Interview Takeshi Yamashima Sensei (TY), 7th dan Aikikai, international Aikido master, head instructor of Chiyoda and Nerima Aikido dojos, Tokyo. Former dojo-cho of Tokyo Local government Aikido dojo.
Interviewer, Lawrence John Warry (LW), founder of Shinyu Body & Mind Aikido dojos, Amsterdam and The Hague, The Netherlands, seized the opportunity to talk with Yamashima sensei at the lobby of the Thon Linne Hotel, Oslo during his summer seminar on August 12th 2018 (August 2018 tour of Norway and Sweden).
My thanks to Peter and Anna Spangfort for organizing the Norway and Sweden tours every year and my thanks to Ellet Bjerlemo, long time Aikidoka, who made some contributions to the questions asked.
Yamashima sensei, 75 years old, started Aikido at Hosei University, Tokyo Japan, in 1961 under instruction of Arikawa and Yamada shihans. Later, at the world headquarters, The Hombu dojo, Yamaguchi and Osawa shihans became major influences on Yamashima sensei’s development in Aikido. With 57 years of experience behind him, Yamashima sensei remains one of the most inspiring and yet modest Aikido teachers around. Soft and gentle in contact, his centre and grounding is, however, very powerful and firm. Yamashima sensei has spent years travelling and visiting Aikido dojos all around the world for his practice. Attracted by his simple and gentle Aikido style, most dojos seek to invite Yamashima sensei on a yearly basis. Due to a growing number of dojos showing interest, Yamashima sensei’s travel agenda has grown year by year, to the extent that he is many times in the year abroad! “It’s possible because I have an understanding wife and good students at my dojos in Chiyoda and Nerima to take over my classes when I’m away” he chuckles with a smile. Yamashima sensei is not a hombu assigned shihan and, therefore, his invitations are always made independently by host dojos.
LW: Sensei, how did you begin Aikido all those years ago?
TY: Well, it all started because I was looking for something to do. Maybe a little bored from studying at university I was looking for something to spice up my life. My first idea was to learn sailing. I had a dream to sail a boat and I wanted to learn how to do this. But sailing was not easy if you lived in Tokyo. It required getting to the seaside each time and this proved to be difficult for investing the time. Then I came across a poster about Aikido and I thought now that can be something for me. I was curious about how to work with force easily without resisting (it’s a bit like sailing). In autumn of 1961, I attended my first Aikido lesson at Hosei University Aikido Doukoukai. I liked what the teacher was showing. It seemed to be a very interesting way to deal with force of the partner. That first class made me curious to learn more. So I just continued, and, here I am today, 57 years later, still practicing Aikido. It is still very interesting for me. I never got bored of trying to understand how Aikido works.
LW: What do you dream of in Aikido?
TY: I dream about the founder, O-Sensei. I want to imagine that I am a good student of O-Sensei, and that I try to understand what O-Sensei was doing when he was alive. It is a big mystery for me but I dream that I can understand one day.
LW: And what is your dream for the future of Aikido and for the people who practice Aikido?
TY: I hope and dream that everybody who practices Aikido will always be happy. I hope that the people doing Aikido continue to find out new ways of practicing and making new good ideas in Aikido so that they can keep it interesting and fascinating. In this way, Aikido will never stop and the people doing Aikido will have a lifetime of joy in practicing and this, in turn, can help people to make their daily lives more easy going and less stressful.
LW: You make contact yearly with literally thousands of Aikido students all over the world. It is no wonder that you started to gain a global following. I’ve often heard people ask you about examination. I know for you it is a no go to make an examination outside of Japan. Can you clarify why you don’t do this?
TY: There is no need to do this. I just concentrate on coming to practice. These days, outside of Japan, there are many high ranking Aikikai teachers who can make examination. So, I don’t need to do that job. Sometimes it is important to make examination and sometimes there is no need. In addition, the hombu dojo provides a good method for examination which involves sending the official Hombu dojo shihans to respective countries for examination. This way is working very well and I don’t need to be involved in it. I like to just go and practice around the world and enjoy different food and cultures. It’s that simple.
LW: Do you have a good relation to the Hombu dojo and to Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba?
TY: Of course. I practice regularly with Doshu. Two or three times per week I will come to the classes of Doshu or Waka sensei. The hombu dojo is a very important place for international Aikido. O-Sensei taught at the hombu dojo. I’m happy to practice Aikido at the place where O-Sensei was teaching.
LW: How long do you know Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba?
TY: I started to practice with him and get to know him around the time he became the successor of his father, Kisshomaru. At that time he was teaching more and more in the Hombu dojo, around the late 1990s.
LW: You also knew former Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba I believe?
TY: Yes, I knew Doshu Kisshomaru very well. He always would give the morning classes at the Hombu dojo, which I attended weekly. I have a lot of fond memories of practicing with Doshu Kisshomaru. It was always a very joyful time.
LW: How did you start to teach Aikido?
TY: After graduating from Hosei university, 49 years ago, I entered the Japanese workforce, working for the Japanese local government, at the ministry of the environment. In the government office, there was an aikido dojo and I started to give the classes there.
LW: How did you start teaching internationally?
TY: I often joined Aikido group trips with Masuda shihan who visited on behalf of the Hombu dojo. He would take Aikido groups to Hawaii, Singapore and New Zealand. Eventually, around the time when I retired from work, in 2002, some Hawaiian and New Zealand members approached me and asked me to come and give lessons. In Europe, I was first invited by Bath Aikido Society in England. This eventually expanded as people from more and more different countries joined the practices and asked me to visit their dojos. Later, students would also come to Tokyo and would invite me then to come to their dojos.
LW: I remember inviting you, sensei, in 2008, to come to The Netherlands for the first time. This was at a time when the Aikido group I practiced with, the CABN, no longer had Fujita Shihan coming for health reasons. You brought a fresh new perspective of Aikido which everybody practicing in The Netherlands loved and enjoyed to practice with you.
TY: I could see how everybody in The Netherlands group you invited me to loved Masatake Fujita sensei and it was a strange feeling for me to be in this atmosphere but I could enjoy Aikido with you and the members of the CABN because everybody was so friendly and hospitable. Thank you very much.
LW: You actually share the same original teacher as Fujita shihan even though your Aikido paths were different later on. Both of you learned under Arikawa shihan, I understand. Later you learned under Yamaguchi shihan. To what extent are these two teachers an influence in your Aikido today?
TY: On the whole, the bigger movements of both teachers are still very much a part of my practice. I still feel many things from Arikawa shihan and from Yamaguchi shihan but I cannot say what is a specific aspect of their teaching which I integrated into my body. I feel that I am not doing one style or the other but that I started making my own ideas and developing from those ideas together with what I learned from the teachers before me.
LW: How did your student to teacher relationship develop with Yamaguchi shihan?
TY: I knew Yamaguchi shihan for about 20 years. He started teaching at Chiyoda Aikido club when Saotome shihan moved to USA to start his life there. I attended many times the gashukus (group camps) of Yamaguchi sensei in Japan (Izu gashuku being particularly memorable).
LW: Your Aikido practice is very physical even though you are soft and gentle with the practice partner. To what extent can you say that Ki is developed in your practice?
TY: Ki is a very subtle concept and if you only think to train Ki as an energetic practice you may fall in the trap that you are just making psychological tricks. Ki has a physical aspect on a subtle level and I believe can only be practiced first in a physical way. It is not something you can think to fake. I practice physically because with the physical development, I believe the more subtle Ki energetic levels are reached after many many times repeating the practice. So in this way Ki is developed but not in an obvious way.
LW: At the end of the lesson today, one of the students asked you about the feeling of “heavy hand”. How can you explain this in words?
TY: I’d say it’s not something which is explainable in exact terms. Except that heaviness of any physical object follows Newtonian laws. For the rest it is a question of regularly investigating what the body is holding that stops the hands being heavy. It can only really be understood by continued practice.
LW: Many students often wonder how can they do better after each Aikido practice. What do you think after you made a practice?
TY: I actually don’t think too much about the lesson (smiles). I like to drink a small beer and eat a little bit of food. The time when we practice is the time when we should be researching and thinking about how to do Aikido better. After practice, it is a matter of living normal life and not being too concerned about what went wrong or right in the Aikido lesson. Please enjoy a drink after practice and please enjoy life.
LW: I understand you saw the founder, O-Sensei, teaching Aikido. What can you say about this experience?
TY: When I watched O-Sensei moving, I didn’t understand what he was doing. For me it was very mysterious. I saw him teaching in his later years, between 70 and 80 years old. When he was younger he was very physical but, with time, he became more and more light. At the time I saw him, it seemed like he was almost doing nothing and yet he was doing something. He was moving in a mysterious way I could not understand. Still today I find it difficult to understand but one day I hope to understand it.
LW: Is there anywhere you haven’t been in the world that you would still like to go to practice Aikido?
TY: I don’t know. Maybe I’m too old now. So I didn’t think about it. Maybe some places are too far away now. I guess it depends on the place and if I am invited (smiling).
LW: My final question for you sensei. It seems you are always happy. What is the secret to this constant happiness?
TY: There is no secret (smiling). Everybody can be happy. Just thinking about how to connect the body and mind every day gives good feelings all the time. I want that everybody can think this way and feel good. Especially with older people, it becomes more and more important to practice and think about the body/mind connection. Even when your body is getting older and more tired, you can find happiness in just showing up and doing the practice. When you try to make a better understanding of body-mind connection you make progress and you feel good and happy and you have a better well-being. Get out of the house and try every day to practice.
LW: Yamashima sensei, thank you very much for this interview. It’s a big pleasure to talk with you, and to practice Aikido with you. I hope we can practice together many more times in the future. Until the next practice!
TY: Arigatou! Take care!