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Interview with Hiroo Iida Sensei

by Stanley Pranin

Published Online

The interview below was originally published in the Japanese-language Aiki News. The subject of the interview, Hiroo Iida Sensei, is a former member of the Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Kodokai, and now heads an independent organization called the Muden Juku based in Sapporo, Hokkaido. We would like to acknowledge the work of Oisin Bourke who translated the text from the Japanese.

Hiroo Iida Sensei

AN: Would you like to tell us about beginning Daito-ryu?

Hiroo Iida: I started at a time when “Chambara” (Samurai action films) and period dramas were at the peak of their popularity. From watching them, I learned something of the martial arts and began to wonder: “Why not try them to feel what they are really like?”

About that time, Yoshida Shihan (At that time, the head of the Sapporo Kodokai branch) placed an advertisement in the Hokkaido daily newspaper that invited people to bring their friends and start training. In those days, all I knew about bujutsu was what I had been told of Kendo, Karate and Judo. This advertisement sounded great. I was of small build and wanted to start doing something. I had never heard the term “Aiki” before, so I cut headmaster Yoshida’s advertisement out and decided to reserve a place. I wanted to begin some pursuit outside of work, but at the time, I didn’t really know of the terms “Aikido” or “Aki”, but I felt I might understand from entering the Daito-ryu.

To tell the truth, at the time I also wanted to improve my skiing! I later qualified as instructor/ senior member of the All-Japan Ski League demonstration team in 1967.

I was looking for some place to do “off training” in the summer. I remembered the newspaper clipping about the Sapporo branch dojo and decided to talk to them directly. That January, I went to Kitami to seek instruction from Kodo Horikawa Sensei.

How did Horikawa Sensei execute his techniques? What was it like?

He never explained what he did. I wondered: “How is he doing what he’s doing?”

I thought that it was amazing. The moment Sensei was touched, the attack was over. After that, I was driven by my puzzlement about that wonderful, profound feeling. I had to try it. I persuaded a friend to come along too, although he stopped coming as he said he didn’t find it so interesting. But the senior students were really in awe of Horikawa Sensei’s technique.

They told me: “You cannot be half hearted when training under such a person.”

This set me thinking: You had to devote a fair amount of time before you could understand Horikawa Sensei’s art. They say that one cannot become a superior person through “neglectful practice.”

At first, it’s not so easy to devote oneself, you know. Not everyone has the patience. I said that I hoped to develop into a full-fledged martial artist and intended to spend a long time in the Kodokai to build up my power. But I had a lot of trouble understanding what it was they were doing.

Understanding Aiki cannot happen without people devoting themselves to understanding the techniques. Originally, you really had to devote yourself to learning the techniques as they were for self-protection. If a beginner does not train hard, it is difficult to progress. Such commitment is really not very easy you know. Understanding the techniques is a very difficult, arduous process.

At first, it was very difficult because we only practiced techniques that attacked the joints. These techniques are very painful even to watch. You also have to think about them all the time and consider how they work, but because to their apparent roughness, the greatness of the martial artists who developed and performed them is ignored and they do not become popular.

You had to the practice the techniques over and over with only what was demonstrated by the seniors for reference, as nobody gave explanations.

After a time, we began to gain a vague understanding of what was been done, but it is regretable to think of how many times we had to practice without quite knowing what we were supposed to be doing!

In those days, Kodo Horikawa Sensei was the Kodokai head and senior to Headmaster Yoshida. When I entered, the Kodokai, Horikawa Sensei took the seniors and Yoshida sensei would demonstrate joint techniques to the rest of us. He liked those techniques. They made us howl in pain!

Was Horikawa Sensei also doing joint techniques at that time?

Well, I’ve been thinking about that. At the time I met him, Horikakwa Sensei was seventy-four years old and was doing techniques that barely attacked the joints, but I was less mature then, and I didn’t understand about what is called “Hard Aiki”.

These techniques that Horikawa Sensei taught came from his father who had a menkyo kaiden in Shibukawa Ryu Jujutsu, I believe. He used this jujutsu as a base from which to study under Sokaku Takeda, who was a friend of the family, whenever he came to visit.

I started in 1968 and in those days, we really couldn’t understand the techniques. Yoshida sensei had started in 1955.

In the old days, all the teachings were transmitted directly from ear to mouth only to the record keepers of the clan. I think this was the reason why we beginners started out with the “hard” techniques. People who began in those days really didn’t understand what they were doing. You really had to get the feel of the techniques and think about what Aiki actually was. In those days, The seniors didn’t quite grasp it either.

Horikawa Sensei was also a school teacher, wasn’t he? Even though he was an educator, he would only show the techniques and not give detailed explanations?

He hardly ever explained. He would execute a very small technique very quickly and suddenly: “Bam!” You’d be thrown. He’d merely give a little chuckle to himself and say “I did that right!” You couldn’t work out what he’d done just from that!

What are the differences and similarities between skiing and Daito-ryu?

In Skiing and bujutsu, the body is used the same way: The left and right sides must be balanced. The power generated by the body is similar, although in skiing, you are not specifically taught to avoid muscular tension. Horikawa Sensei also practiced the traditional Japanese dance quite a lot and it is not so different either. You must really devote yourself to understanding the principles of movement underlying the technique and strive to remember them at all times. With these arts, one’s movements should barely hardly noticeable. If they are not done softly, they are useless.

For example, when you bow formally, you are performing a waza. So we should talk about the “correct way to bow”, as Kuroda sensei says. Militaristically, the correct etiquette for the bow, what one does and doesn’t do, is based on a correct center line axis of the body, as in skiing.

There has been much debate about two skiing methods: The Austrian method and the French method. The result of this open debate was that ski techniques improved rapidly. I think that a similar debate has to begin in Daito-ryu regarding the process of opening up.

The reason for this open debate in skiing is that the top skiers have a focal point in the form of the Olympics. For example, at the time of the Hokkaido winter Olympics, top skiers from all over had to really strive to improve in order to gain a place a place on the international demonstration team.

After all, it’s the pinnacle of your field, like the world cup is for soccer. For budoka, I think an expo at the Budokan is what the world cup is for a soccer player.

Structural reform of the Daito-ryu

The way forward for Daito-ryu lies in such an expo, however getting the different ryu involved is a problem. I want to ask the Daito-ryu community “How should we become more open while bearing this in mind?” I think we should talk about this.

Obviously, this will only be possible when the various different schools are on good terms.

I think now is a crucial time as the Daito-ryu and Aikido generation is changing. The last senior student of Sokaku Takeda, Yukiyoshi Sagawa Sensei, passed away two years ago. We have also lost Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei and Gozo Shioda Sensei in recent years. If we simply try to stay the same as before, our arts will diminish and will become poorer. We must work for a renaissance of the art.

Mr. Pranin is performing an important duty through his meticulous research, and along with the spread of books and videos about the art, we should take advantage of the fact that the profile of Sokaku Takeda is rising. The spread of the art, if accompanied by healthy debate the way it was in the ski world, will both raise the status and improve the technical level of Daito-ryu in all kinds of ways.

At the Aiki News demonstration (covered in Aiki News #96) Inoue Sensei (Inoue Yusuke, the present headmaster of the Kodokai) said “As the core, only one or two really dedicated people are needed in order to really learn the true techniques.” This was echoed by Kato Tomiharu Sensei (Kodokai deputy head) whose view was that “a small number of dedicated people is the best.”

While I think that this attitude is fine, if only one person is entrusted to learn everything, then the art must eventually suffer. My opinion is that such a rigorous selection process engenders an attitude much like the selection process for the Olympics, where competing rivals try to outdo each other. Such rivalry is self-defeating as far as the Daito-ryu world is concerned. It causes the Daito-ryu to fragment and at a time when the ryu should be coming together to devise ways to improve the art’s power and increase its effectiveness. If this is the way we are headed, then we will be throwing away something precious.

Certainly, Sokaku Takeda appears to have had far from only one inheritor out of some three thousand students doesn’t he? After all, Daito-ryu was spread the length of the whole country. The reasons for practicing in complete secrecy don’t seem to make much sense in today’s conditions. Nowadays, people want to talk about Takeda and spread his name.

There really is no time to waste regarding managing the careful and correct dissemination of Daito-ryu. For this reason, I took early retirement from my job and have decided to dedicate my life’s work to spreading the art. Welcoming everyone to practice appears to be the reason why Seigo Okamoto Sensei started the Roppokai. I also think that this is the correct direction for the future to prevent the art’s degeneration.

I have great respect and deep gratitude for Horikawa Sensei and what he did for me. It was because of this that I visited Okamoto sensei, in order to pay my respects. He said to me that the two of us should work towards making the name and reputation of Horikawa Sensei, through sharing his legacy.

Okamoto Sensei set up the Roppokai in Tokyo for this purpose, and in order to show my appreciation for Horikawa sensei, I should do something positive too.

I think that the style of Kodo Sensei and those of Tadao Ogawa and Yakao Nishikido Sensei in Tokyo have a resemblance. I wonder if it is possible for an organization for those schools sharing a common lineage to come together and talk.

I agree. The likes of myself and the Roppokai have been charged with growing and developing and we must consider the foremost way to do this, through discussing plans and presenting ideas. It seems to me that the next step is to consider how to develop friendly relations between dojos. I think there has never been a better time than now to move in that direction. It would be a great thing if the heads of the mainline groups and the independent groups could develop better relations. My personal opinion is that this feeling seems to be spreading.

This appears to have been the original desire of the Bokuyokan (An offshoot branch the Kodokai). However this was a difficult proposition for the Daito-ryu world to accept at the time. But now, I am organizing an international meeting in 2005 to try and forge strong links once more!

Muden Juku has been around now for two years.

Yes, after the fiftieth anniversary of the Kodokai, it seemed like the right time to start a new era. Muden Juku started on the first of January 2001.

You also stopped work.

Yes. I was employed by the Hitachi Electric Corp as a general manager responsible for dealing with franchises. I retired from the company at fifty-three to pursue the path I’m currently taking.

Is it difficult to administer and plan the entire school yourself?

Yes. When I was head of the West Sapporo branch of the Kodokai, I could only reform the syllabus to the school a little each year, as I didn’t have the time. Because of my ski instruction experience, I had a fair idea of how people learn and how to teach them.

Developing Aiki through learning jujutsu techniques takes too long, so the Aiki techniques should be learned from the beginning. Then, if these techniques are practiced repeatedly. It can be mastered quickly. When I teach, I always tell my students to “relax”. This is the most important point.

These are what I define as the special characteristics of the Muden Juku:

First, open hands are extremely important. Next, is you must keep your legs close together. Things such as these are never openly discussed in the Daito-ryu. The next is to “relax”. These are the three main characteristics special to the Muden Juku.

To begin with, you must keep the core of your body relaxed while keeping the rest of your body alive and full of vigor. Keeping alert helps to relax and vice versa. However, if you are merely limp and lifeless, this will cause you to “pull back” from an attack. “Peace” techniques can’t work if one doesn’t relax. I came to this understanding because, although I have also done a little zazen, I think that Aiki is Zen in movement.

On Putting Daito-ryu in the media.

I wish to pass on Japanese culture through Daito-ryu for the whole world to learn. Although, It’s considered primarily a physical art, you can also say that through learning Daito-ryu, one also comes to understand Japanese culture. I greatly wish to transmit this expression of Japanese culture before it becomes a shadow of what it once was. (In bujutsu) There exists the mother source of Japanese culture, although there seems to be little understanding of what this is, and there is a lot of argument in bujutsu over what to do and what not to do.

I think that Japanese culture has something unique to contribute to world culture and that the world wants to learn.

Next year, NHK (The national Japanese TV station) will show a martial arts drama about Miyamoto Musashi and I think that this will get people talking about bushido. I think that this is an opportunity to make something happen. It doesn’t matter where the opportunity comes from; it’s a good thing if one exists. If you start small, then, little by little, you can reach a very high level and gain a deep understanding of budo.

Because of the wide media coverage given to Sokaku Takeda, I think we are now at that starting point. In the past, only the members of the top caste of society were able to learn Daito-ryu. But nowadays, we ordinary people can learn it! If you look at the Hokushin Itto-ryu of which Shusak Chiba was head, it permitted ordinary people to practice and it is said that 3.000 people, entered its doors. They had really innovative ideas about how to practice, such as using protective equipment in matches and creating the dan system. These ideas were revolutionary at the time.

Following on from this, I think that Daito-ryu needs to become more widely known to the world, Because of this, I think there really has to be a properly planned reform at the present time.

I think that Mr. Pranin’s Expos are also quietly spreading the word and a viable path should open to the business world.

In the old days there was “musha shugyo” (travelling around to test one’s martial skills). Nowadays, in the business world, there is the same phenomenon, I think.

Because “cradle to the grave” employment (where workers join a company at a young age and stay with that company until retirement) is almost a thing of the past, one must constantly try to improve oneself in order to improve one’s business. Nowadays, there’s no safety net. You must constantly perform well. Sokaku Takeda was always on the move and striving to improve himself.

He never settled down and stayed in one place. Nowadays, “musha shugyo” means that businessmen must always try to improve themselves the way Sokaku Takeda did.

I believe that Sokaku is a “new Musashi” so I want to help raise his profile. If people know about Sokaku Takeda, then that will lead them to find out about Daito-ryu, the source of Aikido. The primary source for Daito-ryu is through the work of Mr. Pranin.

On practicing without using muscular exertion: The meaning of “Muden”

I’ve found that, when doing waza, if you don’t use muscular strength, you can develop amazing power. If you don’t use muscular effort, and “do” less and less, Uke feels a greater effect.

In Zen, it is said, “something comes from nothing”. You shouldn’t presuppose anything. I’m beginning to understand this now. In the beginning, “Mu” Means no use of physical effort”.

If someone attacks you with real aggression, your automatic reaction is “Aah!” to tense up and react with force. We must change this habit. If you don’t change this habit of reacting with force, a stronger person will always defeat you. My approach is not based on developing muscular power, as I’m not very strongly built. I am now convinced that if you want to generate the most effective power, you shouldn’t use muscular effort. This way, your technique will improve.

To take an example, if you watch traditional Japanese arts, such as dance, you will also notice this principle. From the outside, you can’t really see what the performer’s body is doing, but inside their body, something is going on, a change is taking place.

Therefore, if an opponent grabs you, although nobody can really see what is happening, tori and uke can feel something moving in their bodies. If tori doesn’t use muscular effort, a phenomenal amount of power starts to become available for use.

The “Hollow body” principle

I think of this as the principle of the hollow body:

Your body remains “hollow” inside when doing technique, so that you may receive uke’s power and return it to them. When you develop this hollow feeling within your body, this becomes very easy. Then, whenever an attacker grabs you, you can remain “empty” and they will arch – That is, their energy is evenly dispersed the moment they touch you. This balance spreads evenly into their body and negates their power. You relax inside and then…

You have to understand this feeling with both your mind and body; otherwise you can’t get Aiki. I started to understand this about ten years ago. Tadao Ogawa Sensei explained this using the term “Ku dou” (empty space).

I felt that this referred to the same thing I had experienced and this convinced me that I was on the right path. Instead of the term “Ku Dou” I use “Hollow body” but I believe they both refer to the same idea.

This idea is not to use muscular force against your opponent. I discovered the term “Muden” best describes this approach. On a spiritual level, it means the spirit or heart can express something the eye cannot see…

When practicing, you must be in the here and now and give one hundred percent, not be half hearted.

For example, when I was a skiing instructor, I loved teaching and explaining everything about skiing. There wasn’t anything that gave me greater pleasure. I teach, the students improve and they become happy and proud of themselves. This is very therapeutic for me, the instructor. When a student improves and becomes happier in his or herself, this sense of accomplishment feeds back to me. My budo has been called “therapeutic budo.” We practice softly. We don’t do really hard “wrist breaking” techniques. At the end of practice, people say that they feel refreshed and reenergized.

When I went to practice zazen at first, there was someone there who had the air of a master. One day, I was telling him about this “Hollow body” principle in my Aikido. “He exclaimed: “Iida San! Who told you that!” He was really surprised! I said it was the feeling I got from practicing Daito-ryu. Then he said: “That’s also the secret of zazen!”

I concluded that the Zen approach to the human body and how it works mirrored my approach, except that in Daito-ryu, we use the Zen principle when moving, not in sitting. So now I simply wish to forge ahead and just “do” the techniques, as I understand they should be done.

When you understand this “hollowness” you can begin to develop your Aiki, first from “hard” Aiki to “soft” Aiki.

Hard Aiki throws your opponent, “Bang!” forcefully at the moment of contact, whereas soft Aiki is very subtle, almost delicate. Your sensitivity becomes as refined and light as a sheet of paper and your opponent is drained of his power.

“Good feeling, Good society, Good people”

“Healthy, Positive energy makes for positive people who make good society.” I really like the meaning of this phrase.

At first, I only wished that Horikawa Sensei would become more well known and respected, but than I realized, that if you hold deep wishes, you should work hard to make them come true. If you don’t try, it will always remain only a dream. I want to make the true meaning of Budo available to everybody.

The meaning of Budo is not merely developing the mentality that the world is “good” or “bad” or that you are “strong” or “weak.” Budo should develop a person on many levels. It should help develop a mature worldview and outlook on life.

In his book Bushido, Inazo Nitobe Sensei draws the theme “Consideration for the feelings of others.” In the book, he uses the term “jin” to refer to this. If well-known personalities promote this idea, then it becomes easy to educate the young people in this idea.

I am trying to develop the theme of how to use budo in the education of youth. I am actively visiting schools and getting schoolteachers to let me talk to their students about the true meaning of budo.

I want to do this through the promotion of Daito-ryu and I hope that Mr. Pranin will also continue with his efforts to make the art more widely known.

I see. Thank you very much.

Biographical Notes:

Kodo Horikawa

1894–1980. Born in Kitami, Hokkaido. Studied jujutsu under the tutelage of his father, Taiso Horikawa. Began Daito-ryu in 1914 under Sokaku Takeda. Awarded teaching licence in 1931. Set up his own organisation, the Kodokai, in 1950, in Kitami, and continued to disseminate Daito-ryu in Kitami and its surrounding areas for the rest of his life.

Hiroo Iida.

Born In 1942 in Yokohama. Graduated from Asahikawa High School, Hokkaido in 1957 and entered the Hitachi Electric Co. the same year. Retired in 1996

In 1967 became assistant instructor for the All-Japan Ski Association (SAJ). Assistant instructor of the SAJ demonstration team six times, from1967 to 1972 . Promoted to head instructor in the SAJ in 1986.

Began training in Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu Kodokai in 1967 under the headmastership of Kodo Horikawa. Promoted to Shihan in 2000. The following year, he performed at the demonstration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Kodokai’s formation. Established the Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu Muden Juku in 2001.