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It Had To Be Felt #68: Miyamoto Tsuruzo: "Human Betterment through Aikido"
It Had To Be Felt #68: Miyamoto Tsuruzo: "Human Betterment through Aikido"
by Guillaume Erard
04-05-2020
It Had To Be Felt #68: Miyamoto Tsuruzo: "Human Betterment through Aikido"

Miyamoto Tsuruzo is one of those sensei whose reputation has reached far beyond the grey walls of the Honbu Dojo. Indeed, beyond being a great teacher, he is also quite a character, both on and off the mat. Though I had heard of the man and seen a number of his demonstrations on tape, I only got to meet him during my first trip to Japan. During that month of daily training, I approached every single class with excitement but also with a great deal of apprehension, and Miyamoto Sensei's class probably brought those two emotions to their peak. I had heard stories about how rough he once was with his training partners, and how punishing he could still be with some of his close students. Still, for some reason, I felt I had to experience it first hand, almost like a rite of passage.

I went in pretty excited, but things started rather badly, as early as the warm-up. Though his preparatory routine was fairly standard, he did put a particular emphasis on stretching. Let me put it out there that flexibility is not among my natural gifts, something exacerbated by a rock-climbing accident that left me with substantially reduced lower spinal mobility. When the time came to sit and spread our legs apart while leaning forward. I noticed that the Japanese people around me were ridiculously flexible, many of them, even the older ones, literally touching the mat with their noses. Obviously, being taller and stiffer, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Miyamoto Sensei noticed it. He looked at me, laughed, and stated the obvious with his characteristically low-pitched voice: "Not flexible, eh!?" This triggered the interest of anybody who hadn't yet noticed. We moved on to other exercises and once I got over losing that little part of me that died inside, I thought I would be OK. I was wrong.

Warm-up, like everything else at Honbu, is a pretty standardized affair, and after a few classes, you grow some muscle memory. For instance, you know that as soon as the final left and right swinging of the arms from a seiza position is done, you have to quickly bow and return to the back of the class as the teacher starts demonstrating the first technique. Not in Miyamoto Sensei's class. After the arms swinging thing, Miyamoto Sensei does shin kokyu from a seating position, which to the first-timer looks deceivingly like he is about to bow. Of course, seeing that, and being already rather self-conscious, I bowed and promptly got up, only to find that everybody else was still kneeling with their arms wide open. I felt once more like a complete idiot, attracting again much undesired attention.

Unlike a number of other teachers, Miyamoto Sensei did not seem to cater to a court while he was on or off the mat. Though he clearly had people he seemed to push harder than others, he would take pretty much anyone as uke if they happened to find themselves close enough to, or goodness help, within his sphere of action. He also seemed to actually make a point calling on newcomers and people that the other teachers tend to ignore. So he called me.

As a first-time visitor trying to get a handle on the specificities of practice at Honbu, I was absolutely not expecting to find myself at the center of the tatami, in full view of everyone, including some of my very own teachers, especially after my embarrassment during warm-up. I found his aikido to be low to the ground, incisive, with an almost predatory feel. It came off as a mix of sharpness and focus concealed in an outside form that could be interpreted as nonchalance deceptively so, as I was to find out during the subsequent years. I somehow made it through those scary moments, adapting the best I could to a practice that I knew so little about, until Miyamoto Sensei dismissed me with a chuckle. I didn't know what to make of it at the time but I have learned to interpret his various laughs, and that particular one meant that he was amused, but also satisfied. During the class, Miyamoto Sensei made a point saying, in his rudimentary English: "Welcome, where are you from?" to every new person that he found. Though he did not take all of them as uke in the middle, he invariably threw them a few times during the practice itself. He came to me at some point during the class and said something, which my partner translated to me as: "You're surprisingly soft, actually!" It confirmed something that I have noticed through the year, that there is almost no correlation between the static amplitude of stretching and the dynamic flexibility during practice. If anything, I learned at Honbu to become not more flexible, but denser, less malleable.

Something significant for me happened on my second trip to Japan, a few months after the first. After class, Miyamoto Sensei came to me and said: "Okaerinasa," which means, "Welcome back." For good or bad, he remembered me, and I must admit that it made a strong impression on me. In spite of my nervousness and sense of insecurity, his words helped me feel a little more at ease on this legendary tatami. In hindsight, I reckon that by this simple sentence, Miyamoto Sensei is greatly responsible for me realizing that it was actually possible for a foreigner like me to settle in Japan and to become a part of the Honbu Dojo extended group.

When I did settle in Japan, I continued attending his classes and he started to regularly take me as uke. This access to Miyamoto Sensei's technique through taking ukemi for him, and my practice with his top guys really made my aikido improve substantially - and very quickly. At the time, Miyamoto Sensei expected absolute focus and zanshin from his uke, and would often scold us if we lost body connection or eye contact during ukemi. He made a big deal out of uke staying present in the technique until the very last moments of the throw, which is why he often refrained from using "showy" uke who tend to go flying at the slightest touch. Talking about ukemi, Miyamoto Sensei was teaching it at that time, even during regular classes. More than anything, studying with him gave me the keys to adapt to any practice at Honbu, and therefore understand the other teachers. Japanese teachers often say that the only way to truly learn from a teacher is to take ukemi for him. In the case of Miyamoto Sensei, it is all the more important that there is an odd disconnect between the perceived brutality of his displays, and the actual softness of his touch when he is dealing with you. Indeed, people who try to mimic what he does without having taken a lot of ukemi for him invariably end up pushing and pulling needlessly.

In fact, one of the things that Miyamoto Sensei insists a lot on is staying relaxed. Some teachers say it, they request it from their uke, and may look like they are doing it, but they feel tense when you are with them. It's quite the opposite with Miyamoto Sensei. When holding him, there is no tension to be felt, which in the very beginning, almost felt disappointing compared to the image I had built watching him on videos. He will however at times use percussive motions to accomplish his technique. By percussive, I do not necessarily mean via atemi, but he will concentrate his movement and power in one point to accomplish a throw or a pin, after having done the groundwork of establishing maai, contact, and imbalance. Unlike other teachers he doesn't transfer his weight into you as a form of establishing connection / contact / kuzushi; rather, the feeling would be something like: he lets himself get grabbed, keeps the initial connection / contact, and then uses it to create a sort of compression / expansion motion.

Another noteworthy element is that he is one of those rare teachers who like to take risks. He clearly does not care about looking good, let alone perfect, and he is constantly researching. He will therefore place himself in situations that may lead him to not succeed in a movement, always trying to push himself. As a student and aspiring teacher, this had a great influence on what I think teaching should be about in terms of its integration to life-long learning. With Miyamoto Sensei, the two seem indissociable. For instance, he can get a little upset when one tries to ask him about concepts such as shu ha ri - since for him, most of us will forever stay in the shu, it is somewhat big headed to pretend that we are better than our teachers. In that sense, when one talks to Miyamoto Sensei for some time, one realizes that he has incredible respect towards his seniors, and he has illustrated this many times through his actions.

One event that sticks in my mind is one of the joint seminars that he regularly gives with Horii Etsuji Sensei near Kobe. I used to regularly travel to Kansai with his group of students to attend the event. On one of those occasions, as I was about to get changed after the last class, Miyamoto Sensei turned to me and said: "Keep your hakama on, we're going to do a demonstration!" Before I could utter a word, he was already at the door, saying: "Downstairs in 5 minutes." Obviously, we had not rehearsed; none of us uke even had the faintest idea when or from where we were supposed to enter the tatami. When he is demonstrating, there is something in him that changes completely. The intensity with which he approaches the interaction can actually be scary at times. I wouldn't say that he is tense, but he is incredibly focused. While the outer form of his technique may look similar to what he does in class, speaking for myself, the differences experienced by his uke is remarkable. Unlike regular classes, his focus really drew me right into the present and I found that taking ukemi was much easier than usual. In hindsight, I think that one of the reasons why he did not give us any instruction was that he wanted to make this interaction as organic as possible, something like the freestyle extension of hours of katageiko at Honbu. I made it through those long minutes, and was pretty happy about my ukemi. I got whacked once in the middle of a shihonage, though. I asked my sempai Manolo San Miguel about it afterwards but all I got as a response was: "You deserved it.'' I can't say that I learned much from his explanation but I must admit, somewhat embarrassingly, that it made me feel like "one of the boys." Interestingly, my friend John Presley, who also took ukemi that day and got hit as well, got the same response. Now that our seniors have left Japan, we have made it a habit - John, Gabriel Weiszman and myself - to brainstorm over what Sensei says or does in class, so much so that it has become an integral part of my understanding. It has also partly informed the redaction of this essay.

I had to return straight to Tokyo the next morning, while the other guys planned to extend the weekend in Horii Sensei's dojo. I found out that I was going to travel in the same train as Miyamoto Sensei, and we were driven to the station by Horii Sensei. Once we passed the gates, Miyamoto Sensei asked me if I wanted a beer. I am unsure whether he was joking or not, for I was obviously displaying the hallmarks of the previous night out, but I politely declined, and he bought us onigiri and coffee instead. My Japanese at the time was extremely limited so past those earthly considerations, our discussion quickly dried out. Luckily for both of us, I knew that we wouldn't be sitting in the same car, but we still had to wait twenty minutes for the bullet train. I still have a particularly vivid memory of us sitting on the platform bench, facing the tracks, in an oddly comfortable silence, just like those you see in Takeshi Kitano's movies, where two characters sit in silence during long takes, often facing the ocean. Though with time, I became more able to handle a conversation, I kept the habit of never attempting to break those moments of silences between us. Interestingly, he once told my mother that he appreciated my quiet personality: "Your son doesn't waste his words, this is a quality for a budoka." She seemed proud, so I did not feel like telling her that it is my linguistic limitations that mostly earned me this praise...

Little by little, I got to connect more with his group, and people like Didier Boyet started to invite me during their Friday evening socials with Miyamoto Sensei, which unlike today, were a pretty exclusive affair. Though I would have been expected to grow ties with teachers more in line with what some refer to as "French-style" aikido, my association with Miyamoto Sensei's group occurred naturally, almost in spite of myself. The gatherings with him and his senior students like Manolo San Miguel, John Brinsley, Rhoo Heins, and Gaute Lambertsen taught me more about Japanese culture than any other of my endeavors. An example that stands out is when someone asked him over dinner why he was taking as uke a person who was causing quite some trouble at Honbu some of us thought that by doing so, Miyamoto Sensei was giving that person undeserved recognition he answered that Honbu was a family, that no one gets to choose their family, and that because of this, we had to inspire the members that we don't like to adopt better attitudes through constant guidance and care. I thought that this was a remarkable answer, and to this day, it represents what, in my eyes, aikido is truly about: an education system for everyone, something that the Japanese refer to as "ningen keisei no michi".

When I got married, I was told by Didier Boyet that it was manners to invite some of the teachers with whom I had a good relationship. I sent invitations to several of my instructors from aikido, but also from Daito-ryū aikijujutsu, expecting hoping that they would decline politely. I became quite wary when several of them actually responded positively. My soon-to-be wife and I therefore spent several hours working out a seating plan that separated those two supposedly enemy factions as much as possible, hoping that our wedding ceremony wouldn't turn into a samurai showdown. One table for Daito-ryū people on one side of the room, one for aikido on the other, and a safe buffer zone with our unsuspecting family members between the two. In spite of those safety measures, a few minutes into lunch, I saw with horror that Kobayashi Kiyohiro Sensei, my Daito-ryū teacher, was already exchanging business cards with Miyamoto Sensei. To my surprise, the body language was friendly, and the two actually spent quite some time talking afterwards during the second party. When time came for the formal pictures with the newlyweds, they actually made a point to be in the same shot. When that was over, Miyamoto Sensei took us to the third party and before I could bring up the subject, he told me that he was very happy that I trained in Daito-ryū too, because the most important was to be on the tatami and do what O-sensei was doing. He added that as long as I followed and respected the contexts and usages of each school, he wholeheartedly supported my approach. I understood that day that a teacher was not someone who tried to mold you in his own image, but instead, who inspired and supported you on your own path through budō.

This resonated even more quite recently, as I was interviewing him along with Tissier Sensei and Okamoto Sensei in Kyoto. At some point of our discussion, Miyamoto Sensei made a point saying that as a Honbu instructor, he had no students of his own; rather, we were all students of Doshu, which incidentally illustrates his attachment to hierarchy. Strangely, I think that this is one of the reasons why my relationship with him has been so even through the years. I have never tried to become too close to him. On the contrary, I make a point keeping a distance between me and any of my aikido teachers. People often think that it is difficult for a foreigner to be accepted in a group in Japan, but I would argue that it is very easy; the hardest aspect is to fulfill all the expectations associated with becoming part of such a group. I cannot claim to be one of Miyamoto Sensei's closest students, and I think that we are both fine with this.

As I mentioned in my introduction, Miyamoto Sensei did earn a rather rough reputation in his early years. Being from Kyushu, I suspect that he had to face some social difficulty when he arrived in Tokyo. Also, he has admitted having found it challenging to suddenly have to deal with foreigners who were taller and more powerful than he was. This, mixed with a naturally excitable disposition, was an explosive cocktail, and I have heard many stories about what happened on the tatami. In one of his essays, Ellis Amdur reported one of those incidents almost forty-five years ago with his then-sempai, "Miyamoto-san". If aikido is any good at polishing one's character, I think that Miyamoto is a prime example of its potency. This is why for me, he has become Miyamoto Sensei. Though undercurrents of his temper do surface from time to time, he has been to me a remarkably positive example of a complex human being who learned to control himself and teach others how to do so.
Guillaume Erard is a permanent resident of Japan. He trains at the Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo, where he has received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. Guillaume regularly gives aikido seminars throughout Europe as well as lectures on its history. He studied with some of the world's leading aikido instructors, including several direct students of O-Sensei, and has produced a number of well-regarded video interviews with them. Guillaume also holds the title of Kyoshi in Daito-ryū aikijujutsu, and serves as Deputy Secretary for International Affairs of the Shikoku Headquarters. He is passionate about science and education, and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.
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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