The Koga System – An Asian American Martial Art

Years ago when  I saw a policeman on the TV news restrain a protester using an Aikido sankyo grip, I thought to myself, “where did the cop learn that technique?”  Only after reading an obituary did I found out.   Johnny has talked about jeet kune do and kajukenbo as uniquely Asian American martial arts, and I would add the Koga System to that list, a martial arts system that got its start in the Topaz internment camp in Utah.

So what is the Koga System?  It is a system of arrest control created by Robert Koga that aims to minimize damage to those being arrested as well as try to insure that safety of arresting officers.  It takes practical techniques from Aikido, tested through Robert Koga’s years of vice squad work and other policy work on the LAPD as well as extensive martial arts training.

kogaRobert Koga started martial arts training in the Topaz internment camp, where he was taken when he was twelve.  He started learning judo for defense against the gangs that formed there.  He later enlisted in the US Air Force and was stationed in Japan where he continued his martial arts studies.  After being wounded in the Korean War, he returned to the US and started working in the LAPD Vice Squad, the second Asian American hired by the LAPD.  There he noticed the need for practical training for police officers.  He later trained with Koichi Tohei, one of the students of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido.  Aikido would be the basis of what would become the Koga System, which would be used to train LAPD officers.  The Koga system became formalized with the establishment of the Koga Institute.  A number of police departments have incorporated the Koga system in their training, and Koga has trained the US Secret Service, Canadian Mounties, and even Navy Seals.

It’s hard to stress enough what an achievement it was to create a system of practical Aikido techniques that can be effective in realistic situations (a synthesis similar to that of Brazillian jujitsu).  Some aikido techniques look terrific but really depends on collaboration between the attacker and practitioner.  Koga would point out that most or many aikido techniques look great in a demo but won’t ever work in a realistic setting.    You can see what happens in this video when an aikido “master” faces someone who isn’t his student and gets punched in the face repeatedly.  Contrast that video to this one where he is attacked by his students.

Koga died in 2013, but some of his wisdom is salient today.  He was said to be a down to earth and practical martial arts teacher, unlike some instructors.

“Don’t want to get into fights? Stay out of bars. Don’t wear martial arts type shirts that say, ‘I’m bad and I can kick your ass’ etc.”

He would emphasize de-escalation versus escalation of potential conflicts.  Koga has also said that the budget cuts in police training can be shortsighted.  Lawsuit payments, such as with the UC Davis Pepper Spray incident, could have been avoided with the use of arrest control techniques by properly trained officers.

The Koga Institute continues to teach the Koga System.  A book about him, Robert Koga – The Man Behind the Legend, was published in 2009.

(photo credit:

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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