Profile of a Shihan: Mitsunari Kanai, by Kazuo Chiba

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Jonathan Olson of the USA.

Mitsunari Kanai Sensei (1939-2004). Photo by Bob Arruda c. 1981

They call him “Hambei,” but no one knows why. For many years one of his character traits has been to annoy people by appearing in unexpected places at unexpected moments. If I remember correctly, it was one morning in early autumn of 1959 or 1960 when Mr. Kanai appeared in front of me while I was sprinkling water on the stepping stones at the front entrance to the old Hombu Dojo. He and I had become very close friends during our youthful years while immersed from morning till night in judo training.Together we had read the novel, Sugata Sanshiro, by Tsuneo Tomita* so many times that we wore it out.

He had criticized me for abandoning judo and betraying our friendship “to seek refuge in Ueshiba Sensei’s bosom like a cornered bird.” Actually, I had suddenly become aware of budo (as distinct from judo) following my experience one day while practicing judo when I was challenged to a sword duel and was soundly beaten, without so much as touching my opponent.

Sensing something unusual in my old friend who had suddenly appeared in front of me that morning, I asked the reason for his visit. Hearing his answer, I beat a hasty retreat. He said, “I’ve made up my mind to become O-Sensei’s uchideshi, but I don’t need your help. As far as I’m concerned we have never met.” In due course, after undergoing a severe trial period, Mr. Kanai was admitted as an uchideshi, and from that time on we began eating rice from the same rice-cooker.

More than ten years have passed since he went to Boston, carefree and sword in hand. Ignorant of the different time-zones, he didn’t believe the stewardess when the plane arrived: “My watch says a different time. This can’t be Boston!” He stubbornly remained seated in the plane and made Yamada Shihan, who had come to meet him, search high and low for him. The subject of this anecdote now runs one of the largest aikido dojos in the United States, which is flourishing with hundreds of students.

Boston, birthplace of “hippies,” though second to New York in the variety of its students’ backgrounds, surpasses New York in the strangeness of its atmosphere. Nonetheless, Mr. Kanai’s way of life remains innocent, unspoiled, reminiscent of the carefree grandeur of Pegasus in flight. He attracts a great number of students, young and old, male and female, with the charm of an affectionate father, though still young in years. His dojo is like a happy home filled with the spirit of harmony. Mr. Kanai’s instruction includes few words, yet is precise and concentrated. Training unfolds in a thoroughly considerate atmosphere and is also quite severe. As a result, many excellent students are being produced. He is very supportive of Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan and is held in high regard throughout the North American continent. Still preserving his natural talent for appearing in unexpected places at unexpected times, he and Mr. Yamada enjoy close mutual understanding, and anyone observing the two interact feels pleasure at the sight.

For many years Mr. Kanai has had a deep love for the sword. While an uchideshi, he would always sleep embracing his long sword, and had the habit of frightening people by unexpectedly invading the dojo with it at night.

Mr. Kanai has built a studio in a corner of his dojo in Boston where a hammering sound can sometimes be heard. Rumor has it that a sword with “Hambei” engraved on it has recently been a cause for bewilderment among connoisseurs. The truth, however, remains a mystery.

(The above article was translated from Japanese by Stanley A. Pranin and Midori Yamamoto.)

  • A popular fictionalized account of the development of judo during Meiji Japan.

1 comment

  • Kanai Sensei and Chiba Sensei actually met on their first day of grade school, finding themselves one desk in front / behind the other. They quickly became lifelong friends, training together in judo and eventually at the Aikikai.
    With frequent visits over the years, Mr. Chiba was like an uncle to many of us at New England Aikikai, and was always very “soft & gentle”.

    Well…at least with me :)-