Interview with Yumi Nakamura Shihan, 7th dan

March, 2020, BigRock Aikikai Annual Winter Seminar

Yumi Nakamura Shihan is the most senior female aikidoka in the Canadian Aikido Federation. A former chairwoman of the CAF Examination Committee and head of a highly successful dojo in Toronto, Aikido Tendokai. She is an inspiration to all girls practicing Aikido across Canada as she travels across the country, teaching Aikido to hundreds of students in countless dojos. In her seminars students experience the art of Aikido, practicing the basics of carefully picked techniques that they will carry with them forever. The students at BigRock Aikikai were able to watch first hand as Yumi Sensei gracefully executed technique after technique, teaching in an easy to follow and understanding manner. 

In an attempt to encourage girls to make the most of their Aikido potential, Steve Erickson Sensei began the Ferocious and Female initiative. With the help of senior girls much work has been put into supporting girls in aikido to grow into capable, respected black belts, dojo leaders and leaders in the larger aikido community. A group of these girls interviewed Yumi Sensei when she visited Calgary for the annual BigRock Aikikai Winter Seminar in March of 2020. We were interested to know about her life and accomplishments and whether being a female influenced her experiences with martial arts. 

“When I was young, I loved travelling and wanted to travel all over,” Yumi Sensei says, “so my mother said ‘you can go travelling alone, but please take some self defence courses.’” 

This is how Yumi Nakamura Sensei ended up in Aikido. At first, she checked out some other martial arts, but the location and atmosphere of Aikido seemed to work best for her. “I just saw the dojo, you know, in Japan,” Yumi Sensei says, “you know something about it. Like judo - the boys take it in Phys. Ed.” 

At this time, Aikido wasn’t really well known. O Sensei - the founder of Aikido - was famous, but there weren’t many dojos. The few dojos that were around were just starting. “I joined aikido when I was 23,” Yumi Sensei says, “thinking maybe I’d do two years, for my mom.”

Nowadays, many children start Aikido at a very young age. However, at the time when Yumi Sensei first started training, students started much later. As far as she knew, no dojo - not even hombu - had any kids classes. Aikido was meant just for adults. Other martial arts like Judo and Kendo had kids classes, but Aikido was taken more seriously. Men and women practiced in the adult classes, but when Yumi Sensei first started, one third of her class were girls, and most of the girls were in high school. “It wasn’t separated officially,” Yumi Sensei says, “but usually the men would practice at one end of the mat and the women at the other.”

Yumi Sensei started training at a dojo in Kyoto, a branch of Osaka Aikikai. The head of this dojo was Tanaka Sensei, a senior student of O Sensei. Yumi Sensei lived in between Osaka and Kyoto, both were only a train ride away. However, she lived a bit closer to Kyoto, so she started there for more convenience. 

“The dojo was in an old temple,” Sensei says, “There was a big gate you had to walk through to get down to the main temple’s hallway. They rented out a hall in one of the temple’s buildings. Because one of the temple’s members was a student of Bansen Tanaka Sensei, they arranged four nights a week in the hall.” 

Yumi Sensei liked the atmosphere of this dojo because of how different it was. Right away, she was exposed to a great teacher. Yumi Sensei also had a lot of nice sempai - senior students - in the class as well. There were very few seminars in those days, just one weekend overnight stay in summer time in a temple, so beginners could only hope that someone would help them out. “It was more old fashioned,” Yumi Sensei says, “Everybody went there. There were some techniques you couldn’t do, but some senior member of the dojo would help you in the corner. That was the common and usual system at the time.” 

You may still find this system nowadays, depending on the size of the dojo, but it is more common for there to be separations between beginner’s classes and advanced classes. This was not how it was at the time when Yumi Sensei started training. “The people who started at the same time as me eventually left, after they got a job and got married, they stopped coming.”

 Yumi Sensei considers Kawahara Sensei and Tanaka Sensei to be her most influential teachers. She also says that she had one sempai and his wife, Mr. Makoto Hoshina and Mrs. Rumi Hoshina, were very helpful. During this time, the temple’s owners decided they were going to tear down the place and rebuild it into a parking lot. The dojo members had to move to a different place. “These two sempai - they were just going out at the time - were one of three or four to separate and create their own dojos,” Yumi Sensei says, “I went with them; they were really good teachers! We still communicate, they have a small dojo in Osaka.”

 When Yumi Sensei first started, Kawahara Sensei was teaching in Taiwan. He was assigned there by Tanaka Sensei, but after one year, for political reasons, he had to come back and showed up in Kyoto. “That was in 1972 or 73. But I knew about him before I met him because Tanaka Sensei talked about him often and what a great martial artist he was.”

When asked what she remembers most about Kawahara Sensei, Yumi Sensei replies, “I can’t say any special moment, it’s a totally different relationship, there are so many memories. In so many years, I met so many famous Shihan, the really famous people. I was lucky to meet so many people, but my relationship with Kawahara Sensei, he was my martial arts teacher, but really more like extended family. Every time he came to Toronto, he would stay with us a couple days longer, when he stopped in Toronto or taught a seminar, he would make time to stay, and he would call and ask how we were. You know, he didn’t have any family, in Canada, so it was like extended family for him, and for me too. My husband, Jim Barnes, was also Kawahara Sensei’s student from the beginning, and we became close, so he never got upset with us. He would complain to me, saying so-and-so said this and so-and-so did this. We all had good respect and kept some distance, but we were close.”

More than one month before Kawahara Sensei passed away, Yumi Sensei called him and asked if she should come visit him in Victoria. He agreed, so Yumi Sensei arranged a vacation, which happened to take place one week before he passed away. They had a long talk and he gave Yumi Sensei some special directions on what to do with CAF (Canadian Aikido Federation). He told her everything he recommended so that she would know what he wanted and thought was best for the federation. “So for Aikido reasons and personal reasons, that time was the most memorable,” Yumi Sensei says, “but we accumulated so many good memories over all those years.”

 When Yumi Sensei first started, she thought that it was quite common for guys to practice on one side and females on the other. “When you are a beginner, it’s easier for women to work together,” Yumi Sensei says. However, when the sempai Mr. Hoshina became a teacher, he practiced in a university club with a bunch of gung-ho guys who brought in a big crowd. “They would always pick the big guys as uke for us girls” Sensei says, “so when I worked with one of them, I thought ‘boy, I feel so great throwing this guy!’” This gave women a lot of chances to learn a different side, which is why Yumi Sensei followed them. 

Although she has heard of dojos where there are a lot of complaints from women, Yumi Sensei has never complained or felt frustrated when guys wouldn’t support her, which was because she stayed in a dojo that had better circumstances for females to practice. “When you get frustrated that you are not as physically strong, you have to challenge yourself,” Yumi Sensei says, “At first, I wasn’t challenging myself or expecting anything challenging, but when I started to challenge myself, it felt really good to throw these big guys. That made me ask myself more, ‘how can I make this work?’ and that was the challenge.”

At seminars, Yumi Sensei would ask teachers for advice and really study their movements. There was a teacher from France, Tamura Sensei, who was O Sensei’s uke for many years. Tamura Sensei was slender, short, and had amazing technique, so Yumi Sensei always went to his seminars. Yumi Sensei would have to ask about a particular thing, focus on a particular technique, and get really good help. In seminars, she was taught that you can’t expect to do everything, or be quick, so you must pick one or two things to master. “This was before videos were online, and you know, some people didn’t even like you to write down the technique! You’d have to wait until you got home with your memory,” Yumi Sensei says, “These whole seminars would have one or two techniques. You have a close look at one technique, don’t try to master everything, because you can’t. In some seminars, your teacher is not matching your body size, the footwork or something is not for you, you still try to copy whoever you are under, but after you step off the mat, you know if that’s not for you or what you want more of.  You know, if you have a particular issue, you go ask the teacher. I never felt that I had to fight through anything, really, that is not my way, you just know what is good for your progress.”

When asked when she realized she wanted to become an Aikido teacher, Yumi Sensei replies, “Never. I just wanted to practice and be good, but through circumstances, Mr. Hoshina opened a community centre dojo as a second dojo and I was close, and they said ‘you should teach there.’ I never really wanted to teach however; I am not like that.”

 What Yumi Sensei loves most about Aikido is the fact that she gets to work with people. The connection and feeling of working with others is what she really likes. In Aikido, you can work with anyone. Whether you work with a little kid, someone who is really good, or someone you enjoy working with, it is the variety of people that makes even the same technique different. “Different people present different challenges,” Yumi Sensei says. “After such a long time, there is so much bonding, you meet people you never would have met from your job or other places, and you can travel all over the world and find people.”

Yumi Sensei’s advice: whenever you teach, remember beginner’s mind, no matter what art. This is a common saying in Japan, which helps with remembering how beginners see the art. Yumi Sensei has seen people that forget this, who are not nice and it is no good. This isn’t Aikido’s fundamental idea. To Yumi Sensei, Aikido is not really a commercial thing to do. “It’s something that is a part of your life, it’s not something you can do for your job, you have to love it enough to do it along with a job.” Although it is not easy to open your own dojo, Yumi Sensei says that it can be rewarding. However, she says you need to be able and willing to accept opportunities for leadership as they come. “For instance, if you go somewhere and there is no Aikido, you have to start that yourself. It will just come to you through circumstances. You should improve yourself, and through improvement you will become ready to be an instructor. You will have to step into that position and be ready. You need to ask your sempai for advice or help, but it is something that happens when the opportunities come up. If you are good, these opportunities will come up. As long as you are doing what you like, what you enjoy, it’s fine, even if aikido goes up and down in popularity, if you enjoy doing it, it doesn’t matter. When you love to do it, it won’t be a struggle.”

Outside of Aikido, Yumi Sensei had a day job as a radiology technologist.  Overtime, she got really tired and worn down doing both full time. The hospital restructured, so her hours were less. Having some kind of profession helped her with the burn out of running a dojo too. “So it’s good. Aikido is not a profession, it’s an art, you still need to have your job.”

 Yumi Sensei concludes by telling all of the young women practicing Aikido, “I am really happy to see you guys and your generation, coming up and working hard, and with all these opportunities you can come up and be good instructors and students.”