After World War II, I believe you left Japan and ended up in Sweden. Can you tell us briefly what happened?
My family had a friend who was a diplomat and under obligation to my grandfather Shigeta Ohbata. This friend helped my mother and me leave Japan. My grandfather had vanished in a firestorm in Asakusa but had arranged our departure earlier when he thought Japan would be invaded by the American and allied armies. My grandfather especially feared Russian retaliation because of JapanĄs victory in the Russo-Japanese War. We first went to Argentina and then to Sweden using my motherĄs maiden name. ThatĄs how we arrived here.
How did leaving Japan affect your martial arts training?
Not too seriously. The first two years in Sweden were very difficult. Fortunately, Matsuhiro Namishiro Sensei came to Sweden about two years after our arrival. He had made a solemn oath to my grandfather promising to complete my training. He moved in and soon continued my training. This lasted until around 1958. He decided to move back to Japan during one of our many visits back home. At this point, he told me that my training was complete and that I needed to start teaching. I believe he liked Sweden very much or he would have moved back earlier. When my mother decided to move back to Japan in 1949, I figured he would encourage me to return with her. Instead he encouraged me to stay in Sweden. I was very surprised. Later he explained to me that I needed to learn how to survive on my own outside Japan. Years later, I ended up moving to America.
What led you to relocate to America?
On a business trip around 1958 I visited San Francisco and met my wife-to-be Mishiko. She convinced me that the weather in California was much nicer than in Sweden. I agreed, so I asked her to get married!
Would you tell us a little about your teaching career in the USA?
I first started teaching publicly in San Jose, California in 1966 I think. Back then karate was very popular and judo was also big due to its inclusion in the Olympic Games. I called what I taught "Ohbata-ryu judo-jujutsu." Classes were very small for a long time and composed mostly of judoka and college wrestlers. In time, Taro Kozumi Sensei became my assistant. He was a student of Wado-ryu jujutsu kempo under Hidenori Ohtsuka as I mentioned earlier. Although quite harsh in his teaching methods, he was well respected by the students. He brought in many students of karate. Around 1968, I decided to adapt the curriculum to address more realistic self-defense applications. This process took five years of hard work but it paid off. In 1972, I decided to officially change the name of the art to "Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu." We changed the kanji shin in "Shindo" to the one meaning "new" from the one meaning "sacred". This was done to recognize the changes to the traditional curriculum we adopted during this period.
How did you come to reorganize the traditional curriculum of Shindo Yoshin-ryu?
That is a very complex question. Let me see if I can explain it clearly. Any martial art is really a set of concepts and ideas. Physical techniques are important but not the definiting elements of a style. I have heard some people say that this is not true, that they have secret techniques. So what! I bet another style has techniques that are similar to their "secret techniques." I would guess that what they actually have is more correctly described as secret concepts. All jujutsu traditions do similar joint locks because the joints in all human beings operate in the same way. There really are no new joint locks. ItĄs how they perform the locks that differentiate the styles. The concepts used in the application of the locks are what are important. These aspects are what make one tradition different from another. They are often the okuden.
When I came to America I discovered that many traditional techniques were simply not applicable to the realities facing my new students. Jujutsu techniques in their original form were not intended to address these modern situations. When I first started teaching, students began to ask me how I would deal with a boxer, or with a karateka and so on. At first I was surprised because I was not sure that I had the answers. I had to carefully examine this. I realized that the answers were right in front of me. I was busy focusing on jujutsu techniques when it was jujutsu concepts that were the solution. Techniques did not matter because they were guided by concepts. New techniques could be devised to address new realities while embracing the time honored concepts that form the artĄs core. This would not be abandoning the art. This would allow the art to maintain its effectiveness and relevance to a new generation and era.
What do teachers who embrace a more classical approach to the martial arts think about this? I would assume that they are critical of your position.
They are free to have their opinions. I am free to have mine. I am not really concerned with what other teachers think because my authority to teach does not come from them. My authority to teach and to make the decisions I have made came from my teachers. I am most concerned with the welfare of my students and living up to the responsibilities that have been entrusted to me. I am comfortable with the reality that my students may actually use the art they are learning. The same cannot be said about the students of most teachers that embrace a strictly classical approach.
Many classical martial traditions in Japan are now just pretty dancing. It is so sad. They have not adapted their techniques to address modern realities. They cling only to antiquated forms and, in this process, often neglect the concepts which form a particular traditionĄs core. Some people wish to preserve the arts exactly as they were in olden times. This is commendable, but usually folly. With very fews exceptions, no existing classical school reflects even a fraction of the artĄs technical heritage as practiced in times past. It is impossible for any teacher to transmit 100% of an artĄs traditions, yet many classical schools believe that the student should do everything exactly like the teacher in order to preserve the art. Without the addition of an instructorĄs own wisdom, experience and, most importantly, technical innovation, the art is but a hollow shell of what it once was in just several generations. Without the consideration of modern realities to challenge an artĄs effectiveness, it becomes a museum piece whose only modern relevance is that of a historical curiosity. Remember that the ryu as they existed in the Warring States era were constantly changing and adjusting to the realities they faced on the battlefield. Only when this period ended did the innovation slow. Many of the classical schools as practised today are, at their best, reflections of the way that tradition operated in one short period of its existence. They are not an accurate reflection of its technical existence over its whole history.
The risk of classical thinking has many historical examples which should cause one to pause. Katsuyori Takeda (1546-82, son of Shingen Takeda and daimyo of the Azuchi-Momoyama period) clung foolishly to outdated techniques of battlefield engagement even though he was aware that its effectiveness was seriously compromised. New strategies involving a devastating technical innovation, the tanegashima (musket), were employed by his enemies. His samurai were cut to pieces in rotating volleys of musket fire by Nobunaga OdaĄs foot soldiers. One of the most impressive armies in JapanĄs history was efficiently decimated because its leader was unable to part with a strategy that he knew was compromised by changing realities. Romantically drawn into doing things as they had been done succesfully in the past, he was defeated by his classical mindset. This strategy of old, and TakedaĄs failure to adapt in the face of overwhelming evidence to change, cost him everything.
I will not allow a similar flaw in technique or mindset to compromise my studentsĄ potential safety. My grandfather often emphasized that my jujutsu must really work. That it must become my own jujutsu. And that someday my studentsĄ jujutsu must become their own. That was his legacy to me and it should be my legacy to them as well as him.
How did you find learning and teaching different in the West compared to Japan?
When I first came to America I realized that the Western mind was not going to be taught in the same way as a Japanese mind. The American situation was just too different. Americans are by nature more skeptical and suspicious than Japanese. Western freedom of thought permits a student to examine and question things in a way that would be totally inappropriate in Japan. This is both good and bad. On the bad side, it can lead a student to dismiss a technique or concept as invalid just because he has not put in the time to learn it properly or delve into its secrets. Students that fall into this trap never master their basics. Later in their training you find gaping holes left by ignoring important lessons that the student chose not to pursue because he couldnĄt see the value in them. When I find a student like this I usually will not accept him. It is too much trouble to undo the damage done by this mindset and a mediocre sensei. On the good side, it allows for a much greater flow of information between student and teacher. It also allows a greater level of creativity by the student. Students with strong basics and freedom of thought far outdistance the more traditional Japanese model.
The best of both worlds actually exists in concept in Japan. It is called shu-ha-ri. [lit., protecting the form, breaking the form, distancing oneĄs self from the form] It is a theoretical method for transmitting any classical school. In practice, however, I believe it has had limited success. Cultural realities in Japan historically donĄt encourage individuality. So while a great foundation for learning is built, the creative freedom to expand upon it is seldom realized. For proof of this just look at what has happened in judo, or even sumo, for that matter. The more innovative foreigners have been dominating judo. Europeans and Koreans are impressively driving the technical innovations in that sport. Foreigners are slowly making these same inroads into sumo. Sometimes shu-ha-ri is correctly applied and innovative traditionalism keeps the artĄs core and practical truths intact. Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu is one of the rare examples in the world of classical martial arts where shu-ha-ri has in my opinion been successful.
I understand that you are extremely selective about who you choose as a student. What are the criteria you use when selecting a potential student?
The question about how I select a student is difficult to answer. Much of my criteria is based on gut feeling or "kan no me wa tsuyoi." I just look at a student, look in his eyes and see what I see. If I donĄt feel and see what I am looking for, I just say, "No thanks." I am very sensitive to someoneĄs potential for learning. I do not like un-teaching students either. I prefer a student with past martial artsĄ experience, but also a totally open mind. See, itĄs not so much that I am selective, itĄs just that so few potential students have the proper qualities.
Some people observing your training might consider it unusally rough. Is this true?
I donĄt think that is an accurate observation. The term "rough" implies to me frequent serious injuries. Are we more realitic in the way we approach our training? I must say yes. When we practice striking, we strike very hard. If you miss your block or technique you will get hit hard. We practice unorthodox attacks and we practice them at very high speed compared to most dojos. We intend to instill a more realistic amount of stress into our situational training. The fear of receiving hard strikes at high speed creates stress that simulates the fear response felt in a genuine confrontation. Eliminating this type of training only converts the art into calisthenics. It does nothing to prevent injuries. The false sense of security that exists in many dojos actually causes a complacent mind and increases injuries. With a complacent mind a student is allowed to relax his situational awareness. He lets his guard down and gets injured. If you want to see a lot of injuries, go to some aikido dojos. People are frequently injured because they donĄt feel threatened in that harmonious environment. In my dojo the techniques are not harmonious, they are threatening.
Some aikido teachers teach aikido as a martial art while others donĄt. This is okay as long as the teacher is honest with his students about the aim of his teaching. Some teachers claim there are teaching a martial art when they are not. I believe this is a big mistake. Other aikido teachers teach the art as a purely spiritual discipline and are honest about this with their students. This is okay by me. Aikido as a spiritual pursuit is an honorable thing and I believe this was the ultimate aim of Ueshiba Sensei. But the spiritual aspects of the art are more likely to apply when it is taught as a martial art. Martial arts are a big responsibility! Martial ability is a tool that allows spiritual discipline to flourish and work magic on the soul. The heart and mind must wrestle with demons and be victorious to find enlightenment. Without a struggle, the character never really is challenged and never matures. That is why shugyo (ascetic discipline) is so important.
Some aikido teachers talk a lot about non-violence, but fail to understand this truth. A pacifist is not really a pacifist if he is unable to make a choice between violence and non-violence. A true pacifist is able to kill or maim in the blink of an eye, but at the moment of impending destruction of the enemy he chooses non-violence. He chooses peace. He must be able to make a choice. He must have the genuine ability to destroy his enemy and then choose not to. I have heard this excuse made. "I choose to be a pacifist before learning techniques so I do not need to learn the power of destruction." This shows no comprehension of the mind of the true warrior. This is just a rationalization to cover the fear of injury or hard training. The true warrior who chooses to be a pacifist is willing to stand and die for his principles. People claiming to be pacifists who rationalize to avoid hard training or injury will flee instead of standing and dying for principle. They are just cowards. Only a warrior who has tempered his spirit in conflict and who has confronted himself and his greatest fears can in my opinion make the choice to be a true pacifist.
Years ago I saw an aikido instructor named Tadashi Abe in France. He was a true warrior in every way. He was a great example of a man with martial spirit flaming in his belly while the spirit of harmony was visible in his eye. He was a real credit to Ueshiba SenseiĄs technical and spiritual legacy. He is 100% samurai!
I find your thinking on this subject fascinating. Can you expand on this theme a little more?
The term "martial art" is thrown around a lot without any idea of its meaning. "Martial" means "war" or "conflict." In a martial arts dojo we train for conflict. Without physical and psychological conflict there is no "martial" in martial art. Fear, to be overcome, must be confronted and experienced. Fear must become part of your life experience. Appreciation of fear and the appropriate reaction when confronting fear is the sign of a mature martial artist. Are not your dojo mates and teacher the ones that you should ultimately trust when learning to confront your fears? In a real dojo, they are. Remember that most people who call themselves martial artists are nothing of the sort. Most dojos are not martial arts dojos either. They are glorified social clubs thriving in an environment of emotional stimulation which is heightened by a false or extremely limited perception of danger. When real danger shows itself in such a dojo, the participants run for cover. In a real dojo the participants run towards the conflict.