Lexington Loses Mitsunari Kanai Shihan Renowned Aikido Teacher

[Reprinted from Lexington's Colonial Times Magazine, May/June 2004.]

Lexington resident and renowned Aikido practitioner, Mitsunari Kanai Shihan died unexpectedly in Toronto this past March. He had been doing what he loved most--teaching a seminar. He was 64.

Kanai Sensei was the founder of New England Aikikai, which he opened in 1966, and has become one of the world's foremost Aikido dojos. Since his death, his wife, Sharon Henn, has continued to operate the well-known dojo in Cambridge -- traveling in each day and guiding the dojo through this difficult transition.

Kanai Sensei came to the United States in 1965 to open a dojo in the Boston area; his dojo. Sensei was one of the last personal students trained by the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, or O-Sensei. He was instrumental in founding the United States Aikido Federation, and was the Technical Director for the Eastern United States. Aikido's World Headquarters in Tokyo had awarded him the title of Shihan (master teacher) and the rank of eighth degree black belt.

Kanai Sensei was born in Manchuria on April 15, 1939. From an early age, he took an interest in martial arts. Kazuo Chiba Shihan recalls that as boys, they found a book on judo and would go out into the fields to try out techniques on each other. As a young man, Kanai Sensei began to practice more formally, eventually joining the Rokugu judo club in Tokyo - but increasingly he felt something was missing in judo.

When he was about 17 years old, he came across a book that made a deep impression: "Aikido" by second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba. He found this book to be a "masterpiece". Several of his colleagues and seniors in judo were already studying with the Ueshiba family. When the time came that Kanai Sensei decided to follow martial arts as a profession, he made the crucial choice to study Aikido.

Kanai Sensei quit his job, packed his bags, and presented himself at Hombu dojo to become an uchi deshi, or apprentice. At that time, the Ueshiba family could not support another uchi deshi, and he was told to go home. He accepted the decision, but persisted in his own intention; he began coming to the dojo every morning to begin cleaning 1the buildings before the other students were awake. After the money for train fare ran out, he traveled to the dojo on foot. Eventually, he was formally accepted as an apprentice. He studied with O-Sensei for about eight years, first as a live-in student, and later coming into the dojo for classes while also working as an instructor.

In 1955, a group of martial arts students in Boston wrote to Hombu Dojo asking for a teacher. Kanai Sensei was sent to teach a group which had been estimated at sixty students; in fact, there were only six.

Almost no one in Boston knew what Aikido was. Without much command of English, Kanai Sensei had only hard technique to convince the first generation of students that Aikido really worked; he sometimes said that he used them up.

Kanai Sensei staked everything on the attempt to establish an Aikido school here on his own terms. He set high standards, awarding only nine black belts during the first 11 years he was in Boston. Eventually, the students began to come. Over the next 38 years, close to six thousand students studied at his dojo and many thousands more trained with him in Japan, and at seminars and week long camps in the United States, Canada, Central and South America, and several European countries.

Kanai Sensei was a devoted father, who in later years regularly had a senior instructor teach one of his weeknight classes so that he could stay home with his son and daughter. His children are Yuki and Misha of Lexington. After he had his own children, he sometimes counseled other students to settle down and start a family so they would not miss out on parenthood.

Kanai Sensei was one of the rare martial artists outside Japan who had emerged from a traditional martial arts environment and practiced his art m the traditional way: stressing its technical and philosophical purity, with little concern for its business aspects. Aikido was his world. Within that world, he found colleagues, devoted friends, a multitude of grateful students. He will be sorely missed.