Suck It Up or Go Home – Interview with Simon Gray


Suck It Up or Go Home is an amazing book on Aikido and the meaning of endurance. Here’s our great chat with the author, Simon Gray, about the famous/infamous Senshusei course held by the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu in Tokyo

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

Arguably one of the toughest martial arts courses in the world and described as 11 months of hell, the International Yoshinkan Aikido Senshusei course is the subject of the book – Suck It Up Or Go Home – A True Story About The Courage To Stand Up, Keep Going And Never Give In! The book charts the author’s early life from being bullied at school to the Muay Thai ring and to Tokyo, Japan. More than just a book on martial arts, it contains life lessons on courage, discipline and the determination to keep going, no matter what.

CHIERCHINI
Hello everybody, Simone Chierchini here from Aikido Italia Network. I just finished reading a very very interesting book (that’s the one): Suck It Up or Go Home. It’s an amazing story, I have to say, and this is why we’re here today talking to the author. Simon Gray here is with us and he’s going to tell us all about it. Of course what you should do is read the book, I’m saying this first of all, but it’s a good appetizer and I hope to stimulate your curiosity. Simon, can you please tell us something about yourself before we start talking about the book in itself? I have done my research and I know you have a past in sport arts, combative sport arts actually, and at some level I should say. So can you tell us a little bit about it? Because we’re going to end up talking a lot about Aikido, but yours is a very very interesting point of view, as it belongs to someone that has done a lot of competitions at a high level.

The Video-interview on Youtube

GRAY
Okay cool. Well, first of all it is a pleasure to be here Simone. Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to your network. I’m really pleased you enjoyed the book and I’ll answer any questions that you ask me today no matter what. So feel free to ask me anything.
You’re absolutely right, before I went to Japan in 2005 and did the 2006-2007 Senshusei – Riot Police Course, before that I’ve done quite a lot of martial arts. So, I’ve done about 15-16 years in Muay Thai Boxing, I’ve done some Kung Fu, a little bit of MMA, some Boxing, but I was introduced to Aikido probably around about 2003-4 and the art fascinated me.
I’ve been brought up i guess watching the martial arts films of the 80s, Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal… and Aikido always looked beautiful and extremely effective so got into Aikido in the UK. The opportunity came to go to Japan and I thought it would be an interesting journey to go and see what Aikido was really all about in its home country with a background in more of the striking arts. That’s where I began, really, the striking arts.

Simon with Senshusei mate Matt (on the left) at the Shudokan dojo in Nottingham

CHIERCHINI
May I ask you what kind of Aikido did you practice in the UK? What kind of style?

GRAY
The style in the UK was called Shudokan. It was similar in part to Yoshinkan but it was more of a standalone organization, separate. It gets a bit complicated with the different types of Aikido.

CHIERCHINI
Oh yeah, this is the usual. There’s nothing simple about Aikido.

GRAY
This was a separate organization, but many of the shapes, many of the moves are very similar but with some slight differences in the basic waza, the techniques, the foundational stuff, but I guess it was more of a derivative of Yoshinkan Aikido. It shared many things, many many common traits with Yoshinkan Aikido.

Simon training in Muay Thay Boxing in Bangkok, Thailand, back in 1992

CHIERCHINI
Obviously you had an interest in the martial part of the training as your career amply shows. Where does it come from? I know that a lot of people have a different approach to Budo and some people don’t really like that idea: it’s actually very funny but they don’t like the martial in martial arts. So what’s your what was your take on that at the time, before the course?

GRAY
For me martial arts have always been about being able to look after myself, for me martial arts have always been self-defense.
My martial arts journey really started having gone to quite a tough school as a young kid – as a teenager I went to boarding school, when i was 13. It was a very tough environment, it was very different, I think to how a boarding school might be today. There was one guy in my school who was kind of feared and revered by everybody else and this guy was a martial artist. Although he was only the year above me and there were people two or three years ahead of him or everybody in the school respected him and nobody messed with him and I got bullied.
I thought it was quite fascinating that this guy was smaller than me but he knew something that I didn’t and what he knew was Kung Fu. I made a promise to myself that when i left that school, three years after starting, I would go on my own journey in the martial arts, because I’d seen what it had done for him and I wanted to learn to protect myself. So that’s where my kind of love affair with martial arts really began at the age of about 16.

CHIERCHINI
In common with a lot of people… then of course, along the line, there are many other motivations that keep you going. Let’s start to get closer to our subject. You decided to go to Japan and do this “thing”. Before you describe your own experience, can you tell a few words to people that are not familiar with the Yoshinkan Senshusei Course and tell us a little bit about it?

GRAY
I started Aikido in 2003-04 in the UK and at about that time in the changing area and even on the mats people were talking about this book called “Angry White Pyjamas”. I never heard of this book, but I was pretty interested in Aikido and I gave it a read. I discovered through reading the book that there was something called the Senshusei or Riot Police Courses, as it’s often called in Tokyo, Japan. What I learned from reading the book was that this was an 11-month martial arts boot camp that took you from white belt to black belt and beyond, to gain an instructor’s license from Japan. I read the book and I was fascinated by the stories, I was fascinated by the characters, and i started to ask myself the question: “Well, what if I went to Japan? What if I went on a similar journey? What if I went to Japan, trained with the masters and had a real experience, a real cultural experience, a real buddha experience?”. I started to put a plan in place to go to Japan in the first instance and then, once in Japan, I’d make a decision as to whether I was going to do the Senshusei course.
Senshusei effectively means “specialist”. In Japan as Senshusei essentially you’re the lowest form of life in the dojo – which i do communicate throughout the book, and is very obvious when you’re there and through reading the book – but you are regarded as a specialist student that is training in one martial arts to the highest level at the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. It’s called the Riot Police Course because it was initially started to take the Tokyo Riot Police through a Budo art to qualify for the Riot police. The Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo has a long standing relationship with the Metropolitan Police in Tokyo.
Westerners wanted to go and do this thing, so after many years of training the police it was open to westerners to go and do the course themselves. I was on the 16th International Senshusei Course and we trained alongside the Kidatai, the Riot Police for at least some of the time, albeit their course lasted nine months and ours lasted 11 months. So arguably you could see our course was a little bit harder.

All the Senshusei had bloodied knees during the second phase (Dai Ni) of the Senshusei course

CHIERCHINI
Well, from what you tell in the book, it definitely was! What kind of madness possessed you, you know, why did you decide to do this “thing”? I understand the challenge, but maybe after having read your book what I really thought was “why did he do it?”. What was your purpose? It was just the challenge or was it something else?

GRAY
It’s a very good question and as you’ll know from the book, I do quite a lot of soul searching in it. Also, I’m writing the book 13 years after I did the course, so it’s an opportunity to reflect from perhaps more mature eyes. There’s a chapter in the book called “My Everest” – you might remember this chapter. I make an analogy between why people climb Mount Everest: why do they do it? It’s a life-threatening experience, it’s a very tough and arduous task, so why do they do it? I kind of argue in the book that actually they probably do it because it’s there and they know it’s there. If you’re into mountaineering or mountain climbing, then it’s the pinnacle of what you would go and do, and until you do it, it’s kind of this nagging thing in the back of your mind that maybe I’ll do it, maybe I won’t. So for a martial artist like me, studying Aikido in the UK, my Everest was the Yoshinkan Aikido Senshusei Course. I wasn’t aware of any other martial arts courses in the world that lasted that length of time and it fascinated me. It was my Everest that I needed to climb. I trained abroad before, I trained Muay Thai Boxing in Thailand, but these were for two weeks at a time. This was 11 months and I had to do it because I knew it was there and I wanted to test myself and see if I could get through it.

CHIERCHINI
So eventually you manage to sell your stuff, you put your savings together and you go to Japan. You don’t speak a word of Japanese, do I get it right?

GRAY
Yeah, not very much. At the time I did buy a phrase book and audio CD and did some study before I went. I distinctly remember being on the airplane flying out to Tokyo and practicing japanese with anyone. I remember having an audience on the plane of Japanese people flying home from the UK. I was practicing phrases on the plane, so I was determined that if I was going to live in this country, it was my responsibility and as a form of respect I felt i had an obligation to learn the language or at least try my best.

CHIERCHINI
That is part of the overall challenge, I suppose, because you not only did the Aikido course. You first of all took in the cultural and social parts of it. You’re there, you eventually find where the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo is and you enter. What do you find?

The statue of Kancho Gozo Shioda at the entrance of the Ochiai Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo

GRAY
I was i was quite shocked to be honest, because you have an image of what the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo might look like and I guess my image of what that place might look like was probably what I found in Iwama, where Ueshiba sensei’s dojo is – you know, a traditional dojo. So, I found my way to Ochiai which i knew is where the dojo is located and I couldn’t find it. It was in an office building and the only clue from the street, if you can imagine a quite busy road, outside the only clue was “ Ai-Ki-Do” in the windows. I remember walking through the very first day, walking into this office building, and I got in the lift (the only time I ever used the lift, because senshusei weren’t permitted to use the lift) and I went up to the second or third floor (depending whether you’re in the UK or the US). I came out to the left and I faced the door to the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo. There were two things that struck me: first off the first thing was a big statue of Kancho Gozo Shioda, a big bust, so i knew I was in the right place and the other thing that struck me was the noise, because all I could hear was “Osu! Osu!” and the running of bare feet all around the dojo.

CHIERCHINI
You managed to go inside and train, but the first time you actually trained in the Honbu Dojo you weren’t in the course yet, because basically you joined one of the regular classes.

GRAY
Yes, correct. I must admit that when I first went into the dojo I was pretty scared. I mean, it’s a completely different feeling from walking into a dojo in the UK. First off it was a very similar feeling – and I draw this comparison in the book – to walking into a Muay Thai Boxing gym in Thailand, because you know you’re in the place where the best of the best is, and it’s a very scary experience.
I arrived there in May 2005 so I missed the start of the 2005-2006 course and enrolled in the ippan, or general classes. I trained on the same mats as the senshusei but at a different end of the dojo. The black belt that I got in the UK from the Shudokan came off and I went back to white belt. I started training in the general classes but to be honest the general classes for me weren’t enough and sometimes I wouldn’t break a sweat. It didn’t feel the level of intensity that I’d felt training back in the UK and part of me was a little bit disappointed in that. I knew that if I really wanted to train Aikido in Japan and get a proper experience, I had to be on the other side of the mats, where I saw first hand the senshusei being punished, being tortured, shouting, screaming and going hard at it. That’s where I wanted to be, so I made the decision pretty quickly and couldn’t wait for the 2006-2007 course to start.

The 2006-07 Senshusei Course students on their Day 1 at the course

CHIERCHINI
When eventually the course started, how many of you were there? How many people take part in it normally?

GRAY
The year before me I think there were five people, two japanese and three western students. In my year we were quite a big group: there were 13 of us, two japanese and 11 westerners, including myself. We came from the UK, Australia, the USA, Canada and Israel, so we were a very very mixed group of people. We were quite a big year – we had an induction meeting and I remember that one person quit after the induction meeting because they made you sit in seiza, in the kneeling position, for about 40 minutes and this guy disappeared after that meeting, he was not seen again. He did turn up eventually, but he didn’t train with us on the course, so one person quit.

The seiza “hell”

CHIERCHINI
Probably he was right to do so, considering the amount of seiza that you actually had to suffer.

GRAY
It’s the hidden thing that you didn’t realize would be such a big part of an 11-month experience. It became a huge part of it because of the the pain associated with it and anyone here who sat in seiza for more than 10 minutes knows what I’m talking about. If you haven’t I don’t recommend it, but if you want to experience it, try for 40 minutes or maybe even an hour and a half… One day I did four hours with very short breaks, which was a horrendous experience.

CHIERCHINI
Simon, what kind of student is the typical senshusei student? Is there one, or in your opinion is there a specific kind of budoka that goes there? Actually, I heard that there’s people that have never done any budo before going there – one is the author of White Angry Pyjamas, for example.

Post zagaku delight!

GRAY
Yes, I was quite surprised, to be honest, because I’d read somewhere that to do the Senshusei Course you had to hold at least a second degree black belt in another martial art. That made sense to me, because if you’re going to put yourself through 11 months of hell then you’ve got to have a certain level of conditioning and a certain understanding.

CHIERCHINI
Surely, it’s a quality check.

GRAY
Yes and in the information pack I was sent in the UK it said that you had to be introduced by a Yoshinkan Aikido instructor, so you had to be referred – which would be my experience in Thailand: to go and train I had to be introduced into a particular gym. So I was quite shocked to find when I got on the course that there were people on it who had never trained in martial arts before and never trained in Yoshinkan Aikido. I never really got to the bottom of how they made it onto the course but having done the course and understanding some of what the courses may be about, by the end I understood that the Yoshinkan Aikido program essentially is a business model: a model that is designed to put students through a very difficult period of time to learn the basics of Yoshinkan Aikido and then to gain an instructor’s license, to then go out into the world back to their home countries to spread the word of Yoshinkan Aikido.
I think there’s a confusion, if you like: on the one hand they wanted serious martial artists, but on the other hand they recognized that to spread the word of Yoshinkan Aikido perhaps if somebody was interested, well maybe we’ll take them and we’ll hope they get through. We’ll hope that they fall in love with Aikido and go and spread the word internationally. The message was a bit confused.

CHIERCHINI
I suppose that’s always the dilemma: get an expert and try to teach him or get someone who’s basically like a white sheet of paper and start from scratch. Simon, you had 11 months in the dojo and you started with a certain idea in mind. Reading your book, I know now that you really went through hell at some stage or I should say more than one stage. Can you tell us a little bit about how really demanding this was? We said already that the seiza was hell, but in general how was demanding, not only the amount of hours: what really was there to challenge you on a daily basis?

Simon taking ukemi for Tsutomu Chida sensei, at the time Dojo-cho of the Yoshinkan Hombu

GRAY
Let me tell you a little story that is in the book. Part way through the course, we would get visitors from overseas who would come and watch the senshusei class. I remember being in one of those classes and hearing the visitors on the side of the mat talking to one another and saying “This doesn’t look that bad. I could do that!”, and they were absolutely right. That particular class was not that bad, but what makes Senshusei really difficult is the fact that it’s 11 months long and it’s five days a week for 11 months – there are some breaks for Christmas and various holidays; Japan has a lot of national holidays, I didn’t realize it, but they do.
It’s not one individual class that breaks you or has the potential to break you. It’s the monotony and the repetition, and if you’re injured or you’re sick there’s no reprieve, you’re required to carry on. A way to describe it, it’s kind of like a wearing down process: if i use a samurai analogy, it’s not one cut that finishes you off, it’s death by a thousand cuts. Every day you get, there’s a nagging injury, you’ve got to get up early in the morning… And remember, as well we’d be up very early, it wasn’t just the training: we’d be in the dojo, we’d have to do the cleaning, we’d have to do a lots of ceremonial duties, there were enbu to prepare for, we had to do the summer training and the winter training which started at 7 a.m, so some of those days had five hours of training. We had to do this for 11 months. I had challenges along the course, as did everybody. Physically, I got injured, but I think the most difficult thing was the mental game, the mental challenge to turn up, to get up in the morning at 20 past five, take three trains across Tokyo and know that for the next four to five hours you’re going to be an environment where you’re going to be shouted out, screamed at, your time is not your own, your decision making is not your own, you need to do as you’re told you need, to do it fast. That’s a very hard thing to do.

CHIERCHINI
Yes and I think it’s important to point out that this is not the typical experience of the westerner aikidoka going to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo for a couple of classes. The environment is totally different and am I right in saying that it’s like being in a boot camp of the army?

GRAY
It’s more or less like that, yes, that’s how I would probably describe it. I’ve never been in the army but, as you know from the book, I do draw comparisons with military life: I think it’s very much like the induction that you have if you go and join the army, your basic training, but the basic training doesn’t last 4-6 weeks, it lasts 11 months. Because it is a basic course, a foundational course. You know, maybe I had an expectation at the start that by the end of the course my Aikido would be really really really good. The reality was that by the end of the course my basics, my foundations, how I held myself in kamae, how I moved in kihon-dosa was much much much better, but I was still a beginner and as Chino sensei described: I was a “baby black belt”.
Throughout the course I was battling injury as everybody was, so you never trained fully healthy, you never trained fully uninjured. You got to the end with a really good immersion and understanding of japanese culture and what it means to train Aikido in Japan, but it didn’t in my opinion elevate my level of Aikido to where I thought it might at the start.

Simon ready to get to work!

CHIERCHINI
There’s another thing just to add to the difficulties that you had: you weren’t leaving on some kind of pension! Like most people that go and do a similar experience, you had to support yourself, first of all because you need a visa to stay for that long. Again, it’s not the typical experience of the tourist aikido-man that goes to Japan to train for a couple of weeks on a tourist visa. You actually had to balance life with all this that you just described, plus living in Japan as a salaryman. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

GRAY
I needed a job and I needed to get a job quickly, because to stay in Japan for an extended period of time you needed a visa. I went to Japan initially on a tourist visa, but the promise from the Hombu Dojo in the paperwork that came out before the course began was that they might help you get a cultural visa, because effectively this was a cultural experience. Pretty quickly, when I got to Japan I realized that that wasn’t an option, so there was a requirement to get a job to get a visa and also to get a job to live. A typical day for me would be: up at 20 past five in the morning, getting ready, traveling through trains get to the get to the dojo, do three classes, all the bowing and scraping, cleaning duties, leave there at about two; I’d usually have about an hour to travel somewhere to one of the Berlitz schools – I worked for an English language school – I’d then be teaching at Berlitz could be from 3 p.m till 10 p.m at night. It was a very very long day and having to be you: you were always on show, if you like, because on the mats, in the Hombu Dojo, you had to be sharp, you had to be reactive, you had to listen, and then teaching English you couldn’t fall asleep, you couldn’t get distracted, because you got students to teach. So, mentally you had to be switched on for a good chunk of the day, then travel home quickly, get some sleep and then the whole thing started again the next day.

CHIERCHINI
Was there any part of philosophy in the teaching? You know, these days there’s plenty of philosophy around Aikido and sometimes it feels like there’s more philosophy than training. During these 11 months, was there any of it or was just training?

GRAY
In terms of what they taught us in Japan, it was very physical. It was the physical movements that we were taught. We had a weekly class called zagaku – zagaku means to sit and learn – and this was basically not quite a meditation class. It was a seated seiza event where Inoue Kancho, the head of Yoshinkan, would come and ask each of us to contribute (we never knew who he was going to ask, it would be two of us each time) to contribute a hansei, a reflection, and a shukan, a habit. We’d have to communicate this in Japanese and then take feedback from one of the sensei or Inoue Kancho himself. That was more on the philosophical side, it was an exercise in self-reflection, but there really wasn’t a deep spiritual thing that I found was taught there. What I did find, and you’ll have got this from the towards the end of the book, it was a deeply spiritual experience for me towards the end. When you put yourself through a level of hardship in a very different environment, a different culture, you learn stuff about yourself. I learned a lot about myself on that course and I learned a lot about mental strength, mental discipline and it’s only when you come to the end of something like that that I think that spiritual, that deeper thing comes out. It comes out by accident, because of the experience that you’ve had.
You know I don’t practise Aikido anymore, but I’m still in touch with most of the senior sensei across the world and I was talking to one of these international teachers online on Messenger and I said I don’t practise Aikido anymore, but Aikido is still in my heart and it very much is, because Aikido for me is a principle for life. I may not practise on the mats anymore, but I practise in daily life.

The Senshusei visit Ueshiba’s dojo in Iwama

CHIERCHINI
There’s a sentence that you repeat several times in your book: that you were “the lowest level of life within the dojo”.

GRAY
Correct.

CHIERCHINI
Can you explain it a little bit? Because I suppose in our eyes the dojo is one and everyone is the same. There’s a level of respect for the instructor, but senior, junior, sensei more or less are the same. You haven’t found a situation like that at the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo.

Inoue Kancho at 2007 Kagami Biraki

GRAY
No, there was a very very strict hierarchy of the dojo: Kancho at the top, Senshusei at the bottom. Although we were on the toughest course, we were on the fast track if you like, if a new student walked in and registered that day they were more important and were seen as more important than the Senshusei. We did all the jobs you didn’t want to do, all the cleaning, all the serving drinks or all of this stuff. It was kind of a two-way thing, really, because on the one hand we were told we were the lowest of the low and we would do all the jobs that nobody wanted to do, but on the other hand anyone who was Senshusei, on the course and most definitely anyone who had completed the Senshusei Course, could go anywhere in the world and walk into any Aikido dojo and you would gain an instant level of respect having gone through that course. You do this thing for 11 months, where you’re treated quite badly, you’re the lowest of the low, but it then elevates you through that experience of hardship to a place beyond where you would get to if you trained in a regular school two or three times a week.

CHIERCHINI
Again in the book there’s a lovely sentence: “Fall down seven times, get up eight”. This is the basic philosophy, yes?

GRAY
Nana korobi ya oki, Fall down seven times, get up eight. It’s right at the start of the book: it is a Japanese proverb that kind of sums up what it means to be a Senshusei and also I think what it means to live. If we look at the environment that we’re in at the moment – as a world collectively we’re facing the coronavirus pandemic – you know we have to get up every day and keep going, no matter the news we get, the lockdown… We just got to keep going and that’s the Senshusei spirit right there.

Two of the Yoshinkan Aikido greats at the honbu dojo on Senshusei shodan test day. 2006/07 was sadly the last Senshusei year with Inoue Kancho and Chida Dojocho together at Ochiai

CHIERCHINI
Can you tell us a little bit about your Shodan test? You trained for so long for it, you did several mock tests, etc. When you actually did it how did it feel?

GRAY
There’s a saying in combat sports which is train hard, fight easy and I’d always believe that. For my Muay Thai fights I train hard so the fight would hopefully be easy – they rarely were, by the way. In relation to the shodan test, if you can imagine doing something so much that you don’t have to think about it anymore, you hear the command and instantaneously your body responds, which is a little bit like the whole Bruce Lee philosophy “I don’t hit, it hits”. You drill things to such an intensity that you respond automatically.
The most difficult thing about the shodan test was probably the fact that we had to sit in seiza before we were required to jump up and rush out and get to our positions in kamae, ready to be tested. That was the probably the most worrying thing, because I knew the techniques inside out. I knew I could make a good job of it, but the difficulty is trying to get to your feet on legs you can’t feel and make a good job of anything, so that was a real fear for all of us. We were allowed to quite literally crawl out of the dojo, just before we were required to get up and test, to shake our legs out, but then we had to come back and sit in seiza, jump up and get to positions.
It wasn’t a particularly tough test. I think my shodan test in the UK was probably tougher, but then i didn’t train as hard for that as I did for my shodan test in Japan.

CHIERCHINI
The teaching structure of the course was that basically all the main sensei would take the class on a quite casual rotation, if I understand correctly. There wasn’t any specific plan, you wouldn’t know who was going to come out of the door and give the actual class. In between the sensei and yourselves guys you had two figures, your supervisors – shall we call them like that. Can you explain a little bit about what the Sewanin were like with you?

The 16th international Senshusei perform kihon waza techniques at the Kagami Biraki Enbu at the Ochiai honbu dojo in Tokyo, Japan

GRAY
Sewan means to care and nin means person, so technically, these people were there to take care of us. The reality is they weren’t really there to take care of us, they were there to enforce dojo ritual and routine, to make sure that we didn’t step out of line. I had a mixed relationship with the sewanin. We had two very different guys, one guy from canada, one guy from the UK. They were there to do a job and and at the time, you know, I couldn’t stand these guys half the time, at the time. Because they were pushing us, they were screaming, shouting at us. Everything and anything we did was never good enough.

CHIERCHINI
There was a good bit of abuse, yes?

GRAY
Yes, there was. You know, we live in a very different world now and I was talking to somebody else about this: would this kind of abuse and shouting and screaming be allowed now? Probably it wouldn’t, because we’ve evolved to remove or try to remove that kind of behavior from society. I had a very mixed relationship with the sewanin, but I have to say – and this comes across in the book I think – that they had a job to do. They were learning how to be sewanin, just as I was learning how to be senshusei, and the sewanin were senshusei from prior. Without the sewanin and without how they treated us, I would not have had the experience that I had. The experience that I had in Japan was made all the better for both of the sewanin pushing me beyond my limit and then pushing me further. So without the sewanin there would not have been the level of hardship and sometimes I think you have to go right to the depths of yourself in terms of hardship to really grow and learn. You have to push yourself so far out of your comfort zone, that’s when you really really grow. I wrote the book, sent a signed copy to both of the sewanin, but I’ve not heard back from either. Hopefully, having read it by now, they know that my intention in writing the book was to portray an honest view as to how I felt about them at the time, but also portray an honest view as to how grateful I am to them for what they did – even if I didn’t really understand that what they were doing at the time would benefit me in the long run.

CHIERCHINI
You spent 11 months in very close contact with a few other guys and some real friendship emerged. I suppose there’s been times where you clashed but there’s been times also where you had a very good time together. Can you tell us a little bit about the people that were with you? There was a lady as well, it’s important to point out that this course is not only a guy thing.

GRAY
No, not at all. There were 12 guys, including myself, and one lady, Victoria from Canada. We formed a really really close bond as a group. What was quite interesting about that group is that we’re all in a very difficult cultural experience in Japan and we all brought very different cultural experiences from how we’ve been brought up or what it’s like to live in our countries. We clashed sometimes, naturally. In a group like that you become closer friends with people more similar to you and you naturally form groups within groups. But what was very very noticeable was that if anybody ever messed with the senshusei on the mats, which happened sometimes when the general students trained with us, we would unite as one unit and we would make sure that there was payback.
Although we argued and we bickered – you know, it’s like a marriage: maybe you argue and you bicker, but if anyone challenges that unit, you stick together. As I put at the start of the book, we were 12 brothers and one sister in arms and that song by Dire Straits (Brothers in Arms) was kind of an anthem as to how we felt about one another and what we would do for one another.
I’m in contact with most people still and I’m very very close to two or three people, like Ronan from Israel and Matt who came from the UK to join me. I have a very close bond with both of those guys and I am still in regular contact with them, in fact more or less every few days with Ronan. We never would have met, he’s of a very different background to me, but you attract people and you get close to people that you have a commonality with. Within the bigger group of the senshusei we were a tight unit, most definitely yes.

Graduation Day

CHIERCHINI
I’d like to ask you something that you can answer or you can avoid, if you prefer.

GRAY
No, no, I’ll answer. There we go, I should not have said that, yes?

CHIERCHINI
Does Yoshinkan Aikido really work? Does it matter or does it matter if it works or not?

GRAY
OK, big question. I do go into this and I have a very very specific view on this. Just before I give you the answer, I believe that in some way I’m qualified to answer this, having trained in other martial arts. Because the kind of bigger question is: does Aikido work? And then within that: does Yoshinkan Aikido work? So my answer to the question is it depends on the practitioner. I have been on the mats and seen people do things to other people with Aikido that there is no faking it. I have felt techniques applied on me – even from somebody much much smaller than me, much lighter than me – that the power is incredible and I couldn’t withstand that pain. Chino sensei, for example, who I really respected on the course and spent a lot of time teaching us. He’s maybe not the most popular sensei in Yoshinkan circles, but I can only judge on what I found: to feel his technique and his incredible power.

Simon Gray with Susumu Chino sensei in the new Takadanobaba Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo (2010)

It depends on the practitioner and it depends on what people come to learn Aikido for. I believe Aikido is a very very different martial art to other martial arts. If you go and do Muay Thai, or if you go and do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, both of which I was training in at the same time in Japan, you know there is an expectation that you’re going to do some sparring. It’s going to be free sparring and you’re going to test out your skills. Now, in Aikido there isn’t really a comparison. There is jiyu-waza, but jiyu-waza is not really free practice, it’s not really testing out your skills. So you can study Aikido without ever really testing the effectiveness of Aikido, because there isn’t the sparring or the or the kind of competition element that allows you to test your ability in the art. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily and it means that Aikido attracts people that would never want to fight, it attracts people who enjoy the beauty of the art, the physical movement of the art. They may want to do it to keep fit, they may want to do it for social reasons and they may never want to test themselves in a physical confrontation, and that’s absolutely fine then. There are others like myself who wanted to explore Aikido to test its effectiveness in the odds. With that mindset, which is why it comes back to the practitioner, if you have a martial mindset with Aikido, Aikido does work. Is it everything? Can you rely on Aikido in any situation? Probably not. Can you rely on any one martial art in any situation? Probably not. I studied Muay Thai for 25 years: if somebody takes me to the ground, I’m going to need something different.
That’s a very long-winded answer to a very short question and the answer is both yes and no. My issue – and I think this is other people’s issue with Aikido – is that sometimes you can watch a demonstration and you watch the student, the uke, fly around as if by magic. I don’t like to see that, I like to see an effective technique and a realistic response. There is more of the art side to Aikido and that’s because it is not purely studied for the martial, its martial abilities.

CHIERCHINI
OK. Very good answer, diplomatic, but also true.

On Saturday, 28 October 2006 the 16th international Senshusei performed at the 51st All Japan Enbu in Tokyo, Japan

GRAY
I’ve stood across the mats with people that, if they used Aikido on me, it wouldn’t work, but I’ve stood across from people that if they used Aikido on me it does work. I do think it’s a form of self defense, but you need other things: you need to learn how to strike – Aikido doesn’t really teach you to strike, although is Kancho Shioda which reportedly said atemi striking is 70% of a fight. You don’t really strike very much and if you go to the ground, you’re also kind of in trouble. There’s something in the book – I won’t say too much about it because people need to read it and get the whole story before they get – there can sometimes be an arrogance or an ego in Aikido that Aikido is the answer to all problems and all confrontational situations. There is a situation in the book where I questioned one of the instructors and said: “What happens if a senior aikido practitioner gets put on the ground in a fight? What’s going to happen? Are they going to be able to use their Aikido to survive?”. The response I got was: “Well, the principles of Aikido would help them to find a way” and for me that was nonsense. If you’re going to fight on the ground, you’ve got to practice on the ground. If you’re going to fight on your feet, you’ve got to practice on your feet. Principles in a real life situation will get you some of the way, but you need experiential learning.

CHIERCHINI
Of course. If principles were sufficient, there would be no training.

GRAY
Exactly. Read a book and try to go out into a street situation. There was a situation where one of the black belts who taught us, one of the instructors – fair play to the guy, I have a lot of respect for this guy – came to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class with me in Tokyo after the course was over. He rolled with me, we fought together on the ground and the guy had no answer. No answer.

CHIERCHINI
Because he’d never seen it before.

GRAY
Yes, he never trained on the ground, but he didn’t have such an ego that said: “Hey, Aikido will deal with anything”. He was prepared to put himself in a different situation and understood that it’s horses for courses.

This video was filmed by Fight! Japan and highlights life in Tokyo, Japan on the 16th International Senshusei course (2006-2007)

CHIERCHINI
Don’t you think that sometimes, I’m not saying everyone, but there’s a lot of religion in Aikido. Like it’s becoming a religion: people trust and believe in things that haven’t actually experimented themselves and they overestimate a touch what they can do or what they cannot do? What do you see for Aikido in the future? Is there a future for Aikido?

GRAY
I think there is a future for Aikido but I think that Aikido practitioners have to be very honest with themselves and Aikido teachers have to be very honest with themselves in terms of what they’re teaching: you know, are they teaching are an art that looks beautiful, feels great to practice – well, apart from seiza – or are they teaching people to defend themselves and to face confrontation? For me, the beauty of Aikido is what I got from Aikido after I finished training Aikido, and it’s an understanding of its principle. There’s a quote from Kancho Gozo Shioda at the back of the book, I include this in the last word, something that he must have said years and years ago but he’s very very relevant for nowadays. It’s about this thing, harmony. People talk about Aikido as the way of harmony and people get confused as to what that harmony actually means. Aikido can be very very brutal in a situation, but the principle of Aikido and the relationship between shite and uke – how as a martial art Aikido differentiates itself – it’s that it is not about crashing directly with somebody else, it’s about absorbing somebody’s energy and redirecting that energy somewhere else. That’s a very very beautiful thing. It’s a very hard thing to learn and that is a principle for life, where we all face confrontation, we all face challenge. Instead of going head to head, which just exacerbates the problem, far better, as I describe in the book, to step off the track and let the negativity fly past. If we all did a bit more of that, we’d have a lot better world.
Aikido for me is much more than a series of movements, it’s much more than a series of shapes, it’s much more than the system that Yoshinkan developed, and I hope that Aikido continues long into the future.

CHIERCHINI
Can you tell us a little bit about your current projects? I know you’ve been busy in the last few days.

Simon busy at recording his Suck It Up or Go Home audiobook

GRAY
I obviously wrote the book – which you can see behind me – Suck It Up or Go Home. I am converting that now into an audio book, so i’ve been in a recording studio, recording all of that content. I’m now proofing the edits of that very big project: it feels like I’m doing the course again!
Every time you read or hear your own book, you have ideas: “Oh, maybe change this… Maybe change that”. You need to have the discipline to say: “Stop, it’s finished. That is how I wrote it”. That’s a big project, I’m looking to get that audiobook released before Christmas and I’m doing a lot of promotional work.
Although the book will naturally appeal to martial artists, I wanted this to be a book that helped people with mental resilience. The world we live in now, people are facing some of the toughest mental challenges they’ve ever had. There’s financial pressure, there’s emotional pressure, people can’t leave their houses in some instances, so the days are becoming very repetitive, very much like they were on the Senshusei Course. I wrote the book on different levels and depending on what you’re looking for, from the book hopefully you find what it is you’re looking for: the martial artists will find a story about martial arts; somebody who wants to find a story about a spiritual journey, will hopefully find that; somebody who wants to find out what it’s like to live and work in Japan, we’ll find that and somebody who wants to go on a journey of how to build mental resilience and what mental resilience really is all about, hopefully they’ll find that too. Quite a few of my wife’s friends have read it and they’ve never done martial arts before: it’s made some of them smile, it’s made some of them cry, because it’s a very emotional journey that I try and take people on.
To come back to your question, I’m trying to get that message out there, because I honestly believe that if you read the book and you really get the message that I’m trying to deliver in the book, it could have a profound influence on your life and the direction of your life as you choose to live your life moving forwards.

CHIERCHINI
OK, Simon, thank you very much, very insightful.
Folks! Go get it! Simon, where should they get the book?

GRAY
The best place to buy the book currently is Amazon. You’ll find the book on Kindle, paperback and hardback. The audiobook is coming, but you’ll have to wait a little bit longer for that one.

CHIERCHINI
Great stuff! Thanks a million, Simon, and hopefully we’ll meet again for your next book.

GRAY
Thank you! Bye!

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2020
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