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Interview with Masatake Fujita

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #120

Masatake Fujita, 8th dan Aikikai shihan, was born April 21, 1937 in Shinkyo (present-day Changchun) in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Repatiates to Sapporo, Hokkaido in 1948. Enrolls in Takushoku University in 1956. Enters Aikikai Hombu Dojo in November of the same year. After graduation, is employed for seven years at the Shin Seikatsu Undo Kyokai (New Lifestyles & Athletics Association). In 1967 joins office staff of Aikikai, his current capacity. Aikido 8th dan.

At the All-Japan Demonstration, c. 1990

AJ: I understand your father learned aikido from Ueshiba Sensei in Manchuria.

Fujita: Yes, he was originally a judo man and he continued to practice judo during his work posting in Manchuria. There was a group called the Manchuria Budo Society (Manshu Budokai) whose members got together to practice not only judo, but kendo, sumo and other arts as well. My father was one of those involved in running this group and so he knew quite a few of the people practicing other martial arts. It was through that connection that he learned aikido when Morihei Ueshiba was invited to Manchuria. He trained with people like Kenji Tomiki (1900-1979), who was a professor at Manchuria’s Kenkoku University, and sumo wrestler Saburo Wakuta (1903-1989, also known as Tenryu, a well-known wrestler who began learning aikido after being impressed by the techniques of Morihei Ueshiba).

In those days, aikido practitioners tended to be people with considerable experience in other martial arts, and often a personal introduction was required as well. Most of them were already quite strong in judo or kendo or whatever art they had studied.

AJ: What kind of work was your father doing in Manchuria?

Fujita: He was with the Concordia Society (Kyowakai), an organization established to do a kind of “behind-the-scenes” government work. The [Guandong] army was very strong in Manchuria. The government was comprised of Chinese at the very top, in the ministerial and other high-ranking positions, and Japanese in the positions below those. Within this arrangement, the government, the army, and the Concordia Society served to balance one another. For example, if the army detained a Chinese national for some reason, my father would step in to offer the person assistance and support. In other words, these three acted as a triangular set of counterbalances to one another, and within that my father’s position gave him at least enough authority, for example, to be able to lodge complaints against the army.

*Kyowakai, formally the Manchu Teikoku Kyowakai (Manchuria Imperial Concordia Society), a political organization avoiding the character of a political party and avoiding the aim of securing political power, functioning as a background organization complementing the foreground activities of the government, striving toward the achievement of the ideal of “nation building” (kenkoku) and the creation of a more moral world.

AJ: I understand that you yourself were born in Manchuria.

Fujita: Yes, in 1937 in a place called Shinkyo that today is the city of Changchun. My father was from Sapporo in Hokkaido and went directly to Manchuria from there. He stayed there for a total of ten years before finally returning to Japan to be repatriated. It was a difficult situation there in those days; if even one mistake had been made I easily might have wound up left behind as an orphan. I can speak Chinese now, but that’s only because I studied it in university later; as a boy in Manchuria I went to a school where only Japanese was spoken. Unfortunately, even though I did eventually learn Chinese, poor relations between China and Japan prevented me from putting it to use in my career. Still, I’m pretty confident in my Chinese, and in fact just the other day in a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles I was asked by the woman running it if I was Chinese or Japanese! My English is another story, though; my Chinese comes out okay, but the English always seems to be holding itself back and trying to hide!

AJ: Did you ever go back after the war to visit Shinkyo where you were born?

Fujita: No, I’ve never had a chance to go back there. I’d like to but I just don’t have the time. Since the war I’ve only been to China once, actually, as part of a group representing Japanese martial arts on a tour organized by the Nippon Budokan. We went to Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai, but the tour didn’t give us a chance to swing by Changchun.

AJ: You started practicing aikido after returning to Japan?

Fujita: Yes, after I went to Tokyo to enter university. Before that I was in Sapporo. I’d always been pretty physically active and used to do things like skiing, ice skating, and swimming. When I left for Tokyo my father told me to call on Ueshiba Sensei. He didn’t tell me I should go practice aikido, he just wanted me to convey his greetings. I arrived in April, which is when the new school year begins in Japan, but as it turned out I needed one more person besides my father to introduce me before I would be able to see O-Sensei. Consequently, it wasn’t until November of that year that I was finally able to meet O-Sensei and convey my father’s greetings. I remember it was a rather cold November day. I introduced myself as the son of Mr. Fujita and apologized for having delayed so long in coming. Until then I’d never really considered taking up aikido myself, and from what my father had told me I imagined it to be something like judo.

AJ: What was your impression of Ueshiba Sensei when you first met him?

Fujita: I knew nothing about aikido at the time, but from the moment I saw his face I could tell he wasn’t an ordinary person. I was immediately impressed. It didn’t matter to me then whether he was someone who did martial arts or anything else, I just knew that whatever he was doing there could be no mistake about it, and the very next day I joined the dojo.

It was my father who provided my introduction to Ueshiba Sensei, but the decision to start practicing aikido was mine entirely. I could have simply conveyed my father’s greetings and gone home, but for some reason that first encounter with O-Sensei got me thinking, and the very next day I was back asking to be accepted as his student. I hadn’t even seen aikido yet, but one look at O-Sensei’s face as much as made the decision for me, which I think is ather amazing. That sort of thing happens sometimes, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to meet someone like that.

AJ: What was it like at the dojo back then?

In front of the old Aikikai
Hombu Dojo c. 1967. Architectural
plan of new Hombu Dojo building
seen in background.

Fujita: Back then O-Sensei traveled a lot between Tokyo and Iwama, so he was never in Tokyo for a long period of time. I went to the morning training sessions, which were taught by Kisshomaru Sensei. Some of the others there included Shigenobu Okumura Sensei, Nobuyoshi Tamura (now in France), and Masamichi Noro (also in France). And there was one other, a rather “unusual” fellow, I thought, by the name of Sadateru Arikawa Sensei. (laughs)

Back then Kisshomaru Sensei always trained together with whomever came to practice, teaching while taking ukemi and so on. There were usually only seven or eight of us, including those I just mentioned, so it was more or less decided who everyone would end up partnering with-except for one individual, and that was Arikawa Sensei-who didn’t seem to have a regular partner for some reason. (laughs) Back then Arikawa Sensei cut a startling figure, what with his hair standing straight up and everything, but I went right up to him anyway and gave him a cheerful “Onegaishimasu!” Before I even knew what hit me he’d thrown me with a blindingly fast shihonage, and that was my introduction to Arikawa Sensei! (laughs)

Many of those people I trained with back then are still active today. Some have even gone on to open their own dojos or lead Aikikai branch dojos. I think it’s important to value and maintain the relationships we form in the course of our training.

AJ: You worked for many years in the Aikikai office, but what did you do before that?

Fujita: I spent about seven years working for a government support agency called the Shin Seikatsu Undo Kyokai (New Lifestyles & Athletics Association). It was the type of work that required me to travel a lot, so I always took my keikogi with me wherever I went. The current branch dojo in Hiroshima, for example, began in connection with that, as did the Hiroshima University aikido club.

My office was in the Hibiya district of Tokyo, so I helped get together a dojo at the Tokyo Regional Court offices that were in the same neighborhood, and I used to train there during my lunch hour. That dojo is still there, and in fact became one of the first of many others that exist in the various government offices agencies today.

AJ: How did you come to start working in the office at the Aikikai?

Fujita: One of my university seniors was handling all the office work there himself, but eventually he left and I took over in 1967 as things started getting busier. It was around the time they were building the new dojo. It wasn’t finished yet, so in the beginning I worked in the old office in the old dojo. After about two years I started to become something like O-Sensei’s secretary. Kisshomaru Sensei became the chairman of the Aikikai Board of Directors around the same time.

A young Fujita Sensei
at his desk at the Hombu
Dojo, c. 1969

I accompanied O-Sensei quite often on his Omoto-kyo-related visits. For the last two years before he passed away I was often spending as much as half of every day with O-Sensei. Kisshomaru Sensei sometimes used to tease us by saying, “What, are you two doing something together again?” (laughs). Sometimes I spent so much time with him that I ended up having to neglect the office work.

Often when I traveled with O-Sensei the itinerary was the same. Whenever we went to Tanabe in Wakayama, for example, we stayed with Hikitsuchi Sensei in Shingu. I think we went to Tanabe together twice. It was a difficult trip that usually took a whole week.

O-Sensei used to walk extremely quickly, using irimi-like body movements to slip through the crowds, so it was always hard to keep up with him. He wasn’t very tall, either, so keeping track of him a crowd could be difficult, especially since I was carrying all the luggage.

AJ: Kisshomaru Ueshiba spent over thirty years as Doshu of the aikido tradition he inherited from his father. In what ways do you think aikido changed during that period?

Fujita: Kisshomaru Sensei was not the kind of person to put himself forward strongly, and I think that was reflected in his approach as Doshu. Mainly he strove to continue his father’s art faithfully, in a quiet, steadfast sort of way, without taking a particularly authoritarian approach in leading the other senior practitioners and teachers. I think that non-imperative approach has been part of the reason aikido has spread as far and wide as it has. In fact, when I was working in the office I don’t think I ever heard Kisshomaru Sensei give me an “order.” Never did he say “Fujita, do such-and-such!” He wasn’t that kind of person. In some ways that actually made it more difficult for me; normally when you work for a company your superiors tell you clearly what you’re supposed to be doing, but at the Aikikai office I had to figure a lot of it out for myself.

AJ: It’s been said that Kisshomaru Sensei made considerable efforts to arrange and organize his father’s aikido in order to make it easier to understand.

Fujita: You have to remember that Morihei Ueshiba Sensei hardly ever demonstrated his art for the general public. He might have done so for the benefit of certain specific individuals, but I don’t think it ever even entered his mind to rent a space like the Hibiya Civic Auditorium or the Budokan and give a public demonstration. Kisshomaru Sensei’s thinking, in contrast, was that such public demonstrations would give people of all kinds a chance to see aikido, which he considered necessary if aikido was to spread and grow. Aikido began to change because of that. Back when I joined the dojo you still had to write the names of the people introducing you on a sort of application form, whereas today anyone, foreigners included, can join the Aikikai.

AJ: What about changes to aikido on the technical level made during the time?

Fujita: I think that even if you want to copy your teacher’s techniques and be able to reproduce them yourself, it’s not possible to do that with only an hour or two of practice a day. What we have now is not the kind of direct transmission from individual teacher to individual student (isshin denshin) that used to be the norm. That kind of teaching has become impossible given the large numbers of people practicing aikido today. It does at least still exist in aikido, however. I would hope people get at least one thing out of it. If people want to do aikido to keep in good shape, that’s fine. Others are more interested in aikido as a social activity, or they’re interested in the techniques themselves, or in O-Sensei’s philosophy, or whatever. There are even people who don’t train in aikido themselves but simply have an appreciation for it-aikido “fans,” you might say. In this day and age, I think any and all of these are fine reasons to practice aikido.

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley Pranin interviewing Fujita
Sensei in March 2000

AJ: I think many readers would like to know more about what you might call your “Fujita Theory” of body movement (taisabaki)….

Fujita: My “theory,” as you call it, involves certain principles of physical bodily movement that I’ve discovered by studying and thinking about O-Sensei’s techniques and movements. These could apply to any martial art, actually, and are not necessarily unique to aikido. To begin with, the primary purpose of body movement is to prevent yourself from being in a position where you can be thrown, hit, or otherwise successfully attacked. One way to do this is of course to duck or move back to escape, but aikido suggests that “entering” or moving in a bit is also good way to avoid being hit; this is the principle of irimi (lit. “entering with the body”). My “theory” is that the three most important elements in accomplishing this entry are 1) posture, 2) body shifting, and 3) technique, in that order.

Unlike, say, the horse-riding stances and other stances you find in arts like karate, in aikido we use a posture that is essentially based on hanmi, the so called “half-body” stance. O-Sensei himself referred to this as the “triangular method” or “triangular principle” (sankakuho).

I’ve done some research on classical styles of swordsmanship and found that they all used hanmi. Modern kendo has the feet parallel, which I think is a technique that’s been adopted for use in sportive matches, but practitioners of classical traditions tend to keep their feet in a position that resembles the letter “re” in Japanese (like an “L” with the bottom bar bent upwards) and that’s also how we place our feet in aikido, open at about sixty degrees to one another.

After posture, then, comes body shifting or movement. These days a lot of people don’t seem to think very much about the importance of things like posture and body shifting, and they want to rush ahead to practice specific techniques like shihonage and so on. Even at Hombu Dojo beginners are often shown a technique like shihonage and told to do it even though they haven’t yet understood proper posture and body shifting. But without first developing posture and body shifting as foundations, students won’t be able to do even the most basic techniques satisfactorily. There are some teachers who say it’s enough if you can “do techniques with ki,” but I don’t think that approach works well for teaching beginners; there has to be a progression up to that level.

In terms of body shifting, with entering and withdrawing (taihi), there are exactly six principles. In aikido we don’t practice the latter, withdrawal during training, do we? It’s not that being able to withdraw isn’t important-it can be-but we don’t practice it as part of our training. That’s because the four types of entering body movements that we practice are inherent in aikido techniques.

With Aikido Founder
Morihei Ueshiba c. 1968

O-Sensei never said specifically that there are four principles, but he demonstrated them clearly in what he did. People who can perform aikido well are those who have gained a command of these four types of body shifting. Some teachers may know about these but not teach them as such, and others may never have thought about them intellectually, but do them unconsciously anyway. In any case, I think teaching them first would give students a better foundation than does simply teaching them techniques, and would allow them to do techniques more safely.

In aikido the emphasis is less on “applying techniques” and more on “ensuring that you can keep yourself safe.” Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to have forgotten this and think only of throwing others. With that kind of skewed perception they don’t notice even when their own posture or position is one that puts them in danger. The training methods themselves that we use in aikido make it generally safe, and there are no competitive matches, so people tend to forget the danger inherent in the combative encounters they’re practicing.

If you practice these four so that you know and understand them in your body-and not just in your head-you’ll find they’ll serve you well when an opponent suddenly comes to attack. From that point you can use them as a foundation on which to build and apply whatever particular technique is called for. Again, I’d like to emphasize that the foundations of martial arts are in posture, body movement, and technique, in that order, and that specific techniques cannot come alive unless correct posture and body movement have been mastered. It is that initial body movement that avoids or nullifies an opponent’s attack that becomes the essential, life-and-death element that is at the core of every encounter, and if we forget this then it becomes impossible to pursue aikido as a martial art.

The body movement used in aikido is summarized in the expression “enter in one step, and apply the principle of circularity.” (irimi issoku, enten no ri). You use your center to enter and displace the opponent’s center as much as possible. This is irimi. So the “Fujita theory” means training in a way that thoroughly explores this use of irimi.

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