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It Had to be Felt #5: Tanaka Bansen: "You Tokyo People!"
It Had to be Felt #5: Tanaka Bansen: "You Tokyo People!"
by Ellis Amdur
It Had to be Felt #5: Tanaka Bansen: "You Tokyo People!"

Tanaka Bansen was one of the most significant of the prewar deshi of Ueshiba Morihei. He was at the cusp of O-sensei's changes, from pre-war to post-war. He first studied with Ueshiba in Osaka before the Second World War, and later, spent some amount of time with him in Iwama. He created a very large organization of aikido practitioners in the Kansai area.

I traveled to Kyoto in 1977, bringing with me a letter of introduction from the instructor of my "home" dojo, Kuwamori Yasunori, asking any teacher whose dojo I visited permission for me to practice. I heard that Tanaka sensei occasionally taught at a dojo in one of the shrines in Kyoto, and went there with high hopes. It was a rare opportunity for me to practice with someone who trained with O-sensei in the old days.

I was treated with suspicion. Tanaka sensei read my letter, glared at me, and told me that because I practiced Tokyo-style aikido, I would not be able to follow what they were doing. "You people in Tokyo practice something weak; it's not O-sensei's aikido." I found this really refreshing. He didn't dislike me because I was a foreigner; he disliked me because I was from Tokyo! Anyway, "real" was what I was looking for.

I replied that I was looking for O-sensei's aikido, and that was why my teacher sent me to Kansai. (Take that any way you like). He grudgingly told me to change, but warned me that he couldn't answer for what might happen to me in practice.

Which was quite a disappointment. There were about half young, half rather old: all relative beginners. Tanaka sensei watched me for a moment, throwing my partner in yokomen-uchi iriminage. I practiced the rather circular, blending style that was, dare I say, typical up in Tokyo. He stopped me and said, "See. That's what I'm talking about. That's Tokyo crap. This is how you do it. Strike at me." I did. He stepped straight in at an angle, and struck my arm with one Tegatana and close to my neck with the other hand. In other words, he jammed the strike. Then, after this "full stop," he wrenched my arm around, stepped behind and executed irimi-nage.

I've seen videos of Tanaka sensei doing more "kami-aikido," that style of waving his arms and watching people fall. He didn't do any of that. Rather, each and every technique was jam-stop--step-pause-throw. It was slow, and it was crude. If he had any ability to exert aiki, he wasn't showing me. Nonetheless, with each and every demonstration on me, he took pains to criticize Tokyo, criticize my teacher (whom he'd never met nor seen), who had taught me this lousy Tokyo aikido.

I was a guest, and he was old, so I took the falls in the prescribed manner. Putting the best face I can on this, perhaps his crude method of technique was the preliminary ground that was requisite before he would demonstrate more advanced skills. Maybe. But if there was more to his abilities than collision (and the "kami-waza" that I've since seen in films), I certainly didn't experience it.
When I returned to Tokyo, Kuwamori sensei asked me, as he always did after my travels, what I learned from Tanaka sensei. I said, "I'll show you. Attack me with yokomen-uchi, please." He did. I jammed his arm to a full stop. I stepped around the arm I was wrenching aside. As I was doing this, he was looking at me curiously. His off-side hand was casually clenched in a fist. I was in range, but he kindly didn't hit me. Then I did the technique, and Kuwamori took the fall - he loved to fall, and would sometimes throw himself five or ten times in sheer joy, like a colt running and rolling in a meadow. Falling was no big deal to him, even when he didn't have to.
He got up. He said, "That's it?"

I said, "Yup. . . . . . Oh yeah. He said you Tokyo guys aren't very good, and I'm the proof." We looked at each other: deadpan. Then we cracked up, and went out to get some Korean barbecue.

For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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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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