Aikido instructor has shared skills with soldiers, Steven Seagal

Hiroshi Isoyama displays his Aikido prowess during a match as he throw his opponent down at the All Japan Aikido demonstation in 2006.


By GRANT OKUBO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 28, 2010

Hiroshi Isoyama began to practice the not-so-gentle martial art of aikido as a young boy. Many pivots, turns, locks and flips later, Isoyama, 73, is now entrusted with running aikido creator Morhei Ueshiba’s dojo near Tokyo in Iwama.

Isoyama’s journey began in 1949, four years after World War II. Japan was undergoing an unsettling period. And it was during that era that a 12-year-old Isoyama decided to learn to fight and to defend himself — a necessary skill at the time, he said.

As one of a privileged few students to learn directly from Ueshiba — also known as O-Sensei, or venerable teacher, to his students — Isoyama, who now holds the title of Shihan, an honorific title given to a senior practitioner in Aikido, is now entrusted with the responsibility of passing on the teachings of O-Sensei as they were taught to him.

The early years of Isoyama’s training were challenging and strict, but he enjoyed it, he said. Back then, students trained on a wooden floor, not on the softer tatami mats students use now.

Isoyama said those who knew Ueshiba outside the dojo saw him as a very kind man. However, once in the dojo, Isoyama recounted, Ueshiba’s demeanor would change. He’d become quite fierce and focused as he trained his students.

In 1961, Isoyama — once a member of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in both the officer and enlisted ranks — was featured on the pages of Stars and Stripes for his role in teaching aikido to U.S. soldiers and self-defense troops.

Isoyama helped spread aikido outside his master’s dojo with matches against U.S. soldiers at Chitose Air Base in Hokkaido, which was known at the time as Kuma Station.

Isoyama recounted how he’d surprise the Americans with victories against men twice his size. He said his feats were so remarkable that U.S. Army doctors wanted to examine him to figure out how the smaller Japanese man was beating such larger men.

Isoyama also helped project aikido onto the silver screen. One of the more famous aikido figures in feature films is actor Steven Seagal, who trained in Isoyama’s dojo in Osaka before breaking through in the motion picture industry as the action star in such hits as “Under Siege.”

After training in Japan and before stardom in the U.S., Seagal ran his own aikido dojo in New Mexico, Isoyama said. It became popular with celebrities and eventually led to Seagal’s acting career.

Isoyama said he recognized many of Seagal’s moves in “Above the Law” as his own.

Marriage and having children had an impact on Isoyama’s personal evolution in aikido. His appreciation for aikido grew with his family, he said.

“It wasn’t only about being strong, but being able to protect,” Isoyama explained.

That led Isoyama to teach aikido to children. He said he learned along with the children — that strength wasn’t everything in aikido.

“Aikido involves education and how to behave,” Isoyama said.

While imparting such knowledge to his young students, he said, he saw a lack of parental reinforcement of those ideas. So, he began teaching aikido to students’ mothers.

Isoyama said he wonders how he’s been able to do what he does for so long. Looking back over all the years, he said he had no idea he’d be playing such a significant role in aikido and that he’d be responsible for passing on the master’s original teachings.

However, with aikido being practiced in more than 90 countries, Isoyama said he cannot help but be concerned over whether aikido is being taught and practiced correctly as laid out by Ueshiba.

“If people take it on themselves to make changes,” he said, “the teaching then goes in the opposite direction.”

Isoyama plans to visit Mexico, the United States, Poland and Bulgaria this year, demonstrating the pure aikido form developed by O-Sensei in the early 1920s.

Hiroshi Isoyama demonstrates one of the holds taught to him by Aikido creator Morhei Ueshiba during a Aikido seminar in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2008.