It Had to Be Felt #29: Masuda Seijuro: "Tall & Short"
One evening in the late seventies during an aikido demonstration on the outskirts of Tokyo, with spectator Masuda Seijuro sensei sitting in the filled-to-capacity auditorium, about a dozen of his students performed a short jo form. Unfortunately, in my own personal Mr. Bean moment, the tip of my jo snagged on the curtain along the back of the stage, causing me to fall out of synch with the group. As I tried frenetically to somehow catch up, an audible tide of laughter rose up from the audience. Following the performance and trying to ignore the pursed lips of my dojo mates, I approached Sensei to apologize. "Never mind," he said. "You made everybody look better."
I began aikido at Aikikai Honbu Dojo (Tokyo) on April 4th, 1976 and often attended Masuda Seijuro sensei's evening beginner's class on the second floor as well as afternoon/evening general practice class on the third floor. For two years (1978-1980), I took private lessons as well, with a small group of other foreign aikidoka. In those days, you needed to take private lessons in order to learn weaponry, as the Ueshiba family no longer offered these at general practice. Masuda Sensei taught us a variety of jo and bokken forms, both single and with a partner. We also learned bokken and jo taking forms as well as a variety of tanto waza. What I felt most was the softness and precision of how he wanted us to integrate these weapon forms into our empty-handed technique.
What I liked about Masuda sensei was that he wasn't at all zealous about this stuff, that for him, at least, it hadn't become a religion. If Ueshiba Morihei took his uchideshi and sotodeshi with him to some nearby mountain forest for intense standing-under-the-waterfall night-time training, you can be sure Masuda Sensei would have been the one to stay back at the inn -- tending the fire and reading a magazine. Perhaps this had something to do with growing up right after the war (Sensei was nine years old in 1945). Sensei's family apparently was well-to-do enough that, even as a deshi, he could live at home and enjoy a certain independence. Consequently, although he was teaching us aikido, it felt that as far as he was concerned, he might as well have been giving us private tennis or golf lessons. In other words, it was very light and simple.
In general practice class, Masuda Sensei would throw big ornery attackers with the same casual aplomb as he threw the Japanese office ladies. Sensei taught from basic principles and his aikido was easy to understand and simple to practice. Push & pull; up & down; in & out; front & back; all of which informed by both henka (variation) and kaeshi (counter) techniques. Unlike some hard/external teachers, Masuda sensei didn't get annoyed if you attacked him the wrong way. And unlike other soft/internal teachers, you didn't need to attack him a certain way for it to work. I am particularly grateful to Sensei for teaching me shihonage without destroying my elbows as well as kotegaeshi without destroying my wrists. Masuda sensei's taisabaki had a kind of slowness that would draw me in to such an extent that any unnecessary harshness in applying the technique would have felt like poor sportsmanship. Looking back, I am astonished how Sensei's throws felt more or less the same on my first evening as a walk-in beginner as after a couple of years of private lessons.
Sometimes during general practice, Masuda Sensei would approach a foreign aikidoka, a large newcomer perhaps, and in English say "You are tall." Then, he'd point to himself and slowly say, " I … am …" then wait for the victim to say "short." Sensei would make a wry face and everyone would laugh. Seeing Masuda sensei, indeed much shorter, standing right next to a tall person, brought a lot of things about aikido into perspective, especially regarding the great distance the tall person would tumble on the way to the mat where he would be easily and effortlessly tied into a pretzel with something that wasn't even a technique at all. Masuda sensei seemed to operate on two levels at the same time. He would "throw" me using official aikido techniques and then he would help me get up or else he'd lightly take me by the elbow and easily control me by somehow leading me ahead while, at the same time, pushing me from behind. But from where? It felt like I was walking myself across the mat.
I was taking aikido classes in order to secure a cultural visa with Japanese immigration authorities, thereby allowing me to work. My biggest concern was getting through classes without injury so that I could train every day. Masuda Sensei pinned and threw in a friendly and practical manner. These events happened long ago and according to the limited views of one Canadian aikidoka. Hopefully, other students who may have known Sensei longer or better can add their own observations about a most excellent teacher.
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