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Report on Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu Aikibujutsu

by Paul Wollos

Published Online

Yukiyoshi Sagawa Sensei and his Daito-ryu system were always shrouded in obscurity. Even nowadays, very little information is available in English. I hope that readers of Aikido Journal will enjoy this report about my experience in this remarkable Daito-ryu system. This article is written with the permission of Mr. Tatsuo Kimura, 10th Gen Shihan of Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu Aikibujutsu.

Personal research

My passion for martial arts, and especially Daito-ryu, begun in 1981. Later on, I became fascinated by the art of Daito-ryu, and was researching the technical and historical aspects of various Daito-ryu branches. I have been seeking something mysterious, but always there was a logical way to explain the technique.

Since 1995 my curiosity targeted one particular school: the Daito-ryu Sagawa Dojo. However, information about that school was very scarce, and research proved to be very difficult, if not impossible. All that I could find about Yukiyoshi Sagawa Sohan (“Sohan,” a title held by Sagawa Sensei in his art of Daito-ryu Aikibujutsu) was in Stanley Pranin’s book entitled Conversations with Daito-ryu Masters. Although it clearly stated that Sagawa Sensei did not accept foreign students, I decided to write a letter. I wanted to be actually allowed to train under Sagawa Sohan. Over the years I have send many letters to Sagawa Dojo, with only one reply.

“We regret, but your request to study cannot be granted….” Sagawa Sensei passed away, but I continued trying to obtain as much information as possible about Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu Aikibujutsu. I searched on the Internet, including Japanese sites, where I found bits of information. Gradually more and more people knew about my interest in Sagawa Dojo and Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu Aikibujutsu. At that time I was thinking that since I had some basic skills, I could learn Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu and “promote it” outside Japan. Soon I was going to find out how stupid my way of thinking was. My request was rejected again, but I could not give up my aspiration.

The first contact

Access to learn Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu Aikibujutsu is not limited to foreigners alone. Even native Japanese must apply in writing to the Sagawa Dojo, and their requests are turned down frequently.

My first step was completed when I had made contact with Professor Tatsuo Kimura, who possesses the highest technical level in Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu Aikibujutsu. I was granted permission to join a special “trial” class in his dojo at Tsukuba University. I left for Japan immediately.

The first meeting

Kimura Sensei looks just like any ordinary man. Actually he looks much younger than his actual age (53). He certainly does not resemble someone who has fearful martial skills. Looking at Prof. Kimura or at the pictures of Sagawa Sensei, nothing indicates that they could have some extraordinary skills or abilities. Kimura Sensei is always smiling, joking, and seems to be constantly happy.

Kimura Sensei was 3rd dan in kendo and 5th dan in aikido when he first met Sagawa Sensei. After experiencing “aiki,” Mr. Kimura immediately asked to become Sagawa Sensei’s student, but was rejected. Sagawa Sensei told him that he probably would just “steal” some techniques to improve his aikido. Mr. Kimura was forced to wait. He persisted, wrote letters, and finally was allowed to train in the Sagawa Dojo, yet with one condition. Sagawa Sohan would not teach him anything personally! It seems like quite a long time passed before Sagawa Sensei decided that Mr. Kimura was worthy of receiving direct instruction. Not only did Kimura Sensei’s dream came true, he received a much higher reward since he was taught the whole system including the “inner secrets” of this art.

Kimura Sensei told me his first inspirations about aiki came on September 14th (Sunday), 1997. Three days after this, Sagawa Sohan fell ill. He passed away on March 24th, 1998.

However, one day before his death, Sagawa Sohan threw Mr. Kimura with aiki continuously for about 15 minutes. Sometimes it was very hard to take, and Mr. Kimura hit his head strongly against the tatami three times. This is just a fact.

He explained, that when a person first has some inspiration about aiki, it still takes a considerable amount of time until one can execute aiki in all techniques. However, the difference lies in the performance of all techniques. “The difference appears later since the way of progress is very different with aiki than without aiki,” explains Kimura Sensei.

Presently, he is at the highest technical level of Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu 10th Gen Shihan. (Yukiyoshi Sagawa Sohan arranged Daito-ryu techniques into 10 levels, called “Gen,” starting with 1st Gen and going up to 10th Gen).

The techniques

Kimura Sensei met me in his office at Tsukuba University on February 27, 2001. After signing his record book (eimeiroku), I was invited to grab his arms. Kimura Sensei instructed me to use all my ability to resist, and only when I said that I was ready would he initiate his technique. I held my grip very firmly, yet with sensitivity, so that I could resist any movement quickly, right from the beginning (well, at least that’s what I thought). When I said, “I’m ready,” I was instantly thrown backwards onto a sofa standing in his office. I repeated my attempt many times, yet every time it seemed like my power or resistance was completely useless. It crossed my mind that my entire body refused to obey me. I could not resist at any time, I could not use any power. It seemed like all my power had disappeared, or that I had completely forgotten how to use it! Not only there was no momentum in my attack, but also the technique worked right against my applied power, without blending with it in a way typical of aikido. It was against any principles known to me. What’s more surprising, I could not release my grip to prevent the throw!

Next, I held my arms firmly in front of me and was thrown as soon as Kimura Sensei made contact, even with a light touch. I thought, “OK, what about soft grab, relaxed one, or even just a touch.” Kimura Sensei invited me again, this time to try any soft grip, touch his hand, or just softly grab sleeve of his jersey with my little finger and thumb. I did all this, attempting in many different ways, and every single time I was thrown onto the sofa. Although I could not feel any power being used, the impact of my fall was such that I felt hurt even though I was landing on a soft, comfortable surface. It felt like being thrown by the wind. Kimura Sensei then invited me to punch to demonstrate Aiki-Kempo. As soon his blocking hand has made a contact with my arm I was thrown backwards. The same happened when he instructed me to block his punch, which was slow, and easy to receive. The moment my arm blocked his strike, my feet left the ground. For the first time I realized that I had met with something mysterious in my martial arts research. I immediately knew that I was standing next to a real master. Although Kimura Sensei laughed and joked all the time (having great fun demonstrating his aiki), I could not laugh. The reason for this was simple; this encounter had a very special meaning to me, and I was deeply honored to meet such an extraordinary person.

Besides myself, another two special guests were invited on that day. One was Laurent, a French student of Tsukuba University, the other, Japanese martial artist, Mr. Hasegawa (he is Katori Shinto ryu teacher, aikido 5th Dan, and was a champion of Saitama Prefecture in Kyokushin Karate). I remember that he possessed a very strong grip, and his stance was really strong. Yet, in the hands of Kimura Sensei he looked like a child. He could not resist any technique at all, and was thrown onto the sofa just like me. Then I was asked to push him onto the sofa (by holding his arms). I had really hard time trying to move him backwards. All I could do was just use physical power. Then Kimura Sensei told me to relax, and touched the back of my elbow. To our surprise, my partner immediately fell backwards onto the sofa. All this happened in a split of a second. On another occasion, Kimura Sensei touched my back, sending both of my partners flying (each holding my arm with both hands, resisting with all their strength).

Next, Kimura Sensei encouraged all of us to attack him. No matter what, we were thrown like pieces of paper, all at once. Sometimes we would be thrown into different directions, while in other applications we would land on top of one another. Kimura Sensei asked Mr. Hasegawa to attack him in kenjutsu fashion. At the instant of contact, aiki would be applied through any held object. Mr. Hasegawa strongly doubted that possibility. He aimed and hit swiftly. To his great disbelief it really happened, and he helplessly collapsed on the sofa. It was demonstration of aiki-ken.

Following this rather exhausting experience we received an explanation of what had happened. It was the rare, mystical skill of aiki. Kimura Sensei is able to apply it on anyone, anytime, and under any conditions. Aiki always works. It was more than I wished for. Immediately I felt ashamed at being such a fool and thinking that by learning just techniques (the outer “form”, or “frame” of aikijujutsu) one cld promote Daito-ryu. The Japanese guest and I went to the dojo with Kimura Sensei.

The real training experience

As we approached the closed doors of the dojo, my excitement rose. Not everyone is allowed to attend a practice session in Kimura Sensei’s Dojo, even if it is just a single “trial class.” After a kneeling bow and greeting of “konbanwa” (“Good evening” in Japanese), we quickly changed into our white dogi (and white belts, off-course) and joined the class. All members were busy training. First, Kimura Sensei gave me a brief explanation of a few basic techniques (their “shape” or “form”).

The techniques taught in every “trial” class consist of six sitting techniques (zadori), included in the first month curriculum of the Sagawa Dojo.

As soon as I tried to initiate any, I met with great resistance, having my hands held down with a “steel grip,” or was just thrown. It seemed like the slightest movement of mine (or even contact) was enough to initiate aiki. On the other hand, when trying to apply a technique against non-resisting Kimura Sensei, every move of mine was countered and I was thrown. In Kimura Sensei’s class all the techniques are applied on fully resisting opponent. I was ordered to change partner, starting from higher ranks (black belts), and gradually working down with “junior” white belts. Well, these “juniors” did not seem like real “juniors” to me. I was greatly surprised by everyone’s skills. They were very capable. I could not apply any technique on anyone in that dojo, rather the opposite, no matter who it was, they all could easily apply their techniques on me, throwing me left and right, forward and backward. It is important to notice that all techniques taught to me were done in zadori only. These are the first month techniques of Sagawa-ha Daito-ryu.

I had the honor to be Kimura Sensei’s uke few more times. Each time I was thrown up and away, seriously worrying about landing. My skill in ukemi (breakfalls) proved to be of great help, but to a limited extent. Although I could not sense any power being used by Sensei, I could feel the impact of each technique… on the tatami! I understood that there is no jujutsu without aiki in Daito-ryu. No joint-locks cause pain, but immediately break the balance of the aggressor, forcing his body to collapse. Actually, I didn’t simply fall, my feet often left the ground, as I was really senthe flying. I have never experienced such a thing in any other dojo, be it Daito-ryu or aikido.

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