Mitsunari Kanai Shihan: A Devoted Life

by Mary C. Fuller, Commonwealth Aikikai, Burlington, MA

Mitsunari Kanai Shihan died March 28 of a heart attack in Toronto, Canada, where he had been teaching a seminar. He was 64.

Kanai Sensei was one of the last personal students trained by the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, or O-Sensei. He came to the United States in 1965 to open a dojo in the Boston area; his dojo, New England Aikikai, has operated continuously since 1966, and has become one of the world's foremost Aikido dojos. Kanai Sensei 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. His father was a military policeman for the Manchurian railroad. After the war ended, the family returned to Japan aboard an American warship, and lived for some time in Ibaragi Prefecture, near his father's brother. Around 1949 or 1950, when Kanai Sensei was in fifth grade, they moved to Tokyo, where his father became an office worker and taught calligraphy to neighborhood children.

From an early age, Kanai Sensei took an interest in martial arts. Chiba Sensei 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 Rokugo judo club in Tokyo but increasingly, he felt something was missing in judo.

After attending Omori High School, Kanai Sensei went to work for a typewriter company. He continued taking courses at night school, studying both German -- thanks to an interest in philosophy -- and older forms of Japanese, in order to be able to read historical documents about the martial arts. At some point, his busy schedule simply became too much, and he began to reflect on what he really wanted to do with his life. His choice was Budo, Japans traditional martial way.

He had known about aikido since around 1950. When he was about 10 years old, Kanai Sensei had gone to the Tamagawa amusement park in Tokyo where it was possible to watch TV. There, he saw a televised demonstration of Aikido by O-Sensei which stuck in his mind; the person being thrown (Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei) looked as light as a butterfly. Later, when Kanai Sensei was about 17 years old, he came across a book which made a deep impression on him: 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 the 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 teaching aikido in other places.

In 1965, 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 claimed to number sixty students; in fact, there were only six. The early years were difficult both financially and culturally. In those days, Hombu Dojo did not give financial support to instructors who had been sent abroad, and at first, Kanai Sensei's students did not pay him. 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, mostly much bigger men, 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. Although for a time, he lived in a warehouse and survived largely on potatoes, he turned down offers to teach at other established schools of other martial arts, offers which included accommodations and salary. At his own dojo, 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, New England Aikikai, now located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many thousands more trained with him in Japan, and at seminars and camps in the United States, Canada, Central and South America, and several European countries. Under his direction, New England Aikikai began in the early 70s to host a week-long summer camp with instruction by the USAF Shihans as well as guest instructors from Hombu Dojo. In recent years, Kanai Sensei completed the manuscript of a book on Aikido as well a video, Technical Aikido, based on the manuscript.

Kanai Sensei's Aikido practice included a serious study of Japanese long-sword, or katana. His interest in the sword was fostered by contact with the masters of Iaido and Kendo who visited O-Sensei at Hombu Dojo, and were heroes to the young uchi deshi; he admired them as true Samurai. Kanai Sensei began Iaido in 1960, making time to practice after his daily duties as an uchi deshi were completed; he also studied old records of the various family traditions from which Iaido originated. Over the years, Kanai Sensei collected many examples of the sword maker's art, both blades and tsuba. Recognized as an expert, he was consulted by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on the display of its own collection. Kanai Sensei had an office and workshop behind the kamiza at New England Aikikai; before and after class, students would often hear the hammering and scraping of metalwork, as he ground and polished metal into knives and tsuba. He called this place Tekko-an, the retreat or hermitage of seasoned iron. When a student once asked Kanai Sensei why he loved the sword so much, he answered that only the iron of a good sword always tells the truth. In the late 70s, he began teaching Iaido to a small group of students, and eventually began to give regular seminars including both Aikido and Iaido at a few dojos, including those in Montreal and Toronto.

Kanai Sensei was a devoted father, who in later years often had a senior instructor teach one of his weeknight classes so that he could stay home with his son and daughter. He told students who had aging parents that taking care of them was more important than continuous practice, and after he had his own children, he sometimes scolded other students to settle down and start a family so they would not miss something so important. In his free time, Kanai Sensei was a dedicated fisherman. He loved the ocean, and came to prefer spear-fishing to hook and line, as it provided a more direct confrontation with the fish. He was also an impeccable calligrapher.

Kanai Sensei was one of the rare martial artists outside Japan who emerged from a traditional martial arts environment and practiced his art in 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, and his wife, Sharon Henn, who survives him along with his two children, Yuki and Misha, and his older sister, Mitsuko Ohashi.

Kanai Sensei's single-minded commitment to the art of Aikido was such that he never stopped reflecting on and refining his practice. His dynamic and innovative demonstrations inspired many practitioners, and continued to leave even long-time students open-mouthed with amazement. Yet while he searched tirelessly for truer and stronger technique, he was always kind and patient with beginners. Both as a teacher and a human being, he had a deep and simple sweetness that touched our hearts unforgettably. We mourn his loss, and hope to honor his legacy.