Shoji Nishio, Shihan
Shoji Nishio’s lifetime of accomplishments included numerous rankings and honors in Japanese martial arts including 8th dan in Aikido, 7th dan in Nihon Iaido Zendoku, 6th dan in Kodokan Judo, 5th dan in Shindo Shizen Ryu Karate as well as training in Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo (staff) and Hozoin Ryu Yari (spear). He received the Budo Kyoryusho award from the Japanese Budo Federation for his lifetime contribution to the development and advancement of Aikido throughout the world.
Shoji Nishio was born in 1927 in the Aomori Prefecture of northern Japan. In 1942, at the age of 15, amidst the chaos of WW II, he moved to Tokyo where he began working for the Ministry of Finance in the Japanese Mint. At the same time he started practicing judo in a nearby dojo. The war ended August 15, 1945 and on September 1st he went to join the Kodokan, the world headquarters of judo. When he arrived the building was a mess, windows blown out from the bombings, and no one was there but an old caretaker. There were no application forms so Nishio just wrote his name on a plain piece of paper and left it there. Nishio recalls with amusement that he was the first person to join the Kodokan after the war. Sometimes he would go to train and nobody would be there so he would just spend the time practicing ukemi and then go home.
By the next year things at the Kodokan began picking up. Nishio trained under the famous Kyuzo Mifune (1883-1965) 10th dan judo, the fourth of only eighteen 10th dan’s ever awarded by the Kodokan. Mifune was considered one of the greatest judo practitioners ever. Nishio liked the hard training, but by the age of 23 he was becoming dissatisfied with the practical limitations that competition placed on judo. So he began training in karate under Yasuhiro Konishi (1893-1983), one of the first karate teachers in mainland Japan.
Yasuhiro Konishi was a leading force in the development and acceptance of karate in Japan. Konishi was the founder of Shindō jinen-ryū (神道自然流) karate. Konishi also studied Aikido under Morihei Ueshiba, a relationship that extended back to the 1930′s when Ueshiba was teaching at his Kobukan Dojo in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. Konishi demonstrated Heian Nidan (a kata from Okinawan karate) for Ueshiba who commented to Konishi that he should stop wasting his time with ineffective techniques. Inspired by Uehiba’s frank comments, Konishi developed a kata he called Tai Sabaki (“body movement”). Ueshiba then remarked, “The demonstration you did just now was satisfactory to me and that is a kata worth mastering.” Konishi developed three kata, Tai Sabaki Shodan, Tai Sabaki Nidan and Tai Sabaki Sandan, all based on the same principles inspired by Ueshiba. Konishi said that Ueshiba was the best martial artist he had ever known.
Ueshiba’s reputation became known to Nishio a couple years after he began training with Konishi. In 1952, a senior instructor at Konishi’s dojo, Toyosaku Sodeyama, mentioned to Nishio, now just 25 years old, that he had seen a martial artist who was like a “phantom!” Nishio says, “I was amazed that there was someone that even Sodeyama Sensei couldn’t strike. It was O-Sensei [Morihei Ueshiba]… Anyway, I went to see Aikido and immediately joined the dojo. I was told to go and take a look at Aikido, but I never went back to karate!”
Aikido training at hombu (headquarters) was not conducted by O Sensei, but by Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Koichi Tohei. In talking about this time Nishio recalls, “No one was there and sometimes I would swing a sword and then go home. We were lucky to have five people. It was a time when all Japanese were hungry and only people who could be called martial arts fanatics would come! The people who did come to train were those that had practiced arts like judo and karate, but thought that there had to be something more, something deeper than these arts. So everyone came after having tried something else. There was no one whose experience was limited to Aikido. That was not a cause for concern. Today, when people know only Aikido, many are filled with doubts.”
It was a year and a half after starting Aikido at hombu before Nishio would see the famed Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei, for the first time. O Sensei spent most of this time in the country in Iwama. When Nishio finally saw the founder in action he was impressed by his lightening fast swordsmanship and deft handling of the jo (wooden staff). Even so, Ueshiba offered little explanation about the what and how of his Aikido. This left many unanswered questions for Nishio. And when he asked his teachers about the role of the ken (sword) and jo in aikido they did not give him an adequate answer either. After seeing the founder’s ineffable use of these weapons his interest to learn more was kindled.
Nishio took things into his own hands and in 1955 he started iaido under Shigenori Sano (10th dan Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu), and then jodo under Takaji Shimizu (headmaster of Shindo Muso-ryu).
Informed by his combined experience in judo, karate, iaido and jodo, Nishio’s Aikido started to take on a distinctive flavor which did not always meet with the approval of his Aikido teachers. Koichi Tohei is reputed to have said, “Nishio’s not doing Aikido. I don’t know whether he’s doing judo or karate, but it’s not Aikido. He doesn’t know how to extend ki!”
Nishio felt that improvements were needed in other areas as well. For one, the number of throwing techniques done in Aikido was being limited to mainly only iriminage, shihonage, and kotegaeshi. He remedied this with his own innovations of Aikido koshiwaza (hip throws) based on his experience in judo. Nishio also felt that atemi (striking) was an essential aspect of any true martial art, but it was entirely absent from post-war Aikido. He felt that it was misguided to say that Aikido could function as a martial art without using strikes. Atemi based on both karate and sword movements were integrated into every technique.
By 1958 Nishio has been promoted to 5th dan Aikido. Aikido was growing in popularity and dojo’s were springing up all over in universities and companies. Nishio Sensei found himself teaching more and more outside of Hombu Dojo. His training methods, techniques, sword and jo work grew in popularity among many schools, but they were never really accepted at Hombu. Even so, he personally maintained a good relationship with Hombu and with O Sensei. In 1976 he was promoted to 8th dan Aikido.
In 1980 Nishio retired from his government job at the mint and was free to devote himself fully to his training and teaching. He began traveling abroad to the U.S., Scandinavia and Europe and continued for the next 20 years. He was influential in Denmark, Sweden, Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany and France. In California seminars with Nishio were hosted by Robert and Chikako Bryner and played a huge role in the development of Nishio’s Aikido in the U.S.
Nishio Shihan constantly developed and refined his technique with the two goals of martial effectiveness along with adherence to Aikido’s principles of acceptance and non-conflict.
His decades of work in iaido and jodo developed into a thoroughly integrated approach to combined empty hand, sword and jo. Nishio Sensei developed a new form of iaido called Aikido Toho Iai which illuminates the deep relationship between the katana (Japanese sword) and techniques in Aikido. Aiki Toho Iai continues to evolve in the hands of Nishio’s successor, Koji Yoshida. Nishio’s methods are thoroughly rooted in the traditional use of these weapons and are entirely different from the methods popularized by the late Morihiro Saito of Iwama. For example, Nishio’s sword work is otonashi or silent, meaning the contact between blades minimal and movements are done in the gaps of the opponents attack.
The ken (sword) and jo are central to Nishio Aikido. Nishio said that, “O Sensei said that ‘Aikido is the expression of the principles of the sword through the body.’ Therefore, understanding Aikido without first understanding the sword is quite strange. It seems to me that those who claim there are no weapons techniques in Aikido have not understood the founder’s words.”
Nishio Sensei was not only diligent about the technical aspects of Aikido, he was faithful to Aikido’s philosophy. He did not merely attempt to imitate the founder’s art. He took O Sensei’s teaching to heart and combined it with his broad knowledge and skill resulting in a highly ethical as well as effective form of budo. Shoji Nishio, Shihan passed away on March 15, 2005 at the age of 77. On his final trip to the U.S. in 2000, he left his legacy in the U.S. to his long time student of 34 years, Koji Yoshida, Shihan.
The world is changing more rapidly than ever. There is a saying now, “If you’re doing the same thing today you were doing six months ago, you’re doing the wrong thing.” This is true in aikido. It is not necessary to abandon everything from the past, however, our understanding today should not cease to grow. We must not abandon our core principles, rather, we should continue to grow and adapt and keep pace with the times. In this way Aikido can avoid drifting into irrelevance and instead continue to grow and evolve into the future.