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Interview with Takafumi Takeno (02)

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #100 (1994)

Although he is one of the highest-ranking shihan of the Yoshinkan aikido system, Takefumi Takeno continues to approach teaching and training with an open mind. In this second, and last, installment, the 8th dan Takeno shares insights into his unique method of aikido instruction and the operation of one of the most successful aikido schools in Japan.

Aikido Journal: Sensei, you assisted Kyoichi Inoue Sensei when he taught at the police academy, didn’t you?

Takafumi Takeno: Yes, I studied primarily with Shioda Sensei, but he let me participate in a number of other activities. In 1978 I was dispatched to teach aikido at the Metropolitan Police Department, where classes had been offered for fifteen years prior to my arrival.

I conducted kyu and dan exams for female police officers and the security police specialists at the police academy. Additionally, I taught each of the riot police squads on a rotational basis. For the most part, however, I spent my time at the Yoshinkan Headquarters, and was in charge of teaching selected members from each of the riot police squads.

What sorts of questions did the students at the police academy ask you regarding the handling of dangerous situations?

It’s difficult to generalize, but they asked about things such as how to handle knife attacks, for example, or what to do if the tie of your uniform is grabbed. They asked about real situations that had come up or might come up in their work. You might call it “combat aiki.”

Also, they wanted to know how to handle criminals unobtrusively and efficiently. Avoiding the use of unnecessary throws and strikes was an important consideration for them as law enforcement officers, since they were concerned about the possibility of their actions being viewed as excessive use of force. Even justifiable self-defense measures might be labeled “police brutality” if the officer happened to employ a strike.

Just before graduation, specialists at the Yoshinkan HQ are tested on applying their skills in handling actual attacks. For example, they have to respond to someone who attempts to take their pistol. We test their ability to deal with that sort of real life situation. We incorporate into the training elements that may be useful in some way when making actual arrests.

Do you teach atemi to the police?

Yes, but I tell them not to make actual contact. They can use an atemi as a distraction or a check, so I think it unnecessary for them to strike forcefully. Therefore, we work on developing light, fast atemi, especially to the face Atemi do not necessarily require a tightly clenched fist, you see. I think they can be done more quickly when you’re relaxed. Done lightly, atemi give you the opportunity to handle an opponent more freely. I’m particular about doing atemi properly, so I always make a point to execute them quickly and with good form. If my partner doesn’t avoid my atemi, I go ahead and do it anyway. That way they know if their evasion is effective or not It’s the same when striking. I always say to strike vigorously, rather than half-heartedly. If the way you avoid the attack is flawed then you’ll be struck.

In other words, “Know the strength of your opponent.” Knowing your partner, I think, is linked to knowing yourself.

At my dojo I set aside time for people to test the effectiveness of their techniques, as well as their limitations and resistance as the recipient of techniques. During such practice I tell the students not to move if their balance is not being broken, not to take falls if a lock is not well applied, and not to submit unless a technique is being done effectively.

I don’t think many dojos do that sort of training.

We’re able to do it because everyone attends regularly. It would be impossible if people came only once a week or so.

I continually urge my students to understand their own power. I tell them that if their evasive technique is half-hearted they won’t be able to shift their bodies. Even during regular training I tell my students to move forward whole-heartedly no matter what sort of attacker comes at them. Actually, I tell them not to evade but rather to enter.

Attempting to grab at an opponent will almost certainly end in defeat, I think. It seems more advanced instead to “welcome” the opponent to attack, inviting them to come at you any time. It’s the difference between facing an attacker and thinking calmly, “You are welcome to attack anytime,” and thinking, “I wonder how they’re going to attack….” The latter is very passive, and you have already been defeated by your own mental attitude. In that sense, even when practicing forms slowly you have to be one step ahead of your attacker, or you won’t be able to move your body enough Shioda Sensei enters with an extremely vigorous irimi technique I’ve taken ukemi for him often and I feel strongly that rather than simply parrying and eluding he is actually moving forward.

Therefore, even when evading you should do so by moving forward. During practice, try not to remain in the same place. I have a feeling that this sort of movement, in addition to being faster, also develops better technique Even during so-called kata, or form practice, rather than filling your mind with thoughts about the sequence of the movements, it’s better to just enter and do the technique. In other words, only techniques that are instantly effective can be considered true techniques. Techniques done while thinking, “OK, next I’m going to do such-and-such…” cannot be called techniques.

From the perspective of other martial arts, aikido techniques are often believed to be ineffective in actual combat situations.

Perhaps training should be divided into different courses. In a course emphasizing aikido as a martial art, the goal is to train specialists. Accordingly, training is oriented toward developing vigor and technique. If the goal is enjoyment or health, then training should be designed to meet those needs. Mixing the two is likely to cause problems. If only one in ten practitioners intends to become a professional then the other nine people may lose out.

We practice budo aiki (martial arts aiki) as taught to us by Shioda Sensei. A look at Shioda Sensei’s techniques, which are extremely sharp, will illustrate what I mean.

Many people express surprise that such aikido exists and want to know more about this budo aiki. So, I don’t think aikido is in any way inferior to other martial arts. In fact, I think it’s something to take pride in.

The teacher, however, needs to modify the training method according to the type of training sought by each student. The martial feeling of aikido will diminish if everyone has to practice in the same way, while on the other hand, general practitioners may not accept training in which the martial aspects are over-emphasized. Teachers have to respond to these various aims and offer what they have accordingly. Of course, this requires a broad knowledge on the part of the teacher.

People inclined to the martial aspects of aikido obviously should adopt a more martial approach. Naturally, professionals need to pursue this kind of training. Of course, favoring that sort of training exclusively may lead to the loss of the original nature of aiki, so it’s a sensitive issue.

I’ve felt that one of the most problematic areas in aikido training is that proper ways of attacking are not understood. What would I do if attacked by someone stronger than I? What if my family were attacked and it was up to me to protect them? It seems essential to have studied and learned how to attack.

I know the techniques I’ve taught to the riot police have proven quite effective against attacks because I’ve heard their stories about using aikido in real situations. For example, a guard at the Prime Minister’s residence who had trained in aikido subdued a man who entered the premises wielding a kitchen knife.

When I teach the riot police there are sometimes rookies who say, “Aikido? Oh, that’s what they teach the women police officers….” But the more experienced members know how powerful aikido can be and what it can do, so they push the newcomers forward saying, “Go on up to the front and try it!”

As you mentioned, they are unsure about how to handle actual attacks, so I ask them what sorts of situations they have been in and teach them accordingly.

I’m sure they all want to know those sorts of things.

If someone attacks you strongly you might fell them with a kick or a judo throw, but such severe methods are not the best since they may cause unnecessary injury. I teach the police how to use various techniques as alternatives in handling such cases.

At how many dojos do you presently teach?

Besides this dojo I teach at dojos in Hikawa and Shirane. I also teach at Kyoto Buddhist University and Yamanashi Medical University. The aikido club at Yamanashi Medical University was officially recognized just this year. One of the students had come to watch a class and I suggested that he give it a try. My policy is to let people experience the training before they are required to enroll officially, so they are free to try a class if they wish. During practice the fellow was turned on his ear by one of the women in the dojo. Surprised, he asked me how he had been thrown so easily, so I explained to him about aikido. No matter how many times he tried he was thrown. “It’s too simple!” he kept exclaiming. She kept him immobilized simply by gripping his hand lightly, then added some power to the technique and threw him easily. Later, he brought some of his friends, who also skeptically gave it a try. They were fascinated and asked if I would teach them, and after that they started coming to practice. I told them since they had so many interested people that they would have my support if they wanted to form an informal club at their university. They took to the idea and that was the start of the club. After about three years they were officially recognized as the Aikido Club.

What about training exchanges with other universities?

I think training exchanges are important and I urge the university students to attend them whenever they have the chance. Recently there was talk of a training exchange at a certain university in Chiba Prefecture, and the current members were enthusiastic about it, but the “old boys,” or alumnae, of the club didn’t like the idea, so nothing came of it.

There are many such training exchanges abroad, which I think are very stimulating and a good idea. To change the topic, could you tell us about your experiences as an live-in student at the Yoshinkan Headquarters?

Instruction at the Yoshinkan back then was extremely broad and general, so it was impossible to understand through words alone. You learned by repeating things over and over again with your body. These days logical training methods have been established, so it’s fairly easy even for beginners to train.

When I was an uchideshi, first you learned the mechanics of the technique and then developed a smooth movement. You practiced one thing until you knew it inside and out. For about three months after I enrolled in the dojo all I was taught was a basic shihonage. Shihonage every day! All day long I practiced stances and that one basic movement. That’s how training was back then. You forged your body with those basic forms until your body remembered them.

People nowadays certainly have good form, but I think they should have a second look at the process involved. Form exists to act as a stepping stone to the next level as a result of the process that created it. There is nothing in the training that is not essential. During practice I urge people never to say that something is a waste of time. Take the issue of using power in techniques, for example. People who have never tried to put physical power into a technique won’t understand what it means to let go of the power. I let people try to use power as much as they please so they can discover for themselves that it doesn’t have the desired effect, and they realize it without being told. Students gradually recognize the futility of trying to muscle their way through techniques and consequently begin to understand techniques from slightly different perspectives.

Refined, logical instruction methods have been established, but overemphasizing logic in the beginning may cause a student to miss the essence of techniques.

Instructing in a dojo is a heavy responsibility. In an hour-long class the instructor must see to it that everyone in the class uses that hour effectively and is satisfied. I think one-way teaching is bad.

When I teach, I pay careful attention to the condition of the students. Also, I make note of such things as the proportion of beginners to experienced students, or, say, a class with a high number of women, and so on. I modify the contents of the training based on these sorts of things. I send out a certain “energy” and if the students respond to it then I can take the class to a different and slightly higher level.

I feel that rather than “teaching,” it’s more a matter of the teacher “learning.” I learned this from Shioda Sensei. The teacher has to watch the students’ response to the teaching method and evaluate what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise the teaching becomes stuck in certain patterns.

Using only one method of instruction is fine, but you need to add something to give it variety and flavor, for example giving advice about certain finer points to the more advanced students. Also, beginners team by first practicing the form, but sometimes it is helpful to say, “Don’t worry about form-just put a little power into it and see what happens!”

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