During those early days in America, Haruo Matsuoka and Steven Seagal encountered many difficulties as they strove to promote aikido and run a commercial studio in California. Few Americans had heard of the art, and even fewer had any concept of what it was even after watching a class. “When we started teaching in the San Fernando Valley, we were always hurting in terms of enrollment,” Haruo Matsuoka said. “I can’t tell you how many times I thought of giving up.”

It continued that way for three years until the release of Steven Seagal’s first starring vehicle, Above the Law, in 1988.

Above the Law turned the tide for aikido instructors around the world, resulting in an overnight boom in enrollment.

The new Tenshin Dojo found its previously empty tatami mats packed with 30 to 40 students per session.

Haruo Matsuoka continued to serve faithfully as chief instructor of the studio, overseeing the business and doing demonstrations even when he was frequently called away to appear in Steven Seagal movies whenever there was a need for a guy who could withstand the hardest throws and endure the meanest falls.

Those grueling years opened Haruo Matsuoka’s eyes to some of aikido’s finest treasures. On one level, he became extremely proficient at randori, the multiple-attacker freestyle training method for which the art is known.

But comparing his randori sessions to footage of other aikido instructors’ workouts was like placing a stiletto in a rack of butter knives. “You have to move your feet in such a way that you put yourself in a safe position in relation to your attackers,” he said.


Black Belt Magazine 2014

Jon Price