Interview by Robert Whelan, Translated by Joji Sawa
January 16, 1993
Copyright © 1993 Kanai Sensei and Robert A. Whelan
All rights reserved. Used with permission.
In this second AIKIDO EAST interview, Kanai Sensei shares his thoughts about his own beginnings in Aikido, issues of ethics, philosophy, and student - sensei relationships. There is also discussion about Sensei's expectations of students regarding weapons practice, attitudes towards training in general, as well as specifically at the time of testing for promotion.
Sensei's views regarding qualities appropriate for students seem to be generous and understanding. It indicates, for me at least, that perhaps we could all be a little more tolerant and accepting of the wide variety of reasons why people choose to train in Aikido. In contrast to this, maybe we are too tolerant or complacent with ourselves and we would be better served to re-evaluate our personal level of practice and commitment rather than judge others.
It seems too easy to fall into the trap of a rigid mind-set that assumes "there's only one 'real way' to practice, and I know it". A more open and egalitarian attitude which acknowledges that Aikido offers something special for everyone seems more consistent with the art's underlying philosophy of harmony. Sensei is quite clear through his expression of the scope and depth of Aikido, that as a martial art, it is more than capable of providing something different for everyone.
Robert Whelan (RW): Sensei, when instructing beginners in Aikido is it best to start from Katatetori attacks?
Kanai Sensei (KS): Yes, because it is simple, basic, and applicable to all other attacks. As the partner starts to grab faster and faster, then it becomes almost like "tsuki". It will become the same thing.
RW: What expectations does Sensei have of students?
KS: Everything (laughter). Spiritually... everything.
RW: Can Sensei give students some hint or some clarification about attitude or commitment?
KS: That particular question I cannot say anything about. I cannot give students any hints about such things as commitment. Everyone is different, everyone has different motivations and reasons to take Aikido. Some come here to practice Aikido for health reasons. Some come only once a week to practice. Some students want, if possible, to practice three classes in one day! There is also an age factor. Because each student comes with different conditions a sensei cannot tell students very specifically what attitude or commitment they should have. I am satisfied if I can feel from the students that they are practicing sincerely and have a good spirit in doing Aikido. What I don't like is when students are not practicing seriously or when they are not "into it". Some students who have been practicing for a long time feel that they have practiced long enough. So sometimes ...they forget a certain line exists...they cross a line and become too 'comfortable' on the mat. They start to forget about what Aikido is. They start to...not joking around, but not 'seriously' doing Aikido. That's not the right attitude. A good word for that is too 'casual'. When a student has been practicing 10 or 15 years, he sometimes forgets about this line and develops a kind of complacency where he is doing the same thing over and over again without thinking about what he is doing. People easily get into a rut.
RW: That leads to another question, Sensei. Given that students have different conditions (work schedule, distance from the dojo) what advice can you give to someone who can't get to the dojo? How does he practice his Aikido daily?
KS: By himself? I know what you mean but it is clearly different from actual practice in a dojo. There are things you do inside a dojo and things you do outside a dojo. So although I understand the reason why you are asking this question, it is the same thing as asking "what can replace dojo practice?" Because it's so different, there is really no replacement.
RW: What sort of characteristics or attitudes would Sensei like to see in students when they come up for promotion. From your point of view what's the attitude that one should have? How does the student determine when s/he's ready to test?
KS: First of all there are the minimum requirements for the test, having practiced the required hours and knowing the required techniques. However, if possible, a person who will test should have more than that. Even if the student can do all the techniques and has at least the hours to qualify...if possible the student should be able to do more. He should be able to do these techniques with a little bit of room in his mind, to do the techniques and be 'comfortable'. All the required techniques are of course 100% ...but he should have a little bit more...something 'extra'. When I see the tests I think many students are not yet comfortable and so are not confident.
RW: So there should be an ease to the test that shows confidence? Something extra left over so the student is not at the very edge of his/her ability?
KS: Confident...yes, confident, therefore the student still has more. Yes exactly. Sometimes I feel that students should not pass the test...but of course I am a human being so I feel a sense of sympathy with them so they pass. Every time there is a test here I don't really feel good about being the judge. If it is my own students I feel more free to pass or fail them. But the students from the other dojos...since they have different content to their instruction and practice...I have to be a little bit more generous about judging although I know this will "whittle down", that is, drop the level of Aikido. Since this will cause the general level of Aikido to decline, when the test day comes I don't feel good about it.
RW: In our last interview Sensei, you talked about instructors that are very good at explaining things so students rapidly learn the movements. But because of this you said students "didn't learn the essence". They don't get something "inside". If there were more failures would students have to struggle more and be more apt to learn that 'essence'?
KS: First of all I haven't seen anybody that was 'technically' good but whose 'attitude' or whatever was not good, so he failed. There is no such thing. People who become technically good have a good attitude, because if a person practices very hard for a long period of time, the practice will influence his attitude.
RW: In the last interview we talked about people having the 'philosophy' of Aikido but pursuing this was different than the practice. These aspects didn't seem to be coordinated. But if someone really invested in the training required to gain technical mastery will the philosophical attitude, the "DO" automatically come?
KS: I'm not sure about "DO" or 'Tao' ...I'm not sure whether a student will get that or not. But if some students really practice hard, hard, hard and almost get technical mastery in many techniques, after many hours and much effort, I think at least those students will understand what Aikido is.
RW: Sensei do you feel that for Aikido students, weapons practice is going to be a necessary requirement for them at some point in their training?
KS: (laughs) Your way of putting the question misses the point. For example if your question is "Will learning the weapon be an advantage for the learning of Aikido?" This shows a wrong concept. If one understands what Aikido is this is not the way it should happen. If you move according to the principles you learn in Aikido...regarding the way of using your body, how to do 'sabaki', you will move the same way whether you have a weapon or not. If you move your body according to Aikido's principles then logically you can apply it to weapons as well. That's how I think of it.
RW: Sensei what do you see as the essential thing in Aikido? What is the core of it...what is the essence of it?
KS: First of all I cannot say what is the essence of Aikido in one word. You cannot summarize in one word what is the essence of Aikido because Aikido consists of many factors, and many aspects. Another difficulty is that if you take one of the factors and examine it in isolation and you trace it from the beginning, all the way, then it becomes almost 'academic'. For example, when in Aikido if two individuals collide right into each other...how are you going to analyze it? You have to go into what you call the 'dynamics', the principles of physics that describe how the force goes, so that's why I'm saying "academic". You study deeper so then you have to understand the physics of that situation. It's part of that field, right? There are many examples. If you start to think about 'manners' in Aikido. You can think in terms of manners in dojo. In terms of manners for the sempai, of the instructors etc. You are now into the 'sociological' field. And then you start to think about the society...and again it's 'academic'. Then, through martial arts, if you start to think or study about modesty, humility...then you are starting to think about religion, and getting to the 'religious' aspect of it. So Aikido is all those factors put together in one system. That is what Aikido is. That's why Aikido is sometimes called 'sogo budo'...that is 'total martial art' or 'universal martial art' or 'fundamental martial art'. That is why I cannot simply put in one word what is the essence of Aikido. Aikido has so many aspects and each aspect can lead into an entire field! Aikido is difficult to learn because Aikido requires 'perfectness' in all its aspects. So it is a very difficult martial art. When you learn Aikido you get very serious, and naturally as you study how to approach and how to do Aikido, you realize you cannot approach Aikido casually. So my words to students who have been practicing Aikido for a number of years is "don't get complacent...don't feel you've got it"...because there is always more!
RW: Speaking about Sensei's expectation of students what are Sensei's expectations of instructors?
KS: I want instructors to think more deeply...because now in Aikido there are many students who have been practicing for a long time. The level of the Aikido is also growing so the students may catch up with instructors. The instructors should make sure that they don't catch up! Instructors have to train themselves harder and think harder. Aikido is always growing, if you stop thinking then it's stagnant, it stops. Somebody is always seeking for technique in Aikido. That is why I'm saying if the instructor stops thinking or working technically and the students catch up, not only Aikido but in anything, if you stop thinking then that thing stops growing. Aikido is growing because somebody is always thinking. That is what Aikido is...somebody always seeking. So as long as people's real thinking is growing, Aikido is growing.
RW: Having been in America for quite awhile are you satisfied with the development of Aikido in the United States?
KS: With some conditions, I think that overall the current level of Aikido in the United States is the best in the world. But I'm not satisfied with it.
RW: What goals would you have for us?
KS:I cannot say that because I am still studying and working on this question. I cannot just say what the goal is.
RW: What would be some of the conditions you would want us to examine more closely and evaluate in terms of how we might improve?
KS: There are so many differences and extremes. Even in the United States there are maybe 10 different Aikido organizations, our own federation as well as others. But even among those who participate in this federation, among all the different dojos there is much difference because of different geographical areas, different levels of practice and because instructors have different characteristics. One instructor is good at this aspect but another instructor is good at a different aspect, so there is a difference arising from this structure. It still has not become one yet. So that probably is the goal.
RW: Sensei can you share some thoughts, feelings or ideas about the 'ethical standards' that you would want to see in instructors?
KS: If I have ethical expectations with instructors and if I talk about them that may cause some problems. It's very hard to for me to talk about that. But I will say it this way, if the students think about what kind of instructor they want to have then naturally you will define the correct ethics of the instructor right there. In other words if students seriously think about what kind of instructor they want to have then they will know what ethics the instructor should have. If the instructor tries to understand what the students want, what they are looking for in an instructor, then naturally the instructor will find out, will know the kind of instructor he should be. He will become more aware of who he should be. Its a matter of common sense, an awareness of what he should be.
RW: For example, if I'm an owner of a 'health club' where people come and lift weights I'm not suggesting there's a philosophy behind this, that there is a 'way' to follow. But a dojo implies a philosophy. Some instructors might set themselves up as mentors, and I'm not so sure that some instructors are going to be sincere and together enough to listen to their students and then give them what they ask. They may in fact take advantage of students. So Sensei, in a general way, can you make some comments about what you would expect from instructors?
KS: It is a very difficult question. Because if some students look up to the instructor as a mentor, and if he responds, you're talking about having a responsibility for another human being. If a student gets influenced by the instructor or sensei, then it is a really serious matter because one person gets affected or influenced by the other. There is an enormous issue here. For example, if a student gets involved in Aikido, and gets really focussed on it and his entire life becomes Aikido, he may then abandon his own life! Since this could be possible, it is a very big thing about how one influences another. It doesn't have to be an instructor; anyone has a responsibility for the other when he influences them. For this same reason I cannot say how instructors "should be" or what a "true" instructor "should be". I cannot say that because of all I've just explained. I also think this limits what students can ask from an instructor. T his is a very serious matter. Aikido teaching is not a "sure thing". It is not mathematics. In mathematics there are "sure things", definite answers. But if students really ask a sensei about his or her problems or issues then the sensei has to say that his answer is not a sure thing. Because it is not like mathematics. A human being is a living thing. Therefore as a living human being the only sure thing is an instinct. For living humans to survive in the world instinct is required. That is the only "sure thing" for a human being. And in the long history of humanity, human beings have almost lost that instinct. Trying to replace this lost instinct people set up a yardstick, "love" or "religion" or "morals" or "physical gain" etc. "Bushido" or "Buddhism" are the same. It's all illusion. People are seeking for some illusion whether it is Bushido, Budo or whatever. Therefore an instructor is also living in his illusion...his idea. One cannot tell or force another to live in one's own illusion. It's your own idea, and that's what I mean when I say Aikido is not a sure thing. There is no absolutely "one sure thing". The world we live in is not sure anyway! So if students seek a mentor, that is really too much for the instructor because the instructor is forced to have the responsibility for another human being.
RW: Sensei, what were the original reasons why you were attracted to Aikido? Why did he choose Aikido?
KS: It's very simple in my case, I just couldn't be satisfied with the other martial arts and also I didn't expect too much from Aikido either. It could have been anything for me at that time.
RW: It was more the time in your life than necessarily the art itself?
KS: Yes, it just happened to be that Aikido was there for me.
RW: How did you first become aware of Aikido?
KS: I saw it on TV. O-Sensei and Tamura Sensei were demonstrating.
RW: Was O-Sensei what you expected as a teacher?
KS: That's why I was attracted to Aikido at that moment and actually that's why, after receiving teaching from O-Sensei, that's why I'm still doing Aikido. In other words I found my "shisho", the one person to be my teacher.
RW: What were the things about O-Sensei that made you say "I'm staying with him"?
KS: Just because of how he was. I just liked him. So there's no one thing...just that I liked him so much.
RW: What was the most difficult part of your training?
KS: The hardest part was "keiko"...practice. Practice was the hardest.
RW: It was severe?
KS: For me it was. Every day I thought I'd quit, everyday. Every morning I'd wake up and say, "let's just practice today...but I will definitely quit tomorrow". (laughs)
RW: Another question about O-Sensei is that Doshu has written that O-Sensei said Aikido is "faster than lightning". What does this mean?
KS: I don't know in what context Doshu mentioned this but O-Sensei told me that it is not important who moves first. Another interpretation would be that when you do something you don't think, "When I do this I get this advantage or that advantage" and then you act. You will immediately make a decision as it happens; you do it as "fast as lightning", right at the moment. Decisions are made at that time, right on the spot.
RW: So there is the circumstance and then without hesitation, without forethought and without any impediment you move in harmony with that circumstance and it's done?
KS: It means it's righteous. You win over yourself. When you do something you don't think about "if I do this what's going to happen...will I lose money or gain a better position" or whatever. You don't do that. The right action is all that matters. According to this philosophy, if you act it just happens right. So this "fast as lightning" is not about a technique.
RW: Sensei, are there any other instructors or teachers that you've had that influenced you besides O-Sensei?
KS: Before getting to Aikido? Yes, several people. One of them was in my elementary school days, my homeroom teacher. And I also had a wonderful teacher in junior high school who strongly influenced me