“Remembering Hiroshi Kato Sensei,” by Brett Jackson

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.

Brett Jackson
Hilltop Aikido and Aikido of San Leandro


  1. jennifer Smith says:

    Kato Sensei taught me shiho-nage. Not just any ol’ shiho nage, either. But a deceptively smooth and effective technique that seemed to guide me around him in a trans-ambulation that I can only describe as magical. It was one of those ah-ha moments that we love and hate on the mat. the kind that say’s, ” I am the center of the universe and what the hell have I been doing all of these years” in the same breath. The paradox of the gentle arts that compel you to move from an intelligence that exists both within and without of one self. I was kind of in love, I must admit. Not with Kato Sensei, as it were, but with the world he brought, the world he breathed, and the world he trained.

    You know, they called him Dr. Death. And I was respectfully scared. Seems an appropriate response to a human who had been reported to hang out with bears and eschew society in favor of ascetic training, and who also had a reputation for Old Style Aikido; which was synonymous for bone breaker where I was from. But you know what? He WAS all of that! But like the saying goes, he was a whole greater than the sum of its’ parts. He took his time with me, a young woman, a newbie, a dishwasher at a restaurant, a high school drop-out, a kid with repairing self esteem, and someone who really loved to know that there was a place in the world for the sincere yet maladjusted. he called me out for ukemi on the last day he was in my home dojo. He trained with me for maybe half of the class, somehow radiating in the direction where I was for most of the class. It was wonderful to be in those graces for a short amount of time.

    But the best moment came when I followed him after that class to San Francisco to Jimmy Friedman’s dojo which was affectionately called ‘skid row dojo” at the time. I’ll never forget that dojo or that class. Kato Sensei called me up to be uke for shomen uchi Irimi Nage.I had been working up to the moment for weeks, and maybe even years if you want to get broad about the whole thing, whenKato Sensei gestured to me to strike. Strike one: right across the ol’ irimi nage plate and I was down on the floor in a rather typical fall for an excellent Irimi. Strike Two: somehow this one went right out of the park. Because I ma not kidding you when I say i felt nothing more than a breeze across my gi, as if harpooned through the fabric of my jacket. I counted the moments in the air as I had a full discussion with my inner soul about what exactly was happening to me. “One step from O’Sensei” flashed through my mind. “This is a ‘new real'”, called out from my psyche. “Damn, ki exists’ floated through there, too. And I landed completely on the other end of the mat. COMPLETELY! It was a gift beyond the moment as it relieved me of any possible skepticism that would come my way for years: not in other aikidoka, as it is healthy to have skepticism about people and their powers. But I was relieved of any skepticism of aikido as an art, martial or otherwise. What an incredible gift in a time when forums are full of people wondering if O’Sensei was a person with alzheimer’s rather than a person who touched on the thread of the universal breath.

    Kato Sensei brought me O’Sensei. He brought his spirit, his power, his truth, his hard work, and his legacy to all of us with whom he shared. And most of all he brought himself. And he continued to do so for years to come.

    I could say more and likely I will over the course of years as they and training continue to unfold. Likely, it will bare some resemblance to the love I feel in my heart right now as I think on my friends and teachers with the deepest of affection. But what may be unseen as it is only to be felt is the power and the truth and the legacy that is handed down from teacher to student for time indefinite.

    Kato Sensei, I bow to you in respect and gratitude. You are a true example of dedication and your training lives on with me.
    Domo Arigato Gozaimashita!

  2. I first met Kato Sensei as the result of correspondence with Jorge Garcia of Shudokan Texas.. After what he had written and the small amount of video I had seen I knew I had to meet him. I flew to,Texas at the first opportunity and upon meeting him I knew he had something unique. I had been struggling for some time with what I saw to be the ever widening polarization between aikido as a tough martial system which was more like ju jitsu,and the kind of flowing dance that provoked disdain in many martial artists. I had an extensive martial background when I met aikido and I saw it’s potential but after 15 years I felt no closer to realizing that potential, just more skilled at the waza. Then finally I saw someone doing something magical.

    Kato Sensei embodied the dichotomy of the art. He could be tough and scary, if you could take it and the next moment a twinkling smile and a kind encouragement. He had a way of moving from his center that both trapped and disrupted your intent.. His weapons system formed the heart of his teaching and the subtle double rotations of tanden and kokyu were perceptible in everything he did. This system was unique to him and his own shugyo, often conducted in the mountains at night.

    I was privileged to be his student for 5 years. Not long enough to really capture what he had to offer, but long enough to get a glimpse of where to head. My honor to him will be to try to make his aikido live in me. He often dropped small pearls of wisdom (in Japanese, of course), which have stuck with me. “Move like an animal, naturally”, ” tanden moves feet, head moves hands”, ” breathe in whilst extending energy”, “sink power whilst reaching to the heavens.”

    As a man he was kind, generous and mischievous . He had a quiet wisdom and a deep humility. I never felt anything fake or artificial. He had no interest in the trappings of being a “Shihan”. All he wanted to do was travel the world and give away his aikido and the inspiration he received from O Sensei,
    And he did.

    • Hi Alex. Your experience is bang-on the same as mine. I like so much your descriptions above. They take me right back into my experience of ukemi with Kato Sensei. Your descriptions also confirm everything I had thought about him. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I first met Kato Sensei years ago when I was about 12 or 13 years old. Back then I trained all day every day and was doing all the seminars. I went out to Jimmy Sensei’s dojo in SF for his seminar. I just went because I was impressed that he was so high ranking. I was slightly intimidated, I admit, bcause of his status in the aikido world. But he came over to correct me and he was very gentle and patient. getting to train with him even for just a minute was one of the coolest moments of my relatively short life. I saw him again the year after that and he remembered me and gave me a bracelet before the seminar. he was so nice to his students and us nervous kohai. He was very sweet, funny and relaxed with us. I have several pictures with him from various seminars, and every time I asked for a picture he got a huge smile on his face and agreed right away.

    He was seriously one of the coolest and most awesome at people I have ever met. When I found out about his passing, I was really bummed out (and still very much am) but I am thankful that I had the opportunities to see him and learn from him. He was my Aikido hero, and I wish that someday I can be like him, both as a martial artist and as a person. He was a wonderful role model and teacher to a nervous little blue belt all those years ago at that seminar, as he was to everyone he met. May he rest in peace.

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