Person Without a Shadow

One Sunday evening, about five years ago, I and Nippon Kan member volunteers were serving our monthly dinner to the homeless at the rescue mission. This time was special in that very good friends of mine, Mr. and Mrs. Toshihiro Kizaki came down to volunteer their time. Their time is busy, how well I know, in that they are the owners of one of the best sushi restaurants in the United States here in Denver. As I watched Toshi-san skillfully apply his talents with a cooking knife to the potatoes at hand, I thought about his life story.

Toshi-san began the adventure of his life with a visit to his brother who was studying in England at the time. He decided that while visiting his brother in England that he would open a sushi bar there. With that decision made, he set off to fulfill his dreams. His dream was short lived however, and before he had even set foot on English soil, he was turned back to Japan by English immigration officials.

Unfortunately, Toshi-san had received such a send off from well wishers at home, that he was reluctant to return to his hometown so empty handed. He decided to settle in Tokyo for a while, and further his study of sushi making. So to Tokyo he went, all the while waiting for the next chance to fulfill his big dream; this time it would be in the United States.

Today, twenty years later, Toshi-san is owner of one of the most popular restaurants in Denver, a restaurant that seats over 200 people, and is serviced by 90 employees. He has even franchised his Denver-based restaurant back to Japan with a new-styled sushi restaurant in Fukuoka City. Sushi and the culinary arts are his passion, and he is always thinking of something new, studying and perfecting his craft.

My thoughts returned to the rescue mission where volunteers busied themselves serving over 300 meals to residents and outside guests who had gathered for the evening meal. I glanced over at Toshi-sans wife Michiko and noticed that her eyes were shiny with tears. In the past fourteen years of serving meals at the mission I have seen many different reactions by volunteers who came down to donate their time to the homeless. Many of the volunteers have been young people, and their reactions are different in ways than people more of my generation.

Michiko-san works on a daily basis to organize the service of at least four to five hundred patrons a day. She is skilled and experienced, and I was surprised in a way to see a tear in her eye. She quickly wiped away the tear and said to me quietly “We are so lucky. There is so much more happiness in our lives compared to what I see here. It saddens me to the people here”. I thought to myself, it is because of Mr. and Mrs. Kizaki’s ability to care in this way that they have had the happiness and success that they have had. It is due to their pureness of heart that luck has followed them.

Recently I had the chance to visit their restaurant and sat down to talk with Toshi-san. There was a heaviness of heart about him that was easy to see. He explained to me that while he had been away in Japan visiting his restaurant, that a “sushi chef scout” had managed to lure some of his employees to another restaurant. Some of them, especially one of the Japanese managing staff had been someone he had taken care of for a very long time.

I have known Toshi-san for almost fifteen years, and this is not the first time I have heard this kind of story. This time was a little different however. This time, this exodus was organized behind his back while he was away by someone he trusted, and it seemed to have set him back more than usual. Toshi-san has about thirty chefs that he works side by side with on a daily basis, and it was a shock to him that the plans that were being made were kept hidden from him. He has always been an owner that has tried to maintain personal relationships with those that worked for him, and it concerned me that his spirits seemed so low.

I have noticed in my thirty years of living in the United States, that rival companies lure executive employees away from one another all the time, and that employees leave at a moments notice for personal gain. It seems to be an acceptable and almost cavalier practice here in America.

The common phrase, “A rolling stone gathers no moss” that has two completely different meanings in the United States and Japan. In the United States this phrase is interpreted to mean;if you do not keep moving, you will stagnate and grow moss, which is a bad thing. In Japan however, “growing moss” is a source of pride and a reflection of loyalty and stability. It is considered a good thing.
If you are educated in the United States, then moving forward is desirable. Upgrading one’s own position and career is far more important than loyalty to any company. More money, more power, more personal prestige are the desired goals. Changing jobs is commonplace.

In Japan, still today, the focus is quite different. Someone who regularly changes jobs is considered suspect and not a good job prospect. Even if he or she is skilled and experienced, many past jobs on a resume has a negative connotation, not a positive one.

Sushi has become part of the American dining scene, and it is common these days to go to a sushi bar in the United States that does not have any Japanese chefs at all. Sushi is no longer the private domain of Japan or the Japanese sushi chef.
In the past, it was easy for a Japanese sushi chef to obtain a visa in the United States, because his skills were in such demand. Not any more, anyone these days it seems can become a sushi chef in the United States with very little or no training at all.

Today in Denver there are about 120 Japanese restaurants. There also many “fusion” Japanese, Chinese and Korean cuisine restaurants. If you count these restaurants too the number of restaurants soars to well over 150. These restaurants vary in size from large to small, but most of them have some kind of sushi bar. With all of these restaurants in Denver, sushi chefs of any degree of skill are in demand, and many without experience or training move from restaurant to restaurant demanding high salaries and benefits to make sushi as if they were some kind of Hollywood star.

Some of those employees that left Toshi-san’s establishement were personally trained by him; he had shared his technique and extensive expertise with them personally. Some had stayed at his home while he helped them get settled in Denver. Others he had helped cover their debts, or helped care for their families. For any one of these people to announce that “they were quitting that day” or leave without even that courtesy is dishonorable in my book.

I offered to Toshi-san that he had too big of a heart when it came to business and that he needed to draw a line between business and personal relationships; that he needed to pull back a little to protect himself.

Toshi-san concluded his story by saying “Those who left are taking a risk too. There is no stability or guarantees of their survival if they move to a new restaurant. I wish them luck. These are the best thoughts I can have for them, and it is best for my heart not to be angry but to forgive”. As I sat listening, I thought that his capacity for compassion and ability for forgiveness was to be very much respected.

You might be wondering why an article about a sushi restaurant owner would be on the Nippon Kan website. I have written about this experience of my friend Toshi-san because similar situations have unfortunately happened at my dojo. Over 15,000 students have gone through the Nippon Kan beginner’s series over the years, and with that many students passing through the dojo there have been very few unfortunate incidents with students.

There have been only a few for example, who have left Nippon Kan headquarters to start practice groups on their own unsanctioned. These former members caused a lot of disappointment for other members, much in the same way as the former employees of Toshi-san.

When a student leaves under these circumstances it is impossible for them to carry their heritage with them. They cannot use my name as their instructor in their accreditation, accurately describe travels and projects they had been apart of or can they legitimately use any Nippon Kan ranking they might have received.

Last week I received a letter of inquiry from an Iwama- style instructor. He was inquiring about a former member of Nippon Kan. This was not the first letter of this kind I have received, in all I have received six. This past weekend I attended Iwama’s Hitohiro Saito Sensei’s seminar in Reno, Nevada. There I was asked the same questions from graduate Iwama uchideshi- instructors that I had been asked in the letters of inquiry. What was the question? The questions were in regards to the resume of a former Nippon Kan member. In this resume, a student implied that he had serious ties to Iwama, the late Morihiro Saito Shihan and one of Saito Shihan’s direct students, Aikikai Akita Branch Director, the late Shigeru Kawabe Shihan. These former Iwama uchideshi were very concerned about why this person was giving the impression in his resume that he was an Iwama protégé when they were not familiar with him at Iwama.

It is my dojo policy that if someone leaves Nippon Kan on a bad note, they are no longer my student and that is the end of the relationship. If any former student of this nature does not cause any further problem for me or my students then there is nothing to say or to do. However, hearing repeated inquiries like these, especially from graduate Iwama uchideshi it is a situation that is difficult for me to ignore.

I very much respect the intense training that Iwama uchideshi have voluntarily undergone. It is in defense of their personal history and identity that I feel I must say something about someone who implies on paper that they have received the same kind of training as these Iwama instructors. The late Kawabe Shihan took care of many students, many from countries other than Japan, and it is for his memory and out of respect for the kindness and generosity in his nature that I feel that I must speak up. I fear that I am not as wise and understanding as Toshi-san, as I feel like I must take a step to make the record clear.

I authorized introductions for the former Nippon Kan student in question to Iwama several years ago. It is my understanding that he practiced at Iwama for a total of about five days. It has been Iwama policy and a long custom in Iwama that to be a student named associate with Iwama, a student must practice daily at Iwama for at least a one to two month period. Anyone who practices less than ten days is only a visitor. The title of graduate Iwama uchideshi is the highest honor, a title that carries respect and accomplishment. Someone who has only visited for a few days has not established a relationship with Iwama. Visiting Iwama for a few days is a completely different experience than becoming a student who has earned the credential of this association. As far as practicing with the late Kawabe Shihan of Akita, I checked with his widow, and his name is not listed in any of the student records, nor does she remember him.

If this former Nippon Kan student did have any contact with the late Morihiro Saito Shihan and the late Kawabe Shihan, it was during their visits to Nippon Kan in Denver that I had arranged. As far as this former student’s ranking is concerned, I requested his ranking as Aikikai shodan through Kawabe Shihan. Before or after this ranking there are no other records of his practice or any other ranking through Aikikai Hombu. This former student’s Dan ranking at Nippon Kan has been dissolved.

I am writing this article as a form of apology for the tarnish laid on the tradition and heritage of true Iwama uchideshi graduates. It is an embarrassment to me that a former Nippon Kan student would exaggerate his qualifications in this manner.

If I were to represent myself as a doctor but could not say what schools I had attended or from which instructors I had learned my medical technique, how I am to be believed as a medical professional. The same applies to Aikido Instructors. It is very difficult to stand before others as an instructor when you cannot lay claim to your past, to your roots, especially in this day age when research is available around the world in seconds through the internet.

I have spoken harshly at times in the past about well known high-ranking Japanese Instructors in the Unites States as a commentary on the morals and responsibilities of being instructors. I know well that everything about these important pioneer instructors is not negative, and that they have achieved a great deal in their careers.

In my own small organization I have had problems with a only a very few students. In organizations as large as those of well known high-ranking Japanese Instructors, I would imagine that on many occasions they have had incidents of betrayal or other human dramas amongst their students. If this happens enough, it is understandable if an instructor becomes protective and distant and relies more on hardened organizational rules and structure than personal communication.

The generation of Japanese Aikido Instructors that came to the United States in the 1960’s came to this country with only a keiko-gi and a mission. They came very innocently to the US with a spirit and mission of teaching Aikido. That these instructors may have hardened or changed over the many years of teaching in this country, I think might be the result of the ethics and deeds of some of their past or former students. For any instructor to spend years developing teaching methods and the foundation of an organization can’t help but react protectively if their students take what they have learned from them to sell themselves. I think many instructors may have had experiences like these and to further this discussion, this column is being translated into English, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese.

Someone reading this article might not understand these feelings of disappointment; others might, and not ever be able to forgive. In the past few years I have met Aikidoka in many parts of the world, and to be frank it has been more American young people who have misused relationships whether in our Aikido world or the world of sushi chefs, than in other places I have visited. Some students that I have known in the United States misunderstand if they think they can understand so easily. It is not about only one’s self or only one’s self development, it is about appreciation and respect and belief in powers greater than ourselves. In a forest the larger, older trees provide shade for young trees in the hot summer sun. In the winter they provide a shelter from the winds, and their fallen leaves provide nourishment to insure the survival of growing saplings. In our lives we live in the shadow of many who have come before us, and we are nurtured and protected by nature’s shadows as well. If we cannot understand and appreciate these basic facts, it will have its effects on our future.

One of the most common greetings in Japanese is “Konichiwa, ikaga desuka?” (Hello, how are you?). The reply to this greeting is “Hai, Okagesama de”. Literally, this translates as “Yes, I am fine, I am under the shadow” or more abstractly, “Yes I am fine, I am protected by the gods.” Even if things are not going well, people in Japan return the greeting with “Hai Okagesama de”.

What is the deeper meaning of Okagesama de? Appreciation for the life force outside of one’s self. The literal translation of “kage” is shadow, or more widely as god. The “O” and “sama”are both honorifics that imply respect. If one is not aware of the power of this shadow, or fails to respect and appreciate it, then one will not be able to cast a shadow themselves. For the one without a shadow, love and success will always remain illusive.

This article has been difficult to write, and I am not proud to have written down these words. I would be even less proud however if I were to say nothing. I speak in defense of those who have earned the title of graduate Iwama uchideshi, and it is for them that I have shared some of the experiences in this article. It is my hope that others who might have had experiences such as mine and my friend Toshi-san, might find a glimmer of wisdom or understanding here.

Gaku Homma
Nippon Kan Kancho