It Had To Be Felt #73: Isoyama Toshihiro: "It's Kokyu-Power"
Isoyama Toshihiro sensei is one of the last remaining aikido teachers alive today who can count himself as a direct student of the founder. He was born on the 14th of April, 1951, and started training in Morihei Ueshiba O-sensei's dojo in Iwama, in November of 1964. This was five years prior to the founder's passing in 1969. O-sensei awarded him the rank of second dan during this time. Presently, Isoyama Toshihiro sensei is a senior instructor in the Iwama dojo, and of the children's class, Iwama Sports Shonendan, which is taught at the Iwama Budokan. He is also a consultant for the Tokyo Fire Department Aikido Club.
The Garlic Years
It is my good fortune to have trained with Toshihiro sensei since the summer of 2006, when I enrolled at the Iwama dojo. He held the rank of fifth dan, then, and was not yet an instructor in the dojo, but everyone referred to him as ‘Toshihiro sensei.' Calling an obviously senior student ‘sensei' was unremarkable to me, but the use of his ‘shita-no-namae' (given name) was unusual. I found out it was necessitated by the presence of another Isoyama sensei in the dojo, Isoyama Hiroshi sensei, 8th dan, who was Toshihiro sensei's uncle.
My first impression of him was that he was far too powerful for his size. He was reasonably well built, but there was a clear disparity between his frame, and the strength coming out of it. He would grab me so strongly that I couldn't budge, and in the beginning, I wondered if he was being a bit mean. I noticed his wrists had thick cuffs of hair. He said it was from being grabbed so hard for so many years, and joked that he wished he'd had people grabbing his hairline too. The years had left him with what I would call an ‘island fringe' floating at the top of his forehead. As his good humour became more apparent, I realised that he wasn't locking me down out of any kind of ill will. If anything, he might have been going easy on me. It seemed to be for our mutual benefit. I was only just starting to realise that this was how most of the training was at Iwama. Perhaps sensing my concerns, he said we were forging something I was hearing about a lot in that first month or so: "It's kokyu-power."
He could move easily, no matter how hard I grabbed him, and it clearly wasn't just regular muscular strength applied to technique. I reasoned that if this were the case, he would have to betray at least some hint of muscular strain against someone my size. But he was moving effortlessly, and clearly enjoying it. It also felt very controlled, safe, and even gentle. He gave me a lot of advice on modifying my ukemi. For example, when taking pins, he would make sure I didn't just protect my face with my free hand, but also did it with the hand in a position where it could be clearly seen when tapping out.
It was after training, when he invited me for a few drinks, that I really got a sense of his character. This became a regular thing. The teachers often threw parties to welcome, or send off the uchideshi that came to the dojo, and on the days that there were no parties, some of us would often hang back with Toshihiro sensei, and have our own. For beer snacks, we would deep-fry garlic until it oozed out of the cracks in the skin, salt liberally, and partake of it by stabbing the cloves with toothpicks as we drank into the night. I'd often end up running alongside his drunkenly weaving bicycle, as he headed back to his house in Iwama, and I aimed for the (often last) train back to Mito. This went on for a couple of years, which I fondly recall as ‘The Garlic Years.'
The lower ranks usually rotated around the seniors in the regular evening classes, and I often got paired up with Toshihiro sensei. He was so tough and difficult to move, that there were still times when I wondered if he was just being mean, but at the end, I would always come out of it feeling stronger. Toshihiro sensei could also take one hell of a beating himself, not from me of course. When his uncle called him up to demonstrate, it was a spectacular thing to behold.
When I first started training at the dojo, I had an ongoing problem of shoulder dislocations that the training initially exacerbated. With Toshihiro sensei, I usually felt (and still feel) safe, no matter how hard we trained, but there was one misunderstanding where I thought I might get accidentally injured by him. I made a note in my training diary on Thursday, December 14th, 2006, about an incident in Isoyama Hiroshi sensei's class. I was partnered with Toshihiro sensei, and my shoulder slipped out as he turned me over in the pin for kotegaeshi. The limb was trapped under me, so I couldn't move. I tapped out, but it was as if he thought I was playing possum, so although he slowed, he didn't stop completely. It felt like I was caught up in some kind of industrial machine, about to get slowly mangled. For a moment, I thought he was going to destroy my shoulder. Fortunately, he didn't. He seemed to be probing my predicament, then with some puzzlement, he let me go, respectfully placing my arm on the mat. The nature of these dislocations was such that I could easily just pop my shoulder back in, and we continued training, but he was careful of my shoulders after that. It was a non-garlic night, and after class, he gave me a bag of mikan oranges, and a ride to the station in his kei-truck. I soon learned the word ‘dakkyu' (dislocation) in Japanese, to explain my situation. Luckily, it gradually stopped happening, which I think is a result of the forging effects of the training.
At that time, the regular uchi deshi were Si Thu and Maung Maung from Myanmar, who stayed for over two years as live-in students. In addition to them, we were temporarily joined by all kinds of people from various countries for varying lengths of time. Toshihiro, in particular, would take aside certain visitors and hog them all night, not changing partners between techniques as we usually did. I realised he was looking out for us, and although some of these characters might have neglected to come with the right attitude, Toshihiro sensei had no problem handling them. I don't recall him hurting any of them, but I do remember seeing better behaviour from them afterwards.
We often do free practice after the regular training, and one time I was practising an escape from a rear choke with another local. A visitor, who was also a krav maga practitioner, told me my technique was wrong, and challenged me to escape from him doing the same choke. With some difficulty, I succeeded, but my partner immediately re-engaged, taking me down into a somewhat serious grapple-fest. I broke free again, then before anything else could happen, Toshihiro sensei intervened, stopping us both with a "Dame!" Later, he said aikido was to unite people, regardless of country or creed, to create peace. What he saw us doing, in the founder's dojo, was war. We both apologised profusely.
In another incident, he saved me from heatstroke. My legs were on the verge of giving way beneath me in the last quarter hour of a stiflingly hot Friday evening. Toshihiro sensei was the same rank as the instructor that night, but technically, kohai (subordinate), and not on the teaching staff. That night, he stepped in as a paramedic, pointing out that I had heat exhaustion. The instructor acquiesced, and Toshihiro sensei told me to sit down, at the edge of the tatami. I did so, in seiza, and felt the back of my head touch the wall of the dojo behind me. The next thing I knew, it was the end of class. I must have passed out for several minutes. I felt fine after that though. I think it would have been much worse without Sensei's intervention.
Like Watahiki sensei, it seemed Toshihiro sensei also felt a strong feeling of duty towards the founder's dojo, and its upkeep. If he saw leaves on the ground outside the genkan (porch area), he would tell the uchideshi that this was the dojo's ‘face' and that its face was dirty, and should be cleaned. He would also come to the dojo in his spare time to assign work to the uchideshi, which was not always popular with them. There were plenty of other fifth dan deshi, and even high-ranking teachers, who didn't take it upon themselves to give out more work. Personally, I found it easier to understand his severity because of what I learned about him in our post-training get-togethers. There were times when he would let slip what had happened at work, and it often involved something harrowing, like trying and failing to resuscitate someone. I also heard he had been one of the paramedics pulling out bodies during the sarin gas attacks by the Aum cult on the Tokyo subway. It was clear he had witnessed unimaginable scenes, and one impression I got was that the dojo provided a release from these experiences. In the dojo, he had control. I always bore this in mind when liaising between him and the uchideshi.
He could be a hard on us, but he was not undeserving of a measure of sympathy, and I am pleased that I was able to resolve some misunderstandings with the uchi deshi over the years.
Aikido is Far-G
If you take the Japanese verb meaning to drink (nomu) and combine it with the English word ‘communication,' you get the modern Japanese loanword ‘nomunication.' I could understand a reasonable amount of basic Japanese at that point, but our garlic-infused ‘nomunication' sessions were not always easy to follow.
One night Sensei told us that aikido is ‘far-G.' He seemed quite surprised when I didn't understand the word, and assured me it was gairaigo, a word that was adapted into Japanese from a foreign language, one that he was pretty sure it was English in origin. He explained that when robots pick up cans, they don't need to make any adjustments to their movement, because the can is of fixed size and shape. However an egg is much harder for a robot to pick up, because the grip must adjust depending upon the angle, size and curvature of the egg. A robot that understands the concept of far-G can cope with this, because it works out the best way to grip it, without relying on fixed patterns. Aikido doesn't rely on fixed patterns to deal with fixed attacks. Aikido is far-G, and instead adapts to the situation. Toshihiro sensei patiently persisted in trying to explain the meaning, eventually coming up with the full expression ‘far-G ronri.'
‘Ronri' means ‘logic.' Slowly, the penny dropped: ‘far-G ronri' = Fuzzy logic.
Aikido is fuzzy!
A Typical Practice
Toshihiro sensei was mainly a student, a sempai and unofficial mentor during the garlic years, but he would occasionally fill in for the other teachers and eventually transitioned to a teaching role, after Nemoto sensei left in 2007. He and Nagashima sensei, who were both still fifth dan at the time, took turns to teach the Wednesday evening class. They would usually attend each other's classes, and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities between them. Nagashima sensei considered himself a little maverick, because he began aikido under Arikawa Sadateru shihan in Tokyo, before continuing under Saito Morihiro sensei. Of course, Toshihiro sensei had also trained under Saito sensei after O-sensei's passing, and got his fifth dan from him.
A typical practice with Toshihiro sensei starts with a selection of the same preparatory exercises most aikido teachers do, but with a few of his own thrown in, such as a knee-strengthening exercise in which one slowly lowers the body backwards from a position standing on the knees. Like the other teachers at the dojo, Toshihiro sensei emphasises solid form practice, as he practiced himself in their classes, and also those of O-sensei. He has us move on to ki-no-nagare at times, but it makes up a smaller portion of the class. All of the teachers would emphasise dojo manners, and one particular point Toshihiro sensei makes, is of respectfully disengaging from opponents after a pin. Once they have submitted, you don't just let their arm flop down as you release them. You place it down carefully, and remain focused.
Something else I remember from Toshihiro sensei's classes early on was the use of tesabaki (hand positioning). He often taught exercises for freeing the hands from strong grabs. I had previously trained for a short time in Seifukai Aikido, and this practice reminded me a little of the tehodoki exercises I did there. This was not a direct tanren (forging) for creating kokyu-power, but it seemed like a good way to practice applying it. The tesabaki done with internal strength become vastly more powerful. Toshihiro sensei had a particular drill for this that I enjoyed, with both partners continuously switching their grabs back on each other.
An Endless Path
In his youth, Toshihiro sensei was in his school's kendo club, attaining the rank of second dan. However, in aikido, Sensei does not usually teach weapons. He recalls O-sensei teaching them, but like many locals, he could not make it to the morning classes, where they were mainly taught. Nonetheless, he thought they were very important to the art. What really impressed this upon me was seeing Toshihiro sensei himself, taking weapons classes with Inagaki sensei, and even from those of lower rank than him.
Before retiring, Toshihiro sensei worked as a paramedic in the Tokyo fire department. He lived in Iwama, and with the way his shifts worked, this meant he could train a lot more often than most of the other locals in the evening classes. One day, I took the first train bound for Tokyo from Iwama Station for a business trip. It departed at 4:53 am, and I found Toshihiro sensei on it. He revealed that he made the two-and-a-half-hour journey every couple of days, sleeping in the fire station when he was on duty, and returning home to Iwama during the days between shifts.
Following his retirement, Toshihiro sensei has had even more time to train, and although he is now an instructor, it is not unusual to get him as a training partner in one of the classes by the other teachers, including Doshu's. With more time, Toshihiro sensei also took on more duties maintaining the grounds of the dojo and Aiki Shrine. In the children's class too, he took a more active role. Until recent years, I would often help out, and trained alongside the children when I was not assisting with the teaching. Although Watahiki sensei was the senior instructor, Toshihiro sensei would lead the class when he could not attend. He would usually add a fairly tough series of kin-torei (muscle training) exercises that was apparently derived from his fire-fighter training. I found it more exhausting than the adult class.
The teaching line-up shifted again in 2013, when Ueshiba Mitsuteru sensei took over the Wednesday evening class, and Toshihiro sensei and Nagashima sensei both moved to Friday evening, sharing the slot with Kubota sensei, who later retired. In January, 2016, Toshihiro sensei was finally promoted to sixth dan.
To this day, I am still very glad when I get Toshihiro sensei as my partner. I'd like to think I can give him a run for his money, but the last time I thought that, Kanazawa sensei was teaching in place of Doshu, and he came over to watch as I struggled against Toshihiro sensei's morote-dori kokyu-ho. He smiled at Kanazawa sensei, and said something like, "With a big guy, I like to do this." and he gave the fist of his own grabbed-arm a palm-heel strike, causing his elbow to shuttle into my chest. I flopped down comically with my arms flailing. If I've gotten stronger, so has he. He's still looking out for us too. In the hotter months, it can get like a sauna in the dojo, especially with so many visitors in Doshu's class. If I feel like I'm on the verge of passing out, and I get Toshihiro sensei, I know he will spot it, and go slow with me.
After Watahiki sensei passed away on the 8th of April, 2019, Toshihiro sensei began teaching in the Tuesday evening slot. He also became the most senior instructor in the children's class at the Budokan. Sensei also takes part in some international seminars, and has accompanied Inagaki sensei on several occasions, including trips to Myanmar.
In these difficult times during the coronavirus pandemic, many aikido practitioners in the world are either unable to train, or have to do so in very limited ways. International seminars and trips to the founder's dojo for aikido are out of the question right now, but when, or if, we return to some kind of normal, Isoyama Toshihiro sensei is someone worth seeking out.
Carl Thompson is a 4th dan Aikikai student at the Ibaraki Branch (Iwama) Dojo. He started aikido at the University of Sunderland Aikido Club in 1999, in his native UK. Later, he trained for one year in Seifukai Aikido in Hamamatsu Japan from 2003-04 and also at Brisbane Aikikai, Australia in 2005. He entered the founder's dojo in former-Iwama, Japan in 2006 and still trains there to this day.For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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