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Home > Columns > Peter Goldsbury > October, 2005 - An Aikido Journey: Part 3

An Aikido Journey: Part 3 by Peter Goldsbury

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American Interlude

When I departed for the US in 1973, I had been training for four years. There was no thought of stopping merely because I was moving to another country. However, I did not know anything about the aikido world outside my own small sphere of practice, in London and Brighton. Of course, I knew it existed. I had heard of Morihei Ueshiba, who was simply known as O Sensei, or the Founder, for Mr. Chiba once mentioned his time in the Hombu Dojo as an uchideshi, but it really was another world, distant and remote, but increasingly fascinating.

Nor were there many books to read about aikido. I chanced upon a large, lavishly illustrated volume entitled This is Aikido and written by someone called Koichi Tohei, who was the chief instructor at the Hombu Dojo I had heard about. This book seemed to dwell on the seemingly impossible things one could do with aikido by making use of something called ki, but a much more useful book was Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, written by Adele Westbrook and Oscar Ratti. The description of aikido and the explanations of techniques were very clear and convincing, while the chart of all the different attacks and techniques was probably the most useful thing in the book for me at this time. It gave a framework, a technical map with markers, and thus a context within which I could place all the techniques I had learned. The only problem was that the movements shown in the illustrations were impossible for anyone with a normal body, i.e., one like mine.

Up to now I did not regard aikido as a spiritual art in any sense of the term. I had spent a number of years in the Jesuits and thought I knew quite a lot about spirituality. At the time I was looking on aikido purely as a physical self-defense art, and saw this aspect very clearly -- dramatically, one could say -- in the way Mr. Chiba dealt with his attackers. On one occasion an uke had to rush to the window to throw up, while a technique was being demonstrated. Chiba Sensei calmly waited till he had finished and then resumed the demonstration with the same uke. On another occasion we were practicing techniques from kicks aimed at the lower stomach. Mr. Chiba was very unhappy with his uke's attacks and so roles were changed and he became uke. Sensei's kick was very fast and one landed in the crotch: the uke crumpled up and we male students keenly felt the possible effects on his/our reproductive potential. We beginners were somewhat awestruck at all this. The ukes had a very rough time, but we did not see such hard training as a particularly spiritual experience, for the teacher or for the student. The waza had to be done correctly and this was a major preoccupation for me. The body had to move correctly at the right time. The yudansha in the dojo showed endless patience in making sure we beginners did the techniques correctly, but the relationship between tori and uke was never presented in specifically spiritual terms and there was never any talk about overcoming one's ego.

The university where I had enrolled was Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my first aikido teacher had kindly given me the name of a Japanese instructor who ran a dojo nearby. The instructor's name was Mitsunari Kanai, so, after arriving and settling in, I went along to the New England Aikikai, which was situated very near Central Square in Cambridge. The dojo, which was up a flight of stairs, was quite spacious, with separate changing rooms, a meeting-cum-living room, and an office for Kanai Sensei. It seemed quite a lot more permanent, and potentially sociable, than the dojo where I had trained in London.

The main practice was in the evenings, but there was practice also on some mornings and on Saturday afternoons. There was a core of regular members and I eventually became a member of this core group, probably because I practised so often and because the core group often met socially after practice. After morning class there was usually breakfast in a deli across the street, where I learned the mysteries of eggs 'sunny side up' and 'over easy'. The waitress had asked how I liked my eggs. 'Basted', was my answer and this caused major confusion. After that Peter's quaint British English became the object of much dojo humor -- all friendly, I should add.

After evening class we met on occasion for a bite and a beer in one of the many eating houses near the dojo. I have vivid memories of walking home after practice dinner one night and passing an Irish bar called The Plough and the Stars. Actually, the bar had a bad reputation, especially on and around March 17, and I was advised never to go there, for the bar was an Irish republican stronghold my 'quaint' British accent would give me away immediately. On this occasion a man somewhat the worse for drink exited the bar horizontally, in mid-air. A major preoccupation in the dojo was whether techniques 'really' worked, especially among the yudansha and there was talk of some individuals going out and picking fights outside the dojo. The Plough and the Stars would have been a good place to test the effectiveness of techniques, but I was a foreigner, in the US on a student visa, and this ruled out any possibility of encounters that would draw the attention of the police.

The basic waza we practiced at the dojo were similar to what I had experienced in London with Chiba Shihan, though the 'way in' to the structure of aikido through the basic techniques was somewhat different. For example, we practised ways of breaking one's partner's balance from the katate-tori grip that I had not seen before and in each dojo the repertoire of waza considered as ouyou waza was somewhat different, the difference probably reflecting the preferences of the shihan. However, the atmosphere of the two dojos was quite different. Of course, very serious practice was done in both, but in the Cambridge dojo the atmosphere was less taut and humor was rather closer to the surface.

There was another aspect to practice in the Cambridge dojo that I did not encounter beforehand or afterwards. One way of putting this would be that there was a rather more pronounced 'spiritual' dimension to practice, though this never came directly from the shihan. Kanai Sensei kept his distance, perhaps because of language difficulties, and rarely talked about aikido apart from explaining techniques when teaching. Another way of putting this would be that there was a significant number of members who came to practice each time with a very clear idea of what they expected from the practice and who measured their improvement in specific ways. So, it was not just a matter of training hard and expecting one's aikido to progress gradually in ways that one could not measure. Rather, each practice was an occasion for clear and definite progress to be made in a specific area. The closest analogy would be that of attendance at a church service: you came out a better person than before and this was clear to oneself and everyone else. If you had not improved, there was something wrong.

Of course, we covered the entire repertoire of basic waza and practiced a lot of ouyou waza also. Among the latter was koshi-nage. Kanai Sensei was fairly short and had an impeccable sense of timing that was hard to reproduce. Whereas ude-garami was a Chiba trademark, some variation of koshi-nage was Kanai's speciality, or irimi-nage ending in a clothesline throw. We also practiced ???a technique on the elbow called 6-kyo. This was quite dangerous and required a special type of ukemi, with the legs and feet projected out backwards, so that one's body was flat on the ground. We also practiced with weapons.? I had practiced with weapons ever since starting aikido and so the Cambridge dojo was no exception. This was before the days when Iwama-ryu became known and there was never any suggestion that aikido did, or did not, need weapons, as if one could make a choice in the matter.??

Another by-product of my time in the Cambridge dojo was a closer acquaintance with the Aikikai and an introduction to aikido 'politics'. In 1974 the second Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, made a visit to the US and came to the New England Aikikai. Doshu brought with him one or two assistants and other Japanese shihans resident in the US came to Cambridge to meet him. Thus I saw for the first time Yoshimitsu Yamada from New York and Akira Tohei from Chicago. Doshu was on his way to Hawaii and we overheard dark conversations about another Tohei and a major split within aikido. A year later, Kisaburo Osawa visited the dojo, accompanied by Masatake Fujita. Because of limited space in the dojo, practice was restricted to yudansha, but we beginners were allowed to watch. Osawa Sensei taught a class and occasionally used Kanai Shihan as his uke. One technique was irimi nage and Osawa Sensei gently used Kanai Sensei's long flowing black hair, for which he was famous, to throw him.? We could not believe our eyes. Our godlike Sensei, being thrown by the hair!

After practice a pot-luck party was held in the dojo. Osawa Sensei sat in the middle of the room amid a phalanx of shihans and we were allowed to ask him questions about aikido. Urged by my dojo friends to ask him a 'really hard' one, I suggested to Osawa Sensei that because of its history and central concepts, aikido was much easier for Japanese to learn and practice than for non-Japanese. Was this true? The question was translated into Japanese and then the phalanx of shihans huddled together in Japanese conversation for ten minutes or so, casting sharp glances in my direction. What had I said? Had I broken a taboo? Eventually, Osawa Sensei answered the question with a slight smile. No, aikido was just as difficult for Japanese to master as for non-Japanese. Mastery required hard daily practice.

My time in the US ended sooner than I had expected. Harvard University was wracked by internal politics and I was caught in the middle of a conflict between two departments. My professor moved to another university and I was left without any academic guidance. I decided to return to the UK and so left Harvard without taking a degree. The dojo held a farewell practice and one attraction was that I was uke, in turn, for pretty well everyone else who was there. The last technique was done by Kanai Sensei and it was katadori 2-kyo. I often had trouble trying to do the technique on him, but he had no trouble at all putting the Mother of all Nikyos on me. It was a lasting souvenir of my time in the US.

Another souvenir was a book, called Aikido and written by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, whom I had met the year before. The book was an illustrated technical manual, with a very mean-looking Chiba as uke for some of the waza shown. The other uke, Nobuyoshi Tamura, I would meet soon after my return to the UK. A notable feature of the book was the collection of aphorisms attributed to the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. At Harvard I had studied the sayings of the philosopher Heraclitus, who was known for his obscurity and puns. Heraclitus was hard to translate into English and the same seemed true of Morihei Ueshiba. The aphorisms were devoid any context and seemed to make little sense. I certainly did not accept them as true as they stood. A more delicate way of putting this would be that they needed further study, but this would require knowledge of Japanese. Another future project, perhaps. Nevertheless, my two years in the US had strengthened my curiosity about Japan and its culture and I began thinking about how I could combine an academic career in philosophy with residence in that country.

To be continued.

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