Kawahara-sensei, a personal reflection

Kawahara-sensei in Toronto at opening of new Tendokai dojo, 2010. Photo: Warren Chan

I first met Kawahara-sensei at the start of my Aikido career, nearly 35 years ago in Vancouver. I had practiced other martial arts, but Sensei’s grace, power and the utter effectiveness of his techniques were truly amazing to me. That was the start of my dedication to Aikido.

Even after I returned to Toronto a couple of years later, Sensei maintained an interest in my practice, despite the challenges of distance. I went to see him at seminars whenever I could.

The impact he had on me went beyond his considerable presence on the tatami. Off the mats, he was just as impressive – a completely authentic martial artist, words I do not use lightly.

During practice, he was stern and unwavering in his teaching, but sometimes showed a dry sense of humour. Off the mats, he was often casual and friendly, though he held high expectations of his students to show respect properly. He always kept a sense of self-possession, was always “in the moment” and in tune with his surroundings.

His encyclopaedic knowledge of martial arts and profound understanding of Aikido were a constant challenge to his students. Every time you attained a new insight, Sensei would show you how much further you still had to travel. That was how he kept so many students so deeply engaged in practice for so many years.

He was a martial arts genius. I believe he often found it frustrating that so many students had to struggle to understand what to him was simple and obvious.

To spend time with him was an education in what a martial artist should be. He was very private, in the tradition of the warriors of old. He lived a quiet life by choice and carefully avoided the spotlight. Many of his students remember how much he disliked public occasions and either giving or listening to long speeches. His Aikido was for his students, and he had little interest in fame beyond that circle.

The Canadian Aikido Federation was very fortunate to secure his support as Technical Director. Before he accepted this appointment, he was already internationally renowned as a teacher and had a full teaching schedule. He was also committed to advancing the standards of the British Columbia Aikido Federation, a group that had grown strongly under his care. All the position as CAF Technical Director added to his life was more responsibility and more work – which he assumed willingly.

Over the past decade, Sensei’s health declined. Nevertheless, he undertook a very heavy teaching schedule, visiting students across the country whenever possible, determined to raise technical standards for Aikido in Canada and strengthen the CAF.

There was no question of the great affection he felt for his students, coupled with high expectations. In traditional martial arts, a sensei was considered to be almost a father to his students, and Sensei viewed himself as having that kind of personal responsibility.

I had a warm, personal relationship with him and came to think of him almost as much a member of my family, as my teacher. He visited Yumi and I in Toronto from time to time and I treasure the memory of those conversations. It is a sign of his great spirit that I am far from unique…many students across the country had the same kind of experience and feel the same way.

It is difficult to explain the impact of Sensei’s passing. We have lost another important teacher who had personal contact with O-Sensei. It is a grievous loss for Aikido and a profound personal loss for his students across Canada.

His health declined very suddenly toward the end and he passed away a couple of days before I could get to Victoria to say goodbye to him. At the end, he was surrounded by students who expressed their affection and respect for him.

Yumi went to see him a week or so before he passed away. He was serene and fully engaged in his life as its end approached. That’s how a martial artist faces death.

Sensei, we will miss you.
– Jim Barnes