I was lucky enough to be one of Joe Thambu Sensei’s students while studying Aikido, spending 1 month as a live in student with him at his dojo in Melbourne, Australia.
Joe Sensei began training at aged 11 in his Uncle’s dojo in Malaysia. At an early age he was lucky enough to be exposed to martial arts, and come into contact with high level martial artists such as Donn Draeger. After studying with his uncle, Thamby Rajah, he then moved to Australia and after trying other styles of Aikido and finding they didn’t suit him – he set up the first Yoshinkan school.
In 1993 Joe Sensei tested to 5th Dan under Gozo Shioda Kancho – the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido and was both the youngest non-Japanese to test to that level, and the last to be tested by the Yoshinkan founder.
Now an 8th Dan and head of the Aikido Shudokan. Joe Sensei is know for his speed and dynamic Aikido even at 59 years of age. He talks about his history in Aikido, what a functional martial art really is, and the future of Aikido in the 21st Century and why it has such a bad reputation in some circles.
A man I could spend hours talking to about martial arts (while drinking beer), as I say in the interview, if I lived in Australia and trained with him, I would still be practicing Aikido I think! A man that deserves a huge amount of respect, we are honored to have part one of our interview with Joe Thambu Sensei below.
Here we interview Kenji DuBois Lee, main man responsible for bringing the Jacques Payet Project to life. Jacques Payet is a 7th degree black belt in Yoshinkan Aikido and was live-in student of Yoshinkan founder Gozo Shioda for many years. As a westerner in Japan, Payet Sensei was able to build a close relationship with Shioda Kancho and wasn’t as bound by the rules of the student-teacher relationship and so was able to form a close bond with Kancho Sensei, gaining many insights in to the man and his powerful form of Aikido. Payet Shihan now teaches around the world and is revered by many as one of the top Yoshinkan Instructors in the world. He also recently graded me to 3rd Dan and is a thoroughly nice guy! Here’s the interview!
Hey Kenji thanks for interview, what is your background?
I have been living in Japan for nearly 7 years, making short films for the past 4. I like to consider myself a Self University graduate seeing as I pick up tricks of the trade mainly through online tutorials and real life trial and error. I shoot, write, and edit wedding, promotional, and business videos for a living. I’m happily married to the world’s most amazing woman who brings me happiness everyday. My interests include hanging out with creative action-takers, beaches, mountains, and soccer.
How did the JP Project initially come about?
One day a good friend of mine, Izzy, told me, “Dude, I’m gonna move to Kyoto and dedicate my life to aikido: intensive training 6 hours a day 5 days a week for a year.” After that year, he did it again! Over the years I watched as Izzy transformed.
Physically, he made me feel like a slob for not having a six pack and waking up after sunrise, but he also went through a rather impressive internal transformation. His business boomed, spirituality deepened, and even with the newly acquired bulge on his knee resulting from hours on the tatami mat, he was constantly exploring the boundary of possibility.
Because I was the video man for his business I spent a lot of time filming him, listening to his ideas, discoveries, and interpretations of a purpose-driven life. Purpose – which Izzy seemed to find loads of in the dojo – was taking a stronger grip on my life as well. Inevitably we spent many conversations exploring the overlap of martial arts principles and everyday life.
As you might have guessed by now, Izzy was training at Kyoto’s Mugenjuku Aikido dojo under the instruction of 7th degree instructor Jacques Payet, who, as Izzy pointed out to me in one of these conversations, “has an amazing life story that would inspire the sh*t out of you.”
Thus the stage was set for me to enter the dojo and meet the man himself.
My first time in Kyoto Mugenjuku dojo was for a 5 day shoot where I produced a short film highlighting the dojo’s Kenshusei program. This short film was well received by Jacques Payet and the international community.
A year later, Izzy, Jacques Payet and I sat down for some coffee in a small cafe across the street from the dojo. This was when Jacques Payet told me about his journey of becoming a 7th degree master, and what his hopes are for the future.
We came to the conclusion that film is a very effective tool to reach the masses. With the unforeseen success of the Kenshusei short film, we decided to implement this tool once again, this time to deliver Jacques Payet’s life story. The desired outcome being a wave of inspired and purpose-driven youth across the globe.
What was it that made you think JP would be a great choice for the project?
From my understanding, in aikido there is a push and pull between what I control and what I don’t. Even though the extent of what I control has a limit, if I am committed and effective enough I can use these outside forces and be part of something amazing and far more powerful than anything I could do alone.
This project is the perfect example of such forces combining. The timing, the people involved, the city I moved to, all these outside forces were staring me in the face like, “C’mon man! This opportunity is right here, right now. So what are you gonna do about it?!”
So I committed.
Now as for why I think Jacques Payet would be a great subject for this documentary film project.
Yes, Jacques Payet overcame challenges, accumulated accolades, and gained the respect of the martial arts community around the world. Yet, the even more significant part of this project isn’t exactly his life.
What strikes me is how so many young adults are taking the same journey a young Jacques Payet did and how even more people are stepping into their own journey.
The important thing to note is their journey.
Jacques Payet is blazing an amazing trail but it’s not as if he wants others to follow him. Rather, he wants to see others fully commit to blazing their own trails.
He wants you to feel alive – not just to go through routine, tradition, and necessities – but to truly feel alive, by finding your own path, committing to it, and embracing the discoveries along the way.
In this sense, this documentary project came to be because of the inspirational power Jacques Payet’s journey has, as well as me choosing to step up to my own.
Just after my 3rd Dan test
What do you hope will be achieved through the project?
In a word: empowerment.
Personally, I’m finding so much happiness blazing my own trail in this part of my life right now. I’m 29, well-travelled, blessed with an amazing wife, ridiculously supportive family, and talented friends around the world. When I told them, “Hey, I’m gonna make my first feature length documentary film” I was met with mixed responses. To be completely honest, I had no clue how I’d do it, who’d help me, where I’d get the resources, and I began to hear that all-too-common voice of doubt. I had a long list of reasons to give up – worse yet – not even try.
But as fate would have it, the subject of my very first feature length documentary is an aikido master.
And like any master will say, to master anything requires doing what’s difficult, uncertain, and often unrealistic, just out of reach.
So for me as a filmmaker, I hope to stretch my filmmaking career by learning as much as possible while I take these steps into the unknown. Even though I had been shooting and editing for years before this project started, I had never tried launching a crowdfunding campaign. I had never built a production team. I had never drafted an official request for funds. I had never made a pitch to influencers. I had never spoken with a bona fide producer about confidential private placement memorandum documents. I had never consulted with a campaigning agency. Now, even though we’re still in pre-production, I can happily say I’ve done all of these things and learned so much along the way. Image what I’ll have learned by the time we’re in post-production!
Most importantly, I know that there will always be more to learn. I know this because 7th degree aikido master Jacques Payet told me, “Of course I still learn new things everyday. It’s neverending. It’s for life.”
Even a master continues to learn.
Hence the name of Jacques Payet’s dojo ‘mugenjuku’ which can be translated as ‘never ending training.’ He instills this principle in his students and it is one of the messages I hope to share with the JP audience.
Simply put, whatever you want requires endless effort.
This process – endless effort – uncovers possibilities that are buried within ourselves which surface in the face of adversity. The more and more possibilities come to the surface, the more and more empowered we become.
Jacques Payet personifies this. Ultimately I hope to use his life story as a mirror so the JP audience can start finding possibilities within their own lives.
And if someone was making a documentary of me making this documentary I would hope that audience feel empowered as well! They would watch as an aspiring filmmaker makes his debut feature project about a martial arts master. Unexpectedly the young filmmaker begins to connect martial arts principles to his own life, in turn applying them to filmmaking, and begins blazing a new path in the world of cinema.
See, I wasn’t even able to articulate this a year ago!
How far is the project in development?
We’re in pre-production. We’ve done extensive research on what production level we can take JP to depending on how much monies we raise. We’ve spent even more time writing and editing the story of JP, again, to different degrees depending on the monies raised which will directly influence the scope of the film.
JP has taken multiple forms and been through so many changes since we committed to it back in November 2014. But I firmly believe these changes polished JP into what it is today.
Now we are in the funding phase of the project. Arguably the most important. Undeniably the most suspenseful!
When will the project be released?
I hate this question. lol
Once we finish the funding phase we’ll have a far better estimate of the release date. But I know this is important, especially when we’re receiving monetary contributions from supporters worldwide.
At this point, we are expecting to release in spring 2016.
We’d like to enter JP into film festivals in France, Japan and the United States.
What will the project focus on? Yoshinkan Aikido? Jacques Payet’s life?
The original title of this film was Aikido Is Life. The change was made to JP to put more focus on Jacques Payet and his relationship with Japan.
This film will focus on the overlap between martial arts and life within the context of aikido master Jacques Payet’s
3-decade journey to become a master.
How can people get involved with the project?
Make a contribution to our Indiegogo Campaign!
Rub elbows with big-timer producers? Contact us!
Ask 5 friends to pitch in on a group contribution!
Are you a musical genie who can whip up amazing scores for film? Contact us!
Become a sponsor by supplying our production team with transportation in Japan and/or Reunion Island!
Got access to gear in Japan and/or Reunion Island? Contact us!
Speak French, Japanese, and/or Russian and want to build up your resume as a translator? Contact us!
Got a private jet with room for a few filmmakers? Contact us!
Wanna support JP but not by contributing money? Contact us!
Know someone somewhere who should be involved in JP? Contact them!
Where can we keep up to date with the latest news regarding the project?
The best place is over at the JP Indiegogo Campaign page: igg.me/at/jp-film
You can also keep up with us on our social media outlets listed below.
Atemi can sometimes be forgotten about during our Aikido training. Aikido’s focus on throws, locks, pins and subduing the attacker without hurting them where possible does not often coincide with punching someone, yet the effectiveness of some techniques relies on the proper use of atemi. We don’t look for the knockout blow in Aikido, we strike as a distraction to allow us to perform our technique, or as a way of unbalancing the opponent in order to throw or apply a lock.
Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, said that in a real situation, atemi is 70% of the fight, with 30% being locks and pins. Shioda Gozo, founder of Yoshinkan Aikido, agreed with this analysis from his time spent in street fights during his youth. Shioda sensei argues that although overt punching and kicking training is not done in Aikido, such as through the use of punchbags or makiwara, training is still done. Every movement in Aikido comes from the hips, and every move aims to deliver hip power and movement. Is this not exactly what is needed for effective atemi? A poor punch comes from the arm, using the muscles there to employ power. A more effective punch however, comes from the hips with the arm relaxed until the very moment of impact when the full force of the hips and arms is combined. This allows for more efficient striking, allowing us to perform more strikes with more power.
Morihei Ueshiba applying a strike to the ribs of Gozo Shioda
If we look at the basic movements of Aikido or the kihon dosa, all focus on projecting the hips and developing hip power. Although we aren’t punching a bag for hours on end, we are still developing hip power, and therefore striking power and as said, this is still a crucial aspect of Aikido training. There are those that argue that we should not need to atemi in Aikido or in a real situation if our technique is correct, yet I would imagine that these people have never been in a real fight and are only used to training in the setting of a dojo. The principle of Aikido to not harm the attacker is good in theory, yet in my limited experience, unrealistic. If you are fighting with someone who really wants to hurt you, whether you hurt them or not is not a consideration, getting out of that situation however you can is the priority. O’Sensei was in his later years when developing Aikido, having been through hard rigorous training in his youth and being in more than one life and death situation. Shioda sensei was similar, training hard in his youth and looking for fights to test his skills and both state that atemi in Aikido has its place and is very important.
Striking is effective in terms of injuring opponents, but also in terms of breaking balance and developing hip power. Sometimes in training we do a technique and when done with added resistance, wonder why it doesn’t work. Sometimes the technique is done wrong, but other times, the role of atemi has been forgotten and with this added element, the technique can improve dramatically! Atemi is just one aspect of Aikido, but one I feel is sometimes neglected.