Review of ‘Searching for O’Sensei’ by Tom Collings

One Saturday morning in late December I checked the dojo mailbox and found a package addressed to me. The package contained a book self-published by Tom Collings. Tom and I don’t know each other, but he sent me the book, and I suspect several other dojo cho, with the request that I submit a review on Amazon. I finished the book on a flight to Hawaii and happily submitted the following review. I’m sharing this review as a Blog article because the book is an interesting and fun read for any aikidoka.

Tom Collings BookTom Collings has written a memoir, Searching for O’Sensei, revolving around his experiences as a martial art student (primarily Aikido) in Japan and the application of Aikido principles as a law enforcement officer in New York City. This book is written in a lively and thoroughly engaging style. I received the book in the mail on a Saturday morning and had read 100 pages by mid afternoon while intermittently watching a football game. (I’m not a fast reader.)

Searching for O’Sensei is comprised of three distinct themes. The first half of the book describes Collings’ entry into martial arts, ultimately earning a black belt in Aikido in the mid-1970’s. He then moved to Japan to study Aikido and related arts. The vivid, first person accounts of his experiences with many of the most prominent figures in post-war Aikido provide priceless insights into the characters and training philosophies of these men. Most serious Aikido students and instructors would enjoy the interesting contrasts.

After returning from Japan in the 1980’s, Colllings becomes a clinical social worker and then a parole officer in New York City. In this part of the memoir he presents many hair-raising, usually danger-filled experiences from nearly three decades in these professions. His attempt to link these stories with principles of Aikido or to the philosophy of O’Sensei (Founder of Aikido) is mostly successful, but a few of the links seemed somewhat tenuous. Nonetheless, these stories are a fun read for those in the martial arts or not.

Finally, Collings transitions from autobiographer to writing a critique of “typical” Aikido training procedures and creating essentially a training manual which he entitles “Training And Teaching with Integrity.” The personality traits that caused Collings to gravitate to Aikido teachers (e.g., T.K. Chiba Sensei) who intentionally provoked fear among students on the mat, coupled with his life-threatening on-the-job experiences, clearly influence his recommendations, such as “. . . the TRAINING ATMOSPHERE NEEDS TO SIMULATE DANGER . . .” (his caps). The emphasis is singularly on self-defense in physically violent situations. One wonders if Collings’ personality and dangerous job-related experiences have caused him to lose sight of O’Sensei’s evolution from 1920’s Aiki-jujutsu (fighting techniques) to 1940’s-and-beyond Aiki-do (a way of life). I suspect that Tom Collings and I could have a very lively and enjoyable discussion over several beers about the philosophy and teaching approach of Aikido. Let’s all keep “Searching.”

Jim Graves