It Had to Be Felt #8: Saotome Mitsugi: One Strike
I met Saotome Sensei in 1975, at a turning point in my life. I had been training aikido for a couple of years, primarily with Terry Dobson, and in addition, making almost daily trips up to Yamada Yoshimitsu's 18th Street Dojo. After hearing Terry speak admiringly about him, I drove down to Sarasota Florida with my best friend and training partner, Kini Collins, to train in Saotome sensei's week-long summer gasshuku in muggy, ninety-five degree heat. He had already developed some remarkable young students. I had one of the most intense weeks of my life.
Everyone there had tight lines, much like Saotome sensei, whereas I was very much influenced by Terry's grizzly bear persona. For example, they all had perfectly shaped, Japanese oak bokken, while I had a black birch tree limb, that I'd just skinned the bark off, and sanded down the wood-knots. A few of the more prissy students made snide comments, deliberately in Saotome's earshot, and he walked over, took my club and swung it a few times and said approvingly, "Just like Musashi."
Due to political problems within the Aikikai, Saotome sensei had been ostracized in the American aikido community. Kini and I were the first students "officially" sent to train with him from another one of O-sensei's uchi-deshi. Having broken the "bans," we were made very welcome. From this initial meeting, Saotome and I developed a peculiar relationship -- not teacher/student: friends. I called him Saotome-san, and he Ellis-san to me. Given the huge gulf between his abilities and mine, as well as our age, our culture and the context, it was quite remarkable. In retrospect, I suppose that, given he was surrounded by students and disciples, and his language limitations cutting him off, at that time, from the larger society within which he now lived, an eye-to-eye friendship was welcome, even one as odd as ours. To be sure, on the mat, he treated me like anyone else, but outside of the dojo, I, never subservient, called him out on things I disagreed with, just as I would with any friend. He later wrote a letter of introduction for me to Kuwamori Dojo and for that life-changing opportunity alone, I'm forever in his debt. We parted ways some time ago, as people do, but he was part of a few golden years in my life, starting with that trip to Sarasota.
He is a very physically talented man. He started out with a strong judo background, and although I believe his study of karate, sword and jo is primarily through observation, he has more than a little of Ueshiba Morihei's ability to observe something and make it his own. As O-sensei said, "In aiki, we do it this way."
Confining myself to my memory of how he practiced in the mid-1970's, he always had impeccable posture. Furthermore, he probably had the most powerful hanmi stance of anyone I personally experienced. His other signal attributes were speed and impeccable timing. He could delay his movement until his uke was very close, and then he would move very fast, and "hit" hanmi in a new position, the way a dragonfly hits a post precisely every time.
At that time, he used that very typical "windmill" use of the arms and body so common among the uchi-deshi from the 1950's and 1960's (discussed in IHTF#1 & 2). His use of angles was much like that of Yamaguchi Seigo sensei, but he did not use his body in the same manner whatsoever. His stance is very different, and he never displayed Yamaguchi's sinuous movements, the latter almost as if he was cracking his own body like a whip from the feet upwards.
One other attribute of his that I should mention is that he had extremely powerful hands, particularly his tegatana. Not his grip. Rather, hands as striking weapons.
I really don't recall him using his tanden to any effect. Rather than using his center as a kind of differential joint or universal gear to organize his body and direct forces in a balanced manner through his four limbs, what I recall is that he had a wonderful ability to "hit you with the ground," as if he were perfectly braced at just the moment you contacted him. Augmented by his speed and timing, he could avoid your attack at the last moment, when you were sure you were just about to grab or hit him, and when you impacted his body or hands, off-balanced by his perfectly timed move, you often bounced off, just a little, enough for him to take control of you while you were floated or momentarily staggered.
He had a very rough disciple in Japan, Kuwamori Shigeyuki, a cousin of my friend and teacher, Kuwamori Yasunori. Known as Chi-chan, Kuwamori was a sandan in some form of karate, and he used to ram his fingers in an urn of dried beans and pachinko balls (like little ball bearings) to develop them as weapons. He had a small dojo called Reimeijuku. I used to practice there sometimes with Ikeda Hiroshi and Sakanashi Masafumi. Because the steel ceiling girders were only seven feet above the mat, we didn't practice many throws. Rather, we used to body-punch each other to the mat. Not full out, but hard enough to rattle the bones. I got in trouble for punching Chi-chan's younger brother in the face one time, bloodying his nose. I didn't intend to -- he sort of hit my moving fist with his face. Ikeda Hiroshi, my sempai, took me aside and told me to be more careful, that practice was supposed to be strong, but we weren't suppose to injure each other like that. I also think he was trying to protect me, because if Chi-chan had decided to put me in line, he could have killed me. Chi-chan punched one of his own students hard enough to split his intestine, requiring emergency surgery to save his life. He was a scary, very powerful, very fast guy. He told me that he intended, at least once in his life, to defeat Saotome sensei, so he would attack him with full intention, not aikido "throw-yourself-away" ukemi, but truly attack him.
And Saotome neutralized him every time.
Compared to some great martial artists who come to my mind as I write this, I believe that Saotome sensei, in the 1970's, had an incomplete set of remarkable skills, based on stance, on speed and timing, all this augmenting his ability to organize his body to use the ground to absorb incoming force, add his power to this, and direct all of it back to you.
As physically gifted as he is, it should be no surprise that he took the basic aiki-jo and aiki-ken and developed their use in a number of creative directions. Before I went to Japan, I was in awe of his abilities with weapons. Once I was there, I entered the Araki-ryu, and began my intensive training in this old combative system, practicing at a level of intensity that was profoundly educational -- and at times, profoundly dangerous. I returned to America for a visit after a few years, and happened to drop in on a seminar that Saotome sensei was presenting at Stanford University. He called me out to help demonstrate his aiki-ken, handed me a fukuro-shinai, and told me to attack him. I did so at the intensity I had been training for the last two years, fully assuming that he would neutralize me, and I cut right through his deflection with his shinai, and smashed him on the back and shoulder, something that was lost to the spectators -- but not to him -- in the speed of the movement. I honestly was surprised. In my mind, he was still a master of the sword. He told me to attack him again, and as I did, the opening was apparent, but still inconceivable to me. I thought something else would happen, but I continued -- and hit him very hard again. I truly had no malevolent intent; I was merely attacking at the level of intensity and skill that was now the norm in my daily practice. He looked at me, as if to say, "What the hell happened to you?" He said under his breath, "Lighten up. I'm trying to teach something here." We continued at a more mannered pace, me doing my best to assist him in the point he was making with his weapon.
Note bene: I am not telling this story to aggrandize myself at his expense. I can only imagine how great a swordsman such a talented man would have been had he had an opportunity to study with someone like my teacher. But this does underscore for me, at least, that aiki-ken, even as embodied in one of its most skilled practitioners, has different aims from koryu bujutsu -- at least the one I was studying. One develops a different set of abilities when training with a sword with the purpose of learning, exclusively, how to kill with it, from a study, however sophisticated, that is used to support the physical education of the aikido practitioner.
Let us shift from the limitations to the possibilities. I made several wonderful friends in my trip to Sarasota, among them Bruce van Boeckel. Bruce and I were practicing techniques against tsuki and seeing at what angle we could still take huge falls -- just for the sake of flying. Saotome sensei was watching, as I did an "inside" technique, an irimi and hand-block to suppress Bruce's punch. He interrupted us, and said, "Let me try. Attack me." I punched at him and he just held up his hand, and shook his head. He pantomimed hitting someone so hard that you broke his spine from the front, and said, "Hit me that way. Real." I respected the man enough to try. I didn't lunge. I kept it short-range, a standing fist rather than turning it over in "gyaku-te." It was a good punch and I was sure I hit him, but just at the last second, he was gone -- disappeared - fractionally off to the line, and then BACK, like a swinging gate. His right elbow was on his own hip, and his hand made contact with my biceps. No, that was incorrectly put. His whole body and the floor of the dojo beneath his feet made contact with my biceps through his hand. He leveled me, horizontally, three feet off the ground, so fast my neck almost whiplashed, and then I hit the ground, stunned. It was monstrously powerful, with the same effect of grabbing a rag doll by an arm and slamming it to the floor. But rather than a rag-doll, I was a well-over-two hundred pound man. And he did it anyway.
My arm was numb. I got up to hit him with the other hand -- that's the way I was trained -- but he stopped me, bowed and went to lunch. Lucky. I still had one arm that worked. Within twenty minutes, my triceps turned blue/black. NOT my biceps. The force went through to the other side! The last time I'd felt anything like that was when I was hit by a car when a man tried to run me down -- I flipped over his fender.
Through Saotome sensei, I first saw that the possibilities of development in martial arts were far greater than I imagined. With that single technique, he opened my eyes to true budo. Thanks to him, I went looking for more.
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Re: It Had to Be Felt #8: Saotome Mitsugi: One Strike
I began my aikido training the day after I took the Maryland bar exam in July 1984, at one of Saotome-sensei's branch dojo in Baltimore. At that time, I was a nidan in Uechi-ryu karatedo. My karatedo teacher had been training with Saotome-sensei since 1979 --- but between the demands of academia and my personal life, it seemed to me that I did not really have time to study two martial arts. Eventually, however, with law school, the bar exam, and my marriage behind me, the time to look into aikido was available to me.
Within a couple of weeks after starting at the Baltimore club, another beginner and I decided to start training several days each week at Saotome-sensei's home dojo, the Washington, DC Aikikai. Saotome-sensei was rarely there --- he had started a budokan in Chicago, and many of his students (including my karate teacher) followed him out there, inspired by his vision. Further, he was often on the road teaching seminars. It wasn't until I had been training for a year or so that I saw him, and longer than that before he noticed me.
I was still living in Baltimore, and I was driving to the DC area almost every day. I was alternating training days between the DC Aikikai and a small Uechi-ryu dojo run by an intense American computer programmer who had studied for several years in Okinawa. The two dojo were different in every way: the karate dojo was small and dark, while the aikikai was bright and spacious. Although there were formidable people studying at both dojo, there were also several at the aikikai whose attacks did not inspire (or intimidate) me to move, even a little bit.
One Saturday morning, just about the time that I had begun to believe that I should put aikido aside, Saotome-sensei taught class, beginning with mune-tsuki. In Uechi-ryu, we spent a fair amount of time conditioning ourselves to take a solid mune-tsuki (as well as other atemi), so I was not inclined to move out of the way for anything less than a committed and focused strike. I'm sure that my training partners at the aikikai did not appreciate my willingness to point out the defects in their attacks.
Then Saotome-sensei called for men-tsuki. He responded to uke's punch by bringing one hand up his center-line and brushing uke's fist just past his face, while at the same time seeming to catch uke's punching arm, accelerating uke into a fast forward break-fall.
We all paired off to train. I threw a straight punch toward my partner's face, and while he was able to slip the strike, he was utterly unprepared for an attacker who would retract his fist, rather than leave a straightened arm hanging out in the air. I couldn't do the technique either, but I was sure that my attack was far more real and true than my partner's.
At some point, Saotome-sensei walked over, watched for a moment, turned to me, and said, "Hit me." He did not stop class, although people in our immediate area gave us some room. I looked at him, and I quite clearly remember thinking, "I don't care if he is the head instructor, I'm going to put my fist through his face." I lashed out as hard and fast as I could, and I felt the tip of the knuckle at the base of my middle finger just barely touch his nose --- and then he threw me about eight feet across the dojo, into my first truly hard break-fall, with so much force that I bounced up into hanmi, facing him. Saotome-sensei then bowed curtly, and walked away.
As I returned to my training partner, several people said, "Good ukemi!" to me in low voices. But all I could think was that it was not good ukemi --- he had thrown me that way. Not only had he allowed me to get as close to injuring him as possible, not only had he somehow slipped my attack, not only had he done the technique effortlessly, not only had he thrown me completely safely, but he had done so in a way that made me look good --- far better treatment than I deserved.
Re: It Had to Be Felt #8: Saotome Mitsugi: One Strike
Saotome Sensei's Aikido is sharp, effortless, and completely based on atemi. That doesn't mean he actually shows you the atemi overtly, but you quickly develop an understanding that atemi is fundamental to how he sees what he is doing on the mat. As long as I "respected" the fact that the atemi was there and took my ukemi accordingly, the atemi was more often than not, kept "implicit" rather than "explicit". But if I were to make the mistake of disputing the space with Sensei, there was ALWAYS an atemi right there that could be released in an instant.
I started with Saotome Sensei in his newly opened dojo in DC back in 1976. One of the earliest memories I have was Sensei stating that "if your partner knew that you wouldn't or couldn't do atemi, all techniques are stoppable" along with "every throw you do is a strike you are choosing not to do". Of course this was back in the "hippie days" and a number of folks with little experience but lots of enthusiasm were getting in to Aikido. It wasn't at all unusual for a Brown belt or Shodan to be running a dojo. I remember Sensei coming back from a seminar on the West Coast at which he had done a demo. His uke was Ikeda Sensei. Ikeda Sensei once told me that they never rehearsed these things. He said Saotome Sensei expected his ukes to try their level best to kill him, he would do the rest.
So, it was that kind of demo. The Aikido was almost entirely atemi oriented. Ikeda Sensei tried to knock Saotome Sensei out and Sensei responded with technique that was right on the edge of knocking Ikeda Sensei cold (but didn't actually hurt him). The level of energy being released was huge and the level of control that allowed Ikeda Sensei to get up and walk away without injury was phenomenal. At the end of the demo Sensei was approached by a woman who was a Shodan and was running a quite successful dojo. She informed Saotome Sensei that he clearly had not understood O-Sensei's message of non-violence and world peace.
I was at the dojo the night Sensei returned and he was, not surprisingly, still apoplectic. Fifteen years with the Aikido Founder and she was maintaining he hadn't understood the message... But, this was always the issue with Sensei's Aikido. People with a preconceived notion of what Aikido was all about would look at his atemi oriented technique and think it was violent. Sensei was always serious about the fact that this was Budo, that it was both a spiritual path and a real martial art. Many people would see the martial in his Aikido and make the assumption that it was lacking what they saw as the spiritual component.
Well, I was often that uke... I tried my level best to hit Sensei. I never succeeded, not empty hand anyway. I'd go in at light speed and the next thing I knew he was in my face... just as my feet would leave the floor, his hand would be compressing my nose. In other words no margin for error, no hesitation possible. He took the space you needed to be in to complete your attack. At the time I marveled at how quickly he could take that space without ever seeming to be in a hurry or move very fast. Later I came to realize it had always been his space, well before he moved it was his.
Sometimes he'd let me know it was his space, other times I'd think had a shot only to find the "suki" (opening) and disappeared just as I got there. Now I understand that there never had been an "opening", he was playing with what he'd let me see and what he'd put out for me to feel.
Taking ukemi from Sensei was about developing a lot of sensitivity. He wouldn't let you tank, and he expected full commitment when you attacked. But I realized that it was about heightened sensitivity without reactivity. He wanted you to feel it when he hit you with his "intent" from 8 feet away. But he didn't want you "reacting" the way a lot of Aikido folks have been allowed to do. You moved when you had to. You fell if there was kuzushi and you couldn't restore balance without creating more of an opening. If his hand was coming at your face, you were expected to parry it and continue the attack if you could. But if the hand was inside your attack and you would be hit if you hung out for an instant longer, he expected you to be gone. You had to go from 100% full commitment to being gone in an instant. One developed the ability to really commit but not be attached to it.
Aside from the experience of really being in the present instant which taking Saotome Sensei's ukemi required, the thing I most appreciated about the experience was just how committed I could be and how much energy that together we'd be playing with and how I was never, ever injured. All those years going full out at full speed, having Sensei take me right up to the edge of what I was capable of handling, and I was never hurt. I was more than twice his size and he'd lay me out effortlessly and cleanly. No matter how hard he threw me, I was always landed just as I needed to land. It was always some of the cleanest Aikido I ever saw. It truly was non-violent... he could play with the energy of Kali Warrior Goddess of Destruction and you would walk away just fine, knowing you had "died" repeatedly... but still just fine.
Re: It Had to Be Felt #8: Saotome Mitsugi: One Strike
I was just thinking about this incident. and thought I would mention it since it is probably the only contribution I have for these threads.
At one of Saotome Sensei's visits to Shobukan, I think it was in 2009, we had bokken and were working on the kasumi no tachi material - entering with strong intention and then, as soon as your partner has engaged in some type of reaction to it, very subtly slipping into a different attack.
The setup was a typical Saotome Sensei kata - nage is in seigan, uke starts off in a waki no kamae. Uke brings their sword into the line with energy, intending to displace nage from the center and thrust forward. Nage practices waiting until the last possible minute to subtly dip their center, bringing their sword "out of phase" with uke and then thrusting forward.
Sensei comes over to me and indicates that i should take uke's roll. So I settle back into a waki no kamae - with my sword out of sight behind me.
I didn't want to screw up so I relaxed myself as much as possible and imagined the tip of my sword going straight through the old man's sternum. I intended to focus on that and simply "let the arrow fly" as it were.
I must have been focusing too hard because I felt the blood throbbing in my ears. Then Sensei threw back his head and cackled! He shook his shoulders and whooped with laughter. He snapped his bokken into a straighter posture and invited me to attack.
I did exactly what I had readied - I released the strike I had gathered up, letting it fly towards the center of his torso. I was going to take the center line and thrust forward along it. I understood that the plan was for his sword to dip and for me to find myself not at all on the center line, but somehow crooked, and his bokken at my throat or chest, but that wasn't on my mind when I let fly.
Sudden change of plans. He didn't move the tip of his sword out of the way at all. We met in the center. There was no crack of wood on wood. The tip of his sword shifted just slightly - a couple of inches? A centimeter? A millimeter? No idea. It was enough to completely absorb all of the energy in my attack.
But then I found the tip of my bokken moving backwards along the path it had taken, with just as much energy as I had put into the attack. It was like my bokken was a tennis ball and the tip of Sensei's bokken was the sweet spot of a tennis racket, but softer. Since I had advanced with my right foot my torso was now turned away. Sensei's bokken had become a piece of rope or a whip, and it once again attained solidity, with the tip in space a few inches from my throat.
I kneeled, thanked Sensei, and bowed.
Later I was discussing what had happened with my training partner. I told him I thought it was funny that Sensei had thrown his head back and laughed like that when I took a kamae. But it kind of loosened me up and made me felt like I wasn't going to embarrass myself.
My friend looked at me kind of funny and said that Sensei just looked relaxed and casual, and I looked very intense. I made my attack, Sensei knocked it out of the way and entered. It looked clean and routine to everybody watching. To me it was surreal and far more than I was expecting.
I have a couple other vague memories of Sensei basically bending space and causing me to fall into the warp, but that is the most complete one. I have not been able to figure out what it is like on his end when he does that - what forms in his mind, what is his experience being on the nage side, what does it feel like? - but i sure hope I can figure it out someday.
Re: It Had to Be Felt #8: Saotome Mitsugi: One Strike
At either the 2003 or 2004 Aikido Summer Camp in the Rockies I was standing at the outdoor bar of the Hotel Colorado talking to some friends. Saotome Sensei was a few seats away talking to someone else and when his and my companions wandered off we found ourselves sitting quietly one seat apart.
Sensei slowly turned to me and I gestured in greeting and smiled. Without preamble a trace of humor he shook his cigar at me and demanded "punch me in the face".
I was slow to react since the request was so incongruous and because I was still trying to establish myself in Ikeda Sensei's dojo. I was trepidatious at the prospect of what would appear to an observer as an attempt to start a bar fight with a shihan at a party held in his honor.
When I hesitated, he presented me with the incredulous gaze which is well known to everyone who has occasioned to defy his will. I decided to punch him. He was on a bar stool, body perpendicular to me, and head turned back to face my direction. He had typical bar stool posture, which for him is better than my standing posture, but was still something that bordered on a hunch. I took one step and delivered a right cross, overextending myself a bit to make it across the stool that was between us.
I felt Sensei brush past my upper arm and nothing else. The entire world rotated 90 degrees to the left and 90 degrees up at exactly the same time. I want to be clear on this because I have never felt anything like it before or since, and because of what happened next I perceive the entire experience to be quite fresh in my memory. I was not pulled or pushed, not compelled to move by psychology or reaction, not manipulated to move through kuzushi or redirection. It was as if I had punched a part of space that was bent and by interacting with that space my orientation was quite precisely altered despite my movement being utterly unopposed.
I was now standing on my toes, bending backward over the stool and looking straight up. Sensei was holding the lit end of his cigar directly over my right eyeball. I was frozen because he was touching my arm, and it took a second for me to realize the nature of the red-gray smear partly obscuring my vision. He slipped a hand under my arm and stood me up to face him, now grinning hugely.
He paused for a moment, looking at me while I reoriented. After I got a breath he held his cigar up and asked me "You know this is big poison?" "Y-Yes" I stammered in response. He nodded, turned, and started walking away. A few steps away, turned back and added before wandering off "Might be big medicine, too."
Re: It Had to Be Felt #8: Saotome Mitsugi: One Strike
I have very rarely experienced Saotome Sensei's aikido directly, but one time still stands out in my mind, almost 25 years after the experience...
I started aikido in 1982 in Madison, Wisconsin, with John Stone and Robin Cooper who were both long time students of Saotome Sensei. A few years after that, John and Robin were able to have Saotome Sensei come to Madison to teach a weekend seminar. At one point during the seminar, he demonstrated a response to a face punch that involved both "brushing" the punch aside as uke's front foot was swept out (anyone who has seen Saotome Sensei with some frequency knows the general technique that I'm referring to). As we practiced the technique and Sensei walked around the mat observing, he decided to ask me to punch at him (can't remember if he wanted to make a specific point to my part or just wanted to play with a different uke for a moment). I distinctly remember thinking "this attack has to be spot on and I really have to try to hit him...my teachers would be appalled if I did anything less." I stepped forward, absolutely focused on punching Sensei's face...and found myself on the mat lying on my back.
To this day, the only way I can describe what I experienced was that unlike ANY other aikido technique that had been applied to me as uke, the beginning and the end of Saotome Sensei's technique happened simultaneously. Not one right after the other...simultaneously. And the entire middle "part" of the technique felt like it had been compressed to nothing. Not deleted, not rushed through, not ignored...just compressed to the point where there was no gap between the beginning and the end. And somehow that compression had been accomplished without diminishing or destroying the integrity of the technique.
What I experienced was like nothing else in aikido that I had experienced up to that point, or since. To be honest, my immediate reaction was to break out in laughter which fortunately I was able to suppress. Saotome Sensei walked away towards another group, my partner and I both bowed to him in thanks, and I kept trying to wipe the grin off my face. Feeling Saotome Sensei's technique that time was my first experience with a level of timing and subtlety that was far beyond anything I had ever experienced. I came away from that class feeling that I had just encountered a level of aikido that I never knew existed.
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