This article is the third in this series, “Words of the Founder”. This series of articles detail lessons I learned from the Founder and my experiences as the last uchideshi and otomo to the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. The first two articles:
This current article is based on an experience I had three years ago during a visit to my hometown of Akita in Japan. Back in the days when I was an uchideshi to the Founder in Iwama, my sister often came to visit me. She always asked me to keep a daily diary or to write letters home often. I didn’t realize at the time, but all of the letters and photos I sent home she had saved for me. On this trip home three years ago, I found them all.
My discovered letters about the Founder, his wife and my experiences in Iwama were the serious reflections of a young man and enthusiastic student of the Founder. It makes me smile when I see that same enthusiasm in my own beginning students from time to time; the students that try to write everything down and are so eager to practice. My writing in my sisters saved letters was so innocent; the innocence of a teenager’s view of the world five decades ago. I also found articles of the Founder I had collected at the time. There was a pig bristle tooth brush and practice calligraphy that the Founder had discarded. I had collected these articles like a star struck teenage fan collects paraphernalia of a superstar. At my age now, I am able to understand some of the things I was confused about during those early years.
Words of the Founder
The first and second articles I wrote, “The Words of the Founder I & II”,
I wrote from memory of my experiences in Iwama. This current article is based on these newly discovered letters that I had written and my sister had saved. These letters are physical testimonials of my experiences with the Founder both good and bad. For this article, I will share some of the positive memories recorded in my rediscovered records. Personal stories like this have not been written about the Founder because no one that has written about the Founder had these experiences or knows about these stories “behind the scenes”.
Relationship between Teacher and Student
Anyone Who Opens Their Own Dojo is Crazy: Words of the Founder III
When the Founder’s mail was delivered, it was opened, organized and read out loud to him. This was the duty of the Osoba Tsuki (very close inner circle of uchideshi) to perform this task and it was Kikuno who read to the Founder. After listening to a letter written to him one day, the Founder smiled and said, “Anyone who opens their own dojo is crazy”. I never forgot the words he spoke or how much they confused me. Kishu ben is the local dialect spoken in the Founder’s hometown, (Kishu is located in Wakayama prefecture) and he spoke these words in his own hometown dialect.
Before I explain what I realize now what the Founder meant by these words, I would like to share with you a memory I have of a private evening with the Founder.
The letters, newspapers or books that were read to the Founder were called daidoku. There was no TV or radio at that time in Iwama so for news, Kikuno would read the newspaper to the Founder daily. For me, the newspaper was a little difficult to read so this was Kikuno’s job. Every night however, before the Founder retired to his futon bed, he loved for me to read to him parts of the Reikai Mono Gatari, an Omoto religious doctrine. This I could read because the written kanji characters had phonetical hiragana characters written next to them which I could understand. He would lie down on his futon to prepare for sleep and while I read the Reikai Mono Gatari to him, Kikuno would massage his feet. (omi ashi sasuri).
This bedtime ritual was actually a little tricky to execute. It was not physically difficult, since the Founder would lie down and close his eyes to listen; it was always difficult to tell when he had fallen asleep and when it was time to stop reading. The only way to tell if he had fallen asleep was to check to see if his mouth had slackened in sleep. Sometimes we would guess wrong and thinking we were finished we would prepare to go. If we were wrong, he would move with a start and make a sound to signal for us to continue.
One day Kikuno asked me if I would do the omi ashi sasuri (foot massage) and she would read; switching jobs so to speak. This omi ashi sasuri for the Founder was not my favorite job. It required me to sit in seiza (kneeling position) and bend over awkwardly to massage the Founder’s feet low enough that air did not get under the futon cover and make his feet cold. Since I was rather tall, sitting in this position for any length of time was difficult and painful.
You might ask, if the Founder, Kikuno and I were the only ones in the room, why did I have to sit so formally in seiza? Why didn’t I just sit more comfortably? The answer? The innocence of youth and respect for the Founder is the simplest answer. If I think about it now, it makes me laugh at myself at the time.
I didn’t want to switch jobs, but then she showed me her hands. I was very surprised to see that both of her hands were severely swollen, cracked and red from her daily chores of laundry, dishes and washing the floors by hand with cold water. We never touched the Founder’s skin directly when giving him a massage; the massages were given while he wore a kimono or towels were laid over exposed areas. Still, Kikuno’s hands were in no shape to give a massage and she had asked me to switch because her hands were too painful to touch.
In the Founder’s sleeping quarters there was a small kerosene stove that was used in the winter and early spring to keep the room warm. Kikuno’s room had no heating at all and Iwama in the winter was extremely cold and dry. The kitchen and dining area also had a small gas heater and there was a stove to heat water, but it was unthinkable at the time to use warm or hot water for cleaning. I think working in cold water day after day was very hard for Kikuno.
When the Founder was teaching, the osoba tsuki uchideshi would of course always attend practice. If the technique being practiced was kata dori (shoulder grab), grabbing a partner’s thick keiko gi repeatedly would only add further injury to overused hands.
Today, medicines and lotions for these conditions are easily available, but at the time, skin care products for Kikuno were a luxury she could not afford. She could not afford such luxuries on her small salary which if my memory serves me was about 10,000 yen per month ($85 USD by today’s standards and much less at the time). Her family usually sent her a little money from home just to help her make ends meet.
I remember at the time, that the Founder had one very modern product of the day; an electric blanket! He complained about using the blanket however lamenting that it was itchy. We couldn’t figure out why it was so itchy for him so finally we removed the electric blanket and tried to use utampo (hot water bottles) to keep the futon warm. The hot water bottles still did not make the futon quite warm enough so it was Kikuno’s idea to slip into the Founder’s futon (without clothing) to warm the bed and leave just before the Founder came in to retire. With all of these activities, especially on the nights when the Founder took a bath, bedtime was a busy time.
Aikido practice at Iwama, during the days of the Founder, was held after dinner at 7:00 pm. If the Founder was to take a bath that evening, he would not attend practice. It would be too late for him to bathe after practice; so on bath nights he would take his bath earlier in the evening and not teach practice.
The bath house was about the size of two tatami mats, and it was my job to stoke the fire that heated the ofuro (bathtub) from outside of the bath house through the fire opening. I had to control the amount of firewood burned very carefully to control the temperature of the bathwater. Even if the temperature of the water was perfect, fresh boiled water is too sharp and stings the body. We would stir the water to add oxygen to soften the water which is called umomi. If the water was still too sharp for the Founder’s comfort, Kikuno would get into the tub to further soften the water. This was called niban u and was Kikuno’s job.
Afterwards, Kikuno would always tell me, even laughing about it a little, how hard this was for her because her hands and feet were in such bad condition. The fresh hot water would sting her damaged skin worn raw by the cold water she used to do her chores with.
Today this would be not of course be done. It would be called employee abuse. At that time however it was not, it was common. No one was forced to do these tasks, it was just the way things were done and all of us did our jobs sincerely to the best of our abilities.
After the bath was ready and the Founder would enter the tub, I would wash the Founder’s body while Kikuno would go to the Founder’s sleeping quarters to warm up his futon bed. The Founder’s bathtub consisted of a very large cooking pot (goemong buro) that was large enough for one person to fit inside. As the Founder sat in the tub, I would wash the Founder’s back. The should blade area of his back sagged where large muscles had once been when the Founder was in his prime, like the chest of a very old woman. I would wring out a towel and rub lightly upwards. I had to hold the skin of his back down at the bottom so it would not move with my upward motions, making the washing ineffective.
Kikuno and I were so young at the time, and in our minds we just wanted to do our best to make the Founder comfortable. We could not however cure the itchiness that he suffered from. Now I believe that this was a symptom of the liver disease that ultimately took the Founder’s life and there really was nothing we could have done at that time.
Except for on bath nights, dinner was served about 5:00 pm. The Founder’s menu was very simple. I have no memory of Kikuno ever going shopping at a market for dinner; dinner was made from harvests from our own gardens. Pickles were a favorite and made from our own garden vegetables.
Every morning, the Founder would check the gardens after his morning ceremony prayers. He would prune the vegetable plants carefully, picking off just enough so that larger vegetables would grow. The vegetables were used to make pickles that accompanied every meal along with a small quantity of tiny dried fish donated by students that would were used to make side dishes. These dishes accompanied a small bowl of okayu (rice porridge) to complete the simple meal. Every month there was a special festival (Tsuki nami sai) at the Aiki shrine in Iwama where mochi (pounded rice cakes) were made. On these special days, small pieces of mochi were mixed into the Founders okayu as a special treat.
Two items that were also always served with every meal for the Founder were a small sake cup of fine, cured balsamic rice vinegar (kurozu) and a small cup of sake (rice wine). Bites of all of the dishes in the meal were dipped in both the vinegar and sake before eating. I don’t remember who brought them, but someone once brought stuffed karashi renkon (lotus root stuffed with mild mustard). The Founder was especially fond of this dish as well as a dish made with salted, pickled salmon (salt removed) mixed with boiled potatoes that was fashioned into small balls and steamed. The Founder liked these too! This was a local, popular delicacy common in Shitaki Village that the Founder enjoyed during his pioneer days in Hokkaido.
It was not common in Japan at that time for elderly men to eat rice curry. Today this dish is widely popular in Japan and is called “curry-rice”. The Founder liked to eat rice curry occasionally as it was good remedy for constipation! No meat, just a little bit of potato and carrot was added to the curry roo, and served over rice. This was a favorite of mine and Kikuno’s too! The Founder would say, “You are young and must eat meat”, and he would order us to buy chicken for our curry. We would always say thank you but of course we could not or did not buy any chicken for our curry…
If the Founder’s body condition was not good, his appetite was not good either. His wife would say to him quite sternly, “You must eat for nourishment”. The Founder would sit at the table but would take food off of his plate and put it on his wife’s plate saying, “You eat”, and then try to run away. His wife would reply, “NO, you must eat!” teasingly. They looked like two children during these banters; a heartwarming memory I carry to this day.
Kikuno and I were still young. We had no experience or knowledge about how to take care of a couple in their 80’s. If we had a question on how to take care of them, we would run over to the late Morihiro Saito Shihan’s home and ask him or his wife for advice on how to take care of a particular situation.
The Founder began to have outburst that we could not handle sometimes. During those times, Morihiro Saito Shihan’s wife would come over and in a very stern Ibaraki dialect would say to the Founder, “O Sensei, What is going on?” Her manner and tone was that of a head nurse in charge which usually would make the outburst stop immediately. Afterwards, she would change her voice to a very gentle tone and ask the Founder again what was going on. To our relief, this usually made the Founder happy; like a comforted child.
As I look back now, I think the Founder was lonely. Kikuno and I were just too young to share with him at his level of life experience.
Before his passing, Morihiro Saito Shihan came to visit Nippon Kan Headquarters in Denver. He had come to teach a seminar and was accompanied by Shigeru Kawabe Sensei, Akita Branch Chief Instructor and Aikido Journal Editor, Stanley Pranin. Over dinner one evening, Morihiro Saito Shihan said to me, “I was the Founder’s deshi so I had to do anything and everything that the Founder asked of me. That is the way of being a deshi and I received rank and status for doing so. My wife however was not his student. Day or night, it didn’t matter the time, my wife took care of the Founder but not as an obligation, but because she cared. For all of her care of the Founder, my wife did not even receive a thank you from the Ueshiba family in Tokyo. I think the Ueshiba family understood that Iwama was just a place to throw away old, unwanted relatives. This is how it seemed anyway; I have no memory of the Founder’s son Kishomaru or his grand children ever visiting the Founder, especially in the last few years of his life”.
In popular biographies of the Founder’s life, it is said that it was the Founder’s choice to move from Iwama to Tokyo and Aikikai Hombu dojo at the end of his life for more intensive medical treatment. It was true that when the Founder moved to Tokyo, he lived on the second floor of Aikikai Hombu dojo in the middle dojo. He lived there until nearing death he was moved to a small Japanese room on the same floor where he finally passed away.
What is not written about is that right next door to Aikikai Hombu dojo was the home of Kishomaru Ueshiba, the Founder’s son. In Doshu Kishomaru Ueshiba’s home there was a room for the Founder but the Founder did not stay in that room during his last days. In Iwama, when the Founder was still healthy, Kikuno and I would listen to the Founder as he complained about family almost every night. He had many reasons to complain, but they are personal and private reasons so I do not want to elaborate here.
It sounds romantic, that the Founder lived at the dojo until his death, but in reality there were deep, personal reasons for him being there.
So many memories, but let’s get back to the story.
As I mentioned before, the Founder was listening to Kikuno read the mail one day, and as she read a letter to the Founder he smiled said, “Anyone who opens their own dojo is crazy”… I did not understand at the time what he meant by this and found it quite confusing. Now almost 5 decades later, I think I understand…
Today there are Aikikai Headquarters affiliated dojos all over Japan and around the world however Aikikai or the Ueshiba family has not financed or supported the building or the operations of any of the dojos in this vast organization. Even Iwama Aiki Shrine Aikikai has dojos directly related to them but these dojos too were all built by student supporters, not the Ueshiba family or Aikikai Headquarters. Most dojos world-wide have been built by individual instructors and students with their own resources. It is not until these new dojos have become stable on their own have they been able to attach themselves to Aikikai Headquarters.
Dojos everywhere whether rented or owned are financed and supported by loyal students; not Aikikai.
A cat catches mice and brings them to the feet of their owner to show off what they caught. The bigger the mouse the more praise and treats the cat receives. This is very similar with Aikikai and the treats and praise that are given to dojos that affiliate with them.
The letter that Kikuno was reading was probably a letter from a local wealthy supporter reporting on the opening of a new dojo. In Japan, it is said that there are three things that people fear;
- Earthquakes 2. Lightning 3. Fire. There is actual a fourth…4. Father.
In our modern society women hold a stronger more equal place, but even now in traditional old Japanese families, the father is the householder and plays a stern, strict and dominating role. Traditionally in Japan, a father would introduce his children to outsiders as “The crazy kid of this house”. If a father was asking an associate to hire or take in his child he would ask by saying “Please take care of this crazy kid”. Common Japanese etiquette of that day was to downplay the intelligence or skills of one’s offspring; referring to them during introductions in a more negative way.
In the United States, the etiquette is opposite. Children are introduced as “My wonderful son, or perfect daughter”. This is an American custom and it is not acceptable to talk negatively about one’s own children especially in front of them or others.
It may be difficult to understand from a Western perspective, but what is meant by this traditional Japanese custom of downgrading offspring is actually humility. It is more a way of saying, “My son might not be perfect and he does not have a great deal of experience. I hope he will not be a burden to you but please take good care of him”.
So in this context, what then did the Founder actually mean when he said “Anyone who opens their own dojo is crazy”…
Important to consider was his tone and his facial expressions; he smiled while he said they were crazy. The Founder was thinking that this student was so loyal and loved his Aikido so much that he would go to all of the trouble of opening his own dojo. The Founder knew well of the hardships that awaited his student in this endeavor. The meaning of his words was both an acknowledgement of the gift and a warning of what lay ahead.
The Founder was actually very happy with the news but in keeping with the traditions of the day responded with “Anyone who opens their own dojo is crazy”. If this had been in a current time in the United States he might have said “I am very happy, but are you going to be okay? It is a little crazy opening your own dojo and there will be difficult times ahead. I worry for you”.
Anyway, if the Founder truly thought someone was actually crazy (bacamono) he would be yelling in a voice loud enough to knock you down. Sometimes late in the night in Iwama, the Founder would be thinking about someone that had angered or disappointed him and start screaming in a 2-3 minute tirade even if the person was not there. The power of his voice was frightening and surprising during those times; something I will never forget.
Hearing this news about a new dojo made the Founder happy but also raised for him concerns for his student. His words were a kind, friendly way to express concern.
So many years later, my dojo is called Aikido Nippon Kan Headquarters and is located in Denver, Colorado USA. The dojo was originally called Japan House Culture Center but the name was changed almost 40 years ago and in these last four decades, over 25,000 students have participated in Nippon Kan Beginning Aikido classes. Some students quit after three days, and some of my students have been practicing Aikido with me for over 30 years. There have been many students at Nippon Kan and we average about 150 students practicing at any one time.
Lately the population growth in Denver and the surrounding suburbs has been booming. I have asked my instructors and senior students if anyone would like to open their own dojo somewhere else in town. These senior students know well how difficult it is to run a dojo and so far, NO ONE has wanted to start a dojo on their own. When asked, one of my instructors replied, “Are you trying to get rid of me?” My students and instructors are all this nice and no one seems to have any ambition to open another dojo on their own.
If this was the dream of any of my senior instructors and they had a good plan in place for opening their own dojo, I would of course reply, “Are you crazy?”… and I would also of course, if their plan made sense, help them to achieve their dream.
It has never been my intention to pressure students into opening branch dojos of Nippon Kan. I have no desires to make myself or the Nippon Kan organization larger by collecting affiliated dojos. That has never been an ambition of mine in any way. To open a dojo one needs money to rent space, furnish, advertise and organize but these tasks are doable. Keeping students is the very difficult task. For any of my students who have been with me for a long period of time, I do not wish the trials of this difficult road, opening and keeping a dojo alive especially if they think they are doing it for me.
If there were a true desire, then I would build a dojo for them; I would support them. I never would ask the other way around “You must do this for me”.
With over 25, 000 students at Nippon Kan over the years, a hand full of students have disappeared on their own to start their own dojos without notice. Instant instructors with new credentials and new dojos appear with grand opening announcements. A few Nippon Kan students have done this but very few. Out of 25,000 students, a hand full of renegades is not unimaginable.
Honestly when this has happened I have breathed a sigh of relieve. Having these few students disappear on their own relieved me of having to hamon (officially excommunicate) them myself; one of the hardest responsibilities for an instructor to have.
I have instructed at my dojo in the United States for almost 40 years and I am proud to say I do not have any affiliated dojos in the United States. This is of value to me and is a direct reflection of what I learned from the Founder. Aikido Nippon Kan is an independent, healthy dojo that been teaching Aikido for close to four decades. It used to be that for a dojo to be successful they had to open affiliate dojos and build a franchise. I was advised repeatedly by American staff that this was the road to success. Now my staff understands my spirit and philosophy and no one at Nippon Kan pursues becoming a franchised monopoly.
Hizamoto is a term in Japanese that means “under the knee or at the feet of” and refers to very close students. The Founder said to his hizamoto, “You have to be crazy to open your own dojo”. The Founder had hizamoto or deshi that took very good care of him and in return, the Founder took very good care of them; blending fondness and worry, sadness and happiness together. The kind of sarcastic teasing found in the Founder’s statement, “You have to be crazy” is a complex blend of deep feelings that reflect a very sweet heart. This is part of tradition and custom in Japan too.
In this article I have written about the relationship between teacher and student; the responsibility of the position of teacher and the deep appreciation of the hizamoto. I hope by reading this article I have been able to share a little of the light in the words of the Founder and the nature of the relationships in his life around him.
The Founder’s maid Kikuno in Iwama was nicknamed Kiku chan and she remained with the Founder until his death as a very close aid. When the Founder passed away, Kikuno was only 21 years old. Her full name is the Late Kikuno Yamamoto and she lived near where the Founder lived in the Iwama area for the rest of her life.
*For simplicity, some titles of merit and honorifics were not used in this article.
Nippon Kan Kancho
June 26th, 2015