An Interview with Robert T. Kubo (7th dan), Chairman and Chief Instructor, Aikido of Hawaii International, conducted by John Goss (5th dan), Chief Instructor of Aikido Martial Arts Institute, Perry Hall, Maryland, USA.
Robert Kubo, 7th dan, Aikido of Hawaii International
As a pioneer of aikido in Hawaii can you please describe the activities of Koichi Tohei Sensei in Hawaii?
Tohei Sensei first came to Hawaii in 1953 under the auspices of the Nishi Kai health group. His first classes took place on the lawn of a teahouse and it was from these roots that aikido first grew outside Japan. When Tohei Sensei left Japan he went through a ceremony as if he were leaving on a suicide mission. He was a man of such powerful conviction that to him failure would be almost worthy of seppuku.
A young Koichi Tohei Sensei in Hawaii c. 1953
Did you find Tohei Sensei’s teaching unique?
As my background was in judo and my knowledge of aikido was limited I really was not sophisticated enough to understand Tohei Sensei’s philosophy. However, I could not deny the fact that he had a very strong presentation, and he piqued my curiosity.
In 1961 O-Sensei visited the Hawaii Aikikai, on his first and only visit to the USA. Were you present, and if so what are your memories of that event?
All of the older members were quite excited about O-Sensei coming to Hawaii but, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t that deep into the aikido philosophy then, so I wasn’t really that excited.
Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba on his 1961 visit to Hawaii
Did you sense a special presence or magnetism from O-Sensei?
From my point of view as a white belt in aikido at the time, O-Sensei was a force. There is no question about it! O-Sensei was at a point in his life where he was not as physically strong as he would have wanted to be. But it was amazing to see this very old man being escorted to the mat—literally being carried on to the mat—and all of a sudden, his ki took over and the force of his presence filled the dojo. In those days there were not many books or magazines about O-Sensei and we had only heard of him, and aikido, from those who had studied with him in Japan.
How did the departure of Koichi Tohei Sensei from the Hombu Dojo play out in Hawaii?
Changes had been rumored for quite a while. There was talk of Tohei’s intention to become the leader of aikido in Japan. Upon the death of O-Sensei he began his power play with an attempt to bring aikido in Hawaii to his cause. I felt that the politics were becoming too great a distraction for me as well as for my students at Kailua. A student’s primary purpose is to learn aikido, not to be caught up in a struggle for power. So what we did was remove Koichi Tohei’s name from the board.
Was your decision to stay with the Hombu Dojo a difficult one?
It was not a difficult decision, no. I felt I was doing “Ueshiba aikido” from the beginning and that Tohei Sensei was nothing more than a link between Ueshiba Sensei’s aikido and aikido outside Japan. When Tohei Sensei created the Ki Society I decided to stay with Ueshiba Sensei because I believed in the Ueshiba system and I believed in what O-Sensei wanted for aikido.
Who were the other early aikido figures in Hawaii?
We had a number of teachers in Hawaii of kendo, kempo, karate and judo who became enamored of aikido and gave up their positions in their other arts. As a case in point, Yukiso Yamamoto Sensei, my judo teacher, converted to aikido after he met Tohei Sensei. Tohei Sensei would come to Hawaii and teach for a few months then leave. So Yamamoto Sensei and other old timers were sometimes forced to revert to their original systems when they found their knowledge of aikido insufficient. Early aikido in Hawaii was wild. It was an exciting time!
Who was your first aikido teacher?
That would be Yamamoto Sensei, but don’t get me wrong, Tohei Sensei was a fantastic teacher. He had the charisma that made him a wonderful teacher. Not only that but what we refer to as ki. There was no question that he was very strong, and he was a very influential part of my becoming an aikidoka.
When and under what circumstances did you decide to teach aikido?
I had just become a shodan in judo and we used to have meetings at the Waialae Dojo, which was the Hombu Dojo of Hawaii at that time. Yamamoto Sensei was head of Hawaiian aikido and chairman of the board. At these meetings, there was only one leader. Those who know budo know there actually is no democracy, and in those days our meetings were hilarious. If the old gray-head said, “This is black” and it was green, we would look at it and say, “What a wonderful shade of black!” There was no democracy involved. At one of these meetings, since I had just become shodan, Yamamoto Sensei, my mentor, turned to me and said, “Kubo-kun (which is the way of addressing a junior) you will start an aikido class in Kailua.” Not, where did I want to teach, or how was I going to start, or even where the facility would be; all he did was stand there and tell me I was going to start aikido in Kailua. And that is how I began.
Robert Kubo poses with Yasuo Kobayashi and the late Fumio Toyoda Senseis
Who have been your major influences since then?
In my early days the most influential person was O-Sensei. His philosophy and his technique were very impressive. Later on it would have been people like Nishio Sensei and Yasuo Kobayashi Sensei. They were very influential in the way I came to teach. Again, my aikido is Hawaiian aikido, a system developed out of necessity, but these two influenced me a lot.
What is your current teaching approach, how has it evolved over the years, and where do you wish to take it?
At the time of the split with Tohei Sensei, with his focus on ki, many teachers went with him because they firmly believed that ki was not taught at the Hombu Dojo. This was one of the statements made by Tohei Sensei himself. He came to Hawaii and taught ki and I was very impressed with it. After the split, many of our instructors shied away from ki, but I did not as I felt that ki was an integral part of aikido and I still feel that way. So in much of my teaching I still teach ki, not like Tohei Sensei who made it the center of the art itself, but whenever it pertains to a situation or technique.
Have you seen much change in your own aikido?
I believe that aikido is always evolving, it’s not stagnant. It’s an art that continues to grow within the individual. My early years of training in aikido were very physical and very technical. The years have not diminished my enthusiasm for the art but I believe my aikido has changed and I hope it will continue to change. I have observed many instructors over the years, and seen their techniques and all the attributes that make them good teachers. Would I say to the aikido world that my aikido is good? No, my aikido is not good; it is far from perfect. I am not trying to compare myself to O-Sensei, who became very spiritual towards the end of his life. But looking deeper into the art you will find the religious aspect to be very strong. I believe I have gone beyond mere technique. This is the path I see myself taking as I continue to cultivate what I believe is a way of life. I just completed what is called “Hachijuhakasho,” a visit to 88 temples in Japan, and it was fascinating and exciting. I made the journey primarily because O-Sensei spoke about his spiritual experiences and his pilgrimages, and I became curious. I wished to gain a greater understanding of the spiritual aspects of Hachijuhakasho, and what its relationship was to aikido. The experience was very revealing and very exciting for me. I didn’t become totally spiritual, but the emotion of the moment, it kind of grabbed you. It made you feel as though O-Sensei was trying to teach something more than the physical aspects of the art, something intangible that could only be felt deep inside. Call it the spiritual side if you will. I sometimes joke about it with my students by using the expression,”May the force be with you,” because they understand that very well these days. But what I’m talking about is the spiritual aspect of aikido. Don’t focus only on the physical, on technique, but look inside yourself and develop your aikido from there. I tell my advanced students to move from their hara, or one-point, to focus ki in their minds and project it, not to rely on muscle. As you advance in aikido, you have to move beyond that.
Kubo with Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba in 1995
You have just described one of the most memorable experiences you had in Japan, can you give us any others?
One would be when Igarashi Sensei of the Hashimoto Dojo celebrated his tenth anniversary. Igarashi Sensei, Kobayashi Sensei and I go a long way back and Kobayashi Sensei has supported me throughout my years in aikido. We went out together after practice one day with the whole family to have dinner. Hashimoto in those days was a quiet little village, with little bars. We went to one of these and Igarashi Sensei said to me, “You have to try the horse meat sashimi!” We walked into this bar, and the owner’s family was there, the wife was there, the TV was on. It was a horse opera! Igarashi Sensei, as the host, yelled to the chef in Japanese to prepare the horsemeat, and the chef yelled back, “Hai!” and all of a sudden we heard a gunshot! What was I to think? The only thing I could think of was how fresh the horse meat sashimi must be.
Tell us about Aikido of Hawaii International and your vision for your organization?
My vision is as simple as one of the names for my club, “Kubo’s Country Dojo.” All of the clubs connected with our organization are freely affiliated with Aikido of Hawaii International. It is important to understand that I did not create these dojos. Christenham Sensei was a student of mine many years ago in Hawaii, and has run his own dojo for many years now in Omaha. His career took him to the mainland. Some years ago you sought me out from Baltimore and we felt we shared a common interest in how we wanted to study aikido. Thus you have also become part of Aikido of Hawaii International. And we recently welcomed a West Coast dojo. So, we are fortunate to have affiliated dojos not only on the East Coast, but also in Nebraska and California, all part of the Aikido of Hawaii International family.
Would you say that you have an intimate organization?
Very much so. We work together and learn together in many ways like a family. The support is there. My philosophy is a simple one: to teach and learn aikido, and that goes for me as well as all my students. It is not my style to create an empire, just good aikido men and aikido women. Simple.
What is your feeling on the future of aikido?
I would like to see us become less egotistical about our little empires. Aikido is not about ego, it is not about territory and it is not about competition or who has the better technique. Ego is like a cancer eating away at the very foundation of martial arts. We must make a conscious effort to remove ego. Then and only then can we break down the barriers that have been created and follow the path set down for us by O-Sensei. Aikido is universal, it is for everyone and we should practice in that spirit. I would like to pay tribute to Sadao Yoshioka Sensei, the former chief instructor in Hawaii and a very vital force in my path of aikido. He was a tremendous individual and I do not wish to leave this interview without mentioning his name.
Kubo on 1995 visit to Japan
Thank you, Sensei, for sharing your insight and offering an invaluable history lesson from aikido’s inception in the United States to the present day. We appreciate your candid impressions of O-Sensei as seen through the eyes of a novice in aikido in those days, and your wisdom and experience as one who is a true leader in the art of aikido today.
[The above interview was conducted by John Goss, and transcribed and edited by John Stump and David Lynch. A hearty thanks to all! -Ed.]