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Do not think you will necessarily be aware of your own enlightenment. —Dogen Zenji

Kuwamori Dojo had been a small local judo dojo on the outskirts of Tokyo when its headmaster associated himself with the Ueshiba family in the early 1950s. Judo continues to be practiced there to this day, but in addition, Honbu Dojo sent such teachers as Doshu, Nakazono, Tamura, Kuroiwa, and Yamaguchi to teach aikido. This was the first shibu (branch) dojo of the Aikikai, in contra-distinction to the more-or-less independent centers—such as Shingu, Iwama, and Osaka—which Ueshiba Morihei had established. The elder Kuwamori died suddenly in his mid-fifties from a heart attack, leaving a widow, and four children: three sons, Takenori, Yasunori, and Kazunori, and one daughter, Fumiko. Takenori, the eldest, became director of the school, and Yasunori became the head aikido instructor. Yasunori and Kazunori together kept the judo dojo going. Yasunori, still in his mid-twenties, became dojocho (dojo head). This was a position of some delicacy, as some of the members of the school had been there long enough to have wiped his nose as a little boy. Family or not, they felt that they should have more authority, given their rank, age, or what they believed to be greater skill. In microcosm, then, he experienced the same situation as Ueshiba Kisshomaru (Doshu) when he succeeded his father.

Of course, had any one of them taken the top position, all the others would have left. Each senior wished to believe himself to be king of the mountain. Lineal descent, however, places the successor in the center rather than the top. A few may leave, but the center holds. And so it was for Kuwamori dojo, led in the early 1970s by a young fourth dan. In 1975 I decided to go to Japan, and an instructor with whom I had some acquaintance, wrote me a letter of introduction to this dojo where he had started his own training in the 1950s.

I got off the airplane on a freezing day, well below zero on Jan. 10, 1976. I was greeted by a little man, perhaps four feet, three inches tall, who said slowly in English, “I am Kuwamori.” My first concrete thought in Japan, six feet, six inches in height, was, “Oh my God, how am I going to get under his arm to do shihonage.” Then another man came up, stocky, about five-and-one-half feet, and also said, “I am Kuwamori.” I had met Takenori and Yasunori, in that order. We went straight from the airport to the dojo for kagami biraki, the New Year’s dojo opening. The dojo was small, only 30 mats, with plastic covered tatami, and only three walls, the fourth open onto a small garden. It was so cold that water thrown on the ground outside turned to ice in only a few minutes. I jumped from jet lag into practice. Half the people on the mat were black belts, many of them high-school compadres of the head instructor. The atmosphere was happy and warm, though my feet grew so cold that I lost all sensation, and climbing the stairs after practice, I fell back down to the bottom on my face.

One of the things that I learned the first day was that I had no laurels to rest on. Many people were more skilled than I. Others, more skilled or not, were senior, and it was my duty to offer them respect. I was there to learn. If I had said to them or to myself, “I know that,” or “I know how to do that better,” I would shut off any opportunity for learning and would have lapsed into a pathetically narrow world, an audience of one. I found that I learned even doing things that were clearly “wrong.” By imitating and becoming skillful at the way other people practiced, even when it was not suited to my height, build or disposition, I got a window into their world. In addition, until I learned their movements from the inside out, as a physical act which I could express, I really knew nothing about it at all.

I resisted this at times. Some of the older men drove me almost to tears of irritation with their incessant chatter and criticism that I was “too strong,” and their perpetual stopping of my technique before my muscles even twitched to move. I fantasized throwing some of them through the open shutters into the garden more times than I could count. But nonetheless, I did it “their way” much of the time.

For several months I lived in the Kuwamori home, above the dojo. The first night, spreading my futon beside that of its head instructor, I said in halting Japanese, “Goodnight sensei.” He turned on the light, and looked at me, and in careful, broken English said to me, “Don’t call me sensei. You call me by my name—Yasunori. I can’t be called “sensei” by someone who sleeps next to me. Think of me as your older brother. Find your sensei somewhere else. You understand? Goodnight, Ellis.”

We hit it off from the beginning, this muscular, jack-o-lantern, ugly-beautiful visaged man and me. He went shirtless in the garden in mid-winter, swinging his wooden sword at a tire, body steaming in the cold air, happily brandishing his sword left-handed as well as right because he didn’t want to be a samurai, he just wanted to balance himself out. He took me to Honbu dojo to meet Doshu, and intro-duced me, only 20 minutes late to class, which Doshu seemed to find funny because he knew Yasunori never got up early for anything, and for him to be only twenty minutes behind schedule on a 6:30 a.m. class was grounds for celebration. We’d go out for noodles, and he’d eat three bowls, laughing and grunting in ecstasy, pouring down beer and smoking cigarettes, then back to the house and he’d flop on the exercise bench in the garden, slamming out bench presses with remarkable speed, 20 reps with his own body weight, then bouncing upstairs for a little more beer and a bath.

His aikido was delightful. One hundred eighty pounds of hard rubbery flesh, spinning and moving with enthusiasm, taking falls for his students more often than he threw them himself. Because of years of judo, he loved to fall and when his partner was sometimes dull or unenthusiastic, he would throw himself into the air in a huge arc, just for the sake of the impact.

I had the Kuwamori dojo name embroidered on my hakama. This was Yasunori’s suggestion, signifying that I was “taken.” This enabled me to go from dojo to dojo as a guest. Were I unaffiliated, many instructors would feel offended that I did not join their school or entourage, particuarly if I enthusiastically practiced occasionally—nobody likes tourists. One instructor whom I knew at Honbu dojo, who liked me very much, dissuaded me from visiting his personal school because, knowing himself, he realized he would quickly become jealously possessive were he to allow me to enter his “family” without me totally signing on.

For most teachers, however, it was a kind of honor that I visited, not because I was special in any way, but because I, a student of another teacher, took the time to seek out their school. For Yasunori’s part, he simply encouraged me to go wherever I could, saying, “Learn new things, and bring them back here and we’ll try them out.”

All the suffering I had experienced with the irritating old men of the dojo was an enormous benefit to me. They had taught me to keep my mouth shut and my preconceptions to myself. Therefore other teachers and their students did not experience me as walking into their “house,” and making myself at home with my mannerisms or technical assumptions. What was the point of going to other dojos if all I wanted to do was maintain my meager knowledge? If I went to another school, I trained their way, I moved their way, I tried, in that brief period, to think their way. Then I could return to Kuwamori dojo to digest it all and let it meld into the personal style that I was slowly creating.

I became part of a group of young guys, all in our early twenties. We’d slam each other around in an evening class, go out for a bite to eat in a noodle shop down the street, still wearing our keiko gi with wooden geta clomping on our feet, then run back for another class.

Yasunori’s dojo was a collection of characters: among them, a fussbudget, half-blind fifth dan who reminded one of Mister Magoo; a young messy-haired intellectual who should have been a writer but settled for stress in a Japanese company, losing one job when he knocked an arrogant supervisor over a desk; a young law student and his high-school sweetheart; a little alcoholic who, after years of promising to kill himself, nobody taking him seriously, went up into the Chichibu mountains with two bottles of sake and a razor and sat in the snow and slit his wrists; a slightly nasty guy who always left bruises on the wrists of the women whom he grabbed too hard; a big Italian, former judo trainee who entered aikido after breaking his back when a trench he was digging in the garden collapsed on him; and finally, my nemesis, a loud, shaven-headed 220-plus–pound kimono sales-man, a massive man, a former porter up to the fifth station of Mount Fuji, who used to carry 150-pound gas cylinders on his back daily, legs like oaks, with beautiful technique, and who, disliking me as a foreigner, would present me with tins of whale meat when he heard I didn’t approve of killing the beasts. Years later, after going to Italy to teach, he returned to tell me that he now understood what I must have gone through. A moment of grace.

It was Yasunori’s village. The rivalries and petty bickering went on constantly, but all were encompassed in Yasunori’s warmth. People forgot how strong he was because he didn’t need to hurt people to prove it. It was he who said to me, “It is my job to be just a little better than whoever I practice with, whatever level they are.” Some people, then, took him for granted and sought out more elegant practitioners or more violent ones; those who could provide either an aesthetic or psychopathic frisson. He did no magic, none of his techniques seemed unexplainable by body mechanics, and he wasn’t afraid to lose, either. As far as my own experience, I never practiced with anyone near my own age whom I felt was better.

He fell in love with one of my best friends, an American woman, and they married. It didn’t last. He desired a woman as strong as he was, but the woman he chose thereby had her own hopes and dreams, and she refused to subsume them in a lifelong role as a dojo head’s wife. And he, on the other hand, felt the weight of responsibility of being the head of the Aikikai’s oldest branch dojo, his father’s dojo, the responsibility of maintaining the life of this microcosmic village, and thus, he couldn’t leave. She did. It broke his heart. What was so marvelous about the man was that, in a world where such sensitivity was anathema, he was not afraid of the pain of loss. He never pretended he was above it all. He never hid in the subtle cowardice of non-attachment. Once, drinking with a then in-house disciple of Honbu dojo, a rough, hard man, Yasunori spoke openly of something personal. His friend recoiled in horror, saying, “How can you say that to me. You’ve revealed your weakness, and you are at my mercy.” Yasunori laughed and said, “I’m not afraid that you know who I am.” His friend could not handle this, and their relationship cooled.

I remember the smells of the house, Mrs. Kuwamori’s cooking, and the laughter which seemed always present, the slam of my body on the tatami, the cold air from the garden in winter, sweeping the steps with a twig broom, the living room full of souvenirs both cheap and precious, all dominated by pictures of the elder Kuwamori resplendent in his red-and-white belted judo gi, a life-sized statue of him, in fact, enshrined in the dojo. I remember the streets of Sakuradai, the taste of beer and rice crackers, of persimmons and once, dried blowfish, the sound of the street vendors, the laughter and comraderie of the public baths, and the smell of flowers at the entrance of spring. The members of the dojo would go for runs in the early morning, four miles at a slow pace, chanting, proudly waking the neighborhood in our cadence. I recall my mother and Yasunori’s mother, both of them rather formal women, dashing to each other’s arms to hug the second time they met. Not a word shared between them, but everything else. And I remember practice. Grabbing his massive wrists. He was so thick! A foot shorter, he weighed the same as I did. We’d slam each other in turn, sometimes dragging the other down to the mat to grapple in laughter, cut off suddenly by a choke or a tap-out from a lock. The dojo, so small, a swirl of bodies, but there were less collisions than I’ve seen in places five times the size. His technique was simple and staunch, just perfect as it was.

Terry Dobson, full of stories and metaphors, the exemplar of aikido taught simultaneously as spiritual inspiration and low-down dirty street-fighting, came to Japan to visit. He was asked to teach an evening class, following Yasunori, and after that first class, Terry leaned over and whispered to me, “How the fuck am I supposed to follow that? It’s impeccable. And he didn’t say one word!” The message was all there in the movement.

And then Yasunori got sick. Oral cancer. Beer and cigarettes surely didn’t help, nor perhaps, did the pain of losing his marriage. Who knows? But he wasted away. I was living on the other side of Tokyo then, in Machida, and didn’t see much of him. I got a call one night that he had died. He had been taken to a hospital five minutes from my house, and feeble, unable to talk, had written over and over on a chalk board, “Ellis chikai” (Ellis is close). Nobody got what he meant, thinking he might be delirious, forgetting in the turmoil that I lived nearby. It will always be one of my deepest regrets that I was not there to be with him in the end of his time on earth.

I think of his legacy to me, and I reflect how much finer a man he was than many of the pirates and rogues that I admired so much, the hard-men and rough-boys who “practiced for real.” Yasunori practiced for real. Real life. He led a group of people without domination or intimidation or charisma—he led through warmth and openness. He trained to make himself stronger, just because it gave him joy to do so, not out of any pompous proclamation of forging his spirit nor in a fantasy that he was a 20th-century warrior.

In a memorial booklet written shortly after his death, a young boy twelve years old, a member of the judo dojo, wrote of hearing of Yasunori’s death. He said he didn’t know why, but at that moment, he remembered summer camp, the year before. After practice, he and Yasunori walked to a store where he bought the boy a can of juice. He said he took a gulp, and Yasunori asked, “Is it good?” “I said ‘yes,’” the boy wrote. “Yoshi, yoshi,” (“that’s good, that’s good”), he remembers him replying. That sums it up. A young boy drinking, looking up in the light at a man with a shock of coarse black hair and a golden brawny body, standing in the sun soaked together in sweat. What more to say? “That’s good. That’s good.”

He would have been the most marvelous father to the luckiest children, had any been born to him. He was surely the most marvelous brother to so many of us. To me.

This article first appeared in Aikido Journal and is subsequently available in the book "Dueling With O-Sensei" by Ellis Amdur.

If there were an "ordinary martial arts book," this would be its evil twin. Unflinchingly honest, writing from a perspective both authoritative and unique, Amdur explores aspects of budo, its philosophies and dilemmas, its remarkable rewards and yes, its pathologies, in a way no other author has. He does so with humor, compelling creativity, and a wickedly sharp-edged insight that make this book a delight. — Dave Lowry, author of Persimmon Wind

Far more than just a martial arts book, Dueling with O-sensei has wide applicability in any field where questions of integrity and leadership arise.