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Group Interview with Yasuo Kobayashi, Mitsugi Saotome, Yoshio Kuroiwa

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #72 (September 1986)

This is the second of a three-part interview held with these three well-known teachers on April 8, 1985, the day following the Aikido Friendship Demonstration sponsored by AIKI NEWS. Saotome, Kobayashi and Kuroiwa Sensei all participated in the demonstration and have known each other since the mid-1950s through the 1960s when they trained together at the old Hombu Dojo.

As an organization becomes larger, you also have the problem of distances. What do you think is the best way to maintain good communications when one’s student is instructing in a geographically removed location?

Saotome Sensei: There is a good example of this situation in Kobayashi Sensei’s group. There is a dojo in Tohoku (the northern part of the main island of Honshu) run by a man taught by Kobayashi Sensei. The dojo invites Kobayashi Sensei even though they are not directly controlled by him organizationally. At the same time they belong to the local Tohoku Aikido Federation. That way they’re able to get along with everyone. Kobayashi Sensei does not say they cannot join that organization. He would tell them to do their best in the context of the organization. Therefore, creating an organization does not necessarily mean that communications are cut off.

However, the International Aikido Federation instead tells members not to invite other sensei and to break off communications with outside groups - to break off friendships. This is absolute nonsense! This is totally opposite to the spirit of Aikido. Organizations themselves are not evil but we must operate them in a positive manner. It is disastrous if they operate negatively. They are like two-edged swords.

Personally I think the problem lies in the structure of organizations. Even when good people gather together, the structure ruins the whole thing. The reason is that the goal of the organization becomes making itself stronger. Communications for the sake of spreading Aikido becomes of secondary importance. Aren’t there similar problems in Judo and Karate organizations?

Saotome Sensei: Yet if you do away with organizations, there will be other problems. Since Aikido is a force in the creation of the world of the future, we can transform the structure of an organization to a form enabling us to use it in a coordinated manner. That’s why I have been saying that more time should be taken. We must continue looking for the kind of organization which can adapt to the world of the future. In order to accomplish this, we must look at examples from the past.

Does that mean reforming the traditional organizational structure so that rules are not emphasized?

Saotome Sensei: I think it is possible. For example, in this room we are surrounded by various machines like computers and televisions. Did we have these things in the past? They are the creation of human beings. Then why can’t organizations do that? Why can’t our cultures do that? I do not have such negative ideas. Even a philosophy has to be born. That is the progress of civilization. Aikido must do that too. I don’t think it can be accomplished in a short period of time. We must do it being prepared to go through many trials and errors. Organizations are, in a sense, social creatures. Therefore, if they become too oversized they collapse under their own weight. This is the nature of living organisms. Any living thing which does not adapt continuously to its environment will always die out. So we cannot say that there is nothing we can do to cope with the present problems of the organization. The answer is that we can do it. When and who will solve these problems is the major question. Also, it will require a strong will to solve these problems. Aikido has two aspects, one bujutsu, the martial technique side, and the other, the budo or martial art aspect. What we are doing now is not budo but bujutsu. Budo involves various things such as politics, education, culture and psychological areas. Bujutsu is the world of technique and budo enters the realm of philosophy. It used to be that the goal of budo was to maintain the peace in local communities, but now its role has changed to that of the maintenance of world peace. People confuse such things and fight each other thinking they are engaging in budo. This is ridiculous. Therefore, it’s strange if Aikido doesn’t have Aiki-like forms of organization.

In the present Aikido world there is an extremely powerful organization which does not welcome individual activities. What I would like to ask you here is how one can continue to engage in the activities he considers to be correct even when he knows he will be opposed?

Saotome Sensei: Ever since the problems surrounding the creation of the Federation, I have maintained my independence vis-avis Hombu Dojo. There have been quite a few problems. Rumours, obstacles, etc. But I didn’t care. I do what I do. As a result, “Aikido Schools of Ueshiba” has spread all over the United States. If I had unwisely declared a fight, my reputation would have been badly hurt. I did not engage in such fights at all. You must show that kind of attitude. If you have a way you believe in you must follow that path. You must prove yourself over the long term. Isn’t that what Aikido is supposed to be?

Kobayashi Sensei: When I started my dojo my goal was not just to make myself big. On the contrary, I didn’t think I would. I simply did what I wanted to do.

Saotome Sensei: The important factor here is the Kobayashi Sensei’s fine character. It’s a matter of moral strength and people follow him because of it. In the final analysis, it’s a matter of personalities.

Kobayashi Sensei: I imagine many things happened in connection with this demonstration (1985 Aikido Friendship Demonstration) but it was very useful. In one sense, I think it marks a major change in our era. Stanley, you yourself are crazy about Aikido, aren’t you? I think it is a remarkable thing you have done to invite such great sensei to get together all by yourself. It is something which has never happened in the past. When I first saw the list of senseis invited, I noticed there was no sensei from Hombu Dojo, so I could tell they were not backing you up. I personally accepted because I wanted to participate if time permitted.

There is something I would like to mention here. I think that yesterday’s demonstration was a great success in many respects. It was a little difficult financially, however. (Laughter) I have been able to engage in these AIKI NEWS’ related activities only because I have an outside job as a translator. I have invested tens of thousands of dollars into the publication. I am not thinking in terms of one year or ten years but rather a hundred or two hundred years. If things continue as they are no films, photographs or documents in the possession of the Aikikai or other sensei will survive. What will remain will only be those things preserved by AIKI NEWS. That is why I am working so hard now. If we succeed, these things will be everyone’s treasure in the future.

Saotome Sensei: Personally I think the problem is what to transmit to the next generation. Stanley has the viewpoint of a journalist. And those of us here now, Kobayashi Sensei, Kuroiwa Sensei and those who participated yesterday, Saito, Nishio and Sunadomari Sensei also have that responsibility. Actually, those who were taught directly by 0-Sensei must transmit their knowledge to the next generation in one way or another. Take the case of Kobayashi Sensei’s dojos or my dojos, some might think that we are making a lot of money. But that is ridiculous. I’m driven by my own enthusiasm and am thinking about the future. We must do it no matter how financially difficult it is. We can’t close down dojos because they don’t make money.

At the present time I am in a position to make my living through Aikido. So I’m enjoying some benefit from Aikido but that is not my main purpose. Though our viewpoints are different what we do is the same. Saito Sensei, Sunadomari Sensei and Nishio Sensei are doing their best with what they learned from O-Sensei. The fact that such teachers got together and participated in something like yesterday’s demonstration is remarkable. It has been seventeen years since 0-Sensei passed away. The demonstration provided an opportunity for those who have never seen O-Sensei to learn about Aikido from various perspectives. Therefore I think the fact that that many people attended despite the pressure applied was due not only to Stanley’s personal decision but also to the needs of the time. Ten years ago it couldn’t have happened. But I understand intuitively that there were financial problems.

Kobayashi Sensei: I think there was speculation in some circles that the demonstration was held to make a profit and that it was impertinent for an outsider who didn’t belong to the Aikikai to do such a thing.

Saotome Sensei: Actually they do charge for Kobayashi Sensei’s demonstrations. In America, a fee would of course be charged for such a demonstration. It’s a normal thing socially.

Kuroiwa Sensei: In such a case the Aikikai would be able to do it for free because they are supported by the Japan Motorboat Promotion Society. However, it’s natural to charge money if you must take care of renting the facility and all sorts of preparations. Charging money is not the same thing as trying to make a profit. That is a deficiency in Japanese way of thinking.

Kobayashi Sensei: We held a demonstration in August. It cost us about four million Yen (about $26,666) to stage. We did not charge an admission fee but we asked those who demonstrated to make donations. About 3,000 Yen ($20) per person. Maybe the audience didn’t think it cost much to organize but I can understand the situation because I have been through it.

Kuroiwa Sensei: I am repeating what has already been said, but such a project can only be realized if it is subsidized or has a sponsor. The Aikikai would not be able to do it for free without a subsidy.

Saotome Sensei: Today we live in an “information age” but Japanese do not have the concept of having to pay for the news they receive. In America it is widespread. It is widely accepted for fees to be charged for lectures and seminars. This is socially accepted. The leaders of the Aikikai Foundation are all professionals. They are not amateurs. Even if they charge admission, unless they have something to show, they can’t be considered professionals. I think that Hombu should sponsor a demonstration given by Hombu instructors. And it would be better to say that it is not free of charge. Why don’t they try to show the real stuff that way? I believe that is the role of Hombu. I think they should take care of those teachers who are active as professionals and give them social and financial support. That is the role of the Aikikai Foundation and the mission of Hombu Dojo.

Another example of financial need would be finding and preserving O-Sensei films. It costs about 350,000 Yen ($2,333) to make the 3/4” video masters necessary for a single video! The average person doesn’t know about that kind of thing.

Saotome Sensei: I understand. I used to publish a newsletter. It costs a lot of money to publish month after month, it is not a money-making activity. Some people complain because I stopped publishing it. I stopped because I was short of money not because the work is troublesome. Also, I understand well how difficult it was for Stanley to invite me from America for this event. Money is required to conduct international exchanges. There must be financial backup. It costs money to produce a good book and it costs money to make a good dojo. Without money a good teacher cannot become a professional. It is important to have sufficient finances and programs for good teachers. With this Aikido will spread.

Eventually those who receive kyu and dan rankings as a result of the popularization of Aikido will end up at Hombu, right? And this is related to the revenue of Hombu Dojo. Since I am not affiliated with Hombu I can’t say much now but it is true that if Aikido spreads as a result of such activities this will indirectly lead to an increase in Hombu’s income. That relation exists.

Kuroiwa Sensei: Put in simple terms, I think Hombu’s policy is something like this. The Aikikai owns all of Aikido and Aikido is something only the Aikikai can do. If anything like a demonstration is held by non Aikikai people, they won’t be happy. That’s the only reason.

Saotome Sensei: There is one more reason, because you are a foreigner.

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