Interview to Shihan Sakanashi Masafumi: The legacy of a master

Interview to Shihan Sakanashi Masafumi: The legacy of a master

By Pequeños Universos

In September, when we founded Pequeños Universos, a blog dedicated to the philosophy and practice of aikido, one of the first things we contemplated was the opening of a section featuring interviews with grand masters, and after that, we busied ourselves producing the contents of that and other sections. Even though we had compiled a long list of candidates to be interviewed, we knew that the first interview that would come to light would be  the one with our own Sensei- Shihan. We were not able to begin the interviews, however, until the first week of January; one week after shinnen-geiko. Our first conversation with Sakanashi Shihan took place on Saturday in the office of Seiki Dojo, previous to Sensei’s scheduled class, and lasted about 40 min. Some days later, we shared an informal dinner with Sensei. I will never forget our conversation in that restaurant: the liveliness of his gestures, the frank and generous spirit shown in answering our questions, treating us as though we were equals. Our second conversation lasted approximately 60 minutes and took place near the central office of the C.D.A., before a special class honoring Sensei’s graduation to 7th dan. There are people in the world whose words don’t go unnoticed. Sensei Sakanashi was one of those people. Recalling those meetings with him brings back many images: the energy concentrated in his hands, the depth of harmony in his eyes, his smile. In our conversations we spoke on such varied topics as the beginning of his practice in Japan, his life as a student, his principal teachers and classmates, the origins of the C.D.A., his methodology of teaching through the years, the objective one should pursue in practice, the openings and closings of new schools and also the health benefits of aikido. With the purpose of conserving the fresh and spontaneous nature of our conversations, we have respected the order in which these subjects were discussed. We would like to dedicate this interview to the countless students who have had contact with Sensei during the last 34 years. In addition and with profound respect we dedicate this to his family and loved ones. Thank you Sensei, you will always be with us.

1st. part. January 7th. 2012.

When did you first learn about O Sensei and  the discipline of aikido?
The truth is that during O Sensei’s time I knew nothing of him or aikido. I had been practising judo since I was 9, and after that, I began with karate. I travelled to Japan to practise with the Kyokushinkai school, which has a very strong style. At the same time I was studying at the College of Judo & Chiropractice where I continued to practise judo. It was only because of a health condition related to my heart that I had to give up both judo and karate. I tried a bit of tai-chi as well as other activities before I finally found aikido, but the connection didn’t come about through O Sensei himself, but rather because I enjoyed watching  the aikido  classes being given at Honbu Dojo, that’s all.  From the very start, I had a strong martial connection with the roughest forms of karate, and the whole bit of the hakama, plus the seemingly “hand-holding” attacks, were a joke to me. Nonetheless, having no other option on account of my health, I chose aikido. Time passed and I was able to meet Yamaguchi Sensei, who, at 8th dan, was one of the strongest teachers at Honbu. It was fascinating to watch during practice how he would be attacked again and again and he would send the ukes flying without hardly moving. Anyway, as I knew judo and the ukemi, I made rapid headway. The techniques never gave me any problem, maybe for this reason I was able to advance quite rapidly.

Sakanashi sensei at his 22 years old, practicing at Kuwamori Dojo.

How long did it take you to obtain 1st dan?
Less than 2 1/2 years. It passed very quickly.

How often did you practise?
Every day and, when my health was better, two or three classes per day. Watching  Yamaguchi sensei, for me, was like seeing the other face of what is martial. The face of karate was one of rigidity, one of knocking down a wall with one hand. The face of aikido was one of mystery. I just couldn’t understand how attackers went flying or were held immobilized on the tatami. It was a fascinating thing that I couldn’t begin to fathom and that was the beginning of my search.

Was there ever a time when you didn’t believe in the movements of aikido?
To be honest there was a time when I didn’t believe in any of the movements. At first it seemed ridiculous that all the attackers would jump away, until I got my own wrist grabbed, and then I could see the reason was hidden in the breakfalls. It’s logical, of course; from the outside one has the custom of judging something before doing it and afterwards, it is seen in a different light. Aikido has taught me not to judge. In the past I used to judge everything… karate is like this: someone attacks, you avoid the blow and then respond with a deadly tsuki, whereas in aikido when attacked you respond by joining and uniting. It’s completely opposite thinking.

You spoke of how it is to be a spectator of aikido. It happens that often when we introduce aikido to people their reactions are mixed.
Personally I think that there are three types of people in the world. First, there are those that know the world is changing. Second, those who know but couldn’t care less. Third, those who know the world is in transformation and are doing something to harmonize with its movement. We who practice aikido are among that group. We know there is an elemental change in humanity being generated by people’s own necessity.   We can express this concept better if we use the word “tendency”. One kind of tendency is molded by society. Fashion, for example, is something that people can identify with: wearing one’s hair in a certain color or length. One can wear a jacket with 2 buttons or 3. Things like that. The other kind of “tendency “, which is at a much deeper level, molds society and everything that goes with it, things like the culture of work and the way of life. For this reason I think that aikido can become a tendency for people to become less competitive. Thirty or forty years ago many people tried to solve conflicts with violence. They said “He is strong; therefore I will train harder, to face him, to fight and win.” This was the typical thinking four decades ago. Later there began a change, an evolution in that deeper “tendency” of which I spoke.

Going back to your beginnings as an aikidoka,… Can we say that you consider Yamaguchi sensei as your principal mentor or was there another?
I began to practice with Kuwamori sensei. He was my first instructor but his mentor was Yamaguchi sensei. Because of this I follow his ideas and principles.

When you were a student what did you pay attention to the most in class?
To me the most interesting thing was the discovery of what it is to take or control the “center” of one’s opponent. That for me was the most astounding thing, how one could  touch the center and move him from that point. It was something spectacular to see and somewhat frustrating not be able to do that.

Did you feel this “center” when you were uke? Did you look for it based on that?
I felt it, yes, but to control it was a different matter, and yet it was still only training, lots and lots of training, until one finally says “Look! This is it!”

At that time did they ever speak about respiration? Were the details of the techniques explained as you do today?
The fact is that Yamaguchi sensei never explained anything. No one ever explained anything. At that time I was 2nd dan and to speak or to ask a question to an 8th dan was something that wasn’t permitted. Luckily sensei Kuwamori would ask Yamaguchi sensei and in this way I could get an answer.

Was it considered to be rude or too informal to ask a question?
No; it wasn’t that. It was simply that it wasn’t done. It was impossible for lower ranking aikidokas to speak to instructors of a very high rank. That was the culture. Today when Kato sensei comes  to give a seminar at our school you can ask him anything and he will answer. This would never have happened 40 years ago. Things have changed, at least in this part of the world.

Was there any written material about aikido and the founder or was it all action and practice?
I didn’t know much about O Sensei but when I came to Argentina I practised with students of Kurata sensei. They taught me a lot about the theory of aikido. They spoke of O Sensei in Japan but there was nothing that I read about him. When one asked a lot of questions, they answered by telling one to practise; if you don’t practise you’ll never understand. One cannot develop the concept of aikido without actual practice. In those first years in Argentina there were some who grabbed harder and couldn’t be moved. I questioned the theory of KI. It all seemed such a farce and I didn’t want to hide behind a theory that others held to, but in the end they couldn’t use. This was the worst of it, but afterwards things started to change.

In light of the fact that you have written 3 books please describe the experience of writing about something that fundamentally must be shown to be understood.
The books were published to form a part of the transmission of aikido. They are, for the most part, for beginners and people who don’t practice. The idea is that they can be read and, through this contact, people can see what’s different about aikido and discover their own interest. Of course, they can be read by more advanced students as well. Truthfully, I don’t have the ability to be a writer. Professor Pinkler helped me to compile on paper what I wanted to transmit. Please understand that to teach and give classes is already enough for me and this is where my ability lies. The fact is that I have very good students that help me in everything I do.
Your blog is an example of this because, thanks to what you are doing, aikido is being transmitted to others. Aikido is something we all do together. It’s not something I did in the past and transmit now. It’s something that we all help to develop. For example, the books with the effort of Professor Pinkler, the dojo, affiliate dojos, you and everyone else; we all grow together. This is the beauty of aikido: no one can do it alone. We all need each other.

When you were practising in Japan, did you make friends or did you feel lonely?
There were groups of aikidoka of the same rank, the same as here. If you remember when you began, ask yourself how many finally reached blackbelt. There were twenty of us that used to go out for meals. We’d go to the soba shops or the bar on the corner near the dojo, to talk about what we had done and what we hadn’t done, what had gone well and what hadn’t and the things we couldn’t put up with in general.

The intensity that characterized to Sakanashi sensei in those years at Kuwamori Dojo.

The conversations were  mostly about practice then?
We spoke every day. There was never a time when we were not speaking about aikido. But the problem is that, as time goes by, there are less and less of one’s own group practising, until there might only be one left. What has happened to me is that I don’t have anyone of the group I practised with at that time. This is very common. In the CDA for every 1000 that start, only one makes it through to blackbelt. The determination that it is necessary to reach blackbelt, and then to discover that one has only taken the first step and must continue practising and learning is had by few. For every 100 who reach 1st dan, only one reaches 4th dan.

You observe that many who reach 1st dan soon abandon aikido.  Why is that?
Do you know why that happens? It’s because they don’t set their sights on another objective. Let me tell you a story in the two minutes before class. In 1960 J. F. Kennedy became president of the USA. The NASA was given the mandate of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Scientists, pilots and the teams that worked with them, from those who served coffee to the most important professionals, all shared the same goal. In 1969 that goal was achieved. The following year, though, NASA found itself in a terrible crisis. Illness plagued its personnel. There were even suicides as well. The problem wasn’t that man had reached the moon. That had been achieved by collective effort and concluded. Once that first astronaut had reached the moon, there was nothing else to be done. The goal had been accomplished and the job finished. Many make the effort to reach blackbelt only to ask themselves, why? What purpose does it serve? What good does it do me? My idea is that to reach 1st dan is to only begin to practice, because only from that point one is able to understand what aikido really is.

That is to say that many practise with the wrong idea…
If the idea of reaching blackbelt is to show everyone else, then, yes, it’s wrong. But what happens after that? When one understands and interprets the benefit of reaching that level, then the path commences. If the context is observed in this way, then the purpose of the achievement is clear. The fact is that the uncertainty that comes with reaching blackbelt is quite common, because an amount of objectivity is lost when one focuses so strongly on something.

We’ve heard you say that to “take the center” is fundamental. Our question is: How do we know when it happens?
One doesn’t know until it happens. But when one is able to achieve it, what fun it is to be able to immobilize an opponent, but the truth is that it’s necessary to know how it’s done

2nd part. February 4th. 2012.

During your visits to Japan or at seminars, here or abroad, have you ever met up with any fellow students from your earlier days? If so, how did it go?
Since returning from Japan I ran into Hector Flores, who is a student of Kurata sensei. We practiced at Kobukan Dojo, which at that time was located at Tucuman and Montevideo streets in Buenos Aires. And not too long ago, Yasuno sensei was here. Yasuno sensei is my senpai. We practised a lot together in the classes of Yamaguchi sensei. Today of course, he is a grand master. From that time also, comes the present Doshu; Ueshiba Moriteru Doshu who is 4 years older than I.

What memories do you have of practicing with Yasuno sensei?
Yasuno sensei was very efficient and practical as a person, and this was reflected in his technique. I repeat that we were all concentrating very hard on finding how to take the center and to utilize what was being shown by Yamaguchi sensei, and I don’t really have any specific memories of anyone, because we were concentrating so much on learning the techniques that we weren’t paying much attention to each other. The practice was so absorbing, at least that’s what happened to me. What’s more, when I returned to Buenos Aires this is the only thing I practised in the first ten years. I was teaching, but at the same time practising what I had learned with Yamaguchi sensei. I had nothing else on my mind.

What does it mean for you to organize and participate in seminars given by the CDA or around the world?
In the early years, when I first arrived in Argentina, my idea was to work in the style of Yamaguchi sensei, that is, very closed. I soon realized that no one understood. At that time, there were three of us that were the principal teachers of aikido here: Miyazawa sensei, Kurata sensei and myself. The technique of Kurata sensei was the exact opposite of mine, very open. It wasn’t that we didn’t understand each other, it’s just that our individual technique was so different. This situation soon led to a break-up. He is my senpai and I respect him as such, but I can’t acquiesce to his way of working. Today all the aikido that is practised in Argentina originates from the three of us. The name given is not important, I represent so and so, doesn’t matter. Argentine aikido always retains the seed of one of us three. Except for those who feel that it came from the outside.

The difference that I see between what I’m telling you and seminars is this. When I started teaching techniques in Yamaguchi sensei’s style, it was difficult to convey what the center was to beginners, that was when I decided to work the other way around, beginning with a more open technique and progressively closing it. What was I doing? Looking for different ways of teaching all the time. Here’s an example: Nikkyo. I demonstrated it by using four distinct variations from very closed to very open. This way, most of the students could interpret the technique in their own fashion. I also taught shihonage in this form. I showed the different variations according to how the class was made up. First, open, then, closing and for my most advanced students, even more closed. It was this way for the first ten years.

Examining board composed of Miyazawa sensei, Kurata sensei and Sakanashi sensei. Aikido Pioneers in Argentina.

…And you continued to experiment in this?
Absolutely. It was a way of seeing how students could learn at a faster rate but there is a point against this: with movements so open, the technique ceases to be thought of as a fighting art and begins to appear as simple dance or a gym exercise that could not be respected by others practising martial arts. I’m speaking of the years 1978-1980.

Something choreographed…?
Yes. Very choreographed exactly. Aikido wasn’t respected by other martial arts and we had to change that idea in order for them to see what aikido really was. I put an emphasis on techniques that were very closed and after that I believe that opinion  changed. For those who don’t know the difference between an open and a closed technique, I want to explain that the more closed a technique is, the less movement there is. The movement gets smaller and smaller to the point that it’s difficult to identify. It looks as if the nage doesn’t move and yet the uke goes flying. This causes a lot of surprise to spectators.

In the seminars of Kato Hiroshi shihan, what you’re saying becomes evident; the technique is so closed that it’s hard to ascertain the movements.
That’s right. Kato shihan’s technique is very closed and for this reason it’s interesting  to have masters like him.

Can you say that you continue learning at seminars? What’s the connection?
I learn a lot at seminars and I hope my students do, too. In my early days of practice things were much different. In seminars nowadays, they teach you everything, from how to grab to where to stand, distance, etc. Before, that never happened. All you could do was to observe and learn from that. If not, you lost.

You had to use the concentration you were speaking of…
A lot of attention is required to be able to learn. These days we’re too accustomed to being taught everything and to immediate results. We can ask ourselves if this is a good thing or not. Some of this is good, but the result is that students don’t have to pay as much attention. In aikido practice, one has to be very observant, concentrating on the movements, analysing the different positions of the feet, distance between uke and nage, the force, the intention. Finally, one has to interpret all this into sensation. One has to feel it. This need for internalizing the technique to a fine detail keeps the process slow. Likewise, if they teach us everything, if they show us every detail, what happens is that we learn much faster but we remain empty. Which brings us back to what is good and bad about seminars. First of all, when different masters come, students have the possibility to see different ways of practising a certain technique and they can see there is no “one way” but many. The students can learn from a variety of masters with their differences in style. In this way, aikido is enriched. If I wanted to simply forge a group of students around me, I would never bring masters from outside. I would lock my students up and tell them that my aikido was the only way. But as I don’t desire to own my students, I work by showing methodically all aspects of aikido and the students have the right to choose. This way seems the best. There are some students that practised with me years ago, who are now practising with others and I think that’s fine. I don’t want to practise with someone a lifetime only to hear them say later that there was a problem. What’s the sense of staying together. It’s logical that if we practise the same thing, we want to be on the same side. That’s what I’m looking for and that’s what my students are looking for: to share the same path. However, if we share this path only in search of a promotion, then it’s better if we are not together, as any teacher would give it just the same. Open-mindedness is essential in practising deep and developed aikido. Seminars are vital to this process. My concern is not just a matter of bringing a master, there is the consideration of how this particular master will affect that group for at least 3 to 5 years. How will the students be enriched? How will the seed develop? It’s not as simple as it seems. It’s necessary to bring the same master so that the students can observe on more than one occasion the idiosyncracies  transmitted. In this way, the seed in each student can continue to develop with time. My work is to organize seminars, so that all of you can be enriched by them to have the most open mind possible.

Tell us about founding the CDA. What year did you establish the first dojo?
The first dojo was founded in 1978. I came to Argentina in June of that year. After that, we opened in Burzaco, which is now the central dojo. That’s how the CDA was born. Aikikai Sakanashi Dojo was the first dojo in our country devoted exclusively to aikido. What happened was that I didn’t inform Japan, out of respect to my superiors here; Kurata sensei was here 10 years before me, and it was the same with Miyazawa sensei. At that time, they were giving their classes in a sports club and not in a private dojo as the one I had established. As it turned out, my dojo had been functioning almost 11 years before I declared it.

Tachi dori by Sakanashi sensei in his Dojo on Burzaco. Buenos Aires. Argentine.

Do you still have any students from that time?
Yes; Omar Parma is one that I’ve had from that time. Celestino Ferro and his son Leandro, Claudio Herrera, almost all the 4th and 5th dans are from that time. Many  have stopped practising too, but that’s logical. During all this, I have been learning how to teach, gaining experience; more were able to arrive to 1st dan through mutual effort.  Some of them are still on the path with me.

Regarding aikido and health… what are the some of the benefits that you feel it gives us?
I can tell you hundreds of stories about the benefits of aikido on health. Many people have recovered their health through practice. Nonetheless, it is my opinion that more than curing people, aikido magnifies the capabilities of people. This isn’t to say that it makes them good or bad. Quoting Luis Cabral, “he who is stupid here is stupid there”. Nothing changes. Therefore, he who is bad, he who is a cheat, whatever the mentality, will not change because of aikido. What produces the change is that the person will have the will, through aikido, to change himself. People who love aikido begin to change because they also love themselves. They say “I like this” and try to change to continue practising. Now, if we delve deeper into the whys and hows of aikido’s beneficial influence on our mental attitude, we see that for all the talk of non-competition, one usually begins by competing and this attitude lasts at least until arriving to 1st dan. Some lose this tendency, while others need longer to pass through this stage. The change occurs when we go to the dojo leaving our egos aside and try to practice in a more relaxed manner, less tense. For some, this never happens. They have the attitude that now they’ve reached black belt, no one can move them. This keeps the ego working and that’s why I say that aikido doesn’t change the person; however, if a person wants to keep the ego working in order to change or modify it, through aikido this can be done. When one has relations with others, there is a need to put up with them and understand them more. We can demonstrate this through Katate-tori: If one grabs another and the other doesn’t move, the situation can be interpreted in various ways: the nage might think that he’s so strong that no one can move him or he might equally think that even though he’s got a higher rank and he’s stronger, he will use his  strength to help the other to improve the technique. If he uses his strength so as to prevent the other from completing the technique, then the only thing achieved is to feed the ego. Even though we look at the same tower we all hear the bells differently.

A dojo is by definition a place in which paths are found…nonetheless, we see more dojos opening every day as a result of separations from bigger schools. Are these separations really necessary or do they occur naturally as a way of forming new unions?
It’s not new dojos that are opening, it’s new schools and these separations aren’t natural. Any student that doesn’t recognize his master or wants to establish his own school or wants to represent someone from abroad doesn’t understand what learning really is and it’s because he’s breaking the cardinal rule of not recognizing his parents. A mother or father can have certain defects, whereas other parents might have certain virtues, but the child doesn’t change one for the other. Your parents are your parents for life. In martial arts it’s the same. These are the people who helped you take your first steps, your first breakfalls. It’s the same thing. We might disagree with our parents but it’s a terrible mistake to blame others instead of being able to modify and change ourselves. When we follow our own ego we say we only understand this or that  to the point that we leave our masters to represent someone else.

The ego that you speak of is the cause of the recent separations?
Ego and ambition. It’s a shame but many people, when they separate and open their own schools, do so with only 20 or 30 students who follow them. They think that with this action, they become masters in their dojos. I call this “King frog in a puddle”, because in their puddle they’re the king. In the dojo everyone says “I saw you in the seminar and you are the best” and the king frog answers majestically: “Do you really think so?”, and because of this he thinks he can open his own school. What’s the difference between having 2000 students and having thirty? The kind of act which we are speaking of is guided only by the ego and can destroy people who have dedicated their lives to aikido. At the same time, the attitude of constantly flattering the sensei for a higher rank is equally bad. These are the people with the lowest compromise with aikido. They only try to feed the ego of their masters for their own benefit. After the initial infatuation with aikido wears off, it becomes another activity, for example, like swimming, with little compromise except for personal gain. If the sensei doesn’t recognize these things, the students won’t either.

Did this process of separations happen during O Sensei’s time, too?
It’s something that always occurs whenever humans are present. O Sensei really never had many students at the same time. He had close to ten that he raised himself but no more.

There were other schools that established themselves out of the orbit of the Aikikai, weren’t there?
Yes, but here there is a problem with interpretation and concept. In Japan there is an expression “tatemae, honne”. Honne (本音) is what I think in my hara and Tatemae (建前) is a thought dressed in diplomacy. In the case of Iwama, Saito sensei cared for O Sensei until his death. It’s true that Iwama was an independent establishment, but that being said, Saito sensei always followed the rules that were set down by O Sensei himself. There might have been disagreements with headquarters, but the respect (tatemae) was always there. Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, O Sensei’s son, also maintained and defended the rules of O Sensei and prepared everything for the current Doshu. In the case of  KI-Aikido, it is different. Tohei sensei was a relative of O Sensei. Maybe it had more to do with a family rivalry than with aikido. This was when aikido was beginning to take off. And there is the case of Yoshinkan, which was one of the first independent “breakaways” to open, and nothing could be done about it. I imagine that today in Japan there are countless schools using O Sensei’s teaching and not necessarily in the Aikikai Federation. It’s a free world, but I truly believe that our work is to defend the tendency of Ueshiba sensei. The Aikikai does that. I believe in that.

Do you have any concluding thoughts for us before we share in this class celebrating your promotion?
It was Kato sensei who recommended me for promotion to 7th dan. I think that after so many years of seeing me as 6th dan, he said it was time that I graduated to 7th (laughing). I think he felt sorry for me and made this petition to the Doshu and Osawa Hayato sensei of Hombu Dojo and it was accepted. The merit wasn’t mine. The only merit was consistency and having been here all this time, always teaching, nothing else. I doubt that from now on I’ll be able to pick up a truck or throw a car. You are a good 1st dan when you are a second one and a good second one when you are a third dan, and so on. You can ask me in 15 or 20 years when I’m 8th what it’s like to be 7th. In the meantime it’s not so important.

Sakanashi sensei at the celebration for her 7th. dan. This would be his last crowded class.

That means you are an excellent 6th dan…
Ha ha. That might be. I can’t say for sure but it must have been what Kato sensei believed when he recommended me to Hombu Dojo.

The second and last interview concluded, as we said at the beginning of the article, a few minutes before the special class celebrating Sensei’s promotion to 7th dan. On that occasion, there were more than 100 practising on the tatami of Seiki Dojo. Although the day was extremely hot, it was full of joy and compromise. Luckily we were able to record this memorable event on film. We can never forget the attention Sensei gave to each of us there. Without a doubt, those who were not aware of this simply weren’t paying attention. We must also remember, and not without sadness, Sensei’s total cooperation and collaboration with these chats and our blog. Nothing could have made us think that only 7 days later Sensei would leave this world to practise in another. Again from the depths of our hara we must proclaim… Thank you, Sensei!

Translation to english: Michael Noble.

1) Shinnen-geiko is the first class of the year. In Hombu Dojo it is given at 12 midnight on the 1st of January. In Buenos Aires the CDA (Centro de Difusión of Aikido) opens its doors in the afternoon of the same day with the idea to start the year practising. There are no restrictions and the class is given free of charge. It was given, until 2012, by Sakanashi Masafumi Shihan.
2) Located at 1972 Peron St.., in the neighborhood of Congreso, downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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