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My Career in Yanagi-ryu Aiki Jujutsu

by Don Angier

Aikido Journal #119 (2000)

I was born in 1933 in Utica, New York. My father was of French extraction, but always claimed to be Irish because my paternal grandfather had emigrated from Ireland where the family had lived for generations, descended from the Earl of Balfour. My mother was Mohawk Indian.

Don Angier Sensei

Looking back, I can see now that we were poor, but I never realized it while I was growing up. We always had clean clothes, a clean if not fancy flat, and food on the table. Our neighborhood was what would be known today as a ghetto. Most of our neighbors were, like us, strictly blue collar, and most had just emigrated from Europe. World War II was on in Europe, and they luckily escaped before Hitler and his gang got to them.

Most were German or Austrian, plus a few Polish, Italians, and French. Names like Weiss, Schleicher, Eichler, Bick, Carbone, and La Fleur come to mind. Never did I see an argument or an act of intolerance among them.

The movies and the news broadcasts kept telling us how much we should hate the Germans, yet I was living in the midst of a large, mainly German colony who did nothing more sinister than brew beer in one of several breweries. Consequently, I was not a propaganda convert. I include this information because it was important for my attitude when I met my teacher.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, I remember someone suggesting that we tear out all of the cherry trees in Washington, DC, because they were a gift from Japan. I remember thinking that it was stupid because trees are obviously apolitical. Perhaps that is why I did not reject out-of-hand the first Japanese (or Asian for that matter) that I ever saw in the flesh. A man who was to become the biggest influence in my life: Kenji Yoshida.

Just before the Pearl Harbor attack, and again for a short time after the war, movie theaters showed a series of movies featuring a character named “Mister Moto” based on a series of books by John P. Marquand.

Although Moto was Japanese, his loyalty was to justice rather than to any government. He worked in an “Interpol” type capacity. At least once in every movie he was forced to use jiu-jitsu on his opponents, who were always much larger than he. When someone would comment, “Wow, judo!” Moto was always quick to say, “So sorry! Jiu-jitsu please, not judo!”

Well, he was short, I was short, and he handled his enemies with ease, as I would have liked to be able to do. He was my hero and I wanted to be him, just as kids today want to be Batman or the Terminator. I scoured the library for books on jiu-jitsu, but during the war, any book that glorified anything Japanese had been removed from the shelves. I did, however, come across an old magazine at a relative’s home that depicted two judoka doing a seionage (shoulder throw). The uke (partner) was upside down, right over the tori’s (thrower’s) head. I spent weeks studying that picture to try to figure out how it was done, but to no avail.

Later, when I was 15 or 16, I was playing volleyball at Butler playground when I looked over at a bench near the fence. I was immediately flooded by mixed emotions: excitement, fear, disbelief, and others I cannot describe.

The man came back on several occasions. I made up my mind that I had to talk to him. I dug up that old judo picture and brought it with me. After all, the word during the war was that all Japanese were jiu-jitsu masters and could toss you with ease in a second.

I took a break from the game one day and pretended to rest against the fence a few feet from the man. I took out the photo and slowly, and I thought inconspicuously, edged towards the man. Finally, I got enough courage and thrust the picture under his nose and blurted, “Can you do this?” He was quite surprised, but finally looked at the picture and nodded yes. Well, the silence was broken and he had not attacked me, so I said, “Will you teach me how to do that?” He said no, got up, and walked away.

He was absent for several weeks. I had screwed up my chance to be Mr. Moto. Then one day I looked over and he was back. After the ball game was over, he motioned me over and asked if I still wanted to learn to do the shoulder throw. I said yes, of course. He said it would take a long time, would be very difficult, and no one was to know. I was on my way to becoming Mister Moto!

About three-quarters of a mile west of the playground were the city limits. Half a mile farther was a series of bridges that spanned the Mohawk River, Erie Canal, and Barge Canal. We took the footpath along the Barge Canal and came to a brick building that, in days gone by, had been a way station for changing mules that pulled the barges along the canal. Yoshida Sensei was temporarily staying there until a loft that had been promised him by one of his customers became available. It was sturdy, Sensei had cleaned it up, and power and water was still hooked up to it. Sensei lived in what had been the office area, and one of the other rooms became the dojo. We covered the floor with large flattened cardboard boxes we obtained from the Durr Packing Company, a nearby slaughterhouse. I knew about the boxes because we kids used to take them and slide down the hills in the snow. The boxes were covered with wax to prevent the cow blood from leaking out, and working on them soon made them too slippery to work out on. We next built a two-by-four frame and covered it with planks and old rugs that we procured from the nearby dump. This was our mat for the next few months. The roof over the mat area leaked when it rained, so classes were more academic; learning how to pass swords back and forth, cleaning the sword, etiquette, Japanese language for me and English for him, and other such things were explored.

Of course we did not have a real sword, but Yoshida had carved each us each a good bokken [wooden sword], and he had a hakama [traditional trousers] which he had been given in the camp. Kendo was allowed in the camp [“relocation center” where Japanese Americans were sent during World War II] after awhile, and most with a martial arts background participated, although Sensei stated that many were afraid to play for fear of being placed under suspicion of being a militarist by the guards.

Finally the loft became available. In the rear of a house just half a block away from my house, there was a three-garage outbuilding with storage lofts above each garage. The lofts were not divided by solid walls, just two-by-four framing. No one else was using the lofts, so Sensei actually had the whole space for himself.

Yoshida Sensei worked as a handyman. In the summer he cut lawns, cleaned out attics and garages, ran errands for the elderly, did minor repairs, and was quite a good small tree pruner. The winter was very busy. Shoveling snow from driveways and walkways, cleaning and hauling ashes out of the coal furnaces, shoveling out the trains snowed in at the station, etc. To his many customers, he was simply known as “Ken.”

In the summer it was easier to attend classes because there was no school, the days were long, and Sensei finished his work early because I often helped him. I remember one incident that showed me a side of his character that I had never seen. We were cleaning out a backyard for some people who had recently moved into the house. The man came out and told Sensei that he wanted the small shed cleaned out so his son could use it as a playhouse. He punctuated his instruction with, “Make sure you don’t get any Jap smell on it.” I was furious and was about to go after him, but Sensei stopped me. He said that the man was sick, and that we do not harm sick people. I did not understand, but cooled off. When we finished cleaning out the shed, the man came out to inspect the work. Of course it was spotless. Sensei then said to him, “You will notice that I was very careful not to get any Jap smell on it.” The man became embarrassed and apologized.

There was no regularly scheduled class time. Whenever the mood struck, we practiced, and I was always in the mood. I skipped school so often to practice that I had to repeat one semester in high school to make up the work. The first thing that he taught me was the seionage that was depicted in the photo I had shoved under his nose. Then he said, “Now you know seionage. Now forget that stuff and start learning jiu-jitsu.”

We practiced rolling, falling, sitting seiza [a formal kneeling position] and moving in shikko [moving from that formal kneeling position]. After that, things were not taught in any particular order, which I hated. I am a very meticulous person and I like things to be in a logical progression. Consequently, I made copious notes after every class and developed categories that made sense to me, placing the forms in these sections as I learned them. This was the beginning of the systemization of the art, and was strictly for my own edification.

Although Yoshida Sensei spoke English poorly, he had a way of getting things across by body language and using simple physics demonstrations. The main thing he stressed was that the forms were only examples of how the principles were to be used. As long as the principle is used correctly, the form itself is of little importance. Only basic moves and forms have names. It would be impossible to name every form. He told me to name them anything I wanted as long as it helped me to remember them.

He said that in the old days, weapons were more important, and that the hand arts were used when you didn’t have a weapon or were in a castle or clan mansion where drawing a weapon was punishable by death unless you were a member of the household guard on duty. To have a weapon and not use it was, in his opinion, stupid. He loved going to movies, and we went often. He was always amazed when the hero tossed away his gun and took on the villain with his bare hands.

Sensei insisted that the sword, spear, naginata [halberd or glaive; a polearm], jo [stick], and the hand arts were all the same. The sword was taught first, then the corresponding hand application. To begin a new technique, he would show me the attack he wanted, then he told me to attack hard. I attacked and found myself either crumpled at his feet or piled in a corner. Then he would ask me to do the same thing. As you would imagine, it was embarrassing to say the least. But finally through infinite repetition I would get it. Something that helped me quite a bit was realizing that by trying to ignore the pain and concentrate on what he was doing to me, my mind became clearer and I could see what he was doing. This also caused my threshold of pain to increase considerably. I realized that “Tension equals pain.”

Sensei took falls and joint locks in the beginning, but after a couple of years stopped taking hard body falls. In the concentration camp he had contracted silicosis, a lung disease similar to a combination of tuberculosis and emphysema from breathing in the fine dust that filtered through the cracks in the walls and floors. Each time he breathed, the silica in his lungs was tearing them up, and he was getting progressively worse.

I regret that I did not pay more attention to such things as Sensei’s past and his family history. But to understand this, you have to put things in their proper perspective. First, there were no such things as martial arts dojo in those days on the East Coast. Maybe a judo dojo here and there in cities with large Japanese populations, but generally they were non-existent. Maybe one percent of the population had heard of martial arts, and fewer cared. Remember that it was just after the war. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had lost fathers, sons, brothers and sisters, and other relatives to the Japanese.

Pretty much anything Japanese was hated. However, I was learning strictly for myself, and such things were of no importance to me. Who would have dreamed that Japanese martial arts would ever become popular? The mere idea was as ludicrous as crab-racing dojo becoming popular. The idea that I would ever end up teaching was even more farfetched.

Another factor was that in the 1940s and 50s, children did not ask personal questions of adults, even those in your own family. It was considered very rude. There was a definite line between adults and children. Even among adults there was a respect for privacy that we seldom see today.

There were, however, certain things that Sensei felt it necessary for me to know. Among them was that his family had been very prominent in samurai times. With the help of the maps in my high school history books, he showed me that his family had originally come from Satsuma in southern Japan. They had fought in the Satsuma rebellion on the losing side and relocated to Hokkaido in northern Japan, then to the Tokyo area. He never mentioned the Daito-ryu or Sokaku Takeda.

His father was considered important in martial, political, and literary circles, and was a member of an organization called the Black Dragon Society , a very influential ultra right-wing nationalist organization. The Black Dragon Society changed its name after it completed one goal and adopted another one for good luck. It was known variously as the Ronin Society, the Grass Roots Society, the Cherry Blossom (Sakura) Society, the Amur River Society, and others. At one time, when it was known as the Sakura Society, it met in the old Kobukan Dojo of Morihei Ueshiba, the precursor of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. It is not known if Ueshiba had knowledge of this meeting, but in my opinion a man of his perception would know everything that went on around him, especially in his own dojo.

They slowly took over the government beginning at the turn of the century and Japan embarked on its expansionist policy which ultimately led to the destruction of the country by the Allied Forces. If you were not totally with them, you were considered an enemy and a risk. Because Kenji Yoshida was vocal in his opinion against the new direction the government was taking and Kotaro Yoshida, his father, was very active in the new government, there was a serious rift between them. So much so that Kenji Yoshida feared that he and some of his close friends had been targeted for removal. Japan had been recruiting people to go to Argentina, Brazil, and other South American countries to form new villages and set up farm communes. Most of these junkets were sponsored by large companies in Japan for the purposes of establishing a source of produce for Japan, which was fast becoming short on land, and to introduce a spy network into the area from which they could fan out across the Western hemisphere. Argentina was a neutral country, and the war was at that time confined to China and Southeast Asia. The Argentine government was friendly with the Axis governments, but kept out of the war actively. During World War II, you could find English, American, German, and Japanese ships docked side-by-side in Argentine ports. It was not difficult for Kenji Yoshida to book passage under a different name on one of the ships bound for Argentina.

Once there, he was able to get to Costa Rica. Eventually, with the prearranged help of friends among the Japanese tuna fishermen from Terminal Island, California, Yoshida Sensei was brought into the United States.

In those days, Terminal Island was almost one hundred percent populated by Japanese. The tuna fleet and canneries were there, and non-Japanese hardly ever went there. They had their own doctors, lawyers, and other professional people, and did their own marryin’ and buryin’, and there were groups who were helping Japanese relatives and others enter the country. The tuna fleet would sail down to Costa Rica and other coastal locations and the people they were helping into the country would work their way back on the boats. Since they did not always report deaths in the community to the authorities, they kept identities “alive” and matched the new arrivals with the identification of the deceased.

A short time after his arrival, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. When the FBI began rounding up Japanese Americans and nationals in Southern California, Yoshida Sensei went north to the San Francisco area, but eventually was caught in the dragnet. He and other Japanese were held at the former Tanforan Racetrack and then shipped off to Topaz Relocation Center in central Utah.

Upon his release from the camp, he worked his way slowly east until he eventually came to Utica, New York. It was autumn when he arrived and he was struck by the beauty of the foliage in the Mohawk Valley. He said it reminded him so much of Japan that he decided to stay.

Yoshida Sensei never talked much about the camp, and I did not even know that they existed until later. He was also quite concerned about being arrested as an illegal alien, did not like having his picture taken, and was uncomfortable whenever police cars passed.

During my high school years, the United States entered the Korean Conflict,” and soon after my graduation I was inducted into the Army. For two months during basic training I was unable to leave the base, but I got a one-week leave after basic and spent the whole time with Yoshida Sensei. I was never close to my real family. They could never really get a hold on where I was coming from. They began calling me the “old man” when I was ten.

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