Lou Perriello doesn't seem like a martial arts expert with 35 years of Aikido training, and extensive experience teaching police tactical hand-to-hand self-defense. He talks softly and looks like somebody's uncle -- silver hair, a broad girth and gold wire-rimmed glasses when he's not on the mat. Appearances are deceiving.
As one of the first students of Aikido on the East Coast of the United States, he helped found the United States Aikido Federation. More recently, he was asked to assume responsibility for the Aikido Divisions of both the United States Judo Association and the United States Martial Arts Association.
We spoke with him at Northeast Aikikai, the Massachusetts dojo he founded in 1978.
PERRIELLO: In 1962, I was studying Judo when Hatanaka Sensei started teaching Aikido in Boston. I watched, and wasn't impressed with the technique. It looked like it was choreographed, and that people were falling because they were supposed to fall.
The first class I participated in, Hatanaka demonstrated the most brutal nikkyo I've ever felt in my life and he made me a believer.
In 1964 or 1965, Doshu came to Boston with Yamada Sensei. We dragged virtually every martial artist who had a gi into the dojo for the class. We had approximately 80 people on the mat. Doshu obviously thought they were all Aikido students.
After the class, Fred Newcomb, the head of the dojo at the time, convinced Yamada Sensei to talk to Doshu about sending a Japanese instructor to Boston.
Approximately a year to a year and a half later in October of 1966, Hombu Dojo assigned Kanai Sensei to Boston.
PERRIELLO: The first years were really difficult years for Kanai Sensei. He came anticipating 80 students. There were only six to eight of us who were practicing on a regular basis.
The first dojo we trained in was upstairs over a strip tease club. We paid the rent and tried to support Kanai Sensei in the best manner we could. He had a lot of years that were very lean. In a lot of classes there would only be two or three of us on the mat with him.
AJ: And there were language problems?
PERRIELLO: When Kanai Sensei first came to the United States, he couldn't speak English, so basically we had to just watch him demonstrate and then mimic the technique until we could develop them.
For some reason he really used to enjoy beating on Fred Wagstaff. Every time he threw Wagstaff exceptionally hard, Fred would always look at Kanai and smile. And he'd thank him and call him a, shall we say, colorful metaphor.
At that time Kanai would always smile back and say, thank you. "Arigato."
Four or five years later, Fred was sitting in the lounge one evening, and Kanai walked into the lounge. his face was red. He was furious.
He walked up to Wagstaff and punched him as hard as he could.
Fred asked Kanai, "Why? Why did you hit me?"
Kanai Sensei replied, "After all these years I finally know what you used to call me on the mat after I threw you hard."
AJ: Did you feel that the Shihan were beating you up?
PERRIELLO: No. We practiced alot harder and faster in the 60s and early 70s than people do today. Especially harder. The techniques were harder, much harder. The attacks were stronger
AJ: Why do you think that the intensity of Aikido has changed?
PERRIELLO: I think it's a matter of economics.
In order to establish yourself and survive teaching a martial art like Aikido, you can't trash people and you can't thrown them the way it's possible to thrown them. You lose students.
AJ: How were you involved in the founding of the United States Aikido Federation?
PERRIELLO: The USAF organized in the late 1960s to consolidate Aikido into one organization affiliated with Hombu Dojo, to establish guidelines for rank, and to promote Aikido and make it grow throughout the United States.
I worked administratively with Frank Regan setting up different guidelines, trying to put together a constitution and rules. Things like that. I was strictly volunteering to help get the organization established the way the Shihan wanted it.
AJ: What was it like?
PERRIELLO: (Smiles) To tell you the truth it was alot of fun. I miss the camaraderie and the people. It's unfortunate that virtually all the people who had started training with me in Boston are out of the Aikido world now. We used to have a lot of good times, and shared a lot of good memories.
At that time it really wasn't that political. There really weren't alot of control issues over who was going to do what and who was going to decide who did it.
AJ: Why did you leave the USAF and join the
PERRIELLO: After becoming a professional Aikido instructor, I found myself running into road blocks and being dictated to as to where I could teach and where my students could teach. This was unacceptable.
For 15 years while Northeast Aikikai and my students supported the USAF, I found it impossible to get a Shihan or a senior instructor to come and teach a seminar.
The only instructor who came to the dojo on regular basis was Sekiya Sensei. His style wasn't flashy, but it was very powerful and strong. He emphasized internal energy, rather than brute physical strength. There were objections to his visiting other schools in the area. He wasn't trying to establish an organization or plant flags. All he was interested in doing was sharing his knowledge and technique with all of us.
After trying to resolve these issues unsuccessfully, I was forced to resign from USAF.
AJ: Do you think that the political agendas conflict with the philosophy of Aikido?
PERRIELLO: I'm going to give you a really short and sweet answer.
The political issues are economic issues and they all revolve around dollar signs. Who's going to make the money, and who's not. Whoever has the power has the control.
I think it comes down to Shu Ha Ri. Shu Ha Ri are three kanji that describe the cycle of training.
Shu, the first stage, is building the technical foundation of the art and loyalty to a single instructor.
Ha, the second stage, you must reflect on the meaning and purpose of everything you have learned.
Ri means go beyond or transcend. In the Ri stage, the art truly becomes the student's own -- his or her own creation.
Students get to a certain rank, and then it's the dangle the carrot philosophy. No matter how close they get they're not going to be able to reach it. Shihan seems like a private and exclusive club. You have to have been born in Japan, studied with the founder, or trained at Hombu to achieve a certain degree.
Don't let yourself get trapped in the Shu cycle of your Aikido training.
This is why you have new organizations springing up. They realize that, banging their heads against the wall, they're not going to get anywhere else. Then they look for another organization, or they become completely independent.
AJ: How are the Aikido divisions of the United States Judo Association (USJA) or United States Martial Arts Association (USMA) different?
PERRIELLO: I've got to be careful with this. This is political. (Smiles)
The purpose of the USJA Aikido division is to spread Aikido to the thousands and thousands of martial artists who practice outside the Aikikai umbrella. My mission is to try to generate the same quality Aikido with these people that the Shihan have tried to generate through their various Aikikai associations. I've found that there are probably 150 or 200 marital artists to every one person who practices Aikido. Many of these people want to learn Aikido in various degrees.
There are also alot of people who aren't satisfied with Japan-based organizations. They prefer promotions through national organizations. This is true in many European countries where the desired Dan certification come from national organizations, which are usually preferred over Aikikai. In other countries, you'll find many individuals holding the rank of 7th Dan through national organizations while their Aikikai grade is only 5th Dan. This doesn't necessarily mean that the quality of their Aikido is better or worse than a Hombu trained seventh Dan.
Before a person is given any rank in the USJA Aikido division, they have to test for it. If they desire verification of rank, they have to produce proper credentials from a genuine Aikido institution. If a USJA or USMA student wants, he/she can join an Aikikai affiliated organization -- USAF, ASU, AAA, etc -- and after completing their requirements and successfully testing get Aikikai credentials.
AJ: Did you join the USJA and USMA for the promotion to Seventh Dan?
PERRIELLO: No. Rank was not an issue. You don't need a number in front of or behind your name to train and develop in Aikido.The true enemy you compete with is yourself. You strive for self-improvement through the philosophy and the technique.
Some people wondered if Toyoda Shihan offered me any incentives. At the time I joined AAA, I felt that Toyoda's Aikido was equal to the other Shihans, yet his official Aikikai rank was 5th Dan, the same as mine. When I interviewed with him, he asked me what I was looking for. My response was respect and recognition for my students, and support for Northeast Aikikai.
The Seventh Dan rank that the USJA and USMA have awarded me is what they consider "Senior Teacher's Rank." The directors of these organizations insisted that I needed this rank in order to direct the Aikido programs. It is given to individuals who have practiced and taught in excess of 30 years. Generally a Hombu ranked instructor who's been training over 30 years would have achieved the same rank, usually in less time.
PERRIELLO: Before I got involved, I had a long discussion with Toyoda Shihan. His mission is to spread Aikido and teach it to anyone who wishes to learn throughout the world.
His comment was, "There's no rule that says you can only belong to one organization. If you don't assume responsibility for these organizations somebody else will. This is an opportunity to spread Aikido to people who ordinarily wouldn't approach it through Aikikai affiliates. If you assume responsibility for these organizations then you're committing to establishing standards comparable to Aikikai. Go for it."
AJ: What kind of Aikido will you teach these other martial artists?
PERRIELLO: Just like religion, as Aikido grows in popularity throughout the world, individual interpretation of the art varies. We're trying to emphasize Aikido is an effective marital art. We'll be teaching all the basic concepts, such as centering, low posture, leverage, using the other person's body motion against them, blending.
The most difficult thing to teach is basic tai sabaki. Most other martial art styles depend on crashing and countering with strikes. We try to emphasize getting off the line and moving with the other person, redirecting their power into a control technique. We're not trying to achieve a victory. We're trying to control the situation through attitude first and secondly technique.
It's still Aikido, whether you call it USJA Aikido, USMA Aikido, USAF Aikido, AAA Aikido, and so on.
AJ: How different is it teaching law enforcement officers than a typical Aikido student?
PERRIELLO: At a seminar I attended in 1978, Saito Sensei emphasized that in Aikido we sometimes have to initiate to cause a response. When the person responds we blend and use our Aikido technique. In law enforcement, you wouldn't use an atemi.
It could be as simple as putting out your hand as if you're offering to shaking their hands. "Hello my friend, give me your hand." And then you go into a control technique. Especially since the Rodney King incident in LA, law enforcement has emphasized control tactics.
I stick to three or four basic techniques that are very effective and that you can get into from various types of attacks or situations. Through repetition and role playing, hopefully they'll take this back to the field with them. It doesn't change attitudes, it just gives them another tool to successfully complete their assignment, their job. Unless they become a permanent student, virtually everything they do is hard physical strength. They don't really learn any of the internal energy concepts.
But it works. I recently got a report from a woman prison guard who was able to move an inmate using a basic Sankyo technique. Another guard in a maximum security prison has been able to control several situations using Nikkyo techniques.
PERRIELLO: I teach classes six days a week. Before I began training with Sekiya Sensei, my technique was always very powerful and strong, but I felt as though it was more physical strength than internal energy. After studying with him, I tend to drop my body weight and lower my body two or three inches doing techniques.
AJ: Is it difficult to change your techniques after practicing one way for so long?
PERRIELLO: I've tried to steal everything I can from every instructor I've trained with. Maybe steal isn't a good word. I try to do the technique the way the instructor demonstrated and described it, and find out if it works well for me.
When I teach, I try to stress the number of subtleties and the varieties of ways you can achieve the same result. The way you enter or the extension might be different. This gives the student an opportunity to experiment and develop the technique for themselves without cloning. I don't say, "You have to do it this one way and if you don't it's wrong." Ultimately, it's the end result, not necessarily how you got there.
AJ: One subtlety you emphasize is working the pressure or the gap between the thumb and forefinger...
PERRIELLO: When you want to force the extension, which is very important to go past somebody's upper body strength, the way you have to do that -- from any type of wrist grab -- is by leveraging against the thumb and index finger. You're going against the weakest point in the hand. Uke is forced to either move for you by extending their arm, or let go because you're going to break the hold. You want to apply enough pressure against the thumb and index finger to force the extension of the other person's arm and have him move for you without letting go. This is leading the other person's center, leading the other person's Ki.
AJ: I've noticed a reticence in New England instructors to talk about Ki.
PERRIELLO: Ki... My understanding of Ki is basically as a concept of internal power. Internal energy. Which is a combination of centering, moving in a low posture, relaxed, shifting you weight in a low posture on your knees, side to side, up and down, blending with an opponent through extension.
Most people who have practiced for a long time have had the experience when uke attacks and nage blends completely with that person.
Everything is exactly right. They're moving with uke like gears meshing together. They find themselves throwing that person effortlessly.
My understanding is that when you experience a technique like this, you've experienced Ki. Internal energy flow, power, and complete blending with an opponent. This is something that we all strive for.
I once asked Osawa Sensei, "How do you achieve this all the time?" He seemed to throw people effortlessly without really thinking about it. I'll never forget his response.
He just smiled and said, "Practice."
As far as magic lights and lightening bolts from my fingers -- it hasn't happened yet -- but I'm working on it. (Laughs) Of course, on occassion several of my senior students have seen flashes of light when they hit the mat. (Laughs again)
AJ: Tell us what you like best about teaching at Northeast Aikikai.
I've shown senior people in my dojo subtleties hundreds of times without them grasping the concept.
And then, all of a sudden, enlightenment! After hundreds or possibly thousands of repetitions they feel the technique and they grasp the concept. They put it into their technique and they've climbed another step.
No matter how much you think you know, there's always more. You can learn by observing beginners as well as other instructors, regardless of the level. Don't ever think you know it all. A true Aikido practitioner is a student until the day he dies. He's learning forever.