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Home > Columns > Peter Goldsbury > August, 2005 - An Aikido Journey: Part 1

An Aikido Journey: Part 1 by Peter Goldsbury

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Our Beloved Administrator has invited me to contribute regular AikiWeb articles and I will be happy to oblige as often as I can. I first met Jun Akiyama at Aiki Expo 2002 and we renewed the friendship last year, here in Japan. People perhaps know me from posting on AikiWeb and other bulletin boards, but I have encountered very few of the people who post here on the mat, in the dojo, and so perhaps I should start by giving some account of how I started aikido and where I am now, 35 years later. My 'aikido life' has been unusual in some ways and might be of interest, since I have faced many of the issues and problems often discussed in this forum. Of course, I have faced them in my own way, but the process has always been one of discovery, always involving self-discovery, of making important choices and then having to live with the consequences of those choices, for good or bad.

The Beginning

I had my first encounter with aikido in the UK as a university student. Athleticism was not one of the gifts that Nature had afforded me and so at school I developed a loathing for team sports, especially the UK staples of soccer and rugby (cricket was an exception). At one point, I shared an apartment with a Yorkshire soccer fanatic who wanted a companion for his training, so I took up long-distance running. My companion would do sprints and wait for me to catch up, but eventually, this paired exercise became a group, running a full 26-mile marathon course every Saturday afternoon. I liked to supplement this with running alone. Sussex University was a wonderful university for this sort of activity. The university is set in the South Downs, a chain of hills running across southern England a few miles inland from the south coast. It was possible to run for miles over undulating farmland without ever encountering anything except horse riders or cows. As well as the purely physical exercise this afforded, I did it also as a breathing exercise and as meditation. When I was a student in the US, I used to run along the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge Mass, but it wasn't the same.  Anyway, by the time I was introduced to my would-be aikido teacher, I was reasonably fit.

I was not looking to practice a martial art and so I did not go through any of the steps that people are counseled to follow in this forum, in order to make sure that I had found the right dojo and the right teacher. I heard about this strange martial art, "based on love", from another university friend, went down to the dojo, was introduced, saw what aikido was like (from being thrown) and was hooked. Some half dozen of us formed a club, the university gave us some tatami and we began to practice three times weekly, together with a Sunday morning session of running and some weapons training. We were all beginners and the only teaching our instructor had done up to this time was leading the practice in his own university club in Japan, where he had been captain. He knew some English, but the spoken language was not his major strength, so he taught by showing, punctuated by such pearls as "Peter, you must become more like a cat". He began with a blank sheet, so to speak, and so did we.

We later heard that there was another aikido dojo in the town nearby, so we established friendly relations and went to practise there once a week (another day of training!). The style of practice was quite different and I later heard that it was a Tomiki dojo.  However, this did not seem to matter and the members of the Tomiki dojo participated in our Sunday runs and weapons training. Once or twice, a group of us attended Tomiki seminars in London, conducted by a Japanese instructor named Senta Yamada. The seminars were special, since we met other aikidoists, but the training was just another, different, way of practicing and, as a lowly white belt, I had no conception at this time of aikido 'styles' or 'politics'.

Our instructor was a graduate student in the university. In Japan he was employed by Japanese National Railways and at Sussex he was taking a Master's degree in Transport Economics. However, his scholarship was very generous and he admitted to us at some point that it did not really matter whether he actually graduated or not. So he spent his time doing a little study, but mainly practicing aikido. He spent his vacations traveling around the UK in his Volkswagen Beetle, which he drove atrociously, by the way, with a casual disregard of traffic rules. In England traffic drives on the left and we have roundabouts, but he had no compunction in driving the wrong way round the roundabout if there was no traffic. He said it was useful taisabaki training.

Our instructor stayed at the university for two years and for me this was a very intense introduction to aikido. There were six of us, plus instructor, and we got to know each other very well, in ways one might not expect. The knowledge was really 'body and soul'. Unfortunately, no women had joined the club, so we were six males, aged between 18 and 25. Here we were with this strange being, seemingly from another planet, who could do things we thought were impossible. Apparently made of rubber or a stiffer kind of water, he could execute ukemi in such a way that the only sound was the swish of his keikogi and hakama. Ukemi and shikko training took up 30 minutes of each 2-hour practice and this followed warming up and stretching. After going to and fro a few times up and down the mat, we would simply 'ukemi' round the perimeter of the mat several times, forwards and backwards, and then do the same thing again, but in shikko, always forwards and backwards. I learned later that this is a staple form of training in Japanese university clubsand it certainly teaches good ukemi and shikko.

Before aikido, I had not done any martial arts, so I had no clue about attacks or weapons. (Of course, as a boy I was taught to wrestle by my father and at school, but there was no real technique here and I was never taught how to fall. It was nothing like how a father in Japan might teach his sons to do sumo, for example.  Nevertheless, I had a reputation at school for fighting very rarely, but always winning the fights I took part in.) Apart from these beginnings, all my athletic training so far had been vertically based and I had a great fear of falling. Very probably, it was also a fear of losing control and of having to surrender to tori. Right from the first year, we were taught ukemi from koshi waza and techniques like ude garami, where the arms are held. So, I felt that it took me much longer to learn good ukemi than my doukyuu-sei, and in my first year of training I had my first aikido injury--from tensing up too much during a koshi-nage throw.  I went straight down and dislocated my shoulder. I stopped for a short while and then went back to practiceand, after the warming up and ukemi practice, the first technique for which I had to take ukemi was koshi-nage.

In this respect my instructor did things that would probably be anathema today. For example, I went down with the 'flu on one occasion and so I absented myself from training.  The instructor came to my room and persuaded me to go down to the dojo. We trained for two hours, just the two of us, and I was allowed only one break, for two minutes, and with absolutely no liquid refreshment. I was exhausted, but the next day I had fully recovered. Actually, I reciprocated in kind a while later. My instructor also had the 'flu and had cancelled class. I did not know this and, after finding no one in the dojo, I went to his room and asked why there was no training. He told me to wait a few minutes, got up and accompanied me to the dojo. Again, we trained, just the two of us. The pace was not as severe as the first time, but later, he told me that I had taught him an important lesson.

After training we would sometimes retire to our instructor's room in the university (we all lived on campus) and, to the extent his English permitted, he would tell us about Japan, the Japanese Emperor, and about a shadowy figure he referred to as O Sensei, from whom he had received his dan ranks. On these occasions he invariably offered beer or scotch, usually accompanied by something he called "otsumami" (snacks). The discussion was unusually interesting, for several reasons:

  1. Though I was not fully aware of this at the time, through his conversation my instructor identified himself as someone on the right of the Japanese political spectrum. He constantly stressed that the Japanese emperor system existed solely for the benefit of 'the Japanese people' and the world as a whole, and that the Showa Emperor was an outstanding product of this system. The Emperor Showa actually visited England at this time and training was cancelled, to allow our instructor to go to London and 'shadow' the Emperor on his visits to various places, such as London Zoo. He felt he had to be there, all the time. Of course, we had been taught about Japanese atrocities during World War II, for there was a vociferous anti-Japan lobby in the UK, and had questions about the emperor's war responsibility, which our instructor completely denied.

  2. At the time I was practicing aikido at university, the UK was conducting a campaign against the IRA in Northern Ireland. We all knew about Northern Ireland and some Irish students were planning to go back home and support the IRA. Our instructor had a simple solution: Britain should send all her armed forces to Northern Ireland, pass strict laws, and even more strictly punish (by shooting, for example) anyone who disobeyed. We argued long and hard about this, but it made no difference to aikido practice, or to the great respect we had for our instructor.

  3. During these discussions he talked about O Sensei, but always outside any historical context. Like the Japanese Emperor, Morihei Ueshiba was presented as having devoted himself selflessly to aikido 'for the good of the Japanese people' and for those, like myself, who would eventually take up practice. Aikido was presented as a seamless martial art, spanning continents, without respect to nationality or gender. However, he never discussed the actual history of aikido and so I never knew of Morihei Ueshiba's involvement with Sokaku Takeda or Onisaburo Deguchi. At this time there were no books available in English.

In the second year of our club's existence, we attracted some 40 prospective members, who came and watched a practice and a short demonstration. This was far more than he could manage, so he just cranked up the level of training before and after practice, with the result that most of the prospective members lost interest: aikido was far too severe for them. I think we doubled our membership from six to twelve. A good thing at this time was that some women students joined the club and this added a new dimension to our training and practice.

After two years in England our instructor returned to Japan. We were very sad to see him go. Despite his lack of English ability, he had presented aikido as something very 'pure' and unsullied (in a Japanese sense), as a way of retreating from the world (into a dojo), in order to rediscover some very basic human values. However, I later discovered that he had also presented aikido from a distinct ideological standpoint that was traditionally and very conservatively Japanese, and one which I have never come to accept.

Some Points of Interest

  1. Aikido was very definitely presented as a martial art, not as a philosophical or moral system dedicated to self-realization or bringing about world peace. The importance of regular training was constantly stressed, because only in this way could one be in a position to respond to an attack without thinking. Training was in a sense artificial because, like any martial art, practice was in a dojo and not in the street or on the battlefield.

  2. Thus, the importance of atemi was constantly stressed.  When first learning irimi-nage, I remember being told that the final throw should really be accompanied by a blow to the throat, the base of the nose or to the opponent's eyes. We were also told that we did not do this because we were training in a dojo.

  3. We were given no idea of the difference between dou and jutsu. Aikido was presented simply as the name of the art we practiced. It was never broken down into its constituent kanji and we never encountered KI, as a separate concept.

  4. The warming up exercises focused very much on developing lower body strength and flexibility. Our instructor believed that virtually any aikido technique could be performed in suwari-waza and he stressed the importance of suwari-waza as a training method.

  5. We never addressed our instructor as Sensei. He preferred to have us call him by his surname (in accordance with the practice in Japanese secondary and tertiary educational institutions).

  6. Our instructor had taught mainly by showing, without much explanation. In any case, his rather quaint English was quite difficult to understand and so we preferred being shown. However, at some point, probably in preparation for grading tests, he decided that we needed to learn Japanese terms, like the names of the techniques.  So he produced a 2-page hand-written document listing all the names he thought we should know, about 50 in all and told us to learn them off by heart.

  7. Right from the first class we were drilled in the importance of rei. There was no portrait of O Sensei and so the shomen we bowed to was probably eastwards, in the direction of the Imperial Palace. At one point our instructor gave a lengthy lecture on the importance of training as a filial duty that we had to express our gratitude to our parents and ancestors, for allowing us to enter and live in this world and leave our training imprint for our descendants. We were sitting in seiza and his English was very hard to understand, so we all hoped he would stop talking and do some aikido.

  8. We followed a grading system that was accelerated, in accordance with the custom in Japanese universities (where one receives 2nd dan just before graduation). Thus, I had received 2nd kyu by the time our instructor returned to Japan. We did not, of course, run through the kyu grades consecutively. In view of his obvious ability, the fact that he was a Japanese doing a Japanese martial art and also a graduate of the most prestigious faculty of the most prestigious university in Japan (the Law faculty of Tokyo University), our instructor was allowed a completely free hand with grades, but we had no idea of the organization behind the grades and were in no position to find out independently. Since we would graduate and leave the club in any case, I think this was not a problem for us. As it happened, only two of us, out of the original group, continued aikido training after graduation.

I think my first instructor was responsible for sowing the seeds that became a lifelong commitment to aikido. Even now, 35 years after first training with him, we are still good friends.

To be continued.

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