HONOURABLE: His may not be a household name but those who know Seremban's Thamby Rajah are in awe of this aikido master who brought the Japanese martial art to Malaysian shores, writes Sukhbir Cheema
NOT many young Malaysians are familiar with the Father of Malaysian aikido who leads a very simple and low profile life in his old dojo (training ground) in Temiang, Seremban.
Octogenarian "sensei" (teacher) Thamby Rajah, the first person to bring the Japanese martial art to Malaysian soil back in 1957, still exudes the energy he had when he was young, as he sat with The New Sunday Times for an interview at his 56-year-old Shudokan Institute of Aikido in Seremban recently.
Sitting with a plethora of photos and scrolls from various aikido masters decked behind him, the 87-year-old revealed the tough and challenging times he endured to bring this sport to Malaysia.
"It was 11 years after World War 2, I journeyed to the Kodokan (the worldwide institute for judo) in Tokyo in 1956 to study judo for one year," the holder of three Malaysian Book of Records said in a raspy but gentle voice.
It was a move that was only made possible after getting unofficial funding from his relatives, friends and the Brother Directors of his alma mater, the town's famed St Paul's Institution, where he was working as a clerk then.
"I was not afraid of the trip, rather, I was excited."
He was an active and sprightly young lad when he enrolled in the esteemed school in 1937 and met his physical education master, Walter De Silva, who brought him under his wings and trained him in gymnastics and jujutsu.
"At that time, not many knew about martial arts and most of the training was rough and tough," he said.
De Silva, though a strict man, was very understanding during his lessons and became an inspiration for Thamby Rajah's passion and drive towards martial arts.
"Every Friday after school, we would train at the school field. I was also involved in the school football and hockey team."
The war broke out in 1941, and with the school being turned into a Japanese technical school, Thamby Rajah stopped studying for five years.
"In 1945, when the war ended, I became the second batch to return to the school in 1946," he said, adding that he continued pursuing jujutsu.
After graduating from secondary school, he was awarded a black belt in 1952 and this boosted his drive to learn judo in Japan.
With only a few dollars with him, the 31-year-old travelled by ship from Malaya to Singapore and Hong Kong before finally arriving in Japan after 11 days.
There, he trained under Haruyoshi Ichijima Sensei, a student of Kyuzo Mifune, the famous judo 10th dan teacher, despite not understanding a word of Japanese.
"I had difficulty communicating but I was lucky as there were many Americans studying there, too. The Japanese were also very polite and welcoming to me."
It was during his training session when he chanced upon the American Air Force personnel practising their aikido locks and moves.
"Out of curiosity, I asked Sensei Haruyoshi what martial art was that. He told me it was aikido. I vowed to study this art."
He was fortunate to have been introduced to the famed aikido master, Sensei Gozo Shioda, the headmaster of the Yoshinkan Aikido and trained under his tutelage.
"He was a very strict man. Very disciplined and fast," Thamby Rajah said.
Aikido, which literally means "the way of unifying life energy" is an "emergency form of self defence", according to Thamby Rajah.
The art, which was created and developed by Morihei Ueshiba in the 1920s, requires very little physical effort but uses an opponent's momentum and movement to its advantage. In his heydays, Thamby Rajah was able to do such moves with ease and was known for his throws.
"We only had an hour of training and Shioda emphasised a lot on punctuality and discipline."
The training consisted of a 10- minute warm-up, followed by 20 minutes of lesson on techniques, five minutes break, 15 minutes of mild training and finally 10 minutes of exercise.
Thamby Rajah used the same regime to train his students.
"A normal person would not be able to stand the training. But I was able to, thanks to De Silva's training back in school."
Thamby Rajah was the first Malaysian to return from Japan after attaining a black belt in judo and a Yoshinkan Aikido Dan rank.
Filled with passion and love for the art, he set up the first aikido institute in his hometown and named it, Shudokan Institute of Aikido.
"Shudokan means 'a house to study the way' and the name was given to me by my master, Sensei Shioda,"
Shioda also presented Thamby Rajah a scroll, which he proudly hangs on the wall of his dojo.
It was in this dojo that he trained his most notable students who included his nephew, the renowned Joe Thambu (7th Dan Yoshinkan aikido), the first Yoshinkan Aikido teacher in Australia, as well as Edwin Stratton, the founder of the Shudokan Institute in Britain.
"Training in my time used to be tough. We used to come home with bruises and cuts," he said, reminiscing about the old days. "These days, the training is much more gentle."
Thamby Rajah has stopped training aikido due to his old age. However, his legacy is set to live on with Joe setting up three more aikido institutes here and several others in Singapore, Indonesia, Iran, Poland, Britain and Belgium.
The gentle man, now spends most of his time reading or watching the television in his dojo, with classes on the weekends.
"I can't afford to train anymore as I have difficulty in breathing," he said, adding that his former students are assisting him in training.
"They conduct most of the training. I just oversee and pass comments if it is needed."