The following interview with Frank Doran, 7th dan Aikikai, of Aikido West was conducted by Aiki News Editor Ikuko Kimura during the recently-held Aiki Expo in Las Vegas, Nevada
Ikuko Kimura: How are you enjoying this event?
Frank Doran: I’m enjoying a lot. You? You must be pretty busy so it’s hard to still enjoy yourself?
I am busy but I am able to see all kinds of different teachers for the first time. I am really glad to be able to finally see those teachers I have heard of but never met before.
I have the same experience, too. I knew many names, but no faces. It’s very special to finally meet people and make it very personal.
Have you met any of them before?
I know some of the teachers very well. I have a long time relationship with them and also with Stanley. I have known him for more than thirty years. But I have never met many other teachers before so it has been very nice to meet them. I found them all to be very warm and friendly.
In this kind of seminar you have different students come every day and so each time you have different people at different levels. Is it difficult to teach them?
Not really. In fact, I think one of the very interesting thing is we have approximately 700 people training and all levels of proficiency, high ranking and black belts and many fine teachers and students are here. And you also have beginners, and of course you have different styles and systems. Yet, all the people are on the mat. I think it’s amazing! Everyone has been trying very hard to work together and to help one another. I have not seen any inappropriate behavior. You know, sometimes you see people being rough with beginners and such behavior, but not here. Everyone is very kind, cooperative and very open. In fact, in one of my classes, I was walking around the mat helping people, when I came around, one of the people practicing called me “Sensei” . He is a seventh dan, a master himself, and yet he is on the mat as a beginner showing a beautiful expression of a beginner’s mind. He was training very sincerely. He is a master teacher, you know. So, this kind of thing is very moving.
Yes. I have seen many high-ranked teachers practicing, smiling and enjoying themselves. It’s very difficult to see that kind of scene in Japan.
And also off the mat I have been with a couple of teachers here whom I have heard of before but never met, and within two short days I already feel like they are my brothers. We are joking in a very friendly way and a good strong friendships are being built. To me, personal relationships are the most important thing I get out of aikido at this point in my experience.
The first night I saw you sat close to Utada Sensei and I really wished I had a tape recorder. You met each other for the first time and you talked about the Expo and other things. It was a wonderful conversation. This Aiki Expo made that kind of thing possible.
Oh, yes. Stanley had a vision as we all know. I don’t think Stanley appreciates it at this point because he is so busy.
He does not know what is happening.
Exactly. When this is over, he will have time to take a breath and see that his vision really happened. I think he is going to be really happy and so I am very happy for Stanley.
I think this was everybody’s vision but it has been difficult to make things into reality.
So everybody was ready to agree with this, you know.
Yes. Many people have a good idea but it takes one person to put the idea into action. I think Stanley is great for that.
What are the impressions of your students?
They are having a wonderful time. I am encouraging them, “Please go to visit as many teachers as possible. Every teacher has some good points. Don’t worry about style. Don’t worry about understanding at this point. Just go and see the teachers because every teacher here is very special.”
Now I want to ask you about yourself. How did you start aikido?
Before I started aikido, I was in the military, the Marine Corps, and I was a judoka. Because I had some judo experience I was assigned to teach new marines hand-to-hand combat. At that time, we had a new teacher assigned to us who was a black belt in aikido and this was my first exposure. At that time we had never heard of aikido. The teachers who were teaching marines were judoka or karateka. So, we all practiced together and shared. Then I began training with a Japanese teacher who had a dojo in town. His name was Tokuji Hirata. He was really my first serious teacher and I studied and received shodan from Hirata Sensei. That was my original experience and it was in 1959.
You were already a strong judoka?
Not a strong judoka, just a judoka.
What made you interested in aikido?
Well, we were six teachers together and we had a huge dojo where we would teach military classes, and some days we had only one or two classes and so we had a lot of free time. We were in this huge dojo there were some judoka, some karateka and this aikido teacher, so it was very natural that we all trained together, and I became interested in aikido. Then the aikido teacher started a group there, so I started practicing. But in truth, my real love at that time was judo. So initially judo was very, very interesting to me. Aikido was enjoyable but my love for judo was stronger. And little by little time changed me.
What made it happen?
That’s hard to describe. The change happened through a period of years; it was not something that was very immediate. I have heard many people say that at the very first time they saw aikido, right away they knew this was what they wanted to do for the rest of their life. For me, it was a gradual change from judo to aikido. I think the big reason was because there was a lot of violence in my life. I was in the military and I went to war. So there was the violence of war, and in later I was a police officer in contact with violence and so on. I loved that in aikido there was peaceful resolution. This, I think, was the major change in my thinking.
When you decided to come to Japan to see O-Sensei, you already had a love for aikido?
I was a new shodan so I only had four years of aikido experience. I did not have so much aikido experience when I went to the Hombu Dojo. When I went to the dojo, I had a letter of recommendation from my teacher to Koichi Tohei Sensei who was the Chief Instructor at that time at the Hombu Dojo. So really, in my uneducated mind, I went to see Tohei Sensei, not O-Sensei. When I first arrived at the Hombu Dojo and when I left the Hombu Dojo, those are the two most embarrassing moments in my life when I look back. When I arrived, first of all I made a mistake because I could not read a sign in Japanese. Instead of going to the left to the dojo, I went and knocked on the door of O-Sensei’s house. This was the first big mistake. A maid came and took the letter. She went in and a few minutes later Tohei Sensei came out, read the letter, had me remove my shoes and he took me through O-Sensei’s house and into the dojo. So that was very embarrassing.
Well, it was a good luck! You were lucky to have made a mistake.
Yes. Actually, when I entered in the dojo, it was interesting that Tohei Sensei was just going to begin a private lesson. So my very first class was a private lesson and I was very intimidated because Tohei Sensei was ninth dan and I was shodan. I walked on the mat and he introduced me to the one student for the private lesson, and this was Robert Nadeau Sensei who is here doing a demonstration at this event. Nadeau Sensei and I have been friends for forty years. So my very first class was the private lesson with Nadeau Sensei.
And also when it was the time for me to leave the Hombu Dojo, then again I made a very terrible mistake. I was leaving so I went to the office and I said, “I want to buy a photograph.” They said, “Yes, we have photographs.” I said, “I would like to have a photograph of Koichi Tohei Sensei.” They said, ” No, no, no. You want a picture of O-Sensei.” I said, ” No, no, no. You don’t understand. I want a picture of Tohei Sensei.” They said, ” No, no, no. You don’t understand. You want a picture of O-Sensei.” So I bought a little tiny picture of O-Sensei and a big picture of Tohei Sensei. (laughter) Now I am so embarrassed. So I had to wait for thirty years to go back to the Hombu Dojo because I wanted to make sure that they don’t remember me. So, that was my first visit.
They sold you those pictures anyway.
Yes, but of course I should have bought a big picture of O-Sensei and a little picture of Tohei Sensei!
It was hard for you to understand because your direct teacher was Tohei Sensei.
Yes, but still, it was embarrassing!
How long were you in Japan at that time?
I was there only for a few weeks. I was there for a relatively short time, but I am just very happy because I do have memories of seeing O-Sensei. It’s like what we were saying about this event. We see pictures and we have names, but to see the living person is a different matter. I think I mentioned to you, but the first time I saw O-Sensei was, I thought, very remarkable. We were training and some other teacher was teaching the class. I do not remember who it was, but we were all training very sincerely and all of a sudden O-Sensei stepped out from his house. He walked across the mat but he did not walk around the mat. He walked right across in the middle of the mat. He looked like a little old man out for a Sunday walk in the park. Right away everybody stopped, bowed and held their bow. He went to the end and stepped off the mat on the other side. I thought, “This is very unusual. ” You know, if I go into somebody else’s class, I walk around. This was O-Sensei and he did not have to walk around.
It must have been very interesting for you.
It was wonderful just to see O-Sensei.
Did you train in his class?
Yes, but again I was just a shodan so I never had an experience of taking ukemi from O-Sensei. I have no good personal experience and certainly I was never a student of O-Sensei. My visit was too short. I was an unimportant person down in the end.
But a shodan at that time was quite a high grade, wasn’t it?
(The full article is available for subscribers.)