Walter Todd: An Interview

by Meik Skoss

The martial arts world lost a wise and experienced teacher on November 26, 1999. Walter Todd left behind a wife, two children, and countless students who will miss him sorely. Meik made his acquaintance in 1995, when he did this interview for Aikido Journal. We are delighted to present it again here.


Meik Skoss: This is an interview with Mr. Walter Todd of the Shudokan Martial Arts Association. To begin with I guess I would like to ask the basics... What is it that you do?

Walter Todd Sensei: In the dojo I'm at now I take charge of the aikido and karate classes. Most of the time I travel around the United States conducting martial arts seminars.

MS: I first learned of you as a judo man...

WT: Judo is my first love because it brought me into the martial arts. If it weren't for judo I would have never discovered aikido and karate later on.

MS: What was it that first interested you in judo?

WT: Well, the honest-to-God truth is that I was not exactly a good boy in high school. I spent my time playing Three-card Monte, cheating the other kids out of their lunch money. I got so I could deal poker hands, too. I thought to myself, "Walter, someday you're going to get caught, and someone is going to beat the hell out of you. You'd better learn to defend yourself." Then I read this book by Yerkow and there was one little sentence about the Kodokan. I found the idea of a little guy throwing a big guy around very appealing. So when I went to Japan, I found the Kodokan, and enrolled.

MS: And when was this?

WT: At the end of 1945 or the beginning of 1946, right at the very end of the war. My first teacher at the Kodokan was Ichiro Abe. He was also an instructor in a class at the Kaijo building in Tokyo, where he assisted Kyuzo Mifune Sensei, who was the head teacher there. After a while he invited me to that class. He said it would be a good opportunity to train under a great teacher. So I went. Now, the other students were all beginners and I had already had some training at the Kodokan, so Mifune was a little bit impressed that I was the only one who could take falls halfway decently. So he told my teacher he wanted me to be the "head of the class." All that meant was when the class lined up to do rolling falls I had to do the roll first and everybody followed me. That's what the great title was all about!

When I arrived in Japan for the second time, I ran immediately to the Kodokan. I borrowed a gi from somebody I knew there and started practicing. Mifune walked in a little later and looked at me. He said, "Is that Todd-san?" I said yes, and he called me over. He told me to come to his dressing room. He called downstairs to get an interpreter, to make sure I understood every word. He asked if I would like him to be my teacher while I stayed in Japan. I said I would be very grateful if he would and I was so happy that tears were almost raining down my cheeks! That's how he came to be my teacher.

MS: So during what periods were you in Japan?

WT: Once in '45 and '46, then in '48 and '49, then again in '68. In '68 I was invited to stay at the home of Ichiro Hata, who was an 8th dan in judo. He became the head Olympic wrestling coach, and he was also on the Olympic Committee. In addition to an 8th dan in judo he had some degrees in other arts, too.

MS: He was pretty important for the martial arts.

WT: Yes, he told me, "I'm the only person who has become a diet-member simply because I do the martial arts." You'd have liked him... He had a very regal quality about him, with gray hair combed back on the side. Everywhere he went people would stop and say, "Who is that person?!", just because of the way he conducted himself. Your eye would spot him instantly when you saw him in a crowd of fifty people coming down the street.

MS: The second art that you did was karate-do, is that right?

WT: Yes, I had read an article about karate in Life magazine, and when I went back to Japan the second time I ended up training with the man who had written that article, Otsuka Sensei of the Wado-ryu. I started at Meiji University. Then I went to the Kyobashi police station. At that time, right after the war, martial arts were not allowed to be taught in the public schools. But they could be taught in private dojos. The only martial arts done in the schools were actually in the form of outside clubs that used the schools' facilities.

MS: So it's not true that martial arts were totally banned....

WT: They were banned from being taught formally at the colleges and public schools, but that didn't mean they couldn't hold a class.

MS: I see. That's an important point that I think many people don't understand correctly.

WT: A man who helped to break that rule was an American named Paddy O'Neill, who was the publisher of the Japanese version of Reader's Digest. He had lived in Japan beginning long before the war and was one of the first foreigners to get the rank of godan in judo.

MS: What was the point of interest for you in karate?

WT: Most martial artists (if they're honest), go through a period of stagnation in their training. Especially those of us who become martial arts nuts tend to get a little bored at some point. So I wanted to know what karate was about, and what I could do if I ever fought a karate man. Then I realized that karate is unique in that it's one of the few arts that you can do all by yourself. You can use your kata to build your body symmetrically; you can do it soft or hard; with a dance-like attitude or a combative attitude; any way you want. I have a hard time walking around trying to throw or put a wrist lock on myself. It just doesn't feel the same. But with karate I could practice thumping the air in front of me all I wanted without worrying about hurting anyone.

MS: So in '48 and '49 you were training several times a week in both judo and karatedo....

WT: Yes, three times a week each. In terms of work, I had a job at the Post Exchange in Tokyo as a civilian. At that point I had just gotten my nidan in judo. After I had been in Japan for four or five months the second time they put me up for my nidan examination. I taught on some of the military bases on a very informal basis. Sometimes, for example, some of the teachers would go to give demonstrations and I would go along to help interpret what was being said into English. But I did teach at a private school called the Kokusai Dojo in Yokohama.

I remember the first time I had the honor of working out with Yoshimi Osawa at the Kodokan. These two sailors came in and said they'd seen a write-up about me getting my nidan in Stars and Stripes, and asked if I could show them what judo was all about. So I went to find a partner, choosing a thinner looking guy that I thought I could reasonably handle. (I didn't want to show them by fighting one of the kids, but I wanted to avoid the real strong gorilla-like guys, so I ended up picking Osawa.) I took one step towards him and he started throwing me all over the place. He must've gone through the whole judo repertoire! I thought I was a basketball being dribbled across the court. A couple of his throws were 360 degree--really spectacular ones. I didn't even know until someone told me afterwards how I had been thrown. A couple of the older Japanese teachers were chuckling off to the side. They called me over and told me the guy I had just been fighting was Osawa, who was something like the fifth in Japan at the time. His technique was unbelievably fast. He did a technique like you have in aiki, you know when the guy comes in and you pick up both legs, like an ushiro goshi. He could do that throw so damn quick that I think they may have later outlawed it because your head would hit the ground every time. He did it really quickly, just like in aiki. With that throw he would surprise the living hell out of any aiki man! He put the fear into me really fast.

MS: When and where and with whom did you begin to practice aikido?

WT: My first introduction to aikido was through Kenji Tomiki, because he was at the Kodokan. We would work out together, and then he would tell me stories about O-Sensei and his aikido, and he would show me little things. At that time I don't believe he had formalized his style of aiki yet.

He told me later when he visited the United States how Ueshiba had gotten very angry with him for doing what he had done, but he said that he had done it with the hope that he could get aikido introduced into the Kodokan, knowing that Kano was impressed with it. He hoped that by doing that it would help him and some of the other teachers get jobs, because they were having a hard time in that respect. He didn't want to get Ueshiba mad, so he probably didn't use any aikido per se, but it was aiki that he was teaching to various people at the Kodokan. He helped reform the Kodokan's self-defense techniques. But Ueshiba was angry and said, "If you're going to steal aikido, why don't you just steal the name aikido, too!" But Mr. Tomiki told me that that wasn't his intention.

MS: Were you working with Tomiki Sensei in those kinds of techniques then?

WT: I wasn't training with him in a formal sense. It was like you showing me some interesting things that you've learned about your art. So when I was down there not doing anything in particular he would call me over and use me as an uke. Little things like that. Then, when I came back to the United States I started to work for the Air Force, and we invited a group of martial arts teachers from Japan. Three of them were karate men and the rest were all judo teachers, Tomiki among them. He started showing me even more then, on an informal basis, while they were traveling around the United States. But I was the only one there half the time, so I was learning a lot of different techniques from him.

MS: Can you remember the names of some of the people involved? That was a very famous tour and I know they were touring the Strategic Air Command bases teaching the security police....

WT: Nishiyama, Kamata, and Obata were the karate teachers. Kamata was the president of the Shotokan at that time. The judo teachers were Tomiki, Kobayashi, Saito, Kotani, and Otaki. I liked having Saito there. I had trained with him in Japan. All the teachers from Japan would line up and throw every single one of the people training, but when Saito got to me he would whisper "Todd-san, Now!" and let me throw him. So all the other guys would say, "Wow, you're the only guy from the United States who could throw any of those teachers!" Little did they know.

The tour lasted for a good two to three months. The group traveled from one SAC base to another, and also gave demonstrations in the local towns in some places. Most of the demonstrations were designed to popularize the martial arts program in the SAC, but they also wanted to popularize them with the public, too. The Air Force used the demonstrations as a sort of public relations tool. Mel Bruno was the head of the program at that time. He traveled with them a lot of the time.

MS: After training with Mr. Tomiki on an informal basis, when did you begin training in aikido on a more formal basis?

WT: Through a friend I met a man named Yoko Takahashi, who had trained with Ueshiba personally. He also practiced judo had a black belt in karate and jujutsu and a few other arts. His most advanced training was in karate and aikido. He really liked aikido. When I finally got a chance to meet him he said, "I'll teach you karate if you will practice aiki with me, because I want to keep up my techniques." I was interested in karate at the time, so I reluctantly went along with it, thinking, "Well, if that's the price I have to pay..." But the more I practiced, the more interested in aikido I became, and he slowly won me over. I realized, "There's more to this than meets the eye," whereas before I had thought, "I'm a judo man. I'll take any one of those guys!" Mr. Takahashi was living in the United States at that time. He had a degree in agriculture and had volunteered for a work program whereby he could come over to work on a farm to learn more about American agriculture. He could speak English pretty well. He was here for at least two and a half years. I started training with him around 1960.

MS: So you trained with Mr. Takahashi in karate and aikido for about two and a half years?

WT: Yes, and it got to be more and more aikido. In fact, he's the one who arranged for me to meet Koichi Tohei. Tohei came up to our school once or twice a year for three or four years to put on seminars at our dojo and other dojos in the Bay Area. So Tohei was my next big influence.

Tohei made aikido look magical. When I was younger and going to school I was fascinated by sleight-of-hand done with cards. "What's Tohei doing to spook them out like that?" I thought. And he'd be talking about extending his ki and I didn't understand what he was doing. With magic, if there was something I didn't understand then I would think to myself, "Now how can I duplicate that?" So, I kept mimicking his movement and pretty soon I got it. When his body was turned this way or that way, it all of a sudden became quite easy to follow him. I had a solution. It wasn't any special power coming out of my fingers! It began to make sense to me and I started looking at aiki from an entirely different viewpoint. At that time I was looking at aiki with a judo man's mentality. Now, I look at some of the judo men with more of an aiki mentality. It's sort of reversed itself a bit.

MS: So you learned how to demystify the art to some extent?

WT: Yes, I wanted to demystify aikido and make it simple so that anybody could understand it, at least on a lower level. Just like when they talk about ki--I have my own interpretation of what ki is--but when I ask aiki people to explain to me what ki is, 99% of them give me the old, "Well, you're just not ready to understand it. You'll understand it when you're ready."

Well I say that's a cop-out. If you really understood it you could explain it. Here you are trying to teach ki and you don't even understand it. At least when I teach I can explain what ki is. I have my own little definition of ki, which is, "Ki is the spirit of the movement, from movement to movement, seeking that which is pleasurable."

And most teachers would not agree because of one word: pleasurable. They say, "You're making it sound exotic or erotic or something." No. It's the feeling of the movement, going from movement to movement, seeking that which is pleasurable. So when we're working out and you catch me on a really beautiful throw, it feels good, doesn't it? Like a little "body orgasm." And those are the things that keep us in the martial arts. When the body does a good movement it feels good! And that feeling at that moment is ki at its best manifestation. Ueshiba... Tohei, they both said you're supposed to feel good when you're training. They never said you gotta get in there and kill yourself when you train. Who wants to do that and end up crippled?! That's ridiculous.

I emphasize that point a lot when I teach. There are people who come in saying, "I just want to study the philosophy of the martial arts." You can't do it. Through the technique the doctrine is revealed. There is no other way. Anyone who tells you that there is any other way, is quite frankly, full of shit. They are lying, or they don't know, or they're using a cop out.

In talking about ki, one of the things Ueshiba said is that we must become one with ourselves. When I become one with myself then it becomes possible for me to become one with you; I can get a sense of what you're about to do, because I know what I'm about to do. It's a kind of feedback. When you do a perfect technique, that's when you're in harmony with the universe. Because if you and I were not in harmony then I could not have done the technique.

MS: It goes back to what Kano said about maximum efficient use of energy.

WT: Becoming one with the universe is all about that feeling, that manifestation. And don't ever think that you are superior to your opponent, because you couldn't have had that experience if it wasn't for your opponent.

MS: When did you open your International Dojo?

WT: It must've been in the late fifties, probably in '58. It was on MacArthur Boulevard for almost forty years. We didn't teach all three arts until after I came into contact with Yoko Takahashi.

MS: How did you organize the classes in your dojo in terms of having people study the three arts?

WT: I used to ask people when they came in what they wanted to study. 99% of them didn't know what they wanted. The stock question I would ask was this: Imagine you have to fight a man. How do you imagine you want to fight him? Pick him up and screw his head off and throw it on the ground? Twist his arm off? Smash him down? Or would you rather haul off and hit and kick him? If the person said they would rather hit or kick him, then I'd say, "Good, you'd probably prefer karate." If they said they wanted to grab his arm and squeeze it or throw him on the ground then I'd say, "OK, you'd probably like aikido or judo. If you are in real good condition you can probably go straight to judo. If not, maybe aikido would be easier to learn in the beginning stages." I'd invite people who weren't sure to try each one. You can always switch later, or do all three at the same time.

MS: How do you view martial arts? Are they sports? Self-defense? Are they physical training? Or are they a mix of all those?

WT: All of these elements should be included. But some arts, like judo, lean much more towards the sport element. Karate became more like a sport after Otsuka and Yamaguchi came along. There are good and bad points to this. From a strictly budo point of view, you can't make a game of killing people, so a sport should be taught differently. But there are certain elements, such as balance, that can be learned by practicing a sports-oriented art. I tell people if they want to learn budo quickly to practice judo, because everyone will try to knock you off your feet every time you stand up. You'll learn it much faster than you would in aiki.

MS: Going back to training methods, when you teach how do you combine what you know to try to help your students learn everything that they need to learn?

WT: I find that many aikido techniques help you to understand better what you're doing in judo. Tenchinage is a good example. If you understand tenchinage then you understand how a judo man should be throwing the opponent off balance to do osotogari correctly. A lot of techniques compliment one another. The same is true of the rowing exercise in aikido. The way you throw the person out and pull them in is exactly the way a karate man should be throwing a punch. Each art can help the other. A karate man tries to come in for a throw so he can set you up to hit or kick you. A judo man hits you so he can get you down into a hold or do a shoulder throw more easily. So they're using similar techniques for different purposes.

Students sometimes ask me which art they should practice. But I say to them, "It doesn't matter which art; it's you that makes the art come alive. Without you or me or somebody else's body it's just a bunch of words and it doesn't mean a damn thing. So you should do the art that gives you the most gratification, the best feeling while you're training. Rather than taking my advice just because I'm a sensei, examine each one yourself. Go more than once to a school and watch. Ask questions. Be very suspicious of a teacher who won't answer your questions. Triply suspicious of a teacher that won't let you watch. Would you buy a car from someone who wouldn't let you see it?! Avoid those places like the plague."

MS: What's your personal motivation now?

WT: Frankly, I love teaching. People say it must have taken a lot of discipline to train as long as I have. But that's not true at all. I train because I have a love affair with the martial arts. If that love affair stops then I'll stop doing the martial arts.

I also like becoming more aware of the things the body can and can't do. When Tohei was doing his little tricks with the unbending arm and such, people used to say, "Oh, that's just a trick." Yes, I agree, but it was a trick that taught a principle, and if you understood that principle then you could apply it to many different techniques. If you didn't understand the principle then sure, it was just a trick. Fortunately I looked upon those things with an eye to the principle. I didn't care if the technique that he was showing ever worked; if I could understand the principle then I could apply it. My osotogari technique is much stronger because practicing tenchinage helped me understand something about the principle of off-balancing that I thought I knew from judo but that I really didn't know that well.

MS: So you're looking at a unified theory of movement and timing...

WT: Yes, but I also want to respect tradition, because that's where it came from--from great teachers like Ueshiba and Jigoro Kano and teachers like Toyama and Funakoshi and the rest. If it hadn't been for them we'd still be ten or fifteen years back in the Dark Ages, stumbling along.

MS: What's your feeling about competition in martial arts?

WT: Everybody should experience a little competition while they're young. It's one of the only things, short of picking fights on the street, that allows you to look at your ability in a realistic light. Normal training is "I throw you, then you throw me, then I throw you," back and forth. But in a competition you get, "I'm going to throw you," answered by "No, you're not." It's all within the rules so nobody is going to get seriously hurt.

MS: Ueshiba Sensei often said that there cannot be any competition in true martial arts because it's a matter of life and death. There is randori where you're not just giving in to each other, but what they consider randori in aikido is just uke walking up, reaching out to grab you, and then you do a little foot shuffle and I'm supposed to fall down.

WT: In real randori you'll find that ninety-five, maybe ninety-nine, percent of that stuff doesn't work. It's sad to say, but it's not the fault of the technique. It's that the person who is applying it studied the technique incorrectly. It's like never being told that your car has a reverse gear, so every time you need to go backwards you get out and push it.

A little bit of the sport concept is necessary. Some would disagree. Some people get so good that against the average guy on the street their technique will probably win out. But that's based on the dangerous assumption that you are superior to your opponent; and that's where most warriors get killed. It's better to assume that your opponent is a little better than you are and think, "Now how can I finish this as soon as possible?" That's a hell of a lot safer, and in fact someone who does not take that attitude is living in a dream world.

MS: How do you approach training where you're trying to beat the guy and get your technique on him but you don't really want to hurt him?

WT: In judo, when you're doing randori you should stand more erect. Better posture lets you do quicker movements. Also, don't have such a defensive attitude. If you try a foot sweep on me and I can step out of it, or a hip throw and I can step around it then I should do so. But when you're first learning, you want to avoid making your arm real tight and just fending them off. You can probably stop a lot of people like that, especially if they don't really know the technique very well. But you're doing so at the expense of developing your own technique. I like to let people throw me around, because it gives me an opportunity to see where I can do counter techniques. If you find that same opening a few times then you go ahead and do it, and find out if you were right or not.

People should train with a "have fun" attitude, but be somewhat serious. When you're going to strike, do it in a semi-realistic way. You have enough control to keep yourself from hurting the person.

MS: What is the most important thing for a teacher to do with a beginner?

WT: I asked that same question of Mifune and Samura and Hata and Otsuka, as well as indirectly with Tohei. I asked, "What is the most important single thing that a martial artist must learn?" The answer was, "Balance." Without balance--both mental and physical--you have nothing. Without balance in your life you can never realize your full capabilities. It is important, then, to understand what is really meant by balance. Then, there is almost no limit to your technique.

MS: Do your teaching goals change as your student advances?

WT: The overall goal doesn't change, but the way I teach a given technique might change.

MS: There are a lot of stories about teachers holding back principles or secret techniques or being stingy. What do you think about that?

WT: I don't believe in it. It's easy to make a teacher show you his best--get almost as good as he is and then he has to use his best to continue teaching you. When you become a worthy opponent they're not going to use their sloppy techniques on you.

MS: So as a student you're always looking at the teacher and others and thinking, "Now how can I steal what this guy's got?"

WT: Right. You want to become the thief. There are also those cases where one teacher shows you one way, another shows you another way, and what you end up doing is somewhere in between that works for you. There's that individual aspect. Without that you have no imagination. If you really want the teacher to show you the best techniques, then you should become his best student.

MS: How do you work with your advanced people?

WT: When I was in Japan, most of the philosophical or intellectual aspects of martial arts were taught by sitting down and talking, say over a sake or a beer after class. I don't like to talk too much during a class itself, because the people will complain about a forty-five minute lecture and ten minute workout. But what I do is say, "What principle did you just violate?" I don't care about the technique. Many people think that technique and principle are the same. No. The technique is what is carrying the principle to where it's going. Or you could say it the other way around, I guess. Students have to show me that they understand the principle. For example, in all the throws to the rear in aiki, if the guy's back isn't arched back in all those throws then you don't really have it yet. You may think you have. Your opponent may fall down for you because it's his turn to fall down, but you don't have the technique, or worse yet, the principle behind the technique.

Once I know the way to San Jose I don't need the road map any longer. The "do" or way, in aikido or judo, becomes less important because it has become an integral part your very fiber. You'd have to work hard to disguise the fact that you're an expert in your art. As long as you're relaxed you're going to do your movements correctly. Once you get the "do" integrated as part of your body you don't need to make a big deal out of it any longer. You no longer need to sit down and philosophize about it.

Copyright ©1995 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.


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Classical Japanese Martial Arts