Interview with Masao Ishii, 6th Dan
Masao Ishii Sensei is an instructor at Mie University, Tsu City, Mie Prefecture, Japan. He was a long serving student of Yamaguchi Sensei. He visited Canberra, Australia for 6 months in 1999/2000 on sabbatical to Australian National University. In this time he taught AKI Canberra students, who enjoyed his excellent clear instruction and attention to detail.
Nigel Carruthers-Taylor (NCT): Thank you, Ishii Sensei, for agreeing to be interviewed. We've just finished training here in Canberra, and you are about to leave us and go back to Japan. I personally want to thank you very much for all the effort you've gone to, it's been really great and very inspirational.
Ishii Sensei: I also want to thank you for joining my training.
NCT: Ishii Sensei, how long have you been studying Aikido?
Ishii Sensei: 35 years
NCT: and all that time with Yamaguchi Sensei?
Ishii Sensei: Yes
NCT: Where did you initially start Aikido?
Ishii Sensei: In Musashi high school, with Yamaguchi Sensei
NCT: So what made you get interested?
Ishii Sensei: Well, I was thinking about Judo, but I had heard about Aikido, so I went to see how they trained, and saw Yamaguchi Sensei. He was so fantastic that I decided to train in Aikido.
NCT: What Dan Grade was Yamaguchi Sensei at that time?
Ishii Sensei: 7th Dan
NCT: Really? So you started training there. Did you have a chance to train with O'Sensei then?
Ishii Sensei: Well, at that time he was already retired and he didn't have a regular class. I was only 15 years old. I went to Hombu dojo many times, where there were many teachers teaching regular classes. I expected to see O'Sensei at the dojo. His home was just next to Hombu dojo, and I expected him to come out of his room to teach us. But he didn't come to the dojo often. After a few months I learned that it was only for Yamaguchi Sensei's and Kisshomaru Sensei's classes that he came to the dojo to join us. This means that O'Sensei was not interested in other teachers training.
NCT: I see. Tell us a bit more about Yamaguchi Sensei. We don't know a lot about him. I hear he was one of the few Sensei's who trained with O'Sensei almost until he died, is that right?
Ishii Sensei: Yes. As far as I know, Yamaguchi Sensei was one of the few Sensei's who trained with O'Sensei until he died. O' Sensei sometimes did demonstrations, and he always called Yamaguchi Sensei as his uke. I was told this story from Yamaguchi Sensei's wife that sometimes O'Sensei wanted Yamaguchi to be with him, so he would send someone to call Yamaguchi from his home to the dojo even in the late evening. So Yamaguchi Sensei's wife was sometimes upset!
NCT: Obviously Yamaguchi Sensei's Aikido is different from many other Sensei's, and other styles. Why do you think his style developed differently?
Ishii Sensei: I think Yamaguchi Sensei's style is a direct teaching from O'Sensei, that's all.
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NCT: How many Sensei's in the world are teaching Yamaguchi Sensei's style? It's not popular in, say, comparison to mainstream Aikikai?
Ishii Sensei: Yes, only a few. Only through a few Sensei's in Japan, Christian Tissier in Europe, and the Aikido Kenkyu Kai group.
NCT: What Sensei's are popular for Yamaguchi Sensei's style?
Ishii Sensei: Christian Tissier in Paris and Franck Noel in Toulouse, France, are popular in Europe. Yamaguchi Sensei used to visit France regularly. Popular Japanese Sensei's are Y. Takeda Sensei, Masatoshi Yasuno Sensei (7th Dan) who is a teacher of Hombu dojo, Koibuchi Sensei (in Ibaragi Prefecture), and Noguchi Sensei (he is professor of the faculty of Technology, Meiji University and teaching Aikido to Meiji University's Aikido Club).
NCT: And you, of course, have dojos in Kyushu, in Japan.
Ishii Sensei: That's right, several dojos in Saga in Kyushu. I am also teaching at Mie University, in Tsu City where I live, but I share the dojo with another Sensei.
NCT: So how did you end up with dojos in Kyushu, when you are from Tokyo?
Ishii Sensei: I visit Saga regularly. When Yamaguchi Sensei was alive, I asked him to visit Saga twice a year and I also visited there twice a year. But after Yamaguchi Sensei's death I visit there more often. I usually teach four days training session each time I visit Saga.
NCT: You've been teaching us important points of the movements, and there's been a lot for us to think about, particularly moving inside the movement, also "killing the body" of our opponent, such that their movement is ineffective, and so on. What do you think are the most important points for us to concentrate on in our training.
Ishii Sensei: It's my opinion that the most important is the footsteps I've been teaching.
NCT: You mean the alignment of the body with the feet and the transfer of the weight during the movement?
Ishii Sensei: Yes, this is very important to the movement. You can learn this by thinking about sword cuts and the mechanics of how the sword moves. - break the movement down to stages and notice the transfer of weight on the feet. Use this same movement in the techniques.
NCT: You actually studied sword for a while, didn't you?
Ishii Sensei: Yes, I studied Kashima Shin Ryu style.
NCT: Yes, again this seems a more unusual style.
Ishii Sensei: I don't know about that, some people study Yagyu Ryu, that's very popular, and Itto Ryu, which is the basis of Aikido. So, I'm not sure about that, because I'm no longer training in sword.
NCT: The sword cuts you have shown us are very similar to the feet and where the weight goes.
Ishii Sensei: Well, yes it is, but the movement of the feet was all taught by Yamaguchi Sensei - it's not my invention.
NCT: So, do you think learning sword is beneficial to Aikido?
Ishii Sensei: Yes, beneficial, but its quite different from Aikido. Aikido has its own way, and so does sword. So you should respect each one - they're different training.
NCT: What other things can we gain from practicing sword cuts?
Ishii Sensei: Especially the position of the hands. When people want to do something, they use their hands - only their hands. But the hands are part of your body and should not be separate to the other parts of your body. If your feet move, your hands should follow, along with the central part - the body.
NCT: Yes, I see. You were also telling us that in the original Daitto Ryu Aiki Jujutsu they had several levels being Jujutsu, Aiki Jujutsu and Aiki. Can you talk a bit more about that and the idea behind that.
Ishii Sensei: Yes, in the last part of Yamaguchi Sensei's life, he was thinking about a training system. Most people in Hombu dojo say that O'Sensei didn't have a training system, because he was so genius and so talented, he didn't need a training system. But according to Yamaguchi Sensei, that's not right. O'Sensei had his own training system and he taught it to Yamaguchi Sensei. So, its confusing. The training system of the present day Hombu Dojo, Aikikai, was developed by some teachers of Hombu Dojo under the second Doshu, Kisshomaru Sensei. But these teachers are not direct students of O'Sensei.
So in the last part of Yamaguchi Sensei's life, he was always talking about a training system from what O'Sensei had taught him - how to train, and how to teach. But he didn't finish his thinking because he died suddenly. I was told from Yamaguchi Sensei that Daitto Ryu had three stages, and I also read this in some books that these three stages existed. There are many people still studying Daitto Ryu today, and I don't know how they are training now.
NCT: So what are these three stages?
Ishii Sensei: The first stage is Jujutsu, which is only about technique, like how to turn you hand, or how to turn your body, or your step. And second stage is called Aiki Jujutsu, which is also about technique, but they apply Aiki. And the final stage is Aiki, just Aiki, the art of Aiki.
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NCT: And what would you call the art of Aiki?
Ishii Sensei: It's very difficult to explain because I myself didn't train Daitto Ryu. I can only show you what I guess on the mat. Probably this is the last stage of our search and the purpose of the training is this search for Aiki.
NCT: Is it about moving inside the movement and becoming part of it?
Ishii Sensei: Yes, how to control the movement. This part was secret before. They didn't teach it openly - only for the faithful and long lasting students.
NCT: And you were saying O'Sensei took these three stages and mixed them together.
Ishii Sensei: Yes, I can imagine what he was really thinking. In "Gorin no Sho", a 17th century book on the sword art, Miyamoto Musashi said that there was an assumed secrecy in the teaching of martial arts. But he said that there doesn't exist any secrecy in martial arts, just the most basic thing is the most important and the most difficult, and because it is difficult it seems like secret part. His thinking and O'Sensei's thinking seems similar. He taught the most important and the most difficult points from the beginning. But as you can understand, it is very difficult for the beginners to find the real significance of his teaching, the basic training. The advantage of his teaching method is that you can teach beginners and advanced people together at the same time but the problem is you can't grasp how these students, each in the different level, have advanced. I think Daitto Ryu recognises the difficulty to teach the most important points to the beginners and divided the training into three stages. O'Sensei adopted another training system, probably influenced by the mass preaching method of Ohmoto Kyo (a Shinto sect). He was religious. Anyway, I can't say which is the better way to teach Aikido. I sometimes try to break the teaching into various steps to make the point clear.
NCT: You also emphasise a lot of training on the knees, or up and down movements, was this also part of Yamaguchi Sensei's training methods?
Ishii Sensei: Certainly training on the knees was a strong part of his training and also of O'Sensei's. O'Sensei's training was, Yamaguchi Sensei told me, mostly on the basic things, training on the knees, Ikkyo, Shiho Nage, and sometimes Irimi. He didn't like his students to train other complicated movements. Yamaguchi Sensei's training was the same, mostly on these basic movements. The concept was, as I have just explained, the basic training is the shortest way to attain to the deepest points. I discussed with Yamaguchi Sensei about the training method many times, but I am sorry that his sudden death stopped our discussion. He was always thinking and thinking, and changing his ideas, so it is impossible to tell the definite way of training. But, anyway, I enjoyed discussing it with him.
NCT: You don't talk much about ki. What's your personal belief about ki - many aikidoka have different views on what ki is.
Ishii Sensei: Yes, I think it is some kind of mental energy, but I don't really like talking about ki. Probably I'm influenced by Yamaguchi Sensei's beliefs, in this way - he never liked to explain ki. There is no clear way of defining what is concrete or practical about ki. Best to just practice and feel the movement - even just simple movements like turning your hands can be an expression of ki.
NCT: O'Sensei's beliefs in ki were very much embedded in his own beliefs in his religion, weren't they? Did Yamaguchi Sensei try to understand O'Sensei's beliefs, like the kotodama?
Ishii Sensei: Yes, that's a long story, but O'Sensei and Yamaguchi Sensei understood each other very well, and Yamaguchi Sensei believed in the concepts that O'Sensei believed in.
NCT: For us who are studying Aikido now, is it important to study those concepts, like kotodama and so on.
Ishii Sensei: No, I don't think so. It's very personal - like religion. I was always taught to do Aikido practically and do concrete things - never to worry about mysterious powers or so on. Many times O'Sensei would come out and teach about Gods, but, as Yamaguchi Sensei explained, everyone has their own ways of explanation, and because O'Sensei was so religious, that was the only way for him to explain it. His explanation was very religious, but what his teaching to Yamaguchi Sensei was very real - practical. He was only teaching to his real students, Yamaguchi Sensei included.
NCT: From your experience and the way you have been taught, do you think that Aikido should remain the same as the way O'Sensei taught it, or do you think people should explore different movements?
Ishii Sensei: Yes I think so, we should explore and advance. O'Sensei himself always said he himself was always changing, and advancing Aikido. I heard from Yamaguchi Sensei that O'Sensei taught something one day and then the next day he taught it again differently, and he asked the students to forget about what he taught the day before. So, I heard myself that O'Sensei was always thinking and always changing. Many people have taken O'Sensei's movements and teach them the same, but Yamaguchi Sensei said that we should always explore the movements. You can feel whether a movement is right or not through your training.
NCT: Some people come to Aikido thinking they are going to learn how to fight, but then get confused when they see the kind of training we do.
Ishii Sensei: Well, I think Aikido is very practical. I believe Aikido has two purposes, one is to learn about how the body moves but is also about fighting, as Aikido is a true budo and must be practical. We must remind ourselves of this - it is real. Ushiro waza, for example must be real, we can't just stand and let the person attack from behind - that's not practical, it never happens. We used to learn fighting from Yamaguchi Sensei. You can also learn in your training about how to treat various attacks.
NCT: You talk a lot about Omote and Ura rather than Irimi and Tenkan. Can you talk a bit about that.
Ishii Sensei: Yes, Omote is front and Ura is behind, but they also teach you about how to conceptualise the movements or the aspects of the movements. Tenkan and irimi are very concrete things - tenkan is how to turn your body and irimi is to go inside. Omote and Ura are a different level of thinking - a way to find or explain the movement inside the movement. In the world of the sword there are two ways Ito Ryu - the basis of Aikido, and Kange, which is the shade of the sun - the ura side, to come around the back. There are two ways to use the sword, to fight in front - Ito Ryu - or to come around the back - Kange. Two ways of thinking, ura and omote correspond to these.
NCT: Can you also explain what is meant by "Killing the body".
Ishii Sensei: This means to stop the opponent's movement in the process of doing your Aikido movement. Such as turning your hand so the opponent's body changes or even stops. This is very important in the dynamic of the movement.
NCT: I see. In terms of general training. what do you think of learning another martial art at the same time as Aikido?
Ishii Sensei: I see no harm in it, people can see the comparisons in the arts and explore them. But its best not to train in a hard way, or make the body stiffer.
NCT: Do you find Australians more tense than Japanese in their training?
Ishii Sensei: No, they are almost the same as Japanese - some are stiff, others are soft. All develop over time into a better, more flexible feeling in their bodies.
NCT: Do you find teaching woman different from teaching men?
Ishii Sensei: No, no differences. Traditionally men and women have been taught differently, but not these days. There are lots of women learning Aikido now. I was told by my sword teacher that traditionally men learned sword, while woman learn naginata -- the reason being the construction of men and women's bodies were different. Men could cut down easy, while women found this difficult and were taught to cut up using naginata. But in Aikido I find no real differences, usually men start hard and get softer as they advance, and women tend to start soft and get firmer as they advance.
NCT: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Ishii Sensei: I think the basic movement is the most important and should be taught often, such as the stepping position and the practice of sitting and standing through the movement. Aikido teachers need to teach these basics. Yamaguchi Sensei always taught us this.
NCT: Well, we've really enjoyed your training, so thank you very much and please return again.
Ishii Sensei: Thank you, please keep your training up and enjoy it. I consider myself very lucky, as I learned from a great teacher, Yamaguchi Sensei. He taught very differently from others, a very soft and powerful style, and he was trying to explain all things- he taught a system that showed you when you were doing the right thing, and when you were doing the wrong thing. Please study this well.
NCT: Thank you.