Interview with Aikido of Madison Cofounders Robin Cooper and John Stone: Their Journey Through Aikido and Beyond, Part III

Both Robin Cooper and John Stone started aikido at the same time, beginning their study in a dojo affiliated with Akira Tohei. After moving to California in the late 1970s, both of them trained with a variety of aikidoka and schools, ranging from Frank Doran, Bob Bryner, Bob Nadeau, and Bill Witt, to LA Aikikai and Ki Society Schools. It was not until 1977 that they both encountered Mitsugi Saotome, changing the course of their aikido for decades to come. The pair moved back to Wisconsin in 1980, teaching aikido at the University of Wisconsin club and later opening their Aikido of Madison in 1984. Today, the pair discuss what their training was like, receiving a nanadan promotion, publishing a book, and the future of aikido. This is the third part of a three part interview. View the first part here and second part here. All images provided by Robin Cooper and John Stone.

MAYTT: Returning to Stone; in 1995, you and Ron Meyer published a book, Aikido in America, which was inspired over a lunch break of a seminar. At that time, why did you feel it was necessary to focus on the American experience of aikido history, rather than the Japanese experience?

JS: I think the main reason was because that was my experience. I didn’t know the Japanese experience. I’ve never been to Japan. Aikido was growing and thriving in America, and we were curious about the history. And it gave us a good excuse to interview these guys too [Laughs] and get to know their stories a little bit more intimately. We were just interested. This was the world we grew up in; what was that world we grew up in? That was our motivation because many people have paid attention to the Japanese history, but we didn’t know it from afar, only reading about it. But we lived this; I want to talk about that.

MAYTT: Also, why do you think many practitioners tend to focus on the Japanese teachers, rather than the American teachers, when discussing aikido history in America?

JS: That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I suppose there’s a vestige still looking to Japan. We’re set up so all of our dan ranks come from Japan, so we are still kind of looking to Japan for inspiration. I imagine that there are still some people that think that way. For myself, for a long time, I haven’t thought that way. Saotome Sensei doesn’t think that way. He said the future of aikido is not in Japan, it is in the world; it is here in this country. He said that aikido is dying in Japan, or something to that effect. He was very disappointed the last time I talked to him about it, which was a while. There’s much more innovation here than in Japan. Why people look to Japan, I suppose, is because of the roots. I can say for myself, I kind of ceased doing that after a while.

MAYTT: With almost fifty years of aikido training, and watching and helping aikido grow in America, how important do you feel that the average aikidoka in America should have a relationship with Hombu Dojo?

RC: For me its history. It’s like having this historical touch back to O-Sensei, you know? I would have to say it’s not as important. It’s a certification that gives you an entrée to a lot of places, so that’s nice because a lot of organizations are tied to that and in a sense, have a relationship to each other. That’s a positive thing. I’m sure for most of the students today it really doesn’t matter to them that much. They’re just interested in doing aikido. [Laughs]  

JS: It’s not as though only the Japanese understand aikido. It is like, as Saotome Sensei says, “What face does aikido have?” There is no face; it is a human face. There is no particular way of doing it; it’s a human thing. And as a human thing, we can understand it and study it as well as the Japanese. There’s no reason to be inspired by various practitioners but we have to make it ours. That was one of the things that Saotome Sensei was very adamant about; “What is your aikido? You can’t do my aikido; you do your aikido.” That was always the teaching. And as Americans we have to do – we don’t live in a hierarchical society the way that the Japanese do, with all those etiquettes. There’s a reason to keep it but we are not Japanese.

Robin Cooper (left) demonstrating a throw at Aikido of Madison.

RC: I do like the little bit of the historical way to our roots, and it keeps people aware of that. There is a place where this came from; there is a human being who helped create this. And we need to study that and look at that and watch O-Sensei videos and read O-Sensei’s words – that’s fine. I have to say the imprimatur of Hombu is not what drives, at least, not the folks I know.

JS: I remember talking to Mary Heiny Sensei about this once at some point. She said, and I find it true myself, “Aikido becomes your teacher.” It’s not a human being anymore. There is no face to it. The art itself becomes your teacher and we’re doing that in this country.

RC: I don’t dismiss the relationship to Hombu but I’m not sure how salient it needs to be as there are many more advanced practitioners around the world. Christian Tissier is an eighth dan. As aikido grows in the world, having a body overseeing it becomes less important because we have so many people now who are highly skilled and being recognized as being so. It’s a little different.

JS: When we started, we were all children. We needed somebody to supervise and raise us.

RC: And the shihan did that. The uchi deshi that came to the US, they created aikido in America. They put the ground together that brings us to today. There’s a debt of gratitude to that.

JS: Without them, no aikido.

RC: Had O-Sensei not been around, there wouldn’t be any Aikido of Madison, and that’s very important. [Laughs]

JS: I think aikido has grown up here.

MAYTT: That is very important and an interesting way of looking at that topic. In your opinion, why do you feel that aikido has gained a negative reputation in the mainstream martial arts media in the last ten years? What do you think has changed in people’s perspective of the art?

RC: We could go on. Comic books, Marvel, action figures. Mixed Martial Arts is definitely the hot thing, much more so than aikido.

JS: What is its reputation?

MAYTT: Like aikido is a joke. Aikido is useless; it can’t do this or can’t do that.

RC: Then it’s not what you want. It doesn’t deliver to you what you’re looking for. It delivers something else to people looking for something different. I just say to people who want to fight, “I know a place where you can learn how to fight. If you want to learn how to punch and kick in six months, then this is not your place.” Because that’s not what we’re about. To me, it’s more about matching people to what their interest is to what this delivers. This is the long path. It is a long path. If you want to learn self-defense quickly, aikido would not be your first choice. But on the other hand, I ask them, what is their lifestyle? Maybe if you’re in law enforcement, maybe you need some self-defense fast, but for most people, learning how to do a backward fall is fantastic self-defense! It’s great in martial arts, because if you get knocked down, you’re not dead, because you didn’t hit your head or broke your back. I talk about it being practical in a very different way from a fighting art. If you’re looking to fight, it just won’t deliver.

I don’t even get into it, just to punch back at that, what’s the point? I just say, “It’s not for you then.” This is a bad match, just like having a bad job or a bad relationship. Bad match – not what you’re looking for. You’ll never find it here. I don’t worry about it particularly much. I don’t like this type of conversation because it brings out all the “We’re better than you are,” “we’re this,” “we’re that,” “we’re special,” “we can fight” – I just say okay, thank you.

JS: There’s two ways to look at it: what is the test of the value of the art? Is the test of the value of the art if you get jumped in an alley that you can defend yourself? Okay, then you should focus on that. If the test is how you live your life, how you treat other people, then aikido has value. I mean, I’ve never been in a fight in my life; I hope I never will. So did I just spend forty years training for nothing? But I’ve learned how to be safe. If someone were to attack me, I know that I can be safe.

RC: It’s not just a physical attack too.

JS: Right. I could probably end the attack before it started. Not cause the attack to happen. So, in that sense, when it comes down to the techniques of aikido, every martial art that has techniques has something that looks like ikkyo, sankyo, nikyo, or kote gaeshi, those exist all over the place. The value of it is learning the relationship – I studied a long time with a guy named Peter Ralston and his whole approach is completely consistent with aikido. It’s soft. But he won a full-contact martial arts tournament in 1978 in China, so he’s the real deal. So, there’s something within the art, within the idea of being totally responsive and in tune with the other person, which we teach in aikido. That is absolutely essential to a good martial artist.

RC: I want people to have tools they can use in real world situations, whether they are physical confrontations, emotional, anger, or work, or road rage, or whatever it is, I feel aikido gives me a whole range of tools, from dying to killing somebody. It’s all there. But, again, it’s just not the same thing. “We’re better,” Well yeah, you’re better at that. What’s better? You can knock me out? Okay. What is the bar? I say, if you want to learn how to fight, this is just not going to happen here.

Robin Cooper, Hiroshi Ikeda, and John Stone posing in their Aikido of Madison in the 1980s.

JS: When you think about it, everyday when we train in aikido, they train to take care of each other; they’re training with each other. So, when a person falls, Saotome Sensei talks about this, you take care of them. You protect them. And that’s actually much more valuable in our society. If we lived in medieval Europe, maybe it would be something different, but in our society, if someone attacks you, and you have a black belt, and you hurt them, you’re going to be liable. There’s that; being able to defend yourself and keeping yourself safe, but also dealing with the other person. That’s the idea in aikido and that’s something that’s absolutely valuable in our society. Getting in the ring with somebody, that’s a totally different thing.

RC: That’s a totally different thing. It’s fruit, but it’s apples and oranges. That’s why engaging in that is a non-productive conversation.

JS: In studying with Peter, it’s an interactive art, so the person can do anything – offense, defense – and it totally changed the way I looked at things. I began to realize that all the stuff we had trained is just a tool. All the hand grabs – how many times does somebody grab you in a fight? Never in my interactions has anyone grabbed in that way. If I went for their hand, they would take it away! [Laughs] But I began to see that we were confusing the teaching method with the art. Grabbing the hand, that’s a teaching method, it’s not the art. The art is in the interaction, which is shown within the technique. The interactive stuff that we learn, ideally, is absolutely essential for any fighter. You watch the best fighters; their defense is awesome – slipping punches. Incredibly sensitive to each other and that is something that we train in aikido.

MAYTT: Who do you feel would be considered pioneers or crucial practitioners that helped disseminate aikido in the Midwest region?

RC: Clyde Takeguchi, clearly, Akira Tohei and all the people who studied with him, Yuki Hara, and all these people who studied in Chicago and branched out from there. For our area, Clyde Takeguchi, Michael Friedl, Bill Holvenstot. They are really the people who started aikido in the Midwest. And of course, Akira Tohei.

JS: And the Illinois Aikido Club, which has been around for a long time, since the early 1960s.

RC: That was Red [Sakamoto] and Yuki [Hara and Joe Takehara]. And that was early on – we’re talking about the 1960s. Charles Tseng for one. There are people who are not really known in the broader community, but they were instrumental in holding the space for aikido in the Midwest.

JS: The guy up in lapond, Ken Purdy. He studied in the 1950s in Japan.

RC: He’s in Merrill, Wisconsin.

JS: He’s in his eighties now. He was one of the early ones. And I suppose you and I would be in that category too, if you think about it, in the 1980s. one of the earlier dojos in the area.

RC: Yes.

JS: Oh, and also Milwaukee Aikido Club.

RC: Was it Tamura?

JS: No. Mike Mamura.

RC: Mike Mamura Sensei, he was like Ken Purdy in aikido. He was a really close friend of Akira Tohei and Milwaukee Aikido Club goes back a long way. Again, sort of unsung heroes really. A lot of those folks.

JS: In our part of the Midwest.

MAYTT: Final question. What do you think aikido will look like in the next ten years in America? What do you feel American aikidoka will do to make further changes or adaptations to the art?

RC: One thing that I’m seeing now is – it’s been happening for a time now – this sort of integration of aikido with other modalities and pursuits. Many of the practitioners of aikido engage in other arts, whether it’s somatics, yoga, or other body practices, meditation. So, I see that there is an interesting cross fertilization happening more and more with other disciplines. I hope the face of aikido becomes more representative of our larger communities. That’s one of my hopes for aikido and how we go about that and do that is the question right in front of us today. I really hope to see that.

JS: I withdrew eight years ago [2014] so I’m a little out of touch. I know it’s true, when I studied with Peter Ralston, I studied tai chi and other things like boxing, to try and broaden my understanding of how aikido fits into the broader martial arts world. The thing that I was running into was that I felt that the way we trained, and the very structure of the art was restricting – there was something restrictive about it. The uke-nage division, I began to chafe against that, but I didn’t know where to take it. I started moving in certain directions, but I never got very far with that. I imagine that some people started working with that, not necessarily trying to put it aside completely, but it is remarkable that we have all of these weird attacks that aren’t like any real-life attacks. That side of the art is denigrated, usually. The whole emphasis is on the nage part and really, it’s the receptiveness and the spontaneity that I wanted to study. And I think more and more people are looking at that. Robin’s been telling me that. I imagine that there will be continued experimenting, I don’t know. It might go too far sometimes. [Laughs] But it would be interesting to see how far that goes. Breaking down the uke-nage division. O-Sensei thought it was important – why is that?

RC: Or is there a distinction?

JS: It seems to me that each person should do something – that’s important to me. So, it’s interactive, not just attack and then defense. That’s just one movement.

RC: As I travel around and go to different dojo and train with other people, it seems like the senior people are kind of heading towards the same thing, in many ways. There’s just this interest in community and depth of practice and the principles – how do we bring in the principles early in the beginning using technique? How do you embody principle?

JS: What are the principles?

RC: Yeah. How do you articulate what it is you’re talking about? I’m very glad to see that. The other thing that I like, even with the fragmentation, there’s a strong movement in aikido to connect and be with each other. I love that we have the Friendship Seminars. We have a lot of interplay with Jan Nevelius from Sweden came to Madison. And I like seeing that a lot. There is much more communication and cross training. There is a dojo in Wales, Wisconsin – completely different [lineage]. We’ll train [together] and I’m really happy about that.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your aikido journey and its history in the Midwest!

RC: Thank you for the opportunity! You had a good list of questions!

JS: Thank you for the conversation!

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

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

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