The Master & the Uke

Written by seiji nakae (translator) & tom seeto

As one of the main uchi-deshi (live-in disciples) of Yoshinkan aikido founder Gozo Shioda Soke, Takafumi Takeno Shihan, 9th Dan, has a rare pedigree in martial arts. After spending over 10 years as chief instructor at the late Shioda’s Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo in Tokyo, Takeno founded his own Yoshinkan branch in his hometown of Yamanashi. The veteran aikido master, known for his his dynamic technique and inspirational teaching, visited our shores over Easter. With him was his main student and assistant instructor, Chiemi Nakagawa Sensei, 5th Dan, a winner of the Annual All Japan Aikido Yoshinkai Embu (Demonstration) Taikai on several occasions. In between seminar sessions at Sydney’s Aikido Yoshinkai NSW dojo, run by Senseis Darren Friend and Peggy Woo, Tom Seeto caught up with the visiting masters on behalf of Blitz.


Takeno Sensei

Welcome to Sydney, Sensei. How long have you been practising aikido?
I have been training for 41 years. I began training under Gozo Shioda Sensei in Tokyo in 1968 as an uchi-deshi.
I watched Shioda Sensei’s embu [demonstration] and on that day I made up my mind to become a disciple.

You and Toshishiro Obata Kaiso (founder) of Shinkendo trained together as contemporaries and tested for 3rd or 4th Dan as partners — shite-uke. Can you please share your recollections of the training at that time?
Mr Toshishiro Obata, now living in USA, was my contemporary as uchi-deshi. We began training around the same time.
Uchi-deshi training was literally training 24 hours every day, without even one day off throughout the year. Outside of actual physical training we could not rest or relax, as we were always on call for the teachers.
We would repeat and repeat the same technique, training every day, although the training curriculum was changed monthly. Because of this intense training regimen, it was possible for me to gain my strongest technique and that was most rewarding.

How did you become an uchi-deshi?
You have to go through a trial period of apprenticeship for three months. People who made it through the three months were then admitted as uchi-deshi. There is no easy way or shortcut to becoming an uchi-deshi.
When I made it through that initial challenge, I was so happy I did not know how to express my feelings.
[Note: Being an uchi-deshi involves a very important and close relationship between teacher and student. Just living in the dojo for a period does not make one an uchi-deshi. In the Yoshinkan honbu or headquarters in Tokyo, there is an intensive, one-year course known as the Senshusei Course or simply ‘The Course’. All former Yoshinkan uchi-deshi had to undertake this course, but doing the course does not make one an uchi-deshi. This course is open to anyone who really wants to commit themselves to full-time aikido training for a year in Tokyo. Currently there are no uchi-deshi at the Yoshinkan Honbu.]

Traditionally, to be an uchi-deshi is a great commitment and there is an expectation that such a person would be a professional budo (martial arts) instructor. Was this something that you aspired to from the very beginning of your aikido journey?
I did not start aikido with any expectations to become an instructor or to be something. I was completely fascinated by Shioda Sensei’s aikido, and I was always only thinking about how to learn his aikido.
In addition to being a full-time professional aikido instructor, you also had a career appearing on Japanese TV, I understand?
I was involved in some action TV dramas. They required aikido techniques as part of the action scenes, so I was teaching aikido to the cast members. However, difficult techniques cannot simply be done by anyone. I ended up performing in the dramas as an extra and stuntman, and also instructing aikido to the cast.

How would you describe your aikido journey? Did you have any expectations about the training?
Aikido is my life. I think that keiko [training] should not be started with set expectations. Through keiko, one will find something to aim at. In training, it is necessary to make constant efforts to find out all sorts of answers and obtain new goals.

I understand you conduct very intensive training camps. What is the focus of these training camps?
We do hold special training, which is mainly to learn the techniques by intensive practice. We try to fit the program to the needs of the students. [Note: Yamanashi Yoshinkan often has visitors from abroad for intensive two-to-four-week sessions.]

There are many DVDs about aikido. Can one learn aikido from DVDs?
My training is only aikido training in the dojo, nothing else. What I delight in most is training with people who practise aikido with their heart. Therefore I am always thinking about this.
I think it is okay to have various ways of training, depending on the individual’s own goal, aim and circumstances.

People who see aikido for the first time sometimes remark that aikido is faked; that it does not work in a real self-defence situation. How do you help people to understand the nature of aikido and its effectiveness?
If you continue training over and over correctly, and learn the techniques fully, aikido is a very effective form of self-defence. The correct approach to training requires a full commitment to each technique and repeated practise over and over to make it your own aikido.

The sempai–kohai (senior–junior) relationship exists in Japanese martial arts, educational institutions and companies. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, much like a mentor and trainee. Could you please comment on this relationship in a traditional martial art like Yoshinkan aikido? How does the relationship work when a kohai is graded higher than the sempai, which could happen over time?
The relationship between sempai and kohai is a matter of the mind. I do not think the relationship will be changed simply by changing grades.

Many people think about getting fit, learning self-defence and self-discipline, etc. when they think about learning a traditional Japanese martial art. Should we order or rank these goals?
The goal or aim of budo training is something each budoka [martial artist] should think about for themselves. As for my goal in aikido, it is simply that I would like to train the aikido of Gozo Shioda Sensei repeatedly and continuously.

Is there much difference between the training when you first started and the training now?
Regardless of age and sex, everybody can do aikido training. It is possible to change the way of training depending on your own goal. I also follow this point of view.

You were a senior sensei at the Yoshinkan Honbu in Tokyo but you went to Yamanashi to teach aikido in 1988. What motivated you to go there?
I opened the dojo in Yamanashi because I wanted to make aikido popular in my home town. And Yamanashi is the place where aikido started.
[Note: Modern aikido is derived from Daito-Ryu aiki-jujutsu. The Daito-Ryu lineage is considered to extend about 900 years back to Shinra Saburō Minamoto No Yoshimitsu, who lived between 1045 and 1127. He settled in the area now known as Yamanashi, passing the art down to family members. Among the modern forms of aikido, Yoshinkan is generally considered closest to Daito-Ryu aiki-jujutsu.]

There must be some quality beyond attaining technical excellence to be a sensei in a traditional martial art like aikido. Can you please comment on what it means to be a ‘sensei’ in Yoshinkan aikido?
I think that the definition of ‘sensei’ is different for everyone or each occupation. As for the qualities entailed in being a sensei, each person should think that over for themselves. For me, all my life I have always put being a budoka above being a teacher.

What advice do you have for anyone who is thinking of becoming a professional aikido instructor?
Don’t look for results in a hurry. Train with all your heart, with a solid intent and purpose. Please always endeavour to improve your techniques — never become complacent or self-satisfied in your training.

Nakagawa Sensei

Welcome to Sydney, Sensei. What was your motivation for practising aikido initially, and what keeps you inspired to continue practising?
I started aikido in 1974 because I wanted to learn Japanese budo. Then in 1986–87, I was introduced to Takeno Sensei, who accepted me as his uchi-deshi. Takeno Sensei is an inspiration for me. My family has been really supportive of my aikido practice and this also inspires me to continue training.

Have you trained in any other martial art?
Yes, I did iaido [sword-drawing], but it was to assist me with aikido, as aikido techniques are based on sword movements.

What other interests do you have besides Yoshinkan aikido?
Aikido is my budo and outside of budo, I don’t have any other serious interests. I do enjoy music though.

Your children also practise Yoshinkan aikido — did you influence them to take up aikido?
I have two adult sons. Both of them started practising aikido when they were only two years old. As I was practising aikido, it was natural that they started to train as soon as they were able to.

Are people surprised when they learn that you teach Yoshinkan aikido, or do they treat you differently? Do people make any assumptions about women who practise a traditional martial art like aikido?
I don’t really talk about my aikido career generally. But people have noticed that I have good posture, and I have a good attitude and presence of mind. So, sometimes people ask me if I practise budo.
In Japan, there are many women who practise budo. Budo is practised by girls (and boys) at school. It is not unusual, so people are not surprised and they don’t hold any assumptions.

As the Chief Instructor at Yamanashi Yoshinkan, has anyone tried to test or challenge you in the dojo because you are a woman sensei?
There have been some who tried. But the problems quickly stop when I show them solid techniques. They become quite attentive when a woman is able to execute powerful techniques.

Have you ever had to use aikido outside of the dojo?
No. It is a martial art that is quite effective for self-defence, so we should not use it unless the circumstances really demand it.
I think part of living and practising aikido is to develop an awareness or sixth sense of situations that can be dangerous. You aim to become sensitive to approaching danger and not put yourself in it carelessly. You learn not to be unguarded, so you can avoid or escape from the danger.

As a senior Black-belt, do you feel that you may be a role model for women aikidokas?
This is not something that I think about or try to do consciously. I try to be a decent human being, teaching and practising correct aikido and attitude.

There are quite a few movie clips on the Internet of Sensei Takeno demonstrating aikido on you as his uke [‘receiver’], and you are thrown quite vigorously. What are you thinking of when you’re being thrown?
As uke, the person who receives the technique, I am totally focused on Takeno Sensei’s movements. You cannot afford to lose concentration for one moment, particularly when you are uke to someone as skilled as he is. When uke is not paying attention, this is when a serious injury can occur.

We usually regard a very muscular person as powerful and strong, but in aikido, there is a different understanding of strength and power. How does an aikidoka achieve power in aikido?
By practising our basics and techniques over and over again regularly, we can achieve power as we train our body and mind. So Yoshinkan aikido can be practised by the young, old, not-so-strong, and it appeals to women.

It has been said that to practise aikido is to practise resolving conflicts. Could you please comment on this?
I have had some cases where I was able to solve difficult problems as I had been training aikido very hard. And even on occasions when I had an unexpected setback, I was able to deal with it positively and not dwell on it. Aikido training enriches my life. You learn and practise patience and perseverance, and this helps to overcome life’s challenges.

What advice do you have to give to women who are thinking of doing aikido?
Aikido is an excellent martial art for women to learn and practise. Aikido does not depend on strength. It is useful not only for self-defence, but it also trains and disciplines the mind and body, and facilitates a lifestyle that is healthy and well balanced. Please enjoy aikido and make good use of it.