Join Date: May 2003
In Memory of Kuroiwa Yoshio - 黒岩洋志郎 -- 1932- 2010
Kuroiwa Yoshio was a unique figure within the Aikikai. Although one of the senior postwar shihan, he refused rank past sixth dan. In fact, he simply refused rank all the way up the ladder until Ueshiba Kisshomaru (Nidai Doshu) personally requested that he accept a sixth dan, because dispatching him to teach in dojos without any rank was getting embarrassing. Kuroiwa was provocative, almost rebellious, but he remained within the organization -- functioning at times like a grain of sand underneath an otherwise smooth mantle, but otherwise, largely ignored. He was technically original, with an utterly unique style of movement. Had he been a different man, and perhaps, if his health had been better, he could have started his own aikido group independently, like Shioda or Tomiki. Instead, he remained within the fold - but just barely.
When I first met him at the 1977 Kagami Biraki at the Aikikai, he sat down beside me, and began asking me questions about my training, and soon launched into what, as long as I knew him, were the same stories and same theories. In some ways, he was caught in a time, when he, a golden youth with a body much like Marvelous Marvin Hagler, was an almost invincible street-fighter, a high-ranking amateur or professional boxer (it was never clear) and a wonderfully innovative aikido practitioner. With most of his stomach removed because of an ulcer, he was emaciated, but he lived several more several decades with his heart largely in the past.
My encounter with him that day illustrated his relationship with the Aikikai. We'd been talking for about ten minutes. Masuda Seijiro, a shihan then outranking Kuroiwa, but a decade junior to him, approached and ignoring me, said, "Sensei, we are having the shihan meeting upstairs now." Kuroiwa waved him off and said, "Talking with this young foreigner is more interesting than that. Start without me." Masuda asked again, ingratiatingly, almost begging. Kuroiwa waved him off and turned his back on him. Masuda glared daggers at me, promising payback at his next opportunity (he concussed me at the next class).
My relationship with Kuroiwa sensei can be summed up quickly. For the next two years, I attended in his classes twice a week at a dojo in Ikebukero. He prepared Chinese dumplings for thirty people for my wedding. He was down-to-earth and unpretentious -- just a guy who did this martial arts thing -- particularly well - but it wasn't anything to get inflated about. He demanded that aikido be a practical martial art, and regarded most of his compatriots in aikido rather cynically as people who couldn't fight, because they'd never taken a punch in the face. Bewilderingly, he used to insist to me, "Pro wrestling is real," and he included Antonio Inoki's infamous "cobra twist" in his repertoire.
After I withdrew from aikido, I continued to keep in touch over the years, visiting him at his home, and each time, as he would show me, once again, his radical ideas on movement, both unarmed and with a stick or sword, I'd curse myself for not training with him any longer. But I was on another path.
However, this is not about Kuroiwa and me. Instead, for one last time, let Kuroiwa-sensei tell his stories, because they, like amber, encased him in a past from which he never wanted to leave. I will tell them in the first person --however, I will censor some of them slightly, because some of the details are a little too rough on one or another figure in his past.
Episodes in a Life
I'm an Edokko -- from Shitamachi -- downtown. A lot of these aikido teachers are rich boys. They never worked for a living -- just got out of school and started doing aikido. I started boxing in junior high. I'd go down to Ginza -- back in the late 1940's, it wasn't the high-class place it is now. There'd be all these high school and college boys, hanging out., I'd see them almost every day, and I'd pick one out and stare him down. They'd look at me, just a kid, 13, 14 years old and say, "What are you looking at, kid? You want trouble?" And I'd say, "Onichan (Older brother). I do. I do want trouble. Why don't you come over here to this alley where we won't be bothered." And we would go in the alleyway, and I'd knock him out. I'd take the school button from his cap. After a couple of years, I had two shopping bags full of them.
I was also boxing in the ring. They really didn't have weight classes, then, and the division between pro and amateur was pretty loose. I'd just fight whomever I could. Some of them outweighed me by 20 kilos. That's why my eyes are bad -- detached retinas. I don't know how many fights I had - eighty, maybe a hundred, I think.
Anyway, I was riding on a train one day -- I think I was about 21 or 22 years old, and there was this guy, a little older than me, leaning on a strap, and he kept smiling at me, like he knew me. I was wracking my brains, thinking, "Did I know this guy in grade school? Junior high? Some job?" And finally, he says, "You don't remember me, do you?" And when I said I didn't, he said, "You left me lying unconscious on a pile of garbage in an alley in Ginza a few years ago." And then the train stopped, and he smiled and said, "Take care, onichan." and walked off the train.
I went home and started shaking and couldn't stop. I just sat on the floor for a whole night shaking. I could remember the face of every guy who beat me -- there were only a couple. But there must have been several hundred guys walking around Tokyo whom I'd shamed and beaten for no good reason. Any one of them could see me, walk up and stab me, and I wouldn't even know it was coming.
Around that time, I'd seen a newspaper and there was this article about Ueshiba sensei, about how he was a master of martial arts, yet he taught that the martial arts were love. For some reason, I kept it, and the next morning, I decided to go to the dojo. I just knew I was in a lot of trouble, and thought somehow aikido would help me. It was 1953-1954, there were only about eight of us then. Kato-kun (Kato Hiroshi) started about six months before me -- he was a strong boy -- he broke my arm not too long after I started. The next day, his mother dragged him over to my house and made him apologize to my mother.
Anyway, after my arm healed, I practiced everyday. With so few of us, there were no salary men aikidoka and no hobbyists -- there was Osensei, Waka-sensei (Kisshomaru) and a few teachers, and everyone else was either uchi-deshi or soto-deshi. But I was only able to practice for about six months or so. My brother got in debt to some yakuza, and I had to help him pay off the loan. I was getting up at four in the morning, and dragging a cart around town, delivering this and that, and I missed O-sensei's class in the morning. I couldn't get to the dojo until mid-afternoon, and then had to leave again before the evening. Missing O-sensei's class was regarded by the others as really bad -- like I was insulting him. But I had to work.
So most of my practice was alone. With six months, I remembered the basic aikido waza - I could pick up things after seeing them once or twice. So I started applying boxing theory to my aikido. To begin with, most aikido people have the idea that you take the center and make the opponent move around you. In boxing you move around the opponent, so he gets stuck and can't move -- it is at that moment that you hit them. And even though aikido people talk about circular movement, they tend to use straight lines and extended arms. I found that any and every aikido movement should follow the path of either an uppercut or a hook. What about a jab? A jab is a tsuki, and so is a straight punch. But when you do them properly, they spiral as well, just not so much as an uppercut or a hook.
Most people's aikido resembles a roach motel -- the person grabs on and both people pretend that they are stuck like cockroaches, and then they run around in circles. When I do aikido, I grab the opponent, rather than him grabbling me.
Despite his emaciated frame, Kuroiwa had one of the strongest grips I've ever felt. His hands felt like talons. And because every move was an uppercut or hook, there was always torque to his grip. It hurt, your frame was locked and he somehow caught your whole skeleton with the grip of a single point.
Anyway, I started going to the dojo in the mid-afternoon, and was able to work out with the other guys. We were experimenting, and having a lot of fun. The younger guys started calling it the Kuroiwa Gakko (school). Then one day, Tohei Koichi sensei came up -- he was shihan bucho, and more or less ran the dojo. So he watched what I was doing, and said, "That's all useless. You have no ki." I have always had a temper, and I said, "What are you telling me, that you can touch me and shoot electricity in me or something? Sonna baka no koto o shijirarenai." (A rude way of saying, "I think you are talking nonsense.") Tohei sensei got red in the face and stomped off. The next day I came to practice and no one was there except Chiba-kun (Chiba Kazuo). Chiba-kun was my direct junior, just a kid then, and he looked really upset. He was sitting in seiza, with his fists clenched, almost crying. I asked where everyone was, and he told me that Tohei sensei ordered everyone to have no contact with me.
<Suffice it to say that young Kuroiwa and Tohei had a face-to-face confrontation that probably would have ended in blows, but at the last moment, O-sensei appeared.>
O-sensei came into the room, he'd surely heard everything, and started fussing around, saying, "I didn't know anyone was here, let me make you both some tea. How nice to have visitors." Well, I couldn't do anything then. But I couldn't stand the thought of being in the same dojo with Tohei sensei after that.
Back then the Yoshinkan and the Aikikai were like two sports teams. Shioda sensei heard about the incident, and he had people contact me. He didn't care that my style was different, He just wanted strong boys. Well, word got back to Honbu Dojo, and Osawa sensei and Waka-sensei (Doshu) took me out for coffee. They asked me what was wrong, and when I told them, Osawa sensei just looked at me and said, "Since when did Tohei become aikido? Aikido is O-sensei, not Tohei." Well, I couldn't leave then, could I? But I kept my distance. I'd train at some of my friend's dojos, like Nishio-sensei, and then I started teaching at Rikkyo University. I started working out with the wrestling team. They had all these leg attacks -- double leg, single leg, and they were throwing me with ease. I had to figure out a way to beat them, with side-stepping and hitting, dropping my weight and the like. In the process, I developed a new way of doing koshinage.
Kuroiwa's techniques were seamless. One followed another. You will observe in the clip, from Aikido Journal, 1985, ( -- link provided with permission of Stanley Pranin. For the original DVD, please visit the Aikido Journal website) Kuroiwa-sensei moving slowly and smoothly as he explains his method, and the koshinage, in particular, may appear unrealistic to some. But it was amazing to feel in person. He would drop just like a great wrestler would with a single leg take-down, and his timing was so impeccable that he'd disappear, and you'd spill over his back. I've seen a photo of Kuroiwa in his prime, at the point he stands out from under the throw and his uke is upside down, shoulder to shoulder with him, with his feet vertical in the air.
I was still traveling around Tokyo, visiting several friends' dojos, and one day I arrived at one place, and this group of yakuza was doing a dojo arashi. Their leader was the son of the oyabun (boss) -- named Momose. They were old-school yakuza -- bakuto -- (gamblers) and even though their group has always been really small, because of their lineage, they are like diplomats -- when some of the big gangs have disagreements, Momose's group used to negotiate, because they are considered to be part of the old ways. Anyway, Momose, the son, was a big guy, about 110 kilos, and he was fourth dan amateur sumo. And he had just trashed everyone in the place. So I called him out and I threw him four times in a row with my koshinage.
For a number of years, I'd visit Kuroiwa-sensei with my family for the Asakusa Matsuri, a yearly festival in the old part of Tokyo. And every year, Momose, now oyabun himself, would bring about ten gang members who would wait respectfully outside the house. Momose would come in with a gift, bowing low with real respect to "sensei." Momose told me the story of his defeat himself, the second time I met him, still marveling at Kuroiwa's throws.
But bowing to the man who defeats you is a particularly Japanese form of kata in such men's world. It didn't make him anything less of a thug. The first time I met Momose, I had a cast on my thumb due to a fracture, and Momose deliberately took my hand, and began to squeeze my broken thumb. I squeezed back and smiled in his eyes. The two of us grinning like a pair of junk-yard dogs. We were just about to have a Hallmark moment when Mrs. Kuroiwa, one of the loveliest human beings who ever walked, a real shitamachi girl who missed nothing, traipsed over and said, "Momose-san. Do you want to stay for a bite to eat?"
He disengaged from me and said, "Oh, no thanks. I'm going to go get drunk and get laid in a whorehouse."
"Oh," she said. "Well, have fun."
I started presenting my koshinage in the All Japan aikido taikai. Arikawa-sensei told me to stop. He said it wasn't aikido. I told him that until Osensei told me to stop, I'd keep doing it.
I did go to one of the all-shihan meetings recently. Nidai Doshu asked if anyone had any more questions, and I said, "We should stop doing tachi-dori and jo-dori in public demos. There are lots of real swordsmen in the audience, people who've really trained with swords, and they know that we can't really do such techniques. We are making fools of ourselves." There was dead silence in the room. Finally Doshu changed the subject. Later, Saito-sensei came up to me. I thought he'd be angry, but he slapped me on the back and said, ‘Yoku itte kureta.'("Thanks for saying what needed to be said"). Well, maybe it needed to be said but nothing's changed, has it?
The last time I met him, I asked Kuroiwa sensei about O-sensei's power. "Wanryoku," he replied. Raw power. "Ueshiba-sensei was just an immensely powerful man. And he trained harder than anyone."
"How about aiki?" I asked. "For example, how about him extending a bokken horizontally and his students couldn't move it. Were you ever one of the people pushing?"
"Yes. And I couldn't move him either."
"So what do you attribute that to? He was an old man. He couldn't have had that much power left."
Kuroiwa sensei smiled -- "You can't knock your teacher over when your teacher just announces in front of an audience that you can't knock him over."
As one can see from these articles, Kuroiwa-sensei had a beautiful mind, with an original, iconoclastic approach. He asserted that idealism of aikido was insufficient, saying that aikido practice, alone, was a yin practice, like religion, with both partners participating together. He asserted that it must be complimented by yang practice -- such as competition or even fights.
Yet, he never flourished. Relatively few people studied with him and only a few in depth. A man's life story is his fate, and somehow, Kuroiwa-sensei was fated to live in a beautiful past, where he was a bold and brawny youth, afraid of nothing and no man. He blossomed for a while in aikido, with a remarkably creative style, among the most beautiful yet powerful aikido anyone has ever seen or felt. Terry Dobson told me, "Kuroiwa was the scariest guy at Hombu Dojo. He was built like a Greek god, and he was so fast -- but he never hurt anyone. That's what made him so scary. You knew what he could do if he really unleashed it -- and he never even felt the need to show it."
But his health was soon broken -- ulcers that emaciated him, detached retina's kept him tied to a pager in case the doctors found suitable transplants (when they did and he finally agreed to the operation, they nearly blinded him in a botched operation) and then, lung cancer, from chain smoking and emphysema afterwards ravaged him. I visited him last year -- he was tethered to an oxygen hose, very frail -- and he told me the same stories yet again. I listened like they were new.
Ellis Amdur is a licensed instructor (shihan) in two koryu: Araki-ryu Torite Kogusoku and Toda-ha Buko-ryu Naginatajutsu. His martial arts career is approximately forty years -- in addition to koryu, he has trained in a number of other combative arts, including muay thai, judo, xingyi and aikido.
A recognized expert in classical and modern Japanese martial traditions, he has authored three books and one instructional DVD on this subject. The most recent is his just released Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei's Power.
Information regarding his publications on martial arts, as well as other books on crisis intervention can be accessed at his website: www.edgework.info
Last edited by akiy : 02-17-2010 at 08:53 AM.