Dojo: Suganami Aikikai SF
Join Date: Sep 2006
On Kato Hiroshi Sensei
My teacher passed away last Sunday. I had seen him the Saturday before, and he had a bad cold, and I was a little worried, but I had seen him shake colds off before. So I wasn't too concerned. I flew back to California on Wednesday, and Saturday night I got the call that he was gone. I still can hardly believe it.
I first met Kato Sensei in 1979, when I was a very young man studying at Hombu Dojo. Robert Frager had told me stories before I went about this guy at Hombu that used to go up into the mountains and practice bokken and jo all night, then come to the dojo and do this incredible aikido. So I asked about him and he was pointed out to me. Kato Sensei wasn't a member of the Hombu teaching staff, but he was senior and higher ranked than many that were. He had started aikido at Hombu Dojo in 1954, and was a seventh dan. He would come to class three or four times a week, train in class, and then stay after class and work with a small group. I went over to watch them, and Kato Sensei asked if I wanted to join in. I did, and took to joining his group after class every so often. I could have trained with him a lot more than I did, but I was young and not very disciplined, and wasted the opportunity then to really study with him.
Kato Sensei back then had a striking appearance. He had a pale complexion, huge black circles under his eyes, and a frequent maniac grin. At that time training at Hombu was pretty harsh, and the quality people really respected then was power. Kato Sensei had power in great quantity. His technique was very non-orthodox, using a lot of foot turning and twisting and rapid body direction change very different than anyone else's aikido I have ever seen. Through this he developed a kind of force that I can only describe as tornado like. When I attacked him, I never knew where I was going to end up, I would just feel this force pick me up and hurl me across the dojo. A couple of times taking falls from him I actually did land on the top of my head, which was painful and frightening. But I never felt he was deliberately trying to hurt me, unlike some people I trained with, and I was scared a lot of the time at Hombu back then, so Kato Sensei's stuff didn't discourage me too much. Indeed, I liked taking falls from him, as although Kato Sensei was very physically strong, it was clear when he threw you that there was a lot more going on than just strength and technique. Kato Sensei was always very welcoming and helpful whenever I chose to go over and participate in his practice, and when I left Japan and went home in 1980 I had very positive memories of him.
I didn't go back to Japan until 1989, but when I did go back I made a point of reconnecting with Kato Sensei, and accepting his invitations to go train with his group on the weekends. But as I now had a career in the States and could only go once in a while for a few weeks, I couldn't train with him the way I wanted. So I was quite pleased when my buddy Jimmy Friedman came back from Japan one trip in 1994, and told me he was inviting Kato Sensei to California to teach. So Kato Sensei started coming to the San Francisco Bay Area twice a year, and teaching seminars, and pretty soon, Jimmy told me that he wanted to become Kato Sensei's student. That sounded good to me, so I jumped on that wagon too, and we became Kato Sensei's first branch dojo.
Kato Sensei was a wonderful teacher for me. He was very relaxed and straightforward, and not at all a rigid authoritarian. This was good for me, as I never could bear to be told what to do. As I got to know him better, I found him to be very kind and generous. He himself was a rebel and non conformist, and was willing to tolerate a lot of that in his own students. He even made me cringe some times. I went with him a few times to the Taisai in Iwama, the formal ceremony commemorating O Sensei. Everyone, including me, would be dressed up formally for the occasion, except for Kato, who invariably wore a t-shirt, and jeans with holes in them. I would stand next to him thinking "Great! maybe I can just pretend not to know him." But that was who he was. He revered O Sensei, but had no use for ceremonies, and didn't mind letting anyone know.
His aikido at this point, in my opinion, had solidified. He was as powerful as ever, but instead of flying through the air now, when he threw me he directed me straight down. His vitality was incredible. He was sixty years old. He would get off the plane, go straight to the dojo, start teaching and throwing us around like bowling pins, drink all night, wake up early in the morning so we could do "special practice" and keep this up for two weeks. Jimmy and I would be utterly exhausted when he left, and we were in our mid thirties. Kato Sensei's aikido kept it's unique twisting footwork. But even before he moved, he was able to take my center the instant I grabbed him. As soon as I took hold of his wrist, I would feel myself lose connection to the ground. Then he would move and apply the technique and bury me. He also had a system for using the bokken and jo that used the same footwork. If I could compare it with anything I would say that it seemed almost like the Chinese martial art Bagua. But when we asked Kato Sensei, he told us he had never studied any martial art other than Aikido. He said that he had developed his aikido by trying to figure out how O Sensei did what he did. But he made a point of saying that he did not learn it from O Sensei, he developed it trying to do what O Sensei did. The same for his weapons work. He said O Sensei never taught him weapons, he developed his own forms trying to catch the feeling of what O Sensei did. And this was an important part of his own teaching philosophy. He said that you should never be a "copy" of your teacher. He thought the role of the teacher was to inspire the student to figure out stuff on their own, because that was the only way they could really get anything worthwhile. And he said that was the way O Sensei taught. He said that when O Sensei taught class, he would walk around, and if he didn't like what the student was doing, he tell them they were doing it wrong, but he wouldn't explain to them what was right. they had to figure that out for themselves. Still, when I would ask him for something specific, he would laugh, and show me or explain it to me anyway.
As he got into his seventies, he lost the raw overwhelming force and speed that he once could generate. Instead, he got more subtle, drawing his uke off balance earlier and moving around his uke's force in a way that made his throws look comically easy. Even though he was going about it a different way, he was getting stronger in some ways rather than weaker. I started traveling with him a lot, and I would laugh to myself sometimes in South America when I would see some young hot shot latch on to him and he would just bury the guy, and the guy would get up with the "deer in the headlights" look, like he was thinking "What just happened." And Kato Sensei used to tell us, "I can't use force the way I did when I was younger, so I have to learn other ways to do things" I guess when he said younger, he meant when he was in his sixties!
Now, Kato Sensei wasn't a perfect person, by any means. Like a lot of his generation in Japan, he drank too much. He loved to be the center of attention, and had a hard time when he wasn't. And he very much wanted to have a lot of dojos under him in his association, and I couldn't understand why that was so important to him. But for all of that he was one of the kindest people I have ever known. He knew his aikido was better than the vast majority, but he never thought that made him a better person than anyone else. I never saw him talk down to anyone, or treat anyone as less than an equal to him. His students were his friends, and really, his family too. I was with him in Venezuela as his attendant one year, and we were at the airport with a few of the Venezuelan aikidoists, and he was explaining what he thought Aikido was all about. He said Aikido was about having good relationships and friendships with people, and he looked over at me and said to the group, " You know, Peter's my student, but he is also my friend, and that's how I should regard him, and that's Aikido."
Kato Sensei told us that when O Sensei died, Kato Sensei felt that he didn't have any guidance anymore, and that it was now up to him to try and figure out what aikido was, and though he lamented that he felt he only understood a fraction of what O Sensei was doing, that is what he was trying to do. I am already missing the guidance that Kato Sensei gave me, but I am missing my friend Kato Sensei more. I love you Kato Sensei, rest in peace.