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Interview with Tony Sargeant

Aiki News #83 (January 1990)

Tony Sargeant was born in England in 1950 and first began studying aikido in 1973. He is one of the major exponents of Iwama-style Aikido in the United Kingdom. He, moreover, is one of the leading members of the Institute of Aikido, one of the U.K.’s oldest organizations. Sargeant currently resides in Cambridge with his wife and two daughters and operates an automobile dealership and garage.

You are presently teaching Aikido in Cambridge, England. Would you tell us about your dojo and approach to teaching?

In the Cambridge Aikido Club we try to follow the Iwama-style approach to aikido as taught y Morihiro Saito Sensei. We have been practicing in this manner for about eight or nine years. However, only in the last five or so years have we been serious about the way we changes our techniques without adding our own modifications. In the past, our approach to aikido mainly emphasized ki no nagare (ki flow) techniques. Our focus now is on basic techniques. I try to bring in someone from America at least twice a year to help us on the ukemi side and to understand more about the flowing of the body, because I feel that even though the Iwama-style is strong it doesn’t have the flow that the European mind requires. We must also incorporate that aspect in our teaching.

In England today many people have split off from various organizations and gone their own ways, as we have ourselves. For many it seems to have become more a pleasurable way of life than a true martial art. In this way something appears to have been lost. I have observed over the past three years students taught according to the Iwama-style approach, where the movements are shown very slowly, precisely and without showing too many techniques at one time. They seem to develop good stability of posture, and an understanding of what can be achieved in technical terms and what cannot. The ultimate aim appears to be that if the students become strong then they should be able to take many things in as they become older. Here in Cambridge, you don’t have to stop doing aikido when you reach the age of 40 or 50. Some of the seminars held today seem to be too vigorous for people of this age. So they feel they cannot participate because of the level of stamina required. Again, the Iwama approach teaches you correctness of movement. Everything is taught slowly. This helps everyone to find enjoyment in what they are doing. You don’t have to be an athletic person to reach a much higher level. Your fitness seems to improve regardless of age. Therefore, you would rarely experience a hard session because your attitude is always stable and your techniques become strong and correct.

Tony, give us a little bit about your personal background in aikido. When was it that you began your study and what were the circumstances which led to you starting the art?

My starting of the art was the result of a very selfish mood. I’m a mechanic and I own a garage, and at that time I had a certain customer whose business I wanted to keep. He told me that I would have to attend an aikido beginner’s class. I remember the night very well. In order to keep his business, I went along and spent most of the night being thrown under tables. My main memory is that I was completely dizzy all evening. But the next day I felt something that you can’t explain: the experience of pleasure that it first gave me. And this has stayed with me every since. I had never been a sports person; when I was in college, anytime someone brought up the subject of sports, I declined to join in. So this was my first introduction to body movement, and I wasn’t very successful at it for the first few months. I had many injuries, and was even asked to leave the dojo for my own safety. I didn’t take my sensei’s advice, and carried on to eventually be awarded the class when my sensei decided that because of his ill health he could no longer continue. It was a hard struggle the first few years, but I now know that it was obviously the correct thing to do for my personal path. I still have my garage and have a very full working week, but my dojo has been built up from one class a week when I first started, to nine classes a week. We have eight ranking dan grades in the club, who are all of a high standard. I’m very pleased with the direction in which the Cambridge Aikido Club is going.

We have just completed a seminar here in Cambridge which was attended by approximately 250 people. This was your first attempt at organizing an international seminar. Needless to say, you were quite successful. What areas do you regard as especially important to keep in mind for those wishing to stage events of this sort?

I tried to target current teachers and instructors in England, because they usually teach rather than train, and they often seem to be concerned about whether or not they can participate because of their fitness level. I think the most important thing to stress for future seminars is that these events are “teacher” seminars, not “workout” seminars. I think whoever is organizing the courses should keep this in mind. They are not for the young people but rather for the teachers who teach the young people.

You mentioned to me that you had made a series of mailings with slightly different contents each time. Would you describe the procedure you used and the timing involved in order to produce such an excellent response?

I’ve observed the organization of many seminars, and usually a glossy brochure is produces and sent our about four months in advance. I decided to send out a very basic form six months before the seminar. My reasoning was that if you invest all your money in sending out a glossy brochure and there is not a good response, you have committed yourself to a large expense. There is no money left to go back to people a second time. We sent our a simple copied sheet made attractive by offering people a 10% reduction if they booked within a four-week period. This was calculated to encourage students to make early reservations and thus I was able to produce extra mat space. Normally you have to know how much mat space to provide. If you have a last minute rush of members the seminar becomes overcrowded and everyone is unhappy.

How many mailings did you make altogether?

About four separate mailing, each of which said something different. The second mailing was directed at teachers to assure them they would not have a hard workout and to encourage them to come and learn the art of teaching.

In this particular seminar there was an emphasis on the ken and jo. Nearly one half of the classes focused on weapons training. To what extent do you think this fact attracted participants?

I don’t think it made a massive difference because there were so many different organizations which actually came to the seminar and very few of them regularly study the weapons. Those who do study weapons do not study Iwama-style weapons and they said they were quite nervous during the seminar because the style was so different. However, they found Saito Sensei’s approach very clear and were happy to try it. I think they came mainly because I tried to publicize it from many different angles, and encouraged everyone to at least come and try Iwama-style Aikido. They were good enough to do this even though they may return to their dojos and train in a totally different style. I think it will help broaden their mind and imaginations in the future.

What was the percentage of make and female participants?

I can’t say exactly, but I think there was about a 70-30 split. I’m quite pleased. I travel to many countries now - to America and Europe. They seem to have a higher percentage of female practitioners. In England, normally out of 100 students only about six would be women. Also, the women are usually not strong. It was nice to see such a high level of female practitioners with strong techniques and good attitudes. This must mean that the way they are being taught is benefiting their bodies, so they can cope with the art and hopefully apply techniques to men with the same feeling as when they are being thrown. I sincerely hope that their numbers will grow in the future. The Cambridge Aikido Club has a 60-40 split, and I find that the ladies are far more precise in their detail. When teaching them, they express their techniques very clearly. I only wish that the men would take the women as examples of how to adjust their technique and find the correct way.

As you know Aiki News is a magazine distributed internationall, and this interview will be appearing in Japanese and will reach the countries of Europe and America. Could you give us just a brief idea of the present organizational situation in England? I understand that there are many diverse organziations. Could you just describe the major ones, and tell us which style they practice, or what they emphasize?

There are many different organizations in the U.K. now practicing three recognized styled of aikido: the traditional (O-Sensei’s style); Tomiki Aikido; and Yoshinkan Aikido. These styles were introduced into the U.K. by Japanese teachers and by people taught by the Japanese. Although there are 16 organizations represented on the British Aikido Board there are still a few organizations outside the British Aikido Board (BAB) umbrella.

Breakaway groups emerge because members become disenchanted with the general situation and this cascading creation of different associations goes on. The British Aikido Board was formed in 1972 to try and bring all aikido together, but to date there are still many good practitioners hiding away in isolated dojos who could be of benefit to us all if we could see the skills that they have been taught in the past. One such organization is the British Aikido Federation (BAF) which is run through the Aikikai with Sensei Minoru Kanetsuka as its head. Sensei Kanetsuka has been in this country now for about 20 years, and he is the main connection between the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo and England. The Technical Director is Masatake Fujita Sensei.

Among the largest organizations in the U.K. are the British Aikido Association (BAA) and the Institute of Aikido. They are possibly the oldest organizations in the U.K., with the Institute of Aikido’s origins going back over 32 years. The BAA teaches predominately Tomiki-style Aikido, but has a group practicing traditional style within its organization which is headed by Mike Smith. The United Kingdom Aikido (UKA) is headed by Bill Smith, who used to be on one of the head boards in Tokyo. The UKA’s Technical Director is Sensei Kazuo Chiba and they normally hold a seminar once a year which is open to all organizations. They have a very large following and their standard also seems high. Sensei Nobuyoshi Tamura from France is regularly invited to the U.K. to direct seminars and these are always well attended with over 200 participants. The style is mainly a flowing one. Sensei Tamura is an Aikikai 8th dan.

I have been a member of the Institute of Aikido since it was reconstituted from Renown Aikido Society. The headquarters are in Hillingdon where Sensei Masahuro Nakaono first introduced aikido into the U.K. Prior to this, however, Master Kenshiro Abe decided to start showing Aikido techniques at a Judo seminar. From then on, Mr. Nakazono began to show how to perform aikido in a normal class without the inclusion of Judo.

The Institute had, for the last few years, advertised itself as the Institute of Aikido Iwama-style, as we now follow Saito Sensei and he helps us with our techniques. Because of his technical expertise we hope that he will be coming more often in the future to teach at seminars. In the past we have seen him approximately once every five years. We hope to create closer ties.

Tony, what do you think has been lacking in England to permit aikido to develop in a more unified manner?

I feel that the problem basically is that the teachers all like to be their own boss in the way they teach, and they don’t really like to be criticized or told how to do things. This is mainly because there are no very high-level masters in this country. It appears to be a worldwide problem. I travel to many different countries and the diversity and splits are apparent everywhere I go. I would like to see a “teachers only” seminar, where they don’t have hard workouts. Instead they could focus on explanations of angles, or techniques that don’t work. They could perform a technique, and then the master would look at it and tell them whether the angles are correct or not. This is the way I’ve been taught over the last few years, and it seems to have very little waste. You need a master to help, even if you are a teacher yourself. You can sometimes make techniques work, and be convinced that they will work, by a true master who can show you the holes and the pitfalls in the marital way, rather than by what merely looks or feels good. You can make any technique correct, if you want it to be correct. There are many teachers that don’t like to feel that they have lost face in front of others. But I feel that in special teachers seminars given by one of the few tops masters in the world today, this would not happen, and instead a technical unity of aikido would be achieved, as well as the harmony of people understanding one another and talking to each other.