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Interview with Renown Aikidoist John Stevens
by Cheryl Matrasko

 
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, Japan. His 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 in Sendai.”

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 instructor? 
"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 teacher. 

"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 of O'Sensei."

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 study?
"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."  

(Continued)

Next Page of Interview

Photographs displayed with permission from Scott Aitken. 

Thank you Scott for allowing us to use your photographs for this interview!
© 2001 photos by Scott Aitken, www.ScottPix.com

Any reproduction, or further use of the photos, articles, and other literary materials from these web pages without the direct written permission of the photographers, owners, or authors is prohibited.

9/9/2001

© 2009, Aikido World, Inc. All rights reserved

  
Cheryl Matrasko is a Network Analyst for the department
of Networking and Communications at a prominent
Chicago hospital. Formerly the LAN Administrator for
Northwestern University Medical School - Department of
Obstetrics and Gynecology, and assistant LAN Administrator to the previous MIS of the School of Law. 

She started Aikido in 1965, studying under Isao Takahashi
as her first instructor. She enjoyed working out under
many well known Aikido instructors during her tenure with
Takahashi Sensei, and thereafter following his death in
1971. Cheryl has dedicated time with instructors in
Northern Shaolin Long-Fist, Seven Stars Praying Mantis,
and Daito-Ryu Aikijujitsu to extend her martial arts
education and perspectives. Currently, she is instructing
Aikido at Northwestern University's Chicago Campus and
supporting Aikido World Journal.
  

 


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AIKIDO PHOTOS


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Michio Hikitsuchi 10th Dan 1978
(C. Matrasko as uke)
© 1978 C. Matrasko

Submitted photos from all over the world.

Please note that the owners of photographs illustrated here have their own respected copyrights.

  

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9/9/2001