Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Actor Steven Seagal and the Mob

Rising Star

Exit Wounds video cover
Exit Wounds video cover

Steven Seagal is a 7th degree black belt in the martial art aikido, which loosely translates from the Japanese, "the art of divine harmony." Seagal's aikido talents are well displayed in his movies, particularly the early ones such as Above the Law and Marked for Death. Aikido is an art of self-defense; there are no offensive moves. Aikidoka (practitioners of the art) react to aggressive acts against them. The art is characterized by blending with an attack rather than meeting it head on. Ironically, Seagal's personal life has been characterized by anything but harmony and blending, mainly due to the outsized claims he's made about himself.

He claims to have been a student of the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, who is also known as O'Sensei. Ueshiba died in 1968, which means that Seagal had to have been a teenager, living alone in Japan, to have studied with the master. At least one of Ueshiba's students remembers Seagal being around at the time but doesn't recall Seagal being on the mat very much. He remembers Seagal as the kid who was always playing guitar.

Sometime in the early 1970s when Seagal was in his twenties, he married Miyako Fujitani whose father owned an aikido dojo in Osaka. Seagal eventually ran the dojo for his father-in-law, which substantiates Seagal's claim that he was the first Westerner to operate an aikido dojo in Japan. He also claims to have earned black belts in other martial arts during this period and "fought off" members of the Yakuza, Japan's version of the Mafia. According to Ned Zeman in Vanity Fair, Fujitani, whom Seagal left in 1980, doubts the veracity of this part of his bio.

Above the Law video cover
Above the Law video cover

Seagal returned to the United States and married Adrienne La Russa while he was still married to Fujitani. When Fujitani learned of her husband's new marriage, she filed for an annulment. In 1986 Seagal met his "destiny," as he put it, when he was introduced to actress and model Kelly LeBrock, who is best known for her performance in the film The Woman in Red with Gene Wilder and as the shampoo pitchwoman who uttered the often-parodied line, "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful." Seagal was so smitten with LeBrock, he followed her all the way to Hong Kong to woo her. At the time Seagal was living in Los Angeles and teaching aikido. Among his aikido students were actor James Coburn and super-agent Mike Ovitz who was often referred to as "the most powerful man in Hollywood." Ovitz arranged for Seagal to give a martial arts demonstration on the lot at Warner Brothers. Tough-guy action heroes were racking up big numbers at the box office, and studio execs at Warner Bros. wanted a tough guy they could call their own. In 1988 Warner Bros. gave Seagal a shot and cast him in Above the Law, a low-budget cop flick that grossed nearly $19 million.

While promoting that film, Seagal gave an interview for the Los Angeles Times in which he obliquely referred to work he'd done for the CIA in Japan. "They saw my abilities, both with martial arts and with the language," he said. "You could say that I became an advisor to several CIA agents in the field and through my friends in the CIA, met many powerful people and did special works and special favors."

According to Vanity Fair, his first wife stated flatly, "He was never in the CIA."

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