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Seigo Yamaguchi: In memoriam

Aikido Journal #108 (1996)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of John Burn of the UK.

Seigo Yamaguchi - Bio-sketch

April 13, 1924 - born in Fukuoka Prefecture;

October 1943 -departed for the front in the Pacific War;

October 1945 - discharged from service;

1951 - began studying aikido under founder Morihei Ueshiba;

July 1958 - dispatched to teach aikido to the National Defense Forces in Burma;

July 1977 - went to teach aikido in Europe (primarily France) and thereafter taught every year in France (Paris), England (Oxford), and Germany (Manheim) until 1995

January 1992 - received a Distinguished Service Award for his efforts in budo from the Nihon Budo Kyogikai

January 1994 - awarded 9th Dan

January 24, 1996 - died


Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba

[Doshu read the following eulogy at Yamaguchi Sensei’s funeral]

Yamaguchi Shihan, when I first learned that you had left us, I felt a chill wind sweep through my heart. For a moment all was blank and I trembled deep inside.

The relationship between you and me goes all the way back to 1951. That was the year in which, through your association with Nyoichi Sakurazawa Sensei (known in the West as Georges Ohsawa of Macrobiotic fame), you came to knock at the gate of aikido and began your training under founder Morihei Ueshiba. For over forty years since then you and I have trodden the same path together, training diligently and never resting even for a day.

In 195I Japan was a defeated nation still struggling to wake from a terrible nightmare. Young people had lost much of their vision of the future and their days were filled searching this way and that in hopes of finding a new direction. In the boundless spirit of aikido and the expressive medium of martial arts we saw a bright ray of hope for the future and, seizing it, we vied together and stimulated one another to grow.

There is something resonant in the philosophy of aikido that has led ever-increasing numbers of people to explore it – over a million and a half at present, it is said. These people seek not only to experience the martial technique of aikido, but also to apply its true essence in everyday life, a trend that grows stronger as we move into the new century.

Looking back to when we entrusted our dreams to aikido, I cannot help but feel how far we have come. During that early period, when it was still very difficult to go abroad, you were the pioneer who went to Burma to teach, taking the opportunity to bring aikido out of Japan to manifest its potential in the world. It is well known how hard you worked toward the development of aikido.

Both you and I had strong personalities, yet strangely enough we always ended up seeing eye-to-eye, and our interaction was always cool and composed. Looking back, it occurs to me how fortunate that was. The one point that brought us together, I am sure, was the love of aikido that we shared.

As a fellow traveller along the path of aikido, my long association with you has left a permanent mark on my heart and mind. Your sudden departure represents a turning point in my life and will have a great effect on me.

Happily, your wife Teiko remains in good health, and I have no doubt that your son Tetsu will carry on your spirit and strive to the utmost to realize your ideals. I know, too, that you will be keeping watch over them from heaven.

At the kagami-biraki ceremony this last New Year’s, you told me that my dedication demonstration seemed very natural, very myself and lacking in pretention. It was while this lovely comment was still vivid in my mind that suddenly you were gone, and I will treasure those words.

On behalf of those million and a half people now involved in aikido, I mourn for you from the bottom of my heart. Seigo Yamaguchi Shihan, may your spirit dwell in eternal peace.

January 29, 1996

To Yamaguchi Sensei, who made me want to train in aikido by Seishiro Endo, Aikikai Shihan

Yamaguchi Sensei loved his coffee and tobacco. In his later years he managed to stay away from the coffee well enough, but he was just too fond of the tobacco. He also loved to talk, which he could do for four or five hours at a stretch. Given his quick mind and strict position and views on aikido, I think there were many people who were at their wit’s end with his conversation and simply avoided going with him to his favorite coffee shops. That’s the kind of teacher he was, but for my part, whenever I could spare the time, I always went with him.

Back in my university days I was training under all the teachers at the Hombu Dojo. I knew that they were all very powerful, but I had no way to judge marvelous technique when I encountered it, so I didn’t notice anything special about Yamaguchi Sensei’s training. I listened to all the teachers’ instructions and explanations, but I never thought particularly deeply about them, and I continued to barrel my way through each practice, relying on strength and generally training in my own self-indulgent way.

After about ten years, however, I began to have doubts about my way of training. It also happened that I injured my right shoulder so badly that I couldn’t even get on the mat. One day I happened to meet Yamaguchi Sensei in a coffee shop. He said something to me that turned my aikido around 180 degrees: “You’ve been doing aikido for ten years now, but now you have only your left arm to use, what are you going to do?”

His words had an impact on me, and from then on I made a point of attending his 5:30-6:30 training every Monday. I hardly went to any of the other teachers’ classes. After training under him for a while, I began to realize that there was indeed something different about his technique. My doubts and uncertainties about my own aikido began to dissolve as I realized that I had discovered a new direction.

About this new direction, Yamaguchi Sensei told me, “Even if you don’t understand it, just take my word for it and give it ten years or so…” Ten years seemed a disappointingly long time, but his words also gave me something to hope for. In any case it was an opportunity to make a new start in my training.

During practice, Yamaguchi Sensei would often have me take ukemi for him, while he gave various bits of advice and instruction. This instruction was not meant for me alone, of course, but the specific content of what he said and the way he said it seemed to be tailored for my benefit. As I took ukemi for him, I would do my best to feel what was happening and later I would try to recreate that same feeling in my own practice:

“Go ahead and give your partner your arm and do your technique.”

“Training that relies on muscle dulls the senses and prevents sharp technique.”

“Don’t pin your partner using strength.”

“Even if you don’t understand, just have faith and do it for ten years or so.”

“Focus your strength in your lower abdomen and take it out of your upper body.”

“The more your ki gathers, the more you have to release the strength from your upper body.”

“Techniques must always be concrete.”

“A person who hasn’t developed a degree of competence by their thirties will not progress any further.”

I guess there’s really not much point in listing all the things that Yamaguchi Sensei said, but my eyes used to shine when he turned his enthusiastic talk in my direction, and I used to prick up my ears and listen, trying hard not to miss a single word; 1 could hardly wait until the next practice.

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