Interview with Kobayashi Yasuo: Aikido for everyone
Kobayashi Yasuo Shihan holds the rank of 8th dan of Aikikai. He became a student of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo is 1955 where he studied, among others, under the founder of Aikido, Ueshiba Morihei. Kobayashi Sensei is head of Aikido Kobayashi Dojos, one of the largest Aikido groups in Japan, with over 120 dojos, and representatives around the world.
Guillaume Erard: How did you start Aikido?
Kobayashi Yasuo: I used to practice judo quite regularly at the Kodokan. My house was in front of Yasukuni Shrine in the Chiyoda district, so it was very close to Suidobashi, where the Kodokan was. So I started going there when I was a child.
When I was in high school, I became friends with the son of the late Mr. Danzaki, the president of Iaido Federation. He had also been a Sumo fighter and told me that someone called Ueshiba was able to throw Tenryu, a Sumo wrestler who used to go to his Hombu Dojo.
Murashige Aritomo, Tenryu, and Ueshiba Morihei at the 10th anniversary of the founding of the state of Manchukuo (1941)
So via that connection, I was introduced and invited to visit the dojo, I think it was 5 or 6 p.m. Tada Sensei was teaching, he was 3rd Dan at the time, and there were 5 or 6 people training. It was still the time where refugees from the war were living in the dojo, one third of the dojo served as their living quarters. Aikido was not well known. It was during the fall in my last year of high school. As I was about to leave, Tada Sensei told me to join the dojo if I liked it. So I eventually did it at the end of April, after I started university. This is how I got to know about Aikido.
Tada Hiroshi in demonstration with Kobayashi Yasuo
Guillaume Erard: Aikido and Daito-ryu were not well known then…
Kobayashi Yasuo: Most people didn’t know such thing as koryu jujutsu, however, jukendo, and karate were widely known. Western wrestling was also popular, but koryu jujutsu was not a thing at that time. Aikido wasn’t known either.
I joined the dojo in April 1955, and Aikido was first shown to the public in September that same year on the roof of the Takashimaya department store. I was a newcomer then so I just helped with carrying tatami, but that was the first time aikido was performed in public.
Guillaume Erard: Isoyama Sensei told me that the term “Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu”, not “Aikido” was written on his Iwama registration documents. What was written in Tokyo?
Kobayashi Yasuo: At Hombu Dojo, people registered the same way as they do now. They didn’t keep records.
Guillaume Erard: Who was teaching at Hombu Dojo at the time?
Kobayashi Yasuo: In 1955, there were usually 5 to 10 people during the classes at the Hombu Dojo. Kisshomaru Sensei was still working at a security firm. Tada Sensei was the substitute teacher. Two years later, around 1957, Kisshomaru Sensei started to run Aikido full time. We started to have more training sessions after that. Practice used to be in the mornings at 6:30, as well as during the evenings. We adopted the current 5-classes schedule after Kisshomaru Sensei quit his job.
Instructors and students of the Hombu Dojo (c. 1961)
Guillaume Erard: What made you decide to become a deshi at Hombu?
Kobayashi Yasuo: As I told you, I was doing Judo. The Kodokan was a big organization and there were no interactions between its members. Hombu was close to my house and it wasn’t like this, we would have tea before or after training, do calligraphy together, go out drinking at night, etc. It was interesting to hang out with people.
The uchi deshi all came from the countryside so they were different and they thought completely differently, even at the same age. It was interesting. That was the main reason why I quit the Kodokai and opted for Aikido. Human interactions and friendship among uchi deshi.
Guillaume Erard: How was the life of a Hombu Dojo student?
Kobayashi Yasuo: It was chaotic. (laughs) When there was no training, we were free to do anything, like drinking at night. Of course we would clean up and do grocery shopping but there was no space to practice during off hours because people were still there, hanging around. They would do sumo and arm wrestling, and go out for a drink at night as it was close to Shinjuku.
Instructors and students of the Hombu Dojo (c. 1957)
We had senpai-kohai relationships and those who had money, usually senpais, would pay. When some of us received money from their parents, we would go drinking. (laughs) At some point we were living and eating with Ueshiba Sensei. We didn’t have to worry about anything but getting food to eat.
Guillaume Erard: How was the practice among uchi deshi?
Kobayashi Yasuo: It was rough because everyone was young. We were testing each other, saying that the other guy’s techniques were not working, or that they didn’t hurt. I wasn’t not big so I did circular motions to get my opponents tired. I would also get up quickly after being thrown. But I guess that was good for training.
Guillaume Erard: Which teachers influenced you the most?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Different teachers had different ways of thinking. There were some aspects that I found excellent, and others that I didn’t quite agree with. Those different teachers helped me become who I am now. Also, there wasn’t a uniform set of techniques. I think that’s why Aikido developed.
Also, I was an assistant for Tohei Koichi Sensei for more than 10 years, in different places, so I was influenced by him too. I found his way of thinking wonderful. There was one thing however that I didn’t quite agree with. My parents had a business and they taught me to respect my origins, that’s why I remained at Hombu. Tohei Sensei left the dojo on March 31st and he took half of the uchi deshi, about 10 of them, with him. I was sitting in the office when they left, and Kisshomaru Sensei looked at me and said: “Oh you are still here Kobayashi?” I guess he thought that I would leave too since I was Tohei Sensei’s assistant. I thank my parents for teaching me that we have to respect our origins. I can’t help Hombu Dojo with every aspect because it’s a big organization, and I sometimes get into trouble, but I still respect it like my mother.
Tohei Koichi throwing Kobayashi Yasuo in the Hombu Dojo
Guillaume Erard: Were there Dan examinations at the time?
Kobayashi Yasuo: No there was no such thing, we didn’t have tests. Once per year, during kagamibiraki, new Dan promotions were put up on the walls. However, when more people came, we established a certification system.
Kobayashi Yasuo serving as uke for O Sensei druing the kagamibiraki demonstration. On the walls at the back are the names of the people promoted on that occasion.
Guillaume Erard: Over the years, there are many people who claimed to be students of O Sensei. What does it take to call oneself a student of O Sensei?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well, it was informal in my time and I think one could be considered the student of a sensei if they respected him. In terms of training, there are different ideologies. As far as how many years, there’s no fixed period. Some people would only meet him during seminars, especially in the countryside. O Sensei would tour the regions but travelling was not as convenient as it is now.
There used to be a seminar once a year in March. We had a week off from training at Hombu, and there was only O Sensei’s training. There were teachers who only came during those times. So I don’t know, I think it’s enough to say that one was a follower of Ueshiba.
Guillaume Erard: Various people also claim to have been given ranks by O Sensei, but it seems to be the subject of some debates.
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well when someone did what he liked, O Sensei would say to that person that he was worth an 8th or a 10th dan, and he would do the same when he went to the countryside. We knew that he was joking but some people took it seriously and came all the way to get a certificate. When that happened, they would argue their case with Kisshomaru Sensei in the office and those who got rejected at the office would talk to O Sensei and there would be a fight. It is sometimes like this here between me and Hiroaki. He thinks in terms of budo and I get how he would wants to give special recognition when he is impressed, but we can’t do that as an organization
Guillaume Erard: How often did you see O Sensei did he come often to Tokyo?
Kobayashi Yasuo: How often? It depended on his mood, I really don’t know. Sometimes, he would call in sick from Iwama and ask one of the uchi deshi to come take care of him and when we went there, he looked completely fine. There were still not many people in Iwama so when he was spending his time alone and wanted someone to talk to, he would call in sick and ask some of the uchideshis to come and take care of him for a few days. And when he got bored or had some business, he would come to Hombu Dojo. He didn’t come very often. Also we didn’t have cars at that time and we had to use Joban train to commute.
Guillaume Erard: Did you meet the pioneers of European Aikido such as Mochizuki Minoru or Abe Tadashi?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Mochizuki Minoru Sensei was the uncle of the friend, with whom I started an Aikido club at Meiji University. He was one or two years below me, so we went to university camps together. I have a picture of it over there. We did two university training camps at Mochizuki Sensei’s dojo in Shizuoka. When Mochizuki Sensei came to Hombu Dojo, nobody else knew him personally so I got to talk to him a lot. Mochizuki Sensei had been sent to Ueshiba Sensei by Kano Sensei. Kano Sensei couldn’t invite Ueshiba Sensei to the Kodokan so he sent Mochizuki Sensei. I think Mochizuki Sensei had some conflicting ideas with that of Ueshiba Sensei regarding how to perform Aikido when he went abroad.
Ueshiba Morhiei and Mochizuki Minoru
Abe Sensei had a short temper and would easily get into fights. Apparently there were some incidents abroad as well, so he was expelled from France. The day he came back to Hombu Dojo, I was there as a receptionist, and he asked me if Tohei Sensei was there. As he was talking to Tohei Sensei, he suddenly shouted “someone bring me water!” so I brought them water and then he said “You, splash that on Tohei!”. I wouldn’t dare do that so I just stood there watching, so he grabbed the glass and poured it on Tohei Sensei by himself and shouted “I can’t beat Touhei at anything”. [Note: It is likely that Abe Tadashi was upset by the fact that Tohei Koichi succeed in his Aikido activities abroad while himself was sent back.]
Abe Tadashi in France
That said, it’s because of this sort of strong character that they could go to whole new places and promote Aikido. I knew them both personally though not for so long, and I respect them as the people who created paths to the new world.
Guillaume Erard: Did you ever consider going abroad like they or some of your peers did?
Kobayashi Yasuo: People who were with me indeed went abroad, like America and Europe, but I didn’t. I liked the practice of Aikido as it was and I was just doing that.
One day I got called by the head teacher, Tohei Koichi and he talked about Burma, nowadays’ Myanmar. Yamaguchi Sensei was already there because Japan had caused troubles in South East Asia during the world war two, and we were compensating them since we lost. As part of that, Yamaguchi Sensei was staying there for two years, and I was asked if I would go there as an assistant.
Tada Hiroshi, André Nocquet, and Yamaguchi Seigo in front of the hombu Dojo (c. 1957)
I said: “Whatever” and Tohei Sensei said: “Whatever is not an answer!!, Are you going or not!?” So I said: “OK, I’m going.” (laughs) But I didn’t want to go so I kept procrastinating going to the embassy. Three months later, there was a coup d’état and the country went under the military regime, so they stopped inviting foreign teachers. Conversely they sent five soldiers to Japan to learn judo and aikido and I was in charge of taking care of them. Perhaps I was meant to stay in Japan to practice.
I liked the practice itself. Actually, I never thought of teaching before I opened the dojo. Now that I think of it, it worked out fine and we have this place for communication.
To be honest, most of the people who went abroad hadn’t been training for that long. They went abroad when they were in their 30’s so they had only trained for about 10 years, at most. Given the fact that they promoted aikido that much, they must have had some intense training in such a short period. I think that’s what made it possible; everyone’s talent.
Ueshiba Kisshomaru Doshu with some of the Japanese instructors who settled outside of Japan
Interestingly, they developed different traits of character according to the country that they went to. Those who went to France were more social and those who went to Germany, like Asai, liked order. Those who went to a country that didn’t suit them were rejected and came back, or went somewhere else. So the shihans who stayed there, and there are many of them, are the ones that could adapt themselves to the country or the place they went to, but there are also many that couldn’t adjust and who came back.
Guillaume Erard: Talking about pioneers, do you remember André Nocquet?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Mr. Nocquet was the first foreigner to become an uchi deshi. He ate and slept in the Dojo with the rest of us. He was much older than us, I think he was over 40 then. He was admirable, he worked hard for 2 years. It was at a time when we didn’t have many foreigners in Japan but he stayed with us at the dojo for 2 years.
André Nocquet with Kobayashi Yasuo
Guillaume Erard: There is an ongoing debate a from whom Mr Nocquet received the most instruction. His students say that it was form O sensei but it is of course unlikely.
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well he had different senseis. Mr. Tohei went from Hawaii to mainland America and probably because of that, he was good at explaining things in a simple manner. And he was also the one that invented aikitaiso based on ikkyo, nikyo, as well as shiho undo and all those. When he was teaching policemen and soldiers in Hawaii, he taught with exercises like this because they didn’t know aikido at all and wouldn’t understand by just explaining in words. That way they remembered more quickly, using steps like one, two, and three.
André Nocquet with Tohei Koichi at the Hombu Dojo
It was easy to understand and he was good at explaining Ki also. I think that influenced Nocquet a lot. [Note: Since my meeting with Kobayashi Shihan, I was given access to André Nocquet’s personal diary in Japan, and the entries confirms Kobayashi Sensei’s assessment. Most classes reported in it are those of Tohei Koichi, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, and O Sensei, in respective order of occurrence.] O Sensei, on the other hand, didn’t really have a kata, a set form. It was as if ikkyo, nikyo and kokyunage were all the same. I think those styles have influenced Nocquet. We were all influenced a lot.
André Nocquet demonstrating with Kobayashi Yasuo. The dedication is from Nocquet to Kobayashi.
Guillaume Erard: I understand that Nocquet left Japan with a certificate as representative of the aikikai for Europe. Yet, some Japanese instructors like Noro Masamichi, Nakazono Masahiro, Tamura Nobuyoshi, were also susbequently sent to France, and there seems to have been a falling out, at least for a time, between Nocquet an Hombu. Do you know about this?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well, it’s not like he got kicked out but Mr. Tamura, Mr. Noro, and Mr. Nocquet did go to France and there were some territorial conflicts. As one was opening a dojo, and another was opening one close by. That doesn’t happen now but Aikido was rare then and people wanted to have their territories. It is like if one had a dojo in Saitama, they tried to claim the whole territory. There were conflicts like that. Now that Aikido is popular, nobody opposes if there are many groups in the same area. But yeah, they were fighting for territories like that, but I’m not saying which one was bad though.
Friendship days – From left to right: Tamura Nobuyoshi, Noro Masamichi, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Tohei Koichi, Saito Morihiro, and André Nocquet
Guillaume Erard: Did O Sensei’s Aikido change much during the time you knew him?
Kobayashi Yasuo: When I joined, Ueshiba Sensei was around 70 and he was still strong and did a lot of immobilization techniques. We also used to do that kind of things when I first joined, but then O Sensei started to change. Then as he aged, he started doing more like circular movements. In the Hombu Dojo, Kisshomaru Sensei started following that change in the technique. Moreover, the uchi deshi at that time like Arikawa Sensei, Yamaguchi Sensei, and Tada Sensei, wait, Tada Sensei wasn’t living in the dojo… Anyway, they all had different styles. Saito Sensei from Iwama would also come to teach every Sunday, and there were no fixed rules as to how it should be taught, people were taught different styles. Kisshomaru Sensei followed and preserved the changing style of O Sensei. At that time, there were also teachers with unique styles such as Tohei Koichi Sensei.
Thus, more people joined practice in the style of the teacher that they liked. Me and the other uchi deshi had to follow all of them so we became very good at imitating. We had no rules regarding waza and I think that’s why Aikido became so popular.
Guillaume Erard: Interestingly, when one looks at the demonstration that O Sensei gave at the Asahi Journal in Osaka in 1935, he uses only his students from Tokyo, even though his Osaka students like Hisa Takuma and Nakatsu Heizaburo are present, and the techniques he shows are quite different from those that we know were practiced in Osaka, where O Sensei was employed to teach Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. This led me to hypothesise that there might have been different practices in Osaka and Tokyo, with the former being more like standard Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, and the latter being more of an evolution of his techniques, something closer to his later life Aikido. What is your take on that?
Kobayashi Yasuo: I don’t think that’s true. People can’t move smoothly like that straight away, so if you go to new places, you might teach more of a traditional, basic method of training rather than something like a flow. There were a lot of people coming to and out of Honbu Dojo and the techniques gradually changed. So I think it’s just that you look at a certain demonstrations differently from normal lessons.
Ueshiba Morihei – Demonstration in Osaka (1935)
Guillaume Erard: Since we are talking about demonstrations, I am always puzzled by the uncanny displays shown in some pictures of O Sensei, like the one where he holds a stick at 90 degrees compared to his students pushing against it.
Kobayashi Yasuo: This snap was taken in a blink of an eye. It looks like this in the picture but it’s actually not 90 degrees in real life. It’s a matter of angle, and it’s not a long time, more like a second. Stop for a bit and let it fall like this. Everyone wonders how it’s done but theoretically if you are doing it 90 degrees, you can’t do it. It was like an angle trick.
Ueshiba Morihei with Kobayashi Yasuo and Chiba Kazuo
Actually, you also see those ones where he is letting someone push his head while sitting right? The truth is you couldn’t push it because it was too slippery, so even three people together couldn’t do it. Everyone always wonders how but it’s no wonder at all for me, for someone who was actually doing it because Sensei told me to.
O Sensei in demonstration
That kind of thing becomes a legend and it just gets absurd. I make people angry when I say this though. (laughs)
Guillaume Erard: You wrote in your book that O Sensei did not do much kokyunage techniques.
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well, kokyunage… Everytime Ueshiba Sensei was around, we would do suwari waza because that would make him happy, but ultimately it made practice boring because it was based on immobilizations such as ikkyo, nikyo, and so on. So we started incorporating kokyu nage to add more variety in ukemi and strength building lessons.
It made him angry though. He would yell: “How will you be able to throw people by practicing that?” But regardless, I think it became a popular way to practice, especially among young people. It was more fun too. I’m sure we practiced techniques like ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, shihonage, and kotegaeshi, but young people kept doing it and it became a thing, in spite of what the teachers taught.
That said, Kisshomaru didn’t oppose it. My seniors like Yamaguchi Sensei were also doing that kind of techniques too.
Guillaume Erard: How did O Sensei’s technique feel compared to that of others?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well, Budo people initially had strong, well trained bodies. In my time, it was more like a flow rather than grabbing each other tightly. At the time, even though he was 70 years-old, he was still strong and when we tried to resist, he would throw us hard, so we would flow together. Some people who just looked at it understood it as some sort of kokyu-ho technique and they started imitating but he had a completely different way to move. He was well-trained. It’s problematic when people try to imitate even though they are not well-trained. Some Aikidoka often dismiss physical training, some instructors even have very slack and unfit bodies.
Guillaume Erard: How was O Sensei’s body?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well in the evening, I sometimes had to massage his body. I was massaging his muscles and he used to tell me that I was doing it too softly. His body was well trained for this age, I remember it was hard to massage his muscles.
Ueshiba Morihei bearing a muscular, well conditioned body in spite of his age
Guillaume Erard: People nowadays talk a lot about internal training. Did O Sensei study those skills?
Kobayashi Yasuo: O Sensei did different kinds of training like staying on a mountain, exploring Hokkaido, and some religious, Omoto-kyo training, with Deguchi Onisaburo Sensei. Zazen is usually commonly practiced in such settings. I think that’s how he trained himself.
Guillaume Erard: Was that a part of what he was teaching?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well yes, used to do things like torifune, “he-ho, he-ho”, as well as chinkon, and things with a sword, some Ki exercises. He linked it to the stories about the Gods. Personally, I didn’t really like that kind of stories so I was hoping it would end quickly. But there were a variety of people who were some sort of missionaries who came. When I was there, there were some budo veterans, and also those who were doing some health practices such nishishiki or brown rice diets. I think that Yamaguchi Sensei did something along those lines. Tenpukai, those sorts of people. Then average people started to come. I think it was around 1965. There were more students too.
Guillaume Erard: Do you know about O Sensei’s weapons training experience?
Kobayashi Yasuo: I don’t know about that because it happened in his past and not I didn’t research it.
Guillaume Erard: Is it true that O Sensei did not teach weapons at Hombu Dojo?
Kobayashi Yasuo: No it isn’t, I have pictures to prove it. That said, O sensei kept changing kata depending on how he was feeling that day and Saito Sensei from Iwama formalized it. He used to teach at Hombu on Sundays or when he had day offs from his work at the Japanese National Railways. He would always teach at Hombu Dojo then. Unlike many other teachers, I just follow the basics that Saito Sensei taught without adding unnecessary things like Katori or others.
O Sensei teaching the staff at the Hombu Dojo
Guillaume Erard: There are no weapons class at Hombu nowadays, right?
Kobayashi Yasuo: It is said that Aikdio movements come from the sword so I think it is better to practice it, theoretically. I think it is strange to ban it.
Guillaume Erard: Do you teach weapons?
Kobayashi Yasuo: I like empty-handed techniques better. With a jo, I can defeat amateurs but I never do it in front of real Budoka. So I don’t show it in demonstrations even though I do it in the Dojo. I’ve never used jo or bokken at major demonstrations, only empty-handed techniques. I like empty-handed techniques but I incorporate weapons into practice because I think it’s necessary, but I don’t really like it, I’m bad at it. I try not to be criticised or seem inappropriate from the perspectives of other Budoka. I don’t do it in official settings like seminars or demonstrations. Some people use a sword at the All Japan Demonstrations but I never do such a thing.
Kobayashi Yasuo – Demonstration in Tokyo (2017)
Guillaume Erard: You, yourself, attended Ichikukai and Tenpukai didn’t you?
Kobayashi Yasuo: In Ichikukai, I did some misogi training in seiza, and some intense tanren. I did that for a short while. We did it from 5am to 7pm, except during meals. We’d light a senko and sit in this posture for three days. If someone moved, they would get their back or knee smacked. It is intense but useful in training the core of a human being. Tenpukai was led by Nakama Tenpu Sensei and it taught people to take charge and to think actively in their lives. I think it’s useful in times when you must make a decision. I think that way of thinking also helped me to expand the Kobayashi Dojos.
Guillaume Erard: Let’s focus on the theories behind O Sensei’s Aikido. Did you understand O Sensei’s religious references?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well I didn’t know about things such as the Kojiki, that was the problem. I was always eager for it to be over. There were some people who knew about those religious things but I didn’t so I just focused on working out. I couldn’t remember the names of all those gods. I do Aikido with the slogan: “Aikido for as many people as possible”.
Guillaume Erard: You mentioned earlier that Aikido had never been demonstrated to the public until late in the life of O Sensei. He seems to have been rather secretive about his art. Is it reasonable to assume that he may not have been displaying his real technique during those public demonstrations?
Kobayashi Yasuo: No, classes and demonstrations were exactly the same. On stage, he would just do what he did during lessons, he did nothing differently. It might look different from far away though. He used to give lectures during demonstrations too. Our legs would go numb if he talked for a long time. But during demonstrations, the time was limited so that was better. During classes, he would sometimes talk for an hour, but he couldn’t do that during demonstrations It was just a bit of talking and a bit of performance.
Although he did exactly the same thing, the audience might look at it differently if they don’t get to see it often.
Guillaume Erard: Is today’s Aikido very different compared to that when you started?
Kobayashi Yasuo: It’s not fundamentally different but there were fewer techniques. It was centered around the immobilization techniques. Well, everyone likes to compare but I just do the basics but personally, I just do the basics, and I don’t think it’s any different.
Teachers have different styles and it’s the same at the Honbu too right? There are many different teachers and [Ueshiba] Moriteru Sensei teaches the fundamentals. However, in our Kobayashi Dojos, things are more uniform. I guess there’s a good thing about it though, because it’s spreading around the world. Many people like the style taught at Kobayashi Dojo. I am sometimes surprised to find Kobayashi Dojos in some unknown countries, open by some of our students.
Guillaume Erard: How long did you stay in Hombu Dojo?
Kobayashi Yasuo: I started in 1955 and I kept training there until 1972.
Guillaume Erard: Why did you leave Hombu Dojo?
Kobayashi Yasuo: When, we built the dojo in Kodaira, here, I was still at same time an instructor at the Hombu Dojo. There were not many instructors who had their own dojo back then. I would teach here when I didn’t have a practice there. When I opened the dojo in Tokorozawa, Kisshomaru Sensei called me over and told me to concentrate on the two dojos. I did not want to quit my job at the Hombu but I decided to concentrate on on my dojos as I was told. I guess that was a good call after all. I get to do things freely. Yeah, I guess that was good.
Building of the first Kobayashi Dojo in Kodaira
Guillaume Erard: How did you begin teaching in your own dojo?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Well, I thought about that at some point, whether I would open a Dojo or stick to my path as a Budoka, and if it would become popular that way. But I thought about it on my own as I always do, and I opened a dojo here to offer a place for practice to those students who were having a lockout at their school. [Note: At that time, universities were closed because of students protests.] So I invited those students and there were 10 to 20 people eating and living around here.
As there was a need for financing, some people joined to take charge of that and that was the beginning of Kobayashi Dojo. Since then we’ve had more people, and we just do what we do. I don’t give lectures and I don’t explain at all how to do techniques. Interestingly it still spreads, right? It’s a bit like that abroad too. But it still spreads so I guess what I do is not wrong.
Kobayashi Yasuo teaching in Kodaira
Guillaume Erard: How did things grow from there?
Kobayashi Yasuo: Me and my son Hiroaki started and some students started to come. And what I’m grateful for is that some people built a dojo and offered to let us use it or they had some land and allowed us to build a dojo on it. There were five or six of such people. I guess it was because I was training hard at aikido and they liked me. So there were five to six people and from there, it spread like this. The two of us were teaching at Kodaira and Tokorozawa, Wednesdays and Fridays here and Tuesdays and Thursdays there, like that. But because of those people, we had uchi deshi like Igarashi coming. So it has worked out fine and spread thanks to those people who made offerings, as well as those people who stopped working to become sort of uchideshi. Also, members of the Kobayashi Dojo are the only ones to take exams at Hombu Dojo.
Matsuoka Hiromi, a long time student of Kobayashi Yasuo being promoted to 4th Dan
I always try new things in Aikido. You know about Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers right? Kobayashi dojo was the first to do it. I don’t just talk about its ideals, I promote it through hard work. We also established a financial support system. We invite those who are facing financial challenges to Kobayashi Dojo. Yeah we do a lot of new things like that.
Guillaume Erard: In how many countries are there Kobayashi Dojos?
Kobayashi Yasuo: I guess it’s around 40 or more? It’s not written there, I haven’t written it down lately. I think around 40 came to my 80th birthday. I guess it’s more than 50 countries in total.
Guillaume Erard: You mentioned gradings, how do you conduct those in such a large organization?
Kobayashi Yasuo: There was a Dan system when I opened my dojos and each dojo was doing it on its own. We did what we did here, Tokorozawa was doing its thing, and so was Hachioji. There were not many people right? We taught them ourselves day to day so when they didn’t do well during the exam, we were like: “you can’t do it today but you usually can so it’s okay”.
But then as there were more instructors, things became different by region. When there were few people, we let all of them pass because we felt bad about failing them. And there were differences between Igarashi Dojo’s shodan and Horikoshi Dojo’s shodan and people started to compare them. So I called all of them to Hombu Dojo one day. I asked them to perform in front of me and I failed half of them. So a lot of them failed right? Those who taught at regional dojos complained and blamed me for hurting their reputation and said they would leave Kobayashi Dojo. And I said alright, alright. Then next occasion, I failed half of them again. But that was actually a good call. People thought that we were serious and didn’t compromise. We had more people coming and it just kept increasing. It’s good that we failed them rather than passing them. Those who leave will leave anyway. Anyway, I thought we could always start again, my son Hiroaki and I, like we did before. But I guess people were actually impressed with it. The second time, everyone disagreed again with failing half of them but I told them that these people couldn’t pass and that they were not even close. In spite of that, no one ended up leaving. The world is interesting. (laughs) Well if you fail, you can just start over.
Guillaume Erard: What do you think about the aging of the Aikido population?
Kobayashi Yasuo: It might not be attractive for young people because there are no competitions. They want matches where the strong win, like win or lose. But after a time, people will stop caring about things like that and start to do Aikido.
Well in my time, aikido was rare but now is the era of information technology and there are a lot of things. Jujutsu is pretty popular in America and Europe right? Aikido is also one of the waves. Those who like this kind of thing gather naturally so I don’t think we have to worry too much.
Well it’s true, young people are not really interested, population is declining too. In America and Europe, it’s usually older people, you see old people at seminars too. Well I think that’s fine too though. Young people are doing some other things like working out but I think they will be interested and start joining us. Worrying about it is not going to help anyway.
Guillaume Erard: What s your long term hope for Kobayashi Dojo?
Kobayashi Yasuo: In the future, I want more and more people to get along and enjoy practice, and also to be able to talk about whatever we want like today.
Guillaume Erard and Mihály Dobróka interviewing Kobayashi Shihan
There are different levels; there are people who have been doing this for 30 to 40 years and there are complete beginners. So I tell them a little bit personally but I don’t demonstrate in front of them. They can do it by themselves and senpais can also teach them. It’s like that abroad too, a similar teaching style. I don’t explain things. Some people ask me if I’m going to explain it but I’m tell them that it’s self-explanatory. So I don’t need an interpreter. And everyone enjoys it and that’s what matters I guess. So yeah I think it’ll be even more popular.
And now it’s about communication. It’s no longer like Senseis go there and teach. If you want to come, you come and learn from each other. There is a plenty of 7th or 8th Dan Sensei abroad too. And we, especially young ones, go back and forth, to enjoy it. Like Ueshiba Sensei said: “Aikido is fun”.
In the end, whether you hold here instead of here, kotegaeshi is kotegaeshi anyway. We would only have a problem if you started calling it shihonage though. (laughs) Anyway, I guess it’s okay the way it is. That’s like my ideology. Some people might criticize it but since it’s becoming more popular, I don’t think it’s wrong