Updated: Mar 13
The New York Times obituary for Yamada Sensei read, “Yoshimitsu Yamada, Who Brought Aikido to the U.S., Dies at 84.” The headline was inaccurate. Yamada Sensei did not bring aikido to the US or even to New York, the city he loved, taught in and lived in for over 50 years. He was however a powerful, at times controversial figure, arguably the most important aikido teacher of the modern era, responsible for the spread of aikido around the world.
“Aikido is for the Japanese.” Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido Founder.
To explain why Yamada Sensei is the most important modern aikido teacher in the world, one must rewind to what aikido once was. Before World War 2, aikido was an art not to be taught to non-Japanese. This sentiment was expressed by the person who some credit with bringing aikido to the US, Admiral Isamu Takeshita.
Admiral Takeshita was an enthusiastic supporter of the Founder, demonstrating the art in the United States during his time as a military attaché. He refused to teach the art to non-Japanese however. “Judo and Yawara have been taught to the foreigners,” Admiral Takeshita said, “but not this one. We will not export this art to foreign countries if we can help it.”
Sensei Seiichi Sugano, once a live-in student (uchi deshi) with the Founder, said as much while sharing memories about his experience. Sugano said that when he was first O’Sensei’s uchi deshi, he remembered O’Sensei stating that, “Aikido is for the Japanese” only -- despite a number of foreign students already studying the art. Sugano Sensei said it was only Kissimaru Doshu who prevailed upon O’Sensei to teach aikido seriously to non-Japanese in Japan and later take the art outside of the country. (The Founder was famously contradictory. Sugano Sensei recalled O’Sensei often telling people that “No one does aikido” but him and that aikido was only an art he could do. I asked Sugano Sensei what he thought of this. He shrugged and said, “Maybe [he] was right.”)
Sugano Sensei said that traditionally martial arts were to be kept secret. “If someone knows what you do, they can kill you!” he said laughing. In the same way military technology is kept secret today by nations, Admiral Takeshita, O’Sensei and others considered aikido, “a national treasure, so much so that they are unwilling to divulge its secrets to foreigners.” During WW2, aikido was part of Japan’s war arsenal and was indeed used so. Several of O’Sensei’s students were executed for war crimes due to lethal use of the art. At that time, aikido was considered by many as the most effective martial arts descended from jujitsu.
“… because of Yamada aikido is around the world today.” Nobuyoshi Tamura
Once taught as a powerful martial art by leaders of the Japanese military, it seems strange that, today, aikido is taught around the world as almost exclusively a peaceful art.
Tamura Sensei said that it was Kissimaru Doshu who encouraged O’Sensei take aikido’s message outside of Japan following the war. This outreach culminated with O’Sensei’s trip to Hawaii where he stated, “I have come to Hawaii in order to build a ‘silver bridge.’ Until now, I have remained in Japan, building a ‘golden bridge’ to unite Japan, but henceforward, I wish to build a bridge to bring the different countries of the world together through the harmony and love contained in aikido.”
Tamura was a part of that trip in 1961, and he spoke on this time once during the several months I lived in France and studied with him. After a class one night at his country side dojo, I asked him about this time. In speaking about it he said something remarkable that took me by surprise, “I am not sure how many people in the world of aikido know how much a debt all of us owe your teacher. It is because of Yamada that aikido is around the world today.”
Tamura Sensei said that though aikido started its outreach from Japan following WW2, with teachers like Yamada Sensei’s uncle Abe teaching in Europe. However, the project was very much in doubt. Though Abe and others left to teach, results were mixed. There were difficulties and still a feeling that aikido was only for Japanese, in part because some believed non-Japanese could not understand the art. Many said the Founder’s message too rooted in Japanese culture for outsiders, and there was still hatred of the Japanese by many foreigners. Many questioned if foreigners could really learn the art. Certainly when one watches early videos of American’s awkward attempts to learn aikido, one can understand the questioning of aikido’s prospects outside Japan. It is significant that even at the seminal 1961 Hawaii trip the group photo shows only those of Japanese origin being taught.
Yamada Sensei changed all of that. Waving his hand and laughing, Tamura Sensei said, “When we saw how Yamada was succeeding in such a great place like New York we all left Japan! Chiba to the UK, Sugano to Australia, Kanai to the US as well and me to France! We were like birds escaping! Yamada showed that aikido could be successful.”
Yamada Sensei opened the door to aikido’s expansion around the world.
“DO THINGS RIGHT AND DO THEM RIGHT AWAY.”
Yamada Sensei may have been right place, right time to open the door to aikido’s growth but had that been all, he would have been but a foot note in the history of the art. His success as a teacher and aikido leader was from his phenomenal work ethic. This was summed up in a kind of personal code Yamada Sensei taped to the wall by his desk. Written on a torn piece of cardboard in bold black letters were the words, "DO THINGS RIGHT AND DO THEM RIGHT AWAY."
It was this kind of mentality that took him to New York when there was opportunity. That mindset drove him to work, travel, and teach constantly and consistently. He was the hardest working man in aikido. His travels took him around the world teaching perhaps as much as 300 days a year.
Frequently, Yamada Sensei would return late in the evening, exhausted from travel. Despite his fatigue, he would immediately go upstairs to his office to work. He was constantly writing letters, calling and sending messages, and communicating with other teachers and organizations. From this ethos of action, he expanded aikido to Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and across the globe. I saw this constantly, but there was one example of this ethos for action that stands out.
One day, Sensei called the uchi deshi to his office and said two students would be arriving from Algeria. He said one would be staying for 6 months and another for perhaps a year. Tamura Sensei advised against it, but Sensei said he was going to try. “Tamura said there are too many problems with these people and though I respect Tamura as my older brother, I am going to try. We will try them as guest students, and if this works and they can stay longer. They will be uchi deshi. You never know if you don’t try, so all of you must welcome them and help them as their culture is different than us. I want to take aikido to the Middle East, so we will try.” In the end, it was a horrible fiasco with the two of them quitting after many misunderstandings, but I always thought this experiment showed Yamada Sensei at his best-- always willing to try, to act, even despite what others might advise. He was always a leader, and his willingness to go forward where others hesitated (or would not go at all) expanded aikido around the world.
“Be positive…be happy!” Yoshimitsu Yamada
When I posted Yamada Sensei’s obituary on social media, one person commented, “I always liked him. He had a strong sense of humor. There were a couple of other Shihans helping to establish aikido in the States that were a bit off putting.”
It was true that Yamada Sensei had a unique ability to connect with people through his humor and charisma. That opened many doors for him and for aikido. The famous talk show host and TV personality Dick Cavett was a student who narrated his Power and the Basics videos. Wayne Newton, at the height of his fame, flew to New York to convince Sensei to provide him with private lessons. Sensei shared with us, “Oh, he was so mad, so mad, when I didn’t come!” Chuck Norris was a friend from demonstrations in the 70’s. “He was the greatest guy in the world. He was already in movies and something big, but whenever we met, he was so humble, so nice. He was really what they say, very tough, very strong. He could beat anyone, but he was very respectful to everyone but particularly to me, calling me ‘Sensei’. He watched what we do and said how he respected aikido very much. Very kind, special guy.”
The secret, I think, was something he told me once when I was his otomo at a seminar in South America: “Be positive!”
We arrived at an airport where I was carrying the bags and assisting from behind, but Sensei wanted me up front. “You are my representative; you are with me! You must be positive, go forward to people, be happy, and shake their hand and greet them!” He wanted us with him to be engaged, outgoing, positive with our hosts and students, who had invited us and paid to learn something real for their lives.
This positivist attitude was in everything he did. He projected positivity with his smile, his welcome, his playful engagement with people at seminars, and students at his dojo.
Yamada Sensei was always direct seeking out people, greeting them, slapping backs, encouraging people, and telling stories. One sees this in the thousands of pictures posted after his passing. Yamada Sensei was the people’s Sensei with his unique ability to connect with others and make them feel valued.
“Aikido must be beautiful. Aikido must be powerful!” Y. Yamada
The last thing that made Yamada Sensei unique in his ability to spread aikido around the world was his simple clarity of technique and teaching. Yamada Sensei’s clear, powerful style emphasizing basic technique, is instantly recognizable and understandable. Yamada Sensei was always emphasizing “Aikido must be beautiful.”
Sugano Sensei was my mentor but his and others’ Aikido was very difficult to see or understand, perhaps deliberately. Tamura Sensei advised me, “You should make Aikido understandable. Not too understandable though…” Yamada Sensei’s Aikido had a clarity and simplicity, using big circular movements that opening doors to him and to many others teaching Aikido.
I did not understand this fully until I was otomo (assistant) on a trip to Brazil with him. One of the students introduced me to a thin, exhausted man who had just arrived before the seminar’s first class. The student explained, “This is…. He has just traveled from the far center of the Amazon in the north of Brazil to be here.” He translated as the man explained how he had come to the seminar traveling by boat, bus, train, walking for hours and hitch hiking to get there. I was amazed at the week-long journey this man had taken to come and the sacrifices he made to see Sensei.
The man explained that since he was a child living in a small town in Brazil he had been fascinated with martial arts. He learned Karate and made a dojo in his backyard teaching students. One day a student showed him something remarkable. He said it was “a copy of a copy of a copy of a 10th generation copy” of Sensei’s video, Power and the Basics. The video was blurry and difficult to recognize Sensei, but he was amazed. Sensei’s large circular movements, clarity of movement, were immediately understandable.
From that moment, he said, he gave up Karate and started to practice Aikido. Solely working from the video, he and his students started doing Aikido, going frame by frame through it and then finding a way to order a clearer tape from which to learn. I was not only impressed by his amazing story, but I was also awed that the man could learn anything from a tape of Sensei. As I watched Sensei teach later in the seminar, I realized that his technique was so clear, so large that he was sharing a uniquely understandable art.
The final reason Yamada Sensei was the most defining teacher of his age was that, in the end, he was just simply the tough. His travel was relentless, his appetite for teaching and doing immense. He suffered injuries, breaks and surgeries and was always on the mat soon after. He outlived all of his peers and many of his students. Once, Sensei was seriously mauled by a huge akita guard dog in Argentina and was back on the mat teaching days later, heavily bandaged. A bit later, he showed up from South America seriously injured, almost disfigured and he taught without missing a beat. “Before it was the dog, now the cat got me!” None of us dared ask more. Then 10 years ago, they took out two thirds of his lungs from smoking. After a hiatus, he was back teaching till the day before the operation that would end his life. And I was told that immediately following his final surgery, he got up and walked home from the hospital.
Thinking of him walking home, sutures still in his chest, I suddenly see him as he used to, singing Sinatra’s classic he loved so much, that said so much about the man, “My Way.”
“And now the end is near So I face the final curtain My friends, I'll say it clear And state my case of which I'm certain
I've lived a life that's full I've traveled each and every highway And more, much more than this I did it my, my way”
There have been three ages of aikido: the age of O’Sensei, the age of Kisshomaru Doshu, and the age of Yoshimitsu Yamada. The first age under O’Sensei was the foundation age that ended in 1969. Aikido’s second age was marked by Kisshomaru Doshu’s opening aikido to the world ending in 1999. Aikido’s third age was concluded January 15, 2023, with Yamada Sensei’s passing and was distinguished by the broad expansion of aikido around the world. As we advance into this forth age of aikido, the art and the community face many challenges. As his former uchi deshi I know Sensei was a flawed and at times contradictory man but there was also great open heartedness. It remains to be seen if the aikido that comes after will become 1000 tribes fighting each with the “Art of Peace” or rise to the imperfect greatness that was Yamada.
To you Sensei, Chairman of the Board, you did it your way, right to the end. Rest well Sensei. Gassho.
Author: Brian Ericksen is an Iraq and Afghan veteran, 9-11 civilian first responder, writer, proud father and husband living in Virginia. As a child he first become fascinated with aikido seeing a demonstration in Hokkaido, Japan. He spent almost 3 years as uchi deshi for Yoshimitsu Yamada at New York Aikikai where Seiichi Sugano was a close mentor, a summer as special student with Kazuo Chiba and 4 months training with Nobuyoshi Tamura in France. This summer he intends to plant his first garden.
He can be reached at bericksen76@gmail and Heaven and Earth Aikido in Virginia.
 “Aiki-Budo, Mightier than Judo” paragraph 1