In Japan it is said that one should first spend the time, years if necessary, to find the right martial arts instructor before beginning his or her training. I was fortunate enough to have rather serendipitously connected with Morihei Iio Shihan shortly after arriving in Japan, and it was he who became my Shisho. Literally, Shisho translates as “master,” but today “mentor” may be a more accurate and contextual translation. Iio Shihan opened my eyes to the deepest meaning of Aikido and its traditions, and he taught me so much about life as a whole.
I was honored and proud to be invited by Iio Shihan to the Wakayama University Spring Gasshuku in 1996. I was to travel as Iio Shihan’s ‘otomo’ or assistant. The Spring Gasshuku was held on Shodoshima Island just outside of the city of Osaka. Among many other things, Osaka is the home of many beautiful attractions including Osaka Castle, which is of great historical significance in the unification of Japan in the 16th century.
While both proud and honored, I was also very nervous because I had absolutely no clue as to what I was expected to do as ‘otomo.’ Furthermore, even if I had known what to do, I never thought I’d be able to live up to the expectations of the Japanese martial arts society, nor my own standards. My Japanese was very good, but effectively navigating around Japan and taking care of Iio Shihan simultaneously didn’t seem possible. In spite of my trepidation, he still chose to invite me to come and train with him, his Sempai, and his Shihan at the Spring Gasshuku. I couldn’t believe I was going to get the opportunity to train with his mentors!
Almost immediately after arriving at the Gasshukujo, an inn with special training facilities, I was introduced to Masando Sasaki Sensei, the organizer and highest ranking Aikidoka at the Gasshuku. This, too, was quite intimidating at first. This introduction was to be the first of many connections and correspondences with Sasaki Sensei over the next 12 years. After leaving Japan and my first shisho, Iio Shihan, I knew that I would train under Sasaki Sensei. In Japanese tradition one has a lifelong commitment to a sole shisho, but I have learned so much from both Iio and Sasaki Shihan I consider them both my shisho. These two men have heavily influenced every facet of my life to this day.
Iio Sensei explained to me that here I was considered ‘shakaijin,’ or someone who’d already graduated college and entered the work force. This would set me apart in some ways from the rest of the students at the Gasshuku. In a way, it made me an alumni even though I’d never attended Wakayama University or any Gasshuku before. He then introduced me to Kumagai Shihan, the main instructor of Wakayama University’s Aikido Club, who strongly encouraged me to separate from Iio Shihan and set up my living quarters in a room with the university students. Having lived in places like Cairo and Istanbul for quite some time Kumagai Shihan was used to dealing with foreigners, and was quick to explain that this would probably be the best way for me to be accepted by and to acclimate with the university students at Gasshuku. I emphatically concurred and said I’d very much like to experience Gasshuku like the university students. I was escorted to the room and introduced to the others. Wow! There were a lot of names to try to remember. Despite my efforts to behave like one of them for the weekend, the students insisted on treating me like royalty. I was quite fortunate.
The training was diligent and completely exhausting. We woke and immediately began practice at 6AM, grabbed a quick breakfast around 8AM, and returned to practice by 10AM. We were given a little break to digest a modest lunch and then it was back to the Aikido mat, again, from 3PM to 6PM. After dinner we’d have a ‘hanseikai’ or a meeting for "self-reflection" led by the ‘Kanbu’ or senior students. During hanseikai we’d go around the room discussing different techniques and what we felt worked and what we thought didn’t. We’d also talk about the more spiritual and ethereal aspects of the Aikido training and how it applied to our philosophy of engaging with daily life.
When hanseikai was finished, Sasaki Sensei took the reigns and answered specific questions that we were all instructed to prepare prior to the session with Sasaki Sensei. People would ask about techniques, the meaning of Sasaki’s writings (he has written dozens of books on Aikido, spirituality, and life). Sasaki Sensei has a keen sense of humor and he even tried to tell his jokes and stories in such a way that I would be sure to understand. Unfortunately, his vocabulary is so expansive that many Japanese are challenged to comprehend his teachings fully.
As our last day of training approached, everyone was becoming quite intense and focused because there would be kyu rank testing for some, and black belt testing for others. Everyone did incredibly well. Their ukemi and endurance was amazing – far beyond that I’d witnessed in the United States. It was rare to see anyone fail a test, but I know of several instructors that use “failing a test” as a test in and of itself – a true life lesson. Actually, prior to that, the only time I’d heard of someone failing at Wakayama University was when they used a live blade knife for tanto-dori. The uke was nervous and gave a half-hearted attack and nage ended up getting stabbed in the thigh. This is obviously not the type of test anyone wants to be a part of.
However, these students at gasshuku were well prepared. Black belts and indigo hakama were awarded as soon as the testing was over. Sasaki Sensei spent a good half an hour demonstrating to all the new shodan (1st degree black belts) how to unfold, wear, and re-fold their hakama. It was interesting to see and hear how it was to be worn, and folded. The hakama is not to be treated as your favorite around the house t-shirt balled up in the corner of your clothes closet. It is to be treated and cared for with the utmost respect. Perhaps, similar to the way an American flag is treated by many military soldiers and veterans. To my amazement, Sasaki Sensei even said that there was a different way to fold the hakama for every month of the year, but almost no one but he remembers or still follows that tradition.
The hakama is worn in the art of Aikido, not for decorative purposes (although I find them very attractive), but as a tool for continued learning. I discovered that the purpose of the hakama is to teach “centering.” When worn, the hakama is cinched up in such a way that it brings tremendous awareness to one’s center and one’s posture. The awareness of such literally improves one’s Aikido. And, of course, if something improves your Aikido it, in turn, also improves your life. Over a relatively short period of time, that “awareness” is carried off the mat and you find your “center” in your daily life.
Sasaki Sensei frequently speaks of human beings in terms of geometry. At Gasshuku, he shared how, to him, the human frame is similar to two triangles touching each other with their tips at our waist or ‘tanden.’ He talked about the Greco-roman perspective of strength, being a bigger triangle above the waist than below. Japanese have learned over time and through everything that they do that true power is developed from a solid base and is directed through and from the tanden. This philosophy is reflected in the Japanese work ethic and demonstrated in numerous traditional Japanese cultural arts.
Sasaki Sensei spoke about how the hakama’s indigo color has a deeper meaning, as well. To him, the coloring process for an Aikido hakama is much like a person’s accumulation of wisdom and experience. As your training in life progresses, you gain new knowledge and experience and add it to that which you have gained in the past. This is the same way they apply the traditional indigo dye to the Aikido hakama. Hakama are dyed from natural beige color cotton to a single shade of blue. Then consecutive layers are added. The indigo gets darker and richer with each time you set the dye. Hakama are typically dyed 20 to 50 times. He explained that this layering process also occurs in nature. If you look at the horizon as dusk approaches, the sky appears nearly white. But as your raise your glare upward off of the horizon, the color of the sky becomes progressively deeper and darker layers of blue. At its deepest layer, the sky appears, not black, but indigo. If you work on the Aikido mat with a shodan wearing a hakama, you may notice that occasionally, some of their indigo dye will rub off on your white gi. Sasaki Sensei might ask you to consider the symbolism of such. Perhaps you have taken some of your partners metaphoric “wisdom and experience” with you! This, of course, is a good thing.
The gasshuku ended with all of us standing in a circle with our arms on each other’s shoulders, singing the Wakayama University Aikido Club song. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that they actually had their own song. The Wakayama University Aikido Club is one of the oldest, longest living aikido clubs in Japan. I remember how the students were so excited to receive their black belts and wear their new hakama. I couldn’t wait to get mine (I wasn’t black belt, yet) and carry on one day in my own dojo the traditions I had learned over this powerfully rewarding weekend. I felt truly honored to have been allowed into their inner circle and today, I cherish these experiences with my Shisho greatly. I hope to carry on that tradition with you one day as I have with our newest black belt. See you on the Aikido mat!