Interview with Longtime Aikidoka John Bieszk: Fumio Toyoda in the Midwest, Part I

John Bieszk first started judo after going through not the nicest part of Chicago. After finding some time between schooling, he arrived at the Illinois Aikido Club under Akira Tohei. After taking a leave of absence due to college work, he found Fumio Toyoda in 1980 and he never stopped. Once he earned his shodan in 1984, he began teaching out of the local park districts. Today, Bieszk took some time to talk about training under Toyoda, teaching on his own, and the future of the Aikido Association of America. All images provided by John Bieszk. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Bieszk Sensei! Thank you for joining us!

John Bieszk: Thank you for having me. I am honored to be here.

MAYTT: You first came across aikido at the Illinois Aikido Club in 1973, staying there until 1975. How did you find aikido?

John Bieszk training with Stephen Toyoda at Tenshinkan Dojo.

JB: It’s a bit of a story. Turns out that I got interested in judo when I was in high school, mainly because I was waiting on a bus station on the corner of 79th and Cottage Grove, and in Chicago, that’s not known as the best neighborhood. Suddenly, one person was walking in front of me, about two to three feet, turned, stared at me, turned, stared at me again, and I felt a little uncomfortable. As I turned around to walk away, there were three bigger guys behind him staring at me. Luckily the biggest guy on the corner was a guy that worked for the bus company’s scheduling, and I was his shadow – if they were going to get me, they were going to get him too. [Laughs] Though, we ended without altercation, but after that, I looked into martial arts.

We lived on the southeast side of Chicago at the time, so I found judo at the south side Chicago YMCA. I was there for two or three years. Then I was taken up with schoolwork and things, so I didn’t get back to martial arts until 1973, when my parents had moved to Evanston, and I had found this book called Super Judo. It is an intriguing title, and they had a picture of a little old man with a white beard tossing people. I thought that this seemed interesting. When I pursued it, I found the Illinois Aikido Club. I was there mostly weekends and some evenings because I was also at Notre Dame, going back and forth. I was there until things got really busy, until 1975.

MAYTT: Who was the club’s instructor at the time?

JB: Akira Tohei Sensei.

MAYTT: What was he like as an instructor?

JB: He seemed to be very interested in teaching. He was a little stiff in his movements, but we just chalked that up to some age. As an instructor, he seemed to be pretty good. Very traditional. This was a long time ago – overall he was good, and I enjoyed working with the people who were there. It was a good exposure, but in 1975, I was getting into the real depth of my thesis work, so, I just had to stop, and I was completely immersed in trying to complete my thesis. That’s why I stopped in 1975.

MAYTT: I see. Later, you returned to aikido in 1980, after completing a “full time study in Physics.” What led you back into the arms of aikido?

JB: In 1977, I got my degree and then I went to Madison, Wisconsin for three years. Then I got hired by a company in the Chicagoland area in 1980 – this is a roundabout story, as you can tell [Laughs]. In March of 1980, my family and I moved back and, in the fall, I saw this flier for an aikido demonstration at a YMCA in the northwest suburbs, Lattof YMCA in Des Plaines. And so, I was there – “Well, I know a little bit about aikido, and I’ve seen some classes.” So, I figured I would go and see what the demonstration was about. It was a demonstration by Fumio Toyoda Shihan and one of his brown belts. It was just those two and they put on a very nice demonstration for about fifteen minutes. Then they asked if anybody had any questions. I raised my hand and said, “I haven’t seen any kick defenses.” And that’s when the brown belt who was with Toyoda Shihan just stared at me – “What? Are you trying to kill me kid?!” [Laughs] Toyoda Shihan went on to show defenses from the low kick, stomach kick, and the high kick. I said thank you very much and that pretty much concluded his demonstration, but what always struck me is that he would go to every person who was there, shake their hand, and say, “Thank you for coming.” I was very impressed with that – that connection to people. From there, I ended up taking classes at the YMCA for a couple of years and the instructor said, “You know. Toyoda Shihan really wants you to come down to the main dojo” – then 1016 W. Belmont Avenue. I eventually went there and continued for some time.

MAYTT: When you got back into training after seeing Toyoda, what, if at all, was different from when you first started seven years earlier?

JB: The thing that really struck me about Toyoda Shihan’s methodology that he would show the technique, then he would break it down into steps: this is the first step, and you should be this way and your feet should be that way, you should be extending your partner this way and then next step. So, he had a really good step by step teaching method to really help you understand why you moved such and such a way. Akira Tohei was more: I’m showing you the technique and you’re going to work with various students and figure it out by working with students and trying to do things. So, it was his teaching methodology and the fact that he was a larger person for the average Japanese. He would attract big people to his classes and when they stayed with him for a while, he would throw big people significant distances in his classes, and that was very impressive. That was one of the things that really attracted me.

After a while, he would have two lines of yudansha and sometimes one and a half or two lines of kyu students – so this was probably fifty or sixty kyu students in addition to the twenty-five yudansha. He had quite a participation with his students. And his methodology is what I really appreciated.

MAYTT That methodology is really crucial. What was the training like when you returned in 1980? Was it rough and repetitious or was it refined and detailed?

JB: Well, in 1980, I was still at the YMCA. Because that was a satellite dojo just starting up there, it was generally much easier to accommodate newer people. When I started to go down to the 1016 Belmont Avenue Dojo, Tenshinkan, then there were people who were with Toyoda Shihan for years and there, things did pick up. [Laughs] There were a number of black belts, some who came to the United States with Toyoda Shihan and others that were already studying with him for a number of years. He had a dojo – he was renting space in a karate dojo when he started and then he went to Evanston, I think. In Evanston, he had about six students who were basically like uchi deshi. From there, I think he actually went to a former bowling alley on Ashland Avenue, just north of Belmont. And then finally, he was able to buy the building at 1016 West Belmont Avenue and definitely threw himself into that.

At that time, he was having kidney problems, as you may have heard. He ended up on dialysis for some time – I think it was several years, but I’m not absolutely sure. That was before my time. When he was on dialysis, he was still working in the office and doing things and the occasional seminar and occasional class, but he was getting dialysis three times a week. A lot of the black belts who were with him at the time took classes and they were more than willing to energetically get involved in the techniques.

Hiroshi Taijiri is definitely one of those guys who picked up a lot of teaching slack. And there were several others who I can’t remember at this time.

One of the things that Toyoda Shihan would do was to have somebody attack him and he would defend himself with kote gaeshi and he would have this big, long, flowing kote gaeshi throw. And there were times where his uke was still flying through the air as Toyoda Shihan turned and addressed the crowds. So, when he really wanted to, you could go ten feet easily, if he really wanted to throw you. He had enormous ki and that’s what attracted a lot of people to him as well.

MAYTT: From that point, how have you seen such training change or evolve over time?

JB: The thing about Toyoda Shihan is that if you were new, he was one of the nicest people in the world. He would come up, he would talk to you, ask you how you were doing, do you have any questions, give them personal attention to doing things. But as you stayed with him, then he would start to demand a little bit more attention, a little more involvement with your training. From there, things were always – when you came on the mat, you should’ve been focused. If not, there were ways that he could get your attention, and very quickly. [Laughs] Especially if you were an uchi deshi. That was not good at all. He would definitely give you a lot of breakfalls, a lot of other things, but if you wanted to stay with him to study, this was considered a privilege and you had to show you were serious about this privilege.

People who worked with him would always find new and interesting ways of looking at aikido, talking about aikido, and Toyoda Shihan was a Zen master, so he would also have separate classes for Zen meditation. For a while, in the early years, he was part of the Ki Society. And then, later on, he realized that he was paying them but nobody ever came out to give seminars, demonstrations, or things so he went on to form the Aikido Association of America. I think he started in 1982, but I think he really started pushing it in 1984 and had plans to come up with an international headquarters as well. That ultimately led to the dojo, Ryoshinkan, in Palatine. Especially when we were doing week-long seminars, kangeiko, shochugeiko (summer training), there were a lot of intense classes. In the late 1980s, we would have three-hour classes; one was a morning class, a noon class, and then an evening class, and then a morning and afternoon class on Saturday with dinner and then Sunday morning was a two- or three-hour class. Those classes on those weekends were definitely intense.

MAYTT: It is good to have that spectrum in training. In 1982, you met Fumio Toyoda at his Tenshinkan Dojo. What differentiated him from the other Japanese instructors at the time?

JB: I really didn’t visit too many other instructors. But I did hear from people who would attend seminars and they were very appreciative of his explanations and his teaching approach. Definitely, if he was going to demonstrate something, he would usually do something in the first few movements to have your attention. Plus, when he came in 1974, with, as I remember, one suitcase, a pack of cigarettes and a few dollars, he was just dedicated. From what I’ve heard, when he would go around the country and give seminars in North Carolina, Ohio, and other places, his seminars were always well-attended and well-appreciated. In the beginning, he also came up with a national, aikido instructor certification. At the time, he was the only instructor who would do that.

Fumio Toyoda (right) and John Mazza (left) demonstrating kumi tachi in a seminar in Greece.

What I really liked about him is that he could be so charming, especially to new students. [Laughs] If you asked him to spend time with these students and impart his wisdom, then he would also get you to pay attention, get you to remember what he just showed you. He attracted a lot of people, not only because of his clear teaching but if you wanted to dial it up, he was very happy to do that once he was convinced your ukemi was up to it. I know he went to the Nippon Budokan for aikido demonstrations a couple of times and a number of these seminars, especially in Bulgaria and places, were recorded and some of them can be found on YouTube. But he was always concerned and answered questions.

One of the things that struck me is that since I was working full-time in the city when I came back, I was mostly there Tuesdays and Fridays, on Tuesdays, Toyoda Shihan would go to the university of Chicago, He and his ukes would just take the [Chicago] L [elevated train lines] up and then get to the university and teach there. He taught professors, students, graduate students, and they were all very impressed with what he knew. And he could talk to any person with any background. He could talk to college professors, he could talk to blue-collar workers, and he could talk to people in between. He had this remarkable ability to make connections. When he talked to you, showed you something, or corrected your technique and he walked away smiling, you were happy. [Laughs] What you wanted to be very careful of was when he suddenly yelled your name, “John! What are you doing!?” You would just think, “Oh God! I think I’ll come out of this alive, but maybe I don’t want to.” There were a couple of times he said, “John, I’ve been trying to teach you this for years, but if you keep coming, I’ll keep teaching. Sooner or later, it will work out.” And that always really impressed me; if you have a sincere desire to come and train, he will be there for you or he will make sure somebody is there for you. That very much impressed me.

When I passed my shodan exam, my wife had decided to surprise me by buying a hakama, which she bought from a hapkido school in Lombard, where we lived. Normally, sensei had an arrangement for purchasing hakamas, “I got this connection with this guy making hakamas.” I said, “Sensei, my wife has already gotten me a hakama. I don’t really need another one right now.” On Tuesdays, it was usually a brown belt or one of the black belts teaching, but no one had taken me aside and told me, “This is how you fold your hakama.” So, one time, the young, innocent, naïve student that I was, I was having a little difficulty trying to fold my hakama and Sensei was walking by. I asked, “Sensei, could you please show me how to fold my hakama?” And he did! [Laughs] “Okay. This is how we do it.” Later on, I realized that it was really a gutsy move, but he was okay with it, and he folded it for me, and I thanked him very much. And that was another moment he impressed me with his willingness to accommodate students.

He did invite other instructors to give seminars at Tenshinkan. There was a husband-and-wife team that he invited and they had slightly different ways of doing things but he invited other senseis, showing people different ways of doing aikido and was never shy about that. He basically gave you a choice: if you liked what you’re doing here, fine; if not, you have an opportunity to decide what you want to do. You would make up your own mind after that, you make a decision, and you stick with it and pursue it. If it didn’t work out and you came back eventually, he’d give you a little crap, [Laugh] but you would be back on the mat and things would work out from there. He was an interesting person.

MAYTT: What were some of your first impressions of Toyoda when you saw him at his Tenshinkan Dojo?

JB: In my early days when I saw Toyoda Shihan, from what I heard from other people that knew him since 1974, he was a force of nature when he got out on the mat. He also had a very engaging smile. He, if you heard him laugh, he laughed with his whole being. A number of people appreciated when he’d go out, laugh, and be personable; he was fun to be with. there were times with – these were the things that attracted people. This is a nice person to get to know. In addition to being a nice person, he’s got all this wisdom he can impart. But you definitely did not want to be on his bad side, especially when you’ve been with him for a while.

There was one time with one of my students who started out with me back at Addison Trail and then ultimately was training at Tenshinkan with Toyoda Shihan. My student, Lionel, did security for Sears at the time and he put in a security system. When you walked in the front door, Toyoda Shihan was down in his office and saw who was there, but Lionel also put in a speaker system. So, one time I came in, taking my shoes off and putting them in the rack, all of a sudden I heard, “John! Toyoda Shihan wants to talk to you downstairs!” “Okay!” [Laughs] So I’m there, figuring my life will be over once I hit the stairs. [Laughs] When he wanted your attention, he could get it. Likewise, if you stayed with him, he would be patient and go over things again. He would give you opportunities to continue to grow. I was on his test committee for a while, as you’re on there with a number of people.

As you work your way up, you see what he was asking and occasionally why what you thought was okay was not what he thought was okay. Being on the test committee for tests at Tenshinkan dojo was a definite experience, but you always got the impression that he was trying to get the most out of people. Occasionally, if he felt you weren’t sincere or you weren’t trying hard enough, he’d let you know he was not happy. But he would find ways to get you to see what was going on and sometimes he said, “You just got to get this down. You got to work on breakfalls, and you got to work on other things.” He was a very welcoming individual, but you could see that he could ramp up the expectations the longer you stayed with him.

After I had gotten my shodan, there were a few people from the university of Chicago – this was the middle 1980s – and he’d say, Walter and Ginny are going to test for nidan. “Well, I tested with Walter and Ginny for shodan; could I test for nidan, Sensei?” [Laughs] And he said, “No, you haven’t trained enough.” “Oh.” [Laughs] Then I went down there as often as I could and, ultimately, I tested for nidan and it was interesting. But he had an idea of what his organization and what his people wanted to do and to exhibit. And he usually got what he wanted. He worked very hard.

Bieszk teaching at the Wheaton Park District.

MAYTT: It sounds like he was very particular. Before striking out on his own, Toyoda was a student and follower of Koichi Tohei, who, by 1974, had formed his own organization, Ki Society. To your knowledge, what was the overall relationship between Toyoda and the greater entity of Ki Society?

JB: When Toyoda Shihan was still in Japan and at Hombu Dojo, Koichi Tohei was the Chief Instructor. As with many things, there are political differences of opinion and so Koichi Tohei said something like, “You’re not paying enough attention to ki the way I would like it taught.” He left. In 1969 when O-Sensei passed away, there were a lot of fractionations of aikido instructors. Toyoda Shihan went with his Chief Instructor. So, when somebody petitioned for an instructor in Chicago, if they petitioned Koichi Tohei, he decided to send Fumio Toyoda Shihan. One of the frictions that arose was that Akira Tohei was already in Chicago and he was, for a while, at the Illinois Aikido Club and ultimately, he left and formed his own club. You then had two shihan in one metropolitan area and there was friction between them. How much friction? I’m not entirely sure but there was friction between them.

There were times when there were Buddhist temple demonstrations and demonstrations at other events and sometimes it would be Akira Tohei Sensei’s dojo that was invited for a demonstration for one year. Then it would be Toyoda Shihan another year. A couple times we followed Akira Tohei’s group. I was part of one demonstration, and we were tearing down one thing and helping to put the mats out and other things and he was there saying, “You guys gotta move faster!” [Laughs] “Okay, Sensei.” But it was a little lively at times. It turned out that when I was in Chicago it worked out better for me to go to Tenshinkan dojo.

I’d made friends there for a few years and we went on to have a really good training. There were a few times when one of the advanced yudansha was a faculty member at DePaul University. There were a couple times when there were national instructor seminars at either Alumni Hall – which I think is gone now – or some other place. But in 1983, probably the biggest aikido demonstration the group ever had was aikido at Alumni Hall and there were several other arts that were studying at Tenshinkan at the time. One of them was kyudo, so they took out this bale of hay. They would come out and do a demonstration of kyudo. There was a demonstration of tai chi, with forty or fifty students. And Kyokushin Karate, which I was just impressed that anybody would do that to themselves. Toyoda Shihan had stated that an aikido dojo by itself would have a great deal of difficulty financially surviving, so he tried to get other arts involved. He also had tea ceremony, flower arranging, and other Japanese arts.

Stephen Toyoda Sensei has also continued working with Japanese cultural centers and others. There was a kimono exhibition a few years ago and this person had kimonos from hundreds of years ago and they were just really stored carefully. That was donated to the Japanese cultural center. Every year or once every two years, they would have an exhibit where all that is shown. Stephen Sensei definitely was interested in pursuing Japanese cultural events with the consulate in Chicago.

MAYTT: In 1985, Toyoda founded his Aikido Association of America (AAA). What, in your opinion, influenced his decision to establish his own organization and style?

JB: I think he definitely wanted more interaction with people coming and giving seminars and things. As a member of the Ki Society, there was a little black book. [Shows black book on camera] Ki Society. And in here were a number of sayings and at the beginning of each ki aikido class, you would pick one of these like, “The way to union with ki…” and there’s about two or three paragraphs. So, you would read that at the beginning of the class: “Please keep this in mind. See how you can develop.” He would do that, but it was not the straight aikido, I think, that he was interested in communicating. Because Toyoda Shihan was very interested in Zen, there would be occasional sesshins and other things. I don’t know how the sesshins merged with Koichi Tohei Sensei’s idea of ki in aikido. In some way, there were some people who picked up on it and they had a very good center and were very impressive. I was never very limber, so between knees and overall stiffness, I could sit for a while, but I could never endure a sesshin. I admired anybody who did.

I don’t know if they wanted Toyoda Shihan to do more and partially, in 1984, if I remember correctly, he was still undergoing dialysis. I think his kidney transplant was either in 1985 or 1986. Up till that time, I remember people saying that Toyoda Shihan’s doctors couldn’t believe that with the level of urea in his bloodstream, that he could teach a class, or he could have a normal life. When he made up his mind to do something, he was focused. He would continue to do whatever he could. When I went there during the 1984 to 1986 years, somebody else would be teaching class, it was not that unusual. After 1986 and he had a chance to recuperate, he was definitely re-energized and he decided what he wanted to do, he had better get started and really start working at it. He realized that the kidney transplant was a new lease of life. He then came up with ways to teach methodology and so on, the instructor seminar had classes on that for a while. He also had decided to try and come up with an international dojo. He then started fundraising for that. But when he was focused on doing things, you did what you could to help and definitely not look like you weren’t doing anything. That was not a good move. [Laughs]

I think he wanted his own control and I know a couple times he said, even if you did start your own dojo and rented space at a karate dojo or a YMCA, it still wasn’t your space. The owners or managers of a facility could change your schedule, they could close down, etc. They could affect your scheduling, and you wouldn’t have any say in it, so he definitely encouraged people to go out and make their own dojos. It was still expensive at the time and unless you were near a big center – I think it was Ken Macbeth Sensei who started an aikido class in California [Aikido of North County], not far from a Marine base so he had a number of people who said, “Yeah, this looks like fun! I’m young; I can do this!” He did very well before the covid pandemic.

I think it was controlling his own destiny that Toyoda Shihan was very concerned about. He had his aikido not only for the Aikido Association of America, but he also wanted an international presence. He had gone to Europe a number of times. He went to Hawaii more times before he came to Chicago, but he would still travel around the world. Again, Bulgaria videotaped him a number of times and some of them are on YouTube, like the 1999 demonstrations and so on. So, he continued to do that. He actually rented a part of Wisconsin University’s campus for a weekend. Everybody had to drive up, stay there – you paid for reduced housing – and it was definitely intense. He was very close to Yasuo Kobayashi Sensei. One time he got Yasuo Kobayashi Sensei to come up to Wisconsin and teach classes. And that was an experience, when you see a seventh dan – at the time – come up to teach. He would pull somebody from the audience. One time he pulled one of my new students from Lombard and noticed that he didn’t tie his belt correctly. So, he stopped everything, [Laughs] and tied the belt for this guy and got on with the technique. [Laughs] It was very interesting. He would show the technique a couple times and then he would ask the person he just demonstrated with, “Okay. Now you throw me, or you pin me in this technique.” And we’re out there watching, someone loading Kobayashi Sensei up, tossing him, and Kobayashi Sensei would slap hard, jump up, and do it again! [Laughs] It was very impressive to see him do these things. In fact, he did that several times. The last time I remember him coming to the States was in San Diego three or four years ago. He is a very impressive individual. Stephen Sensei still has ties to Kobayashi dojo.

This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

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


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