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In Memorium – Seigo Yamaguchi (1924-1996)

(excerpt from an article originally posted in Aikido Journal Magazine, Issue 108)

To Yamaguchi Sensei, Who Made Me Want to Train in Aikido

by Seishiro Endo, Aikikai Shihan

Yamaguchi Sensei loved his coffee and his tobacco. In his later years he managed to stay away from the coffee well enough, but he was just too fond of the tobacco. He also loved to talk, which he could do for four or five hours at a stretch. Given his quick mind and strict position and views on aikido, I think there were many people who were at their wits end with his conversation and simply avoided going off with him to his favorite coffee shop. That’s the kind of teacher he was, but for my part, whenever I could spare the time, I always went with him.

Back in my university days I was training under all the teachers at the Hombu Dojo. I knew that they all were very powerful, but back then I had no way to judge marvelous technique when I encountered it, so l didn’t notice anything special about Yamaguchi Sensei’s training. I listened to all the teachers’ instructions and explanations, but I never thought particularly deeply about them, and I continued to barrel my way through each practice, relying on strength and generally training in my own self-indulgent way.

After about ten years, however, I began to have doubts about my way of training. It also happened that I injured my right shoulder so badly that I couldn’t even get on the mat. One day I happened to meet Yamaguchi Sensei in a coffee shop. He said something to me that turned my aikido around 180 degrees. He said, “You’ve been doing aikido for ten years now, but now you have only your left arm to use. What are you going to do?” His words had an impact on me, and from then on I made a point to attend Yamaguchi Sensei’s 5:30-6:30 training every Monday. I hardly went to any of the other teachers’ classes. After training under him for a while, l began to realize that there was indeed something different about his technique. My doubts and uncertainties about my own aikido began to dissolve as I realized that I had discovered a new direction.

About this new direction, Yamaguchi Sensei told me, “Even if you don’t understand it, just take my word for it and give it ten years or so.” Ten years seemed a disappointingly long time, but his words also gave me something to hope for. In any case it was an opportunity to make a new start in my training.

During practice, Yamaguchi Sensei would often come up to me and have me take ukemi for him, during which he would give various advice and instruction. This instruction was not meant for me alone, of course, but the specific content of what he said and the way he said it seemed to be specifically tailored for my benefit. As I took ukemi for him, I would do my best to feel what was happening, and later I would try to recreate that same feeling in my own practice.

  • “Go ahead and give your partner your arm and do your technique.”
  • “Training that relies on muscle dulls the senses and prevents sharp technique.”
  • “Don’t pin your partner using strength.”
  • “Even if you don’t understand, just have faith and do it for ten years or so.”
  • “Focus your strength in your lower abdomen and take it out of your upper body.”
  • “The more your ki gathers, the more you have to release the power in your upper body.”
  • “Techniques must always be concrete.”
  • “A person who hasn’t developed a degree of competence by the time they’ve gone through their thirties will not progress any further.”

I guess there’s really not much meaning in listing up all the things that Yamaguchi Sensei said to me, but I know my eyes used to shine when he turned his enthusiastic talk in my direction, and I used to prick up my cars and listen, trying hard not to miss a single word. I could hardly wait until the next practice.

Many people have told me that it was Yamaguchi Sensei who motivated them to continue training in aikido. He was the kind of teacher who even in his later years never lost his enthusiasm for training. I remember that from the beginning of last year there began to be small signs that something was not quite right with his health, and every time I noticed one of those signs I begged to him to go have it checked out. But he always just smiled.

One of the last things l heard Yamaguchi Sensei say was, “O-Sensei said that ‘training with ten thousand different people will make you a master.’ But do not forget, training does not mean teaching.”

I have so many strong memories of Yamaguchi Sensei that they would never fit in this limited space, so I will finish by simply offering a prayer of gratitude and hope for his happiness in the next world.


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