I first saw Kato Hiroshi in a public demonstration held at a dojo in Houston, Texas in late 1998. I was startled by his loud kiai and his throws, both of which were powerful and explosive. Most amazing to me, though, his aikido showed few discernible techniques, but rather quick and powerful movements inside the defenses of uke, followed by all kinds and types of throws I had never seen before.
I ended up joining that dojo and, slowly but surely, I began to learn the system of teaching espoused by Kato Sensei. In almost every way, there were slight twists and surprises that were at variance from what I had learned before. It was like the difference between watching a black and white TV in the 1950's and then being exposed to a color television set. It's the same show, but it suddenly becomes living, beautiful and amazing.
In those days, Sensei would come to Houston and stay from fifteen to thirty days at a time. We would have two or three classes per day and would always practice both body arts and weapons. The weapons' training was grueling. We would do both solo and group blending exercises, as well as kumitachi and kumijo exercises that were confusing and difficult to do. In the 14 years that I have trained under Kato Sensei, he has always devoted 50% of the time to weapons training in every seminar and every class I have ever attended. He deeply believes in it.
When I first saw him doing aikido, it looked like the techniques were really painful. When I began taking ukemi for him, I found that his joint locks did indeed hurt a lot, and were certainly something to respect and be prepared for. In his older years, though, Kato Sensei has become very kind, and if he realizes that a person is unable to receive very powerful techniques, he gears things to the level that challenges them without breaking them. I suppose you could say that he has mellowed somewhat, and is more of a grandfather type now.
However, even in his late 70's, he can still "make the guns smoke" whenever he wants to. He is unbelievably fast, and he has a number of unorthodox and unusual ways of entering and using his hands and body movement to capture the attackers' momentum and unbalance them. He has a definite methodology for doing his techniques using twisting hip motions and triangular foot positioning. His methodology centers on generating power from the ground, elaborating this through turning, twisting, spiraling and wave-like motions. He also believes that posture and the use of the spinal column is extremely important. Kato sensei's aikido has always had a lifting aspect to it. It doesn't matter whether he lifts you high in a spectacular way or just an inch off the ground: in either case, he puts uke in zero gravity for a fraction of a second, a moment where one is absolutely helpless.
The occasion that I most remember taking ukemi for him was on a hot summer afternoon in Houston. He called me to attack him with a shomenuchi. I came in really hard and then everything happened very rapidly in succession. He twisted his hips and that movement caused his head to move slightly. It seems that he had lined me up facing the setting sun, but was hiding it with his body. I was suddenly blinded, and then I was hit very hard. I distinctly remember seeing my feet in the light, and then slamming into the ground falling backwards. When I woke up, there was a circle of faces looking down at me and they were asking me if I was all right. I was carted off of the mat, got some water and returned to the seminar. A couple of days later, he called me for the same technique. This time, I came in much more cautiously. He surely noticed that I was moving too slowly and I felt his hand on the back of my neck pushing me forward very hard. Again, when he hit me, my feet went straight up and I hit the ground the same way I did before. I learned something new that day, that in a technique that is predicated on uke attacking with power, you can, when necessary, give uke the power he lacks. Nage can also
move forward, assisting uke with the backhand. The results will be equally effective.
In watching Kato Sensei, I have come to a number of conclusions. One is that each technique in his aikido is filled with "micro-techniques." I have surmised that, used in real life, an attacker will probably not be conscious after the atemi and if he is, the technique itself will then take him out. I have learned that harmony means meeting the energy as it comes and that the range of response can be from very soft to very hard. I have learned that the techniques of aikido teach us the form that energy can take, and that they are also practice forms that teach us how and what structure to create in order to meet the oncoming attack. Once a person masters the technique, the energy distribution can be the same while the form changes to meet the changing attack. Under Kato Sensei, I have learned that kihon
(practical variations) ki-no-nagare
(free flowing) are learned in that sequence to enable the practitioner to identify and learn how to move energy freely. The basic energy principle is revealed within the kihon, and this becomes the interpretive key for understanding all further progressions.
I have experienced what I call strong grounding principles, flowing and moving principles and diamond-shaped cutting and entering principles. It could take decades to see and understand all of the information and I don't believe that many of us foreign students have been privy to all of the information and understanding Sensei possesses. I believe that one would have to train in Japan with him for quite a while to grasp the complete layout of the system and structure of his aikido.
I cannot close this article without one more word about Kato sensei. While his teaching of aikido has been my mainstay, the true and eternal things of value that I have learned from him are the value of loyalty to your teachers and friends, the importance of intuition in your dealings with human beings, and the strength in embracing others and bringing them into the sphere of your good influence. He has always treated me kindly and fairly, and I have nothing but the deepest respect and regard for him.
These are my personal impressions and I in no way mean to speak for Kato Sensei at all. I am one of his lower students in both rank and ability and I am quite sure that he has already accidentally forgotten more than I will ever know about this art. More information should be sought from Kato sensei's senior colleagues and students in California and Japan who have trained with him longer and certainly possess a clearer more accurate view than my own.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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Jorge Garcia has been training in Aikido since 1995 and founded the Shudokan School of Aikido in Houston, Texas, in January of 2004. Now currently holding 20 classes a week with almost 100 students, the Shudokan School of Aikido is one of the most active and growing dojos in the greater Houston area. Jorge trains 7 days a week and is a full time Aikido instructor. He has received all of his dan rankings from Hiroshi Kato Shihan.