One evening some of the dojo members were invited to the Chiba household for dinner. Santa Cruz and the big occasion was only a few weeks away so some good food, drink, and laughter was welcome. The evening became a hot, sticky night, the cicadas in full orchestra as was the season. They were not the only ones making themselves heard that nigh as a conversation with Chiba Sensei and Bob*, one of the old guard, was getting louder and heated. Bob was a very popular character, his tendency to dramatise and exaggerate his stories endeared him to people. His chat with Chiba Sensei that night was no different, with the exception that the boss was quite prickly…. even more than usual, which was a lot to start with. The conversation was not great start with and went progressively pear shaped as they took verbal shots at each other for what seemed like for the hell of it. Bob was deliberately provoking, annoying and in the end just pissing Chiba Sensei off. Hell, he was pissed off already and got more pissy as their chat evolved. ”Why don’t you do Iaido anymore?” came from a prying Chiba Sensei. It sounded like fighting talk. “Well I’m so awful at it that I had to stop.” This did not come across as a very convincing reply, especially when said with too much gusto and a Cheshire cat smile. “Well that doesn’t make sense. You just keep practising, how else do you improve?” followed by a terse ”I fixed that katana for you. It was beautiful, where is it now, what have you done with it?” The tone and line of questioning was always rebuffed with answers that didn’t go down well. That said, Chiba Sensei in that mood of his would not have accepted any answer. The social light hearted banter was now nothing but a distant dream.
Well, you couldn’t fault Bob for trying. As another dramatised delivery would come, border line sarcastic (not his intention, I think?) but ratcheting things up nonetheless. He was prodding Chiba Sensei’s buttons which was easy enough to do at the best of times. “It’s been keeping my boat floating” Bob parried gleefully, having way too much fun. The truth was he was broke and had to sell it. That’s all he needed to say, but no, he had rub it in his face. Bob was too free a wild spirit to be contained by anyone, including Chiba Sensei. Qualities Chiba loved and couldn’t deal with at the same time.
The conversation changed as Sensei hinted about his financial concerns with the upcoming Summer Camp. He grumbled on in his characteristic way about the lack of American dojos supporting each other, questioning their commitment to each other. The same tired old complaints which made you wonder what he really meant. Whatever the issue, the stress of getting Doshu over was very real and soon got out of hand. Bob was trying to be helpful in his way innocently suggested “Why don’t you market Doshu?”
That was the straw that broke the camels back. Chiba was beside himself now, barking out “What? Market Doshu, are you serious?” He was furious and this was a sharp reminder where he drew his line. For Chiba Sensei there were rules and etiquette when running a dojo. You do not fuck with it. You treated Doshu differently, special, a VIP. He was the founders son, his teacher, and NOT a commodity to be packaged for adverts. So woe betide anyone who didnt get that. The sharp turn into a darker mood left me wondering where this was heading towards. Bob was tough. He could more than handle himself and was not for backing down. Pride was in there somewhere but more, so Bob was just Bob but don’t forget Chiba was Chiba as well. It didnt escape my notice that amongst the empty plates, wine, beer and coffee, that somewhere along the line Chiba Sensei had picked up one of the bottles by the neck, swinging it slowly side to side. It looked ominous.
Juba, one of the Uchi Deshi’s who was slightly wiser to the situation, was sitting next to Bob read the signs. Signs? Fuck, it was a neon lit beacon. He firmly grabbed Bob’s arm, hissing under his breath , “Let’s go”. Bob responded albeit reluctantly but by then Chiba Sensei was also on his feet charging towards them. He, Chiba Sensei, wasn’t about to attack one of his guys, was he? And one who was ready to take him on to boot! On the veranda Chiba Sensei was now facing down towards Bob who was only a step or two below him, right after shoving Juba aside. Chiba Sensei took a wild and badly aimed right hook, and missed Bob, just. By then only I remained between the two “adversaries”. By now I circled around Chiba Sensei placing myself between them. Chiba Sensei looked right at me with stone black eyes as I wondered if my presence made him think, if it slowed him down and take stock of what he was doing. I am very sure it didn’t. I turned towards Bob as “I like you Bob but you’re on your own now” flashed through my mind. It was all surreal and would have been quite comical if the situation wasn’t so tense. I didn’t have time to move away when out of nowhere a hand appeared behind Chiba Sensei tapping him on the shoulder. I heard a very stern “Sensei no, Sensei no.”
This was from another of the old crew, Joan*, who displayed a lot of courage and common sense. My goodness, it did the trick. It allowed him the excuse to turn around, using it as a means to change his direction and end the messy affair. He hugged her affectionately and headed into the living room while Bob made his unceremonious departure. We all returned to the living room, now a somber and tired place. The remaining people were still in a state of shock, probably unable to make head or tails of what had just transpired. I can’t say it was a good end to the day. We sat a while longer and whatever else was said that night, for the life of me I can’t recall. We were just biding our time to be sure that all was well as could be before sneaking out ourselves.
A niggling thought at the back of my mind promoted me to go by the dojo and check it out before heading home. Switching on the dojo lights would reveal there in the kamiza, (the shrine) scattered pieces of a torn membership book. It, of course and as expected, belonged to Bob. I knew something was off and this was it. A clear I am ‘done with you’. I couldn’t really blame him, yet for some reason I quietly collected the pieces and finally left the dojo. At the time I decided it was the best thing to remove them, though for one brief moment I wanted to leave it and see what would happen. It seems very trivial now, and it was. An argument, booze, boys being boys and careless behaviour. The truth though and at the heart of these situations was that Chiba Sensei was as subject to stress as the next person, and likely more than most during that time. The responsibilities he took on, he really took on fully. All or nothing. Being this way, his choices became burdens and weighed heavily on him. His public face mattered intensely to him. A traditionalist and conservative, all while holding his position uncompromisingly at the top. For me I saw that even great martial artists did not have a lid on everything. Even at the peak of his powers he had shown himself as human as the rest of us, subject to the same human frailties and concerns. As was usually the case with him, he continued as though nothing had happened. ‘Normality’ resumed in the following days and here and there you could still sense that he was concerned about Bob, but the show must go on.