Inaba sensei, a fascinating and charismatic man, has made quite a large impression in the Aikido world. Some significant effects have been felt second hand, through his influence on Christian Tissier sensei, who studied kenjutsu
with him during his 8 years in Japan. Tissier sensei has subsequently "infected" many thousands of students in Europe. Both Inaba and Tissier were both students of Yamaguchi Seigo sensei, and Tissier sensei, further, was inspired by the kenjutsu skills that Inaba sensei had learned studying Kashima Shin-ryu (KSR) with Kunii Zenya sensei in the 17 months before the latter's death in 1966.
Inaba sensei helped to found the Shiseikan Budojo in 1973 within the grounds of the Meiji Jingu in Tokyo -- one of the largest and most prestigious shrines in Japan, founded with over 100,000 trees being donated, and dedicated in 1920. Tanaka Shigeho sensei, a contemporary of Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru and Shioda sensei, was the first director of the Shiseikan, and Inaba sensei took over from him as the second director, in 1993, upon his retirement at the age of 65. Inaba sensei retired in turn at the same age in 2009. He has always taught kenjutsu and other techniques that he learned from Kunii sensei, which he now calls Kashima no Tachi rather than Kashima Shinryu. I asked him once why he continued to teach aikido taijutsu
rather than the taijutsu of KSR, and his response was about the benefits of the relaxation and soft body (yawarami
) of aikido.
My first meeting with Inaba sensei was during a week-long residential seminar in Wales in 1993, organised by Paul Smith sensei. When Paul first sought to study at the Shiseikan, the reception was rather frosty as westerners were not welcomed with open arms. Things gradually changed, and Paul was invited as part of a group of 10 people to a week-long seminar in 1992 in Japan.
My immediate impression of Inaba sensei was of a charismatic teacher with tremendous sharpness and depth, and a strong focus on fundamentals of body development for budo
. Then and now, his focus is on the development of the tanden
, the relaxation and opening the body, and keeping the spine erect.
As his designated driver from the cottage we were staying in to the practice hall, I had the slightly strange experience of him several times reaching across from the front passenger seat and pressing on my tanden while I was driving, encouraging me to increase the pressure there. For some reason, it seemed that every time he did it, I would immediately encounter another car on the narrow single track roads we were on, and then have to reverse to a passing place! In one class, he even brought out a chair on to the mat to show good posture while driving, leaving me thinking, "If you don't like my driving, Sensei, you can just tell me in private -- you don't have to publically show how bad my posture is." I later discovered that Alex, who had driven him the 6 hours from London to Wales, had been thinking exactly the same thing!
While the theme of these articles is taking ukemi
from the various sensei, the majority of my direct interactions with Inaba sensei over the years has been him
taking ukemi for me in kenjutsu (it is traditional in koryu-based arts for the senior to take ukemi). While always a privilege, it is seldom a comfortable experience. The main impression is of being pressured and forced to respond to the limits of my abilities, if not beyond what I think I can do. I am not alone in this; he can take someone, and in just 5-10 minutes, drag them up to a new level. Like diamonds being created under pressure, the force of his will expressed through intense person-to-person communication, can produce amazing effects.
When facing him, I feel a direct connection, where I am within his sphere of awareness, he able to sense my body, will and ki
. As uke, he usually initiates a technique, with me straining sinews to relax (an oxymoron in my experience) and yet also required to respond immediately. Inaccuracies, or not moving in the right way, are often met with a very loud "Dame da
!" His anger can erupt like a clap of thunder, and yet it does not seem to be personally meant. His full focus is on the student, and in seminar situations, he pours his energy into them. I remember watching him at a seminar near Paris in 2006, where he took ukemi for some 80 people over a few days. He became frustrated at various points, and occasionally had to "go for a walk" for a minute or so in between bouts, muttering to himself. It seemed like he was girding himself up for the next challenge. In another seminar in Germany, in a relatively humid and hot dojo, I saw the sweat pouring off him due to his exertions as uke as he focused on pushing each new partner to his or her limits. But he himself was relentless and didn't take time to relax between sessions, impatiently saying "tsugi" ("next") while waiting for a new shite
("doing hand", a word equivalent to tori
In kenjutsu, he is often ferociously demanding: adjusting posture by millimetres, pushing, prodding, shaking limbs to relax them, stretching necks and spines, requiring you to go lower than you think possible, to put out more ki, to attack more sharply. There is a sense of transmission of the spirit of Kunii sensei (some of the spirit of this relationship has been documented in a booklet given out to attendees at recent seminars). It seems as if Inaba sensei is recreating the intensity of that relationship and practice just for you.
Even if things go well, it often takes 20-30 minutes after practice to calm the nerves and start the process of trying to absorb what you have just been taught. When things don't go well, it can take considerably longer to recover. I remember a course in Kita-Shiga (Nagano prefecture), enjoying a hot spring after practice, and a Norwegian friend staggered in and slid into the waters. He was yondan in aikido, in good physical shape, but had just had his first one-on-one session with Inaba sensei. At that moment, he confessed to feeling "destroyed -- physically and mentally." It took a couple of drinks and a good night's sleep, but he was then eager for more.
Inaba sensei has always impressed me with the generosity of his spirit and teaching: there is no sense that he is holding back secret methods or techniques. He lays out basic information on conditioning exercises and practices, looks to inspire people with demonstrations as to the possible results, and then waits to see who does what. The practices may seem basic, and are not always obvious: the challenge is to work them sufficiently on faith to start to see results. He also encourages people to go out and seek their own answers -- he invited Sawai Kenichi sensei (who founded Taikiken after studying yiquan
with Wang Xiangzhai) to teach classes at the Shiseikan. Since then, exercises such as ritsuzen
("standing zen", also called zhang zhuan
or "tree hugging") are often taught, and my understanding has increased from seeking out further explanations of how to do these exercises from sources such as yiquan teachers. I have also gained an intellectual framework to help in understanding what Inaba sensei is teaching from people such as Mike Sigman. In my opinion, Inaba sensei manifests the results of internal strength methods similar to what Mike is explaining. This is combined with impeccable timing, body co-ordination and great speed of movement.
I have felt that same kind of timing, speed of movement, relaxation and power with other Shiseikan instructors. This includes some of the senior women, over whom I have a large height and weight advantage, and yet when I grasp them strongly, they can still move seemingly effortlessly.
I have seen him pour lots of time and energy into people who are only visiting briefly; sometimes it goes straight over their heads, and yet sometimes a seed is planted. He has a regular Monday evening class for the students of Todai university. In normal Japanese university club fashion, they typically practice several hours a day for the years they are students. He only has them for a few years before they enter Japanese working life, at which point most of them drop all practice due to the pressures of work. Yet I can see the influence that he has had on them. There are older students who have become senior police officers, army officers, or other senior members of society -- even ambassadors.
His style of teaching seminars has always tended to involve quite a lot of talking, with frequent drawing and writing in kanji on a black board. This can be somewhat disconcerting for new people, and I have certainly heard complaints that there "wasn't enough practice". I overhead one senior dan-grade mutter under his breath at a course, during a question and answer session, "And I paid good money for zis?!" (imagine strong French accent!)
As a devout believer, Shinto is the foundation of budo, as far as he is concerned. The Shiseikan is part of the Meiji Jingu, which was, of course, founded in honour of the Emperor Meiji (and Empress Shoken). For him, the Emperor represents the link through 125 generations to Amaterasu (the goddess of the sun) and is Sumera Mikoto - the head of the spiritual family, all of whose members have a common Heavenly descent. Yet he does not seek to proselytize (or promote) Shinto; he challenges those of us in the West to find our own understanding of budo that is appropriate for our own cultures and histories.
I have always been tremendously impressed both by his timing and the sense of space and openness in his techniques. His kenjutsu can appear to be almost slow and exaggerated, particularly in some of his performances recorded on video, but when you are his partner, the sense of timing seems almost inevitable. Similarly, I have seen him do a set of exercises in responding to a punch, from 2 steps, 1 step, ½ step and no step -- both to the outside and to the inside. His balance and the timing of his movement seem impeccable.
When working with him in taijutsu, the softness and flexibility of his body makes a huge impression. You grasp him and he can seem almost insubstantial, yet you are led inexorably to the conclusion of the technique. He teaches a sensitivity to the other person's movement which can seem exaggerated -- being soft and absorbing the power of the attack, sinking and extending and reacting to the slightest nuance of the attacking direction. He also emphasises using your breath (being able to breathe deeper and longer than your opponent is a huge advantage) to help in this absorption. When you have finally absorbed the attack, and focused it into your tanden, let the resulting expansion from your tanden drive the technique. Having experienced this with him as uke in both slow and fast modes, the connection is obvious. And yet it is clearly often not easy for people to appreciate that such a slow and very sensitive practice can have real martial application.
Other techniques such as a shomenuchi strike produce a very sharp ikkyo type response. His arms seems to explode/expand upwards, and yet it is not a karate style block as it seems surprisingly soft. The resulting cut down is very powerful, and the same as when performing the technique with a shinai. For a jodan tsuki
attack, the response might be a counter attack with tsuki
, with a soft arm which both deflects the attack while at the same time penetrating to uke's centre and unbalancing him.
It is a privilege to be "worked on" by him, although not always total pleasurable at the time. I remember an incident during a seminar in London in 1999 where he used me as demonstration uke, and proceeded to prod, massage, stretch and work on my posture while I was in seiza (which in itself became distinctly painful after a while). It was my first experience of having someone "put ki" into me, as I realised when I subsequently did a demonstration that went dramatically better than the practice had gone that morning. My whole body felt energised, and I was able to respond to a randori situation much more effectively than previously. I subsequently found that others had had a similar experience.
His teaching method is itself teachable, as I have observed with other Shiseikan teachers. And yet trying to understand it in traditional western terms is challenging. Inaba sensei has always preferred teaching smaller groups of people rather than large seminars -- the direct heart-to-heart teaching style is something that seems to come from Kunii sensei. Yamaguchi sensei is also not known for explaining what he did in any great detail. He doesn't produce "cookie cutter" students; teachers and seniors at the Shiseikan all have their own styles, although there are common principles at work among them all.
Opportunities to study with Inaba sensei are becoming rarer with his retirement. The challenge is to extract as much experience and information from him as we can. He has recently produced some technical DVDs (Shoden, Chuden and Okuden) with BAB (who publish Hiden magazine in Japan), and these are an excellent resource, even if no substitute for direct experience!
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
Robert Cowham is 5th dan Aikikai. His first exposure to Aikido was 9 months in Italy in the mid 80's after reading Tohei Koichi sensei's "Ki in Everyday Life", followed by 9 months in Holland. On his return to London in 1989, he studied with Kanetsuka Minoru sensei, and over several years transitioned to studying with Paul Smith sensei (at that time a senior in Kanetsuka's dojo). He first met Inaba sensei in 1993 during a week-long seminar in Wales. He helped Paul set up MovingEast in 1999 as a founding director of the company, as well as being an instructor in the Tetsushinkan/MovingEast dojo. Robert is also Chuden in Kashima no Tachi, and currently runs a dojo in East Sheen, near Richmond, in southwest London. He helped to set up ISBA -- the International Shiseikan Budo Association (www.isbaweb.org -- includes links to DVDs) and became its first Secretary. ISBA run yearly seminars in August as well as other events.
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