AIKI FORUM features discussions with individuals involved in the martial arts in various capacities, such as writers, editors, video producers, etc. In this way we hope to offer alternative viewpoints in order to gain new perspectives on how others view aikido, Daito-ryu and the martial arts in general. On this occasion our guest is Phil Relnick, President of the Japan Martial Arts Society, one of the true “old hands” among foreign practitioners of Japanese martial arts and ways.
Tell us a little bit about your personal history.
I was born in New York 52 years ago. I joined the Air Force after high school and was stationed in Misawa, Japan from 1956 to 1958, a total of two and a half years. During that time I started doing judo. I not only got hooked on judo, but also on Japan. Then I spent a year in Germany and was active there in judo, which was at that time a little known art. I guess I was really captivated by judo and Japan, because by mid-1959 I was already making plans to go back to practice judo. I got in touch with Donn Draeger [1922-1982, author of the three volume series, The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan, and co-author of Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts; held dan ranks and teaching licenses in judo, Shindo Muso-ryu jojutsu, and Katori Shinto-ryu, among others] who was already living there and with his help I was back in Japan in late 1961. During the next seven years I did mainly judo and jodo, and a number of other martial arts such as aikido, iaido, karate, and t’ai chi ch’uan. For the last four years, in addition to my martial arts practice, I was a full-time student at Waseda University. I had thought I would only be able to afford to stay for one year, but as it turned out, I became a conversational English teacher and was able to support myself completely on that.
Then you went back to the States. How long was it before you returned to Japan?
I got back to the States on December 23, 1968. I had to work a bit before I went to grad school at the University of Michigan, and I was there for two years. Then I took a job with a company, hoping to get back to Japan. But I ended up in Hong Kong. That was back in early 1973. I came back to Japan in November 1974, and I’ve been here ever since.
You mentioned Donn Draeger, known today as a very accomplished martial artist, who studied many different martial arts in addition to researching the East Asian martial arts. Is he the one who paved the way for you to begin your study of martial arts?
No, he wasn’t. I first started in a little machi (town) dojo in Misawa. It just clicked. I can’t say what made me do it. The dojo was dirty, a very old building with broken windows. Back in 1957 every street except for the main road in Misawa was dirt, so when it rained or snowed there was mud knee deep. So to go anywhere you had to wear boots.
After the service your reason for coming back to Japan was primarily to study judo?
Yes. I also wanted to go to university. I went straight from high school into the military. I wrote to Tenri, Sophia, and another university in Tokyo. I never got an answer from anyone, but I was determined to do it. As I said before Draeger helped me to get here.
So you continued with your judo, and I believe you also said you did some aikido shortly thereafter.
I was doing judo, and during my first year back I was going to Sophia University at night. I did judo for two or three months and hurt my back. I think it happened because I was just doing too much. I hurt it pretty badly, and I couldn’t do anything for about a month. When I could start moving again I couldn’t do judo, but I thought maybe I could do aikido, so I went and joined the Hombu in February of 1962.
Was Terry Dobson there at that time?
Yes. He was one of the first people I met there, and he showed me what was going on. Terry Dobson and Quintin Chambers. Through them I learned a lot about aikido.
Who were the teachers at the Hombu at that point?
O-Sensei, his son, Kisshomaru, Tohei, Yamaguchi. Tamura was there, he was still young, about a sandan or a yodan. Chiba was only about a shodan or a nidan, I think. Then Saotome was there. He was very friendly. I trained with him quite a bit. And I trained with Tamura quite a bit. And then there was Osawa Sensei, who was older, who I used to train with in the mornings. He was a very nice person, I got a lot of good training from him. I liked the way he taught. I liked his clean movements. Saito Sensei came [down from Iwama] a bit later on.
What was your reaction to aikido after having been a judoka?
It was easier on the body physically. I could see the relationship immediately. They’re like cousins. But I missed the randori (free training) that you’d get in judo.
When you’re doing judo you’re not working in any particular rhythm together purposely. You’ve got to draw the guy into you, you’ve got to work him into your rhythm, and he’s always trying to change the rhythm so as not to get caught. Judo seems more “real” to me. But it was good for me to learn aikido.
What about your impression of O-Sensei? What was a typical class like that he would teach?
He would philosophize quite a bit. I had introduced my wife, Nobuko, to aikido about a month or so after I started. She interpreted most of what he was saying to me. He used to talk about the earth and the stars and the solar system and the gods; everything all mixed up. She said she couldn’t figure it out. He was quite friendly. He did show techniques. In fact he threw me a couple of times, which I feel proud of. He’d walk around and he’d talk, and he’d come up to you, and throw you, and then he’d talk about that throw.