A Gift of Time from a Special Young Man

Written by Gaku Homma

Sept 20th, 2006

Armando and Homma Kancho sharing a moment in the garden.

Armando and Homma Kancho sharing a moment in the garden.

At 6:00 am., this particular young man was already up cleaning the dojo. The dojo facility at Nippon Kan is quite large, and he would work patiently until the job was done. After watering the gardens and wiping down the patio tables we would have breakfast together. After breakfast it was time for him to set out on the day’s planned excursion or activity. After returning in the afternoon, he would change into his keiko gi for uchideshi practice followed by practice in regular member classes well into the evening.

It was like this most days for the two weeks this young man stayed with us at Nippon Kan.

Last year we had another young man from the same country that also came to Nippon Kan as an AHAN (Aikido Humanitarian Active Network) scholarship student. This young man’s story was completely different.

After about one week, he said he could not see; that he was losing his vision. He had a history of eye problems, and since one’s vision is not something to mess around with, the Nippon Kan staff took him immediately to the hospital. There he was examined carefully, but the doctors could not find any evidence of new damage or trauma to his eyes. As this condition seemed to persist, he was taken the following day to a specialist who also could not find any evidence of new damage. Still this young man said he could not see.

I was out of the country teaching at the time and received this news by phone. I was scheduled to return the following day and took time to meet with the young man to see how he was doing. I could not discern any problems with his mobility, and he seemed to be able to practice and do his dojo chores without difficulty. Still this young man said he could not see.

After conferring with his home instructor, I concluded that the eyes were not this young man’s problem, it was his heart. We were told that he had recently been married, so THIS I suspected was the true root of these symptoms of blindness. This young man just wanted to go home!

This was a new one. In all of my years of experience I have never heard anyone use the excuse of sudden blindness to leave the uchideshi program, and believe me, I have heard many, stories. I am sure he felt torn between the opportunity that had been given to him by AHAN to come to the United States and a new wife at home. It did not take long however for homesickness to set in, and he soon left for home. We never heard from him again, not an apology, or a thank you or any word on his “condition”. We were just left with about $2,500.00 worth of medical bills that this young man made no contribution toward.

I said I have heard many stories, and I have; only about one in five uchideshi applicants complete the Nippon Kan uchideshi graduate from the program successfully. It is not that the uchideshi program at Nippon Kan is that difficult, in fact it is rather simple. Uchideshi activities and responsibilities have remained the same at Nippon Kan for the last thirty years.

We have had success stories, and there are many uchideshi alumni names on the graduate board of honors hanging at Nippon Kan. The uchideshi that do leave without completing there terms I have concluded most simply changed their mind, or change their ideas of what is valuable to them. Maybe facing the reality of their dream is simply more than some can handle.

Sometimes when an uchideshi has decided to leave before the end of their term, the stories begin. There are of course uchideshi students that have real, legitimate reasons for leaving the program early, but more often than not the reasons given are just excuses for wanting to return to daily life.

Sometimes as the stories go, a parent has become ill, or a grand parent has died. Sometimes a girlfriend has discovered she is pregnant, or maybe is just so lonely she cannot go on…Sometimes we get actual emergency phone requests from family members, announcing the need for their son or daughter to return home at once. It is predictable at times, and if I ever see an uchideshi camped out in front of the door to the office, I know what is coming next!

More often than not, the uchideshi that fail to complete their goals in the program entered the program for the wrong reasons. They were running away from something else in their life, or seeking the approval or admiration of a parent or girlfriend. Whatever the reasons and I have heard many, “not being able to see” was a first for me! Broken bones you can see and they will mend, but if you are dealing with someone’s eyes, there is no choice but to send them home as soon as possible.

In my experience, I have come to the conclusion that Nippon Kan philosophy on the uchideshi  training at our dojo does not fit with the life styles or attitudes of many young people today in the United States.

Nippon Kan teaching begins with the philosophy of “no direction, no teaching”. For many young people, this is difficult concept to understand. Some think that because they paid tuition to be an uchideshi that they deserve something immediate and concrete in return.  For uchideshi training to be valuable, I believe that this philosophy of “no direction, no teaching” must be the place where learning begins.

A new uchideshi that has imagined the dojo to be a mysterious place where he will be given secret instruction to master Aikido and gain incredible wisdom in an instant is doomed to fail.
New uchideshi who have decided to join the program to impress a girlfriend or to mend a broken heart or to prove something to their parents usually do not stay either. Sometimes it seems that the choice was to become an uchideshi at a martial art school or join the foreign legion! All of these are NOT reasons that lend themselves to a successful uchideshi experience.

Many Japanese pioneer Shihan who began their teaching of Aikido in countries other than Japan, started their practice with nothing. They didn’t start at zero, they started below zero. Years and years of effort, diligence and persistence in their own training allowed them to achieve what they have today.

I too, came to the United States over thirty years ago and founded Nippon Kan. With the help of many wonderful students and years of persistence Nippon Kan has grown in many, many ways. It was my decision to begin Nippon Kan, and Nippon Kan has been my responsibility. I came to the United States with nothing, not even an organization to rely on or answer to; it has been up to me to steer this big boat called Nippon Kan.

It has been a journey these past thirty years filled with loneliness, worry, mistakes and confusion at times. Sometimes I felt like I was feeling around in the dark, testing each step before taking the next step forward. All along the way, keiko (practice) and kufu (internal resourcefulness) were and still are part of my daily challenges. Thirty years of hard practice and experience has given birth to my philosophy of “no direction, no teaching” as the starting point for uchideshi training at Nippon Kan.

My job I have finally discovered is simply to hold up the dojo roof posts. Just being here is enough.


There is an over abundance of information about Aikido in our world today, and an over abundance of people who can recite all of the styles, lineages, dates, instructor names,  organizations etc. in the history of Aikido. They remind me sometimes of child stars that can name all of the capital cities of all the states but have never been to any of them! They don’t know the meaning of the words from practice or experience, but they can recite a litany of Japanese terms and technique names learned from a book. Their opinions are many, but many are not their own.  There are instructors like this as well.

It has always been such a delight when I have met an instructor who has learned the true meaning of their practice by meeting their own challenges each day; instructors who have built their own dojos with their own kufu (inner resourcefulness), learning each day from their own personal trials, failures and successes.

I think of a person who has built a strong body through hard work, growing and eating hearty foods instead of taking store-bought supplements to pump them selves up. This first process not only brings good health, but wisdom through the experience. Prevalent in our Aikido society today are those that bypass this process, make their own supplements and even selling them to others to make a name for themselves.  This leads to an instant strain of Aikidoka with no deep foundation to draw from.

True uchideshi practice will not help those who have become accustom to an illusion of instant fulfillment through “supplements”. To be honest there is nothing I can do to help a person who has grown in this fashion. I have no magic pills to give. Yet, if a new uchideshi’s first discovery is that there are no instant supplements offered here, and that he or she will have to plant their own seeds, and nurture their growth themselves, there is a chance for success. If they accept this challenge, the gift I can offer is this very opportunity; to discover for themselves.

The starting place is at zero. If a new uchideshi cannot find the starting place, then time spent teaching this individual by me or Nippon Kan instructor staff is just a waste of time. Development of Aikido technique or a person’s spirit comes after this first discovery, not before.

At Nippon Kan we have had many uchideshi students, and we have learned over the years that the uchideshi who have graduated from the uchideshi program with honors already practiced keiko and kufu in their own lives before they came to Nippon Kan.

Back to the beginning…

His name is Armando Lopez Espinoza, age 23, born in Nicaragua. He is a student at the Universidad Tecnológica Nicaragüense studying in his third of law. In 2003, Armando lost a leg above the knee and a kidney to cancer. It was after this, that Armando began his practice of Aikido. Link here to articles relating to Homma Kancho and Armando in Nicaragua.

Armando was first scheduled to come to Nippon Kan as a guest sponsored by AHAN in the summer of 2005. Spots were discovered on his lungs however and Armando underwent surgery again where part of his lung was removed. Recovering from this surgery, Armando was finally able to come to Nippon Kan this past Aug-Sept for a two week visit.

He practices Aikido with prosthesis and has developed his own technique for doing front rolls; back rolls and even does great looking break falls! Armando said to me “I want to practice like everyone else, I don’t want any exceptions made for me”.  Occasionally, Armando would need to leave the mat briefly to make an adjustment on this prosthesis, but other than that, he took all levels of classes and practiced hard along with everyone else.

Armando’s experience coming to Denver to practice at Nippon Kan was made possible with the help and support of many Nippon Kan members. Funds were raised for Armando’s airfare and other travel expenses with a T-shirt sale campaign that sold out twice! While Armando was with us in Denver we hoped to be able to show him experiences in his field of law and community social and solicited help from Nippon Kan members on activities they might be involved in that might be of interest to Armando. The response was overwhelming, and before long we had a two week itinerary with activities and field trips planned for most days. Adding to this challenge was the fact that Armando speaks Spanish and very little English.   If Armando had not come to visit, we would not have had the opportunity to get to know some of our own members and the talents and contributions they make to our community in their own lives every day.

One Saturday afternoon I went into Nippon Kan’s Domo Restaurant at the end of a busy lunch shift. I was surprised to discover that Armando was busing tables; carrying dishes from the tables back to the kitchen. He did this of his own accord; no one asked him or ever expected him to do this. Initially I was concerned that this might be a little dangerous for him and started to ask him to stop, but decided that it would be better for him if he continued this project he had started, so I let him help.

Up by 6:00 am each morning, Armando did chores, ate breakfast, went on his daily fieldtrips, and practice two sometimes three classes a night. His efforts outshone the efforts of many “able bodied” uchideshi we have had at Nippon Kan, and then some.

I seem to usually be so busy that I don’t know what time it is. Watching Armando’s effort and attitude was a great gift for me. Armando stopped time for me and made me think deeply about life. He gave me this gift of time; “thinking time”. I know everyone who met Armando while he was here had a similar experience. He touched everyone, and he gave a gift to all.

We spoke privately one morning and Armando said to me, “I want to live.” “There are many people who have taken care of me and helped me to live. Someday I want to be able to give back to others too. I appreciate their gifts to me greatly.”

Armando knows that his time has limits. What he gives to others has no limits at all. He told me with tears in his eyes that he wanted to be the AHAN Nicaragua coordinator.

I said yes of course, and for a moment I was at a loss for words. I began slowly “By spending your valuable time with us, you have given all of us a gift of time to reflect. We all appreciate and thank you very much. For this special two weeks, you have met the challenges of this uchideshi experience at Nippon Kan with outstanding effort.  The memory of your efforts I will keep in my heart longer than any other uchideshi that has graduated from Nippon Kan’s uchideshi program in the last thirty years.”

This project was supported by all Nippon Kan members and I want to sincerely thank everyone for this help.

Special thanks to the following members for allowing Armando to share in their lives in Denver.

August 30th Wednesday
Rocky Mountain News Rosa Ramirez
August 31st Thursday Denver Library-Downtown Nippon Kan Staff
Sept 1 Friday El Centro Humanitario Jorgelina
Sept 2 Saturday Family Dinner Sylvia Montero and family
Sept 3 Sunday Church, Colorado Springs Emily, Homma Sensei
Sept 4 Monday Holiday with Ruth Warner Ruth Warner and family
Sept 5 Tuesday Jail/Golden Court House Wade Eldridge, Michael Barerra
Sept 6 Wednesday District Attorney Office Jesse Gamueda, Mr. Art Hernandez
Sept 7 Thursday Tour of Capitol- Jesse Ulmer/Senator Ken Gordon
Sept 8 Friday Regis College Tony Montero
Sept 9 Saturday Rest day Nippon Kan Staff
Sept 10 Sunday Church,evening farewell party Homma Sensei and Hosts

** Permission to write this article and for the photos used was given by Armando Lopez Espinoza.
Armando’s farewell and thank you letter. (English and Spanish) Link here.