It Had to Be Felt #52: Inagaki Shigemi: "A Gentleman of Aiki"
Inagaki Shigemi sensei was born in 1946. While still a small boy, he and his family moved from the Tokyo area to the small village of Iwama in Ibaraki Prefecture. He began training in the children's group in the Iwama Dojo in 1958, when he was 12 years old. He trained directly under the founder of aikido, Ueshiba Morihei from 1958 until his passing in 1969. After the Founder's death, Inagaki sensei, a very close student of Saito Morihiro sensei, served as his uchideshi for 2 ½ years. Inagaki sensei functioned as Saito sensei's otomo, arranging and travelling with him to Hawaii and California during his first foreign trip.
Inagaki sensei was awarded 8th Dan in January 2013. He is currently the director of the Ibaraki Shibu Dojo (Iwama Dojo). Inagaki sensei travels throughout Europe, Russia and the United States to teach seminars as well, and has a long history teaching aikido in Myanmar. He is not only recognized for his skill in aikido, but also his very clear and systematic teaching methods.
I first met Inagaki sensei when I returned to my beloved dojo in 2005, my first trip after the passing of Saito sensei in 2002. I was greeted very warmly by Inagaki sensei right from the start, and I immediately felt a strong affinity towards him.
Inagaki sensei figures very strongly in the history of the Iwama Dojo. The first foreigners who started coming to the dojo in the early 1970s spoke of him with great respect. He was extremely dedicated, and trained very dynamically. As one of Saito sensei's longest standing and closest students, he has an inside understanding of his methodology, and also a clear understanding on how Saito sensei refined his teaching over the years. The training in the 1970s was very physically challenging, and the stories that I have heard Inagaki sensei tell of how they trained in the ‘good, old days' indicate a real forging of the body as well as of the spirit. Saito sensei led the way, devoting a large amount of time to building up strength and endurance, with extensive tanren-uchi practice with heavy bokken, plus many different exercises based on strengthening and toughening the tegatana, knuckles and forearms for taijutsu practice. Such tanren practice is still done as part of the uchideshi training regimen at the Iwama Dojo.
For more interesting stories of this period in Iwama history, as well as more stories about Inagaki sensei himself, I recommend reading texts by the old guard of foreign students. Much is to be learned from these stories.
As mentioned before, I first met Inagaki sensei when I came to Iwama together with a small group of my closest students back in 2005. We were welcomed with great kindness, not only by Inagaki sensei, but also by all the other fine teachers who now take such great care of the Founder's beloved dojo. Isoyama Hiroshi sensei was the active head of the Dojo at this time, and he especially went out of his way to make us all feel most welcome, too. I am forever grateful to Isoyama sensei for his kindness.
Inagaki sensei, along with other leading seniors from the old days, taught evening class at the Iwama dojo as part of a rotational system. Apart from his once or twice a week evening class, he also offered uchideshi training in the mornings, three days a week. These morning classes consisted of both weapons work and taijutsu.
I have returned to the Iwama Dojo with my students many times since that trip in 2005. I have seen Inagaki sensei on many occasions actually stepping in and training with the students when there have been an uneven number of participants. Notably, he has paired up with some of my least-experienced students for one-on-one training during his own classes. He could take a more skilled practitioner to train with, but instead he steps in and takes a beginner, and trains with him or her for the entire class. This is a beautiful example of the spirit of Aikido at its best.
I have translated for Inagaki sensei, both at many seminars throughout Europe, and also during classes in Iwama. He speaks English very well, and is constantly working on his language skills. This makes translating for him both very interesting and daunting at the same time—he knows if I'm not getting something right! Nonetheless, we have a good understanding, and he is interested in the different ways that both the technical and spiritual sides of aikido can be translated.
Inagaki sensei is very interested in the spiritual aspects of Aikido, and studies these areas very seriously. He has assiduously researched Omoto-kyo, Shinto, Buddhism as well as other spiritual paths. Speaking with him about these matters is always a learning experience. He tries to make his interpretation of O-Sensei's thoughts accessible to others, but always points out that they are his interpretations. His striving to immerse himself in the study of O-Sensei's thoughts and concepts is an inspiration for others to do the same.
As I mentioned earlier, Inagaki sensei had very close contact with Saito sensei from his early years onwards. This has given him a great overview of how the techniques have developed during Saito sensei's lifetime. Please note that this does not mean that Saito sensei had developed his own techniques, but rather how Saito sensei had refined his own understanding and execution of the techniques that he had learned from O- Sensei. Inagaki sensei is a great technician, with a very keen sense of detail. He has the same unique ability that Saito sensei possessed—being able to understand the underlying principles in the techniques and to put them into sequences in order to actually feel the connections as well as to make the techniques easier to remember. Through this, he not only enhances his own ability, but makes it possible for others to learn in the same manner.
I have had the privilege of being uke and uchitachi / uchijo for Inagaki sensei on several occasions throughout the years (others have had much more direct training contact than I, and I hope that they will contribute to this column, so that we have the benefit of their experiences as well). In my case, what I have always felt from Inagaki sensei was a very strong sense of controlled power. When receiving Inagaki sensei's taijutsu techniques I have felt that he was very precise in delivering a constant, controlling energy throughout the given technique, but never using unnecessary force. I am small of stature, and Inagaki sensei is quite big, and very strong, but I have never felt that he was working past the level that I was able to take. He would take me right to the limit, for my own training's sake (forging both body and spirit), but I have always felt confident that I was safe throughout the entire technique. I would feel a sense of musubi—the connection of his energy with me—at all times through the given technique.
When he teaches at the Iwama Dojo and also at seminars, Inagaki sensei makes a point of using all sorts of different people as uke—both white belts as well as yudansha, and mostly people he doesn't know. I believe that this is n a way for him to train himself by having to connect with each uke in their own way, as well as showing that the techniques work on people who don't know what is coming. I have never seen him force a technique through, if the given uke wasn't ready for what was coming; on the contrary, he sometimes will stop and restart the technique, in order to keep the uke safe.
He has often used me in weapons work at the seminars where I have translated for him. The paired forms in aiki-ken and aiki-jo are quite complicated, and it helps the forms to have a partner who knows the sequences when demonstrating . This has given me the opportunity to receive his weapons techniques directly, and this has always been a wonderful experience. As in taijutsu, he always seems to establish a very clear and tangible connection when training weapons with him. His energy is very sharp and distinct, but just as in his taijutsu, you never feel that there is any aggression. He is very quick, but always in sync with his partner. One of the points that Saito sensei used to emphasize was awase (‘fitting together,' ‘blending') in our training. He would say that it is just as bad to be too fast as it is to be too slow; you separate by being ahead of your attacker, and you can get stuck by being behind them. Inagaki sensei's timing is impeccable. He never exceeds the ‘dosage' of power or energy that is needed for the given weapons technique; this to me is a sign of true mastery.
Inagaki sensei's kamae (position, stance) in his body work: hanmi / hitoemi, taisabaki, and more (both in weapons as well as tai jutsu ) is a wonderful combination of his many years of training in the older forms, where the positions were quite low, with a fairly wide stance, as well as the form that was prevalent from the 1980s and onwards, as shown by Saito sensei in his later years, where the stances were more upright—though always grounded, with a very strong, solid anchoring of the hips. I recommend looking at the old books series Traditional Aikido by Saito sensei to see the older variations of the stances used then, and then compare them with Saito sensei's forms from the 1980s.
If we consider O-Sensei himself, in just about every clip and photo I have seen of O-Sensei, he has moved and stood in basic, natural body positions. It is very rare to see O-Sensei standing in a very low stance at any time. In the 1970s, we in Scandinavia were training under Tomita Takeji sensei (NOTE: Tomita Sensei was a student first of Nishio sensei and then Saito sensei—he also trained directly under O-Sensei during his last years). Tomita Sensei's stances were quite low. He once told us that practicing in low stances was a training tool; it teaches you grounding, stability and gives you a feeling of solid strength. In my opinion, one should use these stances in building up these important aspects, and then move on into more flexible and dynamic body positions as one develops further.
It looks quite natural for Inagaki sensei, who possesses a great degree of flexibility (he can still do full splits / stretches: seated, legs out to the sides and upper body touching the ground in front of him), to have a fairly low stance. He is still able to move dynamically at any time, from any position within a technique and those at the end. Inagaki sensei displays a very clear and precise form in all his aikido, a vast knowledge accumulated through years and years of hard and dedicated training.
I have tried to put into words what I have felt when training with Inagaki sensei. But even more than that, I would like to talk about feeling his spirit in general, and to express my gratitude for the opportunities I have had of sharing his company outside of training, where we have been able to talk about many things, among them about aikido in its many forms, both physical and spiritual. I have learned very much from these occasions. He is a very kind and openhearted person, who is very willing to share his thoughts and ideas with anyone, and he is also very willing to listen to other people's thoughts and ideas. Both at the Iwama Dojo as well as when travelling, I have seen him treat others with respect and kindness in all situations. Of course he can be strict as a chief instructor at the Iwama Dojo, but his severity is always based on making the recipient of his strictness understand an important point. His severity also embodies kindness, and I see this is a fine sign of the spirit of bushido. I see in Inagaki sensei a man who is truly applying the spiritual principles of Aikido in everything that he does. I see in him a true ‘gentleman of aiki.'
Some may read this essay and find themselves rather puzzled. This may be because they encountered Inagaki sensei several decades ago, or more likely, they have heard stories that describe someone more tiger than human.
There is no doubt that training at the Iwama Dojo in the old days was extremely severe. Chiba Kazuo sensei wrote a very good article about his own experiences in this dojo that illustrates this point very well. The students training in the Iwama Dojo from the 1950s to the 1980s were focused on strengthening themselves—forging their bodies as well as their spirit. From the 1980s onwards, Saito sensei put more emphasis on understanding and performing the movements perfectly: tai sabaki, hanmi / hitoemi, posture, awase, and zanshin (in Iwama, this term had a specific meaning—the final position of a technique or form, which also embodied the continuation of your energy surging forward 'beyond' the physical form, as well as one's continued connection with one's partner). All of this was meant to accomplish 'fitting together' the parts of the body and spirit so that the technique was a unified act. Saito sensei believed that if you wanted to train hard or fast, you should do it on your own time; this was what jiyugeiko (free training) was for. Class was for studying the techniques in a controlled manner. (Admittedly, not everybody adhered to this during training—sometimes it would get pretty rough when some of the practitioners were feeling frisky!). Initially, techniques were taught in a step-by-step manner, in order to learn all the important points properly. Then you would move into the awase level of training, and finally into ki no nagare (flowing forms). This progression was the way O-Sensei taught in the Iwama Dojo and this is what Saito sensei continued after O-Sensei's passing.
From the perspective of internal strength training, those who seem to have attained some level of proficiency in this area all went through a developmental period of hard, rigorous training—both solo training for strengthening their bodies as well as their spirit, and also partner training, where the uke would give no quarter. Resistance to the techniques was required, and you had to learn how to execute your technique on a person who did not want to be thrown or pinned, and who would counter your technique if possible. This was a developmental stage, however, used to forge yourself and to learn to understand the physical aspects of the techniques—in particular, finding the weak angles in your partner's positions, and finding angles where you would be most stable while executing the techniques correctly. You also had to learn when to apply henka waza ( variations) or oyo waza ( applied techniques) when necessary. The ‘outer,' physical stage of development is supposed to lead you further, and teach you how to use the minimum of effort and power to perform a given technique, while still making the technique effective. I believe that one has to go through this basic level of hard, rigorous training in order to learn the more subtle, inner aspects of the art. There is no shortcut. If you try to go straight to the soft, flowing forms without passing through this initial level, you won't have the physical or mental foundation necessary to obtain the higher levels. You can't understand how to release or let go of your power if you haven't understood how to unleash it first. It seems quite logical: try to follow in the footsteps of O-Sensei, in regards to how his training progressed from hard to soft. You have to learn to walk before you can run.
The high-level Sensei from Iwama from whom I have received techniques—Saito sensei, Isoyama Sensei and Inagaki sensei—all passed through this rigorous, basic level of hard training and came out the other side. Their techniques all felt very strong and controlled; the key word being controlled. It was not violent. This may have been different back in the older days—my experience is based on from 1984. I always felt that they were able to adjust the ‘dosage' of power they were using perfectly to the situation. As I have mentioned before, I am small of stature, and every time a technique has been performed on me by one of these sensei, I have felt completely controlled by them, but only with the power that was necessary. I have trained with others where I have felt that the individual just has been blasting out—essentially delivering the same amount of power to anyone, with not so much consideration as to how much is actually necessary for the technique to work. One of the refined, elegant aspects of high-level aikido is the ability of nage to be in complete control of their power output—understanding how to perform each technique so it is most effective with as little power as possible. Getting the dosage just right in each execution and getting this to fit to the given uke is truly a sign of mastery. This is ki awase and ki musubi in their physical form.
I feel very strongly that the sensei of Iwama have used their strong training in their developmental stages of their lives to move them past this stage and into the higher levels of aikido.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
Ethan Weisgard is one of the highest-level direct students of the late aikido master Morihiro Saito in Europe. He traveled to Japan for the first time in 1984 to live and train as a direct student of Saito in Iwama. He has returned more than ten times, including a stay of more than one year, to immerse himself in training.
Weisgard was appointed direct representative in Denmark by Saito personally. He has traveled throughout the world teaching the aikido taught to him by his master, teaching in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Germany, America, Russia and even in the homeland of aikido, Japan.
Re: It Had to Be Felt #52: Inagaki Shigemi: "A Gentleman of Aiki"
Inagaki Shigemi shihan was born on January 30, 1946, and was twelve years old when he brushed his name into the enrolment register at the dojo attached to the Aiki Shrine (the present day Ibaraki Branch Dojo). This was the minimum age of eligibility to be able to practise with the adults in the regular class. From that day in June 1958, until the aikido founder passed away, in the autumn of 1969, Inagaki Sensei had a little over eleven years of training while the founder was still alive. However, when asked how long he practiced with O-sensei, Inagaki sensei usually rounds this down, because he left for university in Tokyo in 1966. Nevertheless, he did occasionally return to Iwama to train, and was photographed around then with O-sensei during a demonstration atop Mt. Atago, along with his brother, Ryuji. I think Inagaki sensei's point in understating his experience is that O-sensei was no longer his main instructor while he was in Tokyo. His regular practice at that time would have been with Arikawa Sadateru shihan. Upon his return to Iwama, he became a prominent student of Saito Morihiro shihan and stayed in the dojo as uchideshi for two and a half years. It would seem he was a fearsome practitioner in those days, dubbed by David Alexander as the ‘resident monster.'
Meeting the ‘Monster'
I first met Inagaki sensei on Saturday, the fifth of August, 2006. It was my second time to live and work in Japan. The first time (2002-2003), I had naively assumed I would be able to find a great dojo anywhere, but ended up having to switch styles, which I didn't fully appreciate the benefit of at the time. This time I wanted to make aikido the main focus of my stay and train where the founder's direct students still taught. I assumed, a little naively again, that either the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, or the Ibaraki Dojo would be the best places to go to. Fortunately, I was able to get a job as an English teacher based in Mito, the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture, just 20 minutes away by train from the founder's dojo. It was a new position, so I had no predecessor to take over from, which meant I had no accommodation arranged to move into. So I had the bright idea of applying to be an uchideshi (live-in student) at the dojo while I looked for an apartment.
Of course, it was not as simple as that. I got no replies to my clumsy Japanese emails to the dojo's General Manager (Inagaki sensei). So, I initially stayed a couple of nights with a colleague on a farm on the outskirts of Mito, still wondering if it would even be possible to train there, let alone stay. It just so happened that my elderly colleague's husband was born in Iwama and had heard of some fantastic martial arts teacher who once lived there. Luckily, correspondence between my colleague and the dojo was much more fruitful, and so my meeting with Inagaki sensei was arranged.
It was daunting and somewhat unreal when the Aiki Shrine came into view and the tyres of my colleague's car crunched across the gravel, as we entered the dojo grounds. He was waiting for me: a sixty-year-old man, who looked so normal in his static photo, but who was so much more imposing in the flesh, animated and smiling. It felt like he could see right through me. I noticed a habit he has of doing a centring exercise, kind of floating on his hips, rolling his upper body. It was as if he had a vast ocean gently surging around inside him. He welcomed me and invited me into the foyer of the dojo. As we sat in seiza, I couldn't help but look at his hands: They were works of art, with heavily calloused knuckles. I explained in my imperfect Japanese that I wanted to stay in the dojo. He said, "Kore wa ryokan dewanai." ("This is not a hotel.")
It was difficult to follow the lecture that followed, but with some help from my colleague, I got the gist of it. It was a speech I would hear, and eventually translate many times. Inagaki sensei knows the value of consistency and repetition. He talked of ‘misogi' (purification) training, regarding the body as a boat with the soul as the helmsman. Aikido trains the helmsman too. We should all be like the sun, emanating light which falls equally on all things, regardless of race, nationality, religion, politics, wealth and so on. I now know that he was referring to ‘mantogyo' ("10,000 Lanterns") as a means of establishing Heaven on Earth. If everyone becomes a light, the world will be illuminated as one. Over the years, he would sometimes vary things, like comparing the body to a car with the soul as the driver, but the messages remained the same, working as stepping stones to understanding the concepts of the founder's aikido, such as rei-shu-tai-ju (soul - master - body - servant) and rei-ryoku-tai (soul - power - body). Inagaki sensei later wrote that the passing on of O-sensei's dictations in a way that is easy to understand is imperative, and that he had made this one of his personal themes. I began to sense that this was not just a good man, but someone utterly dedicated to the art of aikido and achieving its founder's goals. It was a moving realisation, and I knew then and there that I had come to the right place.
After some time, that first meeting ended with Sensei proclaiming that he thought I might be a ‘majime' (earnest) student, and he allowed me to stay in the dojo.
"Oh no!" I thought. "Now I've got to actually go through with this!"
"The Most Boring Training in the World…"
I didn't get to train with Inagaki sensei right away. At that time, the morning uchideshi classes were run by Nemoto sensei, who brought his own personal uchideshi from Aiki House to join us. So, by the time Inagaki sensei's regular Monday evening class came around, I'd already experienced Nemoto shihan, Owada shihan and Hirosawa shihan. They were all amazing. I was living the dream. Inagaki sensei wasn't going to disappoint either.
For all his talk of spiritual matters, his regular evening class, was absolutely brutal in its intensity. And magnificent! Just to be clear, I don't mean anyone tried to harm anyone else or got injured. On the contrary, everything was tailored to the recipient, and Sensei had a clear pedagogy that pushed you just enough beyond your limits to progress. But for a Brit like me, the "hell dojo" conditions, at the height of Japan's sauna-like summer, made it especially austere. Back then, we also did what is normally reserved for the uchideshi classes, even in his evening class. This included knuckle push-ups, taking yokomen and shomen uchi strikes to the forearms, and other hard-tanren (forging) exercises. It still happens in the regular class once in a while. It was, and still is, carried out in an atmosphere of respect and camaraderie. When changing partner, Sensei would stop us and make us do over if we did kneeling bows to each other incorrectly, and stressed that you had to put the feeling of ‘please let me train with you' into the initial "Onegaishimasu" and feel genuine gratitude with the final "Arigato gozaimashita."
There was a good mix of students, old and young, male and female, with lots of foreign visitors. Not every visitor arrived with the right attitude, so these were the people to be careful of, but I always felt safe. Among the local students, were people like Isoyama (who is usually called by his given name ‘Toshihiro' to distinguish him from his uncle, Isoyama Hiroshi shihan), Hirasawa, Kawakami and Maie, all of whom had also trained with O-sensei. Toshihiro, in particular, would take aside certain visitors and hog them all night, not changing partners between techniques as we usually did. In those days, I got clobbered by everyone, but I noticed it was these little old men who could do it with the greatest ease, and with gentleness.
When demonstrating techniques, Sensei usually works his way down the ranks from the top, changing uke each time. Although I'd trained for a few years, I'd moved around a lot and was still a white belt, with no grade in the Aikikai, so I was often last in line. But I'm a relatively big guy, so Sensei would sometimes pick me out on purpose to show how to do a technique on someone tall. During training, he goes around everyone, so we all get a chance to feel his technique.
My first impression of grabbing him was one of astonishment at how strong he was. He was in good shape for sixty, but this was off-the-scale, no-contest, heavy, unstoppable movement. Although he seemed large when he interviewed me, I realised he was actually much smaller than me. But it made no difference. This was what I was looking for! When he struck my forearms in tanren, he seemed to know exactly how far to go, but it was still an invigorating experience. It seemed to do nothing to him when we switched roles. I might as well have been striking a boulder. After my first training with him, Sensei threw one of his famous welcome parties with everyone singing and I realised that this too was part of the training.
I only stayed for a short time as uchideshi before moving to an apartment in Mito. From then onwards, I trained as a kayoideshi (commuting student) and made it a rule never to miss his or Isoyama shihan's classes in particular. I was still getting used to the shugyo (austere training) when I started my new job. On one occasion, I ran into some of my new colleagues in Mito station, who gasped at my black-and-blue arms. They were swollen like Popeye's, but over time, they stopped bruising altogether. Sensei often says his training is the "most boring training in the world." He also says, "But it is the fastest way to get good at aikido." I always found even the most repetitive forging to be too painful to be boring and I appreciated the results.
I used to have trouble with my shoulders long before Iwama. They are very flexible and I can partially dislocate them at will. One problem I had was when they slipped out against my will, and it happened a lot when I started aikido at university. I also did a little judo and jujutsu, which was even worse for them, but any kind of rough manual work could cause it. If I had a dislocation, I could just pop my arm back in again, but thereafter, it would be loose and would fall painfully out of the socket at random moments, like when I opened doors, sneezed or even rolled over in bed. It happened many times during those first few months of practice in Iwama. One time, Inagaki sensei called me up to demonstrate ikkyo. It sent a wave through my body that caused the opposite arm to fly out of its socket, so I face-planted when he moved into the pin. I slotted it back into place and continued training, although the joint slipped out painfully again a couple of times after that. But then it happened less and less often and after a few months of training, the problem disappeared completely. I put this down to the forging effects of the practice.
Felt Through the Body
It's been about 13 years since then, and the hands that are typing this have calloused knuckles of their own. In that time, I've felt Inagaki sensei's aikido in quite a few different situations. Sensei began teaching the morning weapons classes for the uchideshi every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from around March 2007. From autumn 2008, I started joining them and training with Sensei even more when, ironically, I moved out of the region for a year. This was because I made it a rule to come back and stay as uchideshi at least once a month, so I'd get the Saturday ‘full menu' practice on a weekend, or all of them during the holidays. When I returned in 2009, I moved directly into former Iwama town, not far from the dojo, and started attending all of these morning practices regularly. Sensei later added a beginner weapons class on Sunday mornings too. As well as the forging training previously mentioned, there is one ritual in which everyone throws everyone in a mutual kokyu and ukemi practice, starting with Inagaki sensei as thrower, then moving down the ranks. So, as well as taking ukemi, quite a lot of us have actually thrown Inagaki sensei many, many times. It is not an easy feat, but he takes beautiful ukemi, even now in his seventies. The "full menu" class has many additions with us able to apply techniques to Sensei as well as receiving his, as we rotate in endless, "boring" drills.
The feeling I described at the beginning was through solid (kotai), forging training in which the tai sabaki (body placement) begins with both parties still, and one moves oneself without wastage. Most training with Inagaki sensei starts out like this. He said he once heard from a sempai that O-sensei said, "I am who I am now because I practised solid form continuously for 60 years." Since my first days at the dojo, the main change I've felt is that while I still can't stop this septuagenarian from moving, I am at least not trying to do it with muscle. He can also do a lot more to me, so he can throw me more, go full on when pinning me, and do stuff I would not have been able to take in the earlier days, like projecting me through my elbow and so on.
With Inagaki sensei, this physical training cannot be separated from O-sensei's concepts and how they create the power felt through the body. Sensei says, you can't see a person's mind, but it is the mind which moves the body. After the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, we had to train in the Aiki Shrine while the dojo was repaired. In my opinion, this experience made an already spiritual man even more so, or at least he more readily revealed it, and we began every practice there with him reciting the Amatsu Norito. This carried over to the morning practices, even after we returned to the dojo, on September 17, and to this date, Sensei gives a lecture before each of his regular evening classes, in which he explains the founder's spiritual teachings. He once wrote that in O-sensei's training method, there are kotai [or ‘katai' solid](basic), jutai [soft], ryutai [flowing] and kitai [ki-form] techniques.
The feeling is different going through jutai into ryutai. These levels make up a smaller part of the training and while the heaviness remains, movement begins at the moment of contact. My feeling when Sensei does this is somewhat akin to being caught up in a torrent. At the highest, seldom-practiced level of ki-form, sensei's own description matches my experience: It is like the prank of going to sit on a chair, but just before you sit down, someone removes the chair. Sensei's connection to my intention is such that sometimes it almost feels like a magnet. It can be a kind of lurching feeling mid-strike, with gravity pulling me from an angle I didn't expect.
One of the few occasions I got injured was during one of these techniques. It was only minor, but sent gasps around the dojo. Sensei moved offline as I came in to grab katate-dori and delivered atemi to my ribs with one hand and to my face with a back-fist from the other. They were not meant to make contact. However, I think my posture was a little off, so his calloused knuckle just slightly TOUCHED the corner of my eye. It was as if I had run into a lamppost. Blood ran quickly down my cheek. I was left with a small cut, and later, a slight black eye for my trouble, but it didn't hurt and I could easily continue training. We train hard, but that's the worst I've had in over a decade.
Felt Through a Weapon
I get the same feelings when practicing with a weapon. When trying to strike him with a bokken and encountering his bokken instead of his head, it can be like striking an anvil. It can also be the softest touch and like having the chair pulled away. I always feel safe, but there is an extra element of danger with a weapon, which makes the practice particularly good for learning connection. When I'm doing my part right, Sensei really lets go and some practices are electric. Lightning exchanges give a feeling rendered as ‘biri-biri' in Japanese onomatopoeia. It's that real-fight chill, but with an exhilarating feeling of calmness and control.
Inagaki sensei once told of his meeting with Arakawa Hiroshi, the famous coach of the baseball player Oh Sadaharu. They had discussed the time O-sensei had asked Arakawa to strike his bokken with a baseball bat. O-sensei's bokken didn't move an inch, but Arakawa was sent staggering. One time Inagaki sensei replicated this by getting Erika Rose to strike his bokken with another bokken, wielded like a baseball bat. The same 'hanekaesu' (repulsion) he showed then is present whenever we do the kumitachi.
One other feeling I should mention is that experienced during tests and demonstrations, which can include all of the above. Preparation for demonstrations in particular (including big ones like the All Japan) usually just means sensei roughly checking that the principle he wants to show will fit in the timeslot and that we will know how to enter and leave the mats correctly in relation to the venue. That's if we prepare at all. The idea is we don't show anything ‘rehearsed.' We show what we normally do under more self-conscious, nervousness-inducing conditions. Sensei has said, the feeling of pressure this puts you under is important. Even at random points in regular training, or at a seminar, he might put someone in the spotlight and get them to show something. Just like being called up to sing a song at a party in the dojo, there should be no hesitation. You just do it.
Onaka No Chikara
From day one in the founder's dojo, I kept hearing this word "kokyu." I knew it meant ‘breath' and was used in the name ‘kokyu-nage' for ‘breath' throws. But they were talking about ‘kokyu-ryoku' (breath power). I soon came to realise, it was not just breathing, but a concept of relaxed power. It was a principle you built up in your body through the training. You could feel who had it and who didn't. It was cultivated through the forging training and techniques, some of which I have described. When taking yokomen strikes in tanren, we are told to relax our arms and receive it with our centres. Practice with weapons also develops it, including solo exercises (if done correctly) such as bokken suburi, tanren-uchi and O-sensei's ritual purification exercise, sometimes called the '28 cuts, 'referred to by the description ‘shiho-nana-tobun-giri' by Inagaki sensei.
Translation was still quite difficult for me when I first came to the dojo, but Inagaki and Isoyama shihans would often get me to do it, even though they could speak good English. I realised they were doing this for my benefit, and the benefit of other teachers who might need assistance. One common expression I struggled with at the start was, "onaka no chikara." At first I translated it as ‘your power from inside,' but eventually switched to ‘internal power.'
On February 5, 2011, I was heading back home to Iwama via Tokyo after a business trip, and I decided to check out Aunkai Bujutsu for comparison. It was a fantastic experience, which for me, confirmed my thought that a lot of the talk of internal power I was seeing online was the same ‘onaka no chikara' that Inagaki sensei and the others were teaching, albeit in different ways, to different ends. That being said, Akuzawa sensei had us do aiki-age (the equivalent of aikido's suwari-kokyu-ho) during my visit, and somewhat spookily, the morning after my Aunkai adventure, I was in Inagaki sensei's class and he had us do a variation on our makiwara (punching board) practice that was very similar to the pad-work I'd just tried in Tokyo.
One time we were visited by a Dutch actor, who was in Japan on a kind of ‘mushashugyo' (travelling to learn martial arts). He had learned of ‘gyaku-fukushiki-kokyu-ho' (reverse abdominal breathing) during his adventures. I provided translation when he interviewed some of the teachers about it. When asked if they used it, the general answer was that you learned breathing naturally through the training. When Inagaki sensei was asked, he immediately answered, "Yes, of course." But he went on to say that we didn't usually use that terminology. All of the teachers were using it without knowing the term, acquiring it naturally through the tanren. He gave us a simple test so that we could see if we were using it or not.
Earlier this year, we had a TV crew in the dojo filming a Russian kayoideshi for a show that filmed parents' reactions to the adventures of their offspring in Japan. Sensei used me as uke, to demonstrate some of the basics of the art, showing awase (blending) and the use of angles, but he stopped short of mentioning kokyu-power. Nevertheless, the director persisted in asking ‘how' he was generating power and I was thrown again and again and again. Eventually, one of the other deshi chipped in that he thought the director was asking about kokyu-power. Sensei said people wouldn't understand, but threw me a few more times, explaining how he was not just using his arms to do so. In the end, none of that particular footage was used, although despite the cool weather, I did manage to appear on Japanese TV for a few seconds as an exhausted oaf, drenched in sweat, throwing around a petite Russian girl.
There is a lot more I could say, but I think I should do as Sensei does and not put out more than can be taken in. So I would recommend experiencing what Inagaki shihan has to offer first hand.
Re: It Had to Be Felt #52: Inagaki Shigemi: "A Gentleman of Aiki"
Training with Inagaki Sensei.
I remember fondly the day I managed to get to train with Inagaki Shihan. Back in the late eighties I was a live-in student in the Iwama dojo under the tutelage of Morihiro Saito Sensei. Evening sessions were mostly very crowded and we lined up in two rows to bow in. The norm in the dojo was that the person you first bowed to became your partner for the whole class and if you wanted anyone specific to train with you had to be fast. Being a white belt at the time I was sitting in the back row quite far away from the Dai-Sempai (senior students) that always sat front right. Usually the higher graded students that sat closest to them were quick to bow into them making it difficult for us lower grades to pick them. Also some of Saito Sensei's senior students like Inagaki Sensei would not come to the dojo on a regular basis which made it even more rare to get a chance to train and firsthand experience their knowledge and skill. But one day I had my luck. I found myself sitting right behind Inagaki Sensei as we bowed in and after Saito Sensei finished his normal regular start with Tai no Henko I jumped over the first row of students and landed in seiza in front of Inagaki Sensei. I had him for the full hour. It was brilliant. Right on the limit. Sensei kept me stretched and never let me off the hook. The techniques were sharp but never excessive. Many of us students knew that Inagaki had a tough reputation and training was hard. My own experience of it was very rewarding as I knew not to try to resist and my ukemi was up for it. But it wasn't like I just managed to survive, Inagaki Sensei exercised precise control and he felt my limits to perfection. This symbiotic relationship made for a wonderful training and afterwards as I thanked him for practice he asked where I came from and who was my home teacher. I said Tomita Sensei from Stockholm and Inagaki lit up with a smile saying they used to be uchideshi together back just after O Sensei had passed away. Brothers in arms.
Inagaki Sensei's skill had been sharp and to the point, I had felt totally safe and respected but also knew I could not have ‘misbehaved' or I would have suffered for it. This was proper ‘Kotai' solid training forging a strong body. This sharpness I have felt from accomplished Iwama students to various degrees yet the ‘space' in the technique that Saito demonstrated and I experienced is a very rare thing. Now many years later from my time as uchideshi I've met Inagaki Shihan a few times only but each time he has been the gentleman described by others and always extended himself selflessly to help and encourage visitors to Iwama. I'm one being grateful and thankful having received his kindness during my short visits.
A I K I :square: :circle: :triangle: L I V E
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