Shortly after my arrival at Hombu Dojo, having earned the trust of the small group of foreigners who attended Chiba Sensei’s class on Friday evenings, I learned that some of them had formed a working group to practice privately with him.
This group included several Americans: Paul Sylvain, Lorraine Sylvain-DiAnne, Meik Scoss, Bruce Bookman and Jay Dunkelman; a British woman named Dee Chen, who had been Chiba Sensei’s secretary in the U.K. and followed him to Japan; a Venezuelan woman named Margaret Marcano, who also had studied with Chiba Sensei in Europe, but left the group soon after I joined; and a Scottish couple, Murray and Sheila Walker. Classes were held twice a week in the small dojo on Hombu’s 4th floor, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 p.m. to 3 pm (and very often later).
I clearly remember the intensity of these training sessions. Although I do not recall any physical fear, I still can remember how my knees started to shake wildly while getting changed before class. Many years later, while I was informally talking of various topics with Chiba Sensei, I mentioned that tangible tension building up before and during the classes. He said that he remembered feeling it as soon as he stepped in the dojo. Nevertheless, during all the time we trained in these private classes, I do not remember any accidents, though fights and spilled blood were not unknown.
One day after class, as we were changing into our street clothes, the changing room curtain opened to reveal Chiba Sensei’s head, asking us to get back discreetly to the 4th floor dojo to clean the mat. I noticed then that he had his hakama rolled around his arm. Paul, me, probably Bruce and some other guys, climbed back the steps leading to the dojo, noticing on our way blood drops here and there. We opened the door to the dojo to see a pool of blood covering the tatami. Chiba Sensei had cut his arm while practicing an Iaido technique, which ended up requiring 21 stitches! We had to erase all traces of blood. If Osawa Kisaburo Sensei have learned that Chiba Sensei was training with a sword within Hombu’s wall, we would have all been in deep trouble!
Another time, while class was ending, the dojo intercom system rang. After answering, Chiba Sensei asked us to allow him to end the class earlier than usual. While walking down to the changing rooms, we came across a slightly underweight Japanese man on his way up to the 4th floor. We quietly stayed in the stairwell, keeping an eye on things, and soon the same man came back down the stairs, holding a bloody handkerchief over his mouth. We later asked Chiba Sensei what had happened. “Not much”, he said, just someone who had challenged Doshu. When such things happened, the challenger would be asked to sign a waiver releasing Hombu’s responsibility and the challenge would be faced by someone from either the teaching staff or a deshi. When he arrived on the 4th floor, the man kneeled to bow to Chiba Sensei. When he raised his head again, it encountered Chiba Sensei’s fist and the challenge ended there!
I do not know how often such challenges would occur. I know that they were quite common during Japan feudal period and not unheard of at Hombu. Once when Tamura Sensei was visiting, I happened to accompany him and other Hombu teachers including Endo Sensei, Miyamoto Sensei and Osawa Hayato Sensei to one of the nearby eating holes where we used to hang out on many nights after training. Amid heavy drinking, the conversation turned to the challenges that were issued to the heads of dojos. Endo Sensei asked Tamura Sensei if he had any recollection of such a thing at Hombu when O-Sensei was alive. He answered that he remembered a time when someone came to challenge O-sensei with a sword. As he usually did, O-Sensei sat in front of the Kamiza and appointed Tamura Sensei to stand up and take the challenge. The man took his stance on one side of the dojo while Tamura, terrified, stood on the opposite side. Raising his weapon above his head, the man let out a loud “kiai” and threw himself toward Tamura Sensei, only to get entangled in the folds of his hakama and crash wretchedly in front of everyone, right at Tamura’s feet. Ridiculed but safe, the challenger quickly made his way out. O-Sensei had already left and was back to his adjoining house.
Sometimes, the class was interrupted in a less dramatic and more humorous way. I will always remember an unexpected visit by Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei. To avoid unwanted onlookers and other observers, we always made sure that the door to the dojo was kept closed during the class, but one day, the door cracked open to reveal Yamaguchi Sensei’s head, which soon cried out: “Sō ja nai… Sō ja nai…” (Not this way… Not this way…”). It had to be a Tuesday, when Yamaguchi Sensei taught the 8 o’clock morning class and then usually wandered around the dojo until it was time to go teach an evening class somewhere else in the city. Duly dressed in suit and necktie, he entered the dojo and demonstrated again the part that Chiba Sensei was trying to teach us. Chiba Sensei’s face was all smile, but we were flabbergasted! Then, after a brief conversation with Chiba Sensei and a few words of explanation, he reached for the door and disappeared!