It Had to Be Felt #26: Jan Hermansson: "Yust Bench Press Me Oop"
Jan Hermansson , now 7th dan, arrived in Japan in the mid-1960's, a skinny kid. He continued the aikido he'd first pieced together with his judo instructor from a book, and then in some classes in France with Abe Tadashi. He got a job at Tokyo's first Swedish smorgasbord, where he could eat as much as he wanted, and he met Donn Draeger, who taught him to lift weights.
And Jan got big - very big. He became a professional wrestler. And kept doing aikido. When he went to test for sandan, no one would volunteer to take ukemi for him. One young Japanese kid, a shodan, was appointed to be his uke and he was awarded nidan -- for surviving.
He visited the Yoshinkai and insisted on wearing his hakama during practice, although their custom forbade this before yondan. They couldn't resist him -- he dressed as he pleased, and tight little Yoshinkan guys went flying every which way.
In those days, outsiders who went to Iwama stood a fair chance of being injured out of what Iwama people liked to say was "kindness" - for example, I had a friend, a 4th kyu, a big awkward guy, clearly a beginner, who went to Iwama for a visit, and came back with an arm permanently crippled. He no longer could do aikido or any other sport. Jan went to Iwama too. Stories conflict about what happened, but the more believable side to me was that Jan ran the line, so to speak, and manhandled everyone who was there, simply giving back what they tried to give to him.
One of the uchi-deshi at the Aikikai in those days, was infamous, not only for his hard practice, but for cheap shots: he would get frustrated if he wasn't able to make a technique work, or sometimes, like "fear biters" everywhere, he would attack those he was afraid of with sudden sucker punches, no only in the middle of a technique, but sometimes when someone was simply facing him. Worse than that, if he were unsuccessful in throwing a strong person as he wished, he'd wait until they accepted a nikkyo or sankyo, and ignoring their tap-out, he'd rip out the person's shoulder ligaments during the pin. I had my own "encounter" with him, but nothing like Jan's, who picked him up, and dangled him outside the third story window of the dojo by his ankles, asking, "Hard or soft?"
I first saw Jan in the Aikikai dressing room. Actually, all that registered was his back, which seemed to take up half the room. He turned, looked up at me and smiled. I was skinny, but tall and fit enough; he had clearly found a new crash-test dummy.
The first technique was ikkyo; he was decent about taking ukemi, not really resisting, but then it was his turn. I attacked shomen-uchi and he caught the arm and head-butted me in the chest. My sternum punched inwards and popped back out. That hour, and quite honestly, every other hour I trained with Jan, was a blur. He was simply so physically powerful that I couldn't feel what was happening to me. Some years before, I had been a passenger in a car that, hydroplaning on the Pennsylvania turnpike at sixty miles an hour, just kissed the right rear of the suddenly stopping car ahead of us, and we flew off the road into a small gulley, spiraling 360 degrees, only to land with a crash on the car's four wheels, the impact crumbling the chassis around us. That was exactly what practicing with Jan felt like to me.
I do remember this, though. The tatami of the Aikikai were canvas covered, and they were filled with dust and mold. Quite frequently, I'd be practicing in the midst of an asthma attack, slowly turning blue as the hour went by. And Jan would, all too often, throw me downwards with a kokyu-nage or koshi-nage -- he was happy doing whatever technique he felt like, quite at variance to whatever the instructor had mandated -- and then, with me flat on my back, he do a pro-wrestling pancake, all one million kilos of him flying through the air to smash, chest-to-chest on top of me, my head and feet flipping upwards at the impact. I'd be lying crushed beneath him, wheezing with asthma, and he'd say with outraged bewilderment, "Yust bench press me oop!" I'd push, but he'd not budge a fraction of an inch. I'd try again and again, and then he'd get up, shaking his head sadly at my frailty.
And then do it again.
What was the experience of taking ukemi with Jan Hermansson ? CRASH! SLAM! CRUSH! -- wheeeeeze -- "Yust Bench Press Me Oop!" wheeze -- disappointed head shake - CRASH! SLAM! CRUSH! -- wheeze -- "Yust . . . "
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Re: It Had to Be Felt #26: Jan Hermansson: "Yust Bench Press Me Oop"
To get on the tatami at Vanadis Aikido Clubb in Stockholm, Sweden, you have to climb a stair. Six, maybe seven steps. Last year there was this old man who had to do this slowly and concentrated. It seemed to me as if his body had climbed a lot of stairs with a lot of steps throughout his life and was kind of fatigue now. When he finally got onto the tatami it was obvious, that even bowing was not easy to him.
During keiko I spotted the old man sometimes at a certain place: The right, back corner of the tatami. Slow movements, thrifty. He didn't take ukemi to the ground, only moved a little at all. And alltogether seemed to be "fragile". A big body, must have been a bear in former days. But old now.
Everybody was moving easy and light, everybody was taking ukemi in an ambitious, a very sensitive way, both, tori and uke acting so smooth and soft. Some people did breakfalls, high, but without any noise: This way of practice.
In the back corner on the right that old man who nearly hadn’t managed to get up the stairs. Slowly moving, stiff. He clearly stood out in the waves of all this fluffy movement.
Then we both partnered up. And while I was trying to take care of the fragile old man I soon realized that it was him taking care of me. In his slow, stiff, small movements there was so much experience, so much knowledge. And every time I attacked, he just moved a little bit so that I always met his whole body. And I could sense the old bear, who was sleeping inside.
He didn’t do anything. Nearly no waza. And he clearly did not “imitate” the light and fluffy movements of the teaching shihan and his students, like we others tried to. He just stood there, moved his body the way it was possible for him …and always had me, always controlled me, always moved me. Without any chance for me to get out of his control. He did this without causing me any harm. It may have looked so stiff, but on my end it felt very “friendly”, soft and – have to say it this way – “humble”. The old bear like dozing, being lenient toward a young, not really coming out of his cave.
When it was my turn, his ukemi also was friendly and humble. I felt at once that I couldn’t have moved him an inch if he didn’t let me. But in no way he showed this to me. He didn’t teach me, didn’t correct me, he was just a partner who gave me exact the ukemi I needed to feel myself and to work on what I thought I should. He just didn’t go to the ground. But this was not necessary. I could learn from what he did. We just practiced, didn’t talk, just moved each other around, then bowed and went our way.
After practice, while I was folding my hakama, I saw Endo sensei walking to the right, back corner of the tatami and talk to the old man. Endo likes talking to practioners who are of his age. And he often asks since when they do aikidō. So this was nothing special. But to see sensei bowing to the old man, this indeed was special.
Later I was told that Endo had called Janne Hermansson sempai to him. And had asked him about his experiences with O sensei.
That day at Vanadis Aikido Clubb in Stockholm, Sweden, I practiced with an old man who just practiced because he had to. Because keiko was just natural to him. So he didn’t let his aching, fatigue body hinder him.
That day I practiced with a Swedish Aikido Legend. Who didn't let me know and didn't let me feel this. Who just became the uke or tori I needed to have. Someone who didn’t show his place in hierarchy didn’t use his experience, skills or strength to impress or to “win” or to “teach” or whatever. But just took his partner, took me seriously.
It was at Vanadis Aikido Clubb in Stockholm when I practiced with a sempai of Endo Seishiro shihan.
Re: It Had to Be Felt #26: Jan Hermansson: "Yust Bench Press Me Oop"
It was in 1980. I had been in the USA for a year. On my return to Sweden, I immediately started hearing rumors about this guy who had spent a bundle of years in Japan, training aikido. He was 4 dan, which was higher than any other Swedish grade at that time.
Everybody was in awe, because of the grade, because of this sudden reappearance of someone who was among the very first Swedes to practice aikido, and also because he was so tremendously strong and powerful, I was told. From the descriptions he sounded like some kind of superhero -- or supervillain, for that matter.
I found it strange that so many aikido students were flabbergasted by what sounded like a simple brute. Well, it would soon turn out that my impression was all wrong.
A while after my return to Sweden, Ichimura, who was our shihan at that time, had a seminar. I went there and practiced with many of the old friends (though not so old in those days, alas) and some people I had not seen before.
At the end of a class I paired up with one of those strangers, for suwari kokyuho. A middle-aged man, not big at all but far from tiny. He had a hakama on, so he must have trained for more than the year I had been gone. Swedish aikido was not that big in those days, so most of us had met repeatedly.
Well, I thought, he might have avoided seminars and such before he got his hakama, hiding in the dojo to which he belonged. Or I had just forgotten a few faces during my absence. Little did I know.
Anyway, we started the exercise. He made the movement and pushed me down. During seminars, I usually didn't resist that much, because that tended to frustrate many practitioners. I settled for letting them do their thing, with just a hint of resistance, so that they'd at least show some commitment. Usually, they were fine with that, happily unaware of my compliance.
The same seemed to be true for the stranger in front of me. He did it once, twice. But then he leaned over and asked with a gentle voice:
"Excuse me, but is there more?"
Nobody had asked me that before. We started getting at it with a lot of energy and delight. Immediately it was clear to me that this guy hadn't put the hakama on anytime recently. He might have been born with it.
As we were enjoying ourselves -- probably making some noise, I don't know -- Ichimura came up to us and said with a smile:
"Stefan, you should have had him with you in America."
He was making a joke. I had told Ichimura earlier about the tendency to what I would call competition in some American dojos. Coming as a stranger, I sometimes had the feeling that the dojo members got into some King of the Hill, when I came there as a visitor. It might have been me. Anyway, I got so fed up with it that when I got to New York Aikikai, I appeared without a hakama and told people who asked that I was a beginner, having trained "a little."
When Ichimura made his little joke, the man in front of me -- until then so gentle -- cut him short with quite a sharp voice:
Ichimura jumped back and mumbled something apologetic. Then I thought to myself: This must be that 4 dan everyone talks about.
Indeed it was. That's how I met Jan Hermansson.
We had additional times of fun at that seminar, where I got to experience what had amazed everybody. His techniques were like iron. There was no escaping them, no little gap in his execution where one could try to counter them (which would have been a bad idea).
He was not that easy to swing around. I remember entering a shihonage, and when I held his arm in the position right before the throw -- normally quite a superior position -- I halted, my whole body and mind realizing that I couldn't rock this boat. There was no way I could bring him down. He was not a boat, but a rock.
"Why did you stop?" he asked. "You're doing it right."
So, I applied a little pressure on his arm, and he sat down on the tatami, sort of leisurely. I had nothing to do with it.
It turned out we were neighbors, living in the same suburb to Stockholm, so we quickly became friends and have been since. I was honored to have both of his sons practice for a while in my dojo. Oddly, the one who did it the longest developed a style that reminded increasingly of his father's aikido, although the boy trained for me. Blood is thicker than perspiration.
Jan is strong. No doubt about that. And, as he has pointed out with a smile when we talked about it: "Strength is good to have, too." But what has always impressed me the most is the precision by which he moves his body, and of course, the energy by which he springs into action.
But I bet that the former is the main ingredient in Jan's tremendous capacity. Whatever the attack is and whatever technique he applies on it, immediately he positions himself optimally for it. He always has his whole body in line with what he's doing. And then he goes for it, like there's no tomorrow. When you're his uke, you feel it and your body will remember it for quite a while.
As if that's not enough, he also has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. Training with him is like being an explorer in a strange land, with a native guide. We start by doing what the instructor of the class might have shown, but after no more than a round or two of it, Jan says:
"You can do like this, too."
And he starts a seemingly endless line of variations, most of them surprising, some of them very far indeed from the original technique -- but all of them exciting, if that's the word, and none failing.
Jan is a very modest man (yes, really), and he's prepared to make any effort for everybody learning and having a good time on the tatami. Oh, he's quite good at participating in the fun after it, as well. To the seminar parties, he often comes equipped with all that's needed to make a proper Irish Coffee, and he wouldn't dream of keeping it to himself. That's keiko.
Jan Hermansson is the senior of Swedish aikido, being one of the two who started to experiment with it back in 1961. But he has never made claims to any position of power, never cared for titles or any other regalia of which the world of budo has far too much. When someone calls him sensei, he just says: "My name is Jan."
Again, that's keiko. It's what he's about. So, I'm not holding my breath for the moment when I can actually throw him with a shihonage.
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