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Interview with Yasuo Kobayashi (2)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #93 (Fall 1992)

Yasuo Kobayashi Shihan enrolled in the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in 1955 and became an instructor some three years later. He has taught continuously within the Aikikai Hombu organization since that time. This popular shihan is responsible for the establishment of the Kobayashi Dojos organization, remarkable for its unique management approach and now comprising more than 80 dojos. Kobayashi Senseis policy is to respect his students and encourage their suggestions. In addition to his teaching activities in Japan, he travels frequently to Europe and the USA.

Uchideshi At Hombu Dojo

I entered the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in 1955. Before that I practiced judo in junior and senior high school. I was invited to start aikido by a friend (the son of Danzaki Sensei of the Iaido Federation), but I had examinations and so I waited until after I entered the university to enroll. That was in April of 1955. At that time several families who had lost their homes during the war were living in the dojo. After these people left, the dojo was remodeled and made larger. I think this happened one or two years after I joined the Hombu Dojo.

Who were the higher ranking students at that time?

Yasuo Kobayashi Sensei

Arikawa Sensei [Sadateru Arikawa, Aikikai 8th dan] was one. Then there was Mr. Tamura [Nobuyoshi Tamura, the central figure in the FFAB, a large French Aikido organization] and several others. There were three types of students: those who were doing aikido full-time like Tamura Sensei, those who lived in the dojo while working outside, and lastly, the regular students. Arikawa Sensei lived at the dojo while working at a company. There were people who would come to the dojo frequently. Also, Mr. Masamichi Noro [entered as an uchideshi in 1955 and later left the Aikikai organization to establish “Ki no Michi” in France] enrolled a few months before I did. Miss Sunadomari [Fukiko Sunadomari, an expert in Jiki-shinkage-ryu Naginata] was also living there. There was one six-mat room for all of the uchideshi and it had one closet which we all shared. There were two or three toilets.

Did you think about becoming a professional teacher at that stage?

At that time I was just a student and I wasn’t so serious. No one in those days thought that a person could make a living doing martial arts. I just wanted to train and it was fun because so many unusual characters were living together. There was a distinction made between senior and juniors even though this changed daily.

Was Noro Sensei the first of the group to go abroad?

Yes. Mr. Noro went to France and then later called Nobuyoshi Tamura to join him. Then I think Mr. Yamada [Yoshimitsu Yamada, Aikikai 8th dan] went to New York to study when he was a university student. Later, Mr. Chiba [Kazuo Chiba, Aikikai 7th dan] went to England, Mr. Kanai [Mitsunari Kanai, Aikikai 7th dan] was invited by Mr. Yamada and went to Boston, and Mr. Asai [Katsuaki Asai, Aikikai 7th dan] left for Germany. Mr. Sugano [Seiichi Sugano, Aikikai 7th dan] married an Australian woman and went to Australia. Mr. Saotome [Mitsugi! Saotome, active in the USA as head of Aikido Schools of Ueshiba] was still in Japan.

Student Aikido Fedration

Was there an aikido club at Meiji University while you were a student there?

We started a club when I was a junior. Since many university students were coming to the Hombu Dojo, Doshu felt the need to spread aikido among the university population and so he asked those of us who were coming to the dojo to help out.

It was different back then. The university administration made it difficult to start clubs. You had to list the names of at least ten members and submit it to the school physical education department and student body section. Since you had to have a university professor as a sponsor I asked my advisor, Ichiro Yamada Sensei, who was then the principal of a municipal high school, to help. He knew a teacher at Meiji University and so together they did the paperwork for us.

Was it difficult to find ten people?

At that time four or five Meiji University students were practicing at Hombu Dojo and they borrowed the names of friends to get enough people. We had more of a problem finding a dojo than getting enough people, but with the help of Hombu Dojo we were able to use the 30-mat dojo of the Sugiyama Construction Company. We didn’t practice everyday but rather about twice a week. In those days when we would launch a recruiting campaign we would draw about 40 or 50 people. Aikido was something unusual. After starting the club we used to give demonstrations at the university festivals. Koichi Tohei Sensei [founder of Shinshin Toitsu Aikidokai] and [Tadataka] Matsuo Sensei from the Yoshinkan came to teach.

Was a distinction made in those days between the Aikikai and Yoshinkan?

Naturally the leaders did, but since we were students we weren’t very concerned about it.

I also took part in the creation of the university student federation in about 1958. Those schools connected to the Yoshinkan were Tokyo, Chuo, and Senju Universities. Waseda, Keio, and Meiji were affiliated with the Aikikai. I went to Komaba, one of the campuses of Tokyo University, many times in connection with the planning committee for the establishment of the federation. There was a dispute over the choice of a president of the federation. The Aikikai group wanted to elect Doshu while the Yoshinkan side wanted Mr. Shoshiro Kudo, so there was nothing to do but create two separate groups. But this was not at the level of the university students, it was the leaders who were involved in the dispute. So even today, schools like Meiji University often have joint training sessions with Yoshinkan and Tomiki Aikido clubs, etc.

Did Tomiki Sensei also come to the Aikikai during that period?

Yes, he taught every Saturday evening for about half a year. This was before he added competition to aikido.

Do you remember O-Sensei frequently using kuden [oral teachings] when explaining techniques?

We were told to practice seated techniques very hard. Also, I remember him saying, “You can do techniques just by walking.” I was very anxious for him to finish talking about the kamisama [laughter].

The Professional Instructors

I would like to ask about the people who taught at outside dojos as professional instructors, but who did not live in the Hombu Dojo as uchideshi.

Tada Sensei was teaching when I first went to observe at the Hombu Dojo in 1955. Okumura Sensei came every morning to train.

Around 1957, the Sankei Gakuen Culture Center built an aikido and bodybuilding dojo near Tokyo station and Mr. [Seijuro] Masuda was doing bodybuilding there. Mr. Masuda started aikido through that connection. Incidentally, Yukio Mishima [famous novelist who publicly committed suicide in 1970] trained at this bodybuilding gym.

At that time Mr. Masuda was working in a riverside fish market in connection with his family business, and he began training around 1957. It was quite a bit later that the system of professional instructors emerged.

I believe Norihiko Ichihashi Sensei was a graduate of Aoyama Gakuin. He came to practice while a university student and then became a professional instructor.

Mr. Watanabe was a member of the aikido club of the Statistics Bureau of the Prime Minister’s Office. I think he became an instructor when he was promoted to 2nd dan, around 1960, or perhaps a bit later.

Mr. [Masando] Sasaki quit the Self-Defense Agency and took up another job, but I’m not sure when he became an instructor. I think he started aikido quite early.

Mr. Shimizu [Kenji Shimizu, director of the Tendokan] started about 1963, Mr. Suganuma [Mamoru Suganuma, Aikikai 7th dan] and Mr. Endo [Seishiro Endo, Aikikai 7th dan] started around that time too. Mr. Imaizumi [Shizuo Imaizumi, now in New York as director of the Shin Budo Kai] also started quite early. Then there were Mr. Iwao Tamura, Mr. Koretoshi Maruyama, and others. Both of them sided with Tohei Sensei [when he separated from the Aikikai in 1974].

Technical Influences

Who were your main technical influences?

Primarily the present Doshu and Tohei Sensei, but I also was influenced in some way by each of my seniors.

Tohei Sensei’s explanations were easy to understand since he taught a systematic aikido with aiki taiso and basic movements. He was a strong and convincing person, and he influenced me a great deal.

Were you influenced by the techniques of Doshu or Yamaguchi Sensei [Seigo Yamaguchi, 8th dan Aikikai]?

Of course, they influenced me because I was close to them. But there wasn’t any one sensei to whom I was especially attached. Since we had to train if we were free, we couldn’t be choosy about teachers. Also, I don’t remember the techniques of each sensei being as different as they are today. To a certain extent, there were styles—for example, this style for Tohei Sensei’s class or that style for Yamaguchi Sensei’s class. We were all good at imitating and could adapt to the circumstances.

But after a long time I began to develop my own personal style and it was along the lines of Doshu’s technique. Some of the instructors became admirers of a particular sensei. This trend became quite strong when Tohei Sensei started to insist you had to do things according to his style.

Since you’ve mentioned Tohei Sensei there is something I would like to ask. How much did the Tempukai [an organization established by Tempu Nakamura, founder of Shinshi Toitsudo] influence people at Hombu Dojo?

Many of the young people would go to listen to Tempukai and Nishi Health Method lectures. Also, we younger ones would go to the Ichikukai where Tohei Sensei did his misogi training. O-Sensei didn’t say anything about this although we went there without telling him [laughter].

Tohei Sensei was aided by the members of the Hawaii branch of the Nishi organization when he went to Hawaii. After that, people from various religions came.

The Nishi system is a health method and so we drank persimmon tea and took hot and cold baths. When O-Sensei ran out of tea they had me go buy some and so I would go to the meetings of Katsuzo Nishi. There were quite a few people who were members of the Tempukai and practiced aikido too.

Family Succession System

I would like to ask you your opinion of the family succession system.

Outside observers have made various criticisms of the family succession system, but since [Kisshomaru] Ueshiba Sensei is like a father to me, there is nothing I can say about it [laughter].

I have the Hombu Dojo handle all of the kyu rankings of my dojo for both children and adults. Usually people have them handle dan rankings only. I think the family succession system is also necessary to bring the organization together.

My wife practices the tea ceremony and they have ranks. The techniques taught to individuals of each rank are predetermined. They never teach anyone who is not qualified. In tea ceremony they never demonstrate the techniques and they can’t write about them either. They must learn it with their minds. Books on the tea ceremony have only a little introductory content. After that, the system is such that you can only learn if you are taught by a teacher. I think that in this way they are protecting the tradition. However, it is necessary to spread budo on a large scale.

Doshu is presently the successor to the aikido tradition and in the future Moriteru Sensei will become the third Doshu.

I think that little by little a number of difficulties will arise. There are people who have trained for a long time and have become skilled, so I think it will become increasingly difficult to hold these people together through a bloodline succession system. But, I personally will continue to recognize this family line. As the numbers increase, I think a certain amount of fragmentation is inevitable, but the Hombu Dojo will always exist. This is because everyone feels some need to support the center.

Would you say something about Osawa Sensei [Kisaburo Osawa, Aikikai 10th dan] who passed away recently?

Osawa Sensei was responsible for handling everyone’s complaints and so there are some people who say nothing but bad things about him, but I learned many things from Osawa Sensei.

To give one example, when Osawa Sensei was teaching the eight o’clock morning class, he would hand over all the money he had with him to the uchideshi. He would test the character of the uchideshi by seeing whether they spent all of the money on food or only the amount necessary.

I learned many things from Osawa Sensei’s way of handling the deshi. In other words, he wouldn’t teach things directly all at once, but would rather teach many different aspects. The feeling was the same when he was teaching techniques.

Practice Enjoyably With Everyone

In what year did you begin teaching at Hombu Dojo?

I think it was around 1958. There weren’t so many people in those days and so when no teachers were available, people like Mr. Tamura would teach. Sometimes if he wanted to go somewhere, Tamura would tell me to take the class for him. That happened often. Therefore, there were no strict rules about who would be in charge during a given week. Sometimes I also taught in the morning. Now they choose the sensei who will teach and there is a tendency to specify a teacher for a certain group. But in those days it wasn’t like that.

Until when did you instruct at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo?

I taught there until 1972. Since I opened the Tokorozawa dojo [second of the Kobayashi Dojos] I have devoted myself entirely to the Kobayashi Dojos.

I was the first of the Hombu Dojo instructors to have a private dojo. Apparently, Doshu really puzzled over the problem of how to treat me. I think his conclusion was for me to devote myself completely to my own dojos. In those days the other uchideshi ended up going abroad.

I have a question about O-Sensei’s philosophy. He spoke about such things as a “one world family” and said that the “ai” of aikido was equivalent to the “ai” of love. I think you actually exemplify those ideals in your actions. I think the fact that you put these aikido concepts into practice, not only in your techniques, but also in your organization is something very valuable. Was this how you thought from the beginning?

Although my reason for opening the dojo was merely to try to help out university students, quite a few people joined. I didn’t consciously try to open the dojo and do things in any particular way. I think everyone came to practice because they felt good after coming. In my dojo people don’t speak ill of or criticize others. They just try to train hard.

I have never set a specific goal for a number of dojos or students. Whenever
we opened a dojo, people quickly gathered together, and when a certain number was reached, someone would find an available facility and ask me to allow them to start a dojo. In this way the number of dojos increased naturally.

If we look at the Hombu Dojo instructors, I think they are divided into those who are oriented towards the martial arts and those who pursue a theoretical approach.

I also went through a difficult period of several years trying to spread the art. However, I think my personality is such that I end up training with everyone in an enjoyable way and so I have decided to devote myself to the spread of aikido. In the beginning we did a lot of severe training, but there were quite a few people who did not like that kind of practice. Some of them would say it was enough if the beer they drank on the way home from training tasted good [laughter], and there were people who were satisfied with only that. However, the uchideshi or professionals must practice proper techniques.

The Instructors of Kobayashi Dojos

Would you tell us something about the six main instructors of Kobayashi Dojos?

[Kazuo] Igarashi was the first one to start shortly after I opened my dojo. He trained while holding down a job with a company. After quitting his job, he lived with us while working part-time.

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