Interview with Masatake Fujita by Stanley Pranin

“O-Sensei didn’t actually ‘write’ the Dobun himself;
rather, they were based on some of the talks he gave.”

by Stanley Pranin
Aikido Journal #120 (2000)

Masatake Fujita, 8th dan Aikikai shihan, was born April 21, 1937 in Shinkyo (present-day Changchun) in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. He repatriated to Sapporo, Hokkaido in 1948. Fujita enrolled in Takushoku University in 1956. He entered Aikikai Hombu Dojo in November of the same year. After graduation, Fujita was employed for seven years at the Shin Seikatsu Undo Kyokai (New Lifestyles & Athletics Association). In 1967, he joined the office staff of the Aikikai. Aikido 8th dan.

AJ: I understand your father learned aikido from Ueshiba Sensei in Manchuria.

At the All-Japan Demonstration, c. 1990

Fujita: Yes, he was originally a judo man and he continued to practice judo during his work posting in Manchuria. There was a group called the Manchuria Budo Society (Manshu Budokai) whose members got together to practice not only judo, but kendo, sumo and other arts as well. My father was one of those involved in running this group and so he knew quite a few of the people practicing other martial arts. It was through that connection that he learned aikido when Morihei Ueshiba was invited to Manchuria. He trained with people like Kenji Tomiki (1900-1979), who was a professor at Manchuria’s Kenkoku University, and sumo wrestler Saburo Wakuta (1903-1989, also known as Tenryu, a well-known wrestler who began learning aikido after being impressed by the techniques of Morihei Ueshiba).

In those days, aikido practitioners tended to be people with considerable experience in other martial arts, and often a personal introduction was required as well. Most of them were already quite strong in judo or kendo or whatever art they had studied.

AJ: What kind of work was your father doing in Manchuria?

Fujita: He was with the Concordia Society (Kyowakai), an organization established to do a kind of “behind-the-scenes” government work. The [Kwantung] army was very strong in Manchuria. The government was comprised of Chinese at the very top, in the ministerial and other high-ranking positions, and Japanese in the positions below those. Within this arrangement, the government, the army, and the Concordia Society served to balance one another. For example, if the army detained a Chinese national for some reason, my father would step in to offer the person assistance and support. In other words, these three acted as a triangular set of counterbalances to one another, and within that my father’s position gave him at least enough authority, for example, to be able to lodge complaints against the army.

*Kyowakai, formally the Manchu Teikoku Kyowakai (Manchuria Imperial Concordia Society), a political organization avoiding the character of a political party and avoiding the aim of securing political power, functioning as a background organization complementing the foreground activities of the government, striving toward the achievement of the ideal of “nation building” (kenkoku) and the creation of a more moral world.

AJ: I understand that you yourself were born in Manchuria.

Fujita: Yes, in 1937 in a place called Shinkyo that today is the city of Changchun. My father was from Sapporo in Hokkaido and went directly to Manchuria from there. He stayed there for a total of ten years before finally returning to Japan to be repatriated. It was a difficult situation there in those days; if even one mistake had been made I easily might have wound up left behind as an orphan. I can speak Chinese now, but that’s only because I studied it in university later; as a boy in Manchuria I went to a school where only Japanese was spoken. Unfortunately, even though I did eventually learn Chinese, poor relations between China and Japan prevented me from putting it to use in my career. Still, I’m pretty confident in my Chinese, and in fact just the other day in a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles I was asked by the woman running it if I was Chinese or Japanese! My English is another story, though; my Chinese comes out okay, but the English always seems to be holding itself back and trying to hide!

AJ: Did you ever go back after the war to visit Shinkyo where you were born?

Fujita: No, I’ve never had a chance to go back there. I’d like to but I just don’t have the time. Since the war I’ve only been to China once, actually, as part of a group representing Japanese martial arts on a tour organized by the Nippon Budokan. We went to Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai, but the tour didn’t give us a chance to swing by Changchun.

AJ: You started practicing aikido after returning to Japan?

Fujita: Yes, after I went to Tokyo to enter university. Before that I was in Sapporo. I’d always been pretty physically active and used to do things like skiing, ice skating, and swimming. When I left for Tokyo my father told me to call on Ueshiba Sensei. He didn’t tell me I should go practice aikido, he just wanted me to convey his greetings. I arrived in April, which is when the new school year begins in Japan, but as it turned out I needed one more person besides my father to introduce me before I would be able to see O-Sensei. Consequently, it wasn’t until November of that year that I was finally able to meet O-Sensei and convey my father’s greetings. I remember it was a rather cold November day. I introduced myself as the son of Mr. Fujita and apologized for having delayed so long in coming. Until then I’d never really considered taking up aikido myself, and from what my father had told me I imagined it to be something like judo.

AJ: What was your impression of Ueshiba Sensei when you first met him?

Fujita: I knew nothing about aikido at the time, but from the moment I saw his face I could tell he wasn’t an ordinary person. I was immediately impressed. It didn’t matter to me then whether he was someone who did martial arts or anything else, I just knew that whatever he was doing there could be no mistake about it, and the very next day I joined the dojo.

It was my father who provided my introduction to Ueshiba Sensei, but the decision to start practicing aikido was mine entirely. I could have simply conveyed my father’s greetings and gone home, but for some reason that first encounter with O-Sensei got me thinking, and the very next day I was back asking to be accepted as his student. I hadn’t even seen aikido yet, but one look at O-Sensei’s face as much as made the decision for me, which I think is ather amazing. That sort of thing happens sometimes, and sometimes we’re lucky enough to meet someone like that.

AJ: What was it like at the dojo back then?

In front of the old Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1967. Architectural plan of new Hombu Dojo building seen in background.

Fujita: Back then O-Sensei traveled a lot between Tokyo and Iwama, so he was never in Tokyo for a long period of time. I went to the morning training sessions, which were taught by Kisshomaru Sensei. Some of the others there included Shigenobu Okumura Sensei, Nobuyoshi Tamura (now in France), and Masamichi Noro (also in France). And there was one other, a rather “unusual” fellow, I thought, by the name of Sadateru Arikawa Sensei. (laughs)

Back then Kisshomaru Sensei always trained together with whomever came to practice, teaching while taking ukemi and so on. There were usually only seven or eight of us, including those I just mentioned, so it was more or less decided who everyone would end up partnering with-except for one individual, and that was Arikawa Sensei-who didn’t seem to have a regular partner for some reason. (laughs) Back then Arikawa Sensei cut a startling figure, what with his hair standing straight up and everything, but I went right up to him anyway and gave him a cheerful “Onegaishimasu!” Before I even knew what hit me he’d thrown me with a blindingly fast shihonage, and that was my introduction to Arikawa Sensei! (laughs)

Many of those people I trained with back then are still active today. Some have even gone on to open their own dojos or lead Aikikai branch dojos. I think it’s important to value and maintain the relationships we form in the course of our training.

AJ: You worked for many years in the Aikikai office, but what did you do before that?

Fujita: I spent about seven years working for a government support agency called the Shin Seikatsu Undo Kyokai (New Lifestyles & Athletics Association). It was the type of work that required me to travel a lot, so I always took my keikogi with me wherever I went. The current branch dojo in Hiroshima, for example, began in connection with that, as did the Hiroshima University aikido club.

My office was in the Hibiya district of Tokyo, so I helped get together a dojo at the Tokyo Regional Court offices that were in the same neighborhood, and I used to train there during my lunch hour. That dojo is still there, and in fact became one of the first of many others that exist in the various government offices agencies today.

AJ: How did you come to start working in the office at the Aikikai?

Fujita: One of my university seniors was handling all the office work there himself, but eventually he left and I took over in 1967 as things started getting busier. It was around the time they were building the new dojo. It wasn’t finished yet, so in the beginning I worked in the old office in the old dojo. After about two years I started to become something like O-Sensei’s secretary. Kisshomaru Sensei became the chairman of the Aikikai Board of Directors around the same time.

A young Fujita Sensei at his desk at the Hombu Dojo, c. 1969

I accompanied O-Sensei quite often on his Omoto-kyo-related visits. For the last two years before he passed away I was often spending as much as half of every day with O-Sensei. Kisshomaru Sensei sometimes used to tease us by saying, “What, are you two doing something together again?” (laughs). Sometimes I spent so much time with him that I ended up having to neglect the office work.

Often when I traveled with O-Sensei the itinerary was the same. Whenever we went to Tanabe in Wakayama, for example, we stayed with Hikitsuchi Sensei in Shingu. I think we went to Tanabe together twice. It was a difficult trip that usually took a whole week.

O-Sensei used to walk extremely quickly, using irimi-like body movements to slip through the crowds, so it was always hard to keep up with him. He wasn’t very tall, either, so keeping track of him a crowd could be difficult, especially since I was carrying all the luggage.

AJ: Kisshomaru Ueshiba spent over thirty years as Doshu of the aikido tradition he inherited from his father. In what ways do you think aikido changed during that period?

Fujita: Kisshomaru Sensei was not the kind of person to put himself forward strongly, and I think that was reflected in his approach as Doshu. Mainly he strove to continue his father’s art faithfully, in a quiet, steadfast sort of way, without taking a particularly authoritarian approach in leading the other senior practitioners and teachers. I think that non-imperative approach has been part of the reason aikido has spread as far and wide as it has. In fact, when I was working in the office I don’t think I ever heard Kisshomaru Sensei give me an “order.” Never did he say “Fujita, do such-and-such!” He wasn’t that kind of person. In some ways that actually made it more difficult for me; normally when you work for a company your superiors tell you clearly what you’re supposed to be doing, but at the Aikikai office I had to figure a lot of it out for myself.

AJ: It’s been said that Kisshomaru Sensei made considerable efforts to arrange and organize his father’s aikido in order to make it easier to understand.

Fujita: You have to remember that Morihei Ueshiba Sensei hardly ever demonstrated his art for the general public. He might have done so for the benefit of certain specific individuals, but I don’t think it ever even entered his mind to rent a space like the Hibiya Civic Auditorium or the Budokan and give a public demonstration. Kisshomaru Sensei’s thinking, in contrast, was that such public demonstrations would give people of all kinds a chance to see aikido, which he considered necessary if aikido was to spread and grow. Aikido began to change because of that. Back when I joined the dojo you still had to write the names of the people introducing you on a sort of application form, whereas today anyone, foreigners included, can join the Aikikai.

AJ: What about changes to aikido on the technical level made during the time?

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