A few years ago, rumours were circulating in the aikido world that a Chiba biography was in preparation and, since I trained under his direction when I lived in the UK, for me this raised an important question: was this being done by his British, or by his American students? The question was answered when I saw who the author was, and even more so when Liese Klein came to my house in Hiroshima to conduct an interview with me. I was very happy to oblige and when the book appeared, I saw that my name appeared in the text, acknowledgments and footnotes. I read the whole biography at one sitting. Successive, slower, readings raised many questions, especially since a second edition (or printing) of the book appeared in 2018 and dealing with these questions forms the basis of this review.
I must state at the outset that Liese Klein has done the aikido world a major service in publishing this biography and I am very happy to have been able to play some small part in its production. I do not think at all that Liese Klein's idea of a biography of so important a figure in postwar aikido is misconceived and the comments that follow should be understood as a laudatory, but critical, commentary, both on the biography itself and also on some events and aspects of K Chiba's life. Though I trained in his dojo right at the very beginning, in the days of the Aikikai of Great Britain (AGB), it was only a few years later, after I had become involved with other aikido organizations / federations, that I came to know him personally. I moved to Japan in 1980 and visited K Chiba regularly at his house in Hatake, Shizuoka. I also did some aikido training with him—in the same house and wearing his own training suit and black belt. Alas, the fact that I had entered a real aikido ‘holy of holies' and was actually using Chiba's own training suit made no difference whatever to my own training, especially since I was facing a formidable opponent and on his own ground, so to speak. In fact, one training session ended a little earlier than intended since we concluded with some intense sword training (actually, the whole training session was extremely intense) and Chiba hit me on the forehead with his bokken—and drew blood. However, I have no scar, thanks to the great skill of his wife Mitsuko, who used a traditional remedy of egg white. Liese gives a detailed description of this remedy in the book.
Preliminary Note on the ‘Mysticism' of the Word 先生 [Sensei]
In what follows I usually refer to the subject of this book review in various ways: sometimes by by the initials KC, sometimes by his family name, sometimes with an initial, but without the addition of ‘Sensei'. The translation of this term into English is rather difficult, for in Japanese it is added to a person's surname, along with other suffixes like san
(where relevant), or simply used on its own—all with no special strings attached beyond customary Japanese practice.
In the UK and the US, however, I have seen students with very little knowledge of Japanese being corrected by those with as much Japanese—or even less, for not using the ‘correct' term, as if ‘Sensei' added to the name an indispensable element of open respect that I think sometimes verges on reverential awe, or a false obsequiousness. Sometimes I have played a game with Chiba's students, of using the name Chiba or that of a Japanese aikido shihan on its own, and then waiting for the inevitable addition of the ‘reverential' word. Even Chiba himself was rather sensitive about this matter at first and when he was in England, for a while he insisted on being called ‘Professor
K Chiba' and I used this term in my English correspondence with him after he had returned to Japan. However, Sensei
in Japan has a much wider usage than the title of a dojo head or sekininsha
, being also the accepted title of politicians and gangsters, as well as of high school teachers and university academics. The constant repetition of Sensei
is irksome and so I would like to make clear to any ideological purists reading this review that no disrespect whatever is intended by my use of Chiba's surname only, without any prefix or suffix.
1. General Background: My own Training History
As a general background to this review, I need to summarize my own training history and my relationship with K Chiba. I have devoted some space to this, in order to place my relationship with Chiba in proper perspective. Compared with other students, I did not develop the relationship of master/disciple, exhibited on the tatami. (I was actually very scared of him on the mat; I thought he was impulsive and showed his anger too easily.) The relationship was more of an intellectual relationship, with its roots in my own study of Japanese culture and the political structure of the Aikikai. Comparative culture is an aspect that is not particularly explored in Liese's biography and this review perhaps supplies more information.
I have been practicing aikido since the late 1960s and so I have been training for some 50 years. During this time, I have had a wide variety of teachers and one way of evaluating the importance of these teachers would be to calculate the length of time I have trained with each of them. It has often been stated that the student chooses the teacher and I am sure that there are important respects in which this is true—as a reading of Liese Klein's biography shows very clearly. Nevertheless, there are other ways of evaluating one's training and teachers, and my own training history has not been simply moving from one teacher to another. It has been influenced much more by the various universities at which I have studied and by the reasons why I did so. In fact, the process of evaluating one's training itself probably has a ‘political' aspect to it, but in my case, this was a matter of straightforward historical circumstances. In the film The History Boys
, a young hero describes history as "One f---king thing after another" and this, without the epithet and with ‘dojo' substituted for ‘thing', is also a good way of describing my own aikido ‘journey'. It was a journey only in the most basic sense, like the train that stops at every station on a suburban railway line.
I began my aikido training as a university student in two clubs in the UK—in Brighton, specifically. One club was a Tomiki dojo, which means that it was dedicated to a type of training developed by one of Morihei Ueshiba's star pupils. The problem was that Kenji Tomiki's interpretation of aikido turned the art into a kind of sport and this was unacceptable to the Aikikai, which was the principal organization that evolved from Ueshiba's aikido and which was headed by Ueshiba's son Kisshomaru. However, I practiced there only because I was enthusiastic, and it was another place to train. The main dojo where I trained was the university club. This was nominally an Aikikai club, but this only meant that the teacher, who was a Japanese graduate student, had done his own training in Japan under the auspices of the Aikikai. The university club/dojo remained independent of any organization and the teacher awarded his own grades. After university graduation, I moved to the USA and entered the graduate school at Harvard University. My original aikido teacher received from the Aikikai Hombu the name of Mitsunari Kanai, who was the resident shihan at the New England Aikikai in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I trained intensively at this dojo whenever tine allowed and it was here that I received my very first aikido grade, which was first kyu.
After a few very happy years studying ancient & modern philosophy at Harvard and training at the New England Aikikai, in 1975 I spent a year at home, working at a remote railway station in the deep countryside and considered what to do next. I had a place at Oxford University but turned it down. Instead, I spent the next few years pursuing doctoral studies at University College London. (The irony was that the visiting examiner in my thesis defence was the same Oxford professor whose offer of a place I had rejected.) I trained at the local UCL aikido dojo and also at two other dojos in London, to be mentioned below. On the way, I was promoted to shodan by Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan, during one of his visits to the UK, and became an assistant instructor under the guidance of Chiba's successor, Minoru Kanetsuka. In 1980, I moved to Japan and have lived here ever since. I went to the local Aikikai organization in Hiroshima and this is where I still train—and now teach, after 40 years residence. In all cases the choice of my country of residence was determined solely by academic and professional considerations: I needed to become sufficiently qualified to find a permanent career as a university teacher and this meant obtaining a Ph.D. at a ‘good' university. The only important decisions here were to find the ‘good' university, especially for doctoral research, which also meant finding the right supervisor. In fact, this actually meant my leaving Harvard, despite the latter's stellar reputation, and continuing my Ph.D. at UCL. So, in only one case did I choose a university based on my own prior knowledge of the professor. My Ph.D. supervisor was a visiting professor at Harvard and I followed him back to UCL, where I completed my doctorate under his supervision.
At Sussex University I had become an aikido enthusiast, but after my original Japanese teacher had returned to Japan, the remaining students needed to keep the club going, in spite of only two years of training. I found myself doing aikido training at an established judo club in London, known as the Budokwai, and regularly traveled from Brighton. On the way, I saw an advert for an organization called the Aikikai of Great Britain (AGB). In the advert there was a mean-looking Japanese man holding a sword. I think Kurosawa's Seven Samurai
was doing the rounds at the time in local cinemas and the image in the advert exactly fitted the popular ‘samurai' image. I hardly need to add that the ‘samurai' in the advert was K Chiba. I sought advice about training at the AGB dojo and was warned off in very strong terms. Chiba, apparently, was a "butcher" and "trained like a madman."
2. My own Knowledge of Kazuo Chiba
I went to the dojo anyway, which was located to the west of London, in Chiswick, but I could not train there very often. The distance from Brighton and the limitations of a student grant prevented frequent visits, but training here was a major revelation. To say that Chiba did not suffer fools gladly would be a major understatement; he did not appear to suffer anybody at all—and this is one aspect of the man that Liese captures very well in her book. He had a presence, an aura
, which became more prominent when he appeared in a keikogi
. At the time I trained there, practice usually began with the class sitting in seiza
and doing breathing exercises, with Chiba using wooden blocks. This training was very quiet, except for the breathing and the crashing of the blocks, but the quiet was destroyed by the crash of my own entry into the dojo, when I tried to push the outward-opening door inwards. Chiba gave me one of those looks. He knew my teacher and allowed me to practice, but I was not exactly welcomed into the group of students.
In her book Liese Klein recounts Chiba's first experience of Morihei Ueshiba and I think this gives some indication of the type of man he was. Chiba was browsing in a Tokyo bookstore and came across a book by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, entitled Aikido
. There is a description of aikido, but his attention was captured ("enraptured" is the word she uses) by a photograph of Ueshiba: "When I saw it, I knew immediately that I had found my teacher." The photo does not appear in the English translation, it but can be found on the frontispiece of the Japanese original. Morihei Ueshiba appears in the small oval picture, not looking directly at the reader, but displaying an attitude of calm. It is similar, but not identical, to the photo that appears above the kamiza
in most Aikikai dojos.
The fact that Chiba could come to such a conclusion on the basis of one small photograph -- and base his entire future life on this, indicated to a cautious philosophy student like myself that he was very much an idealist. In our later discussions he showed very little time for cool logic, but was much more interested in absolute idealism, of the type displayed by Hegel, whose philosophy has been called ‘the unfolding of the Absolute in space and time.' For Chiba, O Sensei represented such an Absolute, to which / to whom he had to have access in order to satisfy a yearning. I think this also explains why we never had a teacher / student relationship, of the sort described by Liese in her biography. Of course, he was my teacher, but never MY teacher, and I do not think he thought of me as his own student. Our paths intersected for a few years, but then we separated, and had very little contact after the move to San Diego.
As I stated earlier, I visited Chiba at his house in Hatake a few times after he left the Hombu and occasionally we practiced aikido. (It was then that I became aware of his severe back problem.) On one occasion, a tearful Kotetsu wanted to escape from the room. Chiba laughed and explained that Kotetsu knew that "we were going to argue" and this turned out to be true. On another occasion he took me to meet a Jesuit priest, named Oshida, who seemed to live the life of a hermit, reminiscent of the Jesuit priests in the film Silence
. After his move to the US, we met once in San Diego and Chiba seemed very pleased to see me. I stayed at his home and experienced wonderful hospitality, I also remember a very quiet Mike Flynn, who met me at the airport and who was also "allowed" to participate in the conversations. It was clear that moving to San Diego was probably the best move that Chiba had ever made.
3. K Chiba and the IAF
In Liese's biography the IAF is mentioned several times in passing and it is clear from her biography that Chiba had very little time for this federation. Liese quotes him directly on pp. 259-260:
"In addition to being a core member involved in the planning of the planning of the "preparatory meeting" in Madrid, Chiba attended the convention in Tokyo in 1976 as assistant general secretary, along with attending the second congress in Honolulu in 1978 and the third in Paris in 1980. Rivalry between competing Aikido groups marred early IAF conferences and stymied efforts to strengthen Aikikai aikido. Looking back on his years with the organization, Chiba's assessment was harsh:
"Despite considerable efforts, sacrifices of concerned members, and huge expenditures in both money and time, the IAF has accomplished virtually nothing other than political disputes and struggles within the member countries.""
I have to disagree quite strongly with the way the IAF is presented in the biography -- and this also includes strong disagreement with Chiba's own view of the federation. I served for over 30 years as an elected official of the IAF -- coming to Japan because of this -- and some of these years coincided with the years that Chiba worked at the Aikikai in the so-called ‘international department'. I quite understand why he left, since my own experience of the Hombu was largely one of banging my head against a soundly constructed brick wall. The main thing of value that I learned from these visits was the way that the ‘politics' of Aikikai aikido is expressed in the nuances of the Japanese language.
Even the founding date of the IAF is in question. In Europe the creation is marked by the visit to Europe of Kisshomaru Ueshiba in 1975, on his way to meet Koichi Tohei in Hawai'i, and to avoid the subsequent split, but the Aikikai regards the foundation date as 1976, one year later. The reason for this is that the IAF was thereby founded in Japan and so is technically a Japanese organization, therefore subject to Japanese legal procedures. The Chairman and General Treasurer were both French judoka
, but the President, General Secretary and Assistant Secretary were all Japanese. The annual affiliation fee was absurdly low and, as a result, in the early years the IAF was never able to meet its own running costs and therefore needed a heavy subsidy from the Aikikai. Accordingly, one can take Chiba's caustic comments even further: at the time the federation was created, the necessity for its existence was never called into question, even by Chiba himself. If he ever did, he kept it to himself.
The major problem here was that the reason for the creation of the IAF became a major issue. It was as if the Aikikai, having created the federation, did not know what to do with it. On the one hand, the Aikikai wanted to retain sole control over the federation; on the other hand, it assumed that the new federation would operate in the same way as other federations, like judo, kendo and karate. The fact that aikido was a ‘spiritual' art and not a sport became a major problem later on. Since the IAF was a democratically run federation, the chairman and general secretary were responsible for day-to-day operations (which did not really exist) and congresses were held every two years. As a result, the IAF spent lots of money, which it did not have, with very little to show for it.
A crucial issue here, which Liese does not discuss, was the relationship between the IAF / Aikikai and international sports organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Aikikai was a Japanese organization, becoming a legal foundation in 1942. (So, government recognition occurred a few years earlier than 1948. However, Liese is right to mention the important role played by Seiichi Seko, who became the General Secretary of the "Japanese version" of the IAF, as she puts it.) When I arrived in Japan in 1980, I inherited Chiba's position as IAF Assistant General Secretary. I got to know Mr Seko quite well and often met him in Tokyo, though not usually at the Aikikai. He sometimes stated that the Hombu "had to change," but never explained how.
I learned one aspect of the puzzle a little later, when I was asked by Kisaburo Osawa Sensei to go to the Hombu. Semi-formal dress was required, and I had to have my Hiroshima University meishi
(business card), for I was due to meet someone who was "extremely important". At some point Doshu Kisshomaru appeared, together with a driver, and we set off in the Hombu car to meet Mr Seko in in a coffee shop in the centre of Tokyo. (I was astonished to see Doshu motion me to a seat, take a tray, line up, and buy two coffees. Since Doshu did not speak English and I spoke even less Japanese, this was something of a dumb show.) Thankfully, Mr Seko appeared and the three of us entered a large building, where we met an elderly white-haired man seated behind a huge desk, who clearly exuded power and influence. Doshu was clearly the junior of the two and formally presented him with a white envelope, bound in a traditional Japanese style like a wedding invitation, which I assume contained a summary of the recent IAF meeting. He also presented my business card. There was much formal bowing and the ‘ceremony' finally came to an end. We returned to the Hombu and I was offered profuse thanks for sparing the time to go on such an important mission. I gather that I had met Mr Ryoichi Sasakawa.
Another aspect of the puzzle was solved after I had returned to Hiroshima and asked my aikido teacher who this man was. After expressing astonishment that I had actually met him, my teacher explained that Mr Sasakawa was a multi-millionaire who had built his fortune by controlling the betting on motorboat racing at various locations in Japan. He was also reliably thought to have links with yakuza
(Japanese gangsters). I later found out that Mr Sasakawa gave the Aikikai one million yen per year, which they had no choice but to accept.
There was one final link in the puzzle concerning Mr Sakakawa and the IAF and this is indirectly related to K Chiba's vision of the IAF and its links with the Aikikai. The main reason for the creation of the IAF in Japan was to ensure that the new federation remained firmly under the control of the Aikikai. In fact, the IAF was the brainchild of a group of European aikido practitioners who also did judo. Kisshomaru Doshu attended the ‘founding' meeting in 1975, as the Europeans thought, but did not formally approve this European initiative, even though this had the endorsement of Nobuyoshi Tamura, who was the senior Aikikai shihan
in Europe. I stated above that the main issue for the IAF was how the Aikikai planned to deal with international sports federations—and this became a burning issue. One such sports federation had the cumbersome title of General Association of International Sports Federations (generally known as GAISF and popularly termed the ‘poor man's Olympics') and the IAF agreed to join this federation.
A major controversy arose, on the quite reasonable grounds that aikido was not a sport and did not have competitions. In my files I have a letter from the IAF Superior Council requesting Doshu to cancel the Congress's decision to join the GAISF. There is also a letter signed by the Chairman of the Superior Council, Rinjiro Shirata, asking Doshu to ignore the earlier letter, on the grounds that the head of the Taiwan Aikido Federation, where the IAF Congress had taken place, would "lose face." In the end, I had a meeting with Kisshomaru Doshu, who stated that the IAF would join the GAISF, but would have the minimum possible relations with this organization. (Actually, Doshu was in a very difficult position, having been urged to join the GAISF by Mr Sasakawa, mentioned earlier.) I was the delegate who attended the congress and the IAF was unanimously admitted as a member. Consequently, the IAF began to have formal links with international sports organizations, but Chiba had no part in this, having made a dramatic departure from the Aikikai Hombu in 1979.
It remains to sketch Chiba's vision of ‘international aikido' and this is one of the principal merits of Liese's biography. She cites the opinion of Didier Boyet, one of Chiba's most devoted students in Tokyo:
"Chiba had conceptualized a system that would bring foreign students to Hombu as part of a formal trainee program, with financial support coming from their home-country Aikido organizations. Giving foreign students the chance to train officially at Aikikai headquarters would forge lasting links across the globe in support of Aikikai-style Aikido, according to Chiba's plan. However, conservative forces both within Hombu leadership and the Aikikai Foundation rejected the idea, fearing any loss of Japanese hegemony in the art. Torn between his loyalty to Kisshomaru Ueshiba and his hopes for a broadly transnational art in the mold of O Sensei's idealistic pronouncements, Chiba reached his limit when his plan was formally rejected in February of 1979." (p. 260.)
One problem here is that Liese Klein does not discuss this system in any detail, but it can be seen that Chiba's conceptualized system does not contain any justification whatever for the creation or existence of the IAF. It is perfectly possible for organizations in each country recognized by the Aikikai to handle the training of their own students at the Aikikai Hombu without any need for the IAF—and this is what actually happens at present.
The GAISF was not the only sports organization of which the IAF became a member. Another organization, called the IWGA for short, was dedicated to holding an event called the World Games on a regular basis. The IAF became a member, but since it was not a sport, could not participate in such an event. Eventually, a solution was found that was acceptable to the Aikikai. The IAF was still known as a ‘sport', but since it did not hold competitions, it was known as a ‘demonstration sport' and held demonstrations, much like the annual demonstrations organized in Yoyogi by the All-Japan Aikido Federation. Many senior instructors associated with the Aikikai were very unhappy by this uncomfortable compromise, but the demonstrations attracted much attention and had the coincident result of putting aikido more firmly on the Japanese ‘sporting' map; the crucial distinctions were left till later, much later. In any case, Japanese well understood the distinction between a ‘sport' (regarded as a ‘western' creation, like soccer and baseball), and a ‘way' (道: do
, also read as michi
), and had no problem at all with adding aikido to a category that already included judo, kendo, and karate-do, which were already popularly known as sports, with judges, points and winning & losing.
Liese mentions in the biography that Chiba "reached his limit" when his plan was formally rejected in 1979. (On the other hand, I believe that the Aikikai had very good reason to reject the plan.) He retired to the ‘countryside' and did not really do anything apart from working as a labourer, as a kind of ‘dark night of the soul,' practicing iaido and sword work, and visiting the Jesuit priest mentioned earlier. So, his life was becoming wasted and being a samurai on these terms had no content to it. The classic point of being a samurai, as Chiba understood this, is to be constantly ready to serve one's lord, but it was never clear in Chiba's later life who this lord was. Initially it was Morihei Ueshiba, but this presumably morphed into something rather less personal: the Ueshiba family as an institution, regardless of the character of the individual who succeeded the current Ueshiba as Doshu. The second point here is that Yoshimitsu Yamada saw this waste very clearly and sensibly persuaded Chiba to move to the United States.
Didier Boyet's earlier observation has relevance to me in one important respect. In 1979 I was making plans to come and live in Japan and I asked K Chiba's advice. His counsel was blunt and quite different from the conceptual system he has envisaged: on no account should I come to Japan solely in order to practice aikido at the Hombu. The Hombu would "suck the blood out of you and then throw you away like a stone." It was better to find a secure economic base first, and then practice aikido somewhere, thus facing the Hombu on more equal terms. I took this advice and eventually became a professor of cross-cultural negotiation studies in one of the graduate schools at Hiroshima University. Of course I trained at the local dojo.
Multiple Chibas, or, Biography as Fact or Fiction?
Writing biographies and producing translations are two activities in which the influence of the biographer and translator is unavoidable. So, a biography is never a straightforward ‘life' of a person and a translation is never a straightforward ‘reproduction' of the original in a different language. The issue then arises whether the biography gives a better understanding of its subject than a mere ‘diary', in the same way that the question arises whether a translation enhances the understanding of the original or hinders it.
The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba's Life in Aikido
presents a picture of a very remarkable man, written by one of his close students and, in my opinion, it steers a very satisfactory course between revealing the warts and blemishes, as well as the many virtues. Kazuo Chiba made an enormous contribution to aikido and this becomes very clear from Liese's biography. I was privileged to know Chiba fairly well, I but would probably have written a different biography—which is something to be expected and does not at all diminish Liese Klein's achievement. I am pleased to recommend the book very strongly.
Full details of the book reviewed:
Liese Klein, The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba's Life in Aikido,
Birankai North America / Summit Aikikai ISBN: 978-1-7322592-1-8. No date of publication is given, but the dedication in the revised edition, written by Alex G Peterson, is dated July 2018.
Peter Goldsbury (b. 28 April 1944). Aikido 7th dan Aikikai, Emeritus Professor at Hiroshima University, teaching philosophy and comparative culture. B. in UK. Began aikido as a student and practiced at various dojo. Became a student of Mitsunari Kanai at the New England Aikikai in 1973. After moving back to the UK in 1975, trained in the Ryushinkan Dojo under Minoru Kanetsuka. Also trained with K Chiba on his frequent visits to the UK. Moved to Hiroshima, Japan, in 1980 and continued training with the resident Shihan, Mazakazu Kitahira, 7th dan Also trained regularly with Seigo Yamaguchi, Hiroshi Tada, Sadateru Arikawa and Masatake Fujita, both in Hiroshima and at the Aikikai Hombu. Was elected Chairman of the IAF in 1998. With two German colleagues, opened a small dojo in Higashi-Hiroshima City in 2001. Instructed at Aiki Expo 2002 in Las Vegas, Nevada.