L-R Takashi Nonaka Sensei, Yasu Iwasa Sensei, Koichi Tohei, Kazuo Takaki Sensei,Kiyoshi Nagata Sensei. This picture was taken in 1955 in Hilo at the teahouse in Liliokulani park. Picture courtesy of Bernie Lau Sensei.
This is part one of a series of interviews I conducted with Aikido practitioners/pioneers who had experience taking ukemi and talking with O-Sensei during his 1961 visit to Hawaii.
O-Sensei’s only visit to Hawaii in 1961 was his only visit outside of Japan. During his two month stay many were fortunate to be called upon to take ukemi for O-Sensei. From what I understand O-Sensei was quite particular about who took ukemi for him and many outsiders or casual students never got to feel O-Sensei’s power. Also, unfortunately many of those who took ukemi for O-Sensei have passed away and are unable to share their stories. I was fortunate to speak with some with some of the remaining Hawaii Sensei who either took ukemi or were close with O-Sensei during his visit here.
Takashi Nonaka Sensei 8th dan with the Hilo Shin Shin Toitsu Do club was the translator for O-Sensei during his seven day visit to Hilo. Nonaka Sensei (At the time 2nd dan head instructor of the Hilo Aiki dojo) along with Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei (His otomo), Koichi Tohei Sensei (Then Chief instructor of Hombu), and Yukiso Yamamoto Sensei (Chief instructor of Hawaii) were O-Sensei’s constant companions during this short visit.
I asked Nonaka Sensei what his impression of O-Sensei was “Off the mat ….he was a typical old warm gentleman. On the mat it was different” He stated“His legs were weak because in Hawaii, to go up and down the stairs at the gym (Where the demonstrations were being held) I had to help him put his hand on my back and he would lean on me. But when he got on the mat he would stand up straight”
Nonaka Sensei stated that he never took ukemi for O-Sensei during the demonstration in open handed waza but had the opportunity to feel his power in other ways“ He was very fussy about who is taking uke” “I learned that from Tohei Sensei even in Japan. When he calls somebody he sticks his hand out ..if you wait.. you don’t respond …you don’t get called again. “It means you are daydreaming ..your mind is not there.” I heard that luckily before O Sensei came therefore when he stuck his bokken out and faced me ,hey I jumped!!”
During the opening ceremony of the Honolulu Aikikai Nonaka Sensei noticed something different about O-Sensei’s swordwork. “I watched him. I could see that when swings the ken he is cutting (People).” “ I am a kendo man. I got my shodan at 15. I had the record on this island the youngest before my 16th birthday. I trained hard. I read books about about swordsmen. I could read because my father had books. I could see that its a cut …not swinging a baton around”. “So therefore I am fussy when it comes to sword. Even how they (Students)hold a sword, how they draw the sword”
O-Sensei enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and hospitality of Hawaii. Perhaps in a moment of deep thought, O-Sensei confided with Nonaka Sensei in private some deep regrets about his past. “O-Sensei told me personally, that that was the time (The Japanese-Russo war) of his life he is most ashamed of. You know why? He killed Russians. Batto-dai. you know sword? (He) Crept up nighttime Pitch darkness. In the foxhole. You cut with the sword, (its) silent, you fire with the gun make noise. Japan was running out of metal and bullets. He never told me how many he cut …but he cut (them down).” Nonaka Sensei also added “ Then I heard about him being very strict about swinging the bokken in the dojo. To him the bokken is a life sword(Katsujinkan)1i.”
In thinking about why the founder would discuss such personal issues with him Nonaka Sensei stated “So therefore I think that because I could communicate with the founder in Japanese…and then he found out I did kendo maybe he told me the story about his cutting the Russians(during the war).”
Sometime before, Nonaka Sensei watched the film sent to Hawaii earlier of O Sensei doing waza and one thing catches his attention. “ He has a bokken like this (held horizontal) people pushing (on it). It stays. Then he drops his arm and they fell. How the hell can he do that? My son Eric at that time was 12 or 13 years I let him do it. I cannot hold him. Two adults pushing one …How can you do that? That’s Shibai(B.S)!”
Later during the demo in Honokaa, O-Sensei got his bokken and looked at Nonaka Sensei to come up. “I Jumped! (He called) From Honolulu Yamamoto Sensei he was the head instructor of the state and Tamura his otomo.. those two guys came up ..us three came up.” “ I didn’t have a chance to push really plenty ..I pushed a little bit and then he dropped it and we all fell. But I could feel the pressure” I asked Nonaka Sensei to clarify the feeling he got from the bokken “I just felt the resistance.ii” Nonaka Sensei added philosophically” So in life ..you cannot hold the train back right? The train is coming. Better you hop on the train. So when the train stop and you get off, you still in front of the train. You cannot stop the train. You let go.”
Nonaka Sensei asked Tohei Sensei later “ How can that(Three men pushing on a bokken) happen?” Tohei Sensei thought for a while and said” Try imagine there is a post or lumber on a swivel or gate. If its 5 feet you can push it. But, If the lumber is 100 feet long. You push it, how is it? If the lumber is 1 mile long how is it? In the founders mind the bokken is going to eternity. Not only three feet long.” Nonaka Sensei later got to push on Tohei Sensei’s bokken and stated “There was resistance but not as much as O-Sensei’s”.
This at either at the gym Carvalho park in Hilo or Honokaa in 1961. Yukiso Yamamoto and Nobuyoshi Tamura push on O-Sensei’s forehead. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mitsuo Adachi Sensei.
O-Sensei then asked Nonaka Sensei to be uke for another demonstration. (He sat in) seiza and then (he said) push his forehead. So three of us pushed and fell. I fell and then I could remember …definitely two or three times just when I came up he (O-Sensei) grabbed my back pushed me back down” The crowd clapped and later one of the other students asked “What happened? Why where you struggling?” Nonaka Sensei said “ I could feel his hand on the back of my neck…Just when I could stand up (O-Sensei) shoved me back down”
I asked Nonaka Sensei “How do you think O Sensei got his power?” “I don’t know. I don’t know his young days”
While he had minimal mat time with O-Sensei, Nonaka Sensei stated that he did learn a technique directly from the founder. later at the Daifukuji temple in Kona Nonaka Sensei was practicing early morning with another student. “The founder came and we bowed”. “Continue, continue” O-Sensei said and showed them both how to do a correct shihonage. “ So I can tell people I am not lying..learned from the founder! “Just one art though” Nonaka Sensei laughed.
Special Thanks to Takashi Nonaka Sensei for the time and permission to write this article. And thanks to Eric Nonaka Sensei for help with editing.
Takashi Nonaka Sensei 8th dan is the former Hawaii Chief instructor of the Hawaii Ki federation. He is still active teaching sunday mornings at the Waikea recreation center. The Hilo Shin Shin Toitsu do club is one of the oldest Aikido clubs outside of Japan being established in 1955.
The Hilo Shin Shin Toitsu do club website
Information about the Hawaii Ki Federation
The Ki Aikido USA website
The Hawaii Ki Federation headquarters in Maui.
The Shin Shin Toitsu Do headquarters in Japan
A detailed biography of Nonaka Sensei from 2001
Nonaka Sensei was interviewed in Wayne Muramoto’s excellent martial arts publication Furyu magazine back in 1994 in issue #4. An edited version appears in the Australian Ki Society newsletter “Kiai” back in 1998.
iI tried to get a clear definition of what “resistance” felt like from Nonaka Sensei. Eric Nonaka Sensei his son clarified . To resist means to push back or fight. O-sensei was already very old so (one) could not “resist”. Rather his energy was extended through the sword, making it “live”, to inifinity. Therefore no need to resist.
iiEric Nonaka Sensei added “(It was more like) “live sword” (rather than) “life sword”.