Aikido Journal Home » Articles » Aiki Forum: John B. Hanson-Lowe Aiki News Japan

Aiki Forum: John B. Hanson-Lowe

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #87 (Winter/Spring 1991)

“Most sports when they become popular, tend to be controlled, manipulated and changed by the lowest of the elements that practice them. The fine points of judo are no longer generally appreciated. All that is necessary to do today in judo is to win.” - Dr. Hanson-Lowe

“Budo is often painted as an ideal. It involves a mental and spiritual side through the practice of a physical activity. There are two schools of thought on budo. One is as something pure, with an idealistic aspect… Another is that budo if translated means the arts of war.” - Stanley Pranin

AIKI FORUM features discussions with individuals involved in the martial arts in various capacities, such as writers, editors, martial arts product producers, etc. In this way we hope to offer alternative viewpoints in order to gain new perspectives on how others view aikido, Daito-ryu and the martial arts in general. On this occasion our guest is Dr. John B. Hanson-Lowe, who was recently awarded his 7th dan in Kodokan judo at the healthy age of “ninety minus four.”

Until now I have only spoken with you in bits and pieces, but I’ve gathered enough from our conversations to realize that you’ve had many fascinating experiences all over the world. Although there’s no way we could touch upon all of it, could you tell us a little about your background and beginnings in judo?

I should tell you first that as a young fellow I played quite a lot of sports, cycling, tennis, and later soccer and field hockey. Judo was a very late comer.

After completing my first year university studies I worked at the analysis of essential oils. However, I was not doing that long before I found it was not for me to sit indoors and inhale aromatic and malodorous air. So I chucked that course and found myself a teaching job, whilst I was finishing work for my first degree.

How did you get involved in your globe-trotting career?

I had accepted an invitation to be a lecturer at my college, Birkbeck in London, a very fine institution. But I spent some time in China before then mainly studying geomorphology in the Tibetan area and various parts of central and south China to gather data for a doctorate. I was living at the home of Dr. Lossing Buck, who was the Buck part of Pearl Buck. He telephoned me one afternoon to say, “Jack, I’ve got a very important professor coming to dinner this evening. I shall be unavoidably late. Please entertain him for an hour or so.” The guest was Professor Schermerhorn, professor of geodesy at the University of Delft, who later became prime minister of Holland. We started to talk about deep-focus earthquakes, a subject at that time much under discussion by geologists. Then we gradually made our discussion far less technical until finally he asked me, “What are you going to do when you return home?” I told him I had received an invitation to lecture at Birkbeck. He said, “Do you know, I think the Shell company might be interested in perhaps giving you a job. I’m in close touch with them because of my profession.”

Later on Shell went to no end of trouble to keep in touch with me in London, where I was lecturing. They finally wrote to me, “Would you please come, at any time that is convenient to you, and see us at the Hague, the headquarters of Shell’s scientific side? Enclosed is a ticket; just let us know when you are coming.” So I went, and joined Shell in January 1938, leaving my university post.

What kind of work did you do?

As a child I had been fascinated by stereoscopic photos. If you take a photo of a person sitting quite still and then move the camera about three inches to one side and take another photo, when you look at he photos placed side by side through a stereoscope, the person appears to stand out.

A three-dimensional effect?

Yes, very strongly three-dimensional. In those days, they had stereoscopic travel books. I think it was my grandfather who gave me one, Travel in Canada, a great thick case holding photographs of places all over Canada, accompanied by a text. So for example, you would read, “When you look up the street here, you’ll see at the end of it the Ottawa River.” It was really quite fascinating.

Now Shell, just then, decided to develop stereographic air photography in which obviously the distance between the photos was not three inches, but a kilometer or more. So when viewing photos taken from that height and at that distance apart, although a flat surface would show up as flat, all slopes would be exaggerated and thus enable you to detect all kinds of things, such as differences in vegetation, differences in rock type, anticlines, synclines, faults. I studied these photos, building up my own imagery whilst using such maps as might be available, and later on would go into the field to check on various significant features I had noted, before I sent in a complete report. I should mention that the fundamental aim of such research was the discovery of possible petroleum accumulations. Becoming a photo-geologist, I visited many countries. At first, of course, I was at the Hague for about a year and a half, studying and working on the idea; my first posting was to New Zealand, where I stayed for a year. I was then to have gone back to Holland, but the Germans invaded in 1938 and so it was impossible to return. So I stayed a little longer in New Zealand and finally was sent to Australia.

So you were in Australia during World War II?

Yes, but we were not allowed to join the forces because it was maintained that our work was more important. Finally, permission to do so came, and I joined the Australian Air Force, ending up in a highly-secret branch of the forces as a lieutenant, directly responsible to Field Marshal Blamey. But before the war was quite over Shell cabled me, “Can you possibly get released? We do need you for hush-hush work in Egypt.” The special branch agreed, “We think that the petroleum is so vitally important that you should be demobilized.” So I left Australia and went to Egypt. After five years there I went to Borneo, and thence back to Australia for a second tour.

Still with Shell?

Yea. From there I went to Canada and worked on and in the Arctic Islands for two years or so. After Canada I could have retired, but I didn’t do so. I went to Pakistan, and then from Pakistan to Australia for a third time, after which I really did retire.

When in Canada, I took up judo, since I had to wait for the winter to ski. There was no chance of enjoying field hockey, because only the girls played it there. As for soccer, only foreigners went in for it, and they were always fighting with each other, and that’s not my idea of sport. So I joined the YMCA to get some exercise. I tried volleyball, basketball, and all kinds of games that weren’t very interesting to me. Then, just by chance one night I went up to the second floor, looked through a glass door and saw a class doing judo. Now I’d never seen judo before in my life, but I thought that it looked fascinating. You know, love at first sight. I had thought judo was catching a fellow by the ear and throwing him over the fence. But they weren’t doing that, and in any case there were no fences. I went in and spoke to the instructor, who was a Frenchman, Dr. Evan Baltazzi, a sandan from Paris. A sandan in those days was quite a high rank. He had taught the Oxford team also, and he was a professional pharmacologist.

What city were you in?

Ottawa. I should mention that in Canada the full range of kyu grade belt colors is used, whereas in Japan only white and brown are used. I gradually went up the judo kyu grades to brown belt. At first of course, I had a white belt, and when I attained a higher grade, I took it home and dyed it. When I was in Australia for my last Shell posting, a friend advised me to go to the Kodokan, saying that if I were to stay about six months, I’d get my black belt. So, I thought, “That’s not a bad idea.”

What year was this?

1960. So I fixed things up and went out by ship. Somehow the Captain heard that I was interested in judo. There was nothing he wanted to learn more than this, so we found a brown belt from the crew and with one or two other amateurs, we covered a hatch with padding, and all across the Indian Ocean we did judo every day [laughter].

I came here and joined the Kodokan on the 9th of January, 1961. In six months I got my black belt. I stayed on. At the end of three years, I got my nidan. And I thought, “Well, why not go home and have a holiday and then come back?” So I did that. And now I’ve been here for thirty years, living in the same house in Tokyo.

I’ve had many very excellent teachers here. Mr. Takamura, my Australian friend’s instructor, was the first one. I’m sad to say that he died last year. I’ve had moreover many good friends here who have helped me, taught me, and, quite equally important as far as I’m concerned, encouraged me. These friends may not have done more than that, but that was quite sufficient to push me on.

Would you talk about some of the veterans among the foreigners in the judo world and something about their achievements?

Well for example, I knew the scientist and judo man, the Israeli, Feldenkrais, quite well.

Could you tell us about your association with him? Feldenkrais was a very fascinating character. Wasn’t he associated with Kawaishi, who is considered to be the father of jujutsu and judo in France?

Yes, I think you may well be right.

When did you make his acquaintance, in the 60s?

When I was in Ottawa, soon after I began to study judo in 1956, I bought a very famous book of his on judo. I met him personally in Tokyo when he was here in association with a South African, now Israeli, Maurice Segal who is still living here I believe, though he’s given up judo. Maurice was severely injured as a British air force officer during the war. Some years ago he came to the Kodokan where we used to practice. He was very humorous by nature. When taking a shower he used to sing comic songs.

Several years ago, I met a man named Trevor Leggett, a researcher.

I know Trevor Leggett very well. I came into touch with him because at about the time I joined the Kodokan, he was speaking regularly on the radio as the BBC Japanese correspondent, or something of that nature.

Judo, or some other topic?

I never actually heard him broadcast; doubtless on other topics besides sports. I came from England with a letter from the Canadian Associate Black Belt Association. In Pakistan I had become very friendly with the Japanese ambassador, who had been in London for a long time and was very keen on the city. He gave me a letter of introduction to the Kodokan, and I also got one by getting in touch with Trevor Leggett, to whom I wrote. So I came charged with top letters, and was shown immediately to President Kano’s office. They wouldn’t do that today! I came off with a good start. Kotani Sensei found a good sandan to give me lessons most days.

So Mr. Leggett was a researcher in judo history?

He was a splendid instructor according to some of his students, and wrote several books on judo. Some years ago he stopped not only doing judo, but writing about it, and now he is more or less entirely concerned with writing books on Zen, in Japanese.

He writes in Japanese?

Yes. He’s quite formidable. He comes over here usually once a year and I sometimes manage to see him at International House.

I’m trying to remember whom else I might have known… Oh yes, of course. Geesinck.

The Dutchman? That would have been right at the time he was in Tokyo, wasn’t it?

It was indeed. Soon after I arrived.

He was the Heavyweight Judo Gold Medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the first Westerner to take the world Judo championship from the Japanese in 1961. How did you meet?

I happened to say aloud the name of Takamura Sensei, who had taught my English friend in Australia, during a class at the Kodokan. A day or two or later, Takamura himself turned up and said, “I hear that someone has been talking about me.” I introduced myself to him, and he kindly said, “Well, please come and have lessons at my dojo.” So for two years, three or four times a week, I studied at his private dojo in Ikebukuro, in addition to my lessons at the Kodokan. About that time, I was studying with a young Australian there, enjoying such splendid teaching. When Takamura taught, he didn’t simply say, “Do what I do.” He looked at the length of your arms, and your legs, and your build and modified his teaching appropriately. If my memory does not betray me, I met Geesinck at the Kodokan not so long after I had started my lessons at the Takamura dojo in 1961. As I was so delighted to be a student there, I suggested to Geesinck that he might like also to profit by this chance. In any case, he knew that Takamura had taught leading French judoka. Moreover, a neighbor of mine, a high dan and very strong Scotsman, George Kerr, was also studying with Takamura, and would certainly prove a good partner for him. I believe Kerr is now teaching in Vienna at a big international school for judo. In later years, I believe I met Geesinck in Holland. More recently, I’ve met him when he’s been over here for the annual Shoriki Mat-sutaro Cup International Students Judo Tournament.

How did the Japanese deal with such a huge and powerful judoka? I suppose he was not the technician that the Japanese were, yet he was physically so powerful…

That is the great mistake many people make. He was an excellent technician. I saw the whole of the judo competition in 1964. It was very good, and there was some very fine judo to be seen. I also met an American black man, Harris, who was one of the most polite men I have ever met. He did excellent judo, but when fighting with another foreigner, this opponent gained half a point and then refused to fight anymore. He just dodged and, within the rules, ran away.

This was during the Olympic competition?

Yes. I thought it was very mean of him. It’s not my idea of sportsmanship.

Judo is often criticized for that sort of tactic.

Fortunately, under contemporary rules, this is not allowed.

There is now considerable difference between present-day competition judo and the judo devised by Jigoro Kano, isn’t there?

Yes. I feel very strongly on that point. What is completely forgotten today is the fact that Jigoro Kano was a member of the highest class in society, an aristocrat. He was not a man of the people. His idea of judo was designed, not for the hoi-polloi, but for carefully trained enthusiasts, who may not have been aristocrats, but had aristocratic spirits. They were nature’s gentlemen. Most sports when they become popular, tend to be controlled, manipulated and changed by the lowest of the elements that practice them. The fine points of judo are no longer generally appreciated. All that is necessary to do today in judo is to win.

Now, there is a point there. If you don’t try to win, it’s of no interest, no fun for your opponent. So you must try to win, but you should try to do so in as stylish, elegant and finished a way as you can muster. One may not at first be able to do that, but that’s what training is for, and you gradually build up to it. Today it seems, you just go and throw a fellow down, coming in with all your weight and force, if possible. Fouls, well, hopefully they pass unnoticed…

Minoru Mochizuki Sensei wrote a letter to Aiki News several months ago, lamenting the sad state of present-day judo. He had been watching the judo competition at the Seoul Olympics on television when Saito won the gold medal. He said that judo, the gentle way, has become judo, the heavy way [word play based on the same sound of two different characters for “ju”]. In other words, weight now prevails.

Yes, I wrote something similar a long time ago. I called it the “hard” way. But it’s not only in judo, many other sports are also involved. There are very few sports, I think, that preserve their pristine excellence. Kyudo, the Japanese art of archery, is still practiced very much in the proper spirit; but of course, there are no physical opponents. As for aikido, I’m not qualified to judge.

For the last year and a half or so we’ve been translating the autobiography of Jigoro Kano into English, for the first time to my knowledge. I’ve been led to believe that possibly parts of what Kano wrote were originally written in English.

They were. All his special notes on judo were written in English.

What was the reason for doing that?

I would suggest that it was so that no one else could steal his ideas from him.

So it was a kind of security, a way of encrypting the information?

Yes. Bonn Draeger told me he had studied all those documents.

He got special permission from the families to consult these materials?

Well, Draeger was a great man, you see. He was undoubtedly the finest martial artist of this century. He had over a hundred dan or their equivalents in umpteen martial arts, in addition to being the author of a large number of books on those arts.

You’ve mentioned in your conversation thus far, both the Dutchman Geesinck and also Donn Draeger. Did the two of them have much contact?

Probably, but I am not certain. However, one evening, Draeger, Trevor Leggett and I, had dinner at that very lovely place near the Catholic Cathedral, the Chinzan-so. It’s a place where you would go to in the summer to see the fireflies. There are no fireflies there now, but they were brought in boxes from other places. You could walk in the little groves there, and enjoy seeing the fireflies flitting around.

They were both strapping men at that time?

There were very strongly built fellows, of course.

Does Geesinck have an intellectual side to him, or is he just mainly interested in martial arts and related sports, would you say?

He is very bright. He was unfortunately not able to get sufficient support recently to become president of the International Judo Federation. His interests are mainly in sports.

You write a bit too, don’t you?

Yes. I recently reviewed a book about Japan and the Japanese by a friend of mine, Douglas Moore Kenrick, The Success of Competitive Communism in Japan, for the Japan Times. I have been told that one of the Japanese business organizations liked the review so much, that all members were given a copy of it. I don’t know if this was because I described the general philosophical outlook of Japanese people. They try things out to see if they work, but don’t try to find the real essence, just something which is satisfactory for a given purpose. This pragmatic philosophy is one which I think works very well, in fact I subscribe philosophically to it myself. But Japanese foul the pragmatism by mixing fixed cultural ideas and beliefs with it. I pointed out that if Japanese people wish to have more real influence in international business than they do, they must study Western logic. It doesn’t matter if they don’t use it in Japan, but when they are dealing with foreigners, they must discuss things in a logical way. For example, in simple matters such as being able to distinguish between “no” and “yes,” being able to say clearly what they actually mean. If in Japan they say, “Hai, Hai,” it means, “I heard you, and my grandmother would also have heard you, if she’d been alive.” That is not an answer to a direct question. What you want to know is whether they agree with you. Then you can work together. It doesn’t matter in their own country, but when the Japanese are dealing with foreigners, they must speak in a logical way or foreigners won’t know exactly what they are talking about.

I did a bit of reading on World War II and the period leading up to it, and there were some quotations from various politicians in the late ’30s and early ’40s which sound just like what you would read in the newspaper today. The befuddlement on the part of the Westerners and their not being able to understand the Japanese and the ambiguity of their manner continues. Of course, many books have been written, and there are now more foreigners here, but those who never really have much contact with the Japanese still remain completely bewildered by them.

Of course they are. For business, a logical approach is absolutely essential, to clear away the mists and mysteries.

I often point out that the irony of all of this is that despite the shortcomings of the Japanese and their inability to grasp Western logic and the problems they have in dealing with foreigners, they’re still the most successful economic nation. This doesn’t say much about the competition. They are number one. And any Japanese could counter any complaints by pointing out that they may have their shortcomings, but Westerners are not trying hard enough. At least the Japanese make an effort to study English in school, and make some sort of effort to translate their documents into the target language, even if the translation is poor, but their counterparts will make no language effort, or make very little language effort, and will not even come into Japan with documentation in Japanese. They will just come in with English, and will expect to penetrate the market with that.

And they can’t do it without enormous trouble. I agree.

Did you know Kenji Tomiki Sensei?

Tomiki was an excellent friend of mine. I knew him well. I used to meet him fairly often at the Kodokan, and we’d always have a chat. The last time I saw him was going up in the lift at the Kodokan, not so long before he died, and he looked so terribly ill.

He died of cancer.

I have a copy of a small book which he wrote for a series which no longer exists.

The one put out by the Japan Travel Bureau?

Yes. It is on aikido and judo. He brought into aikido, as you know, the idea of randori. It becomes a bit boring if you just have to throw down your partner all the time, and he then puts you down and that’s all there is to it. But to have correct, well-balanced and controlled randori, even if you call it a “fight,” is not only legitimate, but necessary.

Friendly competition?

Friendly competition. I’m very much against this idea of standing like a doll and being thrown down. That doesn’t interest me at all. It’s pointless, isn’t it, unless it is considered to be analogous to smelling flowers, or hearing poems read.

Well, Jack, you’ve mentioned a bit about your theoretical approach to judo, but how do you approach a physical workout? You go to the Kodokan, you put on your gi, and then what happens when you’re on the mat?

I’ve done so much practice over the years, that if I do a lot of warming up, I’m ashamed to say I get a bit too tired for randori. I mean, put my age another way round, I’m only four years off ninety. One doesn’t overdo things. I’m always in such good condition that I don’t need to warm up. I go straight in and practice. Do you know Arthur Tansley?

A little.

Well, he’s gone down a bit in weight, but for a long time he was quite heavy, somewhat over 210 Ibs., if I recollect aright. I could throw him with ease, without using power. Make the right movement at the right moment and catch your opponent when he makes a wrong move. That’s what I enjoy doing.

Would somebody like Kyuzo Mifune have been one of your ideals?

He is my judo kamisama. He was a most splendid man. In Canada I saw the wonderful film that he made of judo. Later, when I was in Pakistan, the Japanese Ambassador invited me, saying, “Do come to our party. Of course, we are going to show Mifune’s film.” So I saw it for a second time. When I came here to Tokyo I very much wanted to meet him, so I enlisted the help of Shell who kindly sent an English-speaking employee along with me, and we arranged a meeting with Mifune. When we got there, Mifune was leaving, but when he realized what had happened he was full of apologies. He had somehow forgotten our appointment, and said to us, “Please, please come upstairs with me.” He took us up to that room with windows which looked out on to the dojo; he apologized and changed into his judogi, and gave me an interview. Then he said, let’s move round a bit. So we went on to the mats, and moved round a bit. I tried a taiotoshi on him, and I have photo of this which is one of my treasures.

Budo is often painted as an ideal. It also involves a mental and spiritual side through the practice of a physical activity at a deep level and it can be used a vehicle for self-betterment. There are two schools of thought on budo. One is as something pure, with an idealistic aspect, a personal part, a self-improvement part, which is almost more important than the physical aspect of doing the discipline. Another is that budo if translated means the martial arts, the arts of war. Effectiveness of technique is a critical issue, and if you remove this element you have only a discipline like flower arranging. A corollary to that is competition. If you introduce the idea of competition into this ideal structure of budo, can that notion co-exist with it, or does that corrupt the ideal and destroy it.

I think they are in some ways opposite sides of the same coin.

As I see it, people are going to do what they’re going to do anyway. Part of the discussion is merely a matter of semantics. I use the term budo, but what I mean to say is a very pure discipline, where I try to better myself, and maybe make it the focal point of my life. If I feel a oneness, or some sort of self-awakening, then I may consider my involvement a success. I may not care whether or not I am an outstanding exponent of that martial art.

Another person might take the same word budo, and say “Look, the very essence of this term revolves around the fact that you have this control over physical reality. You can take violence, identify it, have the means to neutralize it and guide it towards a positive outcome. Without that your ideal is hollow and useless.” I think you could write books about both of those viewpoints, and books have been written, but when you strip away all of the rhetoric, there’s really no problem at all. There’s no conflict. It is simply that budo is being defined in two different ways. If I say that budo is an ideal and the physical activities that are involved are secondary, and self-improvement is my primary goal, that’s it. There’s nothing more to be said. And if on the other hand I say, “No, budo must include the martial aspect, must be effective; you have to be able to test it against physical reality to make sure it’s valid,” well, then I’ve defined it in that way. So in a sense, it’s what do you prefer? How do you prefer your budo? There’s no real argument there at all. It’s just two different definitions.

So many things are.

Well, it seems our time is up, and we must bring our conversation to a close. Thank you very much, Dr. Hanson-Lowe, for a very interesting and informative discussion.

I am delighted that you found it so. I myself have been very pleased indeed to come this morning. Thank you.