Interview with Seishiro Endo (1) by Stanley Pranin

Seishiro Endo Sensei executing iriminage at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in 1996

“O-Sensei’s eyes were really piercing when he was doing techniques, but in general he seemed to me more like a nicely aged, amiable, grandfatherly type.”

Seishiro Endo, 8th dan

From Aikido Journal #106 (1996)

A.J. How did you get started in aikido?

Endo Sensei: I knew nothing about the art until April 1963, shortly after I entered Gakushuin University. I was hanging around the campus when one of my sempai (seniors) asked me if I would like to come and have a look at the university aikido club. We went down to the dojo and I ended up starting that same day. They made me do shikko (knee walking) and about 200 squats. I’d done some judo in high school, so I wasn’t particularly out of shape, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to do 200 squats. I vividly remember my legs simply refusing to move when I tried to climb the train station steps later that day.

Did the university recognize the aikido club as an official athletic club?

No, it was still viewed as an informal group. Gakushuin University is a relatively old school with a strong sense of tradition, so it has always been difficult for new clubs to gain official recognition. First they have to prove their seriousness and prospects for longevity. The club wasn’t even recognized as semi-formal until three years after I became its fourth captain, and it took another 10 years after that for it to become an official athletic club. All told, it took about 20 years for it to go from an informal group to full-fledged club status.

Who were the instructors at that time?

The very first shihan to teach us was Hiroshi Tada, but he left for Italy in September of my sophomore year. Mitsunari Kanai, who taught us for about a year, replaced him, and later we had Yasuo Kobayashi for six months or so. Soon after I graduated and entered the Aikikai, I myself was sent back there to teach.

I understand that after four years of training as a university student, you decided not to enter the work force, but to become an aikido professional instead.

Japanese university students generally begin the job-hunting process in June of their senior year. By the beginning of July most people have decided on a position. When that time came for me I had mixed feelings about what I wanted to do. I remember the first day I arrived in Tokyo from my hometown in Nagano. I was riding the Yamanote loop line around the city from Ueno, and I could see the clusters of tall office buildings going by as I passed stations like Tokyo, Yurakucho, and Shimbashi. I remember thinking, “Well, I guess I’ll be working in one of those buildings someday.” But the more I practiced aikido, the more it fascinated me, so when it came time to find a job, I had a hard time deciding what I really wanted to do with my life. I did actually receive an informal job offer, but after thinking about it for a while I decided I wanted to pursue aikido instead.

As a university senior at aikido camp in 1967

It must take a lot of courage for a new university graduate to forego a promising career, especially in Japan.

You might recall that from around 1960 Japan’s economy began to take off. I graduated in the midst of that boom time in 1967, so there were plenty of employment opportunities available at large firms, even for someone like me. I must confess I didn’t study much at university, although I became an avid reader. Even when I did manage to get to class, I would fall asleep after about 10 minutes [laughter]. In fact, I think I probably slept through most of my classes. The rest of my time I spent in the library. At lunchtime I went to the cafeteria to eat and then back to the library. At 2:00 o’clock I slipped out to make the 3:00 o’clock practice at the Hombu Dojo, then back to campus for practice at the aikido club.

You seem to have been at the school a lot, but I’m having a hard time deciding if you were a serious student or not [laughter]!

I probably spent so much time there because I had nowhere else to go [laughter]! During my first year I decided that if I were able to do well in at least eight out of 14 classes, then I would put some effort into studying. I only got one pass, though, so I sort of gave up right then. I knew I needed reasonably good grades to help me get a decent job later on, but I figured if I trained as hard as I possibly could in aikido I could use that to appeal to future employers. It was a pretty naive way to look at it.

You do seem to have had your own agenda and ambitions.

I guess you could say I had my sights set on my dream. People often told me I was a dreamer. They asked me why I chose to do something as seemingly useless and unrelated to anything else as aikido when I had perfectly good prospects to land myself a so-called “respectable” job. But I thought that working hard at aikido was something commendable in and of itself. I saw no reason why I wouldn’t be able to support myself, but I figured that even if things didn’t work out perfectly, I still wanted to make the effort to better myself, if even a little, so I threw myself heart-and-soul into my training. To encourage myself I used to sing songs about youth and individuality and self-actualization. You know a “My clothes may be poor but my heart is gold,” sort of attitude [laughter].

I imagine that in the 30 years since then the tables may have turned, as many of your university colleagues have come to view your position somewhat enviously.

That may be. If I had taken a job at one of those large companies I saw from the train window, I’m sure by now I’d have been relegated to some obscure corner of the office or put out to pasture in some subsidiary company. Some of my former classmates say that while the corporate life has given them some good times, especially during the bubble economy period, they feel it might have been better to have pursued something they really enjoyed.

You probably have at least 10 times more freedom than they do!


What was your impression of O-Sensei when you first met him?

I can’t say I got an impression of great strength or anything like that. Of course, his eyes were really piercing when he was doing techniques, but in general he seemed to me more like a nicely aged, amiable, grandfatherly type. During training he never really threw me around or anything like that.

Were you still a student the first time you met him?

I saw him for the first time during my sophomore year in university, when I started training at the Hombu dojo on a daily basis. I never actually spoke with him until July of my senior year, when I made the decision to enroll at the Aikikai. My father accompanied me to the dojo to extend a formal greeting on my behalf to Kisshomaru Sensei and I spoke with O-Sensei then for the first time. Once he told me to try pushing his knees from the side. I was amazed at how soft they were. But they were soft in such a way that they seemed to defy pushing altogether, like if I tried to push further I would fall into some sort of void. That peculiar softness left a particularly strong impression on me. There was another time when everyone else was away from the dojo and I found myself taking ukemi for O-Sensei, who was demonstrating for some reporters. He was showing some technique similar to suwari waza kokyuho, but as I moved in to try to pin his arms, all of a sudden it felt like I had slammed into a big rock and I went flying.

What was it like training to become an aikido professional?

Well, there wasn’t that much to it, really [laughter]. We trained from 6:30 to 9:00 in the morning, but after that I’d take off to the beach at Enoshima with the other students. Back then there weren’t so many places for us to go to teach, so we had quite a bit of freedom to do that sort of thing.

You must have fond memories of those days!

Yes, it was great! Nowadays university training camps last just a few days, but back then they lasted for a week. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had any work to do. Of course, I did my share of serious training. One important aspect of that was cleaning the dojo from top to bottom every morning after practice. Nobody told me to, I just felt like doing it. I cleaned the toilets every day so that the bottoms of the bowls were immaculate, sparkling white, so clean you could practically eat off them. The dojo is getting old now, so it’s inevitably going to be a little dirty, but the toilets are something you can keep spotless if you take the time to be conscientious about cleaning them. I wonder now if that sort of thing wasn’t more valuable than the actual practice on the mat. It was an excellent experience for me, anyway. We have the expression “accumulate hidden virtue” (intoku wo tsumu) which refers to bettering oneself by willingly taking on tasks that people normally try to avoid. I think that such “austerities” were an important aspect of my training.

You mentioned that you’re an avid reader. Is there any particular work that you consider your favorite or that you feel has been especially helpful?

There are so many books I really like that it would be difficult to single out just one. When I was in my 20s I read a lot of books on Zen Buddhism, particularly the Rinzai sect. Later I started reading about the Soto sect as well. While my reading covers a broad spectrum, I can’t claim to be well versed in any one subject. Wide but not deep, as the saying goes. I’m just a book addict. I don’t feel quite right unless I have something to read close by. I’m always carrying a book around, even it it’s heavy and even if I don’t get time to read it. At the moment I am reading something by Tempu Nakamura.

When did you first become interested in Tempu Nakamura? 

I often heard about him from my sempai who had gone to visit the Tempukai. Other than that I really didn’t know much about him in those days.

Did any of the shihan make a particular impression on you? 

Koichi Tohei probably made the greatest impression on me. In addition to being the oldest, he had a very strong, very unique personality. Osawa Sensei was another one. He sort of took me under his wing and talked to me a lot about aikido and about life in general. I’ve become the kind of person I am now largely thanks to Osawa Sensei. The teachers at the Hombu dojo were all relatively young, and both students and teachers trained very energetically, so it would be difficult to single out any one individual who influenced my training more than the rest.

What was Tohei Sensei’s teaching like?

Overall I thought he made things easy to learn. Thinking about it now, though, I realize his teaching methods were influenced a great deal by Tempu Nakamura. He used to say, for example, “Think of the center of gravity of your arm as being at the bottom,” and things like that. I tried to follow such instructions as best I could, but of course it was never that simple. Tohei Sensei would correct me over and over again until eventually he would say, “Ah, you’ve improved.” The problem was I couldn’t figure out what had changed in me to warrant such a comment. Why was he telling me I was improving when I myself could see no change? That kept happening, and eventually I began to get a little frustrated. Tohei Sensei had so much to offer that I sometimes wonder if it would have been better if he had adopted some other teaching method.

I understand your aikido underwent a change as you entered your 30s?

When I was 30 years old I dislocated my right shoulder. That event brought me to a turning point. Seigo Yamaguchi said to me, “You’ve been doing aikido for 10 years now, but now you have only your left arm to use, what are you going to do? Up to then I hadn’t trained very much under Yamaguchi Sensei, but after he said that I made it a point to get to his classes as much as possible. I started to realize how much I was relying on the strength in my upper arms and body during training. I asked myself whether I could go on doing aikido like that for the rest of my life. Yamaguchi Sensei’s question was just the thing to send me into a tailspin, into the next level of training that I needed to pursue. I took the opportunity to turn my approach to aikido around 180 degrees. I’m sure everybody remembers being told on at least one occasion to “take the strength out of your shoulders.” Yamaguchi Sensei also talked about this–about doing aikido without relying on strength. It’s more easily said than done, of course. When you try taking the strength out of your shoulders, it often happens that your ki goes with it! That’s to be expected.

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