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Dr. Ah Loi Lee

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #93 (Fall 1992)

Dr. Lee is an outstanding figure among Tomiki Aikido practitioners outside of Japan; not only does she bring firsthand experience with both Tomiki Sensei and Ohba Sensei to her aikido, but she is also able to incorporate the understanding of human physiology of a medical doctor and acupuncturist. The first woman within the Tomiki system to be promoted to the rank of 7th dan, she is also one of the few who has broadened her studies into other Japanese martial arts. Aiki News editor Diane Bauerle talked with Dr. Lee on one of her annual visits to Japan.

Sensei, you began to practice aikido over thirty years ago in England. Could you tell us how you got started?

I had some friends, a brother and sister, who were very interested in budo of any kind. They were going around to various dojos to look at each teacher’s method of instruction, and they found Senta Yamada Sensei. They came to me and asked if I would join them because there really weren’t enough students in those days to make up a class as such, and they were going privately. If I went along it would make it less expensive for them, though it didn’t cost much in those days. So, I went along. And I agreed with my friend. Yamada Sensei was very, very good. Many of the things he taught me are still with me now. So I think perhaps what people see me do now is a little bit different from some of the others who are doing Tomiki Aikido because I retained some of the movement and some of the ways of my first teacher.

Since Yamada Sensei left Japan before Tomiki Sensei developed tanto randori, I would suppose what he taught was different from what we practice today.

Yes. It was much more closely linked to the Ueshiba style.

Can you tell us a little more about Yamada Sensei?

He was a 6th dan in both aikido and judo, and he came over to England in around 1958 or 59 to teach judo. Tomiki Sensei asked him to also introduce aikido to any of his judo students who were interested. So that’s how Tomiki Aikido got started outside of Japan. He was the first Japanese teacher Tomiki Sensei sent overseas.

Where is Yamada Sensei now?

Back in his own hometown, Fukuoka.

Is he still teaching?

He’s gone back to his old village judo school. I don’t think he’s really teaching much. He gave up budo a long time ago, nearly 15 or 20 years ago I think, when he returned to Japan.

So you met Yamada Sensei, and started to study with him. What made you continue to practice aikido?

I played tennis, and badminton; I really enjoyed sports. But I had a problem because, you see, in England you really can’t play tennis in the evening because it’s too dark.

You don’t have lighted tennis courts?

Not in those days. Now there are, but they’re very expensive. So I could practice aikido in the evenings. I think I enjoyed the discipline somehow. It was also just something I found that I liked; it suited me somehow. I’m competitive, and I found it a challenge to work with all the fellows, trying to make techniques work with them. In those days we didn’t have competitions but there was a lot of competition when you trained.

Did you encounter any problems, not only being a woman, but not a particularly tall one?

Yes. I couldn’t make techniques work half the time. But I think when you first start in aikido, you tend to use what strength and power you have, and if somebody’s bigger and stronger it just isn’t going to work. It takes a long time to develop the proper power and strength for aikido. If it hadn’t been for Yamada Sensei, I might have given up, because I couldn’t see how I could make it work.

He showed you?

Yes, and so I didn’t develop strength and power.

So, that was an advantage for you; having the right sensei, and not being big, because you couldn’t start out relying on your strength.

We really had one of the best teachers… I mean if you start with a teacher who’s 6th dan in judo and 6th dan aikido in those days, it’s really the very best situation —not like nowadays when people will start teaching even before they’re a first dan. That’s no problem if they’re humble enough and understand their own limitations. But too often, people start teaching, and believe they’ve reached the pinnacle, you know, and stop working on their own improvement. Sometimes you really haven’t got the opportunity to improve, because of time or distance or job or whatever. But when you instruct people, you should be honest and say that you can lead them up to a certain point, but beyond that, if they have the opportunity, you should encourage them to go to another dojo, or go to Japan. That to me is the mark of a good teacher, whatever his or her level.

You, in fact did just that, and went to Japan to study with Tomiki and Ohba Sensei. What are some of the things you can remember about training with them?

It was 20 years ago that I met Tomiki Sensei and Ohba Sensei, but prior to that I’d already been training for ten years. I can’t really lay claim to knowing a lot about them, because I was only in Japan for a short time. I think I was quite privileged when I did come because I had a very good instructor to watch over me while I was here, Takeshi Inoue Sensei, who was one of their proteges. He didn’t start in his university days like most of the others, but began training when he was 9 years old. His father, who was a colleague of Tomiki Sensei, had practically offered him to Tomiki Sensei as a sort of permanent disciple to do whatever he wanted him to do.

Ill never forget the time I met Tomiki Sensei —at that time I think he was already 70. We went to this tiny little house, where he taught on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It was lent him by a friend, so you see how poor they were, they just didn’t have any place to practice apart from Waseda Dojo. It was an old Japanese house, with about 10 or 12 mats in it. It wasn’t built to be a dojo, and it had very low ceilings. I’ll never forget, going that first time along some dark roads and alleyways, following Inoue to this place. It was my first exposure to Japanese style training. The men were all changing in the room, and I had to go with the other two or three girls, and we changed in one corner that had a curtain rail around it. I made sure in the future that I never had to go to the toilet there, though usually I’d want to go before I trained because the one there was pitch black, and was only a little room with a door on it and a hole in the ground. So if you made a mistake you might fall in. It was quite strange to come from England in those days to a place like that. But you forget all those things because the training is too short. I couldn’t have enough of it. When Tomiki Sensei did wakigatame on Inoue, he didn’t show power, but Inoue just went flat on his face. Afterwards, when we went home, Inoue said to me, "Do you know, for a man his age, I can’t believe his power. He’s still got it." Inoue at that time was a fifth dan. Tomiki Sensei had fantastically long arms and fingers. I think that’s how he could do the techniques that most of us find impossible to do. Especially the locks.

Of course, I’ve heard that Ohba Sensei had wrists like small trees, so Tomiki Sensei probably needed those long fingers to work with him.

Well, the story is that Tomiki Sensei could do his wrist lock on anyone’s upper arm. It was unbelievable. If you look at some of the old photos of him, and see his hands, you can see how long his fingers were. He had a very large wrist bone. The other thing I admired was how he sat in seiza. Most of us are rather high up, because our calf muscles stop us from completely contacting the floor. But he was stuck to the mat. He was truly a master. But now, having seen photos and films of his younger years, I know that when I met him he was moving as an older man would move. So we have to take all those things into perspective when we watch films, and not necessarily copy every aspect of the movement.

You’d never catch them out, him or Ohba Sensei. Never. In those days, we’d practice twice a week in the mornings with Ohba Sensei, and twice in the evening with Tomiki Sensei. Those are the only practices I went to. I didn’t want to go to any other practices. There wasn’t any point.

That’s good enough, I would think.

I didn’t want to have other things taught by other people to confuse me from what they were teaching. The morning practice was Ohba Sensei’s and it was murder, because it was from 7 to 8 in the morning. He had put that time aside for people who worked, salarymen, so they could continue their aikido and still get to work. That was how dedicated he was. Of course, some of us didn’t have to go to work, and we’d stay on. So we were left with about three or four of us, Sakai-san, Yamagata-san, and me, and sometimes one or two of the fellows.

We used to train until 9 or 9:30. Then you really got the best training. Ohba Sensei would never end the class just because it was 8 o’clock. He would stay behind to watch us, and come over and correct us, and start doing things with us.

That dojo in Aoyama was the only dojo where we had an excuse to wear dirty trousers. We’d get black, oily marks on our knees because it was a wrestling hall used by sambo wrestlers. We used the place courtesy of Ichiro Hatta, who’s dead now, a very good friend and sponsor of Ohba Sensei and the Tomiki system.

Fancy training with the snow coming through the roof, and the rain dropping through when it rained. You’d forget about it, because when you really started training you didn’t stay cold. I’ll never forget those fellows, the ones who stayed behind. They got a shock when I wanted to do some tanto randori with them. When I went to Japan it had already been introduced in England, and we were used to it. Tsunemitsu Naito brought it over in 1968.

So Naito was the one who actually brought randori to England?

Yes, he introduced randori, in place of Inoue. You see Inoue was supposed to have come that year, but for one reason or another he couldn’t come quite at that moment. So rather than waste the opportunity they sent Naito first. Then Inoue came nine months later.

What year was that?

Inoue came in 1969. Most of us had been practicing Yamada Sensei’s way. But he left London in 1965, so we didn’t have a teacher. Then I heard that there was another Japanese teacher over, so I rushed along. I was completely amazed because I was a nidan then, and Naito put us through hell — physical torture, if you like. He brought Waseda University’s training ways, 100 breakfalls and 200 pressups and all that kind of thing. Within two weeks the club’s membership had been decimated by 50%.

But the ones who stayed…

Were good and ready when Inoue came to really put the cream on. We’d gone through the physical hell, you see, so we were ready for the technical teaching he brought. Naito didn’t really teach us a lot technically, he just put us through it physically. But he did bring the seventeen techniques [randori no kata] over.

You hadn’t been doing them?

We did fifteen, the old style kata.

Like in Yamada Sensei’s book, The Principles and Practice of Aikido?

Yes. But the techniques are not really that different. Certain approaches, and certain final presentations are a little bit different, but that’s all. Naito never treated me as anything but part of the club, whether I was a girl or not. That was the problem. You see I got shattered. He threw me miles away, all over the place. I said to myself, "I’m not going to take this lying down though," and came up for more. Not only that, I thought, "Well, if I’m a second dan, I’m jolly well going to prove it. I’m not going to back out like the others." And that’s what made me continue. Because if you go through something with that kind of determination, it’s something you want to keep. I still think that it’s a good thing to do for younger students. At that time I was a university student, so I wasn’t that old. I think until you are thirty you can still put up with that kind of physical torture, if you like. You feel great if you can do it, because you feel as if you’ve conquered yourself.

So when Inoue came, he introduced the koryu no kata?

Yes. The koryu no kata, as the translation, "traditional/classical kata," implies, are just that. I can only assume that since up to that time we had only practiced the modern randori no kata and since Yamada Sensei had taught techniques individually rather than as a set, Ohba Sensei felt that we would not lose the traditional aspect if the techniques were gathered together in sets rather than loosely practiced individually. The passage of time has proved his wisdom in doing so as there is a tendency to ignore the value of these techniques because some appear to be rather impractical and therefore many Tomiki aikidoka would prefer to avoid practicing them and perhaps learn something from such a study.

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