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Interview with Takafumi Takeno (1)

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #99 (1994)

When Takefumi Takeno first became entranced with Gozo Shioda’s Yoshinkan Aikido, he dreamed of returning to teach in his native Yamanashi Prefecture. Now an 8th dan shihan, he has his own dojo there, where he shares the energetic, ki-filled aikido he learned as a Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo uchideshi.

Takefumi Takeno

Takeno Sensei [while watching practice]: Using games works well when you’re teaching children. They’re apt to dislike things like knee-walking, but if you have them do it as a race or let them do sumo then it has just the opposite effect They think it’s fun. Just change the approach a bit and they’ll really go for it. With children, if all you say is, “Do sit-ups, do push-ups,” then they will answer, “I don’t want to.” But if you let them do it as a game with rock-paper-scissors, then they get into the fun of the competition.

Aiki News: Even such small changes can really make practice fun for them. The atmosphere in this dojo is positive and lively, but the training is quite hard. I’m really impressed by the balance you have struck.

Well, we train using energetic and ki-filled techniques that I learned from Shioda Sensei. Although people should enjoy practice, I want them also to remain aware of the severity and seriousness of their training as a martial art, as a budo.

Rather than simply “playing at aikido,” I want to conduct keiko [the word keiko in Japanese, as opposed to the word renshu which means practice or training, has the literal meaning of reflecting on old things, both in one’s own experience and from a tradition]. It’s impossible to develop good technique without keiko, so I want people to practice in a way that is enjoyable, but which also embodies natural discipline and produces an atmosphere befitting a martial arts dojo.

Recently, people here in Yamanashi have started to understand that aikido is more than just a method of teaching good manners. When I first came to this area I was very surprised by the goal-orientation of the people who came to practice. They thought of budo only as a means of disciplining or educating children. I felt that there was a huge gap in our ways of thinking.

That’s why I started doing small demonstrations. The parents who brought their children to my classes had little idea about the nature of aikido, so I began giving exhibitions. I returned here to Yamanashi after my years at the Yoshinkan one January and worked hard to put a demonstration together by April. It was pretty tough to do it in such a short time. I put a priority on getting parents and families to understand about aikido. Since I have been, conducting such demonstrations annually, people have gradually gotten an idea of what aikido is all about, and eventually we were able to do larger events like the one last year.

The atmosphere in the dojo is quite different when there are families practicing together, isn’t it?

Yes. If the father, for example, is practicing aikido, he won’t be able to continue coming to practice if there is not a certain degree of understanding on the part of his family. If Dad comes home from work and has a beer, then the family will tell him to stop, but if he has one after doing aikido they say, “That’ll give you strength for tomorrow” [laughter]. So our first activities were aimed at getting the families to understand aikido.

Soon parents and spouses began coming to the dojo, and this created a family atmosphere. Parents would mention it to their colleagues and friends, and eventually we ended up with quite a range of ages here. Of course, I’d like to widen it even a little more.

Sensei, after living and practicing aikido in Tokyo what brought you back to Yamanashi to realize your dream?

I returned here to Yamanashi six years ago. One motive was to pursue my dream of opening a dojo here, but there was also the fact that through training very hard with the riot police and those engaged in specialized training at the Yoshinkan Hombu I had exhausted myself physically. I could no longer summon one hundred percent of the ki I had carefully cultivated, and I began to worry that I was doing myself more harm than good.

I talked it over with Shioda Sensei, who readily gave his consent, and I moved back here to Yamanashi.

Were there any aikido dojos in the Yamanashi area at that time?

This dojo was established eight years ago. Before that, in 1983, a facility for the education of young people called the Hikawa Juku had been built, with scholastic study on the first floor and a small twenty-five-mat dojo upstairs. This became the first regular exclusively Yoshinkan aikido dojo in the prefecture. After it opened I came once a week from Tokyo to establish a base, gradually planting the seeds for a dojo. Thanks to the roots provided by that small first dojo I have been able to establish this dojo.

When I started aikido in 1968 there was an instructor training program at the Yoshinkan Hombu in Yoyogi—a system much like the present special training program. Through it I attained the rank of sandan, which allowed me to have an instructor’s license. I wanted to return then to Yamanashi, but the more I practiced aikido the more engrossed I became in it. I ended up remaining involved with training at the Hombu for a long time.

Actually, my first encounter with aikido was on a TBS television program called “Keizo’s Visits.” The announcer, Keizo Takahashi, would go around to different areas and conduct interviews. The title of that particular episode was something like “Pro-wrestling vs. Aikido.” In their bid for the championship, popular international wrestlers like the Great Kusatsu and Sanders Sugiyama decided to incorporate a bit of traditional Japanese budo into their wrestling technique, so they set out to learn aikido.

Shioda Sensei appeared in that program, didn’t he?

Yes, he did. Despite his small stature he spun about and easily tossed those huge wrestlers around. When I saw that I thought to myself, “Wow, what is this?” Until then I had an image of aikido as something akin to judo or karate, but it left such a vivid impression on me that I knew I wanted to do it.

Eager to know more, I visited the Yoshinkan Hombu dojo in Yoyogi to have a look at the practice. The training area was surrounded by a wooden floor, and I sat there in seiza. I had little experience sitting in seiza, but somehow I was awed by the feeling in the dojo and I remained seated there like that for about an hour. A unique sort of dynamism—you might call it electricity—filled the air so I didn’t even notice the pain in my legs.

As I sat watching, one of the practitioners on the mat turned to face me as he executed a pinning technique He said, “Go ahead and sit more comfortably!” I remained where I was, so after a while he urged me again to relax. I thought, ‘They must be testing me. The moment I switch to a more informal posture I’ll surely be ridiculed. ‘How rude! Don’t you have any manners?,’ they’ll say.” That’s the sort of tension that was in the air. But, the aikido struck me as fresh and new, since I had never encountered anything like it before.

I had played baseball before, but the atmosphere of physical activity was altogether different I was impressed by the dynamism in the budo world, and I wanted to try it so badly that I approached Shioda Sensei directly.

At that time, the Hombu dojo in Yoyogi generally would not take on eldest sons as live-in students, so I had to get written consent from my parents. I returned to Yamanashi and told my father I wanted to do aikido, and he scolded me. That was during the period of Japan’s economic growth and emergence so there was a strong tendency to question the value of “antiquities” like aikido for making a living in the future.

I was so fascinated by aikido that I plunged myself into training. I suppose those around me viewed my behavior as somewhat odd. Everyone asked me, “Why do you want to do something like that? Wouldn’t it be better to have a steady salary from a company?” Actually, I had been offered a job by a construction company but I turned it down.

So you decided to become a professional aikido instructor?

That’s right. I had a dream of bringing aikido back to Yamanashi. I entered the dojo as a live-in student, not as a regular student. Looking back on it I think that was a good decision. I plunged into the lifestyle of a live-in student without knowing much about it, so even when the training was difficult I didn’t realize it and just accepted it as normal. Had I become a live-in student after having been a regular student I probably would have been able to make comparisons and know just how tough it was.

The training certainly was rough, but I never disliked it. Some of the senior students trained so hard that you’d wonder, “Are these guys human?” But outside of practice they were just like older brothers, praising and encouraging the junior students. I felt closer to them than I did to my own brothers. That was very attractive to me and probably helped keep me going.

Do you think that Shioda Sensei’s personality contributed to that sort of atmosphere in the dojo?

I think it did, yes. Shioda Sensei’s teaching emphasized the oneness of spirit and technique. The other students from that time and I, together with our juniors, are trying to maintain that attitude in our training now.

How would you compare the teaching at that time with the teaching today?

They are essentially the same. However, the hard training with the riot police and the special training sessions seemed to go on forever. We practiced for about six hours every day. And when the riot police practices finished we still had to do the general classes. We did aikido all day long from morning to evening but it was actually rather enjoyable.

After the special classes in the morning and afternoon I would go into the general class and find a black-belt training partner (I wore a white belt) to see how well the techniques we had just learned would work on them. That sort of thing was fun.

Did Shioda Sensei teach full-time back then?

Yes, he came every day and taught us the essential points. Of course, there were instructors beneath him who also taught . During special get-togethers, Shioda Sensei would recount stories about how it was when he was learning, or about Ueshiba Sensei and other things.

I had many opportunities for direct contact with Shioda Sensei. I was his driver for a long time so I got to know aspects of his life outside the dojo, and I was fortunate enough to have many opportunities to learn from him. I was allowed to take ukemi for him fairly early in my career, for which I consider myself very fortunate. He did knock me out one time when I was first training, but I was extremely enthusiastic anyway.

By the way, I met O-Sensei only one time. I was truly fortunate. At the time I was Shioda Sensei’s driver so I accompanied him everywhere. He was visiting the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Wakamatsu-cho, and since I was the driver I waited outside. I was waiting at the bottom of the stairs of the three-story building when O-Sensei came walking up, supported on either side by two of his students. He glanced at me and asked, “What are you doing there?”

“Ah, so this is the Ueshiba Sensei that Shioda Sensei always talks about,” I thought. His eyes were so piercing that I felt powerless to move, like a frog under the gaze of a snake. But seeing his thin body there, supported on both sides, I couldn’t help but have the impression of him as, if you’ll pardon me, a tottering old grandfather.

“Uh, I’ve come with Shioda Sensei and I’m waiting here for him,” I replied, to which he answered, “Well, come up, come up,” and he flashed me a big smile!

With some trepidation I followed him as he slowly ascended the stairs with the help of his students. When he reached the dojo he struggled out of his white haori (a Japanese half-coat) mumbling something to himself, but as soon as he stepped inside he stood bolt-upright! I was following behind, so I saw him transform from a frail old man into a powerful figure right before my own eyes. It was really something!

He sang some kind of Doka (Song of the Way) and let loose with sharp yells (kiai) as he spun around, flinging his students all over the room. I was amazed!

That was only shortly after I had begun practicing aikido so I didn’t really understand the high level of what O-Sensei was demonstrating. I remember that he told his students to push and pull him, but try as they might he remained unmoved, impervious to their efforts.

I don’t think he demonstrated for a very long time. When he finished and stepped out of the dojo, he immediately slumped and became the frail old man again. Mumbling some more, he went back down the stairs supported by two of his students.

I saw the whole thing from start to finish, and I was convinced that I had seen something very wonderful. Perhaps I was able to see him so well because I was behind him. That was my only chance to see one of O-Sensei’s demonstrations firsthand.

I believe that was at the Kagami Biraki ceremony in 1969. A film of it remains, but to have actually seen it… Ueshiba Sensei passed away on April 26th of that year.

I believe this story has been published before, but apparently once when Shioda Sensei was summoned by O-Sensei, he asked, “When will I become as strong as you?” to which O-Sensei replied, “You won’t. I will be the strongest at the time of my death.” According to Shioda Sensei, after O-Sensei had collapsed from illness and shortly before he passed away, he said to his students, “Let’s train!” and started to get out of bed. Fearing for his health, they tried to push him back down, urging him to rest quietly, but then, “Wham!” He sent them all flying. Apparently one of O-Sensei’s students told that story.

Shioda Sensei says it was only then that he understood the meaning of his words, “I shall be at my strongest at the time of my death.” O-Sensei lived up to those words and Shioda Sensei still recounts that story.

I feel privileged to have felt Shioda Sensei’s incredible, intense techniques— techniques that can knock you out with a single blow. Lately, I have also come to know his techniques that feel as if he is escaping instantly with only a little movement The difference between these is truly incredible! I’ve finally come to understand that his ability to make those instantaneous techniques work lies in the intensity of those other techniques. When he escapes suddenly out of the way of such intense straight-on power, his opponent’s equilibrium is completely upset. Shioda Sensei possesses and manipulates both a strong, intense power and a light, mysterious power that makes you feel as if you’re grabbing onto a cloud.

The point is that taking either aspect too far—either pounding relentlessly forward or fluttering around—allows your opponent to read you. Shioda Sensei’s ki starts to operate at just the right moment, and he can tell what his opponent is thinking. Thus, he knows how to deal with him.

Sensei will strike me hard, and I wait for him to do it again, but suddenly his power melts away. I can’t control myself using my own will, so I totter around wondering what is happening. I don’t want to fall, but I do anyway.

So it can look fake or fixed to onlookers?

Yes. Aiki News has put out a videotape of Shioda Sensei, right? His speed and strength, and manifestation of powerful energy is really remarkable. Gathering and storing and compressing that sort of power, it’s as if it will just explode. I’ve been thinking that without that sort of compressed power I won’t be able to do techniques. Without that underlying precision and sharpness my techniques can never become more rounded. Looking at it from my present age and personality I’d still like to pursue that sort of sharp aiki.

When Shioda Sensei goes out to various places to give demonstrations people are always surprised at the splendid aikido they see. But when invited to come train with us they back away and say, “No way, it looks too scary!”

Before video was developed there was no way to see what was being done to you, with what technique you were being turned on your head. You were too busy taking the ukemi, you see. If we could watch a video of those days I’m sure we’d be quite surprised at the marvelous things being done.

At demonstrations at various places we students would wait to take ukemi for Shioda Sensei as he was busy explaining to the audience about aikido. The time always dragged dreadfully slowly as we filled our heads with thoughts like, “Where’s it going to hurt this time? My stomach? My head?” But once we stood facing Sensei all the fear would melt away. It was quite strange. All we could see was Sensei and we just focused in and went after him. And in the blink of an eye we were upside-down in the air!

Several times I’ve opened my eyes to find myself in a hospital bed, with a vague memory that I had just been doing a demonstration. I would have no idea what had happened. It would be a concussion.

Have you ever been seriously injured?

No, fortunately not. I’ve had concussions many times, though I can look back and laugh about them now. But yes, I often used to get knocked out cold in the dojo.

It’s strange though, I’d get whacked on the head but I wouldn’t lose consciousness just then. Sensei would keep applying techniques, but then he would stop and say, “Hold on a minute, your eyes look strange,” and only then would things fade into blackness.

People often ask, “Please teach us applied techniques,” but it’s not really possible to do so since every situation is different. If the way you are grabbed changes, then the whole technique changes, so you can never do the same thing. If you don’t have solid basic techniques then you won’t be able to do applied techniques. Shioda Sensei never teaches by saying that such-and-such is an applied technique. He says rather,”If you can do basic postures and movement then you will be able to do applied techniques. If you concentrate and let go of your power you can do it.”

In Shioda Sensei’s autobiography [An Aikido Life, Takeuchi Publishing, 1985] there are several accounts of him using his skills in real situations.

I think that applying a technique, opening, dropping down, or moving to the side, all of these are beautiful applications. Actual combat technique, in other words, applied forms, are born from within these basic movements.

How you respond and deal with a situation also depends on your body size. Your opponent will be moving fast, so you can’t think, “If I’m struck in such-and-such a way I’ll do this…. If I’m held in such-and-such a way I’ll do that” You won’t have time. Rather, it depends on how quickly you can make decisions and act within a set of very subtle movements.

If you can’t do basics then you won’t be able to move. You won’t be able make those decisions in an instant. If you have to make a decision and then move you’ll be too late, I suspect. Shioda Sensei is always saying, “Return to the basics. Never lose sight of your basic postures and movements.”

Some people say that Yoshinkan techniques are stiff, but I don’t think this is the case at all. Basics are like the block-style of Japanese calligraphy. In block-style calligraphy you write each stroke distinctly and clearly. After practicing that you move into semi-cursive and from there into flowing cursive style In other words, you gradually add flow to your writing as you progress. If you try to write flowing cursive calligraphy without first having mastered the block style then your characters will be no more than imitations, dead lines lacking essential energy.

It’s like merely imitating the movements of O-Sensei in his later years.

Yoshinkan aikido uses hard technique as a foundation for the flowing techniques. But Yoshinkan techniques are also very fast. If you have no basic foundation then you simply will not be able to move fast, to respond in an instant. Of course, you can do it if you know what’s coming next, but…

Somebody once said to me, “It must be difficult for Shioda Sensei’s uke of the day to plan all those techniques. Do you really have to memorize all those rough techniques?” They were quite surprised when I told them that nothing is planned and that it’s all done on the spur of the moment!

[To be continued]


Takefumi Takeno Profile

Born 1947 in Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan. Became a live-in student at the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo under Gozo Shioda Shihan in 1968, where he remained until 1987. From 1978 until 1987 he was a part-time aikido instructor for the police department. In 1981, Takeno was awarded the shihan license, and in 1988 became head of the Yamanashi branch of Yoshinkan aikido. He was promoted to 8th dan in 1992. Presently he is Director of the Japan Yoshinkan Aikido Federation, and he teaches aikido at Tokyo Bukkyo University and Yamanashi Medical University.