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Interview with Kazuo Chiba (1)

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #102 (1995)

As a young man of eighteen, Kazuo Chiba took one look at a photograph of Morihei Ueshiba in a book and knew that his search for a true master of budo had ended. Now 8th dan and chief instructor at the San Diego Aikikai, Chiba recounts episodes from his years as an uchideshi, and provides a detailed explanation of the concept of shu-ha-ri, as well as explaining his own view of the modern aikido world.

Aikido Journal: Sensei, I understand that you began martial arts with judo and later switched to aikido. Perhaps you could tell us about the way things were in those days?

T.K. Chiba Sensei

Kazuo Chiba: Well, I liked budo quite a bit, especially judo. One day I happened to find myself in a situation where I had to fight a match with one of my seniors who was a nidan. He was a fine person who had taught me quite a bit about judo ever since I first entered the dojo, and he had been good to me in matters outside the dojo as well. He had a small body but he did marvelous judo, and could throw larger opponents without using any power. He used a lot of taiotoshi (body drop) and yokosutemi (side sacrifice) throws of a caliber you don’t see much anymore. He was very fast, too.

He used to beat me all the time, but then, for some reason I won a match during a kachinuke shiai (match in which the judoka keeps fighting until he is beaten; he is then replaced by whoever beat him). He was mortified and said, “I can’t beat you in judo anymore, but I still have kendo!” (He was also a nidan in kendo.)

Then one night he showed up at my place and told me to come out because we were going to have a kendo match. Now, I had done judo and karate, but never kendo. I figured something would probably work out, so I went along and we found ourselves an empty lot. My sempai allowed me a handicap by letting me use a wooden bokken while he used only a bamboo shinai. He was so fast that I couldn’t even touch him, while his shinai smacked into my body again and again. I ended up taking quite a beating.

That experience became one of my first awakenings about budo. Disillusioned, I stopped going to the judo dojo, and I began to think about things. It occurred to me that even if I practiced judo as diligently as possible, established myself as a high-ranking judoka, and had confidence in my judo abilities, chances were that I could still be beaten by a shodan kendoka in a kendo match. By the same token, if some kendo teacher were to don a judo uniform and come to my judo dojo, I could probably beat him no matter how well-respected he was in the kendo world.

After thinking about that for a while I concluded that something was missing, and that some mistake must have been made; true budo must be something else. A budo practitioner, I thought, should be able to respond under any circumstances, whether using sword against sword, whatever. Such simple questions led me to begin thinking about the nature of true budo.

Since I had no idea how to find the kind of budo I was looking for, I stopped doing any sort of martial arts for about six months. I knew I needed to find a teacher who could give me the appropriate guidance.

Then one day in a bookstore I picked up a book about aikido. Inside there was a small photo of O-Sensei. When I saw it, I knew immediately that I had found my teacher. I knew nothing about the actual techniques of aikido, but that didn’t seem important and I just thought to myself, “This is it! This looks like a man who understands my concerns.” So I found my way to the place where Ueshiba Sensei was supposed to be to suggest (somewhat boldly since I had no invitation) that I wished, no matter what, to enroll as an uchideshi as soon as possible. That’s how I came to aikido.

How old were you then?

I had just graduated from high school, so I must have been 18. At the time O-Sensei was living in Iwama so he usually wasn’t at the Hombu Dojo. But I was prepared to sit in front of the dojo until I was allowed to become an uchideshi. So I did, waiting to talk to someone. It was the middle of February [1958], and it was cold. It seems the people in the Hombu Dojo thought I was some kind of crazy person. Three days later O-Sensei arrived from Iwama. Waka Sensei (the present Doshu, Kisshomaru) apparently informed him that there was a strange person hanging about and asked what should be done about it. O-Sensei said, “Bring him in,” so that’s how I was able to meet him. I sat in the hallway outside O-Sensei’s room and made a formal bow. When I raised my head and looked at him I thought to myself, “This is going to be all right.”

O-Sensei said, “Budo training is extremely demanding. Do you think you can handle it?” I replied that I was very sure I could and O-Sensei said, “Very well then.” It was a very simple meeting.

You then spent about seven years training as an uchideshi at the Hombu Dojo?

Yes, and there wasn’t a single day during that whole period that I considered “fun”—not at the time, anyway. Now I look back on the experience rather fondly, but at the time it was pure hardship! [laughter] Of course, it was something I had chosen in order to realize my goal, not something that I was forced to endure, so in that sense it was actually something of a luxury, despite the difficulty.

You must have some interesting stories about your experiences as an uchideshi….

O-Sensei was still in good health when I entered the dojo. Over the seven years I was there I saw his techniques change rapidly. After about a year I had gained enough command of the basics that I was allowed to take ukemi for him.

Training with O-Sensei was really rough! I regularly had the skin scraped off my elbows when we practiced iriminage and the sleeves of my uniform were always caked with blood. O-Sensei’s techniques were so fast I could hardly take the ukemi. Even worse than taking the ukemi was that even when he threw you really hard you had to get right back on your feet and you weren’t allowed to take your eyes off him. You could feel it at the base of your neck when he sent you flying two meters across the mat. His sword was also extraordinarily fast.

How would you describe O-Sensei’s “energy?”

It was like being pressed by some sort of invisible force. O-Sensei used to tell us to strike at him with a bokken at any time. Whenever he stopped and turned to speak to his audience seemed like a good chance to do so, since he wasn’t looking our way at all, but even then nobody tried to strike him. He simply had no openings. He wasn’t looking at us with his eyes, but we could feel him holding us fast with his ki. It used to make me break out in an oily sweat, so that I could hardly keep a grip on my bokken.

Still, as his opponents we would keep at it, gradually trying to close the distance. Then, for an instant, an opening would appear. O-Sensei created small openings deliberately to help us train our powers of perception. He wouldn’t use people who couldn’t demonstrate an ability to perceive such openings.

The instant O-Sensei slightly relaxed the intensity of his kokyu power we would rush in with an attack, but he was already gone. For that reason it looked pre-arranged. Actually, O-Sensei was already moving by the time we began our attack. We were just too slow or lacked the ability to perceive it. I find that sort of thing extremely interesting.

O-Sensei said that true budo should be executed so skillfully that it looks prearranged. He said it’s not budo if you begin your movement only after the strike is in motion. It’s only the real thing if it looks set up to outside observers.

Did O-Sensei teach the uchideshi differently from the students in the general classes?

The content of the training was exactly the same, but we uchideshi were also told explicitly that we were not to train in the same way as the regular students. Our training had to be much harder and more intense, not soft and easy. O-Sensei was very strict about that.

The uchideshi rarely received any kind of special technical instruction. Rather, the most intense part of our training was interacting with O-Sensei in every aspect of his daily life—serving as his personal assistant, accompanying him when he traveled, preparing his meals and bath, massaging his back, reading to him, and things like that. People who have never been an uchideshi may have difficulty understanding the significance of this daily contact.

Please tell us more about that.

We used to accompany O-Sensei when he traveled to places like Osaka and Wakayama, expeditions which usually lasted about a week. Loaded down with O-Sensei’s luggage as well as our own, with bokken and jo strapped across our backs, we would hail a taxi to Tokyo Station. When we got there O-Sensei would immediately jump out of the cab and disappear inside, leaving us to take care of buying the train tickets and other details. We had to chase after him as he cut straight through the congested station, the crowds of people seeming to part before him as he moved.

Whenever there was a staircase to be climbed we would push O-Sensei up from behind, and going down again we positioned ourselves a step lower to offer a shoulder for him to hold on to. Eventually we would make it onto the train. Occasionally there were uchideshi who couldn’t keep up, but O-Sensei would just get on the train and leave anyway, so everyone had to do everything possible to keep up with him and get on the train with the group.

Most of the inns we stayed at had some arrangement consisting of two rooms and a toilet. O-Sensei slept in the far room and the uchideshi crammed into the other. Now, at his age O-Sensei usually got up five or six times during the night to visit the toilet and we had to assist him. I couldn’t sleep at all for the first two or three years, because I could never tell when he was going to get up.

When he got up we would open the door and help him into his haori ( a loose jacket somewhat longer in the front, reaching to somewhere between the hip and the knee), then escort him to the toilet, open the toilet door, and switch on the light. Afterwards we helped him wash and dry his hands, then got him back into bed and returned to our own room. Obviously you can’t get much sleep with that happening five or six times a night. Everyone would lose eight or nine pounds during the week and we were pretty ragged by the time we got home.

The interesting thing is that after about four years I was able to sleep soundly. Somehow I would sense it in my sleep whenever O-Sensei needed to get up to use the toilet. I would wake up, jump out of bed, slide open the door and there he was! Perfect timing, you know? A sort of wordless communication had developed. In Japanese we say ishin denshin, which means something like “communication as if two people had the same mind.”

This is the sort of training that allows you to sense the intention of your partner on the mat. When you and your partner face off holding swords, for example, the important thing is not who is stronger and who is weaker, but rather how clearly you can grasp the other’s intention. To be able to move at the right time you have to be able to see the openings when they appear.

I don’t know whether this sort of training was intentional on O-Sensei’s part, but in any case it did influence my technique in the sense that I became able to act in response to the movement of my partner’s ki and the timing of his movement before I had even thought about it. Of course I can’t do that all the time…. I wish I could, then I’d really be an expert, wouldn’t I? [laughter]

What do you think is the most important thing for people who are just beginning aikido?

People seek so many different things in aikido that it’s difficult to generalize. When I was an uchideshi there were many fewer people training at the Hombu Dojo, but nearly all of them were seeking so-called “real aikido.” Quite a few of the students were eccentric or unsual in one way or another, among them people whom we might consider “budo-fanatics.” It was a fairly odd group.

These days there is more diversity. Some people do it for health, others for the philosophical or spiritual aspects—all of these are good.

The important issue today, however, is that if you think of aikido as a tree, it has to be made very clear who is going to take the role of the leaves and branches and who is going to take the role of the roots and trunk. As long as there are people taking the roles of roots and trunk then the tree remains solid and healthy, and branches and leaves will appear. Then there’s nothing to worry about. People should keep this in mind and avoid insisting that aikido shouldn’t be the way it is now. Leaves are leaves and branches are branches, and these are fine in and of themselves. They’re parts of the tree. The question is who is going to take responsibility for maintaining the roots and the trunk?

In principle I think there is no old or new in budo. We have the word “kobudo,” which literally means “old budo.” It’s logical opposite would be “shinbudo,” or “new budo,” but we don’t actually use such a word in Japanese, do we? The modern trend is for new budo to become sport-oriented. It’s probably okay to call these sports “new forms of budo,” but in the traditional way of thinking sports really don’t qualify as budo.

It’s very difficult to say to what extent these things are to be considered budo. But to my way of thinking, there is no doubt that budo is what forms the roots of aikido. The branches and leaves grow out of that. All the other elements—aikido as “an art of living,” as a means to better health, as calisthenics or a physical aesthetic pursuit—all of these stem from a common root, which is budo. That they do so is perfectly fine, but the point is that they’re not the root themselves. O-Sensei always stressed that “Aikido is budo” and “Budo is aikido’s source of power.” If we forget this then aikido will mutate into something else—a so-called “art of living” or something more akin to yoga.

Would you talk about that from a technical perspective?

Within my limited experience what captivates me most about aikido is its rational nature and the fact that we find coherent principles permeating the whole of aikido technique. To give an example, among the many principles involved in aikido, we find the principle that “One is many.” Empty-handed techniques, in principle, contain the potential to be transformed at any time into weapons techniques and vice versa. Techniques used to respond to a single opponent can be applied just as well to multiple opponents. The lines of movement evolve from empty hands to weapons and back again, from a single opponent to multiple opponents and back again in a continuous, connected, organic fashion. In that sense aikido is very much like a living entity.

This element constitutes one of aikido’s essential qualities as a budo. This is the kind of movement that O-Sensei used and it lies at the heart of aikido.

However, this essential quality is not clearly manifested in the individual techniques so much as it permeates the art as a whole and exists as a latent potential. It allows an approach to an ethic sought by modern spirituality, in other words the “shinmu fusatsu” that represents the highest ideal of Japanese budo—-“to kill not.”

Aikido’s essence as a budo is by no means close to the surface, but those with a degree of insight should be able to discern it. The aikido that we see on the surface, in other words, much of the aikido we see today, cannot necessarily be said to represent budo in the traditional sense of the word. Fortunately, in aikido there remains the potential for serious students to dig deep to discover its essence and through a long process of searching to make that essence their own.

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