“Interview with Kenji Shimizu,” by Stanley Pranin

The following is an interview conducted in 1988 by Stanley Pranin with one of the last uchideshi of Morihei Ueshiba at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Kenji Shimizu established his own independent dojo in the mid-1970s in Sangenjaya, Tokyo called the Tendokan Dojo.

I understand that you practiced judo before starting aikido.

I was narrow-minded in the beginning and used to regard judo as the only martial art. The drawbacks of judo are that you injure yourself often and you don’t see any improvement as you get older and lose physical strength. I really liked judo and it was very depressing to see my ability in the art declining. Even young people can be on the decline in judo.

How old were you when you started judo?

I began in 1953 when I was 13. I was good at it and continued regularly through my days as a student at Meiji University. As a boy I practiced judo with the people around me and became strong. As I got older my competitive range increased and I fought many big and strong competitors. I was stimulated and tried very hard but I couldn’t overcome the difference in physical strength. That’s why I switched to aikido and really became involved with the art.

How did you come to know about aikido?

Mr. Kaburagi, the managing director of Takanawa Geihinkan, suggested that I see Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, who lived in Wakamatsu-cho in Shinjuku and whom he considered to be the last martial artist left in Japan. I had heard a lot about him before that. This is how I changed from judo to aikido, but it wasn’t so easy. For example, judo has matches while aikido has only repetitive practice. At first, I thought aikido was too slow. In judo whenever the opponent has an opening you can throw him. However, in aikido you allow yourself to be thrown. I couldn’t understand in the beginning why I had to wait to be thrown. But in reality when your techniques improve it’s completely different.

Did you start training in the regular classes?

Yes. That’s why I had a lot of doubts. Even though I thought O-Sensei’s aikido was wonderful, he didn’t come to the dojo when I started to practice there. Other teachers would come to teach. Then three months later I became an live-in student. That was in 1963 right after I graduated from the university.

Did you intend to become a live-in student when you started out in the regular class?

Shimizu with Morihei Ueshiba c. 1966

Yes, but I was not sure if I could continue aikido because I had been actively practicing judo. I think the present Doshu Kisshomaru Sensei wondered whether or not I would continue my practice. Therefore we agreed on a three-month regular practice period. Just as in my dojo now, many people quit after beginning aikido. They don’t usually continue their practice even though they initially really want to continue because it is such a wonderful art. That is one of the difficulties with aikido. Some people feel something is missing. Sometimes I was forced down hard even though I didn’t resist my partner’s techniques. It was so painful that I was left seeing stars. I tried to do the same thing to him but I didn’t know how. So I sometimes threw my partners a lot using judo techniques. Then O-Sensei scolded me by saying: “This is not a judo dojo.” (Laughter) It is not right to force someone who is not resisting down hard. There were rough people. The cartilage is my arm still sticks out because of one rough guy.

In my dojo we are kind to new students and strict on old students in order to strengthen their spirit. I do not wish to treat new students the way I was treated. We want older students to become stricter with themselves. When I practiced judo I thought only about winning the match. But since aikido has no competition I have more time to reflect on myself.

Did you first start practicing judo in a dojo in your hometown?

Yes. My home is in Tendo [Fukuoka Prefecture] and there was a dojo called the Tekisuikan in the next town of Iizukashi. The teacher of that dojo, a man named Isamu Niihara, won the All-Japan Judo Tournament twice. He weighed 265 lbs. at a height of 6 feet. I received excellent training in judo there. I acquired a knowledge of judo as a basis. Mochizuki Sensei has also said the same thing. You can develop your agility by learning judo. I always say to my students during practice they shouldn’t be off guard just because there is no match. Although this is a criticism of aikido and of myself, the art sometimes seems to be prearranged. The person performing the technique and the person receiving it cooperate with each other and the latter falls even without the technique being applied. My judo colleagues do not understand this and say that aikido is a “phony martial art.” But they understand if I explain the rationale behind the art.

Through my practice of both arts I always feel that it is the spirit which really must be strong. Regardless of how good your techniques are in practice, they sometimes are completely useless when you need them. When you lose self-control techniques are worthless. It’s embarrassing for me to talk about myself but I am convinced that realizing true strength is only possible through training of the spirit through techniques and ki power. Warriors in olden times could not abandon themselves to death when in a life-threatening situation. I think this is why they practiced Zen in order to develop their ability to maintain their composure. Nowadays people sometimes say they are practicing Zen merely to make a good impression on others. But in those days its use was a matter of life and death.

There is nothing we can do about it but practitioners become less and less serious as time passes. It is necessary to train the spirit through the repetition of techniques. I think that if you focus on technique alone you cannot develop strength. I believe that one becomes strong unconsciously through serious repetitive practice. When I read books on the old martial artists a man was considered strong if he was bloodthirsty. I’m not sure about that. A person who is truly strong does not display such an attitude.

There are two major trends in aikido. One emphasizes the flow of ki while the other approach is to train the body, learn basic technique and then study ki flow techniques. What is your feeling about this subject?

Of course, basically I favor the latter view. However, I would like to tell beginners to get accustomed to training naturally. For example, if you teach swimming techniques to someone who cannot swim and put him in the water, he probably won’t be able to swim. In the beginning, he must get used to the water and then progress from there. This is the logical order, don’t you think? Once he is accustomed to the water I think he can swim without difficulty. When he is in the water, he may swallow a little. Then he tries to float; and then he tries to move about at will. It’s at that stage that he needs swimming techniques. In aikido you learn basic body turning movements and the effects of ki progressively. My point is that you must get accustomed to the dojo first and learn basic techniques. If you are serious and practice regularly you naturally know how to use ki.

What was practice like when you first began aikido?

Rather than being taught systematically I was thrown many times. I practiced until my uniform was drenched with sweat.

Did the senior live-in students teach you well?

Sometimes I asked them for help. However, isn’t it quite natural that they didn’t teach me? Also, it was hard for them to teach me since I was a judo competitor. I may have resisted them.

Were the major teachers at that time Tohei Sensei, Kisshomaru Sensei and Osawa Sensei?

Yes, and on Sundays Saito Sensei would come. I often accompanied O-Sensei. He at times felt lonely. Sometimes when we did not have practice at noon he would say: “Shimizu, why don’t you go and buy some bread?” He told me to eat the bread while I sat next to him. Other people in the office would look at me and say that I had pulled off a good trick. (Laughter) Nowadays if you are given a piece of bread it’s not that important. But 20 years ago I was hungry and also in the beginning as a live-in student I received almost no salary. So I was very happy. O-Sensei once said he thought I was receiving a salary of about 50,000 Yen. But I thought he was completely out of touch with the real situation and I was angry. (Laughter)

Was O-Sensei irregular about coming to the dojo?

Yes, he was. When I was actively practicing there he often came and went. When he showed up everyone immediately sat down. At first, I thought that people were being courteous toward him. However, it wasn’t only that. It was also that the practices we were doing were different from what O-Sensei expected us to do. Once he lost his temper at us. No one realized that he had come and he shouted: “What you people are doing is not aikido.” His shout was so powerful it felt like the earth was trembling. He was then in his seventies but his voice nearly pierced our ear drums. Everybody just became quiet and looked gloomy.

Since you entered aikido with a background in judo, did you ever try to test O-Sensei?

No, I never thought of such an outrageous thing. I just thought he was a fine, strong man. O-Sensei had tremendous power. To me it was not important how strong he was. I was satisfied that he was a genuine man of budo. There was no one in the world of aikido who could match him and therefore I never thought about testing him.

I believe that O-Sensei would give lectures to his students. What meaning did they have for you?

Those lectures were so difficult that I hardly understood. But there were a few things I could guess at. His lectures were so long and since we were sitting in seiza (format seated posture) our legs would go to sleep. There was a time when I fell down trying to stand up when he called me. In the beginning, at demonstrations I remember managing to reach O-Sensei with my hand but because my legs were asleep I couldn’t move. (Laughter) After an hour of lecturing, he would say: “Hey! Shimizu!” What could I do!

Are there any memories which stand out from the times when you accompanied O-Sensei?

If I remember correctly I was told to go to a wedding held the Hiei Shrine in Akasaka by O-Sensei. He knew the head priest of the Shinto shrine and they agreed to show a little aikido before the wedding. I went there later carrying bokken and jo. Many worshipers at the shrine were watching us. O-Sensei told me to strike him seriously since he was just going to do light techniques. However, he was old and could not move like a young person so I attacked him half-heartedly. He threw me beautifully. This really convinced me anew that he was a great man. He read my breathing perfectly. The audience must have been surprised. Although he said he would throw lightly I thought he was a bit rough. This really surprised me. Of course, when you become old you lose strength for activities such as running, but in O-Sensei’s case his explosive power and insight were extraordinary. Since I saw this kind of thing often I always thought he was exceptional.

When you were O-Sensei’s partner in demonstrations did you initiate the attacks?

Of course, I first attacked him but I had to read his breathing. I had to watch him carefully. When I took a fall and stepped back I had to watch him otherwise he might signal me to attack again. You might call that “ki no musubi” (joining of ki power). I had to watch him constantly. It’s similar to baseball where the defense must watch the ball carefully. If you have not taken a lot of falls for O-Sensei you cannot respond to his signals. In demonstrations partners try to do techniques without trying to obstruct each other and so the person falling must harmonize with the attacker. As I wrote in my book, if you improve your ability to take falls, naturally your techniques improve. There are some people who take falls automatically and think that it is okay to fall even without being thrown. We can see this often in demonstrations. If the falls are unreasonable it’s not aikido. It’s not right just to take spectacular falls and put on a big show.

How many years were you a live-in student?

Even if I’m asked from when to when I lived in the dojo it’s difficult to say. Probably for the first three to four years.

What was the influence of Koichi Tohei Sensei at Hombu Dojo then?

He was in Hawaii then so I didn’t know him very well. But he had been writing books and everybody knew about him.

We understand that Tohei Sensei was the chief instructor at that time and was a major influence on students.

The students at Hombu modeled themselves after Tohei Sensei. I believe Mr. Yamada who is now living in New York was greatly influenced by him. The feeling was that Morihei Ueshiba was an exceptional man and Tohei Sensei represented aikido.

Why did you leave Hombu Dojo?

I couldn’t get along with Tohei Sensei. I feel very sorry for O-Sensei, Doshu (Kisshomaru Sensei) and Osawa Sensei. I ignored their attempts to restrain me and left the dojo. I have been independent teaching Tendo-ryu now for six years. (Tendo is the name of my hometown). I am surprised that I have managed to come this far on my own having had to go through so many risky situations since I became independent. Although this happened many years ago, Osawa Sensei of the Aikikai told me that if I had stayed there I would have become a top teacher. I said that I am what I am now because I quit the Aikikai. If I still belonged it would be like crossing the sea in a heavily laden ship. I am just a small boat. When the wind blew, my boat listed and when it rained we had to bail out water. We were always exposed to risks. This gave me a certain amount of mental and physical training.

How do you approach teaching beginners?

I have my most trustworthy black belts teach them for one month. Then, I have them join the general practice.

Do you use the sword and staff in your practice?

Yes, a little. Some people put most of their emphasis on the sword and staff but I think they should mainly practice unarmed techniques. Although O-Sensei often practiced the sword in his later years… Perhaps I shouldn’t say so but, if I compare O-Sensei to a tree, people are only imitating the leaves because they cannot see the roots of the tree. They only want to imitate the flashy parts. This spoils aikido.

When did you first go abroad?

I went to Germany ten years ago. I have a German friend who is a national judo coach. It seems he liked my aikido and suggested that I visit him. That’s how it was that I went there. I visited many places and was asked to become a permanent instructor of the government federation.

Many aikidoists do not know who Morihei Ueshiba was. Perhaps the younger generation practicing judo are also ignorant of Jigoro Kano Sensei’s philosophy of “Maximum-Efficiency with Minimum Effort” and “Mutual Welfare and Benefit”?.

I understand but if you have matches you forget about such things. If you lose a match, no one listens to your excuses or reasons. You must practice just to win matches. So it’s natural for the spirit to be broken. I understand the feeling of Kano Sensei. This is the difficulty of introducing competition into martial arts.

What motivated you to write the book Zen and Aikido?

Professor Kamata of Tokyo University had already written forty books. Since he began his practice of aikido eight years ago he has attended three times a week. He thought aikido was a fine martial art and asked for my help since he wanted to write a book about the philosophy. It was hard for an inexperienced person like me so I relied on Mr. Kamata to handle the difficult parts. There are some parts which are hard to grasp but he said he tried to write in an understandable manner.

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