It Had to Be Felt #76: Asai Katsuaki: "Like a safe cracker who can hear the moment right before the safe will open"
I didn't know anything about Asai sensei when I began training, except that he was the head-coach the German Aikikai. My image about great Aikido teachers was influenced by stories about an old man with a white beard, who spoke about peace. How different was the impression I got on my first seminar in northern Germany, when Asai sensei began with the basic exercises, such as ikkyo-undo! He gave the rhythm of the exercise by counting: "Eeeeeins! Zweeeeei!", in a voice that would have honoured an instructor on the parade ground, telling us to extend our power to a maximum of range, imagining a strong flow of ki reaching as far we could see, or even further. His movements were clear and sharp, not as round or soft as I had expected; my perspective on aikido was changed after this training.
Later I learned what a wide spectrum of physical expression he was able to do, from big, wide movements that were influenced by Noro Masamichi's Ki No Michi, to very short and direct irimi that reminded one of a sharp sword. Because of this, there were many different opinions circulating about him: some said his aikido was ineffective, and others said he was brutal and harsh (the latter is not true at all).
When he heard people saying aikido was like a dance rather than a martial art, he would say how glad he would be to hear that he was as brilliant as a good dancer. On the other hand, he always says that an aikidoka should be able to defend himself, and that one must not hesitate, even if it means we have to injure the attacker in self-defence. He dislikes the old Biblical-saying, that if you were hit in one cheek, you should turn the other one. On the mat, though, there should be no fighting: destroying somebody is easy, but to do real aikido is much more complicated.
When Asai sensei was young, he lived across the street from the Aikikai Honbu Dojo. He would look over the fence, watching the training, and saw O-sensei throwing strong men around, thinking. "Wow, that grandpa is strong!" He began training at the age of thirteen, in 1955. The term he uses for his status is kayo no deshi, a student who doesn't sleep in the dojo, but trains every day. There was no special training for children, and he had to practice with the grown-ups. The first one who did so was a twenty-five years old Arikawa Sadateru sensei, who smashed him down with shihonage ura so hard that his head hit the mat, and he saw stars.
What to do? He had promised never to give up. and to continue practicing every day, no matter how hard it would be. So, he kept on. When he was seventeen, Kobayashi Yasuo sensei waited for him at the entrance of the dojo, every day for half a year, to throw him continuously as long he could stand up. This laid the foundation for his statement that nobody really knows his limits as long as he has not experienced what it is like to really not be able to get up any more. Kobayashi sensei himself once nearly collapsed when the other uchideshi decided to test his conditioning, and threw him continuously. Luckily, he fell down in a kind of deep sleep, snoring, before the worst could happen. A doctor present said he might have died. Later, as a teacher in the advanced classes, Asai sensei often told us to practice harder, and to try to bring our training partner physically to his limit.
I do not belong to the first generation who trained under him in the sixties or seventies. His first students were highly impressed by his fast and strong movements, as well as his brilliant ukemi, which he showed when he was thrown around by the teachers who came to Germany, especially Tada Hiroshi sensei and Noro Masamichi sensei, but also Tamura Nobuyoshi sensei, and the second Doshu. In the old ‘super 8 mm' films of that time, you get an impression how he moved when he was in his late twenties, with a speed and power that was marvellous.
When Tada sensei threw him, it was as if he was a bundle of cloth, but he'd hit the mat and stand up, ready to attack again as if he was made of rubber. His ukemi with Noro sensei was similar, but beyond that, he had a special relationship with him—they became very close friends in Europe. As the elder student and as uchideshi, Noro was the one who threw him. (As Asai sensei likes to point out, Noro sensei actually registered in the Honbu Dojo one day later, but he insisted on his position as senpai because he was an uchideshi). Only once as a special gift, he took ukemi for Asai Sensei at an anniversary celebration. Generally speaking, Noro sensei threw him very hard and he was injured more than once. One time in particular was really dangerous, because he hit the mat with his head, and fluid ran out of his nose. Because cameras were rolling, however, they did not stop
I have had the opportunity to feel Asai sensei's techniques over a period of many years. After reaching shodan, I functioned as his uke in every class I attended. Asai sensei doesn't throw his uke around for minutes at a time, or play with them like Yamaguchi Seigo sensei tended to do. He usually enacts a technique only two or three times, just as O-sensei did—this teaches one how to truly perceive what the teacher is showing. This is not merely a matter of paying attention—as Asai sensei puts it, you must learn how to "see," meaning the ability to grasp in a single instant what the teacher has presented. In a real way, this is exactly what must happen in combat if one is to survive.
When he demonstrates his wide circular movements, it is just like the movies where someone tries to reach a train that is already moving—you will soon be completely exhausted. That is not only because you have to run after him: it is because you have to extend your energy to a maximum, all the while trying to keep your balance, which is just at the limit of being broken. It feels like the energy is being drawn out from you.
There are a lot of discussions in the budo-world about that ‘running after.' Most people don't understand what is happening, calling it over-cooperative behaviour. [To be sure, it can be, particularly when students begin to learn basic movements]. However, Asai sensei once told us that when he attacked O-sensei, his body moved because he was drawn into that movement, before he could understand why. Taking ukemi for Asai Sensei often approaches that; he definitely possesses some degree of this attracting force. You really get the feeling to be taken, and being required to stick to him.
On the other hand, his movements can also be so fast that one has to be absolutely focused: for example, shihonage can be very dangerous if one isn't ready to "jump" at the exact moment that the lever is "closed." His perspective is derived from Daito-ryu, that in reality there is no friendly "leading to the ground" in shihonage, as we see so often in modern aikido. Shihonage was made for breaking bones. As Asai sensei himself learned it, the only possibility for him was to jump, especially when Tada sensei threw him. Even knowing this, I was too slow one time, and I heard a faint crack in my elbow. Asai sensei immediately stopped the technique, explaining that normally you hear three cracks—if you stop early enough, the worst will not come to pass. That shows how well one has to learn to "listen."
Asai sensei's practice is less severe these days, because his students, for the most part, have grown older. Beyond that, however, one must still take care not to end with an injured elbow or shoulder. To the best of my memory, this never happened, because Asai sensei is highly sensitive, and he knows exactly the point where to stop, something he surely learned the "hard way." In his time as a student in Tokyo the training sometimes must have been brutal. For example, he had a "contest" with Chiba Kazuo sensei, and the next day, both came to the mat with wrapped wrists. The benefit of his history of rough practice, he says, is that training with him safe, because he tested the limits of so many wrists, including his own, that he knows the exact sound—and feel—that tells him when to stop, like a safe cracker who can hear the moment right before the safe will open.
Another aspect of Asai sensei's art is that he can become suddenly hard or totally soft: sometimes when you grab him, you feel an impulse of very powerful force, but at other times, he is suddenly "gone." You feel like you tried to grab a ghost. I remember one day during a photoshoot, he told me to attack him with shomen-uchi. He responded with iriminage, but I had no idea what he did. Before I knew I was thrown, it felt as if I was in a swing or a rocking chair, raised up in the air and then suddenly down. I had never felt something like that before.
It must have been a bit like that feeling when you attacked O Sensei and were thrown without knowing what he did. Asai sensei always points out that he still can't do what O- sensei could do, but everyone must try to find a way to increase one's skills, striving to get as far as possible. He says it's a pity that O-sensei didn't teach how to get there, that he himself cannot show the method he used, and therefore, that we all must do research by ourselves. What we have with Asai sensei is that he trained with the uchideshi directly under the founder, and something of that knowledge is manifested in his body. That's what we, as his students, can grab to this day, place it in our memory and develop it within our own bodies. In the end, it's what he said when he was asked at a seminar in Poland, what advice he would give to the aikido community. "If you have free time, then practice."
Markus Rohde, 5th Dan Aikikai under Asai sensei, began his aikido practice in Osnabrück and Münster (the birthplace of German aikido) in 1981. He started a little late, as he had been looking for a judo club in order to resume the judo training of his childhood. However, he decided on aikidoafter participating in a trial training. After five years of training, he decided to join Asai sensei's dojo in Düsseldorf in order to increase his training volume. He began to practice on daily basis, and continued doing so for a long time.For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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