Dojo: Southampton Aikikai
Join Date: Sep 2004
Re: It Had to Be Felt #7: Yamaguchi Seigo: Suburi with People
I first heard of Yamaguchi Sensei in around 1980. He had visited the UK once or twice to teach at the British Aikido Federation Summer School, I believe originally at Chiba Sensei's suggestion, but at that stage I was only just starting to practise aikido, and I did not come face to face with the man for several years. My father had a cine film of Yamaguchi Sensei at Hombu Dojo that we watched together several times. I certainly had seen nothing like his aikido - the complete relaxation, the almost magical control he seemed to have over his partners, the way he seemed to make no distinction between sitting and standing techniques, the seamless flow from one technique into another, even the characteristic swagger of his across the mat that Ellis mentioned, all these things had the both of us transfixed. Even at that early stage I could see that his aikido was different in many ways from that of Kisshomaru Doshu or of his father's, and certainly unlike Chiba Sensei's leonine prowling, or the rather technical and solid aikido that Kanetsuka Sensei was teaching back then.
In 1986 I at last had the chance to be on the mat with him, when he came to teach at a Universities weekend course in Oxford. I remember particularly the intimate class he gave in Kanetsuka Sensei's private dojo at the Oxford Ashram the previous evening, where he taught shihonage, bokken suburi and kesagiri, all on the bare wooden floor. He explained that in his own dojo he had a wooden floor, though he also taught on the tatami at Hombu Dojo, and both had their advantages. He had an almost genial presence in classes, watching us with a half-smile trying in vain to copy his movements. During the large classes on the following days (of which there are some clips are on YouTube) he mainly called out local senior grades, paticularly Terry Ezra, John Rogers and Matthew Holland, as uke, whom he threw around with spontaneous grace, but liked to amble around the dojo inviting members of the class to attack him. What I remember most vividly is receiving nikyo from him, which was certainly a different experience from any nikyo I had felt until then - there was absolutely no sensation of anything happening to me until everything locked into place, then all of a sudden there seemed to be an electric current running through me and my body collapsed. No pain, no feeling that my wrist was being manipulated, just "zap".
The following May he returned to Oxford, and I was very lucky to attend another private class with him on the Friday, this time in Iffley Village Hall, where Kanetsuka Sensei was then teaching regular classes. This was again on a wooden floor, but by then I was more used to practising without tatami. He explained that uke should always keep contact with him, and should strive to follow what he was doing right up to the end of the technique: this was a new concept to many of us, who were used to simply delivering the attack and then receiving the given technique. His ikkyo was quite wonderful: I couldn't feel the contact from his hands at all, instead first of all my body went up in the air, then I was lying face down on the floor. His control in this pin was quite strange to me, as I had no sensation of "control", but until the moment he chose to let me move I was completely unable to move my whole body. He corrected my ukemi from ikkyo: instead of lying on the floor passively while he applied the pin, he told me to keep an extension through my arm and to press into his grip, so that when he released the control of my elbow ikkyo could immediately start to flow into something else. He encouraged this "proactive" ukemi in all techniques - if we responded this way, ikkyo could turn suddenly into koshinage, or iriminage might spontaneously end in an immobilisation. Something else I never experienced before (or since) was the way he could immobilise his uke with one finger - when you watched him do this to somebody else you could see how he was subtly adjusting his balance in response to the movements of his uke, but when he did it to me it felt as if I was lying under an immense rock.
That was the last time I saw Yamaguchi Sensei. Since then I have very much enjoyed practising with two of his well-known direct students, Seishiro Endo and Takeshi Yamashima (as well as a week's summer school with Minoru Sekiya), and have again felt some of that effortless control, even though these teachers have very much their own way of doing things. I have certainly pondered deeply and at length since then on the meaning of ukemi, and I understand Ellis's discomfort with what Yamaguchi Sensei appeared to expect from his uke. The latter seems to reach its logical extreme in ukemi of the students of Yoshinobu Takeda (another of Yamaguchi's senior students), who seem borne aloft by the lightest breeze as the chase their teacher around the mat. There is film clip of one of Yamaguchi's earlier visits to the UK in the late 1970s, which certainly sparked animated discussion on AikiWeb a while ago: Kanetsuka Sensei holds him in morotedori and for a second or so it looks as if Yamaguchi is actually held fast, but then he changed direction and shook Kanetsuka off. I know Kanetsuka Sensei had an extraordinarily strong grip in those early days (he told me once he blamed his mother for feeding him too much milk as a child!) and excellent posture, but it does look as if there was seem to be a clash of cultures in that single encounter: the solid practice of the Yoshinkai and Saito Sensei's teaching, meeting the fluidity and responsiveness of the Yamaguchi way. Kanetsuka Sensei seems to have completely changed his understanding of ukemi since then: he puts a lot of emphasis on being able to move a strong attacker (or, just as often, three or four) with minimal strength, which he is certainly able to do these days, but when he holds your wrist you tend to fall over without knowing what has happened. Robert Mustard's experience with Gozo Shioda (Kanetsuka's original teacher) suggests that this was very much in the older Yoshinkai tradition, but I think Yamaguchi Sensei's influence on Kanetsuka Sensei still runs deep.