Carried out at Renshinkan dojo Old Hill, immediately after Shihan Smith’s class, 10th June 2004.
Shihan Smith (henceforth referred to as Sensei) was born in central Birmingham on 1st July 1929. He lived, “up a yard” in an area that was, “rough but you didn’t know it at the time”, in pre-war terrace housing with 1 outside toilet between 3 houses. The youngest but one of 6 brothers and sisters, he attended St Thomas’ church school (later bombed) where he was a choirboy. At 11 he was evacuated to the country, like so many of his generation, to escape the German bombing. At Bromsgrove he stayed with Mr. Roland the local football club’s secretary, handy as the young Mr. Smith was a keen sportsman. However his father was a loving man who missed his children, who had been sent to various areas of the countryside (in a time when travel and communication was more difficult than today), so he bought them back to live in Birmingham. Here their house was bombed but Sensei and his family survived as they were in the air raid cellar at the time, along with many neighbors. Sadly Sensei’s older brother died through the war. Homeless for a period, the Smith family slept in various locations such as church halls, until finding a home in the Black Country, at the site of Sensei’s current house, which he built, close to Renshinkan. This was with “Granddad Sam”, a man who worked with Sensei’s father on D-Day landing barges, and had no family of his own. Over the years this man became regarded as part of the Smith family, a feeling many of Sensei’s students may be familiar with. But with no running water, gas or electricity, times were hard, and Sensei’s mother cooked on an open fire.
The bombing of the Smith house in Birmingham, Sensei now describes as, “The most fortunate thing in his life”, as it moved him down the road to the future Mrs Smith, who he met when they were both 14 (a year before the war ended). They married at 21 and remain devoted to each other to this day.
Sensei, I understand you trained in boxing before aikido?
Well, the whole family were boxers. I can always remember there being gloves and bags around the house. My mother’s brother and father were quite famous boxers. The latter was unbeaten when he died of diabetes at aged 34. There were armed forces champions in the family, and my brothers were boxers. My father I think boxed for money during the depression, to keep the family OK. I was bought up with it; we all had the gloves on.
At 16 I was going to be managed professionally by a Bristol MP, - Mr. Chilcott. But [the future] Mrs. Smith asked me to give it up, so I did. This caused a little friction between her and my mother for a time!
When and where did you first start to study aikido?
I was 32 years old, but had been a PTI [Physical Training Instructor] before that, and been involved in many sports. The first place I practiced was at Coventry Road, with Mr. Ralph Reynolds. He is still a great friend and phones me every week. It was more what the man said than what was being done, “Harmony, way of life, no hatred, no revenge, no jealously, no lying”, which I liked. It went along with the way I’ve lived with my church. The dojo was in an inner city area, and going to the pub after practice there were fights most nights, though not involving the aikidoka you understand.
The first Japanese I saw was a man named Mr. Nakazano, who was over from Paris to do some courses. That was in about 1962 when I began. But not until Chiba sensei came did we really get down to the nitty gritty of aikido, in about 1966/67. Unfortunately Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Chiba fell out, - they had quite a bad disagreement. A friend of mine Mr. Bushell and myself, wanted to continue practicing with Chiba sensei (then a young 5th dan), as the difference between what he was doing and what we were doing was like chalk and cheese, so we went to see Mr. Reynolds who gave us his blessing. He actually sold us some mats, and we started at West Heath, in one of Michael Cadbury’s [founder of the chocolate company] homes that he’d donated to the community. We started practicing there in about 1968. That was our first dojo and we still have it, Mr. Douras takes the class now. It’s a very nice place, and Sensei Chiba took courses there.
We were teaching then, but because of the situation; - there were hardly any dan grades in the country; just two I think, we were teaching far too early, and some of us developed bad habits. But most of us, if we were dedicated, realized what we were doing and got down to it, through summer schools and seminars.
Could you tell me about your instructor Chiba Sensei?
I think it was Mr. Cottier, a great friend of mine, who said that Chiba had 3 years to get the place organized. But of course he was here 10 years, and most of that time he was without his family, his wife and child, so he was very dedicated and did a lot of good work. Unfortunately the East and West didn’t always see eye to eye, and although no one could have worked any harder, the success rate was… how can I put it without being detrimental, as he turned out some fine students, really dedicated like himself, but East and West didn’t always agree quite as much as it should have done perhaps.
Was he quite a severe teacher?
He was, but he was as severe with himself as much as he was with us. He was very dedicated. Every day he lived, breathed and ate aikido. No time for holidays and the only real relaxation he had was after practice, when we went to the pub. But in saying that he stayed in my home several times during the years, and we had meals and drinks together, and had some really great conversations. Good times together. His interest is aikido and his students, all the time. He’s a very rare man, and as Mr. Cottier says, he’s more akin to the 17th century than this one. He’s a real Japanese, in every way, manner, culture… and it’s people like him that’ll keep his culture alive, as like ours it’s fast dying, and men like me I hope, that will keep ours going. We try to understand each other all the time.
Is there anyone else who stands out from the early days of your aikido study?
Mr. Bushell*, when we began. We had no intention of starting an association. We went to courses with Chiba sensei and bought back what we thought we saw, but of course we saw it through different eyes. People came to us for that bit of knowledge that we had, and that’s how it grew. So of course I have Mr. Bushell to thank, and Mr. Jones* started early, he’s been with me ever since. Mr. Douras and Mr. Wilks over 30 years, Alan Roberts, and of course my son*. Always, always, but always has he been behind me. In the early days he was told he would never have to take a grading, he just wanted to be one of the boys, and he always has been. They’ve all been a great help. They’re some people who don’t practice now, one of my best friends is an Irish man named Pat Earley, but because of the circumstances… his job, traveling, he doesn’t practice. [He is] a great friend, and he lives the life of aikido even though he doesn’t train. He keeps the principals of aikido: No jealously, hatred or revenge. He works with Mr. Aston, a good friend. They met at aikido practice and started a business together. They’ve gone a long way together, all through aikido.
Has it been difficult over the year for you to continue your practice with work and other commitments?
When I had a business [a Butchers partnership] it was difficult, but Chiba understood that, funnily enough. You can’t always take time off when you like, so though I attended most of the summer schools, I might only be there for a few days. I was very grateful that Chiba sensei understood that, but I tried to attend all the seminars that I could.
After Chiba went back to Japan and then America, he asked us to stay with Kanetska sensei and the BAF, and we did until Chiba asked us to leave and start our own association.
To clarify; from what you’ve told me before: Chiba sensei started the Aikikai of Great Britain, of which the West Midlands Aikikai was a part. Later the AGB became the British Aikido Federation (current technical director Minor Kanetsuka, 7th dan so Hombu), and the UKA was formed from the WMA and other clubs. The British Aikikai was formed later from clubs in the UKA that wished to stay affiliated directly with Chiba sensei.
That’s right, what happened was Kanetsuka was a Japanese student in London of Chiba, and when Chiba went abroad he left him in charge. Kanetsuka found his own way, which was a little different, so there was again confrontation unfortunately. We tried to find a way of harmonizing, but eventually decided we had to leave… with Chiba’s help. My students and I, all of these people I have mentioned, have been with [the Aikikai] Hombu dojo all along, we have never left Hombu dojo. It was Chiba’s wish that we stayed with Hombu dojo and we have done [leading to dual IAF recognition in a country for the first time]. We have clubs in Serbia, Greece and Australia now too.
You have continued the contact with Hombu dojo, for instance with Kobayashi sensei at last year’s summer school?
Oh yes, Japan is the mother country, that’s where it was created. Who knows what was in O’Sensei’s mind when he created it, and he found it quite difficult to convey. We’re trying to do that, to convey the way of life, always practicing with kindness… do we achieve it? I think we do in some ways, but people don’t seem to have the time for dedication that they had in the past. There’s so much for them to do now. For example, when I started there were few televisions or bowling alleys, and I’ve never been to a nightclub! And now people go out when we’d have been coming home, 11 –12 o’clock, and stay in bed till 11, 12. The modern lifestyle is very difficult for aikidoka, as you have to be very disciplined. Discipline starts on the mat, - dojo is like a church. I have always been with religion like my wife, and it should be treated the same. No disrespect to people, there are a lot of good guys, but life is just different now to what it was.
Do you have any hopes for the UKA, or aikido in general for the future?
Well I hope to carry on. I fear that because of the British Aikido Board*, which leaves a lot to be desired, there is a long way down the road for unity. I feel that unity with the Japanese and Hombu dojo is the only real way forward for the future. - Where there is some form of uniform training. Because at the moment we are seeing what people call aikido, but that could not be farther from the actual meaning of it, as I see it anyway. I don’t want to be detrimental as outside of the aikikai there are some great people practicing, but also on the other hand, there are more people practicing terrible aikido and losing the culture, respect and above all the etiquette. This is the most important form of self-discipline. I see people drinking on the mat, walking to the toilet without any shoes, not asking permission of their sensei’s before walking on and off, things like that. Just pleasing themselves, but in aikido you cannot please yourself. You have to show respect, it’s the foundation.
The ties with Hombu… it’s like the sports that started elsewhere. Boxing was at the ancient Olympics and has continued, although prostituted in several ways. The “noble art of self defense” was introduced by Lord Lonsdale in England, and is now all over the world, likewise with cricket. England was the mother country, although we get beaten at it now and again [smiles].
I would like to ask about two honors bestowed on you quite recently, your MBE* in 2002, and the title of shihan awarded in 2003?
Both were a big surprise. The MBE… well I’ve been a royalist all my life… to meet the queen, and to have it for the art that I love, that’s been a big part of my life, my whole families life, was truly wonderful. To see the queen with Mrs. Smith, Philip and Diane [Sensei’s children], have her put her hands on you; ask you so many questions about aikido. She knew aikido! Although there was 100 people invested that day, she talked to every one on the subject that they were there for. Obviously a very determined lady and a very dedicated lady, like we have been talking about. Dedicated to her culture and her subjects.
The Shihan status was a surprise. I think Mr. Roberts, a great friend and UKA secretary, was the instigator. There were some other aikidoka involved who supported the promotion.
The Shihan business was a recommendation from aikido people, the MBE was a recommendation by people like my doctor, the Mayor of Birmingham; who presented me with a samurai statue for 40 years teaching; - local people.
Would you talk about your family in aikido?
Philip has practiced since he was about 8 I think, been dedicated and done as much as he can with his family life. My wife has been behind me in everything that I’ve done, supported me in everything I wanted to do. Sometimes hasn’t fully understood… my daughter has supported me too, all my family, my cousins and sisters have all supported me and are proud of me. I’m a very lucky guy, while I’m still teaching at my age, even more so. We’ve always been a very close family you see, so we are getting old gracefully together.
Family is something that is obviously important to you. You’ve mentioned before that in the UKA you’ve tried to create an aikido that is compatible with family life.
That’s right, not just me, Mr. Jones and all the seniors, - Mr. Haywood, Mr. Burrows, Mr. Brady, are all family people, work people and great aikidoka. The Shidoin have all tried to create an aikido practice that can fit in with family life… up to a point. Of course when you are an instructor you have a commitment as a teacher, and sometimes it does clash with family things. There are big sacrifices to be made at times, but we try to fit it in. This weekend for example, I’m teaching at the UKA course in the morning, and then going to a student’s wife’s 60th birthday meal in the afternoon. I’ve known her for 30 years.
Are there any ways in which aikido has affected your life or you as a person?
It has made me a better person, there’s no doubt about it. I’m a very lucky man, as my wife and I have been associated with the [Methodist] church our whole lives. The things we practice and teach in aikido are virtually the same things that we hold dear in our chapel work. There’s no contradiction, but we’re certainly no bible punchers; we enjoy a night out and that kind of thing. The principles are the same.
Do you have a particular aikido training philosophy?
No, well… if you try and teach respect for others and yourself, you only have to answer to one person. You’re the person, man or woman. Say to yourself, “Am I not going to club for this reason or that? Am I making an excuse because I feel a little tired, or whatever it might be, or am I not going for a genuine reason?” There has to be commitment. No commitment, no enjoyment or achievement. You can only achieve by being dedicated and doing what you have to do. Some people have to do less or more than others to pass grades or whatever it might be, but the ladders are there to be climbed, to get there, for yourself and other people. You can’t get other people to respect you if you don’t respect yourself.
You’ve said before that you don’t always understand, or like it, when people talk about the spirituality of aikido?
Yes, some people can sit under a waterfall, or stare at a candle flame and find some sort of contentment out of it. Now, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been a man of action work and sport wise all my life… I can do it, it doesn’t make me nervous, but it doesn’t give me anywhere near the satisfaction [I get when I see] a student improve because I’ve worked hard with them. It’s not always a success, sometimes a student leaves for whatever reason, but if it is, that’s my enjoyment and contentment. Of course not just in aikido, with my family too. I have a grandson getting married, if I can help him in any way, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction. Not hypnotism or things like that, I think that’s going a bit to far.
Are you content with being one of the principals of quite a large organization?
Yes, I’m very happy. Mr. Jones, Mr. Roberts and the other guys, take care of most things. I sit in on meetings, but mostly I just teach four times a week [at Renshinkan], which suits me great. I also do seminars and things like that.
May I ask you about a few technical aspects of aikido?
Well you are yourself at the end of the day, whichever way you look at it. Some people look at aikido aggressively and other people are more laid back, and you can’t fight your nature. You are what you are, and what you are is what you make yourself 9 times out of 10, though there’s family life and upbringing as well.
So what happens in technical aikido for me? Every time I see a Shihan from Hombu Dojo I practice what they teach. Always but always, trying to stay with the basics, how it was born, but of course I find some ways of doing irimi nage easier than others, and sometimes I feel some basics and techniques are a little difficult. That’s when I have to work harder. Like when I began, I had to work hard on my left side, as due to being a PTI I had a developed right side, so I practiced more on the left.
Is there anything you would like to say about ukemi?
It’s probably the most difficult aspect of aikido. Contact. Because there are some people who can do one technique, some can do three or four without problems. The same with ukemi. Some people can do one, but find it quite difficult if asked to do several one after the other. The contact between tori and uke is very, very critical. It can change between ukes, but also with the same student. Depending on what’s happened in the day; mental attitude, tiredness, work, outlook; whatever it might be, the contact isn’t always the same. Have an open mind, try and be relaxed, try and work together. Try and be part of tori, try and be a part of your partner.
May I ask about the relationship between weapons and empty hand? This seems to be a specialty of yours.
Well for a while I thought we practiced the wrong way around, because aikido came from weapons. O’Sensei was great with a spear, sword and jo, and all aikido was taken from that. The youngest martial art is aikido. When we practice aikido we start by holding the wrists; which is very impractical for self-defense; but that was how it was born. You were holding the wrist of the attacker to stop him drawing his sword, to save yourself, but when we practice aikido the attacker is the man who takes the wrist. So it’s quite difficult in your mind, how you treat that. But if you treat the weapon as an extension of the arm; sword, jo whatever; and your ma-ai is right, then you get a lot of benefit from that. Peace of mind, especially if the attacks are good, correct shomen uchis and things like that… proper extension of the arms, then there is a lot of benefit.
Ma-ai is a principal you use Sensei?
You have ma-ai in every walk of life, its most important. I’ve talked about boxing, football, and cricket. Everything’s the same. In cricket the ma-ai is between the ball and you, or if you’re wrong footed in football, also the distance between the players and the ball. In boxing, the reach is important.
You have to give yourself time, which can be anything from a split second to much longer. Ma-ai is connected with timing as well as distance. You hear of people who snatch children from oncoming vehicles, their ma-ai has to be close physically and mentally. Ma-ai is very important for aikido, but for your life too. Ma-ai means closeness or distance, and it can be physical or mental. You can have ma-ai within a marriage, because mentally you’re close, and the more you love someone the more you worry about them, but the more enjoyment you have. It’s an important thing to remember. Or you hear people saying, “I keep my distance from that guy, I don’t like him”, it’s the same thing.
What about ki or kokyu?
That comes naturally through practice. One of the lessons that I learned very quickly was when I was a young man. My father was building a wall and he seemed to be very laid back. He was building the outside and I was doing the inside, which is rougher, you just follow the inside, so it’s easier. I thought he seems very slow I can keep up with him, but I had great difficulty because I was doing it strength wise and he was doing it relaxed. Or if you see a man who is used to a screwdriver, for instance an electrician, talking while he’s working. Its all ki, relaxation and coordination in what you practice. I’m tired when I sweep the patio at home, I’ve had enough, but the old road sweepers could do it all day! Through practice it comes, whatever you do. Old carpenters, tradesmen; they can do it as they’ve practiced all their lives and it’s coordination of mind and body, the same as aikido.
When I began aikido they were a big part of it, and I still believe that they are. When you’re practicing with a student and you give them a little tap here and there, it’s to make them realize something. You shouldn’t punch and just stand there like a statue [as uke]. In the street they throw perhaps half a dozen punches. Atemi are very important, they make you realize you have to keep your defense up all the time. Keep your mind, not just be static, and keep a flexible mind. They are sadly neglected. Don’t do it for cleverness, but to let your partners know that they should have their hand or mind there, or whatever it might be.
We trained in the early days without any at all. We hadn’t done any until Chiba sensei came here. Then we found it very difficult; I was 30 odd. A lot of people found it very difficult for their ankles as well as knees. It’s my belief that with suwari-waza there should be some simple exercises that teach you to turn; by turning your knees, such as uchi kaiten nage, irimi nage; before you start to do anything really energetic with the knees. Knees and elbows are the most important in aikido, but anything can catch you out. I have experience of injuries through the years, bad shiho nages, but usually with the knees it’s because the person that’s practicing hasn’t had the proper training from the beginning. Simple exercises to begin with, not too much, bring people on gradually so that they feel comfortable.
I’ve seen a lot of knee operations, it’s stopped some really good guys training, so it’s sad, and can be avoided. I remember my good friend Mr. Cottier, he has very bad knees, and he went to see a specialist to get them rectified. The specialist said, “What do you mean by “knee walking”, show me?” So he did, and the specialist said, “Are you mad? Doing things like that on you knees!” So it’s not very natural, especially to non-Japanese. Then again, some high grade Japanese have told me that traditionally you never knelt down with a long sword in the belt, it was always taken out. But then you get people like Chiba who are very dedicated to iai, who do a lot of iai with the sword in the obi [belt], so it’s one of those things that’s open to discussion.
Can I ask about your trips to Japan?
My first trip was in 1984 accompanied by Mrs. Smith. I was an [IAF*] congressman on Chiba’s recommendation. I have a letter from Doshu that I treasure inviting me to come, but congress was very slow, and the results were very slow. The International Aikido Federation is a large association, but it doesn’t seem to have any teeth. A good friend of mine - Mr. Goldsbury, who was general secretary of the BAF, is now the IAF general secretary. I met quite a few Japanese teachers who had stayed at my home, which was very nice. We met Sekiya sensei, Mr. Chiba’s father in law, and went to his home and had a wonderful time.
The second time I went was with Philip for the UKA’s recognition in 1988. Every time we’ve been, we’ve been very warmly welcomed by the Doshu himself, who was then waka sensei. He stayed at my home while taking the summer school in 1992. We have good relations with Hombu Dojo, and with Mr. Tani the overseas secretary there, so we’ve been very lucky.
When I went with Philip we went to Tanabe where the house where O’Sensei was born is, and we saw the dedication of the statue there. It’s about 8 hours train journey from Tokyo. We stayed in a traditional Japanese hotel. There was a great big festival of O’Sensei there, with aikido practice, fireworks and a private beach. We were with different Japanese teachers that we knew. Asai sensei, Yamada sensei, and Fujita sensei all made us very welcome. One of the nicest things was a conversation with Arikawa sensei, whom we were told didn’t always talk to foreigners. Also one time, we were in a hotel foyer, and down the stairs came the late Doshu, just by coincidence. I’d met him before but only as one of the crowd. We bowed and said hello, then just after he’d gone out, some of his students came running back in and told us to follow them. We went in a mini-bus and it was a visit to O’Sensei’s grave. Doshu said some prayers and there was a ceremony. It was a great experience, one of the highlights of my life. They took us back to the hotel and I thanked Doshu, who just took it in his stride. He was such a nice guy.
Is there anything else you’d like to add Sensei, about aikido or your life?
No I think we’ve covered it pretty well. Just that it’s given me great satisfaction. I can meet younger people. There are times at this time in my life, when I come to the dojo and practice is furthest from my mind, but I make myself practice. Then I find people of 20 or 21, like your age, helping me do the things I want to do, without living a lie. They become part of me and it isn’t like saying, “Jump” and they say “How high?” They become part of me and blend with me, and I find I can practice even if I don’t feel like anything but lying down. Great.
A big thank you to Shihan Smith for taking the time to answer these questions, and to share so much of his life and knowledge.
*Mr. Bushel is no longer practicing, Mr. Jones is currently UKA co principal, 6th dan so hombu, Shidoin. Shihan Smith’s son, Philip Smith, 6th dan so Hombu Shidoin, teaches adults and children at Renshinkan and is the UKA BAB representative. He started aikido aged 8. Mr. Roberts is general secretary of all clubs in the UKA and the organization’s main contact with Hombu Dojo.
*The BAB is the umbrella organization for aikido associations in the UK, recognized by the government in the form of Sports England. Most British Aikido associations are represented by it and insured through it. It has been recently involved in controversy regarding recognition of early British Aikido teachers.
*The Member of the British Empire award is bestowed by the monarchy of Great Britain, in a similar fashion to Knighthoods. Traditionally it is only given to the well to do, in for example the armed services or the Foreign Office. In modern times it is given to extraordinary, ordinary people as well.
*Shihan is a title given by hombu dojo, independent of grade, that is usually translated as “professor”. Hombu dojo has only awarded the title to two Englishmen to date, Mr. Ken Cottier (6th dan, student of O’Sensei, IAF superior councilor, co founder of the Hong Kong Aikikai), and Mr Smith.
*The International Aikido Federation is the aikikai’s international umbrella association for recognized national aikido associations throughout the world.
Picture provided by http://www.renshinkan.co.uk