It Had to Be Felt #25: Kanai Mitsunari: "Cradles and Clotheslines"
I spent two years, from 1973 to 1975, in the USA. I lived in Cambridge, Mass., and trained at the old New England Aikikai in Central Square, where the resident instructor was Mitsunari Kanai. My training tended to follow a pattern. I went to morning practice, at which Kanai Shihan never appeared, and to evening practice whenever it took place. I therefore became a dojo ‘regular' and gradually got to know the other members of this unofficial group. It thus became a major struggle to do full justice to two conflicting demands on my time and energy: my courses at Harvard, where I was enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, and aikido training at this interesting new dojo.
I was still a mudansha beginner, but had trained regularly at two other dojos in the UK; I had trained sufficiently to understand the evidence presented by the first aikido paradox I encountered: that there are many ways of executing the same technique in aikido. If we take irimi-nage, for example, I regarded the way established by my first teacher as a kind of norm. You attack with uchi and you are spun round, sometimes in a descending spiral, and are then thrown backwards as you regain height. One hand caresses the back of the neck; the other hand is ready with atemi, if necessary. Or you are simply thrown backwards, directly after the attack.
Then there was the way of K Chiba, at that time teaching at Chiswick in London, UK, which was the normal way seemingly on steroids, these alone being sufficient to take the technique to a new, awesome, level. The downward spiral sometimes became a straight drop, right to the mat, but this is for another column. With Kanai Shihan, the atemi hand sometimes cradled the front of the neck and so the head was drawn up, as uke regained height, and then projected upwards, outwards and downwards in a spiral, with the rest of uke's body becoming horizontal, hence the cradle and clothesline of the title. For me, still a raw white belt, this was a new and interesting way of taking ukemi and, since I was not particularly athletically gifted, something of a challenge.
In my ‘aikido life' so far, I had learned that each of the Japanese teachers I had trained under had their own preferred movements and waza. Among Kanai Shihan's favourite waza were a direct koshi-nage from a yokomen-uchi attack and a very direct straight elbow pin, which he called 6-kyou. To execute the koshi-nage required precise and perfect timing, which Kanai Shihan always seemed to have, and as uke one just sailed over his hips. With 6-kyou, uke went down, diagonally and backwards, and the best way of ukemi was to kick the legs out backwards, a sort of clothesline, but facing downwards. Shiho-nage was also received with an outward projection, with uke executing something like a forward breakfall and the focus of the projection being on the elbows. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Kanai Shihan's aikido were these outward projections; to me this was quite new. Of course, with my first teacher we practiced nage waza, usually called kokyu-nage, with a forward projection, but the way that Kanai Shihan used his entire body to project his uke was a revelation. And he had a whole repertoire of projections.
I was injured by Kanai Shihan on one occasion. The occasion was a sayonara training session for me, since I was returning to the UK to continue my doctorate there. Birthdays and departures were celebrated in the NE Aikikai in a similar way, with the ‘victim' running a sort of gauntlet. In my case I took ukemi from everyone in the dojo and the last person was Kanai Shihan. I attacked him and was unbalanced, but just before applying the pin, he paused, smiled, and said, ‘OK, ready?' He then put on the mother of all nikkyo and dropped to his knees as he was doing it. It hurt, but only in the way that waza done hard hurt, so I thought nothing of it. It was only later, when I could not use my right thumb to turn the pages of a newspaper, that I realized I had done some damage to a ligament in my right hand, necessitating a stay in hospital and leaving a scar.
Of course, I did not blame Kanai Shihan and I never told him. At that time I believed that good ukemi was moving in accordance with the choices made, like, for example, the choice I made not to try to stop him from applying a pin or making a projection. My job was alignment, of my ‘embodied mind' with what I thought was his intent, to the extent I understood this. And on this occasion I was not good enough; my timing, ma-ai, if you like, was not right. At this time, too, I was studying Plato at Harvard and I suppose I subscribed to a Platonic theory of aikido, according to which all waza and ukemi were copies, reflections, participants (whatever, depending on how you regard the theory) of forms that were never perfectly embodied, though I thought that Kanai Shihan came pretty close.
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