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Interview with Katsuaki Asai

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #94 (Winter/Spring 1993)

Katsuaki Asai

Katsuaki Asai Shihan was dispatched to Germany by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo at the tender age of 23. In 1967 he established the Aikikai of Germany and has since devoted himself to spreading aikido in his adopted country. Here Asai Shihan gives us a glimpse of his efforts over the past 26 years which led to the birth and development of the Aikikai of Germany.

Enrolling in the Aikikai Hombu Dojo at age 13

When did you first enroll at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo?

It was while I was a junior high school student. I enrolled on March 31, 1955 and my registration number at the Aikikai is 402.

How did you come to enter the dojo at such a young age?

It happened because I lost a fight! I was extremely small at the time. When I enrolled at 13, I was only four feet seven inches tall! I thought I had to learn something in order to be able to defeat an opponent with my small body. At the time I just happened to live diagonally across from the Hombu Dojo and so the neighborhood children and I would stand on top of apple crates and look inside the dojo over the shrubs which surrounded it.

I would imagine that you saw Morihei Ueshiba Sensei.

Yes. Because we saw O-Sensei throw around people like Hiroshi Tada Sensei, we would remark among ourselves how strong an old man he was.

What were your impressions of Ueshiba Sensei?

Impressions? Well, that’s a difficult question. I was a child and didn’t know how famous a teacher Ueshiba Sensei was.

Who were some of the leading students at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in those days?

Listing them in order of enrollment, there were Mr. Nobuyoshi Tamura, Mr. Nishiuchi, Mr. Yoshio Kuroiwa, myself, Mr. Masamichi Noro [founder of the Ki no Michi based in Paris, France], and Mr. Yasuo Kobayashi. People like Mr. Yoshimitsu Yamada [New York Aikikai], Mr. Kazuo Chiba [San Diego Aikikai], Mr. Seiichi Sugano [New York Aikikai], and Mr. Mitsunari Kanai [New England Aikikai] enrolled much later. Around 1959, Mitsugi Saotome [founder of Aikido Schools of Ueshiba in the U.S.A.] came to the Hombu Dojo from the Kuwamori Dojo. Besides the uchideshi there were people like Mr. Ikuo Iimura, Mr. Kubodera, Mr. Matoba, who took beautiful ukemi, Mr. Sakai, and Mr. Hiroshi Kato.

Who were your favorite teachers at the Hombu Dojo?

I wouldn’t use the word “favorite,” but when I was thrown by Tada Sensei it felt very good. He would throw me far away in a dynamic manner. When he applied kotegaeshi on me, he would throw me and I would float in the air and it felt right.

I think that people who practice aikido can understand. There are people who when they throw you it feels good, and people who throw you and it feels quite bad.

Were there other people who made a strong impression on you?

Koichi Tohei Sensei [founder of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido] was another one. I learned from Tohei Sensei how to explain things. Tohei Sensei’s way of doing things is easy for Europeans to understand because he went to teach in America. I am using Tohei Sensei’s method of explanation in my own teaching.

Sensei, were you actually an uchideshi [live-in student] yourself?

No. I had a terrible impression of the uchideshi from that period. Since I lived in front of the dojo and commuted everyday, I could see that not only did they practice like crazy men, but that they were indeed different. Since there was a big difference between those people who were close to O-Sensei as uchideshi and those who commuted to the dojo, I think a distinction should be made between uchideshi and those who commute from the outside.

Who were the uchideshi at that time?

Tamura, Nishiuchi, and Noro. Then later there were Yamada, Chiba, Sugano and Kanai.

Daily training

Sensei, what was your training like in those days?

I trained everyday without fail. In the beginning I would train in the 6:30 class, go home and change clothes and then go to school. I continued this way for about half a year, and then I began going to the evening class. The training in those days was different from nowadays and there weren’t many people in classes.

I believe that O-Sensei would give moral lectures about Shinto-related topics, rather than talk about techniques.

In those days I was a completely unworthy son. On winter mornings O-Sensei would speak for about 40 or 50 minutes, and the backs of my feet would turn white and I would lose all feeling in my legs, no matter how much I would rub them. I would think to myself, “I hope that old man hurries up and stops talking,” and, “Why is it that all he talks about are these things?” I would only pray that he would stop talking soon! It was okay to continue that way when I was in Japan because O-Sensei was there, but when I went to Germany this became a problem. Because I listened to O-Sensei talk for ten years, I have a tape recording that remains in my mind of what he said. People ask me what things the founder spoke about, and I wonder what it was that O-Sensei meant. I only teach my students those things I understood.

Departure for Germany

Sensei, when did you go to Germany?

In 1965, when I was 23 years old.

How was it that you were sent to Germany?

Actually, I didn’t plan to go to Germany. There was a person who was practicing aikido—I don’t think he was connected to the Hombu Dojo—and he simply had a strong attraction for Germany. He wanted to go there and proposed the idea to the present Doshu. The judo club of the town of Munster took responsibility for the matter. However, after this man had prepared his visa documents it turned out that he couldn’t go. Because of this Doshu was in a quandary and asked me to go on his behalf. That’s how it happened.

Did you immediately agree to go Germany?

No. At first, I asked if there wasn’t someone else who could go. However, it was a time when many people from the Hombu Dojo went abroad and Doshu said that since they were short-handed at Hombu Dojo he couldn’t send any more uchideshi abroad. This was because people like Noro went to France, Tada Sensei to Italy, Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei to Marseille, Yoshimitsu Yamada went to New York, and Seiichi Sugano went to Australia. Since I wasn’t able to answer immediately, I asked him to wait. One month later I told him I would go.

I believe you were working for a company at that time.

Yes, after my graduation from the university I joined a company. Tamura Sensei once told me to come to his dojo in France after I graduated, but I thought that I must live the life of a salaryman in thinking of the future.

Proglems with the German Judo Federation

Sensei, would you describe what happened after you arrived in Germany to teach aikido?

On February 17,1966, the members of the German Judo Federation told me the following: “Since the German Judo Federation is a large organization, we will help you spread your art if aikido joins our group. Asai, if you work for half of the year on behalf of the Judo Federation, you can operate freely for the other half year. However, you should only teach techniques and not get involved in examinations or administrative matters.”

I refused their proposal because in Germany at that time there were no aikido teachers above me and I had been officially dispatched by the Hombu Dojo. I absolutely could not work together with the German Judo Federation. In July of 1966 I was asked by the German Judo Federation to give a one-week seminar in Travemunde. That was the only time that I received money from the German Judo Federation.

About how many people belonged to the German Judo Federation at that time?

I believe there were about ten thousand members. There I was, a 24-year-old youngster, saying that I couldn’t work with them, and so they attempted to expel me from Germany. They were furious and came up with various schemes. As a result, I was shut out from all of the judo clubs. In those days, the only people who had tatami mats were the judo clubs, so this was a problem for me. If you are doing karate you can practice even without mats, but it’s a bit difficult to train without tatami if you are grabbed by aikido beginners.

Creation of the Aikikai of Germany

How was the Aikikai of Germany established?

Since I couldn’t work with the German Judo Federation, I thought that it would be good to create an independent aikido organization. As a result, I established the Aikikai of Germany together with Dr. Leisinger and others.

Had these people practiced aikido previously?

No, not at all. They had practiced judo and were interested in aikido and had begun aikido at my dojo when I arrived in Munster.

When you arrived in Germany did you have any knowledge of the German language?

No. I went to Germany and about all I knew was how to say “Thank you!” I arrived in Germany in October 1965, and began teaching aikido at Munster University. I was told to study German in the course for foreigners at the University since it was free. I studied as hard as I could from April to the middle of June in that course. Then I accompanied Tada Sensei to Italy for about two weeks and during that time they finished one book! After that I found it too difficult and gave up. So I stopped my German course there.

But now you speak German fluently.

I understand normal, everyday conversation, but my German grammar is atrocious, and I am ashamed of it.

Teaching method

Sensei, please tell us about your teaching method.

In my dojo training is divided into three classes: the beginners’ course, the general course, and the advanced training course. In the beginner’s class, students take almost no falls except for simple backward ukemi. First, I have them become accustomed to moving, and then I teach them how to stretch their muscles in order to feel good.

Those who come to aikido after having practiced karate and judo always look at aikido from the standpoint of these two arts. For example, if I have them train in the beginning class, they complain that it is too slow and uninteresting. I have them immediately go into the higher course and practice vigorously.

How is your class schedule organized?

The beginners class runs from six to seven in the evening; the general class is from seven to eight and the advanced course is from eight to nine. People are free to attend any class they want. You can’t do this in Japan because people don’t have that much free time. In my school beginners and advanced students are mixed together; therefore, no one who trains in the beginner’s class, even if they are advanced, ever trains roughly.

Foreigners tend to ask many questions compared to Japanese. What kind of explanations do you provide during class?

I give very little explanation in my dojo in Dusseldorf, except for the beginner’s class. However, I answer any questions as best I can. When I travel to other areas for seminars, I do give explanations because these people can only receive instruction from me two or three times a year. Also, I have my advanced students teach and tell them to teach beginners five minutes a week because they too were beginners at one time. However, I don’t have those with dan ranks walk around and teach.

Germans are famous for their enthusiasm. Would you comment on that based on your teaching?

There are ten different personalities for ten different Germans. There are people who are more Japanese in their thinking than Japanese. On the other hand, there are people who do exactly as they please and have no interest at all in the student-teacher relationship. However, those who train at my school are enthusiastic. I think they are even more enthusiastic than the Japanese. There seem to be two types of people who enroll. The first type is interested in martial arts and self-defense. The other group is interested in spiritual areas and Japanese thought. The latter group tends to practice longer.

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