“Hello, Sensei!”

Zimmerman Banner-2

Squibs & Blurbs

By Jerry Zimmerman

Yamada Sensei.
Yamada Sensei. (Image: Comité Interdépartemental du Lyonnais d’Aïkido et de Budo.)

Jerry ZimmermanEditor’s Note: When I lived, edited, and taught Iyengar Yoga (briefly) in Sensei Zimmerman’s beautiful dojo, I gently strong-armed him into writing about his passion and his art, Aikido. This column, which ran in Hubris in February of 2011, comprises a letter of love and awe to his teacher, Yamada Sensei, who died on January 15th of this year.

TEANECK New Jersey—(Hubris)—1 March 2023—For the first eight years of training with my Japanese Aikido teacher, Yamada Sensei, he never said a word to me.

When I started training in the wonderful martial art of Aikido some 27 years ago, I had an art studio in New York City not far from my dojo (school) and I would train four or five days a week there, sometimes twice a day. Yamada Sensei was not only the main teacher in this dojo, he was also the head of the USAF, the pre-eminent Aikido organization in the western hemisphere, and, to top it off, one of the most famous teachers in the world.

To say I was awe-struck is a fair statement.

Sensei’s classes were wonderful ; dynamic, exciting, powerful and challenging. Young, muscular Black Belts would attack him in all sorts of ways, only to be dispatched effortlessly and rather mysteriously. It took enormous attention to try to fathom what had happened and then to somehow replicate it.  Almost nothing was said and less was explained: welcome to traditional old-school Japanese teaching!

As if this weren’t disconcerting enough, before each of his classes, Sensei would sit right outside the door to the training area, waiting to begin his class.

Right outside the door. Sitting perfectly still and erect and quiet.

He seemed neither friendly nor unfriendly. He was just a very large and solid presence.

You literally had to enter into and through his formidable personal space to get onto the mat. It was intimidating. Being a friendly American guy, I would swallow hard, walk past and say, “Hello, Sensei.”

Dead silence.

Sometimes, I perceived a slight ripple in his demeanor, though I couldn’t really say what, if anything, actually moved on his body or face. Sometimes, just . . . nothing. This, of course, completely unnerved me, making my continuing trips past him onto the mats ever more hair-raising.

This was a challenge. This small, continuing nexus of our personal relationship was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I was really out to sea. But I really needed to get into the training area! After gamely persisting for several years, I got used to these fearsome moments and they began to seem pretty much the norm. I was almost relaxed and actually said “Hello” in a fairly normal voice.

About eight years in, I went to my customary noon class. Up the stairs to the dojo, into the changing room, out into the hall, past Sensei with a hearty, “Hello” . . .

. . . and he replied, “Hello, Jerry.”

Holy Moly!! The planet swung over on its axis and my world changed. Not only did he say hello, but HE KNEW MY NAME.

This is one of my favorite stories about Yamada Sensei, partly because it’s funny and it involves, well, me but, more importantly, because it speaks volumes about Sensei as a man and as a teacher.

Sensei’s first words to me arrived about 19 years ago. Since then, I have gotten to know him a lot better. We have had many conversations, I certainly understand what is going on in class a LOT more, I have become an Aikido teacher myself and have my own dojo.

Yet, there is something in that eight-year lesson that continues to inspire and teach.

There were new and provocative ideas hidden in my beginning relationship with my teacher, ideas that are often foreign to us, in this society, in these days.

Patience. There are many famous stories from hundreds of years ago of disciples wanting to study at famous martial arts schools, only to be told simply to go away! Many did, but some stayed outside the gates of the school or temple, refusing to leave, not moving an inch for days and nights. These were the ones who were often rewarded with being allowed finally to join the school. So . . . patience on Sensei’s part, for not rushing into easy informality; patience on my part for continuing what I needed to do to train.

Equanimity. Sensei’s sense of being neutral and simply being there was a shock to me. I was used to people trying to smooth out any awkwardness with knee-jerk responses. There was none of that here! Take it or leave it. I learned to accept the situation as it was, not how I thought it should be or how I hoped it would be.

Fortitude. There is great and unusual strength in being who you are; in inhabiting yourself fully. I felt this in him, at each “confrontation,” and, at the same time, I began to discover the seeds of courage in myself in these seemingly insignificant moments.

These days, I have a friendly and more relaxed relationship with Yamada Sensei, much to my delight. Yet, there is a vibration from my first meetings with him that still resonates with me and that I greatly treasure.

As a person and as an Aikido teacher, I am much more chatty and much more quickly sociable than Sensei. But as I stand before my class, or as I shake hands with a new acquaintance, or as I rush forward into a group of Black Belts attacking me . . . deep within me is a man sitting quietly, taking it all in; a man not easily distracted, growing more powerful with each day.

Jerry Zimmerman was born and bred in Pennsylvania, artified and expanded at the Syracuse School of Art, citified and globalized in New York City . . . and is now mesmerized and budo-ized in lovely Teaneck, New Jersey. In love with art and artists, color, line, form, fun, and Dada, Jerry is a looong-time freelance illustrator, an art teacher in New York’s finest art schools, and a full-time Aikido Sensei in his own martial arts school. With his feet probably and it-is-to-be-hoped on the ground, and his head possibly and oft-times in the wind, he is amused by the images he finds floating through his mind and hands. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)


  • Eric Gordon

    Character – Grit – Art – Being. Values that I’m sure you passed on to your students. I’m

    • Jerry Zimmerman

      Eric! Just thinking about you recently, how great that you saw my story here.
      You are correct about the main goals of Aikido; it’s an honor to pass along these lessons from my Teachers.
      My best to you and yours!

  • Jerry Zimmerman

    Thanks, Brian. You’re not new to sharing stories of our beloved Aikido Teachers! It’s hard to capture their towering energy and spirit, so I appreciate your note a lot!
    My best, J