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Kuniyuki Kai

by Eisuke Aoyagi

Aikido Journal #117 (1999)

As a young judo enthusiast, Kuniyuki Kai found that he was regularly defeated by bigger, stronger opponents. This led him to take up karate in order to strengthen his body and confidence. Kai later discovered Yoshinkan aikido which he promptly added to his martial repertoire. Though initially skeptical of the efficacity of aikido’s techniques, this art now forms the central core of his training. Today Kai continues his study of various classcial martial arts in search of a way to realize his dream of integrating these martial systems into his aikido.

You call what you teach “Yoshin-ryu.” Does your choice of this name have any connection with Yoshinkan aikido?

Yes, that was my intention. The philosophy of yoshin (lit. cultivation of the divine) comes from my own interpretation, which I think Shioda Kancho would agree with. The yo means “cultivation,” while shin refers to various issues related to the mind and spirit. So yoshin refers to cultivation of the mind and spirit, while the “ryu” with it’s connotations of “current” and “flowing” suggests the changes and specific characteristics inevitably affecting any age. So my way of thinking is that Yoshin-ryu represents an approach to cultivating the mind and spirit and to spreading this around the world.

I understand you started your budo training with judo back when you were in late primary school.

Yes. But I found that larger opponents would inevitably beat me, so I took up karate as well, for the simple reason that I was looking for something that could make me stronger. I was doing things other than karate as well, but it happened that through some of the particularly rough training methods I was pursuing, I ended up breaking my leg. I had to spend time in the hospital waiting for it to heal, and it was at that time that I happened to hear about aikido. Greedy as I was for martial arts, I set off as soon as I was able to go have a look. I found the practice interesting, but being so young I was still more interested in kicking and punching, and I wondered whether the techniques I was seeing would really work. I had my doubts, but decided to give it a try anyway and went to join a dojo as soon as my leg had healed.

Where did you begin your aikido practice?

The first dojo I knew of was the Yoshinkan, but at the time there was no way I could possibly make the trip to Tokyo. I sent a letter to Shioda Kancho and he replied with signed copy of a small booklet [on Yoshinkan aikido]. Having made that contact, I started searching for a dojo closer to my area and ended up joining one in Nobeoka, headed by Hifumi Nonaka of the Aikikai. Nonaka Sensei had a truly noble philosophical spirit. Compared to him, a lot of his students (like me!) were like so much rabble wandering around down below and trying to use power for everything. In that sense, there were a number of areas where we didn’t exactly match very well.

Eventually I had an opportunity to meet Shioda Kancho when he came to demonstrate at a local branch of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. I was so impressed that I completely forgot my manners and went right up to ask if I could become his student. He was in a very good mood and smiling and told me I should come by the dojo if ever I had a chance to get up to Tokyo.

When did you first have that chance?

Let’s see, when I received my 8th dan ranking from Shioda Kancho in 1989 he said to me, “Well, Kai, it seems that twenty years have passed!” That means is must have been around 1969 or 1970, when I came to the Yoyogi dojo. I received permission to open my own branch dojo after receiving 5th dan, which I think may make it the oldest branch dojo.

What was the aikido training like back around the time you started in 1970? Did it follow more or less the usual Yoshinkan approach?

Yes, naturally. As you probably know, Yoshinkan has what we call the kihon dosa, or basic movements. We spent a lot of time focusing on those in order to truly master fundamentals such as how to shift one’s center of gravity and other elements essential to aikido.

One thing I noticed later, though, was that Shioda Kancho’s stance was very natural. I’m sometimes surprised these days when I see some of the younger students opening their hands and straining to extend their fingers so wide. I also noticed was that compared to when he was in his prime, as Shioda Kancho grew older, his ukes started taking more and more showy breakfalls. For some of the techniques people were practically falling on their heads! I wondered what the point of such dangerous falls could possibly be. After all, ukemi are designed as a means of protecting yourself, so it seems to me they should be done in the safest way possible. Doing such showy ukemi strikes me as nothing more than showing off, and I really question whether it should ever be done like that.

I think we need to identify such problematic areas and try to improve them. There’s no need to criticize what other people are doing, but I think that anyone truly dedicated to Yoshinkan aikido should do all they can to preserve it in its form as a traditional budo, so that anybody watching it will appreciate it and know its authenticity.

I suppose I was pretty brazen when I first started aikido, and my approach to learning it was not particularly “honest.” I mostly just wanted to see how well it could compare to my punching techniques. Looking back, I must have done some things that would be considered disrespectful toward my seniors.

Teachers often talk about aikido being a sogo budo [lit. “composite” or “comprehensive” martial art, but here used to denote a budo into which numerous martial ways and means have been integrated]. I’ve often thought about this myself and have come to think that although the term sogo budo is easy to say, the implications of it are not so simple. In fact, the idea that it represents is truly incredible. After all, to pursue even one budo thoroughly is generally considered to require a lifetime of study, so something billed as a sogo budo would naturally require that much more training effort. Consequently, I don’t think it’s a term that should be used lightly. Still, 1 confess that I myself found the concept of a sogo budo quite appealing.

I once asked some of my aikido seniors how it would be possible to learn such a sogo budo. They told me not to worry about it, that by practicing aikido I would understand everything. What they said seemed to make sense, but then in a way it didn’t, and in the end I wasn’t convinced. So I asked what they would do against a karate punch. I suggested it would be a good idea to at least know how strong such punches could be, how daunting kicks could be, and that we would all do well to exercise a little modesty and study such things to at least get a general idea about them. But, they replied that there was no need for that sort of thing, so our views were completely divided.

That being the situation, I decided to investigate for myself some of the other martial arts such as jodo, iai, jujutsu, and several classical systems (koryu). Doing so was probably slightly disrespectful toward my seniors, but having pursued aikido to a certain extent, I felt I needed to expand the scope of my training in order to get the answers I needed.

Ueshiba Sensei was a great martial artist and teacher who made a comprehensive study of many different budo and integrated them all within the framework of his aikido. I, on the other hand, doubt that I would be able to follow in the footsteps of such a great martial artist, so for the time being I’ve stayed with simply studying the various classical styles independently to see what I can learn. Maybe I’ll eventually have the ability to work on integrating them with aikido, but if not then I still will at least have studied them. This is how I hope to approach studying the essence of aikido as a sogo budo.

I imagine that in the course of your research at Aikido Journal you’ve had opportunities to meet many different martial artists. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve noticed how many of them find it a difficult to avoid taking a somewhat exclusionary attitude toward other styles. Even if a karate man starts learning some other martial art, there is often something that prevents him from going about it in a open-minded or unbiased way. Or for a kendo man, karate may seem like a completely different world.

In the same way, while a good many aikido teachers talk about aikido as a sogo budo, there seem to be very few who actually make efforts to know about other budo. This is one reason, among many, that people’s current approach to aikido is putting the art in danger of becoming nothing but an external form.

As a sogo budo, aikido is often said to contain the essences of each of the various other budo, but if you ask whether people doing it have ever learned kendo, if they’ve ever practiced punching, or if they’ve ever swung a staff, you’ll generally find that they haven’t. People use the word sogo budo a lot, but in the end it’s just talk in many cases.

On one’s own training and the impossibility of mere copying

When I look at aikido demonstrations today I notice that it all seems so easy. There seem to be so many people who are really good at throwing their opponents, and an equal number of people who are really good at being thrown. Having practiced a number of different martial arts, one of the things I know with certainty is that it is quite difficult to gain control over even a single opponent, let alone several. During demonstrations people let themselves be attacked by two or three opponents and toss them around the mat, but I don’t think they realize just how difficult this would be in reality.

Something else—and this may be particularly true for those of us in outlying regions so far from the center of things—is that we should avoid falling into blind faith. Ueshiba Sensei was a great teacher the likes of which we probably won’t see again—that hardly needs to be said—but it is an unavoidable fact that he’s been gone for quite a few years now. Nonetheless, we still constantly hear people talking about how Ueshiba Sensei was like this or like that, and in generally clinging to his memory. I myself have nothing but the utmost respect and reverence for the founder and our memory of him, but in the final analysis, when it comes to your own budo training, you have to develop your own powers of expression and make what you do truly your own. For that reason, it seems to me that “borrowing” the name of another and clinging to its greatness is essentially an irresponsible and neglectful way to train.

In a similar vein, my respect for Shioda Kancho will never diminish, but I also accept that he is gone and that our task now is to see what we can do to expand upon the aikido that he left us. This is a responsibility that I think we should always bear in mind. We must not forget the here-and-now of our own training.

Part of following any “path” naturally involves being taught by someone else, but at the same time it is even more important that we ourselves also make efforts to search out the way on our own. In budo it is important to follow and faithfully preserve the “spiritual” aspects of your teacher’s teaching, but I don’t think it’s possible to copy your teacher’s technique. No matter how great a martial artist Ueshiba Sensei was, no matter how good Shioda Kancho was, although we can probably imitate their outer form, the essence of what we do will inevitably be different from the essence of what they did. I often talk with my students and colleagues about this, about the fact that in traditional budo, despite the emphasis on training through kata, it is still absolutely impossible to copy others exactly. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean people should just do whatever they want, either. The fundamentals of what is being taught and practiced are shared and students should study them precisely and maintain them faithfully. Then comes application of those basics. Once such applications are learned and an individual becomes more skilled, there comes a time when, depending on ability, he will gradually develop a personal “martial style” and begin to put more of his own individuality into the techniques. This is part of a person’s essential will to self-expression and creativity, and is probably the destination at which anyone who puts in enough time and effort will arrive.

In budo this is also known as the shu-ha-ri cycle, which can also be understood as a manifestation and result of one’s will to growth. Thinking along these lines, aikido is a marvelous system in that it truly does contain the elements of a true sogo budo, and it’s actually for that reason that you can’t and shouldn’t learn it by going about it in a shallow or superficial way.

Initiative in aikido

We often hear people describe aikido as a non-aggressive budo that does not use attacks. I don’t disagree, but I also think it is impossible to “maintain harmony without applying some degree of resistance or without taking any action at all. Every individual has a certain amount of both physical strength and spiritual or psychological strength, and forging and building these gradually stores up a kind of personal energy. This emerges as a capacity for a kind of “silent deterrence” that tells potential adversaries that you’ll have no qualms at all about retaliating if they attack you. The resulting equilibrium is what helps maintain the peace. I think it is completely unrealistic to expect to be able to maintain peace through total passivity.

There are cases in which aikido is lopsid-edly classed as some sort of self-defense for women or as something soft and weak. Such interpretations represent a complete misunderstanding, and cases in which we actively take the initiative to control an opponent are without a doubt part of aikido technique. This is something that I personally find extremely deep, and the distance still to go toward understanding it fills me with awe.

Gokui and hiden

I’ve studied a number of different martial arts and absorbed at least some of what each had to teach. One result of these experiences is that I often tell my students that there really are no gokui or hiden (secret teachings), and people who make too much of these should be highly suspected of being fakes or frauds. If there are such “secrets,” I think they are to be found, rather, in the basic kata and other forms of each tradition, not hidden away. If you’re talking about karate, then the punching and kicking techniques themselves are the gokui.

In this day and age of information, I think we need to stop talking about secrets like hiden and gokui and make such things as open as possible, so that we can work to pass them on intact to the next generation. There are plenty of classical traditions that have faded out of existence precisely because they’ve stubbornly insisted on keeping such a secretive attitude.

It is very difficult to resurrect and restore a particular budo tradition once it has been lost. That’s why I’ve made it something of a personal mission to do all I can to document aikido and a number of other bujutsu, in the hopes of leaving them for future generations. One starting point for such efforts has been to reprint a Yoshinkan training manual written by Shioda Kancho. I felt that simply reprinting this work in its original form would not be particularly meaningful, so I arranged to add materials based on my own understanding and systemization of the principles of the sword as an important aspect of aikido.

Most people nowadays know very little about the sword, and there are even fewer teaching about the principles underlying it. Consequently I set out to study the sword on my own and have taken the liberty of devising and organizing my own sword system. I started by assessing the aims and objectives of sword-play, then devised ways of moving, stances, and finally a system of five elemental postures that transcend differences in individual styles. The result is a system that encompasses both solitary movements and their applications, all explained in considerable detail. I’ve published these in a numbered limited-edition work that is not for sale. I’m also in the process of compiling a similar work on karate.

You mentioned people taking overly dramatic breakfalls, and in a similar vein there seem to be many people who, when pinned, make a great show of writhing about and trying to struggle free, even though they’re not really trying that hard.

It’s true, they flip all over the mat, even in cases where that sort of ukemi would never really happen. I always tell people there is no such thing like that. My karate experience, if nothing else, has shown me that.

Of course, there are cases in karate, too, especially within prearranged sets, in which the technique seems to work beautifully, but in fact you’ve no idea how effective it really was. In reality I think it’s quite difficult to down even one person with a single punch, because punches don’t always land in the most effective way and even if they do one might not be enough. In the same way, it’s generally just not possible to put an opponent down just by lightly touching him. Aikido can be terribly exaggerated in that sense.

Of course, I’m sure there are people who can make such techniques work. I fully believe in the idea of applying very small amounts of power to achieve a great effect, which is one of the characteristics of Yoshinkan aikido. Shioda Kancho was sometimes able to down people with a single finger, for example, which I think was because in such cases he was striking vital points (kyusho) very precisely.

Practitioners of jujutsu and aiki in the past made a very enthusiastic study of such vital points, but unfortunately that sort of thing has been nearly forgotten in aikido today. Aikido that incorporates a correct understanding of vital points is something of a dream of mine. A little experimentation will easily demonstrate how the application of even small amounts of force to vital areas can lend a great deal of effect to techniques. In one of my books I’ve included a diagram showing vital points on the human body, my understanding of which is derived largely from my study of jujutsu. Classical jujutsu styles made considerable use of such vital points.

From the outside, jujutsu demonstrations can appear rough and unrefined, but that’s only because they’re not necessarily concerned with presenting the kind of nice-looking demonstrations often found in aikido. After all, there is essentially no reason for budo to look pretty, and in fact I would say it has more to do with applying effective techniques under very rough, unrefined conditions. We were just talking about taking breakfalls, but in fact true budo techniques are essentially designed to down opponents in ways that actually don’t allow them to take breakfalls. The only reason we have breakfalls at all is to make training safer, so that we can continue to practice together. People who look for more than that and get into a habit of collusion between teacher and student are greatly mistaken if they think what they’re doing is aikido. I hate it when people fly through the air or allow themselves to be pinned even when the technique hasn’t been effective.

Sometimes in sumo you see one of the wrestlers get downed by a single slap. That is only possible because the slap has attacked a vital point. Seeing things like that suggests how truly important it is for martial artists to make a study of vital points.

I imagine that the various budo you’ve studied all have considerably different characteristics. What was it that got you interested in each and what kind of training did each offer? In particular, please tell us about your experiences with classical martial arts.

To begin with, I learned the jo from Hosho Shiokawa Sensei, then continued with adjunct arts such as jutte (forked truncheon) and kusarigama (chain-and-sickle). It was through that study that my eyes were first opened to the world of classical martial arts, and I decided I wanted to learn all I could about as many things as I could.

Shiokawa Sensei lived in Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture. He also practiced iai (sword drawing), Okinawan kobudo, and others. I met him around 1970, if I remember correctly. He was a rather unique person.

My next teacher was Masatoshi Fujitani, who lived in Akashi in Hyogo Prefecture. From him I learned a form of jujutsu called “Taido.”

Then I studied with Shigeyoshi Kaminaga Sensei learning various koryu and jujutsu. Thanks to his teaching, last year in July I was selected as the 21st Custodian of Bokuden-ryu jujutsu. This is the first time such a koryu has set down roots here in Miyazaki Prefecture.

What kinds of Chinese martial arts have you pursued?

Mostly tai chi and hsing i. I used to spend a lot of time in Okinawa practicing karate, and once I happened to see a demonstration by a Taiwanese teacher named Ko I-Sho. What he was showing was very unusual, and I actually didn’t understand what I was seeing very well. Judging by the muffled snickers coming from some in the audience, apparently many others didn’t either. Still, although I didn’t understand it, I found his demonstration terribly intriguing. I asked Miyazato Sensei to introduce me to him and begged him again and again to let me go to Taiwan to study with him. At first he wouldn’t let me, and told me I should just stay in Okinawa practicing karate. I pressed my request, though, and eventually went to Taiwan. That was about 17 or 18 years ago. Karate originally came from China, so I wanted to know about those roots.

The movements of Okinawan Goju-ryu karate-do all tend to be very circular. These circular movements are solidly grounded in the principles of physics, and are also characterized by a certain kind of abdominal breathing. If you carry such circular movements to their logical conclusion, you arrive at something like the movements of aikido. The name Goju-ryu itself [which means “hard and soft”) is quite a good one, and has connotations very similar to the omote and ura found in aikido. Such pairs of terms cover a lot of ground. Unfortunately, what’s happening today is that only the “hard” (go) aspects are being emphasized, so that the style is starting to change into “Gogo-ryu.”

The circular movement that is the essence of karate I find to have a great deal in common with aikido. Even when we block in karate, we don’t receive the attack with hard, slamming movement, but instead enter with a softer, subtler movement more akin to aikido or a Chinese style like tai chi ch’uan. In many Chinese martial styles, practitioners start their training with weapons like staffs, swords, and spears, then later go beyond these to establish empty-handed taijutsu as the highest level of “weapon.” This principle can be applied equally to other arts like aikido and karate, which have sophisticated systems of empty-handed taijutsu as the pinnacle of their technique. Consequently, the study of weapons like the sword is indispensable as part of the process of studying aikido. It puzzles me why so many people seem so unwilling to understand this.

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