The following interview was conducted on May 5, 2002 at Aiki Expo 2002 in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.
Clint George, 6th dan, Last Chance Aikido Dojo,
Ikuko Kimura: When did you first start aikido?
Clint George: In 1972, in California.
Was Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei your first teacher?
No, it was Steve Gray who taught a kids’ class. He was one of the students of Bob Frager. At that time the teachers in California, Frank Doran, Bob Frager, Stanley Pranin, Steve Gray and other instructors all over the San Francisco Bay Area were my first teachers. My main dojo was Santa Cruz.
When did you go to Japan for the first time?
In 1978. Hikitsuchi Sensei had made two trips to the USA before I went to Japan. One was to California in 1974, and another was an All-American tour in 1978. Shortly after his second trip I went to Shingu. I went there directly.
I have never been there. Is it a nice place?
Oh, yes. It’s on the coast. There are very beautiful mountains. The Kumano region is a very religious, spiritual place. The only inconvenience is the transportation. It’s a long way to Nagoya or Osaka. Either way takes four hours.
Then, you stayed in Wakayama for fifteen years?
Were you doing any work?
The usual English tutoring, but not for a company or a factory or anything like that.
Then you were practicing aikido there.
Are you the one who stayed longest with Hikitsuchi Sensei?
At that time I was the longest one but someone there may be catching up to me or have already passed me. But I think it was a pretty good record for one time.
How old was Hikitsuchi Sensei when you started practicing with him?
Let’s see. He is around the age of eighty now. He must have been fifty then.
How is he now?
Well, recently, it’s been tough for him healthwise, but when I went back to see him two years ago, he was very fine.
Was he teaching classes?
Yes. He has his good and bad days.
He also teaches the sword?
Yes. I remember one time at the demonstration in Yamaguchi-ken. They have spring and fall festivals there and every year Sensei would go down all the way to Yamaguchi-ken to perform an aikido demonstration at the festival. Many times I accompanied him down and I was able to take some ukemi in his demonstrations. One time before one of his demonstrations he called us and showed us some basic iaido, and for Okiyome before the aikido demonstration. We did the first basic set of iaido. That was my first basic start in iaido. It was not total, and I continued to study by myself.
Does Hikitsuchi Sensei speak English?
Some words and phrases.
Did Hikitsuchi Sensei often make trips to USA or just first two times?
He came twice to the USA and he has been to Europe many times.
What made you decide to go to Japan?
Many people in the California area made trips to Shingu. Some stayed for a long time and some for a short time. I saw the difference. Knowing the person before going to Shingu and seeing the person after coming back from there, I thought, “This is something very important. There is something fundamental there. I want to do that.”
What was the difference?
They had depth, sharpness and intensity not only in their techniques, but also in their spirit. There was something reflexive, sharp yet subtle, and there was also intensity. It’s hard to find words for that, but definitely some transformation was taking place. Training at Shingu does something to the deep part of you. I always thought that.
What do you think is the reason for that transformation?
First of all, I think it is because of Hikitsuchi Sensei’s deep understanding of aikido in its spiritual aspects. Sometimes he was very severe and would scold you. It’s a paradox of severity with kindness underneath. I always felt something at a deep level and it attracted me.
Were you there as uchideshi?
Michio Hikitsuchi, 1988
Technically, I was not an uchideshi. I had a cultural visa to study aikido, but I had an apartment and taught English during the day. If I had had a good economical situation, being an uchideshi would have been ideal.
Was Hikitsuchi Sensei taking uchideshi at that time?
From time to time there have been uchideshi. There was a more established system in the old days. Many people would come for gasshuku during the summer. In more recent years they have not. I think things are changing again. I think it goes in cycles. When I was there last time I saw some people I had not seen for a long time. They are back on the mat now. I think the dojo is doing very well.
So, many people stay there for a long time to study aikido?
It varies from person to person. Some people stay there just for a few days or weeks, or every once in a while, and some people, for six months or one year. Fifteen years was very long.
Were you thinking of staying in Japan forever?
There was probably a time when I thought about coming back to the States, but I had not had enough of Japan. I was there just for a few short years and I wanted a longer stay. Immigration was also giving me some problems. They said they just could not keep renewing my visa forever. So I actually got a final extension stamp on my passport one time and it shocked me. There was part of me thinking that there would be the time I would come back to the States. I think it worked out pretty well anyway. Now I am established here and have a family. If my situation improves, I want to be able to make more trips to Shingu, maybe bringing a group of people back and forth and getting more connection. I am not a good letter writer so a lot of time passes between the letters.
Do you write in Japanese?
You studied Japanese a lot, I guess.
Yes. Learning and forgetting, learning and forgetting, especially kanji. I am dedicating myself to learn more.
Are you teaching aikido now?
Yes, in Montana.
How long have you been doing it?
I moved back to the States and, after a brief stop in California, I went to Helena in the fall of 1993. So this is the ninth year now.
Do you like it?
Yes. I like Helena. I like Montana. I am a native Californian but I like Montana. It took me actually about two years to feel comfortable in the States after I came back from Japan. I was more Japanese than American, I think. I had Japanese mono-rhythm and Japanese body language. It was hard for me to think in English. People did not understand me. My body language was different and I would not look at them when I spoke. Now I am more American, but if you had seen me when I first came back from Japan, you would have said, “You have been in Japan!”
Have you gone back to visit Japan after leaving?
I went back two years ago for just a brief stay, a couple of weeks. I am going to make another trip to Shingu if time and money allow. My finances are starting to turn around and my dojo situation is building up, so I think I can make a little bit longer trips and really reconnect. Staying a couple of weeks is just going in and right back out. I am looking forward to making stronger connections.
After you stayed with Hikitsuchi Sensei that long, did he let you go easily?
He said, “You need more. You need to stay longer.” (laughter) I think he wanted me to stay forever. I think from Sensei’s perspective I was not ready yet because there were still things I needed to learn and he wanted me to know. Now I am realizing things. When I wake up, I think, “Ah, that’s what it meant. I was off the track at that time!” Now the lessons are coming back on a different level, and I think, “Oh, I should have understood this.” So I am still learning. In that sense there is still a very strong connection. I always speak of Hikitsuchi Sensei during the class, “Hikitsuchi Sensei said this or that…” Maybe I am understanding very slowly, but reflecting back is a very good thing. I say in the class, “I am not a teacher talking down to you. I am sharing my training with you and I am learning from you as I am leading the class. This is what I know at this time and later hopefully you will change it. If my aikido stays exactly the same after years and years, it is not true aikido.” I try to keep that in mind expressing the best I know at this moment. Hopefully, I can go beyond what I do now.
What do you emphasize most in the class?
Aikido needs to be brought up beyond the level of waiting and actually taking the lead and showing the way is important. In reality the battle is over at the instant of the attack. Also, it is important not to be overly conscious of one’s partner.
I try to talk about the center from which all is possible. At times when severity is needed, you can do that. At another time when it is not necessary, you can be soft. I call it “the center from which all is possible.” So it is the whole scale, severe time and soft time. I think some people who do aikido are attracted to the soft side and they are afraid of this severe side. And I see other people have difficult time doing the soft side because they are really tough. I try to be centered and go any way and touch all the elements. That’s one of my main focuses. Another focus is awareness. In Shingu, having the ability to be aware of suki (opening) is very important and also the ability not to wait for attacks.
You should not be looking at your partners because you will be drawn into them. Those points are also taught by other teachers, but Shingu emphasizes them very strongly, especially awareness. In every moment, there is no time for lapse.
When you say “awareness,” what do you mean?
Be here and now. There is just “now.” It should go without saying, but aikido needs to be practiced with as real an attack as possible. I also emphasize the role of uke and how important it is to be a good uke so you push your partner’s level up.
Maximum receptivity, more like mushin (lit., no-mind), but also mindfulness. From the state of conscious thoughts, you are maybe strong in one area, but you are weaker and unaware in other areas. The most important things are not technical details although techniques are important. Spirit is always emphasized. The idea that is expressed very strongly is that you need to become pure in mind and thought. Pure techniques will not come out as long as you are doing things only from your ideas. Hikitsuchi Sensei always said, “Kami no kokoro ni kaeranakya ikenai.” “Losing your small self and opening to the bigger Self,” and expressing “Appreciation”, “Kansha no kokoro.” It’s hard for people to hear those words and understand what they mean.
First I try to lead people through very fundamental physical techniques. Their techniques progress and then a need for understanding arises. You ask, “Where does my mind go?” There you get into trouble. So you use your partner who polishes your techniques and you have to study very mindfully what to do. Every fiber of your being and every part of yourself should be present doing what you are doing that moment. Everybody knows this, but it’s not easy to do. That’s a good place for a suki to appear. If you have a wandering thought, your partner sees a suki in you. It’s very clear. There is always a feeling of “Watch out here”. You have to guide your partner as a parent guides a child. You guide with love, but sometimes love seems very intense and severe.
Hikitsuchi Sensei always stressed that if mind, attitude and thoughts are pure, the technique will be clean. But if your mind is impure, even if you have a certain level of physical skill, your aikido is still not clean.
We don’t really know Hikitsuchi Sensei. Do you have any good episodes about him?
One time, not too long after I got there, Sensei was showing a particular sankyo variation. When his one hand had the fingertips of his partner and his other hand came this way to the ribs, I looked at it and thought, “That was pretty soft.” I thought that was a smooth movement of the hand, a soft atemi. I was young— twenty years old—and ready to do this kind of things, you know. Sensei said right in that moment, “Clint! Come here!” So I got out there and he took my fingers and lifted them, “Eih!”. The energy pierced through me and came in the side. He looked at me and said, “Wakattaka?” I said, “Yes. OK. I understand.”
Another example was a kind of similar thing. Sometimes in the morning, some people stayed after the class to train a little more. One time, after I changed clothes, Sensei came out and started lecturing. He wrote things on the board. There was another American there whose name was Mickey, Sensei started throwing Mickey around a little bit. I thought then, “Ah, I changed my clothes. Too bad! I want to take some ukemi, too.” Right when that thought came to my mind, Sensei motioned out to me and threw me. In my street clothes I was taking ukemi and coins were flying out of my pockets. Anyway, I had a thought, then Sensei caught it immediately. He knew it. So, my thoughts got challenged! (laughter ) But that’s good.
It is easy to feel overly pressed and even angry when scolded. Many times I found it difficult to take. Now I realize, from hindsight what those experiences were. I did not necessarily take them right at that time, but now I can see more. I had many experiences in Shingu that were incredibly vibrant, joyous, and awesome. Sensei, when his energy was on, was vibrant and could really pick things up. So, I really treasure those times when I could take ukemi for Sensei in many demonstrations and when I was able to sit around and hear different stories or lectures. Now I am thinking back and getting a better idea of their meaning. It is interesting to note all of the people who have been to Shingu and the different interpretations of their experiences there.
Is your dojo large big?
Helena is a small town. We have divided training into a kids’ class, beginning class and general class. Right now, in the kids’ class there are about 12 children constantly, even though the number goes up and down. In the beginning class there are 30-35 and about the same number in the general class. I teach all the classes.
Are you a full-time teacher?
Actually, I’m doing the same things I did in Japan. I am doing some tutoring in languages. I also go about four times a year to teach at Montana Law Enforcement Academy. It is not aikido I do there, but defensive training also known as “arrest and control tactics.” Although the techniques are based on aikido techniques it is not standard aikido. There are issues that regular aikido people do not have to deal with like wearing duty belts with guns, handcuffs, batons, pepper spray, etc. and the need to search people for weapons, drugs, and make arrests.
It has been educational for me to have that experience. I am lucky because my major area of interest is also my major area of work. I always felt good about that. Some people have commented, “You are lucky to be able to do what you like,” but I said, “I chose to do this. It was not just luck. I decided to do this and made efforts, too.”
What do you think of this Aiki Expo?
It’s quite an undertaking. Unfortunately, there is now some separation and politicization in the aikido world. We should do our best to bring people and arts into more harmony. Hikitsuchi Sensei stressed that we should remember what Ueshiba Sensei laid out for us. We should not get caught up in a small world and become isolated and get hardened in what we do. We should get out of the pattern. This Expo is quite an awesome event! A lot of people are getting together and I hope it produces more communication.
Thank you very much.
Contact: Last Chance Aikido Dojo