It Had To Be Felt #66: Watahiki Yoshifumi: "A Promise to O-Sensei"
Born in 1937 in Iwama, Ibaraki Prefecture, Watahiki Yoshifumi sensei entered the aikido founder's dojo in June 1949, at the age of twelve. While there are still some teachers alive who had chances to occasionally train with Ueshiba Morihei O-sensei, Watahiki sensei was one of the last few to have done so as a direct student, over a period spanning about twenty years. Rising to the rank of seventh dan, he taught aikido in O-sensei's dojo (the present-day Ibaraki Branch Dojo), as well as in the children's class in the Iwama Budokan. In more recent years, he has also taught in old Kasama, and has accompanied Inagaki Shigemi sensei to conduct international aikido seminars.
A Student of the Founder
I first made Watahiki sensei's acquaintance in 2006, when I briefly became an uchideshi (live-in student) at the Ibaraki Branch Dojo. It was my second time to live and work in Japan. During my previous residency (2002-2003), I had naively assumed that I would be able to find a great dojo anywhere, but I ended up having to switch styles, the benefit of which I didn't fully appreciate at the time. This time I wanted to make aikido the main focus of my stay and train under a direct student of the founder. My endeavours to this end were met with manifold success. The majority of the teachers in O-sensei's dojo had trained with him.
Watahiki sensei was one such teacher, and like the others, he was a distinctive figure. Despite this, I am unsure as to whether or not I encountered him unknowingly in the few days before my first class with him on Tuesday, August 8th. I soon realised that he came to the dojo pretty much every day, sometimes just briefly checking up on things in whirlwind visits, and at other times working hard all day, cleaning, repairing, building things or tending to the grounds. Most likely, a couple of his quicker visits occurred without my knowledge, but in any case, I remember clearly that first class with him. An air of urgency gripped the other uchideshi when his tiny kei-van swerved briskly into the dojo grounds, and came to a sharp stop outside the adjacent kitchen building. He was early, and one might have thought he was angry or agitated about something. Although I already had some knowledge of the Japanese language, I couldn't catch the words that were flung succinctly in our direction, but I followed suit when the others moved into action and began cleaning the dojo before training. We had only one native Japanese uchideshi with us, Mori-san, a local shodan (first degree black-belt) from Mito, and we relied heavily upon him to decipher Sensei's Japanese. His dialect was so strong that there were times when other Japanese struggled to comprehend it. The local attitude to certain consonants even extended to the pronunciation of his own name: Was he Watahiki Yoshifumi or Watabiki Yoshibumi? I'm not sure if he cared, or even noticed, the difference.
He started class more brusquely than the other teachers I'd experienced so far, bowing quickly to the kamidana and giving two sudden claps that some of us could not keep up with. Unlike the other teachers, when choosing someone to demonstrate on, he didn't start from the upper ranks and work down. Instead, he began near the bottom, but not quite as low as me at that time, and then worked his way up. I think one reason for this might have been to put lower ranks in situations in which they had to show what they could do in front of their peers, something I later saw to an even greater degree in the children's class. Sensei also had a predilection for physically correcting people. He would erupt into frustrated Ibaraki-dialect when he saw us doing anything wrongly. I was manhandled into the correct posture quite a few times myself, but I soon learned to turn properly in tai-no-henko as a result. At some point, he would call out "ki-no-nagare" and we would switch to flowing form. Next would always be morote-dori kokyu-ho. As with most of the other teachers, he finished with suwari kokyu-ho.
Cheerful, Agitated Concern and Real Fury
All of the teachers had a kind of heaviness to them when grabbed strongly, yet they could move easily in such situations. Watahiki sensei was no exception, but due to the way he selected his uke, it's hard to describe in more detail how he felt during that first class, or in those early days. As it happened, once I finished my short stay as an uchideshi, my schedule caused me to often miss his class. I moved to an apartment in nearby Mito and started my job as an English teacher, while continuing to train as much as possible as a kayoi-deshi (commuting student) in the evenings. I also wanted to further my Japanese language studies, so I found a way that I could still train in aikido, and take a Japanese class in the same evening. There was a later aikido class in Mito, run by Ijima sensei, which was on Tuesdays (Watahiki sensei's day) in the prefectural budokan, so I often ended up going there. Even when I did make it to Watahiki sensei's training, I don't recall going hands-on with him much (although his hands were all over me, manipulating me into the correct form). However, I did see him a lot around the dojo, and he was always present for any events, such the monthly festivals of the Aiki Shrine, Doshu's Special Seminar, any promotion tests and so on. I formed a distinct image of his character from these experiences.
One might be forgiven for thinking Watahiki sensei lived his every waking moment in a state of perpetual anger. This was not the case. Over time, I discerned at least three moods: Cheerful, Agitated Concern and Real Fury. When everything was going well at the dojo, and everyone was playing their part, he was ‘cheerful,' displaying a playful nature that belied his great age. Whenever I saw him, however, it seemed the mood he spent most of his time in was ‘agitated concern;' I usually saw him at the aikido founder's dojo, however, where I think this mood was amplified. This state may have looked and sounded like anger, but it actually covered a whole range of emotions, and it often appeared to me to be a kind of tough love. I think one thing that made this easier for me to understand was that my grandfather was very similar to him in this respect. However, I've never met any man in that age-range, with Watahiki sensei's speed and energy-level. He spoke in rapid-fire torrents of strong Ibaraki dialect and whirled around the dojo grounds like the Tasmanian Devil.
I often wondered if he perceived time differently, as if the whole world was moving in tedious slow motion around him. And nothing moved slower than a strapping young uchideshi. You could have three of them, giant men from Sweden or somewhere, straining to move some heavy object in the dojo grounds, and he would explode with irritation at their slowness and incompetence, rush over, snatch the item from them, and be gone with it, putting it in its proper place singlehandedly before they even knew what was happening. Although he was vigorous for his age, I don't think this kind of thing was a feat of conventional strength. It was more like he knew the heft of any portable object, including human beings, whom he moved just as deftly. He was especially active ahead of Doshu's visits, when everything had to be just so. The amount of hard work he put in at the dojo, and the fearsomeness with which he protected O-sensei's legacy, including his organization and lineage, cannot be understated. It was voluntary work, but tending to the dojo was like a compulsion for him, and anything that hindered it would heighten his agitation. It might have looked like anger to some, but in twelve-and-a-half years, I only saw ‘Real Fury' from him a couple of times, and I was very glad that I was not on the receiving end of it.
I didn't really get close to Watahiki sensei until after I passed shodan in December, 2007. When I attended his class, he made it clear that the techniques we were doing were for my benefit, to close the holes revealed in my test (which had been an ordeal that I barely passed). I tried to get to more of his classes, particularly because, as we approached May, 2008, Sensei found himself in need of an uke for the All Japan Aikido Demonstration.
I'd already learned that one didn't ‘rehearse' for ‘enbu' (demonstrations). Like tests, they were not one-off performances, but rather, examples of what one could normally do at any time, without preparation. For group demonstrations, we would run through things a couple of times to check we fit the timeslot, but it would be mostly just practicing how to enter and leave the mats. It was a similar case with Watahiki sensei's ‘Shihan Enbu.' He tried out a few things to see how they would work on me, but it was different every time. All I knew was I'd start with a grab with me holding a wooden tanto to him, and finish with unarmed techniques.
One move that alarmed me was a particular kokyunage, sometimes referred to as shoteinage because it often utilizes the shoteibu (palm-heel) of the hand. Up to then, I had never really felt the full extent of his power, but now I got an overdose! His opening invited yokomenuchi, which I did in earnest, as I'd been taught. The contact under my jaw was soft and did not hurt, but it destroyed my balance, completely removing all connection to the ground. I was projected quite high into the air, surprising me so much that I struggled to land properly, scuttling backwards on my heels before falling clumsily on my backside. Sensei also seemed to recoil backwards from what happened, as if some of the power had fed back into him. I was much taller than him, and I wondered if maybe my head was higher than he was used to, causing an unexpected change of angle. He tried it again and this time I attempted to turn into it, but it was much more powerful than the first time. He launched my lanky frame very high into the air again, sending me in a spiralling arc, from which I only just managed to take ukemi, rolling across the back of my neck and shoulders. For all his power, I don't recall Watahiki sensei ever injuring anyone, and I never felt any personal danger from him apart from this singular incident. "Abunai." ("Dangerous.") muttered one of the seniors, who was watching nearby. He suggested that Sensei should omit that move.
When it came to the day of the All Japan Aikido Demonstration, I found myself in the stifling tunnels of the Nippon Budokan with more than a little concern about how things were going to turn out. Inagaki sensei was doing his Shihan Enbu at the same time as us, and he gave me a few last pointers regarding how to handle the tanto. Boom! The large drum sounded, signalling the end of the current demonstration. We walked out, cameras flashing, TV crews recording and thousands of people looking down from the galleries. Boom! Another round of demonstrations finished, and it was our turn. We knelt and I positioned the tanto in front of me, handle to the left, blade pointing inwards. We bowed to the shomen and each other, then Boom! The drum signalled the start.
I grabbed Watahiki sensei by the lapels with one hand and held the knife to his throat with the other. The wooden tip reversed past my face, Sensei was gone, and the world abruptly wheeled around me as he applied kotegaeshi. I got a worm's eye view of the mats fringed with blue around the perimeter, and he took the tanto off me. I tried to keep my eyes on him as I recovered the weapon then following Inagaki sensei's advice, I moved slowly into position for the next attack, concealing the tanto. I attacked shomen uchi, and felt it stop short as Sensei intercepted my elbow. He must have forgotten how long my arms were, because he fumbled for my wrist for a split second, but then brought me swiftly down and took the knife off me again with gokyo. I recovered the tanto, measured my distance, then lunged with a tsuki attack to the midriff, swinging the weapon to bear from below with the blade upwards. The weapon found thin air, and the Budokan rotated around me once more, as I briefly took flight in another kotegaeshi.
Next, I did yokomenuchi. Sensei's connection was perfect, catching me out. It was that dreaded kokyunage! This time I managed to turn mid-flight and was able to land in a soft roll, coming up again ready for the next attack. For a moment, I saw the world as I imagined Watahiki sensei saw it, in slow motion as, to my horror, there was Watahiki sensei, slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y falling sideways. The recoil had knocked him over! He got up again as if nothing had happened. I supposed at least it showed I was really attacking him, but for the rest of the demonstration, a feeling of slight bewilderment affected my attacks. Afterwards, Watahiki sensei didn't bat an eyelid about it. It was only later I realised that for all his apparent imperviousness to the aging process, he was not completely free of its ailments. It turned out he had sciatica, and that toppling over during demonstrations was not that unusual for him.
Chushin de Ugoku
I still didn't train with Watahiki sensei as much as some of the other teachers, but over several years, it probably still amounts to a lot of time on the tatami. I also got plenty of tertiary practice with him through chores outside the dojo. One thing he and the other teachers prioritised from the start was the cultivation of kokyuryoku (‘breath power'). This was a principle of relaxed power that you built up in your body through training. Although Watahiki sensei stressed the importance of solid-form (kotai) practice to achieve this, unlike some of the other teachers, it never involved step-by-step, numbered movements in the adult class. At most, he might pause to let us see an angle or positioning while demonstrating. He would almost always progress to ki-no-nagare (ryutai - ‘flowing form') in a typical session.
In the early days, I recall some gruelling warm-ups, including elements of makko-ho (Japanese yoga), the Nishi health system and chinkon-no-gyo preparatory exercises, but usually he jumped straight into tai-no-henko. When turning in this exercise, he tended to have his hands a little higher than the other teachers. Next was morote-dori kokyu-ho—Watahiki sensei's particular way of doing it was frozen in time, highlighting a particular point in O-sensei's development. On several occasions over the years, Inagaki sensei had taken us through the evolution of the basic form of this practice, having us try out the progressions as they had been done up until the founder's passing. Originally, it had involved a full tenkan (pivoting movement) still practised by many aikido practitioners today. Later, O-sensei changed the basic form to a single step into what is sometimes called a kaiten (rotating movement) on entry, using a spiral so that the opponent could not apply their weight to impede the throw, thereby making it quicker and more efficient. Finally, the step was removed and it became a simple kaiten, even more subtle in execution. Watahiki sensei and Hirasawa sensei, in particular, still practiced the intermediary form, stepping in to the kaiten movement. Other teachers also still practiced it occasionally, not just for historic reasons, but because it was still a valid form that could be particularly devastating in ki-no-nagare.
From then on, the practice would be kanren-waza (related techniques), progressing from solid to flowing form. Classes usually concluded with suwari-kokyu-ho or kakari-geiko, splitting us into groups for the latter, putting us under pressure to apply the practiced principles freely against a continuous line of opponents. Another thing of note was that Watahiki sensei never finished a class on time. The hour-long class usually overran by at least half an hour, and I recall some two-hour sessions, which were especially gruelling in the Japanese summer.
Of the various routes to getting an aikido body, it seems to me that Watahiki sensei just stuck to the basics he had done with O-sensei, starting with solid tanren (forging) and then moving up to applications with movement, then pressure testing, then back again to basics. Rinse and repeat. It was simple and effective, yielding concrete results for those willing to endure it. There were no fancy explanations. Sometimes, he would say things like "chushin de ugoku" ("move with your centre"), and he occasionally glanced upon some of the terminology used by the other teachers, such as seika tanden. For the most part, he just manhandled you into the proper form to accomplish proper tanren, accompanied by exasperated shouts of "Hiji wa ko! Te wa ko!" ("Elbow like this! Hand like this!").
Forms of Tanren
In my experience, Watahiki sensei never taught the weapon's system O-sensei developed in Iwama, but he was quick to point out if I held a bokken incorrectly. As I understand it, O-sensei mainly taught weapons in the morning and not many of the regular students could attend. They all practiced them, but not to the extent that Saito sensei did, so I think there was a tendency in the dojo to defer to Inagaki sensei, who had done them with both O-sensei and Saito sensei. That being said, if you wanted to buy good quality weapons, Watahiki sensei was the one to go to. The dojo sells no merchandise, but he had contacts. I discovered he could be especially grumpy about the financial risk involved in large consignments, unless you paid him upfront, in which case he would beam with joy and throw in a few complimentary daikon (large white radishes). One time he passed me a white oak bokken and asked me to try it out. I gave it a few swings and said it was good. He gave a cheeky grin and said, "Two thousand yen." It was a good price, so I bought it.
I moved a couple of hours away from the dojo for a year, between the summers of 2008 and 2009, but I made sure to come back to stay as an uchideshi at least once a month. It meant I didn't see much of Watahiki sensei inside the dojo, but I saw a lot of him in the grounds, always working hard. During one of my longer stays, I was doing some makiwara (punching board) training with a Japanese uchideshi named Iijima. Watahiki sensei came over to us and said O-sensei had always told people their hands would "still be cut by glass." I asked him, "Did you ever practice with the makiwara?" He gave a grin and held out his fist. He pushed a fingertip over the skin and it puckered tellingly over the outsize middle knuckle. It prompted me to have a look at some photos of O-sensei, with particular regard for his hands.
When winter came, Sensei made mochi (rice cake) as usual. This time, when he guided us he went into detail, explaining how this too was tanren. We used the same usu (mortar) that O-sensei used, which was very heavy and made of stone; it required a few of us to manoeuvre out of the kitchen into position in the open air. Sensei put rice from a wood-burning steamer into the mortar, and we used kine (long-handled wooden mallets), at first rhythmically pushing them into the soft mass as we rotated in a circle around the mortar. This, Sensei said, was the same as tsuki with a jo. Then, when the rice had begun to form into dough, we would begin to pound, and this was the same as tanren-uchi with the bokken. Two or three of us would take turns to deliver rapid blows with the kine, while his hand darted in to turn the dough between strikes.
On another occasion during that winter, it was just me and Sensei cleaning the Aiki Shrine and he noticed my knuckles, saying again that O-sensei would caution against doing too much of that kind of training. I got the impression that it related to something the other teachers said about limits. The body has them. The mind does not.
Iwama Aikido Sports Shonendan
It was Watahiki sensei's kindness that facilitated my return to the region. When I announced my intentions, the other teachers nodded in his direction, saying kao ga hiroi (lit., a ‘wide face,' meaning he was widely known in the area). The landlord he introduced me to was Mr. Iseyama, who was pleased to know I was practicing aikido. Although he had never done the art himself, he said he remembered, and was greatly impressed by O-sensei, who was his neighbour (the Iseyama household is still adjacent to the dojo). When I arrived at my new place, late at night in a hire-car full of my belongings, Watahiki sensei was waiting to help me unload. I now lived just around the corner from his house.
I was also now able to train a little more with him, when he allowed me to assist him in Iwama Aikido Sports Shonendan. This was the children's class, which is still held from 6:30am on a Sunday morning in Iwama Budokan. He had been teaching this class since O-sensei was alive, and we had students in the adult's class with children of their own, who had first begun aikido under Watahiki sensei. They all remembered him as a fearsome figure and things hadn't changed when I started helping out. The children were from around six to eleven years old. He put them through a tough warm-up, running countless laps of the budokan, followed by circuits of ukemi and knee-walking, and then the same preparatory exercises he used to do with the adults, with the chinkon-no-gyo, including funakogi undo (‘rowing exercise'). Then it would be tai-no-henko and morote-dori kokyu-ho, before splitting the children into groups by grade. Hirasawa sensei and sometimes Isoyama Toshihiro sensei would take a group each, while Watahiki sensei taught the beginners. In contrast to the other teachers, Watahiki sensei rarely used kiai, although he could shout words in Ibaraki dialect with similar effect when the mood took him. One time a boy was fooling around, not realising Sensei was standing right behind him. The sudden shouting startled the boy so much that he flew off his feet. Although Sensei didn't kiai himself, he expected it from the children, saying "Koe wo dasu!" ("Project your voices!").
Unlike the adult class, he did actually break things down into steps with the children. It gave an interesting frame-by-frame view of his technique that I didn't normally get. On entry into ikkyo, I could see more clearly how he moved forward with his centre, deploying kokyu through his tegatana (‘hand blade'), keeping that extension on the way down, ensuring the kids had unbalanced their opponent before entering, and so on. The patient instructional steps would eventually disappear though, and sometimes, he would grab one of the shinai from the kendo cupboard and attack the children with it. On the rare occasions they didn't do tai-no-henko properly - whack! They got hit on the head, without the benefit of kendo headgear. It never seemed to leave a mark, so I think he knew how to pull the strike just right, but the sound was eye-wateringly sharp. He would switch attacks to surprise the higher grades, doing a shocking tsuki to their throats. As far as I know, no children were harmed and he had the skill to gauge their temperaments, so he went easier on the shyer kids, while those who liked fooling around got wake-up calls that brought them quickly back into line. And they loved him. One time he did a demonstration for the Tengu Festival in Iwama Square, in front of the whole town. He chose one of the children to be his uke, except the kid was not his uke. He was the kid's uke! He took ukemi whole time, a septuagenarian flying around beautifully to rapturous applause.
For my part, I was now usually partnered with Inagaki sensei in demonstrations, but a second dan student of Kuribayashi sensei, named Honda Koichi began training at the dojo in mid-2009, becoming one of Watahiki sensei's favourites. Although I no longer appeared as Watahiki sensei's uke, as an assistant in the children's class, I still got to do an instructor demonstration alongside him at the prefectural enbu. This was an interesting experience as it seemed to go on forever. I was supposed to show kokyunage, and after doing several, it occurred to me that the guy with the drum did not dare strike it to signal the end of our two-minute slot because Watahiki sensei still hadn't finished. So we overran the time and the drum-guy waited, and waited, and waited. I recycled the techniques I wanted to show once, twice, three times and glanced across at Watahiki sensei. He was still going strong. And still no drum. I started doing random techniques and glanced across again. I caught Watahiki sensei giving me a similar furtive look. Who was waiting for whom here? Still no drum! I made a decision. I threw my uke one last time and sat down. The drum sounded the instant I did so. Not to be bossed around by any old drum, Watahiki sensei, threw his uke twice more before he sat down. We bowed out and left the mats. My uke, Fujieda-san, had done well taking ukemi for so long, but Watahiki sensei had thrown his uke many more times per minute. The young man, Myat Noe Aung, known as Keke, was from Myanmar. His ukemi was top notch, but his elbows were actually bleeding from friction burns against his training suit.
Gradually, work and life changes made it harder for me to attend the shonendan classes, but later Honda-san and Inagaki Hiroaki-san stepped in as additional instructors, while I still popped in occasionally when I could. In recent years, Akimoto Hideo sensei, another direct student of O-sensei, took over chief instruction at the aikido class in old Kasama and Watahiki sensei began helping out teaching the children there too.
Real Fury Unleashed
Of the couple of occasions in which I saw Watahiki sensei's ‘real fury,' one of them is relevant here, because I got to feel his power in something close to a real-fight situation. I won't say which year or name names, in order to protect the dignity of those who got caught up in something that was in no way their fault. I will only go so far as to say it happened during a shinnenkai (New Year celebration) not so long ago. We had quite a few instructors from Tokyo visiting to help with the proceedings, and as usual, our beloved Watahiki sensei was surprising some of the newer faces with his unreserved yelling and frustration. However, by this point, we had a lady named Komai-san taking charge of a lot of the duties. She was still new to aikido, but she was a veteran at organising things, and this seemed to keep Sensei much calmer than in previous years. As usual, it was nice to work together with our friends from Tokyo, getting the tables ready and so on. As was his wont, Sensei put plenty of much younger men to shame with his exuberance and power. He pounded rice into mochi and then after the ceremony in the Aiki Shrine, he sliced up the offering of fish into sashimi.
There were the typical speeches during the kagami-biraki ceremony (ceremonial breaking of a sake-barrel head) in the dojo afterwards. Doshu and other dignitaries broke open the barrel, then each of the dojos in attendance was introduced. An elderly fellow I'd never seen before was elected to make a speech on behalf of the Tokyo contingent. Surprisingly, he used the opportunity to criticise the way he viewed the local training, saying aikido was, "maruku, maruku, yasashiku, itakunai" training ("circular, circular soft practice that doesn't hurt"). For all the talk online of past rivalry between Tokyo and Iwama, until this point I had not heard any criticism from one side or the other. The elderly fellow was perhaps unaware that Doshu and Waka-Sensei were also instructors here, and several other Tokyo teachers were regular replacements when they couldn't make it. Inagaki sensei was acting as MC, and just laughed it off when he addressed everyone again, magnanimously agreeing with something the fellow had said about "kega sasenai" (not injuring). Then, without any reference to the previous speech, Maie-san and another shared a story about training with O-sensei and it was back to service as normal. Or so I thought.
After Doshu left, we cleared up and moved on to the nijikai (second gathering) in the kitchen. Some of the contingent from Tokyo stayed for this and I was glad that the newer faces would get to experience the spirit of the dojo and its teachers. We locals were old hands at this, and with barely a prompt, Komai-san was standing and giving an entertaining speech on her New Year's resolutions, as we made merry. We took turns to make more speeches, moving clockwise from Komai-san. The most senior representative from the Tokyo group was accustomed to this kind of thing and usually enjoyed these gatherings, but he seemed a little nervous when we got to him and he said that his main wish for the year was to "not anger Watahiki shihan."
This seemed curious to me, but I wondered if it might have some connection to the elderly fellow earlier, who was of course long gone. But things continued in the usual jovial manner, with Hirasawa sensei joyously treating us to an enka ballad, singing into a chopstick in lieu of a microphone. Inagaki sensei sang a song too, and talked of preserving the dojo's traditions, mentioning that we had trained in minus six degree temperature the other morning. Then it was Watahiki sensei's turn. He stood up and shattered the mood in an instant.
"YOU ARE NOT PRACTISING O-SENSEI'S AIKIDO!" he exploded at the Tokyo group and its hapless, totally innocent senior.
He launched into a brutal tirade, his jowls shaking with ‘real fury.' They did not do the katai training that O-sensei did here. They did not understand O-sensei's aikido, and so on. With each pause between shouting came a shockingly quiet, eternally long, electrical silence, during which I furtively looked around the long table. Everyone was looking down, some with blanched faces. One tense moment blended with torturous slowness into another then the next torrent of diatribes burst forth.
When the venting finally did come to a close, Watahiki sensei sat down and it was Isoyama sensei's turn to stand. His face broke into a big smile, "Now for a song." he said, and we all clapped along to his enka. It was beautiful. I was sat next to him, and by the time I stood up for my turn, it seemed things were back to normal. I was completely wrong again however. There were a few more speeches. One of the Tokyo people (another regular in Iwama), closed the proceedings with ‘ippon jime', a single ceremonial clap. We saw off Isoyama and Inagaki senseis and then it was time to say goodbye to our friends from Tokyo.
They had a designated driver, who had suffered the previous tirade completely sober, and he brought his car into position. The Tokyo senior confessed to having some trouble with his knees as we walked outside. We locals formed a neat line to bow to them at the moment of departure. Watahiki sensei approached, and the Tokyo senior gave a pained-looking smile, offering his hand to shake. Watahiki sensei charged him!
Bang! The noise was like one car shunting into another, except in this instance, one of the cars was actually a human being. From the distance travelled, I guessed it was kind of like my ‘launching', only horizontal, delivered through the chest. The senior sagged with his back against the car door, pointing pleadingly downward, saying, "My knees." I grabbed one of Watahiki sensei's arms to hold him back. Another local had the other. We tried to restrain him, but it was like trying to hold back a steam train. He moved slowly forward, gathering speed, and one could imagine the chuffing gaining in frequency. He was nearly eighty and totally unstoppable. Our grasps failed us. He didn't ‘break free' because his liberty had never been impaired. The Tokyo senior spread his hands in a gesture of complete surrender.
Sensei stopped. There was an awkward pause. The surrendering hands closed hesitantly around Watahiki-sensei. Suddenly, they hugged. They shook hands. All was forgiven. Real fury was over.
I looked at the car and was surprised that the bodywork was not actually dented—such had been the solidity of the bang. We all bowed politely to each other and the car pulled out of the grounds.
A Promise Fulfilled
I feel there is so much more that should be said about this remarkable man, like the time when he managed to appear in two places at once during a live TV broadcast, or the time he told Honda-san and me that we could get better at aikido by having a ‘real fight,' but they are beyond the parameters of this series of articles. I will conclude with my final impressions.
About a year previous to the time of writing this, on December 23, 2018, we had the annual ‘o-soji' (big cleanup) at the dojo before the winter break. I got caught between Watahiki and Toshihiro senseis, who were giving me conflicting instructions about how to clean the portraits of O-sensei that were hanging on the higher, older dojo wall. Outside, the sun shone brightly, and I saw Owada sensei chuckling ruefully at my predicament. We had two A-frame ladders set up with a thin, flimsy plank of wood between them. Eventually, I found myself stood on that narrow plank, carefully removing and handing the pictures down to be dusted while I cleaned away the cobwebs their removal had revealed. By the time we replaced them, my slowness was too much for Watahiki sensei to bear. He was now eighty-one years old, but he was up the ladder in seconds and the plank bowed considerably under our combined weight as he corrected me hands on, just like training in the old days. I was ready to take an ukemi the whole time in case the plank snapped, but it didn't. On March 10, 2019, we had a leaving party for one of the uchideshi attended by all the local teachers. Talk of ‘real fighting' came up during which Isoyama and Inagaki senseis turned on Watahiki sensei.
"He did it more than any of us!" they proclaimed. Watahiki sensei looked down with an endearingly bashful smile.
I would like to finish my account like this, with Watahiki sensei just as vigorous at the conclusion, as he was in my initial description, despite twelve or so intervening years. But I cannot. He passed away on the morning of the 8th of April, 2019. I knew he had been admitted to hospital for tests, but this was the indefatigable Watahiki sensei, so I assumed he would be out in no time, and did not visit him. However, it was discovered that Sensei had late-stage intestinal cancer. Maki-san stayed by his side towards the end. Later, she told me that she had asked him why he had given up so much of his life, working so hard to take care of and protect the dojo.
He said, "I promised O-sensei."
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 2002-03 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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