PART IV – The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The year 1967 ushered in changes so profound that the whole of my life continued to be influenced by the events of that time. Prior to the first signs of change I had suffered countless sleepless nights beset by anxiety, anger and depression, struggling over the question of whether I should just forget it all and return to Japan.

This state of mind did nothing at all to help the terrible spinal pain that continued to worsen in the cold and damp of the British Isles, so on top of all the unpleasant events that had occurred since my arrival in Britain, my health issues became in my mind the strongest and most pressing justification for my return home. I desperately racked my brain for any possible way out of my hopeless situation. I finally came to the conclusion that to go back to Japan now would bring nothing but disgrace upon me, and so I must stand firm and face all challenges squarely.

By the end of March, I had finally saved and borrowed enough money to send Mitsuko back to Japan. I remember the day I saw her off at London Heathrow Airport – it was a cold day with a strong, northerly wind, the kind of day that would normally be miserable for me, but I felt strangely content. I had lightened my burden of responsibility and attained a greater freedom of movement to prepare for the battles ahead. While riding the train back to Newcastle I was astonished by a weather pattern that appeared at sunset: One half of the landscape was deluged in a spring snowstorm, while the other half was clear and bathed in sunlight. I felt the image to be accurately symbolic of my circumstances.

Some weeks after Mitsuko left for Japan, I accepted an invitation from the British Judo Council to present a 30-minute Aikido demonstration on May 6th at the Crystal Palace in London. I took with me two former Karate students from Sunderland who were barely fourth kyu and had never before taken demonstration ukemi in front of a crowd that large.

The students were both only 18 years old, in excellent physical condition and able to take anything I gave, hence making for very alive and dynamic encounters. I did not know it at the time, but that demonstration left a very strong impression on a particular spectator who subsequently played a large role in opening new horizons for my life in Britain.

On June 11th I met a fellow student of O-Sensei’s, Masamichi Noro, while he was on one of his regular visits to the Renown Aikido Society (RAS) in London and we traveled together to Birmingham for a joint course that had been organized by the now late Mr. Ralph Reynolds – a former student of Professor Abbe and the central Aikido figure in the Midlands (near Birmingham). Noro Sensei and I performed a demonstration on television in which we executed a knife defense using my personal tanto as an attack weapon.

On that occasion I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Bill J. Smith of West Midlands who, at the time, was barely a second kyu, but who later became the leading teacher of the entire Midlands area. He invited Noro Sensei and I to his house for dinner, where his entire family treated us like honored guests. I clearly remember our abundant meal was topped off with Irish coffee – I had never tasted coffee so delicious before and, if I recall correctly, I believe I drank three or four glasses of it. Noro Sensei and I then traveled together to a weekend course in Sunderland accompanied by the head of the RAS, Mr. K. Williams.

William Smith Shihan (1929-2006)

In early August I received an envelope from Noro Sensei containing 20 pounds for a train ticket and a note inviting me to join him in Paris for some relaxation. I was deeply moved by his kindness – I am certain he observed me barely surviving from day-to-day and was compassionate enough to act as my senpai (senior). I spent the month of October living in Noro Sensei’s dojo in Paris – the timing of which was very good, considering the fact that my visa was just about to expire, and I had to get out of the country in order to renew. I enjoyed my stay in Paris – it reminded me a lot of my hometown in Tokyo. I could not possibly follow everything that was happening, so I just enjoyed being in the middle of the
whirl of lively energy and activity. I often felt as though I was a spectator in a live theater – just observing the people without bothering anyone or involving myself in anything. That attitude served me well; however, there arose one occasion wherein I was drawn into a situation of conflict against my will.

In general, the lives of the first generation of Japanese teachers who went abroad were marked by economic hardship, and Noro Sensei’s circumstances in Paris were no different. The membership of his dojo was not small; however, the students’ dues barely covered the expenses of a full-time school. More than once, Noro Sensei and I had little more on which to survive than a handful of boiled spaghetti covered with ketchup.

Fortunately, Noro Sensei was very skilled at cards and mahjong, so he frequently supplemented his income with gambling. His “victims” were mostly Japanese corporate men on business in Paris or art students from well-to-do families. One night, Noro Sensei decided he would like to play cards at a
nearby club. I accompanied him and sat in the bar drinking beer while he gambled in another room.

All of a sudden I heard Noro Sensei loudly calling my name, and I rushed into the card room to find two men – one young and one old – savagely fighting each other.

Exhibiting typical senpai behavior, Noro Sensei waved me over toward them, indicating that I was expected to somehow take care of the problem. By the time I got to them, the older man was down and bleeding on the floor while the younger man repeatedly kicked him. I grabbed the younger man by the back of his collar and told him to stop, at which point he turned and began to scream at me in unintelligible French. Noro Sensei suggested that I take the man outside, so I grabbed his right arm above the elbow (I assumed he was right-handed) and forcibly pulled him out the back door into the alley.

The details of the next few seconds were a bit blurry… all I remember is seeing his body flying over me in a horizontal position – a perfect execution of osotogari (frontal leg sweep into breakfall). As his body hit the street I heard the sharp crack of metal striking stone, and realized that not only had he pulled a knife with his free hand (he was apparently left-handed), but that my own body had responded instinctively to the impending attack before I could actually see it coming. I sat on top of his belly, grabbed the front of his shirt, and banged his head on the street a few times until he was helpless.

After observing our encounter, and still in his role of senpai, Noro Sensei simply commented that my response to the attack was actually a Judo technique and he directed me to return the man’s knife to him. As small an incident as it may have seemed, it provided me with insight valuable to my martial studies, and since then I have continued to work toward penetrating its core teaching. Reflecting upon the fight brought me to a realization of O-Sensei’s teachings on tacit communication, and I came to understand that those teachings had probably just saved my life.

Masamichi Noro Shihan (1935-2013)

After a month in Paris I returned to Sunderland with renewed energy, and within a few weeks of my return I received an astonishing letter from London. The writer identified himself as a Mr. Iyengar – an Indian businessman working in a London-based corporation who had been practicing Aikido for a number of years in the company of his Greek friend, Mr. Stavrou. In his letter he spoke of how deeply impressed he was by my demonstration at the Crystal Palace in May and requested that I consider relocating to London to teach Aikido. He offered his personal sponsorship of me and a new dojo, saying, “Your dojo and mats will all be ready if you would like to move to London.”

Words could not express how happy and excited I was by his offer, and at last I began to glimpse the light at the end of what had seemed a long, dark tunnel. Thinking about this new partnership caused me to remember the strength of a karmic bond I had with another Indian man – the crewmate aboard the Al-Sabbiyah who with me had gotten involved in a dispute with the British officers as we sailed from Japan to England.

To this day I do not know what has become of him, nor do I have any means of finding out, but I do still feel that connection with him.

P.S. During my most recent reunion with Noro Sensei in Paris last year, I returned to him the 20 pounds he had sent to me so many years ago. He did not remember the incident; however, he did remember the back-alley fight with the enraged Frenchman, and his stinging criticism of my counterattack as being a judo technique.

I had not heard the story before our reunion, but according to Noro Sensei, the Frenchman with whom I had fought was a member of a local gang that was hated and despised by the inhabitants and business-owners in the neighborhood. After word of our fight got out, Noro Sensei’s dojo suddenly became quite popular and many new members signed up for lessons, so in a way, I had already repaid him the cost of the boiled spaghetti I owed him, and we laughed together over the amazing turns of events in our lives.

When I reflect on those times, I often feel a sense of loss over the decline of the Japanese senpai-kohai relationship and the culture of tacit understanding that lies at the heart of my cultural tradition. I fear these things are facing extinction along with many other beautiful values that provided a powerful and necessary bond between my people for many centuries.

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