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Walter Todd

by Meik Skoss

Aikido Journal #105 (1995)

What do Kyuzo Mifune, Koichi Tohei, Kenji Tomiki, Hironori Otsuka, and Isao Obata have in common, besides their genius in martial arts? Why, their student Walter Todd, of course. Fifty years ago he began training in judo at the Kodokan in Tokyo and has not stopped since. His refreshing, down-to-earth approach to both instruction and practice holds useful lessons for martial artists of all styles.

Aikido Journal: This is an interview with Mr. Walter Todd of the Shudokan Martial Arts Association. To begin with I guess I would like to ask the basics… What is it that you do?

Walter Todd Sensei: In the dojo I’m at now I take charge of the aikido and karate classes. Most of the time I travel around the United States conducting martial arts seminars.

I first learned of you as a judo man….

Judo is my first love because it brought me into the martial arts. If it weren’t for judo I would have never discovered aikido and karate later on.

What was it that first interested you in judo?

Well, the honest-to-God truth is that I was not exactly a good boy in high school. I spent my time playing Three-card Monte, cheating the other kids out of their lunch money. I got so I could deal poker hands, too. I thought to myself, “Walter, someday you’re going to get caught, and someone is going to beat the hell out of you. You’d better learn to defend yourself.” Then I read this book by Yerkow and there was one little sentence about the Kodokan. I found the idea of a little guy throwing a big guy around very appealing. So when I went to Japan, I found the Kodokan, and enrolled.

And when was this?

At the end of 1945 or the beginning of 1946, right at the very end of the war. My first teacher at the Kodokan was Ichiro Abe. He was also an instructor in a class at the Kaijo building in Tokyo, where he assisted Kyuzo Mifune Sensei, who was the head teacher there. After a while he invited me to that class. He said it would be a good opportunity to train under a great teacher. So I went. Now, the other students were all beginners and I had already had some training at the Kodokan, so Mifune was a little bit impressed that I was the only one who could take falls halfway decently. So he told my teacher he wanted me to be the “head of the class.” All that meant was when the class lined up to do rolling falls I had to do the roll first and everybody followed me. That’s what the great title was all about!

When I arrived in Japan for the second time, I ran immediately to the Kodokan. I borrowed a gi from somebody I knew there and started practicing. Mifune walked in a little later and looked at me. He said, “Is that Todd-san?” I said yes, and he called me over. He told me to come to his dressing room. He called downstairs to get an interpreter, to make sure I understood every word. He asked if I would like him to be my teacher while I stayed in Japan. I said I would be very grateful if he would and I was so happy that tears were almost raining down my cheeks! That’s how he came to be my teacher.

So during what periods were you in japan?

Once in ‘45 and ‘46, then in ‘48 and ‘49, then again in ‘68. In ‘68 I was invited to stay at the home of Ichiro Hata, who was an 8th dan in judo. He became the head Olympic wrestling coach, and he was also on the Olympic Committee. In addition to an 8th dan in judo he had some degrees in other arts, too.

He was pretty important for the martial arts.

Yes, he told me, “I’m the only person who has become a diet-member simply because I do the martial arts.” You’d have liked him… He had a very regal quality about him, with gray hair combed back on the side. Everywhere he went people would stop and say, “Who is that person?!”, just because of the way he conducted himself. Your eye would spot him instantly when you saw him in a crowd of fifty people coming down the street.

The second art that you did was karatedo, is that right?

Yes, I had read an article about karate in Life magazine, and when I went back to Japan the second time I ended up training with the man who had written that article, Otsuka Sensei of the Wado-ryu. I started at Meiji University. Then I went to the Kyobashi police station. At that time, right after the war, martial arts were not allowed to be taught in the public schools. But they could be taught in private dojos. The only martial arts done in the schools were actually in the form of outside clubs that used the schools’ facilities.

So it’s not true that martial arts were totally banned….

They were banned from being taught formally at the colleges and public schools, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t hold a class.

I see. That’s an important point that I think many people don’t understand correctly.

A man who helped to break that rule was an American named Paddy O’Neill, who was the publisher of the Japanese version of Reader’s Digest. He had lived in Japan beginning long before the war and was one of the first foreigners to get the rank of godan in judo.

What was the point of interest for you in karate?

Most martial artists (if they’re honest), go through a period of stagnation in their training. Especially those of us who become martial arts nuts tend to get a little bored at some point. So I wanted to know what karate was about, and what I could do if I ever fought a karate man. Then I realized that karate is unique in that it’s one of the few arts that you can do all by yourself. You can use your kata to build your body symmetrically; you can do it soft or hard; with a dance-like attitude or a combative attitude; any way you want. I have a hard time walking around trying to throw or put a wrist lock on myself. It just doesn’t feel the same. But with karate I could practice thumping the air in front of me all I wanted without worrying about hurting anyone.

So in ‘48 and ‘49 you were training several times a week in both judo and karatedo….

Yes, three times a week each. In terms of work, I had a job at the Post Exchange in Tokyo as a civilian. At that point I had just gotten my nidan in judo. After I had been in Japan for four or five months the second time they put me up for my nidan examination. I taught on some of the military bases on a very informal basis. Sometimes, for example, some of the teachers would go to give demonstrations and I would go along to help interpret what was being said into English. But I did teach at a private school called the Kokusai Dojo in Yokohama.

I remember the first time I had the honor of working out with Yoshimi Osawa at the Kodokan. These two sailors came in and said they’d seen a write-up about me getting my nidan in Stars and Stripes, and asked if I could show them what judo was all about. So I went to find a partner, choosing a thinner looking guy that I thought I could reasonably handle. I didn’t want to show them by fighting one of the kids, but 1 wanted to avoid the real strong gorilla-like guys, so I ended up picking Osawa. I took one step towards him and he started throwing me all over the place. He must’ve gone through the whole judo repertoire! I thought I was a basketball being dribbled across the court. A couple of his throws were 360 degree—really spectacular ones. I didn’t even know until someone told me afterwards how I had been thrown. A couple of the older Japanese teachers were chuckling off to the side. They called me over and told me the guy 1 had just been fighting was Osawa, who was something like the fifth in Japan at the time. His technique was unbelievably fast. He did a technique like you have in aiki, you know when the guy comes in and you pick up both legs, like an ushiro goshi. He could do that throw so damn quick that I think they may have later outlawed it because your head would hit the ground every time. He did it really quickly, just like in aiki. With that throw he would surprise the living hell out of any aiki man! He put the fear into me really fast.

When and where and with whom did you begin to practice aikido?

My first introduction to aikido was through Kenji Tomiki, because he was at the Kodokan. We would work out together, and then he would tell me stories about O-Sensei and his aikido, and he would show me little things. At that time 1 don’t believe he had formalized his style of aiki yet.

He told me later when he visited the United States how Ueshiba had gotten very angry with him for doing what he had done, but he said that he had done it with the hope that he could get aikido introduced into the Kodokan, knowing that Kano was impressed with it. He hoped that by doing that it would help him and some of the other teachers get jobs, because they were having a hard time in that respect. He didn’t want to get Ueshiba mad, so he probably didn’t use any aikido per se, but it was aiki that he was teaching to various people at the Kodokan. He helped reform the Kodo-kan’s self-defense techniques. But Ueshiba was angry and said, “If you’re going to steal aikido, why don’t you just steal the name aikido, too!” But Mr. Tomiki told me that that wasn’t his intention.

Were you working with Tomiki Sensei in those kinds of techniques then?

I wasn’t training with him in a formal sense. It was like you showing me some interesting things that you’ve learned about your art. So when I was down there not doing anything in particular he would call me over and use me as an uke. Little things like that. Then, when I came back to the United States I started to work for the Air Force, and we invited a group of martial arts teachers from Japan. Three of them were karate men and the rest were all judo teachers, Tomiki among them. He started showing me even more then, on an informal basis, while they were traveling around the United States. But I was the only one there half the time, so I was learning a lot of different techniques from him.

Can you remember the names of some of the people involved? That was a very famous tour and I know they were touring the Strategic Air Command bases teaching the security police….

Nishiyama, Kamata, and Obata were the karate teachers. Kamata was the president of the Shotokan at that time. The judo teachers were Tomiki, Ko-bayashi, Saito, Kotani, and Otaki. I liked having Saito there. I had trained with him in Japan. All the teachers from Japan would line up and throw every single one of the people training, but when Saito got to me he would whisper “Todd-san, Now!” and let me throw him. So all the other guys would say, “Wow, you’re the only guy from the United States who could throw any of those teachers!” Little did they know.

The tour lasted for a good two to three months. The group traveled from one SAC base to another, and also gave demonstrations in the local towns in some places. Most of the demonstrations were designed to popularize the martial arts program in the SAC, but they also wanted to popularize them with the public, too. The Air Force used the demonstrations as a sort of public relations tool. Mel Bruno was the head of the program at that time. He traveled with them a lot of the rime.

After training with Mr. Tomiki on an informal basis, when did you begin training in aikido on a more formal basis?

Through a friend I met a man named Yoko Takahashi, who had trained with Ueshiba personally. He also practiced judo and had a black belt in karate and jujutsu and a few other arts. His most advanced training was in karate and aikido. He really liked aikido. When I finally got a chance to meet him he said, “I’ll teach you karate if you will practice aiki with me, because I want to keep up my techniques.” I was interested in karate at the time, so I reluctantly went along with it, thinking, “Well, if that’s the price I have to pay…” But the more I practiced, the more interested in aikido I became, and he slowly won me over. I realized, “There’s more to this than meets the eye,” whereas before I had thought, “I’m a judo man. I’ll take any one of those guys!” Mr. Takahashi was living in the United States at that time. He had a degree in agriculture and had volunteered for a work program whereby he could come over to work on a farm to learn more about American agriculture. He could speak English pretty well. He was here for at least two and a half years. I started training with him around 1960.

So you trained with Mr. Takahashi in karate and aikido for about two and a half years?

Yes, and it got to be more and more aikido. In fact, he’s the one who arranged for me to meet Koichi Tohei. Tohei came up to our school once or twice a year for three or four years to put on seminars at our dojo and other dojos in the Bay Area. So Tohei was my next big influence.

Tohei made aikido look magical. When I was younger and going to school I was fascinated by sleight-of-hand done with cards. “What’s Tohei doing to spook them out like that?” I thought. And he’d be talking about extending his ki and I didn’t understand what he was doing. With magic, if there was something I didn’t understand then I would think to myself, “Now how can I duplicate that?” So, I kept mimicking his movement and pretty soon I got it. When his body was turned this way or that way, it all of a sudden became quite easy to follow him. I had a solution. It wasn’t any special power coming out of my fingers! It began to make sense to me and I started looking at aiki from an entirely different viewpoint. At that time I was looking as aiki with a judo man’s mentality. Now, I look at some of the judo men with more of an aiki mentality. It’s sort of reversed itself a bit.

So you learned how to demystify the art to some extent?

Yes, I wanted to demystify aikido and make it simple so that anybody could understand it, at least on a lower level. Just like when they talk about ki—I have my own interpretation of what ki is—but when I ask aiki people to explain to me what ki is, 99% of them give me the old, “Well, you’re just not ready to understand it. You’ll understand it when you’re ready.” Well, I say that’s a cop-out. If you really understood it you could explain it. Here you are trying to teach ki and you don’t even understand it. At least when I teach I can explain what ki is. I have my own little definition of ki, which is, “Ki is the spirit of the movement, from movement to movement, seeking that which is pleasurable.”

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