Interview with Bay Area Shodokan Aikido Chief Instructor Warren Pottebaum: Tomiki Aikido From Japan to America, Part I

Warren Pottebaum began training aikido in 1993, at the University of Southern California, under the tutelage of Robert Dziubla, the current shihan of the Tomiki Aikido of the Americas. After moving to Berkeley and spending ten months at Shodokan Hombu Dojo in Osaka, Japan, he returned with a new set of skills and knowledge and set off to teach at Bay Area Shodokan Aikido. Today, Pottebaum talked about his aikido journey and Tomiki Aikido’s place in the United States. All images provided by Warren Pottebaum. 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 Pottebaum Sensei! Thank you for joining us to talk about Tomiki Aikido.

Warren Pottebaum: Thanks for inviting me. I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: First thing’s first; what’s the correct name for this style of aikido, because there is Tomiki Aikido and Shodakan Aikido? Which one is correct?

WP: It kind of depends on who you ask. There was a political schism in Japan about six years ago [2016] that is related to all of this. For a while there, Tomiki Aikido was what folks were calling it. The headquarters dojo in Osaka is called Shodokan. The story that you get from the folks at Shodokan headquarters is that Kenji Tomiki moved there and set the dojo up as a place for an exploration and development of his art and he didn’t want the art named after him; he wanted it called Shodokan. Of course, the folks on the other side of the divide say that it’s always been Tomiki Aikido. We call it Tomiki Aikido because if we call it “Shodokan,” then we’re giving them a little too much power in the political sphere; it would put the dojo is Osaka in the primary place rather than other dojos. So, there’s politics involved in both. A lot of folks will use them interchangeably, but in Japan, at this point, there are two organization: the Japan Aikido Association (JAA), and they refer to it as Tomiki Aikido, and the Shodokan Aikido Federation (SAF), which is based at the Shodokan dojo in Osaka, and they’ll refer to it as Shodokan. Take your pick. [Laughs]

MAYTT: Wow. That seems a bit complicated.

WP: My recommendation would be to call it Tomiki Aikido because you’re probably not going to offend the other side if you’re calling it that. If you refer to it as Shodokan, then the folks on the JAA side are going to get more touchy about it.

MAYTT: Thank you for that clarification! How and when did you get interested and began training in Tomiki Aikido? What was it about Tomiki Aikido that inspired you to join and continue to motivate you to train today?

After belt tests, Rocky Mountain Invitational, Denver 2018. Front row (L-R): Ash Morgan and unknown black belt. Back Row (L-R): Warren Pottebaum and Ilya Brailovskiy.

WP: I was a student at University of Southern California and Bob Dziubla, who now runs the Tomiki Aikido of the Americas (TAA), was the instructor there at the time and it was on-campus club, and I was a freshman who was getting a little bit chubby sitting in the dorms, eating too much food and watching too much TV. [Laughs] So, a few of us went out to check out the martial arts on campus. That was in 1993 and it’s now been about twenty-nine years that I’ve been doing this. It just sort of got a hold of me and never let go.

One is that it’s challenging. With aikido in general, there are so many different levels. Every time you think you’re starting to get to a point where you go, “Oh! I’m starting to get this!” Then, at some point, it opens up and you go, “Oh wow! There’s all this extra that I can learn and new places to go with it.” I’ve never become bored with it and I’m able to continue my studies with it and learn more and more. It’s got depth. In terms of Tomiki Aikido as opposed to other styles of aikido, I really like the teaching style. Tomiki Sensei was an educator; he was a university professor at Waseda. One of his big picture goals was to take the teaching methods that Jigoro Kano Sensei brought to judo and apply them to aikido. And so, a lot of the times in aikido there are 2,500 to 3,000 techniques. He really tried to boil things down to the basics and find a way to say, “These are the core principles; these are the core techniques. And everything else outside of that, to a certain extent, a variation.” You can’t completely cover everything with it but there’s a lot of truth to that. For me, it was really helpful from that standpoint. The other part is that the language that I found is more about physicality – physical explanations as opposed to energy and ki flow type of explanations of why things work. I’m an engineer and so, for me, that sort of spoke to me a little bit better. There are definitely a lot easier to explain in terms of energy, but from a physics standpoint, that resonates with me a lot. It also lends towards the way that I teach these days.

The last piece of it is that Tomiki Aikido took the idea of all these aikido techniques and wants to make sure that they are effective. There’s a competition aspect to it. The idea behind it is that competition provides a forum for figuring out what works, what doesn’t, where things maybe want to be tweaked to make them more effective and efficient along the way, and to make sure that nobody is giving it to you. I really like that piece of it too. We can discuss the competition more later if you want.

MAYTT: What was the training like when you first started? Was it hard and heavy or was it refined and differentiated? How did you see aikido training change or evolve since you began?

WP: It was a bit harder and heavier. Part of it is that the young folks have a lot of energy, and they make up for technique with enthusiasm. [Laughs] There was a lot of do a whole bunch of falls, do a whole bunch of reps, and you’ll figure it out. Part of that goes along with the overall Japanese teaching style of, “I’m going to show you and not necessarily tell you.” But there was a lot of good instruction, in terms of why we were doing things and not just doing it.

Let me give you a little bit of background. After I left University of Southern California (USC) in 1996, I moved up to Berkley and there was a young club up here. I was a brown belt at the time and there was a shodan, Sean Flynn, who was running it, who just started the club a year beforehand. I trained with him. Then in 2000, I moved to Japan and studied at Shodokan Hombu Dojo in Osaka for about ten months and then came back here to Berkley and continued to train with Sean, who was teaching here. He ended up moving to New York, then he passed the club onto me, and I’ve been teaching here ever since. In terms of how I saw the teaching change, in terms of my own club, it sort of grew with me. I didn’t start knowing how to teach at all, so I’ve had to grow into that. In terms of how I’m seeing other people within the TAA organization teaching, it’s a lot more refined now. I think people are doing a lot better job of explaining what it is they are doing, and we’ve developed more of a common language to discuss things. The TAA is a large national organization and of course, we are a very big country with large distances involved. One of the big things the organization has been trying to do is get people on the same page in terms of what the kata version of the technique will be. I think of kata as you have a box and anywhere inside the box defines what is kata. You want to try and be at the center of the box, but you’re allowed to go out towards the edges and still be within that kata form. And then there are the outside of the box variations, and we try to do a better job acknowledging where the box is and what should be within the box. When we do things outside the box, we make sure to point it out to our students that those are the variations and not the basic version, but these are cool and very effective in these situations.

MAYTT: How did you find yourself in Japan for ten months and what was the training like there compared to your experiences in America at that time?

WP: The way that I ended up over there was that I was feeling like I plateaued in my training here and I was a shodan. The instructor here was shodan as well. I didn’t feel like I had anybody with significant additional experience local to learn from. My choices were to branch out to another style of aikido, another martial art, or I could do something else. Being young at the time, I said what the heck, why not? I ended up contacting somebody over in Osaka. Initially I wanted to ask about the cost of living and how do I go about finding a job. He wrote back to me and said that they run a small English school, one of the teachers just quit, and if you’re here in two weeks, the job is yours. That was a Thursday. I bought my tickets on Saturday and I gave notice to work on Monday. [Laughs] So it kind of happened really fast. On a personal note, my girlfriend at the time was really supportive of it and we’ve not been married for seventeen years now with two kids. That part of it ended up working out okay too.

1998 in Vandalia, Ohio. Front row (L-R): Jeff Hruby, Fumiaki Shishida; Shihan of JAA, Waseda Univeraity professor, Seiji Tanaka, Bob Dziubla, and Shishida’ uke. Back row (L-R): Michelle Vannoy, Warren Pottebaum, Mark Colopy, and Kelly Minamide.

I went to the headquarters dojo with Tetsuro Nariyama Shihan, who was at the time an eighth degree and now he’s been promoted to ninth degree. He was teaching a large portion of the classes. If it wasn’t him, it was his senior students who were teaching. So, the quality of instruction was amazing. There was also a huge difference between being a part of a university dojo where we have classes two or three days a week versus being a full-service dojo where there are multiple classes every day of the week. Just the amount of knowledge I was able to soak up was huge. Showing up there as a shodan, and there are thirty or forty people in the dojo that outrank you by a couple of degrees, was really great because there are so many people to learn from. They structure things very formally there. Part of it is that particular dojo but they basically have black belts on one side of the dojo and nonblack belts on the other, and the mudansha rotate through and change partners. If there are more black belts than non, the younger ones shift over to the other side. They’re somewhat regimented about the way they rotate people through and so being a young black belt, I got the experience of being able to rotate through a lot of different higher black belts during practice. Also, when a lot of their university students showed up, I was paired up with a whole bunch of white belts and being put into a teaching position in a language that I really didn’t understand. That actually forced me to try and think better of how to communicate. That’s one of the things, for me, from a teaching standpoint that is really important and being able to communicate to the other person what it is you’re trying to do. With techniques, there are certain things that you can’t see and there are certain things you can feel. When you’re young in a martial art, your sensitivity to be able to feel things isn’t fully developed yet. Being able to try and communicate what it is that you’re doing and even if it’s nonverbal, even if it’s being able to point at the individual pieces and extenuate or overemphasize them when necessary is important to get the point across.

MAYTT: That’s amazing how you had the chance to train in Japan! What was the Tomiki Aikido community like in the Bay Area when you first began training? Was it a large, thriving, and interconnected community or were there small pockets of practitioners isolated from one another? 

WP: In the Bay Area, there was one dojo. So, somebody else who had been at USC graduated before me had come up here and started a club, and basically, that was it. Basically, Tomiki Aikido is small here in the United States. I figure there’s probably about three hundred or so practitioners in a country that’s 340 million. [Laughs] It’s pretty tiny and that’s been one of the challenges that as a national organization has had because people are just spread out a lot more. As opposed to Aikikai, I think there are three different Aikikai dojos in the city of Berkeley. We’ve never really hit critical mass, and, in that respect, it’s been a matter of training, going somewhere to grab knowledge as much and as quickly as I can, and then I come home and practice it.

MAYTT: You bring up other styles; how much contact have you or Tomiki Aikido have had with the other aikido styles?

WP: In my experience, a lot of them don’t interact with each other in general. Everyone has their own little bubble that they live in; they don’t really reach out and talk to each other. Aside from Aikido Journal and Stan Pranin who used to run the Aiki Expos type of events, those were great places for reaching out and making contact with the larger aikido community. At first, I thought there was animosity. A lot of the other styles of aikido seem to find that the competition aspect of Tomiki Aikido is off-putting or strange, but I don’t feel like there’s any real animosity there; it’s just a lot of people aren’t looking outside of their own bubble to try and interact with other folks out there. They’re just busy doing their own training. About three and half years ago, [2018], I started training at a dojo here in Berkeley that is officially Aikikai or Iwama but they have folks that come from all different lineages and they are open. I’ve been learning a lot there, not only about a different style, but it’s been also helping me try and figure out different things about Tomiki Aikido and make extra connections there as well. So, I’ve been cross training with that for the last three and a half years.

MAYTT: How does that experience compare with your own Tomiki Aikido because the way Iwama Style and Tomiki Aikido go about doing everything is completely different?

WP: I never thought two things that are called aikido could be so different. [Laughs] I had to really focus on entering classes with shoshin, or the beginner’s mind – just assuming that I didn’t know anything. There are a lot of similarities but there are so many differences that if I try to fall back on prior knowledge, that I felt like I was hamstringing myself and I felt that I wasn’t going to learn as much as if I approached it as if I was a beginner. I also found that Tomiki Aikido tended to be very kata focused. We have, “Here is the choreography of the technique.” And you’re going to hit these points along the way during the way. The Iwama folks tended to be more waza focused – focused on the general shape of the technique; what’s the flow supposed to be like? Then the details about the grip, how you are supposed to place a hand, kind of fell by the wayside a bit or they just didn’t focus on it nearly as much. The result is that you have Tomiki Aikido being focused on the little details a lot and it tends to be a little more staccato and not as flowing as much or you start from the choreography and the details, and you work into the flow of it as you grow with it. With the Iwama Style, it was sort of the opposite. They wanted you to get the shape of it. They wanted you to get the flow of it and then you’ll get these little refinements later. I found that combining the two was really helpful because it made things much more effective because I had both pieces.

I’m going to do a shoutout to one of my Italian friends, Francisco Scognamiglio; I was on vacation in Italy, and I managed to find an aikido dojo that was a couple of blocks from where I was staying, and he was very welcoming. At that point I was saying to myself, “Ok. I’m in a different country and I’m desperate to get some aikido in.” [Laughs] Because I’ve had been missing it. But he was very much interested in how the style I had learned and the style that he had learned would interact with each other. That experience really lit the fire under me to try and reach outside and try this because I really didn’t know what the differences were, and he was so welcoming and friendly with it. It was really nice.

MAYTT: That is interesting that you have found some benefits to cross training! Who would you consider to be pioneers and disseminators of Tomiki Aikido in America? What differentiated these practitioners from their contemporaries? 

WP: To a certain extent, Tomiki Aikido is relatively young here in the states. Just in that it really didn’t come here until the late 1960s and early 1970s. You have folks like Bob Dziubla, who I trained with. He had lived in Japan for a number of years and came back to the States and wanted to train in Tomiki Aikido but was also a driving force to put together a national organization because at that time, you had a lot of different dojos that were out there that were a little bit fractured.

You had the Karl Geis groups and there was also a Japanese gentleman in New York by the name of Yoji Kondo. A lot of these groups were working geographically in certain areas of the country and weren’t necessarily working with each other. Bob Dziubla and Seiji Tanaka were instrumental in trying to pull everybody together into a national organization and try to spread that knowledge.

I know that there was a gentleman by the name of Merit Stevens, who was sort of the forefather of a lot of clubs in the Ohio area. I never met Merit; he passed away before I joined aikido. His son, Moe, was a big part of the TAA and physically a big part too. Moe is around three hundred pounds, and he has a lot of folks in his dojo that are 250 pounds and up – big man’s aikido [Laughs]. He used to coach wrestling at high school and has a judo background as well, but he taught how you can be gentle with it but also very effective and sort of use your mass effectively. But Merit Stevens, Moe, and that whole group is a big center of aikido in the Ohio area.

Seiji Tanaka in Denver, Colorado. Tanaka Sensei is in his eighties, and he does the most grueling warmups with all sorts of push-ups and sit ups and I can’t keep up with him. [Laughs] He too was instrumental in spreading the gospel here.

Bob started clubs in Chicago and the ones here on the West Coast are all Bob Dziubla and students of his. We’ve grown geographically in that way.

I don’t know if they had a lot of contemporaries here in the US. Basically, a lot of folks had gone to Japan and brought stuff back or Tanaka Sensei came from Japan, who was at Waseda University studying with Tomiki Sensei there and then emigrated to the US and brought it with him.

Dave Nettles, who used to be out in Denver, he was the chief technical director for a while for the TAA. He did a great job of improving his teaching abilities over the years when he was in that position. He also ended up, because he was cross training in a koryu jujutsu, bringing in some additional elements that, politically, caused friction. But I think that really helped me in terms of understanding the principles behind things, how to be more subtle about the techniques, and how to think about them more in terms of physical principles and mechanics instead of just doing it five thousand times and letting your body figure it out. Trying to shortcut that learning process.

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

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