The last years in Iwama…
In the last years of his life, the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba lived at the Aiki Shrine dojo in Iwama, Japan. He lived in Iwama until the end of his life when he was moved to Hombu dojo in Tokyo for more intensive medical treatment for liver ailments. During those last years, the Founder suffered from the many signs of mental aging; forgetfulness, a short temper, disorientation and there were few visitors in those waning years.
The late Mrs. Kikuno Yamamoto and I, who lived with the Founder and his wife and the family of the late Morihiro Saito Shihan, who lived a ½ block away, were the people who cared for the Founder in his final years at the Iwama Aiki Shrine dojo.
There are many people now who were not associated with the Founder while he was alive that speak of the Founder as if they were very close to him. They boast of their time with the Founder relying on information from various biographies; information that bears little resemblance to actual truth. Some of these storytellers that call themselves uchideshi (live in students) of the Founder were actually shidoin or instructor candidates that were hired by the late Kishomaru Ueshiba (the Founder’s son) at the time. These shidoin, lived in Tokyo in cheap boarding rooms near Hombu dojo. They were not uchideshi; true uchideshi never received a salary in the days of the Founder.
Kikuno and I were true caretakers of the Founder; bathing him, scrubbing his dentures, trimming his hair and eating meals together. We were the O soba tsuki or close personal caretakers of the Founder Ueshiba.
After returning from a late night stroll one evening, the Founder sat down in seiza facing the direction of Tokyo. Kikuno and I were close by in case the Founder needed assistance. He began to wail, expressing an emotional tirade of anger, frustration and pain for many minutes. At the end of this explosion of emotion he turned toward us for acknowledgement and agreement and asked us to help him to stand. I did not understand all that the Founder bemoaned but he knew that Aikikai, the organization he had created would splinter after his death. I still remember the names of those he criticized the most. Frightened, we agreed with the Founder and struggled to help him to his feet.
It always surprises me when I read or see accounts written about the Founder that claim that the Founder spoke “words of the Gods or performed miraculous acts”. In my personal experience, most of these stories were based on behavior of the Founder that could be associated with mental dementia in the elderly. I am not a doctor, so I am not sure what a modern diagnosis might be called, but in my experience, some of the Founders behavior was simply the behavior of a very elderly man with signs of encroaching dementia.
It is said that sometimes the Founder spoke so forcefully that even the shoji (Japanese paper window coverings) would echo and shake. The truth was that the shoji that were installed in the living quarters of the Founder in his ending years were made of a new fashion plastic that would not tear like paper shoji. This new material vibrated and made loud sounds even if you clapped your hands together next to it. It was the plastic that caused the reverberation, not the “power of the Gods” through the Founder’s voice.
There is another story told about the Founder’s “special powers”. This was a story of Founder being able to move people with his KI. At times the uchideshi would perform a shiatsu massage on the Founder’s back while he sat in seiza in the dojo. It is said that he would move the uchideshiacross the floor with his strong KI power when they touched him. This was actually a trick of physics that the Founder found quite amusing. The weaving of the tatami mats that lined the floor of the dojo was directional. In one direction, any sitting body would meet resistance from the woven fibers and hold position. In the other direction, a sitting body would slide down the woven pattern. For anyone sitting behind the Founder in the usual spot in the dojo where he received these massages would slide backwards down the slippery direction of the tatami weave when applying pressure forwards with their extended arms. Especially for me since I was larger than the Founder, the angle of my arms and hands would be downward, accentuating the sliding potential when pushing forward. It was the tatami, not special powers that moved the uchideshi and the Founder teased the uchideshi jokingly when they slipped and slid.
These stories of “special powers of the Founder” were started by people who obviously had not been there. They are stories that starts with a grain of truth and are blown up to fantastic proportions. Those who believe and repeat these stories do so without the facts and sometimes do so only for their own personal or financial gains.
I have seen a couple of stories about the Founder however that are true!
The Founder did move an ishi usu (stone mortar) by himself on the morning of a monthly festival at the Aiki Shrine in Iwama; a mortar that none of the uchideshi could budge…This story I can’t explain.
I can also personally testify to the stories of the Founder that he “parted the crowds” at the Ueno train station in Tokyo as he marched with amazing quickness from platform to taxi stand. As hiso tomo or attending uchideshi on outings to Tokyo, I usually ended up lagging far behind the Founder, struggling mightily to keep up with him. I was just a country boy and was often laden down with bags of vegetables and other supplies purchased in Tokyo. I also was always in charge of carrying the Founder’s favorite large, leather doctor’s bag; a bag he had received as a gift on his first trip to Hawaii. The Founder walked SO FAST that I could not keep up with him as he walked straight and strong from the train platform through the station. It was rather amazing how everyone just naturally got out of his way. This really was the Founder’s power or Ki Haku Ryoku.
Instructors at Aikikai Hombu dojo normally saw the Founder as a frail and elderly man. They would have had a hard time believing that the Founder marched powerfully through Ueno station with his cane held before him more like a bokken than a walking aid…
Another characterization about the Founder that I know was true, at least in his last years when I served as uchideshi, was the fact that the Founder never carried any cash or even a wallet. The Founder’s wife and attending otomo would always take care of any money transactions needed for the Founder.
On many occasions, the Founder would announce without notice that he wanted to go to Aikikai Hombu dojo in Tokyo. The first challenge was always the negotiation between the Founder and his wife over travel money. First she would give him about $10,000 yen (at that time, this was about $33.00 USD) for train and taxi fares. Knowing the Founder and being quite a frugal house holder, she never gave him more than the first round of negotiated travel allowance until after the second round of negotiations had begun. The Founder always asked for more and got the second half of his allowance only after good natured bartering back and forth.
One day my sister happened to be there visiting me and upon seeing these negotiations whispered to me, wondering if the allowance would be enough. The Founder’s wife surprised the Founder by giving him $5000 yen more that day which pleased the Founder greatly. My sister was surprised that the great martial artist was so completely controlled by his wife’s loving ways.
Our travel allowances were always soon gone. In the train the Founder would by candies and oranges as gifts for strangers he met in the train. After the train and taxis in Tokyo, the Founder also always stopped at the Omoto Kyo Tokyo Branch. He was always very generous; giving money away to the doorman, receptionists and ordering me to leave a donation on the shinden (shrine). By the time we headed to Hombu dojo I would be out of our travel allowance money! After the Founder himself convinced the taxi driver to take us to Hombu dojo without cash in hand, it was always my job to run to the Hombu dojo office to get taxi money for the driver! The office staff always teased me about leaving the Founder in the cab as collateral.
The Founder was alwas very generous with others and had no concept of conserving money. More than once I had to use my own money or borrow money from a restaurant owner from my home town who lived near the Iwama dojo just to get home!
When visitors came to see the Founder in those last years, they usually asked me or Kikuno how the Founder was feeling or how his mood was that day before deciding if they would see him directly or just leave a gift on the dojo shrine. Even if guests were to meet the Founder directly, it was part of dojo etiquette that all visitors leave a donation or gift on the shrine. Never was a gift given to directly to the Founder. Besides etiquette, there was a reason for this. The Founder never received a gift or an honorarium for his calligraphy or his teaching or even dues from his uchideshi directly.
In the days of the Founder, his students did not pay “monthly dues” like students normally do now, here in the United States. An honorarium for keiko (practice) is called sokushu in Japanand it was a contribution or donation made only by those who could afford it.
According to the late Morihiro Saito Shihan, the Founder’s uchdeshi who could not afford a monetary gift might bring vegetables from their family garden, freshly caught fish or fresh egg or chickens from their family farms. All of these gifts were offered to show thankfulness only if it could be afforded, and all gifts were always left on the dojo shrine.
The concept of offering gifts to an instructor is not new, but during the days of the Founder, these gifts were sincerely given to show appreciation for his teaching. These days, in more cases than not, expensive gifts are delivered directly to an instructor’s home in refrigerated trucks in hopes of currying favor.
All gifts during my days with the Founder were left by guests on the shrine as offerings for the Gods. Monetary gifts were called tamagushi and gifts of goods were called osonae. All gifts were carefully recorded by Kikuno and later reported to the Founder second-hand. Any monetary donations were organized by the Founder’s wife. The Founder never received donations or gifts directly and during the years that I knew him, never participated in monetary price negotiations or financial affairs of any kind.
Since the Founder would not accept money directly for his teaching, the uchideshi would pool their money together and leave a group donation on the shrine under the guise of donating money to be used for a new tatami mat or to fix a window or repair the roof. In this way, the uchideshi were able to contribute to the money needed for daily living with the Founder in Iwama.
The Founder said, “My life and my work is part of my mission from God” therefore he did not receive money for his teaching. I believe this was true, but the Founder also knew of the dangers that money can bring. To receive a donation directly is to become obligated; and the Founder avoided this possibility masterfully. Looking at our world Aikido community today, I can see the wisdom of the Founder’s stance so long ago. Money and the pursuit of money have served as a poison that has greatly affected our Aikido world today.
When I was living in Iwama, I too offered half of the money my family gave to me to the Founder. The Founder said to me “Jiisan wa mo iran” which means “This old man does not need it any more” and promptly gave it back to me. Because I was living with, eating and learning in Iwama from the Founder, I felt uncomfortable living there without paying something. Even though I worked hard every day I also wanted to contribute what I was able. I asked Morihiro Saito Shihan what to do and following his advice, I bought daily products like tissue paper and detergent and would leave them on the shrine for the household. I also used my money to help pay for emergencies on trips to Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo with the Founder.
It was not until 20 years later that Morihiro Saito Shihan told me, “At that time, the Founder was quite poor”. This was something I never knew when the Founder was alive. Saito Shihan said to me, “Homma kun, those were very hard times for you as well”.
I did learn one important lesson. Since the Founder would not take money directly, his uchideshiused their creativity to get supplies and do their chores by donating their time and labor. This made the students work together and in the end made for a stronger dojo. Since there was no direct payment system, it became more of a family like operation. This I also have always remembered.
A popular Buddhist sect in Asia is called the Theravada Buddhist sect. It is tradition that priests from this sect never say thank you for offerings given to them. Why? It is believed by these priests that they are just conduits between the people and Buddha and receive gifts from the people only to pass them on to Buddha. Donations are not for them; the donations are for Buddha. The Founder as well followed this line of thinking.
Another reason the Buddhist priests in Asia do not say thank you for donations to keep the person giving the donation from seeking benefit or acknowledgement of their gift. I remember being a little confused when AHAN first began, on our first trips to Asia when donations we gave to priests were not directly acknowledged or seeming appreciated by the receiver. I finally realized that receiving our offerings too were realized as gifts for Buddha, not for themselves. This was also the thinking of the Founder. Toward the end of his life, the Founder realized that he did not need donations directly or any benefit from them.
So far in this article, I have focused on my experiences with the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. Now I would like to focus on what I learned from the Founder as it relates to our Aikido society today. For background I suggest you read my article “Do not Teach Budo if you are Worried about Your Komebitsu– Words of the Founder” http://www.nippon-kan.org/senseis_articles/14/do-not-teach-budo.html.
For those that choose to teach Aikido in today’s world, survival is a challenge. Even famous Aikido instructor cannot eat if they cannot put food on the table. Some instructors may look like they are successful when actually they rely on family support or inheritance for physical survival. There are very few Aikido instructors that have started with nothing and been able to support themselves and their dojo operations solely through teaching Aikido.
Many other martial arts that focus on competitions receive government grants or company sponsorship for team and individual support. Since most styles of Aikido do not have competitions, these resources are not usually available for survival. A few Aikido organizations in countries outside of Japan have developed a tournament system or competitions that grade competitors much like figure skaters or gymnasts based on their performance. These organizations sometimes receive support from commercial sponsors or governments but this is not a major trend.
Most Aikido organizations around the world support themselves through collecting monthly dues for practice, promotion testing and certification fees. In my experience, there is a hidden danger here. Many organizations in order to expand their businesses lower their standards for passing examination and increase examination frequency. I have literally seen instructors that held the rank of 6th or 7th Dan (black belt) and the title of “great master” that that wore red hakama or even wore their hakama on backwards. Even within Japanese organization ranking, I have seen foreign students who have tested and received an Aikikai 3rd Dan ranking in Japan that failed the same level test in their own country of origin for lack of skill: an example of emerging greed in our Aikido systems even in Japan, something that the Founder abhorred greatly.
Under modern day testing standards, I think that if you selected (20) 1st Dan to 7th Dan Aikidoka and had them practice together under observation by a group of Aikidoka that did not know any of the practitioners, the observers could not line the practicing Aikidoka up by rank after their demonstration based on their demonstrated skill levels. This I believe is because ranking in our world Aikido community today, more often than not, is not based on skill; but based on collecting revenues. I have even seen a trend developing on line of video examinations by order;-another warning sign about the direction of our practice in our world today.
If you are an Aikido instructor and have your own dojo, you will obviously need enough income to cover expenses such as rent, utilities, advertising, taking care of students etc. and hope there will be enough left over to cover your own living expenses. If you are part of a larger organization then you will also have obligations to contribute a percentage of your earning to that organization to maintain your standing. It is very difficult to maintain a dojo under these circumstances, especially in the early years of a dojo with only a few students.
It is natural to collect fees from students for practice but important to be clear that you are collecting money to pay for the overhead of the practice space and to keep the practice environment alive. You are not charging for the value of teaching an Aikido technique-this is a very difficult thing to put a price on. Think about a painting by Picasso. To some it might be worth a few million dollars. To others it might be something to put up for sale at a garage sale. Like art, the value of Aikido is indefinable.
If you live in New York City, monthly dues charged to practice Aikido can run as high as $150.00 per month for practice twice a week. In California, monthly dues can run $120.00. These prices do not reflect the quality of instruction or the mastery of the instructor; they reflect the overhead costs in each area. In Asia some dojos charge only $10.00 per month for practice dues. Again, this is not a reflection of the quality of teaching; it is a reflection on the local economic conditions and the cost of overhead expenses.
Unfortunately, many Aikido instructors do not see things in this light. Some think “I have spent a lot of money obtaining the rank I have. I have attended all the seminars, paid all of the fees, taken all of the tests. I DESERVE to make money for teaching Aikido for what I have been through”. This is an attitude of self-centeredness and conceit that does not form a healthy foundation for running a dojo.
How then should Aikido instructors come up with a fee structure at their dojo? This can be difficult and obviously must include cost of overhead plus income for the instructor to survive.
Sometimes you can tell the motives and level of understanding or experience of an instructor by their pricing structure and how many activities are focused as income producers at their dojos. If an instructor believes that they should base their pricing on their skill level of executing an Aikido technique and that they are worth a great deal of money, I suggest they read once again “Do not Teach Budo if you are Worried about Your Komebitsu– Words of the Founder”
The philosophy I learned from the Founder was “Do not teach Budo if you are worried about yourkomebitsu (komebitsu translates as rice bowl or your livelihood; means for survival). The Founder clearly understood the reality and inherent dangers of equating Aikido with making money. It is important to understand this element of his teaching before we talk about what techniques to teach or how to express love and peace through Aikido. We need to understand the foundation of the Founder’s philosophy and not equate money making with a standard for understanding of Aikido.
I have outlined how developing and managing an Aikido dojo today can be difficult since without tournaments or competition, governments or corporate sponsorship is rare; especially in developing countries. Another challenge in most parts of the world is the burden of association with a headquarter organization and the costs and restrictions associated with these relationships. At times these association dues and fees for testing are so expensive that I have seen instructors pay the promotion fees for a student to test for a new rank and set up a monthly payment plan for the student to pay off the debt.
There is not a universal standard pricing index for teaching Aikido. It depends on the economic environment and what an instructor believes about his own practice of Aikido. All Aikido instructors need to be very wary of a growing trend; instructors that rely on their own personal financial resources to climb in rank and position instead of practice and diligent training. We must recognize this growing phenomenon and be careful that it does not weaken and degrade the practice of Aikido everywhere.
I know what readers might be thinking- “What about you, Homma Sensei”? Let me answer that question clearly.
Since I opened Aikido Nippon Kan I have never set a pricing chart for promotion or ranking. At Nippon Kan we do not conduct examinations or collect examination fees. In the past ten years I have asked students to please not even bring Christmas gifts or cards during the holidays and I do not solicit donations. I have suggested that if anyone has extra change that they would like to donate, to please put it in the AHAN donation jar. This makes all donations collective and anonymous.
If I am invited to teach abroad, I never ask or receive instructor fees for my teaching under any circumstances. It is my policy that a portion of any proceeds raised by a seminar that I instruct at be donated to a local charity of the host dojo’s choosing. If it is important to the host to offer an instructor gratuity I will accept it publically and donate the gift immediately in front of all students to the charity chosen by the host instructors and students.
At Aikido Nippon Kan dojo, our building mortgage has finally been paid off. Our student monthly membership dues have always been kept very low and all proceeds are used for maintenance and overhead. Any funds left over are used for our local community service projects such as feeding those in need in Denver and supporting our international humanitarian projects worldwide through Nippon Kan AHAN (the Aikido Humanitarian Active Network). Our cash flow is enough to cover expenses and we have a stable dojo. Our financials however have not impressed the local bankers and recently we were turned down for financing we had tried to arrange for a ceiling repair…
The cost to students for our Beginner’s class series has remained the same for over 30 years. The price has always been low at $55.00 for our 6 weeks-12 classes (75 minute) series. This year I have decided to cut the fee for our Beginner’s class series in half. Why?
Since our overhead expenses have gone down now that our building has been paid for, normally this would be thought of as a time to reap more profit. My idea however is to share our Aikido with new beginning students instead. Now the cost for the same 6 week-12 classes Beginning Aikido course will be $27.00.
We also offer our regular members 16 classes per week and our student monthly fees have also remained $50.00 per month for over 30 years. I believe it is an accomplishment worth recognizing that our Nippon Kan dojo has survived and thrived for so many years, remained independent and been able to support so many of our humanitarian projects worldwide on a foundation of a very low fee structure, a lot of vigorous practice and a philosophy of sharing.
The Founder had reached a level of understanding when he told me “this old man doesn’t need it anymore” that I have not yet achieved. Until that time, I will spend my time working hard, washing dishes at my restaurant, working on the gardens, and tending to all of the chores required to run our Nippon Kan dojo. I devote my life to the pursuit of reaching the understanding the Founder achieved. Until that time I will continue work hard and practice my Aikido.
I have met many Aikidoka all over the world that don’t like the way that the making of money has corrupted the structure of our Aikido practice. Many have opinions and questions about the direction of Aikido organizations today. However, for anyone who might ever be interested in receiving a promotion from their headquarter organization; there is no room to complain.
Martial artists are one generational meaning true martial artists are individual unto themselves. What they offer lives and dies with them; there is only one generation. Dictators or rulers of dynasties can only carry forward their rule for generations if they offer some benefit to those they rule. In our Aikido society, the benefits that are held over students are ranking promotions and positions in hierarchical organizations. If we continue down this path, I fear that the quality of the Aikido that is taught and passed on to new generations will become so polluted it will not survive.
There is hope. I have seen it in many places and in many faces of Aikidoka all over the world. These teachers and students are usually not as loud spoken as I am; they are kind and gentle people that carry on their own tradition and their own practice with a purity worth carrying forward.
Many dojos in countries outside of Japan have formed their own organizations with their own ranking and instructor certification systems. If they have a relationship to a larger network such as Aikikai, it is mostly in name only and they do not seek ranking outside of their own countries. Only those with the money to afford it can pursue double certification from an organization like Aikikai plus their own local organizations. I am very wary of our system of Dan ranking and certification becoming more of a business than recognition of mastery; rendering the value of the certification tainted and adding motivation for the next generation to perpetuate Aikido as a business on those who come behind them.
When the Founder said to me, “This old man doesn’t need it (money) any more”, he wasn’t referring to the end being near for him. His words had a much vaster meaning that at my age now, after practicing Aikido all over the world, I am beginning to understand. The Founder was talking about his personal attainment of enlightenment; something that money cannot buy.
There are stories told by a famous Japanese monk about a priest whose temple was robbed of all of its worldly possessions by a band of thieves. The priest commented calmly, “The thieves forgot the moonlight over my garden”. The same monk told another story through poetry of a priest that was commanded by the ruling lord to come to the castle to live a life of riches. The priest replied, “I do not need riches, I can survive by cooking over leaves brought to me by the wind”.
At the time of the Founder, at the Aiki Shrine of Iwama, this same thinking could be found in “Buno Ichijo” which translates loosely as “the martial art spirit of budo is the same spirit found in tilling the earth for farming; a spirit based not in destruction but in nature and nurturing”. This was the realization of the Founder and a basis for his infamous words of “Love and Harmony’s Way”.
After over 50 years of experience practicing Aikido and almost 40 years living in the USA, my message to Aikido Instructors everywhere, now and in the future, is that we can practice our Aikido. We do not have to join large organizations and we can remain true to our practice. We can run our own dojos successfully as long as we remember not rely too much on our students as a means for making a living. For me, Aikido has been the foundation of my life, but it has never been the sole resource for my livelihood. This has been my thinking from the beginning and will remain until the end.
If you are planning to open an independent dojo, go ahead! Take it easy and do not concentrate too much on making money. We only have one life; go ahead and make it your way.
Nippon Kan Kancho
April 1st, 2015