It Had to Be Felt #2: Chasing Waka-sensei
Waka-sensei (young sensei) is an informal/formal term passed on to the future head of the Aikikai. First referring to Ueshiba Kisshomaru while his father was alive, it was then successively applied to Ueshiba Moriteru and now, to Ueshiba Mitsuteru. When I trained at the Aikikai Honbu, Moriteru was Waka-sensei. In those days, he did not teach a class. He spent a lot of time with the uchi-deshi, at least in the dojo, but they treated him carefully -- not with kid gloves, exactly, but "correctly." When he was working out with his seniors such as Shibata-san, Seki-san or Miyamoto-san, or any of the other tough seniors at the dojo, they threw him hard, and they made him work for his throws, but I never saw him bridged over an extended arm in a potentially elbow-dislocating shihonage, never saw him ripped sideways in a wrist-spraining kote-gaeshi, never saw his partner smash his head into the mat in an irimi-nage, and never saw him yelling in pain with a joint-lock-pin continued to be applied after he tapped out. I never even saw him "forced" to keep practicing beyond the point of fatigue. He trained hard, but I never saw him at risk, and it was understood, without anyone ever saying so, that to put him at risk would bring the wrath of unholy destruction down upon your head.
In many ways, his style of aikido was like that of his father, but there were differences as well. Waka-sensei, being younger and able to move quite energetically, emphasized tai-sabaki far beyond the way his father did. Because of this, I found him the most difficult person to practice with at the Aikikai: not because of his personality because he was a friendly, nice guy, nor when trying to throw him -- he took ukemi very cleanly. He never resisted or jammed up one's technique -- he took the falls and locks in a matter-of-fact way. The problem for me was when he was tori. He took huge steps, and he was moving at the moment you initiated your attack -- sometimes even before. One was always a hairs-breath away from simply stopping and watching him sweep around the mat, because there was no compelling reason to chase him, except that this was the required choreography of the technique. I sometimes thought of just standing there and saying, "When you are finished . . . ." To make matters worse for me personally, Honbu dojo had old canvas-covered mats, infested with mold. Every time I took a front ukemi for ikkyo, nikyo, etc., a visible cloud of dust and spores would puff out of the mat upon impact. I had really bad asthma at times, and this, coupled with chasing Waka-sensei over a huge radius, was awful. There were times I'd just have to bow out and sit at the side of the mat, wheezing. At any rate, aside from my "environmental" difficulties, he took over-extension of uke and avoidance of impact to its ultimate extreme. In my last essay, I likened attacking Ueshiba Kisshomaru to chasing thistledown; attacking Waka-sensei was like trying to grab a water strider, unpredictably skittering across the surface tension of a pond.
In another area, however, his technique was different from that of his father. Ueshiba Kisshomaru tended to have a consistent tonus throughout his body throughout each and every movement. In films of his younger days, one can observe that his shoulders were stiff, but as he came into his own, he integrated the function of his shoulders more effectively with the rest of his body. He moved in one piece. Waka-sensei's technique was based on a different physical organization, albeit one that sometimes appeared in his father's technique. With his arms always straight, his shoulders were relaxed at almost all times. So coupling this with his huge tai-sabaki, grabbling his arm (or attacking him only to contact his arm, as in shomen-uchi, for example), was like trying to get hold of swinging car door, you already off-balance because the car was moving as well. There was never, to my recollection, any sense of connection with his center, any sense whatsoever that one's body was controlled by a superior force, be it pure muscle or aiki. I never had the experience of irimi, where he took space that I could not occupy. Rather, it was the sensation of trying to grab a shutter just when the wind picks up and you find yourself half falling out the window as it's blown out of reach. Whether one really should be grabbing at the shutter in the first place is perhaps a subject that could be discussed elsewhere.
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Ellis Amdur is a licensed instructor (shihan) in two koryu: Araki-ryu Torite Kogusoku and Toda-ha Buko-ryu Naginatajutsu. His martial arts career is approximately forty years -- in addition to koryu, he has trained in a number of other combative arts, including muay thai, judo, xingyi and aikido.
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