Aikido Ronin* in Europe

Written by
Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho

*Ronin is the Japanese term for master less samurai.

In my travels to teach in countries around the world, I have been surprised to see how many different kinds of membership cards or “passports” are carried by practicing Aikidoka. Membership cards these days are not just a simple card with the organizations name on it. Today membership cards are more like small books with photos, kyu and dan promotion records, seminar attendance and practice history reports. In the U.S. these are called Aikido passports. In Japan they are called kokusai yudanshasho. I personally call them keikocho or practice notes.

In our Aikido world, the word Aikido used to be synonymous with the Aikikai organization. Today however there are many organizations that have formed from the overflow of a rapidly expanded Aikikai organization. There are also many organizations that have developed from all-together different roots and lineage than Aikikai resulting in an even a larger variety of keikocho. There have been seminars I have instructed at where students brought over ten different kinds of affiliated keikocho to be signed for attendance.

At one seminar I studied the keikocho that had been brought to me and reflected on the names of instructors listed there. There were signatures of Shihan that have already passed away, or abrupt changes in affiliated instructors were listed noting the political journey of the student. You could follow the history of a student’s dojo or organization just by reading the pages.

Recently I instructed at a seminar where one Aikidoka brought me his keikocho to sign. He had been practicing for over twelve years, and in his passport, his nidan certification had been recorded. His keikocho showed that he had attended seventy four seminars instructed by high ranking instructors from Europe, the United States and Japan. His shodan and nidan ranking certification had been signed by the late Morihiro Saito Shihan-Aikikai 9th Dan yet this student’s passport was not issued by Aikikai. His passport and others from his dojo had been issued by the late Morihiro Saito Shihan and bore the name of Iwama Ryu.

Following the death of Morihiro Saito Shihan, this Aikidoka and his dojo had neither joined Aikikai officially or followed the son of Morihiro Saito Shihan, Hitohiro Saito Jukucho as he formed his own independent organization Shin Shin Aiki Shuren Kai Tanren Juku. In other words, this group had not moved to join any organization, but had chosen instead to become Aikido ronin or “masterless samurai”.

On the Nippon Kan website, I have written on occasion about the late Morihiro Saito Shihan and his son Hitohiro Saito Jukucho. While doing research for these articles I consulted senior students who studied under Morihiro Saito Shihan. Through them I learned many things about the time of transition following Saito Shihan’s death. I had become aware of the emergence of new Aikido ronin, especially in Europe, but holding this keikocho in my hand brought it home to me what a big problem this presented.

During his lifetime Morihiro Saito Shihan, an instructor of highest ranking at Aikikai, issued his own certification from his own organization. This was well known amongst Aikikai administrators during those years and was never publicly condemned. The fact that Aikikai was aware of these activities is irrefutable and yet at that time no public objection by Aikikai against this practice by Saito Shihan was issued or enforced. This can be confirmed by the fact that during that time period many students of Saito Shihan received their yudansha certification from Aikikai.

The students who have now become Aikido ronin are innocent students who pursued their training of Aikido in earnest under their own instructor’s direction. Unfortunately these students have now become collateral damage of the politics of their predecessors. After Saito Shihan’s death, and the departure from Aikikai of his son Hitohiro Saito Jukucho, this generation of students have found themselves not only homeless, but without a history or foundation for the future.

After Saito Shihan’s death, most of his students chose to stay with Aikikai. There were however students from this transition who were not allowed to join Aikikai at their current ranks or status. Students that received their yudansha ranks from Aikikai through Saito Shihan were welcomed to join Aikikai directly after his death. Those however that receive their ranking directly from Saito Shihan were not. The transfer of the ranking of these students was refused by Aikikai, which has resulted understandably with a feeling of bitterness and betrayal.

I asked one of these Aikido ronin students why they did not join Hitohiro Jukucho’s new organization. “Our teacher was Morihiro Saito Shihan. His son Hitohiro Jukucho is of no consequence to us, especially now that he has left Aikikai. When we were students of Saito Shihan we always assumed that we were part of Aikikai, and that we could continue on with Aikikai affiliation after his death. Saito Shihan was after all an Aikikai instructor. It was such a shock for us to have the ranking we received from Saito Shihan refused by Aikikai. We wish to continue to be part of Aikikai and wish to transfer our ranking, even if we have to transfer one level down, that would be okay. I have practiced Aikido for many years and operate my own dojo. Starting over with Aikikai without any rank would affect my ability to make a living. We have been loyal students to our instructors, following their directions to the letter. Nothing was ever said to us by Aikikai administration that the ranking we received directly from Saito Shihan was not Aikikai approved. All of the years of practice, all of the effort, loyalty and money spent to achieve the ranks we hold disappeared in the moment Aikikai refused to transfer our ranks”.

As an analogy, if a loan officer of a bank begins making loans on his own accord and breaks policy by doing so, he or she would be stopped by the bank. If the bank was aware of the officer’s actions and did nothing or said nothing about his actions, jeopardizing the clients adversely, the bank would be held liable.

“We cannot understand why we have been cut off in this way, and we feel victimized. All of the students who have been affected this way have organized and we are seriously considering filing a class action type of law suit against Aikikai for this unfair treatment”.

I listened to this story with growing concern and sadness. I know that money is not the primary concern, but I couldn’t help but think that this person in his twelve year Aikido career had not only spent a lot of time and energy but he had spent quite a sum of money for monthly dojo dues, registration fees, testing fees and promotion donations not to mention the costs that are were incurred to attend seventy four seminars. Even just thinking about this one facet of the problem was enough to understand this student’s anger and disappointment.

If these students proceed with this class action law suite, whether they win or lose, the affect on Aikikai would be a serious one. Not only facing possible monetary loss, Aikikai’s reputation would be immeasurably damaged. Aikikai needs its reputation intact to continue the government support it receives plus the support it maintains from corporate and foundation donations. In today’s world where communications can be achieved almost instantaneous, the ability of this group to rally others around the world to this cause would not be difficult.

Aikikai has grown into a far reaching global organization, but I am concerned that it historically has not and still does not have clear mandates, rules of conduct or a system of responsibility for the actions of its instructors. As a result, situations like this have become part of the consequence. This situation is ultimately the responsibility of the parent organization Aikikai, in the same way that resulting complications by the actions of a bank loan officer are the responsibility of the bank.

I think that Aikikai needs to act swiftly with wisdom and an eye toward the future to remedy this situation. If Aikikai administrators take the time to deal with this growing contingent of Aikido ronin and work out a positive solution, they will provide a model of understanding and Aikido philosophy in action. The students in this case are innocent, and do not deserve to be punished for a situation not of their making.