In My Own Way: Early days as an uchideshi in the Yoshinkan
by David Lynch
Aikido Journal #103 (1995)
The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Kathryn Hathaway.
It is somewhat embarrassing, after thirty years of aikido, not to have anything truly profound to offer. It would be nice to be able to demonstrate some powerful insight into the human condition arising from my eighteen years in Japan under the tutelage of masters like Gozo Shioda, Koichi Tohei and Kisshomaru Ueshiba, to name-drop but a few.
That I cannot do so is not the fault of my various sensei, any more than it is them I should blame for my average level of technical skill, notwithstanding the accumulation of dan grades from the Yoshinkan, Aikikai, Ki no Kenkyukai, and Tendokan.
I guess my experience is sufficiently unusual, however, for the editor to invite me to write an article or two and I shall be glad if, in doing so, I am able to help anyone else along the Way.
Taking a line through my various sensei, it is impossible to avoid major contradictions in the philosophical bases upon which their different organizations have been built, in the training systems, and even in the aikido techniques themselves. Human life is a complex thing and differences between people can be vast, so perhaps it would be strange for different teachers and organizations not to develop different approaches. What I found difficult initially, though, was the fact that many of the sensei and their followers would insist that their system was right and the others were wrong. I admit I was quite demoralized at first when, shifting from one dojo to another, I was told that what I had been doing in the previous dojo was entirely wrong.
One can, of course, avoid this embarrassment by staying with one teacher or one system and blissfully ignoring the others and I probably would have done so had circumstances not obliged me to change. I now feel that one should view with suspicion any teaching that claims to be the only right one and promises to simplify everything and eliminate all contradictions. Apart from being struck by the obvious contradiction presented by the lack of harmony between different schools teaching the “Way of Harmony”, it became clear to me early on that blindly following any teacher, no matter how technically superior or spiritually advanced, ultimately would lead nowhere.
It is the same with the grading system. No matter how you set it up and police it you will not eliminate the conflict between people that is actually created by this artificial hierarchy. But I was certainly not in a position to question any of this during the eighteen months I spent as an uchideshi (live-in student) at the Yoshinkan in Tokyo in the early sixties. The training was hard in every sense of the word but I enjoyed the comradeship and the single-minded approach to life, despite periods of culture shock and a nagging feeling that I could have been doing something more creative with my life. For a Yoshinkan uchideshi in those days there was little time to ponder such questions, as we were up very early every morning and had plenty of chores, like cleaning the toilets, sweeping the mats, and wiping clean every inch of dojo, to keep us occupied in between training sessions.
As I was the only uchideshi with a driving license, I had the task of collecting Shioda Sensei from his home and bringing him to the dojo, then taking him back home again at night. As chauffeur for Kancho (the title we normally used for the “head of the dojo”), I went to all kinds of places a foreigner would not normally get to, including police and military establishments where the Yoshinkan conducted classes. I would also drive him to various dinner parties held in traditional Japanese restaurants, and on one such occasion I picked up Ueshiba O-Sensei from his home and took him to a function with Kancho. I then waited outside the restaurant in the car till they were ready to go home again. The only other contact I had with O-Sensei that I can boast of was on the odd occasion when he would ring to speak to Kancho and I happened to answer the phone. I would hear a piping voice say, “It’s old Grandfather Ueshiba here, is young Shioda there?”. I did attend one of O-Sensei’s public demonstrations at the Hibiya Hall in Tokyo but I was in one of the back rows and cannot recall much of the event, apart from his famous “large glittering eyes”, though I do remember being puzzled by some of his “no touch” throws that were very different from the type of technique I had been sweating away at every day.
A number of O-Sensei anecdotes were passed on by Shioda Sensei, who spent nine years training under O-Sensei before the war, but most of these have probably been published already so I shall not repeat all of them. There was the one about the live-sword training sessions that O-Sensei conducted outdoors on dark nights, during which he wore a white headband (hachimaki) and invited Shioda and his fellow deshi to attack him full-tilt. Kancho said how frightening these sessions were. They would be able to vaguely see the white headband moving about in the dark, and would move in for an attack, only to have O-Sensei’s blade flash past their eyes or stop just short of their faces. I recently read a version of this in an American book in which the headband had become a blindfold! It makes one hesitate to repeat such stories for fear of creating another myth.
There was another good story in which a very strong and aggressive budo friend of Kancho had asked to meet O-Sensei. On arriving at the dojo this fellow bowed to O-Sensei, but O-Senei did not respond at all, remaining in a bolt-upright seiza position. The visitor, on the other hand, remained in the bowed down position for an abnormally long time, then sat up, muttered the words, “I’m beaten”, bowed deeply again, and immediately left the dojo. Shioda excused himself and hastily followed his friend up the road to find out what he was playing at. Apparently, the fellow had been determined to prove that O-Sensei was a fraud and had planned to leap at him and strike him on the back of the head as soon as he bowed. But when the bow did not materialize, he had the strongest feeling that he was in the presence of a real master who had left him absolutely no opening.
(The full article is available for subscribers.)