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A Tribute to Sadateru Arikawa Shihan

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

Sadateru Arikawa (1930-2003)

On October 11, 2003, the aikido world lost 9th dan Sadateru Arikawa, one of the few remaining giants of the postwar generation of instructors that played a predominant role in the dissemination of the art worldwide. I had the pleasure of knowing and associating with this enigmatic figure over a 33-year period. During that time he taught me a great deal about Japanese martial arts history, research methodology, etiquette, and the ins and outs of the aikido subculture. Arikawa Sensei was talkative, tireless, severe yet cheerful, fearsome on the mat, and fiercely loyal to the Ueshiba family. There was no one more knowledgeable than he on all things aikido-related. He was a walking dictionary and a martial arts’ historian par excellence.

In this tribute I will endeavor to provide an insight into this colorful figure by describing some of the highlights of our long association.

I initially encountered Sadateru Arikawa on my first trip to Japan in the summer of 1969. His reputation of being ferocious on the mat had preceeded him and I wasn’t disappointed when I participated in one of his classes for the first time. With a big smile on his face he would apply painful joint-locks (kansetsuwaza) and powerful throws to any and all who would knowingly or foolishly volunteer a limb. I think I only attended two or three of his classes during that summer figuring that I would be tempting the hands of fate if I trained in his class on a regular basis.

Sadateru Arikawa, c. 1960

At that time there was a series of cartoons drawn by a British aikidoka circulating at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. The drawing depicting Arikawa Sensei showed the figure of a cowering student crawling underneath the tatami in order to escape treatment at the hands of “Harry”—a pun on the first three letters of his name and a reference to his thick, black shock of hair—as Sensei was affectionately known among the foreigners at the dojo.

Our next encounter took place in 1973 when I again visited Japan over the year-end holidays. I have a single memory of him from that time. I ran into Arikawa Sensei near the office at Hombu Dojo one day and he proceeded to chat with me about aikido history. He seemed to know of my deep interest in that subject and cheerfully carried on. My Japanese was very basic at that stage and I was only able to understand a little of what he was saying. But this was to prove the first of scores of conversations we would have over the years that would prove so valuable to me in my historical research.

My move to Japan in 1977 marked the beginning of our first meaningful interaction. Around 1978 I had discovered a copy of the old Asahi News film of O-Sensei taken in 1935. During the Iwama Taisai of that year a string of visitors came by my house in Iwama near the dojo to view this rare old film. Among them to my surprise was Arikawa Sensei. He ended up spending several hours at my home and flattered me by saying that he preferred to stay and talk about aikido history rather than return to the dojo and participate in the party festivities after the religious ceremony. Sensei was not in good health at that time and had been off the mat for about a year on doctor’s orders. He had lost a lot of weight too, but eventually made a complete recovery to resume his instructional duties which included Wednesday evening training at the Aikikai for several decades.

In the early 1980s I moved to Tokyo from Iwama and Arikawa Sensei was a frequent visitor to my home which also doubled as an office in Yotsuya Sanchome, not far from the Aikikai.. He would suddenly call up saying he was in the neighborhood and ask if he could stop by. Sometimes we would spend six or seven hours together and end up going out to dinner. The conversations were always centered on aikido, O-Sensei, Aikikai politics, the publication of Aiki News, and related subjects. Arikawa Sensei truly had a photographic memory. I used to be amazed at how he would walk into my room filled with books and documents and proceed to scan their contents. Sensei would often spy a new item out of the many documents and ask if he could take a look at it. It seemed he had memorized every book, photo and paper in our archives.

My staff would dread these visits by Sensei because it would interrupt their work flow. Also, no one other than me had such an unquenchable interest in aikido history that I shared with Arikawa Sensei. Besides, many people found it difficult to understand his speech, myself included, because he talked in a scarcely audible, raspy voice. I never could figure out why Sensei talked in this way until much later when he told me the story. It seems that as a student in elementary school he got into a fight during which he sustained an injury to his throat. This required an opeation and he was hospitalized for a month. From that time on his voicebox was damaged and it hurt him to attempt to speak in a loud voice.

In any event, even though it was sometimes tiring, I was always willing to spend long hours with Sensei whenever the opportunity presented itself. Arikawa Sensei would often sometimes assume the role of mentor especially in matters dealing with aikido politics. I didn’t always follow his advice, but at least he gave me another viewpoint to consider. No matter what question I would ask about the Founder, aikido techniques, or martial arts in general he had a detailed answer. It seemed too that he knew and had talked with most major figures in the aikido, Daito-ryu, and kobudo worlds.

As our relationship deepened over the years, he adopted an interesting pedagogical approach he would use in our conversations. If I were to ask him his opinion about some historical matter concerning aikido, he would not give me an answer immediately. Sensei would in turn respond with a question of his own attempting to get me to think analytically, consider different possibilities, and proceed by process of deduction. He obviously enjoyed doing this to me and I often felt like a schoolboy trying to keep up with his brilliant intellect.

As the years passed and more and more of the aikido oldtimers left this world, especially following the death of Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, I think we both realized that the kinds of things we talked about were of interest only to a few people. In fact, on certain topics, Arikawa Sensei was the only person I could speak with meaningfully.

In the mid-1980s, Aiki News sponsored a series of events called the “Aikido Friendship Demonstrations” in Tokyo. These demonstrations proved to be rather controversial since we invited teachers from different organizations to share a common stage. Sensei would give me advice and explain the view of the Aikikai towards this event. He was sometimes critical of my actions, but I always valued his perspectives. He attended each and every one of these events usually standing in the back of the auditorium in his capacity as a “spy,” to use his words!

As a consequence of the Third Friendship Demonstration held in 1987, I became acquainted with Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu. Kondo Sensei was one of the most senior students of Tokimune Takeda, Headmaster of the Daito-ryu and, as it turned out, a close friend of Arikawa Sensei due to their connection with Chiba Kogyo University. The three of us would often encounter each other at the All-Japan demonstrations, various aikido and Daito-ryu events, and several times at Kondo Sensei’s home. There was a camaraderie between Arikawa and Kondo Sensei and, when I was together with them, I fancied myself as one of the “Three Musketeers” of the Aiki world—surely a gross exaggeration of my importance! We took photos of the three of us on a couple of occasions which I highly prize.

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