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

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

MAYTT: You bring up Yasuo Kobayashi. How did Toyoda first form and then foster that relationship with him?

John Bieszk training with Stephen Toyoda at Tenshinkan Dojo.

JB: Before Toyoda Shihan came to the States, he was training in Japan at Hombu Dojo. He was known to look for opportunities to practice his aikido not necessarily in an aikido dojo, [Laughs] but he was known to be somewhat rowdy. I don’t know if Kobayashi Sensei volunteered, or someone asked Kobayashi Sensei to guide this young talented but somewhat impromptu aikido instructor. I think that’s how they got to know each other in Japan. And Kobayashi Shihan continued that relationship with Toyoda Shihan when he came to the States. Kobayashi Sensei did mention that occasionally he had to go out and rescue Toyoda Shihan from himself. It worked out and for decades, they had been together. There were times when Toyoda Shihan would demonstrate at the Nippon Budokan that Kobayashi Shihan was there as well.

So, it started in Japan, and it continued. I think when Toyoda Shihan realized, even after his kidney transplant that he was mortal, that he wasn’t going to go on forever, so he decided that he would try to reunify with Hombu Dojo and Kobayashi Sensei was one of the people saying, “Yes, we want to bring him back.” At one time, he was the youngest to get a sixth-degree rank and he was the Shihan with the largest student body, if you will, under one Shihan. So, he was impressive, and he definitely carved out a niche for himself.

MAYTT: How different was Toyoda’s aikido style from what was usually seen in Ki-Aikido?

JB: Toyoda Shihan would usually come up with a couple of techniques that would be very dynamic, but if anyone would ask a question, he would stop and answer the question. Unfortunately, I didn’t spend a lot of time with other instructors so I can’t really answer that. I do know that he was very concerned with students being able to fall properly and not get hurt. He would have the occasional classes on “This is the proper way to fall in ukemi for shiho nage” and other things. And then he would work up to more dynamic throws. But he was always a dynamic individual. When he came on the mat, especially if you had seen him before, you were focused on what he was going to do next.

He was always respectful and very aware of tradition, so I think that’s part of it. He wanted to continue the traditions of a traditional dojo, but he also wanted to accommodate some of the changes in modern living to make sure the methodology remained true as it disseminated. He would come up with committees of advanced yudansha to help with teaching the methodology and techniques he was working on – the repertoire of techniques that he would demonstrate. He had his own sheet of promotion requirements for kyu rank and dan ranks, so he was very good at organizing.

He had a teaching committee which was some of the highest ranking yudansha. If you had your own dojo or if you went in an area that had several dojos, he would come up with a test committee of advanced belts but not necessarily only members of the teaching committee; if they were familiar with what he wanted in test requirements and conducting tests, then there would be local test committees as well. He would farm out some of the responsibilities and he would plan to make sure his ideas of passing things on were passed on. Stephen Sensei created regional directors, who helped answer questions, put on demonstrations, worked out schedules and so on. But Toyoda Shihan wanted to create an organization that would support him and what he intended to do.

Fumio Toyoda (second from right) with members of a promotion test committee at Tenshinkan Dojo. From Left to Right: Warren Jones, Bieszk, Angel Agosto, David Miller, and Andy Sato.

MAYTT: Switching the focus to you. After earning your shodan in 1984, Toyoda encouraged you to begin teaching classes in the western suburbs of Lombard and Wheaton. How did you first respond to these words of encouragement?

JB: Initially, I ignored them. [Laughs] Because I wanted to train at the dojo and, working a full-time job, I didn’t have a whole lot of spare time. Then he would bring it up again, so then I would look for park districts. I started out in 1986 at the Addison Park District. They had spring and fall terms, so I started there and got into their program. They would have ten weeks and then a break. So, it’s hard enough with an aikido class that continues every week on the same day and at the same time. If you take a few weeks off or if you take months off, then it’s the kiss of death; students will find something else to do. If they’re happy with that, they’re not coming back.

A year later, I got involved with the Lombard Park District and they were actually just a few blocks away from my house. They had big wrestling mats that were like ten feet by thirty feet, and they had three of them. We were in a grammar school gymnasium, so it was great. There were no columns in the middle of the floor. We’d roll out the mats and have nine hundred square feet of mat space – it was really nice to have. [Laughs] There were a few people who came, because I wasn’t that far from Fermilab, I would occasionally get a physicist who may have started at the University of Chicago and then was working at Fermilab; they would stop by and we would work out. There were times where there were four or five black belts in class and that was my epitome of teaching at the time. I talked with the program director that I really wanted to continue; a new session starts when the old session ends so I don’t have a gap because I found that I would lose students in the past. It worked out and we continued with that.

I looked into a nearby suburb, the Wheaton Park District, which was probably about fifteen miles away, so I started another dojo there. It was Mondays and Wednesdays in Lombard, and Tuesdays and Thursdays in Wheaton for a while. That makes for a really busy week. But ultimately, my problem with the park districts is that they would only advertise in their own park district bulletins; they wouldn’t advertise in local papers, they wouldn’t let me put up fliers. So, they wanted a lot of control, and they really didn’t care if the program was a success or not. They just wanted to keep according to what somebody said: these are the only ways to advertise, and these are the only places you can advertise. Fortunately, in 2005, we were having about twelve people in a class, twice a week. I was happy. Then, in a few years, people got transferred, people lost their jobs. 2008 was not a good year, financially, for the country. Finally, the class got reduced to three people and then one person. Then I said with one person, this isn’t going to work. Ultimately, the park districts just dried up, then I would spend more time down at Tenshinkan.

There are parts of Chicago where it is a giant pain in the ass to get there near rush hour, and unfortunately, Tenshinkan was one of those areas. But I taught the Sunday morning class for a year. The rest of the time, my company was having some problems, so I ended up working longer and I could occasionally come down, but it was more of an as life would work out kind of situation. If I could make it once a week, great; more than that, it was depending on my work schedule.

Actually, in 2001 the international dojo, Ryoshinkan, had been built, so I could spend some time up there too. Then it ended up that financially that the Toyoda family had to make some changes because they were having huge tax bills and they could engage a lawyer to reduce the bills, but they had to pay the lawyer. So, one way or another, it was very expensive. Which was unfortunate because it was a great place.

MAYTT: What was that experience like teaching on your own?

JB: It was very interesting. After my shodan test, a couple days later, I would go to Tenshinkan, and there were a number of nidans and sandans there, some of them had been on my test board and said, “Okay, tonight is your first class after your shodan test, so you are teaching class!” Oh good! I was thrilled! [Laughs] But it worked out and I said to myself, “Okay, I’m going to take parts of my shodan test and were going to do that now.” So, we ended up with various attackers and part of the shodan test with defenses from two-handed grab, yokomen uchi, etc. We did a number of five arts for those things. The class passed very quickly, and it seemed that everybody was smiling at the end, so that was a nice boost.

Bieszk teaching at the Wheaton Park District.

But I enjoyed it and sticking to the major points of Toyoda Shihan’s methodology: show the technique and break it down into steps. I found that to be very helpful. And then, in addition to that, Toyoda Shihan also came up with aiki taiso exercises which would be the building blocks of various techniques. The aiki taiso techniques were usually done during warming up or at the start of the technique portion of class. For example, if uke grabs with a same side grab, I’d do some body movement and get out of the way. Or, I may end up stepping back, turning, and getting you ready for a kokyu nage or a shiho nage that this kind of  “this is how you do it” kind of approach I thought worked well. It made me more comfortable as someone who had been in the sciences where there’s more of a methodical approach to learning, this seemed to fit right in, so there were a number of people who enjoyed the classes and I enjoyed having them. Occasionally, when you see somebody with that lightbulb going off, [Laughs] then you feel good, they feel good. It was a very positive experience.

MAYTT: Toyoda wanted to create an international dojo, which he would name Ryoshinkan. How much time did he allocate to that project?

JB: A lot of time. He started planning his Ryoshikan dojo in the mid-1980s, which was going to be the international headquarters in Palatine, Illinois. In the late 1990s, construction on the building was started. A number of people – there were a couple of engineers, John Mazza, and Tim Spies, who were also black belts in the organization – undertook a lot of the design and saved paying an architect the money it would take. Then he was trying to get it ready for opening in 2001. Toyoda Shihan would teach classes in the city and then occasionally go out to Palatine and look at the work that was going on and say that, “We got to do more. We gotta get this done.”

If aikido students weren’t at their jobs, they were trying to build something in Palatine. There was one time I was there, and Toyoda Shihan came in and we were putting some insulation on the wall – we had this big, four by eight sheet of insulation – and we were trying to tack in some nails at the top. He said to me, “John, give me the hammer.” I gave him the hammer. “Now I need a drill, but I also need you to take this two by four and hold the insulation up there.” So, I’m stretched out here and he said, “Why don’t you hand me the drill; it’s down by your feet.” Oh, okay. [Laughs] So, I’m stretching out and I did manage to get hold of the cord and get it to him, but these were kind of the stories that he would have. Then you would be like, “Thank God! I didn’t screw up. I didn’t drop anything. We were good!” [Laughs] Shihan would never shirk from things that were required. He was very impressive. And I see the same with Stephen Toyoda Sensei.

Exterior of Ryoshinkan Dojo circa 2001.

In late October, November and December of 2000, Toyoda Shihan would teach class in Chicago, go out to work at Ryoshinkan in the northwest suburb of Palatine. In addition, for eight weekends in a row, he would go on weekends to seminars – and I think one or two of them were international seminars. I was just amazed at his stamina, determination, and work ethic. When it was finally completed, we were all very happy. For the grand opening in April 2001, people came in from many states, from Japan, and from a number of other countries. It was a very successful grand opening.

After that, Toyoda Shihan went to Europe again around May 2001, in Greece, I think. That’s when he got his infection. Then it was a long story; he started out in a public hospital in Greece, which wasn’t the best treatment. Then, I believe, Pat, his wife, got him transferred to a private hospital which was better, and he was starting to recuperate. Then they got him on a medical flight back to the states. He was starting to recuperate but it was like he was running out of gas. His energy just dropped and just started to fail. Then, early on July 4th, he passed on. A number of his students went to Tenshinkan as soon as they heard of his death and had a silent but very intense and energetic class to honor the memory and legacy of Toyoda Shihan.

He would work tirelessly towards his goals and with people. That was one of the things that attracted many people, especially people who had been practicing aikido for a while to train with him and work with him on various projects.

MAYTT: Today, the AAA is headed by Stephen Toyoda, Fumio’s son. Since he assumed the role of president, how have you seen the organization evolve?

JB: That’s another interesting question. When Stephen Sensei was in college, it took up a lot of his time. He would be at the dojo and participate in some demonstrations, but he had a full-time job just going to University of Illinois and getting a degree. After Toyoda Shihan’s passing, he had promised his father that Stephen Sensei would continue his father’s mission.

Shortly after that, he went to Aikido Kobayashi Dojo in Japan and was there as an uchi deshi for three or four months. He trained every moment he could. I would talk to Pat Toyoda, his mother, and she would be concerned about him trying to do so much in such a short time. She had talked to Kobayashi Shihan about this, so they were both trying to be very careful with him – not getting so tired that he would injure himself. That, plus the fact that the tatami mats he was practicing on were akin to concrete. [Laughs] So, he had to learn how to learn ukemi very smoothly and be very careful about how he fell. In many cases, he was training sixteen hours a day and he was eating, getting some sleep, and starting all over again. He was extremely motivated.

The Toyoda Family visits the Doshu, Yasuo Kobayashi, and Kengo Hatayama in May 2002.

When he came back, people who were part of Toyoda Shihan’s organization, some fourth and fifth degree black belts, were saying, “Well, we have this new person coming and I’ve trained longer than he’s been alive!” There were some questions at the time, but some of the senior instructors would come in and say that they would help with classes. There were a number of yudansha who would commit to one of the classes for a day of the week. Some aikidoka would volunteer to be assistant instructors.

After he returned from Japan, Stephen Sensei dedicated himself, working hard to not only learn aikido, but getting ready for his next dan test and the test after that. In addition, Stephen and his mother, Pat Toyoda, were also keeping 1016 W. Belmont open for the aikido students, as well as for karate, tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, Japanese language, and other arts offered there.      

For anyone who trained with him, Toyoda Sensei would demo various techniques from several different angles, then go around to various people in the class and, being the young person that he was, he could attack, take falls, get pinned, and he would jump up and move on to the next person. As someone with a hands-on approach, he was very enthusiastic to train with everybody there. He’s did that up until the pandemic, when lockdown edicts were mandated in various states and cities, including Chicago. Toyoda Shihan started a definition of advanced technique, oyo waza, and then changing technique, henka waza. Then the last few years, late 1990s to 2000 and 2001, he would spend time introducing these topics with examples. At our national instructor seminars, senior instructors would go over these definitions and go out in their areas and teach these techniques. They would disseminate it.

Usually, black belt tests were done at Tenshinkan because that was the main headquarters. But generally, shodan and nidan tests could be done with some of the senior instructors in California and other west coast and east coast states. Occasionally some of the senior instructors would ask for a video for a pre-test to see how the candidate looked so they could give constructive suggestions to help test candidates prepare for promotions. The instructors were helping to complete the tasks of continuing the aikido organization this way.

MAYTT: Final question. How was the AAA affected by the pandemic? Now that Covid is behind us for the most part, what does the future hold for the AAA?

JB: That’s a good question. During the pandemic, some stores were shut down and masks were required at many places of business. Toyoda Sensei would get videos of Toyoda Shihan in Bulgaria, in Puerto Rico, in Poland, and other places, and set up a time where anyone could log in via Zoom and he would pick different videos and look at them. “This is how Toyoda Shihan did this technique.”

I believe the future of the AAA is to continue with the ideals of Toyoda Shihan. A dojo will be a traditional dojo, work on ki development, precise teaching and execution of aikido techniques, and to develop character as well as physical and spiritual growth. As for travelling, there was a time when Toyoda Sensei was in a plane and he would hear people away from him cough and sneeze, and, realizing that the air was self-contained, he was concerned about getting sick himself. He reduced some of his traveling, but he is picking some of it up again. I think it’s going to depend on where he intends to go and what’s the situation in that country in terms of exposure.

At one time, Toyoda Sensei  was traveling to Europe with Tim Spies Sensei, who was the dojo-cho of Ryoshinkan. They flew into the Brussels airport. A bomb went off in one of the terminals. Luckily, they were still on the jet at that time on the tarmac but then had to contact people in Belgium and had to be picked up and ultimately get their baggage a few days later and get to a place of safety. They have had some interesting experiences trying to go places. Toyoda Sensei is very dedicated to continuing Toyoda Shihan’s mission to come up with the highest level of aikido teaching and to keep up the organization with a traditional dojo. Zen was encouraged but never really demanded. 

Instructor Seminar at the new Ryoshinkan Dojo in 2001.

Initially, Toyoda Shihan was the chief instructor and any questions about the organization would come to him. He had a fair office staff at the time. Uchi deshi would be part of the office staff or be a part of his demonstration group that would go with him. Stephen Sensei doesn’t have a large staff and so has to take care of the office in addition to teaching classes, giving seminars near and far, working on advertising, etc. 

After Toyoda Shihan passed, one of his oldest students, Andy Sato Sensei, was the Chief Instructor for a while. But then, as with any organization, there can be disagreements, Andy decided to form his own group and formed the Aikido World Alliance. Then Stephen Sensei became the Chief Instructor, but he knew these duties were a lot of work. To distribute the workload, he created regional directors – East Coast, West Coats, South, Midwest, and there may be even a couple more now – and he, very carefully, laid out this plan. If you would accept being a regional director, these are the things I expect from you, and you tell me what things you expect from me. He worked this out and I think it’s worked well. He’s had a number of people transition. I was the Midwest regional director for a while and then I became shibucho, which I call old fart, but, nonetheless. [Laughs] And other people have taken up the task. This way, he manages the administrative tasks in a more easily manageable way. Students can talk to one person for one group, one person for another group. Occasionally, there’s a question about somebody’s preparedness or something; you either have video tapes or Toyoda Sensei may go out on a seminar for evaluation. He is continuing the idea of a traditional dojo.

Tenshinkan dojo and the Japanese Cultural Center have other Japanese cultural arts: shodo, tea ceremony, flower arranging, etc. So, Toyoda Sensei is continuing studies of Japanese culture, in addition to the aikido and the Zen practice.

MAYTT: Thank you again for this great conversation about Toyoda Shihan!

JB: Thank you for having me.

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

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

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