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Remembering Thomas Makiyama Sensei

Whenever I go back to Japan these days, it is really with more of a sense of mission, reevaluating my relationship with Japan and my identity of which being Nikkei is significant.

Even after having lived in British Columbia for three years, one in South Slocan where I lived for a short time in Lemon Creek visiting New Denver (both former internment camp sites) several times, and having lived in Japan for nine years, my understanding of who and what I am is slowly becoming a little less hazy.

The late great Hank Nakamura, a Canadian Nisei who was exiled to Japan after WW2 and worked with the U.S. Navy in Sasebo, told me a long time ago now that I needed to immerse myself in all aspects of Japan in order to better understand it.

Simply living and working in Japan does not entitle one to a greater understanding of that which is ‘Japanese’; nor does being of Japanese descent entitle us to a greater claim on that distinction. How we are Nikkei, of Japanese descent, really depends on the experiences that inform that identity. One of my own epiphanies came when I first stepped into the aikido dojo in Nelson, B.C. where Jean-Rene Leduc presided. Having then recently completed an ESL teaching course at Vancouver Community College, I was ready for anything and when the glum economic reality of the Kootenays settled in, I was primed for another major life shift.

In part, aikido helped prepare me for Japan. I was interested in the writings of the American aikido teacher John Stevens who taught at Tohoku Fukushi Daigaku in Sendai. It was therefore a most serendipitous occasion when I was offered a job in that same city and when a Canadian who had trained with Stevens sensei suddenly turned up at the same Nelson dojo.

Just how Canadian Nisei Lloyd Kumagai got my phone number, I don’t know. He had been following my writing in the Nikkei Voice newspaper. When I landed in Japan in 1995 he was the first Canadian to contact me. Lloyd, incidentally, was also a fellow aikidoka who was studying with Thomas Makiyama sensei. Would I like to visit the dojo the next time I was in Tokyo?

On my trip back to Japan in the summer of 2009, I visited my old aikido friends at Saturday practice at the Minato-ku Sports Center. Being back in Tokyo on the same sweaty summer mats brought back a rush of warm memories of both Lloyd and Makiyama sensei who have since passed on.

Hawaiian Nisei Thomas Makiyama sensei, the founder of the Keijutsukai style of aikido, was a renegade shihan (master) through and through. I remember him as a chain smoking, beer-loving fellow who had a remarkable sense of humour and never took himself too seriously. He liked to laugh.

Makiyama sensei became the highest ranking foreigner in Yoshinkan (ninth dan) before breaking away to start his own school. I was introduced to him by Lloyd in the mid-nineties and stopped in occasionally to practice at either the Minato-ku or Shinagawa Sports Centers where the club still practices.

After today’s session, some members gather for lunch and beer at a nearby restaurant as was the tradition when Makiyama sensei was living. As we settle down for lunch, catching up on the progress of our respective lives, the conversation comes naturally around to aikido. I admit having some guilt about not practicing for the past five years mostly because of a nagging ankle injury and still not having found the ‘right’ dojo.

Akiyoshi Sakaguchi has been with Keijutsukai for 24 years and has studied with an Aikikai dojo for the past five years. “The difference between the Aikikai style and our dojo’s style is that in the Aikikai style that I have experienced is first that the teacher shows some techniques in front of the students,” says the powerful aikidoka, “they form teams to practice at the same speed and style; they do this several times, then stop. Then the teacher shows a different technique. That might be good, but some people, higher ranking students, want to study and brush up their technique, but there is no time to do this. If you are practicing 10 or so techniques in one hour or less, there is no time to study your own techniques or to understand how to make your techniques more effective.

“In our style, it is possible to study one technique in one two-and-a-half-hour class. This is a biggest difference between our style and Aikikai.”

What about beginners?

Takeshi Isohi, 50, a Keijutsukai student for 15 years, adds: “Makiyama sensei always said: ‘Relax, react, relax’. Aikido is a way to be relaxed even when you are attacked. He always taught us not to be too serious and to be relaxed in real life too. It is extremely important to teach this when students are just beginning; it’s the most important time.”

How has the dojo changed since Makiyama sensei passed away?

“It hasn’t,” emphasizes Shuhei Sunami, 66. “When we practice we are reminded to practice the same as we always have. Makiyama sensei also emphasized the importance of being ‘compatible’ with your opponent. He always used to tell me ‘be patient!’ Before I started aikido, I was very short tempered. I work for an IT company as a consultant with two young people 28 and 24. If I didn’t train I wouldn’t have the patience.”

What do you say to people who question the effectiveness of aikido techniques?

“I know they work because we always practice in realistic situations,” explains Sakaguchi. “When some dojos show their techniques to the public, they sometimes just put on a show to make it more attractive. Real life is not a show. Makiyama sensei always said that we have to think about what would happen if we were attacked in real life. Some dojos don’t think so much about real life. For example, they will put their hands out as a sign that they want to be grabbed. For me this is strange because you are asking the opponent to attack you in a certain way. It is good to practice with real attacks.”

Is this a problem with aikido today?

Sakaguchi continues: “I’ve heard that some teachers don’t like to apply the techniques fully because they are painful. I have also seen some people break bones. This happens because of their lack of exercise. If they practiced everyday they would know the point at which to stop before this happens.”

Is modern aikido changing then?

Noriko Takahashi, a former co-worker of Lloyd and senior club member, says: “I don’t know because I don’t see many other aikido dojos, so I don’t know what is going on. I do know that the students at our dojo are really improving. Makiyama sensei was so great. He could do anything. I started from scratch and learned how to solve problems of technique so I can understand everybody’s thinking.”

What was Makiyama sensei’s main concern about the future of the dojo?

“Actually, nothing,” Takahashi says frankly. “He was not a very sophisticated man. He always talked about not using your arms or strength but to use your body naturally.”

Sakaguchi adds: “He thought that aikido techniques were so wonderful. That was the reason why he wanted to hand them down to the next generation.”

What makes Keijutsukai’s ‘waza’ different?

“The difference is kokyu,” Sakaguchi continues.

Do you mean breathing?

“No, I think it is more like observing the opponent’s thoughts, then reacting to them,” he points out. “That is why it is so important to relax; if we are not relaxed then we can’t observe. We also need strong koshi.”

“Makiyama sensei’s Japanese vocabulary was so poor!” Takahashi adds with a chuckle. “He said only two things: kokyu and koshi. Kokyu meant everything. He also used marui, ma ai, koshi and kokyu.”

Why was aikido so special for him?

“He did many different kinds of martial arts; the last one was aikido,” says Takahashi. “Maybe for him it was not real: you could fight bigger and stronger people.”

I remember Lloyd telling me that Makiyama sensei said that he would take on any challenger. He wasn’t a very big guy.

“He was so strong because of kokyu,” she says.

What did he understand about kokyu?

Sakaguchi explains: “My feeling is that it is the experience of the human body. When we successfully execute kokyu we must be relaxed. If any part of the body is stiff with power then you can’t do the technique properly.”

I remember Makiyama sensei didn’t believe in any mysterious power that is often called ‘ki”. What is the difference between kokyu and ki?

”Makiyama sensei’s kokyu is not only one thing; it includes many, many things,” Takahashi clarifies.

Sakaguchi adds: “Without feeling that we are using much power we can generate a lot of power in the body. This is one of the mysteries of the human being’s body. That is kokyu. I think kokyu and ki are something that is the same because ki is a kind of energy, which comes through your hips, not muscle.”

What is different about Keijutsukai aikido then?

“For example, when we do nikajo, we don’t use power: we use koshi, kokyu and hips,” Takahashi points out. “Many dojos say that they don’t use power but they do. We really don’t.”

“Before, some aikido masters taught their students directly but not all of them really understood kokyu,” Sakaguchi elaborates. “They handed techniques down differently. That’s a problem. Makiyama sensei learned from some aikido masters and knew the correct technique. We should learn them correctly and experience correct waza. Even if some students are taught incorrectly, they think that it is correct because their teacher says so. That is very important to consider.”

What about for advanced students of other schools?

“If the technique doesn’t work then I cannot do the uke,” says Sunami, adding, “Because I was uke for Makiyama sensei, I know the real feeling of kokyu. If it works, it works. The most important thing is your own heart and mind. It isn’t Morihei Ueshiba, not Gozo Shioda and it isn’t Thomas Makiyama: it’s you!”

If Makiyama sensei were here right now, what do you think he would say?

Takahashi pauses, then says with a laugh, “Let’s have another beer!”

(For more information about Keijutsukai call Noriko Takahashi in Tokyo at 5789-8868 or by e-mail at iza03025@nifty.ne.jp)

*All photos are courtesy of the author.

© 2010 Norm Ibuki

aikido aikikai hawaiian martial arts nisei thomas makiyama