New Haven Aikikai Fire Horse Dojo
Modern Japanese martial arts in New Haven

Toxic Loyalty in Aikido

By Liese Klein

Posted on: Feb. 25, 2020

“I hate to see that – some instructors are too bossy and the student is too loyal. I don’t like that kind of situation.  I think a student should be able to say ‘no’ to their teacher whenever teacher [makes] a mistake, don’t just be a ‘yes man.’ That’s no good for a teacher. And teacher should be able to accept any opinion from the students. That’s what I mean by trusting each other.”
Yoshimitsu Yamada, 2010, from the “Let’s Make Aikido” documentary.

The topic of loyalty has taken center stage in some segments of the American Aikido community in recent months, pushing aside questions of right and wrong actions and mutating into something deeply toxic and pernicious for the Aikido world as a whole.

“My teacher showed me how to roll and was nice to me when I screwed up ikkyo for the fiftieth time,” the argument goes, “so I owe him undying loyalty.” “My teacher helped spread Aikido over decades, so I owe him unquestioning obedience. My teacher has done some nice things for women over the decades, so I can ignore ongoing abuse and discrimination. He can do what he wants in his dojo, with his students. He can change the rules or make up new rules and punish perceived transgressions at will. No matter what, I will always be loyal.” Needless to say, the teacher referenced in these recent loyalty oaths is the teacher quoted above, Yoshimitsu Yamada.

Aside from the obvious hypocrisy demonstrated by the teacher above, the legions of enablers of bad behavior in the ranks of Aikido organizations past, present and future represent a serious challenge to the future of our art. As they burble on about loyalty and legacy and forgiveness, serious wrongdoing continues unabated and injustices are not addressed. Domestic violence, sexual abuse, gender and racial discrimination and harassment, bullying and financial malfeasance have all been swept under the rug over the decades in the name of “loyalty.”  

Those who advocate absolute loyalty to a teacher usually get around to referencing “samurai” tradition, in which examples like the 47 Ronin demonstrate the glory of absolute dedication to a leader. Putting aside the fact that most of what is passed down as “samurai tradition” arises from a disputed work written in peacetime by a bureaucrat, a closer look at these stories is hardly inspiring in a 21st century context. Do you really want to commit suicide to avenge your teacher’s dishonor? I don’t think life insurance pays out on that.

However, one thing is clearly called in out in the Hagakure: Blind, unquestioning loyalty to an immoral leader. So whose “samurai code” are you following when you swear to follow an unethical Aikido leader to the grave? Just drop the “samurai code” bullshit and admit that you just want to obey someone without troubling yourself to challenge their actions.

Sadly for Aikido, this mishmash of little-understood Japanese culture, authoritarian tendencies and passivity has come down in certain circles as “my Aikido teacher is a god who shall not be questioned.” Another version of this is “He’s good at Aikido, so I’m just going to hold my nose, shut up and train.” A good example of this attitude in recent years is the open secret in California that several senior students of Bruce Klickstein continued to train with him after he had served jail time for sexually abusing young women in his dojo. All that “loyalty and legacy” didn’t do Klickstein much good on his Aiki path, however – he was arrested again in 2013, this time on child porn charges.

Yes, the Aikido mat is supposed to be a place of reconciliation and compassion. But if Aikido students and teachers don’t draw firm lines on what is acceptable in their teachers, the entire art will be permanently degraded by the actions of a few. Teachers of conscience must stand up and demand accountability in their leaders. No misconduct can be tolerated. We must set the highest standards for art going forward – if not for our own sense of what is right, for the future of Aikido as a viable concern in an open society.

One can be grateful to those who helped them on the Aikido path without slavishly declaring undying loyalty to a deeply flawed individual. Look at O-Sensei, who followed a series of teachers, then left to create his own art. Was he being disloyal by breaking away from these teachers, or was he growing as a person and a martial artist? “Undying loyalty” to one teacher can in many cases be an excuse for failing to challenge yourself as a person and an Aikidoka. A true teacher will kick you out at a certain point and throw you to the wolves to find your own Aikido.

Those who stick around amid unrepentant bad behavior by an Aikido teacher are the sycophants denounced in the Hagakure. They deserve pity, not respect. They have shown the same cowardice and passivity in the face of wrongdoing that has led so many movements and societies down a very slippery slope over the course of human history. If people stand by and make excuses when a leader misbehaves, nothing prevents future misbehavior in that leader and his top cadre.

Have we learned nothing? The time for absolute loyalty has passed. Aikido needs a new direction and a new “samurai code” that starts with ethical behavior -- and makes no excuses.

(I would like to dedicate this post to the many people who walked away from my teacher, Kazuo Chiba, in the face of his bad behavior over the years.)