The Feeling of Aikido – Interview with Seijuro Masuda

Aikido Italia Network is glad to present the English version of this interview with Masuda Seijuro Shihan, 8th Dan Aikikai Hombu Dojo. The interview was realised by Simone Chierchini and published for the first time in 1989 by “Aikido”, the official magazine of the Italian Aikikai

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

It was several months that the Italian Aikikai was getting ready for the arrival of Masuda Seijuro sensei and everyone was keen. The occasion was a fascinating one since there was going to be both an opportunity to practice under one of the most established Hombu Dojo shihan, and to be in intense contact with a large group of young Aikido university students – aikidoka of not very long experience, but already all beyond the shodan.

A particular flavour to the event was added by knowing that we were going to train under one of Fujimoto sensei’s most important teachers: until then, Masuda Sensei was little known by the Italian Aikido community.

For this appointment, which from the very beginning was expected to be full of learning contents, the organizer, Aikikai Milan, presented a truly unusual setting in terms of elegance and functionality – especially when compared to the usual standards of our gatherings: that is the state-of-the-art sporting facilities kindly made available by one of the best-known financial institutions in Italy.

In December, the wait finally materialized and everyone’s curiosity was fully repaid with a seminar bursting with human interactions and technical guidance. We owe this to the presence of a man, Masuda Seijuro, whose urbanity and sympathy soon conquered the expectations of the always demanding Italian Aikido community, represented in Milan by over 160 students who travelled from all over the country.

Among the many seminars that crowd our calendar, the sessions given by Masuda sensei have left a mark for the energy that pervaded them at both physical and emotional level, which kept everyone constantly on their toes; for the variety of the technical presentations shown, which suggested their being infinite; for the absence of fatigue and of any friction, the result of Masuda Sensei’s pleasantness and profound humanity.

We were also able to observe the constant attention dedicated by Masuda Sensei to his students. We have noticed, unfortunately not without listening to someone’s silly remarks, the respect and reverence dedicated by the same students to their guide, a typically Japanese way to signify love. We got mixed with these guys, we practised Aikido with them, then we privately discussed this fundamental experience at length.

All the above was aptly completed by the following interview that Masuda sensei agreed to give me at the end of his seminar.

CHIERCHINI
Sensei, since it is the first time that you visit Italy, I think it would be beneficial for our readers to get a snapshot of your functions and roles in the Japanese Aikido scene.

MASUDA
I have been a shihan for about fifteen years now. At the Hombu Dojo, with shihan we indicate the ones who were nominated 6th Dan and are therefore qualified to teach. Currently [1989] I am 7th Dan. Up to five years ago I was also the Head of the Dojo, not the Dojo-Cho, mind you, which at the time was Osawa Sensei and now Waka Sensei [Moriteru Ueshiba]. The Dojo-cho is the technical managing director, while the Head of the Dojo is the organisational sector’s manager. We are talking about a completely different and separate structure from the didactic one. It has the task of dealing internally with the day-to-day running of the organisation, solving, for example, any practical problems: putting together a demonstration, overseeing a ceremony, managing a party. For many years, this has been my contribution to the good running of the Hombu Dojo, together with my collaboration in teaching.

It is five years since I left this position, that is following my appointment as Technical Director of the Japanese Universities Aikido Sector, of which Doshu [Kisshomaru Ueshiba] acts as president. Universities in Japan are grouped into four groups divided by geographical area; each of these has its own Aikido Federation, and all of them are gathered in the Aikido University Sector that I have the task of managing.

CHIERCHINI
One of the things that struck the most those who attended your sessions the past few days is the peculiarity of the teaching system proposed. During your Italian seminars, we noticed an unusual variety in the technical approaches and the intention to create an asobi-full atmosphere [asobi, fun, pleasantness in practice]. Where does this method come from?

MASUDA
This is a difficult question to answer. Yes, perhaps my teaching-style is a bit unusual. Maybe the peculiarities of it have been enhanced by the Italian climate! Don’t think that when I teach in Tokyo I always do it this way: I am visiting from Japan, maybe for the only time in my life, or at least this is the first. I wanted to show different aspects of me and my Aikido to get people interested from several points of view and make everyone happy, beginners, advanced and teachers. This is why I have presented so many things, but this is my usual method.
When I teach at the Hombu Dojo, I generally find myself faced with two categories of students: some think that Aikido is a martial art; others believe, yes, that Aikido is still a Martial Art, but that the most important thing is to have fun. Fun, in this case, should not be understood as a desecrating attitude, that is, joking or laughing on the mat. It means, if anything, to be able to say, once the lesson is over: “Good. Today I’m happy, very happy, so I’ll be back tomorrow”. This is the way to understand the true feeling of Aikido. Personally, above all I seek and relate to this group of people.

CHIERCHINI
Has your teaching system evolved over the years?

MASUDA
Compared to the time when Fujimoto Sensei studied with me, yes, most definitely. That period was very different from now: in the meantime, the world has changed, although it’s not me that wanted it to change. On the other hand, neither I nor your sensei is the same as in the past.

CHIERCHINI
What was Masuda sensei like at that time?

MASUDA
I was studying many things even at that time and externally I was similar to now. My perception, however, my approach to others was completely different: today I am completely devoted to my students, then I thought more about myself. Over that period, it was much more important for me that I learned, studied and practised Aikido. Today I have evolved, following the change in people and the world.

CHIERCHINI
You mentioned that your teaching experience is 15 years long now. You had the opportunity to observe many people, especially young ones. Have the last few years shown you anything new?

MASUDA
Society has profoundly changed, not only in Japan but throughout the world. All of us have changed, not just the young. It is difficult to say what is new, however, because this evolution, being a general one, has taken us too.

Masuda Seijuro 06

CHIERCHINI
Let’s take a look at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo: how does Masuda sensei live his daily relationship with Doshu, the man to whom the whole Aikido world refers?

MASUDA
With a simple expression, I could define this daily interaction as a teacher-student relationship. Many years ago, however, when I was young and still studying Aikido, Ueshiba Kisshomaru Sensei was not yet Doshu (Guide), he was Waka Sensei (Young Master) and Hombu Dojo-Cho. At the time, I was very close to him, as well as to other great teachers, such as Tada and Tamura Sensei or other senior instructors. In that period Aikido had not yet known the great diffusion it has today, it was a small affair. Therefore it happened that wherever I went to study Aikido, Kisshomaru sensei was the teacher. You can easily understand that we had a close relationship. It’s different now, he is Doshu, he has become much more important: it is inevitable and right that the distance between us has increased.

CHIERCHINI
Can you give us your opinion on the current Waka Sensei?

MASUDA
Ueshiba Moriteru, the current “Young Master” [1989]», is a very generous person. He likes to practice Aikido, to teach, to help normal people, ordinary students. In my opinion, his character perfectly fits the role he will have to fill in the future when the time comes for him to become Doshu.
I suppose I can guess, behind this question, another question that many here in the West ask themselves: why should the world leader in Aikido be chosen following the bloodline, from father to son, as if it were a question of blue blood? Well, the answer is this: we, in our country, Japan, have always been used to doing this. As long as it is possible, it is best to continue along the line of direct descent, because at least there are no problems. In this way, everyone agrees, because for centuries our culture has shown us best to do so.

CHIERCHINI
A character that has always conquered the imagination of Western Aikido students is that of the uchideshi, the internal student of the Hombu Dojo. What does remain of this “romantic” institution today?

MASUDA
Uchideshi is an individual who lives together with the Master’s family, eats with him, stays together with him 24 hours a day. Currently, at the Hombu Dojo uchideshi of this type no longer exist. There is still a sleeping room in the dojo, but it has become a bit like a hostel for the dojo’s guests. There are still some students who are called uchideshi, but it is no longer the same. It has been twenty years since that kind of continuous relationship no longer exists.

CHIERCHINI
Does this mean that the teacher-student relationship at the Hombu Dojo is loosening up?

MASUDA
It’s not that. In reality, the Hombu Dojo and Doshu and Waka Sensei’s houses are very close, gathered in a small piece of land. But when Ueshiba sensei goes home, that’s it: he closes the door and there are no more uchideshi. When he comes out of the house in the morning, the students, who were waiting for him, immediately approach him.

CHIERCHINI
Sensei, you are holding the top office in the Japanese University Aikido Organization. It would be interesting if you could share your opinion about the typical university courses in Japan and why some of the University students turn to Aikido.

MASUDA
The subjects of study in Japan are numerous, but when we compare them to those in the West, basically I don’t think there are any notable differences in the selection criteria. In general, all the faculties are quite popular. As for Aikido, maybe some of the students will continue and end up becoming instructors, but most of them stop after the four years of their university course. Why then do they turn to aikido? Could it be because everyone is in love with it? Or because in these four years they think they can study some aspects of it? However, in my opinion, the reasons for choosing Aikido are the same everywhere: the world is a village.

CHIERCHINI
In what form is Aikido included in the university program? Is it one of the disciplines of the Faculty of Motor Sciences, along with other activities?

MASUDA
No, it is not like that. In Japan, each school has internal courses in music, sports, martial arts, etc. There is a bit of everything and it is organised independently by the school and enjoyed with the after-school system by the students. This does not exist only at the university level but in every school of order and degree.

CHIERCHINI
The students pick whatever they like.

MASUDA
Certainly. The students choose freely among many activities, including cultural ones, for example, Ikebana or Cha no yu. The students I brought with me to Milan chose Aikido.

CHIERCHINI
Is teaching at the Hombu Dojo or at a university the same thing for you? Do you use the same didactic approach?

MASUDA
There is unquestionably a distinct difference. It is difficult to explain what it consists of, but it mainly depends on the fact that in the university I only give class twice a week. The rest is done by the students, who must continue the training directed by their coach, a university student chosen for this task. After I have given class, I leave some kind of homework, a subject to study and the students apply for one week on this topic. When I return, if I am confident that the techniques they have studied work well, I move on to something else. This means that I deal exclusively with organizing the students’ work, while they are the ones who personally carry out the activity. This is a common feature of every university course: it is the students who produce culture, professors and assistants are there only to help them.
At the Hombu Dojo, my role is that of the sensei you all know.

CHIERCHINI
How did the Nitaidai University Aikido Club start?

Masuda Sensei turns to Fujimoto sensei and says: “Ask him!”.

FUJIMOTO
The Club was officially formed 20 years ago. I remember that O’Sensei had recently passed away. Before that, it was only a small group of about thirty friends which I had put together. At the time, I didn’t even know that I was going to move to Italy. Since our Aikido club had not been recognised by Nitaidai University yet, we had to wander around several gyms to train. At one point we decided to get organised and train uniquely at the university. It was then that I chose this teacher, Masuda Sensei: he seemed to be the only suitable person to develop Aikido as an after-school activity.

Oh yeah! – Masuda sensei interrupts – You really screwed me! He had said to me: “Sensei, it would be enough if you could come to us for a few years: the Club needs help, it has just been founded and we have some difficulties in getting people joining us since Judo is so strong at Nitaidai. But just a little time…”. Fujimoto, you have condemned me! What little time? Twenty years later I’m still there…

There’s a general outbreak of hilarity, the two sensei seem to get along really well together. It takes a while before the situation is such to permit returning to the interview. I decide to get around the obstacle with a “never asked before” question.

CHIERCHINI
In the eyes of a Japanese, what are your impressions of our country?

MASUDA
The history of civilisation in Italy goes back to ancient times. Wherever you look, many things have remained until today from that very distant past. This is a bit scary to the eyes of us Japanese. We travelled to Rome, Vatican City, Venice and Milan. Everyone kept repeating: “A thousand years ago, two thousand years ago!”. The students were genuinely impressed that there was still so much evidence from those bygone eras, still there, before their eyes. And I can’t deny that I also got emotional, at times. In Japan as well we have cities with a long history, Kyoto for example, where something of the past has remained, but they are talking of two totally different levels, in every sense.
All that said, I am really happy with this trip, because even if I visit many places, in Japan and overseas, I don’t normally go sightseeing, there’s never enough time to look around. This is perhaps the first time I could enjoy playing the tourist for so long.

CHIERCHINI
Let’s remain in Italy: what are your impressions on the training you directed in our country? Are you happy with the level of understanding of what you wanted to communicate to the Italian Aikikai students gathered in Milan?

MASUDA
It is quite normal for a student to acquire a type of movement that resembles that of their teacher – even though it’s another matter whether they become good or not. If a student does not become similar to his own sensei, it is a very bad thing, absolutely negative, but that’s not what I wanted to deal with here.
Before my seminars, both in Japan and abroad, I never decide in advance a program of techniques to be presented, thus leaving the field of possibilities open. Here in Italy, I have noticed that there are groups that move in the style of Tada sensei, others look like Hosokawa sensei, others like Fujimoto sensei. While we were training, I didn’t think the students would accept me so quickly. As I said before, I hadn’t planned anything, but I saw that everyone accepted and understood quickly. So I said to myself: if students can receive that fast, I am going to give even faster. Thus maybe in this seminar I ended giving too much, but I felt that the students wanted to be fed, that they were hungry and thirsty for Aikido. This is usually not the case. When people are used to a specific teacher, once they are in front of a different one, approaching them is quite difficult and for that sensei it is not an easy task to propose new teachings. They could not be accepted, because the students think in their head: “My sensei doesn’t do it this way!”. This in Italy has not occurred at all and it made me especially happy.

Masuda sensei’s drawing to explain his compass example

Other technical notes? There is another thing that struck me and also surprised: Italian Aikido students all bend their knees very well, that is, they work with a low hip. As in the rest of the world, the traditional sitting system has almost been abandoned in Japan today, so our knees are less flexible than in the past. The students of the Italian Aikikai that I observed in this seminar all can bend their knees very well. This suggests that the future of your Aikido will be very interesting. In Japan, when studying in elementary school, we use a compass with two rigid arms, easier to use for beginners, because it bends little. Then, later on, when you become an expert, you use a compass with arms that have joints, which bend much, much more, and it is much more difficult to use. Training with your knees kept low is vital.

CHIERCHINI
When are we going to see you again, sensei?

MASUDA
I am a subordinate and therefore it is my superior, Doshu Ueshiba, that will have to decide. I cannot tell you, therefore, when I will return, but I’m certainly not saying that I will never come back. I am too curious to see you again in the near future.

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©1989
All rights are reserved. Any reproduction not expressly authorised is strictly prohibited

The photos in this article are by Claudio Cristiani and Cristina Balbiano


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