Matsuoka Sensei’s Aikido Journey: Part 6

In this segment, Matsuoka Sensei talks about becoming Chief Instructor of Ten Shin Dojo and the challenges of managing a dojo with stratospheric growth.

Josh Gold: Sensei, you said that about a year before Above The Law came out, Seagal Sensei made you chief instructor, right?

Yes, that’s right..

And that’s when he promoted you to 3rd dan?

Yes.

How did you feel about taking on the responsibility of chief instructor?

Haruo Matsuoka at Tenshin Dojo Los Angeles

Haruo Matsuoka at Tenshin Dojo Los Angeles

I was young and had no problem.

Before the movie came out, how many students were at the dojo?

I don’t know exactly, but the classes were small, very small.

Then Above The Law came out in 1988, I remember. April 8th. And then, within just a few months, 80 people joined. So everybody was a beginner. Two lines of students and there were no seniors, no assistants.

Wow. It was just you and 80 beginners.

That was my first introduction to being a chief instructor, I guess.

That’s pretty amazing.

It was a real challenge, but I was young so I didn’t find it difficult at the time. The memories of facing that kind of challenge back then inspire me to keep a youthful spirit.

So everybody, basically they saw the film, or they did research, and then showed up at the dojo that way?

That’s right.

I remember when I saw the movie I was blown away. I had never seen aikido before. I remember thinking, “What is that?” I’d never seen a martial art like that. It was unique and powerful. I didn’t make the connection at the time to go to the dojo or anything. 

One of the things about movies with Seagal Sensei is that he brought realism into the aikido world. The films are controversial in a number of ways, but one point is the realism. Because it’s a movie, you can’t just show movements like in traditional practice. For a long time people thought aikido would be difficult to choreograph and make into a movie. That’s why for a long time you didn’t see aikido in films. So I think Above The Law was very revolutionary in this way. The fighting scenes are aikido, and this was never seen before, so there’s a good point. But another point is that people could misunderstand the art. Aikido is not a brutal art, but because of the films some people misunderstand the style of aikido.

Yes, I definitely see the benefits and drawbacks of those points. However, these films did bring great visibility to the art and introduced aikido to millions of Americans.

And Europeans too. When I was in Italy or Spain, almost everybody had seen Above the Law. Those who were inspired by that film have become chief instructors now. It’s very interesting. Very powerful.

The reach of a feature film like that can be huge.

Bruce Lee did it a long time ago. His films were incredibly revolutionary.

Indeed. Sensei, I found this picture of you with Daryl Hannah in classic 80’s wear. I just had to share this one.

Haruo Matsuoka and Daryl Hannah

Haruo Matsuoka and Daryl Hannah

Her boyfriend was Jackson Browne, the musician. I used to go to his house. He was my private student.

Didn’t you say you bicycled to his house on Mulholland Drive?

He bought me a bicycle.

Jackson Browne bought you a bicycle? 

I didn’t have a car so I rode a bicycle on Mulholland.

Wow. That’s a really windy, and very steep road…

Three times a week with him. He liked aikido very much.

Amazing.

Yes, amazing. You won’t believe the people I met, like Mike Ovitz, Jackson Browne, James Coburn, and…

Jerry Seinfeld as well, right?

Jerry Seinfeld. Yes, later I met Jerry Seinfeld and he loved aikido very much. He told me understanding aikido principles like irimi and tenkan helped him with his comedy.

I remember he came to see Seiseki Abe Sensei when you brought him out from Japan for a seminar.

Yes. Very sincere man. He was a real funny guy, but a very sincere man. He told me “You teach me aikido and I’ll teach you comedy.” But it never happened, never happened. Ha ha… I wish I could have spent more time with him.

It’s interesting to reflect on all of these entertainment industry connections. I remember David Goyer used to train with us. At that point in his career, he had written the screenplay for an early Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. 

Kickboxer, I think.

He later became very successful. He did the Blade series, and eventually wrote the scripts for the Christopher Nolan Batman films, and then Man of Steel. He’s arguably one of the very top screenwriters in Hollywood now. 

He was so sincere. He did aikido three times a week, he constantly trained. That’s something I remember about David Goyer, he was very focused and consistent.

I suppose when Above the Law came out, things changed a lot for you. 

It changed my life. It was a real turning point.

After the success of the films – Above The LawHard to Kill, and the others… It must have created a unique set of circumstances at the dojo.

Yeah, it was interesting. One time, after Hard to Kill came out, there was some controversy in the press about something Seagal Sensei said that might have been considered unfavorable towards Chuck Norris. What happened is that Chuck Norris’ friends in martial arts all lined up and came to Black Belt Magazine, and they all said if Steven Seagal wants to challenge them, they’re ready. And then you know what Seagal Sensei said to them? “I don’t want to argue with you guys, come to my dojo!”

Black Belt Magazine 1992

Black Belt Magazine 1992

Ha. Ha. Ha.But he was almost never at the dojo at that time! Whoa. He said, “Come to the dojo.” Guess who is there? Only me. That was the most stressful time for me. And then a few weeks later, almost one month anyway, Seagal Sensei asked me if anyone had shown up. They hadn’t.

The interesting thing is that later that year, somehow I met Chuck Norris. I met him. You know Peter Lindsay?

Yes. He trained with us and was a champion bodybuilder. He held the Mr. Australia title, I believe.

He took me to Gold’s gym and Chuck Norris was there. And I met him. I shook his hand and introduced myself as Steven Seagal’s disciple. And he was so very nice. And then next to him were two of the guys on the cover of the magazine. They also smiled and we shook hands. This is why I love America.

That’s hilarious. 

Very nice guy actually. Chuck Norris really is. My cousin was a big fan of his at that time. I told him, “My cousin is a very big fan of you.” And he signed an autograph and gave it to me. I thanked him very much.

I joined the dojo in 1991, and that was also about the time when you had a group of people that were just coming up for black belt. About 5 people I think…

That’s right.

At that time, I remember you would teach classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and this group of brown belts would teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The brown belt level people teaching class were all very good, and high-quality instructors. And there was a pipeline of people coming up in rank. So by that time, it wasn’t like when Above the Law came out when there were just 80 brand new people. I guess it took a few years to start to build a base of senior students.

Yes. It took a few years. I learned, you have to be patient.

Seiseki Abe Sensei

Seiseki Abe Sensei

1991 was a year that was really a turning point in my aikido movement, and the dojo. This was the first time I brought Abe Sensei to our dojo for a seminar. I actually took care of him for two weeks. And at the same time, you and some other key students that would make big future contributions joined the dojo. Somehow that year ’91 was very interesting. Very interesting.

In the next interview segment, Matsuoka Sensei talks about Abe Sensei, and the period of time leading up to his parting of ways with Seagal Sensei and his move back to Japan. 

 

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