Interview with Janet Clift, 6th Dan Aikikai
Janet Clift is a 6th Dan British Aikido instructor who runs a full time dojo Athens, Greece. She started Aikido as a child and became one of the youngest Shodan in Britain. Janet Clift was among the three female instructors who taught during the 12th International Aikido Federation Congress that took place in Takasaki (Gunma, Japan), in September 2016.
Guillaume Erard: How did you start Aikido ?
Janet Clift: I was interested in doing a martial art and my first teacher, Terry Ezra, came to my high school and he did a demonstration and from the moment I saw it I just thought “Yeah, this is great this is what I want to do”. I thought it was wonderful Even though I was very young, the movements and the philosophy and how it was presented to me seemed very natural and very logical so as a kid it really appealed me. My first teacher was a guy called Stephen Parr. I really should mention him because he ran my local dojo in Chester. He was 4th Kyu. Can you believe it? He was 4th Kyu… But in those days a lot of people were 4th Kyu, if you were 3rd Kyu you were a senior grade, you know. There were no 3rd Dans around.
Guillaume Erard: Who was in charge of British Aikido at the time ?
Janet Clift: It was actually just post-Chiba Sensei. Chiba Sensei had left about a year or two before, this was 1980. So it was very much the aftermath of Chiba sensei being there. Kanetsuka Sensei was the technical director, he’d become the technical director of the British Aikido Federation at that time. But there was still a strong influence from the time that Chiba Sensei was there. And these two influences started to diverge at that time. So I was more towards the Kanetsuka Sensei side: he became the technical director, so he was the technical director that I knew. I did not know Chiba Sensei from the 1980’s. Saying that in 1982 or ‘83, Chiba Sensei came back to the UK and he taught to summer school in Lancaster, and that was the first time I’d seen him. And I went to San Diego after that. When I was 16, I went for a couple of weeks to train with him then. So that was my first exposure to Chiba Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: What were your impressions of Chiba Sensei’s dojo ?
Janet Clift: So I’d only done Aikido for maybe five years and I suddenly went to this dojo… I couldn’t understand it at all… It was a very strange experience for me to be in that environment. You know I’d come from a small town in England with my local dojo… and then suddenly going to a dojo that was called the pressure cooker. And Chiba Sensei was very intense and very… I mean he was at the height of his power. I was just a visitor and it was like sightseeing, you know. So, he was very nice to me, but still saying that, I was very wary of him because… the sense of power and energy around him was scary, and also I could see what he was doing with his students and and his daughter. At that time she was very young she was training… I was protected, really, because I was just a visitor.
Guillaume Erard: Were you still living in England at that time ?
Janet Clift: Yes I was living in England then. A couple years later I moved down to London to train with Kanetsuka Sensei. I stayed there for about a year. And then I moved to Japan. I went to Japan when I was 20.
Guillaume Erard: Did you ever meet Kenneth Cottier ?
Janet Clift: Yes, Ken was one of my first teachers actually. He lived near Chester, he was not far from Chester and he used to come down. Every friday evening we used to have a class which would rotate the teachers and Ken was one of those teachers. So he would come down. Of course, we were very excited… We were kids, you know, and we were very excited that this man had tea with O Sensei… and he used to tell us stories and that was great. He was a lovely guy. Actually, before I came to Japan I went to his house and he gave me lots of advice about living in Japan.
Guillaume Erard: What made you want to go to Japan ?
Janet Clift: I’d wanted to go to Japan since I was about 16 because I’d heard about Hombu Dojo. We didn’t know a lot about Hombu Dojo in England then, we weren’t told very much about it. But I had this goal that I really wanted to go there and train at Hombu Dojo. A young Japanese man came to England – Tanaka San. He was from Hombo Dojo. He said “Yes you should go, definitely, it’s a great experience”. In England we knew Shibata Sensei who had been over, we’d also seen Yamaguchi Sensei, at that time I think Yokota Sensei had also been to England… So we’d had some influences and some contact with Hombu Dojo Shihan at that time. So I went.
Guillaume Erard: Did you dedicate all your time to Aikido ?
Janet Clift: Yes. I mean, I went for Aikido. I was planning to teach English, that was going to be what I was going to do to survive. But it wasn’t so easy in the beginning: it took me a while to get a job. But eventually I got a job, so I tried to revolve my job around my training. It depended when I was working: I would train the morning if I was working in the afternoon, if I was working in the morning I trained in the afternoon… So I would just fit it in around my work. But, I mean, most mornings I would try to go to Waka Sensei’s class 6:30 am class at the dojo and then maybe an evening or an afternoon class also… As much as I could…
Guillaume Erard: Did you train with a particular teacher ?
Janet Clift: ot at all. I tried to go to everybody. I didn’t discriminate at all. The only teachers I couldn’t go to was when I was working. And I feel very sad now that I never went to Arikawa’s – I think I went to one of Arikawa Sensei – because I was working. Sometimes it was just hard to get to them all, but I tried to go as much as possible to see as many as possible.
Guillaume Erard: Who were your training partners ?
Janet Clift: I used to train a lot with Kuribayashi Sensei, Kanazawa Sensei, Etsuji Horii Sensei, Sugawara Sensei and Kobayashi Sensei. They were not Uchi Deshi at that time, they already started teaching, so they weren’t in Hombu Dojo. They would come to Osawa Sensei’s class on the Thursday morning. Yoko Okamoto sensei was there and I would try to train with Yoko. That was the period that she was raising her family, she had her babies then… And there was two foreign Uchi Deshi at that time in Hombu Dojo: Yahe Solomon and Rosso Fernandez from New Zealand. They were living there for a few years.
Guillaume Erard: Did you find life in Japan difficult ?
Janet Clift: Yes, I found it very very strange. And I had a very difficult time outside the dojo. There weren’t many foreigners around generally in Japan at that time. We were very exotic, the people were very curious. I was scrutinized a lot, I think as a young foreign woman too, you know. So sometimes it was very hard, it was kind of tiring, it was very tiring to have that, constantly.
Guillaume Erard: Did the fact that you are a woman make it more difficult ?
Janet Clift: I’m sure it did, definitely. I mean, for me, that was my experience. I can’t say about the other women who were there – they were quite a lot of American women who were there – I don’t know if they had the same experiences but I know from my point of view I had some kind of difficult times. And it was also very lonely. I mean, you had this sort of solitary existence where you’re going to the dojo, you’re going to work and, you know, you’re tired a lot of the time and you know you are being looked at… It’s very lonely, that kind of life.
Guillaume Erard: How long did you stay in Japan and did you ever consider settling there for good ?
Janet Clift: I was there three and a half years and at the end I was ready to go, I wanted to leave. I think for most people then they didn’t consider that it was a place they would live: it was a transient place you’d stay for 2-3 years and then you would go.
Guillaume Erard: Did you go to Japan with a plan to become Aikido teacher eventually ?
Janet Clift: I never had any plan to do that. I think that sounds really good and I should have had that plan, but I didn’t, which was a mistake. So no, it wasn’t part of a great plan I had but that just seemed to be the finite time that I stayed there.) I never thought about the future, I never even thought about being in Japan as being good for my resume, or good in the sense that when or if I become an Aikido teacher this would look good that I was in Japan… I never even considered that, I just wanted to train, it was all about…it was very day to day. And even going to San Diego – I went to San Diego straightaway after Japan – it was only with the thought that I didn’t want my daily Aikido to stop, and I knew if I went back to the UK it would stop. So that’s why I went to San Diego: merely just to continue my daily Aikido life. I had a good friend in Japan, Yahe Solomon, and he recommended that I go to Chiba Sensei. I’d already had some contact with Chiba Sensei, so that was what I did. I went back there.
Guillaume Erard: Did you enroll as Kenshusei in San Diego ?
Janet Clift: I didn’t, I didn’t take part. I didn’t want to do it because I think my Aikido was quite formed at that stage: I was already 3rd Dan, I’ve been training for quite a long time since I was very young, and I felt it wasn’t really what I wanted to do.
Guillaume Erard: Where did you go after San Diego ?
Janet Clift: Then I went back to the UK. My father got very sick and he died, so I went back to the UK and I stayed there for three years. Then I try to do some other stuff not just Aikido. I had a very small group there in the UK. That was in Chester. But that was interesting, It was an interesting experience to suddenly have gone from those very intensive years of training to suddenly not intense, and having people that I had to teach… And I was really stuck, I became really stuck in translating what I’ve been doing into teaching.
Guillaume Erard: How was the transition between training and teaching ?
Janet Clift: When you actually stop your daily training and try to open a dojo, the reality is quite depressing. It can be quite disappointing and depressing, you know. From the start you get students who are just not as enthusiastic as you. That’s the first reality check you get. So, if you believe that you’re going to get students come through the door who just think you’re great because you did Aikido for 3-4 hours a day… And I know a lot of teachers find this, they get sick of teaching beginners they just want to teach Yudansha, or they just want to teach Kokyu Nage or… But of course the majority of your teaching is teaching somebody how to fall, how to stand up, how to turn… That’s 90% of the job: where you put your foot, where you put your hand… That’s it. And unless you love that then you’re not going to enjoy teaching. And also, you know, I think it’s a good experience to have your own dojo and to be creating your own students: it makes you a different Aikidoka, I think. I think the primary thing that I personally got from Chiba Sensei was how to run a dojo, how to relate to people. That was a huge part of his teaching as well: he was good at giving you an idea of what your responsibilities were as an Aikidoka.
Guillaume Erard: Did other teachers than Chiba Sensei influence the way you teach ?
Janet Clift: I think, depending what I’m doing, I take different aspects of the various teachers that I trained with. Teaching beginners, very often, I look to who I trained with as a beginner, how I learned and what spoke to me as a beginner. So therefore my first Aikido teachers were my biggest influences. If I’m training with people who are a little bit more advanced then I take something from a teacher I trained with when I was more advanced. If I’m trying to give some maybe a slightly deeper feeling of Aikido or… then I would relate to another teacher that I used to train with, you know… So it very much depends on what I’m doing.
Guillaume Erard: How easy is it to make a living as an Aikido teacher ?
Janet Clift: For me, of course, my situation’s slightly different; I’m married to somebody who has a job. I mean, this makes everything quite different. But probably if you ask somebody who is supporting a family through doing Aikido then I think that it is a very precarious life… It’s not so good to be like that. So I don’t even know if it’s possible that somebody can actually be purely professional in that sense, you know. I think you have to be very flexible, you have to be very open, you have to drop a lot of your expectations… Maybe you have to be more inclusive in what you do… It’s very hard to take a hard line as a teacher.
Guillaume Erard: Does it imply dropping your standards ?
Janet Clift: Well, you could look at it as dropping your standards, but… I think you don’t necessarily have to drop your technical standards, but maybe you just have to accept that you’re going to get people to come to your dojo who are not going to be able to move in the way you want: they’re going to be old, they’re going to be overweight, they’re going to be predominantly older actually because not many young people come to Aikido… So, in that way, you have to adapt your standards to what’s in front of you, rather than drop your standards.
Guillaume Erard: Why do you think the Aikido population is aging so much ?
Janet Clift: I think possibly… It’s maybe a combination of a few things: as teachers get older, they tend to not attract younger people, I think this is a factor. And also I think it’s people remaining in power when they should be disseminating power, really, and delegating power to others, and getting younger people to teach, getting younger people to teach in their dojo. I mean, we see that in Greece: younger people teaching in the dojo you bring younger people in. I mean they don’t want to necessarily have a 50 year old woman like me teaching them. That’s a fact, so… I think it’s a bit troubling, but I think if people try to hold on to this sort of fantasy that they are going to be the Sensei or the teacher for ever, I think this is quite damaging to Aikido, and they fear letting go of something.
Guillaume Erard: What can we do to reverse that trend ?
Janet Clift: There needs to be some flexibility around teaching or getting young people more involved in the teaching process. And also empowering them to feel that they have a future in Aikido. I think it’s very stacked against them, you know: they come and it’s the same people again and again… I think it’s very calcifying for Aikido. But, of course, it’s kind of mixed with a traditional element of Japan which has a strong hierarchy. But it doesn’t lend itself to much dynamism, I think.
Guillaume Erard: Do you think we should pay more attention to what beginners have to say ?
Janet Clift: I think that is important. And people… white belts who are impacted by Aikido: how is Aikido impacting their lives? As kyu grade, as a white belt? Because they’re important! We always concentrate on the Yudansha or the teachers, but without those people we’re not here! That’s the fact. And so, if we continually ignore them then, in 20 years there’s not going to be anybody left to teach. You know, we might not be – well, you’ll be around, you’re young – (laughter) but I might no longer be around in 20 years, and if you if you’re continually sidelining the beginners or white belts or… I think it’s a grave mistake, really, and we’ll pay the price, we will really pay the price, you know.
Guillaume Erard: What can we do to help beginners and increase the overall level ?
Janet Clift: A lot of classes, I think, could be more geared towards lower grades. Posture, Tai Sabaki… simple stuff that we tend to lose sight of, you know. We’re flinging people around and we’re looking great… But you lose sight of what’s really fundamental and what makes people think they’re learning something. I feel that from in my own dojo, that people have to feel that they are starting from somewhere and they are progressing and getting better. And they have a base, they have a strong base. I think that’s important. So maybe that’s something that could be looked at, that there’s a fundamental class there’s a basics class for people. Because, I think if you miss that part of the training and the development, then you never get that back, you just learn techniques and they’re just arbitrary techniques that you’re learning but you have no base or foundation.
Janet Clift demonstrating in Takasaki
Guillaume Erard: Why aren’t there more women instructors ?
Janet Clift: Well, I think more men do Aikido than women, I mean generally. That’s a fact. And I’m not exactly sure why either, maybe men are a little bit more ambitious than women to teach… They have a stronger will to power than women, I think women don’t naturally take an authoritative position, it’s not in their nature… I’m not saying it’s not in all-women’s nature’s but mostly, I make a generalization, you know… But I’m not really sure why. I guess it’s just a proportion thing that there are more men around than women. And I think there’s a strong lack of maybe self-confidence with women: they are not as powerful, they’re not as physically strong as men, you know… Of course you get small men and big women… but generally, women are not as physically powerful. And I think that maybe makes them less confident, that they don’t feel that they can be teachers or have any authority, you know. Saying that, when I was in America, there were many senior women who were very good teachers and very confident and very able to teach. So I think it depends on the country.
Guillaume Erard: Is there a cultural element to this difference ?
Janet Clift: I think there’s a big cultural element, yes. In America the women are maybe… they’re more equal and they’re more accepting and their expectations of themselves are different, they are very different. But in America, definitely, there is much more gender equality, I think. And I think probably Yamada Sensei, and also Chiba Sensei when he was alive he did a lot to promote women, and they’re very open to women teaching.
Guillaume Erard: Does it really just boil down to encouraging women or is there a deeper issue within Aikido ?
Janet Clift: There are so many different sides to that… What’s going on the mat with men and women ? I just think it’s not a simple as women not being encouraged or men being encouraged or… I think there’s just a lot going on, you know. This is not simple to answer this about… Obviously there are issues that you see… But, I personally have not been greatly affected by many, it’s quite lucky. But maybe I have been but haven’t known about it. I do think women have to be twice as good as men to be rated the same. They really do. I think you have to be exceptional as a woman… You know, I’ve seen a lot of guys who are quite mediocre and they get teaching positions because they’re strong, they can throw people. So that becomes the bottom line, you know. But it’s the wrong bottom line.
Guillaume Erard: It seems to me that men are more inclined to correct their partners when they are females…
Janet Clift: I think probably that’s the most common complaint I’ve heard from women, it’s that they’re constantly corrected by men. Whatever the ability of the man is they’re just constantly corrected. It’s an assumption that the woman is not as good as the man. And I think that is very strange: what kind of man does that? I think it’s very strange… Well, I will say that in the gender issues meeting tonight [during the seminar] (laughter) because that is a complaint I’ve heard many times from women. I mean, this is everywhere for women, this kind of thing, this aggression or, you know, undercutting, and things like telling women what to do… I mean that’s just everywhere. But I think that’s how it manifests on the mat and it’s physical and it’s not very pleasant, it can be very upsetting, very very upsetting.
Guillaume Erard: How can we raise teachers’ awareness towards these problems ?
Janet Clift: I don’t know how that could change. I really don’t know how that issue can be brought forward and be opened. I mean, for me, as a female teacher, what is a red rag to my bull is a man who does not take Ukemi for a woman. And the man can be much worse technically than the woman but he will just not take Ukemi for her. And I’ve seen that on a number of occasions, and I have to say that’s one thing that can get me really angry. I can get very angry when I see that.
Guillaume Erard: Do you think there should be a good proportion of women in all dojos ?
Janet Clift: I think that’s the sign of a healthy dojo when there’s a good percentage of the dojo is women. If it’s just all men… When I’m recommending somebody to go to a dojo I always say: “Make sure there’s a lot of women in the dojo”. Because if there’s not, then something not going right in that dojo.” It’s usually a sign that something isn’t going right, definitely.
Guillaume Erard: How do you address this issue in your own dojo ?
Janet Clift: One thing I always do which, I think, helps diminish this, definitely in my dojo – and I think in a lot of dojos – is I always focus on Ukemi. When I get beginners coming in – men – I always focus on the Ukemi rather than the technique. So they have an understanding that they are falling and receiving a movement: whatever that movement is, how good or bad, their job is to fall. And I think when you emphasize that it really changes the dynamic. And I get them to fall by themselves, I don’t ‘make them’ fall, you know. That solo practice of Ukemi, I think it helps them understand, you know: you’re not waiting necessarily to be thrown, that is a practicing of itself.
Guillaume Erard: Do you explicitly teach more than technique to your students ?
Janet Clift: Not intentionally, no. Whether people perceive something else? I don’t know. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t… It’s very difficult to judge what you transmit when you are teaching… I mean, I don’t talk about anything esoteric or anything like that… Sometimes I talk about “internal expansion”, “moving from the centre”… But I don’t talk about any “spirituality” or, you know, any “meditative state”.
Guillaume Erard: What does a good Aikidoka have to be, in addition to being good technically ?
Janet Clift: Well, you know, as a teacher you always like to see somebody behaving well and doing not only good Aikido but doing Aikido in a good responsible way and in a caring way – looking after the Uke – making sure that they’re doing not only clear technique but they’re showing good character. I mean, I think that’s very important, and quite often you don’t always see those two together… Somebody can be very very good at Aikido but not necessarily display good character.
Guillaume Erard: How do you asses peoples’ character during technical examinations ?
Janet Clift: Quite often it manifests physically. If mentally they’re not there it will manifest. So, it is quite hard, actually, to just separate those two.
Guillaume Erard: Do you think yhat the practice of Aikido make people better ?
Janet Clift: (pauses to think) No, I don’t think it does… It can… but it doesn’t just by doing it. I think if you practice well and with sincerity and really care about your partner, then it makes you a better person. But just the act of doing Aikido, arbitrarily no, it doesn’t just make you a better person. I think that’s the dream, but it doesn’t.
Guillaume Erard: You now live and teach in Greece, how did this happen ?
Janet Clift: I knew my husband from when I was 16. He used to come over from Dublin with the Irish Aikido group to the BAF summer schools and I knew him from there. And I met him again in 1995 in America, because I’d gone back to America for a couple of weeks and he was going to stay there for six months. So I met him, and he invited me to come to Greece to teach a seminar. So that’s how it happened: I came and then I moved to Greece to be with him. He already had a dojo in Greece, and a group. And then I came over and we ran it together.
Guillaume Erard: How developed is Aikido in Greece ?
Janet Clift: It’s gone, I would say, from being a very small activity to suddenly mushrooming in the last six-seven years. So now there are tens and tens of dojos around… We try as best as we can to collaborate, and with this potential IAF recognition, if you call it that, we’re all working together to achieve this, which is great we’re all on board with that. There’s a lot of different seminars that happen in Greece so, you know, we try to support as many seminars as we can. We have Sugawara Sensei or Kobayashi Sensei come over from Hombu Dojo; so this is a joint seminar with all of the Hombu recognized groups within Greece: we all are inviting those teachers…
Guillaume Erard: How do you fell about being back to Japan, this time as a teacher ?
Janet Clift: I feel exactly the same. I will always be a student of Hombu Dojo. For me that hasn’t changed at all… It makes no difference – like I’d always think: “could I take good Ukemi for Sugawara Sensei ?” “could I take good Ukemi for Kobayashi Sensei ?” That would always be my primary thought.
Interview with Janet Clift
Many thanks to Odilon Regnard for transcribing the interview from the audio recording