Way of the Warrior

Gaku Homma found his domo on the range.

During training, uchideshi learned to recognize this capacity.

"I think one of the biggest obstacles to people being able to get something out of the program or not is people who are willing to let go of their own preconceived ideas," says Emily Busch, vice-president of Nippon Kan. "To let go of their own ego for a little bit. To say, 'Okay, I'm not number one here for a little bit. I'm not going to be able to do what I want, when I want.'"

Busch came to Nippon Kan in 1985 for Japanese-language classes, thought it would be fun to try Aikido, and fell in love with the art. She's helped translate some of Homma's books and expanded Nippon Kan's dedication to community service. Although she's never gone through the uchideshi program, she says she feels like one.

 Gaku Homma
James Glader
 Gaku Homma
Mat finish: Jason Austad throws a fellow student.
James Glader
Mat finish: Jason Austad throws a fellow student.

Some people coming to Nippon Kan think uchideshi training will make them into martial arts superstars. "With Steven Seagal first movie, Above the Law, lot of people coming," Homma says. Prospective uchideshi and even regular students would arrive with their hair in Seagal's trademark ponytail, wanting to learn how to break a person's wrist with a flick of the hand. "His Aikido is not Aikido; it's not," Homma says. "This is not to demean him personal or kick him, but people looking at movie get bad reality. So they come to here, then they go, 'This is not Aikido.'"

"It got so bad we had to put a sign on the door saying, 'If you are here because you've just seen the most recent popular movie, please think again about it,'" Busch says. "'This is probably not where you want to be.'"

On the opposite end of the spectrum are potential uchideshi looking for spiritual enlightenment. One new-ager had a particularly hard time adjusting to the program and began making unreasonable demands. He wanted to spend most of his time in his room meditating instead of practicing. "He had incense and little bells and decorated his room with little rugs," says Busch. "He said, 'I can't come to the 5:15 class because I eat my macrobiotic meal at 6:30. Oh, and I'm here to be enlightened.'"

Homma was having none of that. "I said, just go," he remembers.

While spirituality is intrinsic to Aikido, it's not attained through constant meditation. "There's no doctrine here," Busch says. "There's no 'You are going to study this, we teach this, this is the spiritual aspect, here's the book.' There's none of that. This is not a religious place."

"Some people think, 'This is stupid. Why I do this?'" adds Homma. "Not Japanese rice -- 'I want eat hamburger.'"

"Americans, especially, want everything spoon-fed to them," Busch concludes. "'Give me the answers! Give me everything!' That's not how it works here. Here you do it yourself."

Gaku Homma not only learned martial arts and cooking in his Japan, but he also worked there as a museum curator. The dojo's museum, adjacent to the garden outside Domo, is filled with items that he collected in his homeland.

Most of the displays reflect the lives of peasants -- the tools of fishermen, farmers and mountain men in rural Japan. They feature scythes instead of swords, snowshoes and boots made of rice straw instead of silk kimonos. Homma believes that the Japanese emphasis on elite arts was largely to prop up self-esteem after the war.

At the center of the museum are three cases of sakezuki, the cups that kamikaze pilots toasted with before flying off on their final missions. They are displayed more as a warning than a glorification of Japan's imperial past, an example of the martial spirit twisted for a violent, calculated end.

Homma points to a black-and-white photograph in one case. "That boy is maybe sixteen years old," he says. "They used to add methamphetamine to the alcohol. They would fly their planes into the ships with their heads just buzzing."

Homma insists that martial arts don't make people; people make martial arts. And he lives by that maxim. "What is important is not martial art -- this martial art good or bad. Who make martial art is humans," he says. "Here's a cooking knife. You can kill people with it. But Mom cook for me with same knife. Sometimes kill people, sometimes make happy people."

In 1996, Homma wanted to open a cooking school, and he moved Nippon Kan to a bigger space on Osage Street. To open a cooking school, though, he learned he needed a licensed commercial kitchen -- so he decided to open Domo instead. "We not have that much money for kitchen, so, okay, how about restaurant?" he says. Although he had no restaurant experience, he'd learned country Japanese cooking from his mother, and he'd prepared meals for Ueshiba. "Open-day morning, we still make menu," he remembers.

Domo has been such a success, Homma's never gotten around to starting a cooking class. Instead, he keeps expanding the restaurant's space and hours.

Nippon Kan's humanitarian efforts have also expanded. In 2001, Homma started the Aikido Humanitarian Active Network, creating relationships with dojos around the world. Because Nippon Kan is independent, students from diverse branches of Aikido are welcome, and Homma maintains close relations with many Aikido organizations. Whenever he leaves the dojo to conduct a seminar, he donates his fees. Homma recently went to Italy to teach a class that raised money for the mentally handicapped. "My policy is, if I make money, I left it there," he says. "Everything."

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