First published in Aikido East, 2004
I remember when Kanai Sensei had black hair. He wore it long in the front and would flip it back out of his eyes with a toss of his head. It was a very dramatic gesture.
His technique was always fierce and mysterious. I've heard that people in other dojos feared him more than Chiba Sensei because they couldn't understand where his technique was coming from. He did all those kokyu throws and they couldn't figure him out. We knew that it was that little hip thing he did, shifting his hips a little back and then forward again as he breathed out and threw. Such a small move and such power! Beautiful, subtle, and so effective.
Kanai Sensei paid special attention to beginners. He taught basics classes every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. He had a curriculum that he followed, showing all the fundamentals. Anybody who went to those classes for the three month period when they were "official" beginners would be firmly grounded in aikido. Anybody who wanted to deepen their practice could learn something new at any one of them. Of course, over the years, he changed the way he did some techniques and discovered new ways to teach old techniques. We were always surprised and rewarded. The depth of his knowledge was evident and reassuring. There are lessons I learned there that will take me years to explore.
Some days he would even talk. Kanai Sensei didn't usually talk. He preferred to demonstrate and teach by example. We used to joke that a speech by Kanai Sensei was "Thank you very much," what he always said at the seminar parties after being given a present by his students. "Thank you very much!" as he smiled and held the gift above his head.
I remember Kanai Sensei at the edge of the mat, his hands on his knees, crouching, watching students throw and take ukemi when we practiced in lines. You could feel his attention and felt validated when he had that slight smile on his face. When he walked around the mat and came close to you and your partner, you practiced harder and performed better. It was the Sensei-trifical force, we said.
I like to remember Sensei that way, watching his students like a hawk, a little crouched, a little smile. I'd like to see that again.
For a time, Kanai Sensei taught Tuesday and Thursday noon classes. This was a special gift because the classes usually had only 10 or 12 people. I remember one time when Sensei was teaching tachi-tori. We lined up and Sensei held the bokken. As I faced him, there was a twinkle in his eye and then the tiger. He did something and I made a stutter move, a move that would have gotten me killed in circumstances other than practice. Sensei smiled and we started again. I executed the technique, probably not very well, and Sensei rolled away. That mischievous twinkle and the tiger eye is going to stay with me.
When I came into the dojo, I would sometimes glance around the shoji screen to see if Sensei's swords were on the kamiza. That meant the boss was in. Some days, he'd be back in his office working on his art. You'd hear tic-tic-tic as he engraved a design on a knife blade or shaped a tsuba. At least, I think that's what he was doing. We never got to see the extent of his artistic endeavors, although we'd wear his art on our annual summer camp and seminar T-shirts.
Back in the office, he had his books, his tools, his workbench, his tea. You'd knock on the door, wait for his call to enter, and ask about whether you were ready for a test or to get his help for an injury. There'd usually be a book open on his desk, sometimes anatomy and physiology, sometimes his notes on techniques. Not only was he accomplished in the martial arts, the fine arts, and the practical arts but he was also a healer. You'd tell him where it hurt and he'd scowl a little, cock his head, and tell you what to do or go to work on the muscle or joint. He knew what he was doing and always helped. Sensei had a profound knowledge of how the body worked.
The last few times I saw Kanai Sensei, he seemed to be happy. He'd taken to greeting me by poking me in the belly with a finger with a smile on his face. I could never block him and that was just fine. If he swatted you one, it meant he really cared. One night, nearly a month after he died, I was walking home after listening to some fine jazz. I was thinking about another aikido friend, Pete Kairo, who died suddenly last year, a musician, and then I thought about Sensei. Suddenly, I felt that poke again and his smile. I laughed out loud in the dark.
Thank you, Sensei!
Since Kanai Sensei's death, his students have been talking about his effect on them. For someone who didn't talk much, he certainly said a lot. I think we listened as best we could. One of the things we've been talking about is how we want to practice for Sensei. There are some students no longer practicing who are now determined to return. One friend has decided that she is going to return and get her shodan in memory of Sensei.
When I think of the dojo and the people in it, the feeling I have is pride. Sensei did that. Sensei made a dojo, gave us a practice that we can be proud of. What a remarkable achievement. What a gift. What a wonder.
Kanai Sensei, thank you very much!