Interview with Okamoto Yoko Shihan – Teaching the essence of Aikido
Guillaume Erard discusses with Okamoto Yoko Shihan, 6th Dan Aikikai and Dojo-Cho of the Kyoto Aikikai in Japan. She recollects her beginnings in Aikido and explains the principles of her teachings.
I recently traveled to the ancient imperial city of Kyoto in order to film a documentary on Okamoto Yoko Shihan at her dojo, Aikido Kyoto. In spite of the tight schedule of Okamoto Shihan, we only had a morning to get everything done but in the end, the documentary has been very well received. Due to the fact that Okamoto Shihan and I had decided to keep the film short and to the point, we had to leave out a lot of the material that we had discussed on that day. We both went back into it over the summer and I am glad to be able to present the full length transcript of the conversation that we had on that day. Okamoto Sensei covers the essential aspects of her conception of Aikido and how she thinks it should be instructed. I hope that this extended interview will help curious practitioners to understand her work and perhaps, convince them to travel to Kansai in order to study at Aikido Kyoto.
Guillaume Erard: When did you start start practicing Aikido and why?
Okamoto Yoko: I often get asked that question. I started practicing Aikido in April 1978. I was interested in Budo and I wanted to practice something like Kendo or Judo, but one day, by chance, one of my friends who was doing Aikido invited me to watch a class. That is the only reason why I ended up doing Aikido really.
Guillaume Erard: How old were you at the time?
Okamoto Yoko: I was 22 years old. I was a student at a professional training college.
Guillaume Erard: You have spent extensive periods of your life abroad, when and why did you leave Japan?
Okamoto Yoko: I started practicing at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and I trained there for about a year and a half. Then I moved to France in 1979 in order to learn French and complete my degree. I stayed there until 1981.
Guillaume Erard: You also practiced Aikido while you were in France, was it difficult to find a Dojo there?
Okamoto Yoko: Since I knew I wanted to practice while in France, I asked my Aikidoka friends at Hombu to give me some advice on where to train in Paris. Everyone recommended me to go to train with Christian Tissier Sensei so I did not have to look for a Dojo when I arrived in Paris.
Okamoto Yoko in France at age 23
Guillaume Erard: Did you train with Tamura Sensei while you were in France?
Okamoto Yoko: No, not at that time. I only trained under Tissier Sensei while I lived in France. I subsequently took Tamura Sensei’s class several times when he visited Japan, or in the USA.
Guillaume Erard: Did you find any major difference in the Aikido practiced in France compared to what you were used to do at Hombu Dojo?
Okamoto Yoko: I did not think that it was very different. At the time, I was still a beginner, a 4th or 3rd Kyu white belt I think. For a beginner, the period between 3rd and 1st Kyu is the most important. I was given the opportunity to take my Shodan test in France but Christian Tissier Sensei told me that since I was going to return to Japan, I should rather take it over there.
Guillaume Erard: Why did you return to japan?
Okamoto Yoko: At the time, Tissier Sensei was encouraging his students to go study Aikido in Japan so many of my friends went to Japan to train. I too decided to focus on Aikido and I “left to Japan” along with several of them, without actually thinking that I was “returning to Japan“. That is really the point where I decided to dedicate my life to Aikido. I was initially going to stay in France for another year to complete my college program but instead, I got back in Tokyo in September 1981 and resumed my training at the Hombu Dojo.
Okamoto Yoko with Christian Tissier
Guillaume Erard: How was the return to Hombu Dojo after this time spent with Tissier Sensei, did you fit back in easily?
Okamoto Yoko: As he advised, I took my Shodan exam at Hombu Dojo. There was not so much difference between what I had done in France and what was done there, I just did my best to follow the instructions of the various Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: You then moved to America, how did that happen?
Okamoto Yoko: My husband is an American, we met at Hombu Dojo. We got married and had kids in Japan but at some point, he felt that he wanted to go back to America so we decided to move the whole the family to Portland, Oregon. That was in 1989.
Okamoto Yoko in Portland
Guillaume Erard: What were your activities in Portland? How did you get into teaching?
Okamoto Yoko: When we relocated in the US, there was already an Aikido group in activity in Portland, but it was relatively small and what they were doing was quite different compared to what we wanted to do. We were both Sandan or Yondan at the time and we realized that if we wanted to get people to practice with us in the way that we wanted, we would have to train them by ourselves, so we decided to start our own practice. I had never thought of becoming an Aikido teacher and at the time we came to America, I thought that I would just be taking care of the kids.
Guillaume Erard: When was the Portland Aikikai formally established?
Okamoto Yoko: We started the club in 1991 and the Portland Aikikai was established in 1992. At the beginning, I taught part-time and worked as writer but after a few years, I started running the Dojo full-time.
Guillaume Erard: Where you under the umbrella of any particular organization or Sensei?
Okamoto Yoko: The first group we trained with in Portland was affiliated to United States Aikido Federation (USAF), which was headed by Yamada Sensei, so we stayed with the USAF. Yamada Sensei was in New York City, but he was very generous and welcomed us in his organization as newcomers in the US. There were however other Japanese Shihan who lived on the West coast such as Shibata Sensei and Chiba Sensei and therefore, we also learned a lot from them, as well as from other visiting Sensei from Hombu.
Okamoto Yoko in Portland (uke: Chris Mulligan)
Guillaume Erard: What about Chris Mulligan, your husband? What was his background in Aikido?
Okamoto Yoko: My husband started Aikido in Syracuse, New York, and he subsequently studied under Frank Doran Sensei in Stanford, California. After that, he came to Japan in 1978 and studied mostly at Hombu Dojo for the next 11 years.
Guillaume Erard: What brought you back to Japan?
Okamoto Yoko: I was homesick and wanted to go back home but we were planning to relocate to Japan sooner or later anyway.
Guillaume Erard: When did you start Aikido Kyoto?
Okamoto Yoko: I started Aikido Kyoto about 10 years ago, this year will be our 11th anniversary. I have been teaching here at Nishijin Dojo for 6 years.
Guillaume Erard: As a woman, did you face any particular difficulties in your Aikido career or when setting up your own Dojo?
Okamoto Yoko: I have not really faced any particular difficulties, really. However, before even starting to talk about Aikido, I have to say that I did face obstacles because of the fact that I am Japanese, and I am a woman. But rather than difficulties, I would say that these were more like social prejudices. So within Aikido itself, I did not experience any particular problem. I would say that Aikido, as an art, is very fair and egalitarian, and I actually reckon that there are more advantages than difficulties in being a woman.
One example of this is the difference in sheer physical strength. This is one of the real problems that one has to face and that provokes a feeling of “fear“. Fortunately, women have to face that obstacle very early in their Aikido practice and as a result, they have to study and practice in a way that can help them overcome that fear.
Okamoto Sensei demonstrating in Tokyo at the 53rd All Japan Aikido Demonstration
Realizing our limits and what we can’t do helps us to find out what we can do and it allows us to develop our abilities. Of course the work must be done under Tanren-keiko conditions [EDITOR’S NOTE: consistent daily effort to forge and temper the body]. Moreover, physical strength is not just a simple wall, but it can actually lead to a profound delusion I think.
Guillaume Erard: Are Aikido techniques different for men and women?
Okamoto Yoko: In my teaching, the techniques are basically the same. That being said, there are some differences in the way that some people are tall, short, big, small, there are children, adults, etc. That is why I think that form is not something that should be used to fit something into a specific shape, but that there should be some level of flexibility when forging the form.
There are some elements of a technique that must be changed while others must remain constant. If the partner changes something, then we have to change accordingly. The principles stay the same, but the form should be adaptable.
Okamoto Yoko performing shihonage
Guillaume Erard: You have a lot of foreigners in your Dojo, and foreigners tend to rely on more explicit ways of teaching while in Japan, understanding comes from practice. Do you make a distinction or a particular effort, one way or the other?
Okamoto Yoko: Basically, I teach everyone in the same way. Some days I give students explanations if needed to help facilitate training, but on other days, we just keep moving to empty our mind.
Guillaume Erard: What synthesis do you make of all the different forms of Aikido that you have studied under teachers in Japan, France, and the USA?
Okamoto Yoko: This is very difficult… Basically, I processed all of what I had learned from many different teachers and I decided to pass / transform the product of that work to other people.
Guillaume Erard: Are you conscious of specific influences in the internal or external aspects of your technique?
Okamoto Yoko: I don’t know, it comes up naturally. Some people tell me that they see similarities in my Waza with that of such and such teacher but on my side, it is not a conscious thing. There is form in the basics of Aikido but after a while, you have to leave the form behind.
My main influences are Yamaguchi Sensei, Tissier Sensei, and Shibata Sensei. Sometimes, when I get confused in what I am doing or when I have troubles, I go back to what they did. However, in my Aikido, there are also influences from many other Sensei. I studied with most of the Hombu Shihan. For example, I learnt Ukemi from Ueshiba Kisshomaru Doshu. I did not create my own style, it came up naturally based on what I learned from these teachers.
Ueshiba Kisshomaru demonstrating in Paris (uke: Ueshiba Moriteru, Christian Tissier and Osawa Hayato)
Guillaume Erard: Taking the question the other way around, do you see parts of yourself in your student’s waza?
Okamoto Yoko: It happens sometimes but I don’t want my students to copy mindlessly what I do. My way to express this art, let’s say the “form” if we have to use that word, comes from my past experiences, my sensitivity, and my limitations. Sometimes, I see big guys trying to mimic what I do, but it is meaningless. So I tell them “please don’t“. It is weird if a big guy tries to move like a small woman or a small Japanese woman tries to imitate a big man. I do not try to copy a particular Sensei’s form but instead, I try to learn how to internalize it for myself. I focus on the function rather than the form.
Guillaume Erard: You managed to make a coherent synthesis of all these influences. On the other hand, we sometimes see whole generations of clones of a particular teacher. How can a student avoid just copying the form of a Sensei?
Okamoto Yoko: Before they reach Sandan or Yondan, students have to experience what Aikido is about. Becoming like your teacher should not be the goal. One has to first accept the art. At Shodan / Nidan, just enjoying training could be OK but one really has to start thinking about these things eventually. If you are attached to one particular form, you are never free. The structure of waza creates the form. In order to get the essence of this form, you must eventually work toward freeing yourself from the form. According to the kind of keiko you do, your perception will improve and that will in turn change the way you train.
Some only see the form because they have not been properly educated. So all they know is to copy. Of course, sometimes, learning involves copying to some extent but what is really important is to develop the ability to see beyond the visible form. Training is about learning to see what is not visible, and the role of the instructor is to guide the student into this process. Aikido is a Budo that helps to cultivate this sort of insight. I think that it is our responsibility to impart the essence of Aikido.
Guillaume Erard: Teaching is a responsibility, not a goal…
Okamoto Yoko: That is right. In my case, I never thought about becoming an Aikido instructor, I was kind of forced into it and I accepted it.
Guillaume Erard: Do you encourage your own students to go to train with other teachers?
Okamoto Yoko: Yes I do. But the important thing is first to build basics at your own Dojo and then go out, otherwise you will lose yourself. My teacher often used to tell me “don’t cherry-pick your Aikido, don’t be like: I like this, but tomorrow I will take from there, and then from over there…” Aikido is a Budo and Budo is a vertical line, a Sutra. You should choose a Sensei who is from a good line. The first teacher is the most important so you should choose wisely. Fortunately, there are a lot of good teachers.
Guillaume Erard: With all the different approaches of Aikido, do you consider that there are multiple ways to reach the top of the mountain or that there are different mountains to reach?
Okamoto Yoko: It depends on how you put it. Assuming that we are on the same path, the one created by O Sensei Ueshiba Morihei, we are all going forward towards the same top, but with different approaches. During my time at the Aikikai, there was Yamaguchi Sensei, Osawa Kisaburo Sensei, Okumura Sensei, Tada Sensei, Arikawa Sensei, Endo Sensei, Yasuno Sensei, Shibata Sensei, Seki Sensei, Masuda Sensei, Watanabe Sensei, Ichihashi Sensei and of course Ueshiba Kisshomaru Doshu. Every class was presented completely differently.
Nowadays, I go to the classes of Yasuno sensei, Miyamoto Sensei, Endo sensei, Osawa Hayato Sensei, Tissier Sensei, Shibata Sensei, and many other Sensei. The classes are very different, yet the are the same.
Okamoto Yoko performing iriminage
Guillaume Erard: You talked about “being free”, what do you mean by this?
Okamoto Yoko: It means that we must acquire Shizentai [elevation of the human being towards its natural posture]. I continue to pursue Aikido because I am not free. The freedom is not about doing whatever we like to do, it is about removing fear in all its senses.
Guillaume Erard: As students, most of the feedback we get is from our teacher, but how do we know that we are doing what he wants us to do? How do we find the thing you called “function” earlier, within that complex mix of form, core, and mimics that the teacher displays?
Okamoto Yoko: First of all, your goal should not be to make your teacher happy, neither should it be to become like your teacher, otherwise, you won’t get far in this art. Some people do Aikido for the feeling of being “special“, others are just looking for friends. Of course, you will make a lots of friends in Aikido, but it is only a byproduct of the Keiko.
Guillaume Erard: Talking about pleasing the teacher, there is often a sort of reinforcement loop that increases Uke’s coopoeration beyond reason. This behavior makes him being called as Uke more often, and in turn, his docility makes the teacher overly confident in his own technique.
Okamoto Yoko: Well that behavior has definitively the hallmarks of a bad teacher. You said that Uke had to participate, but I don’t like this word. Aikido is not about Uke helping to accomplish Tori’s will but instead, it is an equal cooperation between the two within one moment. A lot of the times, Uke tend to do their own work. When both works together with perfect timing, it should have Kokyu and beauty. We don’t know what is going to happen.
Form as a result of dutiful study rather than an aesthetic choice
Guillaume Erard: We don’t know or we pretend not to know?
Okamoto Yoko: I would not say “pretend” but “erase each other’s passed experience” in order to have another moment. It is difficult. Most of the time, including for myself, it is an illusion, so therefore, we try again and again until we reach that real moment.
Guillaume Erard: In Aikido, we see a huge range of levels and skills, even at high grades. Why is that?
Okamoto Yoko: Aikido has no competition or scores, there is no result. In competition, the feedback is immediate so we have to internalize the reason for our defeat. In Aikido, since we do not have to face failure and analyze its reasons, we can easily think that we are the one, that we get it. This is the tricky part of the art and many people are caught into this trap, but this is not how one should try to develop. We should remind ourselves that at all times, we should be putting ourselves on the edge, even if there is a risk of failing.
Guillaume Erard: In the absence of competition or confrontation, how can one, particularly a teacher, get that sort of feedback that others get from a failure? How does one know that what one does is right?
Okamoto Yoko: Just be wise, Aikido is not a choreography.
Conditioning the body
Guillaume Erard: In Karate, up to a high level, teachers correct positions and techniques very stringently.
Okamoto Yoko: That is right, because it works, it functions. In Aikido, from the first day, you can do whatever you want. I have some Judoka friends and when they see some of the meaningless falls in Aikido, they can’t believe how dangerous it would be in competition. Some people fall just because they are Uke. This kind of mindless approach should be corrected by the instructors, but sometimes the instructors themselves are not even aware of it… But then, after all, if people are just happy after a mindless practice and if it makes their life better, I suppose that this is good too.
Guillaume Erard: What about bout grades? Nowadays, it seems that everyone reaches high ranks, whatever the technical abilities or level of engagement in the practice…
Okamoto Yoko: Are you implying that grades mean nothing? I agree! (laughs)
Guillaume Erard: If grades are not important, how do you dissociate and cater for varying levels of engagement / talent in your students?
Okamoto Yoko: We have a Kenshusei program in Aikido Kyoto. This program is for those who are very involved in Aikido and who want to teach, either professionally or semi-professionally. For me, people with such a level of dedication have to be instructed specific things in ways that are quite different from normal training. The reason is that if you just train for your pleasure, it will not affect other people’s life as much as if you are an instructor. Therefore you need special training.
Kenshusei meeting after class
The Kenshusei, program is for people who want to share Aikido training. It is very time demanding and also challenging physically and people sometimes quit. The course has to be taken for a minimum of three years but a lot of the time, people figure out by themselves that they don’t have what it takes to commit for these three years.
Guillaume Erard: Do you have students who started their own Dojos?
Okamoto Yoko: Two of my former Kenshusei have started to teach at their own places, in small clubs.
Guillaume Erard: Do you have foreign Kenshusei?
Okamoto Yoko: Right now I have five Kenshusei, three of them are foreigners. One was sent by a different teacher, she is a Yondan from the USA and her apprenticeship with us is for one to two years.
Guillaume Erard: I know that you are quite mindful of your health, do you keep a particular daily routine?
Okamoto Yoko: Yes I do. For any professional athlete in baseball, golf, sumo etc., the competition or game only represents a very short part of a career, and it is the daily routine of training that occupies most of the time and attention.
As a professional, I need to be on the tatami every day and for that reason, I have to keep my strict routine in order to maintain my abilities. In terms of exercise I do mainly stretching and sometimes just Suburi. I try to eat good food, take care of my body, and avoid wasting energy.
Okamoto Yoko stretching before a class
Guillaume Erard: Do you practice solo exercises such as Tanren or Aiki-taiso?
Okamoto Yoko: I sometimes do Tai-sabaki exercises. But most of our Keiko last one to one and a half hours so during that time, I think that it is better to work with a partner than alone. I recommend my students to do their own solo training and during the classes, they have to work with partners.
Guillaume Erard: Do you practice weapons at Aikido Kyoto?
Okamoto Yoko: We have two weapons classes per week. Notions like knowing how to hold a Bokken or how to do Suburi are essential for a physical art such as Aikido. However, personally, I do not consider myself as a Kenjutsu-ka, I do not try to reach a master level in Kenjutsu, I am just doing it to improve my Aikido through the study of important weapons concepts such as Maai or timing.
Okamoto Yoko practicing weapons
Guillaume Erard: When you were in Hombu Dojo, there was no Buki-geiko right?
Okamoto Yoko: At the time when I started, Masuda Sensei was sometimes doing Tanto-dori and I also took part to special weapons training twice per week with Shibata Sensei, in Aiki-ken and Aiki-jo. When I was in America, I also studied weapons at the Birankai with Chiba Sensei
Guillaume Erard: Upon visiting your Dojo, one is surprised to see a very varied attendance with people of all ages, genders, and even nationalities. How do you get all of these people interested in Aikido?
Okamoto Yoko: In Japan, Budo Dojo have a very old-fashioned image. However, if we are to survive, we must appeal to the new generation. The art of Tea Ceremony and Kabuki for example, try to do the same. We must manage to reach out to the new generation without losing the important aspects of our art.
Personally, I want to update the old-fashioned image of Budo, without losing the essence. It has to stay a Budo, which means that it must retain some discipline and an intense dedication to training.
Guillaume Erard: More and more people from abroad visit Aikido Kyoto for periods ranging from a few days to several months, what do you want visitors to take home with them after a stay in Kyoto?
Okamoto Yoko: I want them to find enjoyment and pleasure on the tatami while they are here. Then, once they return home, they can reflect on why it was good. Of course I cannot teach them anything technical in just a few days, a week, or even a month, but I try to get through some of the essence of Aikido.
Documentary on Aikido Kyoto
Guillaume Erard: You travel more and more often to Europe to teach during seminars. What are you trying to pass on during these seminars?
Okamoto Yoko: In terms of learning, I may get more from them than they get from me. But if I think about just my part, I will certainly try to reproduce my entire experience in Aikido during the one or several classes that I am responsible for. What I would like to transmit? Maybe my life or my way of living.
Guillaume Erard: What are your future projects regarding Aikido Kyoto?
Okamoto Yoko: It would be wonderful to see Aikido Kyoto grow with its community. It would be great to share the power of Aikido, the power of awakening the minds of all kinds of people on the earth.
Guillaume Erard: Okamoto Sensei, thank you very much for your time and for answering these questions.
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