Wednesday, July 5, 2023

A forgotten piece of history with implications for today.


August 1, 1942 - the American Federation of Musicians began a strike against major American record companies because of disagreements over royalty payments. Beginning midnight, July 31, 1942, no union musician could make commercial recordings for any commercial record company. The strike was the longest in entertainment history (1942-44), had a major cultural impact but also left many problems unresolved to this day. #WGAstrong #sagaftramember #1u.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

The Asian American Roots of Chicago Aikikai and aikido in Chicago

 Here's a little something I wrote up for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month about Chicago Aikikai, the dojo where I practice the Japanese martial art of aikido. The original post may be found here.

“To practice Aikido fully, you must calm the spirit and go back to the origin.”

-Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido

Aikido, a martial way

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, so it seems like a good time to turn back the clock and look at the Asian American origins of Chicago Aikikai and its place in bringing the Japanese martial art of aikido to the Windy City.

Martial arts are probably more ubiquitous than ever in U.S. pop culture, thanks to fighting-themed video games, superhero films and stunt heavy actioners like the John Wick series, and of course the multi-billion dollar industry that is Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). However, the success and widespread reach of these ventures has led most folks nowadays to associate the words “martial arts” solely with high-contact sports or violent maneuvers employed in imaginary street encounters.

Lost is the fact that, especially in the case of Japanese martial arts, there has long been a movement away from strictly studying practical fighting, and towards athletic and philosophical ends, not to mention spiritual and artistic (We’ll just skip their role in WWII militarism for now). Those whose only image of pre-industrial Japan is blood-soaked duels to the death informed by Rurouni Kenshin, the Zatoichi series and Akira Kurosawa period dramas might be surprised by the more than 200-year stretch of peace and stability known as the Edo period (1603-1868), during which most of the cultural touchstones considered characteristically “Japanese” in the West reached their pinnacle. Those would include flower arrangement, kabuki theater, ramen, sushi and budō (武道). Though usually translated as “martial arts”, budō  is more appropriately read as “martial way”, the dō being the same Chinese character for Taoism, as opposed to bujutsu (武術): “martial techniques” used in actual combat.

In that sense, it would be appropriate to regard aikidō (合気道) and other budō as an expression of Japanese culture; the “art” part deserving as much emphasis as the “martial”. And I think that is important to note in light of who first brought it to places in the U.S. like Chicago and helped it to thrive. For those early days of aikido were still a time when many Japanese Americans were not always welcome to participate in mainstream sports and other activities; or to openly engage in practices that allowed them to be Japanese.

Connections, personal and not

2023 will mark my 30th year training in aikido, most of which has been at Chicago Aikikai. I am also fourth-generation Japanese American (or yonsei) on my father’s side and spent my entire life as a resident of the Chicago area (born in River Forest, attending University of Chicago, and now living on the north side). However, despite this, and the fact that Chicago Aikikai began as a Japanese American organization, I have no legacy ties. I joined in 1995, after graduating from University of Chicago, where the head of the on-campus aikido club, the late Professor Donald Levine, introduced me. Prior to that, I started aikido while attending Waseda University in Tokyo on the Great Lakes Colleges Association/Associate Colleges of the Midwest one-year Japan Study program.

I’m not even part of the same group of Japanese Americans who started the dojo (Yes, we have subdivisions), my father having arrived in 1959 from Kauai to attend Illinois Institute of Technology. Yet its history is a point of fascination for me and does elicit that strange sort of pride one gets from something you might share an ethnic kindship with, even if there is no direct connection.

Sadly, that history is gradually being lost day-by-day, year-by-year, person-by-person. Like most of the long-standing Japanese American organizations in town - from the Buddhist Temples to the churches to the social service organizations – it feels like those earlier generations were primarily concerned with working and surviving (as they should have been). So no real organized attempt was made to preserve and archive memories with the passing of time. Coupled with that was the gradual transition of the dojo from a rather informal community-centric club to an officially accredited entity [black belt ranks come from Aikido World Headquarters in Tokyo, via its national umbrella organization Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU)], which went hand-in-hand with the joining of non-Japanese. Today, I’m really the only person of Japanese descent regularly training there.

When I was in my 20s, there were still a few holdouts from the old days. Joe Takehara, a now-retired dentist noted for his ability to make his body feel as solid as concrete while maintaining a state of relaxation, and Yuki Hara, a grandmotherly figure who inexplicably seemed to attend every camp and seminar across the country. However, they’re both retired now, taking their stories with them.

I sometimes feel like Chicago Aikikai is akin to the Nisei Lounge, “Chicago’s finest dive bar”, located in Wrigleyville. Nisei Lounge (taking its name from the term for second-generation Japanese Americans) was founded in 1951 back when Clark Street was part of Chicago’s Unofficial Japan Town. The nisei aren’t around anymore, but the current owners have kept the name and mementos of the bar’s past. The bar is also occasionally a venue for Japanese American community events.

In any case, here is a very incomplete history of the early days of the Chicago Aikikai and its Japanese American roots cobbled together from anecdotes, late-night talks over drinks and a handful of interviews. Special shout-outs to Joe Takehara and Erik Matsunaga.

Dwight Sora

Chicago, 2023

NOTE 1: I have chosen to begin my timeline with key events in the development of aikido in Japan and Hawaii to provide historical context.

NOTE 2: Given the fragmentary nature of my sources, I welcome anyone with first-hand knowledge who reads this, spots inaccuracies and can offer corrections. If you have anything, please e-mail

Early history of Chicago Aikikai (originally Illinois Aikido Club)

1920s -      Morihei Ueshiba creates aikido based on traditional Japanese martial arts.

1940    -      Aikido is officially recognized by the Japanese government.

1948    -      Aikikai Foundation and Aikido World Headquarters (Hombu Dojo) based in Tokyo, Japan is established.

1952    -      Hombu Dojo begins dispatching instructors overseas to spread aikido.

1953    -      At the invitation of the Nishikai Health Organization in Honolulu, Hawaii, Hombu Dojo sends instructor Koichi Tohei (1920-2011) to participate in a demonstration of Japanese martial arts. Impressed, many spectators take up training in aikido, first held on the grounds of the Nishikai. Tohei stays for one year, establishing many dojo in the islands, and making it a center for the art’s spread within the country. Tohei’s Hawaii students include instructors Isao Takahashi and his son Francis Takahashi. Tohei returns to Hawaii in 1955 and  1959 to further strengthen the aikido base he created.

1961    -      Norman Miyagi, a nisei (second generation Japanese American), becomes interested in aikido after reading a book by Koichi Tohei (most likely Aikido: The Arts of Self-Defense, 1957). Together with John Omori, they recruit other nisei by word-of-mouth and begin meeting privately to teach themselves aikido as a cultural pastime and for its mental and physical benefits. Rather than youthful dabblers, they are all established professionals in their 30s and older. In addition to Miyagi (an osteopathic physician) and Omori (an optometrist), the initial group includes Anthony Muranaka (a Chicago Police detective), Saburo Tanaka, Robert “Red” Sakamoto  and Joe Takehara (a dentist).

- The group begins meeting in the storefront basement of Muranaka’s three-flat at 3324 N. Clark Street in the north side Lake View neighborhood. At the time the area is known as Chicago’s unofficial Japantown, a community of Japanese Americans that formed after WWII including transplants from Hawaii but mostly former wartime camp internees originally from the West Coast. The floor is made of marble and only 12' x 15', and the group trains without a mat. Lighting comes from a single ceiling light bulb; when it breaks, class is over for the evening.

- Through their Hawaiian Japanese connections, the group eventually makes contact with Chester Sasaki, a second degree black belt from Hawaii who is an undergrad at University of Illinois in Champaign. Under direction from Tohei and Hombu Dojo, Sasaki becomes their first official chief instructor. He makes regular weekend trips (3 hours each way) to lead all-day Saturday and Sunday classes.

- The group leases a street-level storefront on the next block at 3223 North Clark Street. They construct their first mat using purchased two-inch etherfoam. The resulting surface is much admired and used as a model for mats at several other Chicago dojo.

- There is no sign. The only advertising continues to be word-of-mouth, and entry to membership is limited. There is a board which interviews prospective students to evaluate their character. Most prospects are allowed in, but only after watching a few classes.

- In November, the group files with the state of Illinois to incorporate as a non-profit.

1963    -      The group is officially incorporated as Illinois Aikido Club (IAC), thus establishing the Midwest’s first public aikido dojo. It adopts a circular logo symbolized by a circular mirror on a larger circular wood frame, forming part of the dojo’s shomen.

- Instructor Francis Takahashi (a childhood friend of Chester Sasaki from Hawaii) relocates to Chicago as a result of being inducted into the U.S. Army and is stationed here for two years. Sasaki is leaving the group due to graduating from University of Illinois and entering the Air Force, so Takahashi assumes the position of chief instructor.

1964    -      Koichi Tohei teaches two seminars at IAC as part of a one-year tour of U.S. dojo.

1965    -      Yoshihiko Hirata, a young sandan sent from Hombu Dojo, becomes the dojo’s third chief instructor and teaches until 1969, when he is inducted into the U.S. Army.

-      Instructor Isao Takahashi, Francis Takahahi’s father, comes to Chicago from Los Angeles to serve as chief instructor of IAC. Takahashi alternates between the two cities, teaching aikido and iaido in Chicago for two months, and then returning to Los Angeles for a month. In his absence, Saburo Tanaka and Robert “Red” Sakamoto lead class in his place.

- Cheryl Kajita (later Matrasko), future founder of Aikido of Skokie, begins training at IAC.

Late 60s/Early 70s          -             Jon Eley (future instructor of Chicago Ki Aikido) and Frank Knapp are among the first non-Japanese to join the dojo, beginning a shift in membership demographics away from a majority Japanese American group.

1970    -      IAC moves into a space in the Uptown neighborhood at 1103 W. Bryn Mawr. A former bowling alley that had been vacant for 20 years, it undergoes major renovation to create a dojo with a huge mat space - 45’ x 80’ feet.

1971    -      Takahashi decides to retire to California. Hombu Dojo is contacted and instructor Akira Tohei is recommended to serve as new chief instructor and travels to Chicago from his then-current base in Hawaii to teach a summer seminar and meet with IAC’s Board of Directors.

1972    -      Tohei relocates to Chicago to both serve as IAC chief instructor and establish the Midwest Aikido Federation (MAF). Isao Takahashi passes away on February 6 in Los Angeles at age 59 from stomach cancer.

- Charles Tseng (later founder of Lake County Aikikai) is invited to instruct at IAC by Akira Tohei.

1973    -      Kisshomaru Ueshiba, son of Morihei Ueshiba and second Doshu, visits Chicago for the first time and teaches a seminar at IAC.

1975    -      Tohei leaves IAC to form Midwest Aikido Center (MAC).

- Several guest instructors, including Terry Dobson and Robert Nadeau, teach at IAC on weekends.

- Mitsugi Saotome leaves his position as a senior instructor and Chief Weapons Instructor at Hombu Dojo and relocates to Sarasota, Florida in May at the invitation of local instructor Bill McIntyre. Saotome founds Sarasota Aikikai.

- That winter, Sarasota Aikikai hosts a 7-day camp starting on December 26 with instruction by Saotome and guest instructors Terry Dobson, Ed Baker and Frank Hreha. 85 aikidoka from around the country attend, 10 of which are members of IAC including Yuki Hara, Wendy Whited (later founder of Inaka Dojo) and Charles Tseng.

- Saotome establishes Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (ASU), an umbrella organization for dojo following his teachings.

1976    -      IAC becomes a member of Mitsugi Saotome’s organization ASU and Saotome sends his student Shigeru Suzuki to serve as chief instructor.

1981    -      Suzuki is forced to return to Japan due to health reasons. Kevin Choate is appointed the first non-Japanese chief instructor. He will hold this position until his death in 2012. He is succeeded by current chief instructor Marsha Turner.

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Thoughts on Netflix's BEEF

Thoughts on Netflix's BEEF

  •         It’s well-made and deserving of praise, especially for exploring areas of the Asian American experience that have not been dramatized in highly-publicized mainstream works.
  •         Personally, I’d be disappointed if the controversy around David Choe brings it down.
  •         Even if Choe was just joking in bad taste, he’s an adult and should know better
  •         Choe, Steven Yeun and Ali Wong are established enough media figures in my opinion that they should have anticipated the situation and possible public response.
  •         Their reaction is clumsy and only amplifies the feeling Choe is guilty of something, and frankly, they are going to reap what they sowed.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

30 Years of Aikido

2023 will mark my 30th year training in the martial art of aikido, something I started when studying abroad at Waseda University in Tokyo. Honestly, I never thought something I tried on a whim would become a life-long pursuit.

During 2020-21, as the pandemic shut down in-person classes, I had a lot of time to think about what aikido means to me. When Zoom classes were started, I had a chance to take instruction from a wide variety of teachers from around the country I don't normally get to see. And it gave me a new appreciation for all the different ways people look at the art, even the ones I might not have gravitated towards before. 

The resumption of in-person training didn't mean I could just jump back into things. Those two years had cut into my work quite a bit, so time and money needed balancing, not to mention work and family. When I do get to the dojo, I'm just happy to be there.

Years before all of this, I sketched out an aikido-themed picture based on the Eastern parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The "Aikido Elephant" or "Aikidō no zō" (合気道の象) is a playful image expressing the myriad dimensions of the Japanese martial art of aikidō (合気道), and the many approaches of its teachers and students. It is a reminder to all those studying aikidō that they are on a path of individual self-discovery; best taken with grace, humility and open-mindedness. The title is a play on words, as the Japanese word zō (象) meaning elephant is a homonym for zō (像) meaning meaning figure or image. Thus, spoken aloud, the name can also mean "The Image of Aikido".

This year, I asked my good friend and artist Ivan Lee to make a much better version of that idea and am offering it to share in the form of a T-shirt, available here.

I hope you find it amusing. I like to think of it as a reminder to myself to be serious in training, but not take oneself too seriously.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Cold Walk to the Dojo

Monday, February 2, 2018. A not-unfamiliar scenario for me. Trudging through snow and temps in the teens on a Chicago winter night to teach aikido. Making my way to the well-worn green and red mats of Tohkon Judo Academy, based within the Japanese American Service Committee building, where my dojo (Chicago Aikido Club) has made its home for the past five years or so.

Will there be anyone there? I wonder. Does anyone ever come on nights like this, other than the poor soul designated to try impart a little knowledge (or at least provide a workout) on that given night?

Why do I do this?

It's crazy right?

At this point in my life - mid-forties, married, one kid - devoting any time to an interest as fringey as "the Art of Peace" (as aikido is sometimes popularly called by its followers) does sometimes seem a bit futile; maybe even irresponsible. After all - and with the deepest apologies to my teachers, seniors, fellow students, and the wider world of Japanese culture for what I am about to say - in one sense it is an act of dress-up: Grown men and women (and occasionally children) wearing faux samurai outfits practicing esoteric exercises that may or may not deserve the label of being a "martial art"; married to gestures, rituals and etiquette mimicking supposedly traditional rules from a country half a continent and an ocean away (And probably not that well, if I think about it).

It's even less a practical pursuit than my other passion - acting. At least with acting I get paid, though not always terribly well, since I'm still largely confined to Chicago's (highly acclaimed but) not very lucrative storefront scene (I did have an agent WHO-SHALL-NOT-BE-NAMED who used to get me film and TV auditions before unceremoniously dumping me via e-mail two week's before my son's birth. Fatter opportunities have kind of dried up since then.).

But here I am (or was, since now I am now comfortably sheltered from the cold within my north side apartment and a beer), prepared to do all the bowing, clapping, stretching, moving and calling-out-of-obscure-sounding-foreign-words that I have done since I (somewhat unwittingly) joined the Aikido club at Waseda University when I was an exchange student in the early 90s and found myself learning to toss people about or immobilize them against the ground.

Why do I do this?

A casual observer might think it's simply a matter of inertia. That strange force that sometimes keeps us in bad relationships and lousy jobs despite our better judgment. Like continuing to watch that long-running TV show you use to love despite the fact all the good actors have left and the storylines have become stale, repetitive and uninspired.

Insecurity? Ego? Certainly was true when I first started in Japan, where I discovered that my years of being an American couch potato reared on TV, snack foods and keeping my nose in books had ill-prepared me for the grueling physical regimen practiced by my Japanese college brethren. Not to mention the fact that despite looking the part, my Americanness (and perhaps I should add my half-Koreanness) were strikes against me. I was and am 99.99% sure they wanted me gone, and they worked me as hard as they could, but I absolutely, positively, assuredly refused to quit. First time in my life I had actually persevered in such a capacity, actually. And in the end, by the time I left to return to the states, I seemed to have gained a modicum of genuine respect (from myself as well as those around me).

Loyalty? A bit, I certainly don't like the idea of being a let-down to the senior instructors who've invested their teaching in me over the decades. Duty? I do feel some responsibility towards those junior to me that I give some of my time over to their learning and development (presuming they are maintaining their own interest and dedication).

But none of those really explain it all, or at least ring truest with how I feel, as opposed to how I think.

I continue to do aikido because it feels good. If I've had a long day working at my desk, chasing after my son, doing household chores, getting into uniform and stepping onto the mat never fails to make me feel better. Energized. Happier.

And it's not because I'm engaging in some cathartic act of sublimated violence. No, not that at all. Though, bodies hitting the floor is an unavoidable part of aikido practice. And I've been there - in the past, when I was younger, when I used the dojo as an outlet for daytime frustrations - at work, in relationships, unpleasant bozos on the street. No matter how much energy was expended, even if I got a bit of an adrenaline rush, whatever relief I felt was always a bit empty. Hollow.

Writing here, I find myself hesitating how to describe how aikido makes me feel good. Not because I'm afraid it will come across as hokey or unbelievable, or embarrassing for that matter. It's because it really does seem to defy easy description. I find myself thinking about Japanese writer Juichiro Tanizaki's seminal essay In Praise of Shadows, where he summed up Japanese aesthetics as an appreciation of subtlety and shadow, as opposed to Western ideas of light and clarity.

On that note, I find my thoughts have run out of steam. Will ponder and perhaps return to this later.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

My Voicemail to the FCC 

"I am calling because of the apparent intent of the current management of the FCC to roll back Net Neutrality protections. I am a freelance Japanese document translator. I work almost entirely out of my own home, and have been able to make a successful living doing it. This would not be possible without fast, efficient and cost-effective access to the internet. I need it to both receive and send documents to my clients. I need it in order to process work orders, purchase orders and invoices, often done via my clients’ online portals. I need it in order to search the internet for reference documents and other materials that support my work. Some clients are even having me work via online platforms that require a safe and secure connection. Any changes in my current access will both make my work less efficient, and, if my fears are correct, eat into my profits. The FCC is currently under the umbrella of a Republican administration, which traditionally portrays itself as pro-business. I cannot fathom why it would undertake steps that would ultimately hurt small business owners such as me. Please reconsider your position, and do not roll back Net Neutrality in the interests of our society and economy. If not, please be assured that I will never consider voting for a Republican candidate, will never support the actions of any Republican administration, and will throw as much energy as I can against the current one."

Be sure to leave your own. Yes, it might not amount to much, but it is still better than nothing.