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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Kawahara Shihan

With Sensei in Japan in 2003

Yukio Kawahara Shihan, 8th dan, the technical director of the Canadian Aikido Federation, a direct student of O Sensei and a very gifted, very generous and gracious man, passed away late on June 2nd. According to the shidoin who phoned me, he was surrounded by his students.

I've tried to blog about Sensei several times, and I always end up deleting the entry. He was a private man by choice and never sought the limelight. He was also careful about his legacy and cautious about what he taught to whom.  He was a strong advocate of practice, and I think he considered our practice more important than any ceremony directed at himself.

He had a mischievous sense of humour. There are many stories of a camera being brought into a class, only to have him "accidentally" stand with his back to the camera and say things like, "This hand work is very important!" His students learned to never sit anywhere near the camera because we'd never see much of his hands.

He was a real prankster. After he got his first vehicle with a key fob, he took great pleasure in acting innocently nonchalant while walking with his students to his car in the parking lot, only to secretly set off his car alarm to see if we would jump. Once, I heard him tell an instructor that he was to meet us at a certain time and place, and he was adament that the instructor should not be late! Then, Sensei told me to drive past the instructor as though we didn't see his glare as we breezed by him. "John, is he running after us?" asked Sensei.  For all that, Sensei was always polite, and insisted we be the same.

In a particularly memorable demonstration of his abilities, when he overheard a student talking loudly during a break at a seminar about how he wasn't sure the old sensei could still take ukemi, Sensei came up behind him with a forward roll, close enough I thought they were going to collide, but so quietly that the jackass never noticed Sensei was even there. Sensei motioned for us to be quiet as he moved back across the room with the loudmouth none the wiser. 

The first time I was going to be at a seminar of his, I was all excited! I had an image in my mind of someone who exuded danger and poise with every movement, yet at the same time embodied the peace of the Buddha:  vintage Schwarzenegger meets Ghandi meets Sho Kosugi meets David Carradine meets an Asian Adonis. Sensei was short, had a potbelly and liked his beer. He also liked to shop for shoes, which we did on several occasions. Yet every time he taught he could do something that scared/inspired/shocked/stunned me. He was incredibly fast, and very solid. 

Every time I trained with him I saw something I had never seen before that turned years of training on its head. When I asked a longtime high-ranking student of his who had been training under Sensei for over 30 years if he was familiar with everything Sensei taught, the student told me he was still seeing new material every time he attended a seminar.  In spite of his broad range of technique, Kawahara Sensei gave us very traditional Aikido. He was a genius and a prolific creator. Nothing mattered to him more than giving his best for his students.

Some of his many contributions were his "recipes." "If you want good Yonkyo, do Yonkyo to a partner 100 times a day for 100 days." I had few volunteers to help with this practice. Once, Sensei was telling me to do something 30 minutes a day every morning immediately after waking up. I was doing shift work, and I already had difficulty getting enough sleep and I told him so. He gave me a flat, level stare. "Yes. Difficult. I know." And then he shrugged, as if to say, "What's your point?"

Once I asked him about Tachidori techniques when I was visiting his dojo. He said nothing as we walked upstairs to the dojo and he took a shinai off the wall. "I hit you now." For the next several minutes, his eyes glittered and he laughed uproariously as he repeatedly hit me on the head, no matter how I tried to dodge. He would raise the shinai over his head and wait a split second, then CRACK.  I remember thinking his face looked like a picture of Santa Claus. He was having so much fun with this, and so was I. After 100 strikes (I somehow kept count), he handed the shinai to me and said, "You more practice. Take this." That's how he gave me my shinai as a gift.

One of the things about him my wife remembers is how kind his eyes were.

I don't know much about his life. He didn't share much. One thing about him that I didn't notice for quite some time when I first met him is that his thumb was missing on one hand. I later learned that he did not want to be asked about it, and over the years I never learned the story behind it. I noticed that often he would not shake hands when meeting people, and I think part of the reason is that he didn't want to bring attention to his missing thumb. Once, when I was with him during a doctor's visit, the doctor asked him what had happened, and Sensei went so far as to say it was a childhood accident (I actually offered to leave the room before he responded to the question).

The thing is, I often would forget that he had a missing thumb, and for years, when I did remember, I couldn't clearly recall which thumb. He could put Yonkyo and Nikyo on me that was simply one of the most excruciating things I've ever felt. His Kotegaeshi was enormously powerful. There was no way to feel if the left side or right side was "better." It was all powerful. Now that I have one arm that is partly paralyzed, I find myself following his example to guide my own practice.

Someone used this picture for a seminar poster once. Sensei's response to seeing it
was, "What an ugly-looking man! You should get a picture of a better-looking man!"

There are some things that Sensei shared with me about his past, and other things that I learned from others. Once, when Sensei was visiting a student's house during a potluck, I heard that he saw a picture of an American WWII warship on the wall. He asked the student why he had a picture on the wall of the warship that had sunk his father's ship in the Battle for the Pacific. One of the student's relatives had served on the American ship. I never had the chance to ask Sensei about the story or whether his father had survived. 

Sensei told me he was living in Nagasaki during the war. He told me of planes flying overhead every day and shooting at the city constantly. He remembered a childhood friend of his getting shot through the kneecap by one of the bullets, which exited through the sole of his friend's foot. Then, one day, when he was eight years old, the room Sensei was playing in went very bright and the windows exploded inward. He was close enough to feel the blast, but far enough away that the atomic bomb didn't completely level his house. (He told me through an interpreter that he was eight at the time, but if his birthday was in 1940 he would have been five years old.)  He told me he remembered that the planes stopped shooting the day after the bomb was dropped and that the city suddenly fell silent. During a trip that Sensei arranged for several of his students, we went to the memorial at Hiroshima, but we did not go to Nagasaki. He told me that he had no family there anymore (though I did once hear that he had a sister).

At 17, he began his practice of Aikido. He was in Osaka at the time, and the stories he told of his years there made it sound like the various dojos were responsible for law enforcement immediately after the war. He told me about knife fights for food. From the sound of it, unions and rioters were brutally made to conform. The results still speak for themselves. In Hiroshima, the trains were running in just over 100 days after the bomb dropped. Crime is still shockingly less prevalent in Japan than in many other countries. You can still leave your wallet on a park bench in Tokyo and have it returned with the ID and money still in it. Compare that to New Orleans, which following Hurricane Katrina still hasn’t recovered. 

I once saw the AikiWeb site refer to Sensei as a student of Banzen Tanaka. I asked Sensei about this, and he told me his primary teacher was named Kobayashi. When I was very new and made the mistake of asking him if he had been a student of O Sensei, he was emphatic that he had been. I had been under the misunderstanding that O Sensei had lived and taught only in Tokyo. From what I've learned since, O Sensei was not around Hombu Dojo consistently after the war and spent large portions of time in Osaka, as well as Iwama.

At some point after being made Shihan, Kawahara Sensei was deployed by Hombu to teach in Taiwan, where he remained for three years before anti-Japanese sentiment compelled him to leave. He then moved to Montreal, where he taught for a period of time before relocating to British Columbia. He would remain there for the rest of his life.

I think Sensei spent less than half his time at home and the rest of the time travelling across Canada. He would travel to Saskatoon to teach one weekend, stay with us for the week, then travel to Atlantic Canada to teach the next weekend so that the full price of the plane ticket wouldn't have to be absorbed by his students at either location. His work for Aikido in Canada was demanding and consuming. He gave a huge portion of his life to his students. He always stayed human while always being an inspiration.

I'm going to miss you Sensei. Rest in Peace.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I've been practicing in Canada for 4 years now, and saw Kawahara Sensei teach a few times. My first seminar was with him, at the JCCC in Toronto, and I remember being rather intimidated by him (I had been practicing a bit less than a year), but I think it was because he was so serious. The next time I saw him, he seemed to be in a much better mood (and I'd been practicing a bit longer at that point), and I really enjoyed his teaching.

  2. Thanks for posting a comment! I've actually trained at JCCC once when George Hewson was teaching - I thought the place was amazing (I walked past a Kendo class to get to another section where there was a Judo class and as soon as Judo ended, the Aikido class started on the same mat and then walking out after Aikido there was a Karate class - an amazing facility for this Saskatchewan boy) and I was truly jealous of anyone who got to train there regularily.

  3. Thank you for posting this! I only had a few seminars with Kawahara sensei before he passed, but now I teach classes and get to point at the photo of him on the wall and describe his teachings. I love to hear how the great teacher started his Budo journey.