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Interview with Kenji Tomiki (1)

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #43 (December 1981)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of James Day.

Kenji Tomiki Sensei (1900-1979)

This interview with Professor Kenji Tomiki was conducted on January 4, 1974 at Waseda University in Tokyo. The interview is presented in two parts with the second installment to appear in the next issue of Aiki News.

Editor: Sensei, would you be kind enough to tell us about your first involvement in the study of martial arts?

Tomiki: I first began to practice judo when I was about 10 years old. Later when I was to enter the university, I came up to Tokyo. But it wasn’t until I became one of the key officers of the university judo club that I was first able to get to know Jigoro Kano Sensei, the founder of Kodokan judo. It was in 1920 that I first met him directly. Kano Sensei was born at the end of the Edo Period in 1860 and died at the age of 79 in 1938, so he was of the same generation as Ueshiba Sensei’s teacher, Sokaku Takeda Sensei. Kano Sensei founded the Kodokan in 1882 so he was about 24 or 25 at that time.

You mentioned Sokaku Takeda? Could you elaborate? I know that Sokaku Takeda was taught Daito-ryu Jujutsu and he was one of Ueshiba Sensei’s first teachers; and then I know that afterwards several times in the late 19 teens and early twenties, Takeda Sensei returned and spent some time with Ueshiba Sensei. Sensei, did you have any contact with Takeda and Ueshiba at that time?

This would be a good moment for me to talk about the history of Sokaku Takeda Sensei. Just before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan’s domestic political scene was divided into two factions. The Imperial forces on the one hand, and the old Tokugawa government on the other. Eventually, the Emperor’s side was victorious and we have heard the famous story of that group of 15- and 16-year olds called the Byakko Tai (the White Tiger Brigade of Aizu Han in Wakamatsu who committed “seppuku”) at that time since they had supported the defeated Tokugawa forces. Had young Takeda Sokaku, then 9 years old, been 5 years older he too would have had to commit ritual suicide along with the others from his fief.

Anyway, he had been practicing Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, an art which had long been handed down in the Aizu Han (fief), and Takeda had studied from the time he was a child. Moreover, at that time swords were popular and he had learned kenjutsu (combative swordsmanship) as well. As the feudal period was drawing to a close he had been the uchideshi (live-in student) of one of the most famous masters of kenjutsu of that period. In the old days people hid their techniques behind the closed doors of their own households and it wasn’t until 1898 that some were first revealed to the public. And, by any standards, the northeastern region of the country was particularly rich in them. On top of that, the area had an abundance of people at the instructor level and also lots of wealthy people, so a teacher would often go some place and stay with some rich sponsor for two weeks or a month at a time and teach. Around 1907 the then Akita Prefectural police chief was transferred to the northern island of Hokkaido and Takeda Sensei was among his entourage. They went to Abashiri, a place very far to the north.

Here is where Ueshiba Sensei comes in. He had come from the southern province of Wakayama (then called Kishu), Tanabe City to be exact, and had gone up to Shirataki village in Hokkaido as a pioneer settler in 1911.

It may be only a digression but there is a certain person who studied longer under Takeda Sensei than Ueshiba Sensei. He is Mr. Kodo Horikawa, now 80 and very old.

Ueshiba Sensei, like Kano Sensei, had learned the Kito-ryu jujutsu sytem. He also loved Sumo wrestling. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 he was called up but because of his size was never put into battle. His body may have been small, but he had splendid talent; no mistake about it. Even in a group of many deshi he stood out unmistakably.

In 1919, Ueshiba Sensei’s father became gravely ill back at their home in Wakayama, to the point of being on his death bed. As soon as Ueshiba Sensei received the news he took a train back toward home but while on the way he heard of the religious leader Onisaburo Deguchi and so detoured to the Omoto religion’s headquarters and then from there made his way back to Wakayama. It seems, however, that his father had already breathed his last. At that time, he then returned to Ayabe where the Omoto religion of Deguchi was centered. Today they have big establishments in both Ayabe and Kameoka.

Anyway, this man called Deguchi Sensei was a man of burning faith; his life was a religious pilgrimage. He had tried the Kurozumi Religion and Konkokyo, but in the end he settled on Omotokyo.

May I ask a question here? This is a very interesting point. In 1968 or 1969 a book was published called “aikido Kaiso, Morihei Ueshiba” by Sunadomari Kanemotsu. Now, in that book a person gets a very religious perspective from the Omoto-kyo side and many aikido people have read the book and say, “Well, the book is not too accurate.” How much was Ueshiba really influenced by Omotokyo? How much did he borrow from the religion? How much did he create by himself?

Though I can’t really say how much he developed from the side of technique, I guess we can say there was a great change based on a “change of heart” (kokoro no tenkan). And that is where we find the relationship between the character of Sokaku Takeda Sensei and Ueshiba Sensei. This Takeda Sensei was a martial artist in the old sense: when he saw a person he saw an enemy. If I were to try to give an example I would tell you that if a person happened to come visit him he would “greet” them by instantly grabbing the steel chopsticks from the brazier and shouting, “Who is there?” He would storm out to the entry hall. He was like someone from the “Age of the Warring Countries” (Sengoku Jidai, 1482-1558), who saw his seven proverbial “enemies” in every group of people. He was a man of deep distrust, whose personality never revealed the slightest suki, or vulnerable point. If you happened to ask even a small question he would bellow, “Dare you doubt my technique, kid!” That’s how violent his temperament was! Since he was like that, it’s not surprising that Ueshiba Sensei was ill-treated by him. So I think that entering a particular faith was a psychological reinforcement for him.

Ueshiba Sensei often said, “Budo is Love”. This is one of those “changes of heart”.

After all, though, budo concerns itself with life and death situations in which the main question is will one get out alive. It was for the sake of confronting techniques that delve into this area that not only Ueshiba Sensei, but also a number of other great people in the past exposed their bodies to danger. But, on the contrary, the more they try to enter this world of danger of violence, they end up going in a direction that contradicts it all. By placing themselves into the realm of life and death they find that they are confronted again with a deep delving into the problem of death. They find they have embarked upon a spiritual or religious path.

All religions whether Christianity, Buddhism, or what have you, seem to concern themselves with the question of the preciousness of human life. From this they try to construct a sense of confidence in the face of this one death that each of us must experience. For this same reason, when we speak of budo, it is an extreme thing. It is extreme and so if you can penetrate technique through whole-hearted devotion, it all changes. It becomes religious. This type of person, for example, includes Musashi Miyamoto and Ittosai Ito. In their last years they cast off everything and travelled from fief to fief. They all entered that spiritual ground.

The famous Kaishu Katsu was a student of Kenzai Shimada. During the struggle for control of the country in early Meiji times Katsu Kaishu and Tesshu Yamaoka of Jiki Shinkage-ryu of swordsmanship negotiated the transfer of Edo castle to Imperial forces without a struggle and thereby saved the one million inhabitants of Tokyo from a disastrous battle. This story is extremely interesting. It shows that the true spirit of budo is to help people, to save lives.

In the meaning of the term “Budo of Peace” (wa no budo) there enters the power of religion.

In this respect I’d like to continue our discussion by bringing in the modernization that Kano Sensei made and its relationship to our present discussion. This is, after all, the same route or course as Ueshiba Sensei’s becoming a believer in Omotokyo and resolving the problem of “the peace of Japanese Budo” through spiritual means. There were several budoka like this throughout history. For the Meiji period though, I think that the emergence of a man of the level of Ueshiba Sensei was truly the exception to the rule. This means that it is significant that in those violent, warlike times before Meiji such a man didn’t appear. This was not, however, a problem of technique but rather a matter of a certain “youth revolution”. The concept of “ken and Zen” and their extremely intimate relationship must have a long history. With expressions like “The unity of the sword and zen (ken zen isshin) the relationship of the sword and zen has been discussed endlessly by those who philosophize on the budo of Japan. It is extremely difficult to explain such a thing theoretically, isn’t it? In relationship to this problem I’d like you to read Daisetsu Suzuki book Zen and Japanese Culture. Suzuki Sensei was an expert of English as well, so…

Well, with that, I’d like to talk now about Kano Sensei. Kano Sensei was a member of the second graduating class of the school that is now Tokyo University, well-known as the top education institution in the country and thus attracting all the best talent. He came to Tokyo at the age of 14 and diligently studied English. At that time Japan had just cast off the Edo period’s 1603-1868 isolationistic national policy and was clearly trailing western nations. The government recognized that it was necessary to quickly strengthen the country and to learn modern science, so famous professors from America, France, Germany, and other countries were invited to lecture on their specialties, not in Japanese as is done today, but in their own languages. For this reason, students from that early period of Meiji were able to speak all three of these major languages.

At that time the person who most influenced Kano Sensei was the American from Harvard University, Professor Fenellosa. He was a man whose influence was widely felt through the whole of Japanese culture. Though a lecturer in economics he also had a deep knowledge of art and esthetics. Well, a certain student in the first class at Tokyo University, the famous Tenshin Okakura, you may have heard of him, was Professor Fenellosa’s great “pet”; he was outstanding in foreign languages, you see. Later, he worked for the Ministry of Education in relation to fine arts education and eventually he came to be the man who founded the institution that grew into the present Tokyo Fine Arts University. At that time, however, western things were held in much higher esteem and were judged to be of more value than anything Japanese. It was simply the tenor of times. Fenellosa, on the other hand, continually said that there were also outstanding arts in the oriental tradition. He bemoaned to his student in the strongest terms the sad loss of the good points of their oriental culture and the best of its spiritual traditions, a trend that was in full swing at the time. Then, too, with the abolition of the samurai system and the consequent loss of jobs, many former bushi were unable to feed themselves.

Thus, Kano Sensei, while a student at Tokyo University, scoured the entire city in search of jujutsu teachers. He found the Tenjinb Shinyo-ryu teacher, Fukuda Sensei, and Iikubo Sensei of the Kito-ryu, and during his student years he studied these two traditions. After graduation he founded the Kodokan. Thought he certainly modernized the jujutsu technique, in keeping with the tempo of the times, the evaluation of their worth as arts was also altered. If you wonder how it has changed, it was because in the past their main point was actual practical application, whether it was a question of a fight between two individuals or two warring countries. Now, however, training is not for the sake of fighting but rather in order to get to know one another better, to become friends, you could even call it the “Coubertin principle.”

In the old days, France and England used sporting events as a means of strengthening their own armies, by training the minds and bodies of their youth. It was Coubertin who tipped this upside down by putting forth the concept of the Olympic Spirit.

The traditional spirit of the Japanese martial arts was to win by whatever means, to avoid defeat even at the cost of your life. If one lost, it was the cause of lasting bitterness, and even your children would carry on the escalating feud. Now, what kind of world do you supposed that produced? It was really the cause of a violent society, and this was not unique to Japan; I think it’s a description that could fit almost any country.

It was Coubertin who reversed these tendencies for the sake of peace. At any rate, there was no fighting in this new way, and it became possible to strive mutually to increasingly improve. It was based on a concept such as this that Kano Sensei modernized the jujutsu of old.

What I’m trying to say is this. In the old days, each master (person) would decide on his own, “I’m good at throwing”, or “My kicking is outstanding,” or I have a great short sword technique.” Then based on this subjective judgement he would set up his own style in a formalized tradition (ryuha). In the case of the “modernization” that took place, the sword was taken out of jujutsu, and likewise, swordwork excluded jujutsu. The arts were divided into specific fields based on the type of technique. An old time practitioner of Ninjutsu, the Art of Stealth, thought only of the real life application. He would do anything he had to do in order to win. This was, of course, because they used technique for the purpose of war, and from that point of view you had to be able to cope with a long engagement distance or a short one, you could jump, do anything necessary. But if we move up to the present we don’t think about such realistic applications. Through our training we forge our spirits (kokoro) and bodies, and so doing we concern ourselves with being useful in more peaceful pursuits. This is the modern way of thinking, and it is so precisely because it is not warlike.

In modern Kendo, the techniques are simple, you see, There are only the thrust and the cut, nothing more. Though in judo we may strangle the neck, twist the arm joints, or throw someone down, we have many things. Still in the same way that I have just broken it down, when Kano Sensei set about to modernize he singled out the aspect of combat that occurs after the opponents have closed and updated those methods. Classical jujutsu, you see, included movements to deal with the situations before the outbreak of grappling. The person who was most knowledgeable regarding these pre-grappling movements and responses was Ueshiba Sensei.

Here, again, I can point out this problem as an example. If I take a hand, I can twist it this way or I can reverse it this way. There are only these two possibilities, right? But in the classical arts one teacher would call the reverse movement the “Konoha gaeshi” (tree-leaf reverse) while some other teacher might say “kotegaeshi.” Even though the technical content is the same, the name is completely different. On top of it all, they would hide this fact and we end up being unable to understand any of it.

I think of modernization as meaning that this sort of problem is brought out into public, look at it anatomically and say, “Now, to twist this joint in this way is a kotehineri(wrist-twist), while to turn it back this is a kotegaeshi (wrist-reverse). Then, whenever it occurs we know what it is even without knowing the ryu from which it came and we have a name that none of the old traditions can contest. This is modern.

In sports we make nature our adversary and so build up our ki ryoku, our “spirit-power.” We say to ourselves, “Can we run 100 meters in 10 or 11 seconds?” Thus we challenge nature and objectify our own physical ability. Don’t you think that this is a wonderful thing? Conversely, in a fight we cannot afford to be only aware of ourselves, we also must sense our adversary. Take a koshinage for example. We have to repeat it over and over so as to be able to remember.

In the kata, or prearranged training forms, if they are done in a one-sided fashion the partner is just a dummy, a kind of robot we work with. Take this technique to a real life situation, however, we find that our partner resists, or escapes from our efforts and generally things don’t go as we expect. That’s where things get extremely difficult. Bujutsu, unlike sports, is based on a certain specific relationship between ourselves and others; that is to say, the fight between 2 different people. As such we have a highly dangerous situation.

I like to divide bujutsu up into three fields. The first is violence. Here we willfully try to injure our adversary by every physical means at hand. The old “eye for an eye,” “tooth for a tooth” mentality. In the end, someone gets killed. In the second, although we don’t take life, we forcefully break an arm or disable our adversary. On the contrary, case three calls for there being no injury at all. It is this method that overcomes only the violence. These three make up a very broad or general breakdown. Obviously, the best way is controlling violence without causing injury and this is ideal budo. It is the bujutsu that doesn’t kill, the sword that causes no death.

The idea that if he cuts me I’ll cut him is a very animal-like way of thinking, isn’t it? But the way of doing it that is the most human, and human with a good conscience, it is the way which controls violence but doesn’t cause injury. I personally think that the fact O-Sensei had opened to him such an enlightenment is a thing of great meaningfulness.

Looking at the history of bujutsu we see that from around the Edo period 1603-1868, there was a shift away from the swordsmanship of the battlefield toward emphasizing educational issues. They came to be arts. We are speaking about philosophy now, but the trend was to have a definite theory and, or by which, they trained bujutsu. We should not injure nor should we be injured. The Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, for one, included this type of mental approach or attitude.

(Continued next issue)