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It’s a Small World, but Not for Some

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by David Lynch

Aikido Journal #110 (1996)

The aikido world is getting smaller, and yet, in the geography of the mind, huge gulfs still separate individuals, and I question whether there has been much progress where it really counts - on the mat.

Obviously, the Internet, video technology, faster and cheaper international travel and dedicated publications such as Aikido Journal have all tended to bring us closer together.

But, in contrast, the attitudes of some senior aikido people still seem to be light years apart.

I recently had a rude reminder of this when one of my students (“Bruce”) returned from a trip to Japan with stories of dojo brutality that made a mockery of aikido’s philosophy.

Bruce was in Japan for three months and trained in a number of different dojos around the country.

In one famous dojo in Tokyo, he was partnered with a highly-ranked sempai who viciously slammed on locks and pins while completely ignoring his signals of submission. Heedless of the danger to others, the middle-aged high-grade repeatedly threw Bruce into the midst of other trainees, so that he had no sooner disentangled himself from one lot of bodies than he would be hurled into another.

This went on for an hour and created such a ferocious spectacle that several Japanese students apologized to Bruce after the class: “Sorry about that, but that’s just the way he is.”

A Tiny Clue

My anger at this story dissolved a little when Bruce told me that he was sure this fellow must have been overcompensating for some kind of personal inadequacy, and he thought he could see what this might be (from the little that there was to see!) in the shower room after training.

In another dojo, Bruce was used as a guinea pig in a pathetic attempt to show the superiority of the aikido practiced there. In this case, the sensei asked Bruce to apply ikkyo to his largest student and then told the latter to “resist strongly” as the technique was being applied.

The big man strained to stand up half way through the technique so that Bruce could not hold ikkyo on. After a couple of experiences of this, Bruce turned back and threw the man easily in the other direction, in what I would consider impeccable aikido. The sensei, however, objected and moved in to apply ikkyo himself. Bruce was then ordered to resist strongly, and when he did so (against his better judgment) the sensei thrust his knee into his ribs, heaved his full weight onto his elbow and smashed him into the ground: “This is what we do when someone resists,” he said.

Weird Obsession

The absurdity of this “lesson” was only exceeded by the sensei’s weird obsession—he had a paranoid fear of Aids. He told Bruce that aikido should change with the times and since this was “the era of Aids” he had modified the techniques so that contact with one’s partner’s skin could be avoided. He himself wore gloves throughout the class!

These stories, and others like them, prompted me to risk flogging a dead horse by speaking out once more against gratuitous dojo violence. It is not good enough for people to turn a blind eye, or make feeble excuses such as, “Yes, So-and-so is a bit violent and has a history of injuring people, but he has excellent aikido.”

People are also constrained by the idea that only “wimps” would object to a bit of pain and the occasional injury, since this is all part of a stoic budo tradition. Dubious though this argument is, it may apply to a sport like judo, where rules, weight categories and so on at least give the competitors a fairly even chance. But this attitude is totally misplaced in aikido, with its potentially very damaging techniques and its non-competitive training system, not to mention its philosophy of harmony.

To use unnecessary force in training to the extent that you hurt or injure your partner is, in my book, a cowardly breach of trust. That this is done regularly and with impunity by senior Japanese instructors in no way alters the fact.

My student, Bruce, is no wimp, but a young man of compassion who would never think of deliberately hurting anyone else during training. He is a person who takes the aikido spirit seriously and applies it in his daily life. Perhaps he was naive to expect to find the ultimate expression of that spirit in Japan as, unfortunately, what he experienced is not at all uncommon. Of course, the same sort of thing happens all over the world, but I feel it is about time the top Japanese dojos, to whom people naturally look for leadership, took some responsibility for this.

Some Safe Dojos

Japanese aikido was redeemed to some extent in Bruce’s eyes when he found some dojos where the sort of experience outlined above simply did not happen, where he was able to train vigorously, but in a spirit of cooperation and safety. This fact also gives the lie to any assumption that because something is common in Japan, the birthplace of aikido, it must be right and that we have somehow misinterpreted the aiki philosophy.

Before leaving this distasteful subject, let me hark back to the 1960s in Tokyo when the late Donn Draeger sustained permanent damage to his elbow after visiting an aiki dojo to watch the training.

Draeger a Wimp?

Draeger, my mentor in Japan in those days and perhaps the greatest-ever Western authority on budo, is the last person you could call a wimp. Yet he made it clear he would never have allowed these people to get hold of his arm in the first place if he had known what they were going to do to it. While watching an aikido class, he had been invited to “feel” one of the techniques, but when he offered his arm to the instructor a violent hijishime technique was slammed on it, leaving him with an injury that affected his training for the rest of his life.

I am sure Donn Draeger would be as disgusted as I am to learn that this kind of thing is still happening in aikido, in the 1990s. I believe that we owe it to future generations to take a stand against sadistic senseis and sempais, and not tacitly accept their cowardly abuse by looking the other way.

Thankfully, there are many positive examples of a shrinking aikido world that give hope for the future. I recently encountered just such an example when I met an elderly Japanese friend of Morihei Ueshiba.

The odds against meeting anyone who knew O-Sensei personally multiply year by year, so to find such a person actually living here in New Zealand was a pleasant surprise indeed. I wasted no time in arranging for an interview with 78-year-old Mr. Noboru Sakamoto, who settled in this country three years ago. He was happy to acknowledge the “small world” when I visited him at the family home in Parnell.

“Training” with O-Sensei

Mr. Sakamoto started out by joking that he had trained with O-Sensei regularly, even though he had no great interest in aikido and had never even visited a dojo!

How so?

He had traveled regularly on the same train as O-Sensei and established a friendship as a fellow commuter, not as a student thus, he laughed, he and Ueshiba had “trained together” often.

I felt that any friend of O-Sensei, whether martial artist or not, would be interesting to talk to, and that comments from a layman might make a refreshing change from the usual interviews of former students of the Founder.

And such was the case, as can be seen from the answers Mr. Sakamoto gave to my questions:

Q: Mr. Sakamoto, what were the circumstances of your first meeting with Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of aikido who is, to many aikidoka, a god-like figure?

A: I met him on a train coming into Tokyo from the countryside, in 1946. I was going to work, and he must have been traveling in from Iwama to his dojo in Wakamatsu-cho. I was in my twenties and he seemed to me an old man, though I suppose he was only around sixty.

He was sitting opposite me and, when the train pulled into Ueno station, he got up to get his bag from the overhead rack, but obviously could not reach it, as he was so short. I offered to help, but he waved me away, saying that he could manage “just as well as you youngsters.” He then took off his geta (clogs), climbed onto the seat and reached up with both hands to get his bag.

Q: What was your first impression of the man? We have this image of a little sage with a wispy white beard and a tendency to talk religion. We also hear many stories of his eccentric behavior on trains, like suddenly getting off before his destination, apprehending pickpockets and then treating them like long-lost friends, and so on.

A: I did not see him in that light at all. The white beard must have come later, and I certainly never saw any eccentric behavior. Neither did he talk religion to me.

He was obviously a very self-reliant person, well coordinated for his age, and I did sense an unusual vitality and an air of fearless determination.

Q: How did you become friends?

A: After that first meeting, when I did not even know his name, I saw him again on the same train traveling with a friend of mine, Zen Akazawa, a clerk in the Ibaragi Prefectural Office. I was surprised to find Akazawa had been a student of Ueshiba’s for many years and had even taught aikido to the military during the war. I had many opportunities to sit and talk with the two of them during the journey of over an hour we usually made together.

Q: What did you talk about?

A: Just general topics, although occasionally I heard of Ueshiba’s early life and his many hardships and adventures. When it came to budo, I was so ignorant of the subject I could only listen and did not know how to respond. Ueshiba invited me to visit his dojo, but to tell the truth I was afraid that if I went I would probably get hurt, so I never accepted the invitation. Years later, after I learned what a great man he was, I very much regretted this.

Q: Please tell me any of the anecdotes that you remember.

A: Ueshiba had been somewhat overconfident in his younger days, as he was undefeated in martial arts and physically very strong. Seeing this, one of his teachers had challenged him, saying: “If you are so strong you should be able to pull that tree out of the ground,” indicating a small tree in the garden where he was staying. He had tried, using all his strength and lots of kiai shouts, but the tree’s roots were too strong and it didn’t budge. However, he never gave up and one day the tree came clean out of the ground in his hands. I guess it must have been a small tree but it still seems an incredible achievement.

I also learned that Ueshiba had mastered the art of yadome, in which a bokken is used to deflect an arrow shot straight at you from a bow.

And there was the time he defeated a foreign wrestler with ease and held him down with one finger, to the amazement of the onlookers. I never dared to ask just how this was possible.

Frankly, hearing such stories made me even less inclined to visit Ueshiba’s dojo.

Q: It wasn’t exactly religious talk, was it?

A: Far from it. These were the stories of a man of action. But it was a comfort having him beside me as there were some rough types in the trains in those days, and lots of pickpockets. Just after the war, Japan was in a mess and many people were very poor and desperate. There were often people hanging on outside the train, getting a free ride but risking death if they got knocked off, which often happened.

On one occasion a group of chimpira (low-level yakuza) boarded the train and their leader went around ordering people to stand up so his men could take their seats. He got to Akazawa and reached out to haul him out of his seat, only to stop in his tracks and cry out in pain. Akazawa had applied some kind of painful grip to the fellow’s arm. After that he stopped bothering the passengers altogether. That was my introduction to aikido, witnessed while commuting to my office on the train.

Q: You worked for a publishing firm?

A: Yes, I worked for Seibundo Shinkosha for 36 years! One project I was involved in back then was the book Canon of Judoby Kyuzo Mifune, the 10th Dan judo master. It was a major work, published in English and German as well as Japanese, with hundreds of technical photographs.

Q: Did you discuss this book with Ueshiba?

A: Yes, and I took the opportunity to ask his opinion of judo, which was a sport created out of various old forms of jujutsu by Jigoro Kano.

He replied, “Turning jujutsu into a sport was Kano’s idea, and that’s fine for him, but I have dedicated many years of my life to creating aikido as a true and effective budo, and I want it to stay that way.”

And, with that revealing comment, my interview with Mr. Sakamoto ended.

Hearing this old gentleman speak, so clearly, of his memories of fifty years ago, time and distance seemed to evaporate, and I experienced an emotional boost.

Nor did this inspiration fade when I thought of the senseless violence practiced in the name of aikido today by some individuals.

Instead, I wondered what form O-Sensei’s unique art would take fifty years from now, and felt that, whatever the technical changes, the spirit of the art would surely still be a vital and positive influence on the lives of millions of people.

It was a gratifying thought.