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Interview with Todd Jones

by Ikuko Kimura

Published Online

Todd Jones

So, I read your article, and now I don’t know if I understand it perfectly, but first you did all kinds of other martial arts, then you studied aikido?

I started, at thirteen years old, studying MooDukKwan TaeKwonDo.

In the states?

In the states. Two years later, I began studying aikido, and two years after that I began studying kendo and iaido. About fifteen years ago I stopped training kendo and iaido because there wasn’t enough time, with life and work and family…I decided to focus my training.

You were doing Tae Kwon Do and aikido all at the same time?

Yes, all at the same time. I spent a good many hours every week, maybe as many as 40 hours a week for many years in grade school and college, studying aikido, Tae Kwon Do, Iaido, and Kendo. While in college I got interested in “open-style” karate competition and became very successful. I competed in tournaments here in America for about eight years; during that time I won a national championship and several state championships. For about five years, I was a top-rated kumite and kata competitor, both in empty-hand and weapons kata. Eventually, I decided that competition was not the best way to spend my time. I decided to focus my efforts on growing my students and building a small organization. The club that I started at the University of Florida in 1975 is now almost 30 years old. That program has spawned many other programs…the University of Miami program, the University of Central Florida program in Orlando, programs in Boca Raton, Atlanta, Kentucky, New York, California. I have students in Japan, the Netherlands Antilles, even some in Europe. Of course, not all are actively teaching.

What is the name of the organization?

We call our organization American Butokukan.

And you teach mainly what?

We teach karatedo, and we teach aikido; we teach them separately but concurrently. We teach traditional aikido and we teach traditional karatedo, and students earn rank in both arts independently of one another. What we try to do is bring them up at the same level in each art at the same time, so that ideally a student will test for shodan in karatedo the same day they test for shodan in aikido. What we find is that they do better in each art because of what they learn from the other. So I think of this dual curriculum as the right and left feet of the same body.

So what can aikido people learn from karate and what can karate people learn from aikido?

Good question. karate people learn from aikido movement and timing, spatial relationships…

Ma-ai…

Ma-ai, exactly! aikido people learn from karatedo training posture, kokoro, a different kind of balance and a different kind timing. In karate, the focus is typically on the striking or blocking or kicking technique. So the focus is on the armament, not on the ship. In aikido we learn to turn the ship, to turn the boat; in karatedo we learn to deliver the blow.

For instance, in karate we have specific, discrete waza… the focus in traditional karate training is on doing that technique and doing it properly, but the delivery is usually very linear, very simple — back and forth, back and forth — not so much circular or off-line. So, we take the movement skills, the ma-ai skills, of aikido and for that matter Kendo, and apply the karate technique or the aikido technique depending on our intent, and you have something that works in both worlds. It’s that simple. Well, it’s not so simple, but that’s the essence. It’s a lot like being bilingual, and nobody thinks that’s a bad idea.

So, as you wrote here, is one of the reasons for doing the Expo to bring… how do you say… One of the reasons you are doing the expo…

Man in background: The theme is realizing aikido’s potential, and I think Todd emphasized … bringing practicality, and aikido must include practicality as well… some of the tools of karate are very applicable.

Yes. To maybe speak too freely — and if I offend anyone, I apologize — but many adherents of other martial arts look at aikido and say, “it’s not practical.”

Aikido people don’t know how to strike properly…

Only because they’re not taught.

So it’s not practical. It’s blending, that’s okay, but, how do you say, compromising? Not real harmony.

Collaboration or worse, collusion.

Yes, collaboration. So they misunderstand that because uke has to harmonize with the ship. It looks like blending, but it’s not real blending. But what O-Sensei did was real blending, so that’s the goal we have to go to, and that’s true martial arts.

Right.

We have to pursue two ways in martial arts, and also his philosophy. People like to make a distinction… “I’m going to do his aikido; I’m going to do martial arts. It’s not that — you can do both, real martial arts… that philosophy can work too.

I’d just like to say there are many ways to get to the top of a mountain, but once you get there the view is the same, no matter your original path. My understanding is that before the war, most of O-Sensei’s senior students weren’t really students at all…

They were practiced already…

Yes, so they understood these things fundamentally. He didn’t have to waste time teaching basics… they were either qualified to step into his dojo or, “Sorry, we don’t have time.” I think, partly because of that, aikido — the way it’s taught today - is built on an expectancy of those fundamentals; those basic skills should already be there. I see aikido as a high level, or graduate school, martial art. If you’ve done ten years of judo, or if you’ve done ten years of karate, or if you’ve done ten years of kendo… it’s very easy to step in and say, “Oh yes, I see.” This just makes training all that much easier, all that more efficient, all that much better. So what I try to do with my students is provide that missing instruction. I certainly don’t mean to insult or offend anyone; but I feel obliged to respect the memory of my teachers, my predecessors, and O-Sensei by passing on a true martial art. Rather than teach my students just some basic karate first, or even along the way, as part of an aikido curriculum, I make a distinction. It works for a variety of reasons. For instance, many people argue that one of the shortcomings of aikido in how it is practiced today is that there is no outlet for the natural human desire to test oneself through competition. So my students, when they go through that part of the growth cycle, get sent to karate tournaments. It’s fine. They go, and they get that out of their systems. Then they come back to the aikido dojo and they say, “Oh yeah, this is how this or that is supposed to work.” They don’t feel the same kind of need to test and prove themselves against one another on the tatami. We find that this solution helps reduce injuries and helps people develop better character, which is, after all what “Do” is all about.

That said when we train, we make the distinction, “This is a karatedo class, this is an aikido class.” But, because we all have a common vocabulary, whoever the teacher is, he can say, “This technique is just like that technique from the other art.” It’s very refreshing to see the excitement of understanding in our students; more importantly, the students become more comfortable. From the beginning, we know that some students are going to be drawn to aikido rather than the karatedo, for some the other way around; and so, my personal position is that an instructor has an obligation to try to present the necessary information to their students in as many different ways as possible to make the student understand. The student, of course, has an obligation to do everything possible to grasp, absorb, and integrate that information and then implement it. At least here in America with my students this has worked very well. The difficult part is that it is very time-consuming. Of course, students in a university environment are in an ideal position to take advantage of this, because they’re young, they’re pre-selected for intelligence, they have more free time than working adults, they have flexible schedules, they have lots of energy, and they’re in the best physical condition they’ll ever be in. Quite frankly, it’s very invigorating for those of us who have gotten on in age to be able to interact with this kind of people on a regular basis, and so it’s worked very well.

So the reason you started aikido is that … and then you did karate, and then did you have a reason to go to karate?

Actually, I started karate first, before aikido. I started karatedo because my two best friends started karatedo. They quit after about six months. I liked the training and the philosophy of budo, so I never quit. I had a very good teacher, and because I liked training, I just kept doing it. One day a classmate of mine said, “Hey! I heard about this aikido class — it’s on the other side of town, do you want to go?” So I said “Sure” and I instantly fell in love. I saw immediately the benefit, the beauty of the movement, the efficiency and the marriage. It was in my mind from the beginning, and at that point it was just a matter of mastering the skills, learning, and finding out how they fit together. Unlike in Japan, there was really no one to teach me how they fit together, so I had to discover that for myself. It was challenging because many of the aikido Shihan that I studied under discouraged me from taking two paths. For me it was never about separate paths. As I said, there are many ways to solve the same problem, and this was a way that was natural for me, and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a very big part of my life. It’s been very gratifying. I have never taught professionally, although I’ve taught as much as many professionals have.

My first teacher, my karatedo teacher, never charged money for his classes. He taught through a community school program, and when I earned my shodan he gave me an obligation. He said, “You must train ten others.”

Ten others?

Ten other students, and raise them to shodan.

That was an assignment?

Yes, for me an obligation. I’ve done over ten times that much since, and not for a penny. I have a job, but this I do because I love it, and because I see the good that it does for other people, and to repay my obligation.

What kind of karate did you do? Shotokan?

I have studied Shotokan. I entered college as a shodan in TaeKwonDo. I soon met yudansha from Wado-ryu, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, Kyokushin, Shotokan, some Chinese styles, some Vietnamese styles, even French savate. We would all come together in one gymnasium twice a week to learn together. Several of us also had clubs.

All different styles?

Yes, many different styles. We all became friends, and we all trained together because we would all go to tournaments together. As a result, I know the Shito-ryu kata, the Shotokan kata, the Wado-ryu kata, and how they do basic technique differently.

Are these kata quite different depending on the style?

Some styles are very similar and some are very different in their approach. Shotokan has a very different approach to basic technique, say, for instance, as compared to Uechi-ryu. Okinawan Shurite karatedo technique is very different from modern TaeKwonDo. The wonderful opportunity that this cross-training presented me with caused me to modify the karatedo that I teach today.

So you are teaching a blend?

Yes. The karatedo I teach today is very different from what I originally learned.

You teach them kata first?

The first thing they learn is how to bow; nothing is more important in budo than good manners. Of course, they learn basic karate waza; but more importantly, they learn how to walk, use proper stance, and then once they know enough, they learn basic kata and basic kumite.

What are the basic kata?

We start students out with taikioku shodan. There are two or three other basic forms that I have created that follow that, and then we do hangetsu, bassai-dai, kanku-dai, shinto, jutte, and others. We use most of the traditional kata that span all the Japanese karate systems. Even the TaeKwonDo that I started with did most of these forms; of course, they used Korean names, but all of these kata are shared at some level. That was, academically, a very interesting exploration for me… learning at least how every system did them a little differently, and sometimes even why they did them a little differently. So I’m pretty comfortable no matter where I go in the karate world in terms of fitting in. And that’s nice - it’s like being able to speak another language. And I think to some extent in the aikido world as well, because I came up, through most of my ranks in the United States aikido Federation under Yamada Sensei. That ended, but I also spent a considerable amount of time studying with Saito Sensei.

You went to Iwama?

Twice.

Did you stay there? How long?

Not long enough.

Did you stay in the dojo?

The first time I was there I was honored to be placed in O-Sensei’s room. That was pretty special.

You stayed there?

Yes… you never forget something like that. Saito Sensei was very, very generous with me. I like to believe that he appreciated my martial integrity. I remember specifically in my very first class in the Iwama dojo he stopped the class, and it wasn’t a “dame.” That was unusual for Saito Sensei. We were doing tsuki-kotegaeshi and I had my outside hand up, protecting my face, when I was uke. He pointed that out and said everybody should do that.

Why were you doing that?

I was just protecting myself. You know, a new dojo, strange environment… but most teachers just don’t think of those things.

Most Japanese are not taught to be…

Yes, but it’s not just Japanese people, it’s everybody. So, anyway because of my Kendo and Iaido training he very quickly realized that I knew what I was doing with bokken and jo; and so I got some special attention here and there that I will always hold very dear.

The point is that Saito Sensei validated much of what I believed to be true about the way I knew a technique should be done. And on those trips I also went to the Hombu dojo. Speaking of Hombu dojo, I will never forget the time in the Titusville dojo, when Yamada Sensei had brought Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei to America; he used me for uke, pretty much the entire night. He was amazing because I couldn’t feel his touch. I would execute the strike or go to make the grab, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground and not getting up, because he had a way to keep you on the floor… it was very interesting. So I’ve been fortunate to have, taken ukemi from most of the Hombu Shihan at some point; I’ve tried to retain something of each lesson, and pass that on to my students. So yes, it’s been fun.

Was this before you got involved with the karate championships?

My first trip to Japan was I think, in 1989, so no, that was about six years after I stopped competing. And my second trip was, I believe, in 1991, and it was great. I really, really want to get back to Japan. Circumstances just haven’t permitted it. But of course I was treated very well, so that made a difference. It’s always nice when you are made to feel welcome. Someday I’ll get back.

While you are competing, were aikido techniques helpful?

Good question. Yes, I credit my aikido training for allowing me to become a champion. Because of the way I moved it was very difficult to be hit, and once your defenses are virtually impenetrable (nothing is 100%); but once you reach a certain level where it’s next to impossible for somebody to score on you, then you can wait for the mistake and take advantage, get your point and wrap it up. So that was always fun — for instance, to move tenkan and score on the opponent with a ridgehand and then be able to stand there watching when he would turn around from five or eight feet away because he had charged down the line at me and I had just “disappeared.” Then there were are other times where koshinage was a very effective technique, too.

Did you use koshinage in tournaments?

Well, yeah, more of an Aikinage/Koshinage technique — you just drop the upper body.

Oh, yes.

If they’re targeting for your face…

You go down.

You’re out of the way and they end up going over — oops! It was an accident! [laughter] You don’t get a point for that, but you know…

It’s okay to do something like that?

The rules vary, but yes, it’s okay. You’re not supposed to throw in the type of karate competition I was doing, but sometimes it just happened. There are several different venues for karate competition… no contact, light contact, medium contact and full contact. Shotokan kumite is a classic example of no contact. Olympic TaeKwonDo is a good example of medium contact. I competed in what is called light contact tournaments; and in light contact competition you wear safety gear. You make touch contact — maybe a little harder than touch… but the idea is just a touch, and that’s enough. It was a safer environment , and I chose that one because I was training college students, and college students go to school to educate their minds, so full contact was not a good idea because that was detrimental. Likewise, in many of the no-contact tournaments that I participated in or observed produced injuries just as bad as the full contact events. So it was the best situation to take my students in.

I’d like to change the topic now.

I haven’t said anything too offensive, have I?

No, I don’t publish anything without you… so you can say anything…

I know, but you know how sensitive how people in the aikido world can be.

I know, but I have interviewed so many Senseis and people before the war.

I’m jealous about that too.

Yes. I see that the Senseis from before the war and after the war are a little different and the focus is different. The younger people tend to talk more philosophically about training. But to me, aikido should be if you are doing aikido, older Sensei’s goal was always to reach the top of the mountain, even if not possible, you have to always try to reach that level. Don’t practice just dancing…

Otherwise, you’re not growing.

Some people are really good at very energetic aikido… about going to that goal… some people are just staying there, enjoying themselves, doing aikido, going to demonstrations, being in harmony. That’s good. I like aikido people because they don’t complete, they are really nice people, but I have seen so many excellent teachers, and that is the goal that you should be going for and so, when I read this, I agreed to, anyway, it’s not a question…

No, but it’s a good observation because many people plateau. They stop challenging themselves. Unfortunately, many very talented Sensei fall into that trap. It’s easy to get lazy. One of the reasons, even at fifteen years old when I started aikido, I realized that gosh, this is really something I could do at eighty or ninety years old. So I knew that someday I would not be able to do side kicks seven feet in the air anymore, not that they are practical anyway, but because of the nature of aikido practice, you can do it your whole life. We’ve seen it many, many times. How many Tae Kwon Do or karate masters do we see doing kumite at eighty or ninety years old? You don’t. You see ippon kumite, you see kata, and that’s great, because they can still convey and teach the concepts that are necessary for their students. But it’s kind of like gymnastics… if you study gymnastics from the time you are three until you’re sixteen, unless you go to the Olympics, you’re pretty much done. In aikido that’s not true.

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