The sad and (for me) unbelievable news of Kato Sensei’s passing. What a shock and a loss! I find myself shaking my head not able to believe that Kato Sensei has passed away. It was only two weeks ago that he taught an evening class at Aikido of San Leandro. We must have had one of the last classes with him, and after class we took some of the last photos of him. If anyone would like a copy of any of those photos just let me know (email me). We had about five classes with him at Aikido of San Leandro over the past five years, thanks to Pat Hendricks Sensei for hosting him and to James Friedman Sensei of Suginami Aikikai San Francisco for facilitating the seminars. I can’t say that I knew him well, only had a handful of classes with him, but I had a connection with him such that I can share a few observations in honor of his memory. Others who knew him better than I did can please correct me if I’m off-base in anything I say below.
At peace with himself and the world. Two weeks ago Kato Sensei was no less powerful, dynamic, commanding, and peaceful than he ever was before. I could see no indication whatsoever that he was close to passing. Only that he gave the “unusual” impression of being fully at peace with himself and the world, as if he had accomplished what he was here to do, and as if, perhaps, he knew or sensed that his time was short. I had the feeling that he was very alert about the environment, though he didn’t broadcast that. His instructions during class were gentle and unhurried, with no sense of impatience, disappointment, or affront. There was no rush in him, no sense that he had other things to do. No sense that he would rather be doing something else.
Unaffected. Jimmy Friedman Sensei made some jokes while he (Jimmy) was taking ukemi and Kato Sensei just laughed in a good natured, relaxed, unaffected way.
A Bamboo jo. Interestingly, Kato sensei used a light bamboo jo during kumijo practice. It made a clacking sound when contacting the heavier classic jo’s that we use. If he had walked with it on the street (I don’t know if he did or not), it would just have looked like an “old” man’s walking stick, but of course he could work a lot of techniques with it (*smile*) [attack at your own risk]. Who would object to an “old” man’s walking stick?
Taking ukemi from him. According to my impressions, Kato sensei was an aikido mage or magician in the best sense. That’s the feeling I had after taking ukemi from him. He could call out or elicit an initiation and then lead it in an irresistible way to a quick, demonstrative conclusion. At the completion of the exchange (technique), I was left wondering how did he did that, and I’m sure others had the same impression too. I mean you could see that it was a kokyuho, an iriminage, a shihonage, or a nikyo, but the dynamic blend of ki and kokyu resulted in an exchange that was so compelling that it seemed like there was a magical element to it. Because Kato sensei’s ki was so strong, it was hard to imitate the technique as he was demonstrating it. Turns out it is hard to “imitate” ki, you have to generate it yourself from out of your own depths, as all the experienced and distinguished readers of the Aikido Journal know. Apparently, the intentional use of ki seems to come only after years or decades of practice.
Not choreography. How did he do that? Now, watching the exchanges, you could easily be forgiven for imputing an element of choreography. However, participating in the exchange, you did not feel or knowingly participate in any “choreography,” only participated in an irresistible movement, redirection, followed by a compelling conclusion. As uke, the feeling in live-time was like this: ok I’m being called to “attack” in a certain way and I am irresistibly complying, but now I have to move like this in order not to get, say, smacked in the face, and, oops, quickly now I have to move like that in order not to get, say, hammered in the head, and by then I’m already pinned or on my back. That’s aikido alright. Yeah, I still felt ok afterward, just a little shook up, and not inclined so much to request a repeat performance (*smile*) (and I’m no longer the young buck I once was or seem to remember once being).
How he looked in street clothes. After class he spent considerable time sitting for group photos and he even honored me with a photo of just the two of us. Sitting there in seiza in his street clothes, he could be taken for just a very ordinary person with no particular set of skills. He was a relatively small man in stature and build. He didn’t look imposing or threatening in any way. He looked accommodating. He looked like if you asked him for his seat on a bus, he might just give it to you without a second thought. On the other hand, he had such a peaceful and complete look to him that you wouldn’t take him for a push over or easy target. He looked calm, relaxed, centered.
Commanding Sensei in the dojo. In contrast to how he looked in street clothes, on the mat, standing there in his gi and hakama, he radiated a different impression, an impression that he was an emissary of Order and Harmony, a deshi of O’Sensei’s, fearless and invincible. Yet gentle and loving, an embodiment of Aikido.
Hilltop Aikido and Aikido of San Leandro