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Sensei Antonio Aloia grew up in a martial arts family and has spent the better part of his life practicing Aikido. He has spent a significant portion of his academic studies on researching the history of Aikido since it reached America from Japan, he is the author of the book, Aikido Comes to America: A Brief History of the Art’s American Pioneers and Their Journey to the Present. This interview was recently conducted by Tambuli Media president, Mark V. Wiley, as a deeper dive into some of the material contained with the Aloia’s ground-breaking book.
Antonio, your new book Aikido Comes to America, is unique among books on the topic. Wherein most of the book discuss to a greater or lesser extent the history of Aikido in relation to O-Sensei, your work focuses on a specific area of history: The United States. What was the genesis of the idea for this focus?
AA: The book was born out of a senior college course that focused on creating historians that could compose a consistent and well-crafted argument. After going back and forth on potential topics I could do within the fifteen-week course-limit, I decided on aikido history in the United States, mainly because the scholarship and literature did not exist in that area. The professor was very adamant on forming and producing our own ideas and not rehashing others, so it seemed like the topic was a fit for that course. By the end of that course, I created a very rough outline or draft of what would become Aikido Comes to America.
In one of the class’s review sessions, one classmate mentioned that the paper was interesting, but it seemed like it would be better if structured as a book, rather than an article. As my professor was promoting caution, trying to make the paper into a better article, the gears in my head started to see a book from this college paper. So, for the next three years, I began to expand what I wrote for the course, trying to create some source for those interested in aikido history in the United States.
Aikido is among the first arts to come to the West and has taken quite a hold over the many decades. If one looks back as you have, certain teachers within that time have been central to the art’s spread in America. Who were the first few pioneers?
AA: Well, pioneers can be split into two groups: 1) the Japanese pioneers and 2) the American pioneers. While the book places more emphasis on the American pioneers, most of those people would not be considered pioneers without the help or guidance from the Japanese instructors, whether in the United States or in Japan. We can split those pioneers even further, based on their chosen aikido style: Aikikai, Yoshinkan, Shodokan (Tomiki), Ki Society, etc. From there, we have a long list of names. However, if we look at outlets of aikido news or history, much it focuses on the Aikikai, which seems to be the most popular form of aikido. So, if we just look at Aikikai pioneers, most definitely Koichi Tohei, Yoshimitsu Yamada, and Mitsugi Saotome, especially in the early, formative years. From them, we can see the works of Rodney Grantham in the Southeast, Thomas “Doc” Walker in Florida, and Andy Demko in the Northeast. However, this is just the East Coast. On the opposite coast, you had Robert Nadeau, Bill Witt, and Frank Doran who created what became the California Aikido Association. All three of them trained in Japan, whether under O-Sensei himself, or Tohei and/or Morihiro Saito.
Then we have Yoshinkan’s Yukio Noguchi, who trained Sam Combes. We also cannot forget Virgil Crank, who trained in Japan and opened a school. Crank was one of the original instructors of the late Stanley Pranin, who should have his own book — or at least a detailed booklet — about his efforts to spread information about aikido to the American community. As much as we can continue to separate pioneers into their own respective styles, there will always be someone influential, however, when discussing aikido’s general narrative in the United States. Tohei, Yamada, and Saotome were definite movers and shakers, with Grantham, Witt, Nadeau, and the others coming in behind them.
Why do you think Aikido was embraced as it has been in the US?
AA: I think there are two aspects to this question that should be addressed: when aikido and other martial arts started getting popular in the United States and how many people were a part of those arts.
After the Second World War, there was a whole movement that challenged the social norms of Western society and started to look to other societies and cultures, specifically India and the Far East, i.e., Japan. One of the major movements I cover in the book is the Beat Movement, which had its roots in Transcendentalism of the late 1800s and influenced the Hippie, Flower Power, and other similar movements of the 1960s and 1970s. With Eastern mysticism and culture taking hold in these communities, it allowed for kung-fu, karate, judo, aikido, and other Asian martial arts to use such movements as a recruiting tool. If you look closely, the stereotypical martial artist of today is still portrayed as someone filled with power, unknown in the West but known in the East — something that came from these movements.
Now the second aspect, the true number of martial arts practitioners in the United States is difficult to nail down. Two Black Belt Magazine survey articles in the mid-1970s demonstrated that, of the Japanese martial arts, karate and judo are the two most popular arts in the United States while mentioning that only about a few thousand participate in aikido and other koryu arts. This next part might bleed into another question but most of the practitioners I cover in the book came from other arts and found that aikido offered something that the others did not. The non-competitive aspect of the art attracted those that did not want to compete in matches against others, but work on themselves, much like what the Beat Movement and other social changes were pushing at the time.
Considering this, do you see an “aikido personality” across the American pioneers and students over the decades?
AA: I am not sure about an “aikido personality” that hits all the mark across the board. I have, however, noticed some things that are different between the American pioneers and their students. One of the main aspects is the martial diversity between the two groups before finding aikido. Much like the Japanese pioneers, many of the American pioneers trained in at least one other martial art before coming to aikido; it was mainly judo, like Rodney Grantham. Others, like Thomas “Doc” Walker and Robert Nadeau, studied boxing, wrestling, karate, and others before finding their way to aikido. From these other arts, these pioneers had a certain martial aspect or understanding when they applied aikido principles with similar ones from their earlier experiences.
With their students and the newer generations of practitioners, they did not have, on the average, the martial variety or background as the American pioneers. These newer practitioners’ aikido is more aesthetically pleasing and perhaps less martial than their predecessors. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a martial art being more martial than art or vice versa. It was, however, this generation and the one that came after them that were placed in charge — or took it upon themselves — to defend aikido’s name and honor against the criticisms lobbed at the art with the general access to the internet. Perhaps this lack of martial variety or background was an influential factor in the continued criticisms. But that is for a different conversation.
To another degree, the pioneers and older practitioners seemed to have been more open in training with other styles of aikido, creating a more well-rounded aikido practitioner. The sentiment was that aikido was aikido, not just purely Aikikai or Ki Society; any seminar was a time to learn.
Right, associations and politics aside, aikido is one art. What is at the core of aikido, its energy or philosophy or movements, that attract its student body?
AA: I think for many, the philosophy is the driving factor. The harmonious philosophy and its emphasis on non-violence and non-resistance are what many are seeking to implement in their daily lives. In talking with some of the practitioners and pioneers for the book, many mentioned the philosophy and mindset of being able to apply the principles in daily life but also have the know-how of basic self-defense. In addition, I think to people within the mindfulness field and the like feel that the absence of competitions and matches really help them focus on perfecting themselves and the techniques while not worrying about overcoming an external opponent. Rather, they would try to overcome to opponent and/or enemy on the inside.
You are also an accomplished aikidoka, and the art runs in your family. Can you elaborate?
AA: Both my parents did martial arts when they were younger. Actually, my mother’s family did martial arts to some degree. My father came from judo to aikido after connecting with the philosophy. This, however, that did not hamper his emphasis on martial integrity. While training and teaching aikido at his Asahikan Dojo in Collegeville, PA, he studied kenpo karate, arnis, hapkido, and taekwondo. Moreover, he trained local police officers and with the SWAT team, so that emphasis on the martial aspect has always been there.
Basically when I could walk, I was doing something martial arts related, though I did not realize it at the time. When I started school, I was enrolled into aikido and taekwondo. By middle school, it was purely aikido. By college, I added judo to the training regimen. Additionally, when I was growing up, anime was starting to become popular with the younger Male audiences of the United States, so mimicking the moves from shows like “Dragon Ball Z,” “Bleach,” “Naruto,” and others was fun and I think it helped me, to some degree, understand what I could do with my body.
There was a sense that I had to be solid in what I did because I was the son of the head instructor. I understand that extra pressure now because getting a rank or position because you are related or know a guy does not sit well with you if you never tried to earn that rank or position. But back then, there were times where I did not understand why this thing or that thing was so important for me to get. Now, there are still times like that, but I know deep down that I want to be solid because bad technique is bad technique, and all those years of training would have gone to waste.
Earlier, you mentioned your college course. Was it this up bringing, having aikido in the home, being at your father’s dojo, your academic accomplishments, that lead you to want to write about the art?
AA: In some ways, yes. It was from my time in aikido that I really branched out into Japanese history. At first, I wanted to do something with the samurai for my college course, but since I did not know the Japanese language, I was cautioned not to. Aikido was the next option and after doing the research for the paper and during the book, I found myself drawn more towards understanding the art and seeing how it was already a part of my life. I was also seeing how the martial arts in general had a positive effect on those pioneers. I read stories about them, how they could throw so-and-so like it was nothing and I wanted to get to that point in my training, whether it was solely through aikido or through a combination of many arts to become good at the martial arts. I fully embraced aikido and the martial arts, knowing this is something I want to do for a long time. I feel that taking the time to understand the techniques, principles, and applications while uncovering martial art history in the United States, I can apply what I have read and done to my daily life to make it better.
What’s more, I also felt that American aikido practitioners needed to know the art’s history in the country, whether it was a general/ brief history or an in-depth history. Practitioners seem to only refer to Tohei, Gozo Shioda, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, O-Sensei, and Yamada almost exclusively when talking about aikido greats or pioneers. Yes, they were all pioneers, however, that is only one side of the story or history in America. One of the main things I learned during graduate school was that it is not history unless you have both sides – or as many as is needed to construct a complete picture. These Japanese pioneers did not operate within a bubble or vacuum; their actions had influence and moved and inspired the American pioneers to do what they did. To forget about or cherry-pick the results of these Japanese pioneers does a disservice to those who benefited from their teachings and tried to continue where their teachers left off.
Aikido Comes to America, while presenting histories of the pioneers of aikido in the US, contains much more. The interview subjects share their insights, reflections, philosophy, struggles and successes. It’s quite an interesting and informative journey you have provided.
AA: I tried to make it like a journey and/or narrative because there were historical pieces that were so dry and were bogged down in the highly technical or academic jargon. Since I knew that most aikido practitioners did not all share the same background of terms or historical figures, I wanted to make the book an enjoyable experience if someone knew something about aikido history or if they did not.
With that being said, I felt it necessary to include the voices of those I interviewed to not only bring the story to life but to allow some of the pioneers to tell what happened, why it happened, and how it happened. Without their voices, the narrative becomes stale. And no one wants to read a stale narrative, ever. [Laughs]
Well, you’ve done a terrific job with your book. It is the kind of book I like to read, and write, as it contains both historical narrative and practitioner narrative. It is a welcome addition to the Tambuli Media line, and I am sure that not only aikido enthusiasts, but the greater martial art society, will embrace it. Would you like to share any final words today?
AA: Thank you; I hope so too. Sadly, I could not get to all of the American aikido pioneers and include them in the book, however, the research still continues with my chronicle Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. There, I cover (or starting to cover) many of the American aikido pioneers that I could not fit into the book. Moreover, the chronicle focuses on much more than just aikido, so there is something for every martial artist to enjoy! The goal with the chronicle is to create an outlet for these pioneers, other practitioners, and their stories that many are forgetting. These stories range from almost a blow-by-blow of what happened “back in the day” to how martial arts have positively affected practitioners’ lives. It would be a shame for the larger martial arts community to forget and almost neglect the impact some of these individuals had on their students and surrounding communities.
Thank you again for having me here. I was enjoyable!
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