Dojo: Aikido of Northern Virginia, Aikido Shobukan Dojo
Location: Washington, DC
Join Date: Jul 2002
Re: It Had to Be Felt #8: Saotome Mitsugi: One Strike
I began my aikido training the day after I took the Maryland bar exam in July 1984, at one of Saotome-sensei's branch dojo in Baltimore. At that time, I was a nidan in Uechi-ryu karatedo. My karatedo teacher had been training with Saotome-sensei since 1979 --- but between the demands of academia and my personal life, it seemed to me that I did not really have time to study two martial arts. Eventually, however, with law school, the bar exam, and my marriage behind me, the time to look into aikido was available to me.
Within a couple of weeks after starting at the Baltimore club, another beginner and I decided to start training several days each week at Saotome-sensei's home dojo, the Washington, DC Aikikai. Saotome-sensei was rarely there --- he had started a budokan in Chicago, and many of his students (including my karate teacher) followed him out there, inspired by his vision. Further, he was often on the road teaching seminars. It wasn't until I had been training for a year or so that I saw him, and longer than that before he noticed me.
I was still living in Baltimore, and I was driving to the DC area almost every day. I was alternating training days between the DC Aikikai and a small Uechi-ryu dojo run by an intense American computer programmer who had studied for several years in Okinawa. The two dojo were different in every way: the karate dojo was small and dark, while the aikikai was bright and spacious. Although there were formidable people studying at both dojo, there were also several at the aikikai whose attacks did not inspire (or intimidate) me to move, even a little bit.
One Saturday morning, just about the time that I had begun to believe that I should put aikido aside, Saotome-sensei taught class, beginning with mune-tsuki. In Uechi-ryu, we spent a fair amount of time conditioning ourselves to take a solid mune-tsuki (as well as other atemi), so I was not inclined to move out of the way for anything less than a committed and focused strike. I'm sure that my training partners at the aikikai did not appreciate my willingness to point out the defects in their attacks.
Then Saotome-sensei called for men-tsuki. He responded to uke's punch by bringing one hand up his center-line and brushing uke's fist just past his face, while at the same time seeming to catch uke's punching arm, accelerating uke into a fast forward break-fall.
We all paired off to train. I threw a straight punch toward my partner's face, and while he was able to slip the strike, he was utterly unprepared for an attacker who would retract his fist, rather than leave a straightened arm hanging out in the air. I couldn't do the technique either, but I was sure that my attack was far more real and true than my partner's.
At some point, Saotome-sensei walked over, watched for a moment, turned to me, and said, "Hit me." He did not stop class, although people in our immediate area gave us some room. I looked at him, and I quite clearly remember thinking, "I don't care if he is the head instructor, I'm going to put my fist through his face." I lashed out as hard and fast as I could, and I felt the tip of the knuckle at the base of my middle finger just barely touch his nose --- and then he threw me about eight feet across the dojo, into my first truly hard break-fall, with so much force that I bounced up into hanmi, facing him. Saotome-sensei then bowed curtly, and walked away.
As I returned to my training partner, several people said, "Good ukemi!" to me in low voices. But all I could think was that it was not good ukemi --- he had thrown me that way. Not only had he allowed me to get as close to injuring him as possible, not only had he somehow slipped my attack, not only had he done the technique effortlessly, not only had he thrown me completely safely, but he had done so in a way that made me look good --- far better treatment than I deserved.