Reflecting on Aikido Talks: Conversations with American Aikidoists

Perry, Susan, and Ronald Rubin. Aikido Talks: Conversations with American Aikidoists. Claremont, Calif.: Areté Press, 2001.

What are conversations if not bits of oral history? What are conversations if not small instances that allows one to better know and understand another? These are the aspects that drive the interview in Aikido Talks: Conversations with American Aikidoists. As editors Susan Perry and Ronald Rubin asserted at the beginning of the book, “what reasons do Americans have for spending their evenings wearing archaic Japanese clothing, bowing, locking joints, throwing, and being thrown?” (x). within these twenty conversations, talks, and interviews with both American and Canadian aikidoka, the editors seek to find the answers – or any answer – their question. All of these interviews previously appeared in the now-defunct Aikido Today Magazine and providing personal conversations with Virginia Mayhew, B. J. Carlisle, Kevin Choate, and Linda Holiday, aikidoka that usually do not make an appearance in other, more high-profile aikido-centered publications. These practitioners, along with the other sixteen offer their own answers, reasonings, and motivations to beginning and continuing an aikido journey.

The first facet of the book that should be pointed out is the interview with Mayhew. While her story took her from New York City to Japan to Hong Kong and mainland China, there is one historical fact that gets glossed over: she was part of the group that founded the New York Aikikai (NYA) as opposed to Yoshimitsu Yamada. Mayhew founded the NYA in 1963 after attending a Koichi Tohei seminar in Hawaii. The group’s teacher, Yasuo Ohara and only shodan, taught until his time at New York University was completed. Mayhew later earned her shodan and continued teaching. By 1965, she “happily left the New York Aikikai in the hands of Yamada Sensei” to travel around Asia (4). In reading through the literature and research, especially before publishing Aikido Comes to America, many sources, articles and interviews, credited Yamada as the founder of the NYA and the rest fell into place. While the fact that Yamada struggled to build the dojo into what it is today, along with his organization, is a testament to his grit, determination, and overall commitment to aikido and his mission, this tiny historical fact is seemingly glanced over. French aikidoka and Daito-ryu practitioner Guillaume Erard has, since last year, published a biography about her, illuminating the American aikido community to this overlooked fact.

Another aspect of Aikido Talks that should be noted is its fact to truly explore how aikido has shaped their lives, or their respective outlooks on it. One interview that was most interesting was with Fred Donaldson and his theory of play with children and how aikido has assisted him with that theory. Within play, children would learn naturally how to interact with each other and learn about the world around them. Similarly, specifically what Morihei Ueshiba wrote, said, and felt about aikido, such aspects would come naturally after using the theory of play within an aikido framework. Additionally, since children do not have competitions, within themselves or with others, when they play, aikido is a perfect complement given its non-competitiveness. Another interview that struck me as different was the shortest one in the book: Kevin Choate. Choate bluntly states that he is not a sensei, though he taught at Chicago Aikikai at the time of the interview. He then makes the analogy of mountain climbing to aikido: the journey is the responsibility of the student with the sensei only showing the path ahead for those below, not to come down and force students to continue upward. And with that, his interview, though the shortest in the book, takes hold of the reader’s mind as they ponder what was just said.

By the end of the book, one gets a feeling that they have a fuller understanding of the American aikido community. With Perry and Rubin essentially focused on the students of the Japanese pioneers, the editors created a window into what the American aikido community was at that time and where it was possibly going. While there are small historical facts scattered throughout the interviews, recording history was not their primary goal, but to enter into the mind of an American aikidoka who wants to bow, wear white pajamas, and get thrown around my joint locks and the like. To that end, the conversations speak for themselves – each one was individually tailored to the practitioner, giving the reader a personal experience with each interviewee as they give their own answers to the questions that drove Perry, Rubin, and Aikido Today Magazine.


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