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Interview with Bansen Tanaka

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #68 (August 1985)

We understand that you used to study with Yoichiro (Hoken) Inoue Sensei (O-Sensei’s nephew and founder of Shin’ei Taido) before the war?

Bansen Tanaka (1912-1988)

Yes. I met Ueshiba Sensei in October of 1936. He had a relative in Suita (a section of Osaka) but he stayed at an inn because their house was too small. At that time I was practicing Judo. My friend, who was a son of the owner of that inn, was also practicing Judo. So he came to call me to the inn saying that there was an interesting teacher staying there. When I went to the inn I found Ueshiba Sensei and Inoue Sensei.

So you met them by chance.

Yes, I went to the inn without understanding what was happening. After listening to Ueshiba Sensei talk for a while, I asked him to teach me his art. He said that since Mr. Inoue taught at a metropolitan police office, he would instruct me on his way back (from Mie Prefecture) if I provided him with a place to stay in Osaka. So I immediately looked for a dojo. Fortunately, I found an empty house which used to be a billiard parlor and laid down some 60 tatami mats. I set up this dojo in November of 1936.

So it only took you one month to set up the dojo…

It only took about ten days since I knew Inoue Sensei was coming to stay. The house I found had two stories which was good, but the rent was high. I think I paid 25 Yen (about $500 to $600 in today’s money) to rent that house! At first I thought it was strange when O-Sensei told me to gather together persons only from rich families but then the monthly fee was really high. Although the fee was five yen, we had to set aside at least ten yen for this and that.

How much would it be in today’s money?

It was a period in which one earned about two yen for one day’s labor. It was no wonder O-Sensei told me to gather together only those from rich families. Since the monthly fee was high, people from poor families could not join. I think I got together about 11 people.

Was Inoue Sensei teaching in the Kansai (Osaka-Kyoto) area at that time?

No, he wasn’t. There seemed to be a police office in Mie Prefecture and he used to go there to teach. I also accompanied him once or twice but I don’t remember how we got there.

How often did Inoue Sensei teach there?

He went there every day. There was no other place for him to go. Ueshiba Sensei came to Osaka about twice a month. Whenever he came I used to serve him a delicious sea bream. This fish could be had for the price of 2 yen. I would give O-Sensei a specially big one. I think O-Sensei ate it while having a drink. Things continued this way until April 1939. I was drafted that year. I remained in the army returning only after the war ended.

O-Sensei came to a police office in Osaka in October 1951 when it started to become cold. He often gave courses at the Sonezaki Police Office in the city. The chief of the headquarters at that time was the late Mr. Kenji Tomita who was the former managing director of the aikikai. It was in this connection that O-Sensei came to Osaka after the war. He contacted the police over the phone and requested that “the man named Tanaka who lived in Suita in the old days” be called over. Since the police are experts in this type of matter they immediately came to me and I rushed over to see O-Sensei. O-Sensei was surprised that I came to him so quickly. I brought him over to my house. He told me to gather together those who used to practice in the old days and then he gave a demonstration in my house. My house was quite large if I cleared away my possessions. While talking with O-Sensei he suggested that I build a dojo. It was completed at the end of 1951.

Since Sensei instructed me to go to Iwama, I explained the layout plan of the dojo to the carpenters and told them to build it during my absence. I stayed in Iwama for training for about one month and I practiced about four times a day. My dojo had a nameplate which said “Ueshiba Morihei” for a long time. In other words, I made it look like it was O-Sensei’s dojo. He was really pleased with this and was very responsive to me. By the time I returned from training in Iwama the building had already been completed. I think it was January 10 when O-Sensei gave a demonstration there. I began my dojo in January 1952.

So it’s been 33 years since this dojo was built…

That’s right.

How often did O-Sensei come to Osaka after the war?

He stayed with me for about one year and a half after this dojo was built. He said, “I will stay for your benefit.” Since his wife was in Tokyo he often returned home during this period. So altogether he was with me for about 8 months. I always listened to his difficult and incomprehensible talk. But it was good for me. These memories are still in my subconscious and as I write I recall various things now.

Did O-Sensei himself teach?

Yes, he also taught. The dojo used to be downstairs. There was a room next to the dojo and O-Sensei used to sit there and watch us practice. He sometimes came out of the room and instructed us.

O-Sensei’s body at that time was amazing. In the old days there was no bath in the house so we went out to a public bath. However, Sensei said he would not take a bath after somebody else had taken one. So I used to make a special request of the owner of the public bath and took Sensei there around three o’clock in the afternoon. When I used soap to wash his back I was scolded. He said soap was not necessary to wash him. However, when I rubbed his back only with a towel it made a thumping sound. When I told him it was hard for me to wash his back, he responded, “Is it really?” (Laughter) Then, after that, when I touched his back again, it had already become soft. Anyway, Sensei had muscles bulging out all over his body. It was really hard work to take him to a bath and wash him every day. Sensei used soap only to wash his hands and face but never for his body. I stopped using soap on my back from that time on. No dirt has ever come off me even when I thought my back was dirty. (Laughter) O-Sensei said: “Tanaka, you don’t necessarily have to take a bath. You don’t have to wash your body with soap. Look at those tramps. They don’t become sick even though they sleep in dirty places.” (Laughter)

Would you tell us a little more about Inoue Sensei?

Inoue Sensei is a nephew of Ueshiba Sensei. He is a very strict man. When he does techniques he becomes extremely severe. However, when he talks after training he is quite relaxed. I knew him for six months before I saw him take a drink. He said he didn’t drink. He may actually have been a heavy drinker but he never drank with us. Then once when a new cabaret opened in Osaka and I invited him to go there for a drink, he gulped down sake after sake. I thought to myself: “God, I must have been fooled by him.” (Laughter) When he played he played hard. However, once he began training he became really strict. What we call ikkyo and nikyo now were at that time called ikkajo and nikajo. When he applied his nikajo on us, he continued to apply pressure even though we would slap the mat saying, “Not yet. Not yet.” Every day we used to say: “Well, shall we go to the dojo and be made to cry?” It was so painful that the tears would trickle down our faces! He said that he would know when our bones were broken! Because of his severe nikajo everybody at that time became strong against the nikyo and sankyo pressures. In those days we often practiced seated techniques. Nikyo applied during seated techniques was really painful. He was really fond of such seated techniques. He did them very often and mentioned how important they were.

There was one other person who was really strong. It was a teacher named (Tsutomu) Yukawa. He was an amazing sensei who did feats such as binding a wooden beam of about 5” x 5” to his arm and loading a person on top of it and then swinging them around. He used to go to the Sonezaki Police Office to train while living in Suita.

Did he die during the war or after it ended?

He died in Osaka during the war. He often came to see me when I was in the army. He came with a bottle of whisky, he was really a heavy drinker. I acquired a position as sort of a bodyguard thanks to aikido because of an officer who had studied with Yukawa Sensei told me to apply nikyo to him. I applied the pressure very strongly and he became angry and shouted: “What are you doing?” I then became a bodyguard on an order from the commanding officer.

Did Yukawa Sensei also teach in Osaka?

After I was called into the army, Inoue Sensei returned home. The remaining students went to Yukawa Sensei’s house for practice. However, everyone was eventually called into the service and left the dojo.

We understand that Yukawa Sensei died when he was still quite young.

Yes, he was young. I learned about his death after I came back from the war. It seems that he had been somewhere in Manchuria and came back from there. He was having a drink in Osaka. Although I don’t know the details it seems that he was killed.

Did Inoue Sensei come to your dojo after you opened it?

No, he didn’t. He never came after I opened my dojo because I was instructing. When I built this dojo O-Sensei stayed with me for a while. At that time “dojo-buster” types sometimes showed up. There were at least three people a month who came to the dojo claiming that they had been practicing martial arts like Karate and Judo. These kinds of people always came the moment after O-Sensei left the dojo! (Laughter). When O-Sensei was here with me nobody showed up. However, I was never beaten. There used to be a brazier in the center of the room. Once when I was talking with a visitor who was sitting opposite me with this brazier between us, he suddenly came to thrust at me. We used to call this type of person “dojo busters”. I immediately brushed him aside. I told him that since kami lived here he should offer a gift. However, I never wanted to be beaten by his type. I felt a great responsibilty for my dojo after it was built. O-Sensei often said that you should never give a visitor a chance to attack you. He also said that you should be ready for his attack at all times when talking to him. When I dodged the attack of this dojo-buster as soon as he began to move he was really surprised. One time, there was a Karate instructor who came to thrust at me. I entered using irirni and pinned him. I asked him why he wanted to learn aikido since he was a Karate teacher. He said that he was interested in learning the circular movements of aikido. He asked me to give him about three months intensive training so I charged him three times as much as normal. I guess the monthly fee was 800 Yen at that time and I charged him 3,000 Yen. There was a period where such things happened after the dojo was built. At that time nobody knew what aikido was. When the dojo was built no one would come when it rained. I was in the red for the first seven years and thought about abandoning the dojo. Then around 1960 the number of practitioners began to increase rapidly. We have no “dojo busters” now. If I include school clubs I have 47 or 48 dojos. There are many dojos just in Kyoto.

Do you go there to teach yourself?

No, I have trained instructors to teach at these dojos. One cannot personally handle so many places. At present, I have four live-in students (uchideshi). I have about 20 salaried workers who come to help me in the evenings. I have one more live-in student who is, at the moment, in Canada. So, that makes a total of five.

Are the circular movements of O-Sensei present in the aikido that you have practiced since the war?

Yes, all of my movements are circular. We use many circular movements, especially in my dojo. They’re not just circular but spiral, so the position of one’s hips should not be high. Spiral movements are possible if one’s hips are low. Spiral movements are the most important thing and we emphasize them in my dojo.

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