It Had To Be Felt #14: Nishio Shoji: White Gold
They say that O-sensei practiced the sword and staff, but he did so in the process of giving birth to modern Aikido. Even though we imitate him we will not be able to go beyond what he did. O-sensei used to tell us, "This old man reached this stage, you should surpass me building on what I have left." However, we tend to imitate what he did and end up going backward. Ten years from now, we may be practicing the level of Aikido of O-sensei as it was a number of years ago. After fifteen years, we may end up going back to the forms he practiced at an even earlier date. This is not right, he told us over and over again to go beyond what he did. People like us didn't understand what he meant.When Saito Morihiro sensei released his monumental first series of books on aikido, attempting, thereby, to preserve what he believed was the essence of Osensei's aikido when he was at his peak, he included "portrait" photographs of only three men besides Ueshiba and himself: Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Shioda Gozo and Nishio Shoji. Saito was bigger than organizational politics. Through these three photographs (and his own book as a fourth point), he drew an arc, a "golden bridge" if you will, with Shioda sensei representing the riches of the past; Nidai Doshu, the political/familial center of the present; and Nishio sensei, the aikido of the future. Given Saito sensei's uncompromising severity in his viewpoint regarding "versions" of aikido that were promulgated by others, his recognition of Nishio sensei here is something very special. What higher honor than to be considered by Saito Morihiro as the exemplar aikido's future!
Nishio sensei gave the lie to so many shibboleths, voiced by Japanese and non-Japanese alike, on what a student's relationship with a traditional teacher must be. We hear of self-abnegation, sacrifice, or desperate revolt. We may have lived such a life ourselves. Yet although Nishio sensei's loyalty to Ueshiba was unquestionable, he was an independent man throughout. With all those bowing and bowing round Osensei, he bowed and stood. A fine judoka and karateka, he found aikido. Hearing that aikido was based on sword and staff, and finding no opportunity to learn in depth at the Aikikai, he studied elsewhere, both iaido and jodo, and melded all of them together in one unique whole, quintessentially aikido, and utterly new.
Let me tell you how wonderful his abilities with sword and staff were - only three times in my life have I gasped at someone's abilities the first time I saw them: Otake Risuke, Kuroda Tetsuzan and Nishio Shoji.
Nishio sensei maintained two core principles: martial rigor and morality. He expressed public dismay that aikido was no longer respected in Japan as a martial art, and he strove to reverse that opinion. Yet the heart of everything he did was based on a moral stance that he took from Ueshiba Morihei, that he termed "Yurusu Aikido." For Nishio sensei, one trained to become strong so that one could stop violence, both among others and within oneself.
Nishio sensei did not have the benefit of the intense, one-to-one tutelage, almost flesh-to-flesh, that such prewar students as Shirata, Yukawa and Shioda experienced with O-sensei. During his training days in the early 1950's, Ueshiba Morihei would be absent for months. There were only a few students. Although not taught in depth by Osensei on a daily basis, he was nonetheless, profoundly influenced by him. Not having the benefit of learning in detail how Osensei executed throwing techniques, atemi, locks and weapons usage, Nishio sensei recognized each and every one of these elements was necessary, and honed his own abilities to their peak, using the information he had available: judo, karate, jodo, iaido, all of which he wove into the post-war aikido he learned from the senior postwar shihan, and through training with the cadre of men who became the giants of the Aikikai, postwar. If you can imagine the dynamic energy of this pairing, his most frequent practice partner was Tada Hiroshi.
Almost every one of Ueshiba Morihei's students, be they prewar or postwar, were trying to do what he did. They were limited by how much time they actually spent with him, their innate talent, how explicitly he instructed at that time, and how much ability they had to "steal technique," absorbing by osmosis, at times, what was not taught explicitly. Even those who were and are several generations removed -- the students of a student of a shihan who learned from Nidai Doshu, for example --all have reached, however inadequately, for what the founder embodied. In other words, their internal scaffolding was the same, even if they were missing pieces as central as kokyu-ryoku or aiki, an ability to do true atemi rather than mere punches, or fluid kaeshiwaza in unscripted situations. Returning to a metaphor I've used before, everyone has been using the same container, although the wine in some bottles is dilute indeed.
I can think of only two teachers whom I've personally met within the Aikikai -- Nishio Shoji and Kuroiwa Yoshio -- who built an aikido using different physical scaffolding. Kuroiwa sensei's is easy to describe -- he used the body mechanics of boxing: the twisting of the hips into upper-cuts and hooks, with his tsuki, a short vertical-fisted jab, and added to this the entering moves of Western wrestling's single leg take-down. Kuroiwa sensei's art superficially looked like aikido, with its shihonage, ikkyo, iriminage and all the rest, but aikido was, for him, a vehicle with a different engine from that driving "Ueshiba-ryu."
Nishio sensei's aikido is harder to describe. Rather than his aikido being a vessel for something else, it was a solvent, incorporating and subsuming all his martial studies. As Osensei famously said, observing other martial arts, "In aiki, we do it this way," here it is fair to say, "In Nishio, we do it this way."
What way was that? It depended on the ma-ai. He executed the classical aikido throws, but at a certain range, they would be set up with strikes that superficially looked like karate; however, his body has a tensile relaxation, more akin to that of a ballet dancer than a Japanese karateka. He moved with a rhythm of gliding starts-and-stops. I sometimes imagined a water-drop hanging on the eaves, all potential energy, and then it suddenly drops, and then at another point in the technique, he'd do it again. If I got close, suddenly, I found myself swept by an ashi-barai or thrown in a tai-otoshi, in beautiful judo. His kuzushi was done with his fingertips, the extension of a whole body pull, at just the right angle. Aikido had many high level judoka amongst its shihan, but for almost all, their judo was merely a foundation upon which their aikido was built. Their aikido was paramount.
I sometimes think that Nishio sensei had a kind of integrity, a bravery that many other former judoka within aikido did not, the courage to allow everything he had studied to manifest explicitly within his martial art. Nishio sensei made an amalgam, like white gold: where does the silver stop and the gold begin? There is no answer, merely a lustrous metal, silver that subtly glows golden within.
His weapon usage was the same art at another spacing. There was nothing in his use of the jo that recalled the Shindo Muso-ryu that he studied, and although his iaido, when demonstrated in isolation, was quite classical, his aikiken, too, bore little resemblance to the iaido kumitachi (two person forms) that he also studied. When he wielded a weapon, he made a connection with his partner, and then practiced moving from one position to another, all the while keeping his weapon aligned to uke's most vulnerable point, his body at perfect balance and at the perfect angle.
I never spoke with Nishio sensei about kokyu-ryoku or aiki, nor have I ever read anything by him on the subject. I would be very curious to what he attributed Ueshiba Morihei's power. In fact, I do not believe that Nishio sensei had the benefit of instruction in that aspect of martial arts. Rather, it is as if he took all of the major Japanese martial arts of the 20th century, and dissolved them all within the solvent of aikido technique, an entire encyclopedia within a single volume.
Although their use of the body was very different, the experience of taking ukemi for Nishio sensei was much like sparring with the well-known xingyi/bagua teacher, Su Dong Chen. As soon as you made contact, you were subtly off-balanced, and with each move you made, you found yourself in another position to be hit, locked, trapped or thrown. I sometimes felt like I was walking in a forest in the dark -- but rather than sight-blind, I was "touch-blind," walking into tree limbs and tripped by brush and rocks, utterly lost.
He was an immensely talented athlete and martial artist. He was also a profoundly moral man. As I've written in Dueling with O-sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior-Sage, his dojo had more than a few very tough guys, some of who would gladly have inflicted grievous bodily harm upon an outsider. But the moment something started between any two people, Nishio sensei would gracefully -- always, always, gracefully -- move close and observe. If that alone did not stop things, he'd simply ask, "Is everything alright here?" And then it was.
I always see him in my mind's eye, a consummate gentleman, either in an immaculate keikko-gi or an immaculate suit, complete with a topcoat, walking smoothly, a step ahead, whether down the boulevard or into a magnificent hip throw.
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A recognized expert in classical and modern Japanese martial traditions, he has authored three books and one instructional DVD on this subject. The most recent is his just released Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei's Power.
Information regarding his publications on martial arts, as well as other books on crisis intervention can be accessed at his website: www.edgework.info
Re: It Had To Be Felt #14: Nishio Shoji: White Gold
Oh, how those words make me reminisce! Nishio sensei was indeed apart from the general aikido curriculum, although he insisted that what he did was no "Nishio ryu" but simply aikido. He wanted aikido to progress and he insisted that we get experiences not only from other aikido teachers, but from all kinds of martial arts.
A noble man, indeed. During the many times I was fortunate to spend with him, on and off the tatami, he never showed any sign of chauvinism. None. And he was so polite I was repeatedly embarrassed. That's not always the case...
On the tatami, his speed was the first thing to amaze us all. It took us years to see what he was doing. But by time, other things grew to impress me even more. I've said it elsewhere on this wonderful website: Now, several years after his passing, I marvel the most at the fact that he never pushed or pulled. There was no excess muscular force applied. He just entered to very sophisticated superior positions, made tegatana hand moves, and there you fell, as if gushed away by the wind and nothing else. Genius break-balance.
Another thing that sticks to my memory is how he initially received the attack, when it was a grip: He extended his arm towards you, thereby immediately creating ma-ai, making you sort of bounce back. I try to teach my students that, mainly to keep on practicing it myself. I find it a splendid way of accepting the attack without at all giving in to it. It's a way of expressing one's kamae, as an attitude towards any situation, life, everything: So, you do that, well fine, let's go on from here.
In his sword art, he gave me the impression of presenting clues to ko-ryu, not just 20th century ideas of it. Through his teaching, I finally got some kind of grasp of kesagiri, among many other things. Kesagiri is not a peripheral matter, especially not in aikido application. He had his own sword school, the Aikido Toho, but when we talked about it we agreed completely on iaido being at its core. That means suburi, learning to cut (which takes about a lifetime), no matter what forms are exercised.
The only time I found him slightly losing his cool, was when his katana was temporarily lost in the airline transport. He had signed papers to get it out of Japan, since it was quite a remarkable blade, so he couldn't dream of returning home without it. The day after his arrival, the sword came, and we went to pick it up at the customs service. Nishio sensei was impatient to get his sword, but the customs officer was curious and asked if he could have a look at it. "You can," I said, knowing that it would take much longer if we refused, "but I advice you not to touch the blade." He heeded my advice. Nishio sensei's obvious anxiety was a good argument.
The sword art was definitely at the core of Nishio sensei's aikido. Still, he was no admirer of the samurai. He often told us that the samurai ideal was one of murderers, but aikido was to preserve life. So, his sword exercises had repeated positions where you showed the attacker the error of his way, by entering a position where you could strike him - but not doing it. The attacker got a chance to reconsider. Then another chance, then another. But of course there was, in some of his exercises, a limit to that patience.
Still, his aikido carried the ideal not only in words, but in action. When he threw you around or pinned you firmly to the ground, you were definitely beaten but never hurt. Again, that's not always the case...
I miss him, but I try to make sure I carry his teaching with me, as far as I understand it. I'm sure I always will, because at keiko I'm constantly reminded of what he taught us - and his solutions do their thing, even in the feeble version my body musters.
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