The Iaido Journal  May 2004
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Mitsunari Kanai, at 64: 
Legendary Martial Arts Instructor

Renowned Aikido instructor Mitsunari Kanai died March 28 of a heart attack in Toronto, Canada, where he had been teaching a seminar.  He was 64.

Mr. Kanai was one of the last personal students trained by the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, also known as O-Sensei.  He came to Boston in 1965.

Mr. Kanai was born in 1939 in Manchuria, where his father was a military policeman for the Manchurian railroad; the family returned to Japan at the end of World War II.  After graduating from high school, Mr. Kanai went to work for a typewriter company, but before long began to reflect seriously on what he really wanted to do with his life.  He chose Budo, Japan’s traditional martial way.   Although he had studied judo since childhood, he was dissatisfied with it.  As a result, he made the momentous choice to study the relatively new martial art of Aikido.

He knew of Aikido mainly from televised demonstrations, word of mouth, and an early book written by O-Sensei’s son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba.  Nonetheless, Mr. Kanai quit his job and presented himself at the Ueshibas’ school in Tokyo, Hombu Dojo.  Eventually, he was formally accepted as a live-in apprentice or “uchi deshi”.  He studied with O-Sensei for close to eight years.

In 1965, Hombu Dojo received a letter from a group of martial arts students in Boston asking for a teacher.  Mr. Kanai was sent to teach what had been estimated as sixty students; in fact, there were only six.  The early years were difficult both financially and culturally – but he had staked everything on the attempt to establish Aikido in Boston and on his own terms.   Eventually, the students began to come.  Over the next 38 years, close to six thousand students studied at his dojo, New England Aikikai; thousands more trained with him in Japan and at seminars throughout the United States, Canada, Central and South America, and Europe.

Mr. Kanai was one of the rare martial artists outside Japan who had emerged from a traditional martial arts environment and practiced his art in the traditional way: stressing its technical and philosophical purity, with little concern for its business aspects.   Aikido was his world.  A generous, inspiring, and dynamic teacher, he brought into the world of Aikido students from all walks of life, and in that world he found colleagues, devoted friends, a multitude of grateful students, and his wife, Sharon Henn, who survives him along with his two children, Yuki and Misha, and his sister, Mitsuko Ohashi.

-Mary Fuller, Boston

This past fall Kanai Sensei brought in some shinkens to class for cutting paper.  This was quite a treat, since he hadn't done this for about 7 years or so.

   Basically he had some of the students hang some pads of paper from a string by a hook.  One piece of paper is allowed to hang down and then it is spun.  The student using the shinken has to time the draw, so that he/she cuts just as the paper (flat side facing the student) comes into the right position and you cut through the left edge through to the other side.  If you "hit" the paper with your shinken instead of "cutting", the paper flies off the pad of paper.  If you "cut" the edge of the paper, but too hard, the paper flies off the pad of paper with a little notch in it.  If you don't time your draw properly, you end up "hitting" the flat part of the paper (as opposed to the edge), the paper folds in half and flies off the pad.  Of course, Kanai Sensei did it 2 times in row and both times he cut the paper in half with no problem.  Not so for the rest of us!

  Now, Kanai Sensei had half of the class doing Kesa Ryu, while the other half of the class got to cut paper with the shinkens. I was one of the folks that was doing forms.

  One of the really neat things about the way that Kanai Sensei used to teach, was that the longer you trained with him, the less he actually corrected you.  Instead, he would correct someone else doing roughly the same mistake as you and then look over.  It was understood that this correction was for you as well.   So here I am doing the Kesa Ryu set, when he corrects a fellow student on saya biki and then looks over at me.  The message was clear and I made the adjustment to my technique.  Two minutes later, he corrects another student on saya biki and looks over at me again.  Now I am a bit frazzled, because it is very unlike Kanai Sensei to correct me twice on the same mistake, so at the point I start doing a really "large" saya biki.  A few minutes later he corrects yet another student on saya biki and looks over at me again.  At this point, I'm thinking wow I'm really missing the whole saya biki thing in a big way!

  Not long after the last "saya biki" correction, he had me switch with one of the folks cutting paper with the shinken.  Now this shinken was in not the best shape.  Someone had cut through the saya and had roughly "fixed" the problem with some athletic tape.  I got into to position to cut (keeping in mind the whole saya biki correction that I had just received from Kanai Sensei) and had a horrible realization....there could be no saya biki with the saya taped up the way it was.  Kanai Sensei just stood quietly looking on as the realization occurred.  Then it occurred to me that he had "deliberately" corrected me on saya biki and then gave me shinken that I could not perform saya biki with.  Kanai Sensei had quite a devilish sense of humor!

  In order to cut the paper in half, I had to shift the saya 5 inches forward in my obi and perform a pseudo saya biki by swinging the saya out to the front left side of my body.  Believe you me, you will never see that saya biki in any technical manuals, but it as ugly as it was, it eventually got the paper in half (with quite a bit of work I might add!).

  I'll never forget the incident as long as I live!

-Julie McKeon

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TIN May 2004