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It Had to Be Felt #19: Nakazono Masahilo: A Man of Peace and Pieces
It Had to Be Felt #19: Nakazono Masahilo: A Man of Peace and Pieces
by Henry Ellis
It Had to Be Felt #19: Nakazono Masahilo: A Man of Peace and Pieces

Nakazono Masahilo sensei (1918-1994), a sixth dan in judo and seventh dan in aikido, was one of the first teachers to take aikido abroad after the Second World War. He lived in France for many years, and it wasn't easy. Nakazono Jei , his second son, recalled that when his father and Abe Tadashi sensei went to teach the French Foreign Legion, they were met by two large soldiers hiding behind the door with baseball bats. Only after dealing with them were they accepted.

I met Nakazono sensei for the first time in 1960 at the British Judo Council (BJC) summer camp, where we were training for one week. Abbe sensei had instructed us to be hard and resist Nakazono sensei, as this would show respect for this important teacher. It would also show Nakazono sensei the extent of his (Abbe's) teaching. To this day, I am not really sure why he set us on a path of almost certain self-destruction. We never gave Nakazono sensei one inch, actually thinking we were being respectful! It soon became apparent that Nakazono sensei did not agree.

At the end of the first morning session, a beautiful warm and sunny day, we were all outside in a state of shock and recovery, discussing the events of the first three hours. Sitting next to me were two powerful guys from the Hut Dojo: Big Tony and Morris, both nightclub bouncers. I overheard Morris say to Big Tony, "There is no way that little guy can put those techniques on a guy as big as you. Why don't you resist him instead of just accepting it? " Tony's response was simple, "Morris, if you don't believe it, you resist him."

At the start of the afternoon session, fate would have it that Nakazono sensei called out Morris for the first technique. As Sensei took him in sankyo, he totally resisted. I thought someone was eating crisps (chips) on the mat as the bones of his fingers crunched like pieces of eggshells. Morris was taken to hospital, and was never seen again at either the Summer School or the Hut Dojo.

It's Tough Being a Chimney Sweep

By this time, Sensei was not a happy man. He was about to become a lot less happy when he called me out four dan grades to attack him. Sensei instructed me to hit him -- I was known at the Hut for my powerful punch. I attacked him with what I thought looked strong, whilst pulling my punch, so as not to hurt him. Nakazono sensei was absolutely furious! He warned me never to do anything like that again -- his anger at my "protecting" him was such that I felt that if I did, he would annihilate me. Now it was my turn to be upset! I punched again, intending to put him away, and the next thing I was aware of, I was sitting in a very large open fireplace, a few feet off the edge of the mat with my head partially up the chimney and covered in soot. Sensei was the only one in the dojo that was not amused. I was down and out, so the other three dan-grades, Hayden Foster, Lennie Ballard and Peter Dowden, all attacked at the same time. Incredibly, sensei took all three of them and virtually hammered them into the mat. Hayden said he had never seen or felt anything like it before. No one disagreed with him.

During one of our much-needed breaks, we observed Nakazono sensei watching an adjacent kendo class, led by Otani Tommio sensei. Tommio was our age and a good friend. He was also the national coach for the British Kendo Council (BKC) and a direct student of Abbe Sensei. Nakazono sensei asked Tommio to practice with him. It was an amazing sight as Sensei gave Tommio a lesson in kendo, beating him at every move and cut.

Prohibition comes to Britain

There were several other injuries during that week. To be honest, they were justly deserved as we still continued to resist each and every technique. Nakazono kept us on the mat for ten hours a day, from morning until 10 pm at night, with breaks only for meals. Given that this week was also our annual vacation, we were accustomed to ending a day of training at the local Kings Head pub for a few well-deserved beers. In those days, the pubs closed at 10:30 pm. Williams sensei came up to me and demanded, "Ellis, ask Sensei if we can finish at 9:00 pm, so we can get to the pub in time for a beer." Why me? I reluctantly approached Sensei with our request, and he nearly blew a blood vessel, shouting, " I travel a long distance to teach you aikido, and you prefer to go to the pub? My answer is NO! "

Our only solution was to run to the pub and catch the last call for drinks as soon as practice ended. One night, we got some grief from a bunch of local guys, and after a lot of threats, they came as a group to attack us. After a day with Nakazono sensei, we were up for it! I hit the first guy on the side of his head and unbelievably, he spun round three times before hitting the floor. All of us were involved. The next day, we were called in front of both Abbe Sensei and Nakazono sensei. Abbe Sensei appeared to be angry and he demanded to know if anyone was hurt. I replied that there were some injuries. Sensei asked who they were, and I replied they were the other guys'. I noticed a slight exchange of approving smiles between the two senseis.

It was only later that Abbe Sensei explained to Nakazono sensei that he had instructed us to be hard so that we would be properly tested. Many years later, Nakazono Jei told me that as a schoolboy in Paris, he could not wait for his father to come home from England and tell him stories about the brave budo men of Britain. Jei said his father respected the early British aikidoka as true budoka.

Nakazono sensei, with summer school forgotten, congratulated us, saying that we could all go to the Aikikai on equal terms with students there. Our diplomas were signed by O-sensei. When I look at all my diplomas over the years, I see, with both some pride and a sense of humility that they were signed by such splendid men: O-sensei, Abbe Kenshiro, Nakazono Masahilo, Ueshiba Moriteru Doshu, and T.K. Chiba.

I think that I speak for all of the early dan grades when I say that Nakazono sensei was our favourite teacher. Given that he had also high grades in judo and kendo, his aikido had a different quality. He would bring his opponent in close, using his hips to add to the projection of a technique with tremendous effect. Nakazono sensei's aikido had much more movement than we had seen before, flowing, but not as exaggerated as we would later see with Noro sensei. Our aikido changed dramatically from our first meeting with Nakazono sensei. Because of the constant flow of his body movement, the techniques seemed very different from what we had been taught at that time. Nakazono sensei was a small man, yet he had a very powerful grip. When he applied such techniques as ikkyo and shihonage, it felt like your elbow and wrist were being separated as they seemed to be turning in different directions. We could only do a backward break fall with shihonage; he had such total control over us that there was no other option. It only after Noro Sensei arrived that we were taught to make a forward break-fall over the arm. I don't think any one of us would have wanted to try a forward break-fall from Nakazono sensei's shihonage!

A Degrading Situation

There was one dan grade, however, for whom he was not a favourite teacher. Abbe sensei had asked Nakazono sensei to re-grade all the dan grades to meet the then Aikikai standards. We were all approved except one young second dan. Nakazono sensei demoted him to first dan, saying, "Necessary sell your gi while prices are high!" I am sure the comment was an attempt at humour, but the young man felt humiliated and left Aikido shortly afterwards. It was too bad; he was one of the best dan grades at the Hut Dojo. We were later informed the Japanese had been instructed to keep back the promotion of dan grades to elevate the presence of future visiting Japanese teachers. This would explain the "de-grading."

From the Tatami to the Heavens

Nakazono sensei came regularly to England, and continued to exert a powerful influence on all of us. In 1963, Derek Eastman and I were very proud to have been uke for Nakazono sensei and Noro Masamichi sensei at the BJC National Championships at the Royal Albert Hall London. Nakazono was as powerful and dynamic as ever.

Sensei visited us regularly for several years. One visit in 1964 stands out in my memory as different. Sensei had brought with him Kobayashi Hirokazu sensei, 7th dan Aikikai. We were informed that Kobayashi sensei was here at the request of Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru to oversee the standards of all European Aikido. I still have a copy of the official letter pertaining to this visit.

The two instructors walked in to the Hut Dojo, Nakazono sensei smiling at us all with his normal warm greeting, as I believe he quite enjoyed his visits. On the other hand, Kobayashi Sensei looked as if his face had been carved from a brick; he never smiled once. I am unsure if he even blinked. We all lined up on the mat and Nakazono sensei told us why the expressionless Kobayashi was here.

Nakazono sensei invited Kobayashi Sensei to take control of the class; he stepped into the centre of the mat still without a word. I don't know if Nakazono sensei had told him anything about us, particularly that we had been taught by Abbe Sensei to always attack the centre of head or body, never to the side, and always follow the technique through.

Kobayashi Sensei looked at one of the dan grades (who will remain nameless), grunted and indicated that he pick up a bokken. He then indicated that he should attack with shomen-uchi. The bokken was a blur as it went straight through Kobayashi sensei's defences, hitting him on the head. He managed to keep his balance and stay on his feet. He did not make any more mistakes after that. Nor did it encourage any conversation or a smile as he sat through the class with an expression to make us keep our distance.

The last visit Nakazono sensei made to the UK was in 1967, I believe. I was pleased to, once again, be invited to be Sensei's uke. Abbe Kenshiro , Otani Mutsutaru , and TK Chiba were there. They watched as Sensei and I walked on the mat. I sat at the edge, waiting in anticipation to feel once again his powerful and dynamic aikido. Instead, Sensei sat down in the centre of the mat, and proceeded to make a long speech. I was never used once! This once dynamic teacher had changed. I am not sure what the speech was about, but it lasted for about one hour. Nakazono sensei was a healer and spiritual man; he drew many followers to his natural healing methods, and he also taught Kototama and Inochi. I was just an ordinary guy, and all that deep spiritual stuff was way beyond my need to know.

Thankfully, that wasn't my last time to see him. In 1992, I visited my students in Alamogordo New Mexico near White Sands and the Stealth bomber base at Holloman AFB. I actually got to sit in the cockpit of a Stealth Fighter plane, which is a story in itself. I taught Aikido on base, and also did a demonstration for the officers' wives club.

The icing on this visit for me, however, was a short flight to Sante Fe to meet my teacher Nakazono sensei again. Both sensei and Madam Nakazono made me very welcome. We chatted for about four hours of the old days, and the state of Aikido in the UK. I was surprised how aware Sensei was of events there. He said "I understand there are now many high grades in the UK. Who is grading them? "

I replied, "They are grading each other, Sensei." In all the years I had known Sensei, I had never seen him laugh so much.

I felt that Nakazono sensei was as pleased to see me again as I was to see him. He gave me a signed copy of each of his books, including My Past Way of Budo. I am so glad to have had a chance to see him again, as he sadly passed away in 1994. I still maintain regular contact with his son, Nakazono Jei sensei.
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 Kenshiro Abbe 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/

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Old 05-19-2012, 10:50 AM   #2
Dojo: Ellis Schools of Traditional Aikido
Location: Bracknell
Join Date: Feb 2010
Posts: 657
Re: It Had to Be Felt #19: Nakazono Masahilo: A Man of Peace and Pieces

I received the email below from Jiro Nakazono Sensei - who asked for his comment to be added to the article.

Henry Ellis


Dear Ellis sensei,

I read your article in recollection of my father, Masahilo Nakazono, and it brought back all of my memories of Aikido in Europe in the 1960s' which was in its Golden Age.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for this tribute; no one can do this better than a person who has actually pioneered the Martial Art in Europe, then filled with the many and real physical challenges. You were my heroes then, and you still are today in my heart that remembers the Aikido in its birthing period in Europe. You made it golden with all of these great teachers.

J. Nakazono
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