MY AIKIDO JOURNEY
George Hewson Aikido Seishinkai
Throughout my school years I played a variety of sports including hockey, football, basketball, and volleyball. I wasn’t afraid of the physical contact and enjoyed the competition. While I played to win, I was always conscious of playing by the rules. Win or lose, what mattered most was doing my best. At the same time I was always interested in philosophical issues, especially ethics.
In the summer of 1971 I had an opportunity to work in Quebec City. There I met another student from Glendon College who was involved in the same program. We found that we had a lot in common and remain friends today. We would go running together and discuss politics. It was the summer after the October Crisis, when FLQ terrorists had murdered a leading Quebec politician.
At some point my new friend, Glen, suggested that we try something called Yoga. I was not familiar with it. He said that it would be good exercise and that many young women were involved. It sounded appealing to me.
Hatha Yoga practice opened my mind to a whole new way of thinking about the connection between mind and body. I continued to study when I returned to Toronto and explored Yoga’s many insights and practical applications.
However, there was something missing. When I completed my graduate work in history at York University, I had no more school sports available to me. In the meantime I saw distinguished Canadian journalist Pierre Berton interview Bruce Lee. I had already enjoyed some of Lee’s movies and was intrigued by the philosophical concepts behind his martial techniques. Also, in 1972, while flipping channels, I stumbled across the pilot for an American TV series about a Chinese Shaolin monk. The title was “Kung Fu”. I was inspired. Martial arts seemed to offer the kind of physical activity that I had enjoyed from sports with the psycho-spiritual components of Yoga.
It took me a little while before I began to pursue this new interest. Eventually, I decided to take up Kung Fu. I happened to live close to the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in suburban Toronto, so I went there to enquire. (That shows you how little I knew about East Asian culture.) The JCCC offered Karate, Kendo, Judo, and Aikido. I found them all fascinating. Since I only had the time and money to study one of them, I did some research. There were few sources in English at the time, but I did succeed in locating some information about Aikido, and right away I knew that this was for me. O-Sensei’s vision of a martial system that was based on harmony, taught empathetic behaviour, and was open to men and women of all races and nationalities appealed to me deeply.
I started training at the JCCC in 1975. The Chief Instructor was Obata Osamu Sensei. He was assisted by his friend and fellow former Senshu University student Ochi Kenji Sensei. Obata Sensei taught most of the classes. Ochi Sensei took ukemi for him and then practiced with us. It was exciting and exasperating. Their English was limited and my Japanese was non-existent, so most of the learning was “just watch and try to imitate”. Another Japanese black belt, Matsui Jo Sensei was extremely helpful because he was the one who took the beginners aside and taught basics such as tai no henko and mae ukemi.
The most vivid memory of my first class was the excruciating pain that I felt in my insteps from sitting seiza on the tatami. Kneeling for extended periods was not part of my life experience; neither were many other aspects of Japanese culture that I came to know and appreciate.
Obata Sensei and Ochi Sensei never tried to constrain us. On the contrary, they encouraged everyone to attend seminars and summer camps, which I did faithfully as soon as I could. I recall my first seminar. It was 1976 in Montreal with Kawahara Yukio Sensei. I was dazzled and not a little intimidated. Later that year I attended my first USAF east coast summer camp with Yamada Yoshimitsu Sensei and Kanai Mitsunari Sensei. The shared energy and enthusiasm of the hundreds of participants further convinced me that this was to be my path.
Despite having excellent opportunities close to home, I decided that I wanted to go to Japan to further my training. One of the JCCC Aikido students, Kurita Naohiko-san, heard about my plan and offered to help. He had friends in Tokyo who would rent me an apartment at a below the going rate. That was great news, because I had only recently finished repaying my student loans and cash was not abundant. (I can never thank him enough. We are still in contact today.)
I was single with no dependents. I was prepared to resign from my job as a secondary school history teacher. So far, so good. But a complication arose. A certain young lady joined the Aikido club. I had always believed that “love at first sight” was only found in novels and movies. I discovered that it wasn’t so. Gerry and I got to know one another a little through social gatherings with the Aikido club members. Next, we went out on a couple of dates. After a month I said, “I have two questions to ask you. Please answer both ‘yes” or both ‘no’… Will you marry me and come to Japan with me?” After what seemed to me an extended contemplation, she said ‘yes’ to both. Hooray! Gerry and I were married in October of 1979 and are still together now.
In the summer before leaving for Japan, my friend Glen suggested that I join him in Karate classes. It would be good for my conditioning and expose me to another aspect of martial training. He had an excellent instructor, Shane Higashi Sensei. While I only obtained the rank of fifth kyu, I learned a lot from him; I still retain a great respect for Karate and never think that Aikido is the only martial art worth doing.
Gerry and I went to Tokyo in 1980. I trained at Hombu Dojo regularly. I also had the privilege of being one of the few foreign students allowed to train at the Shiseikan dojo in Meiji Shrine park. Tanaka Shigeho Sensei was Obata Sensei’s teacher. He trained me mercilessly, but once I proved that I was serious, he was very generous with his instruction and even took ukemi for me when I showed up before the other students. In addition to Aikido techniques he taught me sword skills from the Kashima tradition. My debt to him is immense.
Gerry and I also trained at a small branch dojo of the Aikikai in Meguro-ku. As foreigners, we were a novelty. The small and intimate group of students there was friendly, open, and supportive.
I took my Shodan test in the summer of that year and failed. In the autumn I took it again and passed. Fujita Masatake Sensei, who was the examiner, stayed in touch with me for years afterward until a stroke disabled him.
Gerry and I came back to Canada late in 1980, and I resumed my school teaching career. I gradually rose to position of senior assistant instructor at the JCCC Aikikai after Ochi Sensei returned to Japan.
The movie “Above the Law” in 1988 brought many new students to Aikido. By 1995 the small dojo at the JCCC could not accommodate everyone. With Obata Sensei’s blessing, Gerry and I opened our own dojo, Aikido Seishinkai, by renting space from my former Karate teacher, Higashi Sensei. We operated it for fourteen years. It was a great experience. We taught a fine group of people, many of whom remain close to us today. But eventually we felt that we needed a break, so we shut down. In 2013 I reopened the dojo at a new location in Markham where it operated until closed by the pandemic in 2020.
I look forward to returning there once the public health authorities deem it safe.
So, some forty-five years of going to the dojo three times a week on average has led to what? My health is good. I have some ability to defend myself physically. I know my strengths and my weaknesses; I can be calm when necessary and act decisively when appropriate. I have a wonderful wife and many valued friends. And then there is the awareness of that ineffable mystery…
There, in brief (or at length, you might say) is my Aikido story. What is yours? I’d like to know.