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It Had to Be Felt #39: Ohba Hideo: He Felt Almost Like Nothing
It Had to Be Felt #39: Ohba Hideo: He Felt Almost Like Nothing
by Eddy Wolput
It Had to Be Felt #39: Ohba Hideo: He Felt Almost Like Nothing

I started martial arts in 1962 in a local judo and jujutsu club, which also had a small section of what was called "shaolin kempo." I believe the teacher had some relationship with fugitives from China. His level and expertise was low, but after my military service, I became involved with Shotokan Karate with a Japanese teacher, Miyazaki sensei. I did some competition, but that format was not satisfying enough, so I started aikido around 1971 with an Aikikai teacher. "There is no competition in aikido," he said, so I was not completely satisfied here either.

There was no internet in those days, and looking for information was not so easy, but around 1977, I found an article about Tomiki Aikido in a English martial arts magazine, and I realized that there was a style of aikido that incorporated the concept of "competition." This article was a report of a visit of Ohba Hideo, the assistant of Tomiki Kenji, to the London Yawara Dojo, headed by Dr. Lee Ah Loi.

I asked Dr. Lee if it was possible for me to come to London and experience Tomiki Aikido. Although Ohba sensei had already returned to Japan, the trip was still inspiring because, besides the teaching of Dr. Lee, a young former Waseda University aikido champion, Haba Itsuo, taught part of the course. These two instructors changed my aikido life.

After I returned to Antwerp (Belgium), we slightly changed our aikido, but we still kept our membership with the Aikikai. Our dojo had Japanese visiting teachers, one of them being Seiichi Sugano. During a visit, he saw the article about Tomiki Aikido and Ohba sensei. He immediately said some denigrating remarks such as, "those judo people," and "he is an old man and never practiced at the Tokyo Aikikai Dojo." I can't remember if he ever came back to our dojo after this incident.

In 1978, I planned a trip to Japan, and asked Dr. Lee if she would write a letter of introduction to Ohba sensei. This was not my first time in Japan, and I had some experience with dojo life there. Because my meeting with Ohba sensei was scheduled a few days after arriving in Tokyo, I visited the Aikikai Hombu Dojo for the first time. After the training, I went to a local restaurant with a young American who studied there. Now he is very famous : Bill Gleason. I doubt he will remember me. In that time, however, we had a common interest in the more spiritual side of aikido and we were both interested into "Mahikari," a predecessor of the "Reiki" movement.

A few days later, I had my meeting with Ohba sensei, a totally different experience from the formality and "distance" of my Aikikai experience a few days earlier. The introduction happened in the dressing room, so the reader can understand that this was very "casual".

The Okubo Sports Kaikan Dojo was a room divided in two parts: one part with fitness equipment and loud music, and the other part, the dojo with wrestling mats. After warm up, Ohba sensei put me with a young powerful Japanese, who liked very strong randori techniques. Then Ohba sensei put me with a young Japanese girl, a beginner, to do basic techniques. Throughout training, Ohba sensei had me change back-and-forth between the strong one and the weak one.

He always explained techniques or movements until I understood what he was teaching. He not only was tori, but remarkably to me, because no instructor had ever done this with me before, he also took ukemi. Beyond how he practiced, working with Ohba sensei himself was also a new experience for me. He manifested no resistance whatsoever, yet he could manage me into whatever direction he liked.

After training, we went downstairs to the gymnasium cafeteria, and we all had a beer. Well, not all of us: only the men! The women had a soft drink, because Ohba sensei insisted, "No alcohol for women!"

Ohba sensei walked with me to the station, put me on the train and waited until the train departed. He did this after every practice, until he knew I could safely return to my hotel. I later found out he had to walk a long time to another station to get home himself

Ohba sensei advised me to also train at the Waseda University Dojo, the old dojo with a spring floor. My first time there, he ordered one of the students to take care of me throughout my visit in Japan for my aikido training. Training at the Waseda Dojo was totally different from Ohba sensei's dojo at Okubu: Waseda students' training was all about randori, while the training at Okubo was all about aikido.

Before I returned to Belgium, I invited Ohba sensei and the members of Okubo Sports Kaikan Dojo to have a "sayonara meal" in the restaurant. When I slipped away to pay the bill, the cashier said : "It is already paid," and he pointed to Ohba sensei. Years later in 1989, I visited Ohba sensei again, at his grave, in company with his wife. After this, she gave a koto concert with some of her students. It seems she was a famous koto musician, and apparently she did some concerts in Europe.

A while ago, I had dinner with some of the old Okubo Sports Kaikan people, and we reminisced about old times. Our conversation went into the direction about promotion and grading. One woman, a 7th dan in the Japan Aikido Association, told me she is not a 7th dan, but a 6th dan, the last grade Ohba sensei gave her. The impact of Ohba Hideo upon his students is not only about aikido, but is also about his personality.

Few young people have any idea about this Japanese gentlemen, who was always in the shadow of Tomiki Kenji sensei. Tomiki sensei was an innovator of modern aikido training methods, but Ohba sensei was the man who guarded the old ways of Ueshiba Morihei. Those older methods we can find in the six koryu-no-kata of the Tomiki Aikido system. Unfortunately the 6 koryu-no-kata are rarely practiced by most of the Tomiki Aikido people. Only a few still have the knowledge of the old days.

In Ohba's biography (written by Professor Fumiaki Shishida of Waseda University) we can read the following :
True Demonstration in 1939

It was Hideo Ohba who took ukemi for Ueshiba for the demonstration. He later talked about this event as follows: "Since the Emperor of Manchuria was in an exalted position at that time like the Emperor of Japan, I thought I should not take ukemi for Ueshiba in the way I usually did. If Ueshiba Sensei were a true master, he could freely handle a true punch, thrust or grab. Therefore, I decided to attack him seriously. When we stood on the platform, I saw many martial arts masters present in the large dojo of the Shimbuden. When I glanced at Ueshiba Sensei, his beard was sticking out towards me, his hair was standing on end and his eyes were glittering. I thought to myself that he was indeed a true master. Then I concentrated on taking ukemi for him, thinking how different it was to face a master. After the demonstration, we bowed and sat in the corner of the dojo and were supposed to walk over to the seats where the masters were sitting. However, I heard someone thunder, 'You idiot!' Ueshiba Sensei was short-tempered. He couldn't wait until we returned to our seats. He shouted at me in that way in front of everyone. Until then, I thought he was a wonderful and truly great master, but his shout made my spirit pop like a bubble. We sat down. Ueshiba Sensei didn't even smile. He was in a bad mood. So I felt tiny. Who do you think showed up then? It was Hideo Sonobe who was said to be without peer in Japan or anywhere in the use of the Naginata. She came all the way up to where the masters were sitting while Iai and Naginata kata were being demonstrated one after another. She said, 'Mr. Ueshiba I have never seen more wonderful techniques than what you showed today. They were fantastic!' Ueshiba Sensei, who had been in a bad mood, asked her what part she liked. He asked me to find a place where they could talk and we all went down to the basement of the Shimbuden and they discussed the theory of martial arts for two hours. While I was listening to their discussion Ueshiba Sensei asked her what she liked and she replied that she liked the 'connections' (tsunagari) between techniques. However, I didn't understand these connections. I understood that the Dai Nihon Butokukai [Kyoto-based organization which governed Japanese martial arts] then was having a hard time trying to decide who they should choose as the best swordsman of that year and had asked Sonobe Sensei for her opinion. When I heard Sonobe Sensei tell Ueshiba Sensei that she had never seen such wonderful techniques even though she had seen him demonstrate often, I decided to learn Naginata in order to search for these 'connections.'"

Hideo would always recount this story to his students when he was in a good mood. One time I asked him the following question, "Sensei, when you attacked Ueshiba Sensei seriously, could he execute techniques like he usually did in his regular demonstrations?" Judging from the fact that he was scolded on that occasion, the answer was obvious. I asked this question because I wanted to confirm it. He answered, "Ueshiba sensei seemed to have a hard time executing techniques smoothly."

I think that Tomiki sensei was critical of the fact that Ueshiba's demonstrations became gradually softer. Tomiki's belief was that such softness was a way of making the person throwing look good, and was different from how martial arts should be. This demonstration of Ueshiba and Ohba received the highest praise from a top martial artist because of Ohba's serious attacks, and the fact that he refused to participate in a prearranged performance the way he normally would have. I think that behind this fact lies an important hint as to what aikido should be. There seem to be some people within the Japan Aikido Association who see that their kata demonstrations are different from the flowing demonstrations of other schools, and try to change them in that direction. However, things should be the opposite. I think what is important is that we should master each technique perfectly as did Ueshiba Sensei, and then try to achieve a connection or flow between techniques. Hideo's experience taught us not only the limitation of Ueshiba's techniques (one cannot throw someone in a dance-like manner), as well as his incredible mastery, but also how a demonstration should be.
Was Ohba Hideo a true master?

Two things that I most clearly remember are a) the absence of muscle power, whether he was tori or uke b) the absence of bodyweight, although he was not a skinny man.

When I did waza with Ohba sensei, he felt almost like "nothing." I was touching something: it moved when I pushed, and it moved when I pulled. When he did the waza, I felt nothing, but I moved. He didn't use muscle power or bodyweight ójust "pure" movement.

When I compare him with other aikido experts, be they well-known or not , he was .... almost not there. There was no need to attack and defense, just movement. There was no feeling of losing or winning. When I attacked others - Kobayashi Hirokazu, for example -- they were solid and acted like a spinning top.

When modern exponents and so-called "bodyworkers" ask you to attack, you know you will be exposed to their strength but you try to attack anyway. Suddenly there is an almost excessive amount of power that blows you away

But Ohba was not there: no power, no ego; there was no need to attack. The only person who gave me a similar feeling was Hakamatsu sensei of Korindo-ryu, whom I met in 1976.

Ohba Hideo was always the man behind Kenji Tomiki, I think he was trained to be in the shadow of his teacher. When Tomiki passed away in 1979, Ohba sensei became the 2nd chairman of the Japan Aikido Association. Ohba sensei was the link with Morihei Ueshiba. In 1985, when he passed away, the Japan Aikido Association went into a new direction and the link was broken.

For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
  • Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
  • Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
  • Do not engage in back-and-forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real. Just post your own experience. Trust your readers to take in each writer's account on its own merits.
  • If, for any reason, you find something to praise or condemn in anyone's description or wish to amplify your insights and perceptions, do so elsewhere. Start a thread about that subject in the appropriate section of Aikiweb.
  • Follow-up posts should be substantive, striving to equal the depth of the original essay. Simply agreeing with the writer, or a brief comment that, yes, the teacher in question was really powerful or had a wonderful shihonage or the like, are not congruent with the purpose of this archive.

Eddy Wolput, born in 1948, first learned aikido from Tony Thielemans, a former student of Murashige Aritoshi, in 1971. He received his shodan from Kobayashi Hirokazu in 1974, and began to regularly visit Japan in 1976. He converted to Tomiki Aikido in 1978, after being taught by Ohba Hideo, Dr. Lee Ah Loi and Haba Itsuo (a former randori champion). He also has trained in iaido and jodo, under Shizufumi Ishido. He currently operates a dojo in Antwerp, Belgium, teaching and training on a daily basis.
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