You won’t find these words of the Founder in the books and biography written about him. Many of the words spoken by the Founder more privately have not been published. Instead, what is most commonly written about Aikido and the Founders teaching are words of “love, harmony and peace” which in my personal experience with the Founder do not reflect all of his true teaching. Many Aikidoka world-wide misunderstand the true meaning of Aikido as taught by the Founder and have changed the direction of Aikido compared to his original teachings.
It was a spring day, before the azalea began to bloom. The Founder told me to cut the branches of the azalea to about waist high. At the time, I did not reflect too much about why the Founder was asking me to do this and just did what I was told without thinking…
19 years ago, we were putting the finishing touches on the construction of the Japanese garden at Nippon Kan Headquarters in Denver. The late Morihiro Saito Shihan (Iwama Dojo Cho and Aikikai Shihan 8th Dan) had come to Denver to teach an Aikido seminar for students in the USA. Over 450 students attended the seminar, traveling from all parts of the US for this special event. During this visit, Saito Shihan left me with words I will never forget.
On the morning after the seminar, Saito Shihan and I prepared to leave my home to go to Nippon Kan dojo. Just as we were getting into the car, Saito Shihan suddenly stopped and began to do“Shiko Fumi” (a move used by Japanese Sumo Wrestlers where they lift each leg to the side ceremoniously.) “Sensei, you are feeling good today!” I said. With a big smile, Saito Shihan spoke “I did not sleep well thinking about your garden. I cannot go back to Japan without fixing it”…said Saito Shihan. I don’t know if he was joking or serious but I had never see a smile like that. With that we hopped into the car to go to the dojo.
When we arrived, Saito Shihan went straight to the garden construction site and with a strict “practice time”manner began sternly giving orders to students to move some of the large boulders into place. When the students could not move the heavy boulders with all of their might, Saito Shihan pitched in to help and moved the rocks easily . With a laugh he said, “Just as the Founder could move a heavy ishi usu (a pounding mortar made of stone about the size of 3 small tires stacked ) …it is all physics and leverage… Saito Shihan worked continually for the next two hours without rest. He seemed quite happy with the work that day.
After the work was done, and the boulders had been moved and positioned properly under Saito Shihan’s watchful eye, we sat in the garden drinking a beer. “It will be a good garden in 10 years”, he said. “The Founder told me many times, “When maintaining the trees in the garden, don’t ever cut down the branches yourself; I always have someone else cut them for me”. Saito Shihan continued, If you try to trim your own trees by cutting the branches, you will hesitate and not cut the branches where they should be cut. As a result, the trees in the garden will not grow properly. Like not getting a proper haircut, it makes the garden looks sloppy and overgrown. If you want good garden, the branches must be cut substantially at times. This is the only way the garden will grow properly.
At that time, I did not have much money for trees; the plants we could afford were $10 trees on sale at the Home depot found discarded in the “reduced for sale” section. Saito had the vision however to see the garden in the future. H took one of the $10 trees I had bought and planted it near one of the newly placed boulders. He was thinking of the garden, 10 years into the future.
This March 2014, 19 years later, I looked at the trees that had grown up in my garden. I was very happy to see that that trees had grown quite large until I began to realize that it was not quite yet a garden, it was just a space full of overgrown trees. I realized that some of the trees needed to be cut and after nurturing them to grow for so many years, I worked up the nerve to cut them. As the branches came down, the sunlight began penetrating through the thickness of the foliage and it suddenly it began to became a more beautiful garden after all of these years. I cut so many branches; we weren’t sure how we were going to dispose of all of the trimmings!
All of a sudden the words of the Founder about 45 years ago and Morihiro Saito Shihan 19 years ago came back to me and I finally understood the lessons within them.
I reflected on my own dojo and realized that the dojo too sometimes needs restructuring so that more sunlight can shine through. Nippon Kan dojo is about 40 years old and for a big dojo to be stable with strong roots, it sometimes needs to have branches cut, just like the garden, to make it strong. Branches that are not needed must be cut and others nurtured.
Through the garden, I have learned the importance of day by day, daily maintenance of the dojo as well.
A little off- topic but this reminds me of an experience I had in Iwama.
Today at Iwama dojo, azalea plants grow all over the property. There are many azaleas growing now where the Founders vegetable gardens use to be.
A few years ago, I was in Iwama for the Aiki Taisai (Aiki Shrine Grand Festival). There was another Japanese Aikido instructor there from the USA that I happened to overhear as he talked to a group of other guests. “All of these azaleas look just like they did during my practice days when the Founder was here. The azaleas were everywhere like they are today”.
I was very surprised to hear this. When the Founder was alive and living at Iwama dojo, the azalea bushes were planted only along the fence.
After his passing, the azaleas had grown so large and there was no more need for the vegetable garden so the azaleas were moved by bulldozer and planted everywhere including the fields that the Founder used for growing vegetables.
Maybe someday we will find this instructor’s testimonial in a history book and people will believe it is true. Anyway it was those azaleas by the fence that I used to cut at the Founders orders and looking at all of the azaleas in Iwama that day made me remember those days.
One morning, the Founder announced loudly, “I want to go to Hombu”. He had suddenly decided that he was going to go to Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo. As usually he asked his wife for some money to make the trip and as usual he said when she gave him some money, “That is not enough!” It cost about 20,000 Japanese Yen ($200USD) to travel to Tokyo from Iwama. This would pay for train and taxi fare, food and a donation to the Omoto Kyo Tokyo Branch. The Founder’s wife would always retrieve the money and give the money to me for safe keeping. I will always remember those heartwarming negotiations between the Founder and his wife over the fare to Tokyo; it was the same every time. It is kind of hard to imagine the Founder, a great teacher and leader of the martial art world of Aikido, acting very childlike with his wife over train fare. The Founder’s wife would always give him the money but would usually reply with one of her favorite sayings; “We need to think of our komebitsu”.
About ten years later, Morihiro Saito Shihan told me that the Founder often used to say to him, “Do not teach budo if you are worried about your komebitsu”.
The word komebitsu literally means “rice box”. Traditionally in Japan, the rice that families lived on was stored in the komebitsu. During the time of the Samurai, salaries were often paid in rice instead of money. The samurai would take the rice to the market after being “paid” and sell it for money. Therefore, the word komebistu refers to the food or means for survival, or in plainer terms, the money we use for living.
Recently I have been receiving many questions about dojo management from Aikido dojo owners and instructors by email. I have even received questions from instructors from other martial art disciplines.
It seems that the profitability of the martial art business is on the decline. Most of the inquiries are questions about how to run a successful independent dojo and how to market and attract students. In other words, they were asking me to teach them Nippon Kan’s “recipe” for running an independent dojo…
There is no simple recipe or on how to run a successful independent dojo so there is no way to answer this question simply.
In the US, it is common when visiting someone’s house for example, to compliment the host and hostess on a delicious dinner and ask the hostess for the recipe. This is a compliment in US.
In Japan, asking the host or hostess for the recipe is very bad manners and is considered quite rude as it insinuates that all that is needed to make the delicious dish is the recipe. It insinuates that anyone with the recipe can make this delicious dish and achieve the same results and that the talent and experience and heart of the host does not matter. In Japan cooking is a DO just like Aikido, Budo, Chado, etc. The spirit and heart and path is as intrinsic to the creation as any recipe.
Therefore in Japan, “recipes” are usually not shared, but since I am getting old, it is not so necessary to keep it everything to myself. Instead I will share more about the story of komebitsu.
Following the advice that Saito Shihan gave me, when Nippon Kan dojo moved to its new location I also opened a restaurant and started other income producing endeavors to fill the “komebitsu” and stabilize dojo operations. Morihiro Saito Shihan himself owned a dry cleaning business, a sushi bar and a soba restaurant. All of these businesses provided the income stability for him to teach Aikido around the world while his “rice box” remained full. Also with uchideshi coming from all over the world, these other businesses allowed him to be able to take care of them.
What can we learn from Saito Shihan’s komebitsu example? If you thinking about becoming a professional Aikido instructor or opening your own dojo with no other source of income to help support you is a very difficult thing to do. If you dream of making a living as an Aikido instructor, even if you are a very good aikidoist and have achieved a high rank, long term success is not easy. It is not a matter of your spirit, determination or personality; without other means of economic or financial security, running a dojo as your means for living is a difficult task. You might be able to pay your first month’s rent and put up a sign but continuing and sustaining operations is extremely challenging.
It is not a problem of individual talent or spiritual strength but one of economic reality. Without other sources of income, it is difficult to maintain an Aikido dojo for a long period as a sole source for ones livelihood. Aikido does not have tournaments and does not attract sponsors or governmental financial support. Without other sources of income, the teaching of Aikido relies on teaching fees, promotion and testing fees, belt fees, seminar fees and of course organization dues; this is the reality of teaching Aikido. To maintain a dojo, pay rent, insurance, utilities, upkeep, living expenses and even support a family is very difficult in today’s world even with a dojo with 50 to 100 students.
Once the relationship between instructor and student becomes a business relationship where the instructor must rely on marketing and customer service to survive, the instructor’s original spirit and dream for teaching can become degraded. In the end, this path can lead to a closed dojo and debts to repay.
Another danger when the teaching of Aikido falls prey to “customer business” for survival is, as can happen in any relationship where money is involved, collusion and corruption are also always a possibility.
For example, all over the world in our global Aikido community, the selling of Dan ranking is quite a big business. I have taught Aikido all over the world and I have seen and experienced practice with many different Aikido groups and dojos. Most dojos have organizational ties to large Aikido franchises like Aikikai and I have taught at Aikikai dojos in many countries.
About 90% of these groups have had problems within their own organizations that have stemmed more often than not from problems with money; problems with too many levels of a hierarchy wanting a larger and larger “piece of the pie”.
In my experience, when there is a hierarchical structure in organizations, each tier of the hierarchy turn more and more of their time and energy into obtaining and collecting money and conflicts arise. Conflicts over affiliation and money have divided our Aikido community and in some countries there are multiple Aikido organizations that have split off from one another, becoming competitors to each other and ultimately dissipating and mutating their own teaching and influence.
The other 10% of the dojos I have seen, are Aikido dojos that are stable; most often because they have additional sources of income to supplement their teaching of Aikido. In other words, they do not worry about their “komebitsu”, which in most cases has been part of their “recipe” for success.
Along with the problems I have seen that arise from money concerns is what has become the “business of Dan ranking”. Many times I have seen dojos organized by people who had the money to attend enough seminars and make enough donations to “buy” a high degree of Dan or black belt ranking instead of earning it through practice and training. Dojos with money have the ability to invite a high ranking Japanese Shihan from Japan to do ranking promotions for them. Since they have the money, they have the power to be up-ranked quickly themselves; not by merit or skill level but by their ability to make donations. I have met more than one “high ranking” instructor that did not even know how to wear a hakama correctly.
Although prolific in our modern day Aikido community, Dan ranking based on donations rather than earned merit can be found throughout the history of Aikido in Japan. Even at the time of the Founder, many of the students who obtained a 10th Dan- (10th degree black belt) ranking were wealthy local landowners or their sons. Some of them even achieved the highest level of rank of 10th Dan by the age of 50. This practice is still prevalent in Japan today and many local prefecture branch leaders are wealthy people that can afford to pay for this honor. It is still true that it is very difficult to have a relationship with Aikikai if you don’t have the money to pay for it.
I remember one senior Hombu Shihan telling me, “I never worry about sake and beer in the summertime or fresh fish too, which is delivered directly to my house.” If this were the government, people would lose their jobs for accepting bribes. Many of the shibucho (local branch leaders) still today in Japan, earned their rank and titles through the power of their money.
“Do Not Teach Budo, If You Are Worried About Your Komebitsu” is a very important message given to us by the Founder. Teaching as a livelihood can be a double edged sword that all instructors must think about. Not having alternative means for financial stability can cause hardships and degrade the purest of intentions. Having the money and using it to abuse the system of rank and power can be just as bad.
Some Aikido instructors write to me because they want to become independent from the organization they are affiliated with. They are tired of paying all of the dues and fees that are required of them or they want to follow their own path without all of the rules and regulations. If any of these instructors are interested in making these changes because they want to make money for themselves through their dojos, there is no advice that I can offer.
I run my own independent dojo and I have not taken a salary from the dojo for over 25 years. Currently all of the income generated at Nippon Kan is used strictly to manage the dojo and support AHAN activities in Denver and around the world. There have many times, especially in the old days that we struggled to make ends meet at all.
My philosophy for maintaining a dojo is built on my own personal, ethical guidelines. I always pay my own way and always take care of the bill at restaurants. I do not accept personal gifts from students and even decline private invitations. Keeping a little distance is part of my commitment to keeping my dojo independent and a principal that I do not waver from.
At my dojo, I do not charge for examinations or receive personal donations for promotions. I also discourage students from becoming involved in large business deals together outside of the dojo. It is destructive for anyone to use the dojo as a market place for private business dealings.
Some people do not understand my philosophy towards keeping my dojo independent or why I do not seek to curry favor with others or operate my dojo with the intention for financial gains. This dojo is a place for my training and my practice and I do understand that my philosophy will not be understood by everyone. This however in my experience is the way to keep an independent dojo on a long term basis.
I am sometimes viewed as an outlaw, but I am not tied to any organization and am not bound by any hierarchical obligation. I never pressure my own students for money and I am not dependent on them for my livelihood. I began Nippon Kan by myself and have never received support from any large organization. I started from zero and have built from the ground up an operation that is self sufficient.
To succeed as an independent dojo takes discipline and vision. It takes discipline inside the dojo and generous outreach outside the dojo. The activities of AHAN are Nippon Kan’s outreach to the world outside. Our practice is the discipline inside.
I have no regrets. Through AHAN we contribute to society. Through our own supporting operations we are able to sustain and manage our organization and I am proud of our policies at Nippon Kan; the dojo that I began by myself and have grown without the help of any other organizations.
Anyone who is really interested in seeing how our independent dojo operates is always welcome to come to Nippon Kan. Your affiliation or style does not matter to me; everyone is welcome.
I seek the ideal of a dojo that contributes to society through Aikido. This is my practice. This month I will pass the milestone of 50 years of practice in the art of Aikido. For those who care to listen to what I have to share, I offer my ideas and the experience I have gained through my own lifetime of practice.
Nippon Kan Kancho
May 28th, 2014