Aikido fuels life of selfless service

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Meet Kenkichi Futami, in many ways the archetypal Japanese
salaryman of the postwar period whose sacrifice helped position Japan so
productively in the world today.

Kenkichi Futami and his wife, Ayako, meet Dr. Prem Nair, medical director of Mata Amritanandamyi's (Amma) charitable hospital in India WIDTH="250" HEIGHT="188"/> Kenkichi Futami (center) and his wife, Ayako, meet Dr. Prem
Nair, medical director of Mata Amritanandamyi’s (Amma) charitable
hospital in Cochin, Kerala, in southern India last March.

For 35 years, five days a week, he rose every morning at 5:40
a.m. in order to leave his house in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, some
100 km from Tokyo. By 6:20 he was on the station platform to catch the
commuter train into the capital. By eight he would be at his desk at
electronics conglomerate TDK in Nihonbashi.

Making the reverse journey, Futami would rarely be back home
before 10:30-11:30 p.m. Not much of a life, many would say. Yet he has
no regrets. Rather, he is setting about making the best of his
retirement with a similar sense of duty and purpose.

“Instead of serving my company, I’m seeking to serve society
in the broader sense. I can teach aikido, travel as much as I like.”

Aikido is a lifelong passion. In 1986, he launched a small
magazine, Shunpu, to promote the martial art, and even while still at
work, never missed an edition.

On the back of No. 240, he lists in English the rules of life
as laid down by swordsman, calligrapher and Zen master Tesshu Yamaoka
(1836-1888). “I do my best to follow his path of no regrets.”

By this, Futami means that by living up to certain
principles, he will have no regrets in later life.

Learning judo in high school, he found it hard as a small
person to throw anyone of size. He switched to aikido after getting into
college. “In judo, you grab the sleeves and the collar to effect
throws,” he explains. “Aikido uses wrists and elbows and applies
pressure to joints, not to hurt, but to destabilize the opponent. There
are strict rules to ensure it remains a peaceful nonviolent form of
self-defense.”

Gentle and selfless service has always been at the forefront
of Futami’s thinking. Maybe because of his aikido sempai’s father, he
thinks. “When I told him once that maybe in order to serve I should
become a politician, he said there was a better way.”

One Christmas Eve his sempai’s father brought home his own
mentor, Gisuke Shinagawa, to meet Futami. “I was 20, Shingawa-sensei was
76.”

Futami’s university had not been his No. 1 choice and he’d
found himself quite isolated, with no one of a similar mind. Here was
another strange person, he thought. But, he listened carefully.

“Shinagawa had been a college dropout whose own mentor had
saved him by sending him to Hokkaido, where he collected juvenile
delinquents and tried to give their lives some meaning. I thought, this
is the guy to be my teacher.”

Thus, he was led toward aikido and finding a place in the
world. The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1869), whom
Shinagawa had known, dedicated himself to becoming strong after
witnessing his father being beaten up by political opponents.

In 1925, Ueshiba was challenged to a duel by a naval officer
and won by evading blows until his opponent fell exhausted. It was the
realization that he had defended himself without even touching the other
man that led to the formulation of aikido.

Futami belongs to the Tomiki School of Aikido, one of the
five largest in Japan, with maybe a 10 percent following. His teacher,
Kenji Tomiki, who died in 1979, was the first practitioner to be awarded
the highest award of 8th dan by Ueshiba.

Tomiki was the founder of aikido competition and the Aikido
Association, of which Futami is currently vice-chairman.

“Don’t be impressed,” he laughs. “It just means everyone else
does the hard work.”

A 7th dan, Futami spends much of his time now teaching, with
three classes of 60-70 students in Hiratsuka, a class of 20 in Odawara,
and smaller classes of mostly salaried workers, in Osaki, in Tokyo’s
Shinagawa Ward. He enjoys going abroad — Malaysia (“when I was with
TDK”), and teaching in Singapore, the U.K. (“twice”) and Australia (“six
times”).

Last year, he went to India as a volunteer, taking along his
wife, Ayako, a black belt in her own right. He was invited by
Shantamrita Chaitanya (American Brandon Smith).

He is director of the Mata Amritanandamayi Center Japan and
the nonprofit organization Amrita Heart, which serve Japan on behalf of
Mata Amritanandamyi, nicknamed Amma, and known worldwide as the hugging
saint. (Last in Tokyo, she hugged 8,500 people in three days and still
had energy to spare. She’ll be here in spring for four days of programs
— May 25-26 in Kobe, May 28-29 in Tokyo.)

“We were in Nagapattinam, where 20,000 died in the tsunami.
Amma’s organization was the first to start reconstruction there. Ayako
and I went with 150 students from universities all over Japan, to help
in rebuilding and introduce Japanese culture.”

He says he and his wife will never forgot the faces of local
children, who met them all with garlands of flowers. “They were so poor,
and yet there was a vital sparkling light in their eyes– Japanese
children don’t have this anymore. Sad, isn’t it?”

Nor will he and his wife forget the excitement of Indian
engineering students who were able to witness and experience aikido for
the first time.

“I’d like to see more baby-boomers volunteering, and workers
given time off by their companies,” says Futami. “If students can go,
why not business people?

“Those students who went last year returned fired up with
enthusiasm to serve on a regular basis.”

And Ayako? How did she get on? “She was in shock. Not because
of the damage and conditions, but by the fact there was something she
could do. That was a big realization for her. Now she has a volunteer
job, typing up manuscripts so they can be transferred into Braille.”
They both like to keep busy, he says.

“Do you know the true meaning of the characters for
isogashii? They mean losing your mind or heart.” How apt. For 35
years he lost his mind to business. Now he is losing his heart to help
others.