T.K. Chiba
8th Dan, Shihan
Chairman - Teaching Committee of Birankai International

Interview with Chiba Sensei - Part 2

By Peter Bernath, 6th Dan, Shihan & David Halprin, 6th Dan, Shihan

Editor's note: This interview with T.K. Chiba, 8th Dan, Shihan, was conducted at the US Aikido Federation Eastern Region Summer Camp held at Hampshire Collage in Amherst, Massachusetts in August, 2000. Parts of it are featured in New England Aikikai's new video documenting the visit of the Third Doshu to camp. We would like to thank Kanai Sensei for allowing us to present this transcript.

Peter Bernath  is Chief Instructor of Florida Aikikai and David Halprin  is Chief Instructor of Framingham Aikikai. Photos courtesy of Bill Bresnihan.

Part 2

Sensei, what your view of the process through which O-Sensei created Aikido?

I cannot answer that question because I only knew him part of his life. But what I can say is that he was an incredible martial arts master.

He is a gigantic existence in the modern history of Japan, and in martial arts history. But I know where his force, power, came from: it was from the religious faith that he had. Of course he was a genius, a person gifted in martial arts. After all, his commitment, his own religious practice. His power, when he exposed or exercised it, was just incredible. He could just pass from an ordinary person to somebody else, bam! In a moment. Whenever he gives a class, whenever he gives demonstrations, he does that.

So it's difficult to follow, difficult to study, difficult to copy, from a kind of person like O-Sensei. He did not have much organization in his teaching; he'd just do whatever he wanted, spontaneous, bam bam bam bam bam! Touch this, touch that, touch that, keep changing.

There was no system. So what we can, we do. I just branded his physical motion into my brain, through watching, like imprinting my subconsciousness. He kept changing techniques within one class so rapidly, so repeatedly, bam bam bam bam bam! He had no intention to teach. He'd just do his art, that's about it. That is one of the treasures I have still: the memory of his motions imprinted in my subconsciousness, it never goes away.

So traveling with him for, you know, the longest trip I had was a teaching tour of six weeks with him. It was a pretty difficult trip. When I was, say, shodan, nidan level, I started traveling with him. In the first years I could not sleep on the trip. We used to take a Japanese inn to stay in: two rooms connected together, actually three: O-Sensei's main room, and my little room, connected by a toilet, a rest room.

O-Sensei used to get up so many times--five or six times per night. It's, you know, an aged person's…I don't want to say problem…but tendency. Whenever O-Sensei would step into my room and open the door, if I'm asleep, that's the end of my life as a martial artist. If somebody's standing and I'm sleeping, it means I have lost my head already. If you think about that, you can't sleep. You have to keep awake, and wait for him to come out his door, and be ready to help him. So if you travel with him one week, you come back to Hombu Dojo exhausted.

And traveling, lecturing, listening, demonstrations, going in and out of classes, all rolls up for a week, two weeks, three weeks. But human potential is very admirable. After three years or so I was able to go to sleep, a sound sleep, a really sound sleep. Whenever O-Sensei would awake and get up, at the same time I'd get up, without making any efforts. I'd just feel it, my eyes would open up. So he comes through the door, and I open the door at the exact same time: Bam!

That affected my taking ukemi for O-Sensei also. Since I became able to sleep like that, I feel so comfortable to take his ukemi. Before that it was very difficult. You don't know what's coming; he has no preset type of demonstration. He just moves, moves, moves; you have to respond to him spontaneously. But since I was able to sleep after three years, no. Just like this. [moves fingers together] We were so well connected.

I think that kind of experience helped me to polish my awareness. Still I have it. Like I told you, if anyone steps into my yard, I can tell. Any time of day. When I'm asleep, too.

It's often said that O-Sensei's students took different aspects of O-Sensei into themselves. Are there things that he helped develop in you?

Well, you know, to be honest, I am one guy I consider a failure being O-Sensei's disciple. It's very difficult studying from him, I have to tell you. But if there is anything I consider a treasure I have received from O-Sensei, it is weapons work.

To begin with, I was looking for a martial art that combined body art and sword. I could not find any martial art that satisfied me in that aspect. Anyway, I was introduced to Aikido through the book written by Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei in 1958, which was the first Aikido book ever published in society.

In that book I read that Aikido is based on principles of sword work transferred into body art. That was the fact that drew me to Aikido. Most teaching during my studies with O-Sensei was, I would say seventy percent was weapons. Again he never had any organization in his teaching, piece by piece, bam bam bam! So I had to organize it myself. I had to systemize it myself. It took me some years.

In many ways I did not care what Aikido was like before I joined Hombu dojo. Only I had hoped that the element mentioned that Aikido is based on sword work principle embodied in body art. That was a very basic reason I went to Aikido. And if I have a place to sleep, if there is enough food to live, and I could practice all day through, that was what I was looking for. And these conditions were all met by becoming a Hombu Dojo uchideshi. [laughs] That's all I wanted, nothing else.

I didn't have any intention to become a professional teacher or instructor. I just wanted to stay there for a few years, and I didn't plan anything after that. But fate forced me to become an Aikido teacher when I was sent, dispatched to England in 1966. That was it. [laughs]

Sensei, would you practice weapons with O-Sensei when you traveled with him?

I was uchideshi, and I became an uchideshi, in the Iwama dojo too. I volunteered to go there; I was there for six months, a short time. Most basic weapons training was given in the Iwama dojo, and further on, during trips together.

Sensei, some Aikido magazines are always debating about the role of weapons training in Aikido. "Is it a central element? Should it be a central element?" Given what you just told us, it must seem like a funny debate to you.

Yeah. It's a meaningless debate. Which comes first, chicken or egg? [laughs]

I think besides the martial principle, weapons training can be very important in Aikido training, with the aging problems among those who have been training for thirty or forty years. Sooner or later they won't be able to fall down, get up, fall down, get up. A lot of people I see already who have no choice but to drop out. But relatively speaking, in weapons training, aging probably is not much of a handicap.

In competitive judo, as you know, about early thirties is the age limit, you can't go farther. But in kendo, people in their seventies and eighties are still going on. In the first class competition young guys go against a teacher seventy or eighty years old, and there is no problem! Just one tip of the sword, bam. [laughs] They can't break this, you know?

So that's an advantage, I think. Especially, you know, knees, So many knee problems in the world, so many knee problems in Aikido society. Probably we have been abusing it. I have been conducting a study in the Western Region about knee problems, how to prevent them or how to recover after an injury, how to heal them. It's a big study at the moment. But we can beat up our aging problem somehow. We have to harmonize with the degeneration of our bodies.

So what I am saying is that the weapon training can be one of the solutions, not a perfect one, but relatively, a reasonable way to deal with the problem of aging.

Sensei, we wanted to talk about some of the early days when you guys* were young together? [* O-Sensei's last group of uchideshi, now the Shihankai senseis]

More or less everybody was in the same situation.

You've known each other more than forty years, in adolescence, as young men, and now when you're all in your sixties. That's a long time. Have you all changed much?

Fundamentally there is no change in one's character. I don't know if this is a fortunate thing or unfortunate thing. [laughs] It's incredible, you know. More than that, in fact, after you go over fifties, this basic personal character comes out much more obvious and strong. For a while I thought, "these guys are changing", you know, "they are making a sort of a nice progression", you know, personal character change, maturing and everything. No! [laughs] Which is a beautiful part, you know.

Martial artists are very stubborn, and that stubbornness becomes much stronger when you get older. [laughs] I see that in myself as well as my friends.

Sensei, for over 40 years you and the other Shihankai senseis have had a close relationship with three generations of the Ueshiba family, Hombu dojo and each other, and you continue to work closely together. What fosters this type of dedication and loyalty?

I cannot speak for others, but how I feel about it is I still feel that I have a big debt toward my teachers. And being accepted as their disciples, trained, and they made us individual, grown-up men. I feel whole, and I have enjoyed my Aikido career -- though there is still a far way to go - with its enjoyment of study and training. And one way or another we have to return that favor toward our teachers and their family. It's very difficult to express it. Again, it's a sort of love affair kind of feeling, and it cannot be expressed well to any third persons.

It's also part of Japanese culture, this family thing. This tradition, of course, is dying out in my own culture too, getting weaker and weaker. Probably we are the last holdouts, a breakwater to hold this kind of loyalty feeling toward what we call lineage.

I don't think it can be understood easily by American people. It's a different culture. Sooner or later, I predict, this kind of relationship with the Master's family and Hombu Dojo and so forth, will become thinner and thinner. Probably we are the last generation to hold this. I don't expect American people to keep this going on. I don't necessarily expect it. It would be nice if it was kept, but it would be difficult, I predict. So what my intention is, to build Aikido in America, as an American Aikido: strong technical foundations, their own idea, their own identity, and their own future.

Among all of us who are students of the Shihankai Senseis there seems to be a similar loyalty and dedication shaped by what we feel towards our most immediate teacher. Is that our strength?

Yeah, I understand what you mean, what you tried to say. I think it is part of our strength, indeed. However, my question is, how long is that going to last after the Japanese teachers' era is over? That's what I'm talking about.

I mean, in many ways, all the problems and issues we have dealt with through Hombu Dojo, was handled through Japanese channels, Japanese to Japanese. We are playing games in the same frame of culture. There have been difficulties, but also a base of understanding. But when the time comes, and the Japanese era is over, in dealing with Hombu Dojo, your guys will be dealing with foreigners, which will be different, and which will be difficult, I think. This is what I'm talking about.

We've been here for a long time in western countries. We understand, not perfectly, but we understand enough about American mentality, American character, and we also maintain being Japanese. So, you know, in dealing with Hombu Dojo issues, political problems or whatever, we can play always two parts, two cards, one being Japanese and the other being teachers representing American people.

But you won't be able to do it the same way. When American teachers take leadership of the American Aikido society, they won't be able to do that. They'll be American, not Japanese. That's a very crucial fact. And yet you're training in a Japanese art. The language problem is also very, very important: Don't take it lightly. [long pause] Is it too heavy? [laughs]

A nation is like an individual, as I have said earlier. The basic character is unchanged. The surface outlook might change. So whenever the Shihankai had to deal with Hombu dojo, they had to be Japanese. Then they understand. If you play a card with American teacher, no. They won't understand. That has been a difficulty. Japan is looking at the world through its own window, always.