Dojo: Southampton Aikikai
Join Date: Sep 2004
Re: It Had to Be Felt #43: Kanetsuka Minoru: "Following in the Footsteps"
I started practising with Kanetsuka Sensei in 1980 or 1981. In my undergraduate years I attended his classes at his own dojo in Oxford, which was initially located at Kofi Busia's yoga ashram on Banbury Road and then, after that venue closed down, relocated to Iffley Village Hall, close to where he lived at that time. He also put in a regular appearance at my father's dojo at Oxford University, where he graded me to gokyu in 1982. Over the following years I spent many weekends travelling with him around the UK and abroad, including trips to Belgium, France and Greece, as well as (particularly memorably) to Dusseldorf in Germany for Aikikai Deutschland's twentieth anniversary celebration in 1985.
I had little knowledge of his background when I was starting out in aikido, nor did I have much experience at all of other shihan, and I assumed that what he did was “standard” aikido. Only in later years, with the coming of YouTube, was I able to watch videos of Gozo Shioda, his first teacher, and appreciate the origin of his concise and economical movements. He was also strongly influenced by Seigo Yamaguchi, who added softness and direct centre-to-centre contact to the rigorous approach he absorbed from Shioda Sensei (and of course with Chiba Sensei in his earlier years in England). As Peter has already mentioned, Kanetsuka Sensei knew the five volumes of Morihiro Saito’s “Traditional Aikido” almost page by page: although he gradually moved away from the latter’s Aikiken exercises, he still values Saito’s emphasis on being able to respond to strong grips, as well as his basic approach to waza.
One of my main memories of practising on the wooden floors of his private dojos in Oxford was of the swordwork from the Kashima Shinryu, which he initially learned from Sekiya Sensei and later on from Inaba Sensei of the Shiseikan. We practised many repetitions of basic kesagiri cutting and of the five partnered kihon-dachi kata, with heavy, straight bokken with squared ends and inch-thick tsuba (which were definitely more than decoration!). I realised afterwards that this training was one key to understanding Yamaguchi Sensei’s direct but very relaxed aikido, as well as being excellent exercises for postural stability and focus.
In the mid-1980s, he was diagnosed with acute nasopharyngeal cancer. This was deemed inoperable, so in addition to his courses of radiotherapy he adopted a strict dietary and exercise regime. He gave up red meat and alcohol completely, cut his diet down to a simple fare of brown rice and vegetables, and augmented this with vast quantities of Vitamin C. All this time, despite his at times perilously low energy levels, he came to his classes at the Oxford dojos, a gaunt figure in a thick jacket and a big woolly hat, sometimes sitting and watching us practise, but often intervening with surprising vigour to demonstrate some important point. He continued to travel around Europe teaching - I remember accompanying him on a trip to Lille in northern France one snowy weekend the following winter, where he insisted on choosing the biggest and strongest ukes to demonstrate with. I know his illness caused great suffering and worry to him and his family, but I am convinced that this formed a major ingredient in the development of his sensitive, precise and economical aikido. His drastically reduced bodily strength, along with the inspiration drawn from his contact with Yamaguchi Sensei during the same period, helped him to refine his movement and his kokyu to ever more softness and to pare away more and more redundant physical effort.
Although his body has changed almost completely over the time I have known him, his technique has consistently focused on effectiveness and control of his partner. Nevertheless, in many hundreds of hours in his classes he has never injured me, beyond one occasion when I got a bloody nose from not protecting my face quickly enough when receiving iriminage. In fact, I have never even felt any risk of him causing me injury, despite his at times extremely positive and strong technique, and of course despite the real need to stay highly vigilant and focused when taking ukemi from him. As an example, many years ago he asked me to hold his wrist while he had a katana in its scabbard at his waist: as he drew the blade, I found myself entering a strange state of heightened awareness that blood could be drawn any minute, but at the same time I had a strong sense that I trusted him completely.
One of the first things many people notice when they see him for the first time is that he is in excellent physical condition, even now he is in his seventies, and even after suffering an injury in a road accident a couple of years ago that would have permanently incapacitated most mortals, but from which he has lately made a good recovery. His posture is upright, his body is flexible and strong, and he moves effortlessly and powerfully into and out of seiza (most unlike almost anyone I see on the mat in their sixties, never mind their seventies!). All the time I have been attending his classes, he has consistently stressed the importance of a personal practice regime. Over the years, he has regularly shown us exercises to improve our balance, flexibility and kokyu ryoku: for instance, arm swinging (ude-furi), “tree hugging”, suburi with a heavy bokken, the “fish” exercise, and makko-ho stretching exercises. When he is teaching, he constantly relates all of these to how the body should move in aikido. These days he particularly connects everything in his aikido to torifune, furitama, bowing (tachi-rei and za-rei), and gassho.
In all his demonstrations in recent years, and more often than not in his classes, he loves to show kokyu-ho against multiple attackers, with up to five or six people holding his wrists, shoulders, neck and legs. He usually starts from seiza, but he also likes to demonstrate standing, cross-legged, lying down, and even occasionally sitting in lotus pose on a chair. With a subtle movement of his body, he disrupts his partners’ centres, and from then on it is inevitable that all will collapse one by one. It is impossible to trap him in one position: he manages to keep the whole of his body free, moving at right angles to the applied force of the attacker’s (or attackers’) strongest direction in a continuous three-dimensional movement.
He tries to explain what he does in terms of ocean waves and of pendulums, talking about gravity and torques. Since he knows I was trained as a physicist, he often asks me to translate what he does into terms of physical principles. I have always struggled with this, mostly because of my growing conviction that the path of aikido is not primarily an intellectual one: he himself has told me more than once that my head understands aikido much better than my body does! Recently, though, I have realised (partly through experience practising with other teachers outside aikido) that much of his ability to connect directly with his partner’s centre, and to avoid being trapped even by multiple strong attackers, comes for his mastery of “in-yo” or yin and yang. Every movement at the point of contact is balanced by a small adjustment in the rest of his body. There is no pushing or pulling; instead there is a strong feeling of spherical movement around multiple centres of rotation. Every joint of his body is free to move with every possible degree of freedom. This leads to the occasional very weird sensation for his uke. Sometimes I have had the fleeting but vivid impression that his arms were made up of a mechanism of many intermeshing cogs and levers, rather than from flesh and bone. On other occasions I have grabbed his wrist and immediately had a feeling of “floating” instability, rather like the experience of trying to carry a tray filled with water.
Kanetsuka Sensei often tells us that his classes are a kind of laboratory for him, and that we are his training partners. In recent years he has been fond of saying that he is no longer teaching aikido – indeed, he rarely teaches specific techniques – just aiki and tai-sabaki, in the deeper sense of the latter as meaning “how to use the body”. He has a rather old-fashioned (and specifically Asian) didactic approach, in fact: rarely explaining explicitly how to stand or to execute ikkyo or shihonage, instead he shows repeatedly what we are intended to understand as core principles, even though each demonstration looks on the surface rather different from the last. He often berates us for repeating the same old familiar motions, instead of taking in what it is he is showing us (sometimes describing us as “hamsters in wheels”). He is constantly frustrated by our lack of progress, which can be dispiriting, but at the same time his constant exploration of the path of aiki is an example to us: to attempt to follow him is a constant reminder of the dangers of complacency.
Last edited by Alex Megann : 08-08-2013 at 10:10 AM.