Interview with Kaz Tanahashi Sensei
"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."

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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 met O-Sensei.

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 then?

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 listened.

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 himself.

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 current Doshu?

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 group.

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 than O-Sensei?

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 dojo?

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 more.

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 kind lady.

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 less confict.

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 future.