The article below has been made available for publication on Aikido Journal Online by the author and also appears on the Nippon Kan website.
The countdown has begun, and Aikido Journal on-line marks the days as the Aiki Expo draws near. Sponsored by Aikido Journal and its founder and chief editor Stanley Pranin, this event will be held Sept 19-21, 2003. This week, the Aiki Expo schedule of classes and events was posted online revealing a well-orchestrated plan that must be keeping the Expo organizers very busy making arrangements.
I am honored to be attending the Expo this year as an instructor and demonstrator. I would like to share with you some of my aspirations and reflections, so that you might better understand what I would like to bring to this event.
The fact that this Expo will be taking place at all begins and ends with Mr. Stanley Pranin. This is not a biography of Mr. Pranin’s life; however the contributions he has made to the martial art world are more than substantial and some of his accomplishments need to be recognized.
In 1974, Stan Pranin produced the first publication of Aiki News for public distribution. In the beginning, Aiki News was an eight-page pamphlet typed on an antique key typewriter. It was copied on two sheets of simple 8 1/2 x 13 typing paper with a thicker bond paper on the outside which served as a cover. Each pamphlet was hand-folded and hand-stapled. With these humble beginnings, Stan Pranin launched himself into a journey that would take him to not only to all corners of Japan, but also into the annals of history.
With innocence and purpose Stan began his investigative pursuit of the truth about Aikido and other martial arts in Japan. The scope of his operation today is as different from his beginnings as the sky above from the ground below.
One of Mr. Pranin’s most distinguishing accomplishments has been his research on the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. Many accounts of the life of the Founder have been written by authors dazzled and blinded by his accomplishments. Those who have written about him with this state of mind have tended to focus on the highpoints of the Founders life, some fact, some fiction, and not taken on any critical pursuit of the life of the man as a whole.
However, the pursuit of greatness and understanding has always led mankind forward. This pursuit has spawned discovery in many fields, including the arts, sciences and religion. Mr. Pranin too I believe has discovered the essence of the greatness of the Founder one page of research at a time, one discovery at a time, both good and bad throughout the Founder’s lifetime.
In Japan, this type of discriminate research is somewhat perplexing and not a common method of pursuit. A few have criticized him for his actions and his “foreign sense of purposefulness and directness.” Courage and perseverance however spurned him forward. Not only was his research meticulous, he spent massive amounts of time validating every fact he could find. The culmination of this research represents the most detailed and complete study on the life of the Founder ever produced, and we are lucky to have this type of research at our disposal.
Mr. Pranin has included in his studies figures and places that have had a major impact on the Founder and Aikido. He has studied the Founder’s involvement with Daito Ryu’s Takeda Sokaku and Onisaburo Deguchi, leader of the New Age religion “Omoto Kyo,” both of whom had an impact on the Founder’s life at different times, in different ways. He has traveled to Hokkaido, and to Tanabe tracing the path the Founder walked, and included research on the Founder’s travels to China and Mongolia. He has studied the direct senior students of the Founder; both their lives and their technical development of Aikido. Leaving no stone unturned, Mr. Pranin has raised the level of understanding of the history of martial arts in Japan to a level of professionalism and scientific validity, and I would like to make sure that this is acknowledged.
Next year marks my fortieth year of practice in Aikido. With this experience and my own personal research, there are some conclusions I have drawn which I think have an inherent effect on the Aikido we practice. An attitude that has historically typified martial art study in Japan is one of near reverence and obedience. A good student does not think of questioning his Sensei, and does his or her best to emulate whatever the instructor says or does. This is true in traditional Aikido dojos as well as other styles of martial arts in Japan. Traditionally, it is not considered to be good training spirit to question or resist one’s instructor in any way. Obedience and loyalty have always been admired qualities in a student.
This being said, (and what could be a topic for an entire article), I believe that the true mind and spirit of those that created these martial arts DID question themselves, their art, their limits, their instructors and their peers. If we look at the life of the Founder in its entirety there were many times that he questioned the political, social and theological realities he encountered. This doubt and questioning at each turning point in his life motivated him forward, leading him closer to his ultimate understandings.
Today we reap the benefits of his journey by studying and practicing the Aikido that took him a lifetime to create. It is a luxury that we should not take lightly. We need to study and realize what trials and tribulations, suffering, confusion and struggles took place in the Founder’s life that bore these fruits for us, the fruits that have taken form in the Aikikai, the organization he founded, and the worldwide practice of Aikido today. This process is what is valuable not only in the Founder’s life but in our own lives as well. The Founder was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as they say, nor did he have the powers of a “god.” Stan Pranin’s research gives us a very valuable tool if we choose to look correctly. In a scientific manner, he has chronicled not only the triumphs and strength of spirit of the Founder, but also his failings and weak points. The key we seek in our practice, I believe lies in that spirit that survives obstacles and adversity as the Founder did.
The Aiki Expo this year will host many martial artists; demonstrators, instructors and students that are not Aikidoists. In a very real way, I think this event is a culmination of Mr. Pranin’s lifelong study of the order of martial arts in Japan. Like a Tibetan monk who painstakingly paints a mandala out of sand and then releases it to the wind, I think Mr. Pranin is seeking to confirm the natural order of the birth and development of Aikido by reexamining the place all of the martial arts had in the original make up of Aikido.
Under this premise any question about the purpose of bringing so many different styles of martial arts together for one event disappears. I am anticipating that this event will be a valuable experience. The variety of instructors represented promises to be unique, unusual and insightful. For each Aikido instructor represented, it will be a chance to see clearly the “colors” of each individual instructor. It will be a chance to compare and to see what style each Aikido Instructor has developed that is unique unto him or herself. By making a framework from these different interpretations and styles of Aikido we can view our art in a multidimensional form and build a foundation to continue its growth.
This can only happen if each instructor represented is clear and definite in their style and technique. If not, and the instructors represented are just copies of their predecessors, their presentations will be colorless, and will fall short of the goals of the coordinator and attending students.
I would like to focus for a moment on what is important for me personally at Aiki Expo 2003. A few months ago I was interviewed for the Japanese-language version of Aiki News in Japan. For this publication I was asked to comment briefly about the upcoming Aiki Expo. I obliged them by writing “There are many skilled, high-level Aikido instructors in the world today, and I am just the owner of a small Colorado dojo. I am like the small ramen noodle stand vendor, with my own recipe for Aiki ramen noodles. My hope is to bring my favorite recipes for everyone to enjoy.”
Since before the Founder died until now I have practiced Aikido and over these many years I have studied under and learned from many outstanding Aikido instructors. I have continued my own practice with diligence, but I have not however joined any Aikido organizations. I have remained independent from parent organizations, and have avoided trying to establish a rash of satellite dojos that must pay homage to me. Today, “friendship seminars” seem to be in fashion and are appealing to many but I have not focused on these types of alliances, and although there have been invitations, I have not conducted seminars in the United States except for small groups of students in dojos of friends.
For some instructors being part of a large organization and owning a franchise of branch dojos is a symbol of success and part of the “American Dream.” What is valuable to me is something very different. I prefer being independent, and being my own practice partner. I value using my own standard of measurement to grow and learn from. I do not like to measure myself against or be in competition with others, nor do I like others mandating what I can and cannot do.
Over twenty years ago in the United States, it was easy to tell who a student’s instructor was just by watching him or her practice. Each well-known instructor’s color and style was evident in the way they executed the simplest of exercises, even tai no tenkan ho or fune kogi undo for example. Today from soft style to hard style, the effects of franchised Aikido seem to be evident. There is less dimension or individual color and style, execution and technique.
In 1950, a small American diner opened near the capitol in downtown Denver. The diner is called Pete’s Kitchen and they have served the best bacon, eggs, hash browns and the blackest of coffee to literally generations of customers. Today the big chain franchises have come into competition with small restaurants like Pete’s Kitchen taking them over or forcing them to close down.
Small restaurants like Pete’s Kitchen have managed to stay alive and even to thrive by clearly defining their own taste, style and clientele. They do not compete with the national chains, but make a place for themselves by demonstrating who they are and having pride in what they do. Every day is a constant process of defining, redefining, improving and recommitting to make the best presentation. Like a battle with real swords, these independent operations fight daily to protect what is their own. I can relate to the small diner owner, only my diner is my dojo, Nippon Kan.
There are many instructors whom I have met around the world whom I admire greatly for following their own path and creating what they have. We need to shine a light on these instructors and acknowledge them for what they have accomplished. At this upcoming Aiki Expo 2003 there will probably be many instructors and students who come from small dojos, and I want to show my support for them. This is one reason why I have gone against my usual policy and agreed to join in this event. I wish to offer recognition and to reinforce the spirit of these individuals. As a small Aiki ramen noodle shop owner, I am free to do many things, and this is one thing I wish to share.
This year’s Aiki Expo will be host to many talented martial art instructors from Japan, the United States, Europe and Asia. There will be much to see and do, and time will be of the essence. As part of my customer service, I would like to outline my class schedules so that everyone will be clear on what will be available to taste at my particular Aiki Ramen Noodle stand before the event begins.
The space reserved for different classes vary in size, so I have arranged my class curriculum to fit the available spaces. On Friday, September 19th from 3:30 pm. to 5:00 pm., the class will be held in a large space so I would like to use this time to explore Nippon Kan’s bokken and jo to open-hand technique relationship systems. I first introduced these relationships in a three-part video series we produced locally at Nippon Kan in 1979. After reproducing and distributing about 2000 copies with the technology of that time, the original masters completely wore out which brought production to a grinding halt! At that time the only schools of Aikido that practiced bokken and jo that I am aware of were Iwama Ryu and Nippon Kan. Since that time my book The Structure of Aikido, Part 1, Kenjutsu and Taijutsu (Sword and Open-hand Movement Relationships) has become a popular text reference for Nippon Kan’s teaching method. This class will also explore Hibiki Dori Waza and Kuzushi Dori Waza, taking a look back to the origins of our Aikido practice.
On Saturday, September 20th, from 9:00 am. to 10:30 am., the class will be held in a smaller space. I will be focusing on Tachigatamae Dori Waza. These are techniques I first learned of when I was about fifteen years old, showed to me by one of the Founder’s original students, Ringiro Shirata Sensei. I first learned of them, as they were practiced on me, tying me up in knots so that I could not move! When I trained under the Founder as an uchideshi at the Iwama dojo, we used to use these techniques in private practice. Since these techniques were similar to Daito Ryu techniques, they were never taught by the Founder at Hombu or anywhere else in public. This class will be a travel back in time, based on my earlier memories practicing at Iwama for a revival of techniques that have mostly disappeared.
On Saturday from 10:50 am. to 12:20 pm, the class will also be held in a small space. The theme of this class will focus on my long-time philosophy “Beyond Ki.” I first introduced my opinions on the use and misuse of the concepts of “Ki” in my first book, Aikido for Life, which was published originally in-house in 1985. Since that time Aikido for Life has been published and distributed worldwide through North Atlantic Books. Currently in its 10th printing, Aikido for Life has sold over 40,000 copies and has been translated into four different languages. In writing Aikido for Life, I was very clear about not drowning in the idea of “Ki Power.” Some have misunderstood that I do not believe in the concept of Ki and that is not true. I do believe in the concept of Ki. What I do not believe in is the misuse of “Ki” demonstrations that are used to blind people into believing in magic. My warning is that if you are blinded by an illusion of Ki you will never be able to truly understand it. If you have questions about Ki, and wish to know what is true and what is illusion, this class may have something to offer you.
Sunday, September 21st, from 10:50 am to 12:20 pm will be a class for instructors or leaders of small- to medium-sized dojos who are interested in how to enroll and keep students and how to make their dojo successful. For this class I would like to share with everyone Nippon Kan’s dojo operation methods. Nippon Kan has been an independent dojo since 1976. Since that time an average of 600 adult beginners’s class students attend per year with over 15,000 students having enrolled in the beginner’s class program since its inception. This class may be of interest to you if you have specific questions on dojo operations or are planning to start a new dojo.
The last class on Sunday from 3:30 pm. to 5:00 pm. will be held once again in a large space so Nippon Kan’s bokken and jo relationships to open-hand techniques will be further explored. I will close the class with Nippon Kan’s teaching method of dealing with kicks and resistance with a variety of unusual techniques.
I know that an undertaking as grand in scale as the Aiki Expo requires the hard work and sacrifice of many staff members, and I wish to express my appreciation and respect for all of their efforts. I look forward to meeting everyone in Las Vegas. Best wishes for success!
Aikido Nippon Kan
Kancho Gaku Homma
August 5th, 2003