I used to enjoy Watanabe sensei's classes so much! For one reason or another, I had to be "on" with so many other shihan: with some, I knew that the slightest mistake might get me injured; with others, I felt that I had to meet an impeccable standard of practice. Watanabe sensei's class, on the other hand, was at a different level: like driving a Chevrolet instead of either an off-road Jeep, kicking around rocks and tree-stumps or a Ferrari, screaming around an intricate course. It was strong, it was instructive and it was fun. It was a Sunday drive.
Watanabe sensei is a very powerfully built man, and with his cross-cropped hair, his beetling brow and glower, which he meant in humor, he reminded me of a silverback gorilla. His technique was easy to understand. He rarely bent his knees, and he moved from place to place, in a rather stiff-legged walk, teetering from one side to the other. He threw me powerfully, but cleanly most of the time. He was not technically precise, however. I remember one time, he was wandering around the dojo, and he put a sankyo
on me, and allowed my arm to go into an alignment that made it impossible for him to direct his power from the ground into my arm/wrist. He couldn't get my center. Rather, he found himself merely twisting my arm with his arms and shoulders, over-extended. At that time, my wrists were both strong and very flexible, so I didn't respond to the twist, other than rolling my shoulder to neutralize the torque. Looking puzzled, he tried to adjust position, but couldn't find the "sweet spot," as I moved to neutralize him (I think some call that aikido ukemi, actually). To his credit, he had a large enough spirit that he was neither outraged at my refusal to take a fall he didn't deserve, nor did he try to take revenge by sucker-punching me in the face, unlike what some of the other shihan might have done. He just laughed, let me go, whacked me on the shoulder and moved on to another training group. Nonetheless, it wasn't a good technique, and he should have been able to "reboot." (By the way, if he had called me out as the demonstration uke
in front of the class, I would have taken the fall. One has a different role when the teacher is presenting what he wants the class to learn, even when he misses the technique he's aiming for: the demonstration uke is a teaching assistant, so to speak).
In any event, I often knew that I had an escape route, or a potential counter with Watanabe sensei. What was wrong? I think he enjoyed himself too much, and therefore, didn't pay the kind of immaculate attention to position, to control, to effective alignment and to coordination of his own body that the top shihan did as a matter of course. Even in those days, his aikido was too "playful," too unserious. I would attack and he'd mug a little, swaying back or leaning forward, and "linking" up with me, he'd throw as the impulse took his body. However, as far as I could tell, there was no practical reason for his sway back, or lean forward, other than it felt good to him. He took himself off balance and undermined his own physical integrity.
put some real power in his technique. As I said, he had a pretty massive build. But he often did not "hit" the right angle of attack, as some instructors could as a matter of course, and he did not use either the ground (to push up with full body power), or gravity (to drop the opponent by forcing him to bear his full body weight effectively). The experience of taking ukemi for him was fun, without a doubt, but it was not ukemi as a means of survival or mutual testing of skill and limits; rather, it was ukemi as an expression of freedom. With his help, you engaged in short bouts of flying, punctuated by satisfying pancake landings.
Watanabe sensei was never one of the greats, like Tada sensei or Nishio sensei, but his class used to be an island of sane practice at the Aikikai. He reminded us that life is short, and not every moment must necessarily be about life-and-death. One can do something fine and solid while laughing. It was not high art, but sometimes I'd rather kick back with Lynard Skynard than listen to Bach.
Watanabe sensei also had an ability to recognize his own personal quirks, and he had a friendly understanding for others that I really respected. I once asked him if I could attend his private dojo, and he replied something like this: "I like you and enjoy you coming to my class. However, I'm jealous of my personal students. If they come to my private dojo, I expect them to commit to me, and you train with everyone. I wouldn't like being mad at you for you being who you are."
It is this capacity for self-reflection that he showed then that makes his transformation over the years something that both saddens and angers me. I have seen film clips on YouTube of his demonstrations from the last twenty years. In my eyes, he has gotten ever more ridiculous, expecting his uke to fall with a wave of his hand, or a glare of his eyes. Ironically, he still occasionally intersperses quite staunch and strong aikido techniques, but then quickly reverts to a preposterous interaction with his students, where they do barrel rolls and flips at a glance or twitch of a finger.
In my opinion, many aikido instructors have lost their way -- and this is not exclusive to Watanabe sensei -- due to a never-contradicted-by-reality belief that this martial art allows them freedom to express their fantasies. Because of both the teacher-student dynamic and the mythology of the art, some instructors do whatever they want, because no one can say them nay. On the one hand are the arm-waving magicians, and on the others are the brutes that know that no student will ever strike them back for their abuse. Two sides of the same coin.
I wrote earlier that, as a demonstration uke, I would take ukemi from the teacher as expected, because shaming or resisting an instructor in front of a class would be a violation of the dojo itself, and the trust that the teacher puts in you. But there are limits: one should never become an implement of another's personal heaven.
It ill becomes a martial arts instructor to expect his students to leap and flip like poodles in a circus act. I will never walk onto the mat of a teacher who acts this way.
Were I, unaware, to find myself on the mat with someone who expected such ukemi of me, I would keep on coming and see what happened next. There is no reason to respond to gestures that have no meaning, anymore than one should take the fall if the teacher inadvertently sneezes. And whether he would then have the ability to respond and throw or lock me normally, or simply be bowled over, it would still be my last class with such a person, because I do not want to associate myself with someone who indulges in such clownish, degrading nonsense, whatever their real abilities or motivations.
Perhaps the reader finds this too harsh? It's outrage. His class and his company used to be so fine. I simply miss the man he was.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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.
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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