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My Aikido Interlude

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by Robert W. Smith

Aikido Journal #115 (1998)

Robert Smith was an American judoka training at the Kodokan in 1961 when he attended the Aikikai to prepare for a judo test. There he had a memorable encounter with Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido. Smith was also present at the famous judo tournament in San Jose, California in 1953 when Koichi Tohei took on five powerful judo competitors at the same time!

In 1961, to help prepare myself for my sandan examination at the Kodokan, I put in over forty hours at Morihei Ueshiba’s Hombu Dojo falling and rolling around in aikido. The dojo had an excellent way of imparting the art. You paid a nominal monthly fee and could then practice from 6 am to 12 pm (sixteen hours) every day. No one did, of course, but the art was certainly available. You grabbed a partner—my main one was a big farm boy, a 2nd dan from Kyushu —and away you went. My partner had huge wrists and I was no match for him in doing push-ups on bent wrists. (I realized how he got the wrists he had.) Those wrists meant that it was rough trying to lock them. But hellish good exercise.

Morihei Ueshiba Shihan (1883-1969) dropped by two or three times while I was practicing. He was quite impressive, tiny and trim, with a face that radiated good health. His cheeks had such a blush to them that I wondered idly whether he’d rouged them a bit. The mischievous little boy smile never left him. He did little but it was good having him around.

On the second visit he did something so spectacular I still think of it sometimes. In lecturing us on resilience and rooting, he had two stout students (one was my frequent partner from Kyushu) each grab a wrist so that one grabbed Ueshiba’s left wrist with his right hand while the other grabbed Ueshiba’s right wrist with his left hand. Thus, all three men were on a line looking at us. Then the master asked them to really bite in with their grips which they did, bending their knees a bit at the same time.

Then quicker than a flash Ueshiba bent his knees and sent his ki to his wrists. The wrists didn’t move much but his students simultaneously snapped skyward in unison. The thing was done so perfectly that a skeptic would say it had to have been choreographed and rehearsed. I was not of that mind. Instead, I was simply perplexed how Ueshiba was able with only slight knee flexion to create the rapid torque necessary to throw two big bodies into the air simultaneously.

When we resumed practice, I went with Kyushu to Ueshiba’s son, Kisshomaru, and, with Kyushu interpreting, pleaded my case. I identified myself as a judoka friend of Donn Draeger. He nodded that he knew Donn. I then told him that I was a researcher and had always applauded his father’s spiritual ideas and his attainment in aikido, but that the last feat seemed to defy physics. Would his father demonstrate the technique again, this time with me at one of the wrists? I knew that the result would be the same, but as a researcher, it would be far better if I actually participated.

Ueshiba’s son smiled and said, “Mr. Smith, the ukemi (fall) for that (technique) is brutal and you might be injured.” I politely responded that in judo I fell so often that I’d become quite expert in that phase of the art. So there was no chance for injury. He smiled again, “We’ll let you know”—the Japanese (and American) way of never having to say “No.”

And it’s a crying shame. I wrote about my aikido practice in Tokyo in the September 1961 issue of the Budokwai quarterly Judo: “The teaching is based on the deductive principle watch and do! It was arduous but fun… . My earlier evaluation that there is still a lot of unfunctional material in aikido still holds. There are too many wide circles, multiple moves, and derring-do dance steps. Ueshiba himself, though old, looked vigorous and effective. Here again, I was unable to speak with him because of a tight schedule. I regret this.”

Thirty-seven years later, I still regret it. In that report, like a good soldier, I blamed my tight schedule for my not meeting Ueshiba Sensei. Actually, I couldn’t get past his son. To me, the feat seemed authentic and marvelous. Alas, I’ve never been able to give Ueshiba the credit he probably deserves because I lacked hands-on proof.

Later, in southeast Asia a Chinese master was performing feats similar to this but he too wouldn’t let me participate. This one I knew was hippodroming, but I was never sure of this regarding Ueshiba Sensei. His performance may have been legitimate. Zheng Manqing left no such ambiguities: when he said, “Do as you wish with me,” he meant it. However that may be, I still have the same misgivings about aikido as a system as I did then.

Recently I asked one of the premier figures in the aikido movement in America since 1956, Al Holtmann (6th-dan judo) of San Diego, for his views on it. He wrote (12/4/96):

The standing techniques that are a take-off of jujitsu and aikijitsu are very effective indeed. There are more than twenty movements that are more effective than jujitsu—due to their spiral nature.

Anyone who considers aikido a realistic self-defense, however, is misinformed. It has no groundwork, a serious fault since most fights—the Gracie family is correct on this—end up there. Like karate students, aikido students simply aren’t trained to fight there.

Most aikido techniques are not realistic. Students are filled with illusions on this. Techniques are applied against various wrist and body grabs, and Japanese-type strikes that will not occur. Most aikido students, however, are not interested in self-defense so much as in a philosophy built on ki which benefits students physically, mentally, and possibly spiritually. Though it is estimable from these standpoints, it is limited combatively.

Despite my analytical problems with aikido, I have to assume that Ueshiba was a singular figure. The evidence for this is his top student Koichi Tohei. I first heard of Tohei at the First U.S. Judo Tournament in San Jose, California, in 1953. Some of us were chatting about the judo and one veered off with the information that an expert in something called aikido was present from Hawaii and would demonstrate his art. Rumor had it that this Tohei had defeated the top fighters of Hawaii before securing a teaching niche there.

Later, in a lull in the program, here came Tohei, a little man with a smile bigger than he was. He took the stage and submitted to varieties of insult to his person. Three big judoka simultaneously put locks on his neck and both arms. He tossed them airward with abandon. Next he demonstrated rare proficiency in stick work (bojutsu). All this was interesting and pleasant to watch. The main course, next up, left us flabbergasted. Tohei stood and invited five black belt judokas to have at him simultaneously. Fifteen lined up and five fanned out and jumped him. This was no multiple attack choreographed so that the defender had enough time and space to deal with each attacker singly. The meretricious stuff that bores and stultifies. Not a bit. The surrounding circle hit Tohei almost in unison. He moved amongst them throwing them in all directions, even into each other. Up they got, tried again, and down they went. Three were greedy and tried thrice only to hit the mat again. After that enthusiasm waned and the group desisted.

Though Tohei was said to have a high judo rank, his throws didn’t resemble judo techniques. He seemed to do things like tewaza (throws using only one’s hands) and wrist twists with such élan that murmurs of ki spread through the awed audience. Everything dissolved in front of his gentle rapid applications. Big Jim Nisby, a giant judoka and former California All-State footballer, one of the five attackers, attempted a driving tackle from fifteen feet. Tohei put out a light hand and stopped Jim dead in his tracks, then, in almost the same movement, pushed him into the pile of bodies. It was all marvelous.

I never knew Tohei well but followed his career in America and elsewhere. Later he broke with Ueshiba Sensei and traveled widely. Once Donn Draeger and I lunched with him between flights at National Airport in Washington. I don’t recall much of the talk—the cafeteria clamor being so loud I couldn’t hear what he said—but it may have been there that I asked him what happens to a master who flew on a plane that crashes. He said, smiling and waving his hand dismissively, “True masters don’t fly on such planes!”

Another time two of his 3rd-dans visited with me in Bethesda. Inevitably, these likable ones wanted to know of taiji. “It’s soft,” I said.

“But,” one responded, “our aikido is also soft.” He thrust his arm at me for a test. His arm was not stiff.

But neither was it soft and I was able to use “pull down” (t’sai) of taiji successfully several times. His colleague jumped into it, and though his arm was more supple than his friends’, it still “was against” my arm, permitting me to pull him around easily. They took it in good part and proceeded to show me aikido’s “unbendable arm.”

Which reminds me of a story I heard years ago from two of my students who previously had studied with Tohei and American aikido teachers. They had met a Canadian judo 4th-dan whom I had known earlier as a clean-cut, humble 2nd-dan. With rank, evidently he became rank. My students saw him at the Kodokan where he told them he was off to test Tohei—did they want to tag along? Tohei was a deity to my boys and to see someone trash him—of course they’d go.

Arriving at Tohei’s dojo, the three were made welcome by Himself who knew my students well. The Canadian he’d never met. But did now. Oblivious of the aikido students practicing, Canada braced Tohei. Could he see the “unbendable arm”? Tohei nodded and put the arm out. Canada tried the bend with medium strength but, that unavailing, he swerved full bore taking it in an arc downward leaning Tohei over in a precarious position. Then he released the hold and announced, “So much for the unbendable arm,” and strutted like a peacock out of the dojo. Tohei went back to his students, doubtless miffed, but not showing it. Embarrassed, his two visitors left shortly after.

After telling me the story, they asked why Tohei had suffered such a fool. Did Tohei sense that Canada was his superior and let it go at that? Or had he been so surprised by the bad manners that he let the lad have his way?

I told them to pick up their long faces. Neither of their suggestions was close. I knew Canada and even with several more grades he would never be or beat Tohei. I told them that they had seen a wonderful thing: a master who, when tricked by a pipsqueak, chose not to react rather than to punish or even to counter the miscreant. Tohei took the risk of losing face with his students so as to avoid any relationship with such a discourteous thing. Only a very secure man could have done that. Finally, I told them—they were brightening a bit—that Tohei has publicly announced that he will not accept challenges and what they had seen that evening was a piece with his announcement. He had proved himself, probably dozens of times, and doubtless would again. If Canada really wanted to try conclusions with him he should do it in the context of class. That would be the venue for unstructured violence, in which I was sure Tohei would oblige his basest request.

There’s an old Chinese saying, “You must earn the right to ask a question.” Canada hadn’t earned the right to be demolished. The operative etiquette says that you don’t get beat up until you join up.

ROBERT W. SMITH has practiced, taught, and written on the Asian martial arts for more than fifty years. From his late teens he trained under eminent Western boxing and wrestling coaches and later immersed himself in judo. Smith was introduced to Marine Corps “crude” judo during World War II (1944-46) and, on discharge started real judo in Chicago. A CIA tour in Taiwan (1959-62) began his conversion to Chinese boxing under celebrated masters. He taught numerous students in the later arts in the Washington D.C. area where he worked as an intelligence officer for the CIA.

Smith’s fourteenth book, Martial Musings, will be published in the spring of 1999 by Via Media Publishing Company. The book records fine details and insights associated with Smith’s years of immersion in the martial arts in the USA and overseas. Based on reflections on the people and places that shaped martial arts in the 20th century, Martial Musings will no doubt be insightful and enjoyable reading.