It Had To Be Felt #20: Noro Masamichi: The White Tornado
During the early 1960s, the British Judo Council (BJC) was a rapidly expanding organisation of a reputed 34,000 members. By this time, Abbe Kenshiro sensei had virtually stopped teaching Aikido, devoting his time to the growing demands of the BJC. Abbe sensei handed control of the ‘British Aikido Council (BAC) to the national coach, Ken Williams sensei.
We, the senior dan grades, looked to Nakazono Masahilo sensei as our main teacher. Nakazono sensei then informed us that a new young Japanese teacher arrived in Paris, France named Noro Masamichi, whom he brought with him on his following visit. We were surprised to find that he, like most of us, was a young man in his twenties. Furthermore, he wore a white keikko gi and hakama, something we'd never seen before: because of this and also his style, we called him the "white tornado."
Unlike the older Japanese teachers, Noro sensei was affable and easy to get along with. He also had a great sense of humour. Making Paris his home, he would make regular visits to the UK for long weekends and seminars. Both Nakazono and Noro would visit us alternately every few weeks.
I first met Noro sensei at the home of Ken Williams sensei. As we chatted, Williams sensei asked if I had heard from one of my girlfriends, Sandy from Yorkshire. I pulled a letter from my pocket that I had just received that morning. I told Williams sensei that Sandy was begging me not to end our relationship. Noro sensei asked to read the letter and as he browsed it, he made a sad comical face, following it with a more serious expression, saying "This is not good, Mr Ellis." Williams sensei laughed and said, "Sensei, Mr Ellis is a very dodgy man with the ladies." Noro sensei looked quizzical and asked, "What is dodgy?" After Mr Williams explained, Noro sensei laughed and no more was said. I thought it was over
At the start of the morning session of the seminar, however, Noro sensei pointed to me and said, "Come here, Dodgy Man." The whole class laughed out loud as I stepped forward, and Noro took me in the most powerful shihonage I have ever had the misfortune to be on the end of. It got much worse as he stopped half way through the technique. I was hanging on in agony, and he looked into my face and smiling, said, "Dodgy Man, this one is for poor Sandy " With that, he buried me in the mat. I am sure Sandy would have thanked Noro sensei if had she known.
Noro sensei never called me anything other than Dodgy Man from that day on. Whenever Derek Eastman and I would visit Noro in Paris, he would enjoy relating that story to his French students, and even they called me Dodgy Man.
Tradition Verses Kimonichi
I have seen what Noro sensei is doing today with his Kimonichi, and it is not something that I could do, or even want to do. Yet when I see some of the comments regarding him, I think, "If only you had felt his technique before Kimonichi!" He can still do powerful techniques, but he has chosen a different path. I've heard that before leaving Japan, Noro sensei trained to strengthen his hands and arms to be ready for the Europeans. I can believe that. He was of similar build to myself, but much stronger in the hands and arms. Given that I was then doing 200 push-ups on the back of my wrists every day, maybe Noro sensei was doing 500. He had an incredibly powerful grip and it showed in his technique.
I can see, with Noro sensei and Kimonichi, a similarity to teachers of Ki Aikido who originally trained in Traditional Aikido. Like them, Noro can still do strong techniques if tested or required. The problem for the students of both Kinomichi and Ki Aikido is that without the strong basics that ground their teacher's technique, theirs is empty.
I believe that Gozo Shioda summed it all up rather well, saying:
Today's aikido is so dimensionless. It's hollow, empty on the inside. People try to reach the highest levels without even paying their dues. That's why it seems so much like a dance these days. You have to master the very basics solidly, with your body, and then proceed to develop to the higher levels…. Now we see nothing but copying or imitation without any grasp of the real thing….
What made Noro different from other "graceful" exponents of aikido was that he did not need your co-operation. One thing he had was a strong "spirit." Noro sensei's spirit was such that his technique was effective whether his uke was compliant or not. Many modern aikido practitioners do not seem to understand that the guy in the street has no intention of harmonising with you. Noro sensei required that you harmonize with him, whether you intended to or not.
It Wasn't My Style, but He Had My Admiration and Respect
Noro sensei was unlike any other Japanese teacher we had ever met. Even to this day, it is hard to believe he came from the same background as Abbe sensei and Nakazono sensei, much less emerging from the same training group as Chiba sensei. Even in those early days, one could see the beginnings of his Kimonichi in his early Aikido, with his large often expansive, graceful flowing movement. Nonetheless, having felt Noro's undeniably powerful technique, it was obvious that behind his flamboyant style was the same traditional background as Chiba Sensei and others from that era.
I must also point out that I never saw him do any magical no-touch throws, the silly "freezing" techniques, or multicoloured Aiki-ribbon dances. In fact, when I look at the teachers I have taken ukemi for, namely Abbe Kenshiro , Abe Tadashi , Nakazono Masahilo , Noro Masamichi, Tamura Nobuyoshi, Ichimura Toshikazu, Tada Hiroshi, and TK Chiba, I have never witnessed, much less experienced any of them perform any of that dopey stuff.
These days, there are now many teachers who appear to have a similar flowing style, but they are able to accomplish this only by cooperative flying ukes. Noro sensei would sweep away your balance as if being hit by a wave. In particular, I remember his application of yonkyo. This is a technique I never really liked, perhaps because it just didn't work most of the time for me trying to hit the nerve. Noro sensei would take your arm down to the mat as if cutting with a sword, and he had total control each and every time. It was also very painful as he never failed to hit that nerve.
Noro Sensei had quite an effect on the way we would practice Aikido from then on. We had never seen anyone ukemi from Shihonage over the controlled arm. It appeared very dangerous at first until we learned to adjust. It was Noro who first showed us how to perform the unbendable arm technique, and the mind and body lifting exercises that was very different in those days.
Perhaps it was only because I couldn't do it as well as he did, but I did not like the overly exaggerated flowing movement of his Aikido. I also believed that I had already found the complete aikido that I was looking for in my training with Nakazono sensei. However, I can testify that in the midst of his flowing expansive technique, when Noro sensei got a hold of you in yonkyo, in nikkyo or shihonage (as Sandy might testify), his technique was inescapable.
As I have written before, I am just a basic's guy; I like my Aikido tight and compact. Aikido has to work both on and off the mat for me. My strong basic foundation of my Aikido has never let me down. I was introduced to Aikido as a martial art, and I will never see it any other way. In the late 1950s/60s Derek Eastman and I worked on a few nightclubs that gave us plenty of realism in our study of what worked and didn't work in Aikido. I remember one particular occasion whilst working in a club in the early 1960s. I'd asked a guy to leave, nicely I would add, and as I turned my back, I felt a hand grab and pull the back of my collar. I moved forward slightly, and swung my right arm back hard, hitting him in the face with the back of my fist. I then dropped my right arm over his right arm, at the same time, I caught his hand grip with my left hand, I was doing a kind of nikkyo that I had never seen before; it was one hundred per cent effective. The guy screamed as I took him into the ground, I now teach that technique as part of the basics. When I refer, therefore, to Noro sensei's spirit, I mean the possibility of techniques like that: the basics were in the heart of that tornado of movement.
Noro sensei meets Nasty
What is it with some of my teacher's and dogs? Perhaps my readers will recall my story of Abbe sensei. Noro sensei, too, did something astonishing. The Hut dojo was behind the Hut Pub and at the back of the pub was a yard with the most dangerous oversized nasty Alsatian dog. I have never seen such a vicious dog. Everyone was afraid to go near the fence, much less inside the yard. New students were warned to keep well away, as this dog wanted an arm or a leg off anyone that got close enough. Yet, one evening when we left the pub, Noro sensei went ahead of us and when we walked through the garden to the dojo, we were shocked to see him inside the compound, kneeling next to the dog and stroking it. Bill, the pub landlord could not believe what he was seeing; no one but he could normally get near the dog.
A Union of Opposites
For a few years, we had both Nakazono sensei and Noro sensei visiting alternately. They were very different in their style and technique, and each teacher would get very upset that we were not doing what they had been teaching on their previous visit. We just had to take the flack because there was no way you could say to Noro sensei, "This is what Nakazono sensei taught us, " or vice versa.
As I said in my essay Abbe Kenshiro , we never used Japanese names for the aikido techniques, and Nakazono sensei only taught us a few. Noro sensei introduced a new form of teaching and study, with names for all the techniques. He broke things down even further in his "Nine Forms System." For example, "first form" was ikkyo from nine different catches or attacks. There were nine forms in all. It was a good system to teach by, one we still use today within my own group.
I was recently invited to teach at the "Masamichi Noro 40th Celebration" in Paris France. I had to decline because of health problems. I have so much respect for Noro sensei; I would have been honoured to attend.
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Henry Ellis is the co-author of the book Positive Aikido. He is a pioneer of British aikido from 1957, as a direct student of Kenshiro Abbe Sensei. With 55 years of Aikido experience, he was one of the first of five dan grades for Aikido in the UK. His diplomas have been signed by O-sensei Ueshiba, Abbe Kenshiro, Nakazono Masahilo, Chiba Kazuo, and Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru. He is currently a 6th dan, Aikikai, and has taught aikido the UK, continental Europe, Australia and the USA.
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