The Silent Pioneer: Shuji Maruyama Sensei, Kokikai Founder
By Gaku Homma
Shuji Maruyama Sensei was on his way once again, this time to Seattle. We drove to the airport in the early morning light. The car was silent as he looked out the window, studying the passing scenery. Softly, almost to himself, he spoke. “The best thing about Denver is the clouds. Like that cloud over there. Look at it. It has the freedom to move, to change shape, to drift freely through the sky. That one looks like a dragon. It looks like it is alive. It has infinite freedom, freedom to move.”
I was not sure what he was talking about. During the past three days of his visit to Denver he had not expressed such personal thoughts or feelings. It made me think about a story I once heard written by the famous Japanese swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, founder of the Niten Ichi Ruy Kenjutsu School of Sword Fighting and author of The Book of Five Rings.
In this story Musashi Miyamoto was speaking about his life. “My life has been long and hard, and every day has been lived on the edge between life and death. I have fought many battles. My path has been filled with obstacles and dangers that have wrought my mind with confusion and sorrow. Sometimes my path has become so narrowed with obstacles; it has become a canyon that surrounds me. Yet even in a canyon, if you look up, the sky is always there with you. I can escape to the sky in my mind’s eye and become free like the clouds as they drift slowly past the strife and obstacles that form the walls that surround me.”
At that moment, in the car on the way to the airport, I had a revelation. Sometimes, I thought, understanding occurs in simple revelations.
I would like to tell you about what I know of Shuji Maruyama Sensei, who I refer to as “a silent pioneer of Aikido.” As I pick up my pen to write, my mind goes back to memories that are now almost 40 years old.
More than 400 years ago, the Satake family was the ruling daimyo in the Akita area of northern Honshu. All that is left of their castle – the worn stone pathways, moats and gardens – has become a park, a park I knew well as a boy. In my mind’s eye I see a young man approaching. As he climbs upward, he struggles to carry someone hanging tightly onto his back. “Be patient,” he counsels. “The hospital is not far now. We will be there soon.”
It is springtime in 1963. The young man climbing the path is Maruyama Sensei, who was then 26 years old. The boy clinging to his back was me, Gaku Homma.
Maruyama Sensei had been sent to Akita on a mission from Aikikai Hombu Headquarters to teach Aikido. Aikido was not well known in 1963, and it was Shuji Maruyama’s mission to introduce the art to the far-northern city of Akita. Maruyama Sensei started what has become Aikikai’s Akita Branch those many years ago.
His energy and charismatic personality, Maruyama Sensei soon attracted quite a following of students. I was one of those students. He was the one who opened my eyes to Aikido. I had practiced Judo from the age of seven to the age of 12. Then I met Maruyama Sensei, who persuaded me to switch to Aikido. Before I met him, he had been teaching in Akita for two years. The 30 tatami mat dojo where he taught was very close to my home. In fact, it was in the same park as my family home.
After I joined Maruyama Sensei’s dojo, I visited almost every day. Partly because the dojo was so close to my home, I even visited on the days I did not come for practice. After a time, Maruyama Sensei became like an older brother to me, and I like a younger brother to him.
When Maruyama Sensei first came to Akita, the city had no dojos. He started from scratch, working and practicing very hard. Being the only Aikido Sensei in the area, he had a lot of freedom in many respects. On the other hand, it was a lonely post. He did not have the comfort of a hierarchy of peers like he once had in Tokyo. On the days that he did not teach, I became his practice partner. The training was very hard, so hard it made me want to cry at times.
Carrying me on his back through the castle park was part of Maruyama Sensei’s training. He was not very big, so the purpose this training was to make him strong. The trip to the hospital was a charade meant to avoid attracting questioning eyes. The hospital was located near the edge of the castle park, so our charade worked time after time. I was the one who was most embarrassed because it was my job to fake being injured and in pain.
In the dojo, Maruyama Sensei had five-gallon cans filled with gravel. We repeatedly thrust our extended fingers into these cans to make them strong. We emptied rice straw bags used for packing charcoal and filled them with sand to use for punching bags. Along the walls stood old tatami mats stood, which we used for practicing throwing shuriken (Japanese throwing knives). We practiced daily, over and over, with the gravel-filled cans, bags of sand and tatami mats. For me at the age of 13, it was a dream come true.
In the early ‘60s, Japan was beginning to recover from the ravaging effects of World War II. The economy was getting stronger, and most families were caught up in the pursuit of the material dream. It was not uncommon for both parents to work, sometimes until late in the evening, to acquire the new luxuries of a modern age – televisions, appliances and new cars. When Japanese youths finished high school in Akita and countless other small towns, they headed for Tokyo and other big cities to find their fortune. The only ones who stayed behind were the oldest sons, who were destined to become the next generation of householders.
Taking care of children at home took a back seat to these new desires for material wealth, and many school-age children were left to fend for themselves after school. Maruyama Sensei’s dojo became a Mecca for middle school, high school, and college students, as well as some working adults. At a time when Japanese society was turning upwardly mobile in search of material gains, Maruyama Sensei was swimming the other direction. Instead of staying in Tokyo after graduating from college to pursue a promising career, he headed away from the big city to Akita, to found a small but popular Aikido dojo. His decision evoked both respect and wonder from those who also stayed behind and became his students. It made them feel special that someone from Tokyo would take an interest in such a small-town venture. For this, he was well supported by the local people of Akita.
For Maruyama Sensei, however, success in Akita was not without regrets. He often thought of his peers in Tokyo, and in his heart he deeply questioned the path he had chosen for himself. His peers, he thought, were learning more than he was and had the chance to teach abroad. At the peak of the success of his dojo in Akita – after I had been practicing there for only a couple of years – it was time for Maruyama Sensei to say goodbye. It was time for him to return to Tokyo and beyond.
In March 1966, cold winds whipped at our backs as we stood on the Haneda Airport observation deck. In those days there were no covered passenger ramps, and we stood outside in the wind to bid Maruyama Sensei farewell. He was leaving for America. I had come by train from Akita the night before for this momentous occasion. I, of course, at that age had no money, and I am still surprised that my parents gave me the money and their permission to travel to Tokyo for this farewell. This was a reflection of Maruyama Sensei’s good standing, even in the eyes of my parents.
Maruyama Sensei had been officially dispatched by Aikikai Hombu to Cleveland, Ohio, to teach Aikido. This was also Maruyama Sensei’s choice. He now had a new challenge. Today, flying to the United States today from Japan is commonplace, but in those days the trip was very expensive and the change of countries and cultures was intimidating.
With his keiko gi bag over one shoulder and his bokken bag in his other hand, he waved goodbye and disappeared into the plane. (In those days you were allowed to carry bokken and jo onto planes.)
In the next six years, I received an occasional letter from Maruyama Sensei. At my young age, I was not exactly sure how to address and mail a letter to somewhere so far away as the United States. The years passed. Then a letter came announcing that Maruyama Sensei was coming home. His mother had passed away, and he was returning to pay his final respects.
After family services, Maruyama Sensei came back to Akita and stayed in my home for a couple of months. I think that coming back to Akita felt like coming home for him. During his stay, he confided that the last six years in the United States had been very difficult for him. When I watched him board that plane six years before, my only thoughts of America were those of a lovely dream. What I learned from Maruyama Sensei was that his life in America had been nothing like what I had imagined.
When Maruyama Sensei first arrived in Cleveland, America was enjoying a martial art boom sparked by Bruce Lee. The place where he taught in Cleveland turned out to be more like a martial art supermarket than a dojo. Many different martial arts classes were offered, sometimes at the same time. When people came to the dojo, they often came to challenge the instructors, not learn from them. It was not a comfortable practice environment. Two weeks after he arrived in Cleveland, Maruyama Sensei wrote to his sponsor, Koichi Tohei Sensei, and told him he wanted to come home. (At the time, Koichi Tohei Sensei was Shihan Bucho, or Chief Instructor at Aikikai Hombu Headquarters in Tokyo. He has since founded ShinShin Toitsu Aikido, which he remains involved in today.)
It was not to be tolerated, however, for an official Aikikai instructor to return to Japan after only two weeks. Resolving to persevere, Maruyama Sensei stayed in Cleveland, combating the elements for another two years and beginning to develop his own sense and style of teaching. Soon after, he moved his base of operation to Philadelphia.
In those early days, federations or structured Aikido organizations did not exist. The teaching of Aikido had not been formalized, and Aikido was being introduced to America in a variety of ways. Interestingly enough, one way was through Japanese businessmen who were transferred from Tokyo to branch offices in New York and other eastern cities. Once established in the United States, these businessmen formed their own Aikido practice clubs, and the club memberships spread to the local communities.
When Maruyama Sensei arrived in Cleveland, Tokuji Hirata Sensei was teaching Aikido in San Diego. Yoshimitshu Yamada Shihan (Chief Instructor of USAF, the United States Aikido Federation) first came to New York as a university exchange student and then as an Aikido instructor. After Maruyama Sensei was sent by Aikikai Hombu to Cleveland, Kanai Sensei was sent to Boston. Maruyama Sensei and Kanai Sensei subsequently petitioned Imaizumi Sensei and the late Toyoda Sensei. These men were the first Aikido pioneers in the United States.
The late Akira Tohei Sensei and Mitsugi Saotome Sensei did not arrive in the United States until after this initial period of development. During my time with Maruyama Sensei in Denver, he spoke of the arrival of this second wave of instructors. In his words, “The experiences of this second wave of instructors in the United States was as different as front and back, or as heaven and earth, compared to that of the first pioneers. It is sad that many students today do not realize this and believe in the flowery words of peace and harmony they have been taught. This was not the way it was in the beginning, what was taught by the first pioneers.”
When Maruyama Sensei stayed at my home after the death of his mother, he ate only natto, eggs, tofu, miso soup and rice. Very, very simple Japanese fare that he seemed to enjoy immensely. It was easy for me to cook, and I didn’t complain. I couldn’t help, however, asking him about his diet. He explained (and I have also since had the experience) that while he had been away – especially during difficult times – he often dreamt about home cooked foods. He told me about living in a boarding house in Cleveland. The meals served here did not suit him well at all, and he became accustomed to returning to his room and running hot tap water over dried ramen noodles. Because cooking in one’s room wasn’t allowed, this was the only way to make instant ramen. He ate this everyday, he said, until he began to worry that his body would turn yellow like the color of the instant noodles.
After a few months of rest in Japan, Maruyama Sensei returned to the “Aikido frontier” and his new home in Philadelphia. Four years later in 1976, it was my turn to visit him on my first trip to the United States. When I reached Philadelphia, I soon discovered that life had changed drastically for Maruyama Sensei.
Four years after the death of the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei Sensei, Shihan Bucho (Chief Instructor) left Aikikai Hombu Headquarters in Tokyo and became independent. Since Maruyama Sensei was the direct student of Tohei Sensei, Maruyama Sensei followed him without thought or hesitation. At that time, loyally following one’s Sensei was the proper and honorable thing to do. Maruyama Sensei had no problems with Aikikai Hombu Headquarters. Still, there was no question in his mind that following his Sensei was the right thing to do. It was Maruyama Sensei who gave Shin Shin Toistsu its name, and it’s still practiced in the United States today as Ki Aikido. Under the direction of Koichi Tohei Sensei, Maruyama Sensei began to preach this new philosophy of Aikido from coast to coast.
By the time I arrived in the United States in 1976, Maruyama Sensei and Toyoda Sensei were already talking about leaving Ki Aikido. Out of respect for Tohei Sensei, however, the reasons for this departure shall remain another story to be told on another day. Suffice it to say that the decision to break with Tohei Sensei weighed heavily on Maruyama Sensei, however, once again it was time for him to say goodbye.
Against the advice of his peers, Maruyama Sensei had earlier said goodbye to Aikikai Hombu. Now he said goodbye to Koichi Tohei Sensei. To say that Maruyama Sensei merely wanted to be independent is too simple. With each of these departures he left behind many dojos he helped create, keeping only his dojo in Philadelphia and a few university Aikido clubs he founded. Once again he started over, this time as the founder of his own organization, Kokikai Aikido. Over the last 25 years, Kokikai, which is now headquartered in Nagoya, Japan, has grown worldwide. Every year Maruyama Sensei travels to the United States to teach at his Kokikai-affiliated dojos around the country.
Maruyama Sensei is now 65 years old. His dreams and the dreams of many Aikidoists have come true in the last 40 years. Aikido in its many forms has spread through the United States, Europe, and other countries around the world. Maruyama Sensei’s efforts have included many hard years and many goodbyes. His achievements have come at a price. In the movies, the only one left standing at the end is the hero. The one who walks away is the one who lost. If Maruyama Sensei walked away, is that truly the case that he lost? Maruyama Sensei has stayed true to himself, he has made difficult decisions and followed his own path. He has found freedom from the pressures of hierarchy. To all of this, he has simply said, “Enough.” Maybe it was at this point that Maruyama Sensei looked to the sky and saw the clouds for the first time.
Today, Maruyama Sensei’s focus is towards his own goals, without interruptions from politics and the distraction of others. The cloud he rides is his own Kokikai Aikido. He has his personal reasons for becoming independent, and those reasons he has kept to himself. For the last 30 years, little has been written about Maruyama Sensei. Walking away from the politics of his past has been his misogi. Misogi is part of the path of the true martial artist. This spirit embraces the zen concept of hogejaku, which translates as “to cast away all.”
In Zen training an unsui, (monk beginning his studies) is plagued by human desires and attachments that entrap him. In an effort to clear his confusion, he seeks the council of his roshi (enlightened senior priest). The roshi turns to him and shouts in a loud voice only one word: “Hogejaku!” In life, we all get trapped by desires and ambitions. To truly be able to see, we need to cast away these things that trap us. The Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, has said that the practice of Aikido is misogi waza, or the practice of peeling away and cleansing ourselves. A boat on a long journey through the ocean collects many barnacles that must be scraped away if the vessel is to stay afloat. Our life is like that boat. We need to stop and clean away the barnacles that attach themselves to us as we pass through on our personal journeys. In this way, Maruyama Sensei follows the Founder’s path.
As students of Aikido we sometimes focus on an instructor’s technique, which in a sense is only an outline or “recipe.” To fully understand what an instructor has to offer, we need to know about the instructor’s life. We cannot learn if we simply try to follow the recipes and ignore the context from which they came. This is too superficial.
September 13, 2002
When I went to pick up Maruyama Sensei at the airport, I had not seen him in 16 years, yet as he greeted us, his manner, smile and gestures seemed familiar. He was traveling with two huge suitcases, packed full of antiques he had collected on this trip to the United States. Collecting antiques is one of Maruyama Sensei’s great passions, a passion for which he’s become famous in Japan. He has more than a thousand antique golf clubs, hundreds of Japanese swords, and a collection of antique European porcelain dishware too vast to count. During his stay in Denver he added a few antiques to his collection – so many he worried he would not be able to carry them all home.
I have known Maruyama Sensei for more than 40 years. I invited him to Denver not to see what techniques he had to offer nor see what antiques he was buying. I invited him because I sincerely wanted to see him after so much time and try to understand what he has experienced over the past four decades.
There are similarities in our current lives. We both have dedicated our lives to Aikido, and we are both independent. I can’t explain nor do I completely understand my relationship with Maruyama Sensei, but what I am sure about is that Maruyama Sensei at the age of 65 is still following his own path. He is not preaching peace and harmony like some, nor bending down under the pressures of large organizations like others. He is confident in his own way and does not look side to side to find his own direction. I feel an affinity and admiration for this kind of spirit, and reflecting now, I understand that this spirit was in him back in Akita so many years ago when he swam against the tides of Japanese society. This kind of spirit touches student’s hearts, and we need this kind of instructor in today’s Aikido community.
I was a little afraid to ask him about being interviewed, but I ventured tentatively. “Sensei, you are a very important part of the history of Aikido in the United States. I think it is time for you to grant an interview.” His reply came quickly “Son of a gun! I have lived through a lot. I do not want some journalist to judge my life after only a short interview. It is not as easy as that.” Still, I continued. “But if you do not put down your experiences in writing, someone else will write about the times with their own opinions and biases. Your story may never be heard.” “Such is the way of history, is it not?” was his reply.
After dinner on the night before Maruyama Sensei was to leave, we retired to Nippon Kan’s Mongolian Ger (nomadic tent dwelling) to relax before packing for the next day’s journey. I asked him again about doing an interview. His response was to stop me in mid-sentence with a gesture of his hand, and he began to sing a song sung by Japanese men in the Meiji period before going off to Mongolia.
“Far away across the oceans lie the deserts of Mongolia. A place where men throw their ambitions to the wind. I have in my heart big ambitions and dreams, I will never return until these I have seen.”
I remembered this song, for Maruyama Sensei had taught it to me in Akita. Both of us have sung that song over the years when times have gotten tough. After he finished singing, I stopped asking him about interviews. Instead, we sang the song together again and raised a cup of sake in a toast. That was my answer, the song, and the laugh lines around his eyes. He told me what I had been asking to hear without words.
“I have nothing to say. My whole life is just that, just life. What is the special interest in that? There is nothing so special. It is nothing worthy of writing about.”
With only a keiko gi and a bokken he came to the United States. Without even speaking the language, he survived all of his battles. Now in the twilight, as a martial artist, he has reached the point where he can say with understanding, “Life is everything and nothing.”
Thank you very much Maruyama Sensei for forging the path that Aikidoists from Japan, the United States and abroad have a chance to follow. We hope that one day you will share more of your story with us. Until then, farewell Maruyama Sensei. You are truly the silent pioneer.