John Goss is the head of one of the largest aikido dojos in the USA. In this interview, Goss gives his insights on the successful operation of a martial arts school and describes his newly-found interest in the mainstream Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu of Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei
What were the reasons for your taking up aikido in the first place?
In 1974 I saw a demonstration by Gozo Shioda Sensei of Yoshinkai Aikido in New York and was quite fascinated by the art. The thing I found interesting about aikido, especially the way Shioda Sensei did it, was the effortlessness of his techniques. He was taking four ukes and just throwing them around like they were nothing. Also, he was very small. I thought that he was a martial arts master no matter what the style. His dynamic movement, his precise techniques, and his personality were fascinating to me at the time. This led me to do some research into the art and want to find a teacher. It was very hard to find aikido people around at that time.
The first system of aikido you studied was Korindo Aikido, a system unfamiliar to most people. Would you explain something about this form of aikido?
I was attending Towson State University at the time and there was a Japanese gentlemen by the name of Dennis Mikata and we got to talking about martial arts in general and he expressed an interest in certain techniques of karate. Then I asked him if he had done any training and he said that he had done some aikido. We got together on the side to train in places like wrestling rooms, parks, or his house. I would show him how to do sweeps and takedowns karate-style and then he would show me aikido moves. I came to like aikido a lot more and eventually it became a one-sided thing where I started tapping his brain and getting more instruction in aikido than he was getting karate from me. The thing I liked about Mikata Sensei and the Korindo system was that it seemed like it was more related to jujutsu. It was very self-defense oriented. When I went to Japan for the first time I realized that Korindo aikido was quite rare. The Korindo group seemed to want to stay to themselves and not develop an empire. Even as a yudansha (black belt holder), it was tough to be allowed to train unless you wanted to dedicate yourself for a year or so. Minoru Hirai Sensei, the founder of this art, was himself quite old. Mikata Sensei’s lineage apparently came from his uncle’s side and he was a student of Hirai Sensei. With Korindo being as rare as it is, I decided to go ahead and change systems and concentrate on aikido. I pretty much had to go with the Aikikai because it is the largest aikido group. It was easier to get affiliation and instruction because of the large numbers of shihan they have.
How was it that you began to teach martial arts professionally?
Basically, I started teaching at YMCA’s, on a private basis, at recreational facilities, etc. on a part-time basis no more than two hours a week. In 1991, I was working for the Westinghouse Company and I was caught in a major downsizing and was laid off after 15 years of being with them. I thought I was a little too old to go out and find another job with similar pay and benefits and so I figured I would try to open a martial arts school and see if I could do it for a living.
Your dojo is located in Baltimore, Maryland and is a rather large and well-established school. Would you talk about some of the techniques you’ve used to develop a successful dojo?
Let me backtrack a little. I did have a karate school in the early 1980s, but it was open at night only. So I had operated a school before, but it was not on a full-time basis. I did, however, go through all of the red tape required in the State I live in so I was used to dealing with a martial arts business. But with aikido it was a different scenario. Most aikido dojos were clubs and if they were larger they were run by teachers from Japan on a non-profit basis. I took aikido and ran the school on a business-basis like a karate school with the same type of marketing, advertising, and the same ranking procedures using many colored belts. It seemed to work. I started off with ten students in 1991 and grew in one year to about 110. I went from one location with 1,100 square feet to our present location of 3,000 square feet. Along the way there are always some setbacks due to the mentality of people studying aikido, but it is coming around and I do see future growth.
I did try several things that worked for karate such as various promotionals to get people to come in the door. I tried newspaper, TV and radio commercials. TV was successful but very costly. I wouldn’t recommend people go that route unless they can afford it. Also, I discovered things that don’t work like Penny Saver magazine and Money Mailer. I spent a lot of money and didn’t get any responses. The format I finally settled on was to keep the dojo traditional, to keep contact with the Aikikai, and bring in instructors like Kubo Sensei and Kondo Sensei. We do have a few perks like family plans where if one member joins, there are discounts for other members. We’ve taken things that have worked and refined them and updated business practices. Also, we spoonfeed our students. We have a lot of black belts on the mat at the same time. Anyone with a problem we assist. If they feel they are getting bored, we give them an opportunity to participate in higher-level classes. I do feel that aikido has wonderful characteristics such as stress reduction, non-competition, self-development, and the philosophy of O-Sensei. I think the main obstacle in running aikido as a business is that it’s never been done that way before. If people look at the qualities of aikido and keep good sound business ethics and customer relationships it will definitely be profitable and educational. We have ended up sticking with a few things that work and anyone who would like to talk to me about this subject can call my dojo or e-mail me.
I believe you started making trips to Japan in the early 1990s. Would you talk about what drew you to Japan and what you did on these trips?
January 1993 was my first trip and it was sort of a “short pilgrimage.” I had a desire to train at various aikido dojos like the Nihon Korinkai and the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. I wanted to see what was happening at the headquarters of these styles and train with the masters. I suppose it was the typical Westerner’s mystical fascination with Asia. I wanted to get a short, sweet taste of that. I stayed about 10 days on that trip. I followed that up with another trip in May 1993 where I stayed for a full month. I trained at various dojos like the Aikikai, the Tendokan, the Yoshinkan, the Korinkai, etc. I was just dojo-hopping trying to get as much as I could from the different systems of aikido. You, Stanley, provided me with a lot of connections so far as the aikido world went. I think it was then that I first began to be interested in Daito-ryu. Those first two trips probably had the most influence on me.
My third trip was in 1995 and I took a group of students for the first time. We spent only ten days. Although we had planned to be there longer, we had to shorten our trip because of the high yen at that time. The fourth trip came in 1997 and that was strictly to visit Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei and train with him. We did visit the Aikikai one time to see the situation with Doshu and took a short trip to Kyoto and Hakone as a vacation.
I believe that on your second trip you first met Robert Kubo Sensei with whom you are now affiliated. Would you describe how that association came about?
I am now affiliated with Robert Kubo Sensei of the Aikikai and that association has continued now for nearly six years. I met Kubo Sensei through you at the 1993 demonstration of the Hashimoto Dojo of Igarashi Sensei. Kubo Sensei was very close to Igarashi Sensei and Yasuo Kobayashi Sensei and had come over to Japan for the demonstration. I happened to sit next to Kubo Sensei at the party afterward and had earlier watched his demonstration. I got to talking with him and found him to be a prince of a fellow. I was at that time in limbo in terms of my organizational affiliation. I had dealings with various aikido organizations over the years after Dennis Mikata left, but nothing worked out. I called Kubo Sensei after I got back to the States after speaking with him and expressed that I wanted to have a relationship with the Aikikai. When I had gone to the headquarters on my visits, it seemed that they wanted me to have a shihan to act as a go-between in order for them to deal with me. Basically, anyone was okay as long as it was an Aikikai shihan to represent me. At the time I had a very strong dojo with about 200 people. So Kubo Sensei invited me to join his group. He was very relaxed and comfortable with that. We invited him to Maryland in late 1993 for our first Aikikai testing for black belts. It went very smoothly and now Kubo Sensei comes once a year to our dojo. Also, I went to see him once in Hawaii.
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