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Home > Columns > Peter Goldsbury > June, 2006 - An Aikido Journey: Part 9

An Aikido Journey: Part 9 by Peter Goldsbury

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Horizons Widened (4):

I think my decision to come and train in Japan was made between 1973 and 1975, when I lived in the U.S.A. as a student. All my teachers so far had been Japanese and in the U.S., I received some more strong evidence of the crucial Japanese dimension to aikido, when I saw Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and other senior shihans in the Aikikai. My decision was hastened by the internal political problems at Harvard University, where I was a Ph.D. student without a supervisor, for he had jumped ship and returned to the U.K. and another influential teacher had migrated to Cornell. Since I was still relatively young and not yet weighed down by family responsibilities, I decided that this was the best time to go. However, I had been discouraged from going to in Japan solely as an aikido uchi-deshi, and I also knew that being in Japan without any means of stable income was impossible. So I called the British Embassy in Washington and enquired about teaching opportunities in Japan. They did not exactly pour cold water on the idea, but stressed that if I wanted employment in a good Japanese university, I would need to undergo a rigorous interview by the British Council (the U.K. government's overseas 'cultural' organization) and this could be done only in London. So I put the idea on a back burner and returned to the U.K. to continue my Ph.D.

My Ph.D. -- and a heavy dose of intensive aikido training at the Ryushinkan Dojo in London -- took up the next few years in the U.K, so I was not able to consider going to Japan until around 1978/79. I had not lost my appetite, however. During these years I met K. Chiba Shihan once again and came to know him quite well--well enough to ask him deep questions about his training in the Hombu, about the spiritual aspects of his training and his dedication to Zen meditation. Chiba Sensei was the Technical Adviser of the B.A.F. and visited the U.K. quite often. I also met a number of Japanese shihan resident in Europe and once attended a memorable seminar given by Morihiro Saito Sensei. The Traditional Aikido volumes were appearing at this time and the entire contents of the first three volumes were gradually added to the training curriculum at Ryushinkan. We mastered--or thought we had mastered--all the ken and jo suburi, awase, kata, and kumi-tachi/kumi-jo forms. So meeting the author in the flesh and training under his direction was an awesome experience, as was hearing Saito Sensei speak about O Sensei. In fact, many of these shihan talked of their experiences as special students (the term they invariably used was uchi-deshi) of the Founder and I gradually fleshed out the shadowy image I had of this strange man.

However, I thought of O Sensei and Japan rather like a devoted Christian thinks of Jesus and the Holy Land. Devoted Muslims go to Mecca once in their lives and devoted Christians go to the Holy Land once in their lives and trace the footsteps of Jesus as he was led to Calvary. So devoted aikidoists (I did not yet think of myself as an aikidouka) go to Japan to visit Tanabe, Shirataki and Ayabe and train at the Hombu Dojo and Iwama. It was Chiba Sensei who disabused me of this pious notion and strongly advised me not to go to Japan solely to practice aikido. Another way of putting this would be that he advised me to ground my aikido training in Japan in other, more secular, activities. In the meantime, I had my rigorous interview with the British Council and also did some training in teaching English as a Foreign Language (E.F.L.) as well. (Teaching E.F.L., by the way, was the usual employment of Ph.D. students in English universities who had not finished writing their doctoral theses by the time the scholarship support had run out.) At this time E.F.L. training in the U.K. envisaged classes of up to 12-15 earnest, well-motivated students, who studied English in the U.K., in class for three hours daily, and supplemented their class study with intensive extra-curricular activities. It is hardly necessary to add that conditions in Japanese academic institutions were somewhat different, as I was shortly to find out.

In late February 1980, I received notification from the British Council that I could choose to work as a lecturer in English in one of three Japanese national universities: Tohoku University in Sendai, Hiroshima University in Hiroshima, and Oita University, in Kyushu. The British Council advised me to choose Hiroshima University, since my qualifications most closely matched the job description, and I accepted their advice. I arrived in Hiroshima on 31 March 1980 on a one-year contract. Since then there has always been a matter of interesting speculation for me: if I had gone to either of the other two universities, in what ways would my aikido training have been different?

Japan: To Go or Not to Go?
That is the Question

At the time I considered this question, back in 1974, it was a no-brainer. There was no question but that Japan was the best place to be for intensive aikido training. All of the direct disciples of the Founder lived in Japan, including those who had taught Chiba Sensei and his deshi colleagues, and most of these people rarely ventured outside Japan. At the Aikikai Hombu, all the morning classes were taught by the second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings classes were taught respectively by three shihans, each with their own distinctive stamp of aikido: Seigo Yamaguchi, Sadateru Arikawa and Hiroshi Tada. Arikawa Sensei would occasionally appear at Doshu's class on Friday evenings and practice. Outside Tokyo there were also a number of shihans who had a close relationship with the Founder: Rinjoro Shirata in Yamagata, Morihiro Saito and Hiroshi Isoyama in Iwama, Ikusai Iwata in Nagoya, Michio Hikitsuchi in Shingu, Bansen Tanaka and Seiseki Abe in Osaka, and Kanshu Sunadomari in Kumamoto. These were just the senior shihans. In addition, for those who had the chance, there were other, more mysterious, koryu arts to practice. It is not that aikido is not mysterious; rather, the mysteries lie well beneath the surface and one has to dig hard to find them and even harder to penetrate them.

Now, thirty years later, circumstances have changed and it is no longer such a simple question. A maturing process has taken place, both inside and outside Japan, and it is no longer so clear that one's aikido training will automatically be better in Japan than in one's own country. The maturing process has been different--or perhaps it is more correct to say that it is more advanced--in Japan than abroad. The present Doshu was a boy when the Founder died and he received most of his training from his father Kisshomaru. The ranks of senior shihan who trained hard with O Sensei have gradually thinned and so it is correct to state that the Hombu has become more of an organization where one can train well in aikido as interpreted by Doshu, than a loose framework within which some uniquely gifted individuals were able to show their originality. Abroad, the maturing process has seen the emergence of high-ranked individuals who have had thirty years or more of continuous training at the hands of the original deshi who went to live abroad. So it is no longer a matter simply of people outside Japan waiting to receive training from the Hombu shihans in Japan, for some of the former match the latter in rank. Even at the time I chose to come to Japan, Chiba Sensei was aware of this maturing process taking place and let me make up my own mind: he neither encouraged me nor discouraged me and later, when I was in Japan and we met and talked, we both realized that I was encountering some aspects of the Japanese martial arts in general, and of aikido in particular, that are usually played down by Japanese instructors who reside outside Japan.

One way of putting this would be to use the Japanese distinction between tatemae and honne. The Japanese have an exquisitely refined sense of when it is appropriate to reveal their true feelings and what they really think and when these should be concealed, that is, left for others to work out. A parallel distinction can be made between what is omote and what is ura. Perhaps these terms are more understandable, for they are used in aikido training and it is a very instructive exercise to see the interplay of these concepts--frames, really--in daily life. So, it is sometimes believed that Japan is a land of aikido wa -- or harmony, where all are training happily under the benevolent guidance of Doshu in the Aikikai Hombu. This was certainly the impression I had before I came here and it did not take me long to realize that aikido in Japan is just as 'political' as it is outside Japan; there are teachers who do not do the techniques well; there are teachers who refuse to allow their students to train with other Aikikai teachers; there are teachers who find it hard to accept the fact that foreigners can understand aikido and practice well--as well as the Japanese; and there are teachers who seen to make no effort to relate what they practice in the dojo to what they do outside. It also did not take me long to realize the peril of judging one culture by the values of another.

Nevertheless, I should state that I would not now automatically advise anyone thinking of coming to Japan to come right over and start training. It is necessary to think very carefully beforehand of the advantages and disadvantages, not just in general, but as they would affect one in one's real situation. For example, it is pointless to come here with the aim of aikido training if one's job prevents one from actually doing much training. It is pointless to come here as an uchi-deshi unless one can develop the correct relationship with one's teacher. It might be an interesting cultural experience, but it will not be the experience of a real uchi-deshi.


Hiroshima has been made world famous because of what happened at 8.15 on August 6, 1945, but in other respects it is a hopelessly provincial city. It prides itself on being an 'International City of Peace and Culture', but I take a certain perverse delight in telling my Japanese friends here that only two elements of this description are strictly true (Hiroshima is a city and cities tend to be peaceful places by virtue of their being cities). Yesterday a taxi driver told me that, unlike in Tokyo, taxi-drivers in Hiroshima did not need a navigation system in their taxis because Hiroshima was inaka (a country town -- the term was intended to convey the image of a place full of country bumpkins who probably would not be able to use a navigation system even if they had one).

The university was a large national university. There was an unofficial ranking system for Japanese universities and Hiroshima University occupied around the eighth or tenth place, after the so-called 'Imperial' universities like Tokyo and Kyoto and the older private universities like Waseda and Keio. By Japanese national university standards it was a very large university, with 14 faculties. All students had to take English classes and this is where I came in. My colleagues wanted a 'fresh' approach and I was specifically told that I did not need to learn Japanese, the idea being that this would somehow cause my students to blossom into English. Alas, it never worked and I still remember my first class, with 60 students from the Faculty of Dentistry, who were stunned into baleful silence by my cheery English greetings and questions. They had never come into such close contact with a foreigner before and had no clue what I was saying, despite having studied English for six years already.


When I knew that I was coming to Japan, the timing was such that I was unable even to start learning Japanese. I knew plenty of aikido terms, but increasingly realized that knowledge of these terms did not remotely resemble anything like even a smattering of the language. There is a belief, especially cherished in Internet discussion forums, to the effect that, despite the absence of any actual competence in the language, an acquaintance with certain Japanese terms, such as KI, KOKYUU, will afford genuine knowledge of Japanese martial culture. It is curious that this belief persists in the absence of any supporting evidence.

Soon I started learning Japanese for two reasons. One was that Hiroshima truly was inaka. I was the sole foreigner in my locality and no one, but no one, spoke English sufficiently well to carry on a simple conversation. Even some of my Japanese colleagues in the English Department, supposedly experts in their field, would scurry away rather than risk linguistic defeat and ignominy at the hands of a native speaker. The second reason was much more important. I felt as if I had suddenly arrived on another planet and was totally unable to participate in any kind of life on this planet. A few days after my arrival, I watched Kurosawa's Kagemusha in Japanese and without any subtitles. I understood about 2% of what was going on and this was hardly due to the dialogue. Billboards, books and newspapers provided daily proof of illiteracy. This was a major spur to action. I signed up for a year's private tuition at the local Y.M.C.A. After this, one of my students became my unofficial language tutor and this arrangement lasted for the next five years. While this was happening I had been given tenure at the University and was informed on the day I received my credentials from the University President that everything had to be in Japanese from then on.

Sometimes the issue is raised of the need for aikido to maintain its Japanese roots. Now it is universal 'mass' martial art, the bowing and Japanese terminology are no longer necessary for proficiency in the art. Well, in some sense they were never necessary to begin with, since ability to execute waza never depended on talking or bowing correctly (except incidentally). However, seeing the martial art embedded in its culture leads me to wonder what will be left if the art is stripped of its Japanese underpinnings. Coming to see the art embedded in its culture has been a major revelation over the years I have been living here. While this has deepened my knowledge of the art, I have also come to believe that transplanting the art to another culture, with different values, cannot be an artificial process. It has to be left to take root and there will be inevitable adaptation to the new soil.


Not long after arrival I was taken to see the Dojo-cho of the Hiroshima Branch Dojo. Mr. Kitahira spoke Japanese with a thick local accent and it took me a long time to work out what he was saying. I became a member of the dojo and at that point a relationship began that has lasted for over 25 years. Kitahira Shihan led the training every evening in the local budokan and was supported by a phalanx of senior yudansha. Well over half the members practicing daily in the dojo wore hakama and this had a clear effect on the quality of training. In my own case I stopped teaching aikido and became a student again.

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