Interview with San Diego Aikikai Chief Instructor Deena Drake: Kazuo Chiba’s Legacy

Deena Drake discovered aikido while driving to and from work, happening to stop in one day. Immediately, she was hooked. She trained under Michael Flynn for a number of years until moving to San Diego to train under Kazuo Chiba. As Chiba’s health declined, he approached Drake in 2007 to assume operations of San Diego Aikikai. Today, Drake took some time to talk about her training under Chiba and her experiences running a dojo. All images provided by Deena Drake.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Drake Sensei! Thank you for joining us today!

Deena Drake: Thank you for inviting me; I’m happy to be here!

MAYTT: You began training aikido in 1995. What first drew you to the Way of Harmonizing Energies and do those aspects continue to motivate you to train today?

Deena Drake (right) performing an irimi nage in suwari waza during a seminar.

DD: I came upon aikido entirely by chance in early 1995. I drove by a dojo on my way to and from work every day and was finally intrigued enough to visit Alameda Aikikai on a Saturday morning in November. I was mesmerized by Michael Flynn Sensei, impressed by the diversity of students, and the joyful yet serious nature of the practice. I signed up that day and almost immediately started training ten to fifteen hours a week.

I’m not entirely certain what initially sparked my passion for aikido but within months, I knew that it was a transformative practice. I continue to train for the mental, physical, and spiritual benefits aikido affords me. I continue to teach to maintain a space where people might find that transformative practice I discovered almost thirty years ago.

MAYTT: Fast forward five years, and you joined the kenshusei program and became an apprentice to both Kazuo Chiba and Morihiko Murashige. What were your first impressions of Chiba and how did continued training under him change or solidified those impressions of him?

DD: I actually started kenshusei training with Michael Flynn at Alameda Aikikai in 1998. After training at San Diego Aikikai for a month in 1999, I received a letter from Chiba Sensei requesting I return for further kenshusei training. Although Chiba Sensei was confident in Flynn Sensei’s abilities to transmit quality aikido, he felt the connections I would make with other aspiring teachers in San Diego would be important in the future. Although it was difficult both personally and financially, I went back to San Diego for nine months in 2000, and finally moved to San Diego permanently in 2004 to continue my training with Chiba and Murashige Sensei.

My first impression of Chiba Sensei was that he was terrifying, but I quickly came to realize he was also incredibly generous and committed to his students. He pushed himself and his students in ways that were often extreme but I believe he did so to keep the martial aspect of aikido alive.

MAYTT: I see. How did Chiba approach training? Author Tom Collings described his approach as intense, creating “an atmosphere of life and death.” Is this an accurate description of training under Chiba or was your experience different? How did you see his approach change and evolve over time?

DD: Chiba Sensei often said a teacher had to have the hands of the devil and the heart of the Buddha. All aspects of training at San Diego Aikikai were intense, even eating meals and cleaning the dojo after classes were taken very seriously! [Laughs]

Kenshusei and serious soto deshi at San Diego Aikikai were pushed to their limits and it often did feel like “life or death.” I’m not certain how healthy it was, physically or emotionally, but we trained ferociously, as if our lives depended on it. Any other approach to training was quickly corrected.

Chiba Sensei did not force every member of the dojo to train like a kenshusei, but he did expect every student to take the study seriously and treat the dojo with respect.

As Chiba Sensei neared the end of his active teaching career in the mid-to-late 2000s, he became more talkative on the mat. His teaching was still physically rigorous, but I got the sense he felt his time was limited and he wanted to transmit as much history and knowledge as possible in the time he had left.

Drake applying ikkyo in suwari waza at the San Diego Aikikai.

MAYTT: What was the aikido community like when you first began? How did you and San Diego Aikikai connect and build friendships with other schools, practitioners, and styles?

DD: When I started training at Alameda Aikikai, our dojo had a close relationship with Berkeley Aikikai, which was led by Ichiro Shibata Sensei. It seemed like I was attending a seminar at the Berkeley dojo every couple of months for years.

After I became a kenshusei, I traveled to United States Aikido Federation – Western Region seminars almost monthly. These seminars were well attended by Chiba Sensei’s direct students, but rarely by members of other aikido organizations.

Unfortunately, Chiba Sensei had a reputation for being brutal and this made building relationships with other organizations and dojos difficult. Personally, I found training with him to be physically, emotionally, and sometimes psychologically demanding but never brutal. When Chiba Sensei left the USAF and formed Birankai, we had less interaction with other organizations – for good or ill.

To be honest, running the dojo and my career in healthcare leave me little time to connect to dojos outside our organization but I would say I have good relationships with the other schools in my area.

MAYTT: Interesting. Chiba spent some time in the United Kingdom popularizing aikido before making his way to the United States. Did his prior experience in the UK prepare him for the obstacles he faced spreading the art in the US, and if so, how?

DD: I think Chiba Sensei’s early experience in the US in some ways mirrored his experience in the UK. Chiba Sensei went to the UK with certain expectations, but the situation he found himself in when he arrived was wildly different than what he was led to believe he would find. He struggled to navigate the political situation in the UK and burned some bridges. He had a similar experience in the US

Chiba Sensei could be terribly charismatic when he wanted and could have built good relationships with other organizations when he came to the US, but I don’t believe that was a priority for him.

Chiba Sensei was a purist. O-Sensei had given him a mission to transmit aikido to the UK. Creating the next generation of aikido teachers was important; teaching the basics was important; everything else took a back seat.

MAYTT: Chiba established San Diego Aikikai in 1981, after aikido began to take roots in California and the country a decade earlier. How did he interact and communicate with the already established aikido community when he founded his dojo? 

DD: I don’t know the entire history of Chiba Sensei’s arrival in California but I do believe the expectation was the various aikido organizations and senior teachers would fall under his leadership. There were several high-ranking American teachers in California when Chiba Sensei arrived in California (e.g., Robert Nadeau and Frank Doran Sensei) and they had already developed relationships with other teachers and dojos. I suspect many felt they did not need to affiliate with a Japanese teacher to lend their dojos more legitimacy. Whatever transpired upon Chiba Sensei’s arrival, the outcome was very little interaction between existing California aikido organizations and the USAF – Western Region.

Drake applying a nikyo in suwari waza at the Birankai North America Winter Camp 2022 at the Baja Aikido dojo, Mexico.

MAYTT: When he arrived in San Diego, it was under the agreement that he would lead the Western Region of the United States Aikido Federation. This later morphed into his Birankai North America in 2000. From your knowledge, what was his relationship like with the other USAF leaders and what influenced Chiba’s decision to establish his own organization in the United States?

DD: Chiba Sensei’s relationships with the other direct students of O-Sensei in the United States, such as Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsunari Kanai, and Akira Tohei Sensei were complicated. These teachers trained intensively together under their master as young men and forged bonds that many of us cannot fully understand. I believe they cared for each other like brothers – and brothers sometimes disagree and fight. I know Chiba, Kanai, and Yamada Sensei worked together on behalf of US aikido and its relationship to Hombu Dojo, but at one point, their approaches to solving some of the issues diverged and they went their separate ways for a while.

MAYTT: When did you begin teaching? How did that experience change your perspective on aikido? 

DD: I began teaching regular classes at San Diego Aikikai in 2007 as Chiba Sensei slowly pulled back from active teaching but I think it took me several years to realize the immense responsibility a teacher has towards their students.

I’ve known incredible aikidoka who became teachers, but never developed a student to dan or teaching rank and I’ve come to believe there is a fundamental difference between someone who teaches good classes and a good chief instructor.

The role of the chief instructor is to realize and develop each student’s potential, no matter their level or ability. This is achieved by consistently teaching basic, fundamental aikido, which in turn builds a strong foundation for further individual development

The student-teacher relationship is one of mutual growth. The more I put into developing my students, the more I develop as a teacher. The more open and vulnerable I am, the more my students can open themselves up to the training. I’ve made plenty of mistakes as a teacher and I’ve, at times, pushed students too far and subsequently lost them. These errors in judgment were painful lessons at the time but have made me a better teacher.

MAYTT: I can see there being a difference. When you teach now, how much do you see or feel Chiba’s influence and how much does your interpretation and style come through? Do you feel there is a balance or is that something you are currently working to achieve? 

DD: When I first took over San Diego Aikikai, I did my utmost to not be anything like Chiba Sensei for several reasons. The most important reason was that I was a forty-year old American woman, not a sixty-eight-year old Japanese male. I did not want to be seen as trying to be or replace Chiba Sensei, which would have been utterly ridiculous.

After about a year, I realized by trying so hard to not be Chiba Sensei I wasn’t actually myself either. For good or ill, my teachers have profoundly influenced my aikido and teaching style. I have a lot of Michael Flynn, Morihiko Murashige, and Kazuo Chiba in how I approach practice. At this point in my life, I believe I have fully integrated my teacher’s influences into an aikido that is uniquely my own.

Drake overlooking a class.

MAYTT: How did you find yourself taking over the operations at San Diego Aikikai? Since assuming the new responsibility, how have you and the dojo carried on the spirit and legacy of Chiba?

DD: Chiba Sensei suffered a serious stroke in 2002 while teaching abroad. Although he resumed teaching after his recovery, it started him thinking about retiring from his role as Chief Instructor. In late 2005, he reached out to several former students to offer them the dojo, but no one was willing or able to take on the responsibility.

In 2006, I started to assume more responsibilities at the dojo due to Chiba Sensei’s poor health. I frequently had to cover classes and ensure the dojo was running smoothly during his absence. I eventually learned Chiba Sensei’s top choices for taking over the dojo had declined his offer and finally offered to take on the responsibility myself. Although I was by no means Chiba Sensei’s first or even second choice, he believed in my commitment and love of aikido and the dojo community.

Chiba Sensei’s primary legacy is his students who went on to become teachers and opened dojos themselves. Chiba Sensei created a comprehensive curriculum and many of us who trained under him feel a responsibility to transmit as much of his teachings as possible.

I also believe Chiba Sensei was able to create a tightknit community of students worldwide who were dedicated to intense aikido practice. I believe the current members of San Diego Aikikai are as committed to their practice as members during Chiba Sensei’s time. Throughout the pandemic, the membership has continued to train under whatever guidelines were imposed by public health authorities. In some ways, the dojo is stronger and more committed than it was before Covid.

MAYTT: How have you seen the aikido community view and remember Chiba since his passing? How do you personally remember Chiba?

DD: It was interesting to see posts on social media shortly after Chiba Sensei’s death. He was a powerful personality and made such strong impressions (both good and bad) on people that I suspect it would be difficult to forget even the briefest encounter with him.

Some people have made Chiba Sensei into a saint and others have made him out to be a demon – he was neither.

Chiba Sensei was a man who felt it was his mission to preserve aikido out of loyalty to his master. He made mistakes, had a temper, was incredibly tender with children, cared nothing for money, and gave everything he had to study and teach aikido for over fifty years.

MAYTT: Final question. What would you consider to be the top three contributions Chiba made to the aikido community, and why do you feel those still have such great impact? 

DD: Chiba Sensei’s aikido was powerful and dynamic. Over the course of his life, he taught in Japan, the UK, Europe, and the United States. Chiba Sensei left a lasting impression on anyone who ever trained with him or attended one of his seminars. I believe Chiba Sensei’s fiercely martial approach to training inspired many people to take up the study of aikido.

I personally believe weapons work deepens one’s understanding of aikido. Chiba Sensei focused a great deal of his personal study on weapons and developed a weapons curriculum that was meant to enrich and supplement student’s aikido training. Over the years, I’ve met many teachers from other organizations who have studied and adopted Chiba Sensei’s bokken and jo forms.

Lastly, Chiba Sensei set high standards for teaching certification within his organization. Candidates for Fukushidoin and Shidoin undergo long, demanding tests and must demonstrate both knowledge of the aikido and weapons curriculum and skill in performing the techniques. All teachers are required to re-certify at regular intervals regardless of rank. I believe by creating these requirements and setting such high standards, Chiba Sensei made certain his teachers would be able to transmit aikido to future generations.

Drake (left) performing a kumi jo at the San Diego Aikikai.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us to talk about Chiba Sensei!

DD: It was my pleasure.

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

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One thought on “Interview with San Diego Aikikai Chief Instructor Deena Drake: Kazuo Chiba’s Legacy

  1. Akira Tohei Sensei invited Chiba Sensei to teach at the Midwest Aikido Center in Chicago on several occasions in the ’80s

    Tohei Sensei always spoke highly of Chiba Sensei and sometimes shared great stories about him with me

    Mr. Chiba was for sure intense and serious on the mat, as was Tohei Sensei, so we enjoyed Chiba Sensei’s classes and seeing his techniques we had not seen before

    Mr. Chiba was gracious enough to come to Chicago to pay his respects when Tohei Sensei passed in 1999

    Like

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