An interview with Minoru Akuzawa, Founder and Instructor of the Aunkai.
Born in Gunma prefecture, Japan, Akuzawa started Tai Chi when he was 16 and the art of Hsing-Yi when he was 19. The author interviewed Akuzawa over a late night dinner at a neighborhood restaurant. The author interviewed Akuzawa through translators. Special thanks to Rob John, Adam Beal and Takeo Eda for their translation assistance.
What is your opinion of martial arts generally?
When a person practices bujutsu, everything revolves around bujutsu. People should not divide their lives. Everything you do has an effect on bujutsu. You don’t have modes where you do things other than bujutsu. You need to place your life where you can effectively make Bujutsu a part of it.
People who divide up their life like that, will never get anywhere. People who practice eventually build their life around it. Bujutsu is such a force in your life, if you can’t practice, you can’t help but not think about it or practice it.
What’s your teaching philosophy like?
I’m not easy on people. I’m not feeding people like parents feed children.
It’s not like I’m doing multiplication tables in class. I’m giving people the ability to erase their habits.
I know what I need to do for about 80% of my remaining life when it comes to training, but the 20 percent of it that’s remaining, that’s hard to see.
You’ve talked during practice about the importance of principle in your teaching. How did you decide to focus on principle and not on techniques?
It’s easier for me to teach you like this: you do that when this comes. However if you simply make a shape, the shape is dead. By teaching what’s inside the shape, people begin to realize things they weren’t taught before.
How did you have inspiration to train in this way?
I was with a Chinese martial arts group in Japan but even the twenty year students couldn’t beat a karate guy. The answer was simple. The guy teaching didn’t have the ability to pass it his martial ability on to students.
I’m teaching a lot of stuff, and Chinese people say, why are you teaching that. Don’t teach that. Here is the most important part. Say you have a very powerful master. So they have this responsibility to teach. But, if they say “if you come at me like this, then I do this,” well, that’s just for idiots
I don’t teach. I want to be more like a coach. I’m mixing the roles of coach and teacher. A coach recognizes strengths and weaknesses of an individual.
That’s not what a great teacher usually does. He teaches the same thing. Then that guy never increases his skill. In a way, teaching and coaching are mixed in Aunkai.
That’s why I don’t want to teach people who don’t have the will to learn. That is because no matter how long they train, they will never be any good.
Think about it like this: the only thing you learn from a professor is methods and principles. It’s up to the quality of students not the teacher. Figuring out the details is up to you. You are looking for the place that overlaps between your training and what I say.
What about secrets?
It’s not like I can give you the secrets. “If you follow these ten steps, you’ll beat Cro Cop.” That’s ridiculous. That’s because the guys in sport MMA have built a certain foundation in themselves. He’s built up a a different foundation. They’re the MMA fighters are good at it. Even if I were to go in, even I could lose according to their rules.
When it is a sport you fight within the rules. Sport is different from bujutsu. However there are a lot of martial artists who say boxing is just a sport. But in reality — for them to win against a boxer or K1 fighter — they still have to make what doesn’t mesh to win over that thing MMA or full contact sport fighting if they decide to step into the ring.
Were there people training like you 100 years ago?
Maybe. The goal of people 100 years ago and the goal of sport martial arts training is completely different. Guys before thought things like how do you move most efficiently. That became the core. NOT how to win the sport. The meaning is different so the method is different. Tim, can you knock out Silva MMA fighter?
So you have to do something different. I don’t care about winning or losing, but rather to move my body in a way he doesn’t expect, if you connect at a point he doesn’t expect with connection, then its all over for him. Even Sylva is just human, two arms and two legs. But that’s just a result. Really, winning and losing isn’t that important to me.
Really what people used to do was much more basic. Bujutsu, okay, let’s say, taijutsu. In other words, body skill. My whole drive is how to find out how the body moves in the most efficient way. I want to harmonize what is on the inside and outside and maximize those aspects. Breath and movement. It all has to work in one moment.
What about kata?
No one can fight according to kata. If you are doing kata to bring principle to yourself, that’s fine. But the most important thing to me is to put proper frame in to muscles and inside the body. Once you establish the frame, you get rid of it.
Today in class I had you move with frame to understand inside. If you only have to move with the inside it is dangerous to others. It’s not about whether the opponent is strong or not, but whether you are strong inside. Mold is equal to frame. But mine is incomplete at this point. As soon as you are strong the mold is unnecessary.
When you come right down to it, you make a frame. Look at it this way, If you mix sand, gravel and water together, that mixture is very, very solid and hard. But yet it’s soft at the same time. Individually, the ingredients are soft, but can become hard when you combine them.
What is the role of hardness?
You have to put hard into your body. So by putting hard into your body, it creates pathways to make hard and soft. It becomes sand, gravel and water mixed together in you. What the Chen style guys do, against what I do, it doesn’t work. Not against someone with a weird body like mine, not against seasoned fighters. It’s not about who’s stronger, but how you learn to use your body. Bruce Lee died at 33 but if he were alive, he wouldn’t be thinking about who is stronger.
Bruce Lee was probably at the lowest rank. He was still depending on plyometric force. Bujutsu is different, it relies on torquing force that isn’t plyometric at all. Even as you get older, it doesn’t get worse. For example, Sagawa Yukiyoshi, a shihan of Daito Ryu was at his peak in his 70s. It’s how you train your spirit.
What about training the spirit?
Look, there are a lot of people with pride out there. Why don’t they go and fight Mirko? Then, even if you’re beaten like a red-headed step child and get out of the hospital, think nothing of it and go out with a girl. If your ego is that flexible….if you’re that stupid, maybe you are okay.
[Someone asks about qigong ]
No, I don’t do it. No specialized internal training. In your every day life, do you stand around? No. Your martial art has to become like this. It can’t just be a shape. Everything I do is bujutsu.
Who or what were your most significant influences?
When I was 23 there was this small, small guy, a koryu guy, about 160 cm. He was about 50 years old. I was sparring one day with my buddies at the Neijia Institute and I saw this small old guy just standing there. I asked a couple of questions about him, but all anyone would tell me was that he was some Koryu guy and that he was “dangerous” and that I shouldn’t talk to him.
I was sparring, when the old man walked up to me. The old man then told me quietly “You have good potential, but your posture is horrible. You should stand up straighter.”
So I thought to myself, “Who is this old fart?!”
I asked him, “Then, respectfully sir, do you mind if I hit you so I can see what you mean?”
I had the full intention of knocking him out.
All he said was “Dozo” (As you wish)
I took a semi crouched stance and faked left and went in full bore with a right hook.
All of a sudden I was looking up at his face.
I had no idea what had happened.
Later I learned he simply stepped in grabbed my head and put me down. All very naturally.
Quietly he said “I told you, your posture is horrible.”
Anyways, he’s the guy who gave me me all the hints that gave me the body that I have now, the body I’m attempting to create. A dragon body. I didn’t understand what the guy did to me…. I felt no pain yet the guy was effective. It was the most amazing thing. You know, you see “shotokan does this” or “xingyi does that.” But that guy, he doesn’t train anymore at all, but I still can’t touch him. It’s like a yakuza tattoo because it’s so hammered into his body.
That guy learned from a guy right after the war. He was like a demon. He had no interest in teaching. I only learned from him for two years. Once a month. Shintaijiku. The guy would check me. That was it. No applications. I would go home, and sometimes practice for five hours. I’d review everything he taught me and then suddenly it would be morning.
Why did you decide to teach?
It’s not how you do it. It’s how you come to that realization. I’m teaching that thought process. There’s a limit to how much I can teach. In school , I can give you the answer. But in bujutsu, I can only teach process. If I taught Aunkai like my teacher did, there would be no one left training. This teacher, he never explained anything. My teacher told me things like this: “Listen, your feet should be like this. There should be a clear connection between top and bottom.” And then I’d go home, think, then ask questions. So then I would go back and show my teacher. And I would show the shape. He’d say that is half right but you’re not getting the core.
Even Adam, one of the Aunkai students, is completely changed. Adam is getting a lot of return from what I taught. But the rest is up to him and how he thinks.
Back in the day during the Meiji era, if a teacher said do it, you did it to death. Their attitude was if you can’t do that, then don’t talk to me. Sagawa was a Meiji guy, he was severe. I can tell immediately who has been doing the basics and who has not. I know it’s not about strong or weak. If you’ve been studying, you should have questions.
If you look at Shioda Gozo, founder of Yoshinkan Aikido for example, his students are not the same because they aren’t following what he had to say.
So why aren’t you hiding things?
Well, what I’m doing is unique to Japanese culture. As soon as you get to a different stage, maybe you hide things. But I don’t feel like I am at a level where I have to hide things.
When I figure something out the first thing that I want to do is to show it to students. Because revealing what I’m doing helps me. My own training is incomplete. If I don’t teach myself, then I won’t improve and become, in my eyes, complete.
I’ve already progressed further than you guys on the same road. Where before there was nothing, I had to create the network. Because I have that within my body I can establish more powerful networks. it’s like the difference between having DSL digital subscriber line, i.e. broadband and a fiber optic based network, faster than DSL in your body.
The first thing to do is learn your body. Doing what they other people do isn’t getting you to where you want to be. If you find someone along the path with the same body type as you have, then the other half is on your own.
A lot of people think by watching that they can understand. But it’s different what I do even if it looks the same. My experience is that most people who say “we do that too” are wrong.
What about other styles?
Kyokushin. As hard as they train, among all types of karate, they are probably the best. If you do it, you’ll probably get something out of it. You’ll get something. But the problem is that it’s techniques and kata. In the end, it’s a question of who is stronger, and who is younger. Real bujutsu doesn’t consist of “he does this, and I do that.” That’s like stage 1. Stage 10 is an efficient body , moving in the most efficient way possible.
There was this Dutch guy that I met. Huge guy. When he first touched hands with me, he said, ”You’re not that strong.” But then later in push hands, he said, ”You’re strong.” Because I have gone so far in my training, by not going against other people.
Don’t walk around thinking you are going to kick ass.
What about weapons?
I only use the bo staff. I use it to build and discipline the body.
I understand that you have fought people in the Shooto (Japanese MMA style)
Sure. You know Andy Sawer? How about Ceasar Takeshi? I fought with the guys top students, 18 years ago. In my 20s. But I tooled them. Now, I’m soft and nice. Back then, I wouldn’t let them throw in the towel. At one point I got pretty extreme in my teaching. There was only 1 person left after two weeks.
I was training with Yang’s students at the Internal Martial Arts Society here in Tokyo. No one would come. They said you’re crazy. No one wanted anything to do with me then.
Why did you stop competing?
I wanted to compete in sanda more. But no one was doing kungfu. Most of the guys are like, there’s no point in sanda. All the sponsors disappeared. Three years after sanda disappeared, the K-1 international kickboxing circuit based in Japan appeared. That was in 1993.
There was a plan to have pankration MMA in the Olympics. I wanted to enter, even if I lost by foul. But, they couldn’t agree on the rules. So it never happened.
The Aunkai is largely based on the concept of “Ten Chi Jin.” or heaven, earth, man, and Aun or Inyou which refers to inverting Heaven, Earth, Man (yin yang)
At first glance, this seems like metaphysical poppycock, but in reality it’s one phrase to describe a multitude of actions within the body that result in a singular skill.
For training purposes the Body is divided roughly into the Upper, Middle, and
Lower. Running through the Upper, Middle, and Lower portions as a unit are the Left/Right/Center Axes. The Axes are more a physical awareness of many different components in the body than any one thing. The Axes tie the Upper, Lower, Center together. The Axis itself ties into the concept of “ropou” or six directions of tension that is used to bind the body together into a cohesive whole. Movement of this “axis” induces efficient weight transfer and allows the body to effectively transmit mass without committing the mass.
Layered on top of this is a physical connection, referred to as the X-Connection that runs from the left hand to right foot, and right hand to left foot is developed.
We strengthen the cross (juji) across the chest, and a cross(juji) across the back. The point you physically feel on the surface in the back is roughly the depression between the shoulder blades.
Koshi/Mingmen, Tanden/Diaphram/Illial Psoas.
Kua, Pelvic Crease, Lower arch
Front plane, rear plane (zen men, hai men)
Certain exercises are designed to target certain connections in a more pinpoint fashion than other exercises within the Upper, Middle or Lower sections, although all components strengthened within one exercise can be fed back into and change the nature of another exercise.
The Axes description above was simply described as left/right and center for simplification sake.
In reality, there is only one axis and where it falls, whether to the left or right foot, or between our legs is dependent on the body’s alignment. Understanding this concept is fundamental to grasping how weight transfer actually works.
The axis which connects the Upper/Middle/Lower parts together is actually not a singular line, but rather a conglomeration of opposing tension.
One analogy would be to imagine the entire body held together as if a thin piano wire ran through the entire body. This piano wire is stretched Up and Down, Front to Back, and Left to Right. The sensation should be felt across all parts of the body.
This six directional tension is worked on and forged into the body in a series of slow to relatively static postures in order to develop body unity. Akuzawa often refers to this as making the body into “ippon” or one line.
This connection is then held in a series of moving postures, slowly increasing the range of motion throughout which these connections can be held.
Ten Chi Jin, Shiko, Mabu, Twisting and other relatively static posture training are known as Stillness training within the Aunkai. These exercises place the body in a frame that allows it to identify those parts necessary for utilizing force. By making the body utilize opposing physical systems to keep the body unmoving and manifesting the six directions when it is in motion, it allows the practitioner to further understand how his body settles naturally into place and what role natural posture plays in the efficient transfer of power.
The requirements for all exercises are simple but deep:
-Keep the 6 directions
-The overall direction of tension should be directed into yourself and not outwards. (Jibun ni modosu)
-Yurumu (Relax anything that is not needed to adhere to the six directions)
-Chuou wo tamotsu (Maintain a middle amount of tension, neither too tense nor too relaxed. Understanding what this means is perhaps one of the hardest things about the exercise)
-Shizentai (Natural Posture)
1.The arms and body are held open with the spine erect, manifesting up to down contradictory tension.
2.The body’s connections are held in place as one arm is gathered and brought to the middle
3.The other arm is slowly raised upwards, pulling the body up and to the side, causing the center axis to fall over the heel of one foot
4.It continues to pull, pulling the entire body like a string of pearls, causing the opposite foot to slowly be pulled up. The leg is not lifted, but rather pulled by the opposite arm along the x-line.
5.The leg is brought down slowly into its original position, still maintaining an arch of support along the inside of the knees.
6.The body is slowly dropped to a low position, the arms still outspread
7.The arms are brought to the center in a clap.
8.The body is slowly raised by “picking” itself up at the spine. As this happens the body opens up as a whole unit.
Ten Chi Jin
1.Hands are held in the middle. The spine erect, the body maintaining six directions of opposing force.
2.The hands are raised up against the middle of the body, the arms pulling upwards.
3.The hands split to the side, as if holding an extremely large heavy round object, still pressing upwards as the body sinks to middle low position. Up to down opposing force should be felt strongly.
4.The hands are slowly lowered in front of the body, the fingers erect.
5.The body slowly opens from the crotch/kua area, causing the arms to naturally open.
6.The adjustments inside the body causing the opening movements are continued, causing the arms to slowly come back to the middle position.
7.The body is slowly lowered to the most compressed position possible. The upper portion of the body is still suspended, while the lower portion of the body is still hanging.
8.The hands are brought to the middle of the body
9.The hands are slowly raised against the front plane of the body and brought behind the head.
10.The hands pull the body up by picking the spine up from the base of the neck. The lower portion of the body still pulling the body downwards.
11.The body now erect, the hands still pull upwards as the hands slowly split to the side and the body slowly sinking yet again to a middle low position completing one cycle of the exercise.
At its core Ten Chi Jin is teaching your body what constitutes correct posture and more importantly than that what it means to stand, using a process of self realization.
Body Cross Training
This training takes the core developed in the body and works to keep in movement, while continuously trying to increase the range of motion without losing any of the properties developed in stillness training.
This exercise is not about relaxation. It is about how well you can keep your core stable. When we mention core, we are not talking simply about the abdominal muscles and other related musculature. Rather, it is the connection that allows the frame to remain intact as a whole. This being said, the exercise is understanding what tension is needed, and how it is applied in order to keep the vertical and horizontal axes steady and in place within the body, as well as the upper, middle and lower portions of the body stable and connected, creating one fluid connection that runs through the entire body.
As you progress and the body becomes connected you will learn to operate the body through the horizontal and saggital planes, making your body the central axis and at the same time creating centripetal forces within your body without disturbing its frame. As you proceed to correct yourself you will learn correct physical principles and absorb them.
Body Axis Training
This exercise, the Body Axis Walking training method serves to connect the upper and lower portions of the body together. This training places heavy emphasis on the correct placement of the feet, the mechanics of walking, and allows you to understand what “walking” truly is. Maai (distance between yourself and the opponent) and other concepts involving an opponent are also studied in this exercise.
Contact Training and Sparring
This next stage allows the body, now instilled with principles learned through proper training of the frame, to learn how to send and receive force against a gradually resisting opponent.
This stage also allows us to understand the difference between the commonly accepted notion of “power” or “muscular” power vs “martially usable power.” No progress can be made to further stages unless a student can identify this crucial difference.
Simply adjusting the shapes found within the “frame” training, or tanren, will not yield any substantial results. A martially viable body is useless unless you can bring the principles found in the frame training and apply them in motion. It is important to learn how to use your body effectively, in a connected matter, each joint, muscle, sinew working in concert to affect the opponent.
By studying the shape of our normal standing posture, we learn to feel how gravity works on our balance and work to eliminate any excess from the body. This refers to unconnected muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, as well as harmonizing internal physical movement so that one movement does not overpower another. (This also applies to the koshi and tanden as well.) By understanding our skeletal structure, we learn the optimal placement of our joints, and how they interact against an incoming force. This is a direct way to recognize your axis as you adjust and harmonize your balance against a resisting force.
We could also say that this is a means to understand how the parts inside you move, and how to compartmentalize them in a harmonized way. By training according to the method of hard and soft, we seek the maximum effect from the minimum effort.
The Aunkai Bujutsu Method does not place any emphasis on repetition of empty movements or techniques. Instead, we aim to give our students the physical tools to forge a Bujutsu body able to bring its own imperfections to light, address them, and come to its own answers—all of this eventually leads the practitioner down their own path in the Martial Way