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

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 part two of a three part interview. Read the first part here and the third part here.

MAYTT: How did the new responsibility of running a school and being the chief instructor affect your perception of aikido?

WP: At first, it’s a little bit daunting. Because a lot of the students I had were not that much younger than me – I was twenty-five or twenty-six at the time – and they were university students, everyone was just gung-ho about it. We actually ramped up to having classes about four or five days a week. It was nice to do that. I had some junior folks who were able to help out with teaching when I wasn’t there. In terms of responsibility, it ended up not being all that bad and I sort of grew with it. I had a very forgiving audience; in that they were all people I knew before I went to Japan, and I came back with all of this new knowledge and so everybody was very excited to learn. Since then, a lot of those folks have drifted away – that’s what happens when you live in a university town. [Laughs] But at this point, I teach out of a parks and rec facility the city of Berkeley owns. I’m able to have classes a couple of days a week without having to give up my full-time job, which actually pays the bills [Laughs] and be able to still do this, which is a lot of fun. I think I’m teaching a little bit differently now. I used to come up with lesson plans a lot more. Now I kind of see where the class takes me. It also depends on who shows up that particular night and what is it that they need to be working on. Sometimes you get a question from a student, or you see something that they’re doing that needs a tweak and that really provides for your lesson plan for that night.

From a teaching perspective, the big thing that I’ve found is that every student is different, and every student needs to be taught slightly differently – it’s kind of like raising kids in that respect. [Laughs] I find that I’ll come up with different metaphors that I can use – I have a whole library of metaphors in that regard. These things help one person visualize it well and someone else needs something totally different to be able to help it click for them. The other thing is the more that we can make connections between the same principles or the same configuration of joints in different techniques; the more that we can make that an interconnected web of how things work together as opposed to keeping techniques isolated from each other the better. That’s one of the things I focus on.

The new responsibility made me realize how tough it is to connect with people who are interested in learning this art. Honestly, one of the big issues that aikido in general is having is that there are less and less people interested in it these days. When I first started in the 1990s, I’ve had heard of aikido before because there was Steven Seagal out there. I didn’t go specifically into his style, but he had popularized it a bit. Trying to do recruiting and trying to bring people in is always a challenge. And they’re just business aspects of running a school that even if you’re really into martial arts, you’re not necessarily into or have the skills for running a business. I’ve never really ran this as a business in terms of trying to make money. It’s not my day job but at the end of the day, you have to pay for insurance, you have to somehow manage to have dojo space, you have to pay for mats, and all of those things. I think what hit me the most is that there are all these extra things outside of just doing martial arts you need to do to really be able to run an effective dojo. The place I’ve been cross training at in Berkeley, which is Aikido of Berkley with Kayla Feder, she’s done an absolutely amazing job of building a community that isn’t where the students show up, they practice, and then they go; but really building a community within that space. I am very impressed by the way that she’s done that. I think that’s something that would be helpful for people trying to start up dojos to have training in how to do that. So many dojos have been closing like crazy the last couple of years and yet, she’s managed to keep this thing together and I’m totally impressed. [Laughs] I mean, we were having practice out in the park for a year, and we still had twenty people in class on any given night.

Pottebaum (right foreground) with Robert Dziubla (standing left) during a TAA Western Regionals Seminar in October 2017 at Bay Area Shodokan Aikido.

In terms of the actual martial arts portion of it, I think there are different levels. There’s, “Okay. I understand it well enough to do it.” Then there’s, “I understand it well enough to teach it.” Then there’s, “I understand it well enough to teach it to somebody who then has to teach it.” It’s not just about trying to teach a technique, but you also have to think of it as people development. It’s like, “How do I structure things where I’m not having people just practice technique but I’m also giving people teaching opportunities?” A lot of the growth you have is from making that jump from, “I can do it” to, “I can explain it to somebody else.” Unless you’re given the opportunity to do that, sometimes you don’t make that jump. Part of it has been a matter of self-restraint, putting one of my senior students with a junior student and then managing to keep my own mouth shut. I won’t interject and let them teach and let them figure out how to do that explanation as opposed to me butting in. That, for me, has been a big personal growth for me as well, when I manage to accomplish it. [Laughs]

MAYTT: I can see how you’ve evolved in your teaching style. How do you feel Tomiki Aikido is different from other styles of aikido, i.e., Aikikai, Yohinkan, Ki Society, etc.? What does Tomiki Aikido offer that other aikido styles do not offer? 

WP: Part of it is what we talked about before, about being more kata-focused versus flow and energy-focus. I don’t have any experience with Yoshinkan. I’ve had a few students come to me from Ki Society and I had a tough time telling whether if they were more waza-focused or if I was dealing with teenagers who only had a certain level of understanding of what they were doing and they missed the details because of that. I find that Tomiki Aikido in general does a good job of explaining the mechanics behind the technique and being able to make sure techniques are truly effective. It’s not just uke being compliant but figuring it out in a way that’s less choreographed and in a less controlled environment. Tomiki Aikido has a kata side of things and a randori side of things. We use competition as a way to enhance that randori but the goal of randori is to make sure you can still use the technique or adapt the technique to make it work when uke isn’t planning on being compliant. And they are different levels of randori training that we go through.

There are four levels that we have. The first level is called kakari geiko – it’s basically doing practice. That’s when somebody comes in for an attack and you’re going to get out of the way and do something. Uke there is compliant – you look at them cross-eyed and they’re going to fall over. The main point there is training yourself is when an attack comes in to get out of the way and do something – get out of the way and get kuzushi and do a technique. You then need to learn to react to what that attack is and if that attack differs, you need to react differently.

The next level up from kakari geiko is hikitake; that would translate roughly to “pulling standing.” The idea there is that you’ve got an uke that is resisting to a point. It’s more of a passive resistance; you want to make sure that the technique is effective but if the technique is happening the uke goes with it. The nice thing about doing that is not only do you graduate to a more resisting uke, but it also helps you work on continuous technique.

Within hikitake there is renzoku waza, where you try a technique where uke will counter by escaping out of it, but, in general, each escape leads itself into opening up to another technique. It can also be called continuous techniques. You start chaining techniques together and you get to see how techniques make uke react in a certain way which is then going to leave an opening for this technique or that technique. In some ways, it’s like playing chess. Instead of looking one move ahead, you can look two or three moves ahead. You can say that I’m going to do this which is going to bait this reaction which will create an opening that feeds into a technique. You start to look further forward through the techniques.

The third level up from that is randori where you’ve got an uke who’s really trying to resist all the way through. And after that, there is shiai – the fourth level – which is just randori with judges enforcing rules a bit more strictly and point systems.

We’ve also got quite a few drills that we work through to try and build muscle memory. Those types of things really make your techniques efficient and make sure that they become a little bit more automated or drilled into you. What I find is that when you’re training for competition, it really helps focus you and helps you polish certain techniques. The downside of this and one of the things that Tomiki Aikido doesn’t do well is we focus on a particular type of attack. Our competitions are based on a knife strike. Historically, that’s because around the same time that Tomiki was developing a competitive system, there were a series of incidents where Tokyo police officers were stabbed to death. And these were all guys who had multiple black belts in judo and who just weren’t used to a knife attack, getting stabbed, and killed. So, he took that current event at the time and used that as something to train against. Unfortunately, what that means is that we train that to the exclusion of other types of attacks as well. That’s a danger in focusing too much on your training. I find that the Aikikai and Iwama folks do a better job of mixing up their attacks than us.

The other things that are different are just the explanations tend to be a lot more physical and less energy based. Part of that may just be the individuals that I’ve practiced with but I’ve been in enough dojos, even in Japan training in Tomiki Aikido, you don’t hear a lot about ki flow. We tend not to focus on breathing as much, which is probably actually an oversight. I’ve been learning a lot about that from cross training as well.

How much are you aware of the Tomiki competition part?

MAYTT: Honestly, not much because I couldn’t find a lot about it.

WP: Okay. Just to back up a moment. There are two areas of competition. There’s an enbu competition and a randori competition. Enbu competition is where two people go out and demonstrate a series of techniques or kata and then they judge against how well another group does that, which, from what I understand, the Ki Society folks do something similar – taigi. There’s that piece of it and in addition to that, there’s the randori competition. But there are both just to make sure that you understand both sides of it do get play time at these tournaments. In terms of how things differ from here and Japan, a lot of times here people are bigger and muscular. So here in the States, we’ve had the problem where sometimes it devolved into wrestling. Aikido is really intended to be a middle-distance art. It’s not up close like judo; it’s not far away with these long punches and kicks like karate. We want to be out at proper distance and then quickly close that distance, quickly doing something, then either moving back out of range again for our own protection or finishing a technique. Sometimes the competition devolves into getting into a clinch. I have really preferred playing with the Japanese because they don’t have the tendency to get in there and start cranking with muscle as much. Techniques are a lot cleaner. Americans – we’re brutes. [Laughs]

The British, if you’re looking for interesting comparisons outside the States, have a great system of training in that it’s a lot easier for them, from a financial standpoint, because they are recognized as a sport and therefore can receive government funding. They also have a much more developed kids’ program and are able to bring that in and they train like crazy for competition. Honestly, they do a much better job of it than us Americans. They also have a much smaller geographic footprint to worry about. They’ve got an amazing training program for doing competition – they have training camps. They’ve managed to find a decent middle ground to where the Japanese are and where the Americans in terms of brutishness. [Laughs] We’re trying. It takes time to break people of habits, especially when we only meet up with folks from other dojos on a fairly infrequent basis.

Honestly, the Japanese and the British, they actually do a really good job of training referees. If you’re going to have a sport, you’re going to need players and refs. Here we haven’t done a great job of training referees and you get pulled in; I’ve refereed stuff and I always don’t feel completely comfortable with it. It’s just one of those things that we haven’t done as good of a job with. But at the end of the day, it’s a scoring system similar to judo.

World Sport Aikido Federation international tournament, San Diego, 2019. Lining up to bow in at start of event. The beginning of a tournament at Dziubla’s Mesa College Tomiki Aikido. Pottebaum is fifth from the left and Dziubla wears all black, standing second from center right.

MAYTT: Thank you for the clarification on Tomiki Aikido competitions! Why do you feel that Kenji Tomiki decided to add competition and sparring to the aikido Morihei Ueshiba taught? What was the goal he was trying to reach by modifying the art? 

WP: Everything that I’ve gotten about Tomiki Sensei is pure hearsay, but there are multiple pieces to this. The first one being that Tomiki Sensei was one of Kano Sensei’s senior students. He was an advanced black belt in judo long before he went and trained with Ueshiba. In that respect, he was used to an environment where there were competitions. That was sort of the methodology that Kano Sensei had not only for developing judo but for spreading judo across the world – have somebody attack and see what works; have a competition or a demonstration and see what works and prove to people that this thing is worth it. I’ve read a biography of Kano Sensei a couple of years ago. It was interesting to me how he sent folks out to do competitions against folks who did other things, like wrestling, all over the world and that is part of what that led to the spread of judo is that it got people to see something worthwhile. Remembering that context, Tomiki Sensei came from that type of environment. He went and studied with Ueshiba and came back and wanted to apply the teachings and principles that Kano Sensei had and see if I can teach aikido to the masses in this way. Part of it was refining the techniques and making sure that they’re working.

The second component of this is that Tomiki Sensei was a university professor. He was at Waseda University in Tokyo. Right at first, he wanted to start an aikido club and have dojo space, but the university said that to have a club on campus, it needed competitions. He was, to a certain extent, dealing with an administrative issue of needing dojo space, so he came up with a way to have competitions and use aikido techniques that were similar to judo and could get buy-in from the university. There was a practical side of things there as well. From what I understand, Tomiki Sensei’s intent, much like Kano Sensei’s intent, was never to have competition for the sake of competition. The competition was always meant as a way of enhancing and refining your techniques and making sure everything was effective.

Originally, it started off with two unarmed people, but then the knife randori was added. As you may know, aikido relies on somebody putting energy into an attack and somebody else receiving that energy and redirecting it or moving out of the way and using that input energy to execute the technique. You don’t have to supply the energy yourself, your uke is giving it to you. In that respect, you have to designate an attacker, which is a little bit different from judo, where both people are out there trying to throw each other at the same time. When we do randori competition, one person has a foam knife, for safety, and they are the designated attacker, and they get points for getting in stabs. That way, you have a designated person that’s going to put energy into this and somebody who’s trying to execute an aikido technique. Then in the second half we switch. But there has to be some sort of energy input into the system for the system to work.

MAYTT: Speaking of Morihei Ueshiba, what bearing or connection does he have on the practice of Tomiki Aikido? What role does he play within the art today? 

WP: I can count on one hand the times I’ve heard of Ueshiba’s name mentioned during practice in Tomiki dojos over the last twenty-nine years. The picture up at the front of the dojo tends to be Tomiki Sensei and Hideo Oba Sensei, who was sort of his right-hand man. There are historical references with going and training with Ueshiba, but he’s not really mentioned as part of training, which is something that really grates on the Aikikai side of things. At some point when Tomiki Sensei put together his competition framework for this, at the same time Ueshiba, as he was getting older, he was becoming more pacifistic and religious, he basically disowned Tomiki Sensei. From that standpoint, Tomiki Sensei’s students weren’t interacting with the others in Japan, and it flowed outward from there. Trying to get everyone back together and taking and learning with each other has, at times, been difficult. Stan Pranin did a great thing with the Aiki Expo – everybody was welcomed. He was really concerned about the decline of new students and the advancing age. Honestly, the art will eventually die off if we don’t get new blood and none of us in our forties, fifties, and sixties can do the things we could physically do in our twenties.

We’ve been having conversations as a national organization on how do we brand Tomiki Aikido. What are our differentiators? There are so many more traditional or Aikikai dojos out there that no matter what we do as an organization, there’s going to be a certain amount of people that think of aikido in a certain way. Often that way isn’t always complimentary, which sucks, because a lot of the stuff does work, but it’s tough to make it work when you’re six months in. It’s a lot easier to make it work when you’re ten years in and the learning curve is just different. Aikido in general needs a little bit of a rebranding. People are still studying martial arts, it’s just that they’re going into other stuff. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts; they are still getting lots of new students, but they’re doing a much better job of marketing to them and doing a much better job of showing that there’s a practical benefit to it. People here want results and people here want, to a certain extent, instant gratification because we’re Americans, [Laughs] but they want to see those results in a relatively short time frame, and they want to know what their benefits are going to be. We as an art need to communicate that better to folks so that they’re willing to look at us and not just rolling around on the ground.

This is part two of a three part interview. Read the first part here and the third part here.

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