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Interview with Masaki Tani

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

The following interview was conducted at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo in 2000.

Answering Questions from Abroad

AJ: Tani Sensei, since you are so extensively involved in the Aikikai Hombu Dojo’s International policy, I’d like to begin with a few questions we’ve collected from people practicing aikido abroad. The first question: Is it the case that only one aikido organization per country is officially recognized by the Aikikai?

Assistant Director of
International Department

Tani: The Hombu has a set of "International Regulations" that were established to help deal with issues and problems related to aikido abroad. These are what we use to address and make decisions about the various cases at hand. Organizations that have received Hombu Official Recognition (Hombu konin) based on these regulations are considered "officially recognized organizations." Now, to answer the question, the current version of the International Regulations stipulates that "there shall be one officially recognized organization per country."

"Official recognition" means that the organization in question is officially recognized by the Hombu as practicing authentic, legitimate aikido as created by Founder Morihei Ueshiba and continued by Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and current Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. It also means that since the organization is maintaining these criteria, it has the authority to examine its members for kyu and dan rankings, and submit those dan rankings for registration with the Hombu. Organizations without official recognition have no authority to conduct examinations for ranking, and therefore such examinations are conducted by persons dispatched from the Hombu. In that sense, even organizations without official recognition can have very solid links to the Hombu, so it would be a mistake to interpret this structure as meaning that the Hombu does not recognize the practice of aikido in a given country by any but the so-called "officially recognized" organization. As you can see, that’s not the case.

I should also remark that the International Regulations were formulated twenty years ago and in some aspects are no longer well-matched to the situation of aikido in the world today. We’re working on a number of revisions, one of which is to move toward official recognition of multiple organizations in a single country, as long as those organizations meet certain criteria. (The International Regulations have already been revised to bring this idea into effect.)

AJ: The next question: Given that the leadership of aikido has now passed to the current Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba Sensei, are there any Aikikai policy changes in the making?

Tani: In terms of the dissemination and spread of aikido, the ideas held by both Doshu and the Hombu will remain essentially unchanged. Of course, as aikido has become increasingly popular throughout the world, there are more and more requests for visits by Doshu and other Hombu instructors. The Hombu now has relationships with more people than ever before. With that in mind, we are currently feeling a real need to strengthen and expand the Hombu itself in a variety of ways, including upgrading its leadership, teaching, and other capabilities.

AJ: The title shihan (lit. "master teacher") is used to refer to a certain portion of teachers, but how is this title used and applied within the Hombu? Are there any non-Japanese shihan?

Tani: According to the Hombu’s internal rules, the term "shihan" is applied to teachers within the Hombu Instructor Department who have reached sixth dan. Teachers fifth dan and below are referred to with the title shidoin (instructor). Regarding the situation outside the Hombu, shihan is one of the instructor ranks listed in the International Regulations. Officially recognized organizations can create their own teaching sections (shidobu), examination committees, and so on, and the three possible instructor ranks are shihan, shidoin, and fukushidoin (assistant instructor). Officially recognized organizations have the authority to appoint their own shidoin and fukushidoin as they see fit. The shihan rank, on the other hand, is a title that the Hombu authorizes for use by a certain portion of instructors ranked sixth dan or above within those organizations.

In fact, however, there are currently no teachers-Japanese or non-Japanese-authorized under the International Regulations to use the title shihan. Not a single one. There are, however, certain teachers who have gone abroad-at the request of the Founder or former Doshu Kisshomaru-to teach aikido in various places around the world, and the Hombu regards those individuals as "Hombu-dispatched shihan" (Hombu hakken shihan).

I can see why some people find it strange that there are no teachers abroad authorized to use the title shihan. Some even think that a teacher has to be Japanese in order to qualify as a shihan, but that’s not the case at all. We think that eventually we’ll need to start certifying shihan under the International Regulations.

Tani in action in Brazil

I addressed this question in detail in Aikido Today magazine a number of years ago, and I think people who read that article will understand the situation.

AJ: What are your thoughts on dan rankings?

Tani: First let me begin by mentioning two types of dan rankings being issued abroad that are other than those issued by the Hombu. First, there are government-issued dan rankings, given out by local governments that recognize the importance of aikido for their countries. Then, there are also dan rankings given out by local teachers but not registered with the Aikikai. The Hombu has no control over either of these. Regarding the former, national governments are of course free to issue dan rankings according to their own internal policies if that’s what they want to do. Still, we would prefer, for the sake of maintaining a certain level of quality, that governments choosing to issue such rankings do so in a way that is at least consistent with our own Hombu criteria for dan-ranking issuing, and at the same time that dan would also be registered with the Aikikai.

Essentially, the Hombu does not recognize dan rankings that are not registered with the Hombu (that is, rankings that have not been stamped with the Doshu’s seal). On the other hand, recently there have been a number of individuals holding dan rankings, authorized by the government of France, who have expressed interest in also receiving equivalent rankings from the Hombu. Since the level of aikido in France is high, the Hombu has agreed to issue equivalent Hombu dan rankings to such individuals, as long as they meet certain requirements. This is not to say, however, that we will be able to unconditionally convert any dan ranking issued abroad into a Hombu dan ranking. In the case of the French dan rankings, it is the Hombu-dispatched shihan I mentioned earlier who are conducting those examinations to determine eligibility.

Occasionally, I’m asked by non-Japanese aikido practitioners why dan rankings have to be issued from Japan. One of my responses is that it’s appropriate for it to be that way because aikido is a piece of Japanese culture. It isn’t just another sport or another set of combative techniques. Take the aikido diploma as an example, the hand-calligraphied certificates, the special paper used for the certificates, the traditional process to produce such a paper are also parts of Japanese culture. We would like to continue aikido in the form we have it now, as something that was born in Japan and that remains strongly linked to those cultural origins.

Doshu himself has occasionally remarked that while there are some aspects of aikido that can be changed, there are also some aspects of it that should not be changed. By way of analogy, you could say, for example, that even if all of the countries in the world suddenly came together in some kind of united federation, they would all still make efforts to preserve their distinct regional characteristics and identities, perhaps even more strongly than they do now. Even if the whole of humanity were to come to be on good terms—which as you know is one of the ideals of aikido—it probably wouldn’t be based on some standardized amalgamation, but more likely on some kind of harmonious coexistence with roots in mutual recognition, acceptance, and appreciation of differences. I explained it this way to some people from Europe a while back and they seemed to understand and accept this point of view.

In any case, at the risk of repeating myself or sounding too insistent, I will state here that the Hombu regards aikido as a Japanese cultural artifact and intends to preserve it as such indefinitely. Putting it in a larger context, you could also say that in this sense aikido is a part of an even greater world heritage.

AJ: Given that aikido is a cultural artifact, being able to receive dan rankings directly from the Hombu is probably one of the attractive aspects of the iemoto* system.

Tani: There are aspects of the iemoto system that even we Japanese don’t understand and tend to criticize. On the other hand, it’s also true that the iemoto system has been very successful as a means of ensuring the continuance of certain parts of Japanese culture that otherwise might have faded away. That aikido has been maintained as a unique piece of culture suggests that it has benefited from the iemoto system in this way. That "preservative power" comes, of course, largely through the tremendous efforts on behalf of the tradition typically required of the head of the family. To a certain extent, any son born to a Doshu is more or less required to give up most other pursuits in order to concentrate on his duties to the tradition. That requires a lot of sacrifice, but as I said, the iemoto system has let many aspects of Japan’s cultural identity be preserved into the current age, and in that sense I think it’s a system worth maintaining. Particularly in our increasingly mechanized civilization, with technology advancing more rapidly every day, it’s good to maintain cultural institutions like as the iemoto system that allow us to continue living in more human ways.

(* iemoto system, the family control of a particular school or tradition continuing through generations.)

Organization & Structure of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo

AJ: To continue, I’d like to ask you something we’ve never really asked any aikido teacher before, which is to explain the organization and structure within the Hombu.

Tani with Hiroshi Somemiya
of the International Department

Tani: The Hombu itself is staffed by thirty-nine people. At the top of the structure is the Doshu (who also serves as a chairman of the board for the Aikikai Foundation), and under him there are three departments including the General Affairs Department, the Instructor Department, and the International Department. The General Affairs Department is headed by Masatake Fujita Sensei and includes eleven staffers (some of whom you may be familiar with in the office beyond the glass window at the first-floor entrance as you come in and out the Hombu building). The Instructor Department is headed by Seijuro Masuda Sensei. The International Department is headed by Mr. Hideo Yonemochi (8th dan)—who also serves as Aikikai Director—and also has three Assistant Directors including Madame Teru Ikeda (5th dan), International Aikido Federation (IAF) secretary Mr. Hiroshi Somemiya (7th dan), and myself. As you can see, the International Department also comprises higher-ranking people, but since we’re not in the Instructor Department, we’re not called upon to teach aikido.

The Instructor Department, which is made up of twenty-four teachers, is the largest department. Also within the Hombu there are various committees made up of higher ranking teachers, as well as various sections and staff members responsible for handling contact with outside parties and so on. The Hombu itself has become no longer just a dojo, but also a kind of corporate entity. Still, the focus of most activity remains on the Instructor Department. In addition to teaching, many of the younger instructors are also involved in publishing the Aikido Newspaper (Aikido Shimbun), planning and preparing for various events, administering the Aikikai website, and accompanying Doshu when he travels. Also, there are quite a few requests for Hombu teachers to teach in various places around the world, so some instructors are usually off doing that. There are so many things for the Hombu to do every year, including the kagami biraki (a New Year’s ceremony, generally early in January), the "Great Festival" (taisai) in Iwama, the annual Aikido School courses starting in the fall and spring, and the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration. The whole place always gets very busy in the days leading up to these events, and the International Department has its hands full doing this and that for most of the rest of the year, too.

AJ: Given the truly international age we live in today, I think it would give the Hombu a great deal of momentum and energy if there were some program for non-Japanese aikidoists to train there for five or ten years, learning Japanese in the process, and then be sent out to teach on behalf of the Hombu, both in and outside of Japan.

Tani: Yes, to put it another way, how would it be if we could draw talented people from all over into the Hombu Instructor Department regardless of nationality or race? I personally think it is a great idea, and I think the day will come when we’ll see it starting to happen. One of the conditions would of course be, as you mentioned, learning Japanese and developing an understanding of Japanese culture. After all, those of us in the International Department have made efforts to learn and use other languages; at the moment we can manage about five different ones between us!

Awakening to Aikido as "Ueshiba Budo"

AJ: Sensei, thank you for responding to the questions from our international readership. Now I’d like to move into the main part of our interview. To start, please tell us how you came to practice aikido.

Tani: Actually it was in junior high school that I first learned about aikido. I’d come across a prewar magazine in a used bookshop and one of the stories had a scene with aikido in it. It involved Russian and Japanese soldiers—among whom was a Japanese boy—interacting on a warship. In one scene the boy ends up in a bout with the Russian ship captain, and as the two engage somebody calls out, "Show ‘em the spirit of Ueshiba budo!" Just as the captain lashes out with his fist, the boy is suddenly standing behind him. I wondered what it was the boy had done, and when I got to high school I finally found out that the reference was to aikido. After that I wanted more than anything to do aikido!
I started working at KDD [Kokusai Denshin Denwa Co., Ltd, an international telecom carrier] in 1965. This was the very year an aikido club was organized there by Ikuo Iimura Sensei, who had come from the Japanese Defense Agency to teach at a KDD research laboratory. Naturally, I joined up immediately. At the KDD headquarters where I was working we had Seijuro Masuda Sensei and Shizuo Imaizumi Sensei coming in to teach twice a week. As time passed these teachers were replaced by others like the current Doshu, Shigenori Iwagaki Sensei (currently operating the Shimbukan Dojo in Mie prefecture), and Shigeru Sugawara Sensei. After about two years I got my shodan and began going to the Hombu to train as well. Given my daytime responsibilities as a company employee, I usually went to the 6:30 AM practices. I took an early retirement from KDD about six years ago and a little while after that joined the staff here at the Hombu.

Aikido in South America

AJ: I’ve heard that you have experience teaching abroad.

Tani and students during visit of Second Doshu
Kisshomaru Ueshiba to Brazil. Seated, third from right, Doshu,
Seigo Yamaguchi, and Ichiro Shibata

Tani: Yes, while working for KDD I was dispatched to work in Brazil for four years, to study in Argentina for one year, and then to work for another year in Paraguay. So I spent a total of six years in South America. In Brazil I had my own dojo where I taught. On several occasions I had at my dojo as visitors great names like the late Kisshomaru Doshu, the late Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei, and Ichiro Shibata Sensei, who is now in the United States. I had about 100 students in all, with usually about twenty or so people in the dojo at any given time. I was a fourth or fifth dan at the time. That was about twenty years ago, so I don’t know if things are still the same, but back then aikido was popular in South America.

An amazing number of South Americans have come to train at the Hombu Dojo over the years. In particular there are always some people from Argentina here, often staying for two or three years, or at the very least for several months. Aikido was started in Argentina over thirty years ago by teachers including Katsutoshi Kurata Sensei and Kenzo Miyasawa Sensei. I was asked to assist Kurata Sensei for about a year, and after I returned to Japan, four of his students followed me back. Two of those even decided to settle here eventually. Other teachers like Yamaguchi Sensei and Yasuno Sensei also visited Argentina several times, so I think the level of aikido there is quite high.

Brazil is much the same in the sense that aikido has a long history there, and many different aikido teachers has gone there over the years. In the beginning I didn’t think people in Latin American countries would have such a strong interest in Japanese budo, but that impression turned out to be quite mistaken. In Brazil, I found many people who originally started aikido for reasons like wanting to become strong or because they thought it looked good, but those that continued gradually came to understand what it was really all about. When I returned to Japan two of my students came with me, one of whom is still here. People like him, and the two Argentines I mentioned earlier, have become some of my closest friends, and their friendship does a great deal to enrich my life.

After Argentina and Brazil, aikido is also quite popular in places like Uruguay and Chile, and those countries have their own very solid organizations. There is also a large group training under New York’s Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei in the various Latin American countries, so no matter where you go in South America you’re likely to find people doing aikido.

AJ: You spent the longest time in Brazil. What were some of the difficulties you faced there?

Tani flanked by student
Luis "Musashi" Castro in Brazil

Tani: There are a number of different aikido organizations registered in the various states within Brazil, and the one in Sao Paolo where I was working happened to be the Federacao Paulista de Aikido under Reishin Kawai Sensei. At first I went to Kawai Sensei’s dojo. Later I was asked to establish my own dojo and began teaching on my own. I was asked to come in under the Sao Paolo Federation, but I didn’t regard myself as a professional and didn’t feel like getting tied up in rules and regulations, so I decided to just do my own thing. That was the situation all the while until eventually I completed my work assignment and returned to Japan. In the end I spent most my time there pursuing aikido on my own, without much contact with Kawai Sensei. That may have looked like I was deliberately putting myself in opposition to him—and some people may have interpreted it that way—but that’s not really how it was. To have such opposition among aikidoists would have been disgraceful in any case, and that wasn’t what I was doing; it’s just that I was young and didn’t think clearly about such things, about how it might look to do things so much on my own like that, and looking back on it now I regret having gone about it in that way. Actually, though, given my position in the Aikikai’s International Department, Kawai Sensei and I have many more opportunities to communicate these days.

There was also Ichitami Shikanai Sensei, who was teaching in Rio de Janeiro. He and I were about the same age and rank and we used to take our students to visit one another, and also go together to teach at an Omoto-kyo organization just outside of Sao Paolo. His aikido is fantastic and even now I can recall very clearly all of the great times we had together.

I also spent six months in Mongolia helping Ryoichi Tsuji of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) teaching aikido. There were no yudansha (black belt) aikido practitioners there, but they were all very enthusiastic about the training. For me, just living in Mongolia was a valuable experience.

AJ: When you finally returned home after six years living abroad did you have the impression that Japan had changed in any way?

Tani: After living for four years in Brazil I’d become accustomed to the more relaxed rhythm of life there, so I experienced a good bit of culture shock when I got back to Japan. It was a shock to find everyone in my office working like crazy, with only about a week off for summer vacation and so on. I went ahead and took off a whole month for summer vacation! Everybody was pretty disgusted with me, but I couldn’t see what they were complaining about (laughter). Like I said, culture shock. I imagine all the people around me were equally shocked by how I’d become. Also, I was surprised to realize how cramped my house in Japan seemed. Within a month I had it torn down and built a new one with a more spacious floor plan and pure white exterior walls like they have in Brazil. (laughter)

In terms of the training, when I returned to the Hombu Dojo I was surprised to find that everyone I used to train with there had gotten a lot better than me, and I had difficulty measuring up. I realized that during my time in Brazil I’d somehow moved toward a kind of aikido that relied heavily on strength. So I resolved to start again from zero. I think it took me about three or four years to catch up. While I was abroad I didn’t have the kind of practice partner who could help me hone my skills, so I didn’t improve. These days it’s different, of course, since the level of aikido being practiced abroad is getting higher and higher.

The Mat as an Open Stage

AJ: What are some of your personal thoughts on aikido?

Tani: I’ve often been asked (and I’ve often asked myself), "Why practice aikido?" I think it’s a natural thing to think about, especially since aikido has no matches and we train more or less exclusively using pure techniques. I have to confess, I trained for over thirty years without a clear reason for doing so in mind. In that sense, it may even have been irresponsible of me to have been teaching others. But lately I think I’ve come to understand my goals and motivations more clearly than ever.

I was in the process of organizing a variety of materials after Doshu Kisshomaru passed away, and I kept coming upon a phrase he mentioned over and over, to the effect that "The daily training itself is the most important thing." It dawned on me that it is the training itself—simply getting onto the mat and practicing every day—that is the essential goal of aikido. That in and of itself is reason enough. For an aikidoist, the mat on which we train every day is like the summit of a mountain for a climber. There is nothing other than that for me anyway.

To use another analogy, the mat at the Hombu Dojo on which we practice every day is like the ultimate open stage for an actor. So I climb every day (actually only every other day) to the top of the "mountain" that is training, and stand at the top of that mountain, that is to say on the mats at the Hombu, and when the practice is done that in itself has become enough to send me home satisfied. It’s gotten so I really don’t need anything else. I don’t even have much interest in demonstrations, although I do enjoy watching others practice.

All of which means, of course, that I am enjoying my training more than ever. And at the Hombu there are any number of people who are stronger, better aikidoists than I, but even just gritting my teeth and trying to do my best to measure up I find an enjoyable challenge and part of the fun of practice.

Probably my attitude and approach are not ideal. Aikido has spread so far and wide, and there are so many requests from so many places, that I feel I should probably be doing something more to contribute. If I’m asked to teach, then I have a degree of responsibility to do so. I do recognize the merit of that view, but as an individual I’d also like to continue pursuing aikido more freely, in a way that is for myself.

Doshu often says, "It’s okay for there to be various approaches; let’s just enjoy what we’re doing." Some people say they pursue aikido as a hobby and that’s fine, and in fact there are any number of valid reasons for doing it. If aikido can make your life richer and more enjoyable in some way, then that’s enough.

Tani throwing Castro

AJ: I think there are many non-Japanese practitioners who pursue aikido not only because it’s enjoyable, but because they have the goal of aspiring to the ideals set forth by the founder.

Tani: Yes, ideally aikido should be able to contribute something to society, and in that sense there very well may be something lacking about people like me who focus mostly on just enjoying their own practice. Still, for me that’s the only conclusion I’ve arrived at in terms of feeling comfortable with aikido and finding my own meaning in it. There are still plenty of good things that result from doing aikido, even if you don’t necessarily proclaim any particular goal for it.

AJ: Yes, I think people find applications of aikido in everyday life all the time. For example, long years practicing aikido gives you an ability to "read" an attacker’s "kokyu," that is their intent and attitude, from the earlier stages of a conflict, and that’s something I think you can apply to a variety of situations in life.

Tani: Yes, aikido cultivates many such psychological and spiritual aspects. I think I’ve been able to apply things I’ve learned through aikido in my work, for example, and to smooth my interactions with others.

There are even very concrete practical benefits: in Mongolia I was thrown forward off a horse that lost its footing while going down a slope. I had my camera in my right hand and the reins in my left hand, I ended up landing with forward rolling ukemi. The funny thing was, as I was flying through the air the only thought in my head was "Don’t break the camera!" The Mongolian who was with me said, "You don’t know how to ride horses very well, but you are pretty good at falling off them!" (laughter)

I’ve fallen from horses, dumped my motorcycle, crashed while flying hang-gliders and para-gliders, and so on, but I’ve never had a major injury, so I think aikido must have helped me in those situations, too!