Knowing the heritage and the history of your art is important. We are not so far removed from the origins of the art. O’Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba) had a direct influence on several of the Shihans still teaching today, and his son (the second Doshu) was still teaching when I trained in Japan. All of us have a direct connection to the very foundation of the art.*
A good ‘info graphic’ produced by Aikido Journal shows the lineage.
Having a direct connection to the foundation provides an emotional continuity – we are part of the living history of the art.
The specific teachers who form the core influences of Portland Aikikai’s >Aikido Lineage< but the list is not exhaustive. For example, when Mulligan sensei first arrived in Japan he studied with several other instructors before moving to the Hombu dojo, where he met Yoko Okamoto. When Mulligan and Okamoto sensei moved to Portland they taught (with several other instructors) at Two Rivers Aikikai before a core group of seven students convinced them to form their own dojo in 1992.
The founding seven students were Rowan de Santis, Michael Cavalle, Andre Ngyuen, Scott Schanaker, Scott Margraf, Steve Shane, and myself. Before we found the Marshall Street location, we rented the gym at the
French American School where we had to roll out the wrestling mats every morning before class, which was a challenge given the large mat and small class size. Especially the morning class. Okamoto sensei taught the morning class and would pointedly say “see you in the morning” to ensure attendance.
In those early years, Scott Schanaker (“Big Scott”) and Scott Margraf (“Little Scott”) were regulars. Both were ex-military and specifically former special forces and brought a sense of skeptical practicality to the mat. Art was fine but it had to be functional.
One of the earliest events we had the privilege to help with was the American Japan Week Budo demonstrations.
Although we were there to help with organization for several of the demonstrations,
we had the deepest connection with the Aikidoka. Okumura Sensei (9th Dan) brought Yokota Sensei and Sugawara Sensei along with three other students for the demonstration. If my memory serves, Okumura sensei was the first visiting Shihan to give a seminar at Portland Aikikai.
Looking back, Mulligan sensei – the teacher by training – always provided the pedagogical structure with a blunt rhetorical style and very physical approach to training. In those formative years of the dojo, the attrition rate was a bit higher because of the training methods. (I recall – and should probably demonstrate more – the very effective bunkai for uchi-kaiten-nage Mulligan sensei used then…) Okamoto sensei was a constant training presence when she wasn’t teaching and taught primarily by doing rather than saying – in part it was her lack of comfort with English, but I am sure the larger reason was a philosophical approach to teaching. Watch and learn! But make sure to train! They had both arrived in America as yondan but actively sought out further guidance for development.
Chiba sensei was introducing his jo series to the broader community in a seminar format.
Chiba Sensei was frequently in Ashland at Bluhm Sensei’s dojo and Shibata Sensei was invited to Portland.
Despite our affiliation with Yamada sensei, because of geographic proximity and stylistic
similarity, we followed a very Birankai style.**
In addition to the more easily accessible teachers, because both Okamoto and Mulligan sensei retained excellent and close connections to Hombu Dojo, Portland Aikikai hosted several shihan from Japan.
Training during these years was physical – both demanding and expansive. The movements were ‘large’ because the art was being pound into us ‘like mochi being made.’ Simply look at Chiba sensei’s test requirements from that era.***
Of the original seven, only myself, Michael Cavalle and Steve Shane continued to train regularly over the next decade. Rick Watson joined the dojo upon his return to the USA from Japan, where he had trained at Hombu and followed Endo Sensei.
Since leaving Portland and founding Aikido Kyoto, Mulligan and Okamoto sensei have continued to grow their Aikido. Their Aikido has become more refined and grows closer to Tissier’s**** and ultimately Yamaguchi sensei’s in style and approach.
In some ways it is unfortunate that the raw development of the art is hidden by years of polish. I remember the imperfections, the fragility of understanding, the excitement of discovery through experimentation, the honesty in learning. All of the best aspects of beginner’s mind.
Shoshin – the beginner’s mind where possibilities are endless because everything is new. That feeling was easier to manifest because we were all constantly researching and discovering – not just simply teaching (transmitting) and learning (receiving).*****
When Chris and Yoko left, Portland Aikikai had a strong cohort of senior students and we held the core for almost a decade, but always with a strong commitment of trying to be true to the legacy of our teachers.
But there is a danger in having such a close connection with your teachers – their impact can be too deep.
This year represents the 25th Anniversary of Portland Aikikai. As such it should be celebrated – a continuous commitment to excellent training in Aikido – and we were excited to have Mulligan and Okamoto sensei return to join us. However, because there was not clear and easy communication among the participating dojos (primarily Portland Aikikai), they elected to cancel their trip. Setting emotional responses aside, Okamoto sensei ended her cancellation missive with a poignant reminder:
“I love visiting Portland. I have great training in Portland. Portland Aikikai is not Chris and Yoko’s legacy. It is your Dojo. I decide to not visit your Dojo this time because my visit will continue to give you wrong reason to practice Aikido.”
I found it ironic to read that message since it echoed one that I have said to others – that Aikido is too often a cult of personality. Our direct connection to a lineage of brilliant practitioners is a powerful resource, but ironically, a limitation on growth. I freely admit that for the past 12 or more years I had viewed my role more as a seneschal, a curator, for the dojo and not as its ‘dojo-cho.’
Although I have owned the ProtectiveArts domain for well over a decade, it was only recently that I actually developed the website and started populating it with class notes from early 2016. I recognize that it has been a slow separation from the legacy of my own instructors. And looking at the closing paragraph I recognize they remain teachers still – but it is Your Dojo.
As a post script – Portland Aikikai relocated from 1623 NW Marshall in May 2018. A new location and a renewed dedication to the students’ commitment to the art of Aikido and the leadership of the senior students.
*Degrees of connection to the Founder: a lineage of course gives primacy to both degrees of separation and also the directness of the connection. In mathematics, one can have an Erdős Number, the masses play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and Aikido we could develop an O’Sensei number. Rather than a simple mapping of leaps, an O’Sensei number should be more like mapping consanguinity to show the depth as well as range of separation.
**Birankai was not officially an organization until 2000. Prior to that the United States Aikido Federation divided the USA into regional fiefdoms each with its appropriate daimyo.
***Chiba sensei demonstrating his 5th to 1st kyu test requirements is an invaluable resource for your video library.
*****Shoshin – as explained by Chiba sensei. His final thoughts on Aikido.