Fusing aikido and language studies a potent combination

Akiko Tamura able to overcome anorexia, separation to thrive with Yokohama dojo

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Literally across the globe, martial arts fans flock to their favorite dojos and disciplines, thanks to the fluid strength and cool demeanor of the activity’s many superstars. Equally as important to fans are the philosophies behind the physical aspects of martial arts.

Akiko Tamura, nearing 60 and just over 155 cm tall with the slim body of a young girl, doesn’t match those famous martial artists in strength. Nor does she spend too much time musing on those philosophies.

For her, martial arts, specifically aikido, has always been more about the mental side. This sixth dan black belt knows that behind the physicality and the philosophy lies a simple way to happiness, exemplified in Tamura’s life and in her dojo in Yokohama.

Tamura remembers clearly what led to her first mental downturn, although she can’t pinpoint a reason — only a strong feeling.

“I was in my classroom in junior high school, sitting by the window. I casually leaned my arm against the window, and when I moved it again, I realized I had crushed a tiny insect. I just decided, there, never to eat animals anymore. Nothing — no fish, no meat. I was only 13 years old, so I didn’t know anything about nutrition, but I just rejected eating all animals or even drinking milk.”

Tamura naturally lost weight, quickly dropping 4 kilos to reach 44 kg. With her slim frame, she was happy with the weight loss, although she reflects it was not so much about looks.

“Back then in the early ’60s, we didn’t worry so much about being thin. Of course, girls always think about it a little, but there was not the overwhelming pressure like there is today from magazines and celebrities.” It was more about asserting control: “It felt so good to lose the little bit of weight, so I worked harder to lose more and more, eating less and less, and soon I could no longer judge how I looked.”

Even though Tamura’s father was a doctor, anorexia was virtually unheard of in those days, in Japan or the rest of the world. It wasn’t until 20 years later, with popular American musician Karen Carpenter’s death in 1983 from anorexia that the disease even entered mainstream knowledge.

Tamura’s family and doctors struggled to understand her psychological inability to gain weight, and it took her three years to resume a normal life. Although she finally regained weight, Tamura needed to rebuild strength and muscle endurance.

“At my lowest, I weighed about 30 kg, and I looked just like a skeleton. Even after I rebounded, my body was stiff and weak, and I couldn’t even sit in one position for very long.” A friend studying kendo tried to convince her to join, but the equipment fees deterred her. Instead, she visited an aikido dojo.

“Everyone was paired up, practicing the movements, and I was so impressed by the circular, fluid moves. In judo, you just tackle and throw, but aikido is very flowing.”

Tamura started training at the world-respected Aikikai Honbu Dojo in Shinjuku, and the physical confidence she gained encouraged her to also exercise her mind. “I had lost three years of education, too, so I wanted to study something,” she said.

Tamura began taking English lessons, and the two disciplines, aikido and English, merged within Tamura’s world. Many foreigners were a part of her dojo in Shinjuku, so she could practice English in aikido or discuss aikido in English class.

By 1974, three years after starting her training, Tamura reached the fifth level and qualified for a black belt. “I had thought I would just quit after I reached black belt, but it’s really at that level where you can enjoy aikido more, getting more into it, and I started training four or five times a week.”

Tamura’s enjoyment and skill in languages had also improved, and in the early 1970s, she took a course in French during the summer, and then traveled to France for a month to both practice aikido and develop her language competence.

Seeing a new world, firmly grounded by what she knew of aikido, Tamura returned to Japan with new confidence. She began working for Time magazine in the subscription department but devoted herself to aikido. “I started taking three classes every day: the 6:30 a.m. class before work, and then two evening courses.” Tamura also continued studying French and English.

By 1978, she was ready for another overseas trip. Training in Paris under the now famous European aikido master Christian Tissier; cutting grapes in Libourne in southwestern France; then to Portugal, staying in a small, beautiful dojo, soaking up experiences while sharpening her skills in aikido and language. Every weekend she and her aikido friends traveled to other dojos, training and sightseeing.

Tamura also spent six months at Oxford, studying English while based at a local dojo. “I was here in Europe, from the home dojo in Japan, a third dan — I was welcomed everywhere and treated very well,” she said. “Even at that time, 35 years ago, there were over 300 aikido dojos in France alone.” Tamura spent a year and a half in Europe this time, before returning to Japan and her mother’s home in Chiba.

Tamura married a fellow aikido student in 1981 from the Shinjuku dojo, an American who came to Japan to study aikido. The couple remained devoted to aikido and the Shinjuku dojo, even with the time constraints of raising two children, but eventually they decided to move to Yokohama to give their children more chances to interact within an international community.

After moving to Yokohama, Tamura and her husband established their own dojo. First operating out of the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club and later moving to a local junior high school, they found members within the expat community of Yokohama and among the new friends of their children, Sam and Julie.

Although her life and mind-set had stabilized, Tamura never lost sight of why aikido was so important to her. After many happy years, Tamura needed that aspect of aikido again as she experienced a painful separation following more than 20 years of marriage. Once again, aikido helped her cope.

Based on her personal experience, Tamura decided to change the focus of the Yokohama aikido dojo — now hers to run on her own.

“My ex-husband focused on physical strength, since he is quite strong, but because of that emphasis, for many years we only had a few female members. All of our main members were strong men who preferred hard training,” she recalls.

“After I started leading the classes, I changed the focus toward the mental side. Aikido is a mysterious and wonderful force. I have found through the years, whenever I am down or depressed, if I just start practicing aikido, my mental state will turn 180 degrees and become positive.”

Tamura’s dojo currently practices out of Honmoku Junior High School, and she attracts a wide range of people from various backgrounds. Teaching five classes a week, spread out over three days, Tamura keeps focused on giving back a little what she herself has gained: “I have one member who has Asperger’s syndrome, others who lack confidence. I realized through raising my own children that if you can instill a sense of confidence, life will be better. Achieving a higher level, you will naturally accumulate confidence.”

Tamura’s work in aikido and with language has recently presented her with a new challenge. One of her aikido students, a Mexican national, introduced her to the thriving Latin community in Yokohama. Tamura now studies Spanish and has started an organization to bring the Latin cultures together, especially after the recent economic downturns.

From her home in Yokohama’s Yamate area, Tamura runs Club Cultural Latino, organizing Latin-themed parties and cooking classes, and she eventually hopes to offer Spanish and Italian language lessons. Her work with CCL also gave Tamura a chance to witness firsthand the problems facing many foreign workers and asylum seekers, and the mental stress many of these individuals face.

“Even though Japan has joined the refugee treaty, the immigration bureau still detains people for years, even if they are in the process of applying for refugee status,” she says.

Tamura has joined the nongovernmental organization BOND, which was started last year to support asylum seekers in Japan, and hopes to help raise awareness of Japan’s confusing laws regarding immigration and refugee status.

“With the earthquake, lots of countries all over the world are helping Japan, and we can not restart and reorganize Japan without the world’s help. It seems we should be able to help foreigners in Japan who are in trouble, including asylum seekers. We need to be more open as a country and accept people from other countries,” she says.

With all her work in the international communities of aikido and beyond, Tamura realizes there are many reasons to study martial arts or learn a new language, but for her, opening the door to new experiences and providing stability within her own uncertainties has given her a lifelong faith in aikido and being open to other cultures.

She appreciates the chance to instill confidence in others, as hard work and a ganbatte spirit speak clearly, regardless of language.