I first began martial arts training in about 1972/1973. My father gave me a Judo book for my birthday, I think, but I wanted to do Kung Fu since Bruce Lee was very popular at the time. The main obstacles holding me back from that desire was time, opportunity and money. Fortunately, over the next several years I happened upon, or managed to create time, opportunity and just enough money to train in Karate. I started with Shorin Ryu, and practiced several other styles as opportunity presented.
By the time I began college, I had a good deal of Karate under my belt and since I had room for an elective I planned to continue training at the college dojo when a twist of fate changed my course. I had the flu on the day of course sign ups (this long before computers were common) so my mother kindly went in to sign up for courses for me. She saw Karate 1 sign ups and Karate 2 sign ups. Since she knew I already had experience with Karate, she decided to sign me up for Karate 2. I only found out when I arrived for the first class that Karate 2 was actually Tae Kwon Do and the instructor wasn’t exactly enamored of my background. After making it through the class with a “B” (I declined to fight in his tournament), I decided that it was time for a change.
Many of my years practicing karate were also years as an angry young man. I grew up with abuse and Karate was a convenient venue to vent my rage through condoned violence. I was more than willing to get hurt (I’d long ago learned how to be “okay” with being hurt) as long as I could deliver more damage than I received.
A confluence of life events (broken heart, Aunt murdered, etc.) and perhaps some maturation induced me to seek a different path. One day at college, I found a book by Tohei Koichi. It looked and sounded completely different from what I had ever experienced martial arts wise. The big trick of pursuing this lead, of course, was to find an Aikido teacher. That wasn’t too hard, there was only one Aikido dojo in Portland at the time and it was a Ki-Society dojo. Trouble was, I need to be taught for practically nothing.
My (wonderful) weight lifting partner at the time told me that he thought he knew of a guy that taught Aikido. That is how I started learning Aikido from Dwight Onchi. Dwight was one of Jim Onchi’s sons. Jim Onchi was a local Judo “Godfather.” And he raised his sons to become judoka. When one of his boys was killed in Vietnam, Dwight (his younger brother) quit judo and took up Aikido under Tohei Koichi. He was teaching at local colleges and so my friend and I signed up. I’m not sure how I swung being able to afford practice financially, but I am certain that, by and large, Dwight’s good will enabled that to happen.
I trained with him for 5 to 6 years. And we grew to have a pretty tight relationship. In fact, he solemnized my first marriage. It was soon after I was married that I traveled to Japan for the first time in 1986. I went to meet my wife’s family, but for me it also felt as though I was traveling to the Martial Arts land of “milk and honey.”
Before I left, Dwight had kindly written me a letter of introduction to Tohei Koichi.
But before I went to Tokyo we traveled to Sendai where most of my family lived. My uncle who happened to be a high school principal knew a gentleman with whom he had taught and who he knew to teach Aikido.
My uncle asked Tamate Sensei to teach me and look after me. So these were the first people I trained with Tamate Sensei, Fujino Sensei, and Nakajima Sensei. It was an inauspicious beginning, but ended well for me.
After training for a while Tamate Sensei went over to my wife and asked her (I didn’t speak Japanese at all at the time.), “How long has he trained?” She answered 6 years. We went back to training. Then he approached her again and asked, “How many days a week?” She answered that I trained practically every day. We trained some more. Finally, he went over and asked, “Excuse me for being rude, but how long were these training sessions?” She answered, “Anywhere from an hour to three hours or so.”
At this point Tamate Sensei sat down and shook his head sadly and said, “It is such a shame!”
Well, that didn’t do a whole lot to boost my ego or brighten my spirits, but I tried to learn what they were doing the best I could. Later I went to visit the Sensei at the Prefectural Budokan and had a similar experience. I tried to do things as I was shown by Tamate Sensei, but was told that that was all wrong and why. As I visited each Dojo Tamate Sensei would show up to check on me as he had told Uncle he would do.
Finally, I went to the city Budokan and signed up to train with Hanzawa Sensei who studied under Saito Morihiro. It was tough training there, but I was used to that and I enjoyed it. After a while the training began to have rather obvious effects. My arms were so swollen that I could no longer wear my watch. My legs were so swollen that my shoes began to be uncomfortably tight. Both arms and legs were so bruised and colorful that when guests would come by the house, my mother-in-law would call me in and say, “Show them your arms!” and “Show them your legs!” The oddity of me being a foreigner was made even more spectacular by the fact that my white skin now looked like swollen, shinny black and blue marble.
While I was training at Hanzawa Sensei’s Dojo, one day Nakajima Masanori showed up and joined in. He already seemed to know everyone there. Hanzawa Sensei or his second in command would demonstrate a technique and we would practice it. Throughout the practice Nakajima would frequently pull me off to the side to “train” with me. He would say, “Do it like this!” And, BANG!, the technique would seem to fall right into place for me. Then he would say, “That is Shirata Sensei’s waza!”
After training Nakajima invited me over to his apartment for dinner. I remember liking the fact that he had a wall completely covered in books, and rolling book shelves that covered that wall as well. He talked about Aikido all that night and clearly had a passion, not just for training, but for learning everything possible about the art. He suggested that I attend the Yamagata Embukai that was coming up on July 20th. [I will write a blog post about Nakajima Masanori in the future.]
July 20th is my birthday, so I thought I would treat myself to a visit to an Aikido demonstration by a genuine pre-war Uchi Deshi 9th Dan. I picked up a couple of shikishi on the way to Yamagata city so that I might ask for an autograph after the demonstration.
The demonstration itself was very impressive and Shirata Sensei certainly lived up to his reputation. There was quite a crowd that day, but not long after the ending Nakajima ushered me to Shirata who invited us into his small office to meet.
I knew that, according to standard decorum, I should bow lower and longer than Shirata Sensei. So, while sitting on the tatami covered floor, after being formally introduced we proceeded to do a seated bow. I lowered my head and Sensei went lower, so I went lower still. Eventually, both of our noses stopped at the surface of the tatami. Failing in bowing lower than him, I waited for him to begin to rise so that I could trail a bit behind. I waited. And I waited. Finally convinced that everyone’s head must be up and I was making a complete fool of myself, I lifted my head up just enough to sneak a peek. . . and Shirata Sensei began to lift his head up as well.
It was our first meeting and Sensei had already taken control and begun teaching. Without a word, he thwarted my efforts humble myself before him. Later, Sensei explained that since we are all equal before God, and since God created us all, it is only proper that he should acknowledge that fact as we show deference. He didn’t bow to affirm some arbitrary pecking order between human beings, but to demonstrate his deference to the source of all.
At the time, he had already made a tremendous impression upon me. Without saying a word he had already spoken volumes. I was used to bowing at best as a mere perfunctory physical gesture or, more commonly in martial arts settings, the outward affirmation of an inward acknowledgment that there was a social order in which one had to know one’s place. At the top of this order there was an unquestionable monarch. Sometimes the monarch was an actual person, sometimes the monarch was mythologized figurehead represented within the organization by a (often hereditary) primate. In this type of structure everyone wished they too could be “king,” and that wish was granted in no small measure because they were allowed to “lord” it over those below them in the vertical structure. Even in cultures where this type of structure was nominally disapproved of, it was allowed under the authority of being, “traditional.” And, if one looks at human history, a case can be made for the traditional nature of this type of structure. However, the same historical case could be made for common human behaviors such as genocide, rape, slavery, domestic violence, etc.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Sensei’s autograph was requested. He consented, and so the shikishi and a brush/pen (an ink pen with a brush tip) was brought forward. Shirata Sensei excused himself, went to his desk, put on his glasses and began to write. When he was finished, he rejoined us on the tatami and asked if what he had done would be adequate.
Instead of just an autograph, he had brushed to calligraphic doka. Of course, this was more than “adequate.”
There was a knock on the door and we were informed that many of the participants were gathering on the steps of the Budokan for a group picture and waiting for Shirata Sensei to come. At that we concluded our meeting.
Everyone except Sensei, stepped outside his office where a large crowd had gathered. Immediately upon seeing the shikishi there was a group exclamation and they were taken and passed among the crowd. Apparently, up until that time Shirata Sensei rarely wrote for others. Of course I didn’t know that at the time, but my surprised expression at having been immediately relieved of my new gift must have prompted someone to explain that fact to me. My calligraphy was returned to me in short order and we too headed for the front steps.
That was the how I first met Shirata Rinjiro Sensei!
This is the group picture that was taken at the time. Shirata Rinjiro is seated front and center. Nakajima Masanori is seated to Sensei’s right. And, the “strange foreign lady” in the hakama is Nicki. She now resides in the U.S.A. The “strange foreign guy” standing on the left side is me at 20 something.
These are the two calligraphy that Shirata Sensei presented me with.
This one reads (from top to bottom and right to left)
Masa Katsu A Katsu
Ai Ki Do
~ Ko Rin
Coming together, Ki, Way
True Victory Self Victory
~ signed Light (through the) Forest (Sensei’s pen name)
This one reads (from top to bottom and right to left)
Gen Rei Shin
Ai no, Ki no, Do
Physically Manifest, Spirit/Ghost, Devine/God
Love – Joy – Way
~ signed Light (through the) Forest (Sensei’s pen name)
Upon our first, and what could have been our last, meeting Shirata Sensei literally wrote down the secrets of Aikido and gave them to me. There would be much more to come, but all that came after, was the further elucidation of what had already been presented. Once one is given everything, the only thing that can be added to that is help in realizing and appreciating what one has already been given!
This point will be exemplified and amplified in my next blog when I explain:
“How I met Dan Harden- He too didn’t hold anything back!”
“The day I got my butt kicked with my own stuff!”