Aikido For All

Yoshinkan aikido’s Shihan Tsutomu Chida

Written by Enrica Cheung, Paul Chapman & Ben Stone

Tsutomu Chida, 8th Dan Shihan, is well known to devotees of Yoshinkan aikido, and well respected by in-the-know aikidoka the world over. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Shihan Joe Thambu establishing Yoshinkan in Australia, Shihan Chida visited Melbourne to instruct a series of seminars, and impart some of his hard-won aikido wisdom to Blitz.

Chida Sensei, could you please tell us a little about how you started aikido, and some of the history behind your aikido career?

When I started aikido, around 1969, it was not well known or popular. On my way to school, I would sometimes walk by a local aikido school, so one day I joined. At first I kept going just because I didn’t want to give up easily. However, at some point I became captivated by its charms [and have kept going ever since].

Actually, the first time I heard about aikido, I misread the characters as ‘kiaido’ (kiai is the yell emitted when striking an opponent). I thought that maybe once, I was trained, I could make birds drop out of the sky or something! Actually, it’s a little embarrassing thinking about it now.

What impressed you the most about the Yoshinkan aikido school’s founder, Shioda Gozo Kancho?

It would have to be how quickly he reacted [the Japanese expression indicates both sudden movement or a change in attitude]. For example, when going drinking he would sometimes get up and go home without warning… Something difficult for the average person to deal with, he could deal with it effortlessly. This kind of thing was very common with Kancho Sensei.

Do you have any recollections of incidents that showed the essence of Shioda Kancho’s approach to life and aikido, particularly during your time as an uchi-deshi (live-in disciple)?

Not long after a kohai [junior] of mine had joined the hombu [headquarters] dojo, I told him off for doing something bad. The story then went around the dojo that I was being too bossy, and eventually it reached Kancho Sensei.

Unexpectedly, I was told off by Kancho Sensei. I explained my actions, saying that I had told my junior off for this reason and that reason. Kancho Sensei listened and understood. However, what happened next was particularly memorable — he said, “You can’t boss your juniors about, but you also can’t give in to them!”

It seemed like two completely contradictory things to say! But afterwards Kancho Sensei told me, “You should try harmonising with them.” At the time it was a difficult thing to understand, but when I think about it now, I feel aikido technique is exactly like this.

What was daily life like as an uchi-deshi?

Of course it was very difficult at first. At Yoshinkan hombu dojo, uchi-deshi had to keep the dojo clean and attend every class. If you were injured, you had to watch the class while sitting in seiza [the traditional kneeling position].

Driving for Kancho, he always gave lots of directions from the back seat, and always wanted me to drive fast, even though he didn’t have a license! Everything had to be planned in advance. If you were late, you got in trouble, if you were early, you got in trouble. Everything had to go as planned.

When in the dojo, we were required to be aware of Kancho Sensei’s movements and needs at all times. This was very difficult! You had to think about your own work and duties, and also about Kancho Sensei. I had to know when he needed more tea, or when to empty his ashtray.

Why was this important? If you know what Kancho Sensei needs, then you know when he’s going to strike his elbow against your throat in a demonstration!

Did you know in advance how he would respond to your attack?

Maybe an instant before — long enough to take ukemi [the ‘receiver’ role] without getting an injury… sometimes [laughing]. The uchi-deshi life taught me to be aware of the environment at all times.

You were uchi-deshi and a teacher at Yoshinkan hombu for a long time. Did it get easier?

Yes, I could anticipate his wishes. But as I had more experience, my role became more difficult. My responsibility increased and expectations were higher. Looking back, I wonder if these high expectations were Kancho Sensei’s or my own. Both?

Can you recall any particular insights or incidents in your training that you now recognise as turning points in your understanding of the art?

Two years after joining the Yoshinkan hombu as an uchi-deshi, I entered university. At the time, the university’s aikido club taught the Aikikai system. Of course, my technique was Yoshinkan aikido so I could not teach aikido in that way. At the time I began to think, ‘What is the correct approach to aikido?’ With the things I learned in my Aikikai and Yoshinkan training, I avoided treating them as Aikikai technique or Yoshinkan technique. Instead, I focused on what is correct ‘as aikido’.

Back then in the Yoshinkan, there was not much by way of explanation of the riai (technical theory) behind aikido. After I returned to the Yoshinkan from university, I believe this thinking also benefitted the Yoshinkan.

What are the differences between aikido training in Japan and aikido training outside of Japan?

Most Japanese think of aikido as self-improvement [mental or spiritual], like Zen meditation. But most people overseas think of aikido as a [practical] tool for self-defence or fitness.

More so in Japan, beginners accept practising the basic movements or detailed points for many months. Overseas, people want to learn something [practical] straight away. Both ways have strong points and weak points. As teachers, we should recognise this and adjust our teaching.

Do you think traditional arts like aikido can be taught properly in Western countries without the attached cultural elements — for example, teaching all techniques in the countries’ local languages rather than Japanese?

If non-Japanese instructors have great experience in training aikido, and have trained in Japan — like Joe [Thambu], who has been to Japan many times, [or like] Darren Friend, Jon Marshall and Peggy Woo, who have done the Senshusei (International Instructor’s) Course — they have learned the essence of aikido. I see the proof of this in their students, in their aikido and in their manner. They are being taught aikido properly.

Language can be a problem, but a lot of the terms and phrases are very old and most [modern] Japanese people have trouble understanding these too. With a good instructor, I think it is possible [to be taught properly in this way].

Briefly, could you outline what you believe is the philosophy behind aikido, in how it is practised and applied?

Aikido is the way/art of harmony. All practitioners should try and remember this as much as possible.

Since leaving the Yoshinkan in December 2007, I have kept my organisation open to all. People from other organisations regularly come to my classes. When I was invited by Joe [Thambu] to teach in Australia, Joe is the senior Yoshinkan aikido teacher in Australia, so I was very happy to come!

You can speak of harmony, but ultimately our actions are the most important thing.

In your opinion, can an aikidoka understand and effectively practise the art without fully understanding its philosophical and cultural traditions?

There are different degrees of understanding of aikido technique and philosophy. No-one fully understands this when they begin, regardless of nationality or culture. The philosophy of aikido and technique are one and the same. If aikido is practised the right way and with the right spirit, the student will learn the philosophy from within [themselves]. I think this was the intention of [aikido founder] Ueshiba Sensei. By practising aikido properly, people can understand and accept the idea of harmony and peace [that aikido teaches].

In terms of its usefulness as a method of self-defence in modern society, what are aikido’s strengths and weaknesses, if any?

For traditional budo like aikido, we use minimum force to achieve a goal. Therefore, smaller or less aggressive people can use aikido to defend themselves. Aikido also focuses on suppressing an attacker without injuring them. It would be much easier to stop them without caring if they get injured [or not]. Most people who seek aikido are less aggressive people. They do not like violent methods of defence, and they hesitate getting involved in physical conflict because of their nature. This hesitation can make their aikido ineffective.

Aikido teaches two things: when to stand still and when to move.

What has been the highlight of your aikido career, and the low point?

I have great respect for my teacher [Gozo Shioda Kancho]. I stayed on [at the dojo] for more than 13 years after [Shioda Kancho] passed away. For 30 years the dojo was my life’s work. Leaving [the dojo] was very difficult.
As they say, an end is also a new beginning. I have the opportunity to continue to teach the spirit and technique of Shioda Kancho’s aikido.

Looking at the way society (both in Japan and the West) is heading today, do you see a strong future for traditional martial arts like aikido?

Kancho Sensei often said, “Study the old to understand the new”. I believe aikido technique and philosophy are valuable. As the teachers of today, it is our responsibility to apply the past to deal with the future.

It is also the teacher’s job to develop what their teacher taught them — not just to copy without thinking. Aikido, like all budo, is based on philosophy, not ideology. Unlike religion, we do not have to follow strict teachings [dogma] but are free to find our own way.

The true test of any martial art is the test of time. As long as we have something meaningful to offer, aikido will continue. If we become irrelevant, then it will cease to do so.

Lastly, I would like to congratulate Joe Thambu Sensei on the 30th anniversary of having introduced Yoshinkan aikido to Australia, and his ceaseless progress in the art.

Taken from here

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