Reflecting on Aikido in America

Stone, John, and Ronald C Meyer. Aikido in America. Berkeley, Calif.: Frog: Distributed by North Atlantic Books, 1995.

Aikido is a Japanese martial art; however, it has spread all over the world from the 1950s onward. Many of the early histories of the art focused on the Japanese experience of the art, magnifying the life and times of its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, and those around him. For a time, the American’s experience of aikido was a secondary thought, even among Americans themselves. Aikido in America brings those stories, perspectives, and experiences to the forefront, making them known throughout the American aikido community at the time. As the pages turn, the reader learns of aikidoka that attempted to “go native” in Japan and back home in America, those that helped establish the foundations of the aikido community of today (mainly in California), and those who wanted to bring aikido from the mat to others who would never dream of stepping into a dojo. Within the pages, the reader sees how aikido specifically touched and affected their lives.

The book is separated into three distinct parts, “The Disciples,” “The Teachers,” and “The Innovators.” While they are separated by their contact with the founder or not, a different kind of separation occurs: by waves. The first set – “The Disciples” – featuring the likes of Terry Dobson, Mary Heiny, Robert Nadeau, and Robert Frager could be considered the first wave of American aikidoka in the late 1960s. Elements of this first wave were mostly practitioners that had the opportunity to train in Japan, meet the founder on some level, and begin the first real push to bring aikido to the American public. The second set, containing Frank Doran, Rod Kobayashi, and George Simcox, became the teachers, peers, and mainstays of the aikido movement – so aptly named for their section, “The Teachers.” They may or may not have trained in Japan, perhaps meeting the founder. These practitioners, during the early and mid-1970s, would go on to teach and eventually prop up the third wave of the aikido push in America. Lastly, “The Innovators,” which include Tom Crum, George Leonard, Richard Heckler, Wendy Palmer, Danielle Evans, and Koichi Barrish essentially took what they learned from the previous two waves and attempted to integrate that into projects, ideas, and movements off the mat, bringing the art and its concepts to people who would never think to walk into a martial arts school.

These interviews, by the authors’ design, are very personal to each aikidoka, where some freely curse and share deep realizations that impacted them on either their aikido or life journey. Dobson freely cursed while explaining how to reconcile people’s violent tendencies with the peaceful philosophy of aikido. Heiny openly discussed her experiences at Hombu Dojo, being discriminated against for being one of the only women to train aikido at the time. The hard choice between staying with one’s teacher and feeling one’s training is plateauing was Kobayashi’s conundrum. And Heckler saw the transformation of American military men when introduced to aikido’s principles.

What is not surprising about the collection of interviews, when one takes a closer look at it, is the amount of Aikikai practitioners. The four others would be considered independent, mostly from the Ki Society lineage. From a historical perspective, the book does not include practitioners from Yoshinkan or Tomiki lineage. But the omission of said lineages do not detract from the historical preservation or the personal and American experiences the authors portray. On the contrary, the mere fact that two Aikikai authors reached out to those outside of their own group is noteworthy that there is a broader history to the art of aikido, not just one narrative.

In the end, Aikido in America is a snapshot of what aikido was like in the early to mid-1990s in America, as the title indicates. Moreover, it begins to lay the groundwork of who came before in American aikido. These aikidoka discussed their experiences of times before the 1990s, demonstrating a sense of change from when the early practitioners began training. And, as someone who now trains almost thirty years after the book’s publication year, aikido has changed even further from what the authors experienced when they were putting together their manuscript. The recent pandemic has changed many things about society and how that global event affected everyone has yet to be seen, but it will be radically different from what the first American aikidoka experienced.


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