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Interview with David Lynch

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #89 (Fall 1991)

Thirty years ago New Zealander David Lynch entered the Yoshinkan dojo as a live-in student Since then he has practiced a variety of styles under a number of different instructors, including Koichi Tohei Sensei of the Ki no Kenkyukai, Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, and Kenji Shimizu Shihan of Tendo-ryu Aikido. Now he runs an unaffiliated dojo in Auckland, New Zealand, where he pursues his eclectic approach to aikido.

David Lynch with son Ken

David, you are known in the aikido world for your eclectic background. You have had experiences with a number of well-known teachers and systems and are now operating a dojo in New Zealand. Let’s go back to the beginning; how did you first get involved in aikido?

It must have been in 1962, when I came to Japan to work for the Asahi Evening News. I had gotten interested in judo, so I started training and at the same time working and found that I was not well-organized enough to do both. I was either too tired to work or too tired to train. I then found out that it was possible to live in an aikido dojo, although I had no idea what aikido was. I thought, in fact, that judo was sort of the mainstream, and all the others were minor tributaries of it. I learned about aikido from a New Zealand friend of mine, Barney Peihopa. He wanted to send some photographs of himself practicing aikido back to New Zealand, and he wanted a fall guy to take the ukemi. I went along and found that the judo that I had—I was only about nikyu—was quite hopeless in the face of things like nikyo and sankyo, which at the Yoshinkan they called nikajo and sankajo. I thought it was interesting.

Then Barney wanted to get out of the dojo where he was living, so he moved out and I moved in. My entrance test was to be fronted up with [Takashi] Kushida, who was at that time about fifth dan. Old Shioda Sensei was standing there, asking me if I could do ukemi. I foolishly said, "Yes, I can. I can do ukemi." I didn’t realize what I was in for. He immediately said, "Grab this guy’s wrist." So I grabbed Kushida’s wrist and it was shihonage, one after another. I realized quickly that I couldn’t do ukemi. I kept landing on my head. I kept jumping up again, and I got so wound up with the whole thing that I was hanging on pretty strong, and he missed a couple of the throws, and that made him even wilder. So I ended up sort of crawling around the mat, not quite sure of where I was. Apparently I had passed the test, so they took me on. I lived in the dojo for about 18 months.

I really enjoyed the simplicity of living in the dojo. You didn’t have to worry about the basics. Theoretically, I was supposed to pay money, and they were supposed to charge me so much and then debit so much for the work, but in actual fact, if you did your job properly it didn’t cost you anything, as long as you stuck to the regime. So we wore dogi and nothing but. I just piled my belongings into the cupboard and didn’t see them again for a bit over a year. We even used to wander around Tokyo, go for a look at Tokyo Tower, wearing geta and dogi.

Shioda Sensei presently limits his activities to giving demonstrations and teaching instructors, but I imagine at that point, in the early ’60s, he was doing a lot of the daily instruction.

Yes. He was there every day, regardless. This caused me some problems because I had to pick him up for the morning class since I was the only one who had a driving license. I had to get up an hour earlier than the others, and they already had to get up pretty early for the 6:30 morning class. They had a left-hand drive Morris Oxford. Kan-cho was very proud of this car, with its leather seats, but the engine was absolutely shot. To get it started I had to get up early and pull the choke out and make numerous attempts to start it, and then when I finally got it started I had to let it run for quite a long time. Then I’d have to go and pick him up. He stayed in the dojo one night a week, before the Wednesday morning class, after which we’d mix up this soup with fish and beans, and a lot of the dojo sponsors and some of the older characters used to come.

What was your impression of Shioda Sensei?

Shioda Sensei is usually described as "vigorous" in the various histories of aikido and he certainly was when I was an uchideshi at the Yoshinkan. He is such a tiny man but he used to put on pretty convincing demonstrations. During the weekly training sessions (for selected students) he would egg us on with such intensity it was as if he was possessed. Off the mat I found him a simple man, almost naive, and ready to laugh loudly at anything that struck his fancy.

One of my duties as uchideshi was to scrub his back in the bath! He liked his back soaped and scrubbed hard before he got into the tub. I would sometimes be invited to join him for a soak in the large dojo bath. He told me how he used to do the same for O-Sensei and that he learned his aikido by imitating O-Sensei’s actions in everyday life as well as on the mat, observing precisely how he picked up the soap and so on.

We once had a visit from a Zen master who commented after seeing Shioda Sensei’s demonstration that this was an example of mushin, i.e., "no mind," the ideal Zen state in which action takes place without being hindered by normal thoughts and fears.

He was a generous sensei to me and was patient with my early language difficulties and moments of culture shock.

At that time, at the Yoshinkan dojo, was there much consciousness of the fact that the man who founded aikido was Morihei Ueshiba?

I don’t think there was. I certainly never picked up on it. O-Sensei was referred to as part of the history of aikido—an important part, of course—but not as the founder. There was more mention of the long history of aikido, stretching back 700 years to Shinra Saburo Yoshimitsu who was supposedly inspired to conceive the art by the movements of a spider making its web. I was told the art came down through the centuries under various different names to the present day. It was not as if aikido suddenly appeared with O-Sensei, even though Shioda Sensei obviously had great respect for O-Sensei. He often told anecdotes about him and I know they got on well together. O-Sensei sometimes telephoned the Yoshinkan to talk to Shioda Sensei, and I recall once going to pick O-Sensei up, in my role as Shioda Sensei’s driver, when the two were going to dinner together. The Yoshinkan operated fairly independently, and when I was training there full-time I never had contact with any other dojo.

What happened when you went back to New Zealand after you had a few years of training in Japan under your belt?

Well, there was no aikido in New Zealand at that time. Nearby our place there was a sports center and my wife and I started teaching there. It was one of these YMCA-type places, where members paid very little to join, and of course it was voluntary as far as we were concerned. We got more people than we could handle. No one wore dogi or anything, they wore all kinds of strange clothing. I thought if there were that many people, and there were literally hundreds coming in, and going out as well, maybe we could hack it commercially. So with the aid of a friend we took over a warehouse right in the middle of Auckland city and converted it into a dojo and started operating commercially. I quit my job and started full time.

About when was this?

We officially opened in 1967. But we had one major morale problem, because after we had set up this dojo, and did our first ukemi, up from downstairs comes the landlord who happened to be a watchmaker. He said, "Come down here." I went. I had to admit, it was simply incredible; when someone did ukemi upstairs there was this incredible shaking, and bits of paint from the ceiling fell down, while he was down there trying to fix watches. But I reasoned that he shouldn’t be there at that time of night, because we were doing it in the evening or early in the morning. But after that we had to try and do our training without ukemi or with very soft ukemi. We survived for about a year. We never made any money, but we never lost any money either, so it was even. But with this constant problem with the landlord, we finally moved out. About that time I was in the throes of coming back to Japan, and we closed the professional dojo and went back to a nonprofit organization. Then aiki teachers started drifting in from other places. The first visitor was [Nobuo] Takase. He came over at the invitation of one of the karate clubs, but he fell out with the chap that had sponsored him. I was able to help him reorganize his visa, and then he married a New Zealand girl and he’s been there ever since. Then Frank Holmes came over from England, with a totally new style of aikido as far as we were concerned. It was very soft. Once again it was very demoralizing because we were told that we were doing everything wrong. We were "using too much power"; our aikido was "obsolete." So, I said to him, "Look, I like what you’re doing. It’s good stuff. Would you care to take over the dojo?" But he wasn’t willing to do that. So we parted company. That was my first real encounter with other types of aikido. I knew that the Yoshinkan would be equally adamant that you did it their way. I guess that was the beginning of the end of my following one particular form. When I came back to Japan, I ended up changing to another style because the Yoshinkan had moved way out of town.

To Koganei.

Yes. I went there for a while, but it was out of the question for me to go regularly.

What year did you return to Japan?

1973.

What brought you back that time?

Basically work. I had this urge to go back to Japan and I suggested to the New Zealand tourist department that they ought to open an office in Japan. This apparently coincided with their own desires, so they virtually wrote the job around me. I applied for it and got it, and came over here to open the New Zealand Government Tourist Office in February 1973. It was supposed to be a three to four year term, but it kept getting extended, so I stayed on here until 1988.

So you were here consecutively for fifteen years?

Yes. During the course of which I ended up going to various different dojos, mainly for geographical reasons. I wasn’t terribly settled in Tokyo at any time and would get fed up with the middle of the city and move out, and then would get fed up with the commuting and come back in. So we moved house about six times in the fifteen years that we were here.

What was your next major training experience in Japan?

I was living in Yoyogi, near our embassy. I heard about the Ki no Kenkyukai, which had just split off from the Aikikai.

This was around 1974?

Yes. The dojo was at the Yoyogi Youth Center, only walking distance from where I was living. It was a very small dojo. They weren’t even using proper tatami. They had wrestling mats.

Do you have any Tohei Sensei anecdotes?

As is well known, Tohei Sensei stresses ki as the main feature of his aikido and does not hesitate to say that other aikido teachers do not do so "because they don’t understand it." This attitude presents aikido students with a predicament: first there is the demand that you accept that ki is the be-all and end-all of aikido, and then there follows a cosmology based on that which seems to give pat answers to all the problems of the universe, rather in the style of a religious cult. One feels it is all a bit too simple.

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