Lewallen Sensei Shoubo Dojo Tucson AZ

A Closer Look At Lewallen Sensei

Cody Lewallen has been a student of martial arts for over 20 years, more than half of that time in Japan. As a teenager he studied many styles including Kenpo, Ninjutsu, Jujutsu, Hwa Rang Do, Karate, Iaido and Kenjutsu. He researched extensively trying to find a martial art that was personally fulfilling. Aikido became his passion which led to moving to Japan right after graduating from college. Cody moved to Japan to study Aikido before his degree was mailed to him.

Lewallen Sensei earned his black belt in Aikido at the Aikido Tenshin Dojo, the school founded by Miyako Fujitani and action star Steven Seagal. He stayed in Japan, a loyal student of his teacher Fujitani Shihan for over 11 years. In fact, because he learned to speak Japanese during his lengthy stay in Japan, he not only studied Aikido and weaponry from Fujitani Shihan, but she also became his mentor and spiritual teacher.  Because of his intensive study in Osaka at the Tenshin Dojo, and his continued practice, 19 years later Lewallen Sensei was awarded a 5th degree black belt in Aikido. There are thousands of “5th degree black belts” in other martial arts out there, but at the Tenshin Dojo, keeping to the tradition and the full meaning of that rank, Cody Lewallen is only one of a hand full of students to reach that rank from the Tenshin Dojo.  He also has black belts in Sword, Stick, and Knife Fighting.

During this adventurous time, Lewallen Sensei studied, Shinto, Oomoto, Zen philosophies, and the Kototama. These esoteric philosophies are usually impossible to study first-hand by a non-Japanese -not only because of the language barrier, but also because of the inherent intricacies of these ideologies being embedded deeply within the Japanese culture. Even today, Lewallen Sensei continues the traditions he started over a decade ago in Japan, chanting ancient Shinto and Oomoto prayers daily. Some of the more lucky students have accompanied Lewallen Sensei on his treks to do Misogi (Purification ritual) in the waterfall and mountains.

Complimenting these many years in Japan, Lewallen Sensei also has a degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Arizona.

Lewallen Sensei instructed American Naval & Air Force personnel stationed in Japan in Aikido, stick, sword and knife fighting. He put his skills to the test while managing the security team at the largest social club in Tokyo. There he had the opportunity to confirm his technique and experience its effectiveness. After witnessing Lewallen Sensei’s calm demeanor and masterful qualities during those days of battling the Japanese mafia and other random ruffians in the club, many of his security team joined his martial arts school. He is one of the few authentic masters that not only teaches martial technique, but ancient wisdom and life lessons learned from studying in Japan, the birthplace of Aikido.

 

 

Interview with Cody Lewallen Sensei

August 31, 2008
By Dave Audelo

Dave: Lewallen Sensei, thank you for sitting down with me, I am sure many people are interested in your unique knowledge that you have gained being in Japan for so long studying Aikido, and at Miyako Fujitani and Steven Seagal’s School, no less!

Lewallen Sensei: Oh, it is my pleasure. I think back to when I was younger and wide-eyed at anything Asian. I wanted to get to Japan so bad and learn from the masters! It is neat to see the same interest from other people- it kind of validates all the time I spent over there, away from my family and friends to chase the dream, you know?

Dave: Well, not really… what was it like in Japan, studying with the masters?

Lewallen Sensei: Hard. The dojo’s in America, God bless America, but a lot of school’s over here in the States are kind of ridiculous. I coined a term, “McDojo”. Just like your favorite fast food chain- they are all over the place-on every corner, selling junk that is terrible for you. Selling meaningless black belts and protein bars, with kid “instructors”, new mats and mirrors everywhere. Oh, and let’s not forget the motivational posters. ugg. What does a candy bar have to do with Aikido?! The whole thing is an enterprise or more like a social club over here- it is unfortunate. It is however a little understandable. For the average martial arts school to survive, they have to do something to make enough money to stay afloat. The bad part is that the training is compromised by the business side of things.
The Tenshin Dojo in Osaka, when I was there, was a big 2 story building with 20 year old tatami mats- hard as rock. They were uneven, with big crevices between them for your toes to get stubbed on! No hot water for the showers. In the winter you just grit your teeth and get in. Japanese old-school toilets, you know? -the kind that are just a porcelain hole for you to do your business and get out. You arrive at the school, change your clothes, get upstairs and stretch out before the teacher gets there. There was not a lot of talking or whatever. Everyone was there to do Aikido, not rant about their boss, the traffic or the weather or whatever.

Dave: Wow that sounds rough.

Lewallen Sensei: Yeah, it was. but it makes you stronger, you know. Over here people complain about how hot it is outside or whatever when they are “training” and I just shake my head. The dojo’s over here in America have air conditioning for heavens sake! Give me a break! In Japan it was wring your dogi out when you were done so when you walk home, it is not so heavy with sweat! There was no air conditioning! You just get to open a window and let in the Osaka humidity! (Laughs)

Dave: Yeah, I guess I can see you thinking the American schools are a joke.

Lewallen Sensei: No, I didn’t say that. They are just different, that is all. I mean, are you there to socialize or to train in Aikido? The whole mentality is different in Japan. Getting a drink of water during class is considered fairly pathetic in Japan. If you are being attacked on the street, are you going to ask for a time out, so you can go get a beverage?! If I go to the Mcdojo and someone offers me a candy bar, I politely refuse and start training- that is why I am there! And, I think people understand. If they don’t they can still enjoy their little theme-park-dojo and I will still enjoy my workout. Besides, it is not the place you train, but how.

Dave: Live and let live, right?

Lewallen Sensei: Exactly. We are all one.

Dave: So did you have a hard time joining schools over in Japan?

Lewallen Sensei: No. That was the easy part. You see, usually, the teachers enjoy having a foreigner in their class. They treat you like children sometimes, but you also tend to get a bit of extra attention from the teacher. That is one reason why I advanced faster than a lot of my peers. Unfortunately, that did lead to a little jealousy too, but Japanese people are very good at hiding their emotions so it didn’t affect me very much. The jealous ones would sometimes attack me harder than usual, but they soon learn that the harder you attack someone in Aikido, means the harder you are going to land when you fall! (laughs)

Dave: Yeah, I think I learned that lesson from you already! (laughs) I have noticed that your technique is different than what I see on the Internet, or when I have visited other Aikido dojos.

Lewallen Sensei: Wow, good eye! There are many subtle differences, some not so subtle (laughs) that set us apart from the rest of the Aikido world. Steven Seagal and Miyako Fujitani Shihan did their homework. They realized that Aikido has to develop with the rest of the martial world. With all the new martial arts coming out, Aikido has to defend against many new kinds of attacks that they traditionally did not have to deal with.

Dave: Yeah, I saw you do some very impressive kick and knife defenses. Amazing, I didn’t know Aikido was so fast!

Lewallen Sensei: Most Aikido isn’t…(grins)

Dave: What else makes it so different than the Aikido McDojo on every corner?

Lewallen Sensei: Well, I don’t want to get into the “I am cool, you are not” debate, but, Fujitani Shihan is a woman, as you know, and she can’t compete with the strength of men. Luckily, she doesn’t have to with Aikido. The thing is, most teachers say “use your ki” or “don’t use your muscle, use your opponent’s energy” -not that they even understand what they themselves are telling the students, but the teachers are red faced and out of breath when they are done! Fujitani Shihan had to give up trying to use her strength and was forced to develop good technique precisely because she is weaker then the men she was training with. Add that to the raw severity of Seagal Sensei’s technique and you have some awesome traditional Aikido that works. Not to mention the sword technique that they studied over the years. Aikido came from the sword, so if you can use the sword, you can see the sword movements in Aikido and that will improve your technique immeasurably.

Dave: What advice do you have for your students?

Lewallen Sensei: I know this sounds very cliche but, empty your cup before you walk inside the dojo. It is so important to just do what the teacher says. It reminds me of that old movie The Karate Kid. I love that movie. It is such classic Japanese culture. I love that part when Danial-san gets so frustrated from waxing and painting and whatever Mr. Miyagi was having him do, and then he gets frustrated and tells Mr. Miyagi he quits because he is not learning Karate. Little did he know- I mean that literally too, little did he know, that he WAS learning, he just didn’t trust his teacher. Then Mr. Miyagi starts punching at him and he blocks every one! I mean that was “open mouth, insert foot!”

Dave: (laughs) Yeah, but I guess it is hard to trust people in this day and age.

Lewallen Sensei: Not any harder than it was a hundred years ago. Just don’t go to a dojo that sells candy bars at the front desk and expect to get something that is obviously not there. You should feel the mojo of the dojo right as you walk in. You don’t even need to speak to anyone, and you will know if it is a real Aikido school. Just like when you fall in love, you will know it if it is there.

Dave: Yeah, there was definitely something special I felt when I walked in here!

Lewallen Sensei: You know another thing, it is funny but, in Japan, the word “why” never leaves the mouth of an Aikido student in Japan. It is not that the word is banned or is considered dirty, but it just never enters the mind of a student in Japan- they know the teacher will teach them what they need to know and have no use for the question.

Dave: What do you mean?

Lewallen Sensei: It is linked to the level of respect that the teachers command. Teachers are so respected that it could be insulting to question him. It is so different over there. Here, a student stubs his toe and he sues! Absolutely ridiculous. They are taking a martial art- a contact sport where getting injured is almost guaranteed. A student suing his martial art teacher is like slapping your own mother in the face. It is despicable. Shameful. Don’t get me started.

Dave: Yeah, those students should be black-listed. But is just asking a question so bad?

Lewallen Sensei: Try looking at it from the Japanese perspective, not the American one. Think of it this way. You ask Van Gogh how to hold a paint brush. He shows you, and then you ask him “why don’t you do it like that?” It is just a waste of time.

Dave: Yeah, I can see that.

Lewallen Sensei: It is also a waste of all the other students time too. Japanese students automatically don’t ask too many questions in class- not only because it is not their place to question the teacher, but they don’t want to disrupt class and waste all of the other students time doing it. They automatically think what is best for the group(the dojo) and do not place too much energy on their individual desires. That is why you have sempai- the senior students. Why do the senior students have to sit there and listen to the teacher explaining the same thing over and over for years for the newbies that just walked in the door? Why would the teacher explain the same thing over and over again every day? And what have the newbies contributed to the dojo that they deserve to get all thier questions answered right when they want? Knowledge flows downhill- from sensei to sempai to kohai(beginning student). You see, respect and thinking of others is a massive part of Japanese culture. Every thought, every motion by a Japanese person is steered by respect of others-not driven by their selfish desires. That is also a driving force of Aikido too. Thinking of others as just as important if not more than yourself.

Dave: Your classes are pretty expensive, don’t mean to be rude (smiles), but they are quite a bit more than the other classes around. But I guess with your credentials, you get what you pay for, right?

Lewallen Sensei: Well yes and no. Yes, I do have more to offer than most, but students do not pay for classes at the Shoubu Dojo.

Dave: All right! Free Aikido!

Lewallen Sensei: (Laughs) That is the American in you rationalizing what you think is a give and take, or a business transaction. This is not the western idea of supply and demand at work here. I am teaching traditional Japanese Aikido not selling black belts. Look at it like this. When you become a member of Aikido Shoubu Dojo, you are entering into a relationship. You are not paying for classes. You can’t put a price on that. You can’t buy the wonder of Aikido. And I, don’t want to sell you anything. We are entering into a special Japanese style relationship of Student and Teacher. I agree to teach you, you agree to listen, watch and learn. I could never repay my teacher Fujitani Shihan for what she has given me. That is priceless. Your mat fees help support the dojo and are paid by your teachers belief in you, as well as the respect you show for your seniors, your fellow students, your training area, and your diligent study of aikido at the Shoubu Dojo. This is a very important distinction.

Dave: That is actually kind of fascinating.

Lewallen Sensei: Well, again, I am trying to teach Aikido. It is much more than just a system of movement. That is one of the points that get glossed over in your McDojos around the way.

Dave: What is it like being taught by Miyako Fujitani Shihan?

Lewallen Sensei: Let’s see. First, we usually call her Miyako Sensei. She is very relaxed and uses a good amount of levity in class. However, she is like a nit-picker on steroids- and she loves to harass me. I think it was one of her hobbies. I remember one time I finished throwing a guy with Kote Gaeshi and Miyako Sensei screams from the other side of the mat “Kora! Nani shiten no kimi?!” Which loosely translates to “Hey! What in the world are you doing!?” I freeze and she walks over very quickly, and I swear, she moves my hand over 1/2 and inch into position. 1/2 an inch! But, I look back and I truly appreciate all the harassment. It is hard to sound humble, but dang, she carved my technique out of steel man. I am glad she was so hard on me- now, that is (laughs).

Dave: I have talked with some of your female students, and they say you are gentle and a great teacher. But, when I talked with some of your male students, and they said you were powerful and a real serious. Why do they give such different answers?

Lewallen Sensei: The founder of Aikido said: “Aikido wa jikotaisei no michi desu.” Which means, Aikido is the way of self-perfection. Everybody in my school doesn’t need to learn the same thing. Or said another way, everyone has a different path to perfection. I teach what helps the individual learn more about themselves.

Dave: For all the Aikido students out there, what is your favorite technique?

Lewallen Sensei: Oh, jeeze, I don’t know. I’ll tell you though, Ikkyo, is nice. Very practical. In the club one night, this sailor swung on me while I was ‘helping’ him out the door. It flowed right into Ikkyo and I launched him right out the door. He bounced off the lockers first, but then he fell right out the door. It was like billiards- drunk guy, corner pocket! It was great!

Dave: (laughs) wow, it sounds like you got into a lot of scraps in Japan.

Lewallen Sensei: Yes, I did. Being Caucasian in Japan, or really any other race, other than Japanese makes you a magnet for weird times. Everybody is drawn to you because you look so different- the drunks, the nice outgoing that want to help the foreigner, the kids, the other foreigner, and unfortunately, the hot-heads who want a piece of the white guy!

Dave: You mean “unfortunately for them!” (laughs)

Lewallen Sensei: Yeah, I guess it did not help working in a club. That is why I worked there, though, I wanted to put my technique to the test. I ate too much red meat back then!

Dave: Did you every have any problems with the police?

Lewallen Sensei: When doing security, it is important to be on a good rapport with the cops. You see, if you leave a mark on a Japanese person, you go to jail. Period. And with Aikido, you don’t usually punch or try to hurt anyone unless you have to- and I don’t want to hurt anyone. Those military guys they are just letting out a little steam from being in a country they don’t want to be in. I can understand that. That is the neat thing about Aikido, if you are good enough, that is, you don’t have to hurt anyone. You can control them to the severity they choose. And as an Aikidoka, it is your responsibility to respect and care for your attacker, and not to unnecessarily injure him just because he attacked you. He is confused and it is your job as the stronger to protect him, even in his times of darkness, just as you would have him respect you in the same way.