Stewart Letford Sensei interview

'5th Dan, Chief Instructor, and Founder of Aikido Kenkyu Kai in Australia 
The following interview was conducted in October 1995 at a special training weekend with Stewart in Canberra.'

Nigel Carruthers-Taylor (NCT): Stewart, tell us a bit about yourself, such as how long you've been doing aikido and how you came to train with Takeda Sensei.

Stewart: I've been training in aikido for 25 years. Ten with another Sensei. He left, and I was unhappy with the training, along with a few other people: Ralph Pettman, Bob Gibbon, Steve Seymour. At that time a student of (Takeda) Sensei's turned up to train. He was a Japanese student who had come to learn English. That was Suzuki Sensei, Yasu Suzuki. He turned up at the Uni (Australian National University in Canberra) and he was very soft, powerful, relaxed - all the qualities that we had read about but never seen. We were impressed and asked him to teach us at a class I had going at the PCYC (Police and Citizen's Youth Club in Turner, ACT).

I remember I scared the hell out of him at the time, as I was pretty rough and had a big handle-bar moustache. I came over to Yasu and said 'What grade are you?' 'Where are you from?'. Yasu thought I was some kind of Australian yakuza (gangster). Then I told him we wanted him to teach and that we would pick him up from his apartment before every training. He was totally at a loss. It took him 3 months of being picked up and dropped off before he realised that he only lived 5 minutes walk from the PCYC dojo.

The year after that I went to Japan and met his teacher, Takeda Sensei. I went there to find a teacher, and did Tohei (Ki Society) style, but in the evenings I would go off and train with Sensei. In the end I preferred the training with Sensei. He said he would help us, and the following Christmas he came to Australia. That was 1980 and the beginning of Shonan Renmei. It all started at Turner PCYC.

NCT: Who were the founding members at the time?

Stewart: There was Ralph Pettman and Bob Gibbon. Students were Dave Willcocks, Greg Carter, a lady by the name of Louis Wetnor, and others. In Sydney there was Steve Seymour. The Newcastle group also came with us under Bob Gibbon. Shortly after Mike McGregor, Bruce Lowes and Barry Lind joined. They brought lots of friends and it took off from there. It was always small groups, and slowly they all went off to Japan and became Dan grades, came back, and set up classes of their own. And it naturally grew from there. People would leave and start up their own group somewhere else. Now there are a large number of small groups spread all over Australia.

I left Canberra in 1985 and moved to the Gold Coast, started a new group there. Merissa Pearson came up, a few others there joined me from another group - Stewart Ralf. It was a natural growth. Ralph Pettman now has a dojo at the University in Wellington where he works, and Steve Seymour is also in New Zealand.

NCT: The groups are fairly autonomous, aren't they, in the way that they do things, with the training being the common interest.

Stewart: They are fairly autonomous groups, and they all contribute to Takeda Sensei. He sets the trend for training and creates the link for the groups. That's the binding thing. The whole thing is held together by a training relationship. The political set up is that we all contribute to Shonan Renmei, with the funds going to Sensei. There's no actual national funds. We didn't want them, because we thought they would cause trouble. Each place collects their money in an autonomous way.

NCT: Give us a bit more background on Takeda Sensei. I believe he did study with O-Sensei at various times, is that right?

Stewart: He trained with O-Sensei when he was quite young. He's teacher is Yamaguchi Sensei (this interview was conducted prior to Yamaguchi Sensei's passing away). Already at that stage O-Sensei was quite old, and Takeda Sensei only did odd lessons with him, but he never got taught by him on a regular basis. He has studied with Yamaguchi Sensei, and technically he is still his student. Yamaguchi Sensei wants him to go to France in his place and things like that - he's one of Yamaguchi Sensei's top students. He's a director of Aikikai too - which is a bit of a laugh given the situation here in Australia.

NCT: How popular is his style in Japan - how many Shonan Renmei dojos are there in Japan?

Stewart: Oh, I'm not sure, maybe 10 or more. The most famous is Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura - that's Shonan Renmei. That's one of the famous shrines in Japan where they have big festivals. Shonan Renmei is the official club there - the Shrine's a huge complex.


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NCT: Now, why do you do Aikido?

Stewart: I don't know!

NCT: Well, why did you start?

Stewart: It was a long time ago. I was doing Judo, and I wanted to do a martial art for simple self defence reasons . I wanted to do something that I felt a smaller person could do in a less confrontational way, where weight and strength didn't matter. That was the simple view that I had. I was walking through Launceston (Tasmania, Australia), I saw a sign that said Aikido and somebody said, a Judo teacher I was with, he thought it was twisting people's wrists and things like that to bring them down, but he didn't know. So I drove to Launceston the night it was on and joined the class, under a great man named Peter Yost - 1970 it was. He became a friend. A nice man.

NCT: And what got you hooked?

Stewart: Peter Yost, I think he was a Shodan at the time, just the movement and the way he spoke about it really impressed me. It's obviously a very graceful art, and being an artist that was immediately appealing to me, just the sheer appearance of it. And seeing he could make it work well, smoothly on me as a beginner, I sort of just fell in love with it.

NCT: And as you developed more and more, does it still continue to open up for you?

Stewart: Oh yeah, it changes all the time, because it's an awareness art. It's a process of self and universal discovery. It just has to change. As your awareness opens up, so everything around changes. It's part of the process, it's just a natural thing. The awareness, the consciousness, that changes about things, so everything else goes with it. The whole thing evolves.

NCT: So when we train now, we do a lot of the internal movements, but beginners find it difficult to understand what we're doing. What do you think, as teachers of the beginners, we should be concentrating on?

Stewart: Well my views are different from others. I think you just make them move. Tell them not to think too much, actually start immediately trying to slow down the activity of the cerebral cortex from the first day and let their body learn, not their brain. Then they'll learn faster. I think the brain is the thing that stands in the way of learning Aikido. The actual cells of the body are quite intelligent and they can learn for you. You don't have to rack your brains too much. So just moving is the essence, and when it comes to gradings they have to study the basic technique, but I don't think that there's anytime that you shouldn't introduce the feeling of the art, even if it seems advanced. But at the same time we have a duty to teach the basics, because it's Sensei who actually puts out the feeling to us. He wants all his Dan grades to be able to teach the movements of the art, so he doesn't have to do it himself and when he comes he can concentrate on the feeling. We will find all those feelings inside those basics, and after doing a training camp we go away, go back to the basics and bring those feelings easily into those. All you've got to do is allow it to happen. And you're still doing the same thing on the outside but on the inside the awareness has changed. But I don't believe that there is a time when you should, with beginners, do an external art in the hope that later on they can internalise it. It's got to be internalised from the first day. I don't think it's a good idea to wait for a time when it will internalise itself. They should know from the beginning to start to try to expand their awareness and quieten their cerebral cortex during their training, right from the first day. Postponing things is a very strange idea.

NCT: You mean doing technique over and over again until finally something clicks?

Stewart: Yeah. It makes their technique better anyway. It's just part of a whole, and if you separate things you'll lose things - and we're in a process of unification. I don't believe in just teaching basics until a certain level to someone and then saying to them they are allowed to do this (the feeling). But they must have a time when they learn basics. It's up to the teachers how they split their lessons up and what they do, because they're in charge of their own creativity, each dojo and each teacher. You can't tell them what to do. If you did, you'd destroy the art or them. Like Sensei, he just inspires people with a feeling and a way, and hopes they'll take that and create from it in their own way. It's not a tight or rigid instruction.

NCT: How do you feel about people studying other martial arts at the same time as Aikido? Do you think that other martial arts will impact their Aikido?

Stewart: People can do what they like. There may or may not be an impact. Everything's internalised in people. What's outside is inside. If they have a type of consciousness that sees conflicting duality between one thing they're doing and another, then they'll have that. If they have an inner concept/feeling that makes it all flow together like one thing then there'll be no conflict. It depends on them, not on something outside, not the arts. Although this art (Aikido) is a very relaxed soft sort of one, if they went on with a very stiff, hard tense sort of art, and they went with a consciousness that saw the connection, then there would be a connection there. One wouldn't influence the other, and they could come to Aikido and be soft, and go to the other and be stiff and hard, if it was required. Everything's to do with our inner view of the world. Maybe even the entire Universe is the inner you, I don't know. That's my feeling. So when people have problems, it's because the problem is inside them. Then it becomes outside as well. Sometimes that might be a necessary process in life, I don't know. I'm not criticising it. Maybe you need an inner conflict to change things on the outside. Maybe that's the natural way. This is not a criticism of the big pattern. For people who have conflicts inside, maybe they (the conflicts) are necessary to go through that.


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NCT: What else is important in the training, generally, that you would like to communicate to people?

Stewart: The most important step for most people now, because there is a lot of advanced people in training, and should have been from the beginning but we didn't bring along that sort of student, is to, as the movement is going on, slow down the cerebral cortex. Actually allow the thoughts to leave us, not hold us in any way. So it's more meditative. More like a meditation. The ideas will keep coming up, and you have to let them go, let them go, 'till it slows down. You can't fight or stop it, it's like punching yourself in the nose all the time. But that's very important. Thought is the blocking action for any awareness. The more busy you are here (the head) the less you can feel. It needs to be out of the way as much as possible. It's very difficult, but actually, I found that people who do it at the beginning actually do learn physically, even quicker. They don't need to think to learn.

NCT: So you're saying people who have an understanding of this, and practice a meditative movement will learn quicker?

Stewart: Yeah. They don't need to think to learn Aikido. Thinking is not part of the learning process. They'll just move and know it, at any level. There is no point in it. So Mr Takeda doesn't like too much emphasis on finicky techniques because they create thinking. And they create a very simple mechanical view of the Universe too. Dogmatism doesn't seem very real to him, I don't think. That's why he's very open. He doesn't insist in absolute ways of doing things, where a finger or a hand should be at any particular moment. So what you have through Takeda Sensei is not a typical Aikido. It's a rather unusual approach, probably. It would almost seem to some people probably unorthodox.

NCT: And now you've created a Hombu (home) dojo on the Gold Coast? (Post-script: this final part is of historical significance only, as the Hombu/centre discussed here has since been closed)

Stewart: Well it's not actually a Hombu dojo. It was Sensei's wishes to have a centre here in Australia, but it looks like the real Hombu might end up being under Mt Fuji in Japan. The land belongs to a monk, a Zen monk that works closely with Sensei called Motomiya, he's a Roshi (Zen Master). He will work with Sensei to build it. It's a very beautiful spot with trees at the base of the mountain. We will be invited to train and stay there, eventually. That's the dream.

So there will be a centre here, hopefully one in New Zealand (being built by Steve Seymour on the South Island), and there's one in Canada also. We're trying to become a international group with one centre in each country. Jean-Rene has a centre already being built in Canada (near Nelson, British Columbia).

The idea came from the development of CDC (Cultural Development through Collaboration), which I developed along with Sensei. It's meant to get cultural things operating as well as aikido, such as allied arts like Ikebana (flower arranging), healing arts and so on. I want to make it clear that CDC is not part of Shonan Renmei. It's actually a trust which has been invested in to build the house which will be the centre in Australia. People have invested in it from Japan and Australia. Shonan Renmei is a separate legal entity, a non-profit making organisation. The two run in parallel, and the same people who are interested in one are interested in the other, that's the link. There's no financial or legal links.

NCT: Tell us about the centre in Queensland. What's it for and how did it develop?

Stewart: Well, we had big ambitions to begin with, to build a center large enough for 50-100 people to stay in, a large piece of land, and there'd be all sorts of arts done there that are allied to Aikido in some way - arts of self awareness, that kind of training, meditation. But unfortunately not enough money was collected and we had an awful lot of trouble trying to buy land from local governments because of the Japanese involvement. That was through the 80's and 90's, until we realised that we needed to give up and just build a house and a dojo, where we could do advanced training for ourselves. Basically that's what it is. And now its a centre for small groups to go to, such as the black belt training, and do high quality intensive training.

NCT: So how big is it?

Stewart: It's 24 squares with a 40 mat dojo - it's quite a nice size. There a five areas for accommodation, a lounge, dining room, kitchen, ensuite, bathroom. It's a house that's been transformed on 3 acres of land.

NCT: Can anybody come up and train? What can people expect if they do end up training there?

Stewart: It's by invitation. People can come and stay for a while. If Sensei's running the training, if he's over, it'll be very advanced training about feelings and awareness, not basic technique. It's more suited to advanced training. We'll be doing other things too, like Mrs Tanaka's healing or Ikebana or something. There'll be other groups using it, sometimes from Japan.

NCT: Do you have to be a black belt to train there?

Stewart: For legal reasons we'd like people with a lot of experience there. It's private property and if anybody gets injured we might get sued. Less experineced students might be able to stay there, but normal training will be run at the Ashfield dojo not too far away - we're legally covered there, at the Police and Citizen's (Youth Club). I like it there, anybody can train: beginner's , anyone.

NCT: And what Sensei's vision for the centre? Is he planning to come and stay for a while, or will he come and go at various times?

Stewart: He'll come and go - he's got a lot of commitments. A lot of the groups from Japan will come and stay there. The other dojos from Shonan Aikido Renmei will come, have a time on the Gold Coast looking around and also training as a group. It will be used for a variety of reasons.

NCT: Well, I've run out of questions for the moment, so thank you Stewart and thank you for training with us.

Stewart: Thank you.