It Had To Be Felt #75: Akimoto Hidehiro: "Living Proof"
There are people alive today who have first-hand experience of how the founder of aikido trained, and not just as a visitor, in place of their regular instructor, either. These are people who counted O-sensei as their main teacher, over a period of several years.
This account is of one such person, Akimoto Hidehiro. However, what makes Akimoto sensei particularly remarkable is that there is no danger of potential contamination of the evidence by other instructors. This witness started training in aikido in 1961, at the age of 13, in what is the present-day Ibaraki Shibu Dojo. This was the residence of Ueshiba Morihei, who was 78 years old at that time, and Akimoto sensei had an eight-year window of opportunity to train directly with him before his passing. Akimoto sensei stopped training completely upon O-sensei's death. What this means is that the only aikido he knew was that which he had learned directly from O-sensei.
Return of the Native
Flash forward five decades to the December of 2009, and there I was, in that same dojo. At this point, I'd already been training there for a little over three years, and had just passed my second dan test. I noticed a quiet, elderly ‘newcomer' among the regular faces. We had a lot of visitors, so I didn't think much about him, other than he was someone new to train with. I'd never heard Akimoto sensei's name before, but hushed voices quickly passed it on, along with what was special about him. I soon realised that he was a human time capsule. This day, in 2009, was the first time he had trained in aikido since O-sensei passed away.
We usually line up in grade-order at the start of class, and I noticed I wasn't far below him in the row. But then I became aware how the other teachers treated him. The faces of those who had learned from O-sensei lit up when they saw him. It turned out he was neither a temporary visitor, nor a new arrival. This was one of the founder's direct students returning to his home dojo.
I didn't get to partner with him during that first session, but I was there when Akimoto sensei had to bring his certificate of rank to the dojo. He needed to send it to the Honbu Dojo in Tokyo so that he could get a yudansha (dan-holder) booklet. Apparently, these booklets didn't exist at the time Akimoto sensei received his black belt. I saw his third dan certificate myself, signed by O-sensei. A local, who could read the details much faster than me, asked Akimoto sensei his date of birth (23 April, 1948), and observed that he had been just nineteen years old at the time of issue. This was two years before O-sensei passed away. During this time, Akimoto sensei would commute back from university to train in Iwama, since he was senior to the instructors at his university aikido club. He later told me that, after he graduated, he started working long hours, and could no longer train. It wasn't that he didn't want to, nor because O-sensei was gone. It simply wasn't possible due to his job.
A Blast from the Past
The Iwama Dojo is a great place to train with a number of people who learned directly from O-sensei over significant periods of time. I realised early on that this was a golden opportunity to experience what the founder was teaching from many viewpoints. It's probably the same when someone commits a crime; you don't just find one witness, and simply believe what they say happened. Some witnesses are more reliable than others, or see different pieces of the puzzle, so you get multiple accounts, and cross-reference them with the evidence available. It stands to reason that if we want to know what the founder of aikido taught, we should seek out as many people who received his teachings as possible. It seemed to me that they all started from a common ground, which could now be viewed through each of their different lenses.
As well as offering the opportunity to practice with O-sensei's direct students, the dojo is a great place to train with different kinds of aikido practitioner from all over the world (barring the current, hopefully temporary situation, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic). Among the locals, there is a clear scale of ability that more or less corresponds with rank, but when it comes to outsiders, they often have very different ways of doing things. After a while, it became possible to spot students of teachers with whom I'd never trained, based on their habits. In this context, I was very interested indeed to see how this man, who, decades ago, was ranked third dan by O-sensei, would fit in.
My first thought was, "He's a local, and at least third dan."
This meant a lot to me. I've sometimes seen it written that O-sensei gave out ranks willy-nilly, or just awarded them arbitrarily, if someone had to become an instructor. Regardless of how true this is, I certainly get the impression that, within his own dojo, O-sensei kept reasonably accurate tabs on his students' progress. The instructors in the Ibaraki Shibu Dojo all seemed to have similar opinions on what skills people should have at each rank. A common view was that real understanding and ability usually came at around third or fourth dan. I'd felt kokyu-power from people much lower than that, even some white belts, but it seemed to me that most locals were still only beginning to develop it in earnest around the time they took their first black belt, and that from that point, it was an ongoing process to fully grasp it as one progressed into the higher dan ranks. For my part, I was definitely still in that loading stage, where I could feel it, but would occasionally hit a wall of resistance. My seniors were clearly beyond this, and it was reassuring to see that Akimoto sensei was also in that upper level of mastery. Here was evidence that a sandan awarded by O-sensei was ‘at least' a sandan by modern local standards in this dojo.
He moved the same way that the other teachers did, with the same body placement and small details of technique. I was intrigued to see his morotedori kokyuho, which according to the other teachers, had evolved even as O-sensei was teaching it. Akimoto sensei did it the more ‘modern' way, which to me was confirmation that he took the founder's training right up until his final days. At first, Akimoto sensei seemed like ‘just another sempai,' but he got more powerful each time I partnered with him. Perhaps the rust was shaking loose. At the same time, he also began to grow in confidence and authority. He was softly spoken, but clearly got irritated if he noticed people not using proper dojo manners. I got on his bad side myself on a couple of occasions. His warnings were not always properly heeded by some visitors, who had no idea who he was, and were not intimidated by his somewhat hesitant demeanour. One thing I thought was that he was not used to foreigners, but this changed over time.
Like everyone I know who spent any time with O-sensei, Akimoto sensei was very much impressed with the founder's etiquette, and regarded it as a fundamental part of the training. I concur with this, seeing budo deportment as the first chance to connect with a potential opponent, but nevertheless, I am not immune to the odd faux pas. His early corrections for errant behaviour seemed to fall short of the power of instructors like Watahiki sensei, due to Akimoto sensei's smaller voice, but eventually, he seemed to find his feet and move more towards Inagaki sensei's soft power. He would speak softly, yet with crushing authority. He clearly let you know that you had ‘stepped out of the light,' but at the same time, he drew you back into it.
A Familiar Feeling
As for how he felt then, and how he still feels now, it is the same story I'd had with the other teachers. I could grab him as strongly as I liked, and he had no trouble moving. When throwing him, he expressed a familiar ‘heaviness,' that belied his actual weight, and while he didn't usually stop me outright, he gave me plenty of constructive resistance that was clearly effortless for him. If I made a mistake, I could not get away with just muscling my way through, despite my greater size. When he applied technique to me, he was able to do so in a relaxed manner that I could not resist. This is kokyu-power, which I had been constantly told was fundamental to aikido from the day I first stepped into the dojo. I've felt this power from everyone who had any significant amount of time with O-sensei. It is clear to me that it was this that the founder imbued in his students.
Perhaps to spare our blushes, the following month, Akimoto sensei was promoted to fourth dan by recommendation in the next kagami biraki, along with Kawakami sensei, who had also been third dan since O-sensei's era, albeit without such a long hiatus between training.
Eventually, Akimoto sensei was asked to teach, sharing the Sunday morning class on rotation with Hirasawa sensei and Kawakami sensei. It was no surprise to see a familiar pattern of forging basics in his pedagogy. He didn't often go into too much detailed explanation, but what he did say included a common vocabulary of words like ‘kokyu-ryoku' and ‘seika tanden.' What he demonstrated had that same technical precision that the other high-level teachers possessed. Every once in a while, he would mention something unusual, which would catch me out if I was translating for any overseas visitors: "Anaerobic" (kenkisei 嫌気性) is one vocabulary item that springs to mind, but it would usually be in relation to the same concepts. I remember thinking, "It is possible that so many direct students of the founder could be wrong?" It was clear to me that the basics the other teachers were teaching now, were the same basics Akimoto sensei learned then.
Akimoto sensei once stated that when training under O-sensei, he did not get involved in the fighting culture that certain other teachers were notorious for. However, he followed this up with a very convincing statement that he knew what to do in a fight, and that the aikido we did in the dojo was a form of budo, which must be effective. He was under no illusions about getting attacked in a dark alley by someone in hanmi, using shomen uchi, who just happened to be ambidextrous. In his training, regardless of role, both partners are forging a body and mind that act according to certain principles, such as kokyu-power and connection. He sometimes points out how the basic framework of the tanren methods also includes principles for deployment, but when he talks of ‘real fighting,' we often end up practising strike drills.
Akimoto sensei told me that he and O-sensei's other students knew weapons were important in aikido training, so they practiced them, but none to the extent of Saito sensei. O-sensei mainly taught the aiki-ken and aiki-jo in the morning classes, which not everyone could easily attend. Of the other teachers, Inagaki sensei was the one most people deferred to regarding weapons and other aspects of the art. He was able to consolidate the weapons he learned from O-sensei with two-and-a- half years of training as an uchideshi under Saito sensei. After his return to aikido, Akimoto sensei occasionally attended Inagaki sensei's morning weapons classes, and he has travelled overseas with him for international seminars during which weapons have formed the bulk of the training.
As well as learning weapons from Inagaki sensei, it is also not beneath Akimoto sensei to ask those junior to him to take over, and instruct weapons during his own classes, if they have the skills. These days, he usually includes a weapons section in his classes in Kasama Aikido Club.
Kasama Aikido Club
A couple of years after returning to aikido, and becoming an instructor, Akimoto sensei reactivated the effectively defunct Kasama City Physical Education Committee Aikido Club, in Kasama Budokan. This is some distance from the Shibu Dojo, in ‘Old Kasama', the original city with which Iwama Town merged to form the present-day Kasama City.
I've taken the twenty-minute drive a few times to attend Akimoto sensei's classes there. One of the first things I noticed was Watahiki sensei, also in attendance. Although Watahiki sensei was the senior to the two, he was clearly there in a supportive role, and mainly took care of the children's training. The general course of the class remains the same to this day, although, sadly, without Watahiki sensei, who passed away in 2019.
At the beginning of the class, Akimoto sensei leads both adults and children in the same preparatory exercises. After that, the younger kids and beginners go to one side for separate instruction, while the main group of adults and older, more advanced children stay with Akimoto sensei. His teaching doesn't usually differ from what he does in Iwama, unless someone like Inagaki Hiroaki (a nephew of Inagaki Shigemi sensei) turns up, who can teach weapons. In that case, the more experienced students will do ken or jo for part of the class.
While all this is going on, the neighbouring kendo club usually arrives, and starts to warm up, quite noisily. The aikido club also uses kiai, so this does not disturb the class, although it can make it hard to hear Akimoto sensei's explanations. The Budokan's interior is half-covered with rubberised tatami mats, half with wooden flooring, where the kendo class trains. About halfway into the aikido class, the kendo people are ready to start their class in earnest, and begin to meditate. At this point, Akimoto sensei stops the aikido class out of respect. Training does not resume until the five minutes of meditation are finished.
I have made sporadic visits to the Kasama dojo over the last few years, and it has been interesting to get ‘separated-out' snapshots of the development of the students there. People I remember as beginners wearing white belts soon became black belts. Some of the Kasama students also come to the Iwama dojo, and one thing I have noticed is their swift progress. Many of them are parents, who started with their kids, or retirees, and I have felt them develop strong basics, which I think is testament to Akimoto sensei's teaching skill.
Still Growing in Power
Although Akimoto sensei became an instructor, he has never stopped training, and continues to attend regular classes. That means that, to this day, I still get to feel his aikido, not only as uke, when he is teaching, but also as my training partner. If you're on the kohai side of the line-up, you can get to rotate your way down through Toshihiro sensei, Hirasawa sensei, Akimoto sensei, and Kawakami sensei -- all direct students of O-sensei, - for each technique.
By 2016, Akimoto sensei was recommended for promotion again, this time to fifth dan, along with Kawakami sensei. In recent times, Akimoto sensei has filled much of the void following the passing of Watahiki Yoshifumi sensei, taking care of the uchideshi and tending to the dojo grounds. Moreover, on occasion he teaches the afternoon uchideshi classes, and sometimes takes them to his Kasama aikido class after Doshu's Saturday afternoon class, thereby providing a couple of extra hours of training for those who have the energy for it. Along with the other teaching staff, Akimoto sensei has also been quite active in teaching aikido in local junior high schools.
Akimoto sensei has been back in aikido for over a decade now, and I've plenty of anecdotes to tell, including a ghost story, but this is not the place to tell them. Suffice to say that to this day, Akimoto sensei still teaches at the Ibaraki Shibu Dojo on Sunday mornings, on rotation with Hirasawa sensei and Kawakami sensei, as well as instructing at the Kasama dojo on Wednesday and Saturday evenings. I can still feel him growing in power even as he helps others do the same.
Carl Thompson is a 4th dan Aikikai student at the Ibaraki Branch (Iwama) Dojo. He started aikido at the University of Sunderland Aikido Club in 1999, in his native UK. Later, he trained for one year in Seifukai Aikido in Hamamatsu Japan from 2003-04 and also at Brisbane Aikikai, Australia in 2005. He entered the founder's dojo in former-Iwama, Japan in 2006 and still trains there to this day.For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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