An Interview with Utada Sensei
AikiNews Japan, July 2002
Sensei, I understand your dojo is located in Philadelphia, how long have you been teaching there?
I started teaching in Philadelphia in 1974, so this year will mark 28 years
You have dedicated your life to training in and teaching Aikido. When and what got you started in the first place?
As a teenager I had studied judo and karate but neither had captured my spirit. I had heard of Aikido and wanted to try it. So, after graduating from High School, I made my way to the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo which, my brother had told me about. That was in about 1966 and Soke Shioda was teaching there. I recall the respectful and warm manner in which I was greeted and the way all the Aikidoka's shoes were neatly lined up. I felt there was a great spirit there. Somehow it struck me at once that true Budo was being practiced here and this is what I had been looking for. I quickly joined as a regular student.
Besides Soke Shioda there were some other incredible teachers there such as Inoue Sensei, Kushida Sensei and Terada Sensei. These people were true masters and collectively they were able to guide my progress and cultivate my understanding of Aikido.
What has kept you going for more than 36 years?
Aikido has appealed to me on many levels. Initially, there was a fascination with the physical. In Judo I had found that size and strength difference could often frustrate the ability to throw an opponent. But, with Aikido I found the ability to generate great force and throw an opponent with little effort. Refining this ability over the years has never diminished my respect for its subtlety and power or curiosity over the principle that makes it work.
Philosophically speaking I found the harmonizing concept of Aikido fascinating.
Culturally as well the study of Aikido exposed me to some of the finer aspects of Japanese culture and not only gave me greater appreciation for my roots but a method to share with others that which made Japanese culture special. I have witnessed numerous differences between American and Japanese cultures, I am proud to introduce Budo to Americans, not as a Japanese but as a human being who can bridge these two great countries. In order to promote an atmosphere of Zen ( good will/ virtue) one has to be a person of virtue. It is easier said then done. But, to me striving to become a person of virtue is thoroughly worthwhile and goes hand in glove with Aikido training- and you can do it even when your joints are sore! (Laughing)
Soke Shioda has a well-deserved reputation for mastery and I know that when he passed you went to Japan to pay your respects at his funeral. What are some your fondest memories of him?
Soke Shioda was always kind to me and treated me warmly. I remember that he invited me to participate in the Annual All Japan Demonstration even though I had not been training very long. I guess he felt I had a certain aptitude and after nine months was awarded my Black Belt.
After going to America I would on many occasions go back to visit Japan. On those occasions when I would visit with him he would invite me to accompany him to a hot spring he enjoyed. Talking philosophy and discussing the fine points of Aikido with one such as Soke while soaking in the warmth of hot springs is a memory I will always relish.
One thing he told me which still influences my training on a daily basis was that even though he had been studying Aikido for more than 50 years, he still felt like he was in the dark, so that he was still studying basic movements to fully grasp the essence of Aikido. So here was the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido who had the most sharp and piercing techniques you could imagine, a true master, and he was still focusing his study on basic movements. I have tried to follow that advice personally and with my students.
You hold a 7th dan in the Yoshinkan system he founded, what do you feel are the particular strengths of that system?
Soke's systemized creation of kihon dosa or basic movements and ukemi. or break falls was truly an innovation. In all martial arts the student first mimics the movements of his/her teacher and then, hopefully, internalizes same. But, not all students have the same body type as the teacher and the teacher's style may not be best suited for that student. Through the study of the basic movements (e.g., elbow power, after class exercise, body change etc) the student learns how best to move his own body and develop naturally flowing techniques.
Soke also categorized break falls and systematically taught them. Thus from the beginning students learned how to fall and prevent injuries.
These two teaching tools really were and are unique.
The symbol for your dojo, the Doshinkan, is called the "Dawn of Peace" and contains the kanji character for "Do" over a wave in the middle of a circle. How did that come about?
After we had a demonstration celebrating my first 15 years of teaching in Philadelphia, my teacher Kushida Sensei presented me with calligraphy he had done for me. It was the symbol for "Do", which as you know in Japanese means searching or seeking for the true art. I had been an uchideshi for Kushida Sensei for one year while he was in Detroit. Although, regrettably, he became independent from the Yoshinkan organization and created his own organization while I was teaching Yoshinkan Aikido in Philadelphia. I still had great respect for his abilities and gratitude for what he had taught me. After the demonstration when he presented the calligraphy to me, he told me that from what he had seen it was apparent that I had come into my own as a martial artist. He dedicated the character "Do" to me and told me he was proud of my success and independence. I was quite honored as Kushida Sensei was an 8th Dan and had been the chief instructor at the Hombu Dojo when I first began training. So, I used the symbol and placed it over a wavy line ( representing waves in the ocean) in a circle (representing the rising sun at dawn). Waves simply wash over obstacles unceasingly. Thus, the collective symbol reminds us to never give up and that by relentlessly pursuing the true art of Aikido, one will realize it just as one feels the first light and warmth of the rising sun overcome the darkness of night.
Your students tell me that you often refer to Doshinkan Aikido as Aikido for All, what do you mean by that?
Aikido is an outgrowth of the human spirit's desire to coexist with its environment in a spirit of harmony. Doshinkan Aikido creates techniques that carry on that tradition. Aikido is not merely about the sharp execution of defensive skills but striving to perform them in a manner that is harmonious with the environment. In Japanese that is called Bi or beauty. In Aikido you must constantly train and polish your techniques to understand yourself better and how you interact with others. You and your partner each influence the other. Being strong in Aikido does not necessarily mean the ability to destroy others but to positively influence those in your environment. To reach the point of perfection of a technique one must train consistently. Since these techniques come from an inner spirit, these techniques can be called Bi. Throughout human history great teachers and masters have developed some form of recognized truth in their field. They have established Bi or beauty based on the Shin or truth they realized. In Doshinkan Aikido we try to carry on the Shin of the "Spirit of Harmony" and through it strive for the perfection of techniques to produce Bi. Doshinkan Aikido seeks to sustain this truth and beauty in order to create a positive result or Zen among those who study this art form1. This positive energy and attitude is truly a boon for all it touches. Thus we say Aikido for all - Shin Bi Zen - fostering truth and beauty creates a truly positive result.
Sensei you were recently invited to be one of the instructors at the Aiki Expo in Las Vegas. What did you enjoy most about your experience there and how did it tie in with your personal philosophy?
The Aiki Expo was an excellent experience for me! Mr. Pranin did a fantastic job bringing together a rich diversity of instructors and students to share their love of Aikido. I enjoyed the great spirit the students and other instructors brought to the Expo.
I felt that, together with the students who attended my workshops, we shared a great training experience and learned a lot from each other. I hope that I was able to impart to each of them some understanding of Doshinkan Aikido, its basic movements, its techniques, and how important it is to feel and understand your center axis line.
While watching Aikidoka from so many different backgrounds train at the Expo, I was reminded that sometimes that we often notice small differences in our techniques. But these are very small. In the grander picture, we all share the same spirit and love of Aikido. Like a great tree, the roots of Aikido all came from the same source. As Ueshiba Sensei evolved his Aikido from the Aiki-Jujistsu, taught to him by his teacher, Sokaku Takeda, he instructed many great disciples. My teacher, Gozo Shioda, was one of these disciples. Each of these students met Ueshiba Sensei at a different period of his life. During their growth as students, they developed their Aikido techniques as Ueshiba Sensei's teachings combined with their unique qualities as individuals. From this, each student may have developed a different approach to his Aikido training. Regardless of this diversity of styles, I believe all of them captured and maintained the same strong spirit of Aikido that Ueshiba Sensei imparted to them.
The roots of Aikido are all the same. The strong spirit of training is all the same. Events like Aiki Expo make this type of sharing happen! They reinforce the idea that I have always conveyed to my students and which we just discussed - Aikido is for all!
What quality do you think is most important for a student to possess or obtain in order to make a long term commitment to training in Aikido?
I think this is best summed up in Ueshiba's expression Masa Katsu A Gatsu, which means that true victory is the victory over your self. So many people come to the martial arts with the desire to control their opponent. Yet, if you cannot control yourself, you cannot begin to control an opponent. Before you can leap across a great chasm, you must be able to jump across a narrow ditch. So a student must strive to master his own mental outlook and physical body through daily practice. Then almost anything is possible.
It has been my pleasure.
Interview conducted by Jonathan Hollin
1 Note. Although they are pronounced the same, the characters and hence meanings are different for the Zen referred to here by Sensei Utada and that which is used in connection with the Zen of Zen Buddhism.