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Interview with Shoji Nishio (1992), Part 2

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #92 (Summer 1992)

In this second of two parts, Shihan Shoji Nishio continues his description of his philosophy and approach to aikido. Over 40 years of experience form the basis for his thought-provoking insights into the nature of “true trength,” the strength needed to avoid injuring an opponent, and his belief that martial arts should be used for the protection of all people.

Nishio with O-Sensei in 1969

In the technical manual Budo written by O-Sensei before the war, it says that nage should initiate the attack when executing shomenuchi ikkyo.

Yes. That was how it was practiced in the old days. However, we don’t enter directly from the front; instead we do irimi. It’s just a matter of a small difference in angle. If the angle changes 30 degrees you can control your opponent and avoid his attack. This represents a different dimension even from the classical martial arts practiced today. Since we do not do aikido in order to throw, the act of throwing the opponent is already accomplished before actual physical contact takes place. After that I think it’s a matter of how to get one’s opponent to become self-reliant while having him undergo a process of proper self-examination. I believe this is the right direction for martial arts to take. What purpose is there in throwing someone first? I think what is necessary for the future is the concept of allowing people to live. I think we must strive to achieve this through training.

Sensei, do you employ concepts from classical martial arts philosophy such as sen no sen (anticipation of attack) or ato no sen (response to an attack) in your teaching?

This sort of question was asked of a number of martial arts practitioners in a psychological study conducted by Tohoku University about our opinions on space and rhythm. It’s the same everywhere; martial artists say that things such as sen no sen are necessary in order to learn how to distract the opponent and enter. However, in aikido such things are completely unnecessary. We don’t disrupt the opponent’s breathing because in the aikido way the opponent adjusts his breathing and we adjust our breathing accordingly. When I replied to this survey with the statement that the aikido way encompasses a completely different dimension, they said it was the first time they had heard such an opinion. O-Sensei would often say. “You and your opponent breathe as one so that he comes to strike. What do you do if you disturb his breathing? In aikido we regulate people’s breathing.” Both the opponent and I grow together. Our way of thinking shouldn’t be on such a low level as to need to disturb people’s breathing. Therefore, in our way of doing things there is no kamae (combative posture) or anything. That’s the fastest way.

Would you please elaborate on this thought?

There is no kamae in the aikido way of thinking. Our basic premise is that we are dealing with someone in a normal manner. Aikido is really a searching spirit, the idea of connecting. We deal with the opponent from a correct position. It’s not a question of avoiding the opponent but rather one of creating a space for him. If you do things in the classical martial arts manner, you can instantly throw an opponent. In aikido we enter along the opponent’s center line because by blending with him and making a place for him we don’t receive his attack. So if you take that idea and use it in the opposite way, you can throw an opponent in a single instant. However, we don’t do that since we regard it as a crime. A person was regarded as strong if he threw an opponent in that way in martial arts before the development of aikido. This is the way of the weakest type of person. Aikido offers an opportunity for the opponent to properly recover by reversing the power used to throw an opponent in classical martial arts.

You really should write about your way of thinking even if you don’t do a book on techniques. Sensei, what are your thoughts on the aikido situation today?

It’s something that concerns me. It seems that it is moving away from being a martial art. You can’t consider something to be a martial art unless it has power. I believe that being able to successfully deal with an opponent brings things to life for the first time and that martial arts become useful for helping and protecting people. We have to protect each other. Our power must be used for protecting and assisting people.

I think this is something that a foreigner living in an unstable society can easily understand. You are not the only one, Sensei, who is worried about modern martial arts, but things don’t seem to change.

It’s hard to explain, but this is the kind of training we are doing now. Last year and the year before, I went to France and they are also very interested in our training method. I demonstrate how to deal with a sword, with a punch, and all different kinds of attack. I think that is what is wonderful about aikido. You can apply it just as it is to everything. O-Sensei spoke the truth when he said, “You can do these techniques with a sword, a jo, or anything.” All of this is part of aikido training. However, most dojos don’t do things this way.

For example, how would one handle an attack from a high-ranking karate practitioner?

My main background is not in karate, but that sort of thing can be easily handled. You can read his intent. For example, you can tell someone’s rank in judo by the way he ties his belt or what his favorite technique is. You can usually tell if a karate man is going to kick or punch.

The wonderful thing about body turning movements in aikido is that they can be used in any situation. O-Sensei’s thinking was great. He made a tremendous change from the former unforgiving, lethal martial arts to a “forgiving martial art.” In this sense, his way of thinking was an advance over Kano Sensei’s ideas of “maximum efficiency with minimum effort” and “mutual prosperity.” I think that at the time Kano Sensei came up with the concept of mutual prosperity it was a revolutionary way of thinking. But O-Sensei’s way of thinking was even more advanced. “Forgiving, giving, and leading” were his words. Previous martial arts, since they were concerned with the taking of life by force, valued forceful seizure rather than giving.

Kano Sensei was first and foremost an educator.

Yes. His ideas were wonderful. But O-Sensei’s ideas were broader in scope.

To what extent do you think that O-Sensei’s moral or spiritual side was influenced by the Omoto religious sect?

I think that the spirit of O-Sensei’s aikido was influenced not only by the Omoto religion but by other things as well. It was as if he was bom with it. It was not simply that he joined a religion. He went beyond that. I am happy to have met such a wonderful person as O-Sensei. His idea was that if aikido —this revolutionary martial art method which was born out of his personal experience—could be even a little bit useful, he wanted to leave it to society. Martial arts are not for the purpose of fighting, but rather for the purpose of eliminating fighting. It is also for that reason, for the protection of all people, that we must become strong. In other words, what is necessary is the strength not to injure your opponent. If you have that power, things can be solved without throwing the opponent.

My impression is that in your dojo the techniques are always suited to the attack.

Yes. I always say, “Now we are doing it this way, but if we extend this a little more the opponent will fall. However, because we regard throwing the opponent to be a crime, we avoid the attack like this.”

Depending on the circumstances, the ability to attack is sometimes necessary in order to protect people.

We can attack. Since we know how to attack we don’t have to throw. Since we are able to throw we don’t fight or engage in matches. Everyone is convinced by this. Therefore it’s necessary to teach everyone atemi strikes. It’s possible to kill a person with a single finger.

Sensei, your movements are quite rapid. I think there must be various levels of understanding required to attain such speed, including such things as reading the opponent’s intention, timing, balance-breaking, dealing with the attack, throwing, etc. There must be different levels beginning from the initial maai (combative distance) to completion of the technique.

Actually, I have never intended to do things quickly.

Student: Sensei, your jo techniques are so fast they are like a spinning fan! [laughter]

Maybe your movements are natural for you. Sensei, but they are so fast that people watching can’t tell what has happened. Would you explain your training approach in a little more depth?

We practice 20 different kinds of nikyo alone, and when we use the sword and jo, the technique changes a little as does our way of doing things. I always tell my students to choose a special technique for themselves out of these. In judo and karate most people have only one technique in which they specialize. I tell everyone to develop one technique that they can definitely use to win. I tell my students that in aikido we finish things off with just our appearance.

You often travel abroad to teach. How long have you been doing this?

For about 7 or 8 years.

You’ve traveled to Scandinavia, America, and more recently, France. In foreign countries, there are serious problems with violence and drugs. I think that people who come to practice want a martial art they can really use, not just a health method. I think that this is a difference between the way foreigners and Japanese look at aikido.

I think that in the beginning everyone starts training because they want to become strong. I think this changes because there is a difference between being strong in training and being strong as a person. There is the strength needed to be able to throw someone and there is another strength required to be able to protect someone. I focus on the latter. When I travel abroad, I state this clearly. For example, if I am explaining a punch I’ll say, “You shouldn’t use this in a normal situation. Stop here. If you extend here your opponent will fall. You should go this far.” Now I travel abroad for short periods of time so when I explain something they say they want to practice what I have shown them. Unfortunately, however, they haven’t developed a solid base. For example, very few can use a tegatana (hand-blade) properly.

Does your tegatana come from karate?

The basis of it does. But there are few karateka in Japan who have a high level of atemi technique. I tell my students that it’s a shame that techniques are disappearing and urge them to pay more attention to preserving them. I think that one of the roles of aikido is to offer such techniques as atemi. I think that atemi are the soul of Japanese martial arts. Atemi temporarily neutralize the opponent’s fighting ability and allow him to correct his attitude and return to his previous condition. The number of people who know how to use atemi to a certain extent is gradually decreasing. Therefore, I think that in aikido we should preserve this skill and use it when necessary.

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