There was a wonderful Jesuit priest, living far out in the country, named Rev. Oshida. He had adapted Zen to the Catholic mass. He was one of the kindest, most divinely touched people I ever met. When he heard that I studied martial arts, he asked me if I knew a man called Chiba, who studied Zen and martial arts, and I said I did, slightly, and he said . . . but that’s his story, not mine. One degree of separation.
I do not know how it is now, but back in earlier days, each deshi became, singly, the direct sempai of one who entered after him. Everyone senior to you was your sempai, but one was YOUR sempai: he was responsible for you; he taught you how to act (at least according to his lights) and was responsible for your misdeeds as well. Kuroiwa Yoshio told me that he was Chiba’s sempai. He had a box of photos, including some of Chiba still in a school-boy uniform. He told me . . .but that’s his story, not mine. One degree of separation
Chiba was Terry Dobson’s direct sempai at the Aikikai. Terry had so many stories, I felt like I knew Chiba sensei before I arrived in Japan – for example, he told me . . . no, not mine either. One degree of separation
I was friendly with many of the guys who became his direct students at the Aikikai, when he returned to Japan, and I heard from Jay, from Bruce, from Meik and from Mad Murray. Jay said, Meik told me, Murray and Bruce. . . One degree of separation
In Seattle, I became acquainted with his direct sempai in his Zen lineage, a slender, tender fellow, with soft eyes and religious mien, and he said . . . One degree of separation
Chiba sensei came back to Japan in 1976 or 1977, after some years in England. One evening, Tada sensei didn’t appear at the appointed time for his class. Approximately forty of us were in the dojo, waiting, and Chiba sensei stalked onto the mat, his first class upon his return. There was an intake of breath. Some people, among them both Japanese and foreign, immediately knee-walked to the exit, a suwari-waza scuttle, and quickly left the dojo. He glared around the room, bowed, and then started warm-ups. After a few stretches, he started doing double punches in the air at various angles – with kiai. He looked enraged.
I figured I might as well “get it over with.” So when warm-ups ended, I sat front and center, in a big seiza. He locked eyes with me, and called me out for the first technique. Katate-dori. I grabbed his wrist. Chiba sensei is explosively powerful, very different from the grinding implacable gears of Arikawa sensei’s technique. Furthermore, he has an overwhelming ability to do irimi, to take your territory and make it his own. He takes what you thought was your space.
The question, however, is what one does with your space when they it their own. In this event, the technique was shihonage. He deliberately maneuvered so that my arm was bridged over his elbow. He cut down at an angle, inwards across his own body, making a straight-forward tobu-ukemi inadequate for protecting myself. Once this vulnerable, you must drive your head towards your own hand, trying to lay your same side ear upon it, and leap. You must move your whole body faster than tori, in this case, over his shoulder and across his body.
By the way, if you’ve anticipated the technique and moved ahead of tori, this often means that you and the instructor both know what is to happen next, either by command or physical cue. When you two are not in an agreed “demonstration” mode, this means that the instructor is unskilled enough that you have read his intention. If you can read the other’s intention, you could counter what they are doing. They are actually throwing you at your forbearance, whether you know it or not.
In this case, I did NOT anticipate what Chiba sensei was doing. I grabbed for him, he invaded me through irimi, taking both my space and balance, and I found myself in an incredibly dangerous position, my arm about to break. I took a huge step and accelerated, trying through speed and position, and using, as well, the power of his cut, to “slingshot” myself to a position of safety. However, in mid-air, I felt the bones of my elbow slip out of place, and then as I “caught up and passed” the shihonage, they snapped back with an audible click, heard throughout the silent dojo. An incandescent flash of pain. One degree from separation
I was sure the elbow was broken, but I hit the ground and immediately bounced up in another attack with my left arm. And I will never forget his face, because he was “gone” – momentarily lost in the sensation of snapping my arm – but here I was, grabbing his wrist again, inside and close, face-to-face. There was a moment’s shock on his face - he was literally “off guard” - but he immediately “came to,” and threw me again, powerfully, yet staggering just a little, without having total control of me or his own body. I bounced up again, my right arm, to my surprise, still functional, and he threw me twice more, powerfully, but with clean unambiguous lines. He looked at me a little oddly, and that was it.
I’ve written about this incident once before, in Dueling with Osensei
, and word got back to me after publication that some people were very offended, that I’d insulted their teacher, blah, blah, blah. At that time, I just said to the messengers that if people were upset, they could look me up instead of passing the word through a proxy. I’ll say here what I would have said to them were anyone to have taken me up on my offer, because I’ve not changed my perspective in the slightest: it was absolutely clear to me – physically clear – that he picked me, a big hakama-wearing foreigner to make a statement for his first technique in his first class. “Chiba’s back – he snapped that guy’s arm.” And if the more starry-eyed are wondering; no, this wasn’t somehow therapeutic. My elbow was severely strained for quite some time.
By the way, I know what it’s like to break or dislocate someone’s arm when I didn’t intend to, and I know what it’s like to do so when that’s exactly what I wanted to do, because I’ve done both. The first is a horror and the second is an ecstasy. I saw ecstasy in his face. (Yet let me add one more distinction, if you will bear with me – in my personal experience of the latter, it was someone who was my enemy: I’m not saying it was right, but it was a fight. Chiba sensei did not know me).
But, some may well ask (and I include myself among them), “Why did he not finish the job on the next technique, if that’s what he intended to do?” He didn’t go back for a second attempt, which he surely could have done, and surely could have succeeded. His final two shihonage were, in fact, beautiful techniques, as clean and powerful as I ever felt.
Chiba sensei has been a koan of mine for many years, perhaps part of wrestling with my own capacity for violence. I knew him through other people’s accounts, and met him in a way that confirmed some of my worst fears. As readers of HIPS
are aware, I use the word “speculation,” in its classical sense, in turning a mirror, a lens, to something to see it as best I can through that curved glass. And here’s what I speculate:
Chiba sensei is a master of irimi. I have never experienced anyone who “enters” with less hesitation and more power. To move so completely requires tapping into the most ferocious and primordial aspects of the nervous system. Speaking from personal experience, the danger is that when you tap into your primitive self, it taps into you. What the irimi of irimi? The answer is pure impulse. The danger of pure impulse is that it has its own truth and logic, something I’ve learned to both my own and others’ regret. I have my own sins to repent. I think I know that place he goes to.
At any rate, impulsive actions are different from calculated actions. When an impulse passes, it's gone. When it's disrupted, it can disappear (no guarantees here, but it can). Calculation, on the other hand, is repeated until cold success is achieved. Both can cause terrible harm, but they come from different places.
I walk away
I kept going to his class for a while. He is a very charismatic man, very smart, and very powerful. Technically, he was one of the best practitioners in the Aikikai then. He was the only shihan I ever saw in Nidai Doshu’s class, practicing with others as an ordinary student, and doing it honestly and cleanly as well. Unlike many shihan, he has continued to get better and better over the decades.
But I was training with many powerful people, some far greater, more fearsome martial artists. And they didn’t deliberately try to hurt me. They scared me, and practice was often close to edges that I didn’t even know existed, or that I could conceive of surviving. But we were, in some way, not only student and teacher, but comrades-in-arms. I trusted them with my life, enough so when I was injured, that trust was not shaken. I did not trust Chiba sensei and what he offered.
Chiba sensei and I have a moment
In the last class I remember attending, he was teaching a kokyu-nage variation, where he’d execute the entering move, grab your obi/hakama cords with one hand and with his forearm at your neck, bend your back over his knee, stretching you way out in a vulnerable position, and then drop you by removing his leg while dropping his weight upon you.
He was making the rounds, came to me, and underestimated my height. He reached for my hakama cords, and grabbed a little too low. Sorry for being a little indelicate here, but I used to go “free-ranger” under my practice uniform. For whatever reason, it didn’t hurt particularly, but I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me, puzzled at the unexpected sensation in his hand, typically trying to look ferocious, and then he realizes what he's got ahold of, and he tries, oh he tries, he tries with superhuman will, glowering, frowning, but he can’t stop himself, and he starts laughing, snorting through his nose, and I’m laughing too, held up in the air by my balls, and then he drops me, and walks on, laughing still.