Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
Re: Saotome Sensei's Training History
Ok... since this is about my own teacher, I'll weigh in. I have never been terribly interested in nailing down the details of Aikido history in terms of trying to make the personal accounts of the various deshi square with either the known facts or each other, for that matter.
As with almost everything, there is quite simply memory drift. Studies have been done on this and it does not represent some sort of "dishonesty", it actually is a result of how the memory organizes its information. Over time the facts get shaped along the lines of the general importance and meaning the individual has given those facts, rather than duplicating some sort of factual data base of events.
I have noticed this myself. My good friend John Messores Sensei was Saotome Sensei's first student when he came from Japan back in the mid-seventies. He and I have trained together since I started Aikido in 1976. I have noticed recently that we each have distinct memories of various events and things Saotome Sensei said to us, for which we were both present at exactly the same time, and these memories do not square. This to the point at which John will remember Sensei telling him to do a particular move a certain way and I have a distinct memory of Sensei telling me never to do it that way. There are stories I have told over the years about my time with Sensei and then I have heard John tell his version of the same story and its not how I remember it. Frankly, understanding now how memory works, it's likely that neither of our memories is precisely right. However, since neither of us has yet achieved great fame in the Aikido world, no one is sitting around analyzing these things or comparing our versions of them.
Frankly, it takes a certain sort of mind to be an "historian'. Imagine being the world's foremost expert on land use patterns in Han Dynasty Guang Dong Province... Well I am similarly uninterested in whether O-Sensei farted on his train trip to Kyoto in April of 1936. I am interested in Aikido practice. I am interested in its transmission, its philosophy, its potential for personal transformation. What I take from my conversations with Saotome Sensei, and these didn't come from articles or books but directly from him, is about the meaning O-Sensei as a figure had on him, how the Founder's model as a teacher provided the shape and motivation for his training over the years. These discussions of how much face time each deshi had with the Founder are really not helpful for me...
If exactly the same standards applied in my own case it would result in a completely distorted view of my own Aikido. I started Aikido in the Spring of 1976. I trained at the DC dojo 6-7 days a week until I moved to Seattle to work for Eddie Bauer. When Saotome Sensei found out I was moving, he told me to train with Mary Heiny Sensei which I did. Bruce Bookman Sensei returned from training with Chiba Sensei in Japan at this same time. I paid dues at the dojos of both of these teachers and trained with both of them. I took over the Seattle School of Aikido as Chief Instructor when Mary Heiny Sensei left for Canada in 1986.
I am using this as an example... I could easily see some historian of Aikido in the future looking at my training history and concluding that, since I was only at the DC dojo for 5 years, and then was with Mary Heiny Sensei and Bruce Bookman Sensei from 1981 to 1986, well, that must mean they had an equal amount of influence on my Aikido. Of course, these events are not so far in the past that people don't have direct experience of each of our Aikido to form their judgments about this. No one who knows anything about any of these teachers would mistake my Aikido for that of Mary Heiny Sensei or Bruce Bookman Sensei. Anyone who knows anything about anything could see at a glance that I am a student of Saotome Sensei.
I have spent just about my entire adult life trying to understand Saotome Sensei's Aikido. While there are certainly other teachers whose Aikido is equally marvelous, I have never been on the mat with or seen anyone who is better. It hasn't mattered who I have trained with over the years... Ellis Amdur in koryu, Chris Petrilli in escrima, Mary Heiny, Tom Read, Bruce Bookman in Aikido, Howard Popkin in Daito Ryu, Don Angier, Dan Harden, etc. etc. My entire focus in this endeavor was to understand my teacher's Aikido and maintain the connection in some quality manner with the Aikido of the Founder through him.
People miss the point when they talk about mere "face time" as some silly determinant of closeness or distance from the Founder's Aikido. There were deshi for whom O-Sensei was the central figure in their lives and there were deshi for whom being a deshi was a job at a time when jobs were scarce in Japan. There were students who slept through the Founder's lectures and there were students who tried their level best to understand them.
The thing to remember about the "golden Age" of Hombu Dojo in the post war period was that O-Sensei's influence was still dominant in the sense that the mission for each student was to find his own Aikido. O-Sensei never developed any methodology for passing on form.. he taught principle. Saito Sensei in Iwama was really the last deshi to be taught anything that resembled "form" because O-Sensei was putting the finishing touches on what would become post war Aikido. But the folks at Hombu simply did not have that kind of training. Yamaguchi didn't look like Kisshomaru, Imaizumi didn't look like Chiba. Osawa's Aikido was completely distinct. To a certain extent, Tohei's Aikido started to create a a certain stylistic stream... If you look at the teachers who left with him, they share any number of traits. But Kisshomaru simply did not exert the same type of technical influence. Saotome Sensei considered Kisshomaru Ueshiba to be one of his teachers. He has always been hugely respectful of the man on a personal basis. But Saotome Sensei's Aikido had little in common with Kisshomaru's. I have a picture on my wall of Saotome Sensei sitting next to Chiba Sensei in class with the Founder, probably somewhere around 1966 or '67. The Nidai Doshu is sitting on the side observing as well. So, here we have three students of the Founder, all training simultaneously and not much of anything in common with each other.
So, my point here is that its the focus of your training, your innate talents, your dedication and hard work, and your disposition that is what determines how your Aikido ends up, not some years with a given teacher or hours of one over the other. O-Sensei was a hugely powerful personality. People changed their lives after simply seeing him (Mary Heiny being one that comes to mind). When people who don't know any better say things about "just drawing his bath" they show they don't really understand how O-sensei functioned. EVERY single thing he did with the deshi was about training. Saotome Sensei learned lessons that have stayed with him his whole life drawing O-Sensei's bath or grinding the ink for his calligraphy. These lesson have absolutely nothing to do with quantity of face time, its a transmission on an entirely different level.
Sure, there are folks who lay claim to being uchi deshi whose only interest in doing so is to give some legitimacy to their very low level Aikido. It doesn't work because anyone who knows can simply see how wretched their Aikido is... the Founder would have cried...
But there any number of post war deshi, and I have direct experience with Saotome Sensei and Chiba Sensei, for whom the Founder was the central figure in their lives and their training. The idea that they were more the students of other teachers because they had more time on the mat with them simply misses the point entirely. It's exactly the same as saying that Marty Heiny must have been just as much of an influence on my Aikido as Saotome Sensei because I spent about the same amount of time with each of them in terms of dojo membership. Anyone knowing all of us would laugh at that. Yet people consistently refer to historical information, dates and time, "face time" etc and draw conclusions that simply don't actually follow because there are other, more important factors at play.
In some ways, the "memory drift" one sees with many of the deshi is a direct result of the centrality of the Founder's influence over their lives and their training. Over time other, less "important" details get pushed out of their minds as they develop a sense of the narrative their lives have taken. It has nothing to do with intellectual dishonesty nor, in most cases, is it a matter of trying to inflate their reputations (certain notable exceptions) by inflating the story of the relationship with the Founder. It is a natural function of how memory works and the fact that these various teachers are getting older, seeing their compatriots start passing away, and feeling their mortality. They start looking for an over view of their lives, that narrative, that justifies the sacrifices, makes it all seem worth while, and makes sense to them. When this happens, things like memory of precise historical detail can go right out the window in favor of a narrative that seems to explain ones life. This is just how the mind works.. we all do it.
So, I think that, while the history of Aikido is important for any serious practitioner and something any teacher of the art should be fully conversant in, one also needs to be very careful about drawing conclusions from facts while one has little direct experience of the actual people involved. Certainly, I think it is a mistake, and fairly uncharitable, to assume that when the facts of some teacher's personal narrative don't square with the publicly available historical data, that its some sort of purposeful deception or attempt to inflate oneself in the minds of others. I simply do not believe that is what is really going on...
Last edited by George S. Ledyard : 12-02-2011 at 10:42 AM.