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Interview with Yasuo Kobayashi, Mitsugi Saotome and Yoshio Kuroiwa

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #71 (June 1986)

At the time of the 1st Aikido Friendship Demonstration held in April 1985, a group discussion was held among Yasuo Kobayashi, Mitsugi Saotome, Yoshio Kuroiwa—all participants in the demonstration-and Aiki News editor-in-chief Stanley Pranin.

Saotome Sensei: The popularization of aikido includes not only the instruction of martial art techniques but also philosophy as culture and social interaction. This can result in the building of a bridge of friendship. This is possible through the existence of aikido techniques. We can communicate a common viewpoint as human beings if we practice hand-in-hand even when no words are spoken. Language and cultural differences do not matter. It is very important that people from different cultural backgrounds can become friends through aikido and that there is such a wonderful channel for communication. Also, since there is no competition in aikido we can learn each other’s philosophy and ways of thinking. This makes aikido a unique martial art which has never existed in history. If one fights in a competition people from different countries come into contact and this has the negative result of inflaming one’s desire to fight. The best example of this would be the Olympic games. They have become “power games” of nationalities with governments acting in the background.

Aiki News: Today we have an International Aikido Federation but I don’t think we can say it has been successful since what it does often digresses from its original ideal. What do you think can be done to improve international friendship other than through the organization?

Saotome Sensei: Yoshio Kuroiwa Sensei and Yasuo Kobayashi Sensei are here now and I don’t think it matters to them that I am separated from Hombu Dojo. We still associate with each other. What keeps us from communicating with one another is the insistence on being members of organizations. Many of the dojo heads all over Japan have been trained by Kobayashi Sensei or by Kuroiwa Sensei. Problems start to arise when the organization comes to the fore. It is human relationships which matter, relationships between teachers and students and seniors and juniors. Nothing has changed in the friendship among Kobayashi Sensei, Kuroiwa Sensei and myself. And one more thing, my intuitive opinion is that the organization has only a limited amount of time. I don’t think it will be successful because the philosophy of aikido is not visible on the surface. How can the world become united if Japan is not united? When speaking of the internationalization of the art I believe there must first be a positive organization in Japan before spreading aikido to America or Europe. Also, it goes without saying that a thorough study of each country’s political situation, tradition, ways of thinking, history and so on is required for successful organizations to be set up abroad. It is very difficult to disband an organization that is already established. Also, the breakup of the organization implies the destruction of aikido.

What are your thoughts on this subject, Kobayshi Sensei?

Kobayashi Sensei: In the beginning there were few people involved, so things were mainly handled by members. Then the membership increased to one hundred and then to one thousand. After that a number of opinions arose within the organization. Those who had been members from the beginning had connections to the headquarters and it is true that they were the ones responsible for the popularization of aikido.

Even if one starts out with a pure spirit, later things like status, prestige and money become involved. Then there is a discrepancy between individual ideals and reality. It is impossible to do away with one’s status after it is established. So opposition groups come into existence. In other words, the establishment of organizations results in a narrowing of perspectve and those who don’t conform to this framework are pushed out. However, it is actually necessary to establish something. This is the dilemma between ideals and reality, isn’t it?

Kobayashi Sensei you started out with one dojo and then began extending your activities little by little. Do you have any organizational problems?

Kobayashi Sensei: No, almost never. In our case people naturally get together to build new dojos. How shall I put it… It is more beneficial for them to keep on good terms with me. I support them a great deal financially and otherwise. So it is more convenient for them to run the dojo under my control. Also, personal relationships play a significant role in these matters.

Saotome Sensei: An organization should be like that. If the organization helps to solve various problems and supports its members then it is very effective. However, it is better not to have any organization if its exists only to control people.

And in order to exercise control rules are required. What is it like in your dojo, Kobayashi Sensei?

Kobayashi Sensei: We don’t have any particular rules.

Saotome Sensei: Then it is a relationship based on mutual trust, isn’t it?

Kobayashi Sensei: I believe so. I call my instructors together to meet with me once a week to eat or do morning practice and exchange information among ourselves. Since I have trained most of the instructors their techniques and ways of thinking are unified. If the number of dojos increases I think there would be some problems. That’s why I want to create many opportunities for personal contact and discussions.

Saotome Sensei: I haven’t consciously set up “Aikido Schools of Ueshiba” the way it is now, but it is very similar to Kobayashi Sensei’s organization. Once you have an organization some problems will arise such as people with whom you have no communication coming up and wanting to join the group. In such cases I don’t welcome them very easily. I explain to them our philosophy and ideas on practice. Unless you establish an organization where you explain in advance to the potential members what sort of rules are involved in the organization and make them accept these rules in the beginning, you cannot effectively impose the rules or penalties. The only people who can enforce rules are governments and the military. What would you do if a student told you the following: “Sensei, I’m sick of this, I’m getting out!” Could you put him on trial and execute him? So an organization with penalties is not a good organization.

Kobayashi Sensei: Only relationships built on trust will work really. My instructors have gathered together because they like our dojo. The other day a man named Iida Sensei passed away. Then his three dojos approached me saying they wanted to join us. We discussed the matter thoroughly before accepting them. My one requirement was that we do testing together but otherwise each dojo would be left to function freely. Taking tests together with us is a major factor in being considered part of our group.

Saotome Sensei: This is exactly what I do with “Aikido Schools of Ueshiba” in America. I make no financial demands. On the contrary, I provide financial support. So far we are not very strong economically, but I’d like to make progress in that direction if possible. If there is an entity which backs up these dojo activities I think it will be beneficial for the management of dojos and for the community. I went to America and set up a dojo with my own money and did carpentry with my students. So I can understand the pain of managing a dojo and of those who want to run a dojo.

Whenever we talk with aikido practitioners the subject of the Aikikai comes up. It is the largest aikido organization, isn’t it?

Saotome Sensei: This is natural because the Aikikai was organized by people who had been trained by O-Sensei and it has been the base for the internationalization of aikido.

What can people with ideas which differ from those of the headquarters dojo do with respect to the Aikikai?

Saotome Sensei: This is a historical problem for aikido. My personal opinion is that aikido was created by Morihei Ueshiba. For that reason various styles of Aiki Jujutsu which existed before are not aikido. So I don’t think aikido can absorb this type of people. I believe that the disciples trained by O-Sensei form the core of aikido. It is important that the people trained by Morihei Ueshiba be united, isn’t it?

Kobayashi Sensei: My thought is that since Hombu Dojo or the Aikikai is an organization whose aim is the spread and development of aikido, it should be happy if the art progresses. Of course there will be an increasing number of people who do not follow the organization but I think it should accept those “rebels” the way they are as their grandchildren or greatgrandchildren and treat them kindly. All they want to do is practice aikido. Organizational disagreements arise and just as the proverb says, “There will be factions where three gather.” The Hombu Dojo is much bigger and has the most able members and financial power and therefore I think they should be more big-hearted and recognize these groups.

Saotome Sensei: Unlike Kobayashi Sensei and Kuroiwa Sensei I am not completely connected to Hombu Dojo organizationally speaking. However, an organization is only a means and the Ueshiba family, respect for O-Sensei and devotion to his philosophy have not disappeared from my mind. Also, from a humanitarian standpoint I would like to support Doshu. I lived close to him for many years. He is like a father to me. So our relationship has not ended. It is the same with the other sensei in Hombu Dojo. But when it comes to the subject of organizations and what to do about them I must say, “Wait a minute”. I do have my opinions. They cannot arbitrarily force me to follow them. It might not be a big problem if my organization were small but since thousands of students are involved I must consider their feelings. This is a problem of international law and legally it is not possible for a Japanese foundation to control all American foundations. The same is the case in Germany or in France. But the subject of the doto or family succession system of aikido is a different matter.

Kobayashi Sensei: I have met Kawai Sensei of Brazil many times and have a friendly relationship with him. He has a patent on aikido in Brazil. Therefore, other people cannot practice aikido there. A businessman from Hombu Dojo who was practicing at Kawai Sensei’s dojo in the beginning left because of a disagreement and began teaching himself. Then he held a demonstration. He was told not to hold a demonstration but went ahead despite this. But because Mr. Kawai has the patent on aikido, the businessman was reported to the police and was forced to stop the demonstration. Although he tried to get off by saying the event was a seminar, the police decided that if it was a seminar only those participating should be present and made all of the audience leave. This kind of thing is actually happening, you know.

Saotome Sensei: Oh, yes. There are problems involving international law as well as domestic law. For example, in the case of America, there are foundations in California, Illinois as well as in Washington, Montana and Florida. None of these entities can control those in other states from a legal standpoint. If you don’t take that into consideration you cannot continue to run an organization. Personally, if you are going to make an international federation I feel it is important to collect information on each country’s law, religion, language and organizations and study them thoroughly for at least five years. If you succeed in creating an organization where people in all nations are in agreement I think such an organization will last. Since the world situation is changing, we must establish an organization which can be flexibile to the changing situation.

(To be continued. Translated by Ikuko Kimura and Yoko Nonaka)