Interview with Nobuyoshi Tamura (1) by Stanley Pranin and Didier Boyet

Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei (1933-2010)

Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei (1933-2010)

“Although some people often say that accompanying O-Sensei was hard work, I was happy to do it because I could stay in nice places, eat delicious food and receive favored treatment.”

I understand that you became one of the uchideshi of O-Sensei soon after the war. Would you describe Hombu Dojo at that time?

I am sure that there are people who remember that the former Hombu Dojo was a large, old wooden building attached to Ueshiba Sensei’s residence. In the front alcove there was a hanging scroll of a dragon which had been painted using O-Sensei as a model. To the right of the scroll, bokken, jo, wooden rifles (Juken) and training sticks were displayed in a row. There were strips of wood bearing the names of persons holding black belt ranks hanging proudly together one against the other on the right upper wall. On the left wall there was a large sheet of paper on which the dojo rules were skillfully brushed as if fiercely glaring at us.

The front half side of the dojo was a wooden floor which was said to have been used for Kendo practice in the old days. We beginners were made to practice on this wooden floor. Several families who had been bombed out of their homes lived in the other side of the dojo.

There were at most 14 to 15 students and the present Doshu taught the classes. The atmosphere was friendly and I could not believe the dojo used to be called the “Hell Dojo” many years before. At that time, there were people who stayed in the dojo and cooked for themselves while commuting to their companies or schools. We happened to enter the dojo simply because we could stay for free. You could not say that our initial motivation for being there was to become uchideshi.

What year was this?

I believe it was around 1953 or 1954. Like others I used to commute to the dojo in the beginning. When I was 16 years old my father died and I left my house determined to become independent. I received help from many people in various places, sometimes renting a room and sometimes living off of people. Around that time Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei was to go back to his hometown for his marriage and I was asked to look after his room while he was away for about one month. He even said I could eat his rice. It was a quite unexpected event so I immediately accepted his offer. One month passed in an instant and Yamaguchi Sensei returned with his wife. As a result I had nowhere to stay. While wondering what to do, Sensei suggested that I stay at the dojo. I asked him how much it would cost and he replied that it was free. I said, “Free? Really? Please allow me to do so!” I then immediately became an uchideshi.

Seiichi Sugano, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Yoshimitsu Yamada, fellow uchideshi at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1960

Seiichi Sugano, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Yoshimitsu Yamada, fellow uchideshi at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1960

Who was teaching at that time?

Since the present Doshu was head of the dojo then, he usually taught classes. We used to call him “Wakasensei” (young sensei) in those days. Of course, we called Morihei Sensei, O-Sensei. At that time, these two were the only instructors at Hombu Dojo so I thought they were the only teachers of aikido.

Did O-Sensei come to the dojo every day?

As I said earlier, since his house was attached to the dojo, he would pop in when the present Doshu was teaching and show 2 or 3 techniques and then disappear like the wind. He sometimes taught the entire class but on occasion he would talk for more than half of the practice time. Because of this, when we were about to train, we were unable to stand up because our legs had become numb. When he was in Tokyo it was like that, but O-Sensei usually lived in Iwama. Since he very often travelled to Tokyo, the Kansai (Osaka-Kyoto) area, and if asked, even as far away as Kyushu, it was difficult to receive his teaching every day.

Proportionally speaking, how long would O-Sensei stay in each place?

Well, there were times when he stayed in Tokyo for about a week or a month and other times when he stayed for two or three days and then went off to the Kansai area. For this reason, it’s difficult for me to give you a percentage. When O-Sensei travelled someone always accompanied him. They would go as far as Shizuoka, Osaka or Shingu with O-Sensei or go to Iwama to take him home and immediately return. Although some people often say that accompanying O-Sensei was hard work, I was happy to do it because I could stay in nice places, eat delicious food and receive favored treatment wherever I went. A young person like me normally would not have had a chance to receive this kind of treatment nor would anyone have taken notice of me. I was happy since it made a big difference being O-Sensei’s companion. I was just a child. I’m sure you want to ask me questions about the wonderful experiences you think I had as O-Sensei’s companion but these are the things which meant the most to me at that time. (Laughter)

What was is like to take falls for O-Sensei?

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba in sword demonstration with Nobuyoshi Tamura c. 1957

I was happy when O-Sensei used me for ukemi the first time. I felt that I had suddenly become great and thought that I was at last being treated as one of the senior students. Since I was used as an uke I was able to differentiate the feeling of throwing from the feeling of being thrown. Because of this I think I had an advantage which others didn’t have.

In the old days, we did not learn how to take ukemi like people do now. Ukemi was something you learned by being thrown. What you picked up naturally by being thrown was considered as true ukemi. I don’t think that the method of teaching aikido in the old days was very systematic. It may have been that it was systematic but I did not notice it. When O-Sensei came to the dojo, he threw us one after another and then told us to execute the same technique. At the beginning we didn’t even know what kind of technique he did. When I practiced with a senior student he would throw me first. Then, he would say, “It’s your turn!”, but I didn’t know what to do. While I was struggling to throw him, O-Sensei began to demonstrate the next technique. During the first period of my training which lasted a long time, I was just thrown and made to feel pain. It took one or two years for me to be able to distinguish techniques a little. I was pleased to have understood a technique but O-Sensei would then show a technique I didn’t know. Since I could not ask him a question like, “Sensei, I don’t understand this point”, I waited for the next chance to see the same technique executed by O-Sensei. If I had asked him he may have explained but I didn’t think it was possible to do such a thing. Perhaps mulling over in our minds those points we didn’t understand may have been better than being shown the technique on the spot and then soon forgetting it. We may have been able to come up with the answer some day ourselves. There was also a tendency to attempt to avoid missing his technique the next time he executed it.

Let me tell you about one particular incident. One person said the following to O-Sensei: “Sensei, even though I thought that I was able to execute the technique during practice in the dojo, I found myself unable to do it at home.” Sensei laughed and responded this way: “Since I tie my ki to those who are training with me they can do it in the dojo but not by themselves.” I remember thinking that it was ridiculous that we could not fight without O-Sensei. Even though I thought I had mastered a technique I wasn’t sure that it was the same way O-Sensei would do it. Half a year, then one year passed in this way. Although those who came to practice and my seniors taught me various points they all said different things. Since the ability of individuals to understand varies, when they saw a technique they probably all understood it differently. So I thought that it would be better to wait until O-Sensei showed the same technique again.

We understand that O-Sensei in his latter years talked about kotodama and the spiritual world when he spoke on aikido or budo. Did those who were uchideshi at that time understand him?

No, I don’t think they did. At least the young uchideshi including myself didn’t understand him. On winter mornings with all of the windows in the dojo open it was hard for us to listen to his talks. We hoped that he would start practice soon. In the sunnier days, we were short of sleep because of the heat and were proud of being able to sleep while seated in seiza. (Laughter) I think those who understood his talks were probably religiously-oriented people. It was not that we couldn’t understand what he said but rather that we didn’t try to understand him. Young people born after the war tended to oppose anything old and so they never visited shrines. We thought that Japan lost the war because its way of thinking was old. We were impudent enough to think also that we should adopt the new things and move in a new direction in order to rebuild Japan. I sometimes think back on what O-Sensei talked about at that time and guess that he may have meant this or that. I wish I had listened to him more carefully but it is too late now.

Did you ever test O-Sensei?


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