Interview with Boulder Aikikai Founder Hiroshi Ikeda: A Journey with Mitsugi Saotome

Hiroshi Ikeda first trained judo in his high school years before finding aikido at Kokugakuin University, in 1969. There, he began studying directly under Mitsugi Saotome, and soon enrolled in his Reimei Juku Dojo the next year. When an American aikidoka (Bill McIntyre) invited Saotome to teach in Florida in 1976, Ikeda followed him to the new country and began assisting his teacher there. Since then, Ikeda has relocated to Boulder, Colorado, establishing his Boulder Aikikai in 1980, and most recently joined Aikido Shimbokukai. Today, Ikeda took some time to talk about his aikido journey from Japan to America. All images provided by Hiroshi Ikeda.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome back Ikeda Sensei! Thank you for joining us today to talk about the early days of your aikido journey!

Hiroshi Ikeda: I am happy to be here.

MAYTT: Your first contact with aikido came during your university years in Japan, learning under Mitsugi Saotome. What first led you to take up the art and what has continued to motivate your practice all these years later? Is there one specific aspect of aikido that resonates more so than others for you? 

Hiroshi Ikeda teaching at one of his many seminars in 2017.

HI: I did judo for three years in high school, and then took a step into aikido when I tried other martial arts at university. At that time, the Shihan dispatched from the Hombu Dojo to the university was Mitsugi Saotome Shihan.

After four years of aikido in college, I felt that aikido was a martial art that suited my body and continued to study. After four years of college, I continued practicing aikido as much as time allowed, and I think that is the reason I am still practicing aikido today.

MAYTT: Following your time at university, you joined Saotome’s Reimei Juku Dojo in 1971. What were your first impressions of him as an instructor? 

HI: Reimei Juku is a dojo that was established by Saotome Shihan when I was in college. At that time, Saotome Shihan was studying aikido that could be adapted to other martial arts, and the training at Reimei Juku was a series of practices that were far removed from ordinary training.

Therefore, I remember that what Saotome Shihan taught was a difference between the instruction at Reimei Juku and the instruction at the general dojo.

MAYTT: Did you find training at a dojo completely different than training with the club level at university? Were you aware, at the time, if the training was comparable to training directly at Hombu Dojo in Japan? 

HI: In the 1970s, all of the martial arts clubs at the university had a different approach to training than the Hombu Dojo, as they included elements of physical and mental training, like military, as well as the acquisition of technical moves. My four years at the university were not only a time of mastery of my craft, but also a time of great change for me physically and mentally.

MAYTT: Later, in 1976, Saotome accepted to teach in Florida and invited you to join him. What do you feel prompted him to extend such an invitation? What were your initial reactions to his request? Was there any question or concern that you would go or was there ever a second thought about not going? 

HI: I think the reason why I was asked by Saotome Shihan was because I was always following Saotome Shihan for aikido instruction at that time. I didn’t have much resistance in myself about Sensei’s invitation, because at the time, I was planning to go to Australia and had a desire to see a big continent. 

MAYTT: When you and Saotome arrived in Florida, what were your first reactions to the new geographical and cultural environment? What obstacles did the two of you have to overcome in creating and building up a new dojo? 

HI: Even if the land changes and the people change, the purpose of training is only to improve the individual’s aikido and good training attracts people. Since we have built our dojo by utilizing natural principles, we have not had much difficulty even though the land and environment have changed. This was only because, at that time, Saotome Shihan was teaching aikido, an aikido that anyone would want to experience if they had experienced it.

MAYTT: How was aikido training in Florida, or the US for that matter, different from that of Japan? How would you characterize the aikidoka in America to those of Japan in the late 1970s? Were there any similarities that helped bridge any cultural gaps? 

HI: In the 1970s, American Aikido was behind Japanese Aikido in many ways, such as understanding of budo and techniques, since Japan had a long history of aikido. Over time, however, the gap between Japanese Aikido and American Aikido has narrowed under the guidance of the Shihan’s various teachings. Furthermore, in order to develop aikido in the US, I believe that we must cooperate with each other and if we fail to do so, we will need more time.

MAYTT: Additionally, what was the immediate aikido community like in Florida when you first arrived in 1976? Was it a large and communicative community or were there small, isolated groups of aikidoka around the state? 

Ikdea throwing a student at the 10th Anniversary of Aikido Bridge in San Diego.

HI: In the 1970s, Sarasota’s aikido dojo was a small, small-town dojo, and I believe the entire Florida aikido group was one small organization, just like Sarasota dojo [12th Street Dojo].

At that time, there was no communication between dojo and dojo, and they were isolated from each other.

MAYTT: Saotome wasted no time in establishing his own organization, the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba, with you serving as Vice President. What was that experience like for you and how did you see aikido and the organization grow during your time? What do you feel would be the most significant milestone the organization achieved during your tenure? 

HI: Saotome Shihan has always had a dream for aikido, and the organization he founded is fundamentally an organization to nurture those who aspire to aikido – quality over quantity. It was never the goal to increase the number of people in the organization and I was proud to have been able to help Saotome Shihan.

At that time, people in the US who were interested in aikido were looking for more aikido, and it was Saotome Shihan who offered an aikido that fulfilled their needs. Naturally, the number of people grew, and the organization naturally and significantly grew.

Milestone planning is a natural principle that says if you give good things, good things will come back.

MAYTT: Could you briefly describe the type of relationship you had with Saotome during these years of the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU)?

HI: Saotome Shihan is my aikido teacher, and that relationship will never disappear.

MAYTT: In 1980, you moved to Boulder, Colorado and established your current dojo, Boulder Aikikai. Being stationed in a university town, how have you seen the young adults take to aikido in the years following your dojo’s establishment? Have you experienced a number of university students remaining members or even relocating to Boulder permanently to be full time aikido practitioners under your tutelage? 

HI: In the 1980s, aikido was thriving and many young people visited the dojo to practice. Some aikido people moved to Boulder in search of aikido. However, the life of a student at the university was different from that of the average person, because he or she lived on campus. This was the reason that the number of students who traveled to the dojo to practice was limited. Therefore, students from the dojo travel to the university to teach and practice on campus, and even today, many university students start aikido every year.

Ikeda instructing at an Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar in Turkey, 2018.

MAYTT: In early 2015, Saotome recognized you as an “independent instructor,” thereby voiding all association between you and the ASU. Could you explain some of the factors and events that culminated in such a decision? 

HI: To learn, many people devote themselves and imitate the movements of their teacher’s techniques. I believe that the basic meaning of learning aikido and all other arts is to train with a teacher as a foundation, and to achieve further personal growth. I believe that it was the kindness of Saotome Shihan that helped me to achieve this, and I would like to repay him by becoming independent and expanding my own path in order to repay his kindness.

MAYTT: The next year, you joined Aikido Shimbokukai under Lisa Tomoleoni, where you also became the vice president. What drew you to join Aikido Shimbokukai? Do you feel the organization adopts a more modern line of thinking and doing compared to many of the other more veteran US aikido groups?  

HI: I joined the Shimbokukai because I believe that Lisa Tomoloeni was looking at the future development of the aikido organization with a new perspective. I felt that she was not a usual person; I felt that she cared only for her own organization.

The world is moving – moving into the future. I believe that the organization itself must change its structure in order to move forward into the future.

MAYTT: With the pandemic behind us, how do you think aikido has changed since the shutdown? From your experience, how do you see the art further changing and adapting to find its place in a post-Covid society? Do you feel schools will ever be able to return to a post-Covid state with regards to operations and overall membership numbers?  

HI: The pandemic has driven many people away from the world of aikido. However, I hope that once the pandemic is over, people will return to aikido as they did before. To do this, we need to take action and activate aikido instead of waiting for others to do so. It will require the cooperation of many people, and failing to do so will require additional time and waste.

MAYTT: Thank you again for this insightful conversation, Ikeda Sensei!

HI: Thank you for having me today.

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


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