Imaizumi Sensei is a brilliant reflection of Shu-Ha-Ri. I met him when he was entering the "Ha" stage. His movements most clearly represented Tohei Sensei, but he had begun to reflect back the other teachers from whom he learned, gradually developing his own unique, over-powering, method of aikido.. He is clearly in the "Ri" stage right now. The form is so much more subtle than it has ever been, without losing any degree of effectiveness.
Most of what looks phony is phony
It was time for me to return to the full-time study of a martial art after having completed my course work for my doctorate in Clinical Psychology. I wanted to find an art that would balance out my propensity for responding to physical conflicts with a discomforting level of effective violence (developed through many years of martial arts and fighting sports training). Aikido seemed like an interesting possibility. Diane Freese informed me that a direct student of O'Sensei was teaching in Stamford, Connecticut. Imaizumi sensei had recently returned from Japan after having resigned from Ki Society. and had formed a small, new organization, Shin-Budo Kai. In November of 1988, I signed up for classes.
Imaizumi sensei was a very quiet man. The student chosen to be uke never had an inkling of what technique was going to be demonstrated, only knowing the attack that was being practiced. Sensei would demonstrate a technique with a senior student a couple of times, and would then have us practice it for about ten minutes, all the while, walking among us making corrections, before moving on to the next technique. His movements were large, executed in a very precise and crisp manner. He did not appear to muscle any technique, although he had a physique that indicated that he had a strong, sinewy frame. Students seemed to be helpless in countering his movements. When I first had hands-on instruction from him, he was gentle, yet I could feel the inherent strength in his structure. I had one nagging question; the ukes he used never came at him hard and everything seemed nice and orchestrated. I wondered what would happen if anyone really tried to strike him.
I was called up to be Imaizumi sensei's uke after three months of classes. My first martial arts training (in 1973) had been in Kyokyushin karate, taught by Soshu Oyama. I certainly knew how to strike hard and fast and had ample experience over the years in doing so. The attack was a shomen-uchi. I do not remember what I was thinking at that time, but I decided that this would finally be my opportunity to see if any of this stuff really worked. Sensei pointed for me to strike, and I went at him as hard and as fast as I could, trying to plant my right knife hand on the top of this skull. I perceived that I was about to make contact with his head, but he suddenly was somewhere else. It then felt like I had jumped off of a two-story building onto a trampoline! I was sent airborne backwards for several feet into a padded wall. I did not feel any violence at the point of contact; instead, it was as though the ground propelled me backwards. It took me several seconds to clear the cobwebs from my eyes. I looked at him and he had this gentle smile on his face, mimicking the ikkyo irimi movement and said, "Just go like this." I was sold on aikido from that moment. I decided to pursue my studies with Imaizumi sensei, wanting to be able to emulate that skill set.
Stillness in Motion
His aikido has changed greatly during the years that I have studied under him. When I first started training, he was almost 50 years of age. His arms felt like steel cables that were connected through his feet into the ground. He was an immovable force when he wanted to be, and he was never where you thought he would be when you wanted to strike him, while you were introduced to a knuckle on, or almost on some part of your body. His atemi felt like steel. His fist always seemed to move around any attempt that I made at blocking him. I knew that I had quicker reflexes than he did, but he was always ahead of me.
His aikido clearly reflected the strong influence that Tohei Sensei had on his development. His movements were always clear and precise, regardless of whether they were big or small. He had a remarkable ability to flatten you without injury. When he wanted to make you feel pain, you felt it without perceiving the experience as abusive. Although he rarely used many words to explain what he was doing, his movements were so clear that they provided a road map that one could begin to follow.
Some point after Imaizumi sensei turned sixty, he told me that as his physical strength was beginning to wane, his energy was getting stronger. The changes in his execution of aikido over these last 13 years have been remarkably powerful and subtle. His movements have become much less overt. It is harder for new students to visually observe what he is doing. Taking ukemi from him can take one of either two paths: he is like a ghost who reveals himself as you enter a vortex you are drawn within, or you run into this immovable obstacle that you do not realize is immovable until the moment of contact. In either event, you are not able to source where and how your energy is being dissipated or jammed-up.
At no point have I ever felt him forcing techniques to a conclusion. He has always been ahead of his uke as a result of his ability to genuinely establish a connection with that person, one that precedes contact. He always has a calm demeanor and manner of controlling a situation that hides a varied degree of intensity to match an attack. He says that he now prefers to be soft; however, training to be hard when you are young and strong is important. His "soft" style is still remarkably effective. He can give a person "hard" when they ask for it, and was recently joking with some of us, asking us if we were giving him all that we could in attacking him, while he was effortlessly crushing us. Whether "hard" or "soft," he always maintains complete control, never causing serious injuries to his ukes.
Imaizumi sensei knows that I am working very hard on the "Aiki" and "IP" skill sets. About one month ago, I was uke for a katate-tori attack. When I grab, the grab is not the attack, it is the prelude to a real attack. He had been observing me before class teaching some "aiki" exercises to one of my kohai. As I reached for him, he said, "This is Aiki." One arm spiraled upwards, and almost immediately, his fist spiraled out like a piston at my head and he then executed the technique. I was laughing on the way to the ground because I knew that I was a goner if he had decided to make contact. His effortless, lightning-fast, ghost-like movements are no less devastating and effective than when I first began taking ukemi for him.
Motion in Stillness
Although a quiet, shy man, Imaizumi sensei is one of the most intense and determined people I have ever met. I believe that Tohei sensei made a bad decision, asking him to come to New York and be in charge of his organization for the US. He was not comfortable being the public face of that organization, and disliked the politics that were involved. He has always wanted to just teach and do aikido, without publicity, fanfare, politics or other distractions. His personality is expressed in his aikido. He has always tried to maintain people's focus on aikido and not on what he does through flashy demonstrations and "advanced techniques."
I have heard frequent complaints from some people about Sensei "always doing the same things." Imaizumi sensei was a one of the major instructors invited to teach at one of the Aiki Expo's. At the banquet dinner, his speech talked about the importance of kihon waza and having the most senior of teachers focus on this area with beginning students. I have learned from him that the basics are never basic. He has a unique way of "hiding" everything inside of kihon waza. I have come to realize that the better aikidoka are those people with ever-deepening foundations. Any and all development in one's aikido needs to be deeply and clearly reflected through one's kihon waza. This pattern has been consistent with Sensei throughout my many years of training with him. His execution of kihon waza can mask the remarkable changes in how his aikido has changed over the years. His foundation continues to deepen as his aikido evolves over time.
There have only been a couple of times that I have been able to catch his structure (to either move him or lock him down). Each time, he raised the stakes by giving me more of what he is capable of doing. He seems to have a mental catalogue of each person's level of development and tried to be slightly ahead of them so as to give them a manageable goal to strive towards. The harder I push him, the more I can learn. This "battle" is hidden to people who do not look closely at what he hides inside kihon waza, but visible to those who are on a similar journey.
Imaizumi sensei shares his aikido freely with anybody, and allows people to take from it as they choose and express their own aikido as it develops within them. For me, I am no longer chasing that first moment of being airborne. I am chasing his development and am working harder than ever before. He will turn seventy-four years old in December of this year. I do not know how much more time I will have to chase him. He has been a role model to me of being an effective, martial artist with a degree of quiet kindness that is worth emulating. He told me that he was simply passing on the gifts that have been given to him by his teachers. If the gift is not passed on, it has no more value and dies. I take that obligation very seriously in my role as a teacher and hope that I can one day catch up to him so as to pass something of equal value to my students. If I too am lucky, one of them will seek to do the same.
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Marc Abrams (4th Dan) has trained as a direct student of Imaizumi Shizuo (7th dan) since 1988. He opened Aikido Arts of Shin-Budo Kai in Bedford Hills, New York in 2007 to pursue his growth in aikido. His teacher has encouraged him to develop into a well-rounded, martial artist through study in other disciplines. He met Kenji Ushiro Sensei (8th dan), hanshi of Shindo Ryu Ushiro Karate, at the first Aiki Expo in 2002, and was the first westerner accepted as a direct student in 2008. He was awarded his shodan in June of 2011, and his school is now considered an official branch chapter. Additionally, he began training with Dan Harden in 2010.