This interview with Hideki Hosokawa sensei was realised by Simone Chierchini in 1988 and at the time published by “Aikido”, the Italian Aikikai magazine. Regrettably, Hosokawa sensei has been absent from the Aikido scene for several years now due to a serious illness that has prevented him from returning to teaching. We are confident that the Aikido international community will take an interest in his words.
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
Simone tells Paolo: “Let’s take him by surprise: let’s bring him to dinner with the other guys and attempt the impossible: he might talk…”
“He” is Hideki Hosokawa, Sardinian by adoption, but still totally Japanese at heart. Hosokawa sensei has been in Italy for fourteen years now. This country has given him a wife and a child, a relevant name in martial arts, a long line of students, almost all loyal, a Dojo of his own to lead and many responsibilities to shoulder.
Ours must not have been an easy country for him to understand, at least in the beginning. Catapulted from the Japan of the province to the chaotic Rome in the messianic waiting for a new Tada, Hosokawa sensei had to immediately bring out all the best of himself to conquer the new demanding environment. Perhaps he had to force his Aikido principles and natural inclinations to offer his Italian students the second Tada they were looking for.
Except of course it was impossible. That character was not his and sensei soon got tired of it. And he began to close. Between this misunderstood and even more poorly known teacher and a small fringe of “disappointed” and superficial students soon emerged a gap, that communication problems worsened. The Masters-Eating Dojo struck again and Rome’s Central Dojo was soon to lose a great man, as well as a valuable sensei, and this even before allowing him to show his true face.
Sensei’s head turned grey, but his ambitions did not: another port and another destination awaited him. Here we are in Cagliari, at his Dojo and definitive consecration, to family and serenity. And this is already today’s history.
How much of his time is devoted to studying is fully shown by his Aikido, made up of reflections and parallels. It is an accomplished Aikido, full of meanings and concordances, of references and allusions. It is not an easy Aikido, perhaps not quite immediate for the less experienced, but deeply fascinating for the more attentive student. Almost all those who at the time resented his Aikido took other paths. Those who failed in adapting their body responses to sensei’s different approach, cannot help but regret the lost opportunity. And make the most of every moment together today, because there is a fact that by now we all know: Hosokawa sensei speaks little.
He is an introspective and meditative man: a man who gives the impression of profound culture and great interior maturity. From Hosokawa sensei, however, you will hardly hear anything that can reveal the above to you. At most, you will feel it. It’s like a music that sounds something like this: Zen…
This is why we set him a trap for you to get to know sensei a little more closely. A dinner, a group of students, a comradely atmosphere, a teacher. The interview, or rather the conversation between us, was born like this, spontaneously, almost without anyone, except the puppeteer, noticing it.
Cosy restaurant in Rome, lashing rain outside, fatigue in the body, life in the soul. Table for six on the left-hand-side, Hoso sits at the head of the table, white wine and penne all’arrabbiata for all. Chit-chat; we lead the conversation in turn.
… It’s a great achievement for you: 4th Dan at 28 years of age! In Japan, however, the path to becoming a black belt is shorter, isn’t it? The first few exams are very simple and there’s a couple of theoretical ones as well, if I am not mistaken. How long did it take you to get to shodan, sensei?
It took me one and a half years. There is something that can make this timespan more or less long: in Japan, it is the sensei who invites the student to take the test. None of us would have dreamed of doing the opposite: you just didn’t go to ask permission to grade from your Sensei. This was true even if it was not our sensei who tested us. Which is not bad at all: it’s better when the examiner is a stranger. Your teacher can be influenced, he lives with us every day, knows our problems, has likes and dislikes, in short, his judgment can be altered for reasons unrelated to what he sees on the mat at the time of the grading. With an external examiner, on the contrary, there are no dilemmas: he is impartial and therefore if you are not doing it, he’ll fail you. The grading is also this.
Ah! Let’s not talk about getting failed. That’s a real sore point!
I think everyone has at least one in their records…
Yes, but I hold the world record: I am the only one ever who has managed to have to do all the gradings twice from 6th to 1st kyu!
A very dear friend of mine in Japan has a funny nickname. Everyone calls him Six Times because it is six times that they fail him at his Shodan test! He doesn’t take offence though: after the ritual shouting “I’m quitting Aikido!”, he calms down and continues his training, trying to improve for the next attempt.
Your friend, sensei, is a specimen more unique than rare. As far as I am concerned, when Fujimoto sensei failed me, at that very moment I grew a fit of explosive anger, I risked a gallbladder attack. Then, later on, thinking about it with a cold head, I realized that there were reasons for what had happened. Pain remains, but resentment goes away, or at least it should, although it doesn’t always happen. I know of people who, years later, still nursed a grudge…
Whoever fails to accept the negative result of a grading test should be strong enough to ask himself a few questions. Maybe he would get out of it. Some end up quitting: these people have not understood and probably will never understand. Our exams are not like those in college: Aikido does not involve a degree, a final goal. We always have to move forward, and the funny thing is that only those who stop practising stop progressing…
There is also another question to keep in mind: we all have our own way of judging and no one expects it to be perfect. I certainly give it my best, always, but I am a man, and ultimately I cannot judge anyone. Everyone should honestly judge themselves.
How come we end up so often talking about exams? We all say that they are far from the most important thing, nevertheless, we still attribute an excessive meaning to them. The grading is where we put all those tensions that are difficult to eliminate, even in a non-competitive practice like ours, where you don’t get any other external recognition of your worth. Sometimes I think that Aikido is too refined and original an art to be fully experienced by a Westerner. A centuries-old legacy of aggression and individualism is not eliminated in the blink of an eye. What can you tell us, sensei, do these blessed exams count so much?
I think we should often ask ourselves this question: do we want to do Aikido or should we switch to Judo? Are we worthy of this art or should we be satisfied with a sport? To better explain the grading issue, I wish to remind you that Morihei Ueshiba said that in Aikido there shouldn’t be any, because no one can objectively judge another. I repeat: if everyone judged himself, the function of the examiner would only be pro forma and not a burden.
The test is important because it should serve to drive the student to bring out the best of himself, and that makes you improve, advance. It is a lot easier for those who compete in sports: there is the tension to win and the result is almost always mathematical: a jump of 215 cm against 210 cm, Ippon, 2-0, 1st-2nd and 3rd, gold, silver and bronze medals. In sport, it only matters to win, no matter how it doesn’t matter if a man is destroyed to obtain a KO. In Budo it is different. It is not enough to do well shihonage; we don’t have an equation perfect-shihonage = 215 cm jump : maximum result = victory.
The Japanese word Budo has been properly translated into Italian: Art (martial). it is a concept that implies a series of completely different categories from top and bottom, slow and fast, aesthetic and unaesthetic, strong and weak. Here being 20 or 40 years old, being the fastest in the world, jumping 215 cm doesn’t count for anything. Should we say that those who do not achieve the 9th dan are useless?
Failing in a test, maybe, can even be a good thing. It may end up being somewhat valuable for us.
My first teacher, Sasaki sensei, taught me this – if you want, it’s a kind of philosophy: to fail, to say no to someone, is like preparing them for life. In our life, we don’t always go forward. Not at all. Even a very skilled driver, after having smoothly covered thousands of kilometres towards his goal, may have a sudden need to reverse to avoid an obstacle. Now, a car with no reverse gear would put him in a very difficult situation.
Is it true that once there were promotions on the spot? That the sensei told you: “From today you are 4th kyu”? I agree with the idea exam, it is more complete, but many factors come into play that have little to do with Aikido, such as fear, emotion and nerves. That said, failing your leaving cert or hiring test is a lot worse, would you agree?
There should be no need to repeat it: if an exam is really important for a person, we should not seek a judge other than ourselves. We are strong enough to make our own judgment. Let me explain with an example: if I graduate in computer science, but I get promoted unfairly because the examiner is mistaken – we all often say: “ah, why not, let’s give it a try!” – the damage will be mine alone. Because when a large international company hires me, and I will be tested in action, I won’t be able anymore to deceive anyone and I will be fired. In short: the exam is never perfect; if I can express myself with an image, it only serves to make stepping easier for those who are already walking by themselves.
In Japan, no one advances beyond the 8th dan. It would not make sense and I assure you that absolutely no-one cares about it. For us, however, it is a source of wonder and immediate admiration: “He’s 8th dan!!”. Who’s ever said that a 9th dan is better than an 8th? Let’s listen to them, let’s get to know them, outside the mat as well, and then we can form an opinion.
At times, sensei, while I see you giving class, I get curious to know how you were as a beginner. You know, your experiences, the reasons for choosing this activity: how happened that you started Aikido?
The first time I saw Aikido was at a Kobudo demonstration. Aikido was presented by Tanaka sensei from Osaka. My impression was the same one usually reported when outsiders watch one of our Enbukai: “It’s all false!”. Nothing special then. Besides, my interests were already focused on Kenjutsu and Iaido – my grandfather practised them. That evening the performance of the Iai Master was really beautiful. A long bundle of straw was erected in the centre of the platform. The sensei, shouting, dropped a quick blow; the sword cut through the straw and reached low, close to the ground. The straw remained motionless for a few seconds as if nothing had disturbed it. Only after a while did it fall. The execution had been perfect.
Ah! Do you know when I first learned of the existence of Aikido? I was 15 and I found a comic book about O’Sensei’s life. It had been published by an officer when Ueshiba was in the military. I remember seeing in it how O’Sensei could lift a man with one finger… I was deeply impressed! I admired him in action the year following the Kobudo demonstration.
Was it like in the comic book?
Eheheh! Not really, no!
Your first class at the Hombu Dojo was with Tada sensei. At least then did you like Aikido?
You can be the judge of that: during that first lesson, Tada sensei had me do tenkan for two hours. That’s it. And it went on the same way for a week, I actually thought he didn’t even remember I existed. Then he finally came and asked me: “Are you bored? Okay, change with this as well ”. And to entertain me, as he said, he left me just as much time doing kaiten. You got it? Not even irimi-tenkan! At the Hombu Dojo at that time irimi-tenkan did not exist. O’Sensei never talked about it.
Is the Japanese beginner similar to the Italian one? Same puppet-like posture?
Sure, it’s exactly the same. In Japan, however, those who want to practice martial arts have a wider range of choices: Karate, Shorinji Kempo, Aikido, Kyudo, Kendo, etc. Usually, people start in the discipline practised the closest to home. The choice is almost always dictated by practical factors. There are a few who choose because driven by genuine passion.
When you came to Italy, did Tada sensei explain anything to you? What did you expect to find?
He never said anything! I…
A metallic clatter cuts the answer short. It is the restaurant’s shutter that comes down and Luigi appears with the bill at hand. Don’t worry, the ice is now broken. We will resume our chat at the next restaurant session.
Copyright Simone Chierchini ©1988
All rights are reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited
The article’s main photo was taken in Tergu, Sardinia by ©Ganesh G. Neumair
All rights are reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited
Biography of Hideki Hosokawa sensei
by Paolo Bottoni
Hideki Hosokawa sensei was born in December 1942 in Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku. He comes from a cadet branch of the noble old Hosokawa family, which was related to the Ashikaga shoguns. […]
Hideki Hosokawa took an early interest in martial arts and moved to Tokyo to deepen his study, starting the practice of Judo and briefly of Karate. Around the 60s, the meeting with the great teacher Ueshiba Morihei, founder of Aikido, who he knew only from the pages of a comic book dedicated to him, marked a turning point in his life path. Hosokawa sensei decided to start walking the path that eventually brought him to Italy […].
Uchideshi or internal student at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, he followed the lessons of the founder and other great teachers, while continuing training at the Jiyugaoka dojo with his first teacher, Hiroshi Tada sensei. Feeling the need to deepen his knowledge, he devoted himself to the study of other martial disciplines, focusing on those that had a greater connection with the world of tradition and that of nihontô, the Japanese sword.
After sixteen years of practice, in 1974 Hideki Hosokawa accepted Tada sensei’s invitation […] to move to Rome, thus sharing the great adventure of the creation of the Italian Aikikai. Hosokawa took over the Central Dojo in Rome and entered the Italian Aikikai Technical Panel as Deputy Director, a role he still holds today.
It is not possible to account for all that Hosokawa sensei has done for Aikido since then. To give a hint of that to those who didn’t have the good fortune to study and practice with him, a few quick figures will suffice: from September 1974 onwards, about 2800 students took exams at kyu level with Hosokawa sensei and almost 700 at the dan level. The in-depth seminars he directed amount to several hundreds, with thousands of standard classes held everywhere in the Italian dojos. He was among the first – if not often the first – to introduce the techniques of the Muso Shinto ryu and Jikishinkage Ryu in Italy and Europe. […]
After about ten years, leaving his students with the onerous legacy of the Central Dojo, in 1984 he decided to leave the big city, moving to an island that is very reminiscent of his Shikoku: Sardinia. His dojo was called Musubi no Kai […]
In the fall of 2004 Hosokawa sensei was sadly hit by a severe cerebral haemorrhage, which endangered his life and forbade him to return to the mat. Sensei currently resides in Rome, and his students and friends have activated a network of solidarity to provide for his daily needs.
Hosokawa sensei in addition to having very vast and in-depth knowledge in the field of martial arts, was an accomplished scholar of traditional Japanese culture, as well as a renowned expert in the history of nihonto.
Copyright ©Paolo Bottoni – All rights are reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited