by Laurin Herr and Tim Detmer
translated by Aya Nishimoto.
(Revised by Peter Shapiro)
When did you meet O-Sensei?
Kubo Sensei, who was one of O-Sensei’s first students, had invited O-Sensei to come to Shingu from Tanabe, and O-Sensei taught Aikido in the Pacific Ocean Sake Brewing Company warehouse. I met O-Sensei in Shingu about eight years after he started teaching in the warehouse. I was 14 years old, and that was 65 years ago. I believe that I was predestined to meet O-Sensei. Before either of us were born, the Kami understood that we were to meet and have a parent-child relationship. Although I was his student, I always viewed O-Sensei as my father.
Had you studied other martial arts before you met him?
My father passed away when I was two years old, and my mother when I was seven. My grandparents adopted me, and my maternal grandmother, who was a teacher of naginata, told me to study Judo and Kendo. I started Kendo in the second grade at age nine. At that time, O-Sensei was visiting Shingu and teaching at the warehouse. He did not teach Aikido publicly. It was not considered something to show everyone. To be O-Sensei’s student, one was required to have five sponsors. Not just anyone could study Aikido.
What was your first impression of Aikido?
It was a mystery. No one seemed to be using any strength at all, yet they could throw each ether easily. How mysterious! At first, I thought they must be doing something prearranged. Although I was studying Judo and Kendo intensely at that time, I thought that this Budo, in which all was decided at the very moment of contact, must be the real Budo. I realised that it was very different from what I had been learning, and that it is what my own Budo should be like. At that time O-Sensei said to me, “You are born to do Budo. Please study Aikido.” (Actually, at that time he called it “Aiki Budo.”) As a child of 14, I wanted to devote myself single-mindedly to Aikido. However, at that time, no one was teaching children. Only adults 25 and older were taught Aikido. Perhaps I was the first child to be taught Aikido.
How did you feel when O-Sensei talked to you?
I feit very grateful. I was the only child O-Sensei accepted as a disciple. He told me that I was born to learn Budo, and that Aikido was true Japanese Budo.
What do you remember about O-Sensei’s physical presence?
At that time O-Sensei had an amazing body. He looked like a partition screen [square shaped]. He was 53 years old, he weighed about 200 pounds, he was about five feet tall, and he was very wide. His body had strong joints and bones, and he was full of vigour. His gaze was very kind, but his eyes also had a fierce light in them, as though they were glowing. It was intimidating! If he looked at you suddenly, you were frozen – unable to move. O-Sensei always stared sharply at someone he was meeting for the first time. His eyes gleamed and, in that moment, he knew everything about the person. With just a glance from him, I felt as though I had been shot with an arrow. His glance could be very stern at one moment and very soft and kindly the next. He looked stern and his body was so strong and yet, when I approached him as he sat, I felt that he was like a parent. I thought: “Here sits a genuinely kind person.” O-Sensei was a great Budoka, an amazing Budoka. I was afraid to be next to him, yet at the same time I felt he had a benevolent, kindly heart. He was fearsome, yet I was drawn to him. I suppose that may be difficult for others to understand. As I have said, I believe that our relationship – teacher to student, parent to child – was destined to happen. Actually I didn’t ask O-Sensei to take me as his disciple. He asked me to be his student. Thirty-three years have passed since O-Sensei departed for the heavenly realm, but I have never felt separated from him. He is always present and I can hear his voice every day and night.
Is our current style of practice different from that when you started?
Yes, the waza were done differently. You know, the other day I pulled out a book, Maki-no-Uchi. That was O-Sensei’s first book. We practised along the lines described in Maki-no-Uchi. ‘
Did O-Sensei distribute that book?
No. To have it, you had to have O-Sensei’s permission. For me, that was when I reached what would now be called shodan.
Was it a secret book, something that was never shown around?
Well, I don’t know whether I would call it “secret”. It was, after aIl, a book, and there probably are people who can learn just by reading. But it would have been very hard for someone to read the book end understand what it was about unless that person were practising Aikido. Unless you were shodan or higher, you wouldn’t know what to make of it. I think that is still true today. It’s not as if you can tell someone, “Here, do it as the book shows.” Aikido is something that becomes a part of you – something that comes through the spiritual training [shugyo] of physical practice [keiko].
In classes with O-Sensei, what was most important – verbal explanation or physical practice?
These things called waza… [techniques]. Waza themselves spring forth from kototama. It’s not really possible to understand the full meaning of a waza without speaking about its meaning, what gives birth to it. So, O-Sensei would teach by talking about the origins of the waza, including the kototama origin. He would take a particular waza and teach how it came into existence.
How, exactly, would O-Sensei conduct practice?
First we did Shinji. We begen with Misogi, Furutama, Torifune, Otakebi, Omusubi, and Okorobi [stages of Shinji]. Then we purified ourselves and the dojo space and began the practice of waza. There was no pattern to O-Sensei’s waza. It was kamigoto [divine inspiration]. As I just explained, he always did patterned Shinji. But, when he did technique, it was always different. We started with suwariwaza [seated technique], which strengthens the hips. Then we progressed to tachiwaza [standing technique). At the beginning of class, the waza was always dai-ikkajo – what we now call ikkyo. After that, O-Sensei did waza according to his ki of the moment. Nothing was fixed.
What was his teaching method?
O-Sensei did not usually teach people individually. He just showed a technique once and told us to imitate what he had done. However, he sometimes did give me one-on-one instruction.
What did you think about that?
I was very grateful. Sometimes, when O-Sensei touched me, I felt my power suddenly increase. And, sometimes, when he touched me, I felt my strength drain away. When I came close to him, it seemed that my strength was absorbed. I also felt a tremendous pressure sometimes – I think it was the strength of the Kami. Training was very strict. There was no consideration or sympathy. O-Sensei changed in his later years, but at this time he was very strong end his arms ware huge. Training with him was terrifying. I thought I would be broken. [laugh]
You studied with O-Sensei from 1927 to 1939. How did you link up with him after the WW II?
I met O-Sensei again in 1949. I had not seen him for 10 years. He had come on pilgrimage to Kumano, and he called me. “The old man has come,” he said. “How are you?” I was astounded that he was still alive and well. I hurried to his house on my motorcycle. He had me come inside end we talked. “Japan lost the war because the army was mistaken,” he said. “Until now aIl Budo has been for destruction, for killing. From now on Budo must become love, end give joy end happiness. It must be the Budo of love.” “Practice of Budo is forbidden,” he went on, “but [General] Mac Arthur has given me permission to teach Aikido. Mac Arthur has told me to start a dojo. Please join me. I am going to start teaching the Aikido which is the Budo of love. You should follow me.” I stopped my business of dealing in timber and built a dojo. It was very smalI, just 4 1/2 mats.
Would you say that O-Sensei had changed ouring the war years?
Yes. His fierce gaze had become tender. One felt like getting close to him. It was as you see [in photos taken in his old age]. His eyes were still strict, but they ware no Ionger scary. His thoughts about waza had also changed completely. Before the war, the purpose of waza was to kill the attacker; we practised like that. After the war, he urged us not to attack opponents or to think of defeating them. “If you do that,” he said, “it will be the same as before. I have changed how we do everything.” O-Sensei told us that we must give our opponents joy. To do this, he said, we must become able immediately to see, sense, end lead their ki. And, to do this, we must unify our speech, body, end mind. We must become one with the workings of aIl things in the universe – with Kami end the force of nature. We must bring the three things – speech, body, and mind – in harmony with the working of the universe. “If you do that,” said O-Sensei, “true Budo will be born. The Budo of destroying ethers will become the Budo of giving happiness end consideration to others.”
After the war, did O-Sensei also change how he taught?
The method of practice was the opposite of what it had been. We did not have a strategic purpose. We sensed our partner’s ki in order to relate to them as a whole. We needed to become able immediately to see, sense, and lead their ki. Training this way was difficult. We couldn’t wait tor a partner to attack. We had to have the ability to perceive quickly the partner’s suki (openings) and their intent to attack. Now aIl techniques are those of the post-war period. They are the true waza. If we look at our partners, we will be laken by them. If we look at our partners’ eyes, our minds will be snatched away. So, we must not watch our partners. If we are one with the universe, one with nature, a dualistic, separate space allowing the opponent to attack does not exist.
When opponents try to attack, we must not rely on form but spontaneously create technique. In the old days, we reacted to the opponent. After the war, things changed. The instant the opponent raised his arm, we had already changed position. It had to be done with what seemed to be perfect timing. To move correctly, we had to be one with nature and move without thinking.
What is the most important lesson that you learned from O-Sensei?
I learned from him to pray to the Kami and Buddha. At birth, we don’t think any thoughts; babies are naturally one with the divine. But, as we grow up, we are taught aIl kinds of things, and in the process impurities are produced. If we can go beyond thought and be one with the divine we can return to our Kami mind. We call this returning to our Kami mind/heart Chinkon-ki- shin. We pacify our own spirits and return to Kami. The teachings of Aikido are for the purpose of returning to the Kami and receiving the power of the Kami. Basing our actions on that, we work tor the peace of the world. The root, the foundation, is here. It is useless to argue about whether technique is modern or old. Technique is just technique. We cannot understand Aikido without studying its essential spirit, without studying how O-Sensei gave birth to Aikido. The object of this practice is to create a person who is sincere and kind – a person with a true heart. Waza exists as Aikido discipline. To pull aside the spirit and intent and do only waza will not lead to an understanding of Aikido’s heart and will not even lead to true waza. Just practicing technique will lead nowhere.
How did O-Sensei transmit this teaching?
When O-Sensei moved he seemed more than human. We thought we were witnessing a real Kami. I therefore endeavoured to absorb everything just as he did it – to do exactly as O-Sensei did. I wasn’t just “Iearning” in the ordinary sense of that word. In serving him, serving someone who had become Kami, I was receiving a transmission. That is how I received O-Sensei’s teaching. I tried to understand in the moment as though I was O-Sensei’s mirror. It was my mission from heaven( ten-mei). My mission was to serve O-Sensei. If he stood to go to the toilet, for example, I jumped up and waited outside the door with a towel. When he emerged, I immediately handed him the towel. When he went into the bath, I made tea, trying to judge the time so that it would be just the right temperature when he came out. When OSensei went out, I walked behind him. My mind was always on O-Sensei. He knew that but didn’t say anything. It just happened naturally. This is true, sincere action – devotion. One mustn’t think, “Oh, he will like this: I will please him.” That is not devotion. Sincere service is service at the risk of one’s life.
How did you associate with O-Sensei outside the dojo?
O-Sensei told stories, and I listened. He spoke of a variety of things. Whenever I was with him, I was always paying attention.
How did O-Sensei relax?
O-Sensei was always relaxed. But he never set cross-Iegged, always seiza. He would read books and talk. He always talked of spiritual matters.
When O-Sensei was in the Shingu area, how did he spend his time?
He would visit Kumano Hongu Taisha, go to Nachi Falls, and then read a book. I remember something that happened in August 1957. O-Sensei had a sword made of brown loquat wood and a black sword that had been given him by Mr. Shumei Okawa, who had been executed after the war. He used the black sword, and we practised together. When I received O-Sensei’s strike, the tip of my sword broke off. “Enough,” he said. I looked around for the tip of my sword. “Are you looking for this?” he seid, as he pulled the sword tip out of his gi top, from over his heart . That was mysterious. How did the tip get in his gi? Had he caught it? It was a mystery.
Did you have many amazing experiences while you were with O-Sensei?
It was aIl mystery.
What do you think was the path that O-Sensei’s tried to teach us?
He was trying to teach us to rid ourselves of the desire to fight to win over an opponent – to replace it with the desire to bring forth harmony and peace. Aikido is the Budo of love. If we harbor anger, or competition we cannot have good relationships with one another. Our mind will infect our partner`s, and that must not happen. Instead, we should give happiness, compassion. If are able we do that, we will create harmony and become like a family. These days, people tend to think only of themselves – of their own power, money, and so on. We must change this thing. If we don’t, how can we create a true family? O-Sensei said, “My purpose in being alive is to make the world one family.”
What changes did he hops to bring about in individual people?
He was interested in human beings changing to become sincere in their hearts. Although he had this purpose, he never forced others, as he understood that different people think differently. He never ordered anyone. He said that each of us must make ourselves sincere – that, while he could introduce us to the path, we would have to walk it for ourselves. “I can only explain to you what the Kami have told me,” he said. O-Sensei also led us to have a sense of gratitude, to be thankful to others and to nature. Without gratitude we cannot become true human beings. The sun gives us everything. Rain falls, and the field produces rice. Fruits and grains grow. This is the gift of the earth.
The Kojiki, Japan’s oldest book, tells the story of the Kami. At first, there was nothing – no heaven, no earth, no other. Then a point appeared in the void. We might call it The Center or The Great Power of the Kami. Clarity and purity soared high and created the pure sky. The impurities fell down to create the earth. In this way, the Kami divided heaven and earth. Then the Kami gave birth to everything on earth: plants, trees, fish, and so on. Among the best made things on earth are human beings. Our function is to love everything and take care of everything for the Kami. But humans are also the ones who do wrong by destroying nature.
When you teach a lesson that you learned from O-Sensei, what do you emphasise?
O-Sensei’s words are very important He was a very sincere and pure person, and he said that Aikido’s aim is to create true, sincere people. Aikido cannot become a sport. That is not its truth. If we want to be true human beings, we must train with aIl our heart, aIl our strength. Training should have the commitment of shin-ken-shobu – a contest with live blades. As though we would lose our life with one error. Even if we try to be sincere in our daily life, we can do iII with one mistake. We must remain aware so as to not to make the smallest mistake. O-Sensei was the model of a true human being. Therefore, I feel I must convey everything I learned, so that we may fellow in his footsteps. Aikido is not a sport; it is different from sports. There are no rules in Aikido. Aikido has no limits.
Do you feel the heavy responsibility of direct transmission?
I don’t feel that the responsibility is heavy. I must convey to the world exactly what I learned from O-Sensei. That is my responsibility. So, I must say only what O-Sensei taught and nothing else. I try not to express my own opinion. People have created their own techniques, although they can’t do what O-Sensei taught. Few even approach the power that O-sensei demonstrated; few have the desire to fellow O-Sensei’s teachings. I think that is where I differ from others. If this trend of separation from O-Sensei continues, O-Sensei’s waza will end with me. That mustn’t happen. As I look around the world, I feel that I must create persons of sincerity. If not, Aikido will end. That is my worry. That is why I go to talk to people aIl over the world. Of course, when I visit outside Japan, I do a seminar in which I can only give an outline of Aikido. People can understand generally, but no one can “study” as I did when I was serving O-Sensei. My responsibility is to penetrate the spirit of Aikido and to teach O-Sensei’s lessons to as many people as possible. When I received the rank of judan [10th dan] from O-Sensei, I received O-Sensei’s direction. When I have taught O-Sensei’s lessons to people from aIl the countries in the world, I will be able to die peacefully. My real training starts now. Although I have trained for 65 years, the real training is yet to come.
Do you have any message for students of Aikido?
I would like to ask everyone to come visit me. Unfortunately, I am too old to travel around the world. Therefore, I would like to have visitors from aIl over the world come here, so that I can speak with them and they can practice.
Any message for Aikido teachers?
I would like aIl Aikido instructors to talk to O-Sensei before keiko – to put up a photo of O-Sensei end bow to it saying onegaishimasu and arigato gozaimasu. That way, if people express their gratitude with their bodies end their voice, they can come to understand O-Sensei. Form aIone will not work; one must feel and show gratitude with a pure heart. So, speak out to O-Sensei. O-Sensei often expressed gratitude to God. He told us to look at nature so as to be able to understand the work of God. He led us to the right path of observing the workings of the manifold expressions of God every day. I would like aIl instructors to unify their ki, minds and bodies, unify with the greatness of nature, end train to create true harmony in the world.
Any final thought?
If one has opened their heart, one can give love. From love arises harmony and harmony gives birth to happiness. What happiness gives birth to is a kind of treasure. This treasure is not gold or diamonds. It is spiritual. It is most important that the world become one family. It is not a matter of whether waza are strong or effective. Aikido is for the purpose of teaching that with a heart of love, we can make aIl mankind one family. That is Aikido’s purpose. What I learned directly from O-Sensei is that the desire to find peace and bring peace to the world comes before waza. Without that spirit, our Aikido cannot progress.