Remembering Mitsunari Kanai Shihan: Personal Reflections

by F. Ishu Ishiyama
Chief Instructor of Vancouver West Aikikai
Associate Professor, University of British Columbia
March 28, 2005

Kanai sensei at New England Aikikai, Boston. 1975

One year has passed since Kanai Sensei's untimely death on March 28, 2004. Kanai Sensei continues to occupy a very special place in my heart. His presence has become even stronger, with my fond memories and deep appreciation of him, and with some regrets. Not one day passes without my thinking of him. At our dojo, we have set a small photo stand of him next to the picture of O-Sensei in kamiza (sacred upper/front side of the dojo). Most of my students have no idea who Kanai Sensei is, how much he has inspired me in Aikido, and how respectful and fondly I feel toward him.

I met Kanai Sensei in Boston in 1974 for the first time. I was nidan in Aikido at that time, originally trained in Osaka, Japan. We made an instant personal connection when we first met, partly because we could converse freely in Japanese and we had a similar sense of humour. In addition, I was deeply attracted to his Aikido techniques and theory of budo (martial art), as well as to his personhood. He was a living Samurai, with a gentle and kind manner toward others, but with stern self-discipline in his solitude and uncompromised commitment to the pursuit of Aikido as budo.

Kanai sensei. Boston. 1975

I was also impressed with his artistic talents and refined sense of beauty, as evidenced in the dojo décor, his Japanese-style study at home, and his handcrafted saya (scabbard) and other sword ornaments. And, oh, his long hair. I quickly got used to his habit of pushing back his hair with both hands away from the face after each throw in his Aikido demonstration. I almost developed the same habit even though I didn't have a long hair like his!

At seminars and summer camps, I often translated for Kanai Sensei and took uke for him. I stayed at his home, every time I visited him in Boston to receive his private and regular class instructions. We stayed up for hours talking about Aikido, Japanese swords, and personal episodes, over dozens of cups of tea and occasionally glasses of brandy, until the sun rise. He used to say chuckling, "We've done it again. We'd better get some sleep." He was developing a theory of budo, at that time. I was sort of his sounding board, who was in awe of his precise thinking and pragmatic technical deliberations and also was full of curiosity and desire to learn and absorb things from Kanai Sensei.

Kanai sensei. Boston. 1975

When I stayed with him for a week one year, we did our usual all night talking. The next day when we went to the dojo, he offered me a sword (made by Kanetoshi, Edo period) as a gift. He showed me how to make Japanese-style scabbards and handles. We worked on our art projects side by side at the dojo. (I basically imitated him, very poorly.) He had about half a dozen Japanese swords lying around at the dojo. He let me use one of them and gave me Iaido lessons during my stay, but always stopped the Iaido practice when students started arriving.

Kanai Sensei used to tell me about helmet-splitting as a way of testing the sharpness and strength of a sword. He himself tried cutting a US-military helmet with a sword and was half-successful in cutting it but wrecked his sword. One day back in Montreal, I remembered this episode, and I thought I would try something similar. There was no helmet, but an empty one-gallon metal can. I brought out the sword given by Kanai Sensei, and tried to cut it into two. I tore it half way down nicely and the metal can collapsed. My sword had two fresh and serious scratch marks on each side. Realizing it was too late to reverse this stupid decision, I kept this incident to myself. However, I must have mentioned it to someone over a drink by a slip of tongue; eventually it reached Kanai Sensei's ear. In his usual all-accepting and non-blaming manner of speech, he said, "I heard you cut a metal can instead of a helmet." I admitted. I was relieved that he almost sounded amused, not at all upset that I had spoiled his gift.

Kanai Sensei's day often started in the early afternoon. The A&W Restaurant (I think this was the name but am not certain) across the street from his old dojo was the hang-out for him and his students at that time. The dojo had a white canvas cover, which I found very slippery to practise on. I remember training with "big Americans" like Lou (with an Italian family name), Fred Wagstaff, and Fred Newcomb. Sharon Mann was the dojo secretary who later moved to California to work in a movie industry. She used to pick up and drive Kanai Sensei around. All his students just loved him as an individual and a teacher and also appreciated beauty, power, and gracious gentleness in him as a man and as a martial artist.

Kanai sensei. Montreal. 1975.

I was living and studying in Montreal from 1973 till 1979, and taught Aikido at several dojos as a young and inexperienced instructor-practitioner. I needed a teacher-mentor, and Kanai Sensei was there for me. He and I corresponded by mail and telephone between our meetings in seminars in the East Coast and Canada. One time, I asked him to teach me more, and he wrote back to me, saying: "Don't expect to be taught. You must steal from your teacher." My old friend, Jim Wright (now in Toronto) still remembers my telling the dojo members this exchange.

"Why don't you move to Boston and study with me?" Kanai Sensei invited me to be his uchideshi in 1975. I was deeply honoured, but I needed time to make up my mind. I had to deal with a number of issues, including my student visa status in Canada and my education (I was preparing for my graduate study at McGill University). I had to disappoint him in the end. Instead of becoming his uchideshi, I became his sotodeshi (non-live-in disciple).

Kanai sensei. New Hampshire
Summer Camp. 1974

My life would have been totally different and my Aikido would have been much better, if I had accepted his invitation. I went to stay with Kanai Sensei and his family 1987 or 1988, and we reminisced our days back in the 1970's. (By then I had moved to British Columbia to teach Aikido and also have a full-time university teaching position). He said, "If you had come to Boston at that point, imagine how you would have been." Although he was jovially saying that I had made a good career choice, I sensed a speck of sadness in the tone of his voice. Instead of staying close to him, I moved to the West Coast Canada in 1979, and rarely visited him in Boston, except for occasional phone calls and his several visits to the British Columbia Aikido Summer Camp. Kanai Sensei kept saying, "When are you coming out East? Find an excuse to visit Harvard, and come out to see me." Especially after his heart operation, I started phoning him regularly, which he seemed to enjoy very much. However, I continue to regret that I did not make efforts to visit him in person.

Kanai sensei. New Hampshire. 1974

My telephone record shows that we talked on the phone for 31 min. on Dec. 19, 2003. I began planning a seminar with Kanai Sensei out in Vancouver, British Columbia. Joel Posluns from San Francisco Aikikai, who had joined our dojo in 2003 as an instructor, also liked the idea and we started talking about the details mid-March, 2004. On March 25, I received a personal letter from Kanai Sensei. (It was post-marked March 16 in Boston, first delivered to my previous address and then finally reached me.) In his letter, he talked about his future plans and what he envisioned to be a truly sincere and pure endeavour to pursue Aikido and to transcend unnecessary power-politics and egotistical personal attachments. He again invited me to join him and assist him. Before I had a chance to respond to this invitation, he passed away suddenly. I missed the final chance to say "Thank you" and "Good-bye."

Regrettably, we have lost a great Aikido teacher too soon. Also, I have lost a truly great friend. However, my fond memories of Kanai Sensei and his inspirations are very much intact in my heart. When I close my eyes, I can hear his voice, see his gentle smile, and feel his quiet and powerful presence.

Ishu Ishiyama
2005-3-28