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It Had To Be Felt #51: Isoyama Hiroshi: "No harm was done to any uke in these performances!"
It Had To Be Felt #51: Isoyama Hiroshi: "No harm was done to any uke in these performances!"
by It Had To Be Felt
It Had To Be Felt #51: Isoyama Hiroshi: "No harm was done to any uke in these performances!"

Isoyama Hiroshi began training aikido at the age of 12, in 1949, at the Founder's dojo in Iwama, Ibaraki prefecture. He trained over twenty years directly under O-sensei, surpassed only by the late Saito Morihiro.

I have had the honor, privilege and pleasure of spending quite a bit of time with this fine gentleman of budo throughout the past 12 years, accompanying him on his seminar trips to Italy and in my adopted home country of Denmark, as well as spending many pleasurable hours with him in Iwama. I have translated at his seminars and classes, something that has taught me a great deal. Isoyama sensei speaks English very well, but it is practical for him to teach his classes in Japanese when he is doing seminars, so that he can concentrate his attention fully on the waza and the deeper points of a spiritual nature. I have not only benefitted from his vast knowledge of aikido, but also in terms of reigi /reishiki (formal behavior)-- an area that is of great importance to him, and due to his influence, to myself as well.

I went to Iwama for the first time as uchideshi in 1984. As a long term student of Saito sensei, I had seen Isoyama sensei, but had not made his acquaintance personally until after Saito sensei's passing in 2002. Isoyama sensei would bring his own students, members of the Jieitai (Japan Ground Self Defense Force), to the Iwama Dojo for special seminars. His students were a hearty and enthusiastic group of practitioners! During my first stay in Iwama, one of these groups arrived for an intensive weekend seminar. As Iwama uchideshi , and therefore students of Saito sensei, we were told that it was optional whether or not we participated in these special classes. Since we uchideshi also had mandatory morning weapons keiko under Saito sensei and general class in the evenings, as well as chores in the morning and afternoon, we chose to opt out of the special classes. Another element that factored in to our decision might have been the fact that the special training classes had an apparent ferocity to them that was like feeding time in the lion's den, with ganseki otoshi (Isoyama sensei's trademark throw, where uke is bridged, face-up, on the shoulders of nage) as the main meal!

Ferocity aside, the Jieitai group was a wonderful bunch of gentlemen. At the after-keiko outdoor dinner at the dojo, one of the English-speaking Jieitai members introduced us to the wonderful phrase "Let's drink too much!" They also very kindly showed us how to accomplish this as well!

There was a morning run scheduled for the next day, with both the Jieitai group and the uchideshi taking part. The run was to take us up the local peak -- Atagosan -- after which we were to do jo training at the Atago Jinja (shrine). Those readers who have visited Iwama will remember that the long and winding road up the mountain is tiring enough, but then there are the steep stone steps the last part of the way, the stairs one sees Saito sensei helping O-sensei up in the old film footage. An abiding mystery is how many steps there actually are. Everyone I know who has tried to count them has lost track (or passed out). Approximately 300 is my closest estimate, but it feels more like 3000. Running along with our new-found Jieitai friends, jo's in hand, chanting "Aiki—Faito (‘fight')" in cadence, all the way up the ‘stairs of death,' was a memory of a lifetime. Arriving at the top and training jo suburi and kata under Isoyama sensei's guidance in front of the Atago Jinja in the early morning light, in the same spot where O-sensei and his closest deshi had done special training, was truly magical.

I was not to have direct experience with Isoyama sensei, however, until my first trip back to the Iwama Dojo, after Saito sensei's passing. Now called Ibaraki Shibu Dojo, I was received very kindly by Isoyama sensei. It was a slightly sad feeling, returning to the dojo that had given me so many wonderful memories, but being greeted so warmly by Isoyama sensei, Inagaki sensei (second in charge at that time) and the other main instructors of the dojo made me feel safe and secure, with the knowledge that the amazing spirit of this historic dojo was intact.

Most of my hands-on experiences with Isoyama sensei have been during his seminars, while translating for him. He would sometimes bring me up as uke to demonstrate a point that required someone who knew what this point was to be (having a background in Iwama aikido, and understanding Japanese were prerequisites for this). One of Isoyama sensei's main areas of focus is the martial aspect of aikido. This means being aware of such important things as ma-ai (correct distance ), suki (openings in either your own or your enemy's defenses), atemi (‘body striking') and harnessing and utilizing ki / kokyu ryoku (kokyu power). One of my most vivid recollections is when Isoyama sensei called me up to demonstrate a point about ma-ai and tai sabaki (body displacement). He showed a slide-step entry against a choku tsuki (straight thrust) jo attack. He slipped in expertly to my left, blind side and executed an atemi that made perfect ‘semi' contact with my "men" (read: mouth!). I managed to check my forward thrust right at the point of ‘semi' contact, leaving me with an interesting, tingling sensation in my lips. Atemi had been served!

Contrary to what many observers might assume, I have never been afraid while taking ukemi for Isoyama sensei. He is very adept at judging the limit of his uke, and working within that level. It is important to remember that his frightening, trademark ganseki otoshi throws that one can see on Youtube from his demonstrations are applied to his own students, who are extremely well-trained and very used to receiving these throws. Watch carefully and you see his uke falling very adeptly. I think these film clips should come with a caption stating "No harm was done to any uke in these performances!"

In many ways, Saito sensei and Isoyama sensei resemble each other: both in stature—powerful, compact build, large powerful hands, and very strong legs—as well as in personality. Both were very strong personalities: outgoing, sharp-witted, extroverted, and so confident that they didn't let their ego enter into their performance of techniques. They ‘were' the technique. Without posing or posturing, they just let the waza shine by itself.

Both men had the kind of natural strength built up through a lifetime of hard training and working outside—farming, gardening and everyday country living. Nonetheless, neither he nor Saito sensei ever felt like they were using physical strength or power. Their techniques felt strong yet soft. Isoyama sensei, however, has a more kind of explosive energy in his performance, that comes in ‘bursts,' but not so that he loses the smoothness of his timing.

Isoyama sensei's kuzushi (‘unbalancing and control of his partner') also manifests as a kind of power burst, but this control is always smooth—he never creates the kind of disconnect that I have felt from other sensei on occasion. He frequently cautions: "Don't stop!" It seems that, in the Iwama tradition, many people have mistakenly copied Saito sensei's pedagogical presentation of a given technique in ‘stages,' where he would show the different parts of a technique in a step-by-step manner, and made this ‘choppy' timing their basic form for the waza. However, if you observe Saito sensei's performance of a technique, it was always smooth and dynamic, whether it was kihon (‘basic') or ki no nagare (‘flowing ki'). It was only when he was teaching the forms that he broke the technique into parts. This choppy style of performing the waza has become a bad habit amongst many of us from the Iwama tradition, in my opinion. I could see that Isoyama sensei would often address this point at seminars, always emphasizing that once you start leading uke, you shouldn't stop until you have finished the technique. So there was always a feeling of very controlled flow throughout Isoyama sensei's techniques, strong and determined, but not painful.

When receiving a technique from Isoyama sensei, one feels as if being sucked into a vortex: powerless and controlled. It doesn't feel like he is using strength, but there is a very strong feeling of energy. It feels like he has turned on a generator within himself and cranked up the juice. There is a very energized feeling to him when he starts his technique, as if you can almost hear the buzz from the power generator.

I have not heard him speak directly about ki or kokyu ryoku in any major way. In general, the Iwama teachers, especially Saito sensei and Isoyama sensei, didn't verbalize that much regarding ki / kokyu ryoku. But they demonstrated it! (Inagaki sensei is different, in the sense that he does try to explain about these inner workings. I will write more about him in another column). However, as Isoyama sensei demonstrates the correct form, using tegatana correctly, with the hand-blade leading strongly through the entire technique, his visual example very strongly exemplifies the use of kokyu—and thereby the channeling of ki. He is a very clear example of this internal energy—showing a very vibrant and tangible outgoing energy from the beginning to the end. His zanshin (‘remaining mind') in each technique , exemplified from the very beginning of each class by tai-no- henko and morote-dori kokyu-ho, shows the importance of this concept: keeping the final position of the technique while letting your energy continue to surge forth after the actual physical motion has finished.

It seems that there is a sort of default understanding of these energy concepts inherent in the Japanese culture, and especially within its budo segment. There is nothing mysterious or mystical about the idea that there is an internal energy source found in this world / universe, and that we all have it in a basic sense. Learning to harness it, and channel it takes certain outer techniques to get to feel it. And it seems like all those whom I have felt among the Iwama sensei group have a strong feeling of this energy. It also seems that they learned to not use strength by first learning how to use it, and thereby learning how to avoid using it.

This is also clearly evident in the situations when you are being held and you are asked to try to do your technique. Holds (wrist grabs and the like) are, if properly trained, a high level aikido technique in themselves. Being held in katate-dori by Isoyama sensei was humbling. I was not able to move! He was able to hold me totally, and I did not feel that he was cranking on his grip in any way, shape or form. His grip felt soft and firm, and he had complete control of my center. No matter what technique I attempted, he kept my center locked up. I could feel that he was keeping a connection to my center, and ‘reading' my movements through his, adjusting to my different attempts to find a point of kuzushi, with no external movement whatsoever. This was a fascinating experience—a strong and soft, powerful grip, indeed!

Since I am of a vertically challenged physical stature, I am not that impressive a human specimen to be used as uke for demonstration purposes. I know that there are others out there who have had much more hands-on experience with Isoyama sensei than I, and I sincerely hope that they will share their experiences with us in this respect—I can call out to Kevin McNeely and Carl Thompson, who both have had extensive, hands-on training with Isoyama sensei, to start with.

But my "IHTBF" experiences are just as meaningful in painting a picture of this fine gentleman of budo, because they give an insight into a man who has trained extremely hard throughout his life. I think that the old Iwama Dojo was the exemplar of hard training back in the day, and Isoyama sensei along with Saito sensei, were the epitome of this.

Isoyama sensei is a great example of what walking the path of aiki leads to. Going through the physical training stages, from gotai through jutai to ryutai / kitai ("static/hard" body to "flexible" body to "flowing/energic" body) also leads one through the same stages on a spiritual, developmental path. Anyone who sees the old photos of Isoyama sensei from his vigorous younger years, handlebar moustache et al, will have a rather clear idea of the strength and power he embodied.

Among the most important aspects of training with Isoyama sensei are his memories of his youth, and specifically, his training with O-sensei. One of his most important memories is the story of his first meeting with O-sensei. He explains, always with a tender tone in his voice, that O-sensei greeted him with the etiquette and countenance that one would usually only use from one adult to another, and not towards a 12 year old boy. When Isoyama sensei came to meet O-sensei to ask permission to become a student, O-sensei used a polite level of Japanese with him, and performed a very polite, seated bow when greeting him. This was definitely not normal etiquette for an adult toward a young child, and especially not a master of budo towards a fledgling student. This kind spirit that O-sensei showed to Isoyama sensei left an indelible impression on him, and one can tell that the idea of treating people properly and politely, with no thought as to the individual's status or age, is something that Isoyama sensei practices at all times. He is always very polite and courteous, to everyone he meets, unless they break etiquette—then you will see a sterner side of this proper gentleman!

Isoyama sensei makes a very strong point of people sitting properly during classes. Woe betide those who sit with their arms folded while listening to his instructions. If you have not heard a proper kiai before, you can count on hearing one then! But this is actually general ‘body language 101'—folding one's arms is a classic sign of creating a ‘barrier' between oneself and the other party, a basic sign of arrogance in most cultures. Oftentimes people aren't aware that they are sitting this way, but I guarantee you that you become aware of it, if caught doing so during one of his classes!

Isoyama sensei sometimes talks of the very rough training that took place in the Iwama Dojo in the olden days. He states clearly that he is not proud of his behavior from this period of time. I respect him so much for speaking about this subject, and admitting that his earlier ways were not the best. Even so, he is teaching us all an important lesson, beyond espousing a gentler way of practicing aikido. I believe that it is part of the path of training, this forging stage of gotai (static/hard form). At that time in history it was quite brutal, I believe. But there is a saying in Japanese: "Bushi no nasake" meaning the ‘benevolence of the warrior'. This phrase embodies the concept of accepting the responsibility that comes with the acquisition of the strength of a warrior, and to use this strength correctly. Isoyama sensei is a perfect example of this spirit

Isoyama sensei moved through that rough and tumble stage of training and onward. His spiritual awareness grew along with his martial skills. He often reminds us during his teachings, that if we do not try to study and live the spiritual teachings of O-sensei along with training in the physical aspects of the art, then all the hard work that O-sensei put into creating his art of Aikido will have been in vain.

From the very first time I met Isoyama sensei, I have felt a great connection with him. He has a wonderful sense of humor, and he is great at teasing people and making jokes, both in Japanese as well as English. He is a charming and enjoyable person through and through. He has a commanding presence, without being intimidating—you know that you are in the presence of a very important person when meeting him, but his charm and warmth make you feel at ease.

Ethan Weisgard

Copenhagen Aiki Shuren Dojo

Ethan Weisgard is one of the highest-level direct students of the late aikido master Morihiro Saito in Europe. He traveled to Japan for the first time in 1984 to live and train as a direct student of Saito in Iwama. He has returned more than ten times, including a stay of more than one year, to immerse himself in training.

Weisgard was appointed direct representative in Denmark by Saito personally. He has traveled throughout the world teaching the aikido taught to him by his master, teaching in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Germany, America, Russia and even in the homeland of aikido, Japan.

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.
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