Interview with Shin-Budo Kai Instructor Warren Wynshaw: Past, Present, and Future with Shizuo Imaizumi

Inspired by his uncle, Warren Wynshaw set out to find a martial art; he did not know what martial art to do, but he was determined to find one that was for him. He found Shizuo Imaizumi in New York City while waiting for his results for the bar exam in 1977. From watching his first class, he stayed with Imaizumi until his retirement in 1987 and from his return to teaching the year to the present. Today, Wynshaw took some time to discuss his journey with Imaizumi. Image provided by Warren Wynshaw and Andrew Bordwin.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, And Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Wynshaw Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk about your time with Imaizumi!

Warren Wynshaw: Thank you! I look forward to your questions!

MAYTT: In 1977, you began aikido and training under Shizuo Imaizumi. How did you first come to find aikido and Imaizumi? What was it about the art that made you want to stay and what continues to motivate you to continue training?

Warren Wynshaw at Shin Budo-Kai dojo, 2022.

WW: I had just graduated from law school in 1976. I was waiting for the results of the bar exam in 1977 – I’m an attorney – and I wanted to do something that was active to stay in shape. I was interested in doing a martial art. I had gone to a number of different schools in Manhattan to see what they were about and what interested me. Back in those days, there was something called the Yellow Pages, and the Yellow Pages, to those of a certain age, there were listings of commercial establishments and some advertisements that were in that telephone directory. There was a listing for martial arts schools that was usually under the heading of Karate or something like that. There was an advertisement and I, at that time, was living in Greenwich Village. The listing was for an Aikido school on 10th Street and University which was not too far away from where I was living. So, I went over there, I think it was on April 28, 1977, if I recall correctly. I walked up the stairs, I sat and I watched the class. I immediately thought to myself this seemed to be genuine. It was something that I thought I could do. And I decided to take it up at the beginning of the following month – it was the following week and it was either May 2nd or 4th. I had some prior background; my uncle, my mother’s brother, was a martial artist for quite a number of years. He was very active in Columbus, Ohio. So, I had some familiarity with the martial arts. I did not know what I wanted to do but I liked what I saw when I walked into the dojo on East 10th Street.

As I said, my uncle actually said something to me either before or just when I started.  He said, “If you’re starting a martial art, stay with it for the rest of your life. Don’t just earn a black belt and think that you’ve accomplished anything.” [Laughs] So I had that word of advice, but more specifically, I loved everything about aikido.  I love seeing how the human body creates circles, spirals, and shapes through the air when you’re throwing, being thrown and what happens to the body when you are applying techniques to joints. What is it that uke is experiencing? There’s something that is inherently energizing about the art itself. And I find that if I am not practicing it for any length of time, there is something lacking in my life.

MAYTT: I know that feeling well.

WW: Sometimes I’ve been injured and other times I was out, I had a cracked rib, and I was out for either six weeks or six months – I don’t even remember what it was. But it was more difficult to be away from it than the injury itself.

MAYTT: How would you characterize aikido training when you first started the art? How have you seen the practice change as you continued through the art?

WW: Imaizumi sensei has always, always, emphasized safety. He did not, and does not want, anyone to be injured on the mat at all. As a matter of fact, if he sees something like that – now I’m putting words into his mouth – he thinks that is shameful. It’s showing off or it is unnecessary. That is not what aikido is about. I know I’ve heard, back in the 1930s, you had the Hell Dojo. From what I understand, in the 1960s, it was not the same kind of hard training that you would’ve experienced in the 1930s.

The training with Imaizumi sensei has remained relatively the same. There is an emphasis on safety at all times. There are certain kinds of throws – I can think of one in particular – that was not permitted. I believe that someone had died as a result of a breakfall from a shiho nage. We were not permitted to do a breakfall from a shiho nage because of that. Whether that is in fact true, whether someone died, I don’t know but there’s always an emphasis on safety.

MAYTT: Let us talk about Imaizumi for a moment. He began Aikikai Aikido in April 1959 while attending Waseda University. What factors led him to choose Aikikai over the newly budding Tomiki Aikido at Waseda? Was there any ill-will towards Kenji Tomiki and his style while Imaizumi trained at Aikikai Hombu Dojo?

WW: I don’t have any, obviously, first-hand information, and my understanding is that Tomiki Aikido was sort of an offshoot of Aikikai at that time. I think he participated in the club that was at the university that was sponsored by or run by somebody from the Aikikai. I’ve never heard anything that would suggest there was ill-will towards Tomiki or Tomiki Aikido.

Wynshaw teaching at the 30th Anniversary of Shin Budo-Kai in 2018.

MAYTT: By 1965, Imaizumi was taking ukemi for Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei. What kind of stories does he usually retell about his experiences with O-Sensei?

WW: Honestly, he has not shared many stories at all. He said that O-Sensei was very powerful, but there were no stories or actually becoming uke. He has told stories of O-Sensei’s passing.

MAYTT: What kind of stories does Imaizumi tell in regard to O-Sensei’s passing?

WW: Before we get to that, I would like to state that my recollection is that he accompanied O-Sensei to the airport when O-Sensei left for Hawaii [1961] on one of those trips – I think it was only one trip that he took out to Hawaii if I recall. But, in terms of his passing, Imaizumi sensei was one of the students who kept a vigil with O-Sensei as he was dying. He mentioned two specific things that I recall and that is, during the night, there would be someone with him all night long. O-Sensei woke up one night and said something to the effect that he wanted to get up and workout and do some aikido. The impression I got from Imaizumi sensei’s story about that was that O-Sensei had a, let’s call it, a supernatural energy at that time. Then after O-Sensei passed, Imaizumi sensei was one of the students that was chosen to carry O-Sensei’s ashes to O-Sensei’s final resting place.

MAYTT: Wow. That must have been a big honor.

WW: It was. That was the impression.

MAYTT: What did Imaizumi say, if at all, about the post-O-sensei years at the Aikikai?

WW: Well, my recollection, I remember Imaizumi sensei talking about this a long time ago, so I don’t have any of the details, but I have a recollection; I’ll tell you my recollection.  At that time, O-Sensei’s passing, Koichi Tohei, was the Chief Instructor and tenth degree and I was under the impression he wanted to take over the leadership of Aikikai. He felt that he was the person that should do that. Apparently, Doshu [Kisshomaru Ueshiba], or Waka Sensei as he was referred to at that time, was O-Sensei’s son and traditional Japanese procedure was that it would stay in the family and the son would take over the role of the leader of the institution. And that, in fact, is what happened. After that took place, Tohei sensei then decided there was really no future for him at the Aikikai and made the decision to leave the Aikikai and start his own organization which was Shin-shin Toitsu Aikido – aikido with mind and body coordinated – and with an emphasis on ki and ki development. I don’t know if there was bad blood; I don’t know how that worked. This is just the general outline as to what was related to me. That’s pretty much the sum and substance of it.

MAYTT: Imaizumi stayed an instructor with the Aikikai until 1975, where he joined with Koichi Tohei and his newly established Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, or Ki Society. What relationship did he have with Tohei that influenced his decision to ultimately leave his position at Aikikai Hombu?

WW: Well, I believe that since Tohei sensei was effectively the Chief Instructor and the primary influence and also probably the best practitioner at the Aikikai at the time, it was probably a belief that Imaizumi sensei’s path to increasing his knowledge and abilities in aikido lay best in following Tohei sensei.

Morihei Ueshiba using Shizuo Imaizumi as uke in the late 1960s.

MAYTT: Before Tohei split, did Imaizumi have any interaction with Tohei sensei?

WW: I don’t know. I believe so. Yes, I believe that they had a teacher-student relationship. Tohei sensei was probably the most hands-on person in the organization. In other words, he was there all the time, and he had the greatest amount of respect, I believe.

MAYTT: From your recollection, how did Imaizumi speak of Tohei as an instructor when he taught?

WW: Yes. Imaizumi sensei, at that time, was the head of eastern states via the Eastern Ki Federation [as they are now called]. He was asked by Tohei sensei to go to the United States and to establish a school and to be his chief instructor or head of the Eastern States Ki Society. The curriculum that Imaizumi sensei taught was totally Tohei sensei’s. It was exactly what Tohei sensei was showing and teaching and making his school different from that of Aikikai.

I have no recollection of him saying anything specifically about Tohei sensei as an instructor. It was more of the fact that Imaizumi sensei was presenting the curriculum, for lack of a better word, that Tohei sensei was putting out there and wanted to have it be taught. So, he didn’t have to say anything. This is what Tohei sensei wanted, and this is what Imaizumi sensei did.

Tohei sensei taught two seminars which I attended. I did notice that there was no difference between what Imaizumi sensei taught and what Tohei sensei taught. 

MAYTT: At the time of Imaizumi’s arrival in New York, Shuji Maruyama and Fumio Toyoda were establishing bases of operation in Philadelphia and Chicago, respectively. How much contact did Imaizumi have with each of these Ki-Aikido leaders?

WW: With Toyoda sensei, I don’t remember having any contact at all. He may have but I don’t remember at all. Maruyama sensei, on the other hand, there was an occasional contact and, as a matter of fact, Maruyama sensei was the one who administered one of my Ki Tests. I believe it took place in the summer camp in Virginia in 1986 and Maruyama sensei was there personally and administered that test. So, there must’ve been some communications. What those were specifically, I could not tell you.

MAYTT: There were not any big group seminars between Imaizumi, Maruyama, and Toyoda?

WW: Not that I’m aware of. I was there starting in 1977. I’ve never met Toyoda sensei. I’ve heard his name and, like I said, I met Maruyama sensei. But in terms of seminars, there were no joint seminars that I have a recollection of.

MAYTT: In that same year, 1975, he found himself in New York, founding the New York Ki Society and assuming the role of Chief Instructor for the Eastern Region. From what he has said about it, what was his initial experience like when he first arrived in New York City?

WW: He’s never described that to me, nor have I heard that described to anyone. I can tell you that my understanding is that Donna Carlson is the person who really reached out and helped him do that. I believe the original dojo was on Mercer Street in Greenwich Village.  It was a small dojo and I believe Imaizumi sensei was living in the dojo. She helped him find an apartment and helped him find a new location for the dojo. It was on 10th Street between University Place and Broadway. 

MAYTT: Oh wow. Seems like she was a real active player in the administration side of the dojo.

Imaizumi and his wife, Atsuko, demonstrating at New Orleans, Louisiana in the 1990s.

WW: Absolutely. She has been, all through the years, very much involved in trying to help them, Sensei and his wife, Atsuko, out. As a matter of fact, Atsuko also worked with Donna. I think Donna got her a job at the Art Dealer’s Association, which obviously helped pay some of the bills too. So, she was, and still continues to be, a help to the Imaizumis.

She had some major health problems during the Covid shutdown and actually maybe slightly before that as well. She is somewhat active in the new place where we are at.  She does come in and teach some ki classes, but not on a formal basis.

MAYTT: In September 1987, Imaizumi resigned from the Ki Society, retiring from teaching. By the next year, however, he established his Shin-Budo Kai in New York. To your knowledge, what events led to Imaizumi’s separation from Tohei’s Ki Society?

WW: Well, there were a number of factors and, again, this is a long time ago. But my recollection is that Tohei sensei was starting to impose certain – I don’t know what the details are, so I can’t be any more specific – requirements on the member dojos. They were becoming somewhat onerous, and it just happened to coincide with the timing that Imaizumi sensei was requested to go back to his family business and attend to that. When he did come back in 1988, there was no real reason to rejoin the Ki Society. His intention, at the time he had left in 1987, was to stop teaching entirely. It was only through the efforts of Donna Carlson and a few other people that Imaizumi sensei decided to teach at the dojo maintained by his former students (myself included) and start his own organization. 

MAYTT: How did you and the group you were a part of convince Imaizumi to come back or did he just changed his mind?

WW: I had no role whatsoever. I believe Donna Carlson, who is a student and started two years before I did, had some correspondence with Imaizumi sensei.  There was no convincing that I know of. It was his choice, just like his choice to go back to Japan. I believe it was his choice to come back to the United States.

MAYTT: How would you characterize the overall relationship Ki-Aikido has with other aikido styles? Would you consider them to be positive or negative? What of your own experiences and relationships with other aikido styles and their respective practitioners; would they be positive or negative as well?

WW: I couldn’t speak to the present day. I can tell you about my understanding from the years that we were part of the Ki Society that Tohei sensei was interested in maintaining a certain orthodoxy, meaning that he encouraged people to study his way of practicing aikido and discouraging going off the other styles. That was my recollection of the Ki-Aikido days. What they do now, I have no idea.

MAYTT: As a clarification, Imaizumi comes from the Ki-Aikido lineage, however, what does your dojo and Imaizumi call their aikido?

WW: Shin-Budo Kai is the name of the organization; Shin-Budo Kai, Inc. That’s his style.

MAYTT: From that, how has Shin-Budo Kai interacted with other aikido styles?

WW: I don’t know if I can answer that directly, but I’m going to do my best. First of all, Imaizumi sensei has made it clear throughout the years, and as a matter of fact, in the more recent years, that he owes a huge debt of gratitude to Ki-Aikido and Tohei sensei for Tohei sensei’s influence on him and the way Imaizumi sensei practices and teaches. That’s always been in the background; that’s number one. Number two is that Imaizumi sensei has not discouraged anyone from practicing other styles of aikido or other martial arts and he welcomes and has welcomed other people from other styles of aikido. He’s done this all the way through the years. He does not exclude anyone from what he does because they come from a different art. So, he actually encourages people to learn from other sources, other arts, from other aikido styles. However, that being said, when Imaizumi sensei is teaching, he expects that when you’re in his school, that you are doing what it is that he is doing and what he is showing, and you’re not practicing something else.

Wynshaw teaching at the 30th Anniversary of Shin Budo-Kai in 2018.

MAYTT: How would you differentiate Ki-Aikido to Shin-Budo Kai Aikido?

WW: Okay, so, like I said, Imaizumi sensei’s teachings within Shin-Budo Kai (SBK) owes a huge debt of gratitude to Tohei sensei, however, Imaizumi sensei has also, during the SBK years, incorporated other arts. He’s done more sword work, he’s done more stick work.  He has  taken from Shinkage-ryu and from other sword and stick arts and incorporated them into the curriculum.

MAYTT: I see. So Imaizumi expanded the weapons curriculum and had the empty hand follow that?

WW: Correct. And also, so you understand, that the SBK, the way that Imaizumi sensei has explained it, is that the translation of shin-budo is the “Original Budo.” Or it is the – it’s kind of hard to translate, but he’s trying to get to the essence, true budo. He believes that his curriculum is getting more to the essence of what budo is about.

MAYTT: Who would you consider to be influential practitioners that helped disseminate Ki-Aikido and SBK Aikido in both the Northeast and in the United States as a whole?

WW: Wow. [Laughs] do you have another hour and a half? [Laughs] I don’t even know how to answer that question. Well, let’s start with SBK. SBK, the only person who has that kind of influence would be Imaizumi sensei. Now, because SBK is not a large organization, there are not a lot of people out there, worldwide, that are doing what it is that we do. So, it starts and stops with Imaizumi sensei in terms of range of influence.

Ki-Aikido, I could not tell you. Tohei sensei, obviously, is the focal point of Ki-Aikido. I have not been with Ki-Aikido since 1987, so I don’t know who has been there since 1987. Before then, you had Maruyama sensei, probably Toyoda sensei. There are others, maybe in Hawaii that were influences in the origination. Maybe even Japan, but I don’t know who they are. I never really encountered them, the only person that I knew of that had that kind of influence was Tohei sensei.

MAYTT: What do you feel is the most impactful or memorable lesson that Imaizumi imparted on you, or that you learned from him throughout your years with him?

WW: The best answer I can give you to that question does not involve technique. There are two answers to that question. The first answer is that throughout my entire time studying with Imaizumi sensei, I have been known for asking questions; I always ask questions and that’s the thing I have done a lot. But even though he’s answered those questions, the real lessons I have learned have not been from the answers to those questions. I believe I have intuited the answers to my questions and not just techniques, and the way of aikido – the way of being. That is something that I believe he passed on with an understanding that would be beyond words. That’s the first part.

The second part is something that he said several years ago. That was at the annual holiday party that we had around the time of his birthday – his birthday is in December, but we also have a holiday party. During the holiday party, he very often would give a little speech or a little talk – we would have a little break at the party, everyone would sit down, and he would talk. In one of those, several years ago, he was giving a talk on the concept of shu-ha-ri – I won’t go into the explanation of that concept at this point. It was essentially him talking about how in the learning of aikido, like almost anything else, there is a time when you follow exactly what your teacher is doing and teaching. Then you move to the next stage which is to experiment, utilizing those principles that you learned in the first stage. And finally, you then have integrated the art and you have made the art your own, meaning that the techniques – whatever it is that you do – have become yours, rather than someone else’s. At that party, several years ago, he had said to everyone that was in the party, “Warren has done exactly that. Warren is free to do anything that he wishes to do in the art of aikido.” I had to lift my jaw up from the mat and collect myself because I was definitely not expecting that statement from him. That statement has given me the confidence to present the art the way that I see it and the way that I continue to develop within the art and to continue to educate myself and to be able to pass it along to anyone who wishes to learn.

MAYTT: That last one for sure, is a very deep lesson to instill and get across. That is amazing. Final question. As the pandemic restrictions all in all receded from daily life, how do you think aikido will recover from the recent years of limitations and mandates? What do you think aikido will look like in the next ten years?

WW: Boy oh boy. [Laughs] That is a question that has a number of different layers to it, at least in terms of answering. I’m going to tell you that I can’t speak to the art itself, because I don’t know everyone; I don’t know most people in the art. I can only speak from my experience, and I can tell you that just after Covid had shut us down and shut down probably every dojo in the world, one of the students in the school asked me to do a remote aikido class. I had been thinking about it for a few weeks before the person asked me to do that. As a result of his asking me, I then decided to offer an online class. That online class, I had to think about what I could do when you can’t take a fall, you can’t throw people, you can’t do the kinds of work that we normally think about in aikido. So, I came up with something that I called Ki Reimagined. What I did was I had classes twice a week and they were presentations of exercises that were designed for understanding the fundamentals of aikido techniques.  I took the Tohei sensei’s Ki Exercises and I overlaid them with some internal work which I had acquired from Dan Harden. I combined the two so that we would do twice a week solo exercises together with the idea that, over a period of time, we would increase our abilities in aikido when we were unable to practice normally. We did that for about two years, and I can tell you that both I and the students who attended the classes benefited tremendously. I can tell you that when I got back onto the mat, back in April or May [2022] – we are now in September [2022] – that my aikido had changed significantly; that the work I had done over the two years had changed me and my aikido, which I can’t really explain. But suffice it to say that the way that I’m teaching now is completely different, and, especially given the license that I had from Imaizumi sensei.  I’ve now developed my way of teaching and practicing aikido much differently from what it was pre-covid. It has gotten stronger. It has gotten faster. It’s gotten softer at the same time it’s gotten stronger. Much more efficient and much more subtle. So that’s just my experience. I can’t tell you everyone or anyone else has done pre- and post-covid.

MAYTT: Thank you again for joining us for this very informative interview about Imaizumi!

WW: It was a pleasure being here!

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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s