Yamada Yoshimitsu is amongst the last direct disciples of Ueshiba Morihei, the creator of Aikido. In addition to being the founder of theNew York Aikikai, Yamada Sensei is also the technical director of numerous Aikido associations around the world. A jovial man, he never hesitates to involve himself to defend the cause of Aikido and that of its practitioners against individual interests. Meet a lover of Aikido and freedom.
By Leo Tamaki
Leo Tamaki: Hello Sensei, could you tell us how you started Aikido?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: (Laughs) Ok no problem.
Leo Tamaki: I know you’ve been asked this many times…
Yamada Yoshimitsu: (Laughs) yes, yes. I have been asked that question about a million times but I understand. In my case it is quite simple, my uncle was Tadashi Abe, pioneer of Aikido in France and Europe. I had been aware of Aikido since my childhood and although nobody had ever forced me to practice it, I thought of it as something that I might try later on. Once I finished high school I went to college but shortly after I became uchi-deshi, I was eighteen years old. I was very lucky because I had a really unique beginning. Indeed, it was on my very first day as an uchi-deshi that I also took my very first class!
Leo Tamaki: Do you remember your first encounter with O sensei?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Yes of course. I met him when I was nine or ten years old. My uncle’s father, who was an immensely rich man, had invited him. He had a great respect for O sensei and Nakamura Tempu, whom he considered as giants, and he was one of their sponsors. All schools functioned that way, supported by large companies and benefactors.
It was was a corporate reception and because I was a child, I spied on them. Ueshiba sensei did a demonstration, and even though it was meant as an entertainment, it was presented in a very dignified and respectful manner. This is where I first saw him. Obviously I did not know who he was then, but I later learned about him from my uncle. He was like a black tornado, I found him very impressive.
Leo Tamaki: Did you start Aikido in order to become strong?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Of course, I was a young boy and that was my goal. But I soon became disillusioned, to the point that I even stopped training for a while. I thought, “This rubbish is for sissies” (laughs). I was a teenager, I was into boxing and I thought, “I can beat any of these guys without problem, Aikido does not work”. So after a year I stopped for about a month, but then I started looking at Aikido from another angle. I started considering Aikido as an expression of beauty in motion, and that got me back into it. From that point on, I have never stopped practicing.
Leo Tamaki: Is it not important to seek efficacy?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: To me, those who believe that Aikido is for fighting are misunderstanding it. I look at Aikido from another perspective, as an art, a search for beauty in motion.
Leo Tamaki: Who taught the first class that you took?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I think it was Okumura Sensei. Okumura was one of the “elders”, a prewar student of O sensei. He was a rather unique person with a unique Aikido, a Japanese from old times with a traditional mind. Okumura Sensei was imprisoned by the Russians in Manchuria and he suffered a great deal during the war. He was a very nice man.
Leo Tamaki: At the time, were you already thinking of becoming an Aikido teacher?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I had no such intention. At the time, Tamura and Noro were already there, but none of us could imagine making a living out of it or becoming a teacher (laughs). We were just happy to have the chance to do what we liked. And I was personally very lucky because my family supported me.
Leo Tamaki: It seems that all the uchi-deshi had given up their studies?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I think that Noro continued for a while but he did not go all the way. Although he was supposed to go to college, he mostly stayed at the dojo. Tamura did not go at all. I also dropped out of university, I never went to college and I spent my days at the dojo.
Leo Tamaki: Nobody at the time could imagine making a living off Aikido?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Nobody could live off Aikido except the Ueshiba family and perhaps Tohei Koichi, who was already going abroad at the time. As uchi-deshi, we were not paid obviously but we did not complain though. It was old Japan, nobody had any money, the Aikikai was poor and we did not expect anything.
Leo Tamaki: This is very different from the way the Aikikai currently operates.
Yamada Yoshimitsu: This is completely different! There is no longer any spirit. Today, as far as I am concerned, they are more like clerks. It saddens me to say this but it is true. This is unfortunate and I feel sorry for them, but I cannot do anything about it. Society is changing and today, nobody wants to dedicate themselves in such a way.
Leo Tamaki: Tamura sensei said that there was neither money, nor food.
Yamada Yoshimitsu: There was no food. I do not know why but I think that the Ueshiba family fed Tamura sensei, but he was the only deshi in that position. It was not fine dining though, and today, that food would be considered as terrible! The situation was incredible by today’s standards.
I was allowed to use the kitchen only after Doshu’s wife had finished, so I used to prepare my breakfast after the morning classes. I like to eat a steak in the morning but often, as soon as I had finished cooking, just before eating, Tamura called me: ” Yamada, there is a phone call!” and since I was the youngest, I had to rush to answer it. Of course when I came back, all my food had been eaten (laughs)! It was not every time of course, but still.
Today when I arrive at the Aikikai office, there is so much food and gifts from the members, it was never like that in our time. If someone left something, there would not have been anything left upon his return (laughs). First come, first served! But times have changed.To me, these are good memories, experiences that I would wish to new generations, irreplaceable things that money cannot buy.
Leo Tamaki: Was life hard for O sensei too?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: O sensei did not eat much meat and he had a farm in Iwama, so he did not suffer from hunger. His students would never have left him in a difficult situation anyway.
Leo Tamaki: Did O sensei live in Iwama at the time?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: He came and went.
Leo Tamaki: Many students of that time say that they did not like to go to Iwama because it was a small, remote place, that did not appeal to them as much as Tokyo did. Did you have to go too?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Me? No way! (laughs) I am a city boy. But sometimes I had to accompany him to Ueno station and make sure that he was on the right train. I knew a good trick; O sensei liked to talk to young women, so I used to peek into the car, looking for a vacant seat next to a woman. For him, a woman in her fifties was young so it was not too difficult. Then I greeted him, wishing him a safe trip, and left him to his chatter.
Leo Tamaki: Was O sensei teaching both in Iwama and Tokyo?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Not regularly. He taught whenever he felt like it. He was very cute. During the first morning class, he used to spy. At the time, to go to the toilets, you had to pass by the entrance of the dojo, so he used to go back and forth until the Doshu asked him if he wanted to take the rest of the class. He was adorable, beaming. He would say: “Since you insist…” but then everyone regretted it because once on the mat, he spent most of his time talking!
It was very hard in winter to sit with all windows open and to listen to things you did not understand. But these are good memories, and I would love to have been mature enough to understand what he said.
Leo Tamaki: Do his words come back to you today? Do you understand them now?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Yes, it happens. I probably still do not understand one hundred percent of what he said, but little by little it made sense. At the time all I was thinking was “Come on, get over with it, lets us get back into action!”
Leo Tamaki: Others than O sensei were teaching during his lifetime, were there already marked differences compared to his own practice?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Yes of course. There were five classes per day at the Aikikai. The first one with Doshu, the second, if I remember correctly, with Osawa Senior, and the afternoon ones with Tada and Yamaguchi. I remember that Tomiki was still coming to teach classes for a while. There was also Arikawa and Tamura on occasions. That should be about it.
Leo Tamaki: O sensei must have known about these differences, did he complain about it?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I think he was well above this aspect. In a sense there is not much he could have done about it anyway because everyone is different. All students were unique and he knew it. Tohei, Shirata, Hikitsuchi, Saito, everyone was unique. If he had wanted to format them, he would have gone nuts!
He was beyond these sorts of concerns and that is why he was a great man. In his eyes, there probably actually was no difference. I hope that I can get to that sort of state of mind one day, where nothing touches me anymore (laughs).
Leo Tamaki: It seems that he had quite a character though…
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Yes, he was paradoxically quite prone to anger. We who lived with him and his family knew that, and even though he did not let it show in public of course, he was indeed hot tempered (laughs).
Leo Tamaki: Who were the teachers who have influenced you the most after O sensei?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: There were three teachers who have influenced me, each for different reasons. These are Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Tohei Koichi, and Osawa Sensei, even though they were completely different. Tohei’s movements were terrible but he had an extraordinary use of the body. From him, I also learned how to deal with westerners, how to avoid their physical strength, how to cheat them in a way. I stole from Doshu his very beautiful and circular movements. From Osawa Sensei, I tried to take the grace. I did not always agree with everything they did though, but I focused on the good in them. The worst should not be copied, and in a way, they have also taught me what not to do (laughs).
I also stole a lot from master Tamura. Not at first, but as time passed, when we all started teaching, I have stolen a lot. I even steal from my students on occasions! If I see something good, I steal it.
Leo Tamaki: How important are weapons in your teaching?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I do not focus on this work but the tools are there. There are weapons in the dojo for students if they want to work on this aspect. When I was uchi-deshi, O sensei used to get angry when he saw us practice weapons. He used to say, “why do you think I have invented Aikido for you?”
For me it was a contradiction as I thought, “Why is he saying this, being himself a master of the sword?” But he seemed to consider that he had developed Aikido so that we would not “waste our time”.
Because I know the movements of Aikido, I have no difficulty working with the sword. This should be so for all of us I think.
Leo Tamaki: Have you noticed an evolution in the work O sensei?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Many elders have reported an evolution in his work over time. When I met him, he was quite old and personally, I did not feel any major change in his practice during the years I spent with him.
Leo Tamaki: Do you feel that your own technique is changing through time?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: (Laughs) it is not up to me to say, but to my students. Today when I teach, I often say jokingly that as I am getting older, I also become wiser. When I was young I was wasting my energy but now I have a more rational form of work. This is something I have learned over time, most notably from Tamura Sensei, who used to perform irimi so easily, so naturally. I only begin to understand that now, and I think that I am starting to be able to practice like that. But fundamentally, I do not think that I have changed much.
I love Aikido when it is expressed with dynamic, graceful, and beautiful movements. I do not enjoy lazy and neglected movements and whatever the technique, your actions must be reasonable and convincing.
Leo Tamaki: Tamura sensei’s Aikido was not very circular though.
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Indeed, in a sense, he was taking a lot of shortcuts (laughs). I think that in my case, I had to deal with tall Americans with long limbs, even compared to Europeans, that is one of the things that made my Aikido what it is. I had to rely on ample movements to cope with these large monsters.
Leo Tamaki: During your classes you insist on the physical practice and speak very little. Do you think that Aikido should be taught using a minimum of explanations?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: It depends on the teacher. First of all, I do not have much to say I am afraid (laughter). But it is true that I believe that we should not learn from talking, but from the body. Of course I also give some explanations, but I do not give too much advice to a beginner for example because it is useless. Just like a blind man who learns to reach his destination without incident, he must experiment, go back and forth, and feel via his body. I believe that technique should be learnt that way.
That being said, for some reason, as I am getting older, I tend to express myself more. When I was younger, I was probably too shy to say what I thought, and I also knew that I was not mature enough. Now I no longer hesitate to speak but I still prefer not to talk too much.
Also do not forget that many people come to me to have a physical activity. After a long and stressful day, they want to let out their excess of energy and to relax, just as others would go bowling or play pinball. Aikido should allow them to relax and go home happy. We must acknowledge the fact that those people do not come to listen to philosophical discourses.
The problem is that everyone has different goals, and that it is therefore impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. But we must try; it is our duty as teachers.
Leo Tamaki: Do you think it is necessary to know about the Japanese culture in order to understand Aikido?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I do not think so but it is essentially a matter of personal choice. Of course it can be a good thing, but too often, it leads to some confusion. I often see people trying too hard to act like Japanese. I cannot be French, it is not my way of thinking, and it is impossible. The French have a good spirit, the Japanese have a good spirit, the Americans have a good spirit. I often say “Do not try to be Japanese, you are American”. The Japanese have learned to play baseball, an American tradition, but we do not have to be American to do it and enjoy it. Perhaps I am wrong but that is how I see things.
Leo Tamaki: Where do you draw the limits of what is Aikido?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Hmm… This is something very difficult. What is correct? What is wrong? Take the example of Judo, the technique ippon seoi nage, is performed in pretty much the same way, whoever is doing it. But take irimi nage in Aikido, everyone does it in their own way. That is why it is very difficult. Your build, your personality, everything comes into play. This is one of the reasons why we cannot limit Aikido and say: “This is Aikido. That is not”. Nobody has the right to judge someone and tell him that what he does is not Aikido. In a sense, we can consider that apart from the founder, nobody knows, and that we are only doing our own imitation, translation of what he did. As far as I am concerned, he is the only one who would have been entitled to judge, but he did not care to set borders. He was not about judging.
One can have reservations about the level of someone, or not appreciate his work. One can say, “I do not like this style”, or “I prefer to do differently”. Everyone has this freedom. But we cannot say, “this is not Aikido”.
One problem is that many teachers tell their students “do not go here”, “do not go there”, “stay here”, “stay with me if you want to learn true Aikido”. This is very bad. Instead, we must free students. If someone is not interested in your work, it is useless to try to lock him or her up.
That being said, and although I think that Aikido has expressions that are very personal, individual, there are common foundations. Everyone has his own personality and limitations, and based on that, they will express Aikido in their own way. But if a student goes beyond certain limits, it is my duty to speak with him. My work is similar to that of a conductor, and a class is like a piece of music; I must not let anyone play out of tune. That is my job and my responsibility.
Leo Tamaki: I am impressed by the number of long-time students that remain loyal to you.
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I am very proud of them. I think that on average, I do have more students who stay with me than in most other dojos. I do not know the exact reason, it probably has to do with my personality.
I do not like when my students copy me, in fact I hate it. One should not try to turn one’s students into clones of oneself. Of course they have learned the basics with me, but from then on it is their responsibility to express themselves. I think that my secret is to let people free and besides, this is the New York mentality! This is what I love about New York.
Leo Tamaki: Many of them also teach, here or elsewhere.
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Yes. They are all different and it does not bother me. During classes I want everyone to practice with everyone else, and regardless of rank, the one who teaches is the boss.
I have a very old student, Harvey Konigsberg, he is seventy-two. He has his own class but he also practices in other people’s classes. This is a perfect example. The other practitioners see him do that and naturally, they tend to do the same thing. So I do not tell students what they should do because I am fortunate enough to have very good role models.
Leo Tamaki: Since the passing of the masters Tamura and Sugano, it seems that you have gotten quite busy.
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I have been busy indeed. I was focusing on the American continent but I recently had to make more frequent visits to Europe, not only to teach, but also for political reasons unfortunately. These are additional responsibilities that I did not need, particularly in France where everything is so complicated (laughs)!
I agreed to help in memory of Sugano and Tamura sensei, but I do not have any personal interest in the matter. I do not come to Europe to support any particular organization; struggles between groups do not interest me. Also, complaints on these topics are very unwelcome but this is exactly what happens. I do not appreciate being told what I should or not do, because I am free!
Leo Tamaki: When did you first come to the U.S.?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I left Japan the same year as Tamura in 1964.
Leo Tamaki: What was the situation at the time?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: On the east coast there was no real organization. The west side was a bit different because Tohei sensei had been to Hawaii. Practitioners of Judo and Karate used to gather to study Aikido and some had already been to Japan. I wanted to go to New York but at that time, nobody had any money. I had to trick my father by telling him that I wanted to go to Columbia University. He agreed to pay and that is how I came.
Immediately, several federations approached me. It was tempting because I was hungry, but I was also independent. I eventually told them that I would rather be poor but independent. I think that I made a good choice for my students.
Leo Tamaki: The Aikikai did not send you?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Everyone says “I have been sent by O sensei.” but this is wrong (laughs). Of course we asked for permission, because at that time we started receiving a salary, so we were also committed to the Aikikai. It would not have been correct just to say goodbye but the truth is that we all wanted to go abroad!
Leo Tamaki: What was the most difficult thing for you when you arrived in the United States?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Technically, it was to teach uke to cooperate during the learning! It was very difficult even though I was not surprised by this mentality because I had met many American militaries in the bases where I taught in Japan.
There is also the fact that it was a new discipline. People had read about it, had represented a whole mythology around the exploits of O sensei and in a sense, it made things more difficult because they had very specific expectations. They had forged their own image of what Aikido was.
Leo Tamaki: You have uchi-deshi at the New York Aikikai, how does it work there?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: I am very simple, my door is open without restriction, there is no minimum grade and they can stay as long as they want. They are on average six or seven and the duration of their stay varies. Foreigners generally have a visa for three to six months. Unless they commit a terrible crime, I am very easy going; this is why they like to stay here (laughter). There have probably been more than a thousand people who have stayed here as uchi-deshi.
Leo Tamaki: When did you start this system?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: As soon as I opened the dojo. When I arrived I had no place to stay, so I was sleeping in the dojo’s changing room but even at the time, there was already a young guy who lived with me.
Leo Tamaki: What do you think shu ha ri system?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: The first person that I heard talking about it was Okumura sensei. It is a good system; there is nothing wrong with it. Each period takes a different time for different people; it depends on the capacity and investment of each.
Leo Tamaki: What are, for you, the differences between you budo, bujutsu, and kakutogi?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Sometimes I wonder in which category Aikido falls today. There was recently an event called the Combat games. I feel strongly against the participation of the International Aikido Federation (IAF) to this event. For me it should not even be a topic of discussion because it is obvious that this is not what O sensei wanted. That is not what he passed on to us.
I love Judo, I respect its physical engagement, but we are not in the same category. Then of course, we can justify it by saying that there is no competition in Aikido, but only demonstrations. For me it is even worse because it shifts the focus on being spectacular. Some people are already doing demonstrations blindfolded! How far are we going to go in that desire of impressing others? Up to projections without contact? In reality, these people are already competing with each other. Worse of all, they do it in a cowardly way, they want to know who is the best but without taking risk of combat.
If you really want to do demonstrations, organize an event dedicated to it but why would you associate to a gathering of combat sports? It hurts the discipline and the audience sees the practitioners of Aikido as sissies. Aikido is a path of personal development and it is not made for strutting.
Leo Tamaki: Is the more or less openly admitted introduction of competition a subject that concerns you?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Yes, I worry for the future. Initially the people who have enabled the development of Aikido came from Judo, Karate. They were tired of the competitive games and it is the non-competitive aspect of things that attracted them to Aikido. It was a novelty and it had a great influence. Today newcomers do not always have the mindset of these pioneers…
There is also another problem. In some countries, the government financially supports Aikido. What would happen if it starts requesting the establishment of a national team as in football? What about when they return from an event such as the Combat games and are asked, “Did you win? Where are your trophies? If you do not return as a winner next time, we will not subsidize you anymore”.
Leo Tamaki: Over time, as his direct disciples leave us, there are fewer voices to echo that O sensei.
Yamada Yoshimitsu: This is one reason why I do not foresee a bright future for Aikido unfortunately, and I’m sorry about it. It is likely to continue to grow quantitatively, but the spirit may change dramatically.
The difficulty is that we cannot clearly say, “This is Aikido”, both technically and spiritually. This freedom is both a strength and a weakness of Aikido.
Leo Tamaki: Can you talk about grades?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Grades are another problem of Aikido. As far as I am concerned, they should not have been introduced in our discipline. This was also the state of mind O sensei but for financial reasons, the system was installed. The black belt, why not, as it gives a sense of accomplishment, but no numbers. A black belt is a black belt. For the rest, let the students judge. I am probably wrong but I do not like these stories of numbers, they too often carry hidden competitions with them.
Everybody knows that there is a contradiction between a grade system and Aikido. Besides, it is very difficult to make an assessment in Aikido. The assessment of the same individual, according to your judgment and mine, will not be the same; we will have different points of view. A gap already exists and we cannot do anything about it. Again, this is due to the nature of Aikido, both good and bad. Aikido is a unique budo, for this reason, it cannot work like other budo, especially in terms of grades, not to mention that in Aikido, people rank too quickly. I think that one has to suffer a little (laughs).
Leo Tamaki: What is the title of shihan?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: It is a stupid system. In Japan, one calls his teacher shihan, regardless of rank. Shihan is an occupation, a job, it is not a distinction. People misunderstand what it means. It is not a title! It is simply a more formal way to call a sensei. For example, when one is filling an official form, one does not write as a job: “Aikido sensei”, one writes shihan. It is nothing more than that. The Japanese are uncomfortable because of the system they have put in place and they know that they have made a mistake. It causes them a lot of headaches, and to me too! (laughs)
Today, everyone is seeking that status as if it were a title. But just as for grades, everyone present himself or herself a bit differently to get this recognition because there are no standards. Today we often get to situations where such complaints are made: “Why is this guy a shihan and I am not? I have the same rank and have I practiced for as many years”. These are stupid conflicts that happen because of this system. Why do they need it? If people call me sensei that is just fine, I do not care to be called shihan.
Leo Tamaki: But the Japanese do get the title of shihan automatically don’t they?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: This is one thing I do not like. This is actually why I started issuing shihan titles to foreigners, because they wondered why it was reserved for the Japanese. They do a lot of dumb things at the Aikikai, they invent titles regularly. For young people, they made up the title of shidobu shihan. Tamura Sensei and I had a slightly different title I think (laughs). These things are ridiculous.
Last year a group [from France] gave me a list of about 20 people, but the Aikikai selected only three of them. So I said “I cannot go back and explain that only three of them will receive this title. Forget it and give me back the list”. I went back, explained the situation, and told them to negotiate themselves, that I was out of it. How did the Aikikai chose these three people that they did not know? Based on what criteria? The only one who knew them was their master. Moreover, some of the older practitioners in that group were not included in these twenty names because they had bad relations with their officials. This is not my problem but it was not fair. And when I got the title for one of those elders, the group got angry against me. I said, “But why was his name not on your list? It’s not fair, and as far as I know it is one of the oldest amongst you”. All this is politics, it is terrible.
I said to that elder: “You know that you are not welcome in that federation and you often complain about them. Why do you not leave?” People talk to me about insurance and things like that but these are excuses. I do not want to get mixed up in these stories, but many people leave the federations.
I want to help the groups in memory of Tamura and Sugano Sensei but on the other hand, I also have many friends who do not belong to these groups. What should I do? Next week I have to see yet another group that complains because someone has been promoted, but it is not I who promoted him (laughter)! These are internal problems in which I do not want to be involved.
Leo Tamaki: It looks like that Tamura Sensei did not want to sort this out before he passed away.
Yamada Yoshimitsu: It is complicated. I think he was not interested in that. He was my best friend and the best of my sempai. But everyone is human. He never wanted to get involved as much as I did in my own group. I have often witnessed scenes where he refused to get involved. I asked him why he did not settle the argument, and he said he did not care because whatever he said always ended up in fights so why bother. I loved that, what a great principle (laughter), so clear.
Leo Tamaki: What do you think of the Aikikai system and its future?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: (Whispering) do not ask me that…
Problems are inevitable when an organization grows but there are still many unresolved issues. The Aikikai is trying to rule everything on the basis of reports, hearsay, which do not always emanate from the right people. For example, my students are happy here and they do not contact the Aikikai to complain or ask for things. People who contact them are usually those who want to get something, or sometimes to express resentment. Decisions based on biased information cannot be good. But how can they know about the problems abroad while they are in Japan? There are so many contradictions, inconsistencies and injustices. The way grades are awarded, the shihan system, the Aikikai recognitions, all these things are not right and create a lot of problems.
Take for example the recognition system by the Aikikai. In the end, it is often those who have obtained it who create problems because they believe that they alone have the right to practice Aikido.
I fight against these things but I am always facing dilemmas due to my position as both the representative of the Aikikai and as the director of the American Federation, but I always try to do things in the interest of practitioners. I am torn in the middle of all that.
Leo Tamaki: Do you think that organizations are needed?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: Groups are necessary of course. But are those that exist adequately managed? Are the right people running them? These are the questions.
Of all the groups I deal with in France, the United States, or elsewhere, I see very few that actually function properly. The problems do not come from the members, but from the heads who instrumentalize practitioners for their own conflicts and interests. Many leaders are ambitious, hungry for power and usually, they are very unhappy people in their private lives. They need Aikido to flatter their ego. They lack confidence and compensate using Aikido. Unfortunately many of those who present themselves as teachers are like that as well. This is a real problem. Many would benefit from having a more “manly” and positive state of mind.
Leo Tamaki: How would you define the term Aiki?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: For me Aiki is not something visible; I see it as a union. When you reach a state of void such as that searched in Zen, you become one with nature and the universe.
I think I am not mature enough yet but at least I try (laughs). I am trying to achieve the same state of mind as that of O sensei, a union with the infinitely large, a point where the little things affect us no more. I hope to eventually reach this state of mind.
Leo Tamaki: What is ki for you?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: For me ki is not something that just occurs on the tatami, ki is present in every moment of everyday life. It is an invisible energy but one in which I believe, something that allows us to act, think, and interact positively with other people and society.
This is not something reserved for martial artists. It is sometimes said about someone that he or she has a lot of ki, or a strong ki. This is something that we perceive around people who are successful, a kind of positive aura. This is a permanent condition, whatever you do, at any moment of your life.
At the beginning, Aikido was extremely popular amongst hippies who wanted to hear only about the power of ki. They used to come here but did not workout! One day, I was doing kokyu dosa and one of the students was immobile, in an intense sort of concentration. After a while I patted him on the shoulder and asked what he was doing, and he replied “Sensei, do not disturb me, I am extending my ki”. That was the type of mentality at the time; they only took the part on ki. I used to tell them, just as Tohei Sensei did, “a strong ki needs a strong body”.
I regret not being able to say more, I am not a very spiritual man. I should have followed the lectures of Nakamura sensei, I would probably be deeper. I am not a mysterious person, I try to practice and transmit something that is good for the body and the mind, but something rooted in everyday, real life.
Zen meditation is good. It can be performed in the depths of the mountains, where nothing disturbs us, but the best place to meditate is in a busy street, this is where you need it. One day, I was in a temple and during a discussion, I told them that it was easy to meditate when one was alone in the world, but that it was a different story when at the heart of a busy street in New York. People got angry but it is in this type of place that relaxation and detachment are needed most (laughs). Always anchor things in reality so that it positively affects daily lives.
Leo Tamaki: How would you define musubi?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: It is a very rich term that can be understood on many different levels. The difficulty when you try to explain Japanese words is that many words have a wide meaning. You have a feeling for the whole meaning of the word but when you translate it, it transmits only a fraction of the general idea. It is simply difficult to translate certain concepts, we use circumlocutions and it takes ten words to explain a single one. This is especially true since O sensei was very religious and if you did not share the same theological knowledge as him, it was difficult to know whether you ascribed the same meaning to words as he was.
Musubi is related to Zen. The term means “bound”, it also invites a sense of unity. Aikido is for me the notion of having the body and the mind united. The musubi term is sometimes explained by a physical action but for me, musubi is nothing more than a handshake. Too often people think about things in ways that are too graphic, dramatic, like in a cartoon. But all these notions of Japanese philosophy relate to the invisible.
Leo Tamaki: Do you have something to add Sensei?
Yamada Yoshimitsu: We talked about a lot of negative things but deep down, I still consider Aikido as a wonderful art. I hope that practitioners will be more positive, and that Aikido will help them to become more free and strong.
Leo Tamaki: Thank you sensei.