In Memorium, Rev. Kensho Furuya Sensei

What follows are personal reflections and are not indicative of what everyone felt or thought of this teacher.

Today is the ten year anniversary of the passing of Rev. Kensho Furuya Sensei, a profound teacher and guide that instigated my journey with Aikido Center of Los Angeles. Through ACLA I spent nearly a decade training in Aikido and, to a lesser extent, Iaido.

Rev. Kensho Furuya Sensei

Furuya Sensei taught both ‘actively’ and ‘passively’. Much could be learned from observing how he lived his life and much could be learned by copying his movements and accepting (or denying) his instructions.

From the age of ten Furuya Sensei knew what he wanted to do with his life and proceeded to follow his ambition until the end; a rare quality that seemed a double-edged sword. There was no such thing as real ‘contentment’ for this teacher, he believed a certain level of discomfort was necessary for growth.

I find myself agreeing with him. We live in a world so averse to pain that we’ll cause much more suffering for ourselves and others in the long term to avert pain in the short term. But there is a difference between pain and damage, and studying martial arts helped me with discerning the difference between the two in my own life. We can take a lot of pain and only grow from the painful experience, if our perspective is right. Damage requires healing.

Though a part of the modern world, posting blogs almost daily on his website for many years, Furuya Sensei was a highly ambivalent person (a quality I connect with) that shunned many modern attitudes. A Japanese-American, he became an expert on Japanese culture and language. His dojo was a library. He fell in love with Japanese swords and their accoutrement, calligraphy, and other cultural practices. Furuya Sensei could withdraw a saya from a sword and know, on sight and with a small margin for error, where and when that sword was forged. His knowledge was encyclopedic.

The dojo where he would eventually pass away had been hand-constructed, a three-story interior inspired by Edo-period Japan. The space was often used, sometimes ‘stolen’ by unscrupulous location scouts with cameras, to inspire movie sets we’re very familiar with (you’ve seen an exaggeration of the dojo in the first Matrix and a near-copy of it in Rush Hour 2). Due to decades of study and collecting there were priceless artworks (including swords, scrolls, tsuba, etc) adorning the interior. The dojo he died in was a special place, a reflection of the man, and much has been preserved in the newer location the school currently occupies (not far from Little Tokyo and Chinatown).

Part of the ‘old’ dojo in Little Tokyo

Character, for Furuya Sensei, was defined by how you behaved when your life was inconvenient.

Towards the end of his life, in particular, weight had been a struggle for Furuya Sensei and he had a trick knee from an old injury. To borrow some pop culture I often tell people that he was like Yoda; you underestimated his ability on sight because of how he appeared. But his sense of timing had only sharpened and he was proof of the adage that martial arts aren’t completely reliant on physical strength. As one of the last uke for Furuya Sensei I had the honor of demonstrating technique by attacking him, and one of the last times I did this was during a technique called shomenuchi irimi-nage (for the attacker this means a direct strike to the face/head). A few seconds after beginning my attack I was flat on my back and hadn’t managed to touch him. I spent years trying to sort out how he did that.

This isn’t to say he was magical in a movie-like or fantasy-inspired way. Furuya Sensei’s ability was the result of decades of study and, on many levels, self-restraint. For various reasons he had entered his fifties as a person that preferred socialization in the context of his direct students and the web. He was moody and mercurial. Relating to others in an intimate way was difficult and it wore on him. He died because he had a hard time taking care of himself. He ate to insulate himself from a world that didn’t understand that it was possible to keep the baby without the bathwater, that older ways have value.

One of the last things I remember him saying before he died was “don’t compartmentalize your life”, and I took that to heart because of the source. Life is more difficult when we disobey the survival tactic of compartmentalization, but the long term rewards are greater. This keeps with my limited understanding of modern Aikido training, where you attempt to honor a creed of protecting your own attacker. Sometimes what’s unintuitive can be of benefit because sometimes opportunities in life do not invite themselves to you, you must create the opening.

Cognitive dissonance was an important tool for Sensei and for old masters in general. Scold you and dress you down with admonishments but giggle and laugh at a sophomoric joke the next minute, never leaving the student completely sure of their teacher’s personality and intentions. To paraphrase an old saying, a good teacher is like a tiger you’ve caught by the tail. In the case of Furuya Sensei, he could be a very silly tiger.

The night he died Furuya Sensei was laughing while he observed a training session, promising a black belt to a student that was joking about using a wooden sword to defeat a wasp nest (or bee-hive…something with flying insects). Some classes could be like that, slightly more relaxed as an offset to more strenuous/challenging moments. I was positioned on the mats such that I was able to see the moment he lost consciousness and slipped forward onto the mats, an almost instant process. What followed was a confusing but quick and perhaps strangely quiet episode of life, burned into my memory forever now, where three of his students attempted to resuscitate him while others went about the business of getting the paramedics in and out.

There is something strangely fitting in the way he died. A smile on his face, a laugh in his throat, surrounded by students attempting to make their way on a path he had so long tread. We should all be so lucky.

Since that time I’m pleased to write that the school has persisted in the hands of the very student that worked most directly to save Furuya Sensei’s life, David Ito Sensei. Ito Sensei is an important teacher in his own right and he works on himself harder than most people I know. If you’re reading this with any sense of intrigue at what a more ‘traditional’ training environment might look and feel like I highly recommend you pay a visit to ACLA and meet with him or any of the current instructors, many of whom are direct students of Furuya Sensei (who was, himself, a direct student to the son of the founder of Aikido).

Furuya Sensei taught me what to do by teaching me what to do …and what not to do. I loved him in a way that is unique to those of us that have found real teachers in our lives. I find myself grateful for every experience I had under his tutelage.

If you’ve made it this far in my writing and you can’t relate to the kind of teacher I’ve described, but you’re curious, my advice is to get out there and keep looking. Finding a teacher that affects you on profound level is not necessarily a common occurrence in day-to-day life, but they’re available if you’re willing to create the opening.

Thank you for reading!

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