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Interview with Thomas Makiyama

by Norm Ibuki

Aikido Journal #120

Thomas H. Makiyama,
Founder, Keijutsukai Aikido

Thomas Makiyama started budo at the age of 18 in January 1947 after enlisting in the U.S. Army. He went to Japan from his home state of Hawaii immediately after basic training and was stationed in Yokohama, where he was assigned to the 8th Army’s military police criminal investigation division. This was during the early Occupation, before the outbreak of the Korean War.

This interview was conducted by Norm Ibuki on January 7, 2001 at (appropriately) an American fast-food restaurant in Tokyo, where members of the Keijutsukai, founded by Makiyama Sensei, meet for coffee before practice. He touches on his long involvement with aikido, his way of instructing, and the contrasts between American and Japanese culture.


Norm Ibuki: Did you study budo before you came to Japan?

Thomas Makiyama: No, but I was exposed to it because there was a lot of judo in Hawaii. Some of my classmates practiced, but I didn’t and I used to wait for them to get off training so we could go to the beach. The judo instructor, who also taught at the Japanese school, was always trying to get me to join the group but I declined. He asked me why and I said, "Because it hurts!" He called me chicken.

I was the little guy in the outfit and I had to do something, so within weeks of arriving in Japan I went looking for a judo dojo, as that was the only budo I knew about then.
I joined the army primarily to take advantage of the GI Bill whereby, if you spent three years in the military, you got a free college education.

I wanted to become a famous attorney like Perry Mason and I had read all the Perry Mason books.

When I went to Honolulu for training and assignment someone suggested that we go to Alaska—that’s how damn stupid we were. One of the guys in the army office, the older brother of a classmate, said, "Why the hell do you want to go to Alaska, it’s all ice!" So I asked him to find me another place and he said, "We have an opening in Japan." I said, "OK, one place is as good as another." That’s how I ended up over here.

I learned aikido for the first time around 1947 or 48. I was attending two or three different classes a week in jujutsu and karate, mainly because of my duties and my small size. From what I had read judo was great stuff, though of course I found out later it ain’t necessarily so. All martial arts were banned at the time, so I had a hard time locating a teacher.

I started judo at the Isezaki-cho police station in Yokohama. The teacher was living in a ramshackle place in the back and there was no dojo. From there I started getting into different arts.

All the arts have changed a lot. In those days, for instance, in Goju-ryu karate, you took your opponent’s best punch then got back twice as hard and knocked him down. All of the martial arts I took then emphasized strength and power. I had a difficult time learning because very few people spoke English and I wasn’t bilingual, although I knew enough Japanese to keep out of trouble. In Hawaii, we had many Issei (first-generation Japanese migrants) from Kumamoto, Hiroshima and so on. My dad was from Saga-ken.

How did you hear about aikido?

It wasn’t called aikido then. It was one of the jujutsu systems. You must understand the situation in Japan at the time. There were all kinds of names for these arts, but I wasn’t interested in names, only the art as such. Nobody called it aikido. Most of the instructors were cops, but I don’t remember their names either. I used to go half way out to Yokosuka to a police substation to learn from a detective-sergeant there who specialized in one of the jujutsu arts. I found out later that most of the things I did more or less resembled aikido.

I learned from this guy for two or three months, others for a couple of weeks. All of these teachers, and there were many, exposed me to different arts. The judo instructor I initially went to was an old-time judoist, one of the few to perform in front of the Emperor I was told, a little guy who really looked the part—pretty beat up, but he taught me the rudiments of judo.

After all this time fooling around with different arts I heard about aikido from a news item in the Nippon Times (now the Japan Times). The police were looking for some guy who had committed murder. They cornered him at his parents’ home but word was out that he was trained in aikido, and they dispatched a lot of extra officers because it was supposed to be a vicious art! I immediately lost interest in all the other arts.

Who were your first aikido teachers?

That was something, trying to find an aikido teacher! One was Yukio Noguchi Sensei who was affiliated with the Yoshinkan and whom I later invited over to Hawaii. He was primarily a karate man and judoist. There were also two or three other teachers from different areas. None of these guys were teaching for money. They couldn’t anyway as the martial arts were banned until 1949.

What attracted you to aikido?

I adapted very easily to aikido because of my past judo and jujutsu training. These arts all resembled each other; only the names were different. After trying eight or nine different types, you begin to think, "Gee, the human body only moves in so many ways." Moving into aiki was no big deal. As to what made me continue, it’s very easy to explain: aikido is something you can continue for years. The longer you stay with it, the more it becomes an art of minimum effort and maximum results. Not everyone masters this, but that’s what I try to preach.

How long does it take to reach shodan, nidan or whatever? I’ve always said, and this is for the record, that any damn fool can learn the physical part of the art as long as he stays with it long enough. But what’s more important is the mental aspect. In other words, you learn not only the physical art, but also why these things work. You learn with your body. It’s a long process.

I learned everything the hard way and I had a hell of a time converting from hard to soft. I became aware that something was wrong when I went back to Hawaii and I was teaching a seminar to 170-odd students none of whom knew about aikido, as such. Jeez, there were very big Hawaiians, cops and so forth, coming to learn. Sure, I could take them down all right, but I realized there must be an easier way of doing these things. That’s when I started having my doubts. I had to find out why I had to use so much strength with these guys. Then, I thought, "What if they resist?"

What I teach now is the result of thinking this way, plus the variety of different training experiences I have had. I don’t like to say it’s my art, as such, since the principle has been around for years.

I try to teach with a sense of humor. If you can’t master something today, you’re not going to lose your job tomorrow, nor are you going to die! Take your time. This is a very different approach to many instructors. Another rule in my dojo is that the sempai (seniors) are there to teach, not to show off or take advantage of new people. It’s no problem for seniors to throw new people around. Instead, they should try to earn their respect. Not, "Do as I say!" but, "Follow me gang and I’ll teach you the way."

Most aikido schools rely too much on strength, but it was not meant to be so. Another problem is that the opponent, unless told, will not resist. They know in advance what to expect, so you often see them diving all over the place before the waza is actually applied. That’s ridiculous and doesn’t do the art justice. When I teach, if anybody jumps before the waza catches, they catch hell from me!

Did you ever see O-Sensei?

I saw him perform many times but I was never a student of his. My interest was different, I was with the military and was not interested in conforming to the Japanese way of learning, or following any one teacher.

I originally didn’t even know what I was learning or who started the whole thing. Nobody knew. Now I look back and I don’t know if these guys were actually students of O-Sensei or not, with the exception of Gozo Shioda.

Shioda Sensei and I were good friends and I could say anything I wanted to him if I disagreed with him. For over 20 years I tried to help him expand his organization and actually, though they may deny it, I’m the guy who started the Yoshinkan’s international expansion, to Hawaii in the late 1950s. This is not mentioned anywhere in Yoshinkan history, though people who know admit it. I say, "Well, are you ashamed that an American helped you?" and they say, "No, no. no."

What’s your connection with the Yoshinkan now?

We are good friends, but Keijutsukai is connected to "me, myself and I," nobody else.

Did you break away from the Yoshinkan?

I’ve never broken away from the Yoshinkan. I have always helped them as a friend. Shioda Kancho just asked for help and I said OK. It was no big deal. A lot of people cannot understand it, but I’ve helped them purely as a friend all these years.

What is "ki"?

What do you think?

It has often been explained to me that it is vital life energy, but as to how it relates to executing effortless aikido techniques I’m still at a loss. I don’t understand it.

Neither does anyone else.

How did the great debate about "ki" get started?

When you see people being thrown around without any apparent effort, and you try to duplicate it and you can’t without using a lot of strength, and even then it’s sometimes impossible, the easiest way to explain the inexplicable is to treat it as a mystery.

Where did this start?

At the Aikikai. O-Sensei was a deeply religious man. He belonged to the Omoto-kyo religion and, though I don’t know for sure, he may have used aikido to convey his own religious beliefs. So, if he does these seemingly impossible things, it must be ki!

What do you think about aikido as practiced elsewhere?

To each his own.

How is your aikido different from other schools?

Me, I guess. First of all, generally speaking, I don’t emphasize strength to finish a movement or a technique. Secondly, there is absolutely nothing mysterious about it. It’s just commonsense and elementary physics that you learn in high school.

What advice do you have for beginners?

Look around, check and find out if the instructor is qualified and sincerely wishes to teach something, or if he is involved in money making and selling things. Of course a dojo has to make money, but sometimes I find people are taken for a ride in every way possible. I’m not picking on anyone in particular and I have nothing against people making a living from teaching, but they should keep it within reason. Make a living at it, but don’t take advantage of the students by asking them to buy this and buy that.

What is a good student?

Someone like Noriko Takahashi (a long-term Keijutsukai student), well-rounded. In our dojo, it’s a matter of being strict, yet very informal, with a good sense of humor. As an example, in other schools (in Japan) it’s rare for students of different levels to mix informally. But if a new student joined us today, they would be welcome to go out with us eating or drinking. The "establishment" doesn’t look at things this way.

Is there a special need for aikido today?

Not only aiki, but all of the martial arts. I’m very neutral. What they have to offer will depend on the people running the school. I know what I can offer my students. I teach them a lot of commonsense stuff and tell them to make their own decisions. I say, "Don’t always agree with me, I could be wrong." This is normal, but it is not the Japanese way. In the Japanese system, not only in the martial arts, you do as you’re told, and don’t question anything. I might be gradually converting them into a Western way of thinking, though. I have always worked on the principle of osmosis with my Japanese students anyway. They may not realize what the hell I’m trying to say but gradually they absorb it, though it may take them 20 years.

What has happened to aikido since the war? Was there a heyday?

Yes, back in the very early 1950s, because nobody knew about aikido. When it finally went public, a lot of judo people helped get aikido established as they were the only ones who had dojos. But the favor was never reciprocated. A lot of aikido people today criticize judo. This should not be so because they have a great deal of obligation to the old judo people who went out of their way and used their students to pass on aikido. This connection seems to have been forgotten, which is also a characteristic of Japanese culture.

What about the concepts of "harmony" and "love" that are often talked about by aikidoists?

I feel that all teachers, whatever school they come from, should get along with each other. They should all participate in demonstrations together—work together. There’s something wrong in this area, possibly to do with money. And some schools appear to have an inferiority complex, and will not permit outsiders to watch their class, even to this day. Anybody can come to my class at any time. I have nothing to hide.

What is "harmony" then?

Getting along with each other, getting along with everybody, whether they come from Timbuktu, Canada or the U.S. Instead of just talking about harmony, aikido people should demonstrate it by working together for one common cause, "ai-ki-do." I think that’s harmony. I may be wrong.

When did the fractures start to appear?

They came about gradually when certain people broke away from the Ueshiba dojo with O-Sensei’s permission. After he died things went haywire and everybody went their own way. There are a lot of foreign dojos that are not affiliated to any headquarters in Japan. These are the ones I feel sorry for, the ones I’m trying to help. I call them "factory rejects," just like me!

Ten years ago I went to the U.S. and met some of these breakaway groups. I said, "You guys are all factory rejects, you’re not the belonging type. You have your own ideas, that’s why you broke away. If you guys are mavericks, I’m the worst one around! We can all get together." It worked out very nicely.

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