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Interview with Hiroshi Isoyama

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #119 (2000)

Hiroshi Isoyama entered the Iwama Dojo of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba as a boy of 12. He is one of a few rare individuals - another being Morihiro Saito - to have been exposed to the founder during the period of maturation of modern aikido. Isoyama is passionate about his study of aikido and this dynamism is reflected in his explosive technique. Now retired after a long career in the Air Self Defence Force, Isoyama is devoting full time to his pursuit of training and teaching. He is becoming increasingly well-known internationally as well and has frequently traveled abroad in recent years.

Aikido in Iwama Following the War

Aikido Journal: Please tell us how you got your start in aikido.

Isoyama Sensei: It was back in 1949, which as you know was a very difficult time for Japan. My family ran an inn. Various kinds of people came to stay there, including members of the yakuza, and given that fact, I thought it would be foolish not to learn some kind of martial art. It happened that the local aiki dojo (it wasn’t called “aikido” yet, and the dojo would come to be called the “Aiki Shuren Dojo”) had just begun children’s classes, so I went with some other kids from the neighborhood to join. I was twelve at the time.

O-Sensei was still living in Iwama then?

Yes, it was only after about 1955 that he gradually started making trips away from Iwama. O-Sensei taught the evening children’s classes.

Was the instruction the same as that at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo?

I don’t know what the instruction in Tokyo was like then, but he used to go up and take hold of the wrist of all of the students individually and teach them that way. He himself didn’t take ukemi, but he would do whatever the technique was -shomenuchi ikkyo for example - to each person on the mat individually while everybody watched. He never gave any particularly detailed explanations.

There were no tatami mats in that dojo, so the training could be quite painful. That was one reason it was difficult to get people to come train. After a number of years they finally did put tatami in the dojo, but we had been doing it on the wooden floor for so long that at first we had trouble adjusting. If you happened to smack your head on the wooden floor it would make a big noise, but the pain never seemed to penetrate your whole head. After we put the tatami in, though, the pain would hit you right to the core. Naturally, the way we took ukemi changed when we moved from the wooden floor to the tatami mats.

Early photo taken in Iwama in mid-1950’s
in front of Aiki Shrine. Isoyama is second from
right while Morihiro Saito is second from left.

Who was at the dojo back then besides Saito Sensei?

There were people the late Takeo Murata, Sakae Shimada (present Ibaraki Prefectural Federation chairman), and Sachio Yamane. In any case, as I said there were not many people training there at the time. Also, Kunio Oyama, who later became a student of professional wrestler Rikidozan, and people like that were there as uchideshi.

I understand that you eventually joined the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

Yes, I joined the Air Self-Defense Forces and was sent to Chitose in 1958.

Did you form an aikido club there in Chitose?

Yes. At first my only students were members of the American military police, but eventually I was asked by the commander of the garrison to teach members of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces as well. I learned English then, too, out of necessity.

Sporting a handlebar mustache
during his early years in
the Air Self Defense Force.

During your recent visit to Los Angeles did you teach in English?

Yes, entirely in English! What else?! (laughs)

Since many of your students among the American military police must have been much physically larger than you, did you have to come up with new ways to make your techniques work on them?

I certainly did. Practicing with people like that is completely different from working with people who are smaller than you. Doing even something like ikkyo against a much larger opponent is very difficult, especially in terms of the way you have to enter and the timing you have to use. Training with people like that was a great experience from which I learned a lot.

My kataguruma and gansekiotoshi techniques, for example, started out with me trying to teach koshinage. When I tried to do koshinage on some of the taller men I found that they could just step over me; no matter how I tried the technique, I couldn’t manage to throw them because the height difference meant I couldn’t get my hips into a good position in front of theirs. Then I had the idea to try putting them across my shoulders instead of across my hips, and that’s how I started using those techniques. I wasn’t trying to be rough or flashy, I was just trying to get the techniques to work. Necessity is the mother of invention!

There in Chitose there were many wrestlers and boxers and the like who came to make fun of what we were doing. Because of the wartime draft, there were all kinds of different people in the American military. Normally during aikido practice you enter and apply your technique as your opponent is moving in with his attack, but when I did that many of them would complain that they weren’t ready yet; they wanted me to let them get a good hold or choke on me and then see if I could still do my techniques. Normally in practice the opponent will strike from the front and then move around behind nage so uke doesn’t have a chance to apply his attack fully. But that didn’t convince them and they wanted to first get me in a tight hold and then challenge me to try to move out of it.

In other words, you had to perform under the most difficult possible circumstances.

There was one fellow, a wrestler who had placed sixth in the Helsinki Olympics, who rolled onto the ground and wrapped around me from behind so that I couldn’t use my hands or feet, and from that position challenged me to try to move. The only part of my body that was still free was my head, so I snapped my head backwards into his face and struck the bridge of his nose with the back of my head. This is prohibited in wrestling, of course, but such rules don’t apply to budo. As I struck his face I gave a shout and used the momentary opening to get away. I told him, “That’s how budo is!” and he was convinced. That sort of thing happened on a daily basis.

Did you ever talk to your American students about the founder, Morihei Ueshiba?

Yes. I even took some of them to Iwama to meet him. They couldn’t believe it when they saw me being thrown all over the mat by O-Sensei. They said, “How can someone like you, who can throw all of us so easily, be thrown around like that by an old man?!” I replied, “That’s what I’d like to know!” (laughs) I explained that aikido had nothing to do with one’s age. They asked if they could try holding onto O-Sensei themselves and one of the most lively came up and was downed and pinned the instant he tried. They couldn’t figure out how they’d been controlled like that; they just knew they had.

Last time I went to the United States I met one of those former MPs who had been my student. I hadn’t seen him in forty years. After earning his shodan he had returned to the U.S., graduated from a university in Boston, and later served as an officer in Vietnam. After that he joined the FBI where for many years he was involved in studying and teaching arrest techniques, or what we would call “taihojutsu” in Japanese. He used the Internet to help me look up some of the others who had also been my students back then. It’s really wonderful how aikido builds relationships like that. Even if they’re cut off for a while, still they have a way of coming back to you again.

Budo as the Undercurrent of Aikido

How would you say that your emphasis on the importance of budo in aikido developed?

Since I’m in the position of teaching aikido, I feel I have to keep myself oriented in one consistent direction. People practice aikido for a variety of reasons - to keep in shape or stay healthy or what have you - but it is clearly “budo” that is the undercurrent running beneath aikido. There’s no problem with people practicing aikido simply as a good way to stay in shape, but I think they still should also cultivate the kind of vigilance that strives constantly to avoid showing openings to potential opponents. This is an important underlying aspect of budo, and I think neglecting it or allowing it to become too minor a part of your training will result in a divergence from the real spirit of aikido.

The founder’s thinking changed over the years between the time he started teaching aikido and later in his life, so naturally the kinds of movements he used also changed. There are very few people who had direct contact with him over the span of several decades, so in many ways it’s like that old story of the three blind men all feeling different parts of an elephant and giving different descriptions of what an elephant is. In that sense, I wonder if there is anyone at all who understands O-Sensei’s greatness completely.

Some people were in contact with O-Sensei when he was spreading aikido purely as a budo; others only began learning from him once his thinking had evolved to emphasize aikido as “a way of harmony”; still others learned from him at various periods later in his life. All of these will have different viewpoints and interpretations, and I don’t think it’s possible to say that any of these is better than the others.

I also think there are differences depending on the age of the learner. Younger people naturally sought a stronger kind of aikido, while those who were older may have been drawn to aspects such as harmony and spirit, and so these are what each absorbed from O-Sensei. Issues like these make it very difficult to talk about aikido in clear-cut terms.

As you know, O-Sensei never wrote much about aikido in books, although some of this techniques are recorded in Budo. Sometimes I’ve wondered why he didn’t write more about aikido, but on the other hand, I think I might understand: his thinking gradually evolved, and he may have felt that anything he wrote in his younger years would potentially end up being contradictory to his thinking later on. The same is true of his techniques: if he had said anything definitive about them at any point, he might have ended up contradicting himself later on as he evolved.

Another difficulty is that different people have tended to interpret O-Sensei’s words in different ways, even though he may have actually said the same thing to all of them. People then end up expressing their own interpretation as if they had absorbed all of what he meant, leading in turn to small variances and eventually to misunderstandings.

When O-Sensei taught he never gave any particularly detailed explanations. One reason was that the many people who came to practice aikido under him were all individuals of a certain higher standing in society, for example military officers, politicians, high-ranking practitioners of other martial arts, people from the financial sector, the heads of private enterprises, and various others all well-established and respected in their fields. Giving too much detail to people like that, for example teaching them things like “this is the way you do a proper bow” and so on would have been regarded as condescending and offensive.

During practice O-Sensei often spoke in honorific language to individuals of higher social standing and us regular students alike. I was very moved by that attitude and way of interacting with people.

One example might be the debate about atemi, which hardly exists any longer as part of most aikido technique. What are your thoughts on the use of atemi, from a combative perspective?

Doing atemi simply for the sake of doing atemi results in nothing but empty form. It’s pointless to perform an atemi unless your strike is the kind of strike that would have a real effect. An atemi doesn’t necessarily have to be a deadly blow, but it should be capable of doing a certain amount of real damage. Also, if you want to think seriously about atemi, you also have to think about kicks.

Karate, for example, has excellent striking and kicking techniques. I would say that most karate movement is predominantly straightline, while aikido tends to emphasize more circular or spherical movements. Both of these have strengths and shortcomings and I don’t think you can say unconditionally that one is better than the other. In any case, if you’re going to use strikes and kicks as atemi in aikido you need to think constantly about how to incorporate them in a way that takes the timing and other characteristics of aikido movement into consideration.

The Weapons Controversy

The use of weapons in aikido is another issue about which there are a number of differing views. Do you think weapons have a role in aikido training?

I definitely think they do. Techniques like tachidori (sword-disarming techniques) and jodori (staff-disarming techniques) are included as part of dan-level testing, and people who have been doing only empty-handed techniques won’t be able to perform these, will they?

Also, if you don’t have a strong command of weapons techniques yourself, there is no way you’ll be able to respond correctly when your opponent has a weapon. Do you think you’d be successful if a kendo expert challenged you to try doing aikido’s tachidori against his sword? Or if a practitioner of Muso-ryu jo gave you the chance to try taking his jo away, would you be able to do it so easily? I doubt it.

I think weapons techniques are extremely important, but I also think it’s dangerous to practice them only shallowly; if you’re going to practice weapons techniques, then practice them properly and thoroughly. This is one reason I don’t think there’s much need to practice things like tachidori and jodori in so many variations. Tantodori (knife-disarming techniques), too, is something I’ve practiced against a live blade, but only with a couple of variations. All you need is one or two techniques, and if you’ve really mastered those then I think you’re as well-equipped as you can be for defending yourself against such things. Of course, whenever weapons are involved there will always be an element of danger.

Since we can’t actually practice with live blades in the dojo we use wooden swords (bokuto) instead, but if you want to make your training as effective as possible it’s essential to think of the bokuto as a live blade, not just a stick. That includes making your attacks fast and decisive and filled with intent. You won’t be able to cultivate the proper degree of seriousness if you’re cutting in a way that is only for the purpose of taking ukemi. It’s a good idea to keep this sort of thing in the back of your mind when you’re training with weapons.

It’s often said that there are no matches in aikido. I think there are several dimensions of meaning to this, but O-Sensei once said, “Victory and defeat are merely relative, whereas aikido seeks not relative but absolute strength. Therefore, aikido is training daily to ‘win before fighting’.”

What do you think was the founder’s vision for weapons techniques? For example, according to Morihiro Saito Sensei, the founder trained with weapons a great deal and consequently Saito Sensei’s aikido contains many weapons techniques. On the other hand, others point out that the founder didn’t teach weapons at the Hombu Dojo, and in fact got angry if people there did practice with them.

I think it’s probably true that O-Sensei didn’t teach weapons techniques at the Hombu Dojo. That may have been because he didn’t have that much time to train there. When he was back in Iwama he had plenty of time for that sort of thing, and those of us who were there were indeed taught weapons like the ken and jo. So what Saito Sensei says is correct, and so is the comment that O-Sensei would get angry if people practiced weapons at the Hombu Dojo. In fact, I’ve seen O-Sensei get angry myself, although that was because people were doing paired sword practices (kumitachi) even though they couldn’t even do solo sword swinging (suburi) very well yet. I think O-Sensei felt that if his students were going to do sword, they should do it properly, and he got angry if he saw them just swinging their swords as if they were in some samurai drama.

Once for a demonstration with Saito Sensei-I think when I was about a sandan-I asked O-Sensei if I could use a live blade for our tantodori demonstration, but he rejected the idea. I think he had a clearer understanding of my real ability than I did at the time and knew it wouldn’t be a good idea. A while later I did use a live blade at another demonstration that O-Sensei couldn’t attend, and of course I injured myself. I felt so foolish, and it took injuring myself like that to figure out why he had denied my request the first time.

There are people who practice other martial arts along with their aikido, for example by mixing it with iaido or karate. Some study karate to figure out ways to deal with punches and kicks, while others do kendo to learn more about that kind of cutting and striking.

I think it’s fine to do that kind of thing to a certain extent, but I also think if you push it too far to the front of your training it’s likely to turn your aikido into mere fighting. In the end what it amounts to is an attitude challenging other forms of budo by thinking about how to get the better of them or win against them.

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