Because of a friend’s recommendation, Andrew Bordwin entered Shizuo Imaizumi’s dojo in November of 1990 and was immediately captivated. In addition to Imaizumi’s vigorous aikido instruction, Bordwin was drawn to Imaizumi’s emphasis on weapons. Today, Bordwin took some time to talk about his aikido journey, how Shin-Budo Kai interacts with other aikido styles, and the recent retirement of Imaizumi. All images provided by Andrew Bordwin.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Bordwin Sensei! Thank you for joining us to talk about Imaizumi Sensei!
Andrew Bordwin: Thank you for having me.
MAYTT: How and when did you first come to find aikido and Shizuo Imaizumi? What was it about the art that made you want to stay and what continues to motivate you to maintain your training?
AB: I found aikido through my wife’s employer at the time, back in 1990. They were over for dinner; two film and theater producers – that was her career path at the time. I mentioned wanting to take up a martial art, mostly for self-defense. One of her employers at the time said, “The art you want to do is aikido. The guy you want to study with is Imaizumi. He’s on 14th Street.” I went there with a friend and checked it out. That was in November of 1990, and I started immediately.
It’s partially the art and partially Imaizumi Sensei’s own approach to teaching and his curriculum. He’s unusual in the sense that his curriculum is as heavy on weapons as it is on aikido. People often tell you that techniques derive from the sword. For him, he doesn’t just say that; it’s the backbone of his teaching – learning how to become comfortable with a sword and wherever that can take you. I’ve always been attracted to training with weapons. In addition to that aspect is his emphasis on ki and Ki Training. The Ki Training was this profound conundrum of strength and softness and his ability to exhibit stability and to guide movement and to remain connected to the ground while being completely relaxed. That, to me, almost seemed like a magic trick; this is something I wanted to figure out – how did he do that? How did he just hide the ace of spades? How did he manage to do this thing that I didn’t think I could do? It’s not unobtainable; it’s very easily obtainable if you focus on listening to your teacher and actually practicing it. To me, that was intrinsic, this idea that you had strength and relaxation as one inseparable strategy to do everything you do in your training.
The art itself is respecting someone’s energy and redirecting or guiding it, or what have you. That was interesting to me too. Then you have the simple aspect of joint locks being cool. I love joint locks. [Laughs] You learn anatomy and you get to make someone’s body go in a direction that it’s not designed to go and you’re able to neutralize a situation. It’s kind of like a complicated answer to a simple question because there are so many aspects about the art itself, but specifically the way Imaizumi Sensei teaches the curriculum and how it’s structured that got me interested and kept me interested.
I have to say that the boss who recommended me to aikido and Imaizumi Sensei was right. I feel, in so many ways, what I’ve received from Imaizumi Sensei’s training has been priceless and not only helped me grow physically, mentally, spiritually, but it’s also prepared me to expand my training outside of aikido in a big way. It’s been an incredible foundation, an incredible preparation and continues to be a really positive practice.
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?
AB: I found that I could get out of it what I wanted. So, if I was starting out, it was like, “Hey, I need to figure this out. I gotta take this slow; I gotta step through and learn this.” I’m not terribly athletic, or naturally athletic, my coordination is not so great! [Laughs] It’s gotten better over the years, but I’m not a natural, so to speak. We’ve all trained with naturals. I’m not a natural.
What characterized the training for me, and still does, is that it is what you need it to be. If you’re just learning something and trying to figure it out, I found that the senior students were perceptive enough to pick up on that. I never felt bullied; I never felt pushed to a degree that I didn’t want. So, I could keep it low-key if I wanted. If I wanted to amp up, there were always people I could amp up with. So, I could really bring training up to this intensity that I wanted, that I was ready for, that I was comfortable with. I always tried to push my boundaries and people did the same thing to me. You’re always getting challenged.
There’s something about Imaizumi Sensei’s teaching style as well that’s very interesting on a brass-tacks level: Typically, if you go to many dojo, they’ll show a technique six or eight times… Imaizumi Sensei will show it twice, and that’s it – have a nice day – and then you do it. He’s an old Japanese man – he doesn’t explain stuff verbally so much. It’s old school. If you have a question, he demonstrates it; he doesn’t talk. He shows it on you; you feel it. Then you’ve answered your question. Then he asks you if you have any more questions, you say no, and you move on. [Laughs]
Also, once we’ve paired up, we do the technique twice and then switch, and then twice and switch. We won’t do it four times and switch, so we’re constantly going back and forth between nage and uke. Left and right, boom. Left and right, boom. Then, in the middle of training a particular technique, he’ll tell you to switch partners. You’ll do every technique like that. You do it more often and you do it with two different people; you don’t do it with one person. So, when you’re learning, you get this cross-section. You not only learn the technique, but you learn how the technique shifts between people. That’s baked into the training. Everything you learn, in every class, for thirty years. [Laughs] So that was what it was. That, to me, is really interesting and it took me a while to realize that. Until you start to teach, you don’t really understand the decisions – the many, many decisions – this man made. Once you start to teach, you realize, “Wow, the way I run this class is going to have a profound effect on my students to internalize this technique.” Very simple stuff, like how many times you do it and whether or not you switch partners.
To be very clear, I’m not throwing shade on Aikikai or any other style. SBK just happens to be the flavor I fell into. I didn’t go to 18th Street in 1990, I went to Imaizumi Sensei’s dojo. So that’s my exposure. I also train in an Aikikai dojo near where I live. It’s fantastic! Great people, great instructor, great organization, just a bit different. It makes you realize how you integrate and take on the techniques.
MAYTT: That is an interesting method of training. You bring up the Aikikai. How does Shin-Budo Kai interact with other aikido styles?
AB: We’re independent and always have been. People from the Aikikai sometimes come to us. We’ve had a few students from the Aikikai leave the Aikikai and come train with us, for whatever reason. Sometimes the schedule or location changes. Some people have complained about getting injured and we don’t usually have a lot of injuries in Shin-Budo Kai. We train hard; I would argue sometimes more solidly than other styles for sure, but people don’t typically get injured. There are reasons for that. But sometimes we get people from the Aikikai. There are people going back and forth. There’s no animosity.
We often get visitors from various Aikikai dojo who are traveling and want to train in NYC, or are just curious about Ki Society and Koichi Tohei’s teachings because we are from the Tohei lineage. So, it’s a mix, but the typical student that comes to us wants something that’s not mainstream. That doesn’t necessarily have the orthodoxy that you might find in some dojo because they’re beholden to the main trunk of the tree and Imaizumi broke off once, and then broke off twice. He broke off with Tohei in 1974 and then on his own in 1988 by forming Shin-Budo Kai. He’s an independent thinker.
MAYTT: I see. How does Imaizumi speak about his prior teachers, Koichi Tohei and Morihei Ueshiba, especially after he broke away?
AB: With great respect, always. He’s never said a disrespectful word about any of his teachers. He doesn’t do that. In fact, he gave a seminar for his eightieth birthday and the thirtieth anniversary of his founding of Shin-Budo Kai, in 2018, and one whole section he taught Kisshomaru style – he basically honored his teacher, Kisshomaru Sensei. He introduced and passed on specific teachings from his teacher for two hours. So, he devoted part of the seminar to that. He’s never said a bad word about any of his teachers.
MAYTT: That is good. I’ve talked to people who were around when Tohei split from the Aikikai in 1974 and there were degrading stories and insults about him.
AB: Well, that makes sense. Look, Tohei was an extraordinary man, and people like that can be lightning rods. He trained with O-Sensei and the first rank he received was godan – “Here you go. Here’s godan and you’re my Chief Instructor.” And he continued on being chief instructor at Hombu long after he began promulgating his emphasis on ki. His teaching changed and continued to change, and he was still Chief Instructor. But for whatever reason, he broke off, and I’m sure anytime someone breaks off from a main organization, there is going to be ill will. That doesn’t surprise me. But he was a supremely talented budoka. Very close to the Ueshibas and very important to the organization as it grew on through the fifties and sixties. You can’t take that away. He decided he just wanted to emphasize the ki in aikido and had to find his own way.
I’m sure there are people that speak ill of him. Martial arts are filled with hot air and freaks and bullshit. There’s just so much hot air. The style I was given by Imaizumi Sensei is not about falling preemptively just because someone is trying to make you fall without actually throwing you. We throw each other – you have to be thrown. I’m not going to fall if you don’t throw me. That’s not me being defensive, that’s just how I was trained. There are people who criticized Tohei, but I don’t see the utility in that.
MAYTT: A few years before you started training, Imaizumi began Shin-Budo Kai. To your knowledge, what events led to Imaizumi’s separation from Tohei’s Ki Society?
AB: First of all, I have to clarify that when I came into that dojo, the four principles of training of Ki Society were on the front wall as well as the teaching certificate that Tohei gave to Imaizumi Sensei. There was an official portrait of Tohei Sensei hanging as well. That was two years after he broke off. The culture is such that you respect your teachers, you respect your elders. These are people who came before you, so you don’t, all of a sudden, flip a switch and on October 1, 1988, when he decided to do this, and the color switched on. It’s not that quick. When I started, I was doing Ki Training twice a week for a full hour and that was watered down. It used to be five nights a week, an hour of ki and an hour of aikido. But Ki Training was still an essential part and every Saturday as well.
Imaizumi Sensei is not going to talk about why he made the change. There’s a bunch of stuff; there’s public and there’s private. There’s oku, stuff that’s on the inside and stuff that’s on the outside. So, we’re all left to draw our own conclusions. What I can say is that if you’re a teacher, you want to create your own curriculum. A lot of the curriculum that Imaizumi Sensei set involved a range of aikido techniques with his nomenclature. Nomenclature, for him, is very important. No one has a nomenclature like this. Every single technique in it has its own name, so you can identify them. For nidan, there’s 250 that you have to know.
Our tests take two days: one day for weapons, one day for aikido. And the weapons part has often been the most challenging part. So, when I was training, I didn’t just study aiki kempo and aiki jo, which is part of it, which is basically a lot of stuff that you’ll see across a lot of dojo. I studied Shinkage-ryu, I studied Itto-ryu, and I studied Nihon Jodo Seitei Kata. He said outright, “I’m not a Shinto Muso-ryu dojo; I’m not a Shinkage-ryu dojo; I’m not an Itto-ryu dojo. I have no authority to teach these things.” But he taught them anyway, with great clarity. He took a risk. He put himself out there. He acquired these kata, and he gave them to us in an effort to broaden our martial arts education. We also did Nihon Kendo Kata, which is a classic ZNKR (All Japan Kendo Federation), something that all kendo people do. I mean, that’s a rich weapons curriculum – it’s very broad.
I’ve committed to training in Shinto Muso-ryu with my teacher Diane Skoss in New Jersey. She established the Shutokukan dojo with her husband Meik Skoss. They’re incredibly experienced people and their history is truly remarkable. It’s a fantastic group of budoka. I felt that my SBK training truly prepared me to observe their classes. Because of Imaizumi’s training, I felt prepared observing Meik Sensei’s Yagyu Shinkage-ryu keiko at the Ken Zen in New York City, and Diane Sensei’s Shinto Muso-ryu keiko in New Jersey a few years ago.
Subsequently, Sensei began to write his own kata. He has his own ken taiso and jo taiso – he created his own kata which has supplanted a lot of that. But what you end up with is this massively wide and deep preparation for wherever you want to go with it. My friend Kevin Lam, who I took shodan with, is now the senior teacher for the Americas in Katori Shinto-ryu under Phil Relnick. He got into it largely because he had this gateway experience from Imaizumi Sensei.
That was Imaizumi Sensei’s grand plan. He had a bigger vision. The reason he split from Tohei Sensei is because he had a bigger vision – this is my take on it. He wanted his students to possess – to have – to be able to take away from a committed, multi-year training experience with him. That was not something that lined up neatly with Tohei’s vision. Tohei’s Ki no Kenkyukai is a different thing. Imaizumi Sensei wanted something more, so he had to separate. Now, there are other personal reasons, which I’ve heard here and there, which I will not go into, but none of it is negative, really. None of it is adversarial, but it is a product of necessity in order to find his own path.
MAYTT: What has Imaizumi said about his training back in Japan, under both Ueshiba and Tohei?
AB: He said a few different things. So, he started in 1959 and he started at Waseda University, so he was not training with O-Sensei in the beginning. I forget if he started with O-Sensei in 1962 or 1963. He was going to morning classes. This was also a point where it was seven or eight years before O-Sensei’s death, so he’s already that grand, white-haired old man that you see in the photographs. He would typically show up for the early morning classes. Salarymen would show up at and be out in time to wipe their face down, change their clothes, and get to their jobs.
He remembers training with Ueshiba Sensei, who would give long lectures in front of the class and talk about metaphysical things. When asked, like many students of that era, if Imaizumi Sensei understood what O-Sensei was talking about, “No. None of us did. We didn’t understand it.” He trained heavily with Kisshomaru Sensei and Tohei Sensei. He had a very committed schedule. He was working, as far as I know, in the accounting department of a steel company at the time.
I did a collaboration with Stanley Pranin where he interviewed Imaizumi Sensei and filmed extensive video. If you go on the Aikido Journal website and type in “Imaizumi,” you should be able to find it.
MAYTT: That is also what Warren said; Imaizumi being quiet about certain things. Speaking of him, Warren brought up Donna Carlson who was the main person who helped Imaizumi and his wife set everything up in New York. Could you tell me about her and her role in the dojo?
AB: Donna was my first teacher, so she was very active. When I came to visit in the fall of 1990, Imaizumi Sensei was not in the country. He was visiting Japan on his second trip. From what I understand, he comes from a family of horse breeders, and he was dealing with family business issues. In the end, he decided to stay in the US. But he wasn’t there in the country and the school was operated primarily by Donna.
We had a few teachers at the time, but Donna has always been the senior instructor among the teachers. She’s Imaizumi Sensei’s longest running student and has been there since the beginning; she started in 1974. She helped Sensei and his wife Atsuko get their apartment. The two of them have lived in the same apartment in the city for a very long time. She helped find the first dojo, second dojo, and third dojo, so forth. We don’t own property, we rent. That’s another difference; the Aikikai owns a building on 18th Street, which has its pluses, and it has its minuses and one of the big pluses is stability. They’ve been in the same location for a long time, but we’ve had to move. Which is interesting because you have to reinvent yourself. There are things to be said about that.
She’s been there from the beginning. She’s always been his senior person, always the one who helped the two of them. She’s consistently taught Saturdays. After he came back from Japan in 1991, she took Saturdays. Especially for beginners, taking Saturday class with Donna was very important. She’s a very great teacher, and a very intense teacher. She’s got big expectations and she’s not unkind, but she’s very traditional. If you’re not moving your leg right, she’ll be, “God damn it!” and start kicking your foot to where you should put it. “Move your damn leg!” She’s an ex-dancer. She’s originally from Colorado, Sicilian by birth and a brilliantly artistic soul. She worked at the Art Dealers Association of America for many years. Because I work as an artist, we’ve always connected over art. She’s very thoughtful; she’s very cultured, but she’s very to the point, very straightforward.
Her stepping back from teaching really only happened over the few years – I’d say about the past four, five years. And that’s mostly because of health stuff. She’s had some battles. She’s older than Sensei; 86 or so. That’s a little old to be shuffling around. I teach on Mondays at the dojo, and I make an effort to bring her in and invite her to teach Ki Class to the students who are there. And it’s the revelation; they’re getting this virtually private lesson in ki training. She’s this tiny woman but she’ll shove you over. She’s incredibly stable. She’s been part of the dojo as long as Imaizumi Sensei has.
He just retired on October 1[, 2022], and she was there. We’re still in touch. Donna’s always had – she reads a wide variety of publications and she will cut out things of interest and she will assemble them. Every month or two months, she’ll hand you an envelope containing a mix of clippings from the London Times, this art review for an archeology magazine, you name it, stuff that’s all about things she knows you’re interested in, with notes in it sometimes. She’s very thoughtful. It’s very remarkable to have a teacher like that. It’s a great experience.
MAYTT: You bring up Imaizumi’s retirement. With that in mind, what does the future of Shin-Budo Kai look like without him actively teaching? Or is that still in flux?
AB: It’s a brand-new thing for us so it is still in flux. We have a dojo in New York. We also have a dojo in Albuquerque, New Mexico. one in Durango, Colorado, one in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, and one in Texas. And we have someone taking on a few students in Westchester County NY, but it’s not terribly official. But I’d say Ralph Bryan, Chief Instructor in Albuquerque, has been in charge of the West for many years now and a key mover in our organization. There’s a long history of that because we used to have a dojo in Austin, Texas. We also had one in New Orleans, had one in Amsterdam; so, there’s been a few.
Imaizumi Sensei has never been interested in empire building. The future is uncertain when you have your main instructor retire. The person whose lineage you tote as the backbone of your organization is no longer teaching – his lineage is still there but he’s no longer teaching. How do you organize to carry on? I think that’s an issue that every school faces when they lose a figurehead, unless there has been a chosen successor. In the Aikikai, you have Morihei Ueshiba, then Kisshomaru, Moriteru, and so on. It’s a lineage – that’s true in koryu as well. You have Soke – if your art has a Soke, then it’s passed through familial ties. There’s stability – it’s built in. with our organization, it’s not really built in that way. So, there’s no natural answer to the question. We’re in a transition; we’re going to see how it works out. But the confidence in the teaching and the adherence to the curriculum is unquestioned across the board. But we will see what it takes for us to continue ongoing, instructional presence in the tri-state area. Will it stay in New York? Will it move to New Jersey? Will it move to Connecticut? Will it be in the tri-state area? At any rate, we’re going to keep on keeping on.
MAYTT: Final question. As the pandemic restrictions are slowly receding from daily life, how do you think aikido will rebound from this pandemic?
AB: I don’t know. I think people will start training, which some have. You get back onto the mat and act like nothing happened. I’m not sure if there’s an answer to that besides like, “Okay, and now we continue.” People are just continuing. Are things different now and are people coming back in a different way, that’s a different question. How has the pandemic affected people; has it affected any dojo’s given ability to thrive or struggle, well that’s a different question and there’s more to talk about there. But as for what we do now, we do what we’ve always done: you get back to training if that’s what you want to do. Now we can, so we do.
The problem is, to shift a little bit, so many folks have found other things and, as a result, they’re not necessarily coming back to where they were with the same vigor. Some people just walk away, or they’ve found another art or another vocation, or they found another modality, whatever it is, and they don’t necessarily return. They’re not jumping back into the dojo and picking up where they left off. Things are different. Maybe they’ve discovered they like to train in other ways; maybe they decided to walk away from it all together; maybe they like boxing or are more interested in Krav Maga. Maybe they got more into training. Covid can push you into a better place; It can push you away; it can make you commit more; it can make you commit less. It’s so individual.
MAYTT: Thank you for taking the time to join us! We enjoyed this conversation!
AB: Thank you for having me.
To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.