Haruo Matsuoka is a study in contrasts. Although he speaks with a noticeable Japanese accent, he’s eloquent in his English explanation of the esoteric concepts of aikido. While he’s known as one of the most combat-competent aikido stylists on the planet and was one of the very few who could take falls for Steven Seagal as he executed his vicious aikido throws, he remains disarmingly humble and glows with a happiness that only true stability, contentment and harmony can bring.
Conversations with Haruo Matsuoka lead in a variety of directions, all of which are enlightening and inspiring yet grounded in reality. Perhaps what is most amazing is how his life has mirrored his art, meeting conflict and strife with patience and integrity.
When I recently arrived at his dojo in search of answers, he met me at the door as if greeting an old friend, then sat on the tatami mats for the duration of the interview. It was as if there was no distinction in rank, yet there was no lack of etiquette.
The History of Aikido
Born in Osaka, Japan, in the late 1950s, Haruo Matsuoka received an early introduction to aikido and the customs most closely associated with it. His father, Shiro Matsuoka, was into macrobiotics — a diet that’s popular among aikido practitioners in Japan. One year, he took young Haruo Matsuoka to a summer camp dedicated to promoting macrobiotics, and that was where the youth witnessed his first aikido demonstration.
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Later, during his high-school years, he participated in judo, which was a standard part of the physical education curriculum.
Just before his 16th birthday, Haruo Matsuoka began taking classes under an instructor named Kobayashi. But the man disappeared after a short time, leaving the dojo unmanaged and unattended. Six months later, Steven Seagal moved to Osaka and reopened the facility as his now-famous Tenshin Dojo.
At 17, Haruo Matsuoka had his first meeting with Steven Seagal, and it left a lasting impression on the youth. Reminiscing about that day, he beamed with a sense of wonder: “When I first met Seagal sensei, his Japanese wasn’t so fluent, but his technique was remarkable — unlike what I’d seen before. He was so fast, very fluid. Seeing him doing aikido changed my life.”
Haruo Matsuoka signed up on the spot.
“Nothing in my earlier martial arts experiences came close to that moment,” he said. Steven Seagal’s school sat in a rough part of town known for its yakuza gangsters and prostitutes. “It was only a five-minute walk to the dojo from the train station, but it seemed like a long, long walk,” Haruo Matsuoka recalled. “There were many times when I was really scared, as a skinny kid, and walked as fast as possible so I could avoid getting into trouble.”
Initially, Haruo Matsuoka trained three times a week, attending classes that were tough and strict. Steven Seagal’s aikido had a reputation for being hard core and effective even on the street. And his training philosophy backed that up: Make everything practical for this world — otherwise, it’s useless. “Seagal taught a very practical aikido — swift footsteps, hand movements like sword cuts and a body posture that was very straight, very strong,” Matsuoka said.
Steven Seagal emphasized the relationship between kenjutsu sword work and aikido, and Haruo Matsuoka began to understand the ways in which hand, foot and body positioning in a sword fight translate to aikido. He could see how those skills enabled the practitioner to smoothly glide out of harm’s way while thoroughly exploiting the other person’s openings.
“Seagal sensei was my first real master,” Haruo Matsuoka said. The American took a personal interest in his new pupil’s aikido development almost from the get-go, frequently inquiring about his plans after high school. Before Matsuoka had the opportunity to test for his black belt, Steven Seagal pulled him aside and asked if he wanted to accompany him to America to help him make movies. To the impressionable Japanese teenager, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime, inspiring him to persevere in his practice.
Haruo Matsuoka’s relationship with his master would never be the same.
Steven Seagal began using him as his uke, demonstrating throws and other aikido techniques on him during class despite his rank. (According to Japanese etiquette, the head instructor demonstrates techniques only on the most senior student, allowing him to learn quickly by feeling each move.) Steven Seagal put him ahead of his seniors and gave him the opportunity to absorb knowledge directly from the source and …