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?

As I said earlier, when we entered the dojo the atmosphere was friendly and everybody seemed to have a lot of free time and the mood was relaxed. After class, the senior students would sometimes talk until late at night about their experiences previously when they tried to test O-Sensei and failed. So it never occurred to me to test O-Sensei. Long after that, when I was O-Sensei’s ken partner, the thought that I might be able to strike him if I tried at that time flashed across my mind. At that moment, O-Sensei’s eyes widened and he glared at me. Whenever we were up to something, it seems that O-Sensei could immediately read our minds.

Did you learn the use of the bokken or spear from O-Sensei?

I had heard that there were many people with high ranks in Judo and Kendo among students in the old days. I guess that this was why he didn’t have to teach things like how to hold the sword or how to assume a stance when holding the spear. It seems that he attempted to show something more advanced to those who already had an understanding of the use of these weapons. I served as O-Sensei’s partner using the bokken and jo without being experienced in their use, so at the beginning I found that I was very confused. I studied ken and jo by imitating the senior students and by practicing with other students. Since there were many people who practiced iai or held high ranks in Kendo among the students, I also learned from them. Some persons went to other dojos to study ken and jo secretly. In any case, we trained out of a sheer desire to become strong faster than the others and stay ahead of them. However, the Aiki Ken is different from the ken of other budo. The ken O-Sensei showed during practice or in demonstrations made a deep impression on us and this served as the basis for our training.

We would like to ask you a few questions on the aiki ken and jo and iai. Although some aikido teachers say that the ken and jo are very important in aikido, I believe there are only a few dojos where these weapons are actually taught. What, Sensei, do you think the importance of ken and jo is in aikido?

I think that O-Sensei’s jo was not what we would call jodo but rather the spear (yari). In the old dojo there was a practice spear with a 5.4 meter shaft on a horizontal piece of timber. I understand that O-Sensei practiced with this spear in the old days. They say that Count Gombei Yamamoto saw O-Sensei demonstrate his spear and praised him as the best spearsman since the Meiji Restoration. When he was in a particularly good mood, he personally told us stories about such things as the time he lanced a straw rice bag and sent it flying. In his later years he used a jo or a jo with a halberd-like point. When using the ken one adopts a right hanmi while with the spear the left hanmi is assumed. Probably, if you combine these two they become one. The ken and spear are considered to have been the characteristic weapons of the warrior (bushi) class. I learned that in aikido we should consider the ken and yari as an extension of our own bodies and were told to practice until we felt as if they became like our own hands. I don’t think anyone is conscious of using chopsticks when they eat or feels that they are a hindrance. In a similar manner, it’s good if you reach the point where you forget that you are even holding a ken during practice. In Kendo expressions such as “the ken and body become one” or “you become the ken itself by entering inside it” are often used. But I think the result is the same. I think it is only the way of thinking that is different. Aikido is called a weaponless martial art but since warriors always carried a sword or spear with them, it was natural for them to use these weapons in emergencies. Aikido techniques were conceived in such a way that there are sword versus sword techniques, sword versus empty-hand techniques and empty-hand versus empty-hand techniques. I practice sword techniques empty-handed and use a sword for empty-hand techniques to test whether or not the techniques I am executing are correct.

I understand that well-known teachers like Nishio, yourself, Chiba and Kanai Senseis who started aikido some 25 to 30 years ago practiced iai outside of Hombu Dojo. Was it Onori-ryu that you studied?

That’s right. First I learned Iaido from Danzaki Sensei. He was formerly a sumo wrestler called “Katsuragawa” if I remember correctly. He was an acquaintance of O-Sensei. His son started aikido and I taught him. This is how I came to be taught by him.

About what year was this?

Let’s see, what year was it? It was around the time when baseball players Mr. Hirooka, Mr. Arakawa and Mr. Sadaharu Oh were practicing aikido and also learning Iai from Jun’ichi Haga Sensei. Haga Sensei, who has since passed away, often came to Hombu Dojo around that time. We visited him in our free time and listened to his valuable talks and would sometimes be treated to a meal. Although Haga Sensei had a reputation of being very scary he was quite kind to us.

Sword master Junichi Haga (1908-1966)

Sword master Junichi Haga (1908-1966)

There is a film where O-Sensei teaches a special class at Hombu Dojo and Haga Sensei appears at the end (see AN video tape #1). Do you remember anything about that day?

Yes, that was the first time I saw Haga Sensei’s Iai. I was convinced then that it was the true Iai. This made me want to start practicing the art. At that time, a gentleman employed by Swiss Airlines received special aikido lessons whenever he came to Japan. I think that that film was taken at his request so that it could be used for practice when he returned to his country. At that time it was rare to be able to appear in a film. Don’t all of us look enthusiastic? Haga Sensei happened to visit the dojo on that day and I remember that he demonstrated an Iai kata with many rapid movements at O-Sensei’s request. I still remember his sheepish grin as if he were embarrassed after such a lightning-fast performance. That film was probably made around 1958 or 1959.

There is another interesting film which was taken in which two Americans wearing cowboy hats come to Japan (see AN video tape #7). Do you remember anything about that film?

If I remember correctly it was for a TV program where the American staff travelled around as wrestlers in order to train themselves. At that time Tohei Sensei was the chief instructor holding the highest rank. The old deshi who practiced before and during the war were no longer at Hombu so there were only young students like us. We were really worried because we knew that if Tohei Sensei had lost we would not have been able to ask O-Sensei to replace him (Laughter).

Why do you think teachers of ether budo criticized O-Sensei’s sword?

Well, please ask those who criticized his sword (Laughter).

What about the opinion of iai people?

I think that probably the conception of the use of the ken in aikido compared to its use in Iai or Kendo differ. Since my father was a Kendo teacher I had a little experience in this art. It seems that the use of the Aiki Ken is totally different from the sword in Kendo. When we were observing O-Sensei demonstrating his ken sometimes his movement looked slow but his partner didn’t feel that way. We felt as if the person before our eyes disappeared the moment we began to strike him. It felt to us like we were surprised and then cut.

Haga Sensei, whom I mentioned earlier, declared that Hakudo Nakayama Sensei and O-Sensei were his only teachers. When we asked Haga Sensei about such and such an 8th dan he would say things like, “His technique is lousy!” When we talked about such and such a yari sensei he would laugh and say that he had scored a certain number of points against his body (do) and his wrist (kote) during a match with him. A person like him who made light of most of those senseis had the following to say about O-Sensei: “Mmm, ordinary people cannot understand him. You see, Tamura, it is natural that people cannot understand him. I myself used to believe that he was a fake until I tested him myself.” We recognized our teacher’s real power as a result of Haga Sensei’s comment.

Did O-Sensei and Haga Sensei ever have a match?

Yes. Haga Sensei was an All-Japan champion in Kendo when he was around 24 or 25 years old. At that time I understand that he was a Kendo instructor of the Imperial Guard. He often visited the aikikai and was invited to meals by O-Sensei. He said that he thought O-Sensei must have been a phony because he was hospitable to a young man like himself. It seems that there was a time when he decided to make the rounds drinking in Shinjuku late one night and even asked Mrs. Ueshiba to lend him O-Sensei’s clothes since it would have been inappropriate for him to go out in his Imperial Guard uniform. At the time he was to be transferred to a police department in Korea he thought he would force O-Sensei to show his real ability before leaving Japan. So he challenged O-Sensei to a match. O-Sensei immediately accepted his challenge and both of them went into the dojo. O-Sensei said to him, “Take any wooden sword and come to strike me.” Then O-Sensei is supposed to have begun to walk around the dojo. Haga Sensei was said to have tried to strike him but was totally unable to succeed and finally gave up. He laughed when describing this incident and said that he regretted then not to have learned anything after a year and a half of practice. He finally realized who O-Sensei really was after it was too late.

(Translated by Ikuko Kimura and Stanley Pranin)

The preceding interview with Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei was conducted in two parts. The first session was held in Marseille, France on August 2, 1983 with Mr. Didier Boyet posing questions. The concluding portion of the interview took place on August 29, 1984 at the Aiki News office in Tokyo and was conducted by Editor Stanley Pranin.

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