It was in 1980. I had been in the USA for a year. On my return to Sweden, I immediately started hearing rumors about this guy who had spent a bundle of years in Japan, training aikido. He was 4 dan, which was higher than any other Swedish grade at that time.
Everybody was in awe, because of the grade, because of this sudden reappearance of someone who was among the very first Swedes to practice aikido, and also because he was so tremendously strong and powerful, I was told. From the descriptions he sounded like some kind of superhero -- or supervillain, for that matter.
I found it strange that so many aikido students were flabbergasted by what sounded like a simple brute. Well, it would soon turn out that my impression was all wrong.
A while after my return to Sweden, Ichimura, who was our shihan at that time, had a seminar. I went there and practiced with many of the old friends (though not so old in those days, alas) and some people I had not seen before.
At the end of a class I paired up with one of those strangers, for suwari kokyuho. A middle-aged man, not big at all but far from tiny. He had a hakama on, so he must have trained for more than the year I had been gone. Swedish aikido was not that big in those days, so most of us had met repeatedly.
Well, I thought, he might have avoided seminars and such before he got his hakama, hiding in the dojo to which he belonged. Or I had just forgotten a few faces during my absence. Little did I know.
Anyway, we started the exercise. He made the movement and pushed me down. During seminars, I usually didn't resist that much, because that tended to frustrate many practitioners. I settled for letting them do their thing, with just a hint of resistance, so that they'd at least show some commitment. Usually, they were fine with that, happily unaware of my compliance.
The same seemed to be true for the stranger in front of me. He did it once, twice. But then he leaned over and asked with a gentle voice:
"Excuse me, but is there more?"
Nobody had asked me that before. We started getting at it with a lot of energy and delight. Immediately it was clear to me that this guy hadn't put the hakama on anytime recently. He might have been born with it.
As we were enjoying ourselves -- probably making some noise, I don't know -- Ichimura came up to us and said with a smile:
"Stefan, you should have had him with you in America."
He was making a joke. I had told Ichimura earlier about the tendency to what I would call competition in some American dojos. Coming as a stranger, I sometimes had the feeling that the dojo members got into some King of the Hill, when I came there as a visitor. It might have been me. Anyway, I got so fed up with it that when I got to New York Aikikai, I appeared without a hakama and told people who asked that I was a beginner, having trained "a little."
When Ichimura made his little joke, the man in front of me -- until then so gentle -- cut him short with quite a sharp voice:
Ichimura jumped back and mumbled something apologetic. Then I thought to myself: This must be that 4 dan everyone talks about.
Indeed it was. That's how I met Jan Hermansson.
We had additional times of fun at that seminar, where I got to experience what had amazed everybody. His techniques were like iron. There was no escaping them, no little gap in his execution where one could try to counter them (which would have been a bad idea).
He was not that easy to swing around. I remember entering a shihonage, and when I held his arm in the position right before the throw -- normally quite a superior position -- I halted, my whole body and mind realizing that I couldn't rock this boat. There was no way I could bring him down. He was not a boat, but a rock.
"Why did you stop?" he asked. "You're doing it right."
So, I applied a little pressure on his arm, and he sat down on the tatami, sort of leisurely. I had nothing to do with it.
It turned out we were neighbors, living in the same suburb to Stockholm, so we quickly became friends and have been since. I was honored to have both of his sons practice for a while in my dojo. Oddly, the one who did it the longest developed a style that reminded increasingly of his father's aikido, although the boy trained for me. Blood is thicker than perspiration.
Jan is strong. No doubt about that. And, as he has pointed out with a smile when we talked about it: "Strength is good to have, too." But what has always impressed me the most is the precision by which he moves his body, and of course, the energy by which he springs into action.
But I bet that the former is the main ingredient in Jan's tremendous capacity. Whatever the attack is and whatever technique he applies on it, immediately he positions himself optimally for it. He always has his whole body in line with what he's doing. And then he goes for it, like there's no tomorrow. When you're his uke, you feel it and your body will remember it for quite a while.
As if that's not enough, he also has a lot of tricks up his sleeve. Training with him is like being an explorer in a strange land, with a native guide. We start by doing what the instructor of the class might have shown, but after no more than a round or two of it, Jan says:
"You can do like this, too."
And he starts a seemingly endless line of variations, most of them surprising, some of them very far indeed from the original technique -- but all of them exciting, if that's the word, and none failing.
Jan is a very modest man (yes, really), and he's prepared to make any effort for everybody learning and having a good time on the tatami. Oh, he's quite good at participating in the fun after it, as well. To the seminar parties, he often comes equipped with all that's needed to make a proper Irish Coffee, and he wouldn't dream of keeping it to himself. That's keiko.
Jan Hermansson is the senior of Swedish aikido, being one of the two who started to experiment with it back in 1961. But he has never made claims to any position of power, never cared for titles or any other regalia of which the world of budo has far too much. When someone calls him sensei, he just says: "My name is Jan."
Again, that's keiko. It's what he's about. So, I'm not holding my breath for the moment when I can actually throw him with a shihonage.