Hiroko Watanabe Kim
(November 3, 1942 – March 11, 2015)
Hiroko first walked through the door of our dojo in May, 2003. At first, we weren’t quite sure what to make of this somewhat older, seemingly delicate Japanese woman who said she had practiced aikido in Japan in her youth and was interested in getting back into training – now some 40 years later and at the ripe young age of 61. As we would later learn, Hiroko practiced aikido at Hombu Dojo in Tokyo in the 1960’s, prior to O Sensei’s death. This time frame means that she would have trained with many of the now well-known Japanese shihan, and a few notable Americans as well, and she would have received instruction from O Sensei, the second Doshu, and Koichi Tohei Sensei, among many others. Awarded the rank Nidan while there, she left the world of aikido until she stepped onto our mat in 2003.
Hiroko was an enigma of sorts – we were just not quite sure how she was going to fit in, nor how to deal with her ranking. Her techniques were powerful and clearly “old school” yet did not clash with the aikido as practiced within Shin-Budo Kai. From the beginning, it was clear that Hiroko understood shoshin (beginner’s mind) and that she was ready to learn and embrace the complex SBK curriculum. Her commitment, perseverance, and abilities were formally recognized by Imaizumi Sensei in 2010, when he personally promoted her to Sandan.
Hiroko was a pillar in our dojo for well over a decade. During that time, she exhibited a selfless devotion to the art, to the other members of the dojo (particularly the younger or less experienced), and to Imaizumi Sensei and his wife, Atsuko. She was an avid mentor, invaluable cultural attaché, generous benefactress, and our official dojo Mom. And her aikido – well, suffice it to say that few will ever forget the “pleasure” of being on the receiving end her kote kaeshi or shiho-nage . . .
Thank-you, Hiroko-san, for allowing us to be a part of your life. You will be missed by all of us, but rest assured, your spirit will endure across Shin-Budo Kai and your presence will always be felt, warmly, within the walls of your dojo here in Albuquerque.
A Personal Reflection:
After almost two weeks of near daily hospital visits, I said good-bye to Hiroko on a Thursday afternoon – she passed peacefully the following Wednesday in the company of her family at a hospice facility in Albuquerque.
To be close to someone as they are dying is an intimate experience. That intimacy grows as your time with a dying friend or family member extends from hours to days. If you are fortunate, as I was, and that friend remains alert and coherent, indeed engaging, the intimacy is profound. Your bonds with this soon-to-be-lost friend grow and intertwine, and these newly strengthened bonds envelop your grief – at least temporarily. While the experience is fraught with emotional ups and downs, sleepless nights, and difficult discussions, there are unexpected moments of consolation. In Hiroko’s case, those moments included conversations about mutual friends, her family, and the importance of budo and aikido in her life. When we spoke of aikido she was passionate about how she felt it changed peoples lives for the better. When the conversation turned to her ‘aikido family’ and the many members of that family who were visiting her in the hospital, she literally beamed.
I was also consoled, and amazed, by how quickly, efficiently, and lovingly her real family came together to support her and each other. Although sad, it was an intensely meaningful privilege to be allowed to help in some small way and to get to know Diana, Ed, and In during this painful transition in their lives.
Beyond intimacy, consolation, and privilege, I also experienced awe – I was, and remain, awestruck by Hiroko’s countenance throughout this ordeal. She made her peace with the inevitable almost immediately upon hearing the probable diagnosis and the devastating news that her tumor had already spread aggressively. Those of us in Hiroko’s adopted family at Albuquerque Shin-Budo Kai always knew her as calm and dignified – and that is precisely how she dealt with her disease. As I cherish my memories of Hiroko during life, I will never forget the strength and grace I witnessed as she faced her final days.
Ralph T. Bryan
March 11, 2015
Sandia Park, NM