Ki no

Like a Tree - Texts


By Angus Lyall

There are so many lessons we have learned and so many stories that it is impossible to cover every aspect of his life.  We certainly found him to be a remarkable person who challenged every aspect of our thinking, not just our Aikido techniques.  He once said he saw young people in the world becoming very much the same.  Same clothes, similar music, similar tastes.  He thought he was probably of the last generation of traditionally brought up Japanese.  I once met him off the plane arriving for a seminar and asked, ‘Good trip?’  He was visibly shocked at the question and later explained that it was extremely impolite to ask a question that required a personal opinion and even after so long in Europe he was still taken aback.  So, we had to learn to re-phrase questions like ‘Do you think we should…’ to something more like ‘Perhaps it would be better if…’

Similarly, it took Sensei some time to understand us.  He was intrigued, for example, when he saw that the closer the friendship between two people the worse the insults seemed to become.  Saying ‘that technique was absolutely rubbish’ and having the comment met with a smile was somewhat strange to him initially.

Yoshigasaki Sensei had decided long ago how he wanted to live his life – using Aikido to promote peace and having no enemies.  His approach to this latter point was typical of his commitment to his philosophy of life because it meant, he argued that he could have no friends.  He quoted the saying ‘my friend’s enemy is my enemy’. Therefore, no friends.  This is not to say that he was aloof in any way. He always showed great respect to all his students, of whatever level, and clearly liked the company of many, usually if they had something interesting to say or had a good argument.  He was acutely interested in almost every aspect of life.  He often challenged us with questions and discussions but had no time for idle gossip.  If the conversation was not of interest he would sit quietly or often shut his eyes and doze. Two of us did once secretly set ourselves the challenge of keeping the conversation going throughout a dinner.  We almost succeeded but had to work very hard to do so.

At a dinner after a training course once, he was asked if he would like wine to which he said yes.  When it arrived and he took the first sip he put it down with his arms folded on the table and said sadly ‘the British have no idea about wine!’  We did however persuade him to appreciate Guinness and Single Malt Whisky.

He always took an interest in his students and their welfare.  One of his senior students recalls Sensei enthusiastically explaining the benefits of fasting and encouraging him to try it, all the while tucking heartily into a barbecue.

The welfare of those around him were always of concern to him.  After a seminar the wife of one of his students decided to join the others climbing a nearby hill after the training session.  He was not sure about this and asked three times if she was sure she would be able to do it.

He could not teach everything he wished on the weekend training seminars so built a dojo in Belgium, with the help of some of his suitably skilled students, with bunkhouse accommodation a kitchen and toilets etc.  He could then invite more advanced students for more intensive Aikido training or practice such as misogi, meditation techniques or breathing that there was not the time for on normal weekend seminars.  Students paid neither for the accommodation or the teaching but brought what they needed in the way of food etc. and kept the dojo clean.  In this way Sensei could show, in a very practical way, a different approach to living.

Similarly, he arranged several visits to Japan, the most unusual of which was a Cultural Visit in 2005 when a group of students from all over Europe were able to experience and practice calligraphy, pottery, flower arranging, Japanese traditional
song and dance, paper making and the tea ceremony among many other
adventures.  The visit was arranged by Sensei’s sister, Mihoko Watanabe Sensei, a master of calligraphy and the tea ceremony.  The extent to which the Japanese hosts went was illustrated by a small restaurant visited for a special seasonal lunch. 
The flag for each country represented by the students was flown outside the restaurant.  It took them two weeks to get the flags of Croatia and Slovenia!  Most of
those who visited Japan at that time are still friends today.

He was once asked if it was true that attentive Japanese hosts would offer their guest milk and sugar with their coffee, watch what they did, and the next time do the same for them.  Sensei said yes this was true, but it drove him crazy.  If the coffee was really good then he preferred it black, not so good then perhaps a little sugar, if it as really not good then milk and sugar.  We teased him saying that whenever he was served coffee, we would know what he thought of it.  The next time he was offered it he just smiled and drank it black.

A very strange meal

By Alain De Halleux

I was getting ready to leave for Fukushima to shoot a film and I took advantage of this pretext to meet the Sensei, supposedly to get some advice on Japanese culture. As my proposal didn’t seem to arouse much enthusiasm, I suggested inviting him to a Japanese restaurant near his home, which he obviously accepted. We all know his penchant for good food.

I rang his doorbell. Marie-Rose opened the door for me. I asked her if she wanted to come with us, but she declined.
Sensei comes into the corridor, puts on his shoes and we start walking very quickly towards the restaurant. I don’t really have the time or opportunity to talk to her as her mind is already at the table. When it comes to eating, Sensei is impatient. We arrive. We sit down. We order.
I say to myself that I should take advantage of this moment before we are served to talk to him, but I don’t really know what I want from him any more. My questions were confusing and all I could get out of him was “Mmm” or “Eh huh”.

But already the miso soup arrives, followed by the sushi and tamporas. Sensei pounces on it and gobbles up his meal at full speed. As I eat, I say to myself that we’ll talk after the meal, but it’s barely over when Sensei falls asleep, his head in his hand as I describe my plans. I order the bill. I pay. The Sensei wakes up and we are already walking towards his house in silence.
We say goodbye. He wishes me a good shoot. I thank him and go home, telling myself that I just wanted to be with him anyway.

The Art of Life 

By Alain De Halleux


When I started aikido, more than 35 years ago, the Sensei passed on Tohei’s teaching based on principles such as: practise with confidence, hold one point, send Ki etc…
We used to do tests like I arm implacable, sitting up facing three people pushing you etc…
Then one day, Sensei put aside the principles and replaced them with concepts. I think that for him, the principles froze aikido in a kind of vice that prevented the creation and evolution of our art because they were presented as something universal and eternal that could not be questioned or challenged.
Concepts have the advantage that they can always be replaced by others. Thus, an aikido based on them is a living aikido, in perpetual evolution.

This change from principle to concept is for me the most important quantum leap made by Sensei.


 From the day he set out to explore this new Universe, he has never ceased to challenge us with a new vision. We thought we’d mastered a technique? At the next seminar
we were back to being beginners trying to interpret a hold in a different way.

Perceive, conceive, to act. To move without moving. Open, close. Change form than move…

These concepts and the dozens of others that kept cropping up were like the bricks with which to build the house of his vision of life. I was amazed at the originality of each new
concept. I wondered how he managed to discover them and whether one day the source of his inspiration would run dry.
But no! Right to the end, he created and innovated. Recently I was attending a seminar in Denmark. I was delighted to realise that the instructors were surprising me by pursuing this path full of life and creativity.
The sensei must have been happy to see that we were still coming up with new concepts and evolve our art like branches on his trunk.