I started training at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo in January of 1976. I stood out for three reasons: I am 2 meters tall, and at that time, at least, was the tallest person training there; I was personally introduced to Doshu (Ueshiba Kisshomaru) by my instructor, Kuwamori Yasunori, who came to the one hour class with me, twenty minutes late, and Doshu stopped the class to ask what he was doing there, because he knew he never got up early; and I was introduced to Doshu as a student of Saotome Mitsugi, who was, at that time, on the outs with the Aikikai and not my teacher anyway. Doshu looked at me "consideringly," and then I piped up in really broken Japanese to correct (!) my teacher and say that I wasn't Saotome sensei's student, he was, in fact a friend of mine, but I was Terry Dobson's student (Terry considered even more of a problem at the time -- and how about that "he's a friend of mine?" It was true in those days, in what was a strangely complex manner, but unbelievable for a young kid, an ikkyu, to say). Doshu pursed his lips, looked me up and down and called over Shibata Ichiro, "introduced" me as Terry Dobson's student. Shibata knew this was one of those special moments, and then it was one of those Bug's Bunny cartoons, when there's a whirlwind of arms and legs and the unsuspecting character is suddenly snatched up, spit out, snatched up again. And at the end of that class, Kuwamori said to me he was going home to go back to sleep (laughing up his sleeve, no doubt), but I should take the next class. And I see Shibata-san talking to Miyamoto-san, and the next class starts (I have no memory of who was teaching at that point -- it sort of felt like I was in an extended automobile wreck) and Miyamoto runs over, asks me to practice and even though that teacher called for a change of partner at the end of each waza, Miyamoto kept me like a bulldog with a favorite bone, and chewed on me the entire hour. The next morning, it was Seki-san, and I thus met the top three uchi-deshi, with Yasuno-san, the fourth, a student of Yamaguchi Seigo, not really in the mix. I will write about these younger shihan at some future time.
I came back. Every day I came back. In the evenings, I was either at the Kuwamori Dojo or another dojo (Kuroiwa sensei's, Nishio sensei's), but in the morning, two classes, and in the mid-afternoon, one class, I was at the Aikikai.
I had several attributes that made me of interest to teachers, so that I was soon called out to demonstrate techniques upon.
- First of all, my size. I certainly was not a massive man, but I was tall and fit, and throwing someone my size looked real good when it happened, and was an intriguing puzzle as well. Shihan would sometimes approach me between classes and say, "hey, let me try something here," and they'd try to work out if a certain technique required any tweaking with someone my size.
- Secondly, my attitude. I attacked hard, but I did not mess up -- or try to mess up -- the teacher's technique. I honestly gave them what they asked for. I watched how their own students took ukemi with them, and while I didn't slavishly imitate them, I had an idea what the teacher was looking for. I gave them a clean unambiguous attack when enabled them to demonstrate a principle they wanted to convey. (There were exceptions -- I'll write about them in future columns -- but, for the most part, my style of ukemi was appreciated).
- I was not a dive bunny. No one liked that at Honbu in those days. Even Watanabe Nobuyuki didn't expect it, although some of his own students certainly were flip-flopping around. But I gave him a straightforward attack, and got a straightforward throw or lock in return.
- I gave each teacher respect in his own class. If I was attending Osawa sensei's class, I tried to do the technique exactly as he taught it. If I was in Tada sensei's, or Ichihashi sensei's or Chiba sensei's - the same. I had the luxury of gradually "crafting" my own individual style at Kuwamori Dojo, with the approval of Kuwamori Yasunori, and I used my attendance at every other teacher's class to add data to my information base. I changed by "osmosis" -- after Tada sensei, for example, would do something to me and demonstrate it in front of me enough times, aspects of what he was doing would begin to appear in my own work. I tried to be each teacher's "perfect" student. Over time, I ceased going to certain teacher's classes, because I didn't want to acquire more of their data, so to speak. But I was willing to learn from everyone. In fact, if I were training with any sempai, if they gave me instructions, even if it was a tedious old man (of whom there were all too many in the aikido world in Japan), I would do exactly what they said. I used the sempai system to my own advantage -- viewing it from the perspective that "everyone has to know something." Because it was built-in culturally, I experienced neither loss of face nor ego in following their directions. I knew at a certain point, I'd get good enough that they'd leave me alone. Rather than deciding on my style from my own narrow knowledge base, I let a personal style coalesce from the widest information base I could acquire.
- I could take a hard fall or a high fall, and I was pretty difficult to hurt. My reaction time was fast enough to pick up atemi coming my way and react, but not over-react, and if someone chose to crank my arm or wrist, I was both tough enough and quick enough to take the fall or lock without getting hurt either.
- And most of all, I was "seriously happy." What I mean is that I took training very seriously, but I was obviously having a wonderful time. My attitude was infectious.
Doshu began regularly calling me out to take ukemi for him about one month after I started training there, even before I even got my shodan. But first, let me give my impressions of Doshu. I saw him talk and laugh with others, heard him instruct, but he had a reserve about him. He was always somewhat apart, even alone. He would silently gaze at things happening with a kind of dignified stillness. He really did remind me of an "Emperor," placed into an inescapable role that he fulfilled. The role seemed to fit him well -- I do not want to leave an impression that he looked, in any sense, like he wished to be elsewhere. But he seemed apart.
Two things leavened this impression, both of which made me smile.
- Kuroiwa Yoshio told me how the young deshi would go drinking, and Doshu, then Waka-sensei, would go along, too, and he'd get tipsy and he sometimes would grab a waitresses' rear end, and they'd carry him home, singing.
- Among the guys training at Honbu at that time was a French guy, Daniel (can't remember his last name), I think he was a sandan or yondan, who, along with his brother, was approximately 4 feet, six inches tall. We'd both regularly go to Doshu's class, and after it was over, we'd practice together, half as a lark and half for the training. He would exclusively try to do tenchi-nage on me, and I would exclusively do shihonage. Doshu, on his way out the door, would stop and for five minutes or so, would just stand there, laughing, like watching a stork fighting with a badger, each on the other's terms.
Anyway, one day, Doshu called me out for an attack. I believe it was a collar grab. He did a tenkan movement and then <RATCHET-CLICK> (sorry, that's the only way I can describe it), he locked me in a wakigatame -- what some call "rokyo" or "hijikime osae. It was like being hit by a precision instrument -- imagine, if you will, the Terminator movies, where the android has been stripped of flesh and you have this metal skeleton, which generates power by ratcheting its joints and locking them. That's what it felt like -- I was moving and then, suddenly, I was locked up. Precisely, inarguably. I hit one knee and as I dropped, he maintained total control. And he was making eye-contact the whole way -- I had a feeling, correct or not, as if he was judging my response to what was painful and dominant, what I think it is fair to say, was his "hole card" technique. Was I upset, scared, defensive, trying to deny he'd totally, within the context of the technique, "won?" This little, middle-aged man?
I think he liked what he saw because he'd call me out one time, every class I attended. It was always one of two responses to my attack: wakigatame, on the one hand, and shomen-uchi irimi nage, on the other. Doshu's irimi-nage was, I believe, a hallmark of his effect on modern aikido, because it is perhaps the most common way the technique is now done. First of all, he was hard to catch: I felt like I was chasing thistledown. This begs a question, because, for his technique to work, one had to "throw oneself" at him, to some degree. He would do an irimi move to the outside, and put his lead hand on your shoulder, sometimes on the back of your neck, or rarely, grab your collar. Continuing to move towards your back corner, he'd pull down on that shoulder/neck, bending his knees a little. Here are some examples of him executing this technique, perhaps in a little less demanding form than he did when he was younger. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZ6Dv7h8DC4&feature=fvst
Honestly, I do not recall "having" to fall at this point. I did not have the sense that he was using his whole body weight (sometimes called aiki-sage in Daito-ryu, I think), directly through his arm and hand, his body one unit, so to speak, so that I, somewhat off-balance to be sure, was forced
to fall. Instead, I felt I was signaled
to fall, and once I got to a certain point,
I had to. I would hit the ground halfway between a side ukemi and a front ukemi (on my forearm), and Doshu would continue to move to my rear quadrant. It was my task to scramble after him, trying to regain my feet and, in theory, attack him again, while he placed just enough pressure on my shoulder/back of my neck and maybe my lead arm, to make that difficult, but not impossible. I was essentially, scrambling like I was chasing my own tail, but "over" my back shoulder, not as a dog does in a forward curve. Just as I regained my feet, up would come his other arm under my chin and with the aid of the arm still on my shoulder/neck, down I'd go.
It was a lot of work! Four of those and I'd be winded. The hallmark of his technique is that he tried to be always moving. He avoided collision, the ideal being that he was not where you wanted him to be. Therefore, you were overextended, or off-balance, trying to reach him or strike him.
If anyone wonders, I never once tried to trick him, resist him, stalk him slowly, clamp down on his arm, or tackle him. If I wanted to test the efficacy of aikido techniques, there were lots of young guys to do that with. He was a gentleman, and I acted like one too.
I never exchanged words with him after that initial introduction. I once came to 6:30 class with one of Kobayashi Yasuo's students, both of us still drunk, as we'd left off at three in the morning. Doshu came close to make a correction, smelled the two of us, backed up, started chuckling and shook a finger and walked off.
On another night, during a meal with a couple of the uchi-deshi at a nearby tonkatsu-ya
(breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets), it was "wondered" whether I'd ever want to be an uchi-deshi myself. I was already training in Araki-ryu at the time, moving away from aikido into another world, so I demurred. I'm sure the subject would never have come up, however, had there not been some approving things said about me at the dojo. It means much to me that I found some small favor in Doshu's eyes, because I found him so admirable. He survived an upbringing with a remarkable man, without becoming as so many such sons do, either trivial or a mere echo of his father. He negotiated an incredibly difficult situation, with any number of prima donna, many of whom were more powerful than he, and others who believed that they were. He maintained himself, not at the top, but at the center. And in retrospect, I think that irimi-nage and wakigatame (held in reserve) exemplified his style of leadership as well as his style on the mat. He was, in this sense, of one piece. Most of the time, he simply maintained himself where those, who'd agreed to be in his aikido "system" couldn't fully reach him. But he did have a wicked armbar, which, very rarely, he could crack down on an offending limb.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
- Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
- Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
- No back and forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real.
- If, for any reason, you find something to praise or condemn in anyone's description or wish to amplify your insights and perceptions, do so elsewhere. Start a thread about that subject in the appropriate section of Aikiweb.
Ellis Amdur is a licensed instructor (shihan) in two koryu: Araki-ryu Torite Kogusoku and Toda-ha Buko-ryu Naginatajutsu. His martial arts career is approximately forty years -- in addition to koryu, he has trained in a number of other combative arts, including muay thai, judo, xingyi and aikido.
A recognized expert in classical and modern Japanese martial traditions, he has authored three books and one instructional DVD on this subject. The most recent is his just released Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei's Power.
Information regarding his publications on martial arts, as well as other books on crisis intervention can be accessed at his website: www.edgework.info