Isoyama Hiroshi Shihan is one of the very last living students of O Sensei Ueshiba Morihei. He trained with the master for over 20 years, both in Iwama (Ibaraki), and as an assistant during his travels. Through the years, Isoyama Shihan has served the Ueshiba family faithfully, as the head instructor of the Aikikai Iwama Branch Dojo, the dojo built by O Sensei, and as an instructor/advisor for various other organisations including the All Japan Aikido Federation, the Defense Agency, the Toride Aikikai, and the International Aikido Federation. Isoyama Shihan was kind enough to welcome me and Kei Izawa (Chairman of the International Aikido Federation) in O Sensei's Dojo, where we spoke at length about Aikido's past, present, and future.
Guillaume Erard: You started Aikido at a very young age, could you tell us about it?
Isoyama Hiroshi: A lot of the other teachers say that they started Aikido because they were moved by O Sensei's words or because it was a Budo of harmony, [NDT : Isoyama Sensei uses the term Wa no Budo. Wa (和) is a Japanese cultural concept involving peaceful unity and conformity within a social group] but for me, it was different. Frankly, I didn't want to lose in street fight. I came here when I was in grade 7 at the age of 12. I think it was June 1st, 1949.
Guillaume Erard: What was the training routine like in the Iwama dojo?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Back then, there were no tatami in this dojo. It was wooden flooring so projections weren't like today's where you would be thrown on the floor making "bang, bang, bang, bang" sounds on the tatami as you took ukemi. First of all, in O Sensei's classes, you would start gently from easy techniques and move on to more difficult ones, so I started from suwariwaza and gradually moved to hanmi handachi, and then tachiwaza.
Guillaume Erard: I started Aikido in the group of André Nocquet [the first foreign uchi deshi of O Sensei, read his biography here]. Do you have particular memories of him and did he visit the Iwama dojo often while he was in Japan?
Isoyama Hiroshi: While I was here, I think that he came a few times, but not that often. I trained with him a few times when I went to the Honbu Dojo with O Sensei. While he was here, I was still in high school, and he was really well built, but his nikyo didn't work at all on me, while mine worked just fine, so he said that there must have been something wrong. He was trying hard though. Then Kisshomaru Sensei came to tell him he wasn't doing it right and he demonstrated it on me. That's my memory with him.
André Nocquet sleeping in the Iwama Dojo
Guillaume Erard: When you started, the techniques were called "kajo" instead of "kyo", did they bear more resemblance with that of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu?
Isoyama Hiroshi: That's definitely true. When I was taught by the founder, we would use the kajo system and call it ikkajo, nikajo, sankajo, and so on. But when André Nocquet came to from France to the Honbu Dojo as an uchi deshi, we didn't have such a thing as a manual, so Kisshomaru Sensei published the first Aikido book, and in it, he didn't use ikkajo, nikajo, etc. but ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, etc. Actually, in koryu jujutsu, both of these systems coexist. Kyo is written with the kanji 教, which means "to teach", but I didn't know what it was at first, I was wondering how it was supposed to be written, and it's only when I read the book that I learned it. So back then, kotegaeshi was the same, but nikyo ura was called kote mawashi. Now it's been changed. [click here to read more about the differences between kajo and kyo]
Guillaume Erard: Why were the names changed from "kajo" to "kyo"?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well, I don't know what Kisshomaru Sensei had in mind… I think that it was probably because the kajo system was used in the Daito-ryu scrolls that Takeda Sokaku Sensei used to award. He probably wanted to move away or update things from that. This is my just my guess though.
Guillaume Erard: I am studying Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu in order to better understand the choices made by O-sensei. By comparing the respective curriculums of Aiki-jujutsu and Aikido and the links between the two, I try to find out what O Sensei had in mind when creating Aikido. I realized that the 5 principles of Aikido (Ikkyo, Nikyo, Sankyo, Yonkyo, Gokyo) have been lifted from the Daito-ryu’s Shoden, which consists of 118 basic techniques grouped in 5 kajo: Ikkajo, Nikajo, Sankajo, Yonkajo, and Gokajo. It seems that Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu contains numerous techniques to illustrate each kajo, while Aikido only as one one (1 principle = 1 technique). For example, "ikkyo" in Aikido seems similar to Daito-ryu's "ippondori", the first out of 30 techniques of the Ikkajo group. Do you know how O Sensei proceeded to articulate the Aikido curriculum?
Isoyama Hiroshi: When I started back in 1949, O Sensei's techniques where a bit different compared to those in his later years, even if they were both called ikkyo. In Daito-ryu for example, what is called ikkajo is a set of several techniques, but that's also true in aikido. For example, we might simply call it ikkyo, but there's a variety of techniques from shomen-uchi, yokomen-uchi, and katate-dori. So there are different versions of ikkyo. People used to say that there were more than 2000 techniques in the basic curriculum alone.
Guillaume Erard: If there are 5 techniques/principles in Aikido, I often wonder where do other techniques (those that are not called -kyo) like shihonage and kotegaeshi fit? Aren’t they principles? Are they only techniques? Are they therefore less important? Where do they fit?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well, I think, whether or not it's associated with the word kyo doesn't determine the importance of a technique. For example, the techniques from ikkyo to gokyo are all immobilization techniques, and the techniques like kotegaeshi, shihonage, and iriminage are projections. So the techniques under different names have different characteristics and you can't simply categorize in terms in such a way: This technique is superficial and that one is essential
Guillaume Erard: It seems that the name "Aikido" was not chosen by O Sensei, but by a committee, wasn't it?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well, I don't know, but it's been written in some books. Apparently Hirai Sensei would go to Butokukai to teach on behalf of O Sensei, because he was one of O Sensei's students. At the time, I'm not sure if it was called Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, but apparently it's at that time that they used the word Aikido for the first time. I'm not sure about that. When I came to join here, it was called Aikikai Foundation. The Aikikai Foundation was approved by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in 1947.
Before that, it had been called Kobukai Foundation for a long time. Then after the war, I think it was 1947, the Ministry approved the organization as Aikikai Foundation. They were using the word Aiki back then. And the title on my registration paper is "Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu registry". This is what I signed. At the top of the students' registry, there are also the names of people such as the Admiral Takeshita Isamu. [click here to read more about the adoption of the name "Aikido"]
Guillaume Erard: How was Ueshiba Sensei's art called before that?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Before it became Aikido, it used to be called "Aikibudo". As for us, when I started, we would always call it "Aiki" instead of "Aikibudo". Not "Aikido". I think it was before the war ended, probably before 1945, that it was called "Aikibudo".
Guillaume Erard: You entered soon after O Sensei's move to Iwama, at a time when Aikido underwent a deep change...
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well, I think the end to the war brought some changes. Different things; I didn't really know because I was a child, but when O Sensei came here, he wasn't really well. He was sick. Until then, he had been wearing only a mustache, but when he came here, he started growing his beard. When I joined in 1949, his beard was already like this.
The shrine was built in 1943, and before that, he would come here from time to time. And then there was the end of war, as well as the Omoto incident. O sensei was not affected though.
Guillaume Erard: O Sensei was protected by influential people...
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well I think that’s true. I don’t know what happened back then, but as I have read a lot of books, the head of aikikai Kenji Tomita was also in the cabinet. There was also a man called Yoji Tomozue who was the first publicly elected governor of Iwate prefecture. Apparently he was the head of the regional police. And he was also one of o sensei’s students. So when o sensei was oppressed, I think those people protected him. I don’t think that’s true at all. He was purely a budo player.
Guillaume Erard: What was Kisshomaru Sensei's part in all those changes?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well, for example, I can't really compare O Sensei with Kisshomaru Sensei, but O Sensei wasn't really interested in a setting up an organization. I think that's understandable because the Founder created a path where there had been none. But when the foundation was created to a certain level, Kisshomaru Sensei started focusing on making it into an organization. I think that if the Second Doshu, Kisshomaru Sensei, had acted the same way as the Founder, there would be no Aikido as we know it today. The Aikikai organization. So that way, I think Kisshomaru Sensei made a huge contribution to the Aikido community. So when they published the first book, they tried not to use words like kyo or kajo, that people who knew nothing about Aikido would not understand. They used simple words that everyone would understand.
Guillaume Erard: What is the place of the Ibaraki Dojo in today's Aikido?
Isoyama Hiroshi: That's a difficult question, extremely difficult to answer. Now, Doshu comes gives classes once a week, and Waka-Sensei also comes to teach on Wednesdays. Doshu is supposed to come every week to teach the Saturday class, but he is busy. I think he still does once or twice a month though. So the Hombu Dojo and this Dojo are on the verge of becoming one, but our practices are a bit different, and some people get confused. That said, it's been going well so far, and if our instructors and the instructors at the Hombu can exchange more, understand each other's practice, and talk frankly, this would go in the good direction
Guillaume Erard: Do you agree with people who say that Aikido comes from weapons?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Yes, well that depends on what people think, but in the case of Aikido, that's what people always say, that it came from weapons. But the movement with a weapon, with a tool, is a bit different from that which is empty-handed. And when I make a move, like irimi or tai no sabaki, it's easier for the students to understand when I have a tool in hand than when I don't. So from that point, I think it's necessary to link weapon when we teach and during the practice. Moreover, when you do shomen-uchi for example, with a weapon, whether it be a ken or jo, the way you do is completely different from the way you do with your hands. Of course whether you have a tool makes a difference, but originally, the way you do taisabaki is the same. So when you move in the irimi position, regardless of whether your opponent has ken or jo, you can avoid the hit. But the way people do it now, if your opponent makes a serious move with a weapon, you might get hit. So there's a need to learn how to do taisabaki, not only with bare hands, but also with a ken or jo. And that's reflected in the way I train people now although the use of ken or jo is not the main component of our keiko. In doing so, I see that people start to move differently.
Inagaki Shihan, Guillaume Erard, Kei Izawa, and Isoyama Shihan at the Aiki Shrine
Guillaume Erard: What is you view of the unified theory of taijutsu/ken/jo?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Yes, like I said, the movement is a bit different. Different but, if you know how to move or do sabaki properly with a weapon like a ken or jo, you should be able to do it with bare hands too. But if you are only familiar with taijutsu, when your opponent has a weapon, you can't counter them. Of course, you can do it if the opponent is trained in the way that they'll move into the ukemi position to match your move. But if your taijusu is not good enough, how can you counter them when the opponent attacks for real? Also, when the opponent has a weapon, there's a psychological difference. You will be nervous. I think we also need to incorporate ken and jo to allow the students to experience that tension.
Guillaume Erard: In which context did O Sensei use weapons in his training?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Ah that, well, like I said, it was sabaki and irimi. To help the students understand sabaki and irimi by demonstrating. O Sensei was like, when there were some guests who were new to Aikido, he would talk and explain about Aikido, and when we went there with him, he would pick someone and suddenly perform technique in the middle of conversation or when they were having tea, even in a tiny place. This was because they wouldn't be able to fully understand it simply by explaining what irimi and sabaki were. He would use someone and illustrates his talks. If he didn't have a ken or jo, he would show it in taijutsu and if he had a ken or a jo, he would demonstrate that as well. During demonstrations too, he would show what irimi was using a ken or a jo. So it was more about how to counter your opponent when they used a ken and jo rather than how to use those weapons.
Isoyama Shihan showing O Sensei's weapons to Guillaume Erard
Guillaume Erard: What is the pedagogical purpose of suwari waza?
Isoyama Hiroshi: When you do suwariwaza, unlike tachiwaza for example, you can't move at all. When you first do it, you can't even do shikko well, and to be able to move freely, your lower body must be strong. For example, there is ground work in judo, but there is no such thing in Aikido. In the past, some sempais used to say that because we don't have ground work in Aikido, we have suwariwaza instead. I think that's partly true, but ultimately, I think it came from the Japanese life-style, and I think of it as the base of all techniques, the most basic of all basic moves. So suwariwaza is very important.
Guillaume Erard: Nowadays, suwari waza seems different compared to the compact way O Sensei used to do it, or that Daito-ryu practitioners do it.
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well I can't give you a right answer for that. It's different depending of people. Come to think of it, when you look at the old videos of O Sensei, you notice that he didn't really move much. However, in today's suwari waza, people almost stand on tiptoes. But the way suwari waza was done the past, was like going from seiza to seiza. They would sit in seiza and move quickly, they would move on tiptoes too, but the immobilizations were done in seiza. So on that one, I think it was also because O Sensei couldn't move or had less control of his body in his later years, and it was more like he was standing on his knees rather than sitting in seiza.
Guillaume Erard: Did O Sensei's Aikido has changed during the 20 years you were with him?
Isoyama Hiroshi: It has changed a lot. O sensei would often say solid, liquid, gas, and circle, square, triangle. Apparently it's from Shinto like they say ikumusubi [生産霊: The triangle, which represents the power of birth and creation], tarumusubi [足産霊: The circle, which represents the power of enrichment and unification], tamatsumemusubi [玉産霊: The square, which represents the power that anchors the soul to the body]. And if I say it in words, it's kaisho [楷書: regular script], gyosho [行書: semi-cursive script], and sosho [草書: cursive script] the three writing styles. He talked a lot of the solid, liquid, gas in training. I myself sometimes explain them to people, but if I make it easier to understand, it's kaisho, gyosho, sosho. If you are Japanese, you do a little bit of calligraphy, and the very first thing that you learn is to draw a horizontal and a vertical line. And even in that one line, there are kihitsu [起筆: writing], enpitsu [円筆: circular brush], and shushitsu [収筆: stroke]. Initially, you are learning to properly put weight on the brush and release it, and then you move on to gyosho. And from gyosho to a variety of things with more flow. I think you can say the same about waza. I think that, no matter how techniques change, you need to train yourself to do three types of techniques. firm techniques, techniques with some movement like gyosho, techniques with movement only. So that's what I still do now even if I can't move my body very well anymore. If you can't do one properly, you can't move on to the next one. When I look at how people train now, they might say they begin with “hard keiko” but it looks to me like they are rather doing “soft keiko”.
When I first started with O Sensei, we had more techniques that were more like kaisho. I was with O Sensei for only 20 years, but even during that time, his techniques changed in his last years. Of course if you turn 80 and have less physical strength, you can't do the techniques you did in your 60s. So he would make his opponent move, but it wasn't like his opponent was moving for him. O Sensei made him move. That's the difference. It's not that the opponent was doing it for O Sensei, but O Sensei would create a situation where the opponent had to move. That was O Sensei's technique. So for example, there was a time when O Sensei did irimi, and I got thrown without him touching me.
Guillaume Erard: How?
Isoyama Hiroshi: I would go smoothly like I was being pulled. And one time, I was thinking, he wouldn't be able to throw me anyway, and I tried a little bit, yeah…
Guillaume Erard: Resisting?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Yes, resisting. He went like BAM! So it's better not to resist uselessly. When I look at how people do it now, it's rather like they voluntarily go and roll. That's what I often see. I think that's the difference even with the same sort of movement. Now there are those people, who make their opponent roll with a slight move of the neck. You might have seen them in demonstrations. They do this, and the opponent fly like this. There people who do that. I have never seen O Sensei do that. Never. So those Sensei probably surpassed O Sensei. I don't know how hard they trained, but there are actually people like that. When they do this, the opponent flies like this. But what I experienced with irimi nage is like I said, I was almost being pulled off and as I made a smooth move, and I was like snatched. That's my actual experience.
Guillaume Erard: Did Ueshiba Morihei engage in solo practice?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well, O Sensei would often say that Aikido is a technique of purification. That is, in Shinto, you do funakogi for misogi, that kind of things. We did it together with the founder. You still do the funakogi exercise right? I'm sorry to say this, but the funakogi you do today is more of a funakogi-style exercise. You don't do it properly.
Guillaume Erard: You are an advocate of using one's power, what do you think of the type of Aikido that refuses to work with power?
Isoyama Hiroshi: This is my personal opinion. I think you should use as much of your energy when you are young. When you're young, you have a lot of energy and you will be frustrated if you have to suppress it. It is if you use as much of it as possible that you will slowly understand through practice that you are wasting it. If you don't let people understand that physically, they will start to think that Aikido is a Budo where you are not supposed to use your energy. So I will let young people use as much of their energy as they want to help them understand through practice that the fact that they have energy doesn't mean they can always defeat their opponents. Of course some people focus their on movement, but the way I do it is I let young people use as much of their energy as possible, without holding them back. And if they have money, to spend as much of it as possible too! That way they will wonder why they can't defeat the opponent, no matter how much energy they used. We were actually like that during O Sensei's time too. For example, you do suwariwaza kokyu-ho at the end of the the class right?
The way you do it now is different from how we did in our keiko. We would push like this, we didn't do something like this. Of course , you could do it like that, but if I pushed O Sensei's chest hard like this, my hands would start to feel numb. Then my hands would slowly shrink like this, and my forehead would touch his chest. Then I would be pushing him with my head rather than my hands. So O Sensei would say: "Isoyama, you are not a goat!" Don't push me with your head! Use your hands! That's what he actually said. Then I realized that I couldn't outweigh him no matter how hard I pushed. And I would end up rolling on the floor when he didn't use even half of his energy.
Would you be satisfied with that? No, right? And as I said earlier, I used to teach folks from the military police like James Paulson. I brought them here one day. And when I was teaching them, I used to throw them like “bang, bang” right? So they thought that I was really strong. Then I went to O Sensei, got thrown, and rolled like a ball. And they said that was impossible. I couldn't push him back like this, so they said that it was fake, and wondered why I couldn't defeat an old man like him. So I said: "Why don't you try?" I went to talk to O Sensei and asked him. He called one of them to try., and the man couldn't do it. This is a true story. They didn't even believe me. They said: "It's impossible that you could be defeated by an old man like that".
Guillaume Erard: The word "internal training" seems popular these days. Do you make any difference between "internal" and "external" training?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Hmm, well, I guess there are different definitions of internal" and "external". External can be taijutsu and kenjutsu, where you use your body. And internal can be the psychological aspect, and also how you breathe. I think the psychological aspect is very important. Like I said earlier, Aikido is not only about not competing or fighting, but it's also about improving yourself. To do that, you have to cooperate with others and leave your selfish desires behind. I think it won't work well until you learn to do that. But when I look at people, it seems like their selfish desires comes first. I feel like they don't make that much of an effort to develop themselves. So if someone like that starts teaching, his students will be like that too.
Guillaume Erard: Do you refer to "Ki" in you teaching?
Isoyama Hiroshi: I do, of course, it's very important. O sensei used to say something like this: You can relax your body but keep your Ki tight. When your opponent has less experience or strength, you have to use less of your strength to adjust to him. But when it comes to [receiving] joint locks, you should relax your body and just let the opponent do whatever he likes. However, if you also relax your Ki, you will hurt yourself. So O Sensei would always say: "You can relax your body but don't relax your Ki". I think "Ki" has different possible definitions, but in Aikido, we often say not to relax your Ki, so Ki is very important.
Guillaume Erard: So why is Ki not emphasized as much these days?
Isoyama Hiroshi: I think one reason might be that your opponent moves for you. Like I said earlier, O Sensei would move in a way that his opponent had to move. But now, even if you don't move, your opponent will move for you. So you don't need Ki. Don't you think so?
Kei Izawa: Why was O Sensei so adamant in not having competitions in Aikido?
Isoyama Hiroshi: People often say there are no fights in Aikido because it is a Budo of harmony, but what is harmony? Harmony is not just about not competing or fighting. It's about building relationships with people who you can share the same objective and way of thinking through one thing such as Aikido training, if what you do is Aikido. This might have more to do with the religious aspect, but I think that the religious ideas today are not the way they originally were. Now it's like, you would reject someone because of religious differences, and that leads to conflicts. It happens in Budo too. If you try to understand and accept the other person, he will understand and accept you as well. That's what I think. If you try to make others understand and accept you, but not the other way around, it leads to conflicts. So you have to first understand the other. During meetings for example, people exchange arguments, and when doing so, if you only insist on your ideas without listening to others, you can't reach an agreement. So you should acknowledge and say that this part of someone's idea is good and that you will incorporate it, and then you will be able to resolve the issue, I think. Aikido is a way to learn that kind of things. First, adjust yourself to the other, and then, make the other adjust himself to you as you wish. That's O Sensei's way of doing things. There is the expression "aiuchi" [相打ち: Result of a duel in which each participant kills the other]. O Sensei believed in "ainuke" [相抜け: The outcome of a duel in which each participant escapes harm]. Ainuke is where you don't hurt the other but you don't hurt yourself either. So it's not enough to just keep saying that Aikido is a Budo of harmony and just try to gather as many people as possible without actually training to develop yourself. That kind of selfish desire is not right, I think. We can't help having strong selfish desires, no matter how much time passes, but if you always keep that idea in the back of your mind, you will be able to suppress selfish desires, I think.
Kei Izawa: You have met a lot of foreigners who try to learn the essence of Aikido, what do you think those people look for in Aikido?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well, I think it's a bit different for different people but I think of Aikido as a component of Japanese culture. The good thing about Aikido, as I said earlier, is Ki. Other sports don't really have these sorts of things. So people want something spiritual like this. And as they are pursuing it, they will find that their day to day practice can't satisfy them.
Guillaume Erard: So where do they go?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Not long ago, someone who came here all the way from Denmark. He came here hoping that he would find some answers here. And I am very thankful for that. You guys all come from far away although you must be busy, and you bring up those topics I'm not sure about this because I don't go there to experience it, but foreigners don't get to interact with Japanese teachers that often.
Kei Izawa and Guillaume Erard interviewing Isoyama Shihan at the Ibaraki Dojo
There's a statue here right? When the dojo was rebuilt. We had announced in the Aikido newspaper that we were requesting donations for building this statue. There was a man, I think he was an 8th Dan... He had a dojo although I'm not sure if it was his, but he was a teacher. He asked about the statue, if we made it, like this small one here, he would have known if he'd had even a glimpse of the newspaper, but he still asked such a thing. That means he didn't have any interest.
Isoyama Shihan and Inagaki Shihan in front of O Sensei's statue
Kei Izawa: What do you think we should keep in mind when promoting proper Aikido from now on?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Well I've said this already but it is to leave your selfish desires behind. Tackle Aikido seriously. That's what I think and say to myself. As a rule, yes. So if we have that in mind, I think people will understand. I always tell myself that especially we, as teachers, need to keep that idea in mind. There's nothing difficult, you just leave your selfish desires behind and try to teach what the founder taught you in the way he did to as many people as possible. The technical side of course, but also the psychological side. I think that's the duty that we were given.
Guillaume Erard: About the philosophical side, is the study of Omoto necessary to understand the Aikido of Ueshiba Sensei?
Isoyama Hiroshi: Hmmm, it's true that he talked a lot about gods. More than 90% of what he talked about was about gods actually. Well, it depends on what people think too, but some people say that believing in Omoto opened his eyes. So that way, I don't think there's anything wrong with studying Omoto or what Omoto was about. Personally, I don't particularly feel the need to do so though. But I don't disagree with it either.
Kei Izawa: You have been involved with the IAF for a long time. What would be its ideal role in your opinion?
Isoyama Hiroshi: There are 47 countries, there are different races, ways of thinking, living standards, etc. I think the most important thing is to understand each other. We hold congresses every 4 years, and when that happens, meetings are fine but I think it would better if we could spend some time talking to each other frankly. Congresses have always taken place alongside seminars, but demonstrations are a new thing. It was when Mr Somemiya was still the general secretary, that I suggested the idea. We thought why not spend 3-5 minutes for demonstrations now that we are together, and that's how it started. So I think they should keep going without following the protocol too strictly. During demonstrations, you can see the characteristics of each country, whether they teach etiquette properly and what kinds of practice is theirs. You get to see them and to get a rough idea of what they do day to day. And as mentioned earlier, it's one international organization so it's important that it grows into a big organization with quality content. And I think it was during Kisshomaru Sensei's time, as it was becoming big, some people worried that Aikikai would lose control, but I think it's depends on how you do it. If you don't do it properly, it'll be like that. But if you have the right minded people and make them learn the good things about Japanese culture, I don't think you should be worried.
Interview with Isoyama Shihan