In 1964, Abbe Kenshiro sensei went to Japan with his friend, Michigami Haku sensei to see the latter's student Anton Geesink win the Judo Olympic Gold medal. While there, Abbe sensei went to the Aikikai to see O-sensei Ueshiba, and asked him for a representative of the Aikikai to take full control of his organisation, the British Aikido Council (BAC), the main body for UK Aikido. We were unaware of his plan before Abbe sensei left for Japan, and no wiser on his return.
Two years, later, in 1966, TK Chiba sensei arrived in the UK as the official Aikikai representative. He initially stayed with a Mr B. Logan, a director of a large shipping company, on whose ship, the `Al-Sabbayah,' Sensei had made his long journey from Japan to the UK. Mr Logan lived in Sunderland, a cold northern UK city. Chiba sensei found the weather there cold, miserable and unpleasant.
Abbe sensei had not informed Ken Williams sensei, the national coach for the BAC, of this development. Williams Sensei was the first UK student of aikido, and he had devoted the past eleven years of his life to building aikido from absolutely nothing, no students and no dojos, to what would become a large successful organisation for Abbe sensei. The BAC now had dojos in many towns and cities. Williams sensei had given up his profession to make aikido his life, a huge risk at that time for a family man. Aikido had become his sole source of income, and it now appeared that it was being taken away from him. Totally unaware of any of this, neither Chiba sensei nor the Hut dan grades realised what lay ahead of them. The BAC had been very strong in the hands of Ken Williams sensei, and it was as if the tatami had suddenly been pulled from under our feet.
To say the least, the situation could have, and should have, been handled much better by Abbe sensei. Perhaps if matters had been handled differently, had we been prepared, maybe Williams sensei and Chiba sensei could have worked together for a stronger BAC, but when Chiba sensei arrived at the Hut Dojo for the first time for what we thought was an ordinary seminar, he was introduced as the new official Aikikai representative. The dan grades were fiercely loyal to Williams sensei. They were the original pioneers of aikido to Britain from its inception in 1955. To these dan grades, Williams sensei was the undisputed head of the BAC and UK aikido. There is no doubt that Chiba sensei was aware of the resentment, as he and Williams sensei just did not get along from the moment they met, but he had no idea why he was received that way.
One had to have been in the Hut Dojo that day to feel the atmosphere, to understand the shock and dilemma of all that attended that first course. Chiba sensei was not a visiting Aikido teacher as Abe Tadashi, Nakazono Masahilo and Noro Masamichi sensei(s) had been. This teacher was here to stay, and to his credit, despite all the hardships ahead of him, Chiba Sensei did stay for a further forty years.
Hard and Brutal Times Ahead
The course was as tough, or perhaps I should say, as brutal as any I have ever experienced in my fifty-five years of aikido, and when I say "brutal," I don't just mean on the part of Chiba sensei. We were equally to blame. Each technique was a confrontation between Chiba sensei, and each and every dan grade. We were left in no doubt that Chiba sensei was up to the test. Not only "up to it;" I had the distinct feeling that he intended
to leave us in no doubt who he was and why he was here. He always looked very menacing, serious and threatening, and in a way I think he actually enjoyed the challenge. It was only our years of hard training with Abbe sensei that enabled us to avoid many injuries. Chiba sensei was utterly unlike Noro or Nakazono; he simply met you head-on. In that aspect, Chiba sensei exemplified the same attitude both Abbe Kenshiro and Abe Tadashi, that you would only be thrown if the technique took you. In those early days of Aikido in the UK, flying ukes were an unknown species.
Although we resented the proposed changes by Abbe sensei, I believe that, as battered and bruised as we were, there was undoubtedly a deep understanding and respect for each other, a respect that we still felt when meeting Chiba sensei again at the Hut Dojo last year.
Hard Training was all we knew.
Training at the Hut Dojo had always been serious. Sunday mornings were my favourite training sessions. Only dan grades were allowed to attend, the doors were locked, and we had real fighting. We would test our technique and spirit to the full.
Ken Williams Sensei had a brother named David who was also a hard teacher. Dave was also a very accomplished aikidoka, also holding dan grades in judo and karate. We would often go to the local Cranford Park woodland where we would split into two groups, one group each led by Ken and Dave. One group would set out into the woodland a few minutes ahead and wait in ambush. We had some crazy skirmishes with the losing battered group buying the beers.
Despite being brothers, Dave was a totally different personality and character from Ken. On one of these occasions, when I was sitting in the pub, enjoying my first pint of beer, I noticed Dave looking at me intently for a moment. He accused me that I thought I could beat him if we fought for real. I assured him that it had never crossed my mind. He persisted that it was always on my mind. I replied "Sensei, believe me, it has never crossed my mind, but it obviously seems to be troubling you!" That comment seemed to upset him. He stood up and challenged me to fight for `real` in the Cranford Arms car park. We went outside, followed by a large group of our students and pub regulars.
He had challenged me, not I him, so I did not attack him; rather, I relaxed and waited. He moved around and feinted several attacks with kicks and punches. I did not move until I saw my first opening, and I punched him in the head, knocking him down. I then dropped on top of him, immobilising him. I didn't ground and pound him; I just held him there, asking, "Sensei, is this over now?" He said that it was and I released him, but before I could get to my feet, he sucker punched me, breaking my nose. He lost a lot of respect from the other Hut students, and he left the dojo shortly afterwards.
I am only relating these stories to show the way we trained in those early days. A bit of snot and blood was all part of a good training session. For us, then, Chiba sensei was someone we could respect and learn from.
I do find it amusing to read of students who complain that Chiba sensei is too hard a master. I would say Chiba sensei appears to have really mellowed with age, as most people do. (I think this indicates that there is hope for me yet; at the age of seventy-six, perhaps I, too, will mellow as I get a little older). But there was nothing mellow about the man I met in 1966. As Chiba sensei applied his techniques we did not tap until almost at breaking point, Chiba sensei knew that this was the way we had been taught, but he was just as determined as we were. There were many limbs and joints that would ache for several days to remind us of that eventful and painful first visit. I must underscore, however, that as rough a day as that was, there were no serious injuries.
Abe Tadashi sensei lives on
If you have ever felt Chiba sensei's technique, you know just how effective this man can be. Chiba sensei recently said that Abe Tadashi was his hero. I was not surprised. Let me take a little side-trip then, to write briefly about Abe sensei, who died all too young, in 1984, at the age of fifty-eight. I had little personal contact with Abe sensei, but my teacher, Abbe Kenshiro sensei and he were very good friends. Abbe sensei invited Abe Sensei to his first big event in the UK at the Royal Albert Hall in 1956, and Abe Sensei would make more visits to teach in the UK in subsequent years. It was clear to see why Chiba sensei would refer to Abe Sensei as his hero; they were so much alike, other than Abe Sensei appeared to have a permanent smile on his face, even when there was nothing to smile about.
Chiba sensei told us that Abe sensei had completed his training as a one- man suicide submarine pilot for the Kaiten ("Turning to the Wind"), just as the war ended. To the day he died, Abe sensei felt that he had been cheated out of his destiny to die for the Emperor. Had Abe sensei made that final journey on the Kaiten, I am sure he would have been smiling, even then.
I am informed on his return to Japan in the late 1960s, he visited the Aikikai where he apologised to all the ladies present before throwing his diplomas on the mat and declaring, "This is not aikido. This is for women." He left, never to return. I believe that it was this uncompromising spirit and straight-ahead attitude that Chiba sensei so admired.
The Fragmentation of British Aikido
Imagine the situation in which Chiba sensei found himself. He travelled half-way around the world under the impression that he would be welcomed by all the British aikidoka, much as his predecessors Nakazono, Noro and Tamura sensei(s) had been in the UK and France before him. Instead, the whole of British aikido began to fragment upon his arrival as individual students and small groups had to decide where their loyalties lay.
I have often been asked when UK Aikido went pear shaped. I truly believe this was the time. This may well have been the birth of the plastic Samurai. Some breakaway clubs became rudderless - up a creek without a bokken for a paddle - starting their own organisations, and awarded each other silly grades and titles, a comedy routine that continues at a pace to this day. They grade themselves, and then offer promotions to others teachers to join their organisation, and so the vaporisation of Aikido goes on. I am sickened to see aikidoka who have graded themselves to a higher grade than that of Kenshiro Abbe sensei. These people would not be worthy of mat space with him. Chiba sensei said to me the last time we met "There are very few real aikido - martial arts - clubs left; they are now no more than social clubs." I won't argue with that.
This fragmentation wasn't just around the country; it took place within the Hut Dojo too. Williams Sensei left the Hut Dojo in the capable hands of Haydn Foster in 1967, and moved from London to Wales with a small following. He then changed from traditional Aikido to Ki Aikido, joining with Tohei Koichi sensei. He successfully re-built his organisation in the name of the Ki Federation of Great Britain.
With Ken Williams sensei leaving, , the loyalties of the Hut dan grades were tested to the full for the first time since 1955. Hayden Foster sensei stayed at the Hut dojo until his sad loss in 2011, but some dan grades gave up aikido entirely, for any one of a number of reasons.
I, too, had to make up my mind. Ki Aikido was just not for me. I decided to leave the Hut Dojo, with my three personal dojos, to join forces with Chiba Sensei. This was a very painful decision for me, as the Hut Dojo was, without doubt, my second home. I was the only Hut dan grade to do so then, but later, Derek Eastman, another Hut dan grade, would join me.
Chiba sensei was doing what I wanted. He applied each and every technique with intent. As I have said about my other teachers, most were judoka, and so was Chiba Sensei. I always find that an ex-judoka is a much more powerful and effective aikidoka. In those early days with Chiba sensei, I felt his Aikido was `tight;' it was controlling, and always painful. With previous teachers, there would be some pain when they were demonstrating a technique's effectiveness; with Chiba sensei, I felt this positive application with almost every technique. There was no particular technique that worried me; it was all of them.
Chiba sensei had a very difficult period trying to survive with just a few dojos. Initially located in the north of England, he soon realised he needed to be in London. This was a positive move, and soon things began to improve. I supported Sensei as much as I could. As the senior dan grade, I took a lot of the ukemi and that was really tough on a regular basis from someone like Chiba sensei.
One evening at the Earls Court Dojo I was pleased to see a Japanese guy come in the dojo, a first dan. I thought that this guy could take some of the pressure off me. My joy did not last long as Chiba sensei did not use him very often. Just because he was Japanese didn't make him another Chiba sensei. I don't think the man liked the hard techniques very much, either. He now heads a large organisation in the UK.
Sensei's style gave him a bad reputation in some quarters as being too
hard. To anyone not used to such training I can see it being a little too physical; for me, coming from the Hut dojo, hard training was all I knew. I honestly never saw Sensei hurt anyone deliberately. To be fair to Chiba sensei, he was teaching Aikido as a martial art to some people who should have been in night school doing cookery classes.
Too Friendly with no Forgiveness
In 1968, I assisted Chiba Sensei at a week-long summer course in the far north of England. This boded well as many students from around the country gathered for this special event. I had just begun the morning preparation session when Chiba sensei called me to his changing room. Sensei said, "Mr Ellis, the students from the north are very good and loyal, but they do not have your strict etiquette and discipline. Can you speak with them now, please."
I asked Sensei what the problem was, and he explained that some of the senior students would put their arms around his shoulders in an overly friendly manner. They would refer to him as `Kazuo.' I tried to ease the problem by explaining that people in the north of England were known for their friendliness, but I added that I was sure that this was not going to be a problem once I explain the etiquette.
I rejoined the class, calling for their attention for what I thought would be a simple friendly chat. I was totally unprepared for their hostile reaction as I began to explain the etiquette for the event, which included Chiba Sensei's concerns. I was taken aback by their collective response. The group stood up as one, and in a defiant manner, they told me they would continue to call Chiba sensei by his "Christian" name as they always had. One guy said that at his place of employment, he worked closely with his CEO, a director of a national company, and he always called his boss `Bill.' I replied that if he could not differentiate between budo and business, then he should not be on this mat. Now, the northerners were not so friendly any more; my discussion had hit `Hadrian's' wall.
It was obvious that this discussion was going nowhere. Chiba sensei expected me to resolve it so I ended the confrontation by finally stating, "This is not a debate. You will refer to Sensei at all times as Sensei or `Chiba sensei.' If I hear differently, I will personally remove that person from the mat and take them outside to resolve their problem, and I mean it."
From that point on discipline and etiquette was maintained, but at a cost. It was obvious from their hostile attitude that my Christmas cards would be few next year.
There was an amusing aftermath to this story. Some thirty years later, I was being interviewed by Arthur Lockyear the correspondent for the popular martial arts magazine, "Fighting Arts International" (FAI). After the interview, Arthur and I went to the local pub, and as we talked of the early days of aikido, he said "Henry, can I ask you something that I have heard about you for many years?"
I smiled and said "yes," wondering what was coming next. Arthur repeated the above story, almost word for word. He asked if it was true. I replied, "Yes, it is true, but that was over thirty years ago. I'm sure they've forgiven me. "Arthur laughed and said "Henry, they will never, ever forgive you. " I thanked Arthur for making me laugh so much that I bought him another beer.
A Change of Climate and Attitude
In 1969, we held the summer course at my Bracknell Dojo in the Royal County of Berkshire. My home and dojo was just a few minutes from Royal Ascot Racecourse, and we hired the famous racecourse accommodation annex used by the jockeys and stable boys on race days. The summer weather was beautiful, and the students from the north seemed to respond to the warmer climate. There was no repeat of the incidents that had marred the beginning of the previous year's course.
Chiba Sensei had invited Tada Hiroshi sensei, Tamura Nobuyoshi sensei and Ichimura Toshikazu sensei. It was tough being uke for Chiba sensei every day, but before I could rest, Tada sensei had his stern eyes on me and another hard session was on the cards. As if that was not enough, it was evident that Chiba sensei was really testing me as he made me have regular hard training sessions with Ichimura sensei who, although five years younger than I, was a fourth dan. I was a second dan, but we were well matched and I felt that I came out of the `test` quite well.
I would take the Japanese instructors to my home near the dojo for lunch. In front of my home was an ancient giant oak tree, and the Sensei(s) would all take their food outside and sit on the grass under the oak tree, shaded from the sun. They attracted quite a bit of interest from passing neighbours.
Stars of Stage Screen and Radio
I will never forget in 1968 when Chiba sensei and I were asked to take part in a 30 minute BBC world radio broadcast; this was followed by a call inviting us to give a demonstration of aikido on national TV. To my embarrassment, at one point I did something that I condemn in others; I actually made an exaggerated, longer than necessary, break-fall, Sensei was not at all impressed, as he held me in another vice-like technique, he snarled in my ear "Mr Ellis, I am capable of throwing you without your help! "The next technique proved Sensei's point.
Later in the hotel lounge across the road from the TV studios, Sensei and I sat in the bar, and suddenly several people pointed at us saying that we were on TV. There we were, two handsome young men.
Memories of a Serious Misunderstanding
In 2010 Chiba Sensei invited Haydn Foster sensei, Derek Eastman sensei and I to spend the weekend at the Birankai summer school in Bangor, North Wales.
Sensei said he would like to speak privately with the three of us. He then reminded us of his first visit to the Hut Dojo in 1966. Sensei said that he remembered the day well and how hard we were with each other. It was not a time that we would forget easily either. Sensei said he wanted to apologise as he thought he had been too hard on us, and had also broken Mr Williams wrist on that first encounter. The three of us looked at him in stunned silence. Mr Foster then spoke up "Sensei, I can speak for the three of us who were there that day. There were no serious injuries to anyone, including Williams sensei!"
Chiba sensei then explained that Mr. Williams had sent a letter to Nakazono Masahilo sensei in France, saying that he was so injured. I am unsure of the content of this letter of which we knew nothing of its origins; we all felt there must have been a misunderstanding in interpretation.
This misunderstanding reached O-sensei himself, resulting in Chiba Sensei being unjustly and unfairly financially penalised by the Aikikai. This caused him considerable hardship, quite aside to the damage to his name.
Until this discussion, Chiba sensei was under the impression that we, some of his closest students, were either party to this letter or knew of its existence. We assured Sensei that this was the first time we had heard of it. Chiba sensei had kept the problems relating to that first visit to the Hut Dojo to himself for some 45 years. As I related earlier, that seminar was a brutal encounter. We explained to sensei that was how we trained every day anyway, so we had felt that a few pains and strains were nothing to complain about. We were glad to have a teacher who could teach us in the same way. Sensei seemed relieved to have cleared the matter up.
Letters of Recognition
Derek Eastman and I have worked tirelessly for many years to preserve the proud history and lineage of British Aikido from its inception in 1955 by Abbe Kenshiro sensei and Ken Williams sensei. It is in recognition of our efforts to protect our proud history for future generations of Aikidoka that will, in the future, be searching for the truth.
Whilst there are many Aikidoka that have supported our efforts, there are many others that have not only created their own grades and titles, they have created their own history that is totally at odds with the truth. Therefore I was very pleased to receive the following letter from TK Chiba Sensei, in recognition of our fifty-five years in aikido:
3rd November 2008Cc. Shihan TK Chiba, Technical Director
A personal letter from the Doshu
Dear Mr Ellis
I am writing to you to confirm your acceptance of Chiba Sensei's invitation to be an honorary member of the British Birankai at the meeting held on 31st October 2008 at The Hut Dojo in Uxbridge. As Chiba Sensei mentioned to you, the reason for this invitation is in recognition of and respect for your sincere devotion, commitment and persistence in the cause of British Aikido for over half a century, to begin as pioneers and being the first black belt students in Great Britain recognised by Hombu. Please be assured that there are no conditions attached to this invitation other than offering our good will for free participation, at your will, in any event organised by the British BiranKai and most importantly to preserve the lasting friendship between ourselves.
I look forward to hearing from you.
I also received a most valued letter of recognition from the present Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, from which I attach this excerpt:
Dear Mr Ellis
It is more than thirty years since Kisshomaru Ueshiba, my father, succeeded Aikido Doshu 11. And, last year, I was inaugurated as the Aikido Doshu. Time flies! Aikidoists who were awarded Dan Grades by the founder are becoming fewer year by year. I believe that a person like you is very precious.
With fondest regards, I am,
To receive letters of recognition from such eminent figures of Aikido as Chiba Shihan and the Doshu makes the efforts of Derek Eastman and myself over recent years to protect the history and lineage of British Aikido worthwhile. This is the spur that keeps us going forward.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
- Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
- Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
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Henry Ellis is the co-author of the book Positive aikido. He is a pioneer of British aikido from 1957, as a direct student of Abbe Kenshiro sensei. With 55 years of aikido experience, he was one of the first of five dan grades for aikido in the UK. His diplomas have been signed by O-sensei Ueshiba, Abbe Kenshiro, Nakazono Masahilo, Chiba Kazuo, and Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru. He is currently a 6th dan, Aikikai, and has taught aikido the UK, continental Europe, Australia and the USA.
Henry Ellis has written many articles published in international magazines including the controversial "Is aikido a Martial Art?" He has also written articles on the history of British aikido in an effort to preserve the truth for future generations. Visit his website at http://britishaikido.blogspot.com