May 26, 2015
Ito’s Story
By: Diverse Elders

My Peace Sensei

by Tomi Nagai-Rothe


Sensei (先生?)
a teacher or instructor usually of Japanese martial arts (as karate or judo)
– Merriam Webster Dictionary

Ito.CloudHands.1Haruyoshi Fugaku Ito (“Ito” for short) is my martial arts teacher and a peace practitioner. That may seem like an oxymoron, but in Ito they make perfect sense. He says the heart of martial arts is living compassionately at the edge of life and death. In the modern world that can mean accompanying a loved one at the end of life, challenging oneself to make a difficult life transition, or having a martial arts partner lovingly try to break open your consciousness with a swift move (done well it really is loving!).

Ito has committed his life to creating inner peace and peace with others, but in order to understand how this works, you need to know his story.


A History of Seeking

Ito grew up near the city of Hiroshima. In 1945 his family was living three miles away in Fuchu. He remembers seeing the atomic fireball rise over Hiroshima and almost everyone leaving town in the aftermath to help. As a young boy, he grew up in Occupied Japan seeing the privilege and power of U.S. soldiers and the poverty and suffering of everyone else.

As the Japanese economy slowly improved, Ito observed people around him being taken advantage of by the municipal bureaucracy or by unscrupulous business people. He studied law in college so he could gain skills to create a more equitable society.

During college Ito became involved in martial arts and studied under Shigeru Egami, the founder of the Shotokan School of karate. Ito was physically gifted and attained the highest rank in record time.

At the height of the 1960s, Ito spent five years in an intentional community of seekers in Japan that immersed itself in religion, the arts and the martial arts to find what was true and life-affirming. By turning away from the sadistic practice the martial arts had become and toward its heart, a small group developed Shintaido – a blend of traditional martial arts, spiritual aspiration and expressive improvisation that fosters a connection between self, society, nature and spirit.

Ito brought Shintaido to the U.S. in 1973, developed teachers and a teaching system, and eventually became an itinerant teacher/ambassador traveling between North America, Europe and Japan.

Wash DC Workshop 1

Life Lessons in Peace-Making

I met Ito in 1988. I watched as life challenged him to live at the edge of life and death. One of his students was diagnosed with AIDS/HIV and Ito was at his bedside when he passed, helping him envision the path out of life. Another of Ito’s students was a hospice director, and he began thinking about those in hospice and their caregivers. He developed an application of Shintaido to nourish caregivers and offered many workshops.

If you saw Ito walking down the street you wouldn’t recognize him as a martial arts master. He wears a t-shirt, comfortable slacks, a worn baseball cap and sandals. You wouldn’t know that martial artists from around the world have come to study with him.

Ito spends a good deal of time cooking wherever he travels. It’s a natural way to weave the fabric of community. My definition of peace is working actively to create connections among people and to build community where it didn’t exist before. Seeing Ito do this every day confirms my conviction that peace is an action – not a state of being.

The week of September 11, 2001 Ito was leading a workshop in San Francisco and like everyone else felt helpless in the face of the violence. He redesigned his workshop and led everyone, including friends around the world, in creating a chain of peaceful connection around the globe. This practice continues to this day.

After September 11 as the U.S. invaded Iraq, Ito told me he was concerned about the longer term implications of the war. He said Japanese society continues to suffer from its World War II aggressions, and he was worried the same social ills would settle on the U.S.

Ito then took his peace practice to the beaches of Normandy for the D-Day Anniversary, and to the National Mall in Washington DC for the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Taimyo.Ito.LeeFlags1When Ito’s Japanese friend co-organized a 70th anniversary conference at Nanjing University about the Japanese invasion and atrocities committed by the Japanese Army, Ito knew he should go. But he worried about the anger he’d encounter in China. He felt incredible shame for Japan’s wartime actions, and knew that a formal apology was necessary. Ito and several others joined the Japanese delegation.

On the first day, Chinese survivors provided testimony on what they had experienced, describing scenes of unimaginable violence, much of it against women. The Japanese participants could hardly bear it but they listened, and they cried. On the second day, Chinese news media captured the laying of flowers and the formal apology at a memorial near one of the massacre sites.

I realized that the gesture of putting my forehead down mirrored the gesture of decapitation. It was then that I experienced the profound sin that I shared just by being Japanese.

– Haruyoshi Fugaku Ito

The spiritual apology came on the last day of the conference, in private. Ito and two friends returned to the sandy beach where so many had been trapped and killed seventy years earlier. The three of them sat in meditation and prayer. Ito felt the pain and fear of those who died, and in fully witnessing their suffering, he somehow felt acknowledged by them. And he could feel the Goddess Kannon (Guan Yin) and the words of Jesus, “And I will be with you always, even to the ends of the earth” as he finished his meditation.

A Commitment to Peace

Sometimes, before we can build peace through community, we need to go to dark places together to find a glimmer of hope. Ito models the courage it takes to go on a really difficult peacemaking journey that can lead to healing. I hope I have enough courage and love to follow in his footsteps.

This endeavor for genuine reconciliation between Chinese and Japanese can become a metaphor for healing all of us, and healing the world.

 – Alex Rudinsky

Quotations from Remembering Nanjing: Report on the International Conference 70th Anniversary of the Nanjing Tragedy (November 22-25, 2007) published by A World Without Armies.