by Nippon Kan Founder
A few days ago I passed a milestone as I moved from my fifties into a new decade of life; at least by the Japanese way of counting birthdays. It was almost 20 years ago that I decided that I no longer wanted to celebrate my birthday with big parties or a lot of “merry making”. In the last few years I have even stopped participating in many other celebrations as well including Christmas and New Year. Most of my students understand, especially the ones who have known me for a long while. I have done this as a reflection of my philosophy towards what I have experienced in my life, and it is comfortable for me.
I have lived for 37 years in the United States as a “sensei”. There was a time when students planned birthday parties so large it would take 30 minutes to open presents and cards containing checks or cash. There was a time when I actually expected parties and presents; it was common after all to the life of a “sensei”.
One day, after waking up with a severe hangover after a particularly enthusiastic birthday party, I had a realization. “This is crazy”, I thought. “This is not the way to celebrate my birthday”. The following year I asked my students to join me in a volunteer project for the city instead of throwing a party. This tradition is still honored today and was the beginning of what has become AHAN (the Aikido Humanitarian Active Network).
I have also come to realize through all of my travels with AHAN what life is like in many under developed countries of the world. I have met and known people who live an existence of bare survival and seen the repercussions of war, poverty and sickness which has changed my values and my life to a great degree.
Nippon Kan has grown for the past 37 years in ways beyond my dreams or expectations. Today AHAN Nippon Kan operates with a foundation of “Engaged Budoism” on a global level with friends and projects in many parts of the world. LINK HERE to “Engaged Budoism” We have always been an Aikido dojo and our organization has focused on Aikido around the world, but recently our focus has expanded to include many programs that go beyond the practice of Aikido; helping children who need more in the way of basic sustenance and care.
There are very few of my students that know the entire history of Nippon Kan. Many students do not know what Nippon Kan was like before we moved into our current facility or even before we had a dojo at all.
Lately I have received a lot of mail from students wanting to know how to be successful as an independent dojo, or students who want to combine a dojo and culture center as we have done at our facility. It is not easy to teach the essence of Nippon Kan’s history or its successes and failures; it has been a culmination of years and years of effort. The best advice I can give, is to set goals and work towards them with your best efforts, day by day, little by little, one step at a time. There is no magic answer.
It would be more mysterious to say that the path that Nippon Kan has taken “came to me while meditating on top of a mountain”, but in actuality it came to me the “morning after” with a severe hangover. What this means however, is that anyone, even people like me who spent quite a bit of time “merry making” in my youth has the chance to discover this same wisdom.
Life for human beings is empty without goals or dreams; they give our lives meaning and hope. Just having goals and dreams however is not quite enough; you cannot look to the sky waiting for your goals to realize themselves or your dreams to come true. Sometimes goals are elusive, or change along the way; this is common and natural, but all goals need to be worked for, they do not happen by themselves. Every step taken, every turn negotiated, every tenkan takes you a step forward towards them. A step taken is never a step wasted or step backwards, all steps are a move forward. Don’t stand still and if your goals or dreams change, don’t worry, keep moving step by step and opportunities will present themselves.
In 2006 I wrote an article for the Nippon Kan website titled, “Walking Firmly on the Ground” LINK HERE It is an article written about a charismatic Karate instructor in Japan who tells a story about a boy and his search for mastery. Simply, the boy masters first a tricycle, then a bicycle and finally a unicycle; the unicycle representing reaching the top and metaphorically becoming a champion. As I stated in my article, I think there is another chapter to this story. This approach I believe is like trying to reach with stars with a long piece of bamboo.
We are all human beings who started this life walking barefoot on the ground. As our life develops we might need a dolly to carry our possessions, then a three-wheel auto taxi, then a four-wheel cart, car or truck. This is more of a common comparison to our life reality. Not less wheels but more as we grow; more wheels to keep us firmly on the ground not less. Our real life dreams are more “horizontal” than “vertical”. Nippon Kan today has many wheels. We have a very gifted student body that make up our office staff, teaching staff, maintenance and construction staff; all of students that never say “can’t” and never give up. Our students, friends and even the surrounding community are Nippon Kan’s wheels.
The current Japanese Consul General to Abu Dabi, United Arab Emirates, Consul Haruo Yamagami served in the Japanese Consul to Denver for the past two years. While in Denver, Consul Yamagami spent many a night at Nippon Kan General Headquarters interviewing me for an article he was writing called “The Tiger of Colorado; the Story of One Aikidoka.” This article was extensive and contains 28 chapters. The following are excerpts from chapter 21; The Beginning Times of Nippon Kan, chronicling the early time in Nippon Kan’s history over 30 years ago. This excerpt has been translated with permission from Consul Yamagami who writes under the pen name of Haruki Yamamoto.
Originally the purpose of granting these interviews for Consul Yamagami’s article was to establish a historical, independent record of Nippon Kan’s history. It is also a way to answer requests and offer ideas on developing an independent dojo.
I did not come to the USA 37 years ago with money, support, connections or students. I came with nothing and started from zero. This means if you think you have nothing, or have lost everything, you can do it too if you try. If I can…you can.
The Beginning Times of Nippon Kan
Written by Haruki Yamamoto
During the 1960’s, a “Japanese boom” hit the East Coast of the United States, especially in the cities of New York and Boston. American scholars and seekers alike at the time were very interested in Zen philosophy and other things “Eastern” which were heralded at the time as mysterious, spiritual, and “the way”. By the 70’s this boom had spread as far as Denver, Colorado where Homma Sensei had decided to open a Japanese cultural center. The name of this new culture center, whose purpose was to introduce true Japanese culture to the American community, was appropriately Japan House Culture Center.
By 1976, Japan House Culture Center was teaching Japanese language, tea ceremony (sado),flower arrangement (kado) brush calligraphy (shodo), Japanese cooking and the martial art of Aikido. At its peak, the Japanese language classes had over 200 students and the other cultural classes were filled to capacity. Homma Sensei still has some of the registration forms for those classes and I was surprised to see how many there were.
There were originally 10 to 15 Japanese cultural class instructors; all young volunteers mostly from Japan. A notable volunteer at that time was Ms. Kumiko Shimizu, who was an exchange student at Denver University. Ms. Shimizu joined the Japan House Culture Center staff as a licensed flower arrangement (kado) instructor in the Sogetsu Ryu style, and has gone on to become the Senior Japanese Language Instructor and Coordinator at Colorado University and Principal of the Denver Japanese School. (Coincidently, Ms. Shimizu was also the elementary school classmate of the Aikikai Foundation Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba in Japan.)
Another volunteer who has gone on to an established career in Denver is Mrs. Yumiko Asano, owner and principal of the Kumon Math School. Yumiko served as Japanese language teacher for Japan House and with sponsorship by Japan House was able to obtain her green card here in Denver.
Japan House Culture Center was housed in those days in a two story house Homma Sensei had rented near the Denver Botanical Gardens. All of the staff lived there; commune style. By day, the bedrooms were filled with desks and chairs so they could be used as classrooms, and at night the staff would push the desks and chairs aside to lay down mats and cushions on the floor for people to sleep on. In the morning the mats were rolled up and stored so that the rooms could again be use for conducting classes.
Most of the young Japanese volunteers at that time were women, and a few of the leaders in the Japanese American community started rumors that Homma Sensei had a harem! This of course was not true, and the rumors did little to stop the growing success of the young culture center. A few of the senior Japanese martial art instructors in Denver at the time were not always pleased with this newcomer in Denver and complained about his style. At a meeting of instructors, Homma Sensei was told by instructors at the meeting, “If we had to drink muddy water, we would never do what you are doing. We would never run a supermarket of Japanese cultural like you!” Their attempts at intimidation finally forced Homma Sensei to sever his ties with the Japanese American community for a while which in the end turned out to be a blessing. By focusing on the American community living in Denver instead of the Japanese American, Homma Sensei’s ideas turned ultimately into a great success.
Cultural classes were held every evening from 5-10 pm. During the days, the volunteer staff went by invitation to elementary and middle schools all over the metro area doing on-site Japanese cultural demonstrations. Since not too many of the instructors were completely fluent in the English language, they made a English cassette tape that served as narrator and musical background for the flower arranging, brush calligraphy and other demonstrations. This turned out to be a very good system that was easy for both the staff to follow and the audiences to understand. Instead of Karaoke, this was Karademo and a very big hit!
The finale was always an Aikido demonstration performed by Homma Sensei. This was one of the goals, to use the more familiar Japanese cultural arts as an introduction to promote the Japanese art of Aikido. For Homma Sensei who was first an Aikidoist, this cultural approach was painstaking, but proved successful. As word spread among teachers and administrators, requests from schools snowballed. There were times when demonstrations were held at 3 or 4 different schools in one day.
The cultural classes were going well but since there was little in the way of a financial foundation, the Japan House Culture Center staff was very poor, and they found many creative ways to save money. At night, the staff would visit the floral wholesalers and search the trash bins out back for flowers that could be salvaged to use the next day in classes. They also combed nearby fields and riversides for greens and flowers that could be picked fresh for free.
Homma Sensei had many amusing memories about these midnight raids on the trash bins behind the floral wholesalers. One of the male volunteers actually fell all the way into one of the huge trash bins looking for flowers. Fellow staff members heard a commotion from the bin and assumed that the racket was being caused by their fallen friend. It took only a few minutes to find out that the commotion was caused by a huge alley cat that had been awakened from a nap by the intruders fall. The cat used the fallen volunteer as a ladder as he clawed his way up the volunteer’s body to make his escape. The volunteer after being successfully fished from the bin had cat scratches on his arms and face for a week. He was given a Japan House honorary Purple Heart for his efforts.
Another Japanese volunteer went out looking for interesting wild grasses for her flower arranging class. She returned and spoke to Homma Sensei about her find, “Sensei, I found the most beautiful green leaves for class tonight. They have an interesting shape. I don’t know what plant it is but I found them in the weeds near the alley fence. Do you know what this plant is?” Homma Sensei took one look at the plants and with a surprised look said, “Those are marijuana plants! Maybe a neighbor planted a plant or two in the weeds!” She looked at the plants again in surprise and threw them directly away.
Homma Sensei added cultural tours to Japan to the agenda and took groups of on average 15 people to Japan twice a year to see “the real Japan”. Homma Sensei took them all over Japan; guiding them through Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and up north to Lake Towada near Misawa Air force base where he had once worked. Homma Sensei would always try to stop by to see one of his important life teachers who lived in Misawa, Mr Yukio Sugimoto, owner of the Komaki Hot Springs Baths. Mr. Sugimoto was an avid collector and very famous for his collections of Japanese folk arts and crafts. Homma Sensei learned much from Mr. Sugimoto and put these skills to work in the construction of what is now the Nippon Kan dojo, gardens and museum. On all of these tours, if Homma Sensei found Japanese antiques to add to his collections back in Denver, there were plenty of hands to help carry them home!
As if it was not enough activity running the cultural classes and demonstrations, Japan House Culture Center started a community newsletter. The newsletter was a monthly publication of about 10,000 copies that were circulated throughout Denver restaurants, schools, recreation centers, coffee houses and the like. To distribute 10,000 copies by hand was ambitious in those days, but Homma Sensei understood the power of the press and used all forms of media to build Japan House.
Instrumental in the development of Japan House Culture Center in those early days was Mr. Yutaka Kikuchi, a student of Keo University in Japan who had come to Denver as part of an exchange program with Denver University. Mr. Kikuchi has since returned to Japan and is the Director of the Nippon Kan Japan Branch, but during his time in Denver he was right-hand man to Homma Sensei.
Yutaka met Homma Sensei when he joined the beginner Aikido class at Japan House. From that day forward, his life in Denver took on a whole new direction. Yutaka was not only nice; he was an intelligent and hard working volunteer who became an invaluable asset to the growing organization. Mr. Kikuchi could take Homma Sensei’s ideas and projects and make them happen. He was a skilled editor for the newspaper, taught all of the Japanese language classes and did all of the translating. It seems in life that once in a while, just the right person comes along just at the right time; this was the case with Yutaka Kikuchi.
It was about this time that a very famous Zen roshi (master Zen priest) came to Denver to give a lecture. His name was Edo Shimano Zen Roshi. Roshi Shimano was founder and head priest at the Daibosatsu Zendo (Kogoji Zen Temple) and also the New York Zendo (Shohoji Zen Temple) in New York. After his lecture, Homma Sensei gave Shimano Roshi a shoulder massage. Shimano Roshi advised Homma Sensei, “You are young, but you are putting forth an amazing effort to introduce Japanese culture to the United States, and I think it is wonderful. I have been thinking about your name, Japan House Culture Center, and I think it too “light”. I think it would be good for you to change the name to Nippon Kan (the Japanese words for Japan House). I also think you should change the color of the ox in your logo to a more peaceful white.”
From that day forward, Japan House changed its name to Nippon Kan and the ox was changed from black to white. The ox actually is featured with a boy riding on its back and is a drawing from the famous Zen parable Ju Gyu Zu- The Ten Ox Chart. This drawing is drawing # 6 in this ancient guide to enlightenment. The new name and logo have worked well over the years, except that from time to time, Nippon Kan is mistaken for a Japanese Beef Company!
The new Nippon Kan continued to develop its cultural classes, but Homma Sensei’s first priority focused on the development of Aikido. Before 1983, Homma Kancho taught his Aikido classes at space he rented from the YMCA. In 1983, Nippon Kan opened its first dojo on the second floor of a building rented on Federal Boulevard. A year and a half later, as classes and the demand for space increased, Nippon Kan moved the dojo and the cultural classes to a new location on Cherokee Street. When the Cherokee street dojo opened, Homma Sensei was teaching classes every day to over 100 Aikido students.
While the Aikido classes grew in numbers, class fees were still extremely low so life was not much better for the Nippon Kan staff. As I have detailed in previous chapters, the staff still survived by supplementing their diet with grasses collected from the riversides and government-issued preserved foods that Homma Sensei collected from trash bins behind the apartment buildings he managed, discarded by the refugees living on government assistance.
In those days, class dues equaled the price of a can of soda per day or $30.00 per month. This way, all of the new, young student members could afford to attend class. A bokken and jo practice was also held with about 20 students every Sunday morning at Cheesman Park. Being outside was a nice environment for practice and was also good advertising! After practice, everyone would pitch in to cook a big breakfast for all.
At the same time, in the very same park, another Japanese martial artist was practicing Karate. He would hang a very large sand bag from a tree branch and spend hours working out. Homma Sensei learned that this martial artist was none other than Joko Ninomiya, a famous Karate champion and future Founder of Enshin Karate. Homma Sensei and Joko Ninomiya Shihan became long time friends, both pioneers in the development of the martial arts not only in the United States but in the world. I have written a biography about Joko Ninomiya called Heisei o Musashi Miyamoto which has been published in Japan.
As Nippon Kan developed, it was always in need of money for new projects or new improvements. To supplement their income, Homma Sensei, two of the male volunteers and a few regular Aikido students worked the night shift as janitors and maintenance men in two office buildings. One evening, an uchideshi (live-in student) who had joined the dojo as a full time student, joined the ranks for work. While everyone was busy cleaning, the uchideshi from Montana took the opportunity to use one of the office phones to make a looooong telephone call. It turned out to be a very expensive phone call indeed. The office manager later found the charge and the whole group was fired! This caused hard times for the Nippon Kan staff but in the face of adversity and challenge Homma Sensei does not retreat. It is said that if Homma Sensei sees a roaring river ahead he builds a bridge. If there is a huge mountain in the path, he digs a tunnel; whatever the challenge, Homma Sensei has met the challenge and then some.
As the author of this article, I have been surprised in my research and listening to Homma Sensei during the many hours we spent together doing interviews, just how much he has done with Nippon Kan. School demonstrations, cultural classes, Aikido classes, newsletters, Japan tours; where does his power come from? He takes his dream of a cultural and spiritual interchange and turns it into action. Homma Sensei’s power is quite amazing and quite admirable.
Where does his energy, power and inspiration come from? What compels him to work so hard and do what he is doing? I still am not sure. I was told that while he was young and living at Iwama dojo that the maid Kikuno used to say that “Gaku sleeps with his eyes open”. From what I have learned, I think that living with the Founder Ueshiba was a time for development for Homma Sensei, but was also a difficult time filled with tension, worry and even traumatic experiences that effected and motivated him in both positive and negative ways.
Homma Sensei grew into young adulthood in Iwama, as the uchideshi who slept with his eyes open. As a young man he worked a job on Aoga Shima (island) that was so physically demanding and dangerous it almost killed him. When he first moved to the United States, he learned many things about humanity; from working as an apartment manager in one of the most economically depressed areas of the inner-city to dealing with harassment and discrimination from some of the Japanese American community as he began Nippon Kan. All of these experiences Homma Sensei used in positive way to work toward his dreams. There have been many hard times in Homma Sensei’s life that he says makes the time he has spent building Nippon Kan Culture Center pale in comparison. The early days of Nippon Kan were still difficult however, no matter what he says, not only for Homma Sensei but for all of those that walked with him.
The United States offered the freedom and the opportunity for Homma Sensei and the group of volunteers who sacrificed so much of their own comfort to teach their Japanese culture and heritage in this country. There is much to find that is valuable at Nippon Kan that cannot be compared. Homma Sensei’s dream of Nippon Kan shines now like a diamond throughout the world. With the help and support of many who have shared his dream, his dreams of the world have and are still being fulfilled.