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Interview with Walther von Krenner

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #119 (2000)

I believe you began your martial arts training in your native Germany. Please describe your early involvement in the martial arts.

I have been interested in all things Japanese and martial arts as long as I can remember. I don’t know where this interest came from; it was always there. I started my formal training in 1957 with H. Steffin in Germany. There was a great deal of contact before the war between Japan and Germany. There existed quite a strong jujutsu and old-style judo community in Germany until after the war when martial arts were outlawed. From what I could see there was a style very similar to Daito-ryu that the “old timers” were doing. In my time—it was only 10 years or so after the war that I started martial arts training—we had several teachers from the Kodokan instruct in Germany, France and Switzerland. Besides judo, these teachers seemed to have all trained in a form of jujutsu. Our understanding was that this jujutsu came to the Kodokan through Shiro Saigo and was kept alive by a small group in order to provide a traditional center for judo, or something to this effect.

One of the judo teachers who came to help us in our training was Nagaoka Sensei who was teaching there until his untimely death in a car accident in 1959. There was also Kondo Sensei who was teaching in Switzerland where I trained with him for a year. Those were the early years when champions like Anton Geesink—who later became a world champion—were just beginning to appear on the scene. I attended and won several championships in southern Germany and Switzerland and competed in October 1959 at the Grand Championships in Hamborn. Shortly thereafter I left for France to train there. The first three winners—we where all good friends-won a trip to Paris, France to train at Salle Pleyel dojo where most European champions trained at one time or another. It was there that I met Anton Geesink and several other first class martial artists. Of all European countries, France had the most dojos and interest in martial arts at that time. In Germany, martial arts were was relatively unknown and exotic.

How was it that you decided to relocate to the USA?

In 1960, after I left France I decided to move to the United States. Martial arts were much more popular in the States and most anything I read about judo and other arts was in English. The first worthwhile book I read on judo was Mifune Sensei’s The Canon of Judo. I still treasure my copy. It opened whole new horizons for me.

What was the aikido and martial arts scene like then?

I arrived in mid-1960 in LA and started training in Harold Sharp Sensei’s dojo. Gene LeBell, a superb judo player, trained there at times and several future champions came from this dojo. LeBell was a remarkable judoka and would whip my butt every time I got smart and thought I could take him down. I slowly learned not to try any more! I will see him this fall at a judo function where he is a guest of honor. It has been 35 years since I last saw him. We will have a lot to talk about.

At the same time, I started karate with Hidetaka Nishiyama and kendo with Miahara, Sr. and Torao Mori Sensei. The latter was very important as a swordsmanship and kendo teacher. I met him at the old dojo of Miyahara Sensei. He was about the best swordsman I had seen. I remember one time in a match he lost his shinai. Without a second’s hesitation he used his right hand to pull of his left kote and, like in a sword-draw, he threw it at his opponent. The opponent tried to avoid the kote and Mori Sensei threw him with osotogari! It was one of the most natural, unthinking reactions I have ever seen.

Please talk about the early days of aikido in the Los Angeles area and your association with Isao Takahashi Sensei.

I met Takahashi Sensei in early 1961. I believe he had just moved to California from Hawaii to teach aikido. Aikido was relatively unknown at this time and I had never heard of it. After watching Takahashi Sensei I decided that this art was the next logical step after judo and I started my training with him.

His style and background were very much based on Tohei Sensei’s style and teachings. Because of Tohei Sensei’s interest in ki, ki training was very important in our practice. But Takahashi Sensei was also a very good swordsman and kendoka and this is what made his approach a little different. All this talk lately about aikido and the sword is something we were doing way back then already. We were very much interested in the study of the sword, technique and history. I was President of the Japanese Sword Society in the early sixties and we had quite a few people that were deeply involved with swords one way or the other.

Over the years—this is between 1961-1967—Takahashi Sensei and I became very close. I remember spending a lot of time at his house and I was fortunate to receive much individual instruction from him. Rod Kobayashi Sensei came around often and we did a lot of good training. Sometimes I would train with Takahashi Sensei in the backyard of his house or his garage; he would go through a particular technique over and over, picking on the smallest details until he was satisfied. He had me close to tears out of frustration several times, but still I remember those classes very fondly. He was a teacher with incredible patience and a very soft but powerful style. I was uke at many of his demonstrations and was always surprised at his power and effortless technique.

Besides those classes he would come over to my house and we would spend many hours talking about aikido, calligraphy, and swords and do some training in my small 16 tatami private dojo. Regular classes were held three times a week at a Buddhist Temple and Japanese Community Center in the San Fernando Valley.

In 1963, I also met Kisshomaru Ueshiba who was called “Wakasensei” then, and had the opportunity to take some instruction from him. Koichi Tohei Sensei visited us several times and taught at our dojo. Tohei Sensei would come over often to California and stay for a couple of weeks to teach us. He always stayed at Takahashi Sensei’s house so I saw him a lot. He liked German beer and food and we always took him to our favorite German restaurant where we drank a lot of good beer!

Tohei Sensei was a very happy and personable teacher and you could not help liking him. I don’t think aikido would have taken root as it did in the States without him. He was probably the most important person in the early history of aikido and his contribution is not recognized as it should be. Even the names of techniques, the system of teaching and testing procedures to this day go back to Tohei Sensei. I still use most of the ki techniques he showed me for teaching and convincing skeptics. He was very young then and it was amazing what a great job he did. It is too bad that aikido politics and ego competition forced him away from the Tokyo Hombu Dojo; he gave a good part of his life to spread the teachings of 0-Sensei and deserved better than that.

Please talk about some of the interesting figures you came across in your early days, such as Don Angier [article appears elsewhere in this issue].

The aikido federation was just beginning to take shape and we tried to get as many dojo and senseis signed up as we could; that is how I met Don Angier Sensei. He was teaching Yanagi Ryu Aiki Jitsu in the San Fernando Valley and I visited his dojo to persuade him to sign up. We practiced together quite a bit. He came to our dojo and I went to his. We also did a lot of live blade demonstrations that are still talked about.

I mentioned Gene LeBell earlier, I met Kazuaki Tanahashi Sensei at Takahashi Sensei’s house. Hayward Nishioka also comes to mind. We worked together for a little while. Kensho Furuya Sensei would come to our dojo now and then. I believe this was about the time I also met Stanley Pranin (the interviewer), who was an early student of Takahashi Sensei.

Willis M. Hawley was a close friend and mentor to me at this time; he had an incredible collection of swords and other Asian art and a Library to die for. Willis was partly responsible for my joining and subsequently becoming president of the Nanka To Ken Kai. He taught me kanji and seal carving and my wife Hana and I spent many hours at his home studying and discussing swords and art in general. I helped him with the two volume book Japanese Swordsmiths that I saw advertised in your last issue (#118), that is what reminded me of him. One of them I believe, has a sumi painting of a samurai in the back I did. He also helped organize a show of Japanese swords at the Barnsdale museum (a Masamune was sent from Japan and the Japanese Ambassador was at the opening). I painted the Takeda samurai that was used as a cover for this catalogue.

Around 1966 or 67, Takahashi Sensei came to my house and persuaded me that I should go for a year to Japan while O-Sensei was still alive. At first, I did not want to go but he persisted. I am ever so glad he did and I listened! I sold my house, put my affairs in order and was ready to go. I was dealing in Asian art then and had a business called “Art Treasures of Asia.” A very short time later, armed with an introductory letter from Takahashi Sensei to O-Sensei, I departed for Shinjuku, Japan.

Please describe the highlights of your experience in Japan doing aikido.

I suppose my fondest memory is meeting O-Sensei the first time. In those days when aikido was so new to us and we were so very dedicated, meeting 0-Sensei was like being a catholic and meeting the Pope! When I arrived at Haneda airport in Japan, it was late afternoon and I took a taxi straight to Shinjuku. I asked the taxi driver to take me to the Aikido Hombu Dojo and was surprised he had never heard of it. We arrived in the neighborhood and he asked several people walking on the street for directions and nobody seemed to have heard of the place. I finally walked up Wakamatsu-cho—it was too narrow for a car—and saw a small sign stating that this was the Aikido Hombu Dojo.

Since it was evening by now I walked right in thinking a class would be in progress, but nobody was in the dojo. Just as I was closing the sliding shoji door Wakasensei Kisshomaru came across the mat and saw me. I was very surprised he remembered me and he was very friendly and helpful. He said classes were in the morning not evening like we were used to. Across the narrow alley was a place called “Wakamatsu-cho Apato.” This was where many aikido students had a room. I was fortunate to be able to get a little room and settled in. The next morning I started my classes; O-Sensei came in later and I was taken by one of the seniors to his office. The door was so low you had to walk on your knees to enter. I gave him my letter from Takahashi Sensei and he talked for a long time, but 1 did not understand much of what he said. It was translated to me as he spoke. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic experience and a dream became reality.

When I was leaving shortly before O-Sensei’s death, I made an appointment to say good-bye to him. He wrote a scroll for me and autographed his photo in my Tohei book. The scroll which says “Ame no murakumo kuki samuhara no ryuoo” I gave as a gift to the Hawaii Hombu Dojo where it still hangs today. Those are the things I most vividly remember.

How was it that you took so many photos of O-Sensei and other shihan?

After I was there for a while and befriended some of the other students, some of us decided that since there was nothing published on aikido (in English) but Tohei Sensei’s small book it would be a great idea to take a lot of pictures of 0-Sensei and Wakasensei for future use and records.

Who were the other teachers at the Aikikai that left a strong impression on you and why?

I am very bad in remembering names, and it was a long time ago. I trained mostly in Wakasensei’s classes, took some of Shigenobu Okumura Senseis classes, and O-Sensei’s whenever he came in. And I remember Kenji Shimizu Sensei; he was a very nice, polite and helpful person.

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