Interview with Henry Kono
by Norm Ibuki
Henry Kono, 75, is the only Canadian aikidoist to have trained with Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, on August 24, 1927. As a nisei (second generation Canadian of Japanese descent), he, two sisters, a brother, and parents were interned in a concentration camp during World War Two.
After the war, the family resettled in Toronto. Henry went to visit Japan in 1964 to visit both of his parent’s (originally from Shikoku) families. His becoming an aikidoist was something of an accident. After visiting family in Japan, he still had time and decided to check out Hombu dojo in Tokyo where O-Sensei was teaching. He’d read about a miraculous martial artist and wanted to see if it was true. It was. Henry spent four years training at Hombu dojo.
He returned to Toronto, Ontario four years later where he worked as a commercial artist in advertising until retirement. He still teaches classes and seminars in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. He has one son.
When I call him for the first time, I call him “Kono Sensei” (“sensei” being a common term of respect to all teachers in Japan). He insists on me calling him “Henry.” My first aikido teacher from Nelson, B.C., Jean Rene Leduc, was the same way. I met him at his house in east end Toronto on January 3, 2003.
He’s a friendly, down-to-earth guy. Over cups and cups of green tea and bowlfuls of rice crackers, we chat in his kitchen well into the afternoon.
What are you doing these days?
Not much. I’m still teaching once in a while.
You’re doing some teaching in Ireland?
I go there because I have a friend, Alan Ruddock (late 50s) who was in Japan with me at that time. We didn’t correspond for about 30 years. He went his way. About seven or eight years ago he wrote to me and said, “I hear you’re still alive! Do you want to come over?’ I started going over there. I like Ireland.
The way Alan’s aikido has evolved from the last time I saw him in Japan took my breath away. For a whole hour while he taught, I sat mesmerized by the way he changed and improvised from the handful of moves we both left Japan with.
I didn’t really go to Japan to study aikido. I went to see my relatives. My mother comes from a family of 11 and my dad had one brother and one sister. I wanted to go and see them. In 1964 I went to Japan. In one month I visited all of my relatives, a week here, a week there. I had a six-month visa so when I got back to Tokyo I still had 5 months to kill. Tokyo is a really aggravating city. If you’re not doing anything, you can’t stay there. I’d heard about aikido so I decided to check it out. The day I went, it was about two in the afternoon, Bob Nadeau was rolling on the mat. I said, “What do I have to do to join up?” I stayed four years.”
Did you ever practice martial arts before?
I never did any martial arts before. There were a couple of articles in the New Canadian (a now defunct Japanese Canadian newspaper) about this fantastic old man named Ueshiba who threw a couple of guys around without even touching them. There was also a little book by Jay Gluck Zen Combat, and there was an article in there about O-Sensei. That was all I knew before I went there.
Did being interned during World War Two in a concentration camp because you are Japanese Canadian have any effect on your thinking?
No. For me, internment in Slocan, B.C. was an exciting time. I saw a new country, a different place. My mother didn’t have a negative attitude toward it. She said, “In wartime this is the kind of thing that happens. We should thank our lucky stars that we can all stay together.” Nobody was being tortured or interrogated.
How old were you in 1964?
I was almost 37. I had relatives in Tokyo but I had my own place. At that time, living in Japan was very cheap. If I watched my money I could live on $100 a month. The other foreign students were teaching English to make money, but I felt that Japanese people didn’t like taking lessons from a Japanese. If I could say something, but they couldn’t, they felt very self conscious about it. I tried it for a while but it was a fiasco so I concentrated on my language problems.
Where is Alan based?
He lives on the Isle of Man, but his parents live in Dublin. When he went back home he went to teacher’s college in London and ended up on the Isle of Man. He teaches there as well as in Ireland. Every summer we have a one-week seminar in Galway.
What’s aikido like in Ireland?
Ireland is great. It’s the friendliest aikido I’ve ever seen. In Ireland, it’s all open and friendly. I’ve had people come from other parts of Ireland and they’ve told me this was the nicest seminar they’ve ever attended.
What about the affiliation of the dojo?
In Europe, there are lots of independent dojos and those affiliated with Hombu.
What kept you at Hombu for four years?
It was what Mr. Ueshiba was doing. What was he doing? This is the mystery of O-Sensei. To me, he was a magician. Don’t get me wrong, he was a genius. I have the deepest respect for him. If I never saw him, I wouldn’t have got what I got. Never! If I practiced 100 years in Canada, I never would have gotten it. It’s only because I saw him that I got what I got.
If you read Japanese history, Japan fought with the sword for about 1,200 years. Maybe there were about 15 really great swordsmen. One per century. He was one of them. He’s the last. We aren’t going to get anybody like him anymore because society and the times don’t demand that kind of person. Now, they’ve got to study computers!
Any one of these Japanese teachers who found the truth never said what it was. They all took it to the grave with them and O-Sensei was no different in this respect.
You’ve been practicing for a long time.
Practice doesn’t mean anything. What O-Sensei was thinking is important. He was basing his moves on an unseeable matrix we can’t comprehend. Everybody thought he could do these things because he had 65 years of practice. I didn’t look at it that way. For me, what he knew was important. Not everybody looked look at it that way.
[Henry shows me a quote from Sugano Sensei, which says: “It was as if O-Sensei was doing aikido while everyone else was doing something else.”]
So what were we doing?! What we were doing on the mat wasn’t what he was doing.”
Showing me another quote from Bob Nadeau’s article in Aikido Today Magazine, which says: “Once O-Sensei told me one day clearly and emphatically that the truth of aikido could be caught in a very short moment of time. If you catch the secret,” he said. “You can do what I do in three months.”
That’s what I was looking for. That’s where I had the advantage. I could speak the language. I couldn’t read or write, but I could converse and the black belts helped me everytime I worked with them. But for those who couldn’t speak Japanese, the exchange of ideas was very limited. And even if you spoke Japanese, it took about three years to understand what they are really trying to convey to you. After about three-and-a-half years it started to dawn on me. It takes patience and persistence.
O-Sensei never taught classes per se because he was 82 by the time I arrived. When he came out and did these things it was a mystical experience that you were seeing.
How often did you see O-Sensei?
If he was in the back of the dojo he might come out every day. If he was away, you might not see him for three weeks. If he was there, he might come out for five or ten minutes then go back in. I saw him about 300 times in four years. He never explained what he did, he just did it! This is what I mean by magician. He did it and if you couldn’t discern what he did, there was no way to figure it out. He never explained anything but he left hints which were very difficult to discern because of the way he stated his ideas in very short phrases that no one could understand.
I saw a tape of Shioda Sensei being interviewed in England. He was with O-Sensei for ten years from about 1930-40, he said O-Sensei never explained once in that 10 years as to what he was doing!
He wasn’t a teacher in the sense that he was teaching. The Japanese may look at that as teaching, but in the western sense it isn’t. You had to intuit what he was doing and saying, read between the lines, so to speak.
Were you practicing everyday?
Every day. I usually went to the class from 8 to 9 am. Because the pace was so fast, you could only take one class a day. I was in my mid-30s and my body wasn’t recovering so fast. They also said, “One hour a day is enough but come every day.” To me the 8-9 class was the nicest class because there were a lot of foreigners there, about a dozen. And, the beautiful part was at the dojo I could speak English!
Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei with foreigners
training at Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1967.
Who were you training with?
Bob Nadeau, Bob Frager, Virginia Mayhew, Terry Dobson, Ken Cottier and Norm Miles who is still living in Japan. There were a few from Germany, France and England.
Any other Canadians?
No one else. There were a few Japanese from the States: Joanne Shimamoto, who married Akira Tohei in Chicago, and another chap who’s teaching in North Carolina, Roy Suenaka, and one other from California.
Did you train at any other time?
Occasionally I went to night classes but they were so crowded! It was like practicing in a packed streetcar!
How do you remember the training back then?
It was a really enjoyable time. We were able to joke, we were able to talk on the mat, chat, laugh and nobody said anything. I’ve heard that it’s all changed now. Before Terry Dobson passed away, he said to me: “Henry we were there at the best time!” All of us foreigners were quite lonely. We all stuck together.
What kind of foreign community was there?
We all lived individually. The only community was at the dojo. Many were teaching English otherwise they couldn’t exist there. I was about the only one who wasn’t working.
What did you do with all of your time then?
Mainly, I was trying to improve my Japanese to speak more properly.
Did you ever go back to Japan?
No. I saw what I wanted to see, got what I wanted. So, I never went back.
Did you teach aikido when you returned to Toronto?
I taught at a community center behind the Art Gallery of Ontario where there’s a settlement house. Somebody was teaching there and when they heard that I had come back they asked me if I wanted to run the class. I ran that for about 20 years. I worked during the daytime and did this as a part-time thing.
What did O-Sensei say about Yin-Yang?
He never talked much about it. But he studied it in Omoto-kyo, the religion was primarily interested in, more or less, what the Shinto believe. About the Shinto, even in Japan, they don’t tell everything to the Japanese either. They just spill out just “enough,” a little bit at a time. A lot of the knowledge they still keep to themselves so even the Japanese don’t know much about it either! If you ask a Japanese, “What is ki”? They can’t answer this precisely. They’re stumped too!
What did O-Sensei have to say about “ki”?
You couldn’t discuss these things because he wasn’t about to tell you! He would say something and either you get it or you don’t. That’s it! You couldn’t say “Sensei what do you mean?” This is what you couldn’t do!
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