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

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

MAYTT: What would Tomiki say about his style today? What would Tomiki’s feelings be on the state of aikido as a whole if he was alive today? 

WP: That is a good question, and I don’t know. My gut feeling is that he would at it in different parts of the world or different opinions on each. Tomiki Aikido is doing quite well in Japan, but they’ve had their political schism which I’m sure he would be quite disappointed with. But they have lots of university clubs and lots of competitions and they have a thriving art. Other places like England as well, they are doing well. Looking at the US, I guess he would be a little disappointed about membership numbers but also not getting ourselves all onto the same page as much as we could have. When you look at the competitions that we have, I think that he would look at the British and say that they’re focusing a little too much on winning and not necessarily as much on enhancing their technique and the learning benefits from this. When the Brits play, they play to win and that is their focus to the point where we’ve seen that some players won’t participate in the seminars before the competition because they want to just train off to the side for the competition piece and they aren’t necessarily there for the learning. I think he’d be happy that it’s all happening but in some ways, I think we lost our focus a little bit on why we are doing the competition at times. We need to remind ourselves of that sometimes.

MAYTT: In a similar vein, how have you and other Tomiki Aikido instructors improved upon his original teaching methods? 

WP: That’s a tough question to answer because at the end of the day, we’re a collection of independent dojos and each dojo has its own separate teaching style. What we have trained to do as a national organization is really tried to make sure we are on the same page and tried to develop common vocabulary so that we are able to communicate information back and forth to each other. I think of it as when you see professional dancers, they learn choreography so fast because they have a shorthand to help them remember it. Whatever their terminology is, they have it and that helps them to compress that information into a shorthand. Making sure that we have a consistent way that we describe things, and a consistent terminology really helps that communication. It also helps our students be able to take and use those initial building blocks and build on them. I think pretty much any martial art ends up doing that to some degree or another. What we’ve been doing here in the States that’s been a little bit different than what they necessarily do in Japan is we’ve been trying to explain the principles and the why behind things more. The teaching style in Japan, traditionally, has been, “watch what I do and do this.” I remember going to class, and this was very helpful for me because my Japanese language skills sucked, Nariyama Shihan would be up there and he would slowly move through the technique, explaining how he moved to this point. Then he’d drop three inches and all of a sudden, uke’s balance was broken, but he would go through it slowly. He would explain what he was doing physically, but not verbally. I think that’s huge to be able to do that, but adding a verbal component oftentimes, I find, helps. When something is done to a student, they can feel it but when they’re watching, they can necessarily see where and when the balance shifts, especially when the really good practitioners do it, because they do it really well and really subtlety. Sometimes overemphasizing helps. Or talking about those base principles and how we are applying those base principles as we go through the technique, not just leaving it to the student to make the connection themselves. At least at the junior levels, almost spoon feeding them a little bit more in terms of helping their initial progression because students here don’t have five days a week to come to the dojo anyway. You’re trying to get them to move through things on two to three practices a week. Otherwise, you’ll never get there because they forget too much in between. If we get our own dojo spaces and offer classes five days a week, then maybe we might have a different approach.

MAYTT: I see. 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 the judoka been open to you and your art or were there some hostilities?

WP: I’m probably not the best person to ask about that just because I haven’t had a lot of interactions with judoka. The few that I’ve had, they were open to things. We’re starting from a little different place. They’re getting in and getting a hold of each other pretty darn quickly. We are working from a different location, but we are using some many of the same principles. Personally, I will teach judo techniques as part of my aikido practice, not that I know that many of them. Take seoi nage; it doesn’t work unless you stretch that person out. We’ve got similar techniques where we get a hold of uke’s arm, bring them out, and dropping them. The mechanics of it work very similarly and the principles are there; it’s just that your body is flipped 180 degrees from where the judo guys do it. There’s also a series of techniques that we do called the nana-hon-nage-kuzushi-waza that are all high level judo techniques that are part of judo kata for sixth degree black belt tests that we teach pretty much from day one. For the folks in judo, those techniques are the advanced things you’re doing from a further distance when you already got that person leaning in and got that person coming in for an attack. That’s the position you want to start from anyways. I find that they’re very compatible, but I haven’t had a lot of interactions to know of any hostilities or what the interpersonal reactions are other than my one student who’s in law enforcement. I think the aikido folks can probably learn a little groundwork from the folks who do judo because once we’re down on the ground, we get lost. We could do a bit more of that cross training as well.

Dziubla teaching a technique (center) at Pottebaum’s (center sitting) Bay Area Shodokan Aikido during a TAA Western Regionals Seminar in October 2017.

MAYTT: Final question. Aikido, especially to outside martial artists, have been heavily criticized for its lack of effectiveness and “unalive” training methods. How have you and Tomiki Aikido as a whole combatted such critiques and negative comments? Is there something that the larger aikido community can do to help negate or mitigate such assessments?

WP: That’s a tough one but I would break it into multiple pieces here. One is that the punching and kicking styles of martial arts tend to have a faster learning curve. You’re going to be a lot further along to kick butt doing that than doing aikido. Part of it is that we need to encourage people to look at the long game and have patience. The flip side is maybe we need to be giving them something a little more practical at the front end and look at why people get into martial arts in the first place. Is it because they want self-defense and can we leverage aikido as a self-defense martial art that is a little more practical and less about somebody attacking you in a seiza sitting position, which doesn’t happen very much here, or a shomenuchi attack, and start incorporating things like a big cross or haymaker? How do you bring the types of attacks we work with in line with what somebody might encounter on the street today? Women in particular tend to get different types of attacks than men; men often see a punch coming as opposed to a woman getting a ponytail grab or a wrist grab that isn’t intended to knock you out but intended to drag you off somewhere. Finding a way to contextualize what we are doing can be super helpful making this more a popular sport.

The other thing is, honestly, we don’t interact with other folks. As much as the Tomiki and the Aikiaki and the Yoshinkan folks don’t interact with each other, we also aren’t out there interacting with folks that do other martial arts either. We aren’t out there with karate or judo as much, or any of the jiujitsu folks. We don’t have a way of showing them whether or not it is effective. And there’s a whole bunch of folks sitting around watching YouTube videos saying that things could never possibly work. The only way for them to understand how it works is to feel it. You can’t sit there and look at a video of a really skilled aikido practitioner and, unless you felt it, actually believe that’s working because it looks like magic. That’s one of the beauties of it, that it looks like magic, but it also makes it a tough thing to get people to believe in it in the first place. How do we get out there? What forums are out there for having those interactions with other people and demonstrate to them that it’s worth taking a look at?

I mentioned earlier Moe Stevens out in Ohio, that he has a dojo full of big guys but they tend to be big guys who are in law enforcement and military, and if things aren’t effective, he doesn’t keep his students – that’s just the way it works because they aren’t there because they want to learn how to meditate or be flowing, they’re there because they want to be able to have something that’s effective that’s going to damage the other person because with law enforcement, you get into trouble. Your first reaction is either the gun, taser, or baton and law enforcement is a great area we can reach out to and say that we can immobilize somebody, we can protect ourselves, and do all these things without just bludgeoning the other person and doing significant damage to them. Not only is it morally the right thing to be doing but it is also a financial liability standpoint, it’s the right way to go. That’s another avenue we can look at.

I’ve got one student that is a police officer and I really appreciate that he does jiujitsu, he does judo, he does kempo karate, and he does aikido, and he keeps coming back and saying that he ran into a situation, what can we do with these things. His priorities are different though. The idea for most aikido practitioners is that they want to throw you elsewhere, as far away as possible. My student will say, “If I throw the guy over there, the I have to chase them down to cuff him.” Whereas a lot of the koryu jujutsu styles are more about dropping the attacker in front of you and, traditionally speaking, kill them. There’s a lot of context you can bring in there. When I teach with him, I often adapt techniques to make sure they’re more applicable for him that he’ll use on a more regular basis because of all my students, he makes me the most nervous because I know he’s out there using this stuff. It’s also nice that he keeps coming back and he finds this useful.

I think we just need to give them a reason to believe and to see the value of what we are doing. What we are showing to the public right now isn’t doing it.

MAYTT: I see. Through my research and talking with others, even in some other styles, it’s kind of an insular environment of them saying this is what we need to do, everyone agrees with it, but it may or may not be implemented. There’s always that mystery.

WP: I totally get that. The reality is that the times have changed, and we need to get kids into dojos instead of playing on their phones. Honestly, one of the big struggles for Tomiki Aikido in America is that we don’t have any full-time instructors that do this as their day job. Everybody, pretty much, is doing this as a hobbyist as opposed to doing it as a professional. And because of that, we share dojo space, we don’t necessarily have a full selection of kids’ classes, because that’s how you bring in new blood is through the kids’ classes and offering six or seven days a week worth of classes and we haven’t had that. We’ve had our best success as an organization at the university clubs because we got an enthusiastic and somewhat captive audience.

MAYTT: Thank you for the discussion on Tomiki Aikido! I think we learned a lot from it!

WP: I’m glad you did. Thank you for having me!

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

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