Part I: The Hombu Dojo Years

In early 1957, when I was a Judo student, I got myself involved in a personal duel with a kendo man. He beat me up severely, without my even being able to touch his body. The experience taught me an important lesson as a martial artist: As long as I relied on grabbing an opponent, I had no chance of overcoming him.

I disassociated myself from Judo completely and began looking for something that satisfied my yearning for an art that allowed one to face any situation — an opponent with either empty hands or with a weapon.

A year later, in early 1958, I came across a book about Aikido in a bookstore in downtown Tokyo. It was the first book ever published for the general public and was by Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei (the son of Aikido’s founder, O-Sensei) in 1956, and written under the supervision of the Founder.
I picked up the book and opened it to the first page. There I saw a photograph of an old man with a long white beard. I knew instantly that this was the man I had been looking for. I didn’t have the slightest doubt that he was going to be my master.

I brought the book home and read it through overnight. It was beyond my comprehension and didn’t make much sense to me, except that it had something to do with the principles of swordsmanship. The noble feeling it conveyed about this art — that was enough for me. The rest I did not care about. I decided to go see O-Sensei to be accepted as his personal disciple, whatever it might take. I pushed all the domestic problems into my mother’s hands (at the time my family was in crisis) without telling my father of my decision, for the obvious reason that he would never have allowed me to leave home.
February 3, 1958. I left home. As I was leaving, my mother told me that I should not worry about my father and that she was going to explain to him what I was going to do. However, she told me that I was not allowed to return home for at least three years. By closing the door to my own home, she encouraged me to meet the challenge without looking back.

The Founder was not at Hombu Dojo when I arrived there. I sat in front of the Hombu Dojo gate for three days. My request to be accepted as an uchideshi was repeatedly rejected. My determination, however, was immovable. I knew that somehow, I would be accepted, so I continued to sit under a pine tree by the front gate of the dojo.

Entrance to Hombu Dojo in the 50s
Entrance to Hombu Dojo in the 50s

Fate smiled upon me. Towards the evening of the third day O-Sensei happened to arrive for a visit. I didn’t know then that he had retired to Iwama and routinely traveled back and forth between there and Tokyo every two weeks or so. If I’d known this, I wouldn’t have dared to sit in front of Hombu Dojo but would have gone directly to Iwama.

The staff at Hombu Dojo had been much troubled by my persistence and had no choice but to take me to O-Sensei. “This is the boy I told you about, Father,” Waka Sensei (Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei) said as he introduced me.

The man who I’d only seen in a book sat just a few feet away from me, in his own room, his back to a Shinto altar. He looked directly at me. I returned his gaze with every ounce of strength I could gather, trying to see who this man really was. I knew that I was in the right place, at the right time, and I experienced a moment of profound joy and happiness. Here was the man I had been looking for. My wandering journey had come to an end and a new one was about to begin.

I was not afraid or ashamed that I had no positive credentials or letters of introduction. I had come with naked sincerity and immovable determination — that had to be enough. While waiting to hear his voice I dropped my head to the floor, almost trembling with joy to have found him. He reminded me of the great grandfather I’d lost a long time before.

“The discipline in Budo is not easy to carry out. Are you determined to commit yourself to it?” he asked in a strong western Japanese accent.
“Yes sir,” I replied without a moment’s hesitation.
“Let him stay,” he said, and that was all. It had taken no more than five minutes. It was February 5th, 1958.

I had achieved my desire and for the next seven years until I headed for Port Sasebo on my way to England, I tried to stick close to him as best I could.

As mentioned above, O-Sensei traveled back and forth between Iwama and Tokyo every two weeks or so, a journey which took about three hours by steam engine. When in Tokyo he stayed for a few days, gave classes mostly in the early mornings and, of course, whenever he wanted, visited shrines for prayer and met with Shinto masters. On his way to Kansai he’d also stop off in Tokyo for a few days. These visits usually included stops in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Wakayama, Shingu and Tanabe, his birthplace in southwestern Japan. He’d visit shrines and his old disciples who ran dojos there.

Chiba Sensei taking uke for O-Sensei
Chiba Sensei taking uke for O-Sensei

My study directly under him was, therefore, whenever he visited Tokyo and whenever I was assigned to escort him back to Iwama. I’d stay there as long as I was allowed — usually no more than a few days. I was also assigned to accompany him on his trips to Kansai, which generally lasted a week to 10 days. My desire to be with him often hampered my duties as an uchideshi at Hombu Dojo. Only when he was in residence could I successfully field both needs without conflicts.

Soon after I was granted shodan on January 15th, 1959, I became the uchideshi assigned to travel with him on a regular basis on his frequent visits to Kansai. Even though I enjoyed being with him and training under him, these were demanding trips.

A week-long journey required a high concentration of awareness, sensitivity and readiness throughout the day and night. I was in a continuous state of exhaustion even though I was in my early 20’s and extremely fit. I took care of O-Sensei closely day and night, taking ukemi for techniques which, at that time, I knew very little.

The encounters with students in the dojos we visited, and my desire not to fail or disgrace my status as uchideshi, built up daily pressures which accumulated towards the end of each trip. The longest journey I took was in 1961, to the southern island of Kyushu. I remember how exhausted I was even though by then I was a more experienced student

What were the duties of an uchideshi at Hombu Dojo? Before going into detail, I must describe the two types of uchideshi that existed at that time.

First, there were those who lived in the dojo, with all living expenses taken care of by the dojo. These included lodging, food, training, and even pocket money. In return, their duties included general maintenance of the dojo (keeping it clean, repaired and in good order), shopping, helping in the kitchen, preparing the bath, receiving guests, escorting the master’s children to school, registering members, taking in dues, keeping records and also a training journal. All of this in addition to training, which began at 6:30 a.m., with five classes a day every day of the week except Sunday.

Whenever O-Sensei stayed at Hombu Dojo the workload increased tremendously throughout the day, for someone had to act as his attendant. This job included massage, bathing him, reading books to him and assisting him by writing calligraphy. Another important duty was accompanying him with the Doshu (Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei) when he taught classes at local dojos in Tokyo. This meant carrying O-Sensei’s bags and taking ukemi for him.

Deshi du Hombu Dojo dans les années 60
Group of uchi-deshi of the 60s

The front gate of the dojo was open to the public at around 6 a.m., so that outside students could attend early classes. Before it opened, the inside and outside of the dojo had already been cleaned by the uchideshi. The front gate never shut until the Founder returned home. Whatever his business had been and no matter how late it might be, someone had to be there to greet him. Only then could the gate be closed for the day, and only then were the uchideshi allowed to retire. The length of the day depended on whether the master was home or not.

The other type of uchideshi also lived and trained at the dojo, but their living expenses were provided by their families. Most of them went to college, and so trained in the morning and evening. They were therefore exempted from the work and obligations of the other uchideshi.

The duties and work carried out by the uchideshi, however, were not, as one would expect, strictly obligatory. Rather it was done freely and with a sense of self-discipline. There was sincere gratitude for what was given, and one made oneself available and ready for whatever was needed. One didn’t expect to be assigned a job but found what needed to be done by being fully aware of the total environment of the dojo. Indeed, in this there was a beauty which was in deep accord with Aikido principles.

However, I did not understand the profound part of it then, and hated my situation, particularly when confronted with a job that nobody else would do, so that I had to do it myself! Naturally, the more advanced one was, the less one did, and junior uchideshi were supposed to take over the more menial tasks. A small battle was always going on within me. I often felt angry and frustrated. Until I realized one day that I wasn’t doing this work for anyone but myself, so why should I let it bother me?
Among the work that I tried to concentrate on, besides being a good attendant to O’Sensei, was cleaning the dojo. It gave me a sense of self-cleansing. I was proud to keep the floor as clean as a mirror.

Being involved in and responsible for so much work as an uchideshi at Hombu Dojo, my desire to be with O-Sensei at Iwama (where he had retired to and was living a simple life based on the three principles of religious practice, farming, and Budo) became almost impossible to realize, other than the occasional visit when I escorted him there. I’d then find any excuse to stay longer. This led to an uncomfortable situation with Hombu Dojo and I’d be ordered to return to Tokyo.

Finally, the chance came and I realized my dream, but at a great cost. In the summer of 1960, at a time of extreme exhaustion, I broke my lower spine during a class and had to give up training altogether. It was the most frustrating and unhappy period of my life. I was told by every doctor who treated me that I must give up any physical training for the rest of my life.

I didn’t believe them. Finally, I went to see a doctor who specialized in natural healing based on fasting. He hospitalized me at his clinic for six weeks while I undertook a fast. After my system was cleansed, I was back on my feet again, although with much pain, but this didn’t stop my determination to continue training.

Though I wasn’t ready to return to intense practice, Hombu Dojo granted me a leave of absence and I went at last to Iwama. My injury healed quickly, and I rapidly gained strength while living in the natural environment there. I took part in morning and evening prayers, assisted with the farming, practiced outdoors alone in the woods and stuck closely to O-Sensei.

Life in Iwama was very different from life in Tokyo. I woke before sunrise to prepare for O-Sensei’s morning prayers in three different places. First, outdoors at sunrise. Then at the Aikido shrine. And finally, at the altar in the dojo. The preparations involved getting the first fresh water of the day, placing rice and sea salt on plates, a fresh pine branch in a vase to offer to the gods in the shrine and at the altar for prayer.

After breakfast, our daily work was farming (at that time there was another uchideshi in residence who was there partially as a farming assistant.) Working in the field was especially hard in mid-summer as the temperature sometimes reached 100º F. Professional farmers in the neighborhood tried to avoid laboring during the heat of the day, working instead in the early morning and towards late afternoon. We uchideshi worked throughout the day, as the purpose of farming for us was as much in the endurance as in the farming itself.

Among the many other tasks were the cleaning of the shrine and surrounding areas, the maintenance of the dojo and the Founder’s house, making fertilizer for cultivation, receiving guests, helping in the kitchen, evening training, and taking care of O’Sensei.

Le sanctuaire (Aiki Jinja) à Iwama
Aikido shrine (Aiki Jinja) in Iwama

All uchideshis’ work at Iwama was supervised by Saito Sensei and his wife. Saito Sensei was a longtime senior disciple of O-Sensei, whose loyalty towards him, and the precision of execution in everything he undertook within the dojo, helped sharpen and expand my own awareness. It was from his fine example that I learned a great deal about being a disciple under a master in a Budo discipline.

Being uchideshi involved not only learning and gaining something as a student, but also understanding what might appear to be contrary or in some way irrational.

First of all, one had to surrender individual preferences and discrimination in regard to right and wrong, likes and dislikes. This meant swallowing the whole personality of the master without hesitation. But not in blindness, for it required a total commitment based on free will, together with the strength and determination to maintain that attitude while struggling with the irresistible pull of personal judgment.

Whoever served as O-Sensei’s attendant became aware of his every need without being asked. As a disciple one had to respond to his teaching regardless of the form it might take and at any given moment. An intense battle waged between master and disciple — in many ways it could be likened to the relationship between a sword and its polishing stone. Either element can turn to the other side at any moment. What sustains the relationship is the quest that unifies the two individuals: It could be called love, or the passion that knows no reason.

The first and utmost concern and awareness I had was for O-Sensei’s comfort, safety and health; to provide the best means to achieve that purpose without being told or asked. This awareness and readiness were maintained under any circumstance, day and night, regardless of what the need might be. It required a high degree of alertness and sensitivity and everything had to be executed with a clear presence of mind. The pressure and exhaustion were unbearable for many years until one’s response came out of a normal and natural consciousness.

Being uchideshi was perhaps the most powerful and valuable education I have ever been exposed to. But I can’t recall a single technique that the Founder taught orally, either in execution or in detail. He never explained anything. Rather, I had to observe him as closely as possible to sense what he intended to do. This is the stage where the expression: “seeing is being” becomes a reality. How close one must be to one’s master in order to live such a life. However, it was also necessary to maintain a certain distance from him. An old Japanese expression describes this relationship exactly: “Be three feet behind the master without ever stepping on his shadow.”

I am deeply obliged and grateful for what he gave me, and value highly the tradition and profound knowledge of his method of education, itself a dying form in this modern society.

The morning I left Tokyo for the Port of Sasebo in the Nagasaki prefecture on my way to England, on March 12th, 1966, he was there in the reception room at Hombu dojo, awaiting my farewell visit and celebration before I departed. After all, it was by his order that I was going to England, and it was against my will.

I arrived late as I’d gotten stuck in a traffic jam in Tokyo. He looked very restless and I felt the same way, sensing the long separation that was ahead. He offered me some dried squid and a glass of sake, telling me not to worry about this old man for he would live to be 126 years old, and would await my return. He told me to do my best in England. That was the last time I ever saw him. His words have stuck in my consciousness ever since his death in 1969, and it is only recently that I have begun to sense their significance.

He has been gone a long time now, but I have not lost touch with him and I feel his presence closely in my daily life. I had a dream a few years back when I was troubled by one of my students. O-Sensei appeared and told me, “Don’t worry about him. He is going to be all right.”

I hope that my words here contribute to the endurance of his memory, in the hope that it might help some Aikidoists in their study of the art, even though the manner of learning that I experienced under him is no longer available in this society, even in my own country.

 

[To be continued]

 

T. K. Chiba Shihan – A Life in Aikido

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