From the Archives: Murashige Sensei Interview

Photo by Gary Payne.

Photo by Gary Payne.

This interview appeared in Biran in 2002. The interview was conducted in Japanese and translated by John Brinsley.

Q: Sensei, when and where were you born?
A:  February 26, 1945. In Yamaguchi prefecture, in a village called Obatake..
Q: How big was your family?
A:  I have two older brothers, an older sister, and a younger sister. Five of us.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A:  Well, of course I was a diligent student! (laughs) No, that’s not true. I was raised in a small fishing village near the Japan sea. We weren’t fishermen, although we fished some. My father was a priest. It was a pretty poor village. Ate a lot of sweet potatoes as a kid. But there was a lot of fish, too. I never thought of us as poor. There was always enough to eat. And there was fruit from the mountains nearby.
Q: Why did you begin Aikido?
A:  Why? Because of my father.
Q: That would be Aritoshi Murashige sensei. How did he come to practice Aikido. He was a close to O-sensei, wasn’t he?
A:  Yes. (My father) was born in 1895.  Do you know (Minoru) Mochizuki? He was sent (to practice with O-sensei) from the Kodokan (Judo’s main dojo) and my father went with him. My dad did judo, kendo, Muso Ryu jo and spear. So he was probably 30 or so when he started Aikido.
Q: When did you start Aikido?
A:  I think when I was a high school junior. That would have been 1962, when I was 16 or 17. My father had gone to Burma, now Myanmar, to teach Aikido. O-sensei had sent him to teach at Burma’s police college. He went for seven years. When he returned to our village, I began practicing.
Q: What were your father’s classes like?
A:  I don’t remember. I had only just started practicing, although I had done judo before. All I remember is being in pain and falling down.
Q: Did he talk to you about Aikido?
A:  No, he didn’t, at least I don’t remember. He concentrated on training.
Q: What was the relationship between your father and O-sensei?
A:  Well, he became an Omoto-kyo believer because of O-sensei. O-sensei told my father to go to Hiroshima to teach Aikido. And the place where my father went to teach was my mother’s hometown. And my mother’s father took a liking to my father, and suggested to him that he marry his daughter. And my mother’s family were Omoto-kyo. My father actually had been a Buddhist priest, an Ajari of the Tendai sect in Hiezan*. Then, because of becoming a student of O-sensei, he changed to Omoto-kyo. Actually, this is funny: my father told me that when he went to visit the Omoto-kyo compound (in Ayabe, near Kyoto), where Onisaburo Deguchi was, O-sensei wasn’t there. He was thirsty and he knocked on the door, but there was no answer. So he went in, and on the kamiza was a flask of sake. He drank it down, all of it! And Onisaburo Deguchi came in and said, “what are you doing?” And my father said, “having some sake!” (laughs) Deguchi asked, “what religion are you?” “Someone who follows Fudo (a Buddhist diety), and since Fudo and the Omoto-kyo gods are the same, I thought it would be all right to have a drink,” my father replied. And Deguchi said, “well, you must have been thirsty!” (laughs)
Q: So you were raised Omoto-kyo?
A:  Yes, still am.
Q: Did you ever meet Onisaburo Deguchi?
A:  No.
Q: When did you first meet O-sensei?
A:  O-sensei came to teach in Yamaguchi. And with him he brought Kazuo Chiba sensei as his otomo. That was the first time I met him. We had all just started practicing (in Yamaguchi). And O-sensei called me up, for shomen uchi ikkyo. And he pinned me with one finger on my elbow. Then he said, “get up.” And I couldn’t get up. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get up. Not at all. A total defeat. That was my first impression of O-sensei. Then we did suwariwaza, again shomen uchi ikkyo. And again he pinned me with one finger on my neck. And again I couldn’t move. And over on the side of the mat was Kazuo Chiba, laughing, probably (laughs).
Q: How long did you practice Aikido in Yamaguchi?
A:  One year. About three times a week, with my father usually teaching. We practiced at a school gymnasium, maybe 12 or 13 people. Most of them had done judo.
Q: And then you went to Tokyo?
A:  Yes, after I had finished high school. I had found work there with a company that makes flash bulbs for cameras. Even before that, after I had been practicing Aikido for maybe six months, I visited Tokyo during spring vacation by myself. And I stayed at Hombu for two weeks, in the old dojo. It was really cold, I remember it snowing.
Q: Who do you remember meeting there?
A:  Terry Dobson, for one. He was a shodan. And Kanai sensei, Kurita, Yamada, Tamura, Ichihashi. Who else? Saotome sensei. Chiba sensei was off teaching in Nagoya. I practiced five times a day. Boy, was it cold. And the night before I was to go home, Chiba sensei came back. And he said to me, “hey, long time no see!” This was after the last evening keiko had finished. And then he said, “let’s practice!” It was only ten minutes, but I remember it well. All we did was shihonage. I took ukemi the whole time, and he pounded me! (laughs) Terry Dobson was very nice to me, both practing with me and answering my questions about America. Kanai sensei and Kurita sensei were bullies! We slept in a small room, I slept near the door, where it was coldest. Kanai slept away from the door, where the wind didn’t come in. And O-sensei would wake up really early, and we’d have to get up.
Q: Who taught the classes?
A:  Morning class was O-sensei. Then Kisshomaru-sensei. After that I don’t really remember. Probably people like Arikawa sensei and Tada sensei.
Q: Did you eat with the Ueshiba family along with the other deshi?
A:  Yes, but there wasn’t a lot of food. And everybody was pretty banged up. After keiko you had to clean the dojo, then eat, and there wasn’t much of anything. I remember being hungry every day. Then one day, Yamada sensei said, “I’ll take you to a nearby place to eat.” So we went, sat down, and had rice and egg with miso soup, both of us the same thing. We bolted it down, Yamada got up, and with a “thank you,” left! I had to pay, me, just a snot-nosed 17-year-old! And the next day he wanted to go again, and I said, “no thank you.” I had no money! (laughs)
Q: So then, you returned to your hometown, finished high school, and moved to Tokyo? How long did you live there?
A:  From the time I was 18 until 24. I practiced every day. I lived far away, in Mizunokuchi, so I’d get up every morning at 4:30 to get to Shinjuku.
Q: What were O-sensei’s classes like?
A:  Mostly suwariwaza ikkyo. That’s all I remember.
Q: What about O-sensei himself?
A:  My impression of the founder is that of like a grandfather. He was my father’s teacher so if I needed to talk about something that happened, I talked with him, even though I was only a white belt. I’d go early to Hombu and always say “good morning” to him. He was very nice to me. He called me up to take ukemi for him, even though I was only a white belt, for shomen uchi ikkyo, and throw me gently. Of course the uchideshi then pounded me.
Q: How many people would attend the morning class?
A:  150.
Q: Really?
A:  The dojo was totally full. It was something, there was no space. This was the old dojo, one floor only, but the mat was pretty large.
Q: Besides the morning keiko, which other classes did you attend?
A:  In the evening I went to Yamaguchi sensei’s class. My father had told me to practice with Yamaguchi sensei.
Q: Was that different from O-sensei or Kisshomaru-sensei’s morning classes?
A:  Totally different. With the Founder’s Aikido, you just attacked and were down. It didn’t hurt, not all. You just were down. It was very mysterious. The instant you touched him, you were down. He moved very little. But I think that he was especially gentle if your ukemi wasn’t very good.
Q: What was it like watching the ukemi of the uchidesi?
A:  Very good, much better than mine. Kanai, Chiba… they were really good.
Q: So what was Yamaguchi sensei like?
A:  Very delicate. Once I saw Yamaguchi sensei accept a match with a judo practitioner. Yamaguchi sensei’s dojo was in a judo dojo, in Azabu (central Tokyo). It was after a morning class, with a guy from the Kodokan. He was something like a sandan or yondan. And this guy said, “Onegaishimasu,” and Yamaguchi sensei said, “All right.” And the guy came to grab (Yamaguchi sensei), who turned and threw him. And the guy fell, hard. And then he got up and rushed him again, and again was thrown. He couldn’t even grab Yamaguchi sensei. It was pretty amazing. So I decided to try the same thing (on Yamaguchi sensei), since I had done judo and knew the techniques. I went to grab him and went flying, bang! O-sensei would let me grab him, and just move a little and I was down.
Q: Was the feeling attacking O-sensei different from attacking Yamaguchi sensei?
A: It was easier with Yamaguchi sensei. With O-sensei it was hard even to try and attack. It was over before it started. With Yamaguchi sensei I’d attack, and then my hand would get swiped away and I’d go down.
Q: Was it easier to understand Yamaguchi sensei’s technique?
A: Yes, it was easier. You could see what he was doing. With O-sensei, it was, “what was that?”
Q: What about the other teachers, like Arikawa sensei?
A: I only took ukemi for him once. And all I remember is that it hurt. A lot. Tada sensei hurt too.
Q: What about Osawa sensei?
A: Osawa sensei was gentle. He’d say, “softer, softer, don’t use your strength.” You’d attack, and he’d go very slow, and then you were down.
Q: Was the something particularly important you learned from O-sensei?
A:  I don’t really remember.
Q: Anything else you remember of him?
A:  Well, I got my dan rankings for free! (laughs). I got my shodan in Yamaguchi-sensei’s class. I took a regular test. For my nidan, I was about to go to America in 1965, to New York. So I went to O-sensei to pay my respects, and to tell him I was going to the U.S. for a year or two. And he said, “what dan are you?” And I said, “Shodan.” So he said, “okay, now you’re nidan.”
Q: Just like that?
A:  Yep, “Hey, Kisshomaru, give him a nidan. No charge.”
Q: So then you went to New York?
A:  Yes, for my job. The first time I was there one year and the second time, soon after, for about six months. My company sent me to set up their U.S. operation. In didn’t matter that I didn’t speak much English. We were selling flashes for cameras and I set up a service center to repair them, since it was too expensive to send them to Japan.
And I practiced with Yamada at his dojo. How I met him was funny. I was living on Broadway, and I was walking home, and saw a Japanese man coming the other way. There weren’t many Japanese in New York then. I looked at him and thought, “don’t I know him?” And he had the same look on his face. I didn’t know Yamada had moved to New York. Remember, I’d go to morning class and rush to work, so I didn’t know much about what was going on (at Hombu). So we passed, each looking at the other sort of strangely. And then, I turned and said, “Mr. Yamada?” And he said, “Murashige? What are you doing here?” (laughs) And I asked where he was going, and he said, “To the dojo.” “There’s a dojo here? I didn’t know!” So I asked him to wait and I went and got my dogi and we went together. That’s how I started practicing in New York.
Q: Was it different from practicing at Hombu?
A: Not so much, because of Yamada sensei. The people were bigger, though.
Q: Did you teach?
A: Yes. I didn’t have much money, and Yamada sensei would have me teach, and I’d get $20 per class, which was great. I taught Thursday evenings, from 6 to 7, when Yamada was teaching in New Jersey.
Q: Who do you remember from that period?
A: Not many people. T.K. Lee, a Chinese who is now in Texas, I think. He was a shodan. He had a laundry business. I don’t remember anyone else.
Q: When did you come back to Japan?
A: It would have been the end of 1966. Then I went to Vietnam.
Q: During the war?
A: Yes. We sold flash bulbs, like strobe lights, to the U.S. military and I went to negotiate contracts with them. I was there about two months, and then went to Cambodia for about a month. I also went to places like Singapore and Hong Kong during that time. I was with that company until 1969.
Q: And then?
A: Then I moved back to my hometown with my wife.
Q: What was your rank at the time?
A: Sandan. When I came back from New York, I went to pay my respects to O-sensei, and he awarded me sandan.
Q: Were you in Tokyo when he passed away?
A: No. I remember the new dojo going up, but that was 1968. O-sensei died a year later, right?
Q: What was your reaction when you heard the news of his death.
A: Sort of, “I blew it. I should have spent more time training with him.” I felt the same way when Yamaguchi sensei died. I went out and got drunk.
Q: When you moved back home, what did you do?
A: I was a farmer. Actually, I was raising koi. This was from the time I was 24 to 30, I guess.
Q: What about Aikido?
A: I didn’t do it all. But every day I would practice suburi by myself, 2000 cuts, rain or shine, after work. Then, around 1975, we moved to Kyushu for a bit. Drank a lot of shochu in those days. Then we moved back to Tokyo, where my mother had moved. That’s when I worked as a cook, learning to make things like sushi and tempura. I worked from early in the morning until late at night, so I didn’t practice Aikido at all. There was no time.
Q: And then you moved to San Diego?
A: Actually, first we went to Guam, where I worked in a Japanese restaurant. We were there for about six months. Then we came to the U.S., in 1978, I guess, working in my brother’s restaurant. I hadn’t practiced Aikido in 10 years, although I did suburi.
Q: How did you start practicing again?
A: One day, out of the blue, Mr. Yamada, Mr. Kanai, and Mr. Chiba came into the restaurant. That was around 1980. Nobody had told me anything, and these three walk into the place! They knew I was working there, although I don’t know how. They sat down at the sushi bar, saying, “hey.” It was like seeing three yakuza walk in, like it was their place! The customers all were quiet. (laughs) And Chiba sensei said he was looking to open a dojo, either in San Diego or Florida or maybe Texas. And so I said, “Florida is better, go to Florida!” (laughs) But about a year later, he returned and opened a dojo here. So, knowing he was coming, I started practicing. Jim Cummings was there and Archie (Champion). Jim came to the restaurant and told me Chiba sensei was moving here. And they asked me to teach as well, so a couple of times a week I would teach.
Q: Was it difficult returning to practice after so long?
A: No, it was fine. I was still only 33 or 34. My body was still strong, and could still move, and do severe training. So when I had time, I practiced, probably only a couple of times a week because I was busy at the restaurant.
Q: How would you compare the practice of Aikido today with your experience 40 years ago?
A: I don’t really know how to answer that question. I’m just interested in practice, interested in technique. It is said that Aikido is more like dance or a sport, than it used to be, and less like real fighting. I’ve heard people say that about Hombu, although I haven’t practiced there in many years, so I don’t really know. In the past, people would strike a makiwara to practice their atemi.
Q: When you see the students here at the San Diego Aikikai practice, do you think that that spirit of old is being preserved?
A: Yes, I think it is. But I think to think about stuff like this too much isn’t good. Then it’s all in your head. The purpose of Aikido, as Chiba sensei and others have said, is to take away your opponent’s strength. Someone comes and attack, and you have to figure a way to use that and take them down. That is Aikido technique. And that’s being preserved. But to think  that Aikido is this or that is wrong. The way I do things change, the way Chiba sensei does things change. To think about something as “old” is all in your head. Chiba sensei takes this very seriously. He has a very strong sense of responsibility. He’s the kind of person who if he makes a mistakes thinks about cutting his belly to take responsibility for it.
Q: In other words, he feels a strong sense of passing on what he learned from O-sensei?
A: Yes. To save people. People come here (to train) and Chiba sensei takes the trouble to truly take care of them. There’s no way I could do that. It’s too tiring. That’s why I follow him. He’s got a very pure spirit. People think of him as scary, but I’ve never thought so.
Q: Your father practiced Aikido, you practice Aikido and your son Teru does as well. Three generations of Aikido. You must be happy about that tradition.
A: Yes, I am. I hope Teru practices more. Training is important. I was trained by my father, although only for one year, although he taught me some Muso Ryu Jo as well. He made me train hard. And during the year he taught Aikido, I also did zazen, and fasting. I fasted for a week once.
Q: Is there anything else you like to say?
A: Just for everyone to train. That’s it.

-end-

One thought on “From the Archives: Murashige Sensei Interview

  1. Thanks for this interview, I would like to link to it on our Facebook Page.
    I had the opportunity to meet Murashige Shihan and his son in Mexico City for a seminar (Kurita Shihan and Murashige Shihan), and I really liked them both. Murashige Shihan was a very interesting, very nice person, and very gracious on and off the tatami. He sure will be missed,

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