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Interview with Shoji Nishio (1992), Part 1

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #91 (Spring 1992)

Having first trained in judo and karate, 8th dan Shihan Shoji Nishio knocked at the door of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, in 1951. Today, in his teaching, Nishio Sensei stresses a martial arts-oriented, constantly changing approach to aikido while adhering to the ethical principles held dear by the founder. This is the first of a two-part interview with one of aikido’s most highly-regarded figures.

Shoji Nishio c. 1997

The last time we interviewed you. Sensei, was about eight years ago [1983]. On that occasion you talked to us a bit about your early training experiences. I believe you enrolled in the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in about 1951.

That’s right.

Did you enter as an uchideshi (live-in disciple)?

No. The uchideshi at that time were Kanshu Sunadomari present head of the Manseikan dojo in Kumamoto, Kyushu, Sadateru Arikawa [present Aikikai shihan], and Mr. Noguchi. Shigeo Tanaka and Mr. Sakai were commuting to the dojo.

At that time was there a distinction between the aikido taught at the Yoshinkan and the aikido that you practiced at the Aikikai?

At that time the Yoshinkan had managed to open a dojo in Tsukudo Hachiman, but there didn’t seem to be any distinction made in what they were doing.

This unusual photo of everyone posing together was taken about 40 years ago. Here are Doshu, Morihiro Saito Sensei [head of the Ibaragi Dojo], Koichi Tohei Sensei [present head of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido], Kiyoyuki Terada [Yoshinkan shihan], Gozo Shioda Sensei [originator of Yoshinkan Aikido], Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei [present Aikikai shihan], Sadateru Arikawa [present Aikikai shihan], and the late Kisaburo Osawa Shihan [former director of Aikikai]. Looking at this photo, it doesn’t seem as if there was much of a distinction made between what different people were teaching. Did the late Kenji Tomiki Sensei [first president of the Japan Aikido Association] also sometimes come to practice?

Yes, at that time he came to practice and we sometimes trained together and would go to Okubo Station together on our way home.

Mr. Tomiki and I would leave for home together. The area around the dojo was burnt out during the war and there was nothing there.

Did Tomiki Sensei talk about competitive aikido at that time?

No, he had not yet begun to talk about it. But since I knew Mr. Tomiki from the Kodokan days, we would sometimes practice things like the eight-comer balance-breaking exercise (happo no kuzushi) when he had time. At that time I hadn’t been practicing aikido very long but I already knew quite a bit of judo and karate and I felt that he was easy to understand.

I believe Tomiki Sensei emphasized theory quite a bit in his conversations.

Yes, he thought about things from the standpoint of academic education. He would talk about rikaku judo (judo techniques executed from separated position, i.e. aikido techniques). I believe that Tomiki Sensei thought about changing aikido in a way similar to how Kano Sensei changed jujutsu into judo. I also felt it would be good if this method were adopted into junior and senior high school education. In other words, if you do a martial art like aikido when you are small, you may end up learning it superficially, and won’t be able to overcome your bad habits when it is important to do so. The result is poor technique. Because of this, I thought it might be good to have young people practice aikido competitively. My thought at that time was that it might be better to begin aikido at about university age after one has acquired a certain amount of judgement. Children practicing aikido lack the ability to understand it. From that standpoint, I thought that it might be good to incorporate Mr. Tomiki’s method [competitive aikido].

Did Shioda Sensei sometimes come to the dojo to instruct?

No, he didn’t teach. He would sometimes show up if there was an event. He would often peek into the dojo to see what we were doing. Mr. Mochizuki [present head of Yoseikan Hombu Dojo] would come too. I look back with fond memories on those days.

Besides O-Sensei was there anyone who served as a model for you at that time?

I learned quite a few things from Mr. Yamaguchi’s methods. He knew some things I didn’t. My background was in judo and karate, but he had studied the sword while in middle school under the old education system. I felt his approach was very original.

We were told that aikido came from the sword, but I was never convinced by the answers to my questions about this. So around 1955 I started to practice iai and also jodo. There were very few people doing iai at that time. Since I was doing it in order to learn aikido, I didn’t get caught up in a single style, but rather practiced a number of different systems.

The schools were all different depending on the period from which they came. But this was something that was necessary. For example, something like the present institutionalized iai which is based mainly on Omori-ryu is not particularly useful for us. That system evolved into a part of the samurai etiquette during the Tokugawa period. It’s far from being a real fighting system. My doubts about it started with the way they wear the sword. It’s impossible to sit while wearing a long sword. That’s the position for the short sword. Samurai didn’t sit while wearing a long sword. If you went to someone’s house you deposited your sword with the host. If you were somewhere where it was okay to have your sword, you placed it either behind you or on your opposite side. This was to show that you weren’t going to draw it.

Would you elaborate more on your sword background?

I learned directly from quite a few sword teachers, such as Shigenori Sano Sensei and sword masters who were 9th and 10th dans at that time. Normally, you couldn’t get close to such people, but I was young and lacking in discretion. I didn’t restrain myself and when I went to them they would talk to me a lot. Those experiences are very useful to me now.

What about your training with the jo?

For my jo training I went to the Shindo Muso-ryu dojo of Takaji Shimizu. It was about the same time, around 1957 or 58.

There is a man named Hosho Shiokawa who is the headmaster of Mugai-ryu and is the current ECO Karate Federation president and All-Japan Jodo Federation vice-president. It seems that he also was going to Shimizu Sensei’s dojo at that time. In his book he writes something about me. You’ll understand if you read it. He was having trouble progressing in karate and started practicing aiki. I was having problems with judo and started aiki. We trained together for about two years. After that, he went to Mr. Shimizu’s dojo to train. I went too, but it didn’t suit me at all. I’ll introduce him to you sometime, so why don’t you meet with him? He came to the dojo when Mr. Tohei was active. If you meet him I think he’ll talk about Mr. Tohei and Mr. Yamaguchi. He’s truly an exceptional person. He also taught at Sogen Omori’s dojo and for many years at the Tesshukai. Then I went to Shimizu Sensei’s dojo to talk for about half a year and met quite a number of people. I usually practiced jodo at the Yokohama dojo so if there was something I didn’t understand I would go to Shimizu Sensei’s place to ask questions. He taught me many times. His instruction has been very useful. A great man like that has many great things to offer. I tell my own students that if they are going to visit other teachers that they should see the top people. Then, even if there is something they don’t understand now they will someday benefit from what they have been exposed to.

Where did you practice karate?

First I went to Yasuhiro Konishi Sensei’s dojo. In those days Japanese university students who practiced karate were quite weak. Many young fellows were going to the universities to teach. I didn’t pay attention to different styles and whenever a new dojo opened I would go have a look. I didn’t concern myself with such things at all. In the beginning Tokyo was a fire-ravaged area and there weren’t any dojos.

Let’s see. First you did judo, karate, aikido, iai, and jodo. Did you practice any other martial arts?

I also practiced the spear. I did a little juken (wooden bayonet) training in school.

When watching your training today I saw that you apply the jo and ken to your practice of empty-handed techniques. Are they also applicable to atemi?

In our practice of the throws and pins of empty-handed techniques the important principles of tsukuri (preparatory action for attack) and kuzushi (balance-breaking) almost always involve atemi. I use atemi techniques and breathing (kokyu) in tsukuri and kuzushi. When I started aikido there were few throwing techniques. There were only iriminage, shihonage, and kotegaeshi. I made up most of the hip-throw techniques because of my background in judo.

It seems that Mr. Tohei once said, “Nishio’s not doing aikido. I don’t know whether he’s doing judo or karate, but it’s not aikido. He doesn’t know how to extend ki” [laughter].

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