Interview with Horii Etsuji Shihan: Aikido as a way for mutual growth
Horii Etsuji Shihan is an instructor 7th Dan Aikikai. Very popular in Japan and abroad for his clear and powerful Aikido, he is also a very friendly and open individual. Horii Shihan shows little interest in the sometimes sterile technical demonstrations and he prefers to focus on the basics and get straight to the point, especially working on the student-teacher relationship. Horii Sensei is also a former Aikikai uchi-deshi of the Hombu Dojo under the direction of Ueshiba Kisshomaru. In this interview, he offers us a welcomed insight into this somewhat mysterious environment.
Guillaume Erard: Where are you from and how did you get into Aikido?
Horii Etsuji: I’m originally from Osaka. An aikido club was created when I was in junior high school, that was in 1978, and one of my teacher had his own Aikido dojo, so I trained at his dojo too.
After that I went to Kosen, which is a 5 year technical college and I studied mechanical engineering. There was no Aikido in my college so I established a club, and I practiced there for 5 years. In total, I did Aikido for 7 years in Osaka.
Guillaume Erard: When did you enter Hombu Dojo?
Horii Etusji: After I graduated in 1985, I became an uchi deshi at Hombu Dojo, I was 20 years old at the time.
Guillaume Erard: Did you practice other martial arts?
Horii Etsuji: From the time I started Aikido, I only did that. Before that, I had done some Kendo in elementary school, for about 4 years, but as soon as I started Aikido, I dedicated myself to it.
Guillaume Erard: Had you ever been Hombu before entering as a deshi?
Horii Etsuji: I had. During my 3rd year of High School, I had saved money doing part-time jobs, and I spent a week at Hombu Dojo during the spring holidays. So I had trained there before.
Guillaume Erard: You trained there every day…
Horii Etsuji: Yes, every day for a week, I spent 3 years living at Hombu Dojo.
Guillaume Erard: How long did you live at the Hombu Dojo and what was the routine of an uchi deshi?
Horii Etsuji: The life of an uchi deshi involved getting up at 5:00 a.m., preparing tea with Doshu and the Sensei who taught the morning class, and cleaning the dojo and the office. We used to finish at around 6:00 a.m. and at 6:30 a.m., the training started.
The priority in our uchi deshi life at Hombu was training, from morning to evening. When there was no training, we did the chores. We had to do our own work such as going to the post office to send the mail, driving, and many other tasks like these.
One of our important job was to be Otomo for the Sensei. We had to carry the Sensei’s bags and take ukemi. That was our main learning experience.
Guillaume Erard: The role of Otomo was only occasional right?
Horii Etsuji: It was occasional, for example, when a Sensei went to a seminar. These trips could take a day or longer. We had to carry the sensei’s bag, take care of things, and take ukemi for him. That included trips inside Japan as well as abroad from time to time. When abroad, we used to spend about a week with the Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: Where did you go as an Otomo and with which Sensei?
Horii Etsuji: I went abroad mostly with Kisshomaru Sensei, to places such as Italy twice, South America, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. I went to Germany too.
Tamura Sensei was said to have had a lot of fun as an Otomo but I couldn’t enjoy it much because for me, it was more like a job. I was so tense all the time so when I was told to go to abroad, I wasn’t too happy about it.
After that, I went with the current Doshu, as well as Seki Sensei. We also did a Nihon Budokan group tour, visiting Australia as a group.
Guillaume Erard: Did you find practice abroad much different compared to what you knew in Japan?
Horii Etsuji: The practice is directed by the Shihan in place and everybody learns the Shihan’s style. This is why wherever you go, the practice is a little different but still, aikido is aikido, so things we teach are common, but the teaching method is different, it depends on teachers.
The ways people who interpret what a sensei teaches are also different, so, that is okay as it is. If everybody was the same, it’d be strange.
Guillaume Erard: Who were the teachers at Hombu at the time?
Horii Etsuji: At that time, Kisshomaru Sensei was the Second Doshu and the current Doshu was Waka-Sensei. The old Sensei were in order seniority: Okumura Sensei, Yamaguchi Sensei, Arikawa Sensei, Tada Sensei, Ichihashi Sensei, Masuda Sensei, Watanabe Sensei, and Sasaki Sensei. These were the senior Sensei of that period.
Guillaume Erard: How many other uchi deshi were living with you at Hombu and who were they?
Horii Etsuji: My Sempai living with me at Hombu were Kobayashi Sensei and Sugawara Sensei. Those who moved in after were Kuribayashi Sensei and Kanazawa Sensei. These were the people I lived with at Hombu.
Horii Etsuji at the Hombu Dojo with Kobayashi Yukimitsu, Sugawara Shigeru and Kuribayashi Takanori
Guillaume Erard: Were you following a Sensei in particular?
Horii Etsuji: I didn’t have a main Sensei the uchi deshi must go to the first morning class. The morning practice of the Hombu Dojo was Doshu’s morning class, which is the class of the Dojo-cho. The name of Hombu Dojo used to be Ueshiba Dojo so it was not like I followed a particular teacher but Doshu was at the center of my practice. I attended other Senseis’ classes to absorb their techniques so I chose not to have a special Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: Current uchi deshi seem very busy outside of the tatami, was it the case for you too?
Horii Etsuji: That’s right, in my time, we weren’t that busy… We had a bit of time for ourselves. Nowadays they are quite busy. They spend more time teaching but they don’t have much time for their own training. I think so too.
Guillaume Erard: To become an uchi deshi, does one necessarily have to plan to become a professional instructor?
Horii Etsuji: Those who enter Hombu do so to become professionals. They almost all dedicate themselves to it.
Guillaume Erard: What is th emost important thing that you got from your time as an uchi deshi?
Horii Etsuji: What’s most important for an uchi deshi… most of all… is the ukemi. I thought about taking good ukemi all the time.
Those who were always called to take ukemi for Kisshomaru Sensei were Miyamoto, Yokota, and Osawa Sensei, those 3 were really good. I was wondering how to become part of that group. Little by little, Doshu started using me as uke and things became even more difficult after that. When I was uchi deshi, I was really only thinking about ukemi. The fact of working on the technique and becoming a better technician came later.
Guillaume Erard: Most uchi deshi become instructors at the Hombu Dojo, but you followed a different path, why?
Horii Etsuji: I spent three years as an uchi deshi, and 7 more years living in my own apartment so overall, I spent 10 years at the Tokyo Hombu. After that came a turning point in my life. After these 10 years, I wanted to return to teach in Kansai. So I wasn’t fired from Hombu! (laughs)
Guillaume Erard: You teach weapons even though none are taught at Hombu. What style do you teach and where did you learn it?
Horii Etsuji: I’m doing my own style. I learned from various Sensei including Saito Sensei and Chiba Sensei. There are also other budo like kenjutsu or iai. When you watch videos of the founder, he does taijutsu but he also uses weapons like ken and jo. He explained the meaning of aikido using weapons, the link between taijutsu and weapons. I think that’s important. Weapons and taijutsu aren’t disconnected. The basis is the same. If one wants to understand taijutsu more deeply, one should practice weapons. I agree with that so we practice weapons in my dojo.
Guillaume Erard: O Sensei practiced mainly Shinkage-ryu and Itto-ryu but very few Aikidoka know these styles…
Horii Etsuji: We tend to do whatever style our own teacher is practicing. When we follow a teacher, we don’t have the choice, we must follow what he does. You would want to know what the teacher is looking for in these practices. If the Sensei does something like Shinkage-ryu, when you practice, you remember that, and after, it may be better to make up your own thing.
There are very few weapons video left in the period of the Asahi newspaper. During his youth, the founder learned a lot of ken and from there, it changed little by little later in life at 70 or 80 years-old. There isn’t much footage left from that period, there is almost nothing left from the Asahi newspaper period. We must remember that his technique, including his taijutsu, evolved a lot through time. At the beginning he was throwing very hard but he then got softer in his later years. He became softer in the same way.
The founder indeed also did some Itto-ryu. There are some old videos and at the last moment, it ends with a cut. O Sensei said his partner couldn’t understand why he got cut. The kumitachi of Saito Sensei are all like that of the Itto-ryu cuts. I do them too. Only learning the form makes no sense, we need to train a lot to understand the meaning of that finishing cut.
Ueshiba Morihei at the Asahi Shinbun of Osaka (1935)
Guillaume Erard: Where does the name of the Aioikai, your organization, come from?
Horii Etsuji: Aioi originates from the Hyogo prefecture near Himeji. There is a shrine there were the Aioi-No-Matsu grows. It’s a black and a red pine trees that grow together from the same trunk. It is the same kanji for Aioi. It symbolizes the strong relationship of a couple.
In my dojo, it represents the relationship between teacher and students. The students and the teacher study together and grow. That’s the meaning of Aioi. By chance, it happens to be the name of this neighborhood too [Aioicho], so it’s perfect.
Guillaume Erard: But the kanji is different right?
Horii Etsuji: No, it’s the same.
Guillaume Erard: Is it?
Horii Etsuji: Yes, the same, the meaning is “to live together”.
Guillaume Erard: You teach abroad quite extensively, sometimes in dojos affiliated to your group, but sometimes to dojos that are not. What do you teach in dojos that are run by other Shihan?
Horii Etsuji: I’m alone so I can’t learn from everybody. So when I visit a place that has a different style of practice, I can only show my own thing. I suggest to do it like that. This is my way to do this, please try it. I don’t force them to do my way saying “this has to be like this” but instead: “you can do it like that too”.
Guillaume Erard: do you feel that you can teach your own “advanced” Aikido in these conditions?
Horii Etsuji: For example, in the basics, even if we consider that there’s only one katate dori irimi tenkan, the movement is done differently by different Sensei. It’s a way to express one’s difference. I don’t like the idea of doing strange or complicated techniques to impress others. I only like to research the basics. Shomenuchi ikkyo could be different, every Shihan can do differently, they think differently, they teach differently. I have my way to do it but it’s not exclusive to me. In iriminage, I explain my way of taking the balance. It applies in the same way to beginners and Yudansha. We do different things but we are on the same theme. There is no need to show flashy things.
Horii Etsuji Shihan at the Budokan (2015)
Guillaume Erard: In large seminars, the level of often quite variable, how do you deal with this?
Horii Etsuji: To tell you the truth, we should start seminars by teaching the role of uke. I can’t do it when I travel though. It’s not just about “falling”, we need to know until when to stay present, and hold until the very last minute of tori’s waza. I can teach that to my own students, but when I give short seminars, it’s more difficult.
That’s why teaching at some seminars is not very interesting. Instead of giving one-opff seminars in many places, I try to go to the same places regularly.
Guillaume Erard: How do you teach ukemi in your own dojo?
Horii Etsuji: I don’t teach falls as such but I give precise instructions during practice such as: “You let go too early, etc.”
What I teach is how to receive the technique, which is ukemi. Ukemi is something you do to protect your body for safety, but ukemi is how to receive the technique of the partner. I teach how to take ukemi. I teach them to hold more, “don’t take uke too fast”, being slow is bad, but being too fast is worse. For example, you take ukemi too fast before your partner even throw you.
Guillaume Erard: In weapons, there is uketachi, which is a clearly defined role for uke, but this does not seem to be so defined in Aikido…
Horii Etsuji: When I teach, I take ukemi for my students too. They can learn how to take ukemi by watching my uke and feeling something by throwing me. In ken, there is uketachi and uchitachi right? The Shihan is the one taking ukemi right?
Guillaume Erard: That’s right.
Horii Etsuji: It works also in Aikido to a certain degree. Even though with age, my body starts to ache everywhere, and I can’t take ukemi in the same way, but I can still show how. When we are an odd number, I take ukemi to complete the pairs.
Guillaume Erard: How do you handle groups that are affiliated with the Aioikai?
Horii Etsuji: I visit groups affiliated with the Aioikai every year, and I conduct grading examinations. I teach at the same level as here. I only go once a year so there are things that don’t get through but in spite of that, I try to make myself understood.
I have been going to some places for over 10 years. In Russia, it has been only two years so there is still a lot of work to do. They don’t understand everything I do but they realize that one seminar per year requires a lot of efforts on their part. I can only be there for a week so they do their best to learn within that time. It pleases me very much and makes me want to return there any number of times.
I want to raise the level of the Aioikai so I need to train some leaders locally. I want to train instructors who can lead and support them but right now, we are far from that. In the one-off seminars, I want to put my personality and my own Aikido forward as much as I can, I want to present my Aikido to them and ask them what they think about it.
Guillaume Erard: Your Aikido reminds me of that of the late Chiba Kazuo Shihan. Did he have much influence on you?
Horii Etsuji: When I was at Hombu Dojo, Chiba Sensei was living in San Diego. Occasionally, when he returned to Japan, we practiced together in Kisshomaru Sensei’s classes but it wasn’t many.
Guillaume Erard: Yest when you teach abroad, you often do so in Birankai dojos don’t you?
Horii Etsuji: Yes but not exclusively in the Birankai. I go to Europe in Poland, which is affiliated to the Birankai. I go to Bulgaria too… where else… different places but not all affiliated to the Birankai. The first seminar I participated was held about 10 years ago, it was a course in San Diego and Doshu went there to discuss about Chiba Sensei’s retirement. I had never learned from Chiba sensei directly, so I thought it would be a great opportunity. Several people taught in the seminar, including Miyamoto Sensei and I was asked by Chiba sensei to teach one class there, so I did.
My dojo celebrates its 20 years next year. At some point, there was a time I got lost in my training. There were things to think about. At that time, by chance, I came across a video of Chiba Sensei shot in Nagoya. It made me want to learn this kind of style. From that point, I started to work in that direction. Until that point I had never really talked to Chiba Sensei. Since I started working on the style, I have been asked by Chiba sensei to teach Birankai seminars in Europe.
Chiba Kazuo Shihan with Horii Etsuji Shihan
Guillaume Erard: You mentioend that your parents were from Osaka, why did you end up in Sanda?
Horii Etsuji: Because of the land prices. Buying land to set up a dojo in Osaka was expensive whereas Sanda was more affordable. It’s also closer from the station. I ended up here by chance.
Guillaume Erard: What is your usual teachign schedule?
Horii Etsuji: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, about four hours per day. An hour and a half in the morning, and in the evening I teach an hour and another one hour and a half without break. So, I teach about 4 hours on average. In addition to that, I teach at branch dojos and universities.
Guillaume Erard: you wife teaches too right?
Horii Etsuji: She teaches the children’s class on Tuesdays.
Guillaume Erard: And she replaces you when you are abroad…
Horii Etsuji: Yes, yes. She helps here as well as at other branch dojos. She is there today, she goes on Saturdays and Sundays. When I’m not here, her and the shidoin, do the teaching.
Guillaume Erard: do your Shidoin want to start their own dojos?
Horii Etsuji: They probably want to start but in Japan, it’s difficult. Places would be a problem and salarymen are busy. Here I have Shidoin examinations every two years. The Shidoin and Fukushidoin of Aoi receive a certificate. There is one place that was opened by a man who retired. But it’s difficult.
Horii Etsuji Shihan at the Budokan (2016)
Guillaume Erard: What are the values that you want to transmit most to your students?
Horii Etsuji: The most important in Aikido and Budo in general is to keep the beginners mind. The most important is not to forget the sensations we had when we first entered the dojo, the feelings we had when we first started Aikido, the first ukemi we took for our first Sensei… We shouldn’t lose the beginner’s mind.
In addition to that, we should also take practice seriously. I’m not talking about the seminars that only my students attend but when several different groups come to the seminars, there are something I see there during the class and that makes me think. There are sometimes people who don’t take practice seriously. Some people try to test their partner, they try to take strange ukemi. I dislike this kind of practice.
When we do the technique, we do it seriously. When we take ukemi, we do it seriously. We don’t hold back, we don’t lower our standards. We must practice seriously and with rigor. It isn’t something that can be taught with words, it is something that is shown with the body. My students see it and feel it from me, so it’s easy to teach here. I do the same when I go to other dojos where I teach regularly.
And also I think “good manners” of Aikido is the basis for everything else and we have to start from that. I don’t do complicated techniques, I usually work on basic techniques. There are things that come before doing Budo’s “BU”. Like bowing properly when entering a dojo, and aligning the shoes at the entrance of a Dojo, You start from a proper place.
Starting from that, the relationships between Shihan and students becomes important. Relationship with mutual trust. It should not be one direction only. When we get to know each other more, trust and a mutual respect take place, and we can delve more deeply into each other.