It Had to Be Felt #42: Seki Shoji: "Cold Autumn Wind Rustling Through the Gingko Leaves"
One autumn afternoon in the early eighties, then-uchideshi Seki Shoji was taking ukemi for one of the Honbu Dojo shihan during a public kobudo demonstration at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Perhaps the shihan felt a little rattled performing in front of a big crowd because he was throwing his uke in a somewhat wild manner. Throw after throw, Seki sensei would loop far across the stage before landing on the wooden floor with a resounding thud. It felt if they had brought along their own percussionists.
As is all too common in the aikido world, the shihan projected an air of complacency and self-congratulation, as if he himself had been responsible for his uke's stellar ukemi. Alas, these throws looked bogus and exaggerated, like Kabuki theatre. But how about those breakfalls? On wood! I was seated beside a couple of Donn Draeger's students. "Well, at least that part of aikido works," one of them chuckled. "But boy, is he going to be sore tomorrow."
Until that afternoon, I had never seen someone take an aikido breakfall on a wooden floor. As it was, the white canvas tatami provided at Honbu Dojo were hard enough for me. In those days, Seki sensei, then 5th dan, was an occasional training partner of mine during the eight o'clock morning general practice. My recollection of training with Sensei is mostly one of brutal fatigue.
Rather than drilling me into the mat, he would attack and yet not overwhelm, throw and yet not hurt, but he would push this sorry Canadian aikidoka to a point of sheer exhaustion just minutes into each class. I was a tall gawky foreigner attempting to move one way but actually moving in another. I got the feeling he was mostly interested in using me to tune his own ukemi.
You could sense he was figuring things out. Exploring the spatial dynamics. Weighing his options. All this, of course, without uttering a word. In retrospect, it almost feels odd that he was not going around hammering people, like most other uchideshi of his generation.
In Seki sensei's case, there was never any question that his aikido technique would not work. His sense of timing was such that before you knew it, he was behind you. Suddenly, you fell down. Hit the mat. Stood up. Attacked. But where did he go? Again he was behind you, and again, you fell down. Again you stood up. Those general practice classes were crowded and Seki sensei could be standing very close indeed before he needed to engage.
Seki sensei had a neat way of connecting so that you were sure you had nailed him and, consequently, you attacked even more. I remember pounding the mat, staggering up, attacking over and over again. The certainty that I had connected somehow kept me stoked. I would get so exhausted that the waza was doing itself because by that point there was nobody home.
Eventually, I began taking private lessons with Seki sensei, upstairs in the small fourth floor dojo. In the most technical of language he would explain his ukemi to me by carefully breaking it down into many frames, many contingencies, each based on shifting the intent within one's attack and response. It was remarkable how not just a throw but an entire ukemi from beginning to end could be analyzed and choreographed to such a degree of physical precision. Looking back, I would be hard-put to say what we were doing was even a martial art at all. There was absolutely no fear, no anger, no aggression and certainly no stealth. Instead, he showed me how to extend, then lose, and then recover my center by somehow stretching into the movement.
Seki sensei taught me not to be fixated on any particular waza. "They're all the same," he would say, with a look of pity that I still hadn't figured this out yet. But it was true. Thinking about this for a while and, also, learning how to push up from the mat in order to connect with my partner just so, I soon learned how to destabilize uke with enough focus and intention to guarantee a five minute boarding penalty in a hockey game.
Also, Seki sensei debunked the notion that to be good at aikido you needed to be soft. This was of particular interest to me as I am not a rubbery person. Often, my training partners would complain that I was too stiff and that, consequently, their aikido was not working. When I asked sensei, he told me to keep my arms in front rather than off to the side, keep moving forward, and look where I was going. He offered subtle corrections like this, small nuances that changed so much for me. Indeed, after a time, certain dojo mates would observe, "So you did take up yoga," when actually all I had done was follow Seki sensei's aikido tips.
It has been some decades since that autumn afternoon at Yasukuni Shrine. Presently, Seki Shoji sensei (7th dan instructor at Honbu Dojo) travels the world and now, he is the person doing the throwing. Whenever that demonstration comes to mind, I can still see the frightened shihan and his determined uke as clearly as can I feel the cold autumn wind rustling through the ginkgo leaves.
But a lot of things have changed. The fact that it looked like Kabuki does not really bother me any more. After all, it was just a show. A demonstration on a sunny afternoon. Over the years, Seki sensei's vaguely metronomic backbeat has often accompanied me along my journey of family, study and career. The sound of one door closing just as another was opening. Indeed, who can say this is not aikido?
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