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Shihan’s Last Lessons

by Gaku Homma

Published Online

March 22, 2003

Having just returned from a twelve-day visit to Japan, I sit at my desk going through the pile of mail that has accumulated during my absence. With a sense of heaviness I set about to address the task at hand. My thoughts drift to my last visit with Aikikai Director, Akita’s Aiki Shuren Dojo Shihan, Shigeru Kawabe Sensei, only one week ago.

I have known Shigeru Kawabe Sensei for over forty years, and he has also played a very important role in Nippon Kan’s history. He has visited us here in Denver on four occasions since the 90’s, and I and many of my students have spent time with him at his dojo in Akita, Japan.

A few years ago, Kawabe Sensei was diagnosed with cancer, ironically very close to the same time as Morihiro Saito Shihan of Iwama, his teacher and lifetime close friend. Ultimately, Morihiro Saito Shihan passed away in May of 2002 and now Kawabe Sensei has followed his path.

Awaiting this final journey, Kawabe Sensei returned home from the hospital in early February of this year. The doctors told the family there was nothing more that could be done. I visited Kawabe Sensei in the early afternoon of February 26th, where I found him sequestered in his own bed. He lay without covers, slightly flushed with fever even though the room had a chill. On his face was the look of a man in great pain yet he refused any morphine to ease his suffering. I stood by his bedside and offered to massage his legs, as I had done, I reflected, for the Founder Morihei Ueshiba and Morihiro Saito Shihan. His legs no longer supported any muscles so I gently rubbed his skin. His body was so light and frail I felt I could scoop him up with one hand. We talked quietly, and I gave him news from Denver.

His mind was still clear, but it was difficult to hear what he could say. Quietly he whispered to his wife who could understand him as only a wife of many years can. She relayed his message repeating, “he says to give his regards to everyone in Denver.” A tear formed in his eyes and he turned away from me. From this position he raised his hand in a gesture of farewell. He was saying sayonara. This was goodbye, our final farewell.

Not wanting to show the tears that were now falling on my face, I turned to leave the room. His wife followed close behind and offered me her handkerchief. “It’s alright,” she said, “He did his very best to live a good life. His body is tired now, so it will soon be time for him to go back to heaven. There he can rest.” She said this with a sad but understanding smile.

Kawabe Sensei and his wife traveled last to the United States and Canada in October of 2002 at the invitation of his long-time student Mark Larson. This trip he made against the advice of doctors and family and even me. His wife, however, knew that there was not much time left, and that it would be his last trip abroad. So they went together to complete one final mission. Minnesota University has had a branch of the university in Akita for the last twelve years, and Kawabe Sensei had a long time dream of visiting and teaching Aikido for his students in Minnesota. He also wanted to attend the wedding of one of his students who now lives in Canada.

Although very taxing, Kawabe Sensei completed this mission, and returned to Japan. Soon after his return he entered the hospital where he began many last treatments as the cancer was beginning to take the upper hand.

His condition was terminal, and one day after he waved goodbye to me from his bed, in the early hours of February 28th, 2003, he passed away at the early age of 63.

Like Morihiro Saito Shihan, Kawabe Sensei worked as a young man on the Japan Railroads. He had practiced Judo as a young man, but did not begin practicing Aikido until he was around thirty years of age. He began his practice of Aikido in Akita at the Asakura Dojo of which I was instructor at the time. He was older than me when he started practicing Aikido. I will always remember him when he started, with his heavy glasses, tight compact body and a grip that could hold a train in check. He trained very diligently and received instruction respectfully. A few years after I first met him there, Kawabe Sensei volunteered for lay-offs from Japan Railroad and turned to Aikido as a full-time occupation.

My training eventually took me from Akita and Kawabe Sensei began coming often to practice at the Iwama Dojo under Morihiro Saito Shihan. He made a tremendous effort over the years in his own training, and in promoting Aikido in Akita. Eventually, he became Shihan of Aiki Shuren Dojo and the Aikikai branch director for Akita. From that time until most recently, both privately and officially, Kawabe Sensei has supported me and Nippon Kan with his advice and assistance.

Shigeru Kawabe Shihan’s funeral ceremony.
Photo by Mark Larson.

Kawabe Sensei’s funeral ceremony was held on March 4th. For a local community funeral, it was rare for so many dignitaries of the Aikido world to attend from so far away, especially in blizzard conditions. The current Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba was in attendance from Tokyo as well as many other high-ranking instructors from many parts of Japan. At the ceremony, his wife spoke eloquently about her husband. “For my husband, his greatest joy was in the happiness of his students. He had many students, and they made his life rich. He was so happy to have been able to visit Minnesota to open the new dojo of one of his students and to attend the wedding of another. These were proud moments for him that made his life complete.”

Shigeru Kawabe Shihan’s funeral ceremony.
Photo by Mark Larson.

There are many teachers like Kawabe Sensei that are now gone. I think about how we must take what has been given to us by them, and carefully, correctly pass it on. This I think is our responsibility, and also the best way we can appreciate and say thank you to those who have gone before us. There are many who have dedicated so much of their lives, not only in Japan but all over the world to the development of Aikido. Some names we know readily, and some we do not. Yet all of their efforts have been important contributions and deserve to be remembered as part of history and the legacy of future generations.

After I left Kawabe Sensei’s bedside, I took the train to Tokyo. That day I met with the Founder and Editor of Aiki News, Mr. Stan Pranin, who had just arrived in Tokyo from the United States. I had planned to visit Aiki News headquarters in Tokyo and was fortunate to meet with him there. Mr. Pranin is now living in the United States and coordinates, edits and manages the Aiki News office in Tokyo via electronic communications. To cover Aikido news events or to conduct interviews, Mr. Pranin visits Japan regularly. I was lucky that he had just arrived. I was there to visit Aiki News to satisfy my own curiosity. There is a Japanese phrase “Hyakubun wa ikken ni shikazu” which means “It is better to look with your own eyes than to listen to a hundred accounts from others”. I wanted to confirm my opinion of Aiki News in person. I of course wanted to meet with Mr. Pranin but also I wanted to meet the rest of his Japan staff.

Mr. Stan Pranin, Editor of Aiki News arrives in Japan from the U.S.

Aiki News is published quarterly from a small office in Tokyo. This magazine, with a distribution of over 5,000 copies per issue is only one of many projects that are developed there. Close to 50 books on Aikido and other martial arts have also been produced there as well as numerous videos What I began to realize as I toured this office overflowing with data and information was the importance of the work being done there. I thought of Kawabe Sensei. Aiki News had interviewed Kawabe Sensei thus preserving his life and accomplishments for posterity. Without this kind of documentation the life of Kawabe Sensei would be relegated to the memories of a few, which would then in time be buried as well with their owners. The Aiki News staff I was discovering, was playing a very important role in this historical documentation.

A few martial artists have reached a level of “stardom” where books have been written about their lives. There are more martial artists, however, who have not become famous, but whose lives and contributions are just as important to history. The Aiki News staff I was learning, was taking the time to meticulously record the lives and events of the famous…and the martial artists of our times that have chosen not to be famous as well. They have conducted over 350 interviews with Aikido instructors and other martial artists from all over Japan and abroad.

The martial arts community in Japan has roots going back centuries, and in many ways is still steeped in ancient and somewhat archaic traditions. Many teachings have been handed down directly from generation to generation without being recorded, and there is still an air of secrecy and protectiveness surrounding many martial art schools. To have traditional martial artists open up to an “outsider” for public documentation can be a tricky task at best. It requires a person with special skills and a special sincerity of heart to gain enough trust for this kind of disclosure to take place. The term in Japanese for the secret techniques of a traditional martial artist is hiden or okuden. With the special talents of the Aiki News staff, many secrets of our Aikido past and present have come to light and been recorded for us to learn. Many facts that have been hidden in the shadows or covered in myth have been revealed. Some people I imagine have not been happy about old secrets being brought to light, while others might feel jealous or threatened. I have heard it rumored that Aiki News only “uses history as a vehicle for monetary gain.” Such a shallow understanding that would be. The services being provided by Aiki News are invaluable to us, and their success is a suitable testimonial for the demand the world has for this kind of information. Those that conceal and hide their past (or present for that matter) by refusing to be interviewed do nothing for the future of martial arts in Japan. Those that truly believe in what they are doing are best served by being open about their activities.

Aiki News began in 1974 as an eight-page hand typed newsletter. In the years since, Mr. Pranin, with the help of Ms. Ikuko Kimura and other dedicated staff members have turned this eight-page newsletter into a multimedia empire with over 10,000 subscribers and a website that is visited 3000 to 5000 times per day. It has become the most comprehensive resource for information on Aikido and the martial arts in the world today. An unbelievable amount of our Aikido history and Japanese culture has been captured, and organized for generations to come.

As I made my way through the Aiki News office, I felt like I was in Aikido Grand Central Station. The rooms although piled high with books and crammed with research papers, were well-organized into production, editing, business, distribution and management sections. The office was alive with energy and the staff worked busily on different projects. I have heard it said that there are currently about 150,000 Aikikai members worldwide. If you add that figure to the possible number of Aikidoists who are not members of the Aikikai, the total of Aikidoists in the world today is daunting. As I looked around me, I thought that this was the one staff that could organize this amount of ongoing history in the making. I am glad that the lives of the Shihan of our times will find a place in recorded history for generations to come. I am very impressed with what I found at the Aiki News office in Japan and I wish Mr. Stan Pranin, Ms. Kimura and staff continued success in their efforts as our Aikido historians. I am not aware of anyone who is more diligent in painstakingly recording the history of our martial art world, and I do believe that Aiki News has produced the most complete and comprehensive archive of martial arts history available to us today.

Spencer Everroad and his bride at the Butterfly Pavilion

Returning to the pile of mail on my desk, I opened an envelope to discover a newspaper clipping. It was a photo of a young couple kissing at their wedding ceremony. Deciding I must be a little old fashion, the photograph seemed a little non-traditional to me. The bride was dressed in black and white leather and sported a wonderful black hat. The wedding was held at the Butterfly pavilion amongst the butterflies and other creatures of the night. The wedding procession was set to the theme of Star Wars…

The groom was Spencer Everroad, one of my fondest uchideshi, and it had been my honor to provide a buffet from my restaurant for their reception.

Spencer Everroad and his bride at the Butterfly Pavilion

I first met Spencer over ten years ago as he stood in the front row of a new beginner’s class at Nippon Kan’s old dojo. I was explaining Aikido exercises when Spencer, who was usually a little on the pale side in those days turned ghostly white. He then, to my surprise, promptly keeled forward face first onto the mat! I was to learn that Spencer, who was going to college full-time and working nights at a candy factory to support himself and his schooling, had forgone his food money to pay for his Aikido beginners class! It was an interesting introduction!

After such a dramatic beginning, Spencer went on to become an uchideshi at Nippon Kan while he worked to finish college. He was hard working and dedicated and put up heroically with the severe conditions of uchideshi life. I watched him grow through this period of his life, and have seen him realize many of his dreams. It makes me smile when he comes now to the dojo, for he always says, “I’m home.” I guess I am waiting now for him to bring me pictures of his children.

I think of what Kawabe Sensei’s wife said about Kawabe Sensei’s greatest happiness, that being the happiness of his students. Not only Spencer, there have been many students who have brought me much happiness. Most of the uchideshi that have graduated successfully from Nippon Kan have been from out-of-state, so I do not get a chance to see them regularly. It is always a pleasure to get cards or a call at Christmas or New Year’s or even a surprise visit. It is like having the kids home from school.

Nippon Kan Assistant Instructor Andy Bogart practices with students in the park

Returning to the pile on my desk, a local newspaper caught my eye. On the cover page was one of our beginner’s class instructors Andy Bogart practicing Aikido in the park with another Nippon Kan student. Wow! I exclaimed when I saw it. He happened to be in the office at the time and looked at me sheepishly as I read the accompanying headline. “I’m sorry about the photo Sensei,” he began. I just laughed and with a smile I told him “What is there to be sorry for, don’t worry. On a nice Sunday afternoon, practicing outside with a friend, there is nothing bad about that.”

As I looked at the photograph it took me back to my first days in Denver. In the early days, before 1978, I didn’t have my own dojo to practice in. I was teaching classes at the local YMCA on weeknights, and every Sunday morning during the summertime my students and I would gather in the park to practice together. After practice, we would go back to my home and cook a big breakfast together. Those were the days…I reflected. While some of the students from that time are still practicing at Nippon Kan, most now have families of their own and too many responsibilities to spend their Sundays practicing Aikido in the park. Those practices are now just fond memories for most.

To see one of Nippon Kan’s next generation of leaders practicing in the park made me feel, on the one hand, like I am indeed getting old, but on the other hand, happy to see events come full circle. I am proud of this next generation of ours.

Nippon Kan has grown in the last decade or so, and there are many members. The size and scope of activities at Nippon Kan has also changed. (See AHAN for more information). Unfortunately, today it would be very difficult for me to take everyone home with me and make breakfast after class! To see the young leaders of Nippon Kan take initiative and take care of newer students warms my heart indeed.

What I have found on my desk this morning, the card from Spencer, and the newspaper clipping of practice in the park, takes away some of the sadness I felt after returning from Japan. These mementos made me reflect on life at Nippon Kan.

There are over 250 practicing students at Nippon Kan today and over 10,000 beginning students have been through the Nippon Kan beginners classes over the last decade. With my students I have witnessed many of life’s milestones. I have seen graduations, marriages, divorces, births, illnesses, hirings and firings and deaths. I have experienced all of the worries, and emotions that come with these experiences. I have experienced acts of kindness, betrayals, jealousies, generosity and loyalty—all of the experiences that come with living in our world today. Every one has helped me to grow as Nippon Kan has grown along the way.

Right now my position has changed. I no longer am able to lead practice in the park. The ship I pilot is much bigger than it once was. The view I must keep is of a wider perspective in order to steer Nippon Kan forward into the future. To do this, many times I must sacrifice my own personal feelings and act beyond them. It is a position that can become isolated. Looking at the newspaper photo of Andy practicing in the park brings back to me the times when my life was simpler and easier in some ways, affording much more private, personal time and contact with my students. It makes me smile to think that many of my students now are not aware of the early days at Nippon Kan and the struggles and process it has been through. There are some students I am sure that believe I arrived here from Japan with a 10,000 square foot dojo and hundreds of students packed in my suitcase. In any case this simple photo brings home the full circle of events in life.

In the past couple of years, it seems that many high ranking Japanese Shihan have passed away. Like Kawabe Sensei, other Shihan I have been witness to also received a great deal of happiness from the happiness of their students.

Our teachers teach us to become strong. They showed us by example how to be strong in body, and strong in mind. They do not, however, verbally teach us about death. Especially when they are strong, the lessons they teach us are about life. These were the best lessons, I believed, that is until now.

What I am now beginning to realize is that the best and last lesson from teachers I have know is a lesson that is not taught with words, yet is the most powerful of all. The death of a Shihan is his last lesson and his last gift. This is a gift that is bitter to receive yet teaches us so much about appreciation of others and inwardly gives direction to our lives. It is a lesson for each of us left behind to ponder and grow from individually.

In the practice of martial arts we are taught to be strong. Where then does death fit in to this strength? How is it a part of the life these leaders led? What finally did they understand about their own life, practice and death? These are questions that are part of our study, our practice, and a Shihan’s last lessons. I hope to be able to understand these last lessons and to be able to follow in their spirit with the happiness of my students.

“If everybody practices my Aikido and is happy, then I am happy”.

Morihiro Saito Shihan


“I wish and hope that by practicing Aikido, my students will be happy. Until I am no more I will try to help my students achieve this”.

Shigeru Kawabe Shihan