Interview with Kazuo Chiba (1)
As a young man of eighteen, Kazuo Chiba took one look at a photograph of Morihei Ueshiba in a book and knew that his search for a true master of budo had ended. Now 8th dan and chief instructor at the San Diego Aikikai, Chiba recounts episodes from his years as an uchideshi, and provides a detailed explanation of the concept of shu-ha-ri, as well as explaining his own view of the modern aikido world.
Aikido Journal: Sensei, I understand that you began martial arts with judo and later switched to aikido. Perhaps you could tell us about the way things were in those days?
T.K. Chiba Sensei
Kazuo Chiba: Well, I liked budo quite a bit, especially judo. One day I happened to find myself in a situation where I had to fight a match with one of my seniors who was a nidan. He was a fine person who had taught me quite a bit about judo ever since I first entered the dojo, and he had been good to me in matters outside the dojo as well. He had a small body but he did marvelous judo, and could throw larger opponents without using any power. He used a lot of taiotoshi (body drop) and yokosutemi (side sacrifice) throws of a caliber you don’t see much anymore. He was very fast, too.
He used to beat me all the time, but then, for some reason I won a match during a kachinuke shiai (match in which the judoka keeps fighting until he is beaten; he is then replaced by whoever beat him). He was mortified and said, “I can’t beat you in judo anymore, but I still have kendo!” (He was also a nidan in kendo.)
Then one night he showed up at my place and told me to come out because we were going to have a kendo match. Now, I had done judo and karate, but never kendo. I figured something would probably work out, so I went along and we found ourselves an empty lot. My sempai allowed me a handicap by letting me use a wooden bokken while he used only a bamboo shinai. He was so fast that I couldn’t even touch him, while his shinai smacked into my body again and again. I ended up taking quite a beating.
That experience became one of my first awakenings about budo. Disillusioned, I stopped going to the judo dojo, and I began to think about things. It occurred to me that even if I practiced judo as diligently as possible, established myself as a high-ranking judoka, and had confidence in my judo abilities, chances were that I could still be beaten by a shodan kendoka in a kendo match. By the same token, if some kendo teacher were to don a judo uniform and come to my judo dojo, I could probably beat him no matter how well-respected he was in the kendo world.
After thinking about that for a while I concluded that something was missing, and that some mistake must have been made; true budo must be something else. A budo practitioner, I thought, should be able to respond under any circumstances, whether using sword against sword, whatever. Such simple questions led me to begin thinking about the nature of true budo.
Since I had no idea how to find the kind of budo I was looking for, I stopped doing any sort of martial arts for about six months. I knew I needed to find a teacher who could give me the appropriate guidance.
Then one day in a bookstore I picked up a book about aikido. Inside there was a small photo of O-Sensei. When I saw it, I knew immediately that I had found my teacher. I knew nothing about the actual techniques of aikido, but that didn’t seem important and I just thought to myself, “This is it! This looks like a man who understands my concerns.” So I found my way to the place where Ueshiba Sensei was supposed to be to suggest (somewhat boldly since I had no invitation) that I wished, no matter what, to enroll as an uchideshi as soon as possible. That’s how I came to aikido.
How old were you then?
I had just graduated from high school, so I must have been 18. At the time O-Sensei was living in Iwama so he usually wasn’t at the Hombu Dojo. But I was prepared to sit in front of the dojo until I was allowed to become an uchideshi. So I did, waiting to talk to someone. It was the middle of February , and it was cold. It seems the people in the Hombu Dojo thought I was some kind of crazy person. Three days later O-Sensei arrived from Iwama. Waka Sensei (the present Doshu, Kisshomaru) apparently informed him that there was a strange person hanging about and asked what should be done about it. O-Sensei said, “Bring him in,” so that’s how I was able to meet him. I sat in the hallway outside O-Sensei’s room and made a formal bow. When I raised my head and looked at him I thought to myself, “This is going to be all right.”
O-Sensei said, “Budo training is extremely demanding. Do you think you can handle it?” I replied that I was very sure I could and O-Sensei said, “Very well then.” It was a very simple meeting.
You then spent about seven years training as an uchideshi at the Hombu Dojo?
Yes, and there wasn’t a single day during that whole period that I considered “fun”—not at the time, anyway. Now I look back on the experience rather fondly, but at the time it was pure hardship! [laughter] Of course, it was something I had chosen in order to realize my goal, not something that I was forced to endure, so in that sense it was actually something of a luxury, despite the difficulty.
You must have some interesting stories about your experiences as an uchideshi….
O-Sensei was still in good health when I entered the dojo. Over the seven years I was there I saw his techniques change rapidly. After about a year I had gained enough command of the basics that I was allowed to take ukemi for him.
Training with O-Sensei was really rough! I regularly had the skin scraped off my elbows when we practiced iriminage and the sleeves of my uniform were always caked with blood. O-Sensei’s techniques were so fast I could hardly take the ukemi. Even worse than taking the ukemi was that even when he threw you really hard you had to get right back on your feet and you weren’t allowed to take your eyes off him. You could feel it at the base of your neck when he sent you flying two meters across the mat. His sword was also extraordinarily fast.
How would you describe O-Sensei’s “energy?”
It was like being pressed by some sort of invisible force. O-Sensei used to tell us to strike at him with a bokken at any time. Whenever he stopped and turned to speak to his audience seemed like a good chance to do so, since he wasn’t looking our way at all, but even then nobody tried to strike him. He simply had no openings. He wasn’t looking at us with his eyes, but we could feel him holding us fast with his ki. It used to make me break out in an oily sweat, so that I could hardly keep a grip on my bokken.
Still, as his opponents we would keep at it, gradually trying to close the distance. Then, for an instant, an opening would appear. O-Sensei created small openings deliberately to help us train our powers of perception. He wouldn’t use people who couldn’t demonstrate an ability to perceive such openings.
The instant O-Sensei slightly relaxed the intensity of his kokyu power we would rush in with an attack, but he was already gone. For that reason it looked pre-arranged. Actually, O-Sensei was already moving by the time we began our attack. We were just too slow or lacked the ability to perceive it. I find that sort of thing extremely interesting.
O-Sensei said that true budo should be executed so skillfully that it looks prearranged. He said it’s not budo if you begin your movement only after the strike is in motion. It’s only the real thing if it looks set up to outside observers.
Did O-Sensei teach the uchideshi differently from the students in the general classes?
The content of the training was exactly the same, but we uchideshi were also told explicitly that we were not to train in the same way as the regular students. Our training had to be much harder and more intense, not soft and easy. O-Sensei was very strict about that.
The uchideshi rarely received any kind of special technical instruction. Rather, the most intense part of our training was interacting with O-Sensei in every aspect of his daily life—serving as his personal assistant, accompanying him when he traveled, preparing his meals and bath, massaging his back, reading to him, and things like that. People who have never been an uchideshi may have difficulty understanding the significance of this daily contact.
Please tell us more about that.
We used to accompany O-Sensei when he traveled to places like Osaka and Wakayama, expeditions which usually lasted about a week. Loaded down with O-Sensei’s luggage as well as our own, with bokken and jo strapped across our backs, we would hail a taxi to Tokyo Station. When we got there O-Sensei would immediately jump out of the cab and disappear inside, leaving us to take care of buying the train tickets and other details. We had to chase after him as he cut straight through the congested station, the crowds of people seeming to part before him as he moved.
Whenever there was a staircase to be climbed we would push O-Sensei up from behind, and going down again we positioned ourselves a step lower to offer a shoulder for him to hold on to. Eventually we would make it onto the train. Occasionally there were uchideshi who couldn’t keep up, but O-Sensei would just get on the train and leave anyway, so everyone had to do everything possible to keep up with him and get on the train with the group.
Most of the inns we stayed at had some arrangement consisting of two rooms and a toilet. O-Sensei slept in the far room and the uchideshi crammed into the other. Now, at his age O-Sensei usually got up five or six times during the night to visit the toilet and we had to assist him. I couldn’t sleep at all for the first two or three years, because I could never tell when he was going to get up.
When he got up we would open the door and help him into his haori ( a loose jacket somewhat longer in the front, reaching to somewhere between the hip and the knee), then escort him to the toilet, open the toilet door, and switch on the light. Afterwards we helped him wash and dry his hands, then got him back into bed and returned to our own room. Obviously you can’t get much sleep with that happening five or six times a night. Everyone would lose eight or nine pounds during the week and we were pretty ragged by the time we got home.
The interesting thing is that after about four years I was able to sleep soundly. Somehow I would sense it in my sleep whenever O-Sensei needed to get up to use the toilet. I would wake up, jump out of bed, slide open the door and there he was! Perfect timing, you know? A sort of wordless communication had developed. In Japanese we say ishin denshin, which means something like “communication as if two people had the same mind.”
This is the sort of training that allows you to sense the intention of your partner on the mat. When you and your partner face off holding swords, for example, the important thing is not who is stronger and who is weaker, but rather how clearly you can grasp the other’s intention. To be able to move at the right time you have to be able to see the openings when they appear.
I don’t know whether this sort of training was intentional on O-Sensei’s part, but in any case it did influence my technique in the sense that I became able to act in response to the movement of my partner’s ki and the timing of his movement before I had even thought about it. Of course I can’t do that all the time…. I wish I could, then I’d really be an expert, wouldn’t I? [laughter]
What do you think is the most important thing for people who are just beginning aikido?
People seek so many different things in aikido that it’s difficult to generalize. When I was an uchideshi there were many fewer people training at the Hombu Dojo, but nearly all of them were seeking so-called “real aikido.” Quite a few of the students were eccentric or unsual in one way or another, among them people whom we might consider “budo-fanatics.” It was a fairly odd group.
These days there is more diversity. Some people do it for health, others for the philosophical or spiritual aspects—all of these are good.
The important issue today, however, is that if you think of aikido as a tree, it has to be made very clear who is going to take the role of the leaves and branches and who is going to take the role of the roots and trunk. As long as there are people taking the roles of roots and trunk then the tree remains solid and healthy, and branches and leaves will appear. Then there’s nothing to worry about. People should keep this in mind and avoid insisting that aikido shouldn’t be the way it is now. Leaves are leaves and branches are branches, and these are fine in and of themselves. They’re parts of the tree. The question is who is going to take responsibility for maintaining the roots and the trunk?
In principle I think there is no old or new in budo. We have the word “kobudo,” which literally means “old budo.” It’s logical opposite would be “shinbudo,” or “new budo,” but we don’t actually use such a word in Japanese, do we? The modern trend is for new budo to become sport-oriented. It’s probably okay to call these sports “new forms of budo,” but in the traditional way of thinking sports really don’t qualify as budo.
It’s very difficult to say to what extent these things are to be considered budo. But to my way of thinking, there is no doubt that budo is what forms the roots of aikido. The branches and leaves grow out of that. All the other elements—aikido as “an art of living,” as a means to better health, as calisthenics or a physical aesthetic pursuit—all of these stem from a common root, which is budo. That they do so is perfectly fine, but the point is that they’re not the root themselves. O-Sensei always stressed that “Aikido is budo” and “Budo is aikido’s source of power.” If we forget this then aikido will mutate into something else—a so-called “art of living” or something more akin to yoga.
Would you talk about that from a technical perspective?
Within my limited experience what captivates me most about aikido is its rational nature and the fact that we find coherent principles permeating the whole of aikido technique. To give an example, among the many principles involved in aikido, we find the principle that “One is many.” Empty-handed techniques, in principle, contain the potential to be transformed at any time into weapons techniques and vice versa. Techniques used to respond to a single opponent can be applied just as well to multiple opponents. The lines of movement evolve from empty hands to weapons and back again, from a single opponent to multiple opponents and back again in a continuous, connected, organic fashion. In that sense aikido is very much like a living entity.
This element constitutes one of aikido’s essential qualities as a budo. This is the kind of movement that O-Sensei used and it lies at the heart of aikido.
However, this essential quality is not clearly manifested in the individual techniques so much as it permeates the art as a whole and exists as a latent potential. It allows an approach to an ethic sought by modern spirituality, in other words the “shinmu fusatsu” that represents the highest ideal of Japanese budo—-“to kill not.”
Aikido’s essence as a budo is by no means close to the surface, but those with a degree of insight should be able to discern it. The aikido that we see on the surface, in other words, much of the aikido we see today, cannot necessarily be said to represent budo in the traditional sense of the word. Fortunately, in aikido there remains the potential for serious students to dig deep to discover its essence and through a long process of searching to make that essence their own.
I think perhaps one of the profound and fascinating qualities of aikido is that it maintains at all times both symbolic, phenomenal forms available on the surface together with an underlying potential to unfold, revealing the true essence of the concept of “bu.” In that respect its depth is almost limitless. It’s a great mistake to think that what is visible on the surface is everything and represents reality. On the other hand, exclusively pursuing the so-called “reality” that exists behind the form may cause you to lose sight of aikido’s universality as a path (michi), and all of Doshu’s efforts will have been for nothing.
Doshu’s approach to aikido involves leaving and then transcending the realm of the martial (bu). Central to this is his clear emphasis on the universality of aikido as a path. Doshu turns a critical, introspective eye on certain inhuman, unethical, and vulgar aspects inherent in budo, seeking assiduously to liberate aikido from these negative elements. As I get older I think I’m gradually coming to a greater appreciation of Doshu’s feelings on such matters, and I look to him with deep respect for his great efforts.
Also, large, round, soft movements, as well as ideas like spiritual harmony and unity are important, but too much emphasis on them yields a one-sided or skewed approach to training and cannot be said to embody the essence of budo. Those things also tend to lack a certain degree of technical validity. They’re more akin to leaves and branches, and as such perhaps they are better interpreted as being symbolic of the aikido philosophy. They fulfill a role within aikido’s dual aspects of outer appearance and underlying reality. O-Sensei always said very clearly that those aspects of aikido apparent as outer form necessarily have to be budo. He said, “The source of aikido is budo. All of you must first master budo, but aikido goes beyond budo.” He also said, “From now on the general public does not need budo as such.” He stated these things very clearly.
In this way, O-Sensei opened a path for the many types of people who had in the past, for whatever reasons, been excluded from the world of traditional budo—people with frail bodies, people lacking physical power, the aged, women. He did away with competition and in so doing created a way that adapts to the capabilities and characteristics of each individual, drawing out their latent potential, and allowing them each to find their niche and fulfill their own mission in life. A world in which people can live together is created when everyone is fulfilling their own potential in this way. That is my understanding of O-Sensei’s thinking.
It’s an epochal way of thinking about budo, isn’t it?
Yes, but on the other hand what I fear most is when those people who have been excluded from traditional budo find a path in aikido and begin to think that only their own way of doing aikido is the real or correct way. They forget the severity necessarily involved in budo, rejecting it as “not part of aikido.” There are some people who think like this, but I think they are involved in a misunderstanding in which the leaves and branches are confused with the root source. It could be very detrimental to aikido if the leaves and branches become the center. If this happens it could take aikido a big step in the wrong direction.
Of course, it’s also important to keep in mind that if the leaves and branches wilt and die, then so will the roots. So we really have to think of aikido as a complete living organism, taking into consideration the overall harmony and development of its many aspects.
I think the facts about why and how O-Sensei created aikido should correspond to our own pursuit of the art. To continue with the tree metaphor, rather than just gathering the fruits from the tree that O-Sensei into the leaves, through the branches, down through the trunk, and into the roots. We have to go to that source, otherwise we can’t know the process that led O-Sensei to his conclusions. To make aikido truly our own, I think we need to throw ourselves as far as possible into experiencing what O-Sensei experienced, both inwardly and technically, despite the difficulty and despite that we don’t have his degree of ability.
I think what we would call a “completed” budo doesn’t really exist. (The same may be said of philosophy or religion, or indeed of any human construct.) “My completion of my budo,” in other words, completion on an individual, personal level, is as much as there is. O-Sensei completed his own budo, but that is not my budo.
Similarly, I can’t simply give or transfer my budo to my students. At most I can invite them into my experience to have them use it as a guide to completing their own budo. In that sense budo is a rather solitary pursuit for everyone involved, because you can’t learn, lock-stock-and-barrel, what your teacher has achieved. The various aspects of budo simply won’t emerge for you in exactly the same form as they did for your teacher.
That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t a need to establish basic teaching methodologies containing theories, doctrines, training methods, and so forth.
In budo there are three stages— shu (protect/maintain/observe), ha (break/ tear down), and ri (separate/part from/release). In the shu stage you absorb what your teacher has to offer and remain absolutely obedient. Self-assertion, creativity, and independent ideas on your part are absolutely forbidden during these years, however long it takes. You have to follow what you are taught absolutely, without interjecting your own bias in any way. This is often referred to as a form of “self-negation.” Still, however much you learn, it remains your teacher’s art, not your own.
So you need the next stage, which is ha, or breaking free of what you have learned. In doing so the entity you call your “self” comes into play. It’s a form of creativity, and as such represents an affirmation of your self. During this stage you discover your own personal characteristics, your own personality, in other words, “who you are.” You begin to sort through all that you’ve learned, selecting and digesting what you need to create and complete something that is your own. But this is not the end, for this kind of self-affirmation exists primarily as a negation of an “Other”; in other words it is only relative to that from which you have broken away. You have to leave this stage as well.
Ri is the third stage. Having negated your self in the first stage (shu), then affirmed your self in the second stage (ha), in the third stage (ri) you have to negate even that self-affirmation. Ri allows you to drop out of the relativity that bound you in the previous two stages and becomes a gateway to universality or completion.
In terms of technique, shu is a time for technical mastery in which you pass through the bulk of the art’s technical repertoire; ha offers an opportunity to research and apply those techniques; ri is the completion of something that is your own.
In terms of one’s spiritual or mental state, shu is negation of the self; ha is affirmation of the self; and ri is transcendence and dropping away from the Self-Other duality and a release from obsession with specifics. All of these intersect and intertwine.
These days aikido seems in some ways to lack the shu element, and I think this may cause problems in the future. I think that budo training that doesn’t involve a stage of self-negation may be hazardous for the practitioner The strict, rigorous training that allows you to experience self-negation is essential. Having done that, you naturally arrive at the stage of self-affirmation, and finally, denying even that, arrive at your real goal.
Through my own limited experience I’ve been able to touch a part of this world that I’ve just been describing. However, interpretations of these things through the eyes of someone who hasn’t actually experienced them inevitably yield little more than mechanical, dead descriptions. Even something like the concept of shu-ha-ri, for example, becomes absurdly skewed if you try to capture it within some defined intellectual form. Shu-ha-ri and the development these terms describe have aspects of a dialectic. In fact, the existence posited by aikido bears similarity to the existentialist thinking [existence precedes essence] that flourished beginning in the nineteenth century.
The extremely modern quality of aikido is that instead of the conceptualizations contained in budo defining people, it is the nature of people’s existence that gives budo definition, illuminating it anew, endowing it with fresh meaning, and respecting practicality and autonomous freedom. Naturally, this intensifies skepticism and the urge to search. And, in the sense that it offers no “finished product,” no guide onto which to lock one’s perspective, practitioners of budo can’t help but be keenly aware of the instability of their condition. One false step risks falling into the realm of ideology and dogmatism, and the baneful influence of the accompanying self-satisfaction. So to avoid these things I think severity and strict discipline need to be integral parts of budo training.
Aikido training involves repetitive practice of forms over long years in order to establish a base from which eventually to create something of your own. As such, it’s important to try to continue to think about how to do that within the conditions presented by the training. Take kata, or set practice forms, for example. As a matter of form we set up a contrastive relationship in which tori is active and uke is passive, but in the sense that each is training their ability to engage their autonomous freedom, there is essentially no difference between the two. This can be broadened to include the various seemingly contrasting aspects of life itself—life and death, youth and old age, health and infirmity, happiness and sadness, winning and losing, success and failure—and as such has deep significance as a means of conducting one’s life.
Budo’s original and essential nature, which is deeply connected with Self and Other hovering on the border between life and death, inevitably arrives at the irrationality of existence. However, within this irrationality is embedded an opportunity to awaken to the source of one’s autonomous freedom. Zen and budo find an affinity with each other in that both are born of a recognition of the irrationality of life, although they approach the problem from different angles.
Even within Buddhism, Zen in particular devotes itself exclusively to clearing away ideologies and dogma to cut directly to the nature of existence. As such it is extremely practical, as well as existential. For that reason it has significantly influenced the spirituality of the warrior class in Japan since the Kamakura period. It was natural for it to become the flesh and blood of their martial arts and, as you can see, it is still present today.
By the way, rather than pulling out things like Zen and budo one-by-one for comparison, I’d like people to look instead at the underlying Japanese spirit that has absorbed and assimilated them. This Japanese spirit has incorporated elements such as Zen and budo, along with Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto thought, polishing each to bring out its distinctive luster, nurturing them and allowing them to percolate into each other to form a marvelously harmonious whole.
Anyway, to return to my point, I suspect that much of what happens in the dojo—throwing or being thrown, for example, or the apparent winning and losing during tachiai (which we use in place of actual competitive matches)—is more symbolic in meaning. In reality, the essential problem being addressed is the response of individuals to various conditions confronting them. So as the saying “victory in defeat” (makete katsu) suggests, phenomenal world concepts such as superiority and inferiority or winning and losing are not so important.
Surprisingly, people who have truly arrived at such a state of realization seem to regard death itself as a merely phenomenal occurrence. Take, for example, the Chinese Zen priest Bukko, who lived during the Southern Sung Dynasty [ca. 1127-1279]. He was invited to the Kamakura bakufu and eventually passed his remaining years in Japan. At one point he became caught up in the Mongol conflict and was taken prisoner. He was about to be executed when he composed a Chinese-style poem containing the famous stanza, “Denko eiri shunpu wo kiru,” which may be interpreted as, “Even if you cut off my head, it has no more effect than stroking the spring breeze that whispers now across these fields.” Apparently Tesshu Yamaoka named his dojo the Shunpukan (Spring Breeze Hall) after this passage. It’s rather refreshing to the soul, don’t you think?
The nineteenth century European existentialist thinkers, from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre (who eventually arrived at atheistic existentialism), all searched for the grounds of existence/being to the abyss of nothingness. You can see a parallel between what they did and Zen thought, which over thousands of years has also perfected a capacity to respond to the irrationality of existence. That these two emerged from completely different cultural contexts suggests a commonality in a very deep-seated region of the human spirit.
Of course, Eastern and Western civilization depart from one another in other respects. Eastern thought, for example, is pervaded by the idea of the unity of mind and body, which you don’t find so clearly in Western thought. This is evident in Eastern traditions such as Indian yoga, the magical practices of Chinese Taoism, the Chinese martial arts, the misogi and other ritual purification practices in Japanese Shinto and Buddhism, zazen meditation, and in Japanese budo, which has incorporated elements of these.
In contrast, Western thought seems to me to be essentially dualistic. It demonstrates little unity of spiritual and physical activity, which puts it more into the realm of pure speculation. I think this is a conspicuous difference between Eastern and Western thought. A clear example of the differences between these two styles of thinking may be seen, for instance, in the contrast between Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” and that sculpture in Koryu Temple in Kyoto of a half-seated Bosatsu (Bodhisattva), said to represent the figure of Prince Siddhartha before he attained buddhahood. The difference in approaches to speculation is quite evident when you compare those two.
Please don’t misunderstand me and think I am suggesting that the Eastern way is superior. After all, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 1770’s, the purely speculative approach of the West has formed the basis of the applied sciences that underlie our entire modern lifestyle. From the standpoint of human history, now more than ever there is a growing need to integrate the two.
That’s another reason why we need to seriously consider how to approach disseminating and developing aikido and its special characteristics as a form of mind-body unification, born of traditional Japanese budo, so that it can be transmitted correctly to people around the world. 1 worry that if we don’t do this dissemination properly then aikido will end up with neither roots nor leaves.
The same may be said of the whole of traditional Japanese budo. In all honesty, I think that if the goal were simply to fulfill the physical activity requirements of modern people, then there would be no real need for budo. Sports and other such activities would serve just as well. But budo has qualities that go beyond mere physical activity to offer contributions to society and I believe we need to think more seriously about those.
I think Japanese budo, including aikido, has great latent potential to help check the gradual collapse of our autonomous freedom. This freedom is being eroded by the multiplicity of contradictions brought on by the materialism of our capitalist societies, by an ideology of economic supremacy, and by excessive devotion to rationalism. Budo offers one means for people to begin returning to the well spring of their autonomous freedom, so I think we need to begin re-evaluating and rebuilding it with that in mind.
In creating a path that advances personal development and harmony, aikido tends to reject the destructiveness and inhumanity that are essential aspects of most martial arts. But inherent in this rejection is the danger of emasculating the art, “killing the bull by straightening the horns,” as the Japanese saying goes. With these concerns in mind, Kazuo Chiba suggests that it is through the state of ainuke (mutual preservation) that the harmony, co-existence, and co-prosperity sought within aikido may be found. For that reason he feels that severe training involving both a complete meeting between two bodies and spirits and true attacks is necessary.
Kazuo Chiba Sensei, San Diego 1995
Aikido Journal: What are your most vivid memories from the time you entered the Hombu dojo as an uchideshi in 1958?
Chiba Sensei: One of the most important things I recall from those times was the high quality of the people gathered together there to practice aikido. All of them had an intense interest in budo. Aikido wasn’t being practiced on the global scale that it is today, but the atmosphere generated by the uchideshi and the other students really motivated me. O-Sensei was still relatively energetic and in good health then, too.
I also have vivid memories of the times O-Sensei got angry. His hair would practically stand on end! His energy came up right through his head, if you can imagine it. It was amazing how much energy he had at times like that. It always surprised people who hadn’t seen him in that state before.
What sort of things made him angry?
Whenever we practiced kokyunage when he was sleeping, for example, he would suddenly appear in the dojo and say, “I can tell by the sound that your training’s no good!” So we were always careful to practice seated techniques (suwariwaza) whenever he was around. He never said anything if we were working hard on suwariwaza.
Other uchideshi have also mentioned that O-Sensei would be in a good mood whenever people were practicing suwariwaza.
I can believe that. Perhaps one of the things I remember most about O-Sensei is the beautiful way he carried himself, no matter what he was doing. You could look at him from the front, from behind, or from the side, and his posture was always complete and harmonious. I’ve never seen anyone with such perfect, dignified presence.
Whenever we traveled with him, O-Sensei always used to leave everyone behind and swish straight through wickets in the train station. Nobody could stop him. We had a really hard time because we had to buy the tickets and then chase after him. I really admired the way he carried himself beautifully, like a true martial artist.
I understand that you often traveled to the Iwama dojo to train with O-Sensei?
The longest I ever stayed there was for six months. O-Sensei didn’t practice with weapons much at the Hombu Dojo, but he did them quite a bit at Iwama. Rather than teaching he spent a lot of time doing his own weapons training, and everyone just followed along. Iwama was like O-Sensei’s laboratory. One thing I remember about that time is [Morihiro] Saito Sensei’s dedicated service to O-Sensei. Saito Sensei and his entire family went through a great deal in serving O-Sensei. When I think about it now I have to bow my head in respect to them.
Who was teaching at the Hombu Dojo at that time besides O-Sensei?
First there was Waka Sensei [the present Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba], who was the head of the dojo, and Koichi Tohei who was the head of the instructors. There were other fine teachers, too. Kisaburo Osawa, Seigo Yamaguchi, Hiroshi Tada, and Sadateru Arikawa were the main ones. There weren’t so many people training—maybe 20 at most.
Back then, as soon as you got your shodan you were sent out to teach at university aikido clubs which were just getting started. The Hombu Dojo was looking to the future, hoping to disseminate aikido throughout society as much as possible, so it began by cultivating the university clubs and places like that. The collection of fees was pretty much overlooked, so it was actually costing us money to go out and teach at these places.
You must have an interesting story or two about the shihan who were your seniors?
Hmm… there’s a story about Tohei Sensei. Sometime around 1960 a pair of wrestlers from Argentina visited the dojo. They were part of a group that was traveling around making a documentary film about the “most dangerous things in the world”. They were both huge men. O-Sensei usually would not allow us to indulge in contests, but on that occasion he gave the go-ahead and told Tohei to have a go, although to this day I still don’t know why. All the students lined up on the mat and O-Sensei sat at the head of the line of instructors. He said, “Tohei, up!” Since he was representing the whole dojo, Tohei Sensei took it very seriously.
I had been the one to greet the wrestlers when they arrived. They were so big that their heads came up past the lintel of the entranceway door. I thought, “Oh no… if we lose we’re going to be so ashamed,” so I discussed it with the other uchideshi and we decided to conceal some wooden swords that we could use those to deal with the wrestlers in the event that Tohei Sensei was defeated [laughter].
The match began. Tohei Sensei immediately moved towards his opponent, who immediately moved back. Ten minutes passed as they circled each other around and around the dojo. Neither of them did anything. Finally, Tohei Sensei chased the wrestler into a corner and leapt toward him. He was so small compared to his opponent, but he ended up heaving him backwards with a judo-like sotogake maneuver, and then pinning him with his tegatana. The wrestler should have been strong in ground techniques, but he couldn’t get up. He tried various ways to escape, but Tohei had him firmly pinned.
I was surprised at the strength of Tohei Sensei’s kokyu power. It’s quite difficult to throw an opponent who’s not coming after you, you know. That’s why Tohei forced him into a corner. I was impressed. O-Sensei didn’t say anything at the time, but afterwards he was angry and said, “There’s no need to throw someone who isn’t attacking you!” It’s true that this wasn’t a very good way of winning in the bujutsu sense. An opponent with a knife could easily run you through if you tried that, so it wasn’t actually very convincing as self-defense. But in that kind of dojo setting I think there probably wasn’t much else he could’ve done. Later I heard that the wrestlers had visited the Kodokan before coming to us, and that apparently someone there had told them never be the first one to attack when dealing with an aikidoka. That’s probably why the wrestler did nothing in the way of offensive moves.
To change the subject, I believe you practice iaido, as well?
Yes, I started doing iaido when I was an uchideshi, because O-Sensei told me to. Around 1959 or 1960, a writer named Yamada came to the dojo. He was writing a novel called Oja no Za, (The King’s Throne), using O-Sensei as a model for one of the characters. He made tape recordings of O-Sensei talking about his experiences in Hokkaido. I sat there listening while O-Sensei recounted his stories, one of which involved an incident in which he fought a match against an iaido expert, apparently as a proxy for Sokaku Takeda. Takeda Sensei had killed a number of people, you know, among them an iaido teacher, whose student sent Takeda Sensei a challenge. Takeda Sensei was ill at the time and couldn’t accept it, so O-Sensei went as his representative and fought the match in the Hokkaido snow.
When the distance (maai) between them closed, O-Sensei suddenly kicked up some snow with his front food and leapt in swiftly to strike his opponent in the side under his arm. Then he threw him.
As I sat there listening I thought to myself, “Now what could I have done in a situation like that?” I figured I had better study some iaido and worried about it for some time.
A while later I was accompanying O-Sensei on a trip to the Kansai region when he suddenly said to me, “Stay here and practice iaido for three months.” “Here” was the dojo of Michio Hikitsuchi in Shingu. It was Hikitsuchi Shihan who gave me my first training in iaido. I think that was around 1960. O-Sensei had read my thoughts. He said three months would be enough time for me to get some basic knowledge.
I had accompanied O-Sensei on his travels before that, and most of his demonstrations involved weapons. The thing is, nobody ever taught me how to use them! So I tried to remember things as best I could by studying on my own, writing down whatever O-Sensei taught me and drawing pictures. I also practiced as much as I could on my own, in order to be as good an uke as possible. I was worried that I might not be able to take ukemi for O-Sensei. I didn’t want to be an embarrassment to such a fantastic martial artist.