Wednesday, March 12, 2008


To the memory of Steve Sasaki, who taught many things that I needed to know. –Dedication of SunSmoke

Steve Sasaki Sensei was my first Aikido teacher. He founded a dojo in Berkeley, CA which was then named Aikido of Berkeley. It was first in a small cinderblock building on San Pablo Avenue and the corner of, I think, Delaware. A bit later, we moved closer to University Avenue, at 1812 San Pablo, to a site that is now the home of Berkeley Aikikai, under the direction of Ichiro Shibata, Shihan (Master Teacher). Berkeley Aikikai and my own current home dojo, Eastshore Aikikai, are affiliated with different sub-organizations of International Aikido, but both ultimately defer to Hombu Dojo, the original dojo of Morihei Ueshiba, O'Sensei, the Founder of Aikido. Such is the nature of martial arts politics.

Sasaki Sensei was a Japanese-American who came to Aikido late in life. He credited it with saving his life, and giving it a purpose. "I used to live upstairs from a bar," he once said, with the clear implication that he spent most of his time downstairs. He was introduced to Aikido by the legendary Koichi Tohei, the Chief Instructor at Hombu Dojo, who had been sent to the United States to create an Aikido organization. He did that task superbly, then broke with Hombu Dojo and created the International Ki Society as his own fief, creating great political rifts, some of which linger to this day.

Sasaki Sensei did not follow Koichi Tohei to the Ki Society. Instead, he remained a student of another teacher, Akira Tohei, Shihan, of Chicago. Then, in the early 1980s, while we were still at the older Delaware Avenue dojo, Kazuo Chiba Shihan came to America and settled in San Diego. Chiba Sensei's arrival had a galvanizing impact on the U.S. Aikido Federation Western Region, as he was both charismatic and practiced a style of Aikido what was notably more "martial" than anything most of us had encountered. I remember being entirely flabbergasted in the first seminar that I attended, amazed that Chiba Sensei's ukes could actually survive what he put them through.

There were, at that time, four USAF Shihan in the United States, Tohei Sensei (Chicago), Chiba Sensei (San Diego), Yamada Sensei (New York City), and Kanai Sensei (Boston). In late 1983, Aikido of Berkeley hosted a seminar at which all four of these notables were in attendance. It is my understanding that it was the first time that all four had been together to teach at a single event in the United States. The attendance was too large to fit into even the new, larger space at 1812 San Pablo, so we rented an auditorium on University Avenue. There was a severe storm that hit during the event, and for a time we trained in near darkness. Soon, however, some of the hypercompetent fellows that formed Aikido of Berkeley in those days, had a portable generator up and running and the lights came back on.

The seminar was a personal triumph for Steve. He'd created a local organization of national stature. The previous year he'd also fulfilled a lifetime dream of visiting Japan; he'd never even learned Japanese as a child.

A few months after the seminar, he died peacefully in his sleep.

He'd had a rough life, no doubt, and he'd already had one heart attack, on the mat, in fact, so it was not surprising, except that it was a complete shock. So it was an unsurprising shock, as it were, one of fate's little oxymoron's. One evening he didn't show up at the dojo for class, so the class was taught by a senior student. The next day I got a phone call telling me that Steve was dead. He was not yet 60, I believe.

There was a memorial service at the dojo, based on something that I later stole for Emperor of Dreams: "It is said in zen tradition that the soul is a candle flame; it does not go anywhere when it goes out. But while it burns it can light many other candles."

The dojo service was one of candles. Everyone who attended, many in full gi, one by one took unlit candles and lit them from a single candle that was burning at the shomen, the shrine in front of the practice mat, where the picture of O'Sensei traditionally resides.

I don't really recall how many people there were at the memorial. Dozens, scores, well over a hundred, I believe. At the end the entire space was ablaze with light. Shadows were abolished, and darkness fled the light.

Just offhand, I can think of six dojos that have been founded by those who were Sasaki Sensei in the early 80s, and I'm sure that there are others that I do not know about. The impact of his organization and teaching persists, and will persist even after all of his students are gone.

In a proper eulogy, I would recount some of my personal memories of Steve. I would mention the time at a party when he looked at my then painfully thin figure and say, "You need more hara" (center), and touched my belly, producing a bit of laughter from everyone, including me (I have more middle-aged hara now). I would tell the story of his saying that I needed to show more "gumption" in dealing with higher ranked students in my discharge of a particular dojo duty, and how that led to me being threatened with bodily harm from a fellow I knew to be bluffing. I would try to reproduce some of his speech cadences, or how good it felt to get a smile out of him on the mat. I might describe his girlfriend, a tall, strawberry blonde who went with him to Japan and stayed there. I might simply describe some of the many differences between training then and training now.

But I cannot recover enough memory to do him justice, and my abilities are limited. I will say that he taught me a great deal about how to have a good life, and that it is possible to have a death that is not tragic, even one that comes much too early for those around you.

Several days after the dojo memorial service, Steve was buried in a cemetery plot near where I lived in North Berkeley. I hiked down the hill to attend the memorial service there, a traditional open-casket viewing in the small chapel associated with the cemetery. I sat for a while in the little chapel, Steve's body in the front, and I felt what I always feel at such things, a sense of emptiness. Nietzsche had it almost entirely wrong, I think. When you stare into the abyss, nothing stares back at you at all.

Then I heard some whispered conversation from out in the hall, then laughter from some of my fellow dojo members. So I got up and went out into the hall. Because that was where Steve was, you see.


Walter said...

Seems even more ironic that I am/was Tohei Sensei's student and encountered your blog while doing some internet "housekeeping" on my teacher. Back in the day your dojo was our sister dojo. I very much appreciated your text about Sasaki Sensei. Best wishes from Chicago and the Midwest Aikido Center.

James Killus said...

Thank you very much. My current sensei is Elizabeth Lynn Sensei, who was/is a student to Tohei Sensei, Sasaki Sensei and Chiba Sensei.

Best wishes to all our fellows in the midwest.

Walter said...

Interesting, please give my regards to Lizzy as I care for her very much.

James Killus said...

Will it be enough to just say, "Walter from the Midwest Aikido Center sends his regards?" (Your blogger profile doesn't give your last name).

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