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Interview with Tetsuro Nariyama

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #121

Tetsuro Nariyama

Born 1947 in Yamagata Prefecture. Entered Kokushikan University in 1966. Met Kenji Tomiki there. After graduation, he devoted himself to aikido training under Tomiki and Hirokazu Kobayashi. Now teaches in the budo section of the physical education department at Kokushikan University, the Physical Education Department at Waseda University, and at the Osaka Police Academy. Director and instructor within the Japan Aikido Association and full-time instructor at the Shodokan, the JAA’s central dojo.

Japan Aikido Association and Shodokan

The Japan Aikido Association (JAA) was formed in March 1975 by aikido club alumni from Waseda, Kokushikan, Seijo, other universities, as well members of various private aikido clubs, as a general administrative organization dedicated to the aikido ideals and the competitive aikido created by Kenji Tomiki. Two of the most important participants in the history and development of competitive aikido were the Waseda University Aikido Club and the Shodokan. The Waseda University Aikido Club was founded by Kenji Tomiki in the spring of 1958 as an experimental locus for his competitive aikido development, and it eventually came to play a leading role in the promotion of competitive aikido both in Japan and abroad. The Shodokan was established by Tomiki in April 1967 as a dojo dedicated to his aikido research. Tetsuro Nariyama was sent to the Shodokan to serve as its new instructor in March 1970, and in 1976 it was re-dedicated in a new building with a 70-mat dojo.

At the Shodokan dojo (which serves as the Japan Aikido Association’s Kansai regional headquarters) in Osaka, Aikido Journal spoke with Shodokan director and chief instructor Tetsuro Nariyama about "competitive aikido" and its training methodologies. Nariyama Shihan also shared some of his experiences training under Kenji Tomiki and spoke about his hopes and aspirations for the future of competitive aikido.

Interview by Stanley Pranin, February 27, 2001

Under the strict gaze of Tomiki Sensei

AJ: Watching your practice today, I see that a kind of vigorous free sparring (randori) involving precise distancing and timing is a significant part of your aikido training here. I think there may be many aspects of this kind of practice that other aikido dojo that don’t normally use such matches (shiai) might find very useful. Sensei, you are currently the Shodokan’s chief instructor. Can you tell us how you first got involved in aikido?

Kenji Tomiki (1900-1979)

Nariyama: I practiced judo in high school and was a great admirer of many of the Olympic judo players back then. One of my high school teachers was an alumnus of Kokushikan University, and through his introduction I was able to enroll there myself. I had intended to join the university judo club, but one of the senior students there told me "we only train heavyweights here" (laughter), so I gave up that idea. As it happened, another of my seniors, this time one from my dorm, invited me to have a look at an aikido practice. I say "invited me to have a look," but that’s actually putting it nicely. In fact, once I got in there they literally closed the door behind me and wouldn’t let me leave until I agreed to join! (laughter)

Tomiki Sensei, whenever he came there to teach, always left an intense impression on me. He was one of those teachers who didn’t talk that much. He just watched, with his eyes narrowed, scrutinizing everything. All of the senior students were always on pins and needles when he was there, and there was a kind of electrified feeling in the air. I felt he was an impressive and amazing teacher.

I joined the aikido club figuring I could always just quit whenever I wanted to if I didn’t really like it. But as it turned out, a little later Hideo Oba* Sensei came to teach, and quitting would have been very awkward since he also happened to be my physical education lecturer. So I stayed on, and eventually, from my sophomore year, I even became Oba Sensei’s teaching assistant. I learned a great deal from him over the next three years. He had a great sense of humor, and was the kind of teacher that really grabbed his students’ hearts. Normally a university professor in his position needed only one teaching assistant, but in Oba Sensei’s case the students were practically lining up for the privilege! (laughter) I assisted him in many of his other classes as well.

*Hideo Oba, 1911-1986, second director of the Japan Aikido Association

Tomiki’s enthusiastic lectures resonate strongly with students

AJ: Did the Kokushikan University aikido club have any interaction with the aikido club at Waseda University?

Kenji Tomiki with Hideo Ohba

Yes, even starting in my first year we used to go there to train with them. Sometimes Oba Sensei would be teaching, or Tomiki Sensei would be there giving talks. I also participated in most of the Waseda training camps (gasshuku). Both Tomiki Sensei and Oba Sensei came to those, as did most of the senior students responsible for teaching, so it was always invaluable training.

Tomiki Sensei often spoke about his dreams for the future, namely about spreading the competitive aikido he had created around the world. I think he even hoped it would someday be introduced to the Olympics. He said that it would first have to be practiced nationwide in Japan, and then move into international competitions, but eventually, he felt, it would be worthy of becoming an Olympic event. Such extremely passionate ideas undoubtedly had a lot of resonance among us students, to the extent that many of the people who listened to his talks back then were motivated enough to continue and in fact are still with us, many working in important roles among the JAA executive staff.

On the other hand, sometimes Tomiki Sensei’s lectures could be very difficult to follow. Often at the training camps you’d see a lot of us students sleeping through them at the back of the room! (laughter). Still, what he was saying somehow seemed to find its way into our heads—maybe like one of those "learn while you sleep" programs…. (laughter).

Did you ever train directly with Tomiki Sensei?

In most of the universities, it was very common for Tomiki Sensei to use the aikido club leaders or captains, most of them fourth-year students, as his uke. I eventually became the captain of the Kokushikan aikido club, and in that connection performed as Tomiki Sensei’s uke at events such as the meeting of the committee preparing for the establishment of the Nihon Budo Gakkai.

I moved to Osaka in March 1970, and from then until a few months before his death in December 1979, Tomiki Sensei used to visit the Shodokan on a regular basis. Whenever he came we would get together groups of students from the Kansai region to hold seminars, and he also taught general classes at the Shodokan.

Tomiki Sensei had a powerful wakigatame (armpit lock), one you couldn’t escape from even if he was using just one hand. Our joint techniques are designed to prevent the opponent from escaping, but also to not be overly painful. We have to train to have that kind of control. The key is to have good body movement combined with an ability to blend with the opponent. Tomiki Sensei was extremely skilled at these things. These days I don’t think we can say such skills are as alive and well as they might be in our ideal randori, and improving this is something we have to ask of the young people practicing today.

Spreading competitive aikido in Osaka

I’ve heard that Tomiki Sensei hoped to make the Shodokan, as the central dojo of the Japan Aikido Association, a focal point of activity for competitive aikido….

Nariyama at Nippon Budokan on November 25, 1972

The Shodokan taking that central role actually had to do with meetings and relationships among a many different people. There was, for example, Toshio Nishimura, who first introduced Tomiki Sensei to current Shodokan director and JAA vice-chairman Masaharu Uchiyama. Nishimura was a childhood friend of Hidetaro Nishimura (no relation), the man who brought Tomiki Sensei into aikido in the first place. Uchiyama was not in particularly good health, so Toshio Nishimura suggested he take up aikido, saying he knew an excellent teacher, and introduced him to Tomiki Sensei around 1963. Uchiyama’s health did gradually improve, and later he expressed interest in having a full-time aikido teacher, so Tomiki Sensei introduced him to one of my seniors, who started going to the Shodokan as a full-time instructor.

And sometime thereafter Tomiki Sensei sent you to work on the development of competitive aikido in the Kansai region?

Actually, there was one other teacher sent before me, but he eventually became too busy with his other work and I was nominated to take over for him. I think Tomiki Sensei was definitely interested in training people who would become full-time teachers.

There happened to be some students in Kansai who said they wanted to see aikido, so about twenty people from Waseda, Seijo, and Kokushikan went down to give a demonstration. The students who attended soon indicated their interest in starting aikido, too, and sent a request for an instructor via the late Hirokazu Kobayashi*, who relayed the request to Tomiki Sensei. That instructor turned out to be me.

*Hirokazu Kobayashi, 1929-1998. Aikikai 8th dan. Operated the Osaka Buikukai dojo in Osaka. Frequently taught in France and Italy.

Learning the techniques of Ueshiba Sensei from Hirokazu Kobayashi

How did Kobayashi Sensei and Tomiki Sensei know each other?

They were introduced by the late Tadashi Abe,* who was a graduate of Waseda University and so knew Tomiki Sensei fairly well. Abe also must have trained under Tomiki Sensei back when he was still teaching at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, and I think probably respected him as a valued senior. Abe and Kobayashi also had a close relationship given their similar roles as Aikikai shihan, and apparently they got along well on a personal level, too. So Abe Sensei was the connection who introduced Kobayashi Sensei to Tomiki Sensei.

*Tadashi Abe, 1927-1984. Entered Iwama dojo as an uchideshi during WWII. Relocated to France in 1952 and stayed for several years as a pioneer of aikido there

Also, Kobayashi Sensei was usually Ueshiba Sensei’s uke whenever he visited Kansai, so the two of them also had a close relationship.

Kobayashi Sensei actually seems to have had a specific reason for going to see Tomiki Sensei in the first place. In one sense, Tomiki Sensei could still be considered Ueshiba O-Sensei’s student, so I think there may have been an element of "What do you think you’re doing, going off on your own like you are?!", a sort of a complaint against Tomiki Sensei, at least at first. (laughter)

Tomiki Sensei dealt with Kobayashi Sensei’s complaints in a very reasonable, gentlemanly fashion, never getting angry and answering each question very logically and clearly. He then went on to talk about his dreams for aikido, and Kobayashi Sensei was apparently impressed. The demonstration of Tomiki Sensei’s way of doing things to the students in Osaka came together soon after that. So as you can see, numerous other people had already been involved in various ways by the time I was sent to Kansai.

My initial impression was that I was being sent to Osaka to teach. But just before I left, Tomiki Sensei said to me, "Nariyama, when you go to Kobayashi’s place I don’t want you to just be teaching; I also want you to learn from Kobayashi the things I learned from Ueshiba Sensei." So, with that in mind, I came here to teach and learn at the same time.

What were Kobayashi Sensei’s techniques like?

Very sharp and intense. Even when he did throwing techniques like iriminage, I felt like I was being pounded into the mat. And his joint locks were like none I’d ever felt! (laughter) The joint techniques I learned from Tomiki Sensei and Oba Sensei were more about controlling the joint, whereas Kobayashi Sensei’s focused more on having an extremely intense effect. He was also very good at explaining things logically. I spent about six years training like an uchideshi under Kobayashi Sensei, while on the other hand also teaching Tomiki Sensei’s randori training method at the various universities around the region.

Kobayashi Sensei eventually started asking me to assist him at some of his other various dojo. I remember riding next to him in his Volvo as we went around to the different dojo, listening to all the interesting things he had to say. Most of it had to do with Ueshiba Sensei, who he seemed to think about a great deal. He himself had been very strong in judo, probably a fourth or fifth dan, and before that he’d also practiced swordsmanship. He has a lot to say, for example making comparisons with Ueshiba Sensei’s sword technique and so on. As I spent more and more time with him, he also taught me a lot of what you might call "tricks and techniques of the trade," including many things that have since been a great help to me. And the techniques he taught me were themselves a real treasure chest.

Do you think Kobayashi Sensei ever came to accept Tomiki Sensei’s competitive aikido theories?

I think he did, although he also probably felt there was something of a gap between the stated goals, as he understood them to be, and the realities of training. He often said that we needed to work a lot more on bringing more "aikido-like" techniques in our competitive matches. Tomiki Sensei seems to have felt the same way. He gave us a lot of "homework" involving testing his ideas to make our match training more aikido-like. Many of the practice methods we use today came out of those studies.

Hideo Oba Sensei

Earlier you mentioned Hideo Oba Sensei. Please tell us a bit more about him.

Hideo Ohba (1911-1986)

Oba Sensei started out doing a lot of sword training, and then when he was in Manchuria he also practiced naginata, iai and various other arts. If you added up all his ranks he’d be a "several-dozen-dan." Tomiki Sensei also told me that Oba had trained under Jun’ichi Haga* in Manchuria. In fact, Haga Sensei apparently even once asked Tomiki Sensei if he "could have Oba Sensei as his own student," so I imagine that in addition to his aikido, Oba Sensei must have been quite a swordsman.

*Jun’ichi Haga, a well-known iaido and kendo expert, a top disciple of swordsman Hakudo Nakayama and a friend of Morihei Ueshiba

Tomiki Sensei told me that back in Kobukan dojo days, he and Ueshiba Sensei used to train in Yagyu Shinkage-ryu under Kosaburo Gejo.* I believe that Gejo Sensei and [Sokaku] Takeda were also very well acquainted, so there is even a link to Takeda Sensei.

*Kosaburo Gejo, an Imperial Navy Admiral and expert in Yagyu Shinkage-ryu sword, studied under Morihei Ueshiba from 1925 through the early 1930s

Another person to mention is one of Ueshiba Sensei’s prewar students named Tesshin Hoshi. Tomiki Sensei used to say, "If Hoshi had lived a little longer, my aikido probably would have turned out a little different." Hoshi trusted Tomiki Sensei very much, and I think Tomiki Sensei appreciated Hoshi a great deal, too, particularly on a technical level.

Adding competition to aikido based on the theories of Jigoro Kano

Tomiki Sensei seems to have used the Waseda dojo as an kind of laboratory for the gradual development of competitive aikido…

He did, yes. But before the Waseda Athletic Department agreed to make aikido part of their regular physical education program, they told him that "anything whose skills can’t be measured objectively isn’t considered suitable to become an official course." To which he immediately replied, "I can do that" and guaranteed that he would make it possible to measure aikido skill in a safe way. With that the university permitted the establishment of an aikido club. At that time at Waseda, for something to be recognized as a club, it had to be associated with a lecture course. So from the time aikido was recognized as an offical club in 1958, Tomiki Sensei was teaching it as a lecture course. Up until then he had to teach it as "judo exercises" (judo taiso), even though what he was doing was aikido.

Tomiki Sensei’s research into competitive aikido actually went further back than his association with Waseda. Before heading off to Manchuria, he went to visit Jigoro Kano Sensei. Kano said to him, "Tomiki, the kinds of things you’re doing at Ueshiba’s place will be needed from now on, but the problem is finding ways to have people do them." To which Tomiki Sensei says he boldly replied, "With your theories, Sensei, I don’t think it will be impossible at all." That conversation may have marked the real start of his research into competitive aikido. With the integration of judo theory, he felt, there was no reason match training couldn’t be introduced to aikido. I think he felt that unless he finished the parts that Kano Sensei had left [undone], the whole of jujutsu would not ever be completely modernized. Kano Sensei, in his development of jujutsu into a competitive sport, did not modernize the whole of jujutsu; some things he simply removed, including quite a few joint-locking and striking techniques, and I think Tomiki Sensei felt that by working these back into a competitive format based on Kano Sensei’s ideas, he could help complete the modernization of jujutsu. Kano Sensei’s comments, too, suggest that he himself viewed judo in that broader sense.

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