Michael’s Letter

Nippon Kan and Homma Kancho receive many letters, phone calls and emails every week. Most are questions about Aikido such as; When do beginners’ classes start?, Where can I buy a keiko gi(practice uniform)?, What is a kototama?, How do I learn ukemi?, or my personal favorite; How long does it take to get a black belt?…
Some of the requests and questions are simple, and some are very complicated questions to answer. Sometimes the questions posed are just as a way to engage in conversation. Sometimes questions are posed to make the inquirer look knowledgeable. In either case, engaging in these kinds of conversations can be challenging!

On occasion we receive letters from authors that write volumes about their own Aikido philosophies or speak of their personal experiences of enlightenment sitting under a waterfall, “Just like the Founder”…

With experience, our staff has learned to deal with the different kinds of requests courteously and efficiently; but very few come to the attention of Homma Kancho directly. Most are answered and filed away in appropriate category files, some of the classics are saved in Sensei’s funny letters files. Homma Kancho says someday he will use the letters as a basis for research for a study of the sociology of martial arts in the 20th and 21st centuries!

Every once in a while however, there is a letter or e-mail that displays a great deal earnest sincerity asking for information on AHAN or advice from Homma Kancho. These letters, Homma Kancho answers personally, and sometimes in great length.
One such letter this past June came from Michael Difronzo, a loyal student to the late Mitsunari Kanai Shihan 8th Dan of Boston, Massachusetts. Kanai Shihan was one of the first USAF Pioneer Instructors to come to the United States to teach Aikido. He lived in the Boston area until his death March 28th, 2004.

Michael’s letter request for advice touched Homma Kancho, inspiring him to write the response linked to in this article. Also referenced in this letter is Aikikai Shihan Kazuo Chiba Shihan of San Deigo, California.

This letter and Homma Kancho’s response has been posted with permission from Michael. First is Michael’s letter followed by Homma Kanchos response.
Dear Sensei, I have been a student of Kanai sensei for 5 years. I have grown very close to him, his wife Sharon, and children, Meisha and Yuki. It has been over a year and we are all still in shock and kind of lost without him. Obviously sensei’s Aikido was amazing. His throws were truly the most powerful I have ever seen. He seemed to catapult us instead of throw us. He generated tremendous power, as you probably know. But this is not the problem. Many senior students obviously did not learn what his greatest attributes were about. He was honestly the most humble, loyal, sincere, and selfless person I have ever known. He never wanted the spotlight or attention. He had numerous chances to mass produce books and videos. But that is not what he was about. He was all about Aikido on and off the mat. Well, to get to the point, at times the dojo is filled with selfish egos, resentments, and sometimes students are all about what’s better for themselves instead of what’s better for Sensei’s family. This is taking its toll on the loyal students who not only want to emulate Sensei’s Aikido, but also his virtues. Chiba sensei has been supportive to his family, and that is great. I read most of your material and am a big fan of yours. I respect you. Do you have any advice for us? Also do you have any personal stories or memories of Sensei? I know he left Hombu in 1966, but I assume you must have known him. Also if I want to get away for 3 or 4 days, to clear my head, can I train at your dojo? Please let me know at your convenience.

With respect and humility,

June 18th, 2005,

Dear Michael,
I have read your letter, and I was touched by your concerns. I am sorry it has taken me a while to respond to you. My writing needs to be translated, which is a painstaking process at times.

My thoughts of Kanai Shihan are similar to yours. I too believe that Kanai Shihan was a classic instructor who did not fall for media hype or the lure of mass publication or publicity. I did not know him well, but I do remember his love of Japanese swords, his powerful technique and the way he would run his hand through his hair after executing a throw. I know he had a reputation as a very good Aikido Instructor. I have received letters from others as well about problems that have arisen from the passing of one of the first generation of Japanese Pioneer Shihan. Students in many dojos mourning the loss of their instructor have found themselves facing discord amongst surviving students, splits in their organizations and other internal tensions; ultimately finding yesterday’s friends in practice polarized and at odds with each other.

The problems you now face are real, and are real for all of those around you. It is a crossroad in your path as well as a crossroad for others. It is not fair to look at others and blame or judge the choices they make at this same junction. Everyone has their own choices to make, and they make those choices based on their own personal values, and the amount of information and experience they have.

We have never met, so I don’t know your age or the exact nature of your relationship with Kanai Shihan and his family, so it is difficult to answer your questions specifically. As a way to possibly help you in a more general fashion I have written the following essay about the Aikido pioneers that were officially sent from Japan to “foreign lands” like Kanai Shihan and others of his generation. Hopefully this essay might answer some of your questions about these special people and their lives, and give you more information to base your decisions on.
There are many in the generation of pioneers that were sent from Japan to foreign countries to teach Aikido to the world that have now finished their mission and passed on. What I think I can offer at this time is to provide a testimonial to what I knew of their lives and their life work; especially the early times in the lives of these pioneers. I would like to try to provide more information that might help you and those that are working through their own times of transition to make decisions with a wider point of view.


In the 1960’s young Aikido instructors were sent from Japan out into the world to seek their fortune. Everyone was young, strong and filled with the courage that only the young possess. At that time, the Japanese economy was not good, and even students graduating from universities had trouble finding work. On the other hand, the 1960’s and 70’s brought a “martial art boom” to the United States and Europe via Hollywood and the silver screen. (For example, the martial art legion of the 70’s; Bruce Lee). It was only natural under these circumstances for Japanese Aikido instructors to follow the demands of the market in the United States and Europe; especially with work being so hard to find back home.

Also at that time in Japan, Aikido was in a stage of unbridled development; it was growing fast without any clear far-sited organization. Instructors were being dispatched to foreign countries without a clear support system and planning in place. In the 60’s, Japanese nationals could not travel to the United States or many countries in Europe without a visa, and visas could only be obtained through sponsorship from a U.S. or European resident. If an invitation to come to the U.S. or Europe to teach Aikido was received, the opportunity was jumped at, and instructors were sent without carefully checking on the details of the arrangements. The Japanese pioneer instructors too welcomed the opportunity to strike out on an adventure of their own and proceeded without knowing exactly what they would be getting into.

In many instances, after arriving in the United States and other countries, these pioneers found that the conditions they were expecting were not as they had been described in their letters of invitation. This situation which was the result in many cases of the above mentioned lack of thorough research meant much hardship for the instructors facing life in a new land. Once the instructors arrived, there was little room for negotiation and there was always the fear of losing their visa status should their invitation be terminated. So, in most cases, these pioneer instructors faced their new living conditions with determination and patience; and in doing so built the foundations for the world of Aikido we know today. They gave all of their time and energy and sometimes even their lives to their mission of building the world of Aikido beyond Japanese shores. We all must look beyond style or organizational loyalties and truly honor and respect this generation of pioneers for what they have contributed to our Aikido history.

“NO students, no money”. “When students come, there is almost enough to pay the dojo rent. If we are lucky, there is a little left over to buy food. There have been times when I have eaten ramen noodles every day for six months at a time. I worry my body is going to turn the same yellow color as the noodles I have eaten so many…”

Testimonial of one of the official pioneer shihan.

“Because there is never any money, I buy rice in bulk and season in it with shiokara (salty pickled squid). This is the cheapest way to eat, and I eat it every day. I have eaten it for so long, I can’t even taste the salt anymore”.

Testimonial of one of the official pioneer shihan
who has since passed away from a kidney related illness.

“If I keep smoking so many of these, I don’t think I am going to live very long! My life is so poor that my only luxury is a beer and one of these (cigarette). Some have money to send back to headquarters, but I do not…”

Testimonial of one of the official pioneer shihan
recorded in Denver, Colorado in 1976 who has
since passed away from a lung related illness.

“When my Sensei came from Japan, he couldn’t speak our language, and had no money. His living conditions were so bad that my parents took him in and gave him food and lodging for five years”.

Testimonial of a former secretary to an official pioneer shihan in Europe.

“At night sometimes the local grocer would leave bags of food that was not too spoiled for the homeless next to the dumpster behind the supermarket. He would go and retrieve the bags of food and cook dinner for me…”

Testimonial of a former girlfriend of an official pioneer shihan.

There are hundreds of stories about the struggles this first generation of pioneer shihan faced in their early years outside of Japan. There are also stories of misunderstandings between generations of instructors separated for the first time culturally and geographically. Some of these misunderstandings shaped the course of our Aikido history.

“Sensei from headquarters in Japan announced he was coming to visit! I so wanted to make a good impression that I borrowed the money to rent a Cadillac so that he would have nice transportation. I had no money for a hotel, so I convinced him to stay at my humble apartment. The Cadillac and my “western size” apartment made an impression alright. Sensei responded with “You have a nice car and a big apartment; you must have many students to be doing so well for yourself. Since you do not send much in the way of dues back to headquarters, I can only assume that you are keeping the money for yourself!” “I was so shocked at the misunderstanding of the situation that I was left speechless”.

Testimonial of an official pioneer shihan.

In Japan in the 60’s, to drive a car of a foreign make was only for the very rich. It was the dream of many Japanese to have a Cadillac or other American-made car. Houses in Japan were still quite small; to the point that they were called “rabbit hutches (usagi koya) by some media sources. Buffet apartments in the United States were quite large by comparison, and furnished with large sofas, chairs, tables and a HUGE refrigerator seemed quite luxurious to visiting shihan familiar only with the isolated cultural standards of Japan at the time. Many high ranking shihan passed judgment unfairly on the pioneer instructors due to unfamiliarity with Western ways and life styles. This posed a great problem for the pioneer shihan who out of respect in a hierarchical structure of Japanese martial art society could not protest against unfair accusations by their superiors. Finally deep misunderstandings grew from simple misconceptions of cultural differences between Japan and the West. Some of these misunderstandings led to the ending of relationships and affiliations that did indeed change the course of Aikido history.

A few of the pioneer shihan could not handle the hard conditions and the misconceptions of their superiors and gave up on their missions abroad. They were looked down upon by their superiors who not understanding their true situation thought them lazy or unfocused.

There were also shuffling of alliances and structural changes going on in the Aikido world in Japan in the 60’s and 70’s that would be felt continents away. Waves of uncertainty hit the pioneer shihan in foreign lands like a tsunami from the east. Many of the pioneers were forced to choose between newly formed organizations and alliances back home. Some stayed with their original superiors, some gravitated towards new affiliations, and some lost their alliances all together and started their own organizations.

Through this entire political trauma, the pioneer shihan still had to focus on their daily struggle for survival. These pioneers had to make decisions about their futures based on their own realities; and their first priority had to be their own physical survival and the survival of their families. They were not supported financially at that time by their home organizations, and “how to eat today” was a priority in their decision making process. They also had to weigh in the fact that if they lost their foreign sponsors, they would be totally on their own; having no legal status to be able to lease space, find students and all the other requirements for survival. The wrong choice could mean starving to death. One pioneer shihan once told me of his experiences during this time, “If the head makes a break there are only two choices; stay or go”. For this special generation both the ones that “stayed” and the ones that did not, made the best decision they could for themselves. There is no right or wrong judgment to be made. This situation was ultimately caused by the “heads” or senior shihan in Japan and the resulting problems cost the younger pioneer instructors and their students dearly.

At the root of all of this I believe are the constraints underlying the relationship between Japanese senior shihan and instructors. It has always been a taboo in Japanese culture for a younger instructor to show weakness or disrespect toward a senior, and in order not to violate their martial art codes of honor or damage their own pride, much typically went unsaid. In this type of structure, there really was no way to be honest at all times about ones true situation, and relationships were lost to this reality.

To the credit of this pioneer shihan generation, today Aikido has grown all over the world. Of their seniors, only a handful remain. Some of them still speak of this pioneer generation with a lack of understanding about the sacrifices they made to make our Aikido world of today a reality. I have heard them say “We helped them by sending them out into the world way back then. If they had stayed in Japan, there would have been no jobs for them”.

This growth in the development of Aikido in the world did not result from the part-time efforts of “salary man” Aikido Instructors who taught from “nine to five” with a guaranteed salary, set class schedules, and administrations that process students for them. This growth came from the power of the pioneers that lived their lives on the front lines building our Aikido world from scratch.

I may have spoken too long on this subject, but it I think it is important that you understand the kind of life pioneer shihan like Kanai Shihan lived; the kind of character they had to have to make Aikido available to all of their students, like you. Everyone’s life comes to an end however; this is reality. What remains after death, remains in the words and hearts of those who remember. At the time of death of an individual, everything stops for them. Time does not stop however and continues forward. A new truth begins the very second after…

A few months after Kanai Shihan’s passing, a student in the Boston area, invited me to come to teach a seminar. The dojo he was training at had been affiliated with Kanai Shihan. Out of respect for Kanai Shihan’s passing I politely refused. I told him “In Japanese culture, a common period of mourning is one year. It would be inappropriate for me to come during this period of time. I think that things are hard for you right now, but it is important for you to take care of yourselves and your dojo during this time”. This student’s dojo did not heed my words however and another Japanese instructor came within a short period of time.

This was not the first time this Japanese instructor had approached satellite dojos of other pioneer shihan soon after their deaths. He had also visited satellite dojos of the late Fumio Toyoda Shihan who founded and developed first Ki no kenkyukai and AAA, an active an vital organization with dojos in many countries world-wide, and the satellite dojos of late Akira Tohei Shihan.

In my experience this type of behavior is a breech of etiquette and good manners, but for some these times are a good chance for personal expansion; different value systems and different life goals. “Market share” competition is a reality for some. This is part of life too, and is something you need to be aware of during your time of transition. In my opinion, true respect for the one who has passed from us, beyond any style or organizational boundaries is true bujin (samurai spirit).

It seems like there are many changes happening around you, and some of these changes are painful for your heart. My advice is to not run or hide from these changes, but to face them straight on. Study and learn from what you see around you. Do not close your eyes to the lessons that can be learned from what is happening. Some of the lessons we learn from what is happening around us are not happy ones, but if we gather all of the information we receive our wisdom and understanding grows, and our perspective about life grows wider as well. I believe that standing up straight is the best way to face and understand life, and the best way to understand what decisions will be correct for you.

Your loyalty to Kanai Shihan and his family is commendable and very valuable. Please continue the great work of Kanai Shihan by being a testimonial to others about his teaching. This will also help you heal.

You are welcome to visit and practice at Nippon Kan in Denver anytime you would like, just let us know.

*note from editor. Quotes from pioneer shihan and their associates were taken from the interviews and personal experiences of the author.

Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho
June 18th, 2005