What Makes US Taido Karate Unique?

This is an article that I originally wrote at the request of the Finnish Taido Kamae Magazine. While by no means exhaustive, I believe it’s a good background on what sets American Taido apart from that practiced elsewhere. Since only a Finnish translation will actually be published, I’m posting it here for the benefit of Taidoka in English-speaking countries.

Taido in America is very different from Taido anywhere else in the world.

Though based on the same original principles as those taught in other countries, American Taido has developed under a unique set of circumstances which has led it to become its own entity. In many ways it even looks different from the Taido practiced elsewhere.

In order to understand what makes American Taido what it is, it’s necessary to know a little of its history.

We in America owe our knowledge of Taido to a man named Uchida Mitsunobu. Having practiced karate in high school, Uchida studied Taido for two years in university before coming to America as an exchange student in 1972. After graduation, he returned to Japan to earn 4dan renshi and Shukumine Sensei’s permission to spread Taido in America.

By 1975, he decided to build his school in Atlanta, Georgia. Since there were few municipal gyms like those in Japan and Europe, Uchida had no choice but to open and promote his school as a commercial venture. It has been his full-time job ever since.

Since Uchida originally incorporated Taido as a business, expansion to multiple locations has always seemed like a financial risk to him. Instead, he’s focussed on building one large dojo, and with well over three hundred students, it’s probably the largest Taido dojo in the world. There are great advantages to this. American Taido students have a dedicated facility with a full-time instruction staff consisting of Uchida, his son Mitsuaki, and one more instructor. Children and Adults have beginning and advanced classes available six days a week. Plus, the large number of students provides a huge community of support that feels much like family.

On the negative side, Taido has to turn a profit to continue operating. Students pay a tuition that covers not only the rent and upkeep on the facility, but also the livelihoods of the instruction staff and their families. In order to accommodate over three hundred students in a weekly schedule, classes run only about forty-five minutes and include up to forty students on a floor only slightly larger than a standard jissen court. This makes hokei training difficult, and jissen practice is only available once or twice each week.

Still, the school has attracted a dedicated following and continues to grow.

In some respects, American Taido looks like Taido’s past. When Taido was young, most of the instructors had backgrounds in karate or another martial art and taught their classes in a similar fashion. However, as younger generations began teaching, hokei and jissen came to occupy a larger proportion of the training. Owing to Uchida’s karate background and the limited space available to each student, the daily training in America is very focused on kihon. Students typically warm up with some calisthenics before proceeding to spend the rest of the allotted time period working on a technique or combination such as sentai-shajogeri.

Uchida’s long absence from training in Japan is also evident in the curriculum. In America, students still learn untai first. In fact, the untai no hokei practiced in America is the old version which was later adapted to created unin no hokei. Untai’s direct movement is simpler and made more sense to those with prior training in karate. When Uchida left Japan, there were no -in hokei yet. Also no katsumei, enmei, or -sei hokei. Taii no hokei was the only “advanced” hokei and necessary for promotion to 3dan. As a result, most Americans in the past learned only five or six hokei. Recently, the -in hokei are being introduced to more young women and black belts.

All of this isn’t to imply that Taido has stagnated for thirty years in America. On the contrary, it has been evolving in its own way. On the whole, I believe American Taido teaches a more combat-specific style of Taido than anywhere else in the world. Americans equate the martial arts with fighting, so any successful dojo is going to have to address topics such as self-defense and (since the UFC became popular) Mixed Martial Arts competition. As a result, students also practice techniques derived from Jiu Jutsu, wrestling, and Muay Thai. In recent years, grappling has become an important part of the curriculum for serious students.

Despite the emphasis on fighting in some segments of the student body, most students will never compete in a tournament or even learn to be at all proficient in jissen. The vast majority of students are under the age of eighteen, and many are in the four to eleven range. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of parents and older adults ranging in age from forty to over sixty years. Unfortunately, there are relatively few students in between those ages. While many high school students enroll in classes, very few reach shodan unless they began as children. Even then, most of them never return to practice after beginning university.

Still, as long as new students continue to become interested in Taido, the school will probably keep growing. Of course, this article has only addressed the headquarters location in Atlanta. There are also one other small dojo in Florida and the university club I started at Georgia Tech ten years ago. However, both of these locations consist of only between twenty to thirty students each, and this article is already too long.

At any rate, American Taido is certainly an interesting phenomenon – a very unique piece of the Taido universe, small as it is. I feel that, just as every other dojo could, we Americans could stand to improve our Taido in a number of ways. But on the other hand, there are few things that we get very, very right.

Most importantly, American Taido is still a work in progress, and its students continue to experiment with ways to make Taido best suit their unique situation.