The stress and pressure of training in San Diego Aikikai was a given, the norm. It was something we all had to contend with on pretty much of a daily bases, a given. This was so much the case that when there was a “chilled” period, a day, a week even, there would be a cynical questioning, a silent but growing “hmm, what’s up?” We knew, I knew that this was an uncharacteristic lull before the proverbial storm. Some say life is a form of stress by the virtue that you are alive. A kind of pressure that exerts itself like it or not but let’s leave that for now.
It was in the spring of 1987 when I was given instructions to prepare for my Sandan (3rd degree black belt) grading . The occasion no less, was to be the Santa Cruz summer camp which carried the added significance of the late Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba as the guest teacher that year. So yes there was pressure, lots of it and with it came expectation. There was no special time allocated to the grading, no specific class or prioritisation in anyway. The volume of classes and the depth of the training meant it was all taken care of, or should have been, I knew all of the required curriculum and more. Having said that, I could feel the change in atmosphere as the Summer event came closer. In one sense nothing had changed. The classes ran as usual. Chiba Sensei was as brilliant and unpredictable as ever. I was diligent and consistent in my training. I knew the stuff well, my conditioning was very high and focus was on keeping this going. However, beyond the training there were preparations for the camp, a considerable endeavour. Direct planning for it was not my concern , but there were the finances for this major event which was proving to be a concern. Chiba Sensei was worried even if he didn’t admit to it.
It was not rocket science to arrive at the conclusion that the San Diego Aikikai was not a money tree. The class sizes were small, shit the dojo was small, I think around 30-35 members at best and in total. Despite the move from the old “pressure cooker” dojo, attendance was not great. Often tiny, with Yahe and myself the constant. He was concerned with how he would keep us going and it was in such times that between Yahe and myself we would start getting tutored in Judo and some variant of it tied in with Aikido. It was crazy stuff and dangerous and fantastic in equal amounts. It was fusion training and a window in how good Chiba Sensei really was. Yet the classes remained strangely small and questions about survival would arise. Much of the old guard had left by now and when new people were to eventually come, it was slow going. I struggled to understand at the time why there were not more people jumping in to train there. Yes it was very challenging, and as already mentioned, a high pressure situation but surely the genius of Chiba Sensei, his charisma and generosity as a teacher should have been enough to compel people? You would think right? Maybe his mere or shear presence, that alone was a daunting prospect to a newbie. Stressed by just walking into a room I wouldn’t be surprised. Then there is us the young guys. We were not exactly smooth and great front men. We added to the intensity, sucked it up and even spat it out so you were just as likely to get chewed out by us well before the big man got to you.
Whatever the reasons and no doubt they were many, it meant money was always an issue, in the daily running of the dojo, to seminars and finally Summer Camp – all needed money and there were no guarantees it would be enough to cover the costs. You don’t do Aikido for money, you need a thorough medical check if you are but it does function as a business as well, it has to survive. There were signs that the demands of all these factors were getting to Chiba Sensei. With the Doshu on the cards, the gradings of his main guys in such a public way, the insecurity of his dojo and surely more stuff that we were simply not aware of meant he had a lot on his mind. This was for the United States Aikido Federation Western Region summer camp. Otherwise known as the USAF and nothing to do with the US Air Force. Getting the Doshu over was quite a coup and this event was going to be bigger than any past events, it was a major show piece and declaration. San Diego Aikikai, the USAFWR and Chiba Sensei was now on the map. This meant a lot rode on Chiba’s reputation. His ability to pull it off politically, financially and I am sure on a personal level. We the students were caught up in all this, embroiled in his machinations. The founders son was going to be looked after at the highest level. First class flights and accommodation, his fee and Mrs Chiba attending him. We tried to support all this, through various fundraising schemes but in the end time ran out and Summer Camp was almost upon us and other matters…..part 2 coming soon.