Global Gap in the World of Aikido;The Story of a Woman Pioneer Aikidoist in Nicaragua

Instructor Norman Navarro, Homma Kancho, The University Sports Coordinator and Susan Kinne Sensei.

Instructor Norman Navarro, Homma Kancho, The University Sports Coordinator and
Susan Kinne Sensei.

As the plane landed at the airport in Managua, Nicaragua, I peered out the window for my first glance at this new country. Along both sides of the runway were many grown over man-made mounds with openings near the tops that looked like open mouths. As we neared touch-down, it looked like the mounds themselves were approaching the plane in rapid procession with mouths wide open. I found out soon after that these mounds were actually bunkers used during the last domestic war in Nicaragua.

As we rode from the airport into town by taxi, I talked with the driver about what I had seen. “I was surprised to see the bunkers on the sides of the runway” I said to the driver. “It was my first welcome to Nicaragua and it was a bit eerie”. He laughed as he answered me, “The bunkers don’t bother me now, why should I worry about empty bunkers, and the canons are no longer there. This road that we are on now, I can still see the bodies were piled high on the sides of the road, all casualties of the war. The area where we are going, around your hotel, used to be the center of Managua and had many churches, stores and restaurants. It was a busy place and full of activity. There is nothing left of it now, it was all leveled during the war. Today the center of town has been rebuilt by foreigners and foreign money; it does not look like Managua any more, it looks like another country. There too, were many bodies. Where that restaurant is over there, used to be a military post. About forty people died there in one day. I fought too for the government against the rebels. I never want to hold a weapon in my hands again. Right now my life is okay. I drive a cab, I have no boss, and with a day’s worth of fares I can feed my wife and kids”.

The driver continued as we made our way into town. “Nicaragua was ruled by a dictatorship since 1936. This dictatorship was overthrown in 1979 and a new government was formed. It was not long before civil war between the government and the rebel contra gorillas began which lasted through 1988. The casualties on the Contra side numbered…” I listened to him as we drove. He talked as if it was yesterday, so fresh was it in his mind, and so deep the scars seemed to run.
This war ended in a ceasefire in 1989. It was at this time that a young woman from America stood on Nicaraguan soil, this time to stay. She saw the devastation that had taken place in Managua, and the suffering of the people first hand. She found that she surprised herself by thinking that there was hope in this devastation, and that she had found her new home, and a new mission in life. Susan Kinne was at that time thirty-eight years old.

Susan Kinne began practicing Aikido in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1976 in what now has become Aikido Cincinnati. 1976 there was no formal instructor or affiliation, and the group was more an Aikido practice club than a dojo. Members found instruction by going to seminars and bringing back what they could to practice.

In 1979 Susan left the United States to visit Cuba for the first. I was a little hesitant to ask Susan what her reasons were for going to Cuba at that time, considering that this was a time in U.S. history of Watergate, the end of the Vietnam war and the anti-establishment hippie movement to name a few. At that time, relations between Cuba and the U.S. were tense to say the least, and at one point almost sparked a new world war. Like all young people of the times, I surmised that Susan too was involved in a lot of soul searching; trying to find her place in a changing world. She told me she visited Cuba to learn Spanish and to study their educational systems. This answer I felt masked deeper reasons that encompassed many of her passions of youth. For her to go to Cuba told me that she was not one to run from controversy or problems; that she went to Cuba to find out things for herself, and about herself.

She smiled as she said to me, “Being young is a time to discover one’s self. I wanted to see for myself”. In those words was an essential quality that would shape Susan’s future all the way to Nicaragua.

Enamored by the Latin American culture she had experienced in Cuba, Susan spent more time in Mexico in 1980, again to study Spanish. Over the next eight years she continued her studies and made two short trips to Nicaragua as a technical volunteer.

In September of 1989, Susan returned to Nicaragua, this time, although I don’t think she was completely aware of it, to make her new home. One week after arriving in

Susan Kinne Sensei 1990

Susan Kinne Sensei 1990

Nicaragua, Susan was working on the University of Nicaragua campus where she was involved as a volunteer with electronics and computer repair. There, across the grounds, she spotted a young women dressed in a Judo gi (practice uniform). She followed the young woman, and found out that she practiced Judo with the Girls National Competition Judo team. This was a turning point for Susan in her new country. “If there were women practicing Judo here, I can do this. I can start the practice of Aikido here in Nicaragua”.
Susan found out what the Judo practice schedule was, and reserved times in between practices to start the first Aikido group in Nicaragua. First practice was held Oct 6th, 1989.

In the late 80’s Judo was a government and University sponsored art so that Judo students had a nice practice space and mats. To the fledging Aikido groups’ good fortune, the Judo team had a chance to train abroad for the Central American Judo Competition and left the practice space for an extended period of time; leaving the practice area to the new Aikido group. It was a convenient and conducive atmosphere and many students began to join. Classes thrived, and students really began to flourish.

Unfortunately this was not to last. The Architecture Department at the University decided to use the space for offices. After losing the University space as a place to practice, the group practiced in many places off campus. “We were like gypsies!” Susan remembered. They even practiced on the bottom of an empty swimming pool covered with rice straw and a tarp. This “gypsy” like existence lasted for about one year, but as these months wore on, as you can imagine, many students were lost until finally only one student remained. There was only one focus for Susan, and that was day-to-day survival for Aikido students. What was going on in the outside Aikido world becomes far less important when you are struggling to survive yourself.

Over the next years Susan and her students practiced at a variety of places, most notably with the Men’s National Training team at the UNAN under a Salvadoran Trainer. The Salvadoran Judo trainer was only there for three months to train the judo team for competition, and Susan was s the only one who worked out with them. When they went off, their time slot was free and Susan transferred the handful of students who were practicing to the UNAN. Classes there were held at 6:30 am and lasted for the next few years. After many more ups and downs, in 1995 Susan Kinne Sensei and her students finally found a permanent home at the University of Central America. Practice began again whole-heartedly and in 1997 the first Japanese Aikido Instructor was sent from Japan to Nicaragua as part of the Japanese government volunteer program called JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) for a two year period. At the end of his two year term he returned to Japan and in the year 2000 was replaced by a different JICA Instructor for an additional two years. JICA is a Japanese government program that sends volunteers into the world in many capacities. JICA is a wonderful program that has helped many in our world lead better lives. Currently there are no JICA Instructors in Nicaragua but the Aikido group has about sixty members that practice at three different locations; two on University campuses and one off campus in Managua.

The practice of Aikido however does not have the status of other sports that bring more notoriety to the University. Therefore, Aikido classes are taught between Judo, Taekwondo and Karate classes. “Monthly dues are $2.50 U.S. a month, which still is a hardship for some” Susan told me with a smile, “but, she continued, “In each dojo all of the students are my students”. It has been very difficult. We have worked very hard, but it has still taken us over four years to save 6000 Cordova (about $320.00 US)”.

“In the early days, it was difficult I think for a woman to be able to demonstrate both the harder and the softer aspects of Aikido. I met some resistance, and my response was to meet this resistance with resistance. Finally it started to dawn on me that going head to head was not going to get me anywhere. My resistance was part of the problem. Once I understood that, I approached these conflicts with a new understanding. I was more readily able to deal with the students in my charge, and the “puppy energy they all seemed to possess.. I learned not to resist, but to remain more calm, empty and open. It seemed to work, and the relationships with adversaries and students started to change.

Susan Kinne Sensei today works with Solar Energy and other renewable energy sources with both governmental and non-governmental non-profit agencies. She also spends a great deal of time giving advice and helping others. One of her protégés and student of many years is Norman Navarro who began practicing Aikido with Susan in 1993 at the age of eighteen. Susan has not only been Norman’s Aikido Sensei for many years, but also a mother of sorts. He also practiced seriously under the first JICA Instructor who came to Nicaragua. Today Norman works and studies at the UCA and teaches Aikido classes at the UCA Aikido dojo.

While in Nicaragua, I made a great effort to spend time with Susan Sensei and listen to her story. She is a highly educated woman, and very well mannered. She never spoke badly of others, but I could feel in her frustrations that had been there for a long time. I could sense that she felt badly and a little guilty that she could not provide her own students with directly affiliated promotions and black belt ranking. I had heard this story before. This problem was not limited to only Susan’s situation. This is a problem in many of the underdeveloped countries I have visited in the last few years. I tried to explain to her that this was not her failing or her problem alone, that it was a gap that could be seen globally in the Aikido world.Norman was fortunate enough to visit Japan, a visit arranged by the first JICA Instructor to visit Nicaragua. He was able to practice at the home dojo of the JICA Instructor, but was unable to achieve a dream he had long held. Traveling to Tokyo, he stayed at the Olympic Village, a facility that was part of the former athlete housing complex of the Tokyo Olympics. Tokyo however was a very expensive place and Norman found that his meager savings went quickly. He arrived at the door to Hombu dojo only to leave without a practice; he could not afford the practice fees. Even with this disappointment, Norman remembers his experiences in Japan fondly and practices Aikido back in Nicaragua enthusiastically.
Besides the monetary barriers that so many Aikido face around the world, there is another barrier and difficulty that many cannot overcome; that being the problem of promotion and ranking. For Susan Kinne Sensei, this is a problem she had been dealing with for years. “I have little concern for my own ranking, but I do care for my “children”. I want to see them all achieve the ranks they deserve”, she said with a look of concern.

Norman Navarro, one of Susan Sensei’s senior students has been practicing Aikido diligently for over ten years. Norman, like others however have not had the chance to receive directly affiliated shodan ranking with any of the major Aikido organizations. Norman and other students I met in Nicaragua were excellent practitioners and practiced at the level of many shodans or nidans in the United States, yet very few of them had had the chance for direct ranking examinations. All of them in ways have been disenfranchised.

Susan Sensei’s home dojo in Cincinnati eventually organized under USAF after she had left the United States. Susan naturally assumed that she too was part of the USAF by affiliation, and so were her Aikido students. When the first JICA Instructor arrived from Japan in 1997, he became the new father figure at the dojo. This would have reinforced some sense of lineage if this Instructor was a member of the USAF himself, but his roots, organization and style was completely unrelated. This Instructor did many good things for the students in Nicaragua, but as the JICA program rules mandate, he had to leave after two years. The second JICA Instructor that was sent from Japan to Nicaragua became the second father to these students. Ironically, while making a positive impact during his time in Nicaragua, he was not affiliated with USAF either, NOR was he affiliated with the organization of the first JICA Instructor volunteer.

To think that Aikido is Aikido, and that it doesn’t make a difference, I think might be naive. Fortunately and unfortunately loyalties lead to politics, and politics have ripple effects that find their way into every corner of the world. Even in the same organization, Aikikai for instance, different instructors teach very differently, and their students practice differently. Even the way that the exercise funekogi undo (rowing exercise) is executed can vary widely between schools of instructors. The difference between instructors from completely different organizations can be paramount and lead to difficulties, especially when trying to establish lineage.

JICA has sent volunteers into the world in many capacities, for the benefit of many. JICA is a wonderful program that has helped many in our world lead better lives. With no fault of their own, they do not have the time or the resources to understand the possible effects of sending unrelated Aikido Instructors to the same area. The two JICA Instructors sent from Japan to Nicaragua were in their own way “fathers” to this group. Each also taught during a different period, so they both cultivated the loyalty of different generations of students. It is only natural I suppose that the “children” would struggle for leadership amongst themselves after their departure. Students that are serious about their practice naturally develop loyalties for their Instructors. Disagreements about the execution of simple exercises can arise if students in the same group learn their technique from different sources. Conflicts can arise that threaten the group’s very existence.

The two Instructors were related in the sense that they both were volunteers sent by the JICA organization, but otherwise their Aikido style and affiliation were not related. This resulted in this case as students left behind without a clear identity and no chance for affiliated promotions.

The efforts of JICA volunteers in other countries are welcome and appreciated. My conclusions about what resulted in this case were caused innocently enough, but with a little bit of forethought I think they can be avoided in the future. The JICA system is based on a two year -three term system, whose purpose is to teach skills to local residents so that they can assume leadership roles as the projects progress, and the original instructors return to Japan. I think it would help if consecutive Aikido instructors were chosen from the same organizations so that a consistent identity could be developed and promotions and ranking achieved for the students involved.
I do not believe that it has been the intention of any organizer to cause problems, but good intentions are not always realized by those on the receiving end. Sometimes a disconnect results between the purpose and the outcome.

Through all of these experiences, the Mother of Aikido in Nicaragua, Susan Kinne Sensei has watched as her students have grown, and watched as they confronted conflicts both internally and externally. With a wise heart Susan understands that her “children” have started walking on their own, and are trying to find their own way. “I support them in whatever decisions they make about affiliation or future direction. I only do not want to see them fight among themselves or cause problems for one another. They are ALL my students, and that would make me the saddest of all” says Susan.

Susan understands a side of humanity that only those who have left their own country to rebuild another can. For over twenty-five years now she has seen the front face of issues and the back, the clean and the dirty. She has been part of a humanitarian system that brought volunteers here to help. It is sadly ironic that sometimes these well intentioned ideals, and years of effort can be hindered by the involvement of those involved in the same humanitarian efforts.

One evening, I sat down with Susan Sensei and her senior students. The main issue on the table was their need for a clear identity and future. They did not want to remain as “children left behind”. My advice came from the difficulties I have known in years of experience in the Aikido community. “You have been waiting a long time for an identity”, I began. “There is no need to rush into anything or to anyone. Important if choosing an organization is not what style or affiliation, more important, is what they can do for you. I think you feel like you are a bottom rung on a ladder. You are mistaken, you are not. Even from here you have power, the power to influence the very heart of any outside organization. If an organization cannot offer you what you need, you have the power to say no thank you. If you are united that power and your influence grows. It sometimes seems that famous Instructors dictate all of the rules, and hold the power over their students. I think that in the future, the opposite will be true, and students will choose and control their instructors.

In the Aikido world today rival Shihan fight for territory or power; involving their students in damaging struggles which sometimes cause students to leave, sometimes whole dojos. Losing students is one thing that gets attention from reigning Shihan. A loss of students means a loss of money and power, especially if their livelihood depends on it.

If Shihan want to keep their students today, I feel a lot more attention to customer service needs to be paid. The days are gone I believe when outrageous demands by reigning Shihan will be tolerated. There are alternatives, and more every day. To affect an organization you do not necessarily need to have money or power. If you yourselves unite and present your case to an organization and are not listened to or cared for, you have the right and the choice to look elsewhere, to say sayonara. If today’s large organizations want students to affiliate with them they will listen. If not, there are other organizations now waiting in the wings.
Woman Aikidoist Susan Kinne Sensei has carved herself a name and a place in history, and she is truly is part of the Aikido spirit. She is not only an Aikido Instructor, she has planted seeds in the soil for future generations to grow. She is the first woman Aikidoist in this position that I have known. I think her years of effort have been difficult. We can only hope that the flowers she has planted will bloom with beauty, and that large organizations can take Susan Kinne Sensei’s story to heart and listen with wisdom and understanding.

Nippon Kan AHAN Headquarters has recognized Susan Kinne Sensei as a member of IISA (Instructors in Support of AHAN) and will support her efforts no matter what organizations she and her students choose to become a part of in the future. They will always be a part of AHAN.

Written by Gaku Homma, Nippon Kan Kancho
August 15th, 2004 at the Denver Rescue Mission in Denver Colorado.

Regarding the article The Story of a Woman Pioneer Aikidoist
in Nicaragua by Homma Sensei
a letter from Eitan Behar