It Had to Be Felt #7: Yamaguchi Seigo: Suburi with People
Yamaguchi sensei is holding forth in a coffee shop, senior students from Kuwamori Dojo around the table, clouds of cigarette smoke all around. A couple tables over, we cannot escape a small child, his piercing whines cutting through the ambiance, his doting parents ineffectually shushing him, he squirming and whining louder. Yamaguchi sensei blows a stream of smoke out his nose, and over his left shoulder, he yells, "If your child isn't ready to be in public, then keep him home!" Silence all around. The mother gathers the little darling to her breast, and they quickly scuttle out. Yamaguchi sensei picks up his thesis right where he left off. As far as he is concerned, there is one right way to do things, and if you don't follow, get out.
As for me, I enjoyed watching Yamaguchi sensei walk. He had a swing, a rhythm, a swagger that no other teacher had. I recall a film of scenes at Iwama Dojo, taken in 1952, and there is a brief moment where one can see him in a group scene, doing suwari-waza ikkyo. His movement signature, even then as a relative beginner, is unmistakable.
He had a very strong base. He achieved this by maintaining a rather wide stance, with his rear leg drawn so far behind him that he went "past" hanmi. He counter-balanced this by turning out his front foot, literally into the "fourth position" of ballet. However, Yamaguchi-sensei's influence on younger aikidoka in this aspect of stance is unfortunate. Most who consciously imitate him, or the far greater number who have absorbed this imitation as it permeated the Aikikai's descendents, have a habit of simply swinging the rear leg behind themselves, which twists their hips and then their upper body. It may feel good, but it immeasurably diminishes their power, to say nothing of their stability. The subtle aspects of Yamaguchi sensei's stance, by which he counter-balanced forces both incoming and within himself are absent in most of his imitators.
Yamaguchi-sensei led almost all his movements with his pelvis, with his upper body relaxed and leaning slightly backwards. He generated power by several means, sometimes combining them into one:
I asked, "Is that good?"
"No," he replied. "He's my friend, but he's damaged modern aikido beyond repair."
Tada sensei required that you deal with him, and as I wrote in IHTBF#6, his aikido was not dependent on what uke did. To be sure, if Tada sensei didn't like the way you moved, he'd probably ignore you, but that would be after he dominated you, despite your movement not conforming to his aims. Taking ukemi for Yamaguchi sensei was different. You were at his disposal. He had a poem of movement to make, and you were required to relax your body and move in a way that made this possible. One had a sense that he was doing suburi with your body, and if you didn't conform, he cast you aside like a defective bokken. His favorite ukes slithered, snaked and slunk, and then flopped like wet towels. Kuroiwa-sensei's point was that this style of passive ukemi had contaminated aikido to such a degree that aikido practice as a dynamic interplay of two individuals, each attempting to neutralize and counter each other through ukemi, was disappearing from aikido practice entirely, and he attributed this to Yamaguchi-sensei's powerful influence.
Let there be no mistake in what I am saying -- he was incredibly good. One of the most remarkable things I ever saw him do was playing with a senior of mine at Kuwamori Dojo, Oliveri-san, a massively strong Italian former judoka. They'd started out with kokyu-ho, and when he strove to grab and grapple, Yamaguchi sensei lay on top of him, his back to him, and every time the big Italian tried to escape or even choke him, Yamaguchi sensei, laughing, would read his intention through his back muscles, and just shift his weight and balance. The Italian judoka couldn't escape, couldn't counter, and he eventually tapped out, pinned by a man who had his back to him!
I was certainly not a favorite of Yamaguchi sensei! In fact, whenever I took his class, he'd have me attack him, and then he'd yell at top volume, stopping the class, using me as an object lesson on what not to do. So what was it like, taking ukemi for this man? It was, for me, the exemplar of what I call "aiki accommodation syndrome." At the moment of contact, you were expected to relax, and then he'd "do" you. You were not to clamp down and resist him (he could deal with it -- but it angered him), and you definitely were not allowed to attempt to ground or in any way try to absorb or neutralize what he was doing to you. He was brilliant, no doubt -- look at the films! He displayed some of the most elegant physical movement and organization you'll ever see within the aikido world, but it all started with uke.
One he had you in the proper situation, thanks to your initial ukemi, he could manage just about anything you attempted to do. He had an incredible sensitivity to any communication passed between you in touch, and once he had that control, he would shift and react to every movement you intended to make. It was like working with a great BJJ man, but fingerprint-to-fingerprint, rather than body-to-body. The problem was he demanded that you initiate the contact that allowed him that control through unnatural means.
I never knew how to attack him in a way that made sense to me, and I never knew how to respond to what he initiated once I started that attack. The exemplar of my difficulties was in attempting to take ukemi when he was doing shihonage. I would grab his wrist, which he'd bring to his pelvis, and with his other hand, he'd pull on my elbow, locking the arm and then stepping through as if my arm were a sword and he was doing a cut with a 180 degree reversal. It was a beautiful, strong technique, but I had to give him my arm to make it work, and I will state categorically that I didn't have to go, unless I set myself up by responding "properly" to his initial move. Furthermore, if I countered his initial entry attempt by dropping my weight (and no, I do not mean simply hunching over), I could not only stop the technique, but we would be "equals" again. In general, I simply did not know what was supposed to happen when I attacked or grabbed him, unless it was simply to position myself so he could do things to me, and it apparently angered him that I was physically reluctant to do this. I have no doubt that it was making him stronger, but for the life of me, I never could see how it helped me do the same.
Yet I had some redemption with him. Yamaguchi sensei was the supervising shihan of Kuwamori Dojo (I believe that various Aikikai shihan were responsible for each of the Tokyo ward aikido associations). That he was to be the judge of my nidan exam did not please me in the least. I'd stopped attending his class at the Aikikai and was also conspicuously absent at his one-week course for yudansha of the Nerima ward, of which Kuwamori Dojo was a part. To make matters worse, my uke for the test (who was also testing) was the previously mentioned Italian guy, Oliveri, whose aikido had the lumbering grace of a rhinoceros. He loved to simply clamp down on you and stop what you were doing with brute force, without heed to whether any part of his body was vulnerable to atemi, or whether grabbing someone in that hunched, crunched way lacked any zanshin, any awareness of a potential attack from another quarter.
Nonetheless, I was really on that day. I took clean ukemi for my partner, and handily dealt with his lumbering attacks. Then came the tanto dori, followed by the multiple attack section of the test. The dojo was only thirty mats in size, and Yamaguchi sensei was sitting in seiza against one wall. In the heat of the moment, I got one of my partners in a kaiten-nage, and was just about to throw him the length of the dojo. As I turned, I realized I was only a mat away from Yamaguchi sensei, and were I to continue the throw, my uke would fly like a human spear, headfirst, right in his face. He saw it too, and his eyes widened, and thinking of all the humiliating, shouted object lessons he'd given me, there was a fraction of a second when I . . . . But I didn't. Instead, I shoved my uke's head straight towards the mat with my right arm, while pulling back on his arm, which resulted in him doing a complete spiraling flip in midair, so that his feet flipped around and back past my right shoulder. I cradled his head in the palm of my right hand, and like serving tea, perfectly laid it right in Yamaguchi sensei's lap. And stopped, eye to eye.
He was cool. Heck, the man was always cool. He just said "Yame," and my test was over. I passed, along with everyone else. A couple of months later, one of the older guys in the dojo came up to me and said that Yamaguchi sensei had brought my name up during one of his many-hours-long-, smoked-filled coffee shop "seminars." "Ellis-san! Yamaguchi sensei was talking about you. He said, ‘I don't like that guy very much, but I have to admit, with his size, he's had to make his own aikido, and he's done that.'" So I was never one of his. But he respected me for being my own.
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Re: It Had to Be Felt #7: Yamaguchi Seigo: Suburi with People
I first heard of Yamaguchi Sensei in around 1980. He had visited the UK once or twice to teach at the British Aikido Federation Summer School, I believe originally at Chiba Sensei's suggestion, but at that stage I was only just starting to practise aikido, and I did not come face to face with the man for several years. My father had a cine film of Yamaguchi Sensei at Hombu Dojo that we watched together several times. I certainly had seen nothing like his aikido - the complete relaxation, the almost magical control he seemed to have over his partners, the way he seemed to make no distinction between sitting and standing techniques, the seamless flow from one technique into another, even the characteristic swagger of his across the mat that Ellis mentioned, all these things had the both of us transfixed. Even at that early stage I could see that his aikido was different in many ways from that of Kisshomaru Doshu or of his father's, and certainly unlike Chiba Sensei's leonine prowling, or the rather technical and solid aikido that Kanetsuka Sensei was teaching back then.
In 1986 I at last had the chance to be on the mat with him, when he came to teach at a Universities weekend course in Oxford. I remember particularly the intimate class he gave in Kanetsuka Sensei's private dojo at the Oxford Ashram the previous evening, where he taught shihonage, bokken suburi and kesagiri, all on the bare wooden floor. He explained that in his own dojo he had a wooden floor, though he also taught on the tatami at Hombu Dojo, and both had their advantages. He had an almost genial presence in classes, watching us with a half-smile trying in vain to copy his movements. During the large classes on the following days (of which there are some clips are on YouTube) he mainly called out local senior grades, paticularly Terry Ezra, John Rogers and Matthew Holland, as uke, whom he threw around with spontaneous grace, but liked to amble around the dojo inviting members of the class to attack him. What I remember most vividly is receiving nikyo from him, which was certainly a different experience from any nikyo I had felt until then - there was absolutely no sensation of anything happening to me until everything locked into place, then all of a sudden there seemed to be an electric current running through me and my body collapsed. No pain, no feeling that my wrist was being manipulated, just "zap".
The following May he returned to Oxford, and I was very lucky to attend another private class with him on the Friday, this time in Iffley Village Hall, where Kanetsuka Sensei was then teaching regular classes. This was again on a wooden floor, but by then I was more used to practising without tatami. He explained that uke should always keep contact with him, and should strive to follow what he was doing right up to the end of the technique: this was a new concept to many of us, who were used to simply delivering the attack and then receiving the given technique. His ikkyo was quite wonderful: I couldn't feel the contact from his hands at all, instead first of all my body went up in the air, then I was lying face down on the floor. His control in this pin was quite strange to me, as I had no sensation of "control", but until the moment he chose to let me move I was completely unable to move my whole body. He corrected my ukemi from ikkyo: instead of lying on the floor passively while he applied the pin, he told me to keep an extension through my arm and to press into his grip, so that when he released the control of my elbow ikkyo could immediately start to flow into something else. He encouraged this "proactive" ukemi in all techniques - if we responded this way, ikkyo could turn suddenly into koshinage, or iriminage might spontaneously end in an immobilisation. Something else I never experienced before (or since) was the way he could immobilise his uke with one finger - when you watched him do this to somebody else you could see how he was subtly adjusting his balance in response to the movements of his uke, but when he did it to me it felt as if I was lying under an immense rock.
That was the last time I saw Yamaguchi Sensei. Since then I have very much enjoyed practising with two of his well-known direct students, Seishiro Endo and Takeshi Yamashima (as well as a week's summer school with Minoru Sekiya), and have again felt some of that effortless control, even though these teachers have very much their own way of doing things. I have certainly pondered deeply and at length since then on the meaning of ukemi, and I understand Ellis's discomfort with what Yamaguchi Sensei appeared to expect from his uke. The latter seems to reach its logical extreme in ukemi of the students of Yoshinobu Takeda (another of Yamaguchi's senior students), who seem borne aloft by the lightest breeze as the chase their teacher around the mat. There is film clip of one of Yamaguchi's earlier visits to the UK in the late 1970s, which certainly sparked animated discussion on AikiWeb a while ago: Kanetsuka Sensei holds him in morotedori and for a second or so it looks as if Yamaguchi is actually held fast, but then he changed direction and shook Kanetsuka off. I know Kanetsuka Sensei had an extraordinarily strong grip in those early days (he told me once he blamed his mother for feeding him too much milk as a child!) and excellent posture, but it does look as if there was seem to be a clash of cultures in that single encounter: the solid practice of the Yoshinkai and Saito Sensei's teaching, meeting the fluidity and responsiveness of the Yamaguchi way. Kanetsuka Sensei seems to have completely changed his understanding of ukemi since then: he puts a lot of emphasis on being able to move a strong attacker (or, just as often, three or four) with minimal strength, which he is certainly able to do these days, but when he holds your wrist you tend to fall over without knowing what has happened. Robert Mustard's experience with Gozo Shioda (Kanetsuka's original teacher) suggests that this was very much in the older Yoshinkai tradition, but I think Yamaguchi Sensei's influence on Kanetsuka Sensei still runs deep.
Re: It Had to Be Felt #7: Yamaguchi Seigo: Suburi with People
I took ukemi for Yamaguchi Seigo Shihan for a period of around fifteen years, from the time I first came to Japan in 1980 until what turned out to be his final visit to Hiroshima late in 1995. Yamaguchi Shihan conducted seminars in Hiroshima and on these occasions he rarely used university students as uke. He had a small group of three or four regular uke from the main Hiroshima dojo and I was a member of this group. On my visits to Tokyo I usually attended his classes at the Hombu Dojo and sometimes took ukemi.
At the time, my understanding of the role of uke was that it is much more than simply ‘attacking' (however this is conceived: I have used apostrophes to suggest that it is somehow artificial, especially in Yamaguchi Shihan's case) and ukemi is more than simply being thrown or pinned. [NOTE: In aikido, with both uke and ukemi, you enter into a kind of unwritten agreement with the one whom you are attacking. The unwritten agreement is based on a further unwritten assumption that the ‘attack' will take place in a certain fashion and will be followed by something called waza. The ‘attack' and waza usually end in ukemi, in the form of a projection, a pin, or manipulation of certain joints. The role of uke and ukemi were both used as a teaching tool by Sokaku Takeda and Morihei Ueshiba, who appear not to have been uke and taken ukemi for their own students. Considered as learning or research tools, being uke and taking ukemi are very difficult to do well, easily as difficult as the waza that the ukemi are intended to match. My contemporary understanding is of some relevance for the way in which I considered I should take ukemi for Yamaguchi Shihan.]
With Yamaguchi Shihan you (= uke) entered into a relationship that was intended to be mutually beneficial. The roles were rigidly defined: you were ‘attacking' in a closely prescribed manner; he was responding to—as well as sometimes initiating—the attacks, also in the closely prescribed manner that had become his trademark. For him the benefit presumably lay in displaying a perfectly executed response to an attack that followed the preferred pattern. If the attack did not follow the preferred pattern, the option was to accept more attacks in the hope that the preferred pattern would be discovered, or to choose another uke. Thus I was told that the population of the Hombu Dojo could be classified into Believers, Agnostics and Atheists, according to the attitude you had about Yamaguchi Shihan's way of training. The classification had no relevance for some other Hombu instructors, such as Hiroshi Tada or Sadateru Arikawa: they did not allow one the luxury of having an attitude.
Another major feature of Yamaguchi Shihan's aikido practice was the continuous sequence of waza. With suwari-waza shoumen uchi ikkyou, for example, you ‘attacked'; he put you down, but kept himself ready for you to rise and make another attack, usually with the other arm. With tachi-waza there were more possibilities, but the result was a cat-and-mouse type of activity, where the cat gave the mouse an opening, which the mouse was always supposed to take. On many occasions there was no other choice, short of stopping ‘attacking' altogether.
I have a striking recollection of Yamnaguchi Shihan's aikido. We had just finished a meeting and were walking from the meeting room into the hotel lobby. Yamaguchi Shihan came up behind me and gently grasped the back of my neck, just as one would for irimi-nage. I was holding a pile of files and documents, but was taken off balance just sufficiently to be rendered quite helpless, for I did not want to drop the files. It was like being unbalanced by--nothing. All the time he was talking about the meeting. (I am aware, of course, that with many people a conversation with Yamaguchi Shihan was largely a monologue on his part and some took exception to his enormous ego. I myself never found this. He seemed to quite happy to discuss philosophy, even was he was using me as uke.)
Re: It Had to Be Felt #7: Yamaguchi Seigo: Suburi with People
Yamaguchi sensei was frustrating - he'd teach basically the same class every time, which I never got (neither did most of the others, from what I could see...).
He inspired a very tight knit group of followers, and those would generally be the folks who took the most ukemi for him, it was very hard to get close. When you did, you'd follow the plan or else he'd switch out pretty quickly. As with Ellis, I found that his technique was magnificent and subtle once you were actually in where he wanted you.
I probably should have challenged him more, but it didn't seem to be what he was looking for in ukemi. Oddly, I trained with several of his senior students who encouraged me to challenge them (within the confines of normal Aikido ukemi).
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