Kanai Sensei Interview I

Interview by Robert Whelan

August 17, 1991

Copyright © 1991 Kanai Sensei and Robert A. Whelan

All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Like most students my view of Sensei Kanai has been from a distance. Through seminars and classes he has seemed to be a powerful, direct and quiet presence; a man who guards his privacy. Although these impressions still seem valid, throughout this conversation Sensei smiled warmly, laughed easily and graciously allowed me all the time needed for the interview. Despite his apology for difficulty with English, Sensei eloquently answered all questions with care, clarity, and precision.

Perhaps this contrast between the polarities of personality is also the paradox of Aikido. What could be more opposite than love and warfare? Yet somehow they co-exist in an art. These disparities are noted in Sensei's responses. What may look soft is in fact devastating power. What is harmony is the meeting of two in conflict. Kindness is giving a student the opportunity to struggle.

Each of us will have our own reaction to Sensei's words. Each will hear what we can. Some points seem clear for all of us though. We must train daily and with sincerity and we must not under-estimate the necessity of that commitment. Although we can enjoy the social aspects of the dojo its primary purpose is for thoughtful study. And the role of uke is extremely significant so we must improve our ukemi to raise the standards of training for everyone.

If we can concentrate and endure in those tasks not only will our technique improve and deepen but so will we as individuals. This is the path of the budoka. This is the way of love and protection.

Robert Whelan (RW): Sensei, what is meant by your statements that you feel as if the physical training and philosophical ideas of Aikido are not coordinated?

Kanai Sensei (KS): Yes, the philosophy, the 'thinking' that people want is a different dimension.

RW: Do they get distracted by the idea that Aikido is supposed to be 'love' and then miss the Budo aspect?

KS:  If they just follow the philosophical part, that happens.

RW:  How would you advise students to avoid this mistake?

KS: (They) need (something to put) in between (the two). They need daily practice. Then it is possible to make the connection between (things). Daily practice (is) so very important. You have to (do it)...to make (the) connection.

RW: So that if the student makes the commitment to daily practice, immerses in the physical aspect of it, then the philosophy will become apparent over time? By practicing the technique sincerely, the rest will come automatically?

KS: The philosophical part... now the philosophical part is not part of it. Everybody wants it...everybody is doing 'something', but they are missing another part...a more basic part.

RW: Sensei, perhaps because of your culture and background, you understand this necessary commitment. But do you think that Americans, because of their culture, fully understand and are capable of making this commitment?

KS: I believe that, yes. I don't know why American people keep joining Aikido dojo...somehow they think Aikido is 'good'. (Because of that attitude) I think American people are pretty smart, very unique. Aikido students seem very intelligent. So (in) that way, I have daily hope in this country.

RW: You have also said that, although there must be harmony, the philosophy becomes an easy way out of practicing Aikido Budo and the most difficult part gets sacrificed. You go on to say 'Budo' is made of two characters, one meaning 'holding the spear'. Then you say, "that's where Aikido starts, holding the spear until you shiver". Could you explain more about that?

KS: O.K...that is not just for Aikido but any martial art. (At the) start, a fort protects a group...groups of peace or ease. If an enemy tries to destroy that peace, (you) have to protect. That is the beginning, the start of Budo. Without such a 'facing' (the enemy), (without) such seriousness, you can never get Aikido's, or Budo's, essence. From that is Budo's start.

RW: Do you think this 'facing' that you're talking about would improve if ukes were better at more sincere attacks?

KS: Yes I think so. O.K...we have a problem with nage and uke. I think nage somehow...'compromises' with uke, that uke (will) not hurt nage. Uke believes the same thing, that 'compromise'...that nage will not hurt uke. (In) that way (this) situation, (which) is a very important part of Aikido, (can) bring (students) down to laziness.

RW: So the cooperation in Aikido between uke and nage, insuring that no one gets hurt, has resulted in a problem. Because both partners know that, they become lazy and they don't put as much energy into the practice?

KS: Yes, (they are) what's called...taking advantage...of each other. So what we really need to do, is that uke has to be able to take any kind of ukemi for what nage does. And that way, and only that way, will they be able to build up.

RW: So that if ukemi is practiced until falls are safe, and uke is protected no matter what nage does, then the strength and sincerity of the attack will improve?

KS: Yes,yes...Simply that way. And (then they) can grow together. But now I can see that (practice is) going down. They are going down together.

RW: You have mentioned elsewhere 'shiseikan', the view of life and death, and that one has to face that question in order to practice and train with insight. At times, should training be so physically draining that it somehow brings about that experience?

KS: That is (a) dangerous (question)...very easy to misunderstand (the answer). I'm afraid to tell you about that part (because it can lead to confusion). But I have to just say, that in anything, in such a situation, (if someone) thinks about it, and goes more deeply into it, I think they can get their own answer.

RW: Sensei, you have also said that 'shiseikan' makes people aware of "the solemnity, the strictness, the dignity in interpersonal relationships". Would you say a little bit more about Aikido students demonstrating respect?

KS: With that we always have a problem. In this dojo new students are always coming. They don't know it, we (assume) that students somehow are aware of it. But (if) we don't explain about it...sometimes the dojo's manners go down.

RW: Is that the responsibility of senior students?

KS: My experience is that it is my responsibility. If my old students (have) not explained, then of course we do it, and then (manners) come back. But it happens so often that the manners go up and down.

RW: You also talk about the love of a 'budoka' that comes from hard training. That one can have security in that love. Do you have more thoughts about the love, peace and harmony that comes from hard training?

KS: Yes, if people understand how...you know...are able to think about their own life...if people are able to think about that, and their thinking goes to what is important about their own life...if their own life is important then another person's is important too. If one thinks (too) 'easy', or goes (too) 'easy', (all) they can get (is) just words. You say 'love' but no one can prove it. (It is) important how much (is) seriously faced (before one) can prove about love. I believe, only someone who has such experience with how important life (is)...you know... someone (who) has faced the life and death situation, (only) such a person (is) able to prove (this).

RW: So, when a person has taken their life seriously and addresses that question, they have substance. When they say 'love' they know what they are committing to and so you can trust them?

KS: Yes, but usually people are in a play on words...they sound nice...it's kind word(s)...but nothing's proven. Usually people don't have the background.

RW: You say Budo is "the effective and really efficient control of your partner or adversary". So in the technique where does the 'softness' come in? How do you combine 'harmony' and 'effectiveness'?

KS: In (the) technique area it is important...not (just) strong...not (just) hard...not (just) speed. All of those things are 'parts' of the technique. If you are able to do just part of the technique...speed, strength, hardness... that is just one part. Each (is) part of the technique's 'correctness'. If the Aikido technique's importance is the 'correctness' then all (aspects) have to be 'included'. That is correct. If (all) that happens...never too hard, never too fast, or never too stiff, flexibility is part of Aikido too, that is (the) Aikido technique's 'harmony'. Everything is included...we call that important and correct.

RW: From seeing films and videos, people talk about O Sensei practicing differently at various stages of his life. Is one stage more important than another, or do you take in the 'whole' concept and sometimes practice 'hard' and sometimes practice 'soft'?

KS: I never knew O Sensei since the young times. But O Sensei said young people (train) 'hard'. (They) need to do that daily, (they) need to hold 'tight', to make sure (if) the technique works or not...that is what O Sensei told me, told us. But when I met O Sensei (he) was old, his technique was very soft. There is a problem (with that)...people think that's 'soft' (and) that's 'easy'. People think that. (Thinking) that way, those people don't know what O Sensei was doing...because I never felt O Sensei (as) 'soft' or 'weak'...always strong. (He would) bounce me off (the mat) when I took ukemi. People don't know that. Those (uninformed) people (are) bringing Aikido down, (they are) destroying it.

RW: So you, when taking ukemi, could feel the force! O Sensei had such grace that people watching concluded, "that cannot be hard". By focusing only on this aspect, they are destroying Aikido?

KS: Yes! It just looks 'soft'. If they just follow that part they are missing something. They must follow every part.

RW: Do you think the stages of development reflect human development? So an older person should practice 'soft' so s/he won't get hurt, but a young person should put more 'stamina' into it?

KS: Yes, but I would like (it if) young people (would) think more seriously. Don't compromise too easily...you know... (compromise) to a point.

RW: What advice would you give to people who wish to train that way?

KS: You have to go through...I'd like more young people, the (ones who are) confused, to think about it, then they'll get (the) answer someday.

RW: So, it is better to let them struggle on their own?

KS: Yes, that is very important, that part.

RW: That's interesting, because from what you're saying allowing them to struggle on their own is actually a 'kindness' to them, yet they may experience it as, "why isn't someone telling me what to do?"

KS: Yes, that is the problem with the 'good leader'. If you follow under the 'good leader' then somehow you quickly get the technique...you know...the 'movement'...better. But not the essence. You need that to grow. You know without going through such a struggle...to suffer...you never can get the inside of that.

RW: So we could say that someone with a leader who teaches them movements quickly, might start out faster at the beginning and then level off; but someone who struggles is slow at the beginning, but gradually will have something better?

KS: They will have more inside them...Inside.

RW: Is that what you mean when you say put your 'whole self' into training and then begin to see through the practice? When you commit yourself totally, then you will learn?

KS: Yes, but now...(it's) just that I'm seeing...that everyone's too much...'enjoying'. Everyone's (getting) spoiled...everyone is going down. It is nice to enjoy, everyone's together, everybody's happy, But nothing is there. They get nothing.

RW: Sensei, you have mentioned that you thought people bring too much of their own ideas and personality into Aikido?

KS: Too soon, yes. It's 'his' aikido, not AIKIDO (laughs). That's happening too, yes.

RW: Is it the idea that you can't pour something into a container that's full already? Students just have to come and be empty?

KS: Yes, anyway the character of the person, their upbringing, comes with them. How do you put into them such an idea? First, you have to know what is 'Aikido'...not 'my' aikido. At the very end, if you are able to understand 'Aikido', (after you) sacrifice 'self' and study what is 'Aikido', what O Sensei has shown us, (then maybe).

RW: So before people begin to say what Aikido is, or what this or that technique is, they should simply practice and then maybe with time they'll begin to know what Aikido is?

KS: YES! yes, then he will understand it. Never mind what his character (was) coming into Aikido.

RW: What are the attitudes or the requirements of a 'sincere student', what should s/he be doing?

KS: Simply, what does a sincere student mean? About anything, someone must think hard. Don't just follow what people are doing...what I'm doing. (You) have to think about it. Then if they feel...this idea of 'suffering'...or trying to 'catch' something, if they feel that, then I feel the student is totally sincere. That's what I feel.

RW: Too much thinking isn't going to get in the way of the Aikido?

KS: (You) need to try to somehow...train something, you know. But without thinking, without this (there) is nothing. Someone is doing (something), but I think (they are) just wasting time.

RW: So are there two potential mistakes? One is the person who looks and thinks, but never does anything; and the other is the person who just copies and never thinks about it?

KS: Yes. They are (both) wasting time.

RW: What suggestions do you have for Aikido students as a group, what advice would you give them?

KS:  As a group? I have said that you need to go to more and more seminars. That means more mix(ing with) other group(s) of pupils. (It is) very important...communication. Without that you cannot grow (in the) correct way. (It is) very easy to get into habits if you just stay in one place. So (you) need to see (more), to open (your) eyes more.

RW: In that regard, when you have talked about combining the philosophical principle with the physical training, you have suggested that maybe there should be specific purpose seminars to do that...have you done anymore thinking about this?

KS: Yes, yes, all the time we are thinking. But we need (seminars) for beginners, intermediate and advanced people too. But we cannot often separate (these groups) because we (usually) have (only) one day. That's too short. (So) we (have to) include everything. That is a problem all the time, you know. But I think we need seminars for beginners, for advanced (students), for instructors and seminars for testing. We try to do it, but it is very difficult. Because if it is a seminar for testing, that is not for everyone, you know. Somehow we need to (change but) we need (longer) time (available). I think this is necessary and that we have to do it.

RW: Do you feel that there are enough seminars available?

KS: We (have) about one a year. Then there is Portland ME and of course, Keene NH has seminars. And New York, Syracuse, and in Massachusetts (there) is Northampton...so I think (students) are able to go to nearby (seminars)...about 10 seminars a year. For example, some people, in one year, (attend) 20 seminars. That is very rare. They have lucky situations. But anyway, they're able to do it. Our rule about promoting dan (is a) minimum of 2 seminars a year, but if you want(ed to) I believe you could come to 10 seminars a year.

RW: What should other dojo do to help? If each dojo gave a seminar a year would that help?

KS: If that happen(ed) then the difficulty (would be) for Shihan to go there, (to all of them) you know. So (it would be) more (helpful) if some dojos got together and held seminars.