Mits Uchida is the founder and head instructor of the “United States Taido Association.”
He’s a man who is in many ways paradoxical. Under his tough exterior, he is kind and compassionate. Though he sometimes finds it hard to recognize the contributions of others, he cares deeply for each of his students. Despite his current disdain for me, he has repeatedly placed me in a leadership position in his organization. Sometimes, he can be pretty difficult to understand.
Saint or Sinner?
Some people don’t like my teacher very much. Some say that his Taido is either incomplete or inaccurate. Some say that he is cocky, egotistical, or selfish. Many appear jealous that his personality and Taido knowledge are making him good money. I feel the concerns are simple politics. Those critics have probably felt some personal resentment towards him at some time or other. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that most of the people I’ve heard making remarks about Mits Uchida have seldom had a personal conversation with him.
On the other side of the coin, I see some people genuflect to him as if he were some sort of deity or vassal lord (a situation he enjoys and somewhat encourages). This group includes the usual collection of yes-men (rather, ossu-men) and sycophants that tend to form around charismatic and impressive people. There are also a few true-belivers who really feel that Uchida-Taido is the best martial art on the planet. My biggest disagreement with them is the notion that my teacher’s version of Taido represents the apex of martial theory and application; I believe it’s possible to make Taido even better.
At one point, both above-mentioned camps (detractors and supporters) had been actively attempting to recruit me. I found it interesting that people spent their effort trying to educate me about Mits Uchida. It was damn-near hilarious, in fact, because I’ve known the man for most of my life.
Some people have known him much longer, but few of them spent hours and hours in his presence every week, as I did from age 7 to 25. With the exception of his own children, very few people have received nearly as much of his interference and intervention as I have. I studied under him in Taido for a long time.
Beyond that, I have studied him – the way he teaches, the way he runs his business, the way he thinks, and why. He’s been a role model to me in many ways. I am something of an Uchida expert, and in the course of becoming such, I have discovered things I love and hate about the man I still call “Sensei.”
As far as Taido goes, Mits Uchida is the hardest-working man in show business. He’s full-time, all the time, and when I used to call the honbu dojo from Japan in the middle of the night, he answered. He’s given me a lot of good advice through the years, and he’s done genuinely nice things for me – even when nobody else was around to see it.
He has his reasons for doing what he does and how. It’s not my habit to make apologies on another’s behalf, nor to suggest that another should be apologetic. I know of my Sensei only what my own experience has shown me, and this includes actions and tendencies better and worse than anything I have heard from others. It’s on this experience that I base my beliefs, some of which will be revealed below.
From the Beginning
A few months past my seventh birthday, and a few weeks into the second grade, my father took me to enroll in classes at the original Taido dojo, on Buford Highway in Doraville. We talked with Uchida for a while, and then my father signed some papers. A couple of days later, I had my first class. I remember Sensei taught me fudozuki and left me alone for a few minutes to practice. I punched and punched and punched for what seemed like forever, and then Sensei returned and told me I was doing it all wrong.
I think a lot of people in American Taido had a similar first experience. Probably owing to his karate background, Uchida was always a stickler for kihon. The pattern I remember from my white-belt period centered on doing lots of repetitions until we got something right. At that time, children’s classes were a full hour, and at the end, we would all line up and “test” in front of Sensei one by one. Back then, we would often fail and have to try again. As the school grew and other students became black belts and instructors, it was less and less likely to have Uchida teach us for an entire class, but he would always appear at the end to test us. Earning his approval was the most important part of practice.
After a few years, we had built up a large group of advanced children, so Sensei started a special class for us – “Top Gun.” Top-Gun was a half-hour longer than the regular classes and included instruction in Taido theory and lots of jissen practice. For the first couple of years, Uchida made a priority to always teach this class personally. We loved him, and we were pretty sure he loved us back. Every week, he filled us up with all kinds of information about Taido. Some of the articles on this website are based on notes I took as a twelve-year-old in this Top-Gun class. No shit.
Looking back through the years, I’ve always been impressed by the absolute precision of sensei’s movement. He’s always been so strong and tough. I even remember being somewhat afraid of him at times. Even as he’s gotten older, none of that strength and precision seems to subside. It’s almost funny sometimes that he can go for months without appearing to practice at all, and then out of nowhere, he’ll do some small thing that is just absolutely astounding to watch. I’ve come to the point where I can say I have some pretty strong techniques, but Sensei’s kicks amaze me still.
It’s that power to amaze which he seems to have really cultivated to an art form. Never content to keep up with others, Sensei loves to dream big. He’s not really what you would call well-rounded – there are lots of peaks and valleys with him. He likes to pick a few things that he can master and then work at making sure that nobody can come close to touching him. He’s never afraid of failure because he knows how to ensure success. Sensei once told me that, during his university days when he had to compete with senior students to get noticed, he would sometimes intentionally screw up to catch Shukumine’s attention.
Some Real-Life Lessons
All of that precision and strength notwithstanding, Sensei is a sweetie. If you ever spend much time in his presence, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is that he has a great smile, and he likes to use it. Speaking as someone at whom he is sometimes not-too-pleased, I have yet to spend more than a couple of hours around him and not see it. Even when he’s pissed, he still manages to feel joy in what he does and see the humor in things. He even laughs at himself being pissed. How can you not like that?
In fact, one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned form watching Uchida has very little to do with how to kick or punch, or especially flip (because let’s face it, he was never very good at tengi). It’s how to use charisma. If anyone I know can turn up the charm to win people over, it’s Mits Uchida – the man practically sweats charm.
I’ve tried hard (with varying degrees of success) to learn how to make people love me the way they love him. Sometimes, I’d be teaching English to a group of usually quiet and bored-looking junior high school students, and I’d notice that they’re all looking at me intently with big eyes and bright faces, and I’d think to myself “don’t let go of what you’re doing now – you’ve got them! They’ll learn now!” and then it passed and I felt as if I was talking to the wall again.
The ability to use personality to reach people is important in business, which is no doubt where Sensei perfected his skills, but it’s also vital in education. I consider myself a teaching/mentoring type of person, and as a schoolteacher, Taido instructor, and fake big brother, I’m constantly working to “reach out and touch someone.” My personality clashes with some people, but it also makes my teaching style unique, and this ultimately leads to stronger relationships with my students and more effective practices. I learned this entirely by watching my teacher.
The art of winning people over is about more than simply persuading people to support you – it’s about creating relationships. Relationships work both ways – to lift each other up mutually, as brothers and sisters. While I’ll admit that I sometimes find it incredibly difficult to cooperate with Uchida, the give-and-take method has always been inherent my interaction with him. I’ve certainly found this process to lead me to greater accomplishments, and I’ve made contributions to various things in which he takes pride. I guess we’re cooperating after all.
I could also write about the take-no-shit-from-nobody attitude he’s taught me to employ when necessary (but he hates it when I use it on him). Or the fact that he has helped demonstrate to me that it’s OK to be paid for doing something you love – that your career doesn’t have to be work. Or the generosity he’s shown in helping me find ways to get by when I didn’t have much money to spend in college. Or, or, or… I could probably write a book about the things I’ve learned from my sensei, but you probably wouldn’t be interested in much of that…
“How much does he really know?”
OK, so after gushing about how much I’ve learned form Uchida inside and outside the dojo, I’m going to totally change my approach and put forth an interesting question that I never thought to ask myself until very recently. Primarily, I want to ask “Just how much does Mits Uchida really know about Taido?”
I guess I should preface this by saying that this notion was first brought to my mind in a conversation I had with another Taido instructor in early 2006. In essence, that instructor said something to the effect I would be returning to America knowing more about how Taido is currently practiced than any other American Taidoka. In this case, the context and wording aren’t very important. The message was: you now know more than your teacher.
One the one hand, I had just never really considered that I would ever amass more Taido knowledge than Sensei (though he’s always told me that I eventually should surpass him – in fact he used to be very explicit in stating that it was my job to be better than him). Part of me thought “Well, yeah, I guess that’s possible. After all I know many more of the hokei and am more familiar with the current versions of the technique and judging methods, etc, etc” Yet another corner of my mind just said “Huh?” And I sat there, stupid, not knowing how to respond.
Now that I’ve had some time to consider this instructor’s remark, I think I can decode it a little better. Firstly, I want to point out some of the factors that may fuel such an argument. Let’s start with Uchida’s days as a Taido student.
Looking at the Taido timeline, we can clearly see that my teacher spent only a short time studying Taido under an instructor. He joined the Taido club at what later became Tokyo International University (already having earned a karate black belt) in 1968. In 1970, he took a scholarship to Williamette University in Oregon. That’s only two years. After graduating American college (not Williamette, but Dana, in Nebraska), he returned to Japan and took one more year to earn an economics degree and Shukumine’s blessing to teach Taido in the States. So let’s call that three years of formal Taido instruction.
Now that’s not very long, and I’ve heard a few folks claim that this diminishes Sensei’s level somewhat. These people obviously don’t know Mits Uchida very well. I have never met anyone who is as focussed, driven, or achievement-oriented. When Uchida decides to do something, it happens. Simple as that. I’ve seen him workout (not in class – his real workouts) and can attest that he holds himself to some seriously high standards. When 20-year old Mits came to America with three years of formal Taido instruction behind him, he had the goal to be the best Taido teacher in the world. I’m not comfortable with superlatives, but he is damn good.
As for not knowing some of the hokei – well of course. Most of the hokei in Taido had not been created when Sensei was a student, and some of them were done in different forms. In recent years, American Taido has begun to incorporate the -in hokei into the curriculum. I have taught jinsei to a few students, and may someday teach the remaining -sei and -mei hokei. It’s not necessary for Sensei to be a hokei encyclopedia. Part of the reason for having a team is that we can each fill in the gaps in each others’ knowledge.
When I tested for 4dan, I performed a hokei that Sensei did not know very well. He had learned it but never really practiced it. However, he would have been able to tell if I had screwed it up. Genius mathematicians don’t need to memorize formulas – they understand the principles that make them work and apply them. I feel the same goes for master martial artists, and Uchida is one. He understands the principles on a level that very few instructors can match.
Still don’t believe he’s that big of a Taido expert? You don’t have to. His status was clearly conferred by the Boss (not Springsteen, Shukumine). The way I see it is this: if Shukumine thought that Mits Uchida had the knowledge and skills of a Taido 7dan, then who the hell am I to argue? Nobody. While I may disagree with Shukumine’s theories on certain details, I’ve not achieved a level of egotism at which I feel I understand what constitutes Taido ability better than it’s creator.
So how much does he know? Quite a bit. Sensei once laughed off his limited hokei knowledge, saying “How many hokei do you need, anyway?” (The answer depends on how you arrange your curriculum. In a kihon-based school like the American HQ, you really don’t need so many forms). Sensei’s done the work, and he knows plenty of stuff that you can’t learn by just watching a couple of videos. There’s a lot he doesn’t know, but what he does know is gold.
Do I know more than my sensei? About some things, yeah. I’m a nerd, so I know a lot of stuff about a lot of things, but these are mostly things he doesn’t need to know. Anyway, I’m still learning from him all the time. So I guess we both know more – it just depends on the topic.
One thing Uchida has always made clear to most of his students through the years is that he basically requires a certain amount of ass-kissing. He has expressed this in different ways at different times. I vividly remember one Top-Gun class lecture in which he explained to us that in Japan, kissing up to someone was given a euphemistic gesture resembling grinding sesame seeds in a bowl. This is a gesture I’ve seen him make suggestively many times.
Many martial artists in various styles lament the prevalence of politics in an activity that should by all rights be free of petty jealousies and such. But after all, martial arts are based in competition, and there will always be those who, failing to make the grade in one area or another, will attempt to make up for it by making others look smaller. Uchida’s love of flattery invites politics at a fundamental level. In fact, this is a classic Japanese trait and is pervasive in “traditional” martial arts schools.
Perhaps all of this helps explain why so few people manage to remain active in Uchida’s organization for longer than a certain amount of time. Knowing my own tendency towards being opinionated, I used to worry about my future in Taido. American Taido has had a lot of full-time instructors in its 30+ year history, and very few of them are still on speaking terms with Uchida. To date, no American black belt has ever spent any significant time training Taido in Japan and returned home to any sort of welcome at the American headquarters.
Sensei’s single-mindedness causes friction when others disagree with his vision (or form any visions of their own).
To my teacher, control is primary. This is because he sees it as the only way to maintain quality – and the quality of Taido students is on average very competitive with students of other traditional martial arts. Some students even achieve great skill on a more objective level. For Uchida, this is confirmation of his success. My chief argument with him is that successful does not equal optimal. I feel that Taido could be more successful if we adjusted our methods in certain ways. Sensei doesn’t like people to talk about adjusting the way he does things.
For quite a while, a few years ago, the US Taido homepage was “under construction.” It sat there for over two years with a picture of Uchida, a phone number, and the words “coming soon.” I’ve come to believe that this was the most accurate possible representation of American Taido. In American Taido, there is only one man who is allowed to make decisions, and that man is Mits Uchida. He’s said repeatedly that his organization is not a democracy, and he carries the burden of being the one man in charge every day.
But that’s what makes him who he is, and it’s a large part of what makes his school what it is. Every day, Sensei is there, doing what he does, the way he does it. In many ways, it’s inspiring to see the man still personally directing every aspect of his school. I know that he’ll continue to do so until he is no longer capable.