Interview with Aikido Shihan Kenji Shimizu – Part 1

Kenji Shimizu - 2007Kenji Shimizu (清水健二) in 2007

Was O-Sensei irregular about coming to the dojo?

Yes, he was. When I was actively practicing there he often came and went. When he showed up everyone immediately sat down. At first, I thought that people were being courteous toward him. However, it wasn’t only that. It was also that the practices we were doing were different from what O-Sensei expected us to do. Once he lost his temper at us. No one realized that he had come and he shouted: “What you people are doing is not aikido.” His shout was so powerful it felt like the earth was trembling. He was then in his seventies but his voice nearly pierced our ear drums. Everybody just became quiet and looked gloomy.

“Interview with Kenji Shimizu,” by Stanley Pranin

Kenji Shimizu (清水健二) was born in Fukuoka, Japan in 1940. After starting out with ten years of Judo an acquaintance persuaded him to meet with Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba – impressed with the Founder, he immediately enrolled as one of the last of O-Sensei’s uchi-deshi, in 1963. After the passing of the Founder in 1969 he went on to found his own style of Aikido – Tendo-ryu Aikido (天道流合気道), “School of the Way of Heaven”.

Tendokan Shomen“Tendo” calligraphy

He is the author of “Zen and Aikido” (with Shigeo Kamata) and “Aikido: The Heavenly Road“.

This is the first part of a two part interview with Shimizu Sensei that originally appeared in the July and August 2006 issues of Gekkan Hiden (月刊秘伝 / “Secret Teachings Monthly”), a well known martial arts magazine in Japan.

This interview was also published in a collection of interviews with students of the Founder published in Japanese as 開祖の横顔 (“Profiles of the Founder”) in 2009. There was a short introduction to this work in the article “Morihei Ueshiba – Profiles of the Founder“. A number of English translations of interviews from that collection appeared have appeared previously – Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2), Hiroshi Isoyama Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2), Shigenobu Okumura Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2), Nobuyuki Watanabe Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2), Masatake Fujita Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2) , Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2), Kanshu Sunadomari Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2), Hiroshi Kato Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2), Yoshio Kuroiwa Sensei (Part 1 | Part 2) and Morito Suganuma (Part 1 | Part 2).

Kenji Shimizu and Morihei UeshibaKenji Shimizu takes ukemi for Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba

Interview with Aikido Shihan Kenji Shimizu – Part 1

Even when one pushed on him O-Sensei would not move, not even an inch.

Q: Thank you for coming today. I’ve heard that you turned to Aikido from Judo, how did that happen?

A: I started Judo when I was thirteen years old. From then I trained for about ten years. I liked Judo, so when I entered the university I had the idea that I would like to specialize in Judo as an instructor. It was then that someone advised me “Judo is certainly spreading around the world, but it’s a sport rather than Budo.”. That person had some connection to O-Sensei, and he recommended that I visit him “Now there is a person who is the last Budoka in Japan. At the present time there is no Budoka greater than him! Would you like to meet him?”. At the time I was under the impression that Judo was the best in Japanese Budo, so I wasn’t very enthusiastic, but I became more and more convinced as we spoke. So it was that I was introduced to Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei.

Q: What was your first impression when meeting the Founder?

A: In any case, he was completely different from the instructors that I had met previously. I remember the feeling of having met one of the ancient warriors that appear in stories. O-Sensei said “Do you want to try it?”. So right there I enrolled as an uchi-deshi. As a matter of fact, I was the last uchi-deshi, you know. That was in Showa year 38 (1963).

Aikikai Hombu ground breaking ceremonyAikikai Hombu ground breaking ceremony – 1966
Morihei Ueshiba and Kisshomaru Ueshiba – center
Kenji Shimizu – back left

Q: And the Founder was around eighty years old at the time?

A: That’s right. But O-Sensei would never tell anybody his age. He would always say “After I passed seventy I forgot how old I was”.

Q: You enrolled as an uchi-deshi from the very beginning?

A: That’s right. Actually, at that time the Aikikai no longer had an uchi-deshi system. O-Sensei also had a policy of taking no more uchi-deshi. In my case it was really a special exception. For that reason I was serious from the moment of enrollment. There was the fact that I had switched from Judo, and that I was in “active service”, but I became a good practice platform for the students. They would try out their Aikido techniques on me. So my wrists really hurt! There were also many times when I applied techniques that there was a kind of strange resistance, my Judo habits would always come to the fore, and I would reflexively throw them. I don’t know who he heard it from, but Osawa Sensei (大澤喜三郎 – Kisaburo Osawa) gave me a scolding – “This isn’t a Judo dojo!”.

Q: How many years were you an uchi-deshi?

A: I was enrolled at the Aikikai for six and a half years. During that period the time that I spent close to O-Sensei receiving his instruction was three years. That is, and it was the same for all of the uchi-deshi, I was was sent here and there to teach. At Hombu I was often asked by Osawa Sensei to teach in his place, and when I was asked I would accept, saying “Yes, Yes…”. When I think about it now, I was really presumptuous, wasn’t I? The other person was an eighth dan instructor, and I was an untalented uchi-deshi, so normally one would say something like “I’m sorry, but it would be impossible for someone such as me to take your place as an instructor”, but I would always just accept lightly. (laughing)

Q: Was there anything special about your teaching at the time?

A: No, there was nothing like that. However, it may have been that O-Sensei liked my instruction. At the time Aikido was in a transitional period. When I enrolled, if one was asked “What do you do? What’s your job?” there was no way that I could reply “Aikido”. Because nobody had heard of it. If I answered “Aikido” then I would always be asked “What’s that?” next. Making that explanation was really tiresome. That was the kind of era that it was.

Q: Was there some about the Founder that especially left you with an impression?

A: Well…there were so many things that left an impression on me…I don’t know where to start. One day he said “Shimizu, are you free?”, and when I answered “Yes” he sat down in a backless chair and said “My back is tight, could you massage it a little?”. At the beginning, when I pushed on his back lightly, he said “What’s this? You don’t have any strength – push harder!”, so I put more strength into it and pushed on his back strongly but O-Sensei didn’t move at all. He just said “Push harder!” so I added even more strength and pushed on his back, but he didn’t move, not an inch. He was the same during training – O-Sensei would hold up his te-gatana (手刀) in kamae and say “OK, try pushing me!”. In any case, no matter how much of a master one is, he was of such an advanced age that one would think that he would fall over if pushed strongly. However, since he would become angry if we pushed lightly we would push with all of our strength. Even so, he wouldn’t move, not an inch. Thinking about it now, I interpret that to mean that he matched the power of his mind and body to the power of nature, and mobility transformed through the unified body resulted in tremendous power.

Kenji Shimizu and Morihei Ueshiba demonstrationTaking ukemi for Morihei Ueshiba around 1965-1966

Taking ukemi for O-Sensei felt good.

Q: What did it feel like to be touched by the Founder?

A: At the time he was already of an advanced age, so his body wasn’t all that strongly muscled. But his basic physique was firm. I thought that he must have been incredible when he was young. Outside of Aikido training he almost never displayed his strength in normal circumstances. In terms of energy (気力), he was strong enough to dislocate your back. For example, when he met young people with no sense of manners he would scold them – ”Rude!” – unapologetically. One day he gave a scolding to a taxi driver and the driver, hearing that voice, leaped out of the car without thinking about it. He turned towards me and asked “Who’s that old man?”.

Q: What was your impression of taking ukemi for the Founder during training and demonstrations?

A: It was extremely easy to take ukemi for him. There aren’t many times that one takes ukemi and it feels good, but O-Sensei’s techniques were like that. The techniques didn’t hold one down stiffly, it felt like you would flow right into an immobilization. Well, how one speaks about this depends upon when they became a student or took ukemi, and there are those who say that the were slammed down hard onto the tatami. My personal impression was that O-Sensei’s techniques were soft and beautiful. I remember this even now, a time when O-Sensei was teaching a single individual (Hidehiko Hyoki – 日能英彦). I was taking ukemi, and as soon as Mr. Hyoki took a break I would spot the opening and impolitely start asking questions. One day I asked “Muna-dori Nikyo is very difficult, isn’t it? When the opponent grasps my lapel firmly I can’t get their hand turned back.”, whereupon O-Sensei’s face seemed to say “What!?” and he said “Well then, grasp my lapel as strongly as you can!”. I grasped his lapel, rolling it in my hand, and O-Sensei turned my hand and the lapel back together in a circle and applied Nikyo to me in an instant. I was really surprised. It’s not the Egg of Columbus, but I guess that when one is shown something like this they think “Indeed!”. But we would always be thrown simply with those methods that wouldn’t normally come to mind. Applied variations. They must have been the results of his long training. My feeling about him was like the saying “Bushido scoffs at knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Knowledge is not the primary goal, it is just a step towards gaining wisdom.”.

Aikikai Hombu groundbreaking demonstration - 1966Aikikai Hombu groundbreaking demonstration – 1966
Kisaburo Osawa and Kisshomaru Ueshiba, back left

Q: As an uchi-deshi, did you often accompany O-Sensei as an otomo when he went out?

A: Yes, but to be honest, there were many difficult tasks involved. In any case, O-Sensei would always leave earlier than the schedule called for when he went out. From an hour before he would start saying “Not yet?”. I would try to manipulate the numbers a little and say “About thirty more minutes”, but a short time later he’d start saying “Not yet?” again. This would continue four or five times. For example, when we went to Iwama we’d be on the train platform waiting at least an hour early. Then…he’d start with the repetitions of “Not yet?”. To put it simply, he didn’t like to leave himself without some margin for error. But he left himself with a little too much margin. (laughing) On the other hand, I assisted him many times in the bath while we were traveling, and he would never stay in the bath for long. Just as I thought that he had entered the bath he’d be hurrying out. So there was no time to wash his back! I’ve often been told that the bath is a place that leaves vulnerable openings, so perhaps that is a feeling that he shared.

Q: Since the Founder was a pre-war Budoka I think that he must have also had some violent techniques, were you taught any of those?

A: O-Sensei put those aside and we were not taught them. Perhaps it could be said that he kept them for himself. During training O-Sensei would become angry if tried to watch the outer surface of his movements. “Move more! You’re not moving!”, he would say. In any case, he would absolutely not forgive training that did not fit his design. When he became angry he could be extremely threatening. For that reason, I think that Aikido from that time must have been very strong.

Group photo with Kisshomaru Ueshiba“Training was centered around Ni-Dai Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba”
Kenji Shimizu – second row left

Uke studies the nage’s kokyu

Q: You studied Judo for ten years before beginning Aikido, were there times that your Judo experience was useful?

A: Yes, there were. Of course, the need for strength in the legs and hips is the same. Judo and Aikido were both originally jujutsu, so they have many points in common. Even when my Judo training could not be useful, it was never wasted. However, in Judo one always pairs with an opponent and then grabs and destabilizes them in order to throw or hold them down. Aikido starts from a greater distance and first separates from the opponent’s attack through tai-sabaki. Even understanding these differences intellectually, at first my body didn’t really follow along. And one more thing. I took a lot of ukemi for O-Sensei, and was made to teach a lot of beginners – I believe that it was because of these two things that I was able to improve. In Judo if one is thrown then they have lost, so there is extremely high resistance to being thrown. In the case of Aikido, if one cannot take ukemi for techniques then they will not improve. That is to say, in Aikido kokyu is important, so learning the kokyu of the uke is also connected to the kokyu of the nage. In ukemi, moving after the technique has become fully effective is too slow. If one practiced Aikido in a competitive format..first you would destroy your body. For that reason, one takes ukemi in order to protect their body in the instant that the technique becomes effective. I had some resistance to that kind of ukemi in the beginning. But as the training continued I think that it gradually sunk in. Ukemi is for protecting oneself, not for just falling on one’s own – if the ukemi does not match the opponent’s kokyu then it has no meaning. For that reason, we are very picky about ukemi in my dojo these days.

Q: What does it mean to do ukemi that matches the opponent’s kokyu?

A: For example, if the wind blows then the branches of a tree will bend, right? When the wind passes they return to their former state. But the branches won’t bend on their own if there isn’t any wind. Ukemi in Aikido is the same, it is cooperative, but you can’t just fall down on your own. I came to understand that from teaching large beginners, and from taking a lot of ukemi for O-Sensei, Ni-Dai Doshu and many other instructors in the beginning. No matter how experienced a shihan might be, if they had poor ukemi then O-Sensei was strict with them. After all, he attached great importance to matching kokyu. I was a new participant, so I certainly had some resistance to instigating the falls myself, but I became used to following the movement of the opponent’s throws. For that reason, when O-Sensei applied techniques he must have felt some of that feedback. When I taught O-Sensei almost never gave me direction, and I think that this may have been the reason for that.

Q: In Judo and Aikido the ukemi is different, did you have to relearn things?

A: It got better naturally. I took a lot of ukemi for O-Sensei, and although he sometimes said “Yes, like that” with regards to my ukemi, he never said “That’s no good”.

Continued in Part 2…


Published by: Christopher Li – Honolulu, HI

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4 thoughts on “Interview with Aikido Shihan Kenji Shimizu – Part 1”

  1. Rico Imperial

    Hey Chris
    Can you name all the instructors in the 2 upper photos?
    I think: 1) standing: Akira Tohei, Yutaka Kurita, Koichi Tohei, Noriko Ichihashi, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Kenji Simizu, Seigo Yamaguchi, Kisaburo Osawa, and Sadateru Arikawa. Sitting: Mitsugi Saotome, Nobuyuki Watanabe, Minoru Kurita.
    2) l to r: Minoru Kurita, Masando Sasaki, ?, Seiichi Sugano, Kenji Shimizu, Akira Tohei, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Mitsuru Kanai.

    How’d I do? I always get the Kuritas mixed up though.

  2. Rico Imperial

    Hey Chris,

    Just looked it up. I was correct. Wonder who that guy is in the second picture that I couldn’t identify. Looks familiar though.

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