Yoshimitsu Yamada, who more than anyone else was responsible for bringing the defensive martial art known as aikido to the United States, died on Jan. 15 in Manhattan. He was 84.
His daughter Mika Ito said the cause was a heart attack.
Aikido, which roughly translates to “the way of the harmonious spirit,” emerged in the wake of World War II as an alternative to more aggressive martial arts like karate. Aikido is all about defense, using throws and joint locks to deflect an attacker’s energy in a way that does them minimal harm. Though there are ranks of skill, aikido is not competitive.
In its first decades it was obscure — even in Japan. That began to change in the 1960s, when aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, sent Mr. Yamada and several other young disciples around the world to establish dojos and train the next generation of instructors. Mr. Yamada was assigned to New York City, where in 1964 he demonstrated aikido to rapt audiences at the World’s Fair.
Mr. Yamada soon took over as the head instructor at New York Aikikai, a dojo on West 18th Street in Manhattan, with the goal of building an aikido community in the United States.
It took time. For several years he had almost no students, and therefore almost no money. He slept in a changing room at his dojo and traveled by Greyhound bus up and down the East Coast to give demonstrations between matches at karate tournaments.
“Even if you love karate, you can get a bit bored watching the same thing for two hours straight,” he said in a 2019 interview with Aikido Journal. “For 10 minutes, I’d show something that looked so different from karate — it really amazed people. Then I’d disappear, and people would wonder, ‘What was that?’ Sooner or later, people would start to seek us out.”
Many of Mr. Yamada’s earliest students came from the city’s dance and theater world, attracted by his emphasis on movement and balance. Others were World War II veterans who had spent time in Japan or hippies who appreciated aikido’s quasi-spiritual message. Though they were drawn to Mr. Yamada’s dojo for different reasons, they stayed because of his quiet charisma.
“He had a unique ability to bring people together and build a community,” Josh Gold, the editor of Aikido Journal, said in a phone interview.
Mr. Yamada emphasized the basics of aikido but encouraged his students to develop their own interpretations. He loved American pop culture — he was especially fond of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra — and he would sometimes break out in song between practices.
“He championed things like beauty and grace and artistry and prized individuality and strong technique,” Sharon Dominguez, who joined the dojo in 1988 and is now its president, said in a phone interview. “He taught us the purpose of not fighting, and he valued connection and cooperation and community.”
At Mr. Yamada’s encouragement, several acolytes went on to found their own dojos around the country. In 1976 he founded an umbrella organization for his affiliated dojos, the United States Aikido Federation, which today is by far the largest such organization in the country.
A number of his students said that his popularity came from the way he seemed to embody the spirit of aikido itself: peaceful, inclusive, with strict core principles surrounded by a flexible emphasis on developing them your own way.
“One of my favorite quotes from Oscar Wilde is ‘Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught,’” said Steve Pimsler, who joined the dojo in 1974 and is now its chief instructor. “And he kind of operated like that. He just inspired you. And you taught yourself.”
Yoshimitsu Yamada was born on Feb. 17, 1938, in Kanagawa Prefecture, west of Tokyo. His father, Ichiro, was a college professor; his mother, Michiyo (Kizaki) Yamada, was a homemaker.
He entered Mr. Ueshiba’s dojo at 18 as an uchi deshi, or live-in student. It was an ascetic life: In exchange for room, board and instruction, he and a handful of other novitiates woke at 6 a.m. every day to clean the dojo before their lessons. He stayed for seven years.
Toward the end of his time there, Mr. Yamada began to make money, and learn English, by teaching aikido to American service members stationed at the many military facilities around Tokyo.
He married Akiko Kaneko in 1960. Along with his daughter, she survives him, as does another daughter, Risa Yamada, and a son, Tatsuya Yamada.
Mr. Yamada continued to teach at his dojo into his 80s. As recently as a few weeks ago he was on the mat, giving lessons to a new crop of students. But he had also grown somewhat pessimistic about the way the sport had developed.
Many people had gotten into aikido thanks to the popularity of Steven Seagal, the actor and former aikido instructor, and while Mr. Yamada was happy to see the growth, he also worried that students were looking for style without substance, to learn flashy moves without understanding the ideas underlying them.
“Today, some aikido looks very fancy, especially on social media, but people who know can tell that kind of aikido has nothing inside,” he told Aikido Journal in 2022. “It looks fancy, but it’s empty and lacks fundamentals. If you have those basics and they are strong, then you can be fancy.”