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Interview with Shigemi Yonekawa (1)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #35 (January 1980)

The following interview was conducted on April 7, 1979 in Tsuchiura, Japan at the home of Mr. Shigemi Yonekawa. Mr. Yonekawa was one of O-Sensei’s early disciples and for a number of years during the 1930’s was a very important figure in the development of what was then called “Aiki Budo.”

Editor Stanley Pranin interviewing Shigemi Yonekawa c. 1994.

If you would like to ask any questions, I’ll try to talk about those areas I’m familiar with.

Well, for example, Mr. Yonekawa, about when did you first meet O-Sensei?

I believe it was around 1931. As you know, O-Sensei had close religious connections. He taught budo in various parts of Japan under the auspices of the Omoto religious sect and the Budo Enhancement Association.

What was O-Sensei’s relationship to the “Budo Enhancement Association” (Budo Senyokai) and the Omoto religion?

The Budo Enhancement Association was established with the support of the Omoto religion. Sensei, as a member of the Budo Enhancement Association (actually the organization was centered around him and could not have existed without his participation), trained many students. One of his students was an energetic man named Fujita. Mr. Fujita came to Iwama to teach. There was an Omoto chapter in the home of the Iwama postmaster, Mr. Akazawa. Sensei, also, came to teach there. Because I was a relative of Mr. Akazawa, they asked if I might not be interested in participating in a budo seminar. I decided to attend. By the way, I had previously studied Judo, but since this art appeared almost completely different from Judo, I mistakenly thought it would be a lot of fun. However, it turned out that I bit off more than I could chew. Before taking the seminar, I had some experience taking ukemi (breakfalls) in Judo. So at the seminar, I helped out and Sensei handled me with great ease. As a result, I became very interested and thought that this was something I’d really like to study. So when I asked what would be the best thing to do, I was told that the fastest way to learn would be to become an uchideshi (live-in disciple). Then I requested Mr. Akazawa’s help and he asked Sensei’s permission, and so I entered as an uchideshi.

Was this in Tokyo?

Yes, it was the dojo in Ushigome in Wakamatsu-cho. At that time, Sensei ran a very popular school known as the “Ueshiba Juku.” It went under two names, that and the “Kobukan.” Well, I entered the Kobukan and immediately found myself cleaning toilets and washing down the front entrance. This was the old-style training method where you couldn’t begin training immediately. On top of that, the senior students hazed me.

Who were the senior students at that time?

Let’s see, I became close friends with Tsutomu Yukawa, Kaoru Funahashi, and Hisao Kamata. Also, Kenji Tomiki would come to the dojo from the outside. Mr. Tomiki was married, and like Ueshiba Sensei, rented a house in Wakamatsu-cho. He commuted from his house to the dojo. Then there was Yoichiro Inoue… people like that. They were all really strong. Mr. Yukawa entered a little before me. Mr. Funahashi was his senior, and Mr. Kamata had been there the longest of all. Mr. Funahashi was related to Sensei. The life then was pretty severe. In the morning, there was practice from six to seven and again from nine to eleven. In the afternoon, we practiced from two to four, and in the evening from seven to eight… four times a day. It was really tough. I was puffing and panting all day long. You couldn’t get instruction from Sensei immediately upon entering. It really was a severe teaching method. What’s more, Sensei would look at you with his piercing eyes. It always made me afraid. One time, I took a bad ukemi or something and Sensei chewed me out right in the middle of a famous dojo. Sensei stopped training, and even though a great many people had come, went back to his room. And I was left there wondering what had happened and if I would be expelled from the dojo. That’s why the dojo was such a strict place. One other area of behavior which Sensei would always mention was how you shouldn’t become careless or allow any openings. This was the way of life of the samurai of olden times. The samurai were taught that they must have a mental attitude that enabled them to deal with an enemy whenever he appeared. As for Senseis’ daily life, this is the way it was, even if he was eating or sleeping. For example, even when you’re walking down the hall, someone might come from over there. You can’t be careless. This is what he always used to teach. Even when you’re talking on the telephone, when someone comes up from behind, you have eyes in the back of your head so you won’t be caught in an awkward situation. This is how he taught us. So, sometimes when I would be talking on the telephone without realinzing that Sensei had come up behind me, he would give me a little poke on the shoulder and say, “Hey, you’re being carless!” So agter I had gone to Manchuria and had become a member of the “Kyowakai” ideological association, people would say to me even at that time, “Mr. Yonekawa, Your way of enterin and leaving through doors is different from other people.” I guess the training stuck with me. But now I’ve become lazy. Being conscious of these aspects of daily lige was always part of Sensei’s teachings. O-Sensei was alwaya aware of these things and would practice them. For ezample. when an insect would land on the “shoji” screen doors in pitch dark while Sensei was sleeping, I remember times when he would say, “There’s an insect on such and such a section of the screen door-get rid of it! We couldn’t understand such a thing as being able to tell exactely in what section of the screen door there was an insect while asleep. I believe he was always asleep but there was some part of him that wasn’t asleep. It was really an unbelievable thing. So as far as this area is concerned, the samurai of olden tiimes led very strict lives.

At that time what was O-Sensei’s teaching method? How did he teach when instructing his uchideshi?

He didn’t teach people who came in from the outside differently. There was no distinction whatever made between the uchideshi and people who came from the outside. The content of the instruction was the same for everyone. However, as uchideshi. when we were taught we would practice the same things over and over again and take falls for O0Sensei. That was the difference. Another thing was we trained together with many people from the outside following Sensei’s instruction - it would be incorrect to say that we assisted in teaching them - we trained togerher with them. That was one of the big reasons the uchideshi progressed rapidly. There is a japanese saying that “Teaching is half of learning.” You can’t accomplish half of learning or teach people if you haven’t mastered the materiral mentally and physically. When we tried to teach outside people the same things we were taught we were taught how to do this or that by Sensei, without our realizing it, things went smoothly. But when it came time to teach peple, it was very different and we lacked confidence. So I think it’s really a good thing not to only learn from someone but alson to give teaching a try. This is one of the main reasons why uchideshi make such progress. Then there is the matter of life in the dojo. There are three aspects to the life of the uchideshi in the dojo: your life with the sensei who can’t have an ordinary family life; then, your relationship with your companions together with whom you sleep in the dojo, your pillows all lined up in a single row; and your teaching relationship with the people who commute to the dojo from the outside. These are the three facets which make up your life. I think this sort of varied life is a good thing. But the uchideshi system has recently begun to disappear. Everyone travels to and from the dojo. Then, there is the problem that the uchideshi system doesn’t match the times. I think it doesn’t go well with the task of earning a living. Being an uchideshi should always be a spiritual matter involving the sensei and the uchideshi. I believe it’s important to reflect on that point. Those who think that, technically speaking, when you become an uchideshi you make rapid progress since you can practice many hours a day if you think that way it’s a very shallow way of thinking. I think the matter of what life with the sensei ought to be what the sensei-deshi relationship ought to be what the link between the two ought to be is a very important one. Perhaps this ideal is a Japanese cultural trait. I don’t know very much about foreign countries. Even what my wife does in Ikebana (flower arranging) or tea ceremony is not simply a matter of gestures because gestures are mere form. I think that there is a “michi” (path) in these forms and that it is manifested in the tea ceremony and the flowers. It’s an extremely difficult thing. I believe it’s a matter of understanding, of learning for yourself those things that the sensei doesn’t teach, and not a matter of learning to do this or that from your teacher.

(To Be Continued)