You’ve been at it now for 29 years, and you’ve got a dojo which is part of your house in New Zealand, and a training situation where you are basically doing what you think is the right thing and where you don’t concern yourself with ranks. Where do you go from here?
Well, I want to see if this will work. It’s only been two years. We’ve had a drop-out rate of somewhat less than fifty percent, which I think is quite good.
At the moment, we’ve got a couple of people who’ve had aikido training elsewhere. They haven’t objected to our system or lack thereof. The rest of them don’t even know there is such a thing as grading. Some of them ask when they join, “When can I go for my black belt?” and I explain to them that we can’t be bothered with it. They accept that quite happily. As a result we’ve got a type of person coming who is basically there to learn aikido, not to accumulate grades or show that they’re better than someone else. We’re also in the throes of building a dojo out in the countryside in Coromandel, on some land I’ve got in some very beautiful natural surroundings. With some volunteer labor we’ve already built about a quarter of the mat, thought there’s no roof yet. Actually, it’s so beautiful, it’s a bit difficult to train. You find yourself looking at the scenery. It’s up on a hillside looking over a vast area of forest and hills and streams with a clean, clear sky up above. I hope to expand on it with some moral, and hopefully fiscal, support from the Japanese side, to build a kind of a Budokan there, where we can have Japanese sensei in all kinds of arts coming out, and get local people to come and stay there on a sort of gasshuku basis. I think it will give the Japanese a chance to mix it up with New Zealand nature, get out and go fishing and swimming, or go bush-walking.
You have written a couple of letters which we have published, which have generated some response. You at one point reacted to the problem of secrecy in dojos.
Someone replied to that letter and seemed to have gotten the wrong message from what I’d said. They gave me the traditional answer about what secret techniques mean in the martial arts. That’s all right. But I think it was Saito Sensei that said, at one of the Friendship Demos, that O-Sensei had secret techniques that he never taught to the general public and that what he did in demonstrations wasn’t the real stuff. It seemed to me that this is irreconcilable with the philosophy of how aikido was supposed to be spread throughout the world, and harmonize everybody together. What is a secret technique? If it’s kept secret because picked up by an evil person it might be dangerous to the world, it’s still going to take someone twenty or thirty years to grasp it properly, isn’t it? So how can anyone looking from the outside actually copy a technique? Secondly, if the reason for secrecy is that they don’t want those techniques to fall into the hands of competing dojos, then that’s another example of an incredibly narrow-minded attitude which does not reconcile at all with the aikido spirit. There seem to be so many contradictions, although one doesn’t expect a lot of logic out of Japan anyway.
In Japan, logic is not given much importance.
I had the extreme comparison between the approaches of Shioda Sensei and Tohei Sensei. Shioda Sensei hardly talked at all in those days. I remember the classic example was one of the Japanese uchideshi who told me that, after ten or so years of full-time training, he had asked Shioda Sensei a technical question, not a philosophical one, and Shioda Sensei said to him, “How long have you been going now?” He said, “Ten years, sensei.” Sensei replied, “Oh, a few more years and you’ll understand.” I think he had no actual way of conveying what he learned, because the way he learned was not at all verbal, it was a matter of mixing it up with O-Sensei and getting thrown. So verbal teaching was seen as rather irrelevant. This becomes a problem in the Western world, as you know, because people want to know why they’re doing things. A lot of people in Japan can’t explain why they’re doing something, they’re only doing it because it was done that way before. That’s enough for the Japanese. It seems to me that we need to compromise. I don’t really believe in doing completely pointless things, but at the same time it should be ninety percent training and very little explanation; at least that’s the way I’ve learned. Then I went to Tohei Sensei’s where sometimes more than half the class would be spent listening to him talking, and his wonderful answers to everything which all went back to the Universe. At first, I was absorbed by it, having done nothing but physical aikido for so long, but then it became a bit repetitive and it started to become the answer to everything, like a Born-again Christian approach. Ki obviously exists; it is found throughout the martial arts, both Chinese and Japanese, and to ignore it completely is probably not quite right. But to buy all the stuff that is coming out of certain dojos is too much and could put people off completely.
What are your thoughts about the iemoto system?
Well, obviously the eclectic approach does not reconcile too well with that. I suppose it’s a very Japanese thing; let them do it by all means, but it frequently becomes an absolute truth in the Japanese mind and they build everything around it. Keeping everything in one family is obviously going to have a negative side effect if the techniques are going to degenerate, or there’s going to be no new input coming in from outside. It’s the whole loyalty versus the truth problem again. It’s the same with grading. I think once you adopt the assumption that you have to have grading, then you build up a structure around it, and you try to figure out how it can be done properly and all kinds of evils come out of it. It’s the main reason that there’s been no success in international federations. It gets back to grading in the end. Why should we compare one person to another person? It doesn’t seem to me to be essential to anything. If you need a grade in order to make yourself train, then why is that? Surely somebody should be thinking about that. They say, “Ah, but if we didn’t have the carrot, then people wouldn’t train so hard.” Why not? I haven’t found any lack of enthusiasm in my students, despite the fact that they know they’re not going to get anything they can actually hold in their hands at the end of it. On the other hand, there’s obviously an almost overwhelming catalog of evils that come out of grading. Money and power start corrupting people; some dojos start bribing people with grades, students spend their whole time talking about it and wondering when they’re going to get it, and why so-and-so’s got that and they haven’t got this. It seems so incredibly infantile.
One thing that the people in the West don’t realize about Japan is that they have grading for everything, including sake-drinking. I had a sixth dan sake drinking friend. It’s not a question of how much you can drink, but a question of being able to identify different types of sake. Since virtually everything in Japan is graded, then perhaps it’s not such a big deal here, but in the West, it sud-denly becomes enormously significant and that makes it open to abuse.
Do you think that there is a need for an international federation, and if so, what purpose should it serve?
Again, I’m not that interested in those kind of things. It seems to me that the organization grows at the expense of the individual, and what we’re trying to do is a pretty individual thing. You get into incredible political arguments, and committee meetings that go on forever, and that starts to supplant the actual training. I think that if one could establish some form or another of communication with other aikido people, that would be quite useful.
What about the technical curriculum at your dojo? How do you incorporate what you have learned from the various systems you have studied?
I like the Yoshinkan basics, doing lots of tai no henko. It seems to me that they give people the possibility that their body will move when it has to. I also like Shimizu Sensei’s approach; we don’t start people with ikkyo, we start with iriminage, to teach them balance and movement. They’re not involved in terrible pain in the beginning, which could stiffen them up and possibly alienate them. I think it’s a difficult technique to do right from the start, but at the same time I think it teaches the principles of aikido much better than a kansetsu waza, for example. I take a Tohei approach to teaching deep breathing and the idea of relaxing. I don’t rave on too much about “weight underside”; it seems to me to oversimplify things to have formulas for answering everything. We don’t do that, but we do try to emphasize the idea that people should relax which is not emphasized in Yoshinkan. At the same time, it doesn’t let them off from doing work. We make them train continuously, without stopping. I’m not sure what the Aikikai does with beginners. It seems pretty open. You come in and you train. You don’t know what you’re doing. After a period of time you get to the same result. Well, I’m trying to work a compromise between the two extremes of the Yoshinkan’s “by-the-numbers” system and the Hombu “open” method.
What about warm-ups?
Recently, someone in the stretching business has pointed out the faults in the stretching that we do, the “bouncing” for example. Apparently, you’re supposed to stay in one position for at least 30 seconds. So we have switched to doing it that way. I’m not too keen on changing too many things from the way they’re done in Japan. But I couldn’t find any argument to justify continuing to do the stretches the way we had learned them. Where did the warmup come from historically, do you know? On some of the videos we see O-Sensei doing these things.
I would imagine they’re from the jujutsu systems. There may have been some Western influence because of Kano’s involvement. There’s something I’d like to point out here. Some of the activities that we regard as traditions in Japan, are traditions yes, but very new ones, coming from the Meyi era, or post-Meyi, post-war, or even only ten or fifteen years ago. It’s just the habit of a certain group. Then if that group becomes highly enough regarded or the individual in charge does something that way, it becomes a tradition. Traditions are variations of activities which are successful. They may not necessarily have a history of hundreds and hundreds of years. Even if they do have somekind of lineage, after several hundred years the original is so transformed as to be unrecognizable.
The weapons would be a case in point. I have difficulty with that because I’ve never done much. What we did in the Yoshinkan seemed to me a rather ineffective way of operating a sword. I may be rationalizing my own ignorance in using weapons. Most of the dojos I’ve been to have never used weapons to any significant degree. But in the West, as you probably know, there’s a tremendous interest in weapons. As soon as a weapon is mentioned, dozens of people appear, and teachers seem to have catered to that, whether they actually have the knowledge or not, by inventing all kinds of weapon movements. I think this is probably all right, but I personally have difficulty teaching something I don’t know. Also, it seems to me if you had somebody who really knew how to use a sword, those guys wouldn’t last for five seconds. They’d be cut in half.