A Brief Chronological Journey of
Sensei Dang Thong Phong and the Evolution of Tenshinkai Aikido
Dang Thong Phong was born on 2/10/1935 in Thua Thien Province, Central Vietnam. His father, a patriot out fighting the French colonialists, was seldom home. His family was closely watched and they were forced to frequently be on the move. Phong Sensei helped raise the family and make a living. These early years of struggle helped him build a strong character.
Sensei Phong’s father passed away when he was very young and his mother had to work hard to raise the 3 children who were left at home. Sensei Phong had to spend extra time working after school to help his mother. At the age of 15, he began training in Judo and Vietnamese Hanbai Shaolin Kung-Fu under Sifu Vu Ba Oai and Dr. Nguyen Anh Tai. He later assisted in teaching Kung-Fu and Judo at the Hanbai School of Martial Arts.
In 1957 Sensei Phong held Judo and Kungfu classes at a high school 50 Km away from Saigon.
In 1958 Master Dang Thong Tri, Phong Sensei’s brother, returned from France and introduced Aikido to Vietnam. Master Tri received an invitation from the Ministry of Youth and Sports to assist as a martial art specialist in charge of Aikido and Judo training. Sensei Phong returned to Saigon and took up Aikido training under Sensei Tri.
In 1959, Master Tri began to organize Aikido classes for the Republican Female Youth Corps at Thi Nghe, Saigon, followed by Aikido and Judo classes at the Intermediate Youth Training Center on Nguyen Trai Boulevard, Cholon. At the Hanbai Martial Art Center, located at the corner of Suong Nguyet Anh and Le Van Duyet streets, Dr. Nguyen Anh Tai, the center’s permanent instructor, also invited Master Tri to start an Aikido class for the Hanbai students.
It was in or about this year that O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba gave the name “Tenshinkai” to the unique style of Aikido coming from Vietnam. Tenshinkai means the organization or coming together of heaven and earth, or from the heart of heaven.
In 1960 the Aikikai Headquarters, Hombu Dojo, sent Mutsuro Nakazono, a Rokkudan (6th Dan or 6th degree black belt) who had previously taught Sensei Tri in France, to help him spread Aikido in Vietnam. Nakazono Sensei and Tri Sensei instructed at various martial art schools, armed-forces installations, and law-enforcement institutions. During classes Nakazono Sensei often asked Phong Sensei to serve as his uke for instructional demonstrations. This helped improve Phong Sensei’s own technique, and he truly began to understand the versatility of Aikido. Nakazono Sensei left Vietnam in mid-1962.
The first generation of Aikido students in the country who graduated with the rank of Shodan (1st Dan) by Master Nakazono were Sensei Dang Thong Phong, Le Xuan Long, Dr. Thai Minh Bach, Tran Kinh, Nguyen Thanh Nhon, and Bui Duy Canh. The art of Aikido was gradually expanded in Vietnam by Sensei Phong and his Shodan peers. Of the first generation, Master Dang Thong Phong is the only one remaining who is still active in Aikido.
In 1960, Tri Sensei founded the Vietnam Aiki-Judo Organization, which was officially recognized by the government. Its Central Dojo was located on the 3rd floor of No. 94 Phan Thanh Gian, Dakao, Saigon.
In mid-1963, Sensei Tadashi Abe, a 6th Dan, came to visit Master Tri. He stayed in Saigon for 2 months to teach at the Central Dojo. Sensei Abe had also been Master Tri’s instructor during his sojourn in France.
Between 1959 and 1964, beside the Central Dojo, several other Aikido classes or Training halls were established at locations such as:
* Nguyen Trai Intermediate Youth Training Center, Cholon (Master Trị)
* Han Bai Center of Martial Arts Training, Saigon (Master Trị)
* Centre Culturiste, Hai Ba Trung Boulevard, Saigon (Master Trị)
* Nhatrang Office of Youth Activities (Master Phong)
* A number of administrative and military units of the South Vietnamese government, such as the Binh Dinh National Police Office (Master Phong)
In 10/1964, Master Tri moved to Monterey, California, USA, to teach Aikido at the Defense Language Institute. Three months later he informed Master Phong of his intention to stay indefinitely in the USA and formally gave him the responsibility to run the Central Dojo and the Vietnam Aiki-Judo Association.
In 10/1964, Master Phong attended the Taekwondo (TKD) Instructor course offered by a delegation of high ranking Korean masters at the Thu Duc School of Military Sports and Martial Arts. The severity of TKD training (5 hours a day, plus 4 hours of travel) coupled with the busy schedule at the main Dojo (3 hours of teaching beside the administrative chore) challenged the limits of his endurance. Still, Sensei Phong overcame the challenges and finished the TKD training, obtaining his black belt after a year.
After graduation, Master Phong had more time to dedicate to the Central Dojo, and the number of students continued to grow, especially among university students, the Vietnamese intelligentsia and the art world.
Also in 1964 Sensei Nobuyoshi Tamura, one of O-Sensei’s direct Uchideshi, and his wife visited the Central Dojo for a few days while on their way to France on a mission for the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Master Tri asked Sensei Tamura to sit in as judge for his students’ 2nd Dan test. This first group of successful Nidan candidates in Vietnam consisted of Dang Thong Phong, Tran Kinh and Bui Duy Canh.
With the expansion of Aikido in Vietnam, Sensei Phong planned to travel to Japan to study and prepare for the Sandan test and promotion. He worked hard and within 3 years had saved enough money to fulfill his objective. He made the trip to Tokyo in 1967. Fortunately, O-Sensei was still teaching at Hombu Dojo, with the presence of Kisshomaru Ueshiba. Sensei Phong received his promotion to 3rd Dan before returning to Vietnam in 1968. Three weeks later, Sensei Phong received a letter from O’Sensei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba entrusting him to develop and expand Aikido in Vietnam in the spirit of peace and harmony. The Aikikai Aikido Headquarters officially recognized Vietnam Aikido Association as one of its members
Sensei Phong concentrated his effort to develop Aikido and drafted the by-laws to establish the Aikido Tenshinkai Federation (ATF). The same year, South Vietnam’s Ministry of Interior issued a decree authorizing ATF to operate in the country.
In 1969, Phong Sensei led a Vietnamese delegation of Taekwondo athletes to Hong Kong for the Southeast Asian Area Championship.
In the following years a Japanese master named Ishikawa taught Judo and Yoseikan Aikido at a sports club located within the Tao Dan recreation park on Hong Thap Tu Boulevard, Saigon. Master Ishikawa contacted the ATF to inquire about becoming its member. The Federation was unable to satisfy one of Ishikawa’s conditions and could not grant him membership. Although the Federation’s by-laws stated that any foreign national wishing to teach Aikido in Vietnam had to obtain permission from the Vietnam Aikido Federation, the Federation looked the other way so Ishikawa could carry on with his activities.
Along with the opening of several training schools aimed at the expansion of Aikido, a number of documents and articles were published to educate students and the public on this school of martial art. They were “Hiep Khi Dao Trong Doi Song Hang Ngay,” a translation of Koichi Tohei’s book, Aikido In Daily Life -- published by the Tenshinkai Aikido Federation, 5 “Giai Pham Hiep Khi Dao” (Aikido Almanac-- published by the Tenshinkai Aikido Federation) and a series of articles on Aikido and Aikido Tenshinkai’s Central Dojo printed on the “Nguyet San Vo Thuat” (Martial Arts Monthly) published by Lac Ha and Phan Chan Thanh.
In 1971 Phong Sensei held the position of Technical Commissioner for the Military Martial Arts General Commission.
In 1975 he trained in Kendo under Master Tomi Sudo of the Japanese Cultural Mission in Saigon.
Within a mere 10 years, from 1968 to 1975, and while serving as a soldier in a war-torn country, Master Dang Thong Phong, through complete dedication, succeeded in building a strong and united Aikido Federation that could match up with the rest of the world’s Aikido community. One could say this was the golden age of the Vietnam school of Aikido, of which the Aikido Tenshinkai Federation was the cradle.
In 4/1975, as the Saigon regime fell, Phong Sensei’s family was evacuated. He, however, was forced to remain behind and would suffer 10 years of separation from his family. He’d spend over 7 of those 10 years in various Communist re-education or prison camps. During those same 10 years, he would attempt to escape 17 times.
After the Communists took over the South all forms of martial arts practice were prohibited. Martial art activities would not resume until 1979, when a few “softer” arts such as Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido were allowed to once again become active. Sensei Phong opened a Dojo close to his home and worked as Instructor and Technical Advisor for numerous Dojos formed by his former peers and students.
Once Aikido was officially allowed to resume its activities, several of Master Phong’s students continued his path to expand Aikido in Vietnam. They were: Truong Van Luong, Nguyen Tang Vinh, Do Thi Minh Thu, Vo Hoang Phuong, Ly Van Minh, Vu Dai Thao, Nguyen Thanh Cong, Hoang Viet Hung, Ngo Quyen, Do Hong Nguyen, Truong Van Thoi, Doan Chi Cong, Le Viet Dac, Vo Truong Tho, Hoang Kim Cuong, Tran Thi Yen, Do Ke Toai, etc. They successfully produced a new group of Aikido practitioners who currently are instructors, head instructors or managers of Aikido clubs. These are Vietnam’s second and third generations of Aikido instructors.
Prior to 1975, Aikikai had officially recognized Vietnam Aikido as being a member of the World Aikido Headquarters. However after 1985, when Sensei Phong left Vietnam to resettle in the USA, all ties between the Vietnam Aikido Tenshinkai Federation and the World Aikido Headquarters ceased to exist, and the name of Vietnam Aikido was deleted from the international Aikido community’s roster. Master Phong was grief stricken because it appeared all his hard work and self-sacrifice had been negated.
It should be noted that after 1975 Mr. Tran Kinh founded an Aikido branch for health improvement in Vietnam, however it never became popular. In California, in 1983-1984, Mr. Bui Duy Canh also taught Aikido for a few years, after which his classes ended.
On 2/25/1986 Phong Sensei arrived in the United States to be reunited with his family. They first settled in Sacramento but later moved to Orange County where he got a job and worked 10 to 12 hours a day. After about 1-1/2 years he borrowed money to open a Dojo on Brookhurst Way in Garden Grove, however, a month later his landlord took the place back to bulldoze it and sell the land. Phong Sensei immediately began looking for another place, and 2 months later he signed a 5-year lease for a 3,000 square foot lot.
In 1988 Phong Sensei re-established his Aikido Federation under the new name of International Tenshinkai Aikido Federation (ITAF) headquartered in Westminster, Orange County, California. In 1991 Hombu Dojo once again officially recognized ITAF as an operating member in the United States.
In 1993, Doshu Kisshomaru invited Phong Sensei to the celebration of Aikido’s 50th anniversary. Aikido masters from all over the world attended the ceremony. About 10 were invited onto the stage and introduced, including Phong Sensei, who was the only non-Japanese teacher. He was also personally invited to a private reception dinner.
Since 1994 Phong Sensei has been on “official” trips to Vietnam 7 times (not counting unofficial ones) to help Vietnam Aikido, not just with his own funds but also giving financial assistance to a number of the local Dojos which were having difficulties.
In 8/1994 Phong Sensei was featured in the cover story for Karate and Kung-Fu Illustrated in an article entitled Aikido: Irimi Nage: Sweep Your Opponent Off His Feet.
In 1994 Master Phong contacted the new Vietnam Aikido Association to discuss future plans and activities, and the Association officially invited him to return to his country to assist. Phong Sensei accompanied Aikikai Hombu Dojo’s General Secretary, Mr. Masatake Fujita, 8th Dan, to Vietnam to assess the situation of local Aikido activities. This visit resulted in Aikikai World Headquarters to recognize and re-admit Vietnam Aikido to their organization beginning in 1995. As the Aikido organization in Vietnam grew, Sensei Phong received numerous invitations to conduct seminars and to hold Dan-level grading exams for Sandan and Yondan for future generations of instructors. Aikikai World Headquarters also sent instructors to visit Vietnam yearly to help develop the techniques. Many Aikido clubs in Vietnam have requested and received authorization to join the Tenshinkai Aikido Federation.
In 1995 Phong Sensei’s brother, Aikikai 7th Dan Dang Thong Tri, who had founded and directed the Budo Education Center in Sacramento, California, passed away.
Beside Aikido Phong Sensei was also spiritually responsible for the Vietnamese Hanbai Shaolin Kung-Fu because its 2nd Headmaster, Sifu Vu Ba Oai, had several years ago signed the paperwork to relegate its Headmastership to him; so in 1996 Phong Sensei became its 3rd Headmaster. Phong Sensei is extremely sorry that he has not been able to carry out this responsibility. He had no choice because his life for the past 52 years has been dedicated to Aikido. The reality is that he simply did not have enough time to be active in both schools with old age upon him and his Aikido students needing his presence.
In 1997 Phong Sensei received his 6th Dan in Aikido from Shihan Masatake Fujita, who was acting on behalf of Aikido’s Second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba.
In 1998 Phong Sensei created the Tenshinkai Aikido Foundation, a nonprofit public benefit corporation dedicated to nonviolent conflict awareness, prevention, management, and resolution. The foundation promotes personal and social responsibility through the philosophy and practice of Aikido.
In 1999, Phong Sensei was inducted into the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame twice for his expertise in Aikido and for his lifetime of achievement and dedication to the martial arts.
In 11/1999, Phong Sensei was featured in Martial Arts and Combat Sports magazine. Infinite Possibilities: The Basic Throws and Locks of Tenshinkai Aikido.
In 5/1999 Phong Sensei and a group of his students participated in the 37th All-Japan Aikido Demonstration at the Budokan in Tokyo, Japan, in commemoration of the passing of Aikido’s Second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba. There were a very few invitations and an even more limited number of demonstrations. Perhaps he was invited because Fujita Sensei had visited his school and seen his students’ skills. Phong Sensei felt honored to be there. There was only one other American school that also demonstrated: the American Aikido Association, under Toyoda Sensei. On the day of the demonstration, the announcer spoke only Japanese. By the time Phong Sensei figured out when he would be called, they only had 4 to 5 minutes to get ready. It really took some concentration. He didn’t feel he did his best but the demonstration wasn’t too bad. It only lasted 1-1/2 minutes.
In June of 2001, Phong Sensei was featured in an interview for Aikido Today Magazine, the international journal of Aikido.
On 09/20/2001, the Westminster Aikikai Dojo burned to the ground. This was a big loss to Tenshinkai as numerous irreplaceable memorabilia Sensei Phong had collected during his martial career were lost in the fire. He managed to open a temporary Dojo within 1 week. He and his students renovated a warehouse in the back of a medical clinic while looking for a new place for the Dojo. As he had done so many times in the past, Sensei Phong began the task of rebuilding Tenshinkai. This time, however, he received the support of his students and their family to help in the rebuilding effort.
In 2002 Phong Sensei demonstrated at the first Aiki-Expo in Las Vegas Nevada. This was the first of three expositions sponsored by Stanley Pranin, of Aikido Journal, to bring the best of Aikido together for a weekend of training.
In 7/2002, Phong Sensei was featured in Black Belt Magazine, the world’s leading magazine of self-defense in article entitled, Aikido’s Entering Throw: Sweep Your Opponent Off His Feet with Irimi Nage.
In 2/2003, Phong Sensei was features in an article in Martial Arts Magazine entitled, The Combinations and Counters of Tenshinkai Aikido: The Graceful Art.
In 2003, Tuttle Publishing released Aikido Basics, co-authored by Phong Sensei and Dr. Lynn Seiser.
In 11/2004, Phong Sensei was again featured in Black Belt Magazine. The article was entitled, Aikido Under Attack: Morihei Uyeshiba’s Peaceful Art Takes On the 5 Angles Of The Knife.
In 2/2005 Phong Sensei celebrated his 70th Birthday, 36th Anniversary of the International Tenshinkai Aikido Federation, and 17th Anniversary of the Westminster Aikikai Dojo.
In 5/2005 Phong Sensei taught and demonstrated at the Aiki-Expo.
In 2005, Tuttle Publishing released Advanced Aikido, co-authored by Phong Sensei and Dr. Lynn Seiser.
In 2005, Tuttle Publishing released Aikido Weapons Techniques, co-authored by Phong Sensei and Dr. Lynn Seiser.
In 2007, Phong Sensei traveled to England for a memorial event honoring his teacher, Sensei Mutsuro Nakazono.
In 2008 the Aikikai delegated Phong Sensei to Vietnam to conduct Dan-rank examinations for local Tenshinkai Aikido members. As a result, 50 were granted Aikikai Yudansha, from Shodan to Sandan.
Between 1991 and 2008, Phong Sensei taught at seminars in countries such as France, the Netherlands, England, Canada, Vietnam, etc. as well as in several US states.
This year, in 2010, Sensei Phong’s students will hold an important event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his martial art career.