Interview with Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei, Aikido 10th Dan by Laurin Herr and Tim Detmer

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Excerpts from this 2001 interview conducted in Shingu, Japan were originally published in “Remembering O-Sensei”, edited by Susan Perry (Shambhala Publications 2002)

“What I learned directly from O-Sensei is that the spirit of creating world peace comes before waza. Without that spirit, our Aikido cannot progress.”

Sensei, when did you meet O-Sensei?

I first met O-Sensei about eight years after he started teaching in a warehouse in Shingu. That was 65 years ago, when I was 14 years old.

A man named [Yoshihiro] Kubo Sensei had invited O-Sensei to come to Shingu from Tanabe, his home town, and O-Sensei initially taught Aikido in the warehouse of the Taiheyo Sake Brewery in Shingu. This was perhaps the first place he taught Aikido in Japan — the very beginning.

I believe that I was predestined to meet O-Sensei. Before either of us were born, the Kami understood that we were to meet and have a parent-child relationship. Although I was his student, I always viewed O-Sensei as my father.

Had you studied other martial arts before you met him?

My father passed away when I was two years old, and my mother when I was seven. My maternal grandmother raised me after my parents died. She had studied a little naginata. Therein was the origin of my relationship to Budo and to O-Sensei. My grandmother wanted to raise me to be a good adult, and so she told me to study Judo and Kendo. I started Kendo in the second grade at age nine.

During that period, O-Sensei started visiting Shingu and teaching at the warehouse. He did not teach Aikido publicly. It was not considered something to show everyone. To be O-Sensei’s student, one was required to have five guarantors who would vouch for you personally. Not just anyone could study Aikido. Kubo Sensei took me to see Aikido for the first time when I was 14 and introduced me to O-Sensei after I had won first prize in a local student martial arts contest.

Founder Morihei Ueshiba with Michio Hikitsuchi in front of Kumano Juku Dojo c. 1953

Founder Morihei Ueshiba with Michio Hikitsuchi in front of Kumano Juku Dojo c. 1953

What was your first impression of Aikido?

It was incredible. No one seemed to be using any strength at all, yet they could throw each other easily. How mysterious! At first, I thought they must be doing something prearranged.

Although I was already studying Judo and Kendo intensely by that time, I thought that this Budo, in which the contest was won at the very moment of contact, must be the real Budo. I realized that it was very different from what I had been learning but that it was what I hoped my Budo would be like.

As a child of 14, I immediately wanted to devote myself single-mindedly to Aikido. However, in those days, no one was teaching children. At that time only adults 25 and older were allowed to learn Aikido.

But O-Sensei said to me, “You were born to do Budo. You must study Aikido…” (Actually, at that time he called it “Aiki Budo.”). And this is how I became the first child to be taught Aikido.

How did you feel when O-Sensei said this to you?

I felt so very grateful. O-Sensei had accepted me as a disciple, even though I was still a child of 14. He had told me that I was born to learn Budo and that Aikido was the highest expression of Japanese Budo. I was deeply moved.

What do you remember about O-Sensei’s physical presence in those days?

In those days, O-Sensei had an amazing body. He looked like an old style Japanese partition screen, wider than it is tall. He was 53 years old, weighed about 200 pounds, about five feet tall, and very broadly built. His body had strong joints and bones, and he was full of vigor.

His gaze was very kind, but his eyes also had a fierce light in them, as though they were glowing. It could be intimidating! If he looked at you suddenly, you were frozen — unable to move.

O-Sensei always stared sharply at someone he was meeting for the first time. His eyes gleamed and, in that moment, he knew everything about the person.

Sometimes, just a glance from him could make me feel as though I had been shot through with an arrow. His glance could be very stern at one moment and very soft and kindly the next. I felt that he was my parent. He looked stern and his body was so strong and yet, when I approached him as he sat, I thought “Here sits a genuinely kind person.”

O-Sensei was a great Budoka, an amazing Budoka. I was afraid to be next to him, yet I felt he had a benevolent, kindly heart. He was fearsome, yet I was drawn to him. I suppose that is difficult for others to understand.

As I have said, I believe that our relationship — teacher to student, parent to child — was destined to happen. I didn’t ask O-Sensei to take me as his disciple. He asked me to be his student. It was preordained.

Thirty-three years have passed since O-Sensei departed for the heavenly realm, but I have never felt separated from him. He is always present and I can hear his voice every day and night.

Is our current style of practice different from that when you started?

Yes, the waza were done differently. Just the other day I pulled out one of the old books that I used to study years ago, called , Maki no Uchi. That was O-Sensei’s first book. When I first started, we used to practice along the lines described in Maki no Uchi.. You know, one person would strike and the other would receive and respond with a throw. You can still see this older type of practice in some dojos, even today.

Was the Maki no Uchi book freely given out?

No. To get it, you had to have O-Sensei’s permission. For me, that was when I reached what would now be called shodan.

Was it a secret book, something that was never shown around?

Well, I don’t know whether I would call it “secret.” It was, after all, just a book, and there probably are people who can learn simply by reading. But it would have been very hard for someone to read the book and understand what it was about unless that person were practicing Aikido. Unless you were shodan or higher, you wouldn’t know what to make of it.

I think that is still true today. It’s not as if you can tell someone, “Here, do it as the book shows.” Aikido is something that becomes a part of you — a self-knowledge that comes through the spiritual training [shugyo] of physical practice [keiko].

In classes with O-Sensei, which was more important — verbal explanation or physical practice?

These thing we practice called waza [techniques] — waza themselves spring forth from kototama [word souls]. It’s not really possible to fully understand a waza without speaking about its meaning, what gives birth to it. So, O-Sensei would teach by talking about the [kototama ] origins of the waza. He would take a particular waza and teach how it came into existence.

Motomichi Anno, Morihei Ueshiba, Michio Hikitsuchi in Kumano Dojo c. 1960

Motomichi Anno, Morihei Ueshiba, Michio Hikitsuchi in Kumano Dojo c. 1960

How, exactly, would O-Sensei conduct practice?

First, we did Shinji [warmup exercises for spiritual purification]. We began with Misogi, Furutama, Torifune, Otakebi, Omusubi, and Okorobi [stages of Shinji]. Then we cleaned the dojo space and began waza practice.

There was no pattern to O-Sensei’s waza. It was kamigoto [divine working]. But the keiko (practice) sessions themselves always started with Shinji. After Shinji came suwariwaza [seated technique], which strengthens the hips. Then we’d progress to tachiwaza [standing technique]. Often the first waza was dai-ikkajo — what we now call ikkyo. After that, O-Sensei did waza according to his ki of the moment. Nothing was fixed. Every time it was different.

What was his teaching method?

O-Sensei did not usually teach people individually, taking their hands, explaining to them how to move. He just showed a technique once and told us to imitate what he had done. However, on occasion, he did give one-on-one instruction. I know I sometimes received hands-on instruction from him directly.

What did it feel like when O-Sensei taught you personally?

I felt it was more than I deserved, and I was very grateful.

Sometimes, when O-Sensei touched me, I felt my power suddenly increase. And, sometimes, when he touched me, I felt my strength drain away. When I came close to him, it sometimes seemed that my strength was absorbed. Other times, I felt a tremendous pressure… Always, I felt the power of the Kami flowing through him..

Training was very strict. There was no consideration or sympathy. O-Sensei changed in his later years, but when I first started, he was very strong and his arms were huge. Training with him could be terrifying. Many times, I thought I might be broken. [laughter]

You studied with O-Sensei from the age of 14 till the war began. Please tell us how you linked up with him after war?

I met O-Sensei again in 1949. I had not seen him for 10 years. He was 71 by then and I was about 30 years old. He had come on pilgrimage to visit the Three Mountain Shrines of Kumano, and he called me on the phone. “The old man has come,” he said. “How are you?”

I was so surprised to hear his voice. And so glad that he was still alive and well. I hurried over to the inn where he was staying on my motorcycle. He had me come inside and asked me how I was. It was a real reunion after 10 years apart. We talked on and on into the night.

O-Sensei said, “Japan lost the war because the army was mistaken.” “Until now, he said, all Budo has been for destruction, for killing. But, from now on, Budo must give joy and happiness. It must be a Budo of love.”

“The Occupation HQ has forbidden Budo,” he went on, “but [General] MacArthur has just given me permission to teach Aikido. MacArthur has told me to start a dojo. So, please join me. I am going to start teaching the Budo of love. You must also build a dojo! Follow me!”

I immediately quit my business dealing timber and built a dojo here in Shingu. It was very small, just a few mats in the beginning.

Would you say that O-Sensei had changed during the war years?

Yes. His thinking about Budo had changed radically. And the way he related to people also changed. His fierce gaze had become more tender. One felt more like getting closer to him. It was as you see in photos taken in his old age. His eyes were still strict, but they were no longer so scary.

After the war, O-Sensei’s thinking about waza also changed enormously. Before the war, the purpose of waza had been to kill the attacker. And we had practiced like that. After the war, he urged us not to attack opponents or to think of beating them up. “If you do that,” he said, “it will be the same as before. I have changed how we do everything.”

O-Sensei told us that we must give our opponents joy. To do this, he said, we must become capable of immediately sensing their ki. And, to do this, we must unify ourselves, we must unify our words, our body, and our mind. We must become one with the workings of all things in the universe — with Kami and the forces of Nature. We must bring all three things — words, body, and mind — into harmony with the workings of the universe. “If you do that,” O-Sensei said, “true Budo will be born. The Budo of destroying others will become transformed into the Budo of offering joy and compassion to others.”

After the war, did O-Sensei also change how he taught?

The method of practice was the opposite of what it had been. We no longer attacked. We looked at our partners’ ki in order to see the whole of them. From the top of their head to the tips of their toes. Not just external appearances. We needed to become able to absorb our partners’ minds.

Training this way was more difficult. We couldn’t wait for a partner to attack. We had to have the ability to instantly perceive the partner’s suki (openings) and intent to attack.Where will they strike? How will they move? We had to train to cultivate these sensing abilities in ourselves.

Now all the techniques I teach are those of the postwar period. They are the true waza of O-Sensei’s Aikido.

If we look at our partners, our hearts will be taken by them. Never look in their eyes. If we look in our partners’ eyes, our minds will be snatched away by their eyes. If we look at our opponent’s weapon, our ki will be stolen by that weapon. So, we must not stare at our partners.

If we are always one with the universe, one with great nature, there is no space for the opponent to attack.

When opponents do try to attack, we must not rely on form alone, but spontaneously create technique.

In the old days, when the opponent attacked, we parried the blow and drove forward. After the war, things changed. The instant the opponent raised his arm to strike, even as he was raising his arm, we were already changing position. We had to act quickly. To do it well, we had to become one with nature and move without thinking.

Another aspect of postwar Aikido was O-Sensei’s even greater emphasis on shinji for spiritual purification at the beginning of every practice session. He’d always begin with purification.

Hikitsuchi Sensei demonstrating bojutsu

Hikitsuchi Sensei demonstrating bojutsu

What is the most important lesson that you learned from O-Sensei?

First and formost, I learned from him to pray to the Kami and Buddha.

At birth, we don’t think any thoughts; babies are one with the Kami. But, as we grow up, we are taught many things, we think about many things, and in the process impurities are produced. If we can go beyond thought and be one with the Kami, we can return to Kami mind. We call this chinkon kishin. To quiet our spirit and return to the heart of the Kami. The heart of the Kami is love.

The teachings of Aikido are for the purpose of returning to the heart of the Kami and receiving the power of the Kami. Basing our actions on this foundation, we work for the peace of the world.

It is useless to argue about whether technique is modern or old. Technique is just technique. We cannot understand Aikido without studying its essential spirit, without studying how O-Sensei gave birth to Aikido.

The Way of Aikido exists to create a person who is sincere and kind — a person with a true heart. Waza exists as Aikido discipline. Through waza, we come to learn how things work. But, to put aside the spirit and do only waza will not lead to an understanding of Aikido’s heart and will not even lead to true waza. Just practicing technique will lead nowhere, no matter how many times you do it again and again.

How did O-Sensei transmit his teaching?

O-Sensei moved like a Kami. We thought we were seeing a real Kami. I therefore endeavored to absorb everything as it was — to do exactly as O-Sensei did. I wasn’t just “studying” in the ordinary sense of that word. In serving him, serving the Kami, I was receiving a spiritual transmission. That is how I received O-Sensei’s teaching.

I tried to absorb and comprehend what was happening, in the moment, as though I were O-Sensei’s mirror. This was difficult, even extraordinary, but it was my heaven sent mission. My mission was to serve O-Sensei. For example, if he stood to go to the toilet, I jumped up and waited outside the door with a towel so that when he emerged I could immediately handed him the towel to wipe his hands. When he went into the bath, I made him tea, trying to judge the time so that the tea would be just the right temperature when he came out, not too cold, not too hot. When O-Sensei went out and about, I walked behind him, ready for anything. It was all part of my personal training. My mind was always on O-Sensei. He knew that but didn’t say anything. It just happened naturally. This is true, sincere action — devotion. One mustn’t think, “Oh, he will like this: I will please him.” That is not devotion. Sincere service is service with your whole heart.

Did you spend time with O-Sensei outside the dojo?

Sure. We had all types of conversations in all kinds of settings; even in the baths we would talk, Mostly O-Sensei told stories, and I just listened. He spoke of a variety of things. Whenever I was with him, I was always paying the most intense attention.

Did O-Sensei ever relax?

Of course. O-Sensei was actually always relaxed. But he never sat cross-legged, always seiza. Outside of keiko, he would read books and talk. He always talked of spiritual matters. And the books he read, some very old, were always about the Kami. In the evenings, sometimes he’d call for a little hot sake, though by the time he was in his 70’s he didn’t drink as much as when he’d been younger.

Michio Hikitsuchi standing rear with Yoshihiro Kubo and Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba c. 1969

Michio Hikitsuchi standing rear with Yoshihiro Kubo and Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba c. 1969

I can remember wonderful evenings when Kubo Sensei would come over and demonstrate magic tricks for O-Sensei and whomever was around. Kubo Sensei was a master at sleight of hand, done up close, and O-Sensei enjoyed it very much.

When O-Sensei was in the Shingu area, how did he spend his days?

He would make pilgrimages to Kumano Hongu Taisha, to the Grand Shrine at Nachi Falls and the Hayatama Shrine. Once he had prayed at all three of the Mountain Shrines of Kumano, he would read books and practice Aikido.

O-Sensei kept his own schedule. Once, at 2 in the morning, he summoned me to come practice. Can you imagine, keiko at 2am. It was August 1957, the night he transmitted to me the innermost teachings of shochikubai no ken. O-Sensei had a bokken (wooden sword) made of brown biwa (loquat) wood and another, black bokken that had been given him by Mr. Shumei Okawa. He used the black bokken, and we practiced together. It was very intense practice, with nothing but the sounds of our bokken ringing out in the night.

At a certain point, I received O-Sensei’s strike on my sword, and “bang” the tip of his bokken broke off. “Enough,” he said, and we stopped.

As I looked around for the missing 2-inches from the tip of O-Sensei’s bokken, he cried out, “Is this what you’re looking for?” and pulled the missing bokken tip out from inside his keiko gi. That was mysterious. How did the tip of the bokken get in his gi? Had he somehow reached out and caught it with his hand? What had happened? Afterall, the tip had broken off when our bokken struck each other at full speed. I was truly stunned when he pulled the missing piece from his gi.

Did you have many such amazing experiences while you were with O-Sensei?

It was all amazing.

What do you think O-Sensei was trying to teach us?

He was trying to teach us to rid ourselves of the desire to fight with our opponents, and to replace it with the desire to create harmony.

Aikido is the Budo of love.

If we harbor anger, we cannot have good relationships with one another. Our anger will infect our partners, and that must not happen. Instead, we should offer happiness and compassion. If we do that mutually, we will make harmony and become like a family.

These days, people tend to think only of themselves — of their own power, money, and so on. We must correct this. If we don’t, how can we create a true family? O-Sensei said, “I am alive to make the world one family.”

What changes did O-Sensei hope to make in individual people?

O-Sensei was interested in cultivating sincere human beings.

Although he had this purpose, he never forced others to act one way or another as he understood that different people think differently. He never ordered anyone to do anything. He said that each of us must make ourselves sincere — that, while he could introduce us to the path, we would have to walk it for ourselves. “I can only explain to you what the Kami have shown me,” he would always say.

O-Sensei also told us to have a sense of gratitude, to be thankful to others and to Nature. Without humility and a grateful heart we cannot become true human beings. The sun gives us everything. Rain falls, and the field produces rice. Fruits and grains grow. These are gifts of the Earth.

The Kojiki, Japan’s oldest book, tells the story of the Kami. At first, there was nothing — no heaven, no earth, no ether. Then a point appeared in the void. We might call it The Center or The Great Power of the Kami. Clarity and purity soared high and created the pure sky. The impurities fell down to create the earth. In this way, the Kami divided heaven and earth. Then the Kami gave birth to everything on earth: plants, trees, fish, and so on. Among the best things on earth are human beings. Our function is to love everything and take care of everything for the Kami. But humans are also the ones who do wrong by destroying nature. Thus, the need for spiritual purification, so we can become able to help purify the world and create harmony.

O-Sensei was a very sincere, very pure person. His words are very important. He said that Aikido’s purpose is to create people of truth and sincerity.

Aikido is not a sport. Its goals are different from sports. There are no rules in Aikido. If Aikido becomes a sport, there will be rules, there will be over-emphasis on form and on winning. Making Aikido into a sport will lead to mistakes and carelessness. It will not lead us to the truth. If we want to find the truth, we must train with all our heart, all our strength. Aikido training should be like shinken shobu — training in dead earnest, as if with lives blades. Aikido training should be done as carefully as though we could lose our lives with one error. Even if we are upright people, we can turn bad with a single mistake. We must be careful not to make even he smallest mistake.

Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei inside the Kumano Juku Dojo during filming of "Essential Teachings of Aikido".

Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei inside the Kumano Juku Dojo during film of “Essential Teachings of Aikido”.

Do you feel a heavy responsibility to directly transmit O-Sensei’s teaching?

I feel the responsibility, but it is not heavy.

I must simply convey to the world exactly what I learned from O-Sensei. That is my responsibility. So, I must say only what O-Sensei said and teach only what O-Sensei taught. Nothing else. I must not inject my own opinion or in any way distort the direct transmission of O-Sensei’s Way.

Some people have created their own techniques, even though they can’t yet do what O-Sensei taught. O-Sensei could stop a person with one finger. Few try to have that power; few have the desire to follow O-Sensei’s teachings completely. That is where I differ from others.

If the trend continues, O-Sensei’s waza will end with me. That mustn’t happen. As I look around the world, I think that I must do everything I can to cultivate people of sincerity. If not, O-Sensei’s Aikido will end. That is my worry. That is why I travel all over the world teaching Aikido.

Of course, when I visit outside Japan, I do seminars. But these can only give an outline of Aikido. People can get a general understanding, but few can “study” as intensely as I did when I was serving O-Sensei.

My responsibility is to penetrate the spirit of Aikido and to teach O-Sensei’s lessons to as many people as possible. When I received the rank of judan [10th dan] from O-Sensei, I received O-Sensei’s direct transmission. I will be able to die peacefully only when I have been able to convey O-Sensei’s teachings to all the people of the world.

My real training starts now. Although I have trained for 65 years, my real training is yet to come.

Do you have any message for students of Aikido?

I would like to ask everyone to come visit me. Unfortunately, I am too old to travel around the world anymore. Therefore, I would like to have visitors from many countries world come here to my dojo in Shingu, so that I can speak with them and they can practice true Aikido.

Any message for Aikido teachers?

I would like all Aikido instructors to talk to O-Sensei before keiko — not just to put up a photo of O-Sensei and bow to it saying “Onegai shimasu” and “Arigato gozaimasu”. It is important for people to show their gratitude through their actions. This will help them come to understand O-Sensei’s teachings. Form alone will not work; one must show gratitude with a pure heart. So, speak out.

O-Sensei often expressed gratitude to the Kami. He told us to look at nature to understand the working of the Kami. He told us to decide on the right path by observing the workings of the Kami everyday.

I would ask all instructors to do their utmost to unify their minds and bodies, connect with nature, and train to create great harmony.

Any final thought?

O-sensei taught that if one has a benevolent heart, one can give love. From love arises harmony — and harmony gives birth to happiness. Happiness and joy are the greatest treasures. This treasure is not gold or diamonds. It is a spiritual.

It is most important that the world become one family. It is not a matter of whether waza is strong or weak. Aikido is for the purpose of teaching that with the heart of love we can make all one family. That is Aikido’s purpose.

What I learned directly from O-Sensei is that the spirit of creating world peace comes before waza. Without that spirit, our Aikido cannot progress.

Translated by Aya Nishimoto and Laurin Herr

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