It Had To Be Felt #47: Kobayashi Hirokazu: Meguri
These days, many people talk about aiki, internal power, internal strength, or other related concepts. When, I started martial arts as a young teenager in the beginning of the 1960's, however, nobody was talking about that sort of thing. The only thing I can remember was "ukemi, ukemi and more ukemi." We were drilled to ‘become ukemi.' Some people may say this is the correct way to learn, while others may disagree, but for me, there is only one certainty: without ukemi I couldn't have survived the throws of Kobayashi Hirokazu . According to my "Aikido Diary," I first met Kobayashi sensei in September, 1973, at a three day seminar in Tilburg (Netherlands). We started at 10:00 AM, and finished around 10:00 PM. We had lunch, dinner and some time to relax, of course, but essentially, we trained for three straight days. I remember my wrists—and everyone else's— were red, and if someone merely pointed at them, we flinched from the anticipated pain.
Only later did I learn that Kobayashi sensei was famous for his ‘meguri.' In Wikipedia we find this remark:
His techniques were described as very short, powerful and precise, with as little movement offline as possible. His grabbing techniques consisted of 'meguri'— literally meaning flexibility and rotating of the wrist, producing subtle connection points producing the maximum result with minimal levels of effort.Given nobody had a clue about this principle, we tried to imitate his teaching without understanding. The skin of our wrists became irritated by wringing our arms in order to perform what we believed to be the technique. Then Kobayashi sensei would offer his wrist, and he'd perform a smooth very minimal movement, and suddenly, you went down. He'd do it again, but he'd look in your eyes and you would be aware that he was thinking, "You don't understand," indicated not only by your barely surviving through your ukemi, but also by your confusion as to what just happened. Sometimes he smiled, but you didn't know why he was smiling—perhaps you'd finally done the correct movement, but it might have just been that, even though you hadn't succeeded, he was aware that you'd tried to do your best.
He presented around twenty-five techniques, with two or three variations apiece, during that first seminar. Although he gave a lot of technical tips, he failed, however, in my opinion, to bring his message in a structured way. Perhaps I was spoiled by the teaching of Andre Nocquet, with whom I was studying with in the same period: Nocquet sensei taught in a very systematic manner.
I next met Kobayashi sensei on the 8th of September, when I took my shodan grading before him. All I remember of that day was afterwards. The test was so severe that, returning, I almost couldn't get off the bus. I stumbled home, and the next day, I could hardly move.
Until I reached shodan, he never used me as a uke when he was teaching the class, although I experienced his movements and techniques as a uke while he was circulating around the class, instructing. This changed after I reached shodan, when he used me on several occasions as a uke to demonstrate for the class. I once tried to challenge him, resisting when he was doing shihonage. Suddenly something made a terrible noise in my elbow, my ukemi skills not being sufficient to cope with his movement after I resisted him. He was a little embarrassed because he thought he had injured me, but, thankfully, after a few time bending and stretching my elbow, I could resume practice.
According to my diary, his method of teaching was changing—in retrospect, perhaps it was my understanding that was improving. At my last meeting with him in February 1978, he gave an explanation about how to use the wrist in different situations. He also explained a method how to use your own hand/wrist together with a stable but still flexible posture for kotegaeshi when the partner was resisting.
Subsequently one of our dojo members went to Japan to study with him in Osaka. Unfortunately, Kobayashi sensei was traveling most of the time and was not very often in the dojo. There was also some dispute between Kobayashi sensei and Steven Seagal, and our dojo member eventually went to Seagal's dojo to study. However, according to our dojo member, Seagal's main focus seemed to be movies and returning back to the USA rather than day-to-day teaching,, and our dojo member changed once again, eventually studying with Tanaka Bansen.
During all of Kobayashi sensei's seminars, he was accompanied by a female Japanese assistant who spoke excellent French, so I had the opportunity to talk with him, with her as a translator. He once said, "Don't become involved with aikido politics." I didn't know at that time what he was saying then, but aside from the issue mentioned above, I later found out he had a warm relationship with Tomiki Kenji , a relationship not approved by the Aikikai.
After more than 30 years I still have strong memories on his subtle movements. Although I have been a Tomiki Aikido practitioner for several decades, Kobayashi sensei still influences me. His meguri movements are coming more and more apparent in my training. I was very lucky to have hands-on experience with him.
The influence of Ueshiba Morihei on Ohba Hideo and Kobayashi Hirokazu
I wrote about Ohba Hideo in IHTBF #39. Even though both Ohba and Kobayashi sensei's were both students of Ueshiba Morihei, there was a difference in their approach to aikido. First off all, they studied with Ueshiba in a different time: Ohba prewar, and Kobayashi after the war was over. Kobayashi sensei had some structure to his training, which he learned either from Ueshiba or the senior instructors of that time, but essentially, he tried to teach basic methods to improve movement and power rather than a systemization of techniques.
Ohba sensei taught differently. First, of course, was the influence of Kenji Tomiki on his randori method : unsoku (foot movement), tegatana-undo (foot and hand movement), tegatana-awase (person-to-person foot movement exercise with the hand blade pressed against each other's), tegatana-no-kuzushi (balance-breaking techniques using one's hand blade), kakari keiko (randori with no resistance), hikitate keiko (randori with partial resistance), and randori (full resistance). Secondly, Ohba was also an old-style teacher, and his teaching of the prewar version of Ueshiba's aikido can be found in the latter's Budo Training, a book published around 1933. To preserve those old methods, Ohba created koryu no kata (‘old style forms').
When I first met Kobayashi Hirokazu he kept a social distance from his students, and it took some time before this barrier disappeared. Ohba sensei was different—from the beginning, he was open for questions and training. Kobayashi established a master-teacher relationship, whereas Ohba, although he could also be very severe when necessary, simply acted like a gentleman. Perhaps, however, the difference could be attributed to the fact that when you become older, softness (kindness) and hardness ( severity) become more balanced.
They were also different on a technical level. Kobayashi , as far as I know, was mostly exposed to the ‘aiki' methods of Ueshiba and others. Ohba, in addition to his prewar aikido training, was also a judo man and was proficient in kendo, naginata and other budo. I cannot remember if Kobayashi sensei ever related his art to judo or other budo. His teaching was sometimes so focused on wrist grabbing that this gave an impression that his art was abstract. Ohba used his knowledge of judo and other budo to bring a more practical aikido to his students.
When Ohba sensei was performing a technique on you, most of the time you felt both kindness and firmness, whereas Kobayashi sensei, at that time, at least, was more severe. Nonetheless, he was never rude nor did he ever try to hurt you.
The influence of these two teachers has had a synergetic effect upon my understanding of aikido. At core, I believe both were trying to teach the same essentials of Ueshiba's aikido, but they did so in very different forms.
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