s like the Olympics, you’ve got to have rules. And in competition, we have both kata competition and randori competition. Randori competition is relatively objective. One guy gets the knife for a minute and a half and then it switches over, tally up the points at the end of the match, and you know who the winner is. Kata competition is a different animal entirely because that’s like figure skating. You’ve got a panel of judges who evaluate the performers based on that individual judge’s mental image of what he considers to be perfection. Trying to develop a uniform vision among the international judges as to what is a perfect kata demonstration, it is challenging to say the least. But we are trying to work through it.

Fortunately, in Tomiki Aikido, we have, because Tomiki Sensei was a scholar, a pretty well articulated pedagogical framework: we have the three principles and the six concepts. Those three principles are ju no ri, the principle of gentleness; kuzushi no ri, the principle of breaking balance; and shizentai no ri, the principle of natural stance. Those principles form the basis for evaluating everything. Within the six concepts, we have metsuke, which is eye contact; maai, proper distance; seichusen, centerline; tegatana, hand sword; ido ryoku, the power of motion; and toitsu ryoku, focused energy. What we do, as we are striving to develop and articulate a standard of judging international kata competitions, we are really emphasizing that the judging be done according to the three principles and the six concepts. This really helps people orient their thinking, because everybody does techniques differently, depending on one’s body size, height, weight, and size of the partner. But the techniques are going to look differently compared to everybody. In order for it not to become personalized, you have to have objective standards and, fortunately, to a degree, we have that. That’s how it works, certainly in the international community. Our friends in Japan think that they got a hammerlock on this, because they developed aikido, only they can know what’s right and what’s wrong. I disagree with that thought process, certainly a number of people like to go to Japan – not my students so much, but more so in the other countries. Mostly our friends in England. Once they get a godan or a rokudan from the British Aikido Association (BAA), they’ll try to go over to Japan and get a promotion of the same rank in Japan because it makes them feel better and validates that the Japanese agree they’re as good as their home organization said. I’m comfortable in my knowledge and my ability that I don’t need to do that, nor do we do that in the United States.

MAYTT: You returned to Japan the next year, in 1983, with the Fulbright Fellowship and began training under Tetsuro Nariyama. How did Nariyama compare to Tomiki?

RD: Firstly, it was really consistent. For the most part, you can go to any Tomiki Aikido dojo in the world and the training is going to be pretty similar. Simply because we’ve got a curriculum, we’ve got a framework, and that’s how it’s been implemented.

Secondly, let me tell you how I began training under Nariyama Sensei: The second time I trained at Waseda, towards the end of Tomiki Sensei’s life, by that time I had gotten decently good. When you practice enough at a university club like that, these are your best buddies. I mean, talk about a band of brothers; those guys are my friends to this day, the ones who are still alive. It was intense. They were ribbing me when I was getting ready to leave Japan. “Bob-san, you’re a really odd foreigner!” Sort of like a talking horse type of comment. [Laughs] At that time, I spoke Japanese to a degree, and I had gotten decent at Tomiki Aikido, but they said that I was unusual. “Americans are fat, stupid, and lazy. How are you going to be able to beat us?” I said, “You just wait and see. I’ll be back. I’m going to bring a team and we’re going to beat you.” I rejoined my club at Northwestern and assembled a group of guys. I took thirteen of them to Japan in 1982 and we beat Waseda! [Laughs] One of my teammates from the first time I had been in Japan, Shishida Sensei, who had became Tomiki Sensei’s successor and become a professor at Waseda. I had arranged the tournament through Shishida Sensei, who was my senpai from when I had trained in Japan the first time. We went; we had the tournament; and we beat them. It shocked the hell out of them because Waseda had never been beaten, much less by foreigners! [Laughs] When we finished up the tournament, he said, “You need to go down to Osaka and train with Nariyama Sensei.” I had known of Nariyama Sensei. He was a year or two older than Shishida Sensei, so four or five years older than I am. I’d heard of him, and I had seen him at a tournament, but I didn’t know him and certainly did not train under him.

A tournament in the mid-1980s where a competitor successfully applying a waki-gatame.

After the tournament in 1982, I took my club down to Osaka and we trained with Nariyama Sensei, and I was deeply impressed with him. He was a naturally gifted athlete and a phenomenal aikidoka. He is short and probably five-foot-four, but a really stocky, barrel-chested looking guy, a low center of gravity, and lightning fast. The club went down and stayed there three days to train with him and I was blown away by how good he was. Tomiki Sensei was phenomenal, but he was in his seventies; Nariyama Sensei was in his physical prime; he was thirty-seven, thirty-eight, forty years old and at the top of his physical form. When I first saw him and trained with him, I was like, “Holy Moly. This guy is really good. Of course, he was trained by Kobayashi Sensei. I decided that I wanted to spend some more time training with him.

MAYTT: Tomiki held a great regard for judo, even stating that his style of aikido would be useful to judoka. In your experience, how have your encounters with judoka been? Have they been open to you and your art or were there some hostilities?

RD: Great interaction. Many judoka know Tomiki Sensei very well. He was a very famous judoka and he actually created the Goshin Jutsu that’s used at the Kodokan – the self-defense curriculum for black belts. Which is huge. He won the Imperial Cup in the 1930s and 1940s; Tomiki Sensei was a phenomenal judoka. I remember the first time I saw him because he was six feet tall and lanky. I was average height by American standards and when I first went to Japan, I was a head taller than everybody and yet Tomiki Sensei was a head taller than I was.

In any case, our interaction with the judoka are very good. The principles are really similar. There’s a great deal of overlap between aikido and judo. Judo is harder to do because it requires more physical strength. Aikido, because of the principles and the concepts, it’s gentler, even to judo because in judo you have the nage waza and the katame waza, the throwing techniques and the lock up techniques – the pins on the ground. That requires a lot of physical power. Getting somebody down on the ground doesn’t, necessarily, because like aikido, you’re using their energy against them – when they push you pull, when they pull you push. But because aikido works against the physical weak points of the body, it uses speed and timing, it requires much less physical prowess than judo does. The judo folks that I’ve had interactions with were like, “Wow! This is really good stuff! It really helps bring a different perspective to what we do in judo.” I remember watching some judo matches with Tomiki Sensei in 1975 or so; it might have been the World Championships or something. While we were watching the matches, Tomiki Sensei was intensely critical of the Japanese judo players because they had just locked up. They were struggling to throw the other guy and muscling their way out of it. “These blithering idiots! They don’t know what they’re doing! They’ve lost all of their tai sabaki!”

MAYTT: That reminds me of the judo Olympics last year [2021], especially the male division. They just grabbed each other and hunkered down.

RD: Yes. That drove Tomiki Sensei crazy. Absolutely crazy because you can’t do anything, because judo, like aikido, requires movement from the other person so you can be able to do something. If the other person is static, what can you do? Nothing.

MAYTT: Speaking of Tomiki, he passed away in late 1979. What were your initial reactions and emotions upon receiving word on his passing? How did his death affect the future of his style of aikido?

Hideo Oba (left) standing next to Kenji Tomiki (right).

RD: I was tremendously saddened to hear of his passing. I was back in the States at that point, and I had seen him previously about four years before that. I lost my sensei. Fortunately, his right-hand man, Hideo Oba Sensei… well, Oba Sensei and Tomiki Sensei were joined at the hip. They grew up together doing judo and they were fast friends. Tomiki Sensei was a few years older than Oba Sensei and they both ended up doing judo with Kano Sensei and then doing aikido with Ueshiba Sensei. They were both in the Japanese army and both went to Manchuria together. I got a picture of Ueshiba Sensei, Tomiki Sensei, and Oba Sensei in Manchuria sitting outside the martial arts hall. When Tomiki Sensei passed, Oba Sensei succeeded him, and he was a phenomenal martial artist. He had thirty-six degrees of black belt under him. He was an eighth degree black belt in aikido, an eighth degree black belt in judo, a sixth degree in kendo, a sixth degree in iaido, a sixth degree in karate – I mean, talk about a phenomenal martial artist. He was considered, when I was there, the greatest swordsman living in Japan. He was the one that taught me my sword work, thankfully.

We had a relatively smooth transition for the next seven or eight years, because Oba Sensei succeeded Tomiki Sensei as the head of Tomiki Aikido. As Oba Sensei was getting on in age and succession planning happened in Japan, the Japan Aikido Association appointed both Nariyama Sensei and Shishida Sensei as the two co-shihan of the Japan Aikido Association in Japan. The two of them coauthored a book together which we translated into English. In Japanese, it was called Aikido Kyoshitsu. We translated it into English and published it here through our organization and called Aikido – Competition and the Competitive Edge, which was a pure translation of the book Shishida Sensei and Nariyama Sensei had written. All of that was going on well and the two of them were a great team. Between Tomiki Sensei and Oba Sensei, Tomiki Sensei was the brains and Oba Sensei was the brawn. Between Shishida Sensei and Nariyama Sensei, Shishida Sensei was the brains and Nariyama Sensei was the brawn. I’m being a bit cavalier about it but there’s a lot of truth to that characterization and they were great together as a team.

Unfortunately, Nariyama Sensei thought he needed more respect and greater notoriety. He decided to leave the JAA and set up his own style of Tomiki Aikido, which he did in 2012. That really, as I explained earlier, threw a spanner into the works, worldwide, for Tomiki Aikido because the two different factions in Japan began colonizing around the world, urging people to join their faction or the other faction. I took a look at that situation and said enough of this nonsense. We were splintered enough, and we were frustrated with how the Japanese were developing and implementing the rules for the tournaments, so that’s when I said we were going to have a gaijin kakumei, or a gaijin revolution, and set up the WSAF; see if we could bring some rationale and order to the international stage.

What was interesting, when the split happened in Japan, I personally went to Japan and met with both Shishida Sensei and Nariyama Sensei. I said, “Look guys. We’re old friends and you know that the international community has been increasingly frustrated with the rule making and the judging. We, the international community, decided that we need to set up a new international organization that is run on the principle of equality and democracy, like the Olympics or the United Nations. We will set up an organization under Swiss law, just like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the major law firm that I was a part of that pioneered the structure. I’m telling you, if one of you joins and the other one doesn’t, the one that doesn’t join will fade into oblivion because we’ve got the majority of the international community behind us.” I talked to both of them on a personal level and ultimately, to my surprise, Nariyama Sensei agreed to join and Shishida Sensei and his group did not, which in retrospect, I should have anticipated because the JAA, having been started by Tomiki Sensei at Waseda is primarily run by Waseda graduates.

MAYTT: Who would you consider to be pioneers and disseminators of Tomiki Aikido in America? What differentiated these practitioners from their contemporaries? 

RD: Certainly, within the United States, the senior black belts in our organization really are the driving force. Tanaka Sensei, who I mentioned moments ago, was the first captain of the Waseda Aikido Club, he’s been living in the United States forever and ever. When the schism happened in Japan between Nariyama Sensei and Shishida Sensei, because Tanaka Sensei was a graduate of Waseda and though he was originally and entirely supportive of our position of the WSAF, he reversed his standing. His new feelings said that the United States should not spearhead the development of the WSAF, but instead support the Waseda faction in Japan and go with them and the JAA. Our board of directors disagreed, and he resigned. He set up an organization, Tomiki Sport Aikido Association USA, in Denver. He has around two or three dojos around the country, last I heard. I’m not even sure if he’s still alive. I’ve tried to contact him in Denver, but he didn’t respond. He’s in his mid to late eighties already. He certainly would be a disseminator. He’s a good guy. Talented too.

There are a couple of other people around. There was a fellow that I never met by the name of Karl Geis, who is down in Texas in Houston I believe. He was one of the ones who learned aikido in Japan during the Occupation. Also, a guy by the name of Jack Mumpower. Both Geis and Mumpower…Geis passed away a few years ago [2014] and Mumpower might still be alive…?

MAYTT: I think he is because I did a little bit of research on him a year or two ago [2020]. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot on him.

RD: Which makes sense. Jack is a good guy. Geis didn’t learn it very well, from what I heard because some of my students went to train with him and came away horribly disappointed – he really knew nothing. He was a racist person to boot, allegedly. We have tanto randori and he called it “Japanese Monkey Knife Fighting.” That kind of guy. He had a pretty big organization in Texas and the Southeast. Jack Mumpower also trained in Japan. Jack, at least by comparison, his techniques worked to a degree. But since Tomiki Sensei taught Jack Mumpower in the 1950s, Tomiki Aikido had evolved significantly because we are always researching the techniques, always trying to make them more effective and powerful. Jack is stuck in the past and said, “This is what I learned from Tomiki Sensei and I’m never going to change it.” Fine, but it’s kind of tough for your students to participate in the tournaments because they’re not going to fare very well; because everyone else has a very different standard of what the techniques should look like.

The abiding principle of Tomiki Aikido is that you need to figure out how to make the techniques actually work. Let me tell you: they work. I was teaching last night, and one of my students who is six-foot-four and 350 pounds, and the techniques work on him.

Those are the only ones I can think of: Geis and Mumpower; Kondo Sensei passed away and when he passed away, many of his students came and joined us. When Geis passed away, a number of his students joined as well. From what I hear, there are outposts around the country of descendants from those groups that are out there, but are pretty isolated. We tried to reach out to them and invite them to come out to our tournaments, but they tend to be pretty set in their ways.

MAYTT: What would Tomiki say about his style today?

RD: That’s a good question. I think he’d be happy on the one end hand and be disappointed on the other. He’d be happy that Tomiki Aikido is still alive and well. I think he’d be disappointed that it’s not a larger organization than it is. If we didn’t have this schism in Japan, we’d be a much stronger organization, but those personalities really bolloxed up the work. It’s been taking a while for the world to get over that. I continue to pressure our friends at the JAA to come and join up. That might happen in 2023. From what I understand, the two factions in Japan might actually be talking to each other because the younger folks in their forties and fifties, as they put it, “They are tired of walking behind sensei and picking up the turds.” [Laughs] That’s a direct quote. The younger people are talking and at the 2019 World Championships that we had here in San Diego, I invited one of the leading sensei from the JAA to come and teach one of the seminars and several of their students came and participated in the tournament, which infuriated Nariyama Sensei and his students but at least we gaijin are trying to push them together and try to play better in the sandbox. We’ll see how it fares. Next year, I’ll be interested to see how that process goes along. At the same time, one of our ultimate goals is to see if we can get aikido qualified as an Olympic sport.

Tomiki (left) performing a technique on Oba (right) at Waseda University.

MAYTT: That would be interesting to see. I can foresee some things from mainline aikido people that they would have a problem with that. But I think if aikido in general becomes an Olympic sport, I think we may have a decent shot of regaining some numbers.

RD: I agree with you and it’s an uphill battle. It’s not going to happen in my lifetime, but it is one of the goals of the WSAF, to get us qualified as an Olympic sport. We just keep plugging away.

MAYTT: Final question. What would be Tomiki’s feelings on the current state of aikido as a whole if he was alive today? 

RD: I think he’d be pretty happy because we’ve had the first world championships – it wasn’t even called a world championship, but an international festival – in Japan in 1989. I got a picture of that event. We had about four hundred people show up for it from around the world. It was quite remarkable. We’ve been able to continue the international tournaments and even move them outside of Japan. The Japanese always insisted that the world championships had to be in Japan because it’s a Japanese martial art, but we finally said enough of this. We are a worldwide organization, and the world championship is going to rotate around the countries. We certainly weren’t going to have it in Japan from the get-go to inflame the tensions there. So, we had the first pre-tournament in Brisbane, Australia in 2015 then the first formal WSAF Championships in London in 2017 and we had 350 competitors at that event. It was very well attended, and it was a great tournament. We even added a kids’ tournament, which is great to see. Little tikes, four and five years old. It was amazing and wonderful to see. The Brits had done a really good job with the kids. The tournament here at Mesa College, there was a little bit of a fall out in attendance; we probably had 250 at that event. Now we got the next one, assuming that the world is through COVID and is back to normal and have a tournament in Japan next year [2023] and we’ll see how that goes. All in all, I think Tomiki Sensei would be relatively happy, but not ecstatic.

MAYTT: Thank you again for the conversation on Tomiki Aikido!

RD: My pleasure and thank you for inviting me.

This is the third part in a three part interview. Read the first part here and the second part here.

Learn more about aikido’s history here!

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