From IHTBF #1:
I started training at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo in January of 1976. . . . My instructor, Kuwamori Yasunori came to Nidai Doshu's one hour class with me, twenty minutes late. Doshu stopped the class to ask what he was doing there, because he knew he never got up early; and I was introduced to Doshu as a student of Saotome Mitsugi, who was, at that time, on the outs with the Aikikai and not my teacher anyway. Doshu looked at me "consideringly," and then I piped up in really broken Japanese to correct (!) my teacher and say that I wasn't Saotome sensei's student, he was, in fact a friend of mine, but I was Terry Dobson's student (Terry considered even more of a problem at the time -- and how about that "he's a friend of mine?" It was true in those days, in what was a strangely complex manner, but unbelievable for a young kid, an ikkyu, to say). Doshu pursed his lips, looked me up and down and called over Shibata Ichiro, "introduced" me as Terry Dobson's student. Shibata knew this was one of those special moments. Then it was one of those Bug's Bunny cartoons, when there's a whirlwind of arms and legs and the unsuspecting character is suddenly snatched up, spit out, snatched up again. At the end of that class, Kuwamori said to me he was going home to go back to sleep (laughing up his sleeve, no doubt), but I should take the next class. And I see Shibata-san talking to Miyamoto-san, and the next class starts (I have no memory of who was teaching at that point -- it sort of felt like I was in an extended automobile wreck) and Miyamoto runs over, asks me to practice and even though that teacher called for a change of partner at the end of each waza, Miyamoto kept me like a bulldog with a favorite bone, and chewed on me the entire hour. The next morning, it was Seki-san, and I thus met the top three uchi-deshi . . . .
Shibata-san and I were roughly the same age, both of us in our mid-twenties. He was a lean man with a hungry look, a squared away crew-cut, high cheek bones, with large forearms. His best technique, then, was his irimi-nage: he'd step in behind and drop both hands on my shoulders, then sharply bend his knees and pull backwards, twisting so that my inside shoulder and side of my face would drop onto the mat. He'd continue to step behind me, and I'd turn inwards, trying to regain my feet. Just as I did so, he'd bring an ironwood-hard forearm across my throat and down I'd go. After awhile, I learned to take a "roll through the air" rather than fall backwards, which, I was told, looked spectacular, given my two meters of length, flying through the air.
He also had a solid koshinage, impeccably timed, his hips literally tripping me at mid-thigh height. At the moment of that trip (properly called, "koshikage"), he'd cut downwards, and one would take a ferociously hard fall. He threw properly, however, and although it would blow the cobwebs from your brain, the impact resounding down to the bone marrow, you weren't hurt, just stunned.
I liked practicing with him best in Nidai Doshu's class, at 6:30 in the morning, one that was obligatory for him. Shibata-san had a taste for alcohol, at least then, and he was often hung-over that early in the morning. He and I had kind of unspoken agreement. He'd see me, come over, looking a little green, and say "Let's go slowly." Occasionally, "accidently," I'd speed up and throw him hard or move fast (the only time I could get away with it) -- just enough to make it seem like an over-enthusiastic accident -- and he'd pale, and squeak out, "slow down," and I'd apologize ... and ten minutes later, do it again. It would have been suicide to do that later in the day, but in the morning, he was a hurtin' pilgrim, just praying for a soft place to lay his weary head.
His atemi were very powerful. He broke one man's jaw, and he once hit me in the side hard enough to stop me in my tracks, hunched over in pain. He was rough, he was hard, but most of the time, that's all it was. I personally experienced nothing nasty when training with him -- just very hard, very powerful impact.
One aspect of his training was flawed, however. At least in those days, he was very concerned about his image as a young assistant instructor. On far too many occasions, he'd start working out with a tough visiting foreigner, maybe with a judo or other background and they'd start going faster and harder, having a good time. Then, let's say, Shibata-san would leg-sweep the guy and dump him. The other man would be excited, happy that at last he was on the aikido mat with someone with whom he could play and with whom he could pull out his other skills. So he'd leg sweep him back, dumping Shibata in the same manner he was dumped. Instead of laughter, this engendered rage, sometimes even a near fight, but usually a threatening lecture that if one was willing to shame the instructor, one must be ready to die.
After an incident like this occurred with a friend of mine, a high-level judo practitioner from New York, I grew angry with him and tended to avoid his classes. One morning, however, I was in Ichihashi sensei's class -- or so I thought. He was ill and Shibata-san took over the class. By that time, I'd already entered the Araki-ryu and was spending less time at the dojo. I hadn't seen him in quite some time. He was teaching katatedori ryote-mochi kokyunage --
a two-hand grab of one arm. He came over and had me grab him -- he threw me powerfully. He then told me to throw him. He grabbed my arm and hunched over, concentrating all his weight downwards. He stopped my movement cold, three times. Having started grappling in the Araki-ryu, I responded without thinking. I entered behind him, and shot my free arm under his chin, and bucked my hips, arching him backwards. This freed the hitherto trapped arm that I then used as a brace on my strangling arm. I threw myself backwards, put in the hooks (my heels on his thighs) and arched backwards on the ground, one fraction of an inch from choking him out. Somehow, I thought of the consequences. I figured if I choked him unconscious, he wouldn't see the humor - I'd have to choke him to death. My training partners were looking at me with their jaws agape, and not knowing what else to do, I decided, "What the heck, I'll see what happens next," and I let him up.
Shibata-san got up, perhaps another hung-over day, I don't know, but he just stood there a moment, looking at me, as if I was a puzzling alien life form. What I had done was so outlandish - particularly given both his reputation and his frequent demonstrations on me how much more powerful and skilled he was, that it was as if what has occurred simply did not compute. He walked away, shaking his head. One of my friends, a former SAS commando started laughing and said, "I can't believe you are still alive." "Me, neither," I said. To his absolute credit, he never sought me out later for payback.
Another day that I vividly recall was during the first International Aikido Federation consolidation in, I believe, 1977. That morning, instead of Doshu, Shirata Rinjiro sensei taught class. There were easily one hundred and fifty people on the mat. Shirata sensei was allotted one and one-half hours. The majority of the students were foreign, with a particularly numerous French contingent, many of whom had high dan rankings. Shirata sensei had a very quiet demeanor, very gentle, very humble. The manners of French students were particularly appalling. Shirata sensei bowed in and started warm-ups. Many of these high-ranking Europeans started engaging in conversations, ignoring the warm-ups (these were not the dojo regulars -- these were representatives of national organizations, many of whom ranked each other, who behaved with all the uncouth gaucherie of a United Nations bureaucrat with diplomatic immunity). After fifteen minutes (this was one of those "hidden in plain sight" moments -- he did some solo exercises that, as poorly as I remember, I'd never seen before), Shirata sensei took a bokken. He started speaking about shihonage, underscoring what an important technique it was, and demonstrated shihogiri with the bokken. With surely a chuckle -- well aware that the majority of those in the class were dismissing him merely because he was unknown to them - he said, "I'm sorry, I don't know much about the sword. Osensei developed a lot of things after I studied with him." The French kept talking, something that Shirata sensei ignored. I made a small mark at this point, because two of these six dans were standing, conversing in front of me, in the front row of the serried ranks of students <yes, standing!> while he was teaching, and enraged, I grabbed both of them by the koshiita of their hakama and slammed them into seiza, like cracking a whip. They whirled around and I said, "Shut the f**k up." Cross-cultural communication -- they understood my English! -- and they turned around, bustling like a couple of broody hens on their knees. I suddenly felt a hard poke in my back. I turned around, ready for some kind of Gallic expostulations, and there was Waka-sensei (Moriteru), giggling with a big grin on his face.
Then Shirata sensei called Shibata-san out for ukemi. It didn't start out well. The class was over one-half hour old, the old man had just done warm-ups and a "simple" set of sword swings, and he hadn't exerted any authority over the class. Shibata-san, perhaps, can be forgiven, in that he reached out, in bored fashion, to take what he apparently assumed was a nice, apparently ineffectual old guy's arm. I should mention that Shirata sensei's hands were huge, like rhododendron bushes hanging from massive wrists. Imagine Shibata-san sticking out an arm towards the west. Shirata-sensei went further west. And further. I believe he covered one 1/3 the width of the Aikikai's mat. Shibata-san's face was like that of Wiley Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons when he realizes that the rope he took hold of was attached to an anvil that had just been dropped off a cliff. The final cut of Shirata sensei's shihonage was like Itto-ryu's primordial cut: perfectly centered, from sky to ground, except he was cutting with a human being in his hands instead of a sword. Shibata-san made one of the most magnificent recoveries I've ever seen. I truly thought his arm was going to be ripped off his body, but he managed, with two huge strides and a dive to get around in time to take a thunderous breakfall. Shirata sensei threw him three more times, Shibata-san taking impeccable ukemi now, and he got up, a man in love. Others of us felt the same, both for the deserved come-uppance of our well-liked, but feared sempai, and also for this unknown-to-us, titanically powerful old man. Unbelievably, though, many of the French were still talking, casually strolling off the mat, even as Shirata sensei demonstrated another technique. Shibata-san, who, I'm sure, had been fuming at their behavior already, launched himself like an out-of-orbit comet managing a multiple attack of the entire Western world. Well, actually, he attacked the entire Western world. He was sweeping around the mat, jumping in to a pair of practicing foreigners, and grabbing one after another, launching them through the air, off the mat onto the wooden runway, or literally splattering them against the walls, then moving on to another pale-skinned pair and doing the same. It was like watching a fin-nipper in an aquarium, with all the guppies swirling away every time he drew near, one after another caught and mangled. Then, all of a sudden, he grabbed me, and spinning, wound up to throw me right into a wall. I managed to step inside him and turn, an inward tai-no-henko, spun him another half turn, and with our momentum, his back slammed against the wall. His eyes were blank and he raised a fist, but before he knocked me out, I grabbed his shoulders and yelled, "Shibata-san, Ore da! Ore da!" (It's me! It's me!). He shook himself like a wolf throwing off water, patted me on the shoulder and in English, said in a merry tone, "Oh, I'm sorry!" and spun away, grabbed another Frenchman and sent him flying.
The last half-hour of the class was much better behaved, I must say. Shirata sensei simply continued, unperturbed throughout the entire time, as if to say, "I'm simply here doing what I'm doing. If you want to pay attention, you are welcome."
I have a vivid memory of the feel of Shibata-san's technique. He moved his body as "one-piece." Not the most flexible of men, there was always a little bit of over-all tonus throughout his body. He both appeared to be and felt somewhat stiff and constricted. He did not, therefore, move like a grappler, with Rickson Gracie's oft-quoted phrase, "I flow with their go." He made things work with explosive power and speed, whatever the angle, whatever the technique. Aside from his irimi-nage, he delivered a sharp impact with every technique, be it kotegaeshi, shihonage, ikkyo or kokyu-nage. He always felt like you had walked into the edge of a door in the dark. Remember the phrase attributed to Osensei, that "aikido is (70% or 95% or 99%) atemi." Shibata-san was
an atemi; he always felt like a living tegatana.
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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