Interview with Mariye Takahashi (2)

Mariye Takahashi in Chicago dojo, c. 1964

How did you end up going to the United States?

As I mentioned earlier, I’d become disillusioned with Japanese universities and realized that aside from practicing aikido I had very little to gain by staying in Tokyo. On the other hand, I still wanted to pursue some kind of education while I was still young. As it happened, around that time I also got to know the wife of an air force officer, Dee Hagan, whose family was living in Tokyo. At that time, her husband, Herald Stockton and she decided to take me back to the U.S. if I wanted to study. So, in 1963, off I went to America. In those days, many Japanese weren’t free to leave Japan. The government restricted overseas travel. It was not easy to obtain a passport unless one had a recognized reason. The American Embassy demanded that one have a sponsor sign an affidavit of support.

What was O-Sensei’s reaction when you told him you were going off to the United States?

The morning I told O-Sensei about my trip I went to see him after practice. He was sitting in his room wearing glasses while reading a book. He stopped reading and greeted me in his usual innocently cheerful way. I said, “O-Sensei I have something to tell you,” and informed him that I was off to the U.S. to study. He said , “America? Well, that sounds wonderful for you! I wish you the best.” He was really happy for me. He also gave me a book called Aikido as a going-away present. Then he said, “Before you go, is there anything you want to ask me?” So I said simply, “O-Sensei, what is aikido?” He responded by saying, “Well, let me write it down for you and someday you can read it and understand.” What he wrote were the words: “intellectual training, physical training, virtue training, ki training-these produce practical wisdom.” He added that it wouldn’t do for even one of these to be missing, that lacking any one of them would render everything for naught and inevitably slow one’s overall development. One must, he told me, always maintain a harmonious balance among these.

I understand you had quite a send off!

Yes. I wanted to feel the distance between the U.S. and Japan and so I purposely chose to go by ship from Yokohama to Los Angeles. It took two weeks. On the day of my departure many people from Hombu Dojo came to see me off. Among them was Yoshimitsu Yamada was scheduled to go to New York a few months later to begin teaching aikido there. Nobuyoshi Tamura, his fiancee-now his wife-, Minoru Kurita, Seiichiro Sugano bearing a letter and farewell gift from Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and so many other gifts from Hombu uchideshi who could not come. It was a touching and heart-warming experience and I was grateful for their kindness. They all joked about my going away from them and teased me in a friendly way.

I believe you were also writing articles for a Japanese magazine called Women’s Weekly (Shuukan Josei). Did you have some connection with that publication before you went?

Yes, Women’s Weekly was published by the well-known publishing company Shufu to Seikatsusha. It was a sophisticated publication and did aim for a certain degree of quality. The editor was looking for some new material, so they assigned me the title of “Special Foreign Correspondent” and asked me to send articles and news back to Japan from the United States.

Did that include things writing about aikido?

Naturally! In fact I had specific instructions to write articles about aikido in America. Of course, back then hardly anybody in the United States even knew about the art. There was a dojo in Los Angeles, so the word “aikido” was at least understood around that local area, but I had quite a hard time explaining what it was to other Americans. As a last resort I typically ended up explaining is as “something kind of like judo, a little like karate, but not really…”

Did you start doing aikido as soon as you reached the United States?

Yes, my connections in aikido were helpful in getting started. Koichi Tohei Sensei wrote me a letter of introduction to one of his students, Isao Takahashi, who was teaching aikido in Los Angeles. He and Rod Kobayashi [both now deceased] came to meet me when I arrived on the boat. I didn’t know either of them so it seems they were rather worried about how they were going to find me. I was traveling alone so I had no idea that anyone would be coming to meet me and I was very surprised when they approached me. I asked how they recognized me, and they said it hadn’t been very difficult since I was the only one there with a jo and bokken in a bag slung across my back looking just like Sasaki Kojiro! (laughs)

*Sasaki Kojiro, fictitious figure but very famous in Miyamoto Musashi. Musashi’s final glorious duel is at Ganryuujima, fighting against Sasaki Kojiro. Kojiro loses in the fight, but he is known as one of strongest fighters of that time. The sword that Kojiro always carried was too long to carry on his hip and so he carried his sword on his back.

The people practicing aikido in Los Angeles were all curious to see a young girl with a shodan. Some of them even brought their families around to meet me and so on, so I found the atmosphere quite congenial.

Of course I still had responsibilities as “Special Foreign Correspondent” for the magazine, so I soon set out traveling around the United States, first to San Francisco, then visiting Portland, Seattle, Utah, Chicago, New York, North Carolina, Chicago again, then back to Los Angeles. Three months later I set out again, this time to New Hampshire and New York. Then finally I returned to settle in California where I eventually entered UCLA and continued practicing aikido.

After spending some years in California, I believe you had a chance to return to Japan and again see O-Sensei.

Yes. Let me preface my remarks about this trip with the following. In part one I talked about O-Sensei as a person with a connection to the spiritual world. He was someone who could receive spiritual waves emanating from the divine world. Certainly, his ability to come into oneness with the divine made him an extraordinary individual. So what I will mention now is neither my imagination nor something I have heard from others. I personally witnessed his divine nature. I am completely convinced that O-Sensei was endowed with divine power.

In the summer of 1967 I returned to Japan for a short visit, accompanied by my roommate, Elizabeth Lee. O-Sensei seemed very happy to see us when we visited him at the dojo. At the time, the Hombu Dojo was in the process of being rebuilt. The room with a large Shinto altar that O-Sensei had formerly used had already been torn down, so he was spending most of his time in the old office section. The uchideshi had brought in a futon (cushion) that was kept neatly folded up beside the office desk during the day and at night spread it out on the floor to sleep on. Kisshomaru Sensei (then Dojo-cho) was worried about the inconvenience of these arrangements and kept suggesting that O-Sensei go stay in Iwama until the construction was finished. But he insisted that he wanted to stay at the dojo, and so that’s where we found him, “enshrined” in that cramped space.

Elizabeth and I were staying at a nearby inn called the “Kikyokaku.” It was often used by people from abroad having some connection with aikido. When I told O-Sensei about our accommodations he immediately had one of the office staff book him a room there and arranged to move right in. There was a great commotion as the owner of the inn and her staff rushed to prepare for his arrival. The owner in particular was so honored to have him there that she was practically in tears!

They arranged for him to stay in one of the Japanese-style rooms near the back of the building, and on the day he moved in he went to bed early. The next morning, around 5:30 I guess, I heard him calling my name. His voice grew louder and louder as he came up the hall to our door. By the time I had started waking Elizabeth he was right outside and was saying something about going to the dojo and inviting us to come along with him. I was mortified because the room was such a mess, so I hastily shoved all the stuff scattered around into the closet. When I finally opened the sliding door I was surprised to see him standing there already completely dressed in his haori and hakama and ready to go.

I could see him so clearly, standing there outside the door, bathed in the electric light from inside the room, as dignified, resolute and noble as ever. Besides his strong personal “presence,” he also struck me as being very large physically, standing there filling the whole doorway as if a giant rock had suddenly appeared there. The space around him seemed strange, as if filled with a vacuum, overlaid by a kind of rich tension, looking nothing like the hallway of an inn. I even heard my ears ring with a bell-like sound I never heard before. He said, “Mariko, it’s dark out here; let me in!” so I answered, “Yes, of course, please come in.”

I remember seeing him there so clearly, in every detail, even down to his white tabi socks. At that moment, I suddenly felt like I was losing my balance, like I’d suddenly fallen under the influence of some sort of strange “universal gravitation.” It was like I’d run into a massive wall made of particles of wind. For an instant is was as if some intangible “wave-motion” was pushing toward me, like a kind of air pressure, but not the result of any kind of actual wind. It so affected me that I could barely stand up and I even felt like I might actually fall over backwards! I sort of tottered there for a bit, trying to regain my balance. I also wondered briefly why, in spite of all the aikido training I’d been doing, I was having such a hard time maintaining my center. And of course I felt even more pathetic and embarrassed with O-Sensei standing there watching me the whole time as I stumbled around.

Finally I think one of my knees touched the mat. The dimensions of time and space were so strange that I became totally disoriented. At that time I ended up in a fetal position and began to feel really sick. I slowly began to fall sidewise. Involuntarily, my head fell to my chest. I tried to raise it to the normal position but it was just impossible. Not only was my head heavy, I felt like some kind of massive power was over my neck giving me the feeling of being cut open. My body was continuing to fall and was getting closer to the floor. Then I saw out of the corner of my eye O-Sensei dashing into the room to my aid to support my body and help me into a seated position.

At this moment, I felt my whole body beginning to sink into the floor. O-Sensei kept asking me if I was conscious and what happened to me and questions of this sort. I had the impression that O-Sensei realized something was up and started looking concerned. I could hardly answer him. Even though I felt that I was causing him trouble I tried to hold myself up but it was impossible. Suddenly, I heard clearly O-Sensei talking to someone using very humble words: “Oh Divine Spirit, you were here.” He started to gather cushions and other things to support me. He moved rapidly to prevent me from falling down and then he backed away a little from me and placed his hand on the floor in immaculate form and bowed down. He said using honorific terms, “This young maiden’s body is still frail and it will be impossible to take it. Therefore, come into my body.”

Despite being sick and unable to control my physical motions I had my conscious mind observe what was going on around me. However, I did not the hear the second voice but it was clear O-Sensei was talking and responding to someone. It was like listening to someone conversing over the phone. He said, “Is she all right? … I understand… I humbly accept that I don’t need to be concerned about her physical condition… You mean she won’t be destroyed… Yes, I understand…”

The deity admonished O-Sensei for being too persisent about my physical condition. “What would you like me to do?… Yes, I took down the Shinto altar because the dojo has to be rebuilt. However, I respectfully took you to the Iwama Shrine and asked you to be enshrined there until the dojo is complete. I have never forgotten you… I haven’t been able to make my orations for three days because I am in Tokyo… You mean I am making excuses?… I humbly apologize… Please leave this maiden’s body. I will immediately return to Iwama. What else would you like me to do?… Would you please leave this maiden’s body!” It sounded like the deity was going to leave. Then O-Sensei continued: “I will purify this place and send you up. Is it all right to do so now? I will commence now…”

I somehow saw O-Sensei compose himself to perform misogi and then gave a loud kiai to me. I relaxed to a certain extent but still had a headache.

I can laugh about it now, of course, but at the time I was so surprised that O-Sensei’s very presence alone had actually affected me that way. It felt as if some kind of “energy shockwaves” were dashing against me, making my heart beating in my breast almost painful. I was afraid he might actually hear it and I even started to reprove myself for being so ungracious and inelegant. In an effort to regain my composure I turned to fill the teapot from the hot-water thermos and when it was ready offered O-Sensei a cup of green tea. Still I felt so odd, almost like I was seasick, so that I could hardly even raise my head. Then O-Sensei said, “Ah, you see, sometimes the gods come down into this old man. I’m sorry, I see it’s put you out…”

Then O-Sensei asked me, “Do you understand what happened to you just now?” I shook my head and said I didn’t understand. Truly, it was beyond my comprehension at that moment. He said, “No one understands spiritual contact. It would be much easier not to say anything to others. There are not many people who understand this phenomenon. It is too complicated and too far beyond normal experience.”

He kindly stepped down to my level of understanding and spoke sweetly to me. By speaking in terms that I could understand he descended to my level allowing me to briefly penetrate this spiritual dimension. He made clear in terms that I could understand that he really did not want to let people know about his spiritual contacts. He even said, “Promise me not to talk to anyone.” I said I wouldn’t. He made me hook my little finger around his in the Japanese gesture indicating a promise or pledge.

After a while things started returning to normal. My roommate Elizabeth had slept through this entire scene! The only thing she remembers now is that O-Sensei was sitting in the room with me. I followed O-Sensei to the dojo which was located within walking distance. I remember that O-Sensei went back to Iwama shortly thereafter. Now it has been exactly 33 years since this happened. I am breaking my secret promise to O-Sensei, but I trust that he will allow me to do this. Then I didn’t understand what he had said to me, but later I realized I’d been privileged to experience O-Sensei in a state of divine influence, when the gods themselves had entered into me. It was clear enough that it wasn’t just any divine presence, but some very powerful martial arts’ deity that had descended due to O-Sensei’s influence.

  • Kamisagari: In early times, there was a strong belief that all things in nature are governed by its absolute law and that people must try to confirm to the rule of the gods. In the Nihonshoki, compiled in 720, there is a record of Empress Jingu being a medium; she is said to have received messages from the divine to enable her to govern the land. According to Chikaatsu Honda-one of the spiritual teachers of Onisaburo Deguchi-there are three ways to connect to the divine spirit. One is the spontaneous, sudden appearance of the divine without being conjured up by humans. A second one is the direct invitation of a divine power, and the third involves the invitation of a divine power through a medium.

    On Kisshomaru Ueshiba

Would you give us some insight into personality of the late Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba?

It has been a year and half since Kisshomaru Sensei has gone. Time really flies, but I still feel that I can hear his laughing voice. O-Sensei created aikido and Kisshomaru Sensei introduced it to the world. While he was engaged in teaching as his sole mission he was interested in bringing together as many people in aikido as he could. Kisshomaru Sensei was modest and reserved but conscientious in attending to aikido administrative matters. Kisshomaru Sensei worked harmoniously without any impulse to dominate. He was always ready to hear different points of view and he relied on advisors. Yet when an important decision had to be made, he relied on his own judgement. He had many sincere advisors and board members and shihan who were domestically and internationally active who would back him all the way. They joined willingly in supporting Kisshomaru Sensei as their participation was a source of prestige.

Kisshomaru Sensei effectively inspired a powerful focus on unifying aikido in Japan. One of the ways he accomplished this was to establish branches in many big companies. Company employees trained in aikido at lunch time or after work. In the 1960s, aikido instructors were dispatched to places like NHK (National Broadcasting System) or noted auto companies or other enterprises as well as colleges and universities. This may appear to have been no more than a convenient way of attracting people to aikido, but it was a reflection of Kisshomaru Sensei’s desire to meet the needs of outside people.

Kisshomaru Sensei’s outlook was profoundly influenced by the traditional Japanese samurai spirit. On many occasions I witnessed Kisshomaru Sensei talk to his own father O-Sensei with great respect. He always spoke gracefully using honorific terms. It was a heart-moving scene when a son looked up and treated his father in a respectful way. In the same way, Kisshomaru Sensei reaffirmed a polite relationship with his son, Moriteru, the present Doshu. He appears to be taking after Kisshomaru Sensei and it was reassuring to watch Moriteru Doshu treat his father Kisshomaru Sensei with humble respect. I was thrilled to be with them and be a part of their refined conversation.

When Kisshomaru Sensei visited southern California he would stay at hotels, but he always managed to take some time out from his busy schedule to visit my house. It was such an honor to receive his visits. He came to my house many times and spent time with my family.

Please give us your thoughts on the significance of pursuing something like aikido in such a “gun-oriented” society as the United States.

I suspect your question pertains to the role of aikido in such a society from a more technical perspective, but since I’ve never pursued aikido as a means of combat per se, I’m a little at a loss for a response. If you understand aikido as a martial art, as a means of fighting, then of course you have to consider how it might be applied in the context of such a gun-oriented society. But as I said earlier, aikido training for me is more along the lines of practicing the kind of movement symbolized by “the circle with the point inside.” In that sense I perceive it as being more a means of spiritual training than a means of combat.

I have had occasion to use my aikido training to resolve a conflict situation, however, in the middle of one of my classes at the university. One of those involved was a white student who had formerly been in the U.S Marine corps, the other was a third-generation Japanese-American. The latter was ordinarily a very gentle person, but for some reason or another he suddenly snapped and went after the other fellow.

It was a real mess, what with the whole class on its feet to see what was going on and even three or four of the girls crying. But I suddenly jumped in front of the attacker, taking him in a front hug tightly so that we were cheek to cheek. I started whispering to him urgently, over and over, “What happened? What’s wrong… Tell me what happened. It’s okay now…” That seemed to calm him down quite a bit. I also noticed that his will to fight suddenly seemed to slip away from the very instant I embraced him. He whispered back to me, “I’m sorry Sensei.”

I realize now that even though my movements were not aikido, it was a perfect application of the art, and I also think it was my aikido background that allowed me to feel comfortable jumping into the middle of a physical confrontation like that.

The dean of the university later scolded me for getting involved. Of course, I wonder what could have happened, for example, if one of them had had a knife or a gun! I just told him that I simply couldn’t bear one of my students being led off from my class in handcuffs, and he was not that kind of a guy who would kill someone, and that was that. So, I did not bother to pick up the phone to call campus security.

Apparently what I did by getting involved in the fight was actually a violation of some U.S. law, but I did it anyway because I felt it was in the true spirit of harmony of aikido-in the spirit of love you might say; and it was only because of my aikido training that I was able to take such swift action. That was the first time I ever had to take such action, and hopefully the last!

What about the use of aikido as a means of self-defense against rape and other such crimes?

I think aikido contains a number of techniques and practices that can be applied in such self-defense situations, but the most important thing is to avoid such situations in the first place. If things eventually do come down to an absolutely life-and-death situation, then I think what a woman actually needs to rely on more is a kind of unyielding spiritual strength. Mostly this has to do with an absolute commitment to maintaining what you might call her “sense of self” to the very end. Usually it’s only in movies that we have chances to see such situations, but even in those you’ll notice that the women tend to be portrayed in an extremely negative, weak way, always begging for their attackers to stay away or pleading for their lives and so on. But from what I can tell that kind of approach tends only to encourage and inflame the insane, beastly men attacking them.

If you’re a woman, more than physical technique, it may be more important to hone and strengthen your spirit, so that you can always keep your sense of self in a so-called “positive space” under duress. People who have cultivated that kind of mind will be able to call up an almost unbelievable amount of strength and willpower when suddenly confronted by such a situation. And, if people can maintain such a high-level spiritual sense of themselves, they can always remain “connected” where they need to be, they will always benefit from a kind of “divine protection” that will serve them well when push comes to shove.

You are an active member of an important spiritual research association in Japan. Would you tell us about this?

Because of the influence of O-Sensei’s spirituality I became a member of the “Japan Psychic Science Association” where I conduct research on ancient Shinto and its relationship to mankind. I especially have taken an interest in the manifestation of the divine spirit and its free, unhindered spiritual workings. When I was young and had an opportunity to be near O-Sensei I did not know that I was a spiritual medium. After going through a certain amount of turmoil, I found out clearly that I am built differently. I searched for a way to find my identity. Several years ago the “Japan Psychic Science Association” which consists of many Japanese scholars was introduced to me. I decided to join with them and there I met professor Kiyohiro Miura of Meiji University who is also an Akutagawa-prize winning author. He informed me of the history of the “Japan Psychic Science Association.” Back then, I did not know that the scholar Wasaburo Asano-one of the major disciples of Onisaburo Deguchi-was the founder of the association. Wasaburo Asano was at Ayabe in the early 1920s under Onisaburo Deguchi and was Onisaburo’s right-hand man at the time when O-Sensei was there. I was thrilled to think that the two might have met. His older brother, Seikyo, also practiced with O-Sensei. Asano left the Omoto religion in 1924 and established the Japan Psychic Science Association.

To wrap up, would say that O-Sensei was the person who most influenced you?

Of course. I think everyone meets one or two people who strongly influence them in their life. In my case, I met one such person in the form of O-Sensei just as I was leaving adolescence and knew him in my 20s. In other words, I was at the time still developing mentally and physically, but I knew that I had met and known a divine incarnation that was O-Sensei. This was an encounter I will treasure my whole life. The impact it had on me has allowed me to walk the path of aikido in my life so far. It is a path that has helped me keep myself intact as a human being. Many things have happened during my more than 35 years in the United States. O-Sensei and his aikido have always been there for me, supporting me and helping me keep myself sound and whole. I pursue each and every day freely and without reserve living life to the fullest while also gratefully receiving that which I am given.

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