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Home > Columns > Peter Goldsbury > July, 2006 - An Aikido Journey: Part 10

An Aikido Journey: Part 10 by Peter Goldsbury


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Aspects of Living in Japan:

The last installment became too long to explore in one piece all the aspects of living in Japan, so in this concluding part, I offer some reflections on how 25 years in Japan have shaped my thinking about aikido and my training.

Japan: Some Initial Impressions

I came to Japan in 1980, when planes from Europe had to stop over and refuel in Anchorage, Alaska. So the flight took 17 hours and when I arrived I was fairly exhausted. I was met at Narita by two of my old students. They were Japanese and had studied English under my care when I was a student at Sussex University. I had one day in Tokyo and then had to travel down to Hiroshima by shinkansen. I had about 60kg of luggage with me, in four enormous suitcases. (Even now, I fail to understand why JAL let me board the plane without charging me for the 40kg extra baggage. Perhaps it was because I had a full-fare economy ticket--there was no business class in those days.). My immediate impression on arrival in Narita Airport was that I had been reduced to complete illiteracy: I could not understand any of the signs at the airport, so I just followed the crowd. I entered the country safely, 無事に入国した, as the Japanese might say.

My students had decided to give me the most quintessentially Japanese experience they could think of during my overnight stay, so they took me to a sento (public bath) and a very local sushi bar. First we changed into casual clothes, including Japanese wooden sandals. I was given a large towel, a small towel, a small bowl, soap and shampoo, and told by my friends to do exactly what they did. Walking along the streets in Nakano-ku was interesting. As I was wearing geta, I discovered that I had to walk differently, more from the hips. Well, we arrived at the sento and I took off my clothes and entered the public bath. Of course, like my Japanese students, I was appropriately covered with a small towel, but I will never forget what happened next. I entered the room and all conversation gradually stopped, as all became aware of the strange being that had entered their midst. It was clearly a very local sento and they were not used to alien species there.

I had been briefed about what to do and so I obeyed all the rules. I chose a stool and sat down and prepared to go through the misogi bathing ritual (those who do not understand this should read the parts of the Kojiki dealing with Izanagi-no-mikoto's purification, after he escaped from the Land of Yomi. Izanagi and his wife held a strange ritual, (a giving of oaths, but rather more like a divorce: like Mr & Mrs Smith, but done in reverse) during which the deity most beloved of O Sensei was created (正勝吾勝). In this sento there were a whole load of misogi purification rituals going on. I watched and the majority of the customers conducted a major misogi ritual at least twice, extending to every microscopic part of their bodies--and probably souls also. Of course, as a member of an alien species, there was either no hope for me at all, misogi or no misogi, since the pollution ran so deep, or there was hope, but I had to out-misogi the Japanese, in order to be considered as a surrogate member of any uchi group. Of course this was a lowly sento,, but as I became accustomed to living in Japan, I experienced the onsen, or hot spring resort. An onsen is a kind of misogi hotel, where you put on special clothes, eat a large meal and stay overnight, with the misogi bathing ritual repeated several times over--as many times as you need, in order to feel really pure.

The sense of being an alien species was reinforced in the sushi bar. The owner expressed considerable astonishment that my stomach could actually accept raw fish. The astonishment increased as he realized that one of his most cherished beliefs about gaijin was shown to have no foundation--or more likely to admit of one exception: a special case, no doubt. Over the years other situations have arisen that have reinforced this sense, for example, taking a test for a motorbike license. The test used to be very difficult and Hiroshima was thought to be a 'difficult' prefecture. I am certain that I failed the first few times because the examiners were not sure whether I could handle a bike like normal people (i.e., Japanese). At some point I was asked whether I understood their explanations and I answered (in Japanese) that I 'largely' understood. This was clearly a 'good' answer, for the next time I took the test, I passed.

I think that gaijin is a key word here. I have often wondered whether it has the same resonance in Japanese as 'foreigner' does in English. It probably does, but there is also more of a sense of a vast general category, all the members of which think alike, because they do not think like Japanese.

Japan: The Aikikai Hombu

Not long after my arrival in Japan, I went to Tokyo and visited the Hombu Dojo. My coming to Japan had been handled in the 'correct' way, for one of my teachers had informed the Aikikai that I was coming. So I was expected and there was no evidence of the cold reception that some visitors have reportedly experienced. Luckily, a Japanese colleague from Hiroshima University who happened to be in Tokyo kindly agreed to accompany me to the Hombu and interpret for me. I was met at the entrance by Hombu Secretary Masatake Fujita and shown round the building. I visited Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba in his house, next door to the dojo, and was served green tea by his wife. I think Doshu talked largely about his university days at Waseda, where he admitted that he did not study at all. (Having read Aikido Ichiroh: his autobiography written in Japanese, I can understand why.)

I was very impressed by this first visit to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. I was warmly welcomed and I certainly had the sense that I had come to the heart of aikido. My meeting with Kisshomaru Doshu was followed by many more and after I had learned to speak Japanese our conversations became much more interesting. This was the closest I would ever get to the Founder himself. I suspect, nevertheless, that my relationship with Kisshomaru Doshu was different from the relationship that I might have had with O Sensei, had I gone to Japan when he was alive. For a start, Kisshomaru Ueshiba was not the Founder of aikido. Of course, he grew into his role as the head of the art, but it was clear to all that he was following in footsteps, not creating them. So he was more approachable and freely answered my questions. I have often been in the Hombu when Doshu would wander in wearing his carpet slippers and sit in the main office, to the right of the entrance. By comparison the present Doshu is somewhat more formal (but then again, this might also be a mark of his respect for me as I.A.F. Chairman).

However, I was struck by the reaction of my Japanese colleague to this first visit. My colleague was a specialist in Japanese religion, knew very little about aikido and cared even less for the martial arts. He was singularly unimpressed and compared the Hombu to a yakuza (gangster) organization. His reaction showed something of the general ambivalence towards Japanese martial arts in Japan. On the one hand, the martial arts represent the inheritance of a glorious era, a Golden Age, when the samurai ruled Japan, displaying all the virtues that O Sensei supposedly rediscovered and when everything was 'pure'. On the other hand, the yakuza also claim to embody this very same inheritance--and the same virtues--and they are as generally accepted as a part of contemporary Japan as the martial arts. In other words, the claim is accepted in some sense. The general acceptance is demonstrated by the New Year aisatsu (greetings) offered by the local yakuza boss to the local police chief.

Not long after this first visit, I visited Tokyo again and spent one week training at the Hombu. Each class lasted for 55 minutes and training was very intensive, with was no change of partners. All in all, it was an exhausting week, where the main activity outside practice--apart from eating and sleeping, was washing and drying the keikogi. Eating was invariably accompanied by drinking, often in large quantities, and I quickly learned that with traditional forms of Japanese society such as the martial arts, the wheels were largely lubricated by green tea during the day and by alcohol in the evening. With the younger instructors there was definitely a Hombu 'house style' of training, but this was less evident with the senior teachers like Seigo Yamaguchi, Sadateru Arikawa and Hiroshi Tada.

Training: Explanations and Talking

As I stated above, when I arrived in Japan, I could not understand any Japanese at all and so explanations in the dojo were largely futile anyway. However, I was struck by how few explanations there were. In Ryushinkan, Kanetsuka Sensei used to persuade us, cajole us, browbeat us, to practise the waza to the standards he expected of us, especially the yudansha. There was plenty of talking, but I recollect no lengthy and detailed 'structural' explanations of the techniques. There were none in Hiroshima, either. The Dojo-cho, Kitahira Masakazu Shihan, would demonstrate a technique four times (left, right, omote, ura) and then leave us to get on with it. The Hiroshima City Dojo was a large general dojo, with many yudansha training, so beginners were well looked after. Thus it was possible for the yudansha to get together and have a good workout if they wished, and also for beginners to train with yudansha and receive individual attention. Kitahira Sensei would circulate and occasionally would suddenly appear before me and show--not explain--that, no, that was not the best way to do it. This way was better.

Training: Waza

In the Hiroshima dojo I encountered techniques I had never seen before, even after nine years of training. Here, again, there was also a certain 'way' of executing some of the basic techniques. For example, in shiho-nage I had been used to a distant projection, for which uke took a breakfall-style mae ukemi. This was distinctly frowned upon and I soon learned the 'house style', namely, a projection straight down, with uke receiving with an ushiro ukemi. I learned that Hiroshima was a 'technical' dojo, with a relatively large number of visiting teachers from the Aikikai Hombu. The effect of this was the presence of certain richness in the practice of aikido waza and a readiness to consider non-canonical forms, in addition to the 'house style' (which was actually the chief instructor's preferred way of executing certain waza).

Training: General Dojo Relationships

I tended to prefer Hiroshima to the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. However, I suspect that is simply a bias and that if I had gone to Tokyo, rather than Hiroshima, I would just as soon have become used to training there, or wherever I trained. The Hombu is often criticized for being impersonal, rather like an aikido factory, and the fact that there are so many members, so many teachers and so many hours of practice is what gives rise to this impression. However, I have many Japanese aikido friends who have trained there continuously for many years. Of course, these friends do not see the Hombu as a factory at all.

The Hiroshima City Dojo was rather more 'local', but it was still a large central dojo, with many members. The one major difference between this dojo and the dojos where I regularly practised in the U.S.A. and the U.K. was that there was hardly any 'after-practice' activity. People came, changed, trained, hard or softly as they liked, and then returned home. Of course, there were dojo friendships and regular social gatherings throughout the year, but there was virtually no evidence of a hard core gathering for drinks or food at a local bar or restaurant. Of course, the dojo was part of a large sports complex run by Hiroshima Prefecture and so there were no such places in the immediate vicinity. It is actually quite normal to find a municipal dojo, with tatami permanently laid, in every large town or city and occasionally one finds a dojo as part of a temple or shrine complex. We trained upstairs in the judo dojo, while downstairs the dojo lacked tatami and there was regular kendo and shorinji-kempo training. So the dojo was a place for training, not a place around which one's life revolved.

Training: Relations with the 'Sensei' or Dojo-cho

As a result of training in the U.K. and the U.S.A. with teachers like Chiba Sensei and Kanai Sensei, I had been brought up to believe that the quality of the relationship with the teacher, who was invariably referred to as Sensei, was of paramount importance and that it was probably better not to train at all, than to train under a Sensei who did not make the grade. What this grade was and how one perceived it was thought to be discernible even by the beginner.

I think there was more than a whiff of elitist romanticism here, of nostalgia for a time when would-be martial artists had the leisure and the means to wander round the country searching for the ideal Master and then beg for acceptance in the dojo. Sakamoto Ryoma, for example, was a lowly samurai who became a ronin and trained at the best kenjutsu dojo in Edo. Samurai could afford to do this--indeed they were expected to: farmers and townspeople could not afford the time and were not expected to, even allowed to.

However, the traditional master-student relationship had begun to change even as far back as the Genroku era, as more and more non-samurai took up traditional arts, including the martial arts. As a result and in response to general interest in traditional arts, the municipal dojo, like the kouminkan (the community hall, where traditional arts were practiced), gradually evolved to meet a general need. A network of local aikido organizations was established soon after the war and Hiroshima was one of these. Thus my teacher was usually addressed as 'Shibu-Cho' (Head of the Branch) or 'Dojo-cho' (Head of the Dojo). Of course he was also known as 'Kitahira Sensei', but only in the same sense that I am Goldsbury Sensei to my own students. The title is due to the position I hold, rather than from any recognition that I am a 'master' of any kind.

Of course, Mr Kitahira is a very good aikidouka, but he does not regard himself as a 'special' student of anybody and has no 'special' students of his own. There is no uchi-deshi, senshusei or kenshusei system here. He practices, and teaches what he practices to those who want to learn from him. Actually, knowing him and training under him for nearly 30 years has led me to call into question the traditional master-student paradigm referred to above and Mr Kitahira himself had some pretty caustic remarks to make of those who claim to be 'uchi-deshi of the Founder' (with a special master-student relationship), when they were really 'special' students in the dojo and occasionally accompanied O Sensei on his trips to Iwama or elsewhere. So my relationship with Mr Kitahira is not the traditional master-student relationship, as I was led to conceive of this before I came to Japan. The relationship has endured over the years and I am now regarded as one of his senior yudansha. But I do not think it is quite the same relationship as the quasi-'mystical' relationship enjoyed by someone like Chiba Sensei with his own students. The reason is that Kitahira Sensei simply does not conceive of the relationship in the same terms--and I am not convinced that the quality of his aikido training and teaching suffers as a result.

Training: The General 'Ethos'

I think I need to make two general observations here.

One is that is there was no obvious preoccupation in the dojo with the 'spiritual' aspects of aikido. Occasionally there are threads on Aikiweb about the 'spiritual' aspects of training and some posters tell of going out of their way to find dojos where the 'spiritual' aspects of aikido, or the 'philosophy' of aikido, are openly treated. I think that such dojos are rare in Japan and one reason is that the 'spiritual' and the 'non-spiritual' are rarely separated in this way. Thus, any activity that requires training of the body/mind will be conceived of in 'spiritual' terms, except that the 'spiritual' content is already there in the very concept of training.

Secondly, training is not considered in overly conceptual terms. For example, there is no constant search for the 'one point', or for the 'focus' of one's 'ki'. Ki is, of course, used widely in everyday Japanese and there are no intractable problems about its meaning. One of the books I have in Japanese is entitled, 「気とは何か」 What is ki? The subtitle is 「人体が発するエネルギー」 Energy Produced by the Body and the focus of the book is the energy and how to produce it, not what the energy actually is. I think part of the problem here is that there has never been a canonical translation of Japanese terms and thus every Japanese teacher resident abroad has had to rely on his own English skills. Some of the English equivalents have been invested with a 'deeper' meaning than they already have, simply because they were not explained clearly in the first place. Thus, one occasionally hears explanations such as that the 'one point' is where one's 'ki' is stored, as if it were a kind of mystical blood bank. Of course, this is not to deny that abstruse explanations are given in aikido. Morihei Ueshiba used to give them all the time and this leads on to a more general problem about language.

The Role of Language: O Sensei and the 'Secrets' of Aikido

One of the most revolutionary aspects of learning aikido 'culture' (for want of a better term) in Japan was learning the Japanese language and being able to understand aikido terms as they relate to ordinary Japanese and as they might be used in daily life. (I say "might be used" here because aikido terms are invariably technical and are generally not understood by most Japanese.) This was a major revelation to me and had the effect of demythologizing much of the 'mystique' about aikido that is prevalent outside Japan, especially in the countries where I had previously trained.

I think there are two sides to this demythologizing process. One is that many if the terms used in aikido terminology, like omote, ura, are used in everyday Japanese and have a wide range of meanings. So these everyday terms were put together to describe techniques, in accordance with the usage or preference of the person (usually one of O Sensei's deshi) who thought up the description. So there is no agonizing about the 'correct' term for a technique like kokyuu-nage, such as occurs in Internet discussion forums.

The other side to this is the general 'mystique' about the Japanese language believed by many of the Japanese themselves. I think that this is beyond the comprehension of anyone who cannot speak a second language fluently and it was another major revelation for me. (For those who wish to study this in more detail, essential works in English are the writings of Roy Andrew Miller, Peter Nosco and Harry Harootunian.)

I have studied classical Greek and Latin for many years and the Greeks and the Romans also believed that their language was unique, so this belief is not unique to the Japanese. (English has borrowed from Greek the word barbarian, from barbaroi: those who babble.) The Greeks believed that words had a special power and that this power was best displayed in verse, probably from being chanted by professional 'singers of tales', who traveled from place to place and told the stories handed down, such as are recorded in Homer's epics. The Man'yoshu is the counterpart of Homer and Pindar in Japanese, but there is another dimension to this Japanese poetry that Greek lacks: it is actually written in Chinese and relies on Chinese-based 'logographs' to convey meaning, as does the Kojiki, which was freely used by Morihei Ueshiba to explain his vision of aikido.

The fact that Japanese made use of another language to express its own forms is of great importance for understanding how the Japanese regard their language. As well as the characters used to write the Japanese imported the pronunciation and also the meanings. This importation process occurred well before the 5th century, but it reached its apogee during the reign of Shotoku Taishi. Of course, the Japanese language also evolved, as any language does, and so it is very difficult to understand the ancient texts. Along with this process of evolution, though it began later in time, another movement took place, namely, the attempt to isolate the Chinese influences and recover the 'original' and 'pure' Japanese. I have put these words in quotation marks because there is considerable doubt whether such an attempt is actually possible. One can, of course, attempt to isolate the ingredients that have been blended together in a mixture, but I think it is much more difficult to isolate the ingredients after they have been mixed together and transformed into something else.

The process of discovering this 'pure' Japanese was part of another larger endeavor: the writing of the history of Japan, and the separation of Neo-Confucianism and what later came to be called Shinto. The scholars who undertook this search for 'pure' Japanese went back to the ancient texts, such as the Man'yoshu and the Kojiki, and also isolated 'pure' Japanese sounds, or, in other words, the kotodama, the spirit of the language. Now the Founder discoursed often about aikido being kotodama and also freely interpreted the Kojiki for his own purposes, but the fact that he was using an existing nativist tradition came as a major revelation. I believe that anyone attempting to penetrate what Morihei Ueshiba has written, both in his discourses and in his douka, needs also to understand the tradition that he was part of.

Concluding Comments

As I stated at the beginning of these columns, I decided to offer an aikido autobiography because I do not live in the United States and the time I spent training in the New England Aikikai was probably too early for most Aikiweb members to remember. So these ten installments were meant as a kind of hajimemashite / douzo yoroshiku-onegai-itashimasu routine. In following columns I will follow the example of George Ledyard, who is my real mentor for how an Internet aikidouka should behave, and discuss specific topics, including some that have been touched upon already. The first topic will be devoted to 'Sincere Attacks'.


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