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Home > Interviews > Hans Goto Sensei, August, 2001
by J. Akiyama <Send E-mail to Author>

Hans Goto sensei has been studying martial arts for over 30 years. His aikido experience includes extended residential training in Iwama, Japan, at the Ibaragi dojo with Morihiro Saito sensei. He also has trained in judo, tai qu quan, and wushu. Goto sensei is the founder and chief instructor at Bay Marin Aikido and currently holds the rank of sixth dan through Aikikai Hombu dojo.

AW: When and where did you start training in aikido?

HG: My official starting time was in 1969 at UC Santa Cruz where Bob Frager had started the aikido club. Jack Wada, myself, and several other people started at that time. A year later, Linda Holiday, Raso (Hultgren) started as well as several other well-known folks like Tom Read, Darryl Bluhm. It was an amazing group of people that started in Santa Cruz at that time.

Now, the unofficial time is three years before that. I was in Los Angeles and I saw aikido at the Nisei Week celebration for the Japanese-American community. I had been doing judo for many years and I wanted to see other martial arts. There, I happened to see Koichi Tohei sensei give a demonstration and I was flabbergasted! I had never seen anything like that. He did the unbendable arm, he did the "You can't lift me up" thing, tossed around five big guys like rag dolls. I mean, it was amazing.

At that time, I couldn't drive so I had to convince my sister to take me to aikido classes. There was one aikido dojo in West Los Angeles so I would go there on occasion whenever she felt like taking me there. That's sort of the unofficial time but, really, it was in Santa Cruz when I really started to train on a more regular basis.

AW: What was the training like in Santa Cruz?

HG: In some ways, it was really great. Bob Frager had just come back from Japan so he tried to capture that essence so it was really, very good in some senses. But, personally, I wanted more clarity of -- I don't want to say "movement", but -- clarity of focus or philosophy. I think Bob Frager had a great sense of philosophy of what aikido was about, but I was always confused about the actual physical techniques of aikido. "Ok, that's an ikkyo, but, hmm... What's making it work?" The little mechanistic part of me was saying, "Hmm... No, I don't get this."

After I graduated from college, I had this fantasy of going to Japan for a year or so. There was a little hiatus there after graduation, but I did finally go to Japan on a UC charter flight, in fact, hoping to see Hikitsuchi sensei in the southern part of Japan. We first went to Aikikai Hombu dojo and we trained. There, we were told don't go down south, that Hikitsuchi sensei wasn't well, that Hikitsuchi sensei had put himself out too much and was feeling ill, that there was too much going on with all of the foreigners down there, so no more foreigners.

AW: When was this?

HG: This was during the summer of 1973, June-ish or so. You can confirm it with Mary Heiny, actually -- seriously! She knows! She's the one who told us from Shingu and said to tell all of the foreigners, "Don't come down"!

So, I thought, "Okay, there goes _that_ plan!" It wasn't much of a plan to start with, but there it went, any way. At that point, I bumped into Bill Witt at Hombu dojo. He says, "Ah! You should come up to Iwama." I say to him, "Um, what's Iwama?" Hey, I didn't know! He says, "Well, Saito sensei, he's my teacher." I go, "Who's Saito sensei?" Seriously! I had no clue. I was really ignorant. I say, "Oh yeah, I kind of remember..." With his dry sense of humor, he says, "Well, you'll really enjoy it, ha ha ha!" I thought, "Why is he laughing that way?" But, OK -- I asked him how to get there and told him we'll go visit. So, through Bill Witt's introduction, our small group went and visited Iwama.

Iwama was really fun. It was really hard. Different. I couldn't do anything!

That summer, folks stayed for a month or two in Iwama and then went home. Saito sensei asked me, "So, what are your plans?" So I told him, "I don't know. I was hoping to stay in Japan for a year, but I'm not sure -- maybe head back to Tokyo or something." He says to me, "Well, if you want to stay, you're welcome to stay." Bill Witt's going, "Yeah, do it! Do it!" So, I said to Bill, "Urmmm. So what does this mean?" Bill says, "I'll tell you later, but do it!" I asked Bill if it would be impolite to tell Saito sensei if I could think about it for one night or two nights or so, and Bill says he'll ask him. I get the reply that it's no problem for to think about it.

So the rest of it is that I ended up saying yes and I ended up staying there for a while.

AW: What was the training like at the Iwama dojo?

HG: Physically hard. Part of me was wondering, "What in the world was I thinking" They're just really strong people there -- physically strong.

But, there was something there that I felt. It wasn't just brutalizing. Some people were rather brutal, but there was something else going on. They might have had a strong grip but there was something that Saito sensei did that I'd never seen before which was organizing the teaching curriculum. I was amazed that things seemed to make sense to me, finally. He would go through a series of movements like shomenuchi ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, and then make a complete round in that whole area, and then show us, "Here's the basics and here are the variations." I was really impressed by that. Even with the very hard training, that was what carried me through.

AW: Saito sensei does a lot of aikiken and aikijo. In your thoughts, how does that relate to aikido?

HG: He always said that the aikiken, aikijo, and taijutsu are all the same -- that they're all one art. He said that O-sensei often said that when some people picked up the sword, they used the sword like they were doing iaido or kendo, and when they picked up the jo, it was like they were doing jodo. Really, his notion of aikiken and aikijo was as if you're doing taijutsu. Everything is related. "Riai" -- we don't use that term very much any more. But, if your sword got knocked out of your hand, you shouldn't have to change from a kenjutsu style into an empty-handed style. It was absolutely consistent.

So, that's all there is to it. It's just your body movement. At least, that's what I think.

AW: You've done some weapons training with Tetsutaka Sugawara sensei. Can you share your experiences about that?

HG: I've known Sugawara sensei since the early days when I was studying with Saito sensei. Sugawara sensei came to Iwama in 1973 or early 1974 to help set up the "Traditional Aikido" books; he was acting as a liaison for one of the Japanese documentaries. So, I've known him since that time.

Shortly thereafter, he started studying Katori Shinto Ryu which is a 600 year old sword art. About 10 or 15 years ago, we invited him over to teach classes and he started showing us things that he was interested in. For the first couple of years, he was still doing Goju Ryu karate so we all got beat up badly, even when it was "aiki" karate! Now, he's softening up and doing more Chinese martial arts so his taijutsu is softer. But, he's always maintained his Katori influences.

It's really different. It's really neat. It's not "aiki sword," it's not "aikijo". But, it teaches speed, "give and take," and awase; it talks about distance and timing a lot more. It's more fun and certainly aerobic. It's not like it's "better" or "worse" than what Saito sensei's aikiken or aikijo. It's just different.

AW: What kind of differences do you see between aikiken and Katori Shinto Ryu kenjutsu?

HG: One of the basic things is that aikiken comes from your center, from your midline. So, the hilt of the sword comes from your center and goes out the tip and stays on the midline, so it's that sort of alignment. In Katori Shinto Ryu swordwork, the tip stays on the line but the hilt "wig-wags" from one side to the other, so that's very different. You're always maintaining that line and you're always cutting -- the cutting edge is really important.

AW: How has training in Katori Shinto Ryu influenced your aikido?

HG: That's a good question. I can't say what it has done clearly yet since I'm not too sure, to be honest with you. I think it's changed some things as far as understanding distance and understanding how to invite an attack and not be afraid of an attack -- to see it coming and to see that it's actually coming in increments coming in and know when to deal with it, how soon to deal with it, how far away, how to deal with close range as opposed to medium range or far range away from you. So, I think it's given me a clarity of vision more than anything else -- timing and maai. Maai is a huge thing; I think about it, but I can't articulate it! [Laughs.]

I think it's an important thing. I watch a lot of experienced shihan in aikido and they understand maai. They don't always talk about it, but they do it, every single time. It's consistent. If that maai changes, their movement is consistent again. Sometimes, if a person is a little closer, the teacher might adjust his movements. It's amazing. I think about it all the time -- I watch and see how other people deal with it. It's really fun.

It's all weapons. If you think of it in the way of the hand as a sword, how does it work?

AW: Do you teach those kinds of things at your dojo?

HG: I don't know if I do, but I hope I do! [Laughs.]

I would love to say, "Yes, I always teach it." But my students might say, "I've never heard him say that before!" [Laughs.] To be honest with you, I don't know!

I'd like to think that I am teaching it. I'd like to think that my students are hearing it. Sometimes, I'll hear my students go, "Oh yeah, he's talking about that all the time!" but other people may say, "I've _never_ heard you say that before!"

AW: You mentioned Chinese martial arts earlier. What kind of experiences have you had in that realm?

HG: At the very beginning back in 1969 at the college, they also had taichi classes. Being young and having too much energy, I did both aikido and taichi. So for about four or five years, I did the Yang style of taichi. It sort of disappeared for a while, then I practiced it on and off for a few years.

In the 80's, I started up with some Chinese wushu which is some more acrobatic stuff. It was a lot harder on my body since I was older, but it was fun! I really enjoyed it, and it showed me some interesting moves. I did some Chen style taichi at that time, too.

With Sugawara sensei's influences from China, in 1992, we actually went to China to Shanghai and Beijing. We had the chance to interact with the physical education colleges in China. They also had regular classes in their colleges, but they also teach martial arts, volleyball, and all of the other physical education stuff with each student specializing in one area. We got to hang out with the martial arts people -- that was fascinating. So, I got the chance to play with those guys, too, and also gave them a demo of aikido.

In recent years, I worked with a guy named Roger D'Onofrio who teaches San Quan Dao which means "Three Fists." The first fist is Pai Lum -- White Dragon, the second fist is Praying Mantis, and the third fist is White Butterfly, an Indian art. So, his art is sort of a conglomerate art but very street practical. So, for a few years, we published some articles in the Aikido Journal. He and I worked every day for a while and traded information. He didn't really study aikido, and I didn't really study his art, but wherever the two arts merged, that's what we studied.

AW: What kind of things were common to both arts?

HG: The notions of redirecting, awase, sticking with your partner no matter where they moved. Those were skills that I knew in my head, but it was a great chance to practice it with him since he was really quick. It wasn't just like sticking with someone who was moving slowly, but sticking with someone who was moving radically fast and in all different directions. We had a great time doing that kind of thing. Awase and musubi -- the Okinawans call it "muchimi" -- it's like a stickiness to somebody. That was really fun.

It made sense to me at the time. It really felt like "aiki." It didn't feel like I was branching out into this weird thing. I don't emphasize it as much any more, but I've absorbed the information.

AW: Sounds like fun!

HG: It was fun! It's like I saw you were playing around the other night -- something that looked like some Gracie sort of thing or wrestling. As you're doing that, it doesn't feel that odd, right? So, to me when I was doing that stuff, it was a similar thing. It was really good.

AW: How long have you been in the San Francisco Bay Area?

HG: Since fourth grade! I grew up in Watsonville, just south of Santa Cruz. Then Santa Cruz, then Japan for a short while, then back to the Bay Area. Gosh, how many decades now? Quite a long time, quite a long time. Specifically, in Marin County I've been there for a little over twenty years.

AW: Can you describe the Bay Area aikido community?

HG: In one word: diverse.

But, it's really changed over the years. In the late 60's, there were very few practitioners. The lead people were Stan Pranin, Frank Doran sensei, Bob Nadeau sensei, Bill Witt sensei, Bob Frager sensei. That was pretty much it in our realm of experience. There was Robert Tan sensei in South San Francisco. There were the Mission rebels in San Francisco, and so on. But, my limited contact was with those guys. Even in those days, it was diverse. They all had their own emphasis.

Now, you don't even have to go one town over. There's pretty much an aikido dojo in every single town -- sometimes, three or four! There's a wealth of information in the Bay Area, alone. If someone makes an effort, they can see a huge spectrum of aikido. I don't know if you can get that big a spectrum even in Japan in such a small area.

AW: Thank you sensei, for your time and contribution.

HG: Thank you!

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