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Interview with Yasuo Kobayashi (1)

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #70 (March 1986)

Yasuo Kobayashi was born on September 20, 1936. He began his study of aikido when a university student. First entering Hombu Dojo in 1955, he started instructing in 1959. He taught at Hombu until 1972. On April 6, 1969 he opened the Kodaira Dojo and now is directly responsible for 15 dojos. His teaching duties take him all over Japan and to many foreign countries.

Yasuo Kobayashi, Aikikai Hombu Dojo, 1969

Aiki News: Sensei, we understand that you are in charge of other dojos besides this one here in Kodaira.

Kobayashi Sensei: Yes. I am directly responsible for 15 dojos and make the rounds to each one of them. I mainly teach at this dojo and the Tokorozawa Dojo while I instruct at the other locations once a month. We have many instructors and they divide the teaching duties among themselves. Comparatively speaking, I believe I have quite a large number of schools.

I believe it was during the period when you were still teaching at the Aikikai Hombu that you began to set up your own dojos. Is that correct?

That’s right. It was in 1969 when the student movements in the universities were very active. They demonstrated against the Japan-US Security Pact. Because of this activity universities closed down for about half a year. Since there were no classes and no aikido practice to attend, students didn’t study and instead indulged themselves in playing mahjong or in drinking sake. I felt I had to do something about it. The fact that I happened to have some land led to my building the dojo. Since at that time I was an instructor at Hombu, I began this activity by gathering together students on Saturday nights to have a drink together and then practice the next day. Since this was expensive I thought I should try to collect more people on Sunday. Gradually the numbers began to increase. Since I didn’t have enough money I built the dojo myself. Some alumni also donated money for this purpose. We started out with only 20 tatami but more and more people began to come to the dojo since there weren’t any others in this area. Then I was asked to teach on weekdays and in the morning. The number of classes increased little by little.

Until what year did you teach at Hombu?

When I opened my second dojo in Tokorozawa in 1972 I started to become very busy. I also wanted to spread aikido in the Mitama and Saitama areas. So I began my individual activities with the permission of Ueshiba Sensei (Doshu).

When did you become an uchideshi (live-in student), Sensei?

In 1955, exactly 30 years ago. At that time there were Arikawa Sensei, Yamaguchi Sensei, Tamura Sensei and Mr. Noro, who is now in France, as uchideshi. Only these people were my seniors. Later on, Mr. Yamada of New York, Mr. Chiba and Mr. Kanai entered the dojo. Since my house was near Hombu dojo I went home at night. I was a student then. However, most of the time I lived with the other uchideshi.

I had practiced judo from the time I was a junior high school student. I became friends with the son of Danzaki Sensei who is now the head of the Iaido Federation. This Danzaki Sensei used to be a sumo wrestler and had access to O-Sensei’s house. He suggested that I should try aikido. When I went to Hombu Dojo for the first time Tada Sensei was teaching. The mats were ragged. Some families of war victims were still living in the dojo and occupied about one third of the 70-mat dojo space. The dojo smelled of mackerel. The door of the toilet didn’t shut properly. The board fence was decrepit.

When you began in 1955 about how often did O-Sensei come to Tokyo from Iwama?

He came accordind to his mood. He suddenly turned up and disappeared. He came and went like that. However, whenever he felt lonely he became ill. He would call up Hombu and say, “I am seriously ill now”. So one of us would be told to go and see him. When the person arrived, he would already be recovered. (Laughter)

Did you ever try to test O-Sensei after entering the dojo?

Though O-Sensei was about 70 years old at that time he had quite a lot of muscles. He was much faster at farming work in Iwama than we were and he could carry very heavy bales of rice so I had no doubts about him.

When O-Sensei took trips did you accompany him often?

Yes, many times. I was often scolded by him. The place furthest away we went to was (Seiseki) Abe Sensei’s place. One time when I was called to go up to Iwama I really goofed up. It was a cold day and I was told to heat up the bath. Since I was born in Tokyo I didn’t know very well how to heat a bath with firewood. Anyway, I did my best. I drew water from the well. When I thought the bath was ready I asked O-Sensei to enter. He came to the bath and shouted, “Hey, are you trying to kill me?” I didn’t understand why I was scolded since I had done my best to heat the bath. Then I went to see the bath and found it boiling. (Laughter) I didn’t feel the water was hot when I checked the temperature because my hand was icy cold. Well, since I had to pour some cold water in the bath immediately, I went back and forth between the bath and the well, which were far apart, while O-Sensei waited naked and shaking. I was severely scolded. (Laughter)

When you accompanied O-Sensei did you go alone or were there others also?

Many times I went alone with him. Sensei walked really fast and since he was so small it was easy to lose sight of him. What’s more we had to buy the train tickets. Sensei was refined in his manner and so the station staff didn’t complain very much even if he passed the gate without a ticket. However, it was easy to lose sight of him because we had to line up to buy tickets. Time passed while we looked for him and so he would get upset and return home. This kind of thing happened very often.

In time I got used to it. When we got on the train, I would take a seat where there were some young girls around for him. (Laughter) When he began by saying, “When this old man was young….”, I would go to sleep. (Laughter) In the beginning it was difficult. Nobody told me specifically how to go about accompanying him. O-Sensei would shout at me when I arrived back at the dojo saying, “This boy doesn’t look after me well!”, and everybody would start grinning. (Laughter)

From the techniques of the Founder in his later years one gets the impression that he is throwing his partner without touching him. However, there is a film taken earlier in 1955 in which he still did many techniques…

Yes, he would do things like having someone pull his sword with a string or attack suddenly with an umbrella for a certain period of time. However, the present Doshu told him to stop showing off so O-Sensei stopped doing them.

How many classes a day were there when you were an uchideshi?

There were classes only in the morning and evening. The present Doshu was still working then. Tada Sensei used to teach about 5:00 pm. The main teachers were only Okumura Sensei and Tada Sensei. Tohei was not at the dojo since he was in Hawaii. Tomiki Sensei taught a class on Saturdays. When he taught at Hombu he did normal training, not sport aikido. If I remember correctly he taught for about six months.

Did Hombu have a relationship with the Yoshinkan Dojo at that time?

I entered the dojo just after the separation occurred. Occasionally Shioda Sensei would come to the dojo for a meeting or something. Tomiki Sensei also came once in a while. I don’t think Minoru Mochizuki Sensei ever taught at Hombu Dojo, but since his nephew was the captain of the aikido club of my university we held training camps at Gakunanjuku in Shizuoka two or three times. When we went there for the first time the camp was held in the Yoseikan dojo. I think it was around 1958 or 1959. I met Minoru Mochizuki Sensei a couple of times.

Have you ever met Hoken Inoue Sensei (O-Sensei’s nephew)?

Well, I saw a Shinwa Taido demonstration once. I think he came to Hombu Dojo a few times. I have never talked to him directly. I think that he has the physique most closely resembling O-Sensei of the people I have met so far.

Would you describe the content of the training around the time you entered the dojo?

We practiced mainly seated techniques. When I taught the class and did “seated techniques” O-Sensei would smile but when I taught standing techniques he seemed somehow displeased. So when he came back home we would say: “Now let’s do seated techniques.”

When did O-Sensei start to do kokyunage techniques?

As I recall he started to do kokyunage techniques when he began to perform in demonstrations. I think that Sensei thought demonstrations would be uninteresting if he did the same things each time. So he used his ingenuity for demonstrations. I learned the ken and jo when Sensei was in a good mood. When he taught he never did the same thing so it was not possible to learn everything.

It seems that O-Sensei used to talk about the “kamisama” (deities) very often in those days.

We didn’t understand so we used to keep looking down hoping he would finish his talk soon. When I look back now I regret not having listened to him carefully but at that time I was not interested in that sort of subject.

Was there anyone who could understand what it was he meant?

Religious people could follow him since they were familiar with the subject of the kamisama. But I wasn’t able to understand him. In this respect I suppose I should say that I was an unworthy student. (Laughter). However, Sensei never imposed his religion on us which I think was amazing. He never said: “You must believe this.” I think the reason everybody could follow him was that he never tried to force us to fit into a specific mold.

Was O-Sensei in his later years still connected to the Omoto religion?

Yes. There was an Omoto meeting place in Ikenohata in Ueno and he used to visit there often when he was free.

Who was the strongest among those at the dojo at that time?

Well, Tohei Sensei was strong. He was a critical person and I was often scolded by him even for quite trivial things. At a certain demonstration, Tohei Sensei executed techniques against a group attack. Mr. Chiba, Mr. Kanai, Mr. Tamura, Mr. Noro, Mr. Kuroiwa and I consipired to overwhelm him at one time. So Mr. Kuroiwa, if I remember correctly, held Tohei Sensei from behind and immobilized him. As soon as we thought we had him he escaped to the side. After that we were all well-behaved. (Laughter). We were all young, about 22 or 23 years old. Tohei Sensei explained techniques theoretically and very intelligibly. He had a progressive way of teaching. On the other hand, O-Sensei’s way of teaching was the traditional approach where people were expected to improve by accumulating practice time. Although this way is time consuming, once you learn something this way you don’t forget it. But, after all if you wanted to attract students, a theoretical approach was better. In this respect, Tohei Sensei was popular. However, at a certain stage, you cannot express your own approach if you are instructed in too much detail. I think this was why there were many people who started to feel dissatisfied with Tohei Sensei. At best everyone gradually starts to develop his own personality, or at worst, his own mannerisms. So many of us who entered the dojo early on, rebelled against him. I think this was why things ended the way they did. (Tohei Sensei officialy separated from Hombu in 1974).

I remember that we Aikidoka in California had a hard time being compelled to choose sides in the dispute. Was the situation the same in Japan?

Yes. In my case, I had been his assistant for nearly 10 years carrying his bags. I learned from him and personally, I respect him. But as far as organizations are concerned, I believed in the family succession system and stayed at Hombu, although that may have been the way of thinking of an old-fashioned Japanese.

Did you think of becoming a professional aikido teacher when you were an uchideshi?

The uchideshi of that period are now running dojos in foreign countries. Maybe it was the same with other martial arts, but those of us at the dojo could not make a living. I graduated from the university in March, 1959. At that time the average monthly salary for a first-year company worker was 13,000 to 14,000 Yen. The salary we uchideshi were receiving from Hombu was about 1,000 Yen. Some of the uchideshi wished to become professional aikido teachers and some practiced while working or going to school. Some of them were later invited to go abroad to teach. Since Japan at that time was not strong economically, they couldn’t make a living here. I think they went abroad thinking that since it would not be possible for them to earn a living in Japan they might as well try in a foreign country. I think that very few went abroad because they were told to do so by Hombu.

Did you have any opportunities to go abroad, Sensei?

Yes, I did. Yamaguchi Sensei went to Burma in 1959 and I was also invited as his assistant. However, there was a coup d’etat there and Yamaguchi Sensei came back. So I ended up not going. Anyway, there were two groups among the uchideshi. One actively wished to go abroad and the other thought it would be better for them to stay in Japan in order to devote themselves to aikido practice. I was part of the latter group and so naturally I stayed in Japan. There were really many opportunities to go abroad. Many people have gone abroad but, strangely, it seems that those with characteristics matching the country ended up staying.

The first person to go abroad was Mr. Noro and then Mr. Tamura was invited. Yamada Sensei went to New York to attend school around 1964. Then Mr. Kanai went to Boston and Mr. Chiba went to England. I think it was around 1964 that Tada Sensei went to Italy. Mr. Asai also went to Germany and I understand that he has now been there twenty years.

Was Terry Dobson living as an uchideshi at that time?

Yes, that’s right. He slept in the dojo with us although he had an outside job. Before him there was Mr. Andr� Nocquet from France who stayed for two or three years. He lived as an uchideshi. That apparently was his reason for coming to Japan. Then there were some military people from Burma. Since we couldn’t go there to teach they sent five men here. They did not live with us but they practiced judo and aikido for about one year.

About what year was the aikido federation established in Japan?

I don’t remember the details since it has been quite a long time. We as students were involved in the establishment of that organization. At that time there were Waseda, Keio and Meiji Universities which were part of the Hombu group and Todai, Senshu, Chuo and Waseda as the Yoshinkan group (headed by Gozo Shioda Sensei). The Yoshinkan was flourishing then. The idea of setting up a student federation was brought up and we held several meetings. However, it fell through because we could not agree on who was to become the head. There was no problem among the students but when the draft proposal was submitted to the two organizations both of them rejected it. Therefore they parted and Hombu decided to set up its own student federation.

The key to the development of aikido was Doshu recognizing the necessity of getting students for the future. Around 1960 we started asking any student who came to the Hombu dojo which university he attended and suggested that he should establish an aikido club. The present Doshu and we took the lead in this matter. I think this was the main reason for the development of aikido as it is today.

To what extent did O-Sensei participate in this movement?

O-Sensei wasn’t interested in these organizational matters at all. O-Sensei was fantastic as a martial artist but he did not care about organizational problems. People always came to him (even when no organization existed). I think that the present Doshu proceeded in the way I described above because he thought it was necessary to spread aikido for the future. I did not understand it very well then but since I am running dojos myself I can say that Doshu paid attention to a very important point. Those students did a little aikido when they went back to their hometown or went abroad on business. So more people became interested in aikido in these places. I think his approach has been responsible for the spread of aikido.

Sensei, you were instructing at Hombu Dojo until 1972 and since then you have acted independently. I would imagine you have developed your own view of aikido.

Not really. My style, I would say, is fairly free of mannerisms. For that reason I can teach at other dojos without hesitation. That is the way I teach. I don’t really have any specific style. I do however teach the ken and jo for 15 minutes out of the one-and-a-half hour classes I teach. If I teach weapons only occasionally students will forget what they have learned. So we have decided which month we would practice the ken and which month the jo starting from suburi and then to the awase and kumijo. Since Saito Sensei’s instruction of ken and jo are available to us I teach them. I include the ken and jo in our tests also. Since I have many dojos I don’t hold tests for individual schools. Instead I have all of my dojos gather together at Hombu. Three times a year I rent Hombu Dojo and hold a couple of tests at the same time. About 150 people attend each time. We hold black belt tests during the latter part of the sessions so that the lower ranks can observe them. I fail 30 to 40 percent of those taking the tests. I am quite strict. If I held tests in small dojos I would tend to create an atmosphere where students always pass. That is the reason I hold our tests at Hombu. In the beginning I regularly failed applicants about twice. This resulted in creating an atmosphere where failing two or three times is normal. So nobody has said anything about it.

What points do you emphasize in your aikido?

I emphasize basic techniques. One sees various styles at the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration but my style is the same as Doshu’s.

What foreign countries have you traveled to?

I have been to Brazil and America. I visited cities like New York and Boston in the U.S. This was about seven years ago. As for Europe, I have been to Scandinavian countries such as Finland. I have been to Taiwan about five times. There is a dojo called Ryuzan in Taiwan, which is an area like Asakusa in Tokyo, and it is our sister dojo. So I go there each year. This year I will go to Hawaii on February 13 and at the end of May I will go to Germany with Doshu. During the consecutive holidays in May I will go to Taiwan. In the summer I will again go to Germany and Sweden and so on.

Do any of your direct students teach abroad?

Yes, I have one teaching in Rio in Brazil. There are three uchideshi instructors in my dojo all of whom have lived in foreign countries for one or two years. I have them go abroad to gain experience.

There are many ways of practicing including hard and soft approaches, training where injury never occurs or training with the idea that injuries sometimes occur since aikido is a budo. What is your opinion regarding this matter, Sensei?

I began studying under O-Sensei in 1955. At that time, he did hard practice. Then, naturally, as he got older, 75 or 80, his techniques changed. I witnessed the gradual transition from the time he relied on his strength to the period where he executed soft techniques. If you intend to train a small group of people, like we uchideshi in order to make them really proficient at aikido, budo-like hard practice is appropriate. However, if the main purpose is to spread the art, you must attempt to prevent injuries. Although I have experienced various styles of practice, I believe that spreading the art is our biggest mission. For that reason I teach the way the present Doshu does. There are almost no injuries that way. I think if you intend to become an uchideshi or professional aikido teacher, you can do a lot of hard training. People in general come for a change of pace after work. Some people are satisfied by enjoying a beer when they return home from practice. We don’t have to cater to them but it’s difficult to continue without taking this into consideration. Anyway, even though they view aikido that way it still does them good. So I think it’s okay that they are many ways of thinking about aikido. I believe that as the number of dojos I operate increases it demonstrates that my approach has not been inappropriate to the times.

Were there injuries when you entered Hombu Dojo?

Yes, often. After all we were practicing how to make our techniques work on our partners and how to make ourselves impervious to pain from the techniques. We were proud of not feeling pain when people applied joint techniques on us. Anyhow, we were young. I think that this kind of hard practice was good for that period as a part of the process. It is thanks to these people that aikido has spread. So I think that if people who just came to train became instructors, the value of aikido would not be recognized to the extent it is today.

Some of those who have viewed the films of O-Sensei say that his aikido was phony. The reason they think this is that the attacks against him appeared too weak. What sort of attitude did you as uchideshi have when you attacked O-Sensei?

Naturally I did my best. I mean I attacked with all my might. There was of course the other side when I hesitated because Sensei was old. I am asked the same kinds of questions by people who have practiced karate or judo. However, I believe that I have studied enough to develop a counter-argument.

Thank you, Sensei, for taking time out to answer our questions.

(The above interview was held at the Kodaira Dojo on December 10, 1984. Translated by Ikuko Kimura and Stanley Pranin)