Interview with Albuquerque Shin-Budo Kai Chief Instructor Ralph Bryan: Always Coming Back to Aikido

Ralph Bryan experienced many different styles of aikido throughout his time before settling with Shizuo Imaizumi. He first started in Hawaii with Aikikai, and then with Bill Lee of Ki Society in Austin, Texas, and later with Mitsugi Saotome’s Aikido Schools of Ueshiba in Takoma Park, Maryland. He joined Shin-Budo Kai in 1994 with Wade Ishimoto and has been with Imaizumi ever since. In 2006, Imaizumi certified Bryan as chief instructor of Albuquerque Shin-Budo Kai. Today, Bryan took some time to talk about his time with Imaizumi, his view on the consistencies between the different aikido styles, and the future of Shin-Budo Kai in light of Imaizumi’s retirement. All images provided by Ralph Bryan.

Martial arts of Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Bryan Sensei! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about Imaizumi and Shin-Budo Kai!

Ralph Bryan: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: How did you come across aikido while you were in Hawaii? What was it about the noncompetitive approach that resonated with you?

Ralph Bryan at Albuquerque Shin-Budo Kai Dojo, April 2023.

RB: Well, that was 1976 and I was nineteen years old at the time. I was doing a semester at the University of Hawaii. I had been at University of Texas at Austin and had gone to Oahu to be with my then girlfriend. [Laughs] I think I saw an article in the local newspaper about aikido that intrigued me. I had originally signed up for a meditation course at the U, but dropped that when I realized that they offered what was basically an Aikido 101 course in their Phys. Ed. Department. So, I signed up for that and I was hooked.

Who knows why I was immediately hooked. I was nineteen years old! [Laughs] And this was the mid-1970s and life was different then. I liked the more introspective approach that aikido appeared to offer. And I was completely naïve about it and about other martial arts – having no experience in those and hadn’t really read much about them at all. I think the fact that it was noncompetitive, as one of its many attributes, appealed to me because that seemed to set it apart from other martial arts (about which I knew basically nothing in those early days) and I had no interest in tournaments or trophies, etc. I have since learned, of course, that most (i.e., not all) traditional budo or bujutsu arts are noncompetitive as well.  

MAYTT: You started and stopped aikido many times for both professional and schooling reasons. What made you continue to return to the art time and time again?

RB: So, I never really consciously intended to stop. It was circumstantial every time that happened. The aikido that I studied in Hawaii was Aikikai. It was 1976, so it was two years after the big split. Koichi Tohei Sensei had come to Honolulu for a seminar while I was there, and I went to that. But it was interesting because my sensei there was definitely not on board with Tohei Sensei! [Laughs] When I came back from Hawaii, I immediately signed up to the closest aikido dojo to me, which happened to be a Ki Society dojo in Austin. 

In Austin, Texas, I was able to continue training for my last two years at University of Texas at Austin. Then medical school came around and that was in Galveston, Texas and there was just no dojo. I don’t know whether I would’ve had time or not, but there was no dojo there, so that took a four-year block out of my aikido training, from 1978 to 1982.  I moved to Washington, DC for my residency in 1982 and found Mitsugi Saotome Sensei’s dojo in Takoma Park. He was in residence at the time – this was well before he went to Florida. As I look back on that time frame, I don’t know how I found the time, but I managed to train. I left the Washington DC area and Saotome Sensei in 1987, moving to Atlanta when I joined CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS, “the medical detectives”). I recall attempting to find a dojo in Atlanta, but the only one I identified was not a great fit in terms of class days/times and location as best I can remember. That said, I really had very little time to train anyway as I was traveling extensively both domestically and internationally. Not to mention my wife starting medical school at Emory and then the birth of our twin sons in 1993. We moved to Albuquerque in 1994 because CDC had a need to put someone here to help coordinate our efforts to deal with hantavirus, and my wife was accepted to the University of New Mexico’s Emergency Medicine residency. I eventually found my “aikido home” when I located Ishimoto Sensei teaching at a local YMCA and using the nearby middle school gym as a training space – it was a five minute bike ride from my then home in Albuquerque. Wade very graciously brought me in and accepted my ranks from Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU) and it just went on from there. Wade was there for about two years before he left for DC in 1996.

MAYTT: Each time that you started aikido again, different styles, how did you see the training change or adapt to the times, if at all? How different were the styles when you started and stopped again?

RB: You know, at that stage of my life and at that stage of my understanding of aikido, I don’t think it made much difference at all. I was just adapting to what I was being taught. I had to relearn some things, but I had forgotten a lot. I was trying to think back to the physical training with Saotome Sensei and I can’t remember that much, though I’ve visited that dojo since. And I’ve actually taught at another ASU dojo once. It’s different, but it’s not that different. So no, I didn’t have much difficulty adapting and I really wasn’t tuned in enough to make any insightful observations about style differences in those early days. 

MAYTT: I see. During your time in the art, you have had the opportunity to train with many instructors, notably Mitsugi Saotome, Wade Ishimoto, Jim Redel, and Shizuo Imaizumi. How did these instructors compare with each other and how did each of them influence your understanding of aikido?

Bryan action shot, ASKB Dojo, April 2023. Uke: Jennifer Miyashiro; shiho-nage irimi.

RB: They were all very different. I think back to Saotome Sensei because he was my first exposure to a true shihan. Saotome Sensei was actually a contemporary of Shizuo Imaizumi Sensei, although I didn’t know about Imaizumi at the time I was training with Saotome Sensei. Saotome was Imaizumi Sensei’s sempai at Hombu Dojo. As for training with Saotome Sensei, I recall clearly the intensity and rigor of the dojo environment there during that time period. For a young mudansha, it was amazing in that there were always half a dozen knowledgeable, senior yudansha on the mat. I was very happy with Saotome Sensei’s style of teaching at the time. 

As to Ishimoto Sensei, well, Wade has been a good friend over all these years, and he remains honored by us as the founding dojo-cho of Albuquerque Shin-Budo Kai (ASBK). He welcomed me into ASBK in 1994, accepted my rank from ASU and pushed me through to ikkyu before he left Albuquerque in 1996 – so I only had two or less years training with him directly. His teaching style was straightforward, no nonsense and I feel he grounded me well in SBK style aikido. He had a history in Goju-ryu karate. He was an intelligence-oriented fellow in the military – he was actually an original member of the Delta Force, if you remember that group in military history. So, Wade was great. Like I said, he took me in and embraced me and taught me the foundations of Shin-Budo Kai. 

Jim Redel was a little more esoteric in his approach – a little looser in some ways. He didn’t have much experience outside of SBK. He was, and remains, an avid Zen practitioner. I will always be grateful to Jim for mentoring me through nidan. Our philosophies and approaches to teaching/training diverged in 2006, and we parted ways amicably enough. Jim left SBK at that time. 

MAYTT: Could you tell us more about Wade Ishimoto and the history of Albuquerque Shin-Budo Kai? How did you come to inherit the role of chief instructor of the dojo?

RB: So, Wade trained with a sensei named Mark Leidig in Austin, Texas who was a very high-ranking student of Imaizumi Sensei. Sometime in the late 1980s, Wade moved to Albuquerque – he left Austin and came here because he was working down at the local Air Force base. He established Albuquerque Ki Society at that time. Then in 1988, when Imaizumi Sensei returned from Japan after splitting from Tohei Sensei, one of the first things he did was come to Albuquerque and give a seminar. And it was at that time, in October of 1988, that Imaizumi Sensei formally announced the formation of Shin-Budo Kai as an organization. And Wade was right on board with that. From 1988 until he left in 1996, he was dojo-cho – he established the dojo here and carried on from there. We’ve had Wade back several times to visit. He travels the world all the time – busy man. But he always comes back and he’s always very gracious. We’re always very honored to see him because we still recognize him as our dojo-cho. It’s not me, it’s him.

So, we’ve been here as Albuquerque Shin-Budo Kai since 1988. As mentioned, I began training here in 1994 and my exposure to Imaizumi Sensei took place at seminars once or twice per year when I traveled to Atlanta, Austin, Las Vegas, Seattle, Hawaii, Phoenix and elsewhere to train with him. His seminars were intense, so a lot of training was packed into three to four days.  

In 2006, Leidig Sensei chose to leave SBK and Jim Redel did the same – that left us without a Chief Instructor and also wondering what we should do in terms of our relationship with SBK and Imaizumi Sensei. So, on behalf of myself and the other senior members at the time, I wrote to Imaizumi Sensei directly asking for his guidance. He was very gracious, encouraging us to remain with SBK and agreeing to come to Albuquerque to conduct a seminar later that year. In the interim, he wrote again and appointed me as Chief Instructor and Evan Stover as Co- or assistant- chief instructor (Shidoin and Fuku-shidoin were the terms he used). Since that time, he and his wife Atsuko have traveled here every year to stay at my home for about two weeks, conducting a seminar and sometimes additional classes here; and we also traveled to our sister dojo in Durango, Colorado where he would teach a class or two as well. During those visits we would also spend time at a vacation home my family maintains outside Ouray, CO.  

MAYTT: How did that experience of being thrusted in the chief instructor role change your perspective on aikido?

RB: It was basically trial by fire. Honestly, I and the person who ended up being my co-chief instructor at the time, Evan Stover, had been teaching two or three of the classes per week for a couple of years. So, we had some experience doing that and a sense of how to teach. You take on this huge responsibility for one thing and yet you realize very quickly that it’s not all kumbaya stuff. Aikido, just like any other organization or any other martial art, has its difficulties, its internal strifes, its personalities, and its egos, so there’s a long and relatively slow learning curve on how to handle that effectively, fairly, and honestly. I’ve been working on that for all these years, and I’ve enjoyed doing so – I welcomed the challenge. And, of course, at the same time, also constantly trying to keep my personal training and expertise in the art moving forward.

MAYTT: That does sound like a lot.

RB: Yeah. It’s lonely at the top sometimes, if not all the time. I think you have to consider the perspectives of the dojo membership, your particular organization (SBK in my case), and the art itself at all times. All those perspectives must be considered when you’re making your decisions. You have to be cautious about over-personalizing things and stuff like that. It’s, as I say, an interesting growth and learning process. Frankly, I’ve learned more about aikido from teaching than I have other aspects of training. 

MAYTT: In 2013, you published The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai: A Guide to Principles and Practice and one of the purposes of the book is to “promote consistency and quality” of the Shin-Budo Kai curriculum. Since its release, how have you seen the overall quality of Shin-Budo Kai aikido change?

RB: I was thinking that those of us who contributed and worked on this book would be tickled to death if they felt it improved the quality of anybody’s aikido because you don’t really learn aikido from reading a book. [Laughs] I think what the book might have done, and what it still might be doing, is contributing to our overall understanding and consistency across the handful of dojos that we have, in that we spell out the curriculum, we spell out the nomenclature, we make sure everybody has an understanding of Imaizumi Sensei’s history and where he came from – including his direct lineage through O-Sensei, even though we are not officially recognized by Hombu Dojo because of the historical issues concerning the Ki Society and its separation from Aikikai, etc. 

The book is available electronically – the original was a hard copy like this [shows book] and we’ve sold all the copies we printed. We worked hard to get the whole thing done; it was a big production. It’s interesting to go back and re-read what you’ve written several years ago. I’m sure you’ve experienced something like, “I wrote that? Is that any good?” [Laughs] “What was I thinking?” When I go back and I read sections of our book again, I’m surprised to find that I’m pretty comfortable with it in most ways and it reminds me of things that I was thinking at the time, and what I was researching at the time. But honestly, Antonio, I don’t know how often people across SBK pick it up and read it. I have to hope that they do, and I hope it’s been a resource for everyone. Certainly, it was Imaizumi Sensei’s intent and my intent, and I use it for that purpose. And I kind of force it on my students too. It was more of the process of writing that book and putting it together that was probably the most rewarding.

MAYTT: How did you come to be part of the project of creating this book?

RB: It was my idea. Back in about 2010 I had seen a handbook from another aikido organization – Yuishinkai. Yuishinkai is Koretoshi Maruyama’s group. Koretoshi Maruyama was sempai to Imaizumi Sensei, and they were very close friends. Koretoshi’s wife introduced Imaizumi Sensei to his wife, Atsuko, back in the day. I found the Yuishinkai handbook when I attended a seminar Maruyama Sensei was conducting in Auckland, New Zealand. Anyway, they have a handbook and I really liked it. It was very well done. So, I bought a copy and showed it to Imaizumi Sensei. I asked him if he wanted us to do something similar for Shin-Budo Kai. He nodded – he’s not big on showing enthusiasm about anything or any interaction [Laughs] – and simply said, “Good idea.” [Laughs]

So, I started, and I tried to gather the troops to make it a group effort. That was marginally successful, but I did get actually written text from several different people. Those are the people who you see at the front of the book. And I tried to make it a cross section of input from across SBK; I didn’t want something that was just coming from me. I wanted something that was coming from the organization as a whole and I think we were successful in doing that. The goal being that more people would have ownership and engage in something that was good for all of SKB, not just some guy out in the provinces writing down what he thinks. That’s how it came about, and it took all of those three years to get it done. 

MAYTT: That is an interesting start! Within the book, you define genkido as a “way of cultivating one’s body, mind, and spirit through training in ki development exercises.” Could you explain how Shin-Budo Kai and Imaizumi approach this ki training and how does genkido differs from the exercises the Koichi Tohei populated in his Ki Society?

RB: I have to thank you for your insightful approach and for doing your homework in preparing these questions. Bravo and well done. These are questions I like to tangle with and think about, so I appreciate that.

So, that definition of “genkido” is actually Imaizumi Sensei’s (and there are a number of examples of his direct writings within the book). I may have done some minor editing for style and consistency, but those are his words.

There is some historical context worth mentioning here. I’m in the habit of using the term “branding” for shifts in styles and nomenclature that took place after 1974. Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, for example, used to teach the very same thing that Imaizumi Sensei teaches, which is basically the aikido of Tohei Sensei before 1974 that he taught at Hombu Dojo. But following 1974, there was a clear trend, I think, for different styles to differentiate themselves from Ki Society and its nomenclature and techniques. Imaizumi Sensei does that to a certain extent in order to separate what he teaches in his own dojo and organization from what he did during his years with the Ki Society (1974-1987). I think he does this for clarity and identity, but also very much out of respect for his mentor, Tohei, so that there is no confusion between his teaching and what Ki Society teaches now. He coined a number of new terms and genkido is one of them. As another example, we call our sword/bokken curriculum “bokkendo;” nobody else does that. That’s his way of branding and making clear that this is distinct. With ki and related concepts, Imaizumi Sensei is a firm believer in ki development, ki exercises, and utilizing ki in your expression of techniques in aikido. That’s foundational. Genkido, as we say in the book, is foundational and permeates everything that we do in SKB. So, it’s there in our breathing exercises, in our kokyu ho, in our techniques, our weapons work – it’s everywhere.

Cover of Aikido Journal with Shiuzo Imaizumi , Vol. 25, No. 2, 1998.

We do have a standard, finite set of exercises that we categorize under the genkido heading, which is what you would call ki development in other schools for example. There’s a list of those in the book; you can see them in the back with the appendix. I know very little about how Ki Society dojos operate these days – it seems things have changed quite a bit over the past few decades. So, I’m cautious about these types of comparisons. I will say that I believe that our genkido or ki development exercises are much more applicable to technique application than they are in Ki Society or even what Aikikai does for their warmup exercises. A lot of warm up exercises – my observation, my opinion – are often based on what people saw O-Sensei doing or what they saw others doing, and some of these are related to Shinto ritual – funakogi undo being one example. In our dojo, most of our exercises will have some application in technique. Shomen uchi ikkyo undo is a classic example. One of my mantras I have at the dojo and my students can put in on my tombstone: “Do the damn exercise.” [Laughs] So you’ll see that in a lot of the techniques. I don’t know if that’s unique to us or not, but it is distinctive to us. I can also say that, in contrast to Ki Society, we have nothing akin to “taigi” and we have no ranking or special designations based on “ki testing” – no “Ki Lecturers” for example. 

I personally don’t like the phrase “ki testing.” I think when I push on somebody to check their “centering,” or we do “unbendable” arm – the classic Tohei stuff that we still do – it’s more about teaching people about their bodies and their centers. It’s not a test, in my view. 

MAYTT: Throughout your time training and drafting your book, how have you come to know Imaizumi and his style better?

RB: Exponentially, I’d say. It was an incredible experience. I was so fortunate in that Imaizumi Sensei worked closely with me throughout the writing, and I can honestly say that he carefully reviewed every section of the book except for Chapter 7 and my Acknowledgements. His reviews included all sections in the Appendix as well. He wrote the Foreword himself of course, but I edited it extensively, and we went back and forth quite a bit when we were working on it. Through email and through his annual visits to my home, I was able to work very closely with him. The learning curve there was just immense.   

His English is not great, even after all these years, and he is traditional Japanese in many ways, and yet he’s not so traditional in others. So, we’re often left trying to figure out what he really means, and I gained some insights into that as I worked with him. His pronunciations in English are a little distinct until you get used to them and because we had more personal conversations, I learned to understand him better. So, when I was writing about SBK, I learned so much as I read and thought about what our style is all about and was constantly trying to decipher Imaizumi Sensei’s deeper meaning and intent in his writing and comments. It was truly an invaluable, incomparable experience.  

MAYTT: From your experience, what is it about Imaizumi’s style of aikido that makes it unique compared to other styles of aikido? In what ways does Shin-Budo Kai’s aikido differ from other styles?

RB: That question arises frequently. We all [Shin-Budo Kai Leadership] met here in December [2022] for a workshop and a trial seminar to organize ourselves for the post-Imaizumi era. We tried to answer that question – what’s unique about Shin-Budo Kai? My thoughts are that I usually don’t think so much about what’s unique. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to host guest-senseis from outside of Shin-Budo Kai in our dojo, as well as attending many seminars and visiting other, non-SBK dojos. I recognize the stylistic trademarks and idiosyncrasies that certainly exist, but I’m more interested in where those lines are blurred and in identifying the consistencies across styles. And are there any? Or are we just all these different aikido styles out there doing our own thing, following whoever and whatever?

My observations over the years have been that those stylistic differences are there, but the threads of consistency are there also, and that’s a good thing. I’ve walked into many dojos and seminars over the years and have never felt encumbered or out of place in terms of stylistic differences. It always worked out fine. And this is in some styles where I might have anticipated a clash such as Yoshinkan or Kazuo Chiba Sensei’s organization, Birankai. In fact, we have a very dear friend who’s a shihan in Birankai, Kristina Varjan. Before she relocated to Hawaii, Kristina Sensei would guest teach regularly at our dojo (she used to live in Santa Fe) and we had a great time comparing and contrasting styles at that time. She also attended several of Imaizumi Sensei’s seminars here. I was delighted to see that you had interviewed her and her husband Rikko earlier this year [in 2023]! I have trained and guest-taught at their Kohala Dojo and it is truly a magical place to train.  

Group shot at Kohala Dojo, 2018. Bryan is seated at far right, front row at a seminar with Deena Drake (front row, three in from the left) and others, hosted by Kristina and Rikko Varjan (seated four from the left).

We once asked Imaizumi Sensei about his “technical influences” and he obviously pointed to Tohei Sensei, but he also listed Saito Sensei and Hiroshi Tada Sensei. Saito would make regular visits down to Tokyo and Imaizumi Sensei would always take his classes. And Tada Sensei was in charge when Imaizumi Sensei started at the Waseda University Aikido Club – Tada Sensei started it and then Imaizumi Sensei took it over when Tada left for Italy. Within SBK, we are fairly convinced that the technical aspects of Imaizumi Sensei’s aikido are most closely based on the aikido taught by Tohei Sensei during the time that he was Chief Instructor at Hombu Dojo (prior to 1974), but I believe I can see both the Saito and Tada influences as well. If you look at Imaizumi Sensei’s history, he had more time in Aikikai than in Ki Society. That was a profound observation for me; I hadn’t recognized that until I wrote it down in a table for our book.

I can point to areas where our techniques are different from others, and these may or may not be a “trademark.” There are a couple of techniques that I tend to pull out when with a group of non-SKB people and the techniques are frequently new to them. That’s cool, but I don’t feel that we’re necessarily “branded” in that way.

Shizuo Imaizumi (left) takes ukemi for O-Sensei (right), c. 1967 or earlier. Photo from the collection of Walther G. von Krenner.

And I think we should always check ourselves on that front. When I was talking about branding earlier, and the split of 1974, I was serious. We seem to have a lot of, and excuse the expression, “pissing on fire hydrants” because I think certain instructors are marking their territory so to speak. They’re changing their styles and nomenclature in order to be unique – and sometimes out of spite, I’m afraid. There was an abundance of animosity generated when Tohei left. I am convinced that Imaizumi Sensei’s approach to the establishment of Shin-Budo Kai was different, with no animosity whatsoever. He has always been very careful to be respectful to the people that taught him – and that includes both Tohei Sensei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei. The only critical remarks that I can recall from his writings or interviews had to do with attempts to expel Tohei Sensei from the history of aikido at one point. He wasn’t having any of that and he called it out, but otherwise, he’s very gracious.

Getting back to stylistic characteristics – looking for consistencies is important as I said, but it’s also important to be curious about the differences we observe. “Oh, that’s weird. Why do they do it that way? Does that make sense? Is there anything wrong with that?” When I show our students different techniques and, if I can come up with a way another style does it, I’ll say: “This is our way. This is another way. One’s not better than the other, they’re just different approaches.” And they’re often different approaches because the shihan in that lineage had different experiences and took away different lessons.

MAYTT: That is an interesting comparison. Additionally, you train Shinto Muso-ryu jodo. What led you to pursue that koryu and how has aikido helped you better assimilate the movements of Shinto Muso-ryu, if at all?

Bryan and SMR sempai, Walt Hansen, Shinto Muso Ryu Jodo; training at ASBK.

RB: So, when I stumbled upon Shinto Muso-Ryu Jodo (SMR) six or so years ago, I was sixty years old. I got started because I’ve always enjoyed aiki-jo and wanted to learn more about the jo in general. The unusual juxtaposition of circumstances and coincidences that brought me into the SMR world are a longer conversation. Suffice it to say that it was definitely through a former SBK colleague named Kevin Lam, who trains and teaches Katori Shinto Ryu (KSR) near Seattle, Washington. A friend of Kevin’s was looking for a place to train in KSR in Albuquerque and Kevin put us in touch. One of the two KSR training partners turned out to be Walt Hansen who also trained in SMR. Walt has been my sempai and training partner ever since. We travel regularly to seminars in Phoenix and Denver, as well as frequent sojourns to Phil Relnick’s hombu dojo in Woodinville, WA. I’m also looking forward to my next visit to Diane and Meik Skoss’s Shutokukan dojo in New Jersey. 

I’d say aikido both enhanced and complicated the SMR training. There’s no question that the body movement awareness we develop through aikido, and the powers of observation you develop as an instructor, have definitely helped me in my struggle to “assimilate” the various kata of Shinto Muso Ryu, which of course involve the sword as much as the jo. Also, aiki buki waza, aikido weapons training, helped in that holding and manipulating jo and bokken were not foreign to me, and both felt very familiar in my hands. That said, we have certain body movements, foot orientations, and weapons handling approaches that do not fit very well with the SMR approach, so I had to retrain and relearn a lot of things. 

MAYTT: What specifically about aikido would not work or be translatable in Shinto Muso-ryu?

RB: Footwork for one thing – it’s quite different in SMR from what most of us are used to in aikido circles. It’s funny, I can remember Relnick Sensei watching me when I first started and, in a jovial way, beating on me, “That’s an aikido step!” [Laughs] It’s a bit ironic in that a large percentage of my SMR colleagues chuckle and make fun of aikido in one way or another, but for most of them their gateway into SMR was aikido! [Laughs] And, there are quite a few like me who remain very active in aikido.

In addition to footwork issues, in aikido we often crouch or squat or move in other ways to lower our centers when executing techniques. There seems to be much less of that in SMR, particularly when executing a strike or thrust with the jo. Also, to be candid, I think our weapons work across all styles of aikido is in need of some finetuning. My eyes have been opened to that and I think a number of the basic training principles in SMR could transfer rather seamlessly to aiki weapons training. I’m trying this out in our dojo.

MAYTT: To that end, I have noticed that the weapons work is secondary to the empty hand, which may constitute as to why there are many different weapons styles in aikido.

RB: Maybe so, and different schools have different levels of work that they do with aikido-based weapons, but a number of aikido schools also train in iaido and kenjutsu, with a smaller number also practicing Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei style jodo, and fewer still also training in SMR. The jo in aikido is a bit of a mystery in terms of its origins. I once had the opportunity to ask noted author, Dave Lowry, “Where did aiki jo come from?” And he basically said he had no idea. Nobody knows! O-Sensei had no formal training in what we think of as traditional jo. O-Sensei trained in spear and bayonet, and I think that is evident when you watch him handling the jo in old videos. So, the aiki jo we recognize today originated from what our various shihan derived from watching O-Sensei and then systematizing their observations into kata. Nothing wrong with that, but what they derived is very different from the applications and handling that you’ll see in the koryu. And that’s really interesting to me, but not so interesting to most people. [Laughs]

Walt and Bryan with Phil and Nobuko Relnick Senseis at Port Townsend, Washington, 2018. Photo by Andrew Bordwin.

In regard to weapons work being “secondary,” I’d just say that if you think about it, a fair amount of the taijutsu techniques and the nomenclature that we use in aikido are based on sword work. If your students know the foundations of how to handle a bokken and some basic kata, that is often very useful in their taijutsu training. We’re exploring that pretty extensively in my dojo and I know that’s the view in a number of other aikido dojos, but I also know, as you implied, that weapons work is not emphasized or remains secondary elsewhere.

MAYTT: Final question. Recently, Imaizumi has announced his retirement from teaching and other leadership roles in Shin-Budo Kai. As of now, what does the future of the Shin-Budo Kai and Imaizumi’s legacy look like?

RB: Personally, I’ve been struggling with that question and trying to get other folks to struggle with it for about five years now, knowing that this time was coming – either he retires or he passes away. So, his formal retirement recently has sort of forced the issue. We have established what is called the Shin-Budo Kai Leadership Council, which is the governing body for the SBK Consortium of Dojos – the latter being the six existing SBK dojos in Connecticut, Colorado, New Mexico, New York, and Texas. Council members (12) are drawn from the membership of all of our dojos. I read one of the quotes in your book, saying something to the effect of, “I just became head of one of the largest aikido organizations in North America.” And I was thinking, “Yeah, I’ve just become the head of what may be the smallest aikido organization in North America.” [Laughs]

Within the Council, we’re going to have a designated promotions board composed of our existing chief instructors, including myself. We will have three standing committees: a curriculum committee; a new dojos committee, and a historical archives committee.

We’re making progress and are close to having our founding documents finalized. Imaizumi Sensei has seen these and sent along his approval and encouragement. 

MAYTT: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about Imaizumi. Best of luck with the future of Shin-Budo Kai!

RB: Thank you for having me – I very much enjoyed our conversation. 

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


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