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It Had to be Felt #4: Arikawa Sadateru: "Please, put your hand Down!"
It Had to be Felt #4: Arikawa Sadateru: "Please, put your hand Down!"
by Ellis Amdur
It Had to be Felt #4: Arikawa Sadateru: "Please, put your hand Down!"

When I trained at the Aikikai, Arikawa sensei was the most feared instructor there. I am not asserting he was the most skilled; I never thought so. I am not even asserting that he was the most violent individual; there were others who injured as many or more. Rather, Arikawa sensei was the most unpredictable: when he approached, there were no warning signs from him whether he would show you something firmly, but correctly, or if he would deliberately tear your joint apart.

Generally speaking, he would walk into the dojo, bow very sloppily to the tokonoma and begin class. He would show a technique perhaps two or three times, mumbling what we assumed were instructions, and then wander off to the side, and gaze out the window, not infrequently spitting into the Ueshiba's garden. People went through the moves, and tried to keep from being noticed. There was reason behind their fear. Arikawa sensei had a young deshi at the time, a very friendly, very nice young man. We were changing together one afternoon, and I asked him how he was that day and he said, "Not so good. Sensei has a cold," and as he took off his shirt, I could see that his chest and back were covered with thick welts, the result of forearm smashes and chops with the edge of the hand. [1]

I was practicing with a young Japanese man the first time I attended his class, and we were both struggling with the technique, a variant of shihonage. Arikawa sensei's gaze, flat and disinterested, settled upon us. I raised my hand to indicate that we needed some help. My partner begged, "Please. Put your hand down. He'll come over here and help us. You don't want that. Please put your hand down." Too late. He trudged over, hair disheveled, mouth in a grumpy frown. I asked him my question on his shihonage, and he simply grabbed my partner, and threw him very hard. The young man, a white belt, really did not know how to protect himself. He had the breath knocked out of him and Arikawa cranked his arm and kept doing so after he tapped until he yelped in pain. He arose, holding his elbow with the other hand.

Then he turned to me, and I grabbed him as hard as I could. I had a sense of being caught in the gears of a machine: inescapable, and immensely powerful. He threw me effortlessly, dangerously bridging my arm over his elbow, but I was prepared. Terry Dobson had told me, "With Arikawa, as soon as he touches you, you must already be moving in the direction he's moving. Go to where he's looking -- that's where he intends you to go, even if it's 270 degrees away from where you are when he starts. Always take a break-fall by choice. If you take a back-fall, assuming you are safe, you never know if he'll suddenly decide to jack you up, even when you are just a couple inches off the ground, thinking it's over."

Taking ukemi this way is not the same as "tanking," anticipating a technique to make the teacher look good. If you can read another person's intention, and you, by choice, are able to determine how you fall, you are on the first step to countering their technique, particularly if they assume they have control over you. Arikawa sensei, who, I think, expected to break my arm, knew this. He threw me again, this time, shifting in mid-technique, trying to catch me with his hip to disrupt my balance just as I was going over. I kept my head and body turning inwards, trying to look him in the eyes, thereby making the hip-bump irrelevant. I went over again -- intact. I got up for another attack, but he gave me a short nod, turned his back and walked off. My partner said, "Please, don't ask him for help again."

From that time on, Arikawa sensei seemed to approve of me. Whenever I'd take his class, he'd come over and throw or lock me, using the same technique he had presented to the group. Whatever explanations he uttered were mumbled so softly that I hardly picked up one out of five words. What I found bizarre was that I had the sense that he was kindly showing me what he was doing, that he was making an effort to explain things to me. Nonetheless, I never let down my guard. Whether this hair-trigger awareness was something he was trying to foster, or if it was simply required when dealing with him, due to the vagaries of unfathomable impulses going on inside of him, I have no idea. In any event, I was never hurt during one of his techniques, because I was always prepared for the worst. I must also underscore that he never took it upon himself to choose to hurt me during the pinning process, where, the student in a helpless position, one could do whatever one wanted. My relationship with him could not be generalized, however. Each person was on his own, one-to-one with him. Many were ignored, and among those who were not, some had it better, and some had it much worse. There was this unpredictable element to him, where he'd be showing someone a technique and then, suddenly, you'd hear a hard smack of flesh, or a hand frantically tapping and you'd look over and he'd be cranking on some man's arm, sometimes eliciting a cry of fear or even a scream of pain. You never knew why and you never knew when.

As I described above, when he grabbed my arm or body, his power was undeniable, like being caught in a mangle. On the other hand, his entry movements against strikes were wide-open. He would stomp/lumber in with a disgruntled expression on his face, deflecting or avoiding the blow, then he'd grab hold, and one was caught in the gears again. What I am asserting is that he utterly lacked zanshin, both before and after his technique; it simply did not appear to be a concern of his, whatsoever. Whether he was jaded or perhaps, given that he was working in a context where, for decades, he never had to worry about retaliation or an attack in kind, he was unguarded. He very definitely did NOT express the principle of aikido being a manifestation of the sword, because one would never treat someone who might have a blade in their hands so casually.

I truly think that the phrase <doing violence> summed up his perspective of the essence of martial arts. Some of my readers who knew him may disagree. So be it. This is what I experienced and what I observed. I am referring neither to combat or fighting -- although I'm sure he could fight just fine, at least when he was younger. Violence, however, is simply the action of harming another person, they being unable to stop you from doing so. It happens in fighting, but it also happens in violation, victimizing one who is vulnerable, helpless or even unaware, until it happens, that the other had any intention of harming them. As I speculated above, perhaps he saw it as his role to teach people that violence could happen at any moment, so that the martial artist should never allow himself to be in a position to be so victimized. However, his personal lack of zanshin belies this theory. It's unfathomable, really.

I am well-aware that he could be kind, particularly if he saw within you a passion for aikido, for budo. He actually reached out to some foreigners in a way that few of the other Japanese shihan ever took the time to do. Mary Heiny, for example, who as a pioneering foreign woman trainee at the Aikikai, wrote in Aikido in America, on page 117, "I felt Arikawa sensei supported me the most." Nonetheless, as far as I saw and experienced, he was training in violence, potential or actual. Interestingly, with Ueshiba Morihei recorded as storming out of the dojo, after observing his young acolytes practicing, yelling, "That's not my aikido," Terry Dobson describes Ueshiba observing smiling as Arikawa struck him deliberately in the throat, reducing him to retching, and O-sensei continued through the dojo, smiling, saying, in essence, "carry on, carry on."

Given this perspective, I think he sorted people into those who could deal violence and could accept it as well, and those who could not. I believe I found favor in his eyes because I trained hard, and perhaps, it's fair to say, he saw enough violence in me that he thought me something of a kindred spirit. Years after I discontinued training aikido, I was behind the curtain at Meiji Shrine, about to walk out on the grass, as part of an embu of Araki-ryu. Arikawa sensei had wandered "backstage," and recognizing me, he came over, with that that odd, almost shy smile he sometimes had. After asking me what I was doing, my teacher and fellow students thinking he was one of those eccentrics who sometimes wandered around the shrine grounds, he said, in an increasingly loud voice, clenching his fist and pounding it in the air, "Whatever you do, smash ‘em! Smash ‘em! Smash ‘em!"

[1] "Toward Simple Morality -- How Come Something So Fine Sometimes Turns Out So Ugly" Dueling with O-sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior Sage.

For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
  1. Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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Old 02-24-2012, 07:54 PM   #2
Byron Foster
Dojo: Aikikai
Location: Los Angeles
Join Date: Feb 2011
Posts: 20
Re: It Had to be Felt #4: Arikawa Sadateru: "Please, put your hand Down!"

Back in 1991, I trained at the Hombu for about a year. I was quite young and junior, I had just gotten my 4th kyu.

After about my 10th class with Arikawa Sensei, he came over to correct me and my partner. It was morote-tori Kokyu-ho, the main staple of his classes at the time. After watching the vigor he used in throwing his uke's, I grabbed on as hard as I could, staring down at his rather powerful forearm.

I waited, nothing happened.

I waited a bit longer, nothing still happened.

I then looked up and made eye contact with him. It seems this is what he was waiting for. He smiled and used his tongue to push out his dentures and wiggled them around a bit. I was a bit shocked and my grip relaxed.

Then whoosh, my feet were in the air and I seemed to land on the mats with the same body position I had when I was standing. There was no bending in my body, my waist did not move and my arms joints did not move. I was just standing, then I was in the air, then I was on the mats. There was no transition between those positions.

I cannot remember anyone else throwing me quite the same way. How far my feet went up in the air really impressed me at the time. I was not thinking about taking ukemi, I was thinking about his teeth moving around in his mouth.

Looking back on him now, Arikawa Sensei had a amazing ability to "drop in his base" when he threw. Not many can replicate that.

Well, that is my memory of taking ukemi from a master.

Last edited by Byron Foster : 02-24-2012 at 08:04 PM.
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Old 04-23-2012, 05:30 PM   #3
Chris Li
Chris Li's Avatar
Dojo: Aikido Sangenkai
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii
Join Date: Dec 2000
Posts: 3,313
Re: It Had to be Felt #4: Arikawa Sadateru: "Please, put your hand Down!"

The first time I went to Hombu, in the early eighties, I was pretty much a raw beginner, and too chicken to go to Arikawa's classes, which had kind of a scary reputation.

When I went back later in the eighties I ended up going to quite a few classes. He impressed me because he'd throw anybody if he thought that they were training seriously - many (most?) of the senior folks had an entourage that they spent most of their time with. Arikawa would walk around throwing everybody - in a class with 70 people he'd come around and hit me up for almost every technique.

He always threw me extremely hard with very small movements. It didn't seem to matter how I attacked - he just didn't seem to care very much.

The one thing that I really regret is that it was so hard to understand his speech - an old throat injury made his Japanese hard even for the native speakers. Most of the time if he was any distance away it just turned into noise for me.



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