First published in Aikido East, 2004
The first time I ever saw Kanai Sensei was in the summer of 1986 at Roger Williams College in Bristol Rhode Island. I was thirteen years old. It was the twentieth anniversary of The New England Aikikai. At the time, My best friend, Steve, and I had been practicing Aikido for nearly a year. we were students at Newburyport Aikido, which was a small dojo. Our instructor, Bob Tobae told us about summer camp, and strongly encouraged us to go. This week long seminar would feature Doshu Kissamaru Ueshiba and his son Moriteru Ueshiba (then known as Waka Sensei). The whole idea of seeing the son and grandson of O' Sensei seemed very exiting to us. We talked to our parents and they gave us permission to go.
We were a couple of real goof ball kids. We had been studying this art for almost a year and never really learned anything about its history or the names of its more famous practitioners. We arrived at the camp in Rhode Island. When we first got there, We saw that there were three other featured shihan. They were Kanai Sensei, Yamada Sensei, And Chiba Sensei. We learned almost immediately that these three were live-in apprentice students of O'Sensei.
The first class we went to was Kanai Sensei's. We walked into the huge arena that the dojo was set up in. All across the front of the mat were many black belts lined up in their hakama. It was sort of a scary sight. I had never seen any more than two black belts in the same room before.
Sensei started the class. I couldn't take my eyes off him. I had never seen anyone like him before. He had this very beautiful head of thick black hair which was long on top and slicked back. Whenever he performed even the simplest technique it would fall down in front of his eyes. His gi and hakama were as neat as a pin and as perfect as a picture. The same of course could be said about his technique.
Sensei's focus during that particular class was on basic technique. He stood in front of the class and demonstrated a ten-kan movement with a pivot at the end. We all stood at one end of the dojo and followed Sensei's lead, making this movement from one end of the room to the next. I was most impressed by him. His movement was so precise, His posture perfect, the look in his eyes penetrating. Sometimes he seemed like he was ten feet tall.
During the week we learned that Kanai Sensei teaches in Cambridge Ma. at his dojo The New England Aikikai, just a forty-five minute drive from Newburyport. We also discovered that not only is he responsible for spreading Aikido throughout the New England region but also a great deal of the United States and Canada. At the end of the week The Doshu presented Kanai Sensei with a commendation for his great achievements for the aikido community.
A year and a half later, shortly after I started high school, Newburyport Aikido had ended due to an extreme lack of attendance. I didn't practice Aikido again for almost ten years. I was twenty-four by now and very determined to start practicing again. Aikido was a part of my life that I really missed. I started to look for Aikido dojos on the internet. I looked at a few different web sites, one of which was New England Aikikai. The more I thought of it, the more I wanted to drive a few extra miles and learn from one of the greatest teachers in the world, and so I did.
In November of 1997, I became a student at the New England Aikikai. I instantly felt honored to be able to call myself one of Kanai Sensei's students. Sensei still looked as vigorous and youthful as he did a decade before. The only visible difference was that his hair style had changed. He was still leading the class in warm-ups at the beginning of class. The tremendous flexibility in his body was amazing. He would sit on the mat and spread his legs all the way open on either side of his torso, and then bend all the way forward so that the entire front of his torso would be flat on the mat. Approximately six months later he stopped leading the class in warm-ups. He would instead have one of the senior students do it. This is when I found out that Sensei had very painful knee problems.
Several months later...a group of us aikidoka (who all started at the dojo together) brought Sensei out to dinner. We had pizza at Pizzeria Uno just up the street from the dojo. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to get to know Sensei a little better. Everyone nailed him for two hours, asking him questions about Aikido and himself. The questions all ranged from his training with O'Sensei to defending yourself on the street to how he felt about the progress of his students. I remember him talking a lot about the dangers of over training. He warned us that over training could result in long term injuries later on. Whenever he spoke about other parts of Aikido practice there were two small phrases that he kept repeating, " Extend Ki " and " Develop your eyes ".
Over the next couple of years, I started helping out with things at summer camp. As a result I had to meet with Sensei and his wife Sharon at least twice a day every day during camp. It was a lot more than I normally would at the dojo. Sensei always seemed very happy to see me. He had a big warm smile that could light up a city. I'd like to remember that the most about him. Whenever I happened to be at a seminar, Sensei would typically walk up to me at some point during class to say, " Good Morning ". Other times at the dojo he would ask me how things were going, or what I was up to. I remember a strange time about four years ago, every time Sensei saw me in class for about two weeks, whether at the dojo or a seminar, he would walk up to me laughing really hard and slap me on the back three or four times and kept walking. To this day I don't know why? There were other times during classes, He would point at me and say to my partner, " Hit him hard ", or " Throw him hard ", and smirk at the strange expression on my face. One day about a year and a half ago I was on my way to Saturday morning class at the dojo. As I was approaching the dojo I saw Sensei leaving after teaching Iaido class. I walked up to him and said, " Hi Sensei ". He stopped short and looked at me bold faced through his sunglasses. Suddenly he punched me in the shoulder and walked off laughing very hard in the air. The time I ever saw him laugh hardest was last summer, During Sensei's class I was wearing an old gi. My partner tried to throw me and my gi ripped in half. Right away I turned around and Sensei is standing right there laughing so hard I don't think he could see strait. He was laughing at me all throughout the rest of class, what with half of a gi hanging off of my arm.
On Monday morning, March 29, 2004, I was awakened in the morning by my family and given a phone message to call my friend Lesley right away. I called her immediately. She sounded very nervous. I was able to tell right away that something very bad had happened to someone. I've received too many phone calls of this kind in my young life. She had a hard time saying it right away. The words " Sensei died ", were the last words I ever expected to hear. I was shocked and almost refused to believe it. I paced back and forth all day and was unable to focus on anything. Finally, I decided to call Sharon to offer my condolences. I just didn't know what to say except that " I'm shocked " and " I'm sorry ". After we hung up I started to cry. This was such a horrible thing for everyone, but most especially, Sharon, Yuki, and Miesha.
That evening I went to the dojo. I felt the need to be there with everyone. When I arrived, the dojo was already filled with a lot of people. The atmosphere was absolutely heart wrenching. It was very quiet and very few people spoke. Everyone hugged and cried. I changed into my gi and kneeled on the mat waiting for class to start... that is, if there was actually going to be class.
An announcement was made that class would start approximately fifteen minutes late. I sat there trying to keep myself pulled together. Suddenly, Yasu Itoh appeared on the edge of the mat. He was holding Sensei's swords. He walked up to the kamiza and placed them on the rack. They are only there when Sensei is in the dojo. It was as if he came home. I became very emotional.
David Farrell started class. He made the announcement that Kanai Sensei had passed away yesterday in Toronto and we would have a two minute meditation at the beginning of class. The first technique was demonstrated. It was ryotetori tenshinage (Heaven and Earth). As class moved forward, some people had to stop and rest because they were to upset. It seemed that everyone else was struggling. My whole body was numb. My technique as well as my ukemi felt clumsy and uncentered. It seemed like everyone else was feeling the same way. It was all a huge mixture of tears and sweat.
After class was over everyone clung to one another. The senior students have always seemed like very strong people to me, but on this night they were all shaking all over like lost frightened children. The sight of everyone else being so upset made me feel even more upset than I already was.
Friday April 2, 2004, was the day of Sensei's memorial service. I was asked to read a letter at the service. It was from Kanai Sensei's life long friend, Mr. Sumio Hirai. I felt humbled and honored to do this. Those of you who know me, know that I'm an actor and I'm used to standing in front of large groups of people and doing any number of things. However, This was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Yasu Itoh read the letter in Japanese and then I read the English translation. My heart was pounding so hard that it was almost all I could hear. The letter was very touching and heart felt. When we were finished we bowed to Sensei one last time.
For a long time now, before Sensei's passing, I always think about certain things that Sensei would say a lot during class. " Extend Ki ", " Fix your posture ", " Don't clash ", " Keep a united body ", and " develop your eyes to differentiate false from truth ". I can almost hear his voice saying these things. These are all things that were not just lessons to keep in mind on the mat, but they are lessons for life. You must practice these principles in everything that you do. Having said that , It seems that Sensei's spirit has always been inside each one of us and he will always be alive. I will always carry in me the memory of his great wisdom and the strong nature of his heart. Thank You Sensei, for being such a big part of all our lives.