Interview with Henry Kono, direct student of Morihei Ueshiba
He was basing all this on something simple. That, I knew from day one…
These words belong to quite an extraordinary individual, Henry Kono Sensei who just celebrated his 80th birthday and 43 years of Aikido practice. Henry Kono is a Canadian citizen of Japanese parents who decided during his youth to visit his country of origin. Nothing really remarkable so far, apart from the fact that he ended up spending four years studying Aikido with the founder of the art, O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba.
What makes Henry Kono’s experience truly special is that he was the only foreigner present at the time who was able to speak Japanese. According to Kono himself, it was this very capacity to understand both Japanese and occidental cultures which allowed him to reach a unique interpretation of what O Sensei was really doing. For the past ten years, Henry Kono has been regularly visiting Ireland and it was during one of his visits to Dublin that I got the chance to sit down with him one afternoon and talk about it all. Henry usually stays very quiet about his views but he kindly accepted to spend a few hours explaining me, one more time, what it was all about. We ended up spending over 3 hours together on a rainy morning of April, drinking gallons of tea and smoking rolled cigarettes, with Henry never hesitating to get up to demonstrate his concepts, either on my good friend Daithí who hosted our meeting, or myself.
Guillaume Erard: You have been coming here to Ireland for over ten years now…
Henry Kono: It is my friend Alan Ruddock who asked to come first. We were together during our time in the Hombu Dojo but we had not been in contact for over 30 years. He contacted me one day because he had heard somewhere that I was still alive and he asked me if I wanted to come to see him in Ireland. Before I knew it, I was teaching over there 2 to 3 times a year, in particular for a summer course that we teach, Alan and me, each year in Galway. For some reason, people got hooked up on what I was showing whereas people in Toronto think I am a loony (laughs). People are nice here in Ireland and it seems that they can put aside their prejudices more easily than elsewhere.
Henry Kono and Guillaume Erard
Guillaume Erard: And the number of students present at your seminars has been growing continuously each year. The seminar in Galway is one of the largest seminars in Ireland with between 80 and 120 people on the mat at the week-end.
Henry Kono: That is right. People often say to me that Galway is the most pleasant seminar that that have done. That being said, I do prefer it when the number of people is more limited, in particular because of the fact that I am quite small and people can’t see me (laughs). Otherwise, in bigger seminars; it often ends up being more about the “I was there” thing than anything else.
Guillaume Erard: Ok, let us go back in time now. How did you find yourself practicing Aikido on the tatami of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo?
Henry Kono: I grew up in Canada but my parents were from Shikoku. At some point, I felt like I wanted to learn more about my roots so I decided to go to Japan in order to visit some relatives. That was in 1964 and once I was done with the family business, I had five months left on my VISA so I started looking for an activity to pass the time. I had heard of this extraordinary individual called Morihei Ueshiba who was teaching a magical art in Tokyo so I decided to go and have a look at what it was. I eventually spent 4 years training there.
Guillaume Erard: You were 37 at the time. Was it a problem to start Aikido so late, in particular when people like Alan Ruddock and Kenneth Cottier were in their mid-twenties, physically at the top of their game?
Henry Kono: In fact, I think that it is this “maturity” that helped me to stay away from some of the mistakes that others made. Of course, at the beginning, I thought “If only I had come ten years earlier! I could have practiced hard, fast and throw myself against the walls like the others” but really, it was a good thing for me not to fall into the trap of the physical side of Aikido. Thanks to that, I focused on the principles that governed the discipline. It is during my second day at the Hombu Dojo that I saw O Sensei for the first time. He did a 20 minutes demonstration and I was blown away. I immediately thought “this old man does not do the same thing that we are doing”. What also struck me was that he had to be basing all this on something simple and obvious although I could not put my finger on it at the time. From that day on, each time I saw him I asked myself “what is he thinking about?” and not “what is he doing?” like all the others did.
The teachers at Hombu always used to say that it was just the result of 60 years of practice. On my side, I became rapidly convinced that it was because of the way he thought that he did what he did. How could have it been otherwise? When you are in a life and death situation, you have to react to the second, no time to chose within a collection of techniques the one you need. You have no time to judge, feel or evaluate, you have to just know!
Foreign students around O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba
Guillaume Erard: What you are saying reminds me a lot of what other experts in the field of combat say about highly stressful situations, limiting your physical and mental capacities because of the fear and of the adrenaline kick.
Henry Kono: Right, when a guy runs towards you, you can’t think what? Why? When? I look at it very much like dancing: both partners do not move each other, they move together. But of course, the Japanese do not dance, so they can’t get it (laughs). It is actually funny, when you see a couple dancing, they are in perfect harmony but if you put them on the mat the following weekend and tell them that they are doing Aikido, the harmony is gone! You can be sure that they will eventually start nailing each other on the mat, just like everybody else! If you want to link this back to the Yin and Yang; Yin does not decide to unbalance Yang, they move together.
Guillaume Erard: Was the fact that you did not receive a typical Japanese education an advantage or an inconvenience?
Henry Kono: It helped me for several reasons. First of all, I was not burdened by the Bushido myth which says that the learning a martial art must be hard and painful, if not lethal. O Sensei had developed something very different from the traditional Bujutsu and a lot of Japanese had huge trouble understanding it. My second advantage was that, as a foreigner, I could always concentrate my efforts on what O Sensei was doing. You know, in Japan, the respect given to more advanced people is such that you must do everything they tell you to do, even if it is obviously not what the master showed. In my case, I just pretended to somewhat do what the others where doing and stayed polite. I could get away with it.
Guillaume Erard: They did not mind because you were a foreigner!
Henry Kono: Exactly! Best of both worlds really (laughs)!
Guillaume Erard: About your practice, people find it very soft. I heard some of the first people you taught in Ireland say: “We had no clue what he was doing but at least, he was not hurting us!”
Henry Kono: Most of the classes in Hombu were not that hard either. We just repeated one movement over and over again. I heard that it changed afterwards. It is what Terry Dobson told me anyway. I must confess that I too, was wondering “Where does this lead? Why do we practice so slowly?” in the beginning.
Guillaume Erard: You were wondering when the real application would come weren’t you?
Henry Kono: Indeed. It is because the first thing that you think of is to nail uke in the ground, as soon as he comes towards you: bang! At the beginning, it is what you think you came to learn but you realize afterwards that it is exactly the opposite of what you have to do. Many did not get this.
Guillaume Erard: Some famous teachers have confessed thinking that Ueshiba Sensei removed all the martial aspects from his art towards the end of his life.
Henry Kono: Yes, I have seen videos where some Sensei say this. But it is precisely on this point that they missed the essential. Actually, Ueshiba Sensei only removed the notions of victory and defeat from his Budo. I think that he had been really shocked by what had happened during the Second World War, in particular with the two atomic bombs. He realized that if men were to carry on opposing each other, competing and making war, it would soon be the end. Therefore, he started from what he knew; Daito-Ryu Aiki-jujutsu, and used it to develop a system of harmonious resolution of conflicts. He could have used a completely different approach though. Despite this, the martiality and the efficacy were still very present, but freed from the visible aspect of opposition. It is obvious when you compare pre- and post-war videos. O Sensei often said “forget what I used to do before, this time is over. Now, I do Aikido!”
Guillaume Erard: Unfortunately, this is what many considered to be a mystical delirium of a senile old man.
Henry Kono: You have to ask yourself: “What was Ueshiba doing in Aikido?” You and him moved together and suddenly; you were on the floor, incapable of moving and you could not figure out why. You got up and it happened all over again: you, on the ground, for no reason. If he had sat on you while blocking your arm you could have understood but here, nothing happened. For an unknown reason, you could not put any strength in your limbs. It would have been easy if you could have felt something, you would have thought “ok, he is a pro, is technically better than me, he got me”. In fact, nobody ever felt that, none of us understood why we always found ourselves lying on the floor.
Henry Kono and Guillaume Erard
Guillaume Erard: Would you have come to these kinds of realizations if you had not had this experience at the Hombu Dojo?
Henry Kono: Certainly not. I could have been training for 40 years in Canada without understanding any of the things I got from seeing O Sensei practicing. I stayed in Japan for four years only because of him. It is because I saw him that I understood that what we were doing was different form what he was doing. Ueshiba Sensei never explained anything, he used to show a movement and we would copy him. His discourse was very complex and the few clues that he was letting through were very hard to dissociate from the mystical mambo-jumbo.
Guillaume Erard: Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei once said that he never listened to O Sensei when he was lecturing because he admitted he did not understand what he was talking about. Instead, he said that he chose to focus solely on the techniques that O Sensei showed.
Henry Kono: Of course! For us, O Sensei’s discourse was a mystical mess in which he used to throw a few clues. You just had to be attentive enough to intercept them (laughs). The most important thing you must understand about O Sensei’s Aikido is that he thought of it as a secret revealed to him by the gods themselves. In his head, he did not have the permission to give it to us and if you wanted it, you had to ask the gods yourself! This, of course, is miles away from the standard, occidental method of teaching but many Japanese did not understand this either.
Omotokyo used to teach Shinto. Shinto is really based on the concept of Yin and Yang and that is why O Sensei did not like Zen because the cosmology was different. Boy did he hate Zen… When we used to say “O Sensei, we are doing Zen” he would yell “What?!? Zen?!? (laughs)” You should have seen his face (laughs). When you were dealing with O Sensei, you had to come with an open mind.
Guillaume Erard: It reminds me of something that Henry Plée [pioneer of the European Karate] wrote a while ago about the mystifications and the hidden teachings of Japanese martial arts,.
Henry Kono: O Sensei did not hide anything, everything was unveiled right in front of us but we could not see it. In fact, it has always been the norm for great masters of martial arts to take their knowledge with them to the grave. Ueshiba was no different. Alan Ruddock has a video of Gozo Shioda Sensei where he says that never, during the 10 years that he spent with O Sensei, the master explained what he was doing, not a single time. Shioda had to interpret everything by himself.
Guillaume Erard: So in what respect was O Sensei’s Aikido so different from what you were all doing?
Henry Kono: We used to apply a technique on our partner in a very competitive manner. On the other hand, O Sensei only cared about keeping the balance between the two parts of a same entity, very much like the two parts that compose the Yin and the Yang. I always wonder how he could have had the patience of seeing us all get it wrong; yet letting us do it. Of course, every now and then, he would storm into the dojo and yell “nobody does Aikido here! Only women do Aikido!!” Then he would take a uke and throw him around for ten minutes until complete exhaustion of the poor guy. He would finish by saying “When are you all going to understand that he [uke] does not exist and Ueshiba does not exist?” these kinds of comments would tend to enter into one ear and exit by the other but I tried to keep everything in my head [Henry covers his head with his hands while laughing]. One thing that you could never do was to ask him “O Sensei, what do you mean?” If you did, you would have had to face his wrath, which nobody wished to do. I remember that he was often saying “I am not going to tell you what I am doing” and I would whisper to myself “Keep talking old man, but before I leave I will pick your brain!” It was like a game between us.
Guillaume Erard: I once asked you about Ki and you answered me “I would not worry about Ki”. Could you explain to me what you meant?
Henry Kono: I will tell you an amusing story. One day, we were about to arrive in Iwama when I said to Ueshiba Sensei “Actually, someone told me that you could do what you do because of Ki” . He screamed at me the following thing: “I was born with Ki! Who told you something that stupid!? Give me the names!” At this stage I thought it was quite a bad way to start the week so I kept a low profile until our return to Tokyo (laughs). In fact, I think what he meant was that everyone of us is made of Ki rendered visible, no more, no less.
Guillaume Erard: Did you practice any weapons?
Henry Kono: O Sensei used to say that before 3rd dan, we should not touch a weapon. I think that he wanted us to avoid practicing Kenjutsu or Kendo, which are either competitive or lethal disciplines whereas Aikiken is only a means to balance you and me. When O Sensei was here, nobody would even look at a weapon. It was already hard enough to be completely relaxed while empty handed so if we had had to use weapons…
Guillaume Erard: Has there been a particular breakthrough in your understanding of Aikido?
Henry Kono: Another funny story… All of us, the foreign students, had cooked up a little party for his birthday with a cake and everything. That day, he was very relaxed and happy so I thought it might be the right moment to try my luck with a question. I asked him “O Sensei, how come we are not doing what you are doing?” He just smiled and replied “I understand Yin and Yang, you don’t”. Like if it was nothing, he just gave me the secret of Aikido. However, I am sure that he must have said it to other people before me but I kept it all within me until I understood how it all worked.
Guillaume Erard: So how did you understand all this just based on one sentence from O Sensei?
Henry Kono: Before going back to Canada, I spent a few months in Hawaii at my friend Steve’ house. He had studied with Buckminster Fuller [Richard Buckminster Fuller was an American visionary, inventor of the Geodesic Dome and author of the Operational Manual of Spaceship Earth] and like all the people who worked with him, he had to study oriental philosophies. So I stayed about 3 months at Steve’s home, reading his many books on the beach, staring at the Yin and Yang symbol, drawing it in the sand until I finally understood how to do Ikkyo the way that O Sensei was doing it.
Guillaume Erard: With this kind of discourse, people might think that you are a bit presumptuous…
Henry Kono: That is precisely why I am staying quiet on my own. There is enough room for everybody. If they think that way, I have nothing against the fact that they practice that way. I am quite happy to be left alone to do what I want. I am not saying that what they do is wrong, I just think that the way I am doing it is closer to what I saw O Sensei do.
Henry Kono in 1977
Guillaume Erard: In fact, all these years, you stayed away from the official Aikido organizations.
Henry Kono: That is right. I came to Ireland because Alan asked me to come and because people liked what I showed. I am teaching you all and I am talking to you today because I am 80 years old, I won’t be around forever and I want to pass on what I have understood so there can be a trace of it, somewhere. That is all.
Guillaume Erard: One last question for you Henry, I am sure it will sound familiar: Why can’t we do what you are doing despite of all your explanations?
Henry Kono: I think that you are trying too hard. It is an art of knowing, not doing. You must relax everything and it is precisely what is so scary because without strength in your arms, you have nothing left apart from your motion. It goes completely to the opposite of what your instinct tells you.
Guillaume Erard: Thank you very much Henry for your time and your kindness.
To go further:
- Henry Kono’s article: Yin and Yang in motion
- An interview with Alan Ruddock, who was in Japan with Henry in the early 60’s
- All photos were kindly supplied by Robert Bergman
-  H. Plée and F. Saiko. L’Art Sublime et Ultimes des Points Vitaux, Budostore, 2000.
-  H. Plée and F. Saiko. L’Art Sublime et Ultime des Points de Vie, Budo Editions, 2003.
-  H. Plée. Chroniques Martiales, Budostore, 2001.