Look around at a great man's disciples. Everyone gets a piece. Sometimes it's the heart, sometimes it's the soul, sometimes it's the sinew and sometimes it's just a wild hair.
There are certain aspects of Ueshiba Morihei that people would like to forget. His mysticism was not antiseptic -- he called up spirits, he had fits of rage that he attributed to gods possessing him, and he claimed to be an avatar of sorts, a man to whom his disciples' responsibility was merely to contribute their prayers and practice to generate the energy so that he could do the work of reconciliation of the spheres of existence. Consider his politics -- he was personal friends with some of the architects of the atrocities of the Second World War, friendships he maintained after the war, and he made space in his dojo for such men to meet. In Ueshiba, these aspects were intertwined with his hopes for aikido as also a means of reconciliation between people, his training in internal strength and aiki, his martial techniques -- all of it braided in one inextricable unity.
Most of Ueshiba' disciples unspooled two or three strands from this "braid," and this became their
aikido. Although some, such as Hikitsuchi Morio, Shirata Rinjiro or Sunadomari Kanshu embraced aspects of Ueshiba's neo-Shinto cosmology, few put both
his politics and his mysticism center stage. One who did was Sasaki Masando.
I did not attend Sasaki-sensei's classes very often, particularly during my early days of practice at the Aikikai. I had other places to go on the days that he taught, and no one talked about him in such a way that led me to change my plans. What later caught my interest was not talk of his aikido. Let us say that I moved in some interesting circles, places where one might ordinarily assume a non-Japanese might not be welcome. When such people heard that I did martial arts, Sasaki sensei's name came up a couple of times. He was known because he was a figure in far-right nationalist circles, some of which touched other
circles that crossed the line from ideology to action, and furthermore, he was a Shinto priest. These two roles go together in Japan hand-in-glove (and at times, even today, fist on dagger). Because of whom I knew, I had to check him out.
A few classes were enough. The man was in love with the sound of his own voice! Of the classes I attended, his one-hour classes were forty minutes talk. Perhaps he was following in O-sensei's footsteps -- or voiceprints. What I recall were speeches about the degeneracy of Japanese youth; why Christianity was spiritually flawed, having only one god "or three, at best," as opposed to Japan, which had uncountable gods; how Japan may have, perhaps, made a few minor errors in the Great Asian War, but they liberated the entire continent from the colonial white man. All of this was interspersed with multi-layered puns, and out-of-context bon-mots about sex, just one side of creepy, actually, and on and on and on. Then he'd demonstrate a technique.
Sasaki sensei is a stocky man, not exceptionally graceful, but definitely possessing some genuine physical power. His aikido was, in my opinion, not first-rate. Blessed with complaisant uke, who made themselves available by throwing themselves at him, Sasaki-sensei could wind up with big, muscular round movements and slam them to the mat. There was a lot of noise and impact, but there were holes in his technique big enough to drive a Mack truck.
On my last class with him, he called me out, pointing out that aikido made the size of big foreigners irrelevant. He then threw me in iriminage, with me, in my role as demonstration uke, doing everything I could to make that possible. As I hit the ground, he put me in a judo technique, kesagatame
(collar pin), and began speechifying about the deficiencies of judo. "Judo is not a real martial art. Look at this. He's on his back, and that's what judo thinks is a good pin! Nonsense. He could claw at my eyes. Go ahead and try to escape" (he left me an opening and shifted to side control). "Now look at this nonsense. He could grab my groin, he could still punch me, he could piss in my face." Then he cackled, turning his head, looking at various women in the dojo.
Then, complying with his attempt to turn me over, he put a nikyo pin on me, and speechified for a couple of minutes how this was inescapable. Fair enough -- the question really was if he could get a person there. The truth is that it is a long journey from standing combat to the picture-perfect kneeling arm pin.
That was enough for me. Neither his ideology nor his religious beliefs were a problem for me, but they failed to inspire. Think about the word -- in-spire
, which means to fill with breath, fill with spirit. Sasaki sensei was very smart, very opinionated, very well-read, and certainly entertaining, at least if one didn't want to actually practice
aikido on that particular day. But as far as I could see from the demeanor of those in the class, he did not bring one closer to the gods, nor did he draw young Japanese men and women towards a more patriotic attitude towards their own country. And as for his sexual references, he certainly didn't put one in the mood. All of this would have been forgivable if all his words could have been obliterated by a sense of being caught in an uncontrollable whirlwind of force; of attacking him and being inexplicably neutralized; or reaching for him and finding him disappear right within one's grasp. But there was none of that. Instead, all he had to offer physically was something mundane and altogether uninteresting. And no amount of talk could cover that up.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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.
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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