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Dr. Yoji Kondo

Aiki News #87 (Winter/Spring 1991)

First of all, our readers would probably like to know about your martial arts background, how you got started in judo and later in aikido. Would you tell us something about that?

When I was young, they formally started teaching judo or kendo in middle school, at the beginning of seventh grade. But the war ended before I was quite old enough, and the teaching or practicing of judo, kendo, and also aikido, which was not too well-known in those days, was forbidden by the Occupation Forces. In fact, Professor Tomiki and some of the judo and kendo leaders worked very hard to get that prohibition removed. I think in about 1950 it was again legal to practice judo or kendo. And shortly thereafter, in about 1952, I took up judo, just for a hobby. I didn’t really keep it up continuously, but practiced occasionally in college. I left it for a while for various reasons, and I hadn’t practiced for a number of years, when in 1966,1 saw an ad for a judo club at Goddard Space Flight Center.

So by that time you were in the States? How did you end up at Goddard?

In 1960, a few years after college, I went to New York by way of Brazil. I was thinking of starting graduate work, and did so in 1961. I could not enroll immediately in natural sciences because of my humanities background, but I was able to take a course in physics at City College of New York. The next year I had the great fortune of being admitted into the graduate program, on probation of course, at the University of Pennsylvania. I didn’t expect it, but it was a wonderful break. I figured that it would take me about nine years to get my Ph.D. in astrophysics, but it worked out that I did it in four years. I was very pleasantly surprised that this was possible. So although there was an excellent judo instructor, Mr. Ishikawa, in Philadelphia, I never got around to going to his class. But in 1965, when I came to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, about 15 or 20 miles from Washington B.C., there was a judo club taught by Edwin Takemori. I started there in 1966.

Did you have any dan ranking?

I never bothered about it, I just did it for a hobby because I enjoyed it.

Eventually a friend of mine who became an astronaut talked me into joining him in Houston at the Johnson Space Center, which was then called the Manned Spacecraft Center. I found a judo club there too, and continued practicing.

Was that Karl Geis’ school?

No, it was the Johnson Space Center Judo Club, but they took members from outside as well, because we practiced outside the Center. Eventually there was an opportunity for Eli Morrell to start an independent class. He asked me if I would be one of his assistant instructors; my friend and I joined him. He was quite a nice guy. We started to teach judo at the Ed White Memorial Gymnasium, which was named after one of the astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 disaster on the ground. Ed White was the first American to walk in space; there were many memorial donations, and this place was built.

Well, the fellow who got us started had to move away because of his job, and he left the club to us. This friend of mine, David Drake, was junior to me in judo, and he expected me to take on the class, but I had other responsibilities, and since he was already teaching there too, I asked if he would take it. We taught a class, and it was rather embarrassing not to have a rank; I was certified as a black belt shortly afterward. After that, the promotions came whenever I thought about it perhaps, or whenever someone reminded me.

Then, in the mid-70s, there was a visitor at Johnson Space Center. He heard about me, and wanted to visit me with a VIP from Japan. This gentleman was Master Kogure [Riki H. Kogure, presently CEO and Acting Chairman of the Japan Aikido Association] . I had read about him in the Sunday edition of the local newspaper. I asked if he was the same person, and he said, “Yes, indeed.” Then we got to be friends. He told me, “I do enjoy judo, but as you get older, bit by bit, aikido might be easier on your body.” He asked me if I would be interested in coming to his class at Karl Geis’ judo school. I went there when he was teaching, and went for a year or two afterwards. It was a bit of a distance from where I lived, about 45 miles or so. But a friend of mine wanted to take aikido too, so we took turns driving.

That went on for a while, and then I had to move back up to the Washington area, because of the perestroika in NASA, the restructuring. Some people were reorganized out. In my particular case, the Director of the Science Program at God-dard had thought well enough of me to offer me a job whenever I might need one; so within a few hours of the announcement that my division was being abolished, I made a call to take him up on that offer. I never really worried about the prospect of unemployment.

You might be interested in knowing that this Director, George Pieper, and I had gotten to know each other better because of our participation in the SETI program, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. I was representing Houston, because two or three of the astronauts had recommended me. Indeed, there were all sorts of interesting high-powered people, like Philip Morrison of MIT, Barney Oliver of Hewlett Packard, Carl Sagan of Cornell, and Bruce Murray of Caltech, taking part in it. Maybe George Pieper thought I must be good too. He might have been mistaken [laughter]. But anyway, I wasn’t going to fuss about that. I went back to Goddard. I wanted to continue both judo and aikido, and for judo I found Edwin’s class, although it was significantly smaller than when I had seen it before. I also wanted to continue aikido, but the only way to do that was to start a class of my own.

And you had a dan rank in aikido at that time?

I think I was a nidan by then. I started teaching aikido in Columbia, Maryland in 1978. We moved once after the first several months, but now the class has been in the same place for about twelve years.

About how many members do you have?

If you talk about actual membership, we have over forty, which is much too large for the practice place, should they all show up at the same time. Many people have been with me for ten, eleven, twelve years. The first several people that started are still with me. Some of my students also have their own classes. For instance, Brian Sutherland, yon dan, has about as many students as I do.

That’s a good record, considering the usual drop-out rate.

Many of them are black belts in other martial arts too. Jim Thomas is a 6th degree, rolcudan, in Shotokan karate. Clayton McKindra is a 5th degree and Linda Levy is a first or second degree black belt in Korean karate. Hermenzo Jones is also a black belt in the same art. We also have a very high percentage of professionals. Clayton has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Hermenzo Jones has a Ph.D. in physics, and John Ferkany has a Ph.D. in a medical field. You’d think it was a professional convention of sorts, if you were to look around the class. We have two lawyers, and a physician, too. Anyway, it has been a wonderful class. But some people don’t come too regularly, once every week or once every couple of weeks. That’s OK too; they still come. For a while, the class was so huge that I didn’t recruit at all. That was a mistake. Then at one time the class was almost all black belts, and we stopped getting any new students. That went on for two years or so and was not good. There were evenings when we had only black belts; white belts would come in, but they would usually drop right out. Then I discovered that they were intimidated. They thought that the things they saw everyone doing were incredible. They didn’t think that they could attain what they thought was a super-human level of proficiency.

They didn’t see a place for themselves.

Exactly. I didn’t know that. I should have thought of it. I took it for granted that, if they practiced, they would become black belts too. About two or three years ago, there was a change. This time I made really sure that the white belts would stick with the class. But before that the class size had gradually gotten smaller, because people moved away; it’s a high turnover area. Just about the time when I was really beginning to worry that there might not be enough people for the athletic club to let me have the class, we experienced an upswing, and we have been able to keep it up. Now we have more than 40 people. Typically, we have maybe a dozen and a half people in class, sometimes close to thirty, but sometimes only thirteen or fourteen. I think that whenever you have a steady flow of more than eight people that’s a pretty good class. Less than six discourages some students. It won’t discourage me. Professor Tomiki once told me, “If you have one tatami mat area and another person who wishes to practice you can do suwari waza and it’s a dojo.” That is indeed true. As long as there is one person who wishes to study with you, you have a dojo. But it helps if you have more [laughter!.

Since there aren’t too many aikido teachers who are also science fiction authors, can you tell us how you got into writing science fiction? Was it another of your fortuitous accidents? Or was it something you had always wanted to do?

Writing science fiction was never any part of my conscious thinking. I was interested in writing a historical novel, and I may still do so. Through my acquaintance with an author whom I held in high regard, I had an increasing number of science fiction writers among my friends. At one point, I met a science fiction publisher who was interested in having me write science fiction. I was reluctant to do so, because I had many other commitments, including some other writing to do. About then, Eleanor Wood sort of became my agent. She used to be Robert Heinlein’s agent when he was alive; he said, without exaggeration I think, that she was the best literary agent he had ever known. She’s really wonderful. She invited me to a party at the World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore in 1983, where she introduced me to John Maddox Roberts, an ex-Green Beret, who was also relatively new in the field, but who was doing a pretty decent job. He was interested in working with someone like myself, so that he could turn out hard science fiction, rather than something that was a bit more on the fantasy side. I invited him over to dinner, and we hit it off pretty well; so we wrote a book together. I said I would just do one book.

And now you are working on number?

My fourth book just came out. I hope to finish my fifth book, jointly with Roger MacBride Allen, before the end of the year.

I assume it was your idea to get aikido into your first couple of books.

Yes, that particular theme was my idea, but John was fascinated by the subject, and he came to my class a few times to practice. The protagonist in our first book, Act of God, was trained in judo and Tomiki Aikido, and there is an aikido scene in our second book, The Island Worlds. This is perhaps the first science fiction novel in which unarmed fighting in free-fall is described correctly, at least physics-wise.

To get back to your own aikido experiences, did you have much contact with Tomiki Sensei on your visits back to Japan, or by correspondence?

As you may have surmised, since I was only introduced to this aikido school in the mid-TOs and Professor Tomiki passed away in 1979, my contact with him was limited. The first time it was Mr. Kogure who encouraged me to call him up. I wasn’t going to be so forward, but he said “I told him about you, why don’t you give him a call?” So I did and he said that he would be pleased to meet me. He was gracious and courteous, and he treated me to a very nice dinner at the Waseda Faculty Club. He talked about aikido and the martial arts, and his philosophical outlook on life. It was a wonderful experience. I saw him only one more time. He had invited me to meet his family, but before I was able to do so, he passed away.

Master Tomiki was by no means fanatical, or anything like that at all. He was as far as he could possibly be from these things; he was very scholarly. There are people who say, “I have attained satori, and it came like a flash, a revelation, and it created a nirvana for me in this world.” He was not like that at all. When we talked about it, he said that he thought it was the kind of thing that you attained patiently, through understanding yourself, and improving your understanding of the world around you. He did not think that it comes as a miracle. Sometimes a certain event may trigger your realization of some things, but we didn’t discuss this idea too deeply.

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