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Aikido in Latin America

by Wagner Bull

Aikido Journal #118 (Fall/Winter 1999)


Latin America is geographically larger in size than Europe. More than 600 million people inhabit this enormous continent with its many nations. Given its size and complexity, it is virtually impossible to explain exactly how aikido arrived and developed in Latin America without commiting errors or failing to mention important names and details. With that proviso, I will undertake to describe the main characteristics, personalities, and highlights of the development of the art on our continent.

First of all, unlike the cases of the USA, Europe, Australia, and a few other countries, no Aikikai shihan was dispatched to Latin America to teach aikido in the early days of development of the art. Brazil has a large colony of more than 1,000,000 people of Japanese descent, but even this fact was not enough to attract a high-ranking instructor from the Aikikai. This was the case until the end of the 1980s when Yoshimitsu Yamada agreed to support Brazilians trying to learn and teach aikido.

Brazil

In this overview, I will start by presenting Brazil, my own country. Aikido had its beginnings here at the end of 1963. A 3rd dan Japanese named Teruo Nakatani who had trained at the Aikido Hombu Dojo relocated to Rio de Janeiro. I was still a child when I saw a movie short in a theater before the main feature about aikido and this man. I still recall the performers dressed in black skirts flying around on the grass in circular, ballet-like movements. This was before the days of television and this was the medium for the presentation of news items. Nakatani was a good leader and loved by his students. Some judo black belts joined him as they were fascinated by the art that allowed one to throw everyone easily to the ground.

Meanwhile, in Sao Paulo, a Japanese acupuncturist named Toshio Kawai who had settled in Brazil in 1958 underwent about six months of aikido training with Aritoshi Murashige in Paris around 1960. Kawai opened an aikido dojo upon his return from France. Later, around 1972, when Nakatani stopped teaching aikido, Kawai was the only high-ranking teacher active and he gradually assumed the leadership role in Brazil. Kawai eventually became the official representative of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo for Brazil. He devised aikido competitions with special rules. As a result, Kawai was allowed to register aikido as a competitive sport with the Brazilian Ministry of Sports with the assistance of several generals who were among his acupuncture patients.

In this way, he achieved control of aikido in Brazil through legal means. He also copyrighted the word “aikido” and took legal action against those who used the term without his permission. Over the years, various Japanese aikidoka employed by multinational Japanese companies attempted to operate aikido schools in Brazil, but had difficulties due to Kawai’s control over the art.

To illustrate the nature of the situation, on one occasion, a Japanese national holding a 4th dan from the Aikikai and who was working as an executive for a telephone company attempted to stage a public aikido demonstration. The event was stopped in the middle by the police who were accompanied by Kawai. This incident served thereafter to discourage similar independent attempts to develop aikido outside of Kawai’s orbit. Later, around 1974, a 3rd dan Japanese instructor named Ishitami Shikanai was brought to Brazil by Nakatani and was obliged to work within Kawai’s organization to stay within legal bounds.

When the International Aikido Federation was established in 1976, Kawai was elected as the 4th Vice Chairman with responsibility for South America at a time when there were approximately 200 aikido students in his organization. As the official IAF representative for South America and with the full support of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, Kawai attempted to extend his sphere of influence to other South American countries, especially Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru, but succeeded only to a limited degree.

By contrast, other martial arts such as karate, judo, taekwondo, and t’ai chi ch’uan enjoyed enormous growth in Brazil. As an example, in 1989 the Brazilian Judo Federation reported it had registered more than 700,000 practitioners. In 1986, Kawai, already a 7th dan, headed a group consisting of about 12 schools after he had been active teaching for some 20 years. His policies resulted in many complaints being made to the Aikikai in Japan, but for the time being, no actions were taken to alter the Brazilian situation.

The natural growth of aikido in Brazil was restricted for many years due to this situation as were the possibilities of interchanges with the rest of the world. I think the status of aikido in Brazil was little understood in Japan and elsewhere. Kawai through his political connections was able to arrange awards for Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba and the Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba.

In 1988, I and several politicians, lawyers, and former students of Kawai succeeded in proving to the Brazilian government that aikido was not a competitive art and that the word “aikido” could not be copyrighted. As a result of this effort, Kawai lost his de facto monopoly over aikido. Due to internal disagreements, Kawai resigned as head of his IAF-recognized organization named FEPAI (Federacao Paulista de Aikido) in 1991. His successor was one of Kawai’s students named Makoto Nishida, now a 6th dan.

Our group sent out letters to aikido shihan all over the world to inform them of the changing situation. We received only one response from Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei of New York who wrote that it was no secret in Japan that there were problems with aikido in Brazil. He also indicated that he could arrange the support of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo if I decided to form my own organization. I traveled to New York to talk with Yamada Sensei and from that time on became his student. Shortly thereafter, Yamada Sensei began to support us and we started receiving ranking certificates from the Aikikai. This was despite the International Aikido Federation rule that only one organization per country would receive official recognition from the Aikido Hombu Dojo.

In this free environment, aikido in Brazil began to grow very fast. Ishitami Shikani, presently a 6th dan, assisted by his senior students, made great strides in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and especially in Brasilia. Also, Yamada Sensei started to come every year to our country and many of his high-ranking students such as Donovan Waite, Peter Bernath, and Jane Ozeki began to visit frequently with the consequence that our technical level began to improve.

Today in Brazil there are some 300 dojos all over the country with perhaps 6,000 students practicing daily. The aikido community is divided into four large groups. The largest one is under Yamada Sensei and has six shidoin: Wagner Bull, Severino Salles, Carlos Dutra, Ricardo Leite, Breno de Oliveira, and Eichi Kikuchi, the later being the son of the man who introduced macrobiotics to Brazil. The above teachers head the organizations which together form the Brazil Aikikai. Our organization is not recognized by the IAF in spite of being Brazil’s largest association due to the shortsighted policy that limits recognition to one organization per country. In 1997, we organized one of the largest aikido seminars in the world with Nobuyoshi Tamura and Yoshimitsu Yamada providing instruction and 702 persons in attendance. The other three Brazilian organizations are the Shikanai group, the FEPAI organization—still the only one officially recognized by the IAF—, and another group created by Kawai who recommenced his activities in 1990. He has since established an affiliation with Masatake Fujita Shihan, the latter coining to Brazil for the past four years. In 1998, Kawai was promoted to 8th dan, the same level as Hombu-trained shihan such as Tamura, Yamada, Chiba, Sugano, and Kobayashi. It is hard for us in Brazil to understand how he could be ranked at the same grade as the above-mentioned shihan who studied directly under the Founder. Is it possible that the same thing occurs in other countries?

Argentina

Aikido was introduced in Argentina through the efforts of Kenzo Miyazawa—then a first dan—in 1964 (see interview in Aiki News #97). In 1966, he brought a friend named Katsutoshi Kurata to assist him. These two became the official IAF representatives for Argentina. Neither were at the time highly ranked and, due to the high cost of travel to their country, were left alone to develop on their own. In 1978, Masafumi Sakanashi, who was born in Paraguay as the son of Japanese immigrants, returned to Argentina after learning aikido in Japan. Sakanashi also practiced the Kyokushinkai karate of Mas Oyama in Japan and began teaching a martial type of aikido in Argentina. His group become the third organization in that country. Very few shihan have visited Argentina since Yoshimitsu Yamada began teaching there in 1993 on the invitation of Sakanashi’s group. Sakanashi, now a 6th dan, has two 5th dan students, Juan Tolone and Ricardo Corbal. Several shidoin sent by Yamada Sensei were invited to conduct seminars in Argentina as well as in Brazil.

Uruguay

In Uruguay, a student of Miyazawa named Cela is in charge of aikido and is the official representative of the IAF. A second group affiliated with Yamada Sensei is headed by Luis Sefong.

Chile

The leader of aikido in Chile is Jorge Rojo, Jr. who practiced under Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei and later trained with Yamada Sensei who promoted him to 5th dan. Another student of Yamada Sensei named Elson Olea has an independent group representing the Federation Latinoamericana de Aikido (FLA) in Chile.

Panama

Aikido is a new martial art in Panama. A Japanese named Saito visited and taught aikido in this country for several months in 1975. Some ten years later, Jorge Rojo went to Panama and officially opened an aikido dojo. On his return to his native Chile in 1986, Rojo left seven black belts some of whom are still active. In 1991, the group reorganized and formed the Panama Aikikai under president and chief instructor Manuel Ruiz, an industrial engineer. Ruiz began training under Jorge Rojo and continued practicing with Nelson Andujar of the Miami Aikikai and was an assistant instructor in that dojo. Ruiz returned to Panama in 1991 and began teaching there. His aikido dojo operates under the supervision of Yamada Sensei and is affiliated with the FLA. This organization was created around Yamada Sensei uniting many Latin American groups in order to organize and spread the art in this region. This year, Seijuro Masuda, an Aikikai shihan, conducted a seminar in Panama. The Panama aikido organization now has eight black belts. The US Albrook Air Force Base has an aikido group taught by the Panama Aikikai. Panama will host the Fifth International Meeting of the FLA.

Costa Rica

The aikido organization in Costa Rica is supported through Manuel Ruiz in an effort to develop the art in that country.

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