In 1957, I was studying Judo and Karate at the Abbe School of Budo
at the "Hut" in Hillingdon, Middlesex, a suburb of London.
My teacher was Ken Williams Sensei, and we were all students of
Kenshiro Abbe Sensei (8th dan in Judo, 6th dan in Aikido, and 5th
dan in Karate and Kendo). At that time, very few people in the United
Kingdom had heard of Aikido.
Around 1957, Abbe Sensei told Mr Williams that he had recieved
a letter from O-Sensei saying that instructors outside of Japan
had permission to teach Aikido to anyone who wished to learn it.
Mr Williams was Abbe Sensei's first Aikido student. Eventually,
Abbe Sensei made Mr Williams National Coach for Aikido, and I became
Mr Williams assistant - which I remained for approximately 15 years.
Abbe Sensei's Aikido was the pre-war style of Aiki-Jutsu, which
was very physical. Both Abbe Sensei and Williams Sensei were excellent
teachers, who worked very hard to train us while promoting Aikido
to an initially unreceptive public. Abbe Sensei and Williams brought
eight of us up to 1st dan. At the time, we were the only dan grades
in Great Britain, and we were all in one dojo. Sunday morning practice
was for dan grades only. Williams Sensei would lock the doors to
the dojo, and the real serious practice would start. Williams Sensei
would allow the younger dan grades to try and prove themselves against
him, but they had no success.
Williams Sensei started to visit other dojos and to introduce Aikido.
He was a highly respected Judo teacher, and this helped him to arrange
visits to Judo clubs. Occasionally, a Judo instructor would allow
a few students to practice Aikido in a corner of the mat.
In the early days, the training was extremely difficult with the
emphasis on very strenuous exercise. My students and I used to train
four or five nights a week as well as Sunday mornings. After running
for several miles, we would return to the mat and perform 200 push-ups
on the backs of our wrists, which we then followed with general
practice and a further two hours of hard practice.
When I was graded 1st dan by Abbe Sensei, Williams Sensei instructed
me to take a good student as an assistant. I chose a young man of
17 years of age by the name of Derek Eastman, who is now 3rd dan
and Technical Director or our Basingstoke Headquarters. Mr Eastman
is still a loyal friend after all these years.
When Mr Eastman reached 1st dan and I was 2nd dan,
William Sensei advised us to travel and spread the word of Aikido.
Both Mr Eastman and I gave up our jobs and travelled around the
United Kingdom. It was very difficult to introduce Aikido, because
most people had never heard of it.
Mr Eastman and I left home and
headed for the Midlands without much
money or hope. We would visit Judo and Karate clubs, sports centres,
etc. In some areas, where Williams sensei had already introduced
Aikido, we would find accommodation with the students, and we would
get paid a small fee for teaching. Where there was no Aikido at
all, we would take jobs for a few days to feed ourselves. In one
area, we worked as assistants to a funeral director. We had to goto
the morgue, collect the bodies. And take them upto the chapel. (Once
the boss caught me in the chapel of rest with a young local maiden
whom I was laying to rest - one who was alive and well. He was very
We also worked as road sweepers, wearing bowler hats which attracted
a great deal of attention from the girls.
In the north of England, the girls loved to hear the London or
southern accent, and this was a great help with invitations for
dinner. But it was still a struggle to survive.
We also worked in steel factories and had many other jobs around
the country. Without a doubt, the worst was repairing an old railway
line. We called it the "railway of death." Needless to
say, we did not stay on that job very long.
The author with Nakazono Sensei, Santa Fe, NM (1991)
Still as I look back on life in Aikido, I think that this is was
a really great time. As with all memories, we tend to forget the
bad times and remember the good. We contributed greatly to the promotion
of Aikido, and I do not regret one day of it.
Williams Sensei would send out all the Dan grades out to teach
and to demonstrate in the hope that people would watch us and listen
to us. Our teaching was free of charge, and this often enabled us
to obtain free accommodation with the students. Although Williams
Sensei was not a particularly religious man, I remember him saying, "You
are my disciples, and now you must go out and teach the gospel of
In the earley 60's, Williams Sensei called all
the Dan grades together and said that he wanted us to attend the
longest and most important seminar to date. It was to be held in
Cardiff in Wales. The demonstrations and interviews were to be televised.
usual, our accommodations were to be
with local students. When we arrived at the Cardiff dojo - Williams
Sensei and eight Dan grades - all the students crowded around saying, "Sensei,
would you please stay with me?" One student politely took my
arm and said, "Sensei I would be very pleased if you would
stay with me at Sunnybank Farm." After living in London, I
thought it would be a great treat for
me to stay at the farm for the weekend.
The student and I drove for miles into
the wilds of rural Wales, eventually
arriving at a very remote farmhouse.
The weather seemed very cold but dry.
I woke up the next morning at 5am with cocks crowing
and the cows doing whatever cows do to create noise. After I shock
my head and realized where I was, I looked out of the window. To
my horror, I saw that the snow had fallen and drifted right up to
the bedroom windows.
snowed in for three days until a neighbour
from miles away dug us out with a mechanical digger. I missed the
seminar and the television appearance. It was then that I resolved
to stay a city boy.
When Abbe Sensei told us that he had invited a
new teacher from Japan to visit us, we were all quite excited. We
had never seen a Japanese Aikido master other then Abbe Sensei.
new teacher was Nakazono Sensei (then
6th Dan). Abbe Sensei told us that Nakazono Sensei would teach us
for two weeks. It was two weeks of hell. Nakazono Sensei had us
practicing on the mat for three hours in the morning and three hours
in the afternoon, and then the dan grades had to practice an additional
three hours in the evening. During this seminar there were many
broken bones and other injuries.
Abbe Sensei had
taught us to be strong and not be thrown
unless the technique was effective - that being strong showed
respect for your teacher. He also taught
ukes to attack on balance so as not make the throw to easy. As he
taught, Abbe Sensei would hit us with a shinai and explain that,
while his English was not very good, the shinai spoke English fluently.
So, in those early years, that was what we knew - the strong fighting
art of Aikido
At first, when Nakazono Sensei
saw how we practiced, he was angry
with us and perplexed. He did not understand. But,
at the end of the seminar, Abbe Sensei
explained why we were the way we were. Then Nakazono Sensei realized
that we were genuine students with great respect for him and a strong
desire to learn.
In England, after a hard practice,
it is traditional to finish the evening
off with a pint of beer at the local pub. But Nakazono Sensei was
keeping us on the mat until 10pm, and the pubs closed at 10:30pm.
So Williams Sensei said to me, "Ellis, as my assistant, it is your duty to ask Sensei
if we can leave the mat at 9pm so we
can have time to get to the pub." I asked Nakazono Sensei (what
a fool I was!), and he became angry. He said that he had travelled
across the world to teach us Aikido and that all we wanted to do
was go to the pub. What he didn't seem to understand was that this
was our vacation from work. (I reminded Nakazono Sensei of this
incident when we met later in Santa Fe, and we were able to laugh
In 1963, I was Nakazono Sansei's assistant at a national martial
arts demonstration at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That was
a proud moment for me, and also for my parents, as this was the
first they had ever seen me in a Aikido demonstration.
There was a vast difference between Abbe Sensei's old style Aikido
and Nakazono Sensei's new style, which was far more flowing. The
new way seemed so much softer and yet very strong.
We quickly adapted to this new style.
Then Abbe Sensei dropped a "bombshell" on us: we would
all have to be regraded to meet the current standards of Hombu Dojo.
The grading was physical and mentally demanding. At its end, Abbe
Sensei lined all the eight Dan grades up and said that he accepted
our ranks - with the exception of one. He looked at that one for
a timeless moment and said, "Necessary sell your gi while price
is high." Even after 37 years, I have not forgotten that sentence.
Abbe Sensei took away that students rank.
In the early 1960's I was asked to conduct an Aikido
demonstration at the British Judo Council's National Judo Championships
in London. Among the VIPs in attendance were the Japanese Ambassador
and Lady Baden Powell, the wife of Lord Baden Powell, who was then
the head of the World Organization of Boy Scouts. Kenshiro Abbe
and Otani Sensei emphasized how important this evening was and that
they wanted an impressive display from the Aikido people.
were waiting to go on, a Judo man came
up to Otani Sensei who was speaking to
the Japanese Ambassador, and said, "Hey, Smiler." I
couldn't believe the disrespect, and
took the man to one side. We were having a confrontation when Derek
Eastman, who was outside smoking a cigarette, told me that we were
due on stage immediately. We rushed onto the stage.
As I performed
the first technique, Mr.Eastman's cigarettes
and matches fell out of his gi onto the
stage. I was already upset from the incident with the Judo man,
and now the embarrassment! I smashed Mr Eastman all over the tatami
and back again.
Later, when we were doing a knife technique with
a live blade the knife went through my
gi and I felt the cold blade against
my stomach. I thought, "My God, it's in me!" I
dropped onto my knees with Mr Eastman
in an immobilization, and I looked down
at the front row. Looking up at me with shock and horror was her
Ladyship. I knew by the look on her face that any hopes we had of
her sponsoring Aikido were over.
After the display, her Ladyship
said, "That was the most horrific
display of violence I have ever witnessed."
The Japanese Ambassador
congratulated us on a excellent demonstration.
(On inspection, I realized that the blade
had only grazed me.)
Abbe Sensei brought over from Paris a young 5th
Dan, Noro Sensei - the first sensei we had seen in a white hakama.
Noro Sensei was perhaps the most graceful of all the teachers I
have ever seen to date.
There then followed many other teachers:
Tada Sensei, Hishomura Sensei, Tadashi
Abbe Sensei, Tamura Sensei and Chiba
Sensei. I was with Chiba Sensei for several years.
Chiba Sensei and I taught Aikido in a dojo at The
Times newspaper in London. We were asked to take part in a 30-minute
broadcast on the BBC world radio. Sensei asked me to do all the
talking because, at the time his English was not very good. A television
producer who had heard the broadcast asked if we would do a demonstration
on Anglican TV. We agreed.
While we were
waiting for our slot on TV, we were taken
to a hospitality room, where the had just about any drink you can
imagine. The hostess asked if we would like drinks. I thought a
Jim Beam would go down well, and I said, "Sensei
can we have a drink?" "Yes," he replied, but before
I could order my Jim Beam he ordered
two orange juices.
Some of the Aikido I have seen in recent years depresses me because
it can only be done by two Aikidoists who practice together on a
regular basis - like a pair of dancers who know each others moves.
But Chiba Sensei's style of Aikido is effective. If I wanted Yoga,
I would study; if I wanted dance, I would take dancing lessons.
I believe that Aikido not only has to look good, but also be effective.
Once I had to go to see Abbe Sensei at his apartment
in Acton, London. (He shared a house with Otani Sensei, a 7th Dan
in Judo, and his son Tomio Otani, a good friend of mine who was
the national coach for Kendo.)
The house was like a martial arts
museum with suits of armour, swords,
and other weapons scattered around.
From childhood, athletics has been one of my great
loves. But the one sport I cannot watch is our English game of cricket.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I came to the house and
found Abbe Sensei, Whom I viewed almost like a god, watching the
World Series." The windows were open, and small birds and pigeons
were flying around the room.
choosing my words, I said, "Sensei, I didn't realize
that you liked cricket."
"I don't," he said. "I watch this boring, stupid game
every day, and still don't understand it."
He then said something very true: "They call it the World Series,
but it is only played in countries that Britain conquered."
Eventually, Williams Sensei, whom I believe to the best Aikidoist
the United Kingdom has ever produced, began studying Ki Aikido with
Tohei Sensei while a group to while I belong remained traditional.
Williams Sensei strictly controlled Aikido in the United Kingdom
for approximately 15 years. No one would start a dojo or take a
seminar without consulting with him first. But Aikido has now grown
far beyond our early expectations, and many factors have broken
up the special unit of dan grades that once existed.
I was not politically minded in the old days, and I have not changed.
Sometimes students telephone me and ask what style I practiceor
what organization I belong to. Before they tell me their allegiance,
I just say, "if you practice Aikido, you are more than welcome
to attend our dojo."
On my next visit to the US, I hope to visit Alaska.
The secretary of the Ellis School of Traditional Aikido (ESTA) in
Alamogordo, Mrs. Aida Prazak, has moved to North Pole in Alaska,
with her husband, who is a captain in the United States Air Force,
and she hopes to open an Aikido school in the area in the near future.
I was last in the United States, I
taught in New Mexico at the El Paso University, where I received
a very warm welcome. I also taught at Roswell Military Academy and
Holloman Air Force Base.
When I last
saw Nakazono Sensei he asked, "What are you doing
now?" I told him how things were. He said, "Henry, you
think you are only 20 years of age. You
should slow down. You are a old man." But, if I refrain from
looking in the mirror, I can go on pretending I am a young man in
heart and mind - thanks to a lifetime of Aikido.
Co-author of Positive Aikido book