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Interview with Masando Sasaki

by Ikuko Kimura

Aikido Journal #116 (1999)

Masando Sasaki is an 8th dan Aikikai shihan who began his practice of aikido in 1954. His outspoken views on life, philosophy, and budo are distinctly nationalistic and reminiscent of an earlier era. Sasaki talks about his struggles in the years following World War II, the influence of Tempu Nakamura and Morihei Ueshiba on his training and thinking, and shares his controversial, but stimulating ideas on Japan as a nation.

Today, as we stand on the threshold of the 2lst century, Japan has become rife with things that simply make one want to cover one’s eyes. Human relationships have become coarse, bureaucrats and politicians have become corrupt, people have lost sight of their goals, morals and ethical behavior are in decline, and many people seem to be sleepwalking through life and society. One wonders where in the world is Japan headed. While nobody thinks things are okay as they are, figuring out just what needs to be done to solve the problems we face is no easy task, either.

Sensei, since I understand that you regularly address many of these issues in your daily aikido training, I wonder if you might share some of your recent thoughts with our readers.

I suppose one of the most significant things I’ve been thinking about might be the use of aiki as a path to resolution, which comes about because of its nature as a form of “wave motion.” What kind of wave motion? In science, brain waves between 14 and 25 hertz per second are called beta waves, and these are a characteristic of baser people who live only at the physical level and who possess contentious, worldly minded, acquisitive senses of being. Aikido represents a path from such a simplistic “being” to becoming a “human being,” or in other words a path to waves of “harmony,” or alpha waves in the 14 to 7 hertz range. This is the range of the “spiritual human being.” In the case of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, it may have been that he was awakened to a state in the range of theta waves between 7 and 4 hertz, or possibly even to the nearly divine range of delta waves between 4 and 1 hertz.

The universe, if it had to be expressed in one word, would be expressed by the word “joy” (yorokobi). The kind of joy, for example, that a flower experiences when you water it. The word “joy” actually connotes or contains a variety of kinds of joy. Pardon me for using such an example, but in writing the Chinese character for the type of delight or happiness (ureshii) experienced in the relationship between a man and woman, you add the character for woman to the basic character for joy. Enjoying a delicious taste when eating something, too, is a kind of joy. But these are ordinary kinds of joy. This is the sort of thing I wrote about in my book titled People of Japan, Return to Your Mother’s Heart (Parusu Publishing Co.)

A mother is someone who finds a kind of rhapsodic, altruistic joy in the happiness of her children. As with Mother Earth, Mother Nature is truly marvelous. In Japanese we refer to our own country as “mother country,” but then just what is Japan? Twenty years ago when I was teaching a course in Shinto at a school in France, I was invited to the home of one of my pupils. There was a world map on the wall, but there was no Japan on it!

Japan wasn’t even on it!? Why not?

Hold on, let me clarify that; the map did originally have Japan on it, but the right side of it happened to have been torn off or was missing for some reason.

Nonetheless, they said they’d been using it that way for decades! (laughs) It surprised me, though, and made me wonder if Japan wasn’t perhaps an unnecessary country.

The world is round, but Japan has been placed at the furthest edge of East Asia and protectively surrounded by the sea so that it may serve as a nation of peace, the Yamato “tribe,” in the 2lst century. The rough sea between Korea and Japan is ten times the size of the Straits of Dover, and the ocean currents make it easy to go out from here but difficult to come here. Ja- pan was protected by nature even during the Mongol invasions. I personally think that we have been protected like this so that we may fulfill our mission in the 2lst century.

In fact, even Albert Einstein once talked about Japan in this way, saying something to the effect that:

In modern times, there has been nothing more surprising to the world than the extent to which Japan has developed. This surprising development suggests that there must be something different about Japan, perhaps something having to do with its long 3,000 year history. I would also suggest that the unbroken imperial line that the nation of Japan has enjoyed for the duration of this long history is what has brought renewal to the Japan of today. I was thinking that there must be at least one such valuable country in our world. I say this because as the world continues to make progress and advance there is sure to be recurrent and ongoing strife and conflict, and there will come a time in the end when nations will no longer want to or be able to continue enduring such discord. When this time comes, humankind will begin to seek true peace. It will need to seek a nation to lead the world. One that will lead not through military strength or wealth, but rather because it can claim a far older, nobler history than the histories of all other countries and possessed of one of the oldest, no- blest pedigrees among nations.

World culture originated in Asia and it will return to Asia, to that pinnacle of Asia: Japan. We are thankful to God for having created such a noble nation.

What is Japan? In one word, it is a nation, a body politic, a “tribe” if you will. Not so much the country comprised of tangible borders, but rather a spiritual body politic characterized by a deep familiality and ethnos, a unified identity and continuity. Unfortunately, as you pointed out earlier, at the moment that very same Japan is on the brink of ruin. Thinking that we could not possibly continue under such conditions of deterioration, in 1962 I decided to set up a spy school.

A spy school? What were the aims and sorts of activities of that school?

I set it up in collaboration with some veterans of the former Nakano spy school and some people engaged in studying a constitutional amendment revision. We shared the fear that Japan would eventu- ally be ruined if allowed to proceed on the course it was following at the time. I acted as the chief director, setting up the acad- emy itself and providing funding. We had to shut it all down, though, after an article exposing it appeared in the United States’ Time magazine.

Were you still working for the Japanese Defense Agency at the time?

Yes, but I had to resign as a result of the exposure. But it was because I had been in the Defense Agency in the first place that I became aware of a “shadow” group con- trolling and pulling the strings of the world from behind the scenes. Having found out about this, I practically bankrupted myself using hundreds of thousands of yen of my own money to set up the spy academy. As it happened, I was asked by then-secretary- general of the Liberal Democratic Party Masayoshi Ohira to act as a go-between in resolving a strike at a certain company, and as a result of that I was able to have my loan debt written off. That was the only thing that saved me from complete ruin.

That reminds me of Tempu Sensei’s involvement in the Taira Incident. [Re- fers to an incident in which Tempu Nakamura assisted in resolving a strike at the Taira coal mine in Fukushima, risking his life and even dodging gun- fire in the process.]

It was actually before I met Tempu Sensei. Of course, Tempu Sensei did what he did out of the true sincerity of his heart; I was just desperate to find some way to pay off my loan debts! (laughs)

I started learning aikido in 1954. I remember once in 1964, during my first time riding the new bullet train, I ended up get- ting myself involved in the folly of youth in a confrontation with a bunch of gangster thugs. You do that sort of thing when you’re thirty-four or thirty-five, you know. Fortunately, I was able to defuse and resolve the situation in the end; but such hot-blooded experiences become memories that you never forget. I think such experiences are necessary for bujutsu.

How did you become involved in aikido?

They were doing an aikido demonstration in the courtyard of the Defense Agency. I remember looking down at it from above and wondering what they were doing. I found it quite interesting the way they seemed to be moving around in all kinds of circles.

That was 0-Sensei?

At that time, it was Wakasensei [now the current Doshu, Kisshomaru] and a number of others who now teach abroad. They asked me if I wouldn’t like to come down and have a go myself, so I did and ended up being thrown, just like that! Probably by Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei, if I remember correctly.

Were you surprised?

Naturally, and when I went in again I was thrown again just as easily. I think it was a kotegaeshi, but I remember thinking how amazing it seemed. After that I met 0- Sensei and was immediately entranced by the look of his face and the dignity of his posture. He looked like some kind of wizard or sage or something. I’m easily affected by people’s faces, and his was certainly a wonderful one.

So I guess the three things that piqued my interest in aikido were being thrown by Tamura Sensei so easily, being entranced by 0-Sensei’s face, and a curiosity about the fact that aikido has no competitive bouts or matches.

You wondered about the lack of competitive matches?

I knew bujutsu had to do with combat and fighting to the death, and the only budo I’d ever heard of that didn’t have matches were grapes from Yamanashi prefecture! (laughter) [The word “budo,” with a slightly different inflection, also means “grapes” in Japanese, the most famous of which are from Yamanashi] I could easily imagine other traditional pursuits like tea ceremony or flower arrangement lacking such competitive matches, but I couldn’t imagine the same being true of a budo. Of course, very few people even knew about aikido back then, so there was hardly any way I could’ve known what it was about. Once I began training, though, I just kept falling deeper and deeper into it.

Did you have any prior budo experience?

Like just about everybody else, I’d had to practice things like sumo, judo, kendo, and jukenjutsu (bayonet fighting) during the war.

Can you tell us in more detail about the circumstances under which you came to resign from the Defense Agency?

Mostly it had to do with the spy school I mentioned earlier. Being young, my blood was still running hot back then. Everybody eventually dies, you know, and I figured since I had managed to survive the war I should be doing something to prevent Japan from sliding into further decline and ruin.

Those of us who had been through the war had difficulty feeling at ease if what- ever we were doing wasn’t for the benefit of the country. We didn’t want to end up living just to eat and survive.

Most of the young men in my generation had been brought up thinking that our highest purpose in life would be to become pilots, join the suicide corps (tokkotay, and fly our planes into enemy ships. As it happened, my own dream of doing that was destined never to be realized, and I was instead conscripted into the wartime labor force and sent to work in an airplane factory in Nagoya.

I liked airplanes, so I was glad to go. Being only fourteen years old at the time, I fancied I’d be making whole airplanes, but when I got there I found myself doing nothing but operating a lathe making screws! Still, it reminded me of the saying, “He who rides the palanquin over Mt. Hakone, he who carries the palanquin, and he who makes the palanquin-bearer’s straw sandals.” The human body is a similar affair; only when the legs, arms, and all the other various parts come together does the whole become a person. I later composed a verse on this subject that went something like:

Branches, leaves, trunk, and roots Each in the service of the others Bring the flower into blossom

Life, in other words, is made up of all these parts coming together in mutual service.

The same was true of making airplanes: by doing the job I’d been given and doing it well, then having the result of my efforts combined with the results of others’ efforts, the result was an airplane. That experience taught me that “highness” or “lowness” is not in the job, but in the mind and heart of the person doing it.

In any case, the patriotism and urge to benefit the nation that was burned into me during my youth was not so easy to erase.

That sort of thing is one of your mainstays, it seems.

Yes, the samurai are my mainstay. Last year I suddenly sat down and wrote a book called Samurai. I just sat down and worked nonstop until it was finished. It started with the Emperor Jimmu and continued with accounts of Prince Naka no Oe, Prince Shotoku, Soga no Iruka, the Taika Re- forms, Hojo Tokimune, Oda Nobunaga, Nichiren, the Forty-Seven Ronin of Ako, and the samurai of the Meiji Restoration. Also, the way the Showa Emperor handled the end of the war in a way that brought about a certain national unity by closing the gap between the ruler and the ruled was a fact of history deserving special mention. I wrote that Japan’s identity is to be found in the samurai.

These days there are so many burgeoning problems among Japan’s young people, including teenage prostitution, stimulant use among high school students, bullying, and a host of other problems. What do you think of this situation in light of the fact that these are the children who will grow into tomorrow’s leaders?

I currently teach about 120 high school students, most of whom are the type who’ve fallen through the cracks of society for one reason or another or who have discipline problems. I try to use aikido as a vehicle to teach them various things. These are the kind of kids are more or less unapproachable by ordinary teachers relying on a purely intellectual, academic approach. They called me in to work with them be- cause I guess they needed someone with a bit more muscle, so to speak.

Your aikido practice looks like a lot of fun. I hear your practices are very popular among the girls!

That’s because I’m easier on them; I don’t believe in that “sameness of men and women” stuff! As human beings, there should be no discrimination between men and women, but there are differences. Why don’t men become prostitutes, for example? Human beings have both appetites and sexual desires. Why is it okay, then, to have a voracious appetite, but not okay to have voracious sexual desires? I think that’s strange, too. You could say that appetite for food is a form of self-preservation, while sexual desire is a “spiritual” sort of yearning for the purpose of preserving the species, and in that sense is a very important, God-given variety of appetite. There are religions that urge people to throw away all their appetites and desires, but I think that’s ridiculous. If you really think about it, appetites and desires are actually what keep the human race alive, what allow people to go on living.

Many of the problems you mentioned with high school students and pollution and the deterioration of education have come about, I suppose, because they don’t teach morals anymore, but they may actually have a positive side, too. Fertilizer doesn’t become fertilizer until the stuff it’s made of deteriorates and rots. So even if the Japanese people are deteriorating and rotting, it will still give rise to the generations of new sprouts and seedlings. The providence and economy of the universe is in the principle of circulation, so creation without rotting is not aiki. It’s because people die that people also live. Ki itself is eternal, but manifestations in the phenomenal world are from moment to fleeting moment and always in flux; for that reason, while human lives are limited to a single period of time, what we call the spirit or soul is eternal.

Those who see their minds and bodies as their own we call “people” (hito), while those who realize that these as tools or instruments of something greater we call “human beings” (ningen). It’s because people think that they are their minds and bodies that they become confused and lost. Those who recognize that these are tools become enlightened.

Why is it considered wrong or bad to have sexual desires, appetites for food, de- sires for things, or yearnings for glory and honor? It is because we have these desires that we continue living. Allowing ourselves to be used by these, we become lost; using them we become enlightened.

The essence of Great Nature is in daily renewal, or what our honored teacher referred to as evolution and elevation. Our world never stops or stagnates even for a fleeting moment; even the planet itself is al- ways moving. If the earth stopped for even three seconds there would be tremendous chaos and upheaval. Even you yourself, in the short time it takes you to say a single sentence or think a single thought, are a moment older and continuing to change. That’s exactly the sort of thing that budo is.

Tempu Sensei told me to do budo. Without pursuing budo in a way that puts your very life on the line for a split second, you cari t truly understand the preciousness and sacredness of life. One of the secret teachings of the Yagyu school is that, “there is no ‘now even now, for by the time you get to the `w [in the word `now’] the `no’ is already passed.” Life, then, exists and transpires in the moment-to-moment flow of how you live it.

I understand that after becoming involved in aikido you also started visiting the Tempukai.

That’s right, and doing so helped me to become even more thorough in my practice of aikido. Joining the Tempukai put me in a situation where I could use technique to explore and know the depth of the path, the way, and with that understanding I gained a new resolve to practice as hard as I could.

Please tell us about austerity training through.

It wasn’t that I made a conscious decision to put myself through such training; it was something I simply ended up having to do. From my vantage point to- day, I would even say that living through the war years was itself a form of austerity training. For one, there was hardly anything to eat. Your really had to work and Sweat just to be able to eat. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I even did things like hawk books on the side of the road. I’d stand there working the passing crowds: “Step right up folks, see my books! Valuable as a reference for students! Medicine for bad eyes! Step right UP!”

It sounds like you were good at it!

Of course I was! I sold quite a few!

What kinds of books were they?

Mostly light pornography and erotic novels, that sort of thing. (laughter) Of course, those kinds of books back then were like children’s literature compared to the stuff that’s around today. It was, after all, still an age in which people got all worked up over a book as mild as Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Looking back on it now, though, hawking such books every day in the cold and heat turned out to be quite good training. I was also a black marketeer, among other things, carrying rice to Tokyo and returning with loads of books to sell.

Was your first practice of aikido at the Defense Agency?

Yes. Several teachers from the Hombu Dojo were coming to teach there, and that naturally led to the formation of a Defense Agency aikido club.

And after that, you started training at the Hombu Dojo dojo?

I started at the Hombu Dojo after failing with the spy school. I had nothing in particular to do and Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei had just gone off to teach in France, so I took over for him on a two-year agreement. Just before that I had witnessed the death of one of my graduate school seniors right before my eyes, and I had begun wondering just what the purpose of life is. I had thought that the most important thing for human beings was to maintain some “greater purpose” or determination toward realizing some goal.

Well, I’ve been jumping around to various things, but what I mean to say is that by the time I came to aikido I had already experienced a number of different things.

I decided to join the police reserve corps, which was the forerunner to the Defense Agency of today. But you have to have two eyes for them to let you in, and I only have one. I lost the other when I was nineteen, when it was struck by a flying nail. It went right in with a sickening sound followed by a piercing pain. But it was just after the war, and with most of Tokyo reduced to a charred field and many other people around who’d lost arms and legs, losing just an eye was nothing at all; in fact, it’s given me this great high-precision single-eye referencing and zoom! (laughter). I used to brag that I could “see all, plainly and clearly, at a `single’ glance.” And when I later met my wife it was “love at a ‘single’ glance.” (laughter)

I needed money. I even started and operated my own company despite being still a teenager. My shock of the defeat of Japan-supposedly the “land of the gods”-was so great at the time that I sincerely believed that the gods and Buddha didn’t exist. Any- way, I’d heard that you could get about 60,000 yen working for the police re- serve corps for two years, so wanting that and despite having only one eye I decided to take the entrance exam. When it came time for the eye examination, the examiner first had me hold a spatula-shaped thing up in my right hand and read off letters. Then he said “Okay, now the left,” so I switched it to my left hand but covered the same eye.

Didn’t the examiner notice?

It fooled him. But I swear I didn’t do anything wrong! All he said was “right” and “left”; he didn’t say “right eye” and “left eye!” (laughter)

You pulled a fast one, just on the spur of the moment, then…

I did, yes. I improvised. I did a similar thing to get into university. I knew practically nothing about English, except maybe a few English-sounding words like “I” and “and.” When I finally got a little older I also discovered the letter “H.”* [“H,”pronounced “etchi,” is a slang term coming from the first letter of the word “hentai,” meaning “pervert.”] So I got into university knowing only the Romanized syllabary.

Of course, I had no understanding at all, but I figured that roman letters were, after all, a kind of English, so I wrote the letter “I” and then the phrase “Tsuki wa deta deta, tsuki wa deta”* and ended up passing the examination. [Probably the words to an 0-Bon song about the moon coming out, but in this case essentially just a nonsense phrase. You know, there are so many great aikido teachers, and then here I am, a real slipshod! You probably shouldn’t even be interviewing someone like me! (laughter)

When I went to apply to graduate school, this time it was German. About the only German I knew was words like “Der,” “Das” and “Dem.” I knew this doctor’s son, named Takagi, who I called over before the test and told him to sit beside me on the right. Because I can’t see to the left. Be- forehand I’d also bought a book called Elementary School Fifth Grade and I set that on my desk and began copying Takagi’s examination paper. I’m a samurai, after all, so of course I wouldn’t do anything as low as cheating; I just copied what he wrote. I think it’s a high shame for a Japanese to be ignorant of Japanese history and language, but I don’t see any shame in not knowing the languages of foreign countries. Especially, when it wasn’t a foreign language university. I was so blatant about it that it was completely obvious, especially since there were only about twenty people in the room. When the proctor saw what I was doing he said, “Hey, you!” which I promptly answered with a crisp “Yessir!” He looked at my face, then at the elementary school text on the desk, then said, “Ah, I see you have a child to take care of. It must be tough for you.” I said I had been a victim of the war, and he ended up telling me to go ahead, and that was the end of it. (laughter)


Well, you’ll never know about things if you don’t actually try them, eh? As I always say, “Your belly won’t get full reading a cookbook; you have to eat!”

Life isn’t about theory. Anyone with some knowledge can get into university, and anyone with money can build a house. But the thrill of, say, building a house without money is what makes things interesting. An ordinary, right-minded life is sort of dull, you know; not really worthy of being written about in a novel, for example. Life is comprised of the way you live in between being born and dying. Seeing my senior die of a heart attack right before my eyes was one of the things that led me to the realization that life should be treated an art.

Was that experience one of the things that prompted you to go into the mountains to pursue ascetic training?

Yes. I also did waterfall training. “What is ‘purpose’?” I wondered. I worried about it. I didn’t end up with a neurosis, because I didn’t know the English word “neurosis,” but I did worry. “If I were to die, would that simply be the end of it?” and so on like that. It was around that time that I met Tempu Sensei. I was introduced to him by a man named Sadao Yasutake (later the second director of the Tempukai), who had a connection with the Defense Agency. I asked Tempu Sensei, “Sensei, what is death?” to which he replied “There is not one person who has ever died.” I said, “But I saw my friend die before my eyes!” To which he replied, “Then bring him here.” “How can I bring him here if he no longer is?” And he said, “There, you see? Every- body in this world is alive; people are alive and live until they die.”

And I asked again, a bit timidly by now, “What is death?” He answered, “It is a realm to which everybody passes on, and thinking about it after you die is still not too late.” When I heard these words, my heart suddenly filled with light and I felt much more at ease. Thinking about it, I decided that that realm to which everyone passes must be a good place, the proof of which would be the fact that nobody ever comes back.

To be quite honest, I wept.

Tempu Sensei seems to have been the type of man who could remain at ease even with a sword at his throat. Is this a correct impression of the man?

It certainly is. Things didn’t bother him. He had an imperturbable presence of mind, the kind of mind suggested by the expression “Beautiful under clear skies, beautiful under cloudy skies, the shape of Mt. Fuji remains unchanged.” He was re- ally “above it all” you might say, with a very disinterested, unprejudiced mind. I used to accompany him, carrying his bag and helping him and so on, and his exciting demonstrations used to sink into my subconsciousness like water into dry sand. Such contact with him changed me radically as a human being, particularly the idea that life is in the way we live from moment to moment. Among the many other things I gleaned was the idea that no matter what happens, it is important to keep a bright and cheerful heart, a strong and lively sense of determination, and a positive attitude. Realize these foremost axioms of how to live life and your destiny will naturally unfold of itself.

Tempu Sensei once said: “Though your body may be ill, your mind remains healthy; though an injustice may be part of your fate, do not let it penetrate to your heart; and though you may face the most hateful hard- ship, have the strength of spirit to turn that hardship into greater enjoyment. Your heart is what joins you directly to the divine, and insofar as that is true, you must resolve your- self to at least never sully, stain, or soil that point of connection.”

I like these words very much.

Translated by Derek Steel

Masando Sasaki was born in Yamagata Prefecture in 1929. He is a graduate in economics and law of Chuo University. Sasaki began aikido in 1954 while employed by the Self-Defense Agency. He also was a member of the Tempukai and Ichikukai where he has lectured on the Shinto religion in France on several occasions. He is a priest of the Yamakage San’in Shinto sect. Sasaki is the Mother’s Heart, Samurai and several other titles. He is currently a 7th dan shihan and teaches aikido at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and various other