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It Had to Be Felt #52: Inagaki Shigemi: "A Gentleman of Aiki"
It Had to Be Felt #52: Inagaki Shigemi: "A Gentleman of Aiki"
by It Had To Be Felt
It Had to Be Felt #52: Inagaki Shigemi: "A Gentleman of Aiki"

Inagaki Shigemi sensei was born in 1946. While still a small boy, he and his family moved from the Tokyo area to the small village of Iwama in Ibaraki Prefecture. He began training in the children's group in the Iwama Dojo in 1958, when he was 12 years old. He trained directly under the founder of aikido, Ueshiba Morihei from 1958 until his passing in 1969. After the Founder's death, Inagaki sensei, a very close student of Saito Morihiro sensei, served as his uchideshi for 2 ½ years. Inagaki sensei functioned as Saito sensei's otomo, arranging and travelling with him to Hawaii and California during his first foreign trip.

Inagaki sensei was awarded 8th Dan in January 2013. He is currently the director of the Ibaraki Shibu Dojo (Iwama Dojo). Inagaki sensei travels throughout Europe, Russia and the United States to teach seminars as well, and has a long history teaching aikido in Myanmar. He is not only recognized for his skill in aikido, but also his very clear and systematic teaching methods.

I first met Inagaki sensei when I returned to my beloved dojo in 2005, my first trip after the passing of Saito sensei in 2002. I was greeted very warmly by Inagaki sensei right from the start, and I immediately felt a strong affinity towards him.

Inagaki sensei figures very strongly in the history of the Iwama Dojo. The first foreigners who started coming to the dojo in the early 1970s spoke of him with great respect. He was extremely dedicated, and trained very dynamically. As one of Saito sensei's longest standing and closest students, he has an inside understanding of his methodology, and also a clear understanding on how Saito sensei refined his teaching over the years. The training in the 1970s was very physically challenging, and the stories that I have heard Inagaki sensei tell of how they trained in the ‘good, old days' indicate a real forging of the body as well as of the spirit. Saito sensei led the way, devoting a large amount of time to building up strength and endurance, with extensive tanren-uchi practice with heavy bokken, plus many different exercises based on strengthening and toughening the tegatana, knuckles and forearms for taijutsu practice. Such tanren practice is still done as part of the uchideshi training regimen at the Iwama Dojo.

For more interesting stories of this period in Iwama history, as well as more stories about Inagaki sensei himself, I recommend reading texts by the old guard of foreign students. Much is to be learned from these stories.

As mentioned before, I first met Inagaki sensei when I came to Iwama together with a small group of my closest students back in 2005. We were welcomed with great kindness, not only by Inagaki sensei, but also by all the other fine teachers who now take such great care of the Founder's beloved dojo. Isoyama Hiroshi sensei was the active head of the Dojo at this time, and he especially went out of his way to make us all feel most welcome, too. I am forever grateful to Isoyama sensei for his kindness.

Inagaki sensei, along with other leading seniors from the old days, taught evening class at the Iwama dojo as part of a rotational system. Apart from his once or twice a week evening class, he also offered uchideshi training in the mornings, three days a week. These morning classes consisted of both weapons work and taijutsu.

I have returned to the Iwama Dojo with my students many times since that trip in 2005. I have seen Inagaki sensei on many occasions actually stepping in and training with the students when there have been an uneven number of participants. Notably, he has paired up with some of my least-experienced students for one-on-one training during his own classes. He could take a more skilled practitioner to train with, but instead he steps in and takes a beginner, and trains with him or her for the entire class. This is a beautiful example of the spirit of Aikido at its best.

I have translated for Inagaki sensei, both at many seminars throughout Europe, and also during classes in Iwama. He speaks English very well, and is constantly working on his language skills. This makes translating for him both very interesting and daunting at the same time—he knows if I'm not getting something right! Nonetheless, we have a good understanding, and he is interested in the different ways that both the technical and spiritual sides of aikido can be translated.

Inagaki sensei is very interested in the spiritual aspects of Aikido, and studies these areas very seriously. He has assiduously researched Omoto-kyo, Shinto, Buddhism as well as other spiritual paths. Speaking with him about these matters is always a learning experience. He tries to make his interpretation of O-Sensei's thoughts accessible to others, but always points out that they are his interpretations. His striving to immerse himself in the study of O-Sensei's thoughts and concepts is an inspiration for others to do the same.

As I mentioned earlier, Inagaki sensei had very close contact with Saito sensei from his early years onwards. This has given him a great overview of how the techniques have developed during Saito sensei's lifetime. Please note that this does not mean that Saito sensei had developed his own techniques, but rather how Saito sensei had refined his own understanding and execution of the techniques that he had learned from O- Sensei. Inagaki sensei is a great technician, with a very keen sense of detail. He has the same unique ability that Saito sensei possessed—being able to understand the underlying principles in the techniques and to put them into sequences in order to actually feel the connections as well as to make the techniques easier to remember. Through this, he not only enhances his own ability, but makes it possible for others to learn in the same manner.

I have had the privilege of being uke and uchitachi / uchijo for Inagaki sensei on several occasions throughout the years (others have had much more direct training contact than I, and I hope that they will contribute to this column, so that we have the benefit of their experiences as well). In my case, what I have always felt from Inagaki sensei was a very strong sense of controlled power. When receiving Inagaki sensei's taijutsu techniques I have felt that he was very precise in delivering a constant, controlling energy throughout the given technique, but never using unnecessary force. I am small of stature, and Inagaki sensei is quite big, and very strong, but I have never felt that he was working past the level that I was able to take. He would take me right to the limit, for my own training's sake (forging both body and spirit), but I have always felt confident that I was safe throughout the entire technique. I would feel a sense of musubi—the connection of his energy with me—at all times through the given technique.

When he teaches at the Iwama Dojo and also at seminars, Inagaki sensei makes a point of using all sorts of different people as uke—both white belts as well as yudansha, and mostly people he doesn't know. I believe that this is n a way for him to train himself by having to connect with each uke in their own way, as well as showing that the techniques work on people who don't know what is coming. I have never seen him force a technique through, if the given uke wasn't ready for what was coming; on the contrary, he sometimes will stop and restart the technique, in order to keep the uke safe.

He has often used me in weapons work at the seminars where I have translated for him. The paired forms in aiki-ken and aiki-jo are quite complicated, and it helps the forms to have a partner who knows the sequences when demonstrating . This has given me the opportunity to receive his weapons techniques directly, and this has always been a wonderful experience. As in taijutsu, he always seems to establish a very clear and tangible connection when training weapons with him. His energy is very sharp and distinct, but just as in his taijutsu, you never feel that there is any aggression. He is very quick, but always in sync with his partner. One of the points that Saito sensei used to emphasize was awase (‘fitting together,' ‘blending') in our training. He would say that it is just as bad to be too fast as it is to be too slow; you separate by being ahead of your attacker, and you can get stuck by being behind them. Inagaki sensei's timing is impeccable. He never exceeds the ‘dosage' of power or energy that is needed for the given weapons technique; this to me is a sign of true mastery.

Inagaki sensei's kamae (position, stance) in his body work: hanmi / hitoemi, taisabaki, and more (both in weapons as well as tai jutsu ) is a wonderful combination of his many years of training in the older forms, where the positions were quite low, with a fairly wide stance, as well as the form that was prevalent from the 1980s and onwards, as shown by Saito sensei in his later years, where the stances were more upright—though always grounded, with a very strong, solid anchoring of the hips. I recommend looking at the old books series Traditional Aikido by Saito sensei to see the older variations of the stances used then, and then compare them with Saito sensei's forms from the 1980s.

If we consider O-Sensei himself, in just about every clip and photo I have seen of O-Sensei, he has moved and stood in basic, natural body positions. It is very rare to see O-Sensei standing in a very low stance at any time. In the 1970s, we in Scandinavia were training under Tomita Takeji sensei (NOTE: Tomita Sensei was a student first of Nishio sensei and then Saito sensei—he also trained directly under O-Sensei during his last years). Tomita Sensei's stances were quite low. He once told us that practicing in low stances was a training tool; it teaches you grounding, stability and gives you a feeling of solid strength. In my opinion, one should use these stances in building up these important aspects, and then move on into more flexible and dynamic body positions as one develops further.

It looks quite natural for Inagaki sensei, who possesses a great degree of flexibility (he can still do full splits / stretches: seated, legs out to the sides and upper body touching the ground in front of him), to have a fairly low stance. He is still able to move dynamically at any time, from any position within a technique and those at the end. Inagaki sensei displays a very clear and precise form in all his aikido, a vast knowledge accumulated through years and years of hard and dedicated training.

I have tried to put into words what I have felt when training with Inagaki sensei. But even more than that, I would like to talk about feeling his spirit in general, and to express my gratitude for the opportunities I have had of sharing his company outside of training, where we have been able to talk about many things, among them about aikido in its many forms, both physical and spiritual. I have learned very much from these occasions. He is a very kind and openhearted person, who is very willing to share his thoughts and ideas with anyone, and he is also very willing to listen to other people's thoughts and ideas. Both at the Iwama Dojo as well as when travelling, I have seen him treat others with respect and kindness in all situations. Of course he can be strict as a chief instructor at the Iwama Dojo, but his severity is always based on making the recipient of his strictness understand an important point. His severity also embodies kindness, and I see this is a fine sign of the spirit of bushido. I see in Inagaki sensei a man who is truly applying the spiritual principles of Aikido in everything that he does. I see in him a true ‘gentleman of aiki.'

Nota Bene

Some may read this essay and find themselves rather puzzled. This may be because they encountered Inagaki sensei several decades ago, or more likely, they have heard stories that describe someone more tiger than human.

There is no doubt that training at the Iwama Dojo in the old days was extremely severe. Chiba Kazuo sensei wrote a very good article about his own experiences in this dojo that illustrates this point very well. The students training in the Iwama Dojo from the 1950s to the 1980s were focused on strengthening themselves—forging their bodies as well as their spirit. From the 1980s onwards, Saito sensei put more emphasis on understanding and performing the movements perfectly: tai sabaki, hanmi / hitoemi, posture, awase, and zanshin (in Iwama, this term had a specific meaning—the final position of a technique or form, which also embodied the continuation of your energy surging forward 'beyond' the physical form, as well as one's continued connection with one's partner). All of this was meant to accomplish 'fitting together' the parts of the body and spirit so that the technique was a unified act. Saito sensei believed that if you wanted to train hard or fast, you should do it on your own time; this was what jiyugeiko (free training) was for. Class was for studying the techniques in a controlled manner. (Admittedly, not everybody adhered to this during training—sometimes it would get pretty rough when some of the practitioners were feeling frisky!). Initially, techniques were taught in a step-by-step manner, in order to learn all the important points properly. Then you would move into the awase level of training, and finally into ki no nagare (flowing forms). This progression was the way O-Sensei taught in the Iwama Dojo and this is what Saito sensei continued after O-Sensei's passing.

From the perspective of internal strength training, those who seem to have attained some level of proficiency in this area all went through a developmental period of hard, rigorous training—both solo training for strengthening their bodies as well as their spirit, and also partner training, where the uke would give no quarter. Resistance to the techniques was required, and you had to learn how to execute your technique on a person who did not want to be thrown or pinned, and who would counter your technique if possible. This was a developmental stage, however, used to forge yourself and to learn to understand the physical aspects of the techniques—in particular, finding the weak angles in your partner's positions, and finding angles where you would be most stable while executing the techniques correctly. You also had to learn when to apply henka waza ( variations) or oyo waza ( applied techniques) when necessary. The ‘outer,' physical stage of development is supposed to lead you further, and teach you how to use the minimum of effort and power to perform a given technique, while still making the technique effective. I believe that one has to go through this basic level of hard, rigorous training in order to learn the more subtle, inner aspects of the art. There is no shortcut. If you try to go straight to the soft, flowing forms without passing through this initial level, you won't have the physical or mental foundation necessary to obtain the higher levels. You can't understand how to release or let go of your power if you haven't understood how to unleash it first. It seems quite logical: try to follow in the footsteps of O-Sensei, in regards to how his training progressed from hard to soft. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

The high-level Sensei from Iwama from whom I have received techniques—Saito sensei, Isoyama Sensei and Inagaki sensei—all passed through this rigorous, basic level of hard training and came out the other side. Their techniques all felt very strong and controlled; the key word being controlled. It was not violent. This may have been different back in the older days—my experience is based on from 1984. I always felt that they were able to adjust the ‘dosage' of power they were using perfectly to the situation. As I have mentioned before, I am small of stature, and every time a technique has been performed on me by one of these sensei, I have felt completely controlled by them, but only with the power that was necessary. I have trained with others where I have felt that the individual just has been blasting out—essentially delivering the same amount of power to anyone, with not so much consideration as to how much is actually necessary for the technique to work. One of the refined, elegant aspects of high-level aikido is the ability of nage to be in complete control of their power output—understanding how to perform each technique so it is most effective with as little power as possible. Getting the dosage just right in each execution and getting this to fit to the given uke is truly a sign of mastery. This is ki awase and ki musubi in their physical form.

I feel very strongly that the sensei of Iwama have used their strong training in their developmental stages of their lives to move them past this stage and into the higher levels of aikido.

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.

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.
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