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It Had to be Felt #3: Osawa Kisaburo: Simply Perfect
It Had to be Felt #3: Osawa Kisaburo: Simply Perfect
by Ellis Amdur
It Had to be Felt #3: Osawa Kisaburo: Simply Perfect

Stanley Pranin once referred to Osawa Sensei as aikido's eminence gríse. He was not the "power behind the throne;" rather, much like a prime minister, he was the agent of Nidai Doshu's power. He implemented the decisions that Doshu made, and he made decisions so that Doshu would not have to. Beyond that, with consummate tact and diplomacy, he ushered the Aikikai through numerous schisms, and facilitated an expansion from mere hundreds to millions of practitioners within only a few decades.

He was also personally courageous. I have heard from two sources that in the early 1950's, one of the Aikikai's top shihan, known for both his power and his somewhat grandiose view of himself, invited Kunii Zen'ya to try conclusions, saying, according to Kuroiwa Yoshio, ""If you disagree with me, come get me. I'll meet anybody's challenge." There are always people to whom one should not say such things, and Kunii sensei, the headmaster of Kashima Shin-ryu, considered by many to be the most formidable swordsman and fighter in mid twentieth century Japan, was certainly one of them. When Kunii went to accept his challenge, this shihan made himself scarce. This was a loss of face to both the man himself and to the Aikikai. Osawa sensei, accompanied by some young students of Nishio Shoji, went to Kunii sensei's house. (In cases such as this, the students, made aware of the situation by their own teacher, march "on their own accord.") Osawa sensei went in alone, intending to negotiate some solution to this dilemma. No one knows the details, but he was successful. Before he entered, he said, "Worst case scenario, I will take him down with me". I've no doubt that this courageous attitude engendered enough respect from Kunii sensei that he was willing to help Osawa sensei find a solution without violence being necessary.

Osawa sensei always had an air of quiet stillness about him, but he was also personally warm and often quite funny. He would sometimes play jokes on the mat, subtle rather than coarse. He was also the embodiment of morality to most of us. He considered violence to be a coarse activity, and truly viewed aikido as a means to develop human beings of a higher level, people who actually strove to make a world where people lived in peace with each other. He could stop two men fighting on the mat simply by walking over and giving an inquiring look: one felt abashed in earning his disapproval.

As one can see from his attitude in approaching Kunii sensei, however, he was not a pacifist. Aikido, being a martial art, had to encompass any possibility, not only the refined, but also the coarse grained earth of common life. Therefore, to some non-Japanese folks' disappointment, his morality was not the same as theirs. For example, one French guy went to the front office asking for the student membership discount rate. The uchi-deshi behind the front desk was none-to-bright, and he couldn't grasp how a man in his late twenties could be a student: students were kids. The French guy said, "I'm a student because I'm going to school." The uchi-deshi said this didn't make him a student; he couldn't be a student because he wasn't a kid. The conversation got a little heated, so the young instructor walked out from behind the front desk and slugged him in the jaw, knocking him down if not out. When the French guy complained to Osawa sensei, the latter gave a perfectly reasonable response from a Japanese perspective: "He's young. Young men lose their temper. He'll grow out of it. I would personally appreciate it if you pursued this no further." One can assume that Osawa sensei had a word with the young man, but discipline in such cases was viewed much like tacking a sailboat through the cross-winds of testosterone: the mentor did not try to force the young man to the straight-and-narrow; rather, one shifted him subtly, closer to the line each time until, ideally, at least, he would be sailing in a straight line. I believe that an unspoken subtext, which most of the outraged foreigners never understood, was, "You might also consider that if you come to my country, you should learn how to act. You got slugged because you never took the time to learn how to deal with situations like this."

Early photographs of Osawa sensei show him to have been a powerfully-built man, someone who had trained in both judo and western boxing. By the 1960's and throughout the rest of his life, he was a spare, lean man, perhaps 165 centimeters, remarkably fit.

I was known at the Aikikai as pursuing weight training - Donn Draeger had kindly shown me the basics -- and one day Osawa sensei stopped me in the hallway of the dojo and asked if I would take his son, Hayato, to Korakuen gym and teach him." He looked around as if he was going to impart a secret to me and from behind his hand, with a twinkle in his eyes, he stage-whispered, "He needs to build himself up. He's too weak." So I took him to the gym and we had a fine day. Had I been more politically minded, I would have insisted on us being training partners, arranging that we always went together. Instead, I just gave him the most basic of workouts, and then introduced him to a few Japanese guys at the gym who were top-level and had given me good advice.

Nonetheless, I now had Osawa sensei's attention, and he was always very friendly when I went to his class, making a point to teach me something each class I attended. His aikido was almost devoid of a grappling component. What I mean by this is he did not work body-to-body. The only physical contact I recall was my hand on his wrist, or his hands on my arms or neck. His keiko gi was always immaculate, and it remained so throughout practice. Not only did he never seem to sweat, no one ever got their sweat on him.

He mostly executed expansive, round techniques at a slow, almost stately pace, although he could, at will, move with crisp celerity, his technique becoming quite sharp. He always found the perfect angle to execute his techniques, responding to each attack as if he had an internal compass. His body was always upright, and when he went low, he sank into a perfect version of ballet's 2nd position. Lower still, he'd literally flow from his feet to his knees. In his mid-seventies, he had the body of a youth, and he moved with grace and precision. When he taught, he moved around the mat, and after correcting someone, unusually, he'd have them do the technique on him. He would then move in such a way that tori's proper movement was templated by his. He led by ukemi.

Despite taking ukemi for him many times, his aikido is still mysterious to me. He certainly was physically fit until his last years, but I have no idea if he was powerful, either in an ordinary muscular sense, or if he had any level of O-sensei's aiki/kokyu-ryoku. He never grabbed me hard enough to control my body through his grip, whether it was on my arm in shihonage, or my neck in irimi-nage. Beyond that, he never did anything that broke my balance, or took my center. Taking ukemi for Osawa sensei, at least as far as I was concerned, was simply picking up the signals of where he wanted me to go and what he was trying to demonstrate. I would conform to what he wanted, and something quite elegant would occur between us. As I wrote above, he was always at the ideal angle to focus on my points of balance, yet I do not know if he still could have done this had I, or anyone else, gone all out, were I to have broken the pattern of my movement, like a boxer or fencer, or if I simply resisted him. He showed atemi in some of his techniques, but I have no idea if he could have hit me hard enough to stop me in my tracks or rattle my bones. I have no idea whether he could maintain his stance if I slammed into him, or if he could have redirected my power back into me when I directed force towards him.

He was a man of undeniable moral and physical courage, with the diplomatic skills of a Cardinal Richelieu. Seriously, the Japanese nation could have benefited immeasurably had Osawa sensei gone into politics or the diplomatic corps. What of his aikido, though? I can only say that it was perfectly congruent with every other aspect of him. The man who could do those slow-motion, almost stately rounded techniques was the man who did all the admirable things I described above.

One more thing: unless he was hiding his power, it is probable that the other shihan I mentioned above was more brilliant technically, and also had far more internal power -- ki -- than Osawa sensei. But when confronted by a man who would willingly fight to the death, both to test his skill and to preserve the honor of his ryu, that powerful shihan essentially ran out the back door. Osawa sensei went alone into the dragon's lair on that man's behalf and came out again, not only unscathed, but having established peace.
Whose aikido was stronger?

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.
  • Do not engage in back-and-forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real. Just post your own experience. Trust your readers to take in each writer's account on its own merits.
  • 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
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