PART II – En Route to England, Volume 1: Leaving Japan

I left the port of Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan, on March 28, 1966, on a six-week voyage across the sea to England. I was the sole passenger in the first-class cabin on board the Al-Sabbiyah (“Little Princess” in Arabic) – a 35,751-ton Kuwaiti oil tanker that was leased to a British company based in Newcastle, England. Mitsuko, her cousin Satako and her father, Mr. Sekiya, were at the port to see me off. I was 26 years old, a fifth dan in Aikido and had been married to Mitsuko for less than three months.

As I stood at the stern of the ship watching the shadow of my homeland fade under the twilight, I felt as if I were in a dream. When the last traces of Japan sank beneath the horizon at nightfall, I suddenly awakened to the reality that I was actually on my way to England – the country about which I had heard so much. The weather, the food, the people and their customs all seemed strange to me, and I did not feel encouraged or interested in experiencing them firsthand. Why was I going there? For what reasons? I had yet to resolve the internal conflict that had plagued my heart and mind for so long. All the events that had been set into motion occurred against my will, and all I could think was, I don’t want to go to England! I did not want to leave my homeland for which I had such profound love and attachment, and I could not bear to leave behind the people for whom I cared deeply and to whom I belonged. I felt as if my heart was breaking.

It all began in April 1964 when Kenshiro Abbe Sensei came back from England and went to Hombu Dojo to pay his respects to O-Sensei. Since his departure from Japan 10 years earlier, Abbe Sensei had successfully established a Judo organization in England, and upon his return had brought with him the chairman of the British Judo Council, Mr. R. Logan. During their meeting with O-Sensei, they requested two things: first, that O-Sensei assign an instructor to head the Aikido division of their organization in England, and second, that he designate a teacher to provide Mr. Logan with private lessons during his stay in Japan. For reasons unknown to me, I was given the task of instructing Mr. Logan – a project which lasted one month. At the time I was unaware that this was the point at which the wheel of my fate began to turn for good or ill.

Kenshiro Abbe Sensei (12/15/1915 – 12/1/1985)

In the summer of 1965 – several months after I had provided Mr. Logan with private lessons – he and Abbe Sensei indicated to O-Sensei that they wanted me to be the instructor assigned to England. O-Sensei happily gave his consent, but when I heard of his decision, I was not so happy. I was very concerned that the English climate might aggravate the serious spinal injury I had suffered a few years previously. After enduring intense fasting I had managed to recover sufficiently to resume training, but I still suffered from severe headaches and unremitting back pain with concurrent numbness in my leg. My own experience told me that cold, damp weather was my worst enemy.
Throughout the few months following O-Sensei’s decision to send me to England I traveled back and forth between Tokyo and Abbe Sensei’s family home in Kyoto to prepare my contract and to gather information regarding the situation of Aikido in Britain. By the end of September 1965, the contact was completed and signed by Abbe Sensei as the president of the B.J.C., by Mr. Logan as its chairman, by me as the new head of its Aikido division, and by Tadashi Abbe Sensei, signing as witness. The contract provided me with assurance of the necessary visa and work permits, an after-tax salary of 60 pounds per month, two weeks paid holiday per year, health insurance, sponsorship of Mitsuko to join me in one year and a two year renewal option to be agreed upon by both parties after the first three years. The contract was the first of its kind to be established between Hombu Dojo and an outside organization for the purpose of sending an Aikido instructor to teach abroad.

One week before my departure to England, my elder brother and I went to Hombu Dojo so that I could say goodbye to my teacher. We had gotten stuck in the morning traffic in Tokyo and had arrived at the dojo much later than expected. O-Sensei was waiting for me in the reception room, and when I sensed his impatience, I felt bad and ashamed. He filled our cups with cold sake and presented some grilled dried squid he had prepared for us. We exchanged a farewell “kampai”. He looked at me gently, and said, “Don’t you ever worry about me – I am going to be all right, and I will live up to 126 years of age.” His mysterious words haunted my consciousness for many years, until one day long after his death their meaning was suddenly revealed to me, and I finally understood completely. Then, and only then, was my mind at peace with the death of my master.

Chiba Sensei with O-Sensei shortly before his departure for UK

As I stood on the stern of the ship contemplating the events of the previous two years, I knew it was futile to continue asking myself why I was going to England. Ever since the decision had first been made, I had struggled again and again with the question of why and every time I came to the conclusion: I must push away all my personal preferences and desires and surrender myself to the will of my teacher – a will that must be obeyed at all cost and regardless of personal sacrifice. I stood there for many hours, watching and thinking. The sea was calm, and low clouds covered the horizon at all points. The only sound I could hear was the crashing of the huge, white-capped waves that rose up from the sea like small mountains in the wake of the ship as it surged through the dark waters. I could see no stars in the sky that night. I recalled more of the major events that had taken place in the few months before my departure.

On January 15, 1966, I put an end to seven years of life as an uchideshi at Hombu Dojo, and married Mitsuko (See note 1). Following the ceremony, the reception banquet was held at the Tokyo Keyo Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku. O-Sensei was the guest of honor at the banquet, along with Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei (Waka Sensei) and his wife, who had functioned as the matchmaker in our marriage arrangement. Almost every major Aikido teacher in Japan was present, including Koichi Tohei, Shigenobu Okumura, Kisaburo Osawa, Seigo Yamaguchi, Sadateru Arikawa and Tadashi Abe Senseis, to mention a few, plus nearly every chief instructor of the branch dojos throughout the whole country. The date of the wedding reception had been purposely chosen to fall on the day of Hombu Dojo’s annual New Year Kagamibiraki celebration, when most of the chief instructors of the branch dojos gather in Tokyo for the occasion. Masando Sasaki Sensei and a close friend of mine, Mr. Yasunari Kitaura, jointly presided over the reception, and all of both my and Mitsuko’s family members were present, with the exception of my mother.

Chiba Sensei’s wedding – From left to right: Kisshomaru Doshu, Chiba Sensei, Mitsuko Sekiya-Chiba

After the reception, I took Mitsuko to Obama, Fukui Prefecture, to see Harada Tangen Roshi – my Zen master and the head abbot of Bukkokuji. Tangen Roshi lived in a small temple built next to the monastery and was attended there by his disciple, Yamahata Hogen who became a lifelong friend of mine. Obama is a simple fishing village with a magnificent beautiful shoreline on the Sea of Japan. The winters there are deathly cold with heavy snows and frequent blizzards blowing across the sea from Siberia. The four of us: Tangen Roshi, Yamahata, Mitsuko and I, went for a walk on the shoreline in the middle of a blizzard, afterward enjoying hot sake and singing songs throughout the night.
One month after my wedding, on February 15, 1966, my mother passed away at a hospital near her home. She had been in a coma for one week following the onset of acute heart failure. She was 56 years old. I was standing at her bedside when she took her last breath, and when I saw a single teardrop slide down her cheek, I knew she was gone forever. I carried her home on my knees in a taxi.

Hogen Yamahata

As I stood as the stern of the ship in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere in the wide open sea, trying to gather all the memories of my mother as far back as I could remember, I was suddenly struck by overwhelming sorrow and terror as I realized that I was largely responsible for her illness and untimely death.

My earliest memory of her was from the time when I was 4 years old. My mother and I were visiting my grandmother in Mukojima, Sumida district, Tokyo, during which time my mother unexpectedly gave birth to my younger brother. My grandmother was out walking one day when she heard a huge commotion nearby. Much to her surprise, she found me in the middle of the fray, fighting off about half a dozen kids by myself. She rushed to intervene and rescued me from the melee. She took me back to her home and sat me down next to the futon where my mother was resting. My mother raised her head from the pillow and watch me as my grandmother recounted the whole shocking story. I still vaguely remember her pale, sorrowful face, but I can’t recall what she said to me that day. After that incident, my mother was routinely called to the principal’s office of my junior school to hear about other episodes of my violent behavior. Every time she came back home from one of those meetings, she would sit me down by the fireplace and lecture me while tears streamed from her eyes. Despite her suffering and efforts to civilize me, I never changed my behavior. I saw everything around me – home, school, community, and all people – as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and I could not make sense of it. To me, there was nothing else I could do but resist and revolt against them all. I know in my heart that martial arts saved my life; otherwise and without a doubt, I probably would have ended up as a gangster or a terrorist.

Within my sense of helplessness and guilt about my mother, the one thing that eased the heaviness in my heart was the fact that I knew she loved Mitsuko from the first moment she saw her. My mother was very happy about my marriage to Mitsuko and she treated her as though she were her own daughter – like the daughter she had lost at the age of 3. It was Mitsuko who stayed at my mother’s bedside and tenderly cared for her from the day she lapsed into a coma until her death a week later.
The sheer number and impact of the changes I had experienced – starting with Kenshiro Abbe Sensei’s visit to Hombu Dojo and ending with my standing on the deck of the Al-Sabbiyah – were difficult for me to comprehend. I was at the threshold of a future I had not previously imagined, and how it would unfold was impossible to know. I told myself that this was only the beginning, and, whatever else happened, I must detach myself from all that I had left behind.

Toward the evening of the second day of the voyage, the ship entered the South China Sea and I watched the Island of Taiwan as it faded into the distance. Soon after, I spotted a couple of U.S. submarines – their weird, blackish metal bodies gleamed in the bright sun, and my body tightened as I sensed the darkening clouds of war over Vietnam.

[To be continued]


T. K. Chiba Shihan – A Life in Aikido

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