Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
Re: Legacy and the Founder
Reminiscences of the pioneers...
Saotome Sensei was invited over to the US by a group in Florida. They had the money and set up everything so he could get his Green Card... He showed up, after having served in a senior leadership role at Hombu Dojo only to find that the guy with the money had absconded with the funds. So he found an eclectic mix of martial artists, hippies, ex-bikers, groupies, etc.
Supporting Sensei was a group effort. No one had any money to speak of and what they had they put into the dojo and their training. Someone fed Sensei breakfast, someone else fed him lunch. I am pretty sure that initially he didn't even have his own place to stay.
When Sensei had first announced that he would be leaving Hombu Dojo for the States, Osawa Sensei first tried to talk him out of leaving, and then negotiated that Sensei be given Hombu's blessing and the South East as his "territory". Due to political maneuverings, this deal fell through and was withdrawn. Sensei chose to come over anyway.
So initially, Sensei was cut off from any support from Japan. In those days it was still the "One organization per country rule" so anyone who went with Sensei was unable to get his rank recognized in Japan.
The existing organization here wasn't enthusiastic about the appearance of an uchi deshi whom had stayed in Japan when most of the others had gone overseas to teach. I guess they felt it was threatening.
Anyway, a variety of things happened that were designed to hinder his ability to attract students. I guess it's not appropriate on the internet to get into these things. I only mention it to illustrate just how hard it was to come over here and get started. Not only was there no money but, in Sensei's case, there were forces acting against him, which only made it harder. Those of us from the old days remember having an "us against the world" that made the training we ere getting from Sensei even more special. We had to chose Sensei or getting our ranks registered and we chose Sensei. I know he still has a soft spot for the folks who chose to stand with him back when the going was tough. Later, after the rapprochement with Headquarters, lots of folks came out of the woodwork and said they'd like to affiliate... I know for many of us the feeling was, where were you when it cost you something to be part of our organization?
Sensei moved from Florida up to DC in 1975. Five Yudansha moved from various parts of the country to help him open that dojo. Raso Hultgren, Glenn and Sara Bluestone, Carl Larkin, and Megan Reisel. Linda Holiday Sensei and Dave Hurley came and trained a bit. Of that original core of yudansha, all shodans at the time, Raso is Chief Instructor of a hugely successful dojo in Missoula, Linda Holiday has had a dojo in Santa Cruz for decades. John Messores,Sensei's first student when he came to the US came up for a while... he is now Chief Instructor of a dojo in St Pete, FL. Sara Bluestone is still at the DC dojo. Dave Hurley is a professor and still teaches classes at Kimberly Richardson Sensei's dojo in Seattle. The rest have gone on to other things...
They found this great space on Butternut St which was a residence that had been owned by an electrical contractor and he had added a warehouse space attached to the residence that was big enough to drive two panel trucks into. The residence had been turned into offices and the dojo only rented the warehouse space and the basement. I started when the dojo was only six months old. There were about eight of us in that first group of students who were the serious white belts. Everyone trained six or seven days a week. The space hadn't even been finished, half the space was still old cable reel racks, old reels, leftover cable and wire. We had half the space matted...
Well, mat was a bit of an exaggeration... everyone was still broke. So what little money could be had was put into making a two by four & plywood frame, and the mat cover. Foam was really expensive so the students went out and scrounged old rugs at garage sales, recycled cardboard boxes at the super market, anything that might cushion that floor a bit. Bit by bit we managed to put the place together and I am sure that Sensei himself put every dime he made traveling and teaching seminars into that dojo.
Training with Sensei was easily the best thing I had ever done. I was beat up, exhausted, frustrated by how hard it was for me and how easy it seemed for the yudansha (remember, they were shodans). But I loved every second of it, every nano second. I thought that if I could only be as good as those black belts I would have arrived.
Then I noticed that Sensei would whip a class on us and I wouldn't have a clue from start to finish,what he had done. Then I'd overhear the yudansha saying "What the hell was that? I have no idea what he just did" Sensei would then proceed to tell us, "yes, this class I do for Shihan at Hombu dojo." We were getting classes from him that he had done back in Japan in which no one in the class was under 6th Dan. You had to have a high tolerance for feeling lost but it was vastly exciting.
Initially, we just trained our brains out. There was no testing, there were no requirements. There was no ASU. We were simply a group of folks centered around this unbelievable teacher training every moment we got. I was the very first Shodan test ever done in DC. I had never seen a test before. Since there were no requirements written down any where, Sensei simply called out stuff and you had to do something that hopefully looked something like what he wanted. The eight of us actually thought we were there for our 1st Kyu Tests. But in typical Saotome Sensei fashion, he threw us a curve ball. When we finished, Sensei said "Ah, good tests. Take ten minute break and come back for another test." He sparng the Shodan test on us by surprise... There's one one thing I remember about that test. Sensei called for three people with shinai.
I had no idea what was happening when they surrounded me. The only thing I had ever seen that looked anything like this was the films of O-Sensei doing an irimi to get outside the circle of attackers. So when Sensei said start, that's what I did. A picture perfect irimi to the side of the guy behind me, a true work of art irimi. He then proceeded to hit me over the head with his shinai on his second try. I suddenly realized that I hadn't quite understood the program and the rest of my randori was me running wildly about the dojo, trying to hide behind the posts, etc. with three ukes beating the hell out of me while Sensei laughed his ass off. Afterwords, he told us,"Hah, hah, hah... you all died".
I realized that Sensei had specifically thrown the whole thing in precisely because there was no way we'd succeed. He wanted to make sure that none of the new Shodans had any unrealistic notions of how good were actually were. Every once in a while he'll still look at me and start laughing, remembering that first test. I have learned to take some consolation in having provided my teacher with so much amusement.
What's interesting about those early days is that most of the folks I know from back then, look at those days as a sort of magical time, easily the best time of our training lives. Sensei was on a mission to pass on what he had learned from O-Sensei. Not a night passed when we didn't sit with Sensei by the side of the mat after class over a few beers and listen to him talk about his time with the Founder. He clearly felt that he had an obligation to repay what he had been give by O-Sensei by passing his art along to another generation. And we felt the same way about the gift we had received in being able to train with this amazing man. You were always conscious that this man was an irreplaceable resource. He could be gone tomorrow and what he knew would be gone with him.
This wasn't a hobby for us. It wasn't just something you did when it was convenient or in your "spare" time. You trained every day, when you weren't at the dojo , you were thinking about it, you owned every book written about the art, you'd seen every clip of O-Sensei that Stan Pranin had made available. We all had jobs designed to support our training and a couple of us were married. So it wasn't like Sensei had trained in Japan 8 hours a day, seven days a week. But we did two or more hours every day but Sunday and some of us would go in the and do solo work.
I think it's hard now to see how different things are now. You never experience that excitement of being there at the very beginning again , unless you start your own place. It would be impossible to duplicate the training we got from Saotome Sensei in those days. I travel across the country and pay a thousand dollars to get three days with Sensei, along with 80 or more other folks. We had him every day with ten or so in the class. That will never come again and it was the best. Can't even come close to expressing how "the best" it was.
Last edited by George S. Ledyard : 01-30-2011 at 05:15 PM.