Matsuoka Sensei’s Aikido Journey: Part 5

The founding of Ten Shin Dojo in Los Angeles and Matsuoka Sensei’s first experiences in America. 

Josh Gold: Sensei, so after moving to Los Angeles, you found a space for a dojo in Sherman Oaks?

Haruo Matsuoka at Tenshin Dojo Los Angeles

Haruo Matsuoka at Tenshin Dojo Los Angeles

Yes.

That was only for a few months right?

Yes, only for four months or something like that.

What happened? Was there a problem with the lease?

Seagal Sensei found a good location, but there were several walls in the space we had to break and destroy. When we were done, there was this big area but with two poles in the middle. Ha ha ha! Too late! We had to stay for four months. And then of course we didn’t have many students. He was expecting 100 students immediately, and there were no students, so we ran out of money. But James Coburn and others really helped support the dojo at that time. But anyway, still four months passed and it didn’t work, so we moved to North Hollywood. Seagal Sensei rented a warehouse, which was much cheaper, and not in a very good neighborhood.

I see. And how long were you in that location?

And there are still people practicing with you today that started in that dojo, right?

Yes. Patrick Gorman, and Mano-san.

They started in 1984 or something like that. And they’re still training with you 30 years later. And Patrick is how old now?

80. This year he turned 80. He started aikido when he was about 50.

He’s amazing. So were there many students at the dojo at that time, or was it still small?

It was still small. There were no senior students so it was very difficult. And Tenshin Bugei Gakuen, the original idea, didn’t look like it would work. We couldn’t continue with the same vision, so his focus became the movies.

He would spend a lot of time going out and meeting with people in the entertainment industry?

Yes, many times. We went and they came. At that time executives from some studios came, as well as a number of famous directors. There were many people who came to watch. I learned that aikido is very unique, and people really liked aikido at that time. And then meeting after meeting, after meeting, but nothing happened.

That was three years, you know, three years. We suffered. We had no students, and it was really a test of perseverance for us. Seagal Sensei had to work some kinds of security jobs. He made some money, and then brought that to the dojo, and it allowed us to maintain things for those three years.

So this period of time was a big struggle?

Yes. And then luckily, as you know, in 1986 we met Mike Ovitz. He’s the one. He did it.

For many years Forbes or Fortune Magazine put out a list of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood. I remember he was at the top of that list for many years. 

So smart. Fortunately he liked aikido. He actually loved it. And he asked me to go to his house to teach him aikido. So I went to his house to teach aikido to Mr. Ovitz three times a week, sometimes four times a week. A businessman in America doing aikido four times a week, in the early morning? It’s hard to believe. I would show up at 6:45am, and he was already riding his bicycle, reading his newspaper, and watching ABC News.

Hahaha! And the big thing is that in less than 20, 30 minutes he observed everything, watching, and reading, and then exercising. And then we would do aikido. We’d finish at 8am, then he would go to the office. I did that four times a week for ten years.

What was he like as an aikido student?

He had tremendous focus. He was amazing, just amazing.

He really was the one that got Above The Law off the ground, right?

It couldn’t have happened without him.

He arranged for you and Seagal Sensei to do a demo for some Warner Bros. executives?

Warner Bros, yes. And in front of them Seagal Sensei and I did a demonstration. Everyone was clapping. Everyone.

Really? So they really liked…

He threw me right in front of the executives. They were all, “Wow!”. We made it. They decided they will do the film. Six months later we were on the set. So quick. Another thing I learned is how they make movies so quickly. Once they decide, they don’t want to wait.

How long did it take you guys to film?

Craig Dunn on the set of Above The Law

Craig Dunn on the set of Above The Law

Four months.

Fast.

Very fast. The budget was tight and they didn’t waste any time.

And you took a lot of ukemi in this movie right?

Yes.

I saw you in a few different scenes like the dojo scene in the beginning of the film, and then in another scene costumed as a gangster. In these scenes, did the ukemi feel like when you were at the dojo?

The same. It was just like aikido training, the same.

Did you have tatami, or did you have to take falls on a hard surface? 

They put mats down, but they were not too soft. But because I was young, it was nothing. Anyway, it was a great memory, the time I spent with him. And yes, it was a very unusual experience.

Haruo Matsuoka on the set of Above The Law

Haruo Matsuoka on the set of Above The Law

So what did you think? Were you surprised that the movie did so well?

Well, I wasn’t surprised. I became busy and…

You didn’t have time to be surprised.

Yes, because Seagal Sensei didn’t have time to teach dojo classes anymore. And then wow. I had to teach them all…

To be continuedIn the next interview segment, Matsuoka Sensei talks about becoming Chief Instructor of Ten Shin Dojo and the challenges of managing a dojo with stratospheric growth. 

 


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