Josh Gold: Sensei, you mentioned you brought Abe Sensei from Japan for a seminar in 1991, but you had a number of opportunities to learn from Abe Sensei when you were back in Japan. Can you tell us a bit about these photos of you with Abe Sensei?
These were from 1984. It was actually the first time I took his ukemi, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to introduce myself or learn directly from him until the 1991 trip.
How old is he here, around 70?
70, I believe. Yes.
Nutritionally, didn’t he follow the macrobiotic way?
Oh yes, all the time. His diet was brown rice, vegetables, and fish. He never ate meat and consumed very few animal products because he followed O Sensei’s diet.
He’s pretty ripped, he’s got a lot of muscle definition for a 70 year old?
He developed himself not through weight training but through misogi (a practice involving dousing oneself with ice cold water and focusing on breathing). Because of this, his muscle development is different. His muscles are trained to connect all parts of the body together. From misogi he gained tremendous power.
I remember practicing misogi when we went to Japan in 1992. Abe Sensei had a special room in the dojo with a ceramic tile floor and a huge basin full of ice cold water. We’d wake up very early in the morning, go down there wearing just a small cloth, and we’d fill these buckets with cold water from the basin and just douse ourselves. I remember it was really challenging to control your breathing. It was a very intense experience.
So this period from 1991-1998 is really when you were able to raise a number of high quality senior students as Chief instructor of Ten Shin Dojo.
During this time, I know the relationship with Seagal Sensei changed and eventually this led to you taking a new path.
Yes. I’m very thankful for what I learned from him and don’t complain, but based on how things developed, I just couldn’t follow.
So it was near the end of 1997 when you decided to move back to Japan, right?
I’m sure it was a tough decision.
Yeah, it was my toughest time.
The senior students were very sad when you moved back. When the dojo closed I remember rolling up the scroll from the shomen and packing it up. You sat down with all of us before you left, shared a bit of your thinking on the situation, and encouraged us to continue our aikido practice however we thought best.
There was a community center in the San Fernando Valley we had access to. It was a 45 minute drive, but many of us would go all the way out there and just keep training. I would also throw down some mats in my garage, invite over some of the dojo students and we’d practice there. A bunch of us just kept training.
I remember you and some of the senior students would constantly stay in touch by phone and email when I was in Japan.
Well, I know we all really wanted to encourage you to come back.
I also really wanted to return. When I determined to part ways with Seagal Sensei, my approach was to basically say “thank you very much Sensei, please let me go home.” But through everyone’s encouragement and my own determination, I resolved to come back independent, without my previous connection to Seagal Sensei. Abe Sensei really supported me. He promoted me to 5th dan right before I left. That really encouraged me as an aikido instructor. Abe Sensei also gave me the privilege of being able to promote people to shodan (black belt) through him. This was really encouraging. Without that support, it would have been impossible for me to move back to the United States.
So tell us a bit about your return to the United States in 1999.
The first thing I did when I returned was to promote some of my students to shodan through Abe Sensei. We had a number of people that had trained a long time at that point without the opportunity to test for shodan.
When you moved back, you moved to Irvine instead of heading back to Los Angeles.
That’s right. This was the only time we really had the freedom to choose. We didn’t have to go back to the exact same place. At the time, my two children were very young. What first came up to my mind was education. Let’s select a good city. And then I chose Irvine.
It was really quite interesting because during the time you were away in Japan, I had moved from West LA to Laguna Beach, just a few miles from Irvine. When you told me you wanted to return to America and relocate to Irvine, it was a phenomenal surprise. I was delighted.
Everything started from that. It was like starting over again. Except we weren’t starting from zero because there were already many of my senior students up in Los Angeles, and you very close to Irvine. But for me it was still a big decision, starting over in a new city, Irvine. But with determination, hope, and a dream, we made it work.
As soon as you gave us the news of your return, I started to think about a strategy for getting a dojo started again. As a starting point, we found a room we were able to rent at a local community center. So we just started practicing. I remember the first few classes, there were just two or three of us. And the condition of the practice area was pretty bad. They would do daycare in the room during the day, so when we’d pull out the mats before class I’d find Doritos crumbs, and fruit punch all over the place. The mat would be so sticky, I’d have to wipe it down really well. And I remember in the next room over, they had a dance class and we could hear the music booming in through the walls. So this was how we trained. We put up a little easel with a picture of O Sensei, and that’s it. This is what we had to work with for about a year. It was really not ideal, but it was a place to train and a place to restart.
Yes, this is how we restarted.
Little by little though, people started to find out that you were teaching. The classes went from two or three up to around 10. And a number of Ikazuchi Dojo instructors started training with us at that community center – Wes Watkins, James Young, and Chris Jones. At the same time, you began to drive to LA a few times a week to teach there as well.
That was in Northridge.
That was really far north. Probably an hour and a half drive from Irvine and even a 45 minute drive from West LA where you used to teach. But so many of your LA based senior students would drive all the way to Northridge to take your classes and train with you.
Yes, it was a lot of driving for everyone!
Yeah a lot of driving. But I think up in LA and down in Irvine, we all really tried to make an effort to try to grow and solidify a student base. Then in 2002, there was enough critical mass to open a real dojo down in Irvine, and one up in LA.
Also around this time, through a connection at the community center, I was asked to lead the aikido program at University of California, Irvine and we’ve been running that program now for over 10 years.
And we found a great space for a dojo right across from the university. It was in the back of a retail center. I think it used to be a college textbook store that had closed down a couple years earlier. I spoke to the leasing people and asked them if they would be willing to give us a good rate for the space since it was basically sitting there rotting. And yes, they were willing to do that.
And Abe Sensei gave us the name for the dojo “Ikazuchi Dojo.” Ikazuchi means “thunder,” but Ikazuchi was also a character from a story in the Kojiki. The story was one of O-Sensei’s favorites.
It was really an honor to have Abe Sensei name the dojo. And all this time, you continued to build your relationship with Abe Sensei. I remember you organized a trip to Japan and many of your students from LA, Irvine, and other places joined you in Japan to learn from Abe Sensei.
That’s right. And then we brought Abe Sensei out to Irvine for a seminar in 2006. He was 92 years old at this time. Until he passed away in 2011, I would continuously build our connection with him. I would go back to Japan to visit him very often.
Around this time you were also introduced to Kono Sensei, right?
Yes, this was a turning point for me and my aikido. He is not an aikido teacher by the way; he’s a researcher. He focuses on researching martial arts from the ancient times, how legendary masters moved and how they did techniques. I was so happy because he pointed out how much I did not understand. Hahaha!
In the final part of the interview series Matsuoka Sensei talks about how Abe Sensei’s passing in 2011 impacted him, and the inspiration and thinking behind the transformation of his aikido techniques that’s taken place over the last 10 years.