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Interview with Yukio Utada

by Jonathan Hollin

Published Online

We would like to thank Jonathan Hollin for his kind assistance in conducting this interview.

Yukio Utada Sensei at Aiki Expo 2002 in Las Vegas

Jonathan Hollin: Sensei, I understand your dojo is located in Philadelphia, how long have you been teaching there?

Yukio Utada: I started teaching in Philadelphia in 1974, so this year will mark 28 years

You have dedicated your life to training in and teaching aikido. When and what got you started in the first place?

As a teenager I had studied judo and karate but neither captured my spirit. I had heard of aikido and wanted to try it. So, after graduating from high school, I made my way to the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo which my brother had told me about. That was in about 1966 and Soke Shioda was teaching there. I recall the respectful and warm manner in which I was greeted and the way all the aikidoka’s shoes were neatly lined up. I felt there was a great spirit there. Somehow it struck me at once that true budo was being practiced here and this is what I had been looking for. I quickly joined as a regular student.

Besides Soke Shioda there were some other incredible teachers there such as Kyoichi Inoue Sensei, Takeshi Kushida Sensei and Kiyoyuki Terada Sensei. These people were true masters and collectively they were able to guide my progress and cultivate my understanding of aikido.

What has kept you going for more than 36 years?

Yukio Utada in 1974

Aikido has appealed to me on many levels. Initially, there was a fascination with the physical. In judo I had found that size and strength difference could often frustrate my ability to throw an opponent. But, with aikido I found the ability to generate great force and throw an opponent with little effort. Refining this ability over the years has never diminished my respect for its subtlety and power or curiosity over the principle that makes it work.

Philosophically speaking, I found the harmonizing concept of aikido fascinating.

Culturally as well, the study of aikido exposed me to some of the finer aspects of Japanese culture and not only gave me greater appreciation for my roots but a method to share with others that which made Japanese culture special. I have witnessed numerous differences between American and Japanese cultures, I am proud to introduce budo to Americans, not as a Japanese but as a human being who can bridge these two great countries. In order to promote an atmosphere of Zen ( good will/ virtue) one has to be a person of virtue. It is easier said then done. But, to me striving to become a person of virtue is thoroughly worthwhile and goes hand in glove with aikido training, and you can do it even when your joints are sore! (Laughing)

Soke Shioda has a well-deserved reputation for mastery and I know that when he passed you went to Japan to pay your respects at his funeral. What are some your fondest memories of him?

Soke Shioda was always kind to me and treated me warmly. I remember that he invited me to participate in the Annual All-Japan Demonstration even though I had not been training very long. I guess he felt I had a certain aptitude and after nine months I was awarded my black belt.

With Master Takeshi Kushida

After going to America I would on many occasions go back to visit Japan. On those occasions when I would visit with him he would invite me to accompany him to a hot spring he enjoyed. Talking philosophy and discussing the fine points of aikido with one such as Soke while soaking in the warmth of hot springs is a memory I will always relish.

One thing he told me which still influences my training on a daily basis was that even though he had been studying aikido for more than 50 years, he still felt like he was in the dark, so that he was still studying basic movements to fully grasp the essence of aikido. So here was the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido who had the most sharp and piercing techniques you could imagine, a true master, and he was still focusing his study on basic movements. I have tried to follow that advice personally and with my students.

You hold a 7th dan in the Yoshinkan system he founded, what do you feel are the particular strengths of that system?

With Yoshinkan Founder Gozo Shioda Sensei

Soke’s systemized creation of kihon dosa or basic movements and ukemi. or break falls was truly an innovation. In all martial arts the student first mimics the movements of his/her teacher and then, hopefully, internalizes them. But, not all students have the same body type as the teacher and the teacher’s style may not be best suited for that student. Through the study of the basic movements (e.g., elbow power, after class exercise, body changes, etc.) the student learns how best to move his own body and develop naturally flowing techniques.

Soke also categorized break falls and systematically taught them. Thus from the beginning students learned how to fall and prevent injuries.

These two teaching tools really were and are unique.

The symbol for your dojo, the Doshinkan, is called the “Dawn of Peace” and contains the kanji character for “Do” over a wave in the middle of a circle. How did that come about?

Doshinkan Dojo, Philadelphia

After we had a demonstration celebrating my first 15 years of teaching in Philadelphia, my teacher Kushida Sensei presented me with calligraphy he had done for me. It was the symbol for “Do”, which as you know in Japanese means searching or seeking for the true art. I had been an uchideshi for Kushida Sensei for one year while he was in Detroit. Although, regrettably, he became independent from the Yoshinkan organization and created his own organization while I was teaching Yoshinkan Aikido in Philadelphia. I still had great respect for his abilities and gratitude for what he had taught me. After the demonstration when he presented the calligraphy to me, he told me that from what he had seen it was apparent that I had come into my own as a martial artist. He dedicated the character “Do” to me and told me he was proud of my success and independence. I was quite honored as Kushida Sensei was an 8th Dan and had been the chief instructor at the Hombu Dojo when I first began training. So, I used the symbol and placed it over a wavy line ( representing waves in the ocean) in a circle (representing the rising sun at dawn). Waves simply wash over obstacles unceasingly. Thus, the collective symbol reminds us to never give up and that by relentlessly pursuing the true art of aikido, one will realize it just as one feels the first light and warmth of the rising sun overcome the darkness of night.

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