It Had to Be Felt #30: Kobayashi Yasuo: A Living Axle
Time devours the edges of one's life. Some memories are bright as a droplet of water on a strand of spider-web, a spark of sun suspended in the air. Reminiscences pass in a blur, like a river valley in fog, rocks and trees emerging and receding as one drifts down the waters. Other memories are lost, mysterious, periods of one's life, brief or long, irretrievably gone. My memories of my time at the Kobayashi Dojo in Shin-Tokorozawa are much the latter: I don't know how I started going there, I don't know how long I trained, and I don't know how or why I stopped. -- and I don't even know why, among other memories so rich that here I've lost so much. I'll therefore recount episodes, unconnected, because that's all I have.
I'd train there on Sunday mornings, a several hour train ride from my home. Kobayashi sensei was - and surely still is -- an incredibly warm man. He also must have had a great sense of security within himself: an uchi-deshi from the 1950's, he stopped teaching at the Aikikai and formed his own organization, subsidiary to the Aikikai, but largely independent. He was a pioneer as a teacher, making a real program in which he developed instructors, who each branched off to form their own dojo at his behest. He told me that he liked to send his students abroad to teach, but for no more than two years: "For young Japanese men, the level of adulation that they get as aikido instructors abroad is destructive. It goes to their head and they think they deserve it, that they are special. Two years is enough. They are required to come home after that."
Sunday mornings were a great time. Kobayashi sensei's dojo was truly a community -- the classes had kids, adults and old people. It was fun. Tough fun. People threw each other hard, but they were enjoying themselves immensely. Kobayashi sensei was unique among teachers I saw in Japan. He'd call out a student and throw or lock them several times, showing the technique. Then he'd have them do the technique on them in front of the group, correcting their errors, taking honest ukemi. He showed everyone how to do things properly by demonstrating what the ideal technique would look like by guiding his student through this on him. He still does this today, even though he is in his seventies.
At that point in time, I was caught up in some of the political nonsense amongst various teachers residing in the States, and held forth on this one drunken night at one of the regular parties the dojo had, and Kobayashi sensei said, "X-sensei is my friend, Y-sensei is my friend, Z-sensei is my friend. It all seems simple to me." In his happy air, in his unpretentious practice and refusal to mystify aikido as either the ultimate combat or a means of establishing world peace, it would have been easy to regard him as an unexceptional man, one who simply liked pleasure, be it jovial laughter, enough beers to make him wobble when he bicycled home, and a regular routine of thumping his students and being thumped in turn. Rather, he always seemed to me to be a man of sublime common sense. As theoretical physicists strive for elegance and simplicity in their equations, Kobayashi sensei appeared to me to do with his life. Such simplicity is far from easy, and all too rare.
He was a former judoka, built very low to the ground. His suwari-waza was unbelievable -- he moved as if he had wheels in his kneecaps. I described how difficult it was to chase Ueshiba Moriteru around the mat in IHTBF #2: "Chasing Waka-sensei." It was harder to chase Kobayashi sensei on his knees, even when I was on my feet. His aikido was definitely of the post-war variety, as if a human fire-hydrant was moving like Nidai Doshu, big round movements, leading the uke, being just out of reach. However, he had a wonderful koshinage, helped by the fact that he had an ass as broad as a draft horse. He'd drop to the perfect position, and you'd hit his hips, and it was like running into a tree stump in the dark.
He seemed to like kokyunage, iriminage and kaitennage type throws, those by which he could project his uke long distances. I am not questioning his competence to note, however, that there was a high level of cooperation between his uke and himself -- they ran after him, grabbed hold and hung on. Everything was one-way. You moved the way he wanted you to, not because you had to -- but you had to anyway.
Interestingly, I found a real similarity between his way of movement and that of Watanabe Nobuyuki. Both of them, massively muscled, rocked stiff-legged from one leg to the other, so that they walked with a slight lateral rocking motion.
Of all his aikido waza, it was his ikkyo and iriminage that impressed me the most. He moves with kind of a swing, subtly leading with his tanden. At the moment that his arms contact you in ikkyo, in the track of a kesagake lateral cut, it is "as if" his belly is already descending upon you. Due to the smoothness of his footwork (or kneework), there is, however, no abrupt transition so that uke is crunched downwards. It is deceptively powerful, but when viewed or experienced, you can see that his ikkyo is clearly not an "arm-technique." It is a hip/belly technique, the arms relaxed throughout.
His iriminage is a variation on his ikkyo (or vice versa). His entry has the same swing to it. He enters to the perfect position on your rear "corner," his hand on your neck and moves in perfect synchrony to you, pivoting on foot or knee so that he remains just in the position that he can bring relaxed pressure on your neck, making it unable for you to arise. It results in the rather ridiculous looking spectacle of uke scrambling in a bent-over posture, or even on hands and knees, like a dog chasing his tail, Kobayashi sensei an axis in the center.
In general, Kobayashi sensei's art "centers on the center." This is based on positioning. His hips and legs have always been very strong and flexible, so he moves, apparently casually, to the point in which he is a living axle, adjusting his position so that whatever configuration his uke finds himself, Kobayashi sensei remains linked to him, rotating the two of them as if one unit. I never experienced him as generating an exceptional force or anything else that is referred to as "internal strength." Rather, I think he took the implications of Nidai Doshu's postwar aikido to a pure, very high level. Given his natural power and grace, once he had the advantage of position and balance (kuzushi), something he initiated at the inception of any technique, his uke could never "find" him to control him in turn. During ukemi, I often felt like a large toy being rolled and tumbled by a small bear.
I was a friend for a time with one of his uchi-deshi. I'd sleep over at the dojo, and we'd get up at 4:30 AM to catch a couple trains to make Nidai Doshu's 6:30 AM class. Once, after a dojo party, at about two in the morning, he got in an argument with his sempai, who drunkenly slapped him across the face, something he had to take. After the sempai left, he was so upset, he demanded we don keikko-gi and practice, two staggeringly drunk kids, smashing each other for an hour in koshinage. We fell asleep in our sodden keikko gi, and then he woke up and demanded we go to Doshu's class. He was my friend, so we changed into street clothes, wadded up our uniforms and ran for the station to make the train.
We got there in time, put on our still sodden, reeking keiko gi and staggered, still drunk on to the mat. Doshu saw us struggling with a technique, and came over, kindly to help. He smelled us from several meters away, broke up, laughing, whacked me lightly on the shoulder and shaking his head, still laughing, walked away.
I had such fun at Kobayashi sensei's dojo! I'd bet a fair amount that all I've forgotten was just as much fun, too.
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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.
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Re: It Had to Be Felt #30: Kobayashi Yasuo: A Living Axle
I agree that uke was always where Kobayashi Sensei wanted them.
I remember taking uke for him once when he demonstrated ushiro-dori. I found myself chasing after those wrists and struggling to keep hold.
"Oh, you're a strong one" he said with a smile as he effortlessly shifted me.
As for power, I did once see him hold a jo, have uke grab the other end, and throw. Nothing unusual about that except he did it with one hand.
I haven't trained under Kobayashi Sensei for about a decade. I'm pleased that he'll be a guest domonstrator at Hatayama Sensei's demonstration next month.
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