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Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007

Aikido fuels life of selfless service

Contributing writer

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
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.

Phone and fax: (0463) 31-0274 (Japanese preferred) Shunpu: www009.upp.s~net. ne.jp/shunpu/index.html (Japanese only) NPO Amrita Heart: (042) 377-4308; Fax: (042) 377-4449 Tour inquiries: 080-5011-7504 travel@kailash.jp

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The Japan Times Feb. 3, 2007

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