I can hardly express the disappointment I felt the first time I saw Murai Kyoichi. It was July, 1986, my first day of training at the Yoseikan Honbu
in Shizuoka City, Japan. I had expected to meet Mochizuki Minoru again, but here was this little, old fellow wearing a too-large dogi
and a crooked black belt. In his seventies, he looked like Stan Laurel, only smaller, under five feet tall and weighing less than a hundred pounds. His dogi swallowed him up. I got the idea they had called him to hang around the dojo,
while Mochizuki sensei was in France, to show people where to park or answer the phone, perhaps. I couldn't believe I had come all this way to see Mochizuki, and here was this tiny, old fellow with a unshaven five o'clock shadow and crooked belt. Nonetheless, it was training time. We were all in our dogi and the little old guy had shown up to ‘teach' us, so we went down the steep stairs to the mats.
Patrick Auge was there, my group's leader, and I was wishing he would just run the class and let this little old fellow get on back to drinking tea. Murai sensei
, however, picked up a shinai
and had us all get bokken
. I think Patrick had already led us through 500 downward cuts that morning. Murai sensei was going to show us some details of kata
. So we were working on something, maybe ken tai ichi no kata
("forms of body and sword in one"), the same movements over and over in the rising morning heat in that old green room. Murai stopped a moment and started talking in Japanese, gesturing quickly with his left hand, leaving Auge crouched in a gedan
posture, ready to spring forward and thrust. Murai was so small that, with his hand near his own shoulder height, the end of his shinai almost touched the floor. He stood like that in front of Auge, talking and talking. Then, suddenly, he sprang forward, bringing his shinai up to the left in a circle down to his right, striking Auge's bokken on the left side, knocking it out of Auge's powerful hands and sending it fifteen feet across the floor, the tip of his shinai at Auge's throat. A light went on in my head.
For a couple of weeks, a group of six or eight of us practiced daily with Murai sensei— sword in morning, and aikido
in the afternoon and evening. We did karate
on Tuesdays and Thursdays with Sano Teruo sensei, and both judo
and aikido on Saturdays and Sundays with Akahori sensei in regular attendance. Regular aikido classes were Monday and Wednesday evenings, and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. There we would train with Tezuka, Washizu and Kenmotsu, the local shihan
most likely to appear. In those classes, the first half was warm-up and basics followed by an hour of sutemi randori
. Though tiny and in his early 70s, Murai sensei would go the full hour, throwing and being thrown in the wide range of sutemi waza
Mochizuki sensei had developed as his Yoseikan Gyokushin-ryu
. Murai was smooth, light, precise and clean in his throws and falls. He looked a lot like Kyuzo Mifune doing sutemi, a very similar size and build, but Murai seemed more playful. He would do some powerful throw, then look surprised and laugh at himself. He was not only amazing to watch and fun to be thrown by, but fun to be around. He was always smiling and laughing gently, but he never let the classes get past a baseline of seriousness. On the other hand, he told us American students that we were too serious. We had some big organizational issues going on and things were tense among us. Murai sensei said we needed to enjoy our training more.
Well, I was from a serious background, myself, having gotten my first look at martial arts as a child from my law enforcement father's FBI manual. So, funniness aside, good technique and all aside, I was driven to find the ‘real' aikido. One day in a randori session, Murai sensei had thrown someone and ended up with his back to me. I went for it. It was only an instant, but a thought ran through my mind, something like "OK. It's time for all the hypnosis to end. This little guy is good, but let's get real. It will be better for him and better for me if I just snatch him up off his feet. Then we can get down to the real training." I stepped forward and grabbed Kyoichi Murai by both shoulders and tried to snatch him up off his feet.
It was like he was stuck to the floor with suction cups. He slid backward across the mat. He probably stepped with one foot, but, looking down, I got the impression he was sliding backward with both feet. And then I realized, "Hey, man…I'm upside down…" and I was flying through the air, over Murai's wild, gray hair, his tiny body up there adhering to the floor. I went four or five feet past where he had been standing when I grabbed him. I hit the floor flat and slapped, laughing as I did, and as I got up, Murai covered his mouth and gave an embarrassed little laugh. I'd have to say that was one of the most astounding moments I ever experienced in aikido. Then I thought, "Oh, man. The stories are true!"
From that point, I listened closely to Murai sensei whenever he was around. I couldn't understand what he was saying, but I watched his movement and his eyes. I copied everything that I could see. Of course, there were limits. No one else was doing techniques like Murai sensei, using the attacker's own grip to throw him, like Ueshiba Morihei used to do. Mochizuki sensei consistently taught to release the captured hand and take positive control. But Murai had been with Sensei a long, long time. He was Mochizuki sensei's earliest remaining student (apart from Sensei's son, Hiroo), going back to the early 1950s. When Ueshiba O-sensei would drop in at the Yoseikan on his way back from Osaka, Murai was one of the students.
In that first visit to Shizuoka, in 1986, I learned that Murai was also an all-out master of the sword of Katori Shinto-ryu
. He loved to get out on the mat and swing a bokken or shinai, or naginata
, for that matter, and go for hours, precisely reciting the ancient forms with his body, sword and words, going over tiny bits of the form like lines from Shakespeare, explaining exactly what they were about. That summer, I learned all four of the Yoseikan Katori Shinto-ryu forms: Itsusu no Kata
, Nanatsu no Kata
, Kasumi no Tachi
and Haka no Tachi
Once that summer, our group saw Murai sensei off for a train trip. He was carrying a bundle of silk and someone asked him what it was. He took us aside from the gate and uncovered a katana
. He pushed the tsuba
and drew a short length of glimmering shinken
(live blade). He gave that little Stan Laurel laugh and took his sharp sword on the train, just a little old grandfather, apparently almost too old to walk.. The most classic example of ‘appearances deceiving' that I ever encountered.
I saw Murai sensei many times between 1990 and 1995, while I was living in Shizuoka, and he always amazed me, getting out on the mat for sutemi waza randori, taking ukemi
for me and everyone else there, while in his mid 70s. His sword was sharp, his kata fast and precise, his eyes like a falcon's. People talked about how strange, maybe menacing, Tadashi Abe's smile was. He does look strange to me in photos. But Murai's eyes were rather the opposite. His smile was so friendly, his bearing so modest, that to see those tengu
lights come on when he faced you in aikido was a treat. It was real and it was scary, but you knew he was a really good person, a protective spirit. After he threw you, you could not help laughing. As for the te no uchi
throwing I mentioned in the article on Mochizuki sensei (throwing with the opponent gripping you in ‘classic' aikido or Daito-ryu style), he did that to me several times. He was the only person I remember ever doing that to me at will. Furthermore, he was the only person I ever saw do it at the Yoseikan. Everyone else changed hands and took a positive grip on the attacker's wrist, something Murai sensei usually did as well. But a few times, he did the other. For example, he did things like a koshinage
produced by my own grip on his wrist. He could lead me over his hip and throw me a good distance. Once, using my own grip, he scooted way low as if doing an ‘aiki drop' in front of me (usually seen in randori where tori drops down to hands-and-knees, using their body to trip an oncoming attacker), but he was so tiny that he scooted backwards between my legs. I couldn't let go before he pulled my arm through and he flipped me over my feet.
Of course, he did ‘ordinary' aikido most of the time where I could feel a redirection of my movement with a sudden, sharp focus on some weak spot, and I would be thrown. Everyone in that dojo was superbly smooth in execution and their techniques were not really painful at all if you were stretched out. So when I say I could feel a redirection, it was very soft and subtle and when I say a sharp focus, I don't mean that the technique forced any particular spot of the body, but that I suddenly felt like I'd hit a wall. The joint locks were positive but never jerky. Everyone applied technique with magnificent smoothness and precise limit, but Murai really was the best. None of the real shihans ever injured me around there. It was always a lower student trying to be strong. No matter what technique Murai sensei did, it was light and smooth and over before I could do anything about it. I wasn't typically thrown great distances, but his throws were unstoppable, his movements almost impossible to read. There he was, a tiny guy, always smiling, seldom shaved always standing relaxed when I hit the ground.
When the Shizuoka shihans formed the Seifukai
to carry on what they were doing under Mochizuki Minoru, they made Murai 10th dan
. He was a phenomenally great expert in aikido and sword, yet almost no one ever heard of him. It was a rare and great fortune for me to have spent so much time with him, as very little as that was.
For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
David Orange began karate training in 1972 in the Kyokushin system. He began Yoseikan aikido training in 1974, and was one of the founding members of the US Yoseikan Budo Association in 1982. He opened the first Yoseikan budo dojo in North America in 1984, and trained at the Shizuoka Yoseikan Honbu dojo in 1986. He lived in Shizuoka City from 1990 to 1995, serving as uchi deshi to Minoru Mochizuki for 21 months, training in aikido, judo, karate, ju-jutsu and ken-jutsu. Since 1995, he has developed his Zero Degree aikido teaching method, applying Moshe Feldenkrais' neuro-muscular education principles to Mochizuki sensei's techniques. His website is yoseishin.esotericorange.com.
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