Is the Aikikai Hombu Dojo Still Relevant and Should You Go?
Half a century after the death of its founder, Aikido has expanded to an extent that Ueshiba Morihei would hardly have imagined. This development can be measured not only in terms of number of practitioners and countries in which Aikido has taken foot, but also in terms of the influence that the intrinsic message of this martial art originating from Japan has had on the world’s collective consciousness. Yet, and this is unavoidable, the number of students who knew O Sensei is shrinking day by day. In contrast, many non-Japanese experts have reached a level of seniority that is similar to that of the most advanced Japanese teachers. Some of them have trained at the Hombu Dojo, while others have never stepped on a Japanese tatami in their whole life. The founder and his successors shaped Aikido as a system of techniques and values that could be exported and spread outside of the Japanese socio-cultural context and therefore, one can legitimately wonder what is the place of Hombu Dojo today, when the center of gravity of global Aikido seems to be ever shifting away from its birthplace. In this article I propose to share with you my experience at Hombu Dojo, to describe what it can bring to a foreign practitioner, and to give you some guidance on what could be your expectations, and what will be your duties as a visitor if you decide to finally make it there. My goal is clear: I hope inspire you to take the leap and come practice in Japan. Note that throughout this article, I will try to make the distinction between the Aikikai Foundation and the operations at the Hombu Dojo. I am a student of the Hombu Dojo and although it serves as the headquarters of the Aikikai Foundation, my opinion will focus only on what happens on the tatami, not the organization to which it belongs to, and even less its affiliated branches.
Before arriving at the Hombu Dojo, I had heard quite a bit about it through videos and articles published here and there. I also had had the opportunity to study under several teachers who spent several years training there, in particular people like Alan Ruddock and Henry Kono who were in Tokyo while O Sensei was still alive. To be honest however, none of the direct students of O Sensei whom I had ever met really encouraged me to make the trip, quite the contrary in fact. They seemed to consider that O Sensei’s magic had died with him. On the part of the the people who had studied at Hombu Dojo with the subsequent generation of teachers, opinions were at best mixed. Some felt, like their elders, that since great teachers such as Osawa, Arikawa, Yamaguchi, etc. were gone, there was no more point in coming to practice at the Hombu Dojo. They felt that the magic of these Sensei had died with them. Yet there were some few teachers, Philippe Gouttard in particular, who realized the extent of my investment in Aikido and did encourage me to go and train at the Hombu Dojo, if only for some limited time. Overall however, I cannot really say that I have been strongly encouraged to go and train at Hombu. In spite of this, I made the journey to Tokyo, my head full of dreams, and after 14 years of practice, half of which spent in organizations outside of the Aikikai.
The factory Hombu Dojo
I had heard anything and everything about the Hombu Dojo. Some said that it was a massive, impersonal training hall, even a money-making machine. One often reads that sort of things about famous dojos. If by massive, one means a dojo where there is a large number of students and a relatively high turnover rate, then yes it is true, the Hombu Dojo is a little like that. That being said, one can reflect on which is the most interesting place to practice at, one where you never know with whom you will spend the hour, or one where the same five or six people practice together all year around. For my part, I think that once one reaches a certain level, the first option is the most conductive of good progress. The fact that many practitioners from all over the world come to Hombu Dojo forces practitioners to test their technique and to adapt their practices to that of others. It is more difficult to become complacent in these conditions.
If we think of the Hombu Dojo as a dojo where a visitor might feel invisible, lonely, and responsible for his or her actions, it is also true. In many cases, it does take some time for people to begin talking to you and inviting you to train. Personally, it took me a lot of time to start forming relationships with other practitioners, even though in fairness, this could mainly be due to my sometimes debilitating lack of confidence. Yet, there are so many visitors who come and go that one can forgive domestic practitioners for waiting to see if the person will stick around before bothering creating ties. There are also cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies that influence social interactions just as much as teaching methods.
Seen from the outside, especially if one has a romantic view of what a traditional martial arts dojo should be, the Hombu Dojo can be a little of a cold and impersonal place. Yet, as in all things in Japan, there is a hidden side and those who take the trouble to look for it will find an eminently Japanese system, with some very conservative aspects, but also, at its core, a fundamentally human element.
Hombu Dojo, a world center or a traditional dojo ?
Due to the fact that the Hombu Dojo serves as a central center for Aikido, one often wonders whether it really qualifies as a dojo, or whether it is not rather a place where mini-seminars are scheduled daily. However, one must not forget that for many Tokyo residents, the Hombu Dojo is truly their dojo, with its rules, usages, subgroups, events, etc… Just like everywhere else, the level of the practitioners is quite heterogeneous and it usually varies according to the level of investment and the talent of individual. The founder of Aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, is known for never having kicked anyone out, however how poorly that person behaved. His open-door policy was, according to some, even the base of his system. Basically, on that level, the Hombu Dojo has remained very much the same; it welcomes everyone and each member modulates his or her own practice to suit to his or her own needs, and according to his or her own personality, whatever the technical level or the training frequency. Everyone shares the same tatami, but depending on what one wants to achieve, one does not have to practice with everyone in the exact same way.
I remember one of us asking Miyamoto Tsuruzo Shihan why he had been using as a uke (hence valorizing her) a person who was renown for creating a lot of problems at the dojo. He replied that the Hombu Dojo was like a big family, and that like in all families, we had to take into account and help even those whom we did not like very much, or those who were different from us. This response had a profound impact on me because I think that someone who is able to say and apply something like this truly deserves the title of Shihan. Of course, other teachers do not necessarily reason in those terms, and some even have behaviors that I find dismissive and unfair toward people whom they do not see as talented, but that too is also the nature of the Hombu Dojo, it offers a variety of classes and perspectives.
The author at the Hombu Dojo with Miyamoto Shihan Tsuruzo (Video by Guillaume Bechard)
Pedagogy in Japan
I was once told that at Hombu Dojo, beginners were not taught properly. I have to concede that beginning at Hombu Dojo presents rather unique challenges. It is not that the teachers are ill-qualified or not attentive, but learning in Japan is based on repetition and emulation, with little spoken instruction, and thus, progress is often slow at the beginning. Also, people who are accustomed to more explicit teaching methods such as those used in the West may experience difficulties. Fortunately, the sempai-kohai system [guidance by a more experienced classmate], and the fact that people train on average more often than elsewhere (the five classes per day and the absence of long breaks during summer and winter help a lot) make that the system works nonetheless, but not for everybody, for it takes a good bit of self-discipline and concentration to really get something out of it. It is of course also crucially important to be able to create and manage the interpersonal relationships that can enable the implementation of such sempai-kohai system.
Nevertheless, Hombu does also offer some more structured, intensive courses for beginners with a numerus clausus, but one has to acknowledge that even with that, those people who are unable to comply with a tacit set of rules get quickly stuck because nobody will take care of them. In Japan, people who do not follow the rules are not necessarily scolded, but they are almost always ostracized, which is far worse in a country where the social fabric is essential to the functioning of structures and individuals. There is a saying in Japan that goes “Deru kugi wa utareru” (出る杭は打たれる), which means : the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. I remember in particular one practitioner who had succeeded in a very short time to attract the ire of just about everyone. He was disrespectful of his elders, he was correcting people that he considered inferior, especially women, he was filming himself on the tatami at the end of the classes, he was using his mobile phone in the dojo, etc. That person ended up virtually isolated, nobody guided him, and teachers did not touch him despite his definite physical potential. As a consequence, he did not progress much. I have to admit that I felt a lot of frustration towards this individual in the beginning, but in the end it was a lesson for me, because it is at that time that I understood how the Japanese system self-regulated antisocial or nonconformist behavior, smoothly, through unspoken social rules that everyone else follows. This is not to say that things cannot improve if that man improved his behavior, but it would take some time and meanwhile, he would be wasting it. He left since.
Still on the subject of education, I witnessed something rather interesting recently. A foreigner living in Japan was a candidate for a Dan grade examination. During the test, he got clearly disrespectful and even dangerous towards his uke. He got failed and the teachers in charge proceeded to explain to him what he did wrong. The following year, he presented himself once more to the same examination and he essentially behaved the same way as before. Logically, he got failed once again. The teachers, Sugawara Sensei and Kanazawa Sensei looked very frustrated, but their patient explanations are a testimony to the true and profound teaching that takes place at Hombu, not only on a technical level, but also in its attempt to communicate the spirit of Aikido. Hombu Dojo practitioners benefit from a system where their work is sanctioned by the teachers who teach them every day. The candidates are therefore followed by the teachers who often speak to them them after class, leading to a continuous construction that is eventually sanctioned by a formal examination. Thus, it shows that there is real teaching going on at the Hombu Dojo, there is a real education system in place, even though it is perhaps more tenuous than that in the West, and overall perhaps less focused on pure technique. This type of close instruction probably does not take place as much when those Japanese Shihan test people abroad, whom they know far less.
The author at the International Aikido Federation Congress with Takeshi Kanazawa Shihan
Aikikai grade or Hombu Dojo grade?
For that reason, I believe one must make a distinction between Aikikai grade and Hombu Dojo grade. I see many posters for seminars where teachers claim Aikikai grades. For the reasons I have outlined above and will develop further below, I think that this common banner represented by the Aikikai grade is a good thing, because it unites us within the same family. Inevitably however, for the same grade, the technique will be very different from one individual to the next, the reason being that each Shihan awards his ranks according to his own set of criteria and sensitivity. This is not a problem because a grade’s fundamental value only resides in the fact that it formalizes the relationship between the person who delivers it and the one who receives it. A grade highlights a technical lineage and a vertical relationship, nothing more. It is certainly not a good standard for measuring technical skills and comparing people to each other. On these posters, what I would personally really like to see as a student is information such as “nth Dan Aikikai issued by X Sensei” rather than “nth Dan Aikikai” only because I would be interested to know about the lineage of the teacher.
The criteria for taking a test at the Hombu Dojo are the same for all: one must have wait a certain number of years of practice since the last exam, and have attended a sufficient number of days of practice (days of practice are monitored via the scanning of the membership card and recorded in a computer system). In theory, one can register for an examination as soon as these two criteria are met. In reality, things are a little more complicated. If one is part of a particular group of students, usually revolving around a particular Sensei, it is common to know where our Sempai stand as regard to their grades and not to skip the hierarchic order. There is no written rule, but it would not occur to someone who is part of a group to take a test for a grade before his or her Sempai has successfully done so. It is not a question of value of the rank or technical level, but a question of group dynamics. It is also common to discuss with one’s classmates, and even one’s Sensei, about one’s intention to take an examination, less in the aim of asking for permission than to benefit from their precious opinion and advice. I know people who have waited several years before taking for a test so as not to unset the hierarchical order. This concept may be difficult to understand for Western practitioners, but again, in Japan, the cohesion of the group usually precedes over the advancement of the individual. Conversely, I have seen people ignore (deliberately or not) this usage, especially people who were at the Hombu Dojo for a short time. Most of them got their grade and no one has said anything, but clearly, they have de facto excluded themselves from the group because they have ignored an unwritten rule and severed a precious moral and technical link.
All technical examinations at the Hombu Dojo (up to 4th Dan) are taken before a panel of judges. Juries are generally composed of two Shihan and one Shidoin, all having rather different practices and styles. Nevertheless, everyone agrees on what a candidate must display: kihon [basics]. These bases are defined by the Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru and serve as benchmarks, based on which everyone is free to explore. During exams however, one must show that these basics are well understood. I have personally seen several people who were failed not because of a poor technical level, but because their technique was too stylized. I even saw a teacher fail one of his own students, because that student had presented techniques that were too close to that of that teacher; not enough to basics. This same teacher does not fail his students in such a way when he conducts his examinations in his personal dojo, which shows that at Hombu, people can put aside their own views about Aikido and act as a cohesive group. The practice of every teacher at the Hombu Dojo is very specific to that teacher, and yet, everyone gets to agree on what are good basics during common examinations.
The author with Sugawara Shigeru Shihan
The fact that a student chooses to take an examination either at the Hombu Dojo, or at the dojo of his or her favorite teacher carries some meaning in itself. Speaking of lineage, what I am particularly interested in at Hombu dojo is not only a technical transmission, but also to establish a moral link with teachers, developing of a sense of understanding and trust. The fact that these teachers trust me on the tatami, either for taking ukemi for them, or when dealing with difficult partners, is worth all ranks and titles in the world to me.
The Aikikai “style“
Agreeing on what represents good basics does not mean uniformity though. Far from displaying a uniform practice or enforcing a standardized style, the system is designed to let people express themselves while setting certain basic criteria, pillars of Aikido, and defining areas of responsibilities. A few days spent at the Hombu Dojo is usually enough to convince even a beginner that it does not produce clones of Doshu. A simple afternoon spent at the Budokan during the All Japan Aikido demonstrations will eliminate any subsisting doubt about it, for the worse as well as for the best.
In fact, teachers are so different from each other that it can be quite difficult to navigate between classes if one does not have solid foundations and the ability to find the common threads behind the external expression of every one’s techniques. Ueshiba Morihei and his successors had the great intelligence to let people explore and develop their own individual practice under one same roof. At a time when groups and federations are torn apart on the basis of relatively minor differences, I think that we have much to learn from the Japanese system. I would add that this is probably the stiffness of the Japanese hierarchy that allows diversity to flourish while dealing with the constraints of politics. Sure, there are problems there too but everyone develops their Aikido the way they want while agreeing on who is doing what.
2013 edition of the All Japan Aikido Demonstration at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo
In France and in the U.S., we are historically hostile to titles and hierarchy and consequently, we hesitate to draw from a Japanese system that we perceive as inherently totalitarian or non-egalitarian. Nevertheless, because of the historic and socio-cultural context in which they were developed, the Japanese martial arts are clearly non-democratic systems, but that does not mean they are unfair. The rules are very clear, they are there for a reason, and if they are accepted, it is quite possible to grow personally and develop one’s Aikido within this system. In addition, as I described above, the hierarchy, once established, is usually immutable, so there is always someone above oneself; someone who has a duty to guide one while one has the duty to listen. I think that the respect that one shows to seniors in Japan, regardless of the appreciation of their technical level or even personality, is a very sound foundation to develop a system that perpetuates itself.
There are obviously problems, especially in a hierarchical system where there are multiple parameters that sometimes conflict, such as seniority, frequency of attendance, grade, level of skill, etc. However, the Hombu Dojo, and by extension the Aikikai, welcomes individuals with very different practices and while some make choices that others might not agree upon, everyone knows how to gather under one banner and work in the same direction in the overarching goal of advancing the discipline.
The great masters of the Aikikai are dead, is there still a point in coming to the Hombu Dojo?
Considering that because the great pre- or post-war masters are dead, Hombu Dojo has lost its interest is equivalent to considering that the discipline as a whole is dying, and in this case, this would be true of all dojos regardless of the where they are located. Despite this, I see everywhere instructors displaying remarkable technical feats and I sadly do not have enough time to learn from all of those that I would like. Hombu Dojo pleases me in that it brings together teachers of exceptional caliber in the same place, which exposes me to a depth and variety of learning that can only be found only in very few other places. Those teachers are not necessarily better, but they are many, and most importantly, I also have the opportunity to train with most of them as a student, which is invaluable for my progress.
Every teacher demonstrates the product of the synthesis of what he has learned from greats such as Kisshomaru Doshu, Arikawa, Osawa, Yamaguchi, Tohei, etc. From a personal point of view, more than a decadence, I see an Aikido that is improving, maturing. I make that judgement in reference to the Aikido that I see around me, but also with respect to my practice of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. Aikido brings me things that are very relevant, even if it is in a form that some would call modern (if indeed such a thing exists). A whole generation of promising teachers is being put in place and this is a very exciting time to be at the Hombu Dojo. Obviously I regret never having had the opportunity to practice with Kisshomaru Doshu or Osawa Kisaburo Sensei, but I would not trade my place right now for anything.
Second Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru demonstrating in Paris
Some people, in Japan and elsewhere, present themselves as the heirs or the favorite pupils of a particular master. Beyond the fact that these statements are a little childish and necessarily mutually exclusive, the history of Japanese martial arts is made of students who studied with the greats and went in different directions. Was Ueshiba Morihei better or worse that Takeda Sokaku? Was he his best student? Does it matter? The answer will differ depending on the person you ask. Personally I think that Aikido is progressing, thanks to the work done in Japan, but also thanks to the practitioners abroad. One thing I am pretty confident about is that O Sensei meant for Aikido to evolve, even though he might not have liked all the different ways in which it did. I see Aikido as a culture broth, a kind of platform for free exchange of ideas. The important thing is that ideas meet.
What can one expect from a few-week spent at the Hombu Dojo?
I sometimes read the writings of people who went to Hombu Dojo for a few days, weeks, months or years, claiming that they had not learned much, or that it did not fundamentally change their practice. The question is: What were they expecting? Honestly, I think that it would be very surprising if the opposite happened. This is Aikido we are talking about, and whether in Japan or elsewhere, only a deep study done dutifully over a long time can substantially change one’s practice.
Moreover, a student who first enters a dojo does not know what the dojo or its teachers have to offer. Indeed, he is likely unable to make an informed decision of what he can or cannot learn precisely because as a student, his level does not equip him with the necessary technical expertise to judge a Sensei. Consequently, all he can do is decide whether to stay or not, more for emotional reasons than technical considerations. What is truly peculiar to Japan is that it often takes a long time (i.e. years) for a Sempai or a Sensei to begin giving anything. Considering the almost exclusively vertical and highly proximal relationships between individuals in each stratum of experience, it is certain that under these conditions, progress, in the beginning, and therefore changes, are slow.
Integration in a multi-layered system
Everyone knows that in Japan, there are several systems running in parallel. On a larger scale, there is a separation between the members of the dojo [uchi : inside] and the visitors [soto : outside]. But even in the inside, there are subsystems and everyone is not exposed to the same things. The uchi-deshi receive the most, then the soto-deshi, then the regular students of the dojo, and finally people who are a little more dilettante, etc.
Of course, talent and personality also come into play, as well as the willingness (or not) of one or more sempai to guide us (proximal vertical relationship). We often underestimate the importance of sempai for education. I myself, strongly rejected this system before going to Japan, but now my opinion on this has changed dramatically. Whether that kohai-sempai or sensei-deshi transmission falls into place or not depends on the technical level one has (little importance), the existence of recommendations from former teachers (somewhat important), the duration of the stay (quite important), and the social ties that one manages to build between different members/sensei of each subgroup (very important). Osawa Hayato Sensei often says that one can only really learn from a teacher if one regularly takes ukemi for that teacher. This is really how that teacher chooses his students. Personally speaking, besides the fact that I am interested in the Aikido of Osawa Sensei, it is the fact that he chooses me as uke at least once per class that make me not want to miss any of his classes, it is a tacit agreement between us that he wants to give me something more and that I try my best to understand what it is. In contrast, after several years, there are still a few teachers who only rarely solicit me, if ever. It is surely my fault, maybe it is voluntary, maybe it is not, but it indicates that a relationship has not been established, and therefore, that I cannot claim to be receiving fully from these teachers.
I have seen people come to Hombu Dojo with recommendation letters. Others, like me, came with nothing more than our keikogi and our desire to learn. Overall, on the long run, I do not see much difference between the two because relationships in Japan are created over time, from person to person. Before coming to Japan, I had asked Christian Tissier and Philippe Gouttard to recommend me towards some of the sensei from the Aikikai, but to my disappointment, they advised me to just come as myself, without label, to make my place myself, and most importantly, to keep some freedom. I admit that I was disappointed by their negative responses. Perhaps they thought that I was not a close enough student from them to justify giving me a letter of recommendation, but I like to believe that they saw in me someone who was too independent to be immediately pledging allegiance to a sensei upon arriving. In hindsight, I realize they have in fact done me a great service by denying me these letters, because in so doing, I did not carry with me a label or or the reputation of a teacher. It allowed me to be considered as myself, a student of the Hombu Dojo rather than a “student of X Sensei staying in Japan“. For that, I sincerely thank them for their foresight.
Even without introduction, I eventually integrated the Hombu Dojo, but it happened in stages. It took years but gradually, people came to invite me to practice, and then they asked me to attend seminars, or to come to dinner with the sensei after the class. One day, I was working with a Irie Sensei as a partner and near us, a large foreign practitioner who had come for the International Congress started to take a bit too much space. My frustration reached its peak when he stepped on my foot without apologizing. I was about “sort him out” when Irie Sensei told me, “he is a visitor, forget it, let it be”. That day I realized that for Irie Sensei, I was no longer part of the outside, but I was somewhere in one of the concentric circles. Looking back at my relationship with Irie Sensei, I realized that the times he rebuked me, instead of getting upset about it, I should have been grateful that he actually bothered to correct me rather than “letting it be“, because it meant that he deemed it worth his time to correct me.
The author with Miyamoto Shihan Tsuruzo
Conversely, integration has its limits, and even within the inside, there are layers that will remain inaccessible, for example that of the uchi-deshi. This is often seen in the order in which the sensei call on their uke during a class. Many teachers call students based on their position, per stratum and in hierarchical order, the uchi-deshi are called first in order of seniority, then soto-deshi, again often in order of seniority (sometimes also in order of affinity). Once, I was in Kanazawa Sensei’s class and he began to call on the uchi-deshi in the order that I explained above. As expected, he eventually called me as uke, but this time, to my surprise, he did so before calling the last uchi-deshi, whom he had not seen. He realized his mistake and sent me to sit down, saying, “oh, sorry, there are still inside people [uchi no hito] to be called”. He called that last uchi-deshi and called me over for the subsequent technique. This illustrates the fact that the hierarchical chart is very clear, even though it has multiple levels that run in parallel and that it is based on several criteria. Although the uchi-deshi in question arrived at Hombu Dojo after me, he must be called before me since he is part of an inner circle compared to me. However, when we work together, he lets me start the technique because I am his sempai, and this will stay the same even when/if he eventually reaches a rank (uchi-deshi get promoted faster) or technical level that is far superior to mine.
Has “Aikikai Aikido” lost its depth?
Personally, after several years of intensive practice at the Hombu Dojo, I feel that I am only starting to get a glimpse of the richness and depth of what can be learned there. Maybe I could have learned these things from the beginning if I had been more attentive or talented, but I only realize it now. I totally understand that people can leave the Hombu Dojo after several months or even years with a sense of superficiality, but this is more a statement of their incapacity to learn than a true diagnosis of the technical richness of the place. I know that in saying this I lend myself open to criticism because I also practice Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. People often mistakenly assume that I am trying to fill a holes in Aikido with Daito-ryu. In fact, I take the Daito-ryu curriculum as a way to address the principles of Aikido in a more detailed manner. I do not consider that anything is missing in most of the Aikido that is being demonstrated to me at the Hombu Dojo, but I think however that I am not necessarily talented enough to tackle such a high level without the support of a wider curriculum, that of Daito-ryu. The relative simplicity of the Aikido curriculum makes it all the more difficult to understand for me. That said, unlike me, some do it very well without going through Daito-ryu. My need of Daito-ryu is more a statement of my own limits in Aikido than those of Aikido itself, and more specifically, those of what people refer to as “Aikikai Aikido” (whatever it means). There are also aspects, emerging properties, including aesthetic ones, that are more likely to be coming out of a flexible system like Aikido, and that’s fine.
The importance of understanding Japan to understand Aikido
Speaking of Japanese system, even though I said earlier that Aikido was designed by the founder and its followers in the aim of being diffused outside of Japan, and therefore in an environment that is very different from its original cultural context, I am convinced that the study of the Japanese culture and language is essential if one wants to access the higher levels of the discipline. I would not be where I am if I did not think that, obviously. For example, it is interesting to know the kanji used for naming techniques. Kote-gaeshi is written “小手返”, which means “return the glove“. It sounds simple but return does not actually mean twist, but give back, and glove refers not only to the wrist, but to the entire wrist and forearm. Such considerations make big differences when one receives the sensei’s instructions. In a case like this, depending on the type of kote-gaeshi that is being done, one will have to be very clear on the terminology, otherwise one risks performing the various forms out of context, without knowing what differentiates them (i.e. by presenting them only as variations even though these different forms are actually governed by entirely different principles). That said, japanophilia may be less important than what it represents, that is to say, a certain erudition and a willingness to explore all facets of the art, its history, and the culture that nurtured it (this erudition is another justification of my learning of Daito-ryu, just as I find useful to study latin when learning the fundamentals of my own language).
The author with Kobayashi Yukimitsu Shihan
Coming to Japan does not guarantee an access to knowledge and progress, but I think that it is necessary, for the sake of intellectual honesty, to look at the personal investment that is behind making this move, as well as the context of the practice. One has to be a little crazy to give up everything and move to a country on the other side of the globe, just for a hobby. It is that sort of madness that differentiates those passionate about Aikido from those who “live Aikido” (and not necessarily “live off Aikido“). It seems obvious to me that someone who gives up everything to settle in Japan and practice daily as a student in a place like the Hombu Dojo, Iwama, or the Yoshinkan, will improve much more than someone who practices and/or teaches three times per week with the same 10 to 20 people. One has to compare what is comparable. There is no value judgment in this: the school or style do not matter, it is just a more substantial investment, and a favorable environment of practice.
Talking about value judgment, you have surely heard many things about the Hombu Dojo coming from third parties. Overall, no advice is more valuable than another, mine included, and experience in an art like Aikido is so personal and dependent of so many human factors that one cannot predict what will happen. I am very positive about the Hombu Dojo in this article, and some could write the same article, but holding a totally opposite point of view. That would be fine. Remember however that anyone who returns from any dojo saying “they suck” reveals more about himself than about the place he has visited. Do not get me wrong, maybe no one will talk to you when you are at the Hombu Dojo, but you will be observed. Depending on your attitude or your level, people will invite you to practice, or not. As I said earlier, the Hombu Dojo has a very wide range of levels and practices and in the end, one often ends up with the partner that one deserves…
Inasmuch as the Hombu Dojo would lose much of its interest if we just found ourselves practicing among Tokyoite (as it happened in the aftermath of the 11 March 2011 earthquake), I think that practicing Aikido without going at least once to experience it in its cradle would be a shame, especially nowadays with the low cost of transports. Ueshiba Morihei was a creative genius, his art was never set at any period of his life, and he never sought to curb the creativity of its students. Just as in my job as a biologist, I am absolutely convinced that for Aikido to progress and remain relevant in a changing world, it needs diversity and exchange. One of the biggest challenges we are facing when advancing in Aikido is not only technical but also moral: can we get to practice, communicate, move, with different people, people who do not share our codes, and without judging them? As long as the Hombu Dojo, and the broader Aikikai umbrella, will offer this to practitioners, as long as the system will be in place to allow exchange by encouraging diversity, I will remain an enthusiast of this system, despite its foibles and its disfunctions.
If you want to learn more about the Hombu Dojo and its operation, see the guide I wrote to the attention of traveling Aikidoka Tokyo.