|"O-Sensei is my only Aikido Teacher. When I have questions, I
go back to him in my memory. In that way, I am still learning from him
--almost 50 years later."
* * * * *
An artist, teacher, and environmentalist, Kazuaki Tanahashi was born
in Japan, where he studied painting and calligraphy. He now teaches
brushwork for retreats at California School of Japanese Arts (Santa
Rosa, CA) and Zen Mountain Monastery (Mt. Tremper, NY). His many
publications include Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dogen and
two books available through the ATM Book and Video Service: Essential
Zen and Brush Mind. He also was one of the translators of Doshu
Kisshomaru Ueshiba's book Aikido.
ATM: Please tell us the circumstances in which you
SENSEI: It was 1947, two years after the end of WW
II. When I was in Junior High School, my mother, my two younger
brothers, and I went to Iwama to live in a thatched-roofed, one-room hut
attached to O-Sensei's Iwama dojo. At first, when I looked into the
dojo, I saw people falling down like cats and doing other strange
things. At times, they seemed to be doing something archaic, like
ancient prayer. I didn't want to join them. But O-Sensei invited me in,
and I thought I should try. I went along and, in time, got used to the
rolling and movement. I was attracted to the spiritual atmosphere.
ATM: Did O-Sensei teach every night?
SENSEI: O-Sensei offered a nightly class for five or
six of the village kids. Every night he would give us keiko.
Japan had been disarmed after its surrender, and no martial arts were
allowed. People were embarrassed about military things; anything that
had to do with warriors or defense was unpopular. So, few people were
practicing martial arts. It may be that, at the time, we were the only
existing Aikido class in Japan - perhaps even in the world.
ATM: What was the physical setup of the Iwama dojo
SENSEI: The dojo was quite small, and it had a
wooden floor. There was an alter. Inside the dojo building, there was
also a waiting room with tatami - maybe 8 mats.
O-Sensei's house was about 500 feet away. The Aiki Jinja [shrine] was
between the house and the dojo.
ATM: How did you like working on a wooden floor?
SENSEI: At the beginning, it was horrible, but I got
used to it.
Of course, in our practice, we did very simple things. We would do
the same things over and over, every day. I think that every session we
started out with seated kokyu waza and ended with kokyu waza.
The electrical supply was very low at the time, and the power often
went off. We would have lights for 15 minutes or so, and then it would
get dark again. We would sit and wait in the waiting room without saying
anything. What was remarkable was that O-Sensei's eyes would glare even
in the darkness, like cats' eyes.
Some of us didn't have gis; I think I borrowed one. Everyone was
poor. But every night the keiko would go on.
Every day, O-Sensei would do something extraordinary. I couldn't
really believe my eyes. It was like a miracle every day. We would push
him, and he wouldn't move. He would throw people without effort. Or he
would pin a person using just one finger. He would talk to us in a very
relaxed way, while the person he was pinning would struggle to get up.
That was something he really liked to do. I think it may have been the
way he was exerting his ki.
Whatever he said was spiritual - and impossible to comprehend. Also
he would often say that Aikido is a path of no resistance and, although
it seemed contradictory, that it is a path of challenging spirit. He
said that Aikido embodied the circle, triangle, and square. We just
ATM: Did you help with the farming?
SENSEI: Sometimes. As I recall, I only helped on the
weekends or during the harvest season.
When he was farming, O-Sensei was very powerful, amazing. He was
always going "Sh, sh, sh."
ATM: Telling people to be quiet?
SENSEI: No, it was his way of breathing. He was
exhaling with sound, and working with great vigor, very fast. He was
avery skilled farmer.
He was very religious. Every morning, he would make an offering at
the dojo and then pray in his very high pitched, strong voice. These
rituals were important to him.
Most of the time he did not invite any of us to join him. Once a
month, there was a ceremony that we could join, but usually he prayed by
ATM: Do you remember what O-Sensei would chant?
SENSEI: Often, he would recite a very standard
Shinto purification prayer, misogi no norito. Then he would chant
"hito, futa, mi, yo, itsu, muyu, nan, ya, koko-no, tari, momo, chi,
yorozu. He would chant this over and over in a very high tone. My mother
just hated it.
ATM: What does the chant mean?
SENSEI: Interestingly, it means "1, 2, 3, 4, 5,
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 100, 1000, 10000."
I often go back to that chant and ponder its meaning. I have become a
one stroke painter; one is important. And what is the significance of
1000 and 10,000? I recently started a project called "Ten
Millennium Future," in which we ask the question, "Do we want
humanity to survive for another ten thousand years?" If so, how?
At the time, O-Sensei's chant didn't mean much to me; it was just
some numbers. But now it is speaking to me.
ATM: At that time, where was Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the
SENSEI: In Tokyo, working for a stock broker.
Saito Sensei was near Iwama, although he was not a sensei at the
time. He was six or seven years older than I was - over 20 -, and he
came every night by train.
Sometimes Koichi Tohei San and Abe San would come to study, and there
were a few other students as well.
ATM: Did you ever hear O-Sensei talk about WW II?
SENSEI: He often talked about ai as love, but I
don't remember him talking about the war.
I think that, when I lived in Iwama, O-Sensei was developing Aikido
as an art for peaceful times. Before then, although he had realized that
the spirit of martial arts is love, many people had come to study with
him to learn skills for combat and conquest. But the period during which
I was in Iwama was a quiet time of reflection and rebuilding. O-Sensei's
vision was deepened through his life of farming and his work with
students. On the mat, O-Sensei really hated our struggling with each
other, pushing each other, or trying to use force. These things were
completely against his Aikido. When he was away, some youngsters would
have fun competing with one another, wrestling. But that was completely
opposite from what O-Sensei was teaching.
ATM: Did O-Sensei teach you bokken and jo?
SENSEI: Yes. Very simple movements were a regular
part of our practice. But because the dojo was small, only one pair
could work at one time.
ATM: Was O-Sensei stern?
SENSEI: He was strict. He would sometimes smile, but
he wouldn't tell jokes. He didn't do or say anything wasteful. He was
always focused on the spiritual life, and Aikido was part of that life.
ATM: Were you a good student of Aikido?
SENSEI: My younger brother was a good student. He
was athletic, and I think that he was one of O-Sensei's favorite
students. I was clumsy and more interested in intellectual things. I
wanted to be a writer, a thinker. So, I was the worst student in the
ATM: What were O-Sensei's classes like? Did you do
warm-up exercises, stretching?
SENSEI: We didn't have a warm-up. We started with
sitting kokyu. Then O-Sensei would show a technique - like ikkyo or
nikkyo- and the students would do it slowly. O-Sensei would watch us,
sitting or standing. Sometimes he would get our attention and explain
something or clarify a detail with a demonstration.
In daily classes, we didn't do many variations. We would do more
advanced training, like randori, at retreats, when people would come
from the outside.
ATM: Is it true that O-Sensei picked you to do some
calligraphy for him?
SENSEI: I had started studying calligraphy in school
about that time. I think that O-Sensei thought my handwriting looked
like his. So, he asked me to do some work - like writing certificates
similar to those handed out today. It is a strange coincidence that I
did calligraphy for O-Sensei and later became an artist and calligrapher
- almost a foreshadowing.
ATM: When did you leave Iwama?
SENSEI: After I studied with O-Sensei for a year and
a half, I moved to Tokyo to get a job as an apprentice printer.
(Kisshomaru Sensei got me the job.) I was very surprised that, before I
left Iwama, O-Sensei promoted me to shodan. (There were no kyu ranks at
the time.) I expected that my brother would get a dan ranking before me.
O-Sensei would often ask us, his students, to take care of Aikido. I
was just a beginning student, but I felt that in some way he had given
me a personal message - that, as my teacher, he had entrusted me with
his art. I felt that I needed to do something to help Aikido.
ATM: What form did your help take?
SENSEI: Around 1960, after I had written some books,
the Hozansha Press got the idea of publishing an Aikido book in English.
The publisher talked to Kisshomaru Sensei, and he agreed to allow me and
a friend, Roy Maurer Jr., to translate the book Aikido.
Some of our original decisions were questionable. For example, we
translated "dojo" as "gymnasium," and we translated
the names of all the techniques into English.
Terry Dobson was sent to help us. He was an uchideshi and probably
the highest ranking Western student at the time. Roy and I hated the
idea of this big, tough-looking guy messing with our work. But
eventually Terry became our good friend. My friendship with Terry lasted
until he died. When we were putting the book together, we thought there
weren't enough good photos of O-Sensei. We suggested that the publisher,
Hozansha, hire a photographer to take some. Many of the well-known
photos of O-Sensei, like the one of him with his hand on a tree, were
taken at this time. We were very happy about the result.
We included O-Sensei's short memoir as part of the book Aikido. In
the Western world, that piece has frequently been used as a text on
O-Sensei's philosophy, and it has been quoted in many places.
ATM: Have you studied with Aikido teachers other
SENSEI: No, I have not studied with other teachers.
O-Sensei is my only teacher. I often think about Aikido and, when I have
questions, I go back to O-Sensei in my memory. In that way, I am still
learning from him, almost 50 years later.
ATM: How has Aikido influenced your life outside the
SENSEI: I am a calligrapher and painter. I think
that my knowledge of how to use ki has been important for my art - that
it has helped me to use brushes, big or small, in a very direct,
straightforward, and honest way.
Also, I feel that my study of Aikido helps me in many ways when I do
peace work and environmental work. For example, it has helped me to see
the necessity of incorporating the energy of all sides to a dispute -
including that of the people who develop new types of weapons and the
people who want to go to war. Working for peace involves moving
confidently and precisely, searching for the best way to change the
situation - just like O'Sensei's throwing people on the mat.
Also, from O-Sensei's movement, I learned to look for the
breakthrough point. In peace or environmental work, it's absurd to think
that all our efforts will be successful. Things don't work that way;
there is always failure. But, in Aikido, after we are thrown down, we
get back up and do something other than being thrown down. As we
"fail," we are always searching for the breakthrough point.
When we find that point, the situation changes drastically.
My feeling is that Aikido has much to offer the world. It can teach
us to have smoother, more dynamic human relations - to view our
"enemies" more like partners.
ATM: As an environmentalist, can you really view
representatives of big corporations as partners rather than enemies?
SENSEI: Yes. We do have to be clear about what is
wrong, what we want to change, and who is responsible. But we don't need
to alienate those who are responsible or to regard them as our enemies.
Instead, we may be able to think of them as friends who are doing
destructive things - friends who need help in changing their course.
Maybe we can talk to them like friends, without casting blame.
ATM: Are you saying that, when all goes well,
dealing with corporations can be like performing Aikido throws?
SENSEI: Yes. When the strategy works, the result can
be like beautiful throws. But before we can perform beautiful throws, we
have to fail many times and perhaps get injured. That is the way we
learn our lessons.
ATM: Do you trace your interest in the environment
back to your days in Iwama?
SENSEI: In some ways. When I was in Iwama, people
were very poor. Most of the cities had been burnt down, and we lived a
primitive, humble life. We did not destroy the environment.
To my knowledge, O-Sensei did not advocate environmental work; there
was no need at the time. But we can be inspired by his teaching and
learn lessons that we can use as we work for the environment, for the
social good, and for peace.
ATM: Please tell us about the details of life in
Iwama at that time. What kind of food did people eat?
SENSEI: O-Sensei would eat chicken and eggs (eggs
were a real treat!), but he would not eat the meat of four-legged
animals. We mostly ate sweet potatoes - so many that I vowed never to
eat sweet potatoes again in my life.
After O-Sensei ate his first small bowl of rice, his wife would say,
"Would you like some more?" He would say, "Yes, give me
three more grains"- meaning that he would just eat a little bit
ATM: What are your memories of O-Sensei's wife?
SENSEI: She was a very sweet lady. By the time I
moved to Iwama, she was old and frail, and her back was bent. A very
ATM: Where did the community's water come from?
SENSEI: There was a well right next to the dojo - a
well with a rope and a wooden bucket.
Sometimes we would take baths at O-Sensei's house in a metal drum
with a Юre under it. That was a real treat!
ATM: In an article in ATM, ["Years Before Pearl
Harbor," ATM #43], you explained that your father held a key
position in the Japanese army. Was O-Sensei respected by the military?
SENSEI: Yes, he was highly respected.
At one time, my father was a fencing champion at the military
academy. He challenged O-Sensei with a bokken, and O-Sensei handled him
like a baby. So, my father decided to be O-Sensei's student, and he
moved close to the Tokyo dojo. O-Sensei and my father were very close.
Eventually, my father became a staff offcer at the Imperial Military
Headquarters. He knew some members of the Imperial Family, and he
introduced O-Sensei to them. O-Sensei also had other associates and
students in high military and civilian offices.
ATM: In your previous article, you explained that
O-Sensei joined with your father in an effort to head off WW II. Some of
our readers would say this effort didn't really have anything to do with
Aikido. In their opinion, Aikido just has to do with training on the
mat, and it is completely nonpolitical. What do you think?
SENSEI: Some people may say that Aikido should be
politically neutral. But, when we are in crisis, there are just two
paths open to us: We do nothing until things get so bad that we can't
survive, or we try to use our knowledge to change the situation. Each
person has to make his or her own decision.
ATM: Would you say that Aikido has something to do
with wisdom - that there is a wisdom to Aikido?
SENSEI: Yes. Wisdom is acquired using the body as
well as the mind. The skill of incorporating various different forces
into one positive force has to become a body-habit. We develop this
habit in Aikido. Instead of getting angry and attacking, we receive
forces coming to us and then move our bodies, becoming one with our
opponents. That is great wisdom. Wisdom of this sort is desperately
needed in this world, because we have so much quarreling and
confrontation. Some people view confrontation and struggle as
inevitable, but Aikido offers another way - a way to achieve things with
ATM: Are you surprised by what has happened to
Aikido since 1947?
SENSEI: In the years after WW II, I never imagined
that Aikido would expand as it has or that it would spread to the
Western world. I am amazed by the number of people who study Aikido
around the world. And I don't think that O-Sensei foresaw the expansion
either. If he did, he never talked about it. What Aikido's growth shows
is that, if the vision is right and the process is right, one person can
affect many people. If we have a life-afЮrming vision and make it
clear enough, our vision can prevail.
I feel that the Aikido community has much to offer to the world. I'd
like people to think about Aikido's vast potential - about what is
possible. There is a lesson for Aikidoists in the history of Buddhism.
Japanese Buddhists did almost nothing to stop Japan's imperialism,
colonialism, militarism, violence, and sexism. But when Buddhism
(especially Zen) was introduced to the West, it became a strong positive
inюuence for justice and social change; engaged Buddhism is now
playing an important role in peace and environmental work. In the same
way, Aikido's wisdom and insight can help us improve our society. Some
people are already using Aikido that way.
We all know that we are in a global crisis. If we don't act quickly
and shift our social priorities, we will perish in decades, not
centuries. The climate will change, nuclear bombs may explode, the rain
forest will be cut down, and so forth. We have to wake up and use our
skill and knowledge so that we can survive and protect future
generations. My hope is that a great number of people in the Aikido
community will engage in this vital process of creating a sustainable