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It Had to Be Felt #62: Okumura Shigenobu: "A Truly Inspiring Teacher"
It Had to Be Felt #62: Okumura Shigenobu: "A Truly Inspiring Teacher"
by It Had To Be Felt
It Had to Be Felt #62: Okumura Shigenobu: "A Truly Inspiring Teacher"

Back in the heady days of 1977 (Showa 52), I signed up at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo with very little idea of what aikido actually was. In those days, it was one of the ways to get a ‘cultural visa,' which enabled you to stay in Japan for a more extended period. This naturally entailed joining a beginners' class, and it was only much later I realized how lucky I was with my first sensei.

At the time, Okumura Shigenobu sensei took most of the morning beginners' classes, and he had a style all of his own. He looked like a regular salaryman with his thick glasses, but on closer inspection, you noticed he carried himself well, like a person half his age, and he had wrists like tree limbs. Class always began with his famous ‘long warm up,' which was just what you needed first thing in the morning. This included exercises such as running on the spot and stretching while in seiza. We would also massage all of our toes without fail. A lot of the warming up was accompanied by genki grunts, which at the time I thought were strange, but of course seem perfectly natural to me now. One rather elderly fellow used to come along just for that, and having warmed up, would go off to work. The warming up managed to loosen up just about every part of your body, so you were always well prepared for what sensei had in store for us.

He slowly and patiently taught the basics, and even if you never went to any other class, you learned pretty much all you needed to know about the various techniques of aikido. He would take each particular waza and break it down into parts, explaining exactly how and why you should do things. This included defensive tactics and where to watch out for kaeshi-waza. At the time, the latter didn't seem to make sense, but you would learn to appreciate it later on. When practicing the various movements, you always felt that he had all the time in the world for you--such endless patience! Then, when you finally put all the parts together, it would all be so clear. Okumura sensei would select anyone as aite to demonstrate a technique--even me, on occasion. I must say making movements in unison with Okumura sensei was doubly instructive, because he made it so easy.

When he introduced shihonage to us, he explained that, of course, it was based on sword technique, so he would show us the strokes with a bokken (wooden sword), then do the shihonage ‘shadow style' without a bokken or partner. Then, he would demonstrate with an aite. When he did shihonage solo, his stance was so well coordinated that he always did a perfect 180 each time. He would do so slowly and gracefully, so that we beginners could get the idea, though at the time we were little able to appreciate the grace of his movements. Then when you were aite, and your arm was his ‘sword,' gentle as he was, you could only feel he was in complete control.

When you try to throw someone, your mind naturally tends to go to the point where you are holding your partner. Okumura sensei would make us work on the steps and turns first, shadow style, as he did. Then when you actually got to throw someone, you realized how the whole body was involved. The position of the feet and the shoulders were just as important as the actual hold.

When teaching ikkyo, he took great pains to explain very precisely how and where to hold your partner's arm. Later, upstairs in the advanced class, I would sometimes get wrenched about by some aite, whereas Okumura sensei could pin you down very gently, yet you were unable to move a muscle.

For iriminage, he explained the importance of the correct angles to approach your aite in order to get maximum effect. He emphasized that we should use the collars of your aite's keikogi as points of reference, in order to get the right angle for the throw.

It is a tribute to a great teacher that he could get things across without language. Okumura sensei was not a small man, so he certainly took up space as he moved, but this helped us to think ‘large' when doing each technique. Sensei's way of moving--large, graceful sweeping movements--was especially memorable, because in those days my Japanese was even worse than it is now. You had to concentrate on the way he moved, as most of the verbal explanation was beyond us in those days. After all these years, I remember sensei's large hands, making large, graceful sweeping movements. There were no ‘crouching tigers' in his art.

One particular aspect of aikido that he taught very well was how to do good ukemi, something not taught much by other sensei, I am afraid. He broke ukemi down and explained very carefully how to get over the fear that all beginners felt about falling, or more so, being thrown. Okumura sensei would explain it in his unique way.
  • Try to imagine you are standing as two points on a triangle.
  • Put your hand down on the tatami where you think the third point of the triangle should be, and voila!
This gave you the confidence to start ukemi. Well, at least it worked for me. Once you got over the fear of falling, and furthermore, learned how to be in control while falling, then you could work on falling from various angles and positions. Practising aikido, you have to work together with your training partner. After taking classes in the beginners' class, you would graduate to the upstairs dojo, and there, some practitioners made no concessions to your ‘kyuteness.' If you are with someone whose technique is very fast and powerful, and your ukemi is not up to that level, you run the risk of getting injured. Later on, then, when someone was drilling me into the tatami, I would remember Okumura sensei's instruction and be very thankful for it.

Very occasionally, Sensei would teach classes in the aforementioned upstairs dojo, and it was interesting to see who had taken classes with him before and who had not. He brought the same slow and steady patience to what might be called more advanced classes, and it puzzled some students who were not used to his style of teaching. However, nobody used to complain after the class. He never failed to enlighten everyone to some aspect of aikido they had not realized before, no matter what level of skill they had.

Okumura sensei would also do grading tests and ‘wind-up' people who were not used to his style by insisting that everyone showing their skill with the basics, whatever the level of test that was being conducted.

I found out later a bit about Okumura sensei's earlier life. He had certainly earned the right to say "been there, seen it", even if some of the things he had seen in his life must have been quite harrowing. He had lived in Manchuria during the Second World War, and been a POW in a Russian prison camp, not returning to Japan until a few years after the war. It is a testimony to his character that he came out of such terrible experiences as such a kind and decent man.
Chris Barnett was born London 1948, but never lived there. With a father in the military, he led a peripatetic existence took him to most parts of England and Wales, later living in Germany as well. His first taste of budo was dabbling in judo in Slough, Bucks. (Don't go there!)

He next encountered Shotokan Karate while living in Paris. The overland route to the East that one could still take then brought him to Japan, where he took up aikido. Barnett muses that this was all a bit strange, as "I was always on the PE teacher's ‘hate list' of non-sporty weeds. Well, it showed, as my progress in aikido was pretty slow and I finally made shodan after five years of practice. I might never have taken the test if Masuda sensei told me I was about ready for it. No, aikido didn't keep me in Japan, but meeting the woman in my life." Now retired from martial arts, he has fond memories of practice, and some of the interesting people and sensei I was privileged to meet, especially Okumura sensei.
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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