Robert Nadeau at 2001 San Rafael Summer CampRobert Nadeau was 22 years old when he boarded a ship bound for Japan. His odyssey brought him face to face with the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, who would remain a constant source of inspiration and guidance to the young foreigner. A full-time aikido instructor in Northern California for over 30 years, Nadeau reminisces about his early days in budo and the evolution of his unique body and spiritual training methods.
Nowadays when a student walks into an aikido dojo there are likely to be many black belts on the mat. However, when you began there were probably less than five dojos in all of California.
I’m not sure what was going on down south in Southern California, but as far as I know there was only one school in Northern California which was run by Robert Tann. I wasn’t very connected with the Los Angeles area to know what was going on, although I do remember meeting Francis Takahashi around early 1962.
I guess you didn’t train with Robert Tann very long before going to Japan…
No, not very long. I was grateful for the opportunity that he provided me to start training. He reminded me at his retirement dinner that it was at my insistence that he continued to operate a dojo and teach.
So you received your first dan rank in Japan?
You mentioned a very interesting episode where you had a dream in which a little old man with a white beard appeared and went to see a psychic about it…
It’s an oft told story. A family member said that she had met a fantastic psychic who could even name names. So I went to see this lady in San Jose and we got along really well. She said without any prompting, “You’re going to the Orient.” I said I was. “You’re going to meet a little old man with a white beard who is very powerful. He’s going to teach you many things. She said his name was MOR…. and at that time I interrupted her because I knew who she meant.
Did you fly to Japan?
No, I went by ship and it took about two weeks. There was time to become acclimatized. Fortunately, there were some Japanese workmen on the ship who taught me bad Japanese!
You mentioned that when you arrived in Japan you started studying several arts at once. Would you talk about that?
Yes, because back in the California I had been doing karate, judo, aikido plus teaching self-defense to the police. I figured I would just continue my studies in Japan and practice as much as I could. My intention was to go there and study everything. I loved being a student. I had no headaches, no body pressure, it was an environment that really suited me. So, when I arrived, I went to the Japan Karate Association, the Kodokan, and the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. After a while it was just the aikido that interested me. Slowly, I dropped out of the other arts. It could have turned out differently. Once, there was a well-known 7th dan judo teacher who saw me in the dressing room at the Kodokan—I had a lot of muscles then—and he said that with my body I should be a judo 3rd dan and invited me to train with him. Fortunately, I mentioned this to my Japanese family and they said, “Oh, no! We’ll find you a teacher,” and they tried to arrange lessons for me with a judo teacher at a university they were connected with. So if the 7th dan had taken me under his wing, I might have continued judo.
Also, I did spend some time with Donn Draeger and a group of Western martial artists including Terry Dobson, and a famous t’ai ch’i teacher named Wang Shu-Chin.
Would you give us a little cameo on Donn Draeger? He is not too well-known but was quite an exceptional individual.
He was a good writer and researcher. He liked to train, especially with the jo, because his knees were gone from judo. He use to do mostly ground work at the Kodokan because he couldn’t afford to have any more knee injuries. We used to meet at his house and invite this Chinese master who was a monk and was really skilled. He taught t’ai chi, pakua, and Hsing-I. He looked like “Odd Job” from the old 007 Bond movies! He would let us punch him in the stomach, or even the groin. You could squeeze his groin and there was no response. If you punched him in the stomach, he would twist his waist a tiny bit and your punching hand would get injured. Again, if I hadn’t met O-Sensei I would have followed this man because of his energy capability plus his fighting skills. But again, O-Sensei was so much more than all of these guys.
I just ended up doing aikido. I liked the people at the Hombu Dojo. I felt comfortable there. I was very impressed with O-Sensei…
There was a story of you getting an apartment right near the Hombu Dojo, thereby fulfilling a prophecy…
As I mentioned, I was studying judo, karate, aikido, etc. The different schools were located in different parts of Tokyo. I called a real estate agent and I said I needed an apartment, but I didn’t say anything about where. The agent picked me up and took me to Shinjuku. Lo and behold he starts to drive me up towards Hombu. “Whoa! This is weird!”, I thought. We went to this apartment right around the corner from the dojo. It was just a few seconds away! It just seemed to be an accident but the previously mentioned psychic said, “You will live with him, above him, or near him.” Living there in Wakamatsu-cho, it was very hard for me to go across town when I had Hombu right there. It was hard for me to go to some of these other classes that I was feeling questions about anyway. Different things got blocked out for different reasons, leaving me to major in Aikido. I realized that aikido was for me although it was hard to leave the other arts because I had a lot of years practicing them and was about ready to get rank.
Would you describe the situation at Hombu when you arrived?
It was 1962 when I got there. The main teachers were Kisaburo Osawa, Wakasensei (Kisshomaru Ueshiba), Koichi Tohei, Sadateru Arikawa and Seigo Yamaguchi. Hiroshi Tada was there for a bit before going to Italy. On Sundays, there was Morihiro Saito. And O-Sensei, of course.
Left to right: Roy Suenaka, Morihei Ueshiba,
Seiichi Sugano, and Robert Nadeau
And who were the uchideshi then?
Yoshimitsu Yamada, Seiichi Sugano, the two Kurita brothers, Yutaka and Minoru, Mitsugi Saotome, Kazuo Chiba, Norihiko Ichihashi, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Masando Sasaki, and others whose names slip my mind.
Did you train a lot with the uchideshi?
Oh yes! I was fortunate to train with people who are now 7th and 8th dans. They were good training partners and helped me out a lot. I was close to many of them like Yoshimitsu Yamada, Yutaka Kurita, Mitsunari Kanai and Seiichi Sugano. Also, Eddie Hagihara from New York and Henry Kono from Toronto were very close friends.
Whose classes did you like to attend?
Oh, I went to everybody’s class. I liked all of the teachers. They all offered something different. The only reason I didn’t attend Saito Sensei’s Sunday class is that my wife insisted that I had to give her one day. But I appreciated his friendliness. For example, if you were sitting at the edge of the mat he would come and explain things to you. That was very nice.
Also, Koichi Tohei was a very good teacher. I took private lessons from him for a long time. Often these would turn into small group classes with someone like Seiichi Sugano joining in or when Frank Doran stopped into visit.
Would you say at the time that Tohei Sensei was the main technical influence?
I don’t know if he was the dominant force, but he certainly was a dominant force; remember he was the head teacher. And, of course, O-Sensei was still there and I’d say he was the dominant force. Tohei Sensei was a dominant force in the sense that he would get on the case of the younger teachers and correct them. On the other hand, so many people attended Doshu’s class that I’d have to say he had a lot of influence also.
Later there was a schism between Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Tohei, and Tohei Sensei eventually separated from Hombu Dojo. Did you notice anything then that would indicate tension between them?
There was nothing I noticed at first. It was later that the questions came up of Tohei Sensei’s changing things. For example, he would change the way of doing things every time he came back from Hawaii. More important, it was noted by many that his attitude changed each time he returned from Hawaii. Later, there was a sense that he was going to make a move away from Hombu. That became apparent. We used to talk about it in the nearby coffee shop, the Kojimaya. We would talk about what was going to happen when O-Sensei died. The problems started to show more and more as time passed.
I think I have some film of you training with Sugano Sensei in those years. You looked very good considering that this was back in 1963 or 64…
What can I say! I was good? (laughter) I had a lot of support. I was a fast learner and an athlete. When I went there I had well-developed, functioning muscles. I had been training in physical development daily for over ten years. Also, my devotion to the martial arts started at 15. My judo teacher said that I took to it like a duck to water!
I trained hard. I think where I lucked out was in keeping my areas of interest separated. For example, let’s say 10:00 pm to midnight was my spiritual meditation time. Sometimes in the afternoon I would do other dimensions of energy. I would do maybe t’ai ch’i type things or stances. Then when I went to the dojo I was there to be there, here and now, and physical. I think each part of me got a turn and didn’t fight or conflict with the others. Sometimes I see people trying to do a technique but their attention may be on some spiritual area and it’s interfering with them being there. They are somewhere else.
You have mentioned that you had opportunities to spend some “quality” time with O-Sensei…
I wish I could remember the first question I asked him, but I can’t recall. Whatever it was, he apparently liked the question and invited me to come spend time with him. At first I got some bad vibes from some of the seniors, but then O-Sensei kept asking for me so they relaxed. A lot of it was just to be in his presence and to try to absorb something, like osmosis. For example, I made an audio tape of O-Sensei with the older Kurita brother and Henry Kono. He was very intent on trying to get the essence of Aikido across to us. There was so much said that Henry Kono and myself spent a month hashing it over.
I would communicate with O-Sensei by asking questions that I thought were major directions for my spiritual development that had begun years before in the States. I knew he was very advanced. So I would say, “Does the Universe work this way?” and explain myself. I would ask him a major directional question. He would confirm or correct and then I would work with that information.
A Japanese in the presence of a master like O-Sensei probably would not even ask a question. O-Sensei may have liked the spontaneity of the foreigners.
At no time did I ever feel anything on his part but a desire to communicate and be honest with me. Never did I get any negative reaction to my questions. There was one occasion when [Fukiko] Sunadomari, Eddie Hagihara, and myself were with O-Sensei. I would ask O-Sensei about something I was doing and she would interpret and say no, that wasn’t right. Then O-Sensei would contradict her and say I was right. This happened about three times in a row. This encouraged me to continue asking him questions and deepening my own practice. It also made me realize that in understanding O-Sensei you are on your own.
I think I was lucky in a certain way that I was able to pick up on things like “Seicho no Ie” [a Shinto-based sect founded by Masaharu Taniguchi and one of several offshoots of the Omoto religion] in California before I went to Japan. A friend of mine who helped me to get to Japan was a teacher of Seicho no Ie. She used to hand me booklets and I started to get into it. One day in the dojo, O-Sensei was talking in the dojo and mentioned Seicho no Ie and Taniguchi Sensei and I grabbed someone and asked what he had said. The person told me that O-Sensei said, “I walked the same Path as Taniguchi Sensei.” I was excited to hear that!
You know Taniguchi Sensei was originally a believer in the Omoto religon and one of the transcribers who took down Onisaburo Deguchi’s words. Deguchi would get up in the morning and, while still reclining in bed, dictate the train of consciousness material that was collected into the 81-volume Reikai Monogatari (Tales from the Spirit World).
Taniguchi himself wrote hundreds of books, many in English. They would just gush out of him. So just to learn that I was reading about Taniguchi Sensei and, lo and behold, O-Sensei says he walked the same Path as him! It sort of validated what I was doing.
How often did O-Sensei actually come on to the mat and teach while you were there at Hombu Dojo?
I don’t know how much he was teaching… I knew he was out of town a lot. Today you were kind of inferring that he was never there…
Actually, my point was that he was not in charge of the technical curriculum.
That’s true. Whenever he was there, though, he would talk and demonstrate things. To get to the office from his house he had to walk through the dojo. I remember one occasion with the windows of the dojo open on a very cold day, that he talked for an hour. Even though it was uncomfortable, I just liked being in his presence. Not everyone reacted positively.
Your stay in Japan was about two years?
The first stay, yes. After two years, I was bombarded with the idea of going home.
Then you returned to California?
Yes. I had been on the police force before my first trip. I was in Northern California for about a year and then I went back to Japan. It’s an old monastery occurrence, where you leave its security and go out into the world. Then you miss the monastic life and return again. So I went back for about three months. My training partners were waiting for me. They said he’s been in California and we’ve been training here everyday at Hombu Dojo. And they were frustrated when we trained together because I had continued to progress. I think I was using my head more and being very open. I tried to be open to being taught. I think it worked because my training partners were waiting to eat me up! Sometimes we get locked into thinking that only our teacher can teach us and we can’t think for ourselves.
I remember one mistake I made. I had started to work on a technique I had never seen and began to doubt whether I should be experimenting. And lo and behold, Koichi Tohei comes to California—and I know him very well because we used to hang out together and I attended all of his classes in Japan. I mean we even did private lessons together and I was a part of his drinking group. I know his stuff very well. Then I saw him do something very similar to what I was experimenting with. I said to myself, “Don’t ever do that again. If you’re going to be open to learn, be open!” I think there might be a bit of that going on. Of course, you must get your basics. But what is that? One year? Ten years? How long before you begin to express yourself in the art?
When you were back in California did you have an association with a particular teacher at that time?
In one sense, Koichi Tohei was the main teacher and the Yankee (American) teacher. He was the one who gave ranking. But now that you bring up the subject of ranking, it’s so screwy today! You’ve got to know the individuals. There was a moment in time when a rank was a true sign of a person’s capability.
I think the first time I saw you was at a demonstration in Los Angeles with Bob Frager about 1965. I think that period was the real beginning of aikido in Northern California. Would you describe that process?
Well, there were Frank Doran and myself. Bob Tann was still there; it was just before his retirement. Frank came in. He was an old marine buddy of Bob Tann and was on the Brisbane police department. He started a class in Brisbane and later moved to Half Moon Bay and taught out of his garage. We used to do a lot of exchange teaching. Eventually there were enough advanced people around and I thought we did a fantastic thing. That was to have people come together in a “show and tell” form to talk about a technique. For example, if someone had a problem with shihonage, we would have that person do the technique in front of us. Then a couple of guys who felt comfortable with the technique would show it and you could see by watching them why the first guy was having problems. We used to do things like that and learned a lot. I tried to reinstate this kind of practice, but by that time there were folks around who would say, “It’s done like this and that’s it.” It’s too bad because it was a fantastic teaching and training tool.
This was the beginning of the first professional dojos, I guess.
I think I started teaching in the Mountain View dojo in 1966. Before that I did a class at Menlo Park, but there weren’t many people around. Sometimes I would go to a dojo and there would be nobody there. Aikido was still an unknown.
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