1955 -- The Inception of British Aikido
Abbe Kenshiro Sensei (1915 - 1985) arrived in the UK at the invitation of the London Judo Society (LJS). The LJS held their national Judo championships at the Royal Albert Hall, London, and Abbe sensei was their star on display. He was an 8th dan judo, 6th dan aikido, 6th dan kendo, 6th dan karate, and 6th dan jukendo. Sensei demonstrated a number of budo arts that had never been seen in the UK before. Among them, aikido attracted a lot of attention.
Prior to my interest in martial arts, I was a time-trial racing cyclist. I began judo at the Abbe School of Budo
in 1956, and aikido in 1957. I actually began as a student of K Williams Sensei; but we were both direct students of Abbe sensei
My early aikido teachers were all originally judoka. I have found this to be an asset in their application of technique, making them far more powerful and effective than the more modern teachers who have only studied aikido. Once you feel their technique, only then can you truly appreciate their hidden power.
How Abbe sensei met O-sensei
I travelled from London to Berkshire with Abbe sensei and Bill Woods sensei to visit my father, who was bedridden with a back injury. Sensei cured my father with katsu
within just a few minutes. During our trip, I asked Sensei how he met O-sensei. He said he was travelling across Japan to another judo competition when an old man sat opposite him. He said he was aware that the man was staring at him, and then the man said, "I know who you are!"
Abbe sensei modestly replied "Everyone knows who I am. Who are you?" The man explained who and what he was. Abbe was tired and needed to sleep, but the man continued to talk. Abbe politely asked him to be quiet. The man suddenly stuck his small finger in Abbe's face and demanded, "You are a strong young man. Break my finger." Abbe said he needed to sleep, so he grabbed the man's finger, intending to snap it like a twig. He suddenly found himself on the carriage floor in agony. It was then that he asked Osensei if he could study with him.
Abbe sensei taught to only "go" when the technique actually takes you. There was no clash of force or resistance with Sensei's technique. I never heard Sensei accuse anyone of not harmonising with him; you did not need to (I certainly never remember Sensei speaking of harmonising with the planets and things of that nature, either). He would harmonise with your
movement /your attack. His power was unique, different from any other teacher. Perhaps this was as a result of his personal creation of the theory / philosophy of KyuShinDo Judo, a theory based on centripetal movement. I believe that this minimum of effort and movement was his true strength. I am in no doubt whatsoever that Abbe sensei was the greatest budo teacher I have ever studied with, yet in all those years, I never saw Abbe sensei injure anyone. His technique felt as if it could break you, yet he never tried to hurt anyone.
Abbe sensei would often drop into the Hut Dojo wearing what we all called his brown demob suit from his army days. He would simply kick off his shoes, come on the mat and teach. Abbe sensei looked on aikido purely as a martial art, and his method of practice was of the early 1940s, very different from any of the teachers that were to follow him. He taught kicking and punching, karate style, in his aikido; we still do to this day.
Taking ukemi from Abbe Sensei was a quite different from other Aikido teachers (Nakazono Sensei, for example), where you could make a much more graceful ukemi to escape. With Abbe Sensei, the projection was always short, almost as if he was making a Judo throw. In those early days we were taught to slap the mat on impact as in Judo. There is no doubt that there was a great deal of jujutsu influence in Abbe Sensei's Aikido, just as there was in the technique of the great Minoru Mochizuki Sensei.
Sensei would keep his opponent in close bodily contact when applying all techniques. For example, ikkyo would be so close that you had your arm held as in a vice. His body was fully in contact with yours, forestalling all attempts at any resistance or movement. When Sensei threw you in aikido, the projection was short as in judo, with the same impact as a judo throw.
Abbe Sensei's kotegaeshi had no expansive circular movement; rather, it was a short tenkan movement with the power and control of the throw coming from the hips. Shihonage was much the same from any form of attack. He kept tight body contact control throughout, and there was never an opportunity to breakfall over the extended arm, or even a rear break fall. You would, instead, be taken `into` the mat. His iriminage was also a very tight turning of the hips - you were folded in a smaller space than you started. I always felt that I simply had no possibility of resistance against any technique with Abbe Sensei
The way students of today attack, already starting their ukemi as they initiated the attack would have really upset Abbe sensei. Abbe Sensei always said that nage should be studying both his defence, and his attack, and uke should be studying to improve his attack and maintain good balance.
It was a constant disappointment to Abbe sensei that no one appeared to understand his theory of KyuShinDo Judo, a doctrine that he only spoke of in terms of judo. It was Abbe sensei's goal to teach the British Judoka his KSD way of judo, a system that had made him the all Japan champion twice, as he felt that the British judoka were only interested in competition with strength and grappling. As best as I can describe KSD judo, Sensei made small pivotal movements - he was built like a fridge yet he was so light on his feet, he could pivot on a dime.
Sensei felt that the dan grades at the LJS did not respect his teachings. He once lined up 33 dan grades, and he walked along the line, telling each one the technique he would use on them. He also told them if it would be a left or right-handed technique, and he did exactly as he had predicted. He would shortly resign from the LJS, and join Mutsutaru Otani Sensei to form the British Judo Council.
The direct students of Abbe sensei could not grasp the true meaning of his KyuShinDo philosophy, yet today there are numerous claims to be doing KyuShinDo Judo, KyuShinDo Karate, and KyuShinDo Aikido. I would like to stress that Abbe sensei never taught or referred to any other martial art as KyuShinDo other than judo. It is sad to see people grading themselves in KyuShinDo; I have even seen one claim to being 8th dan KyuShinDo. The question must be asked, how the hell do you have a dan grade in a theory?
At one with Nature
I recall visiting Abbe sensei's apartment in the large Otani house in Acton, London. Abbe sensei would always have the sash window open, and there would be various wild birds on the window-sill and in the room. As one entered, the birds remained calm. If Abbe sensei left the room, so did all the birds as one; they would only return when Sensei did.
On one occasion, Abbe sensei was in a car travelling down the Goldhawk Road, London. They were stuck in a traffic jam, and after a few minutes, Abbe left the car to see what the problem was. There was a red London bus with its back wheels trapping a large dog. The dog was howling in terrible pain. Sensei asked a police officer if he could go near the dog. Before the officer could answer, Abbe knelt beside the dog and stroked its head and with a slight hand movement, the dog was dead. The police officer said to Abbe that what he had witnessed was like nothing he had ever seen before.
Fighting the Wind
Abbe sensei was the All Japan 5th dan champion at the age of eighteen. Both as a judoka and an aikidoka, he kept you in close contact with his body; there was no floating with the universe or harmonising with the planets or doing a Maypole dance on the end of his finger. The one thing you always knew was you were going to be thrown; there was no alternative, and there were no fancy gymnastics or no- touch throws. You often had no idea what had happened as you hit the mat.
The great judoka Kimura Masahiko Sensei said when losing to Abbe sensei in a national competition ""It was as if I was fighting a shadow and trying to catch the wind."
I recall a Budo Festival in 1964, where Abbe sensei did a Kendo Kata with my good friend Tommio Otani. Sensei made a strike to Tommio's head bringing a loud collective gasp from the audience, because it appeared that Sensei had made a mistake and cut Tommio's forehead. Tommio had a fringe like Moe, from "The Three Stooges," and he never flinched as a large clump of hair fell to the mat. To this day, we still wonder if it was a near mistake, or as with all Sensei's techniques, pure precision.
Abbe sensei was a hard teacher, yet there were many lighter moments such as when Derek Eastman was asked by Williams Sensei to take Abbe sensei back to his home in Acton, London. Sensei walked to the car park, and saw Derek had a BMW Isetta, a three wheeled bubble car. He looked apprehensively at the strange little object, as Derek opened the complete front of the car. Sensei walked slowly around the bubble car and said "How many wheels?"
Derek replied "Three, Sensei."
Sensei asked where the wheels were. Derek replied "Two at the front Sensei, and one in the middle."
Sensei smiled " Ahhh triangle, good for balance. " He never spoke another word during the journey.
My Shinai Speaks Fluent English
Abbe sensei spoke very little English, and he gave no Japanese names to any techniques. He'd simply say, "Necessary this action," or "Necessary that action." He would teach with a shinai; if a technique was wrong, no words were necessary, just a tap of the shinai on the offending arm or leg gave one a clear indication of the problem. He would say, "My English not good, my shinai speaks fluent English."
It was this hard style of Traditional Aikido that attracted my initial attention, and is the reason for my continued 55 years of study and training. Had I first seen aikido with ribbons or no-touch throws or breathing through toes, I would still be cycling.
The true direct students of Abbe sensei never refer to themselves as friends of Sensei. We all regarded ourselves simply as privileged students.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
Henry Ellis is the co-author of the book Positive Aikido. He is a pioneer of British aikido from 1957, as a direct student of Kenshiro Abbe Sensei. With 55 years of Aikido experience, he was one of the first of five dan grades for Aikido in the UK. His diplomas have been signed by O-sensei Ueshiba, Abbe Kenshiro, Nakazono Masahilo, Chiba Kazuo, and Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru. He is currently a 6th dan, Aikikai, and has taught aikido the UK, continental Europe, Australia and the USA.
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Henry Ellis has written many articles published in international magazines including the controversial "Is Aikido a Martial Art?" He has also written articles on the history of British Aikido in an effort to preserve the truth for future generations. Visit his website at http://britishaikido.blogspot.com/