Ken Watanabe, Aikido 6th Dan, Iaido 5th Dan
Iaido Chief Instructor
President – Furuya Foundation
Today, what we see and know about a martial artist does not typify what truly is a martial artist. If we look back at some of the old masters, none were svelte with bulging muscles. Most just looked like normal short Asian guys of average build. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, and Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, were both just five feet two inches tall and Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate, was even shorter at five feet tall. These “masters” were all were average in build but almost superhuman like in ability. What made them so accomplished was not their bodies, but their work ethic. The true secret of the Aikido is that regardless of who we are, where we are from or what our physical aptitude may be, if we put in the work, we can become good at Aikido.
My story seems to follow the trajectory of most typical martial artists. When you look at me, I am sure I look like nothing special. I am a bit tall by Japanese standards, but I am not athletic or muscularly built – I think of myself as being an everyday ordinary normal kind of person. Most people who know me also don’t think of me as being tremendously ambitious either. So, people are surprised when I tell them that I am an Aikido teacher with a sixth-degree black belt in Aikido and fifth-degree black belt in Iaido.
My interest in Aikido was first piqued after hearing my father remark that “The hardest martial art to learn is Aikido.” I had just earned by Eagle Scout badge and I was eager to find something to do with my time. I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll do a martial art to stay in shape.”
In 1988, by pure chance, I happened upon an Aikido demonstration. At the demonstration, the students were doing some techniques, which to me, seemed like they would never work on anyone. There were no strikes, no judo-like hip throws, or anything that, to me, resembled a conventional martial arts style technique. As the students demonstrated, this overweight gentleman wearing a martial arts uniform, whom I assumed was the teacher, narrated. There was this lull which seemed to signal that it was his turn to get on stage, I skeptically thought, “What is this guy gonna do?”
The teacher demonstrated various techniques with a sense of ease using one of the students then suddenly all four students quickly lined up, bowed, and rushed the teacher who moved ever so effortlessly around the mat and threw them down one after the other, not once stopping or getting caught. His demonstration really inspired me and wanted to start training after seeing some overweight seemingly out of shape guy who doesn’t look like the typical marital artist move against multiple opponents so fluidly. I thought, “If he can do it, so can I.” The Aikidoist who moved so deftly against multiple opponents turned out to be Reverend Kensho Furuya who ended up becoming my teacher.
I haven’t always been the go-getter type nor have I been the “active” type, but something about Aikido resonated with me. It could have been because Aikido is a traditional martial art, as opposed to a sport with competitions, weight classes, and trophies like Kendo or Judo or maybe it was the non-fighting nature of Aikido which seemed the most practical and encouraging to me. What I do know, which I feel is the greatest thing, is that Aikido training is completely egalitarian; whoever puts in the work will get good. I never in a million years would have thought that I would consider myself to be a martial artist, but I put in my work and my rank and experience are a testament to the egalitarianism of Aikido. Therefore, anyone who applies themselves, even an unathletic, normal ordinary guy like me, can get good.
As with all things, it takes time to get good and the recipe for success is always the same: be patient, dedicate yourself to your training, work hard, be a good student and don’t give up. I truly believe and I am proof that the mastery of Aikido is open to anyone who is willing to put in the work. I hope that you will apply yourself and give Aikido a try.
About Watanabe Sensei
Ken Watanabe Sensei began his Aikido training in 1988 and two years after his promotion to shodan or first-degree black belt, he began his training in Iaido. Watanabe Sensei spent 18 years training directly under Reverend Kensho Furuya and from 1992 until 2006, he served as Furuya Sensei’s aide-de-camp and was his senior most instructor in both Aikido and Iaido. Watanabe Sensei has also served as Sensei’s personal uke and has appeared with him demonstrating Aikido and Iaido in numerous publications, TV, film and instructional videos. Watanabe Sensei has been awarded the rank of sixth-degree black belt in Aikido from the Aikikai Foundation – Aikido World Headquarters located in Japan. In 2000, Furuya Sensei also awarded Watanabe Sensei the rank of fifth-degree black belt in Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido. Before Furuya Sensei’s passing, he was writing an untitled book which was to be the definitive study on Yagyu tsuba sword guards in which he dedicated the book to Watanabe Sensei as his “Most devoted student.”
Watanabe Sensei attended California State University, Los Angeles where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Graphic Design. He is credited with most of the art featured in Furuya Sensei’s bestselling book Kodo: Ancient Ways and he also appeared as a major focus in Furuya Sensei’s nine-volume video series Aikido Shoshinshu: The Art of Aikido. Watanabe Sensei is an Eagle Scout with Troop 379 from Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Downtown Los Angeles, Little Tokyo.
Studying Aikido for over 29 years and being Furuya Sensei’s assistant, Watanabe Sensei uses his art degree to bring a unique aesthetic sensibility to teaching both Aikido and Iaido to adults and children. Watanabe Sensei credits the many years of apprenticing directly under Furuya Sensei with giving him the considerable experience and skills to teach a wide range of people of any level from beginners to advanced or coming from a myriad of different backgrounds. Watanabe Sensei is also considered to be an expert in weapons technique utilizing the sword, bokken (wooden sword), jo (short staff), and tanto (knife).
Having over 27 years of teaching experience and being Furuya Sensei’s clear heir apparent, Watanabe Sensei is a highly sought-after teacher for his technical knowledge and experience. Watanabe Sensei currently teaches eight classes a week in addition to the Children’s class and he is the Chief Instructor of the Iaido program. Watanabe Sensei has taught numerous Aikido and Iaido seminars in Europe and North America.