Senta Yamada: the “Father” of UK Tomiki Aikido

Senta Yamada was the first exponent of Tomiki Aikido to come to the UK, to teach professionally. Yamada, a 6th Dan in both judo and aikido, arrived in London with a training pedigree second to none. Not only was he one of Kenji Tomiki’s original students in the formative days of Tomiki Aikido’s genesis but he had also spent nine months as an uchideshi (a live-in student) of Morihei Ueshiba. As with Kenji Tomiki and Hideo Ohba themselves he had had the inestimable experience of learning direct-ly from the ‘Founder’ of aikido without mediation or re-interpretation by others


Senta Yamada chose to continue his training in aikido with Kenji Tomiki, at that time Ueshiba’s highest ranked student and is a testimony both to the quality of Tomiki’s teaching and to Yamada’s belief in the efficacy of the kata-randori training system he pioneered. That Yamada, a high ranking judoka, should be attract-ed to Tomiki’s dynamic randori orientated approach to aikido training should surely come as no surprise as it was born of the same experiences. Throughout his lifetime of teaching Senta Yamada mirrored the unity of ju-do and aikido principles and practice both on and off the mat in such an exemplary way, that his achievements deserve greater recognition and celebration. It is to this end that this article hopes to restore Senta Yama-da’s place in our collective memory as the father of UK Tomiki Aikido, without whom the British Aikido Association would not have come to be formed. Alongside the portraits of Kenji Tomiki and Hideo Ohba, Senta Yamada’s picture deserves an honoured place on our dojo walls.

Senta Yamada: a Budo life

Senta Yamada was born in Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu, at the south western end of the Japanese archipelago in 1924. Kyushu, the historic home of the famous Satsuma samurai clan was fertile ground for budo training. Yamada began practising judo in middle school at the age of 11 and by the age of 16 had gained his 1st Dan. After completing middle school he went on to study at Kobe Marine University, at the same time continuing his intensive commit-ment to competitive judo training. He competed regularly in the famous Kodokan ‘East-West’ (red and white) annual contests, fighting at different times for both sides and had the distinction of being chosen as a Team Captain. He was eventually awarded his 6th Dan after defeating five other 5th Dans in contest.
After graduating from the Marine University in Kobe, Yamada became friendly with Samata Ito, who was both an expert kendoka and skilled practitioner of aikido which he practised under the direction of Morihei Ueshiba himself. In 1948 this friendship brought about a dramatic change in the direction of Yamada’s life. Ito introduced Yamada to Ueshiba O’Sensei who agreed to accept him as an uchideshi and to live and study with him at his home in Wakayama Ken.

Senta Yamada throws John Waite with mae-otoshi, London early 1960s.

In his 1966 book, ‘The Principles and Practice of Aikido’, Yamada recounts what an uncompromising regime of physical and spiritual training Ueshiba required of his live-in students.

“Every morning before daylight, I followed my teacher to a shrine at the summit of a small moun-tain and there we knelt, I a few paces to the rear, to pray. Some-times we knelt for as long as an hour on the stony ground and I remember that my knees suf-fered a good deal of discomfort as we awaited the dawn. As the soft light expanded and the day grew beautifully alive, we would also pray to the sun, for Professor Ueshiba is a devout Shintoist and looks on the sun as the face of God.
Near the shrine was a small pavilion, a very simple place where I received my aikido instruction. There were no mats and for a period of about two hours I was obliged to take my falls on the hard wooden floor, so that by the time the lesson was over I was more than a little bruised and my wrist and elbow joints were quite painful. However, that was part of my training, a minimum of spoken instruction and a wealth of practice.”
(Principles and Practice of Aikido, Senta Yamada and Alex Macintosh, 1966)

The rest of Yamada’s day consisted of domestic duties attending to Ueshiba Sensei’s everyday needs interspersed with further training. This daily routine contin-ued for three months at Ueshiba’s home until O’Sensei decided to go on a teaching tour across Japan. Yamada accompanied him, carrying his bags, making the travel arrangements and serving his needs as well as serving as his uke whenever Ueshiba O’Sensei required. Eventually, Ueshiba and Yamada found their way back to Tokyo, where he continued to train at Ueshiba’s city dojo.

Yamada relates that once back in Tokyo he also returned to teaching judo in his own dojo and that through his judo training he met Kenji Tomiki for the first time. Kenji Tomiki was a prominent and well respected budo teacher, well known for both his technical skills and his budo scholarship. Tomiki had been instrumental in the Kodokan Judo revival after the Second World War, helping to shake off its association with the pre-war Japanese govern-ment’s drive to annexe budo to develop imperial nationalist sentiment. Initially banned for its past by the Allied Powers occupation administration, judo through the efforts of Kodokan senior teachers such as Tomiki, transformed itself into the modern sport orientated budo form that we see today. It was with this experience in mind that Tomiki set about developing an aikido system based on the equivalence of kata and randori in the learning and practice of aikido in a ‘scientific’ spirit of inquiry.

Yamada Sensei became a student of Kenji Tomiki both at the Kodokan for judo and at Waseda University where Tomiki Sensei as a Professor in the Sports Faculty was researching and developing what has become known in the West as Tomiki Aikido. Riki Kogure Sensei, a former Chairman of
the JAA, recalled in an ‘Aiki News’ interview with Stanley Pranin, that at that time, “Tomiki Sensei had three top students. They were Hideo Oba, Senta Yamada, and Tsunako Miyake Sensei. Yamada Sensei went to England and taught Judo and aikido there. I happened to be staying in England then and this is how we established the BAA [British Aikido Association]. This was the beginning.” (Aiki News #83 January 1990)
Yamada Sensei arrived in the UK in 1959 at the invitation of the London Judo Society where he was contracted to teach judo.

The ‘LJS’, originally called the South London Judo Society was founded by two famous pioneers of British judo, George Chew and Eric Dominy in 1946. At first located in the gym of a Metropolitan Police section house, Gilmour House, it moved in 1947 to St Oswald’s Place, Kennington. George Chew and Eric Dominy were very much partisans of ‘judo for life’ and set great store by encouraging the overall development of their students in the tradition of Kodokan Judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano.
The LJS brought two prominent Japanese judo teachers to the UK to teach. First Kenshiro Abe in 1955 and then Senta Yamada in 1959. Both Kenshiro Abe and Senta Yamada were judo and aikido teachers and in this way the LJS were instrumental in bringing aikido to the UK. Abe Sensei, after disagreements about the character of training at the LJS and the lack of deference he felt he deserved from students, left to start teaching Aikikai aikido at his own dojo, affectionately known as ‘The Hut’ which was located behind a pub in Hillingdon, London.

When Yamada arrived at the LJS to teach judo he soon came to realise that there was an interest in aikido among the members and began a class introducing Tomiki Aikido to the UK. All of his early students were LJS judoka, the first being John Waite and Terry Moulton. The similarities in training methods and the cross fertilisation of judo and aikido principles which were always characteristic of Senta Yamada’s teaching appealed to the LJS judoka and he soon had a thriving aikido class. Eventually in addition to his commitment to the LJS, Yamada Sensei was able to establish his own dojo in North London, where he taught judo and Tomiki Aikido until 1965.

Senta Yamada brought Tomiki Shihan’s early method of aikido practice to the UK. At this time
the kata for randori comprised 15 techniques, formed into 3 atemi waza; shomen-ate, gyaku-gamae-ate and aigamae-ate and 12 kansetsu waza techniques. The earliest representations of these techniques can be seen in Kenji Tomiki’s, ‘Judo and Aikido’ first published in 1956 by the Japan Travel Bureau for an English speaking audience. This is the only book by Kenji Tomiki to be translated into English, indeed by comparison to other schools of aikido, books translated from original Japanese Tomiki Aikido sources were and are still in short supply. It became part of Senta Yamada’s teaching mission to fill this gap in the literature of aikido, publishing two books in English, ‘The Ancient Secrets of Aikido’ (first published privately in 1961 and then by Judo Ltd) and ‘The Principles and Practice of Aikido’, Foulsham 1966, co-authored by Alex Macintosh. These two books together with John Wilkinson’s ‘Aikido: A Dialogue of Movement’, also published in 1966, are the earliest books describing Kenji Tomiki’s Aikido system to be published outside of Japan.

Original cover of Yamada’s The Ancient Secrets of Aikido

In his Preface to the ‘Ancient Secrets of Aikido’ a small booklet of 61 pages, Senta Yamada wrote:
I have kept this first booklet, de-scribing the basic exercises and first fifteen basic techniques of Aikido, as simple as possible. These fifteen techniques have, of course, many variations; the total number can amount to over two thousand. From the brief descriptions any thinking Judoka will readily appreciate the latent beauty and dynamic power of the Art of Aikido. He will also realize the assistance it will render him in his everyday life.
As one can see from this paragraph from Yamada’s Preface above, he was very much ad-dressing a judo audience and expected to gain recruits for his aikido classes from the judo fraternity, particularly the London Judo Society where he had been contracted to teach. Later his own club the Regency Judo Aikido Kai, proclaimed the importance that Senta Yamada attached to teaching both arts as two halves of a conceptually unified jujutsu that he had learnt from Kenji Tomiki. The LJS and the Regency club was not the only dojos where Yamada initiated the teaching of aikido. The September 1965 issue of ‘Judo’ magazine carried an advert for a ‘New Aikido Course’ commencing on the 13th at the Croydon Dojo, costing ‘£4 4s 0d’ for ‘Beginners’ and ‘£1 10s 0d’ for ‘Advanced Students’. The advertisement records that the ‘Dojo was es-tablished by Senta Yamada 6th Dan Aikido, 6th Dan Judo and is run under his aegis’, with further details available from the ‘Judo’ magazine address also in Croydon.

Senta Yamada’s first book covered natural posture, shizen-hontai, the posture-less state of mushin mugamae, the space condition or ma-ai, tegatana and the use of the handblade, tsukuri or preparatory action, foot move-ments, ukemi and the fifteen basic techniques. Almost the entire Tomiki Aikido curriculum at that time. The earliest reference to the sale of the book that the author has been able to find through internet searches is the March 1963 issue of ‘Judo’ mag-azine, then published by Judo Ltd, from 91 Wellesley Road, Croydon, Surrey. The magazine then co-edited by G. A. Edwards and A. R. Menzies, was advertising the ‘Ancient Secrets of Aikido’ for sale for the sum of 8/- (shillings) including postage.

In concert with his ‘Ancient Secrets of Aikido’ booklet, Yamada Sensei had also been writing a series of ‘how to do’ articles covering Tomiki Aikido in the monthly ‘Judo’ magazine. This magazine not only covered the activities of the British Judo Association but also the arts of aikido, kendo and karate as they were introduced and developed in the UK. Although the author has in his possession photo copies of Yamada’s articles numbering from number 7 to 20, shared by the late John Waite Sensei, they unfortunately do not include the dates and respective issues in which the articles appeared. The earliest reference that the author has traced so far is the March 1963 issue of ‘Judo’ magazine (Vol VIII No 6), which carried No. 13 in the series and is entitled ‘Regular Attack’. Once again the articles featured a comprehensive depiction of Tomiki Aikido at that time, with the earliest article the author has in his possession, No. 7, entitled ‘Tsukuri: Preparatory Action’. The article is supported by photo illustrations featuring Senta Yamada with John Waite acting as his uke. We can only surmise, unless there is someone who has preserved a full set and can enlighten us, that earlier articles detailed foot and hand movements and other basic elements of Kenji Tomiki’s system.

Senta Yamada & Alex Macintosh

Yamada’s next major writing project was to be ‘The Principles and Practice of Aikido’, co-authored by Alex Macintosh, or ‘Mac’ to his friends. The book not only described fully the Tomiki Aikido syllabus but also gave a brief history of the development of Japanese martial arts but also biographical accounts of his training under both Morihei Ueshiba and Kenji Tomiki. His co-author Alex Macintosh was an urbane television personality and worked for the BBC compering programmes in television and radio and as an interviewer for ‘BBC News and Current Affairs’ in Glasgow. He first met Yamada at the LJS, in Kennington and became his pupil and close friend and it was through the intervention of ‘Mac’, that a BBC Aikido Club was founded, taught by Senta Yamada. There can be little doubt that much of Yamada’s writings both his ‘Ancient Secrets of Aikido’ and the series of articles for ‘Judo’ magazine were ‘ghosted’ or least considerably edited and assisted by Alex Macintosh. From his arrival in 1959 to the publication of the ‘Principles and Practice of Aikido’ in 1966, where Alex Macintosh’s co-authorship is acknowledged, is perhaps too short a time for the acquisition of the language and grammar evident in Yamada’s writing for him to have authored the work alone. This is certainly the opinion of Bob Forrest-Webb who was himself an early student of Yamada and very much part of this circle of Tomiki Aikido pio-neers. In this respect ‘Mac’s’ contribution to the history of Tomiki Aikido has been largely unsung and is only now being given the recognition it deserves. Alex Macintosh remained friends with Senta Yamada, even after his departure from England and over the long period before he returned to our shores. The book was written and completed before Senta Yamada’s return to Japan in 1965 but was not published until the following year in 1966.

Kenji Tomiki contributed a Preface to ‘The Principles and Practice of Aikido’ which indicates the high regard and confidence that he placed in Senta Yamada and his teach-ing. Tomiki wrote:
“I am very pleased that Mr. Yamada has prepared this guide to aikido. He is one of my original pupils and has studied aikido deeply. He is a highly respected instructor and holds the rank of Sixth Dan for both aikido and judo.”

After giving a description of the genesis of his system, “which has come to be known as Tomiki Aikido”, Tomiki Shihan goes on to say:
“Mr. Yamada understands my methods thoroughly and is able to teach them well. It is therefore with pleasure that I recommend this book to the many people interested in the study of aikido.”

When Senta Yamada left England before the publication date of his book it was with the intention that he would take a three-month vacation in the land of his birth. As the news item from the Judo Aikido Kai penned by Don Burgess in the Club Forum section of ‘Judo’ maga-zine for May 1965 (Vol IX No. 8) records:
“As most of you will know Senta Yamada is now in Japan having returned home for a holiday for the first time in five years. We expect him back at the end of June, but three months is not long to catch up on an absence of five years.”

Yamada & Macintosh at the BBC

Later that year in the September issue of ‘Judo’ Don Burgess was to report in the Club Forum section some startling news:
“This month at the J.A.K. has been a mixture of sad and good news. Sad, because we have heard from Senta Yamada that he will not be returning to England; and good because Dennis Bloss, 5th Dan, has joined the Club as chief instructor.
Mr Yamada originally intended to return to England at the end of June, but has now decided to stay in Japan permanently. This decision is a blow not only to us but to British Judo as a whole.
We have been very fortunate in getting Dennis Bloss to take over the duties of chief instructor, and he now joins Peter Martin, John Waite and myself as joint owners of the Judo Aikido Kai.”

The decision made by Yamada which we will explore later, was indeed a body blow to ‘British Judo’ and of course to the growth of Tomiki Aikido in the UK. The loss of such a technician and teacher of outstanding capability, who had stood closest to the source as both a direct student of Morihei Ueshiba and Kenji Tomiki was irreplaceable. Yet in his five years in England, Senta Yamada had created a cadre of committed and talented aikidoka who were to carry his work forward and eventually in 1966 to establish the BAA, Britain’s premier aikido association. As Don Burgess also reported:
The 3rd Sunday morning will be an all grades Aikido practice under John Waite, 2nd Dan Ai-kido.”

It is possible to speculate that had he stayed, a unique partnership between judo and Tomiki Aikido might have been forged that would have given an even more dominant position to Tomiki’s version of aikido in the UK. However, speculation aside, what we do know is that the quality of his teaching and the enthusiasm he engendered amongst his students gave Tomiki Aikido a resilience and robustness that ensured not only survival, but continued expansion. Such robustness that in the following year, 1966, with the help and prompting of Kogure Sensei, another Tomiki Aikido sensei who had recently taken up residence in the UK, the clubs were able to join together and found the British Aikido Association.

When Senta Yamada returned to Japan in 1965 he found the politics of aikido, profoundly altered. Hitherto, Tomiki had considered himself as one of Ueshiba’s closest and trusted students and taught at the Aikikai Hombu in Tokyo, as did many other high ranking aikidoka from the pre-World War 2 days. With the establishment of an aikido club at Waseda University in 1953 and Tomiki Sensei’s subsequent experimentation with a competitive randori, similar in intention and character to judo, relations became increasingly frosty. While Ueshiba O’Sensei was never personally hostile to Tomiki, it is maintained that he disapproved of Tomiki’s experimentation with a competitive form of his aikido. Certainly, this was the view taken by his son Kishomaru and other leading teachers at the Aikikai Hombu and Tomiki’s presence there as a teacher was increasingly unwelcome. Despite this disapproval Tomiki remained loyal to Ueshiba O’Sensei up unto his death in 1969.

We have no recorded information that the author has been able to establish about Senta Yamada’s view of this situation or of the developments that Tomiki Shihan was making to his emerging interpretation of aikido. Certainly throughout his subsequent budo life he continued teaching Tomiki Aikido in conjunction with his profound study of judo, seeing them much as ‘two parts of one whole’ as Tomiki himself maintained. Although, Kogure Sensei described Yamada as one of the three most talented of Tomiki’s students, alongside Hideo Ohba and Tsunako Miyake the great teacher of woman’s Kodokan Judo, he was not destined to take on a leading role in what was to become the Japan Aikido Association. When the author put the question ‘why did he not play a more prominent role’, to Professor Fumiaki Shishida of Waseda University last year, he suggested that such was Yamada’s personal stature in the budo community of Japan, that he occupied an independent position that contented him. The space he occupied in judo community in particular, both in Japan and across, was perhaps more important to him than developments within the JAA. After all, his primary role while in the UK was as the leading judo teacher of the day and the Tomiki Aikido he taught, although seminal, was an adjunct to his professional career.

Jikoson-sama, Yamada’s spiritual director

The real answer seems to be in an aspect of his life that as out-siders to Japan’s religious culture we have not clearly understood, that of his attachment to Jikoson-sama as his ‘spiritual director’. Hanifa Leoni Macfarlane of Unity Aikido in Tasmania, recalls a meeting that she and John Gay had with Yamada in Japan. She remembers:
“He then said in the present gen-eration the Light was present in his Spiritual Director thus he revered and served her. He left the UK for this purpose as he was asked by her to come back to Japan. He lived at her com-pound from then on with occa-sional visits to his family in Fukuoka. I do not know what his “service” to her constituted but I believe he only did what was chosen for him by her. That obviously did not include becoming the next senior of the JAA but he kept in contact with JAA especially when we visited.”

From what Yamada told Hanifa Leoni McFarlane and John Gay about his reasons for leaving the UK we must assume that Yamada’s religious affiliation to Jikoson-sama predates his deci-sion to come to London as a judo instructor for the London Judo Society in 1959. We must also deduce that given Yamada state-ment that he returned at Jikoson-sama’s behest, this attachment was deep and profound. It must also have been quietly held, for none of the original members of the LJS aikido club that the au-thor has had the opportunity to discuss his time in the UK with, ever described him as in anyway ‘religious’. Although some of Yamada’s writing points to the deeper spiritual meaning of the practice of budo, this is largely discussed in the neo-Confucian framework that forms the con-sensus of budo philosophy. We are left therefore with an enigma, a man whose public face in the UK was as a great judo teacher and the founder of Tomiki Aikido in the UK, but also behind that face a committed disciple of one of Japan’s most controversial religious figures.

Senta Yamada was a follower of Jikoson-sama, the spiritual head of Jiu-kyo, one of the ‘New Religions’, shinshukyo, that arose in Meiji Japan, then became a more significant part of Japanese religious life through the 20th Century and into modern times. In the period between the two World Wars, when Japan’s militarist factions came to power, the state harnessed religion to its purpose of creating a nation imbued with a devotion to the Emperor as the embodiment of the nation. The Meiji established State Shinto religion was promoted and all other faiths, including Buddhism, were subjected to official scrutiny and control. This inevitably brought these new faiths into conflict with the authorities and the history of these faiths shows a pattern of persecution, suppression and the imprisoning of their leaders, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s.

What then was Jiu-kyo? Similar in some respects to Omoto-kyo, of which Ueshiba was a pre WW2 follower, Jiu-kyo was a sect operating outside the officially sanctioned and recognised National Shinto religion. These new religious faiths were often founded by charismatic women such as Deguchi Nao of Omoto-kyo or Nakayama Miki of Tenri-kyo, who claimed particular oracular insights given directly to them by a spiritual entity. Jiu-kyo’s spiritual leader Jikoson-sama, was a woman in her forties, originally known as Yoshiko Nagaoka, who came to prominence through her claims to have a close identification with the sun goddess, Amaterasu, from whom the Japanese royal family is said to have descended. All these women were visionaries who claimed a profound knowledge from direct communication with ‘god’ as expressed through the various incarnations in the Shinto pantheon.

In Jikoson-sama’s case she believed that she had was the re-cipient of ‘oracles’ originating from the sun goddess Amaterasu Okami, who Jiu-kyo followers worshipped as the embodied incarnation of god. In the late 1940s: “Jiu’s philosophy concentrated on restructuring the current social systems and world renewal. It did not recommend overthrowing the emperor but rather reaffirmed the importance of imperial rule. The sun god-dess played the main role in the achievement and administration of world renewal, whereas vari-ous buddhas and bodhisattvas had the task of saving people and cleansing spir-its.” [1]

The controversial nature of the sect sprang from this attachment to the Emperor, and the sects attempts to co-opt him to their faith, this was regarded by the Japanese wartime government as lese majeste, for which she was imprisoned. Later under the post-World War II occupation of Japan by US forces, Jiu-kyo came under scrutiny by General MacArthur’s Supreme Command Allied Powers internal security department, and the sect’s continued Emperor deification as potentially dangerous to public order. A raid conducted by Japa-nese police in 1947, was fa-mously resisted by Futubayama, the thirty fifth yokosuna (Sumo grand champion) who had recently retired and had been con-verted to the sect. The resulting public scandal and the vilification of Jikoson-sama and her Jiu-kyo followers by Japan’s popular press, led to a dramatic decline in its fortunes and a descent into relative public obscurity.

An aspect of Jiu-kyo’s religious practice also throws light on Senta Yamada’s subsequent life in Japan following his return from London. The group believed in communal living as an important component of their practice, as this extract from Dorman’s paper on Jiu-kyo describes:
“The feelings they shared were also intensified by their communal lifestyle. Many of them had been living together for an extended period, and they had to endure together evacuation and relocation after the fire-bombings in Yokohama and Tokyo. When the headquarters was re-established in Tokyo, there were between ten to thirty people living in the same house. As the community strengthened, it also isolated itself from the world outside. The members saw their headquarters as being a model of the original imperial palace, a pure holy world that had to be completely separated from the corrupt society outside and the secular world. According to Go Seigen [2], the lifestyle was one of monastic stoicism, and no contact with the outside world was permitted for the believers. Any unavoidable contact that had to be made was done with great care, and Nagaoka in particular would not permit casual visits or grant an audience (hai etsu 拝謁) with outsiders such as landlords [3]. This isolationism contributed to inevitable conflicts with landlords and neighbours.” [1]

When Yamada arrived back in Japan it was to enter into this form of communal living. Hanifa Leoni Macfarlane tells us:
“It was John Gay’s opinion, which I know was shared by John Waite, that in all other circumstances he would have been Ohba’s obvious successor.”

We can speculate what course the direction of Tomiki Aikido would have taken had Senta Yamada returned to Japan to play a full part in its development. Certainly his qualifications as the only other leading figure within Tomiki Aikido to have been taught personally by Morihei Ueshiba, aikido’s founder and had also been a prominent member of Kano’s Kodokan Judo, matched Tomiki and Ohba’s own budo pedigree. No one would have had more moral authority or technical history but instead as fate would have it, Yamada’s deep religious commitment prevented this from happening.

If Yamada’s judo and aikido story had ended with his return to Japan and entry into Jikoson-sama’s compound, then his life would have been less interesting for us than it turned out to be. In 1984 Jikoson-sama died, after which we find a late flowering of Yamada’s budo career, with a re-engagement with aikido and judo friends in the UK, Australia and across the world. It was to find proactive life again beyond Japan in series of teaching visits to the UK, Europe and Australia together with committed charitable work in Sri Lanka.

Although Senta Yamada had disappeared so suddenly without explanation from the UK, some of his ex-students maintained contact with him during all the years since his departure. Not least in this regard was John Waite Sensei, who had been one of first students and had taken ukemi for him at one of the famous Royal Albert Hall judo demonstrations which introduced Tomiki Aikido to the public for the first time. It was this friendship, re-established in person when John and Pepi visited Japan in 1983 and met Senta Yamada once again, that was to the catalyst to be his first visit to the UK for the 18 years since his departure.

“When John Waite and his wife Pepi touched down at Narita Airport just outside Tokyo, it was to be the fulfilment of an ambition that had taken some seventeen years to realise. John in common with so many martial artists had always wanted to visit and train in the homeland of his twin obsessions, Judo and Aikido. More than that, it was to be a renewal of friendships maintained over many years and thousands of miles.
The most poignant reunion was to be with a slight, unassuming Japanese gentleman waiting to welcome them in the airport lobby. For John, it was perhaps the most moving moment of the visit, to be greeted personally by his old teacher, mentor and friend, Senta Yamada, 6 Dan Aikido, 6 Dan Judo and the man who brought Tomiki Aikido to Britain.” [4]

When I wrote these opening paragraphs in a magazine article for Combat magazine in 1984, I was not yet to realise the importance of the relationship between John Waite and Senta Yamada, or the part that John Waite Sensei was to play in reconnecting Yamada to the British Tomiki Aikido story and the BAA.

As was described above, it is likely that Yamada’s departure from England in 1965 was at the urging of his spiritual mentor, Jikoson Sama of the Jiu Kyo, one of Japan’s shinshukyo, or new religions. His departure was abrupt and unexpected, leaving in its wake a considerable sense of lost among his students and collaborators. The unexplained na-ture of his departure and his lack of subsequent visits to the UK, led to a certain neglect of his importance and standing as Brit-ain’s first Tomiki Aikido missionary. Many BAA aikidoka, recruited after his return to Japan, were to learn Tomiki Aikido with little reference to Yamada and as Tomiki’s technical structure and methodology matured, it seemed his teachings had little contemporary relevance.

While the Tomiki Aikido pioneers, such as John Waite, Archie Bush, John Gay, Rex Benlow, John Wilkinson, Bill Lawrence, Loi Lee and others held him in close esteem and remembered the foundations of their practice as he taught them, many later Tomiki Aikidoka were to become more influenced by younger Japanese teachers. Following on from Yamada’s departure, the BAA was to be assisted in its early coaching development by such figures as Riki Kogure, Tsunamitsu Naito, Takeshi Inoue, Tetsu Ehara and Itsuo Haba. With them they brought the ‘new’ 17 technique/junanahon kata, changes to unsoku and tegatana go dosa and of course developments in practice of randori and shiai.
John and Pepi Waite visited Yamada in Japan in 1983 and were treated to a privileged tour as Yamada’s connections opened many doors that would have been denied to them. A highlight of their trip was a visit to the famed dojo of the Emperor’s police guard, secluded behind the walls of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. John Waite and Senta Yamada were to bond again during the trip and forge a new connection that would soon bring Yamada back to England.

The opening ceremony seminar taught by Senta Yamada 6 Dan Aikido, 6 Dan Judo, at the newly christened ‘Kikusui Kai’, Sutton Martial Arts Centre, London in 1984. Jikoson Sama’s gift to the club of the Rising Sun silk flag can be seen in the back-ground.

In 1984, Yamada Sensei came to Britain at the invitation of John Waite, to open John’s new Tomiki Aikido and Judo club at the Sutton Martial Arts Centre in SW London. Yamada brought with him a new name for the club, the Kikusui Kai and an association with other clubs in Japan and Australia, with the aim of promot-ing the principles of peace and understanding through the practice of aikido. The club was to bear the symbol of Kikusui, the personal ‘mon’ of the legendary samurai Masashige Kusonoki, from that time onwards, eventu-ally growing to a group of clubs within the BAA, practising with Senta Yamada as their mentor for both judo and Tomiki Aikido.
The choice of Masashige’s ‘mon’ by Yamada’s Kikusui Kai group becomes clear when one understands Senta Yamada and his religious mentor Jikoson Sama’s devotion to the person of the Emperor as part of their faith. Masashige Kusonoki was a 14th century partisan of the Emperor Go-Daigo in his struggle to reassert Imperial authority and wrest control of Japan from the Shogunal Regent Hojo Takatoki and his samurai Bakufu (‘tent’) government. As personal loyalty of this kind to the Emperor was unusual in this time for Emperors were puppets, manipulated by samurai Shoguns, Kusonoki has come to be regarded in Japan as the epitome of Imperial loyalty. His last act in obeying his Emperor unquestioningly was to lead out his army against overwhelming Bakufu forces, dying defiantly and heroically in the Battle of Shijo Nawate. A famous triptych print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) depicting his last stand, can be seen in the Victoria & Albert Museum and testifies to the fame and regard in which he was held by later generations. Yamada also brought with him a gift from Jikoson Sama to John Waite’s club of a silk banner, bearing the symbol of the rising sun of Japan. The symbol was intended not to be seen as not just that of the Japanese national flag but as a symbol for God and the establishment of peace for the world.

Before Yamada’s arrival in London, he had been the guest of honour at a similar opening ceremony in Australia, where he had opened the Aikido Study Centre in Melbourne, led by John Gay Sensei who had also been an early student of Yamada’s in London before he migrated to Australia. The late John Gay and Hanifa Leoni Macfarlane, the present head of Unity Aikido in Tasmania, were friends and sup-porters of Senta Yamada through years and understood the quality and perspective of Yamada’s approach to Tomiki Aikido.

After this initiating visit to England and the launch of the Kikusui Kai friendship group of clubs in the UK, Senta Yamada was to become a frequent visitor to the Kikusui Kai and other Tomiki Aikido and judo clubs around the country. This was to be particularly the case where club leaders had been taught by Senta Yamada and remembered him with respect and affection.

As we have described above, 1984 brought a profound change in the circumstances of Yamada Sensei’s life following the death of Jikoson Sama, who had guided his spiritual life for many years. Whatever the consequences he was to face in filling this space in his spiritual and private life, it did seem to coincide with a greater engagement in the budo world beyond Japan. In this enterprise john Waite was to be his champion and promoter within the BAA, arranging teaching visits to all parts of the UK and Ireland. While many of the older sensei who he had taught, enthusiastically responded to his visits and were eager for their students to experience the insights that he had to offer, it must be said that the BAA as an organisation did not make as much of his return as it might. During this period Nariyama Sensei was beginning to visit the UK, bringing with him the system of training which became known in the UK as ‘Shodokan’ aikido. This system of training was the joint project of the ‘two Shihans’, Fumiaki Shishida and Tetsuro Nariyama who inherited the technical leadership of the Japan Aikido Association upon the death of Tomiki’s close disciple and successor, Hideo Ohba. Nariyama’s teaching, with its dynamic technical character and effective execution, was attracting much attention and stood in marked contrast to Senta Yamada’s older style and softer presentation. The system developed by the ’two Shihans’ Fumiaki Shishida and Tetsuro Nariyama, both agile younger men, was becoming the JAA orthodoxy and presented itself as the embodiment of Tomiki Shihan’s teaching in the latter part of his life. As such this was the future, while to many younger aikidoka Senta Yamada seemed to represent the past.

This difference in approach was further characterised by Senta Yamada’s teaching methodology, which invariably was a lesson of principle, illustrated by technical application in both judo and aikido forms. In this Yamada closely followed the practice that Tomiki had developed, the idea that aikido should be seen analytically as ‘judo at a distance’ involving the same principles and bio-mechanics discovered by Jigoro Kano, but applied through kansetsu waza, the use of wrist locks, floating throws and elbow controls rather than closer grappling applying leverage and sweeps. Senta Yamada, like his mentor Tomiki Shihan, had also been a deshi of Ueshiba O’Sensei and a talented student of Kano’s Kodokan Judo, for him Tomiki’s design of teaching aikido through the principles of judo made irrefutable technical and philosophical common sense which he could demonstrate through his own practice. It would be true to say that given the reappraisal of Tomiki and Ohba’s earlier teachings now under way within the JAA, the BAA and Europe, had we paid more attention to Yamada’s teaching when the opportunity presented itself we may have learnt many ‘inside’ technical insights that would have given us a fuller picture of Tomiki Aikido.

While we must say that, despite John Waite’s efforts to get Yamada exposure throughout the BAA, the BAA’s leadership, while holding Yamada in high esteem, did little to promote or assist his visits. Nevertheless, through John Waite’s efforts, Yamada returned in 1988 to the UK and taught at John’s club in Tooting and at the Yawara Centre. At that time Yawara was the UK’s only permanent Tomiki Aikido dojo and was led by Loi Lee Sensei, another early student of Yamada. Both seminars were reported in the short-lived magazine, Budo News International No 1, published by members of Loi Lee’s European Aikido Association. In the article, Rob Lawrence describes Yamada’s teaching methodology and practice:

The similarities and direct paral-lels between Dr Kano’s original teaching and the theories of Professor Tomiki were made self-evident in both demonstration and design. Those of us who attended the seminar at John Waite’s dojo in Tooting were privileged to witness Yamada Sensei perform the Koshiki No Kata [5] – a graceful and flowing demonstration of soft power, which was both effective and beautiful to watch.
This principle was amplified upon the teaching to follow. There was a very strong emphasis on fast and fluid centring of the body about the hips.
Relaxation was the order of the day – an emphasis that gave a surprising speed and timing to the techniques being practised. Un-accustomed to performing sutemi waza, the body ached a bit; but most of us were recovered enough to take part in a follow up session at the Yawara Centre.
This was a smaller and more inti-mate gathering – the renewing of an old friendship that goes back a long way…

Senta Yamada teaching at his club in Fukuoka, Japan

Yamada was to continue to visit the UK. In march 1998 he visited London giving seminars at the Kikusui Kai in both its venues at Tooting and Sutton and renewing and old judo association with a seminar held at Cambridge University. Senta Yamada was highly regarded by Cambridge University’s judo fraternity and was President of Cambridge University Judo Club. This visit also saw him fly to Ireland to give an aikido seminar in Dublin. During his stay with John Waite he was able to take time out and make a flying visit to Italy before returning to London and then catching a flight back to Japan. Accompanying him on this trip were Mr Hamatsu and Mr Yamasaki.

In 1999 Yamada sensei was back again, this time as Guest of Honour at the ‘Festival of Budo’ staged to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the British Aikido Association at Tooting Leisure Centre in South London on the 30th September. The event was reported by extensively in the local press and Yamada Sensei’s demonstration was filmed and televised by ‘Cable 17’ a local cable TV channel. Organ-ised largely at the initiative of John Waite, the event drew many visitors to the demonstrations from BAA clubs throughout the country and was a very successful event.

In April of 2000, Yamada was again back in London and Sheffield and then again in 2002, accompanied by his student Mr Hamatsu. For a significant number of BAA clubs Yamada Sensei, despite their high regard for the teaching of Shishida and Nariyama and their engagement with their interpretation of techniques, represented a more profound ‘softer’ expression of Tomiki Aikido that they wished to uphold. Yamada became their ‘sensei’ and the embodiment of a continuity they wished to maintain alongside the innovation and change stemming from younger JAA teachers. Yamada’s concept of Budo was very concerned with the formation of character and personal self-realisation and was unconcerned about the sport aspects of Tomiki Aikido, concen-trating on what happened in the dojo and using randori as a method of discovery rather than a vehicle for ‘winning’ and competitive success. For many BAA clubs, then and now, this focus of Yamada suited the nature of their own practice and gave them encouragement, support and confirmation that they were pursuing a legitimate pathway. In this way, Yamada Sensei has left a continuing legacy within the BAA that beholds us to value, review and remember lest it is lost.

Senta Yamada in Sri Lanka

That Budo should inform one’s character and be a spur to the pursuit of peace was also demonstrated by the charity work he engaged with. John Waite described his many travels and engagement with the world in an obituary he wrote shortly after Yamada’s death:
Yamada sensei travelled all over England, Europe, Australasia, and America teaching both Aikido and Judo, while at the same time developing people’s awareness of the needs of those less fortunate in the third world. In addition, he travelled to many third world countries. One of these was Bangladesh, where he personally transported medical supplies to enable three of his students to provide free medical treatment for the less fortunate in their area.
He also travelled to Sri Lanka where, in addition to setting up a dojo and teaching aikido, he helped people to study and de-velop organic farming – a project which is still carrying on to this day. His many contacts throughout the world enabled him to carry on this work. I am sure his influence will continue for many, many years to come.

In 2002 John Waite and his wife Pepi, immigrated to New Zealand where they set up a new dojo in Wellington and continued teaching Tomiki Aikido. Their long-standing relationship was maintained with visits from Yamada continuing up to the end of his life. Senta Yamada Sensei, the ‘father’ of UK Tomiki Aikido died on Sunday the 8 August, 2010 at Hara Doi Hospital in his home town of Fukuoka, Kyushu after a prolonged illness. John Waite said this on his teacher:
Throughout our 52-year rela-tionship, there has always been a strong bond of love and affection – something I will treasure for the rest of my life. I will endeavour to teach my students with this same spirit.

The BAA can be proud to have been associated with a man of such great character, humility and compassion. In his life, he exemplified the pursuit of the true spirit of Budo and serves us with an example that we should strive hard to emulate.

Copyright Paul Wildish ©2016
All rights are reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited

Published on Aikido Italia Network thanks to the kind concession of the author

Senta Yamada’s funeral display in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan


[1] Benjamin Dorman, “SCAP’s Scapegoat? The Au-thorities, New Religions, and a Postwar Taboo” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 31/1, p. 112-113).

[2] Go Seigen 呉青源 a Jiu-kyo member and arguably the greatest i go Japanese strategy board game player of his time.

[3] Tsushima 1991, p. 349-50

[4] “A 6 Dan Reunion”, Paul Wildish, Combat, Vol 10, No 11, October 1984

[5] Editor’s note: Kodokan Judo’s most profound kata