Kei Izawa Sensei | Aikikai Tanshinjuku
Interview with Kei Izawa Sensei - Founder & Chief Instructor of Aikikai Tanshinjuku
Sarah Quenon: I heard you had the privilege of training under Tohei Sensei, can you share a bit about what that experience was like?
Kei Izawa Sensei: I started Aikido at Aikikai Hombu Dojo on May 7th, 1969, soon after O Sensei passed away. In the beginning, I was diligently attending the 2nd Doshu Kisshomaru's class, but since the Aikikai Headquarters had such a variety of powerful O Sensei direct disciples in the roster, I gradually started to take other classes by other Shihans as well. I was a beginner, but as I was tall by Japanese standards and eager to learn, I even trained with strong Shihans like Fujita Shihan and Masuda Shihan, when they were assisting Kisshomaru Doshu's classes. Tohei Sensei, was the head of instructor Shihans at Hombu, quite a prominent position. He was a charismatic and very charming person. He had a very popular class attended by many foreigners as well. I was not at the level to take his ukemi but when he would walk around the dojo, he would let me grab his wrist to show me the techniques. What a phenomenal wrist and arm he had. Strong and unmovable was the impression. Unlike many of the other Shihans that would not be very expressive,
Tohei Sensei was always in a positive mood and smiling radiantly while executing techniques.
For reasons I didn't understand at the time, he left Hombu Dojo and took with him some of the wonderful instructors to form another group. One of them was Koretoshi Maruyama Sensei (founder of Aikido Yuishinkai). Maruyama Sensei was invited to Colorado by Longmont's Aikido Shugenkai in 2009 and I had the pleasure to meet him again even though he did not remember me from the 1970s. I never met Tohei Sensei after he left Aikikai.
SQ: You studied under other direct disciples of O Sensei, who were some of your teachers and how did they influence you?
KI: As I started Aikido so soon after O Sensei passed away, there were many powerful aikidoka that had studied under O Sensei himself. My favorites were Osawa Kisaburo Shihan who was Dojocho at the time, Sasaki Masando Shihan, and Tohei Shihan. I also took classes of Yamaguchi Shihan, Okumura Shihan, Arikawa Shihan. The impression I had was that Aikido was much rougher and martial than today. People expected that by joining a martial art school, you had to anticipate some harshness in training. In Shihonage I experienced concussions many times since the throws were very powerful straight down. I think the uchideshi and Hombu instructors are advised to be strong in executing the techniques, but not as harsh as it was more than 50 years ago.
The impression I had was that Aikido was much rougher and martial than today. People expected that by joining a martial art school, you had to anticipate some harshness in training.
I can imagine that before O Sensei mellowed, the situation could have been harsher as the prewar Kobukan Dojo had a nickname, Hell Dojo.
SQ: How long have you been practicing Aikido? Can you share a little bit about your relationship to Aikido when you started vs. now?
KI: I have been practicing for over 53 years. I started Aikido when I entered University. That is when I was very active as I had more flexibility in my daily routine. I did not join an Aikido club in the university and as I chose to start in Hombu, I was privileged to train under phenomenal instructors. I did my graduate studies in Cambridge MA where I had the opportunity to train under another Aikido legend, Mitsunari Kanai Sensei who was one of the last lived-in uchideshi at Ueshiba family. Lived-in uchideshi is a system that does not exist anymore.
I retired early and moved to Colorado 25 years ago and that is when my wife and I started Tanshinjuku. Being a Dojocho brings a lot of responsibility in how you manage the dojo, but also in your teaching style and systematic instruction core program. While the techniques I teach are the same as many others teach, I need to bring my unique interpretation of how to make the techniques work and why. I am in the process of writing a book on my Aikido perspective. I hope I can share my experience to a lot of people through the book.
SQ: You’ve traveled all over the world to teach Aikido. What have been some of your greatest experiences while teaching Aikido around the world?
KI: Aikido has spread around the world in the last 70 years or so. When I traveled around South America in 1977, Aikido was not present in many countries and cities but now you can visit remote corners of the world and meet people that train in Aikido. But Aikido is not like science or mathematics where the formulas and answers are the same. Aikido spread with various interpretations and styles. As long as people are open-minded, it is great to exchange training with others. As I started Aikido soon after O Sensei passed away and the core principles of the techniques were much more martial, I had the opportunity to train first hand with many direct disciples of O Sensei, and having started at the cradle of Aikido in Japan, gives me ample opportunity to share my perspective with Aikido practitioners all over the world.
Aikido is not like science or mathematics where the formulas and answers are the same. Aikido spread with various interpretations and styles. As long as people are open-minded, it is great to exchange training with others.
When I was in Massachusetts training under Kanai Sensei, I had the direct opportunity to train under many of Kanai Sensei's contemporaries, such as Yamada Sensei, Chiba Sensei, Tohei Akira Sensei, Kurita Sensei, and even Tamura Sensei from France. The interaction and teaching by all these Sensei has allowed me to see the depth and width of Aikido, in the most effective and elegant way. It is like learning from many Iron Chefs the art of cooking and being able to integrate their teachings into my teachings. But I have to say the person that impacted me the most was Kanai Sensei from Boston.
SQ: If you could pass only a few ideas or principles along to someone just starting Aikido, what would you focus on conveying to them?
KI: I see many people getting stuck with one perspective of Aikido at an early stage in life. They become stubborn with their style. Aikido should not be a cult-like training. As Aikido is for life, my suggestion would be to stick with one instructor until the person gets shodan and from then on pursue getting to see and train with the logic of other advanced instructors. You can continue with your Sensei, but expand your horizon. Try to go to international seminars, visit Hombu in Japan, try to watch a lot of YouTube videos of legendary instructors. Don't lose the inquisitiveness of improving your knowledge. Remember, there is always room for improvement. I continue to discover how I can improve my techniques even today. Train with different types of practitioners as this also opens up opportunities to test your hypothesis of Aikido.
SQ: What else would you like to share with us about your personal practice, your history with Aikido on or off the mat, and/or your feelings about Aikido?
KI: Aikido is unique. You need a partner to improve and the objective is to become a better person yourself. This mutual supporting training system has helped me during my business career. We have to find a win-win situation in every circumstance and Aikido gives you a beautiful training ground to do so. If you want to improve only yourself, you may face difficulties in getting good training partners. Help others to grow and that will give you better partners to train with for you to improve even more.
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