Article by Dave Humm. Edited by Chuck Hardin.
The late Leslie McLean, a.k.a. "Les Hart", was a UK martial arts instructor who made the following claims:
- He held a seventh-degree black belt in aikido from the Aikikai.
- He represented the Aikikai through an organization he described as "Aikikai Europe".
- The Bushi Karate Jitsu Association (BKJA), of which McLean was then the Aikido Technical Director, had authorization to teach Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū and "Otani Omori Ryu", tjhe latter of which was described by a member of the BKJA as an interpretation of existing Omori iai waza by Otani Tomio Sensei.
- He held a certificate in aikido signed by Prince Higashikuni Naruhukio under the authority of the IMAF.
All of these claims were false. I was unable to find a shred of evidence for any of McLean's claims.
The webpage for the BKJA (now defunct) had a forum for discussing martial arts. A member of that forum using the alias "supermac" identified himself as Leslie McLean. He wrote many posts pertaining to his own martial arts background and his association with the Butokukai, Kyoto and the Aikikai Tokyo.
I sent an introductory private message to Mr. McLean asking if he might be interested in sharing his stories and recollections of his 40+ years in Budo.
In his reply, he claimed to have earned "my Aikikai 7th.Dan". He also claimed he was a member of an "Aikikai Europe", and as the representative of Aikikai Europe in the United Kingdom.
These claims, along with details he gave of various UK aikido political disputes, were inconsistent with information I already possessed from trusted sources.
Elsewhere on the forum, one of the administrators claimed that BKJA taught "Otani Omori Ryu", allegedly a style of Iaido created by Otani Tomio Sensei.
The BKJA website also claimed to teach "Katori Ryu" and were selling instructional DVD’s with aspects of the art contained. This was a red flag. Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū is one of the oldest of the Koryū arts and is very secretive in its practices; the original Japanese schools require that students take a keppan (blood oath) not to disclose details of the art to anyone outside of the Ryu.
Additionally, Kevin O'Connor, the Principal of the BKJA, was on the forum and referred to himself as "Doshu". This was dubious. In aikido, this title is reserved for the head of the Aikikai.
Later in the investigation, I was given a copy of a private message McLean sent to a moderator of the Martial Arts Planet (MAP) forum claiming that in 1963 he had "hoped to get into the UK judo team for the Olympics... I made the squad, but didn't compete." He also claimed to "represent Aikikai Europe in this part of the world".
The private message contradicted his email to me in two respects. His email to me stated that he went to Japan "in the wake of the 1964 Olympics", which strongly suggests that McLean traveled to Japan after 1964. In his private message to the moderator of MAP, McLean said that he went to Japan in 1963.
Also, McLean claimed to me that he received "instruction at the Aikikai under the direction of Sensei Yamada.” However, in his PM he claimed to have received his Aikikai instruction under "Kasaoe sensei and a sprightly Kisshomaru Uyeshiba." If McLean traveled to Japan after 1964 as he told me he had, he would not have seen or trained with Yamada Sensei, who left Japan for the United States in 1964 and founded the New York Aikikai.
Finally, McLean's partner, Vicky Ann Parkin, claimed that McLean held aikido certification from the IMAF, and that the certificate was signed by Prince Higashikuni Naruhukio. This was an extraordinary claim; such certifications are rare.
Too many of these details were mutually inconsistent, unlikely, or warning signs. I therefore began an inquiry into McLean's claims. I had learned that he had previously used the name "Les Hart", so pursued my inquiries under that name as well.
Asking the Real Experts
My first line of inquiry was to Phil Relnick, the official representative of Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū in the United State. Relnick replied that he had never heard of McLean, and that Michael Jay was the only authorized representative of that art in the UK. Jay subsequently invited me to phone him with any queries, and I took him up on it. Our conversation confirmed that no one within the BJKA was authorized to teach, represent or reproduce any aspect of Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū. He confirmed all of this in a later email.
I also made contact with the chairman of the International Aikido Federation to ask after McLean’s claim of an Aikikai seventh dan certificate. Dr. Goldsbury referred me to the Yudansha Secretary of the Aikikai. The Secretary stated that there was no record of McLean or "Hart" being ranked as a Seventh Dan in Aikido, that McLean was not a representative of Aikikai Japan, that "there is no Aikikai Europe" and further clarified that "Aikikai-Japan has no representative no matter where it is."
Regarding the claim of teaching "Otani Omori Ryu" I contacted Steve Otani, a relative of Otami Tomio Sensei. He had never heard of such an art and found it extremely implausible that Otani Tomio would name a gendai iai art "Otani Ryu".
As for McLean's IMAF certification signed by Prince Higashikuni Naruhukio, the IMAF General Secretary said there was no record of such a certification.
McLean’s claims were clearly looking doubtful. I decided to inform him of the contradictions I had discovered, and get his response.
Bearding the Lion In His Den
I began with a message on the BKJA Forums noting that "none of the clips presented on [the BKJA's] site represent Aikikai based methodology in application of technique". Indeed, my private assessment of the quality of the aikido being demonstrated by a supposed Aikikai 7th dan was closer to that of a middle junior kyu grade. The quality of the kihon waza (basic technique) being demonstrated by McLean was shockingly poor and inconsistent with what I had been studying and teaching for the better part of twenty years.
This assessment drew many hostile responses, but nothing in the nature of an explanation. McLean himself weighed in to the effect that correct aikido style was defined either by those who taught it or by the first-generation students of Ueshiba Morihei (he was inconsistent on this point). His signature included a claim of a seventh dan in aikido, among other ranks.
I informed McLean that nobody at the Aikikai had heard of him. Vicky Ann Parkin, who went as "Reiki" on the forum, claimed that "Sensei McLean was graded by Sensei Noro in France" and that Aikikai Europe was decentralized from Aikikai Japan, which, as noted above, is false; there is no "Aikikai Europe". As for the Noro claim, Noro Sensei was a student of the founder of Aikido and was a member of the Aikikai until he left to set up his own organization, Ki No Michi, in France. After he left, Noro would have no further authority to issue "Aikikai" grades of any description. Thus, even if McLean was graded by Noro in France, it would not have given him any authority to issue Aikikai rankings.
Eventually O'Connor moved the discussion to the moderators' subforum, "in order to protect the sensei's invoved [sic], and save any further embarrassment", and alluded to "slanderous claims made against members in recent posts/ e-mails", presumably referring to my questions about McLean's rank.
Following Up By Email
I sent McLean an email detailing all of the evidence I had found in the course of researching his claims of martial arts rank, not one of which was substantiated. He never replied before his death in 2009.
I also started to receive emails from both present and past members of Mr. McLean’s Aikido section with the Association. I have not included this correspondence because I believe it would serve no factual purpose; I’ve not attempted to validate much of the hearsay presented to me.
However, one contact, a former BKJA member, stated that he had witnessed first hand the “antics” of McLean, namely that Aaron Nowell, an aikido student of Garry Williams (the former Technical Director of the BKJA), was “hounded out” of the organisation to make way for McLean. I have no way of conclusively validating this information; however, Nowell informed me in an email that it was Williams who awarded McLean his seventh dan as a result of a request from the Principal of the BKJA: Kevin O’Connor.
I also received an email from one Darren Westwood:
From: Darren Westood
Sent: 24 October 2005 15:42Darren.
To: Dave Humm
Subject: McLean Sensei ?
Darren is my name (Darren Westwood to be precise, 5th Dan Ryukyu Tode-Jutsu).
You may know of Gary Williams (he was Technical Director of the BKJA before Les [whatever his name is] and he really was one of the good guys (8th Dan Hanshi and really painful) He was hounded out so that Les could take over and that kind of shit doesn't sit well with me.
Les is now issuing certificates which claim Aikikai Hombu affiliation - someone called him on it recently and something was mumbled about him "thinking" that one of his "teachers" was Aikikai affiliated and that the affiliation automatically passed down to subsequent students.
A real lack of understanding for an 8th Dan, don't you think?
The proviso here, of course, is if you're pretending to be something you're not in order to gain payment from unsuspecting newbies (as Les does).
I'm not suggesting he's not a good Aikidoka but neither am I suggesting that he IS - I'm not Aikidoka so I'm not qualified to judge - what I am saying is that he is claiming affiliation to an organisation (THE organisation is Aikido terms) who may or may not accept him into their ranks but he IS NOT, right NOW, an affiliate.
All the best,
I received further confirmation of Westwood’s claim that McLean issued "Aikikai certificates" from two BKJA members who attended a seminar I hosted. They told me that there had been misgivings in the association about McLean's rank claims and the legitimacy of the supposed "Aikikai grades" issued under the authority of the fictional "Aikikai Europe". I offered physical evidence of my own credentials for comparison: an Aikikai Yudansha (black belt) handbook and membership card. The members admitted that no black belts at their school had such documents. I asked if any of their black belts had a certificate signed by Ueshiba Moriteru Sensei, the Doshu at that time; they reported that they did not. This was a sure sign that McLean was not giving out Aikikai-approved black belts.
After the seminar, I received a written statement from another BKJA member which corroborated Westwood's claim. According to the statement, McLean was asked about the provenance of a certificate he had issued to a student. He replied that it was an Aikikai certificate, implying that it was legitimized by the Aikikai in Japan, and therefore by Ueshiba Moriteru Sensei.
Lastly, I received an email from Vicky Ann Parkin in which she stated that "Leslie's certificates are not for general circulation". This contradicted an earlier statement where Parkin said McLean's eighth dan certification "hangs on the wall here" within the dojo in which McLean was setting up in the West Midlands.
Parkin went on to claim that McLean concealed his personal information in order to protect his and family's safety, and that my inquiries were therefore putting them under "a very real threat". She implied that the "MOD" (UK Ministry of Defence) had advised McLean to protect his identity, and that my research into McLean had put them under a "threat of physical harm"; she also stated she would have to seek further information from "the Regiment". However; none of this seems plausible given the amount of information McLean himself freely divulged in the public domain, including pictures and videos of himself on the BKJA website.
Leslie McLean made several martial arts claims, all of which were proven false:
- He held a seventh-degree black belt in aikido from the Aikikai. This was falsified by the Yudansha Secretary of the Aikikai.
- He represented the Aikikai through an organization he described as "Aikikai Europe". The Aikikai claims it was never so represented and that it has never been represented elsewhere by any other organization.
- He held an aikido certification from the IMAF signed by Prince Higashikuni Naruhukio. The IMAF had no record of such a certification.
- The BKJA had authorization to teach Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū. There is only one authorized teacher of that style in the UK, Michael Jay, and he had never heard of McLean or the Bushi Karate Jitsu Association.
- The BKJA also had authorization to teach "Otani Omori Ryu". A member of the Otani family denied that such an art ever existed.