As we approach the publication date of “The Life-Giving Sword: Kazuo Chiba’s Life in Aikido,” I’d like highlight one important facet of the book – it’s not just about Chiba Sensei. At close to 400 pages, this book attempts to profile an entire generation of Aikido pioneers. These are the young Japanese men who left Hombu Dojo in the 1960s under the direction of Kisshomaru Ueshiba to heed O-Sensei’s call to build “bridges across the ocean” and bring Aikido to the West.
Using Chiba Sensei’s writings, historic materials and in-person interviews where possible, I’ve attempted to profile many of these men and tell their stories of struggle and triumph in Europe, the U.K. and the Americas.
The book also explores the foundational role of several of Chiba Sensei’s most important sempai: Koichi Tohei, Morihiro Saito and Mutsuro Nakazono, along with influential teachers like Tadashi Abe, Kenshiro Abbe, Sadateru Arikawa, Kisaburo Osawa, Seigo Yamaguchi and Hiroshi Tada. These men, along with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, shaped the Aikido and careers of Chiba Sensei’s generation and continue to influence many across the Aikido world.
Life as a direct student of O-Sensei at both Hombu Dojo and Iwama is also explored in-depth in a section on the early careers of the post-war generation. Throughout the narrative, several of Chiba Sensei’s close colleagues, especially Yoshimitsu Yamada, Mitsunari Kanai and Nobuyoshi Tamura, are discussed in detail as they developed their own dojos, organizations and teaching styles. As far as I know, this is the first full-length treatment of this period of Aikido history.
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The mat was packed for all three days of the Chiba Sensei Memorial Seminar at Brooklyn Aikikai June 1-3, 2018. The event featured instructors George Lyons Shihan of Bucks County Aikido, Toko (Jenny) Flower Sensei of Athens Aikido and Ryugan (Robert) Savoca Sensei of Brooklyn Aikikai.
From Lyons Sensei’s closing remarks on June 3, 2018:
“I’ve been running through my memories of meeting an extraordinary person, Chiba Sensei. What do I remember about those days? Much of it is just in my body now, as best as it can be. I’m working to cultivate that so hopefully it’s alive in me. Chiba Sensei said once: ‘Until you’re a master of it, you’re a slave to it.’ That one kind of stuck with me.
“Discussing the teacher-student relationship, in many ways we struggle to understand it. Right up until Chiba Sensei’s death I was trying to understand it. Even now, I work on it, even though he’s gone. Of course I don’t think he’s gone, in some way.
“It is the problem of authority, giving over to an authority. In my opinion I think it’s not surrender to it but more transcending it, if that makes sense to you. At first it might feel like you’re surrendering to your teacher. But hopefully we’re going past that. You’re not going to be a slave to your teacher, that’s the not the intention. The intention is to let go of something, and to transcend it. Then you’re free to do whatever you want. And you’re probably very grateful, as I am. So you are master of it.
“You are supposed to stand on the shoulders of your teacher. Your teacher is someone you have always put up, so it’s a difficult idea. Somehow maybe we can drop something and you can reach your teacher for the first time, as a full grown human being with full potential.
“Funny, but we somehow put something in the way. It’s human nature. I see it on the mat in just basic things. When I say, ‘Don’t move your feet like that, do this.’ They say ‘Hai, Sensei!’ and they do the same thing they did before. It didn’t change one bit. I’m a human being too so I make the same stupid mistakes. When we do that, I think we just can’t hear it yet. Eventually you can, you can hold more. When you finally hear it, you say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ [Laughs.] This comes to the point of training over time. In farming you can’t pull the shoots up early to make them grow faster. It takes time. If you pull the shoots up, there’s nothing there.
“In the same way, when you’re practicing it takes some time. It has to mature. It’s just the nature of things. You come to the dojo every day, every day. ‘What’s the point of this? I can’t do ikkyo one more time, I’m out of my mind.’ You keep doing it until something gets out of the way. You make every effort that you can until you realize that all that effort is getting in the way. It’s a paradox you have to solve yourself, everybody does.
“I’m really pleased to be here with you to celebrate the life our teacher. For you guys, be careful because the stories get bigger and bigger as time passes. It was incredible times, but we tell stories…
“This is the time. Now is the time. This is our time. It’s fun to hear stories about the past, but when you’re sitting around with a bunch of people talking about the old days, be careful. This is the day. Today is the day. We’re proud to be here with you, proud to know you, and may we carry on. ”
The book about Chiba Sensei’s life is almost ready! We are in the final stages of the publication process after two years of work. The book is nearly 400 pages long and incorporates information from dozens of in-person interviews along with Chiba Sensei’s entire body of published writings, plus the work of excellent Aikido historians like the late Stanley Pranin and translator Christopher Li. Thanks to everyone who helped bring this project to fruition and especially to the Chiba family, who have been generous with their time and support.
Sign up now to reserve a copy of the hardcover first edition, which we are pricing at $40. Please indicate how many copies you would like to reserve — we are anticipating the finished book to be available for distribution starting on July 20 at Birankai Aikido Summer Camp in Tacoma, Wash. Quantities will be limited and paperback, ebook and Amazon distribution are not planned for the immediate future.
Two more questions: Let us know if you would be interested in an audio podcast incorporating some of the interview and other material we have gathered. In addition, we want to know if people are interested in a visit to their dojos by author Liese Klein, who can answer questions about the book and the research process.
Please fill out the form below by July 1 to reserve a copy of “The Life-Giving Sword”; you will be contacted via email when the book is ready for purchase. (You should receive an email back right away requiring a click to confirm your signup: Gmail users should check the “Promotions” folder in their inbox for the confirmation and be sure to click or you won’t be signed up!)
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This article originally appeared (circa 1993) in issue No. 70 of Terry O’Neill’s Fighting Arts International, a magazine published in the United Kingdom. The interviewer was one of Chiba Sensei’s long time students, Arthur C. Lockyear.
Sensei please tell me how you came to study Aikido?
Well, I was very keen on the martial arts from when I was little, and I decided early on to train seriously in at least one of them. I began with Judo and stayed for four years. I then moved to Karate.
You trained at the Shotokan headquarters I believe: what was the training like there?
Oh, I really loved it, it was a very hard spirit in the training, very satisfying, I liked it a lot. Nakayama Sensei was the Chief Instructor but I did see the Master, Funakoshi Gichin on a number of occasions. I joined the Japan Karate Association about a year before Master Funakoshi died I remember that there was a big ceremony to mark his passing.
Where any of the present-day Shotokan Masters there at that time?
Yes. Nishiyama Sensei, Okazaki Sensei and Kanazawa Sensei. Kanazawa Sensei was first Kyu then, or maybe 1st Dan, I’m not sure. Asano Sensei was 3rd Kyu level and Kase Sensei was there also.
Was there anything in particular that converted you to Aikido?
Most of us are back home – the bruises are fading and the gis have been washed. Time to reflect on Birankai Aikido 2016 Summer Camp, which ended with a lively session of tai no henko led by Dave Stier Shihan of Green River Aikido on Tuesday morning.
Stier Sensei was the topic of some truly moving testimonies at the farewell party the night before, when his students told of his dedication to helping those of all abilities and body types master Aikido.
“I just wanted to be a student,” Stier Sensei said, describing the trajectory of his training after the sudden death of his teacher, Paul Sylvain Shihan. Stier Sensei went on to lead an impressive closing class to 2016 Birankai Summer Camp.
Another longtime student, Frank Apodaca Sensei of Deep River Aikikai in North Carolina, was recognized earlier during camp: Birankai has recommended that he be promoted to shihan rank.
Apodaca Sensei was a long-suffering kenshusei when I arrived in San Diego, a veteran of the legendary “Pressure Cooker” and “Suffering Bastards” eras. His ukemi was death-defying to this newbie, especially when he would get up seemingly in one piece after Chiba Sensei demonstrated ushiro ryotedori sutemi waza, also known as “the roadkill technique.” (Chiba Sensei would rear back and flatten him like a bug.)
By the time I got there in the mid-1990s, Apodaca Sensei was a stern taskmaster in morning class and an even more stern leader of sesshin and other events at San Diego Aikikai, a link to a harsher past. Time spent as dojo-cho in Portland, Oregon, and Lansing, Michigan, seemed to mellow him out, and by the time Apodaca Sensei established Deep River Aikikai he was a supportive and open-hearted teacher.
For me, the best thing about 2016 Birankai Summer Camp was gaining new appreciation for these two men, working often without recognition in recent years to transmit Chiba Sensei’s (and Sylvain Sensei’s) Aikido.
With teachers like these in our ranks, Birankai is in safe hands.
The book was completed before Chiba Sensei’s death, but there was no opportunity to present the “finished product” to Sensei, the true subject of the book. It was my honor to present the book as a gift to Mrs. Chiba at a memorial event.
Later in 2015, Tzechovoy Sensei added a new, final chapter: “Ki No More” — a moving farewell to our founder which, I feel, penetrates to the heart of Sensei’s teachings. After some discussion, we decided to share it with you here on BiranOnline. (Please click on title below for Word document.) The chapter will be included in future editions of the book.
For everyone who has been to at least one Birankai summer camp, what’s the first thing that you remember about your first camp? Perhaps it’s all the people you met, the parties and gatherings in the evening, or, of course, the hours of classes a day that left you feeling either successful, or desperate for an ice pack and some ibuprofen. Everyone has their memories, and the special moments that made summer camp not just a seminar, but also a family reunion that makes the bumps, bruises, and traveling well worth it.
My first summer camp, held this past July at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., was nothing short of fabulous, and I promise I’m not saying that just to make my Sensei happy. When I first arrived at camp, I came in with the rookie naiveté that I was in pretty good shape and four hours of class a day wouldn’t be that bad.
Oh no, not the case.
By the third day I would have given anything for a hot tub and a five-hour nap, and let’s not talk about how my bottle of pain meds was quickly dwindling. But what my discomfort taught me, and what I think our teachers are always trying to impart, is how vital it is to relax and use our whole body at all times, and certainly if something is in pain. If my shoulder was hurting, then I had to adjust for it, relaxing my arm and remembering that my hips and legs were really useful things.
When I was throwing someone twice my size, and fatigue and soreness were starting to set in, it wasn’t enough to just muscle my way through and hope my upper body was strong enough to throw my partner. Everything had to come together with grace, speed and power, something Miyamoto Sensei demonstrated every time he stepped onto the mat.
Speaking of Miyamoto Sensei, one thing that I, and many other people I talked to were impressed by was his ability to constantly adapt to whatever his uke gave him. Even if it wasn’t the technique he initially had in mind, Miyamoto showed what mental and physical fluidity looked like when doing, and changing, a technique.
For me, particularly since I’m still very new in Aikido, every class had something new to learn. Familiar techniques, such a katatedori suwariwaza ikkyo, had to be approached differently because I was practicing with someone I’d never met, and so I had to learn how to move in a way that worked with them. The weapons classes were immensely beneficial, especially Frank Apodaca Sensei’s weapons class. He emphasized cultivating “the eyes to see,” which I took as meaning not just watching and stealing the technique, but also seeing and feeling the energy with which someone moves. I once read that proper form is essential, but without technique and heart put into the form it’s all mechanical, and much of what I believe Aikido to be is lost.
In the midst of all of our training, I was so thankful that the 2015 summer camp was to be the first camp I attended, because it allowed me to attend the Celebration of Life memorial for Chiba Sensei. Even though I was never able to meet Chiba Sensei, I could very clearly feel how special a teacher he was, and just how much he mattered to people all over the world. The memorial was lovely, and the reception held after, with all of its singing, dancing and conversation was exactly what I think Chiba Sensei would have wanted us to have in his memory.
Leaving camp, what I didn’t fully realize till a few days after, was when people speak of the Aikido or Birankai family, they aren’t exaggerating in the slightest. Camp allowed me to meet people from dojos across the country and even the world, and knowing that almost wherever I go I can find a dojo where I will be welcome, makes the world feel just a little less daunting. So thank you very much to everyone who helped make my first camp a marvelous experience, and more importantly, officially welcomed me into the Birankai family. I look forward to many more summer camps in the future.
On January 3, 2015, members of Birankai dojo Fearless Heart Aikido in New Hope, Penn., participated in “1,000 Cuts for Charity Suburi-thon.” Participants committed to make 1,000 suburi cuts with the bokken and to find sponsors who would pledge a contribution for each cut.
Prior to the suburi-thon, none of the students had completed more than 100 or 200 cuts; some barely knew how to hold a bokken. For most students, a thousand cuts was pretty daunting. However, they rose to the challenge, practicing their cuts and building their endurance in the weeks leading up to the event.
Fearless Heart Aikido Chief Instructors Helen Tai and John McDevitt organized the fundraiser to celebrate the dojo’s two-year anniversary. The celebration provided an opportunity for the students to push themselves beyond their perceived limits, to improve their cutting technique, to work together toward a common goal, to have some fun, and to raise money for two very worthwhile charities.
One of Chiba Sensei’s many gifts to the Aikido community has been his weapons system, and we teachers vowed to further polish and emphasize our bokken and jo work at this year’s Birankai Summer Camp.
Below is the full text of an essay by Chiba Sensei first published in a 1999 issue of our Birankai newsletter. Also posted here for the first time are videos from Chiba Sensei’s advanced weapons class at the 2011 Birankai Regional Seminar at Long Mountain Aikido in Granby, Mass. (The second video is at the bottom of the text.)
Many people have asked me about the relationship between body arts and weapons training in Aikido. Most of those questions were influenced by the opinion (either positive or negative) towards weapons training by professional Aikido teachers, both those who positively incorporate weapons training in their Aikido practice and those who do not. These opposing practices inevitably create confusion among Aikido practitioners Continue reading “Chiba Sensei on weapons”