Above, John Stevens lecturing in an Aikido class.
Earlier this year, John Stevens' book “The Philosophy of
Aikido” was published by Kodansha International, Ltd. Tokyo,
publisher was very kind to send me a review copy of his book.
John Stevens is an
internationally acclaimed Aikidoka and one of the foremost authorities
on Aikido and Buddhist studies. He is the author many famous books of
Aikido which are available in many different translations. He is a
respected member of academia, a professor at Tohoku Fukushi
University, in Sendai, Japan (just north of Tokyo, on the east coast). I have always found his literary works
interesting, thought provoking, and very educational in the study of
Aikido and other cultures as well.
My interview was conducted via several e-mails with Mr.
Stevens. Some of the questions are my usual queries, but some are
specific to his background, authority in the Aikido community, and his
new book. I found my communications with him very warm, professional,
friendly and marked with humor. I’d like all my readers to know John
Stevens as the Aikidoka, the professor, and the person.
What is your birthplace?
“Chicago, but I grew up in Evanston, Illinois”
Where you have lived geographically?
“I moved to Sendai, Japan in 1973. I now spend about half the year
in Sendai and half abroad.”
What do you do currently for a living and where you work?
“ I am a Professor of Buddhist Studies at Tohoku Fukushi University
Where is your dojo (name, place, classes, etc.) ?
"My home dojo is at the university but I conduct seminars all
over the world."
When did you start Aikido?
"I began Aikido soon after I moved to Japan in 1973."
Who was your first instructor?
"Hanzawa Yoshimi Sensei, the Chief Aikido Instructor in Sendai.
Hanzawa Sensei was also a karate and iaido shihan."
Where did you first study?
"At the Sendai Budokan. It had just opened when I arrived in Sendai and I was the first new Aikido student there. Everyone else was
third or fourth dan, and all had trained with O-Sensei. It was very tough in the beginning but I made rapid progress."
What were the most memorable moments with your first
"Since I have lived in Japan so long, I have had a chance to
train with almost every major Japanese instructor, which was a very
valuable experience. Also, at training sessions held after big demonstrations,
Kisshomaru Doshu would be the instructor so it was possible to really train
one on one with the highest ranking people. However, Shirata Rinjiro Sensei
was my only real
"The first time I saw him, he did all kind of different
shiho-nages that neither I nor anyone else could follow. (It was
pretty much that way for the next twenty years – shihan would come
from all over to his dojo in Yamagata and be totally confused. Shirata
Sensei's technical repertoire was unequalled). His technique was
extraordinary, clean and powerful but the best thing about him was his
wonderful smile -- the same kind of smile you often see in photographs
What inspired you to undertake Aikido?
"I originally went to Japan to study Buddhism and I felt I needed
to practice some kind of martial art to balance the long hours of
seated meditation and book study. I initially practiced both Shorinji
Kempo and Aikido. I attained the rank of san-dan in Shorinji Kempo but
eventually selected Aikido as my one and only path."
What other martial arts have you studied?
"I trained in classical swordsmanship of the Muto Ryu,
established by the Great Master Yamaoka Tesshu, and the Jikishin-kage
Ryu. Although I did not retain much technically from those schools, I
was inspired by the instructors who insisted on the importance of hard
training coupled with dedicated learning.
During the Jikishin-kage Ryu week-long intensive training,
there were study sessions twice a day in the dojo. Study of the
classical texts was an essential part of the training.
" I studied kyudo, Japanese archery, only briefly
but it gave me an enlightening experience.
"Awa Sensei, the zen master archer hero of the classic
ZEN AND THE ART OF ARCHERY lived in Sendai, and I went to study
with one of his students. There is a fair amount of preparatory
training before you are actually allowed on the archery range. The
first day, I came nowhere near the target, not surprisingly, but on
the second day when the last thing on my mind was hitting the
target--I just wanted to get the arrow to fly more than a couple of
feet-- I released the arrow and it went straight and true right to the
heart of the target. I realized that it would take me twenty years to
reproduce that exhilarating experience -- no-mind no-thought--so I
bowed deeply to the target, put away the bow and never went back."
Your style of
Aikido differs from others --- how?
"Based on the teachings and inspiration of O'Sensei and Shirata
Sensei, I have created a style - I
call Classical Aikido. It presents Aikido as a complete system - -
with Aikido based meditation, Aikido based kototama chanting, Aikido
based book learning, and the classical techniques taught by O'Sensei
and Shirata Sensei."
Give me some
details on your early experiences in Aikido. Who was influential to
you in Aikido? What were the most memorable moments with your Aikido
"Training with Shirata Sensei was always a delight but what
impressed me most was his dedication to study and constant
improvement. Between the ages of 75 and 80, he created a wonderful
variety of new misogi-no-jo and misogi-no-ken forms based on his
life-long training. One of his favorite sayings was: "Make your
training anew everyday" and I never saw another shihan who took
such a delight in Aikido even after 60 years."
Photographs displayed with permission from
Thank you Scott for allowing us to
use your photographs for this interview!
© 2001 photos by Scott Aitken, www.ScottPix.com
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