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Home > Columns > Peter Goldsbury > January, 2006 - An Aikido Journey: Part 5

An Aikido Journey: Part 5 by Peter Goldsbury

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Taking Stock

My resumption of aikido practice from 1975 onwards was preceded by a period of convalescence and interspersed with periods in hospital. Nevertheless, I was able to practice quite regularly and when I moved up to London, I became a member of the Ryushinkan Dojo. Like the Budokwai, where I also trained periodically before going to the United States, the dojo in Albany Street was a famous judo dojo, with aikido practiced on the upper floor of the building. However, there was no contact between the two arts and certainly no cross-training. A few of us, however, very occasionally used the weights in the judo dojo, but only 'unofficially' and on our own. There has been much discussion in aikido Internet discussion forums about cross-training, as if aikido training itself was insufficient and needed to be supplemented by training in other martial arts. Later in this article, I mention inviting senseis of other martial arts to visit the dojo and teach specific items, such as how to kick and punch properly. I do not regard this as cross-training. For me, cross-training is systematic training in other martial arts, in order to compensate for perceived structural deficiencies in aikido. When I trrained in Ryushinkan, we never conceived that aikido could be structurally deficient as a budo.

I had been practicing aikido for around six years and had reached the level of 1st kyu. I had acquired a 'mental map' of the basic waza of aikido, the central core of which was 1-kyo - 5-kyo and the four nage waza of shiho nage, irimi nage, kote gaeshi and kaiten nage, all practiced to varying degrees from the stereotyped attacks of shomen and yokomen strikes, punches known as tsuki and various grasps to the wrists/arms done from the front or behind. All these waza were practised as tachi-waza or zagi (suwari-waza), or the halfway stage known as hanmi-handachi. Away from the central core and closer to the periphery were various nage waza all lumped together as kokyu-nage, several examples of koshi nage, and more unusual pins like the one to the elbow called by Kanai Sensei 6-kyo.

Underlying this repertoire of techniques were more shadowy entities known as 'aikido principles', but my grasp of these was equally shadowy. One major principle was that the technique had to 'work', whatever this meant. My first teacher interpreted this to mean that 'your attacker is the one who goes down to the ground, not you. The attacker is defeated, not the other way round.' Moreover, the importance of atemi, done for various purposes, was stressed as an essential part of the operation right from the beginning. Later, a gloss was added to the effect that the technique had to work against a larger, stronger and unwilling opponent. The third of these-that the technique had to work, even if the opponent was unwilling to be thrown or pinned-proved to be very problematic.

Another principle was that the attack had to be 'real'. However, since there was a major difference between a dojo and real life (a dojo would become rather depopulated if the attacks really were 'real'), unless the defenders were very good, this principle needed some interpretation. This principle came to mean that the attack had to be 'committed' or 'sincere'. Since practice with weapons was not the main focus of training and we rarely trained in full-contact sparring, the only sense I could make of this at this stage in my aikido career was that the attack had to be matched to the supposed abilities of one's defender or partner.

A third principle was the importance of kokyu power, as exemplified in the techniques called kokyu-nage. I found this principle the most shadowy of the lot. Kokyu-nage was translated as 'breath throw', but this seemed strange. Every technique was a 'breath' technique, so the projection of one's partner forwards or backwards seemed no different from any other part of the aikido repertoire.

The question has sometimes been posed: Which should be taught first: techniques or principles? At my stage, I did not know enough to answer this question, which is similar to the question whether the chicken or the egg comes first. As I suggested above, my early training consisted in attempting to master a central core of techniques and I suspect that the theory behind this was that the attempt to master the core would yield some awareness of the principles on which this core was based. One thing that did come very early on in the learning process was the awareness that it was extremely difficult to execute even the simplest of movements correctly. The movement known as tenkan, fundamental to the correct execution of 1-kyo ura, is one example. Even now there are people who come to my dojo in Hiroshima who have trained for some time, but who cannot execute this movement correctly. To my mind this illustrates the problem of insufficient attention being given to important aspects of training which are ancillary and preparatory to training in actual waza.

At issue here is not merely the awareness or otherwise of correct movement and technique, but the cognitive grasp of what this awareness consists in. It is one thing to see the technique or movement done correctly and even to judge that one's own technique or movement is correct to varying degrees. It is quite another to express in logical discourse just what this correctness or lack of it consists in. I think the issue of the need for logical discourse, or lack of it, is a major problem facing present-day aikido.

Problems relating to this issue led to problems in training. One student in Cambridge Mass. was so obsessed with getting a movement like kokyu-ho correct in every detail each time that, to the consternation and frustration of his partners, very few of the techniques being taught at the time were ever attempted. So we all knew that if you were paired with this student, you would not get much time to practice actual techniques very often. On the other hand, some students in the London dojo became obsessed with mastering as many techniques as possible, including all the variations, and these students became frustrated with the daily staple of kihon-waza, done slowly, with full power and with close attention to detail. There are no easy answers here.

Another Beginning

Ryushinkan Dojo was run by a Japanese teacher named Minoru Kanetsuka. I had seen Kanetsuka Sensei in Chiswick a few years before, and I later found out that he had taken over from K Chiba as the leader of the network of dojos the latter had established in the UK. Kanetsuka Sensei's main dojo was Ryushinkan, but he also regularly visited the dojo at University College London, where I was a student, and Chiba Sensei's old dojo, which had by this time moved from Chiswick to Earls Court and was named Tempukan. Under Kanetsuka Sensei's guidance I made another new beginning and embarked on one of the most intense and productive periods of my aikido career to date.

The dojo population was quite small, smaller than at the New England Aikikai in Cambridge, but there was the same hard core of members who practiced virtually every class. Several features of the training are noteworthy.

First, Kanetsuka Sensei was a graduate of Takushoku University in Tokyo, which is a stronghold of martial arts and sports clubs, so much so that I am not entirely sure whether the students do any academic work. The aikido practiced at Takudai is Yoshinkan aikido and, though he moved over to the Aikikai after he graduated, I was struck by the similarities between Kanetsuka Sensei's aikido training and the aikido of Gozo Shioda. I had chanced upon a book called Dynamic Aikido, and the basic techniques taught in the dojo seemed a mirror image of the techniques shown in that book. There was the same emphasis placed on correct form, down to the minutest details. There was the same emphasis placed on being well grounded, with a strong, solid posture. There was the same emphasis placed on strong wrist and arm grips and on fully committed strikes and punches. Finally, great emphasis was placed on kokyu power, as the key to the generation of explosive energy. The careful attention to kokyu-ho exercises was something I had not encountered before.

In Ryushinkan, too, the techniques had to 'work' and the attacks had to be fully committed. I remember one memorable practice with a visiting instructor. The instructor was not an aikido instructor, but the legendary karate expert Hiroshi Kanazawa. Kanazawa Sensei, also a graduate of Takudai, had been asked to teach us how to kick and punch properly, because our efforts were so woefully inadequate. I have never been in any other aikido dojo where a visiting instructor has come to teach proper ways to attack.

The second noteworthy feature of Ryushinkan training at the time was the attention paid to weapons. The series of volumes by Morihiro Saito entitled Traditional Aikido had begun to appear and Kanetsuka Sensei spent much time going through the ken and jo suburi, awase and kumitachi/kumijo kata shown in the first two volumes. K Chiba had spent some time in Iwama as a deshi and so weapons had been a major feature of training in the Chiswick dojo, but the training was a blend of various elements, not all from Iwama. However, Kanetsuka Sensei single-mindedly focused on aiki-ken and aiki-jo. Near the dojo entrance there was an old tyre set in a concrete block to form a modern makiwara and we would often practise suburi training during the second evening class. The first class usually followed a fairly rigid pattern of exercises like funa-kougi, after which the usual routine was zagi katame waza, followed by kokyu-ho training and other basics, but the second class was usually given over to oyo-waza and/or weapons training. The suburi training was not done to increase stamina, by the way, though it actually did this. Great emphasis was placed on the start of the movement (from one's tanden, though one had to make the attempt to visualize this), the correctness of the swing, and the focus of all one's power (not physical strength) at the point where the bokken hit the tyre and beyond.

The third factor was the influence of zen training and the aikido of M. Sekiya. Sekiya Sensei was K Chiba's father-in-law and he and his wife spent a year in the UK. They lived in Kanetsuka Sensei's house and some students in the Ryushinkan Dojo would spend time looking after them. Mr Sekiya had retired from a job with Japan Airlines and had known O Sensei in the latter's later years. He had also practiced with a famous teacher called Seigo Yamaguchi and had a knowledge of traditional Japanese sword work, which he taught in the dojo. Since Sekiya Sensei was retired, there was an age gap of some 35-40 years between himself and some of the young bloods in the dojo and we often tried to catch him unawares. His aikido was completely different from that of Kanetsuka Sensei and this presented a paradox: how could it be so different and yet work just as effectively.

Mr Fukuda, the headmaster of the Japanese School in London was a Zen master (Soto Zen) and he led za-zen practice in the dojo before morning class on Saturdays. The session lasted 90 minutes, including a short break for walking round the dojo, and ended with a discourse in Japanese and the chanting of a sutra. Sitting correctly for the allotted time without moving was the main purpose of practice, but I also practiced breath control. After za-zen, we would usually do weapon training and the combination was very satisfying. One or two students in the dojo practiced zen elsewhere and saw aikido as the 'moving' part of their meditation training. Other students practiced tai-chi and did aikido for the purpose of making cultural and other comparisons. I myself never did this. For me aikido training was more than enough and I practiced za-zen only as a supplememt to aikido and as an aid to the grasp of some of the principles I alluded to above. Since I knew Sekiya Sensei, I also started eating genmai and tofu, learned how to make miso-shiru and learned about the yin-yang balance, both in food and in life generally.

The dojo became a closely knit group and the individual joys and sorrows, trials and tribulations that occur in daily training, were largely shared. Kanetsuka Sensei also invited other Japanese shihans resident outside Japan to come and teach at training seminars and so I had the opportunity to meet some famous names like Morihiro Saito, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Yoshimitsu Yamada, and Katsuaki Asai and to connect these famous names wih real people. The seminar taught by Saito Sensei was memorable for me because I had a chance to practice with him: to try to throw him (unsuccessfully, but I think this was intentional) and to take ukemi from him. Even now, 30 years later, I have never forgotten what he taught me in those ten minutes or so.

During one such seminar I was suddenly told without any warning that I had to take a shodan grading test that same afternoon. I was in a mad panic for the next few hours as I tried to remember the grading syllabus. I was one of three who took the test and do not remember very much of what happened. Anyhow, we all passed, but we were firmly told that in Japanese martial arts culture, receiving the first dan diploma and putting on a black belt & hakama meant that we had now-just-started proper training. The nine years I had spent as a white belt were the hors d'oeuvre, not the main meal.

Over the years I have found that this view of the first dan is not universally held. Some see it as the culmination of years of training as a white belt and as an indication that the years of training as a white belt enable one to teach the art. I think this view is mistaken. For a start two separate issues have been run together. There are merits and demerits in teaching aikido as a white belted student and in some cases there is no alternative, if training is to continue. However, this issue is a separate issue from that of whether obtaining first dan is a kind of entitlement to teach aikido. I myself did indeed begin teaching in the Ryushinkan Dojo after obtaining first dan, but only under Kanetsuka Sensei's direction. I was conscious that we were also being taught how to teach correctly, for he sometimes had the young yudansha teach class while he himself took part as a student. However, when I came to Japan and became a member of the Hiroshima City Dojo, I stopped teaching aikido altogether and it was not till I obtained fifth dan that I started again.

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