The top Sensei at the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo kept personal Uke for their demonstrations. They would elect their Uke from the enthusiastic young instructors at the Dojo. It was the most honorable task at the school – the path to excellence some suggested, the only way to truly grasp the fine details of the art.
Being a Super-Uke meant everything!
Naturally, when I became part of the Hombu Dojo staff, I also aspired to become one of those Uke. I did my best to prove my competence, spending entire days at the Dojo, dedicatedly serving the instructors on breaks between the classes, and when training resumed, always ready to jump up and take their Uke.
But becoming a personal Uke for the high ranked Sensei meant proving my skills during demonstrations as well.
"You'll start at the bottom," explained Roland Sensei, an Australian hard-man who had one year seniority over me. "You'll take Uke for the junior instructors, prove yourself and move up the ranks."
"And how do you start at all? Do you put your name up on some notice board? Does it work like an auction?"
"All you have to do is wait," Roland chuckled. "When the time comes you'll be approached by one of the instructors."
His words came true a few weeks later when a junior Sensei approached and asked me to be his Uke. I accepted joyously and did my best to please him in preparation for and during the demonstration. My actions proved fruitful and from demonstration to demonstration I indeed moved up the ranks.
It was only when I reached the very top that I realized the main obstacle in my plan – that there were no vacancies for the desired job. I had to wait for my time to come – had to exercise the hardest lesson of all for a young man – the lesson of patience.
In 1992 my chance finally materialized when Mark Baker, Chida Sensei's personal Uke, decided to depart from the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo and move to Africa. A couple of days later, in the morning break between classes, I was training on my own in front of the mirror when Chida Sensei entered the hall.
He came close, bowed and with a gesture of his arm motioned me to attack him with a Shomen Uchi – front strike with the arm. I attacked and he threw me a few times, nothing fancy, just playing with the timing and studying my reactions to his moves. He then gestured for other attacks, threw me some more, bowed and left the room.
I remained standing and glaring at my reflection in the wide mirror. At first I didn’t make much out of it. It wasn’t the first time that I had seen him stepping onto the mats and trying his inspiring ideas on whoever he could find at the Dojo. It also wasn’t the first time that he had thrown me around.
During my days in the Yoshinkan Senshusei Course, (Riot Police Course), my partner had fallen sick and as a result, the instructors took turns as his replacement. Usually it would be a junior instructor but there were occasions where I trained with the high ranked Sensei as well.
One of them was Chida Sensei.
It happened on the day we started practicing Jiu- Waza, (Free-Techniques). Chida Sensei, who taught the class, demonstrated the techniques to the students, then came over and performed on me. He threw me gently, aware of my lack of skill and allowed me to control the falls. He even took part as my Uke and helped me line up my attacks.
It is of no surprise, therefore, that when Chida Sensei left the Dojo I resumed my training in front of the mirror. I had quite forgotten about the whole thing until lunchtime, when Roland burst into the kitchen with a wide grin pasted on his face.
"Congratulations," he said and I frowned in return.
"What for?" I mumbled.
"For what I've just overheard in the office. It looks like Chida Sensei elected you as his new Uke."
The full magnitude of the situation dawned on me as the day progressed. I continued to train and perform my duties around the Dojo but felt light headed, slow and sluggish in my moves, as if completely disoriented in the familiar place.
"You must be extremely excited," Ronald observed when I refused to eat the Bento, the packed-lunch I had ordered as a treat for the special occasion. It was my favorite dish – barbequed eel on a bed of hijiki rice.
"Very excited," I nodded and handed the meal to one of the hungry students from the Senshusei Course. Being excited was an understatement. I was thrown out of focus. I was nervous as hell.
The unsettling sensations took me by surprise. I expected happiness at my good fortune, expected joy at the honor of being Uke for one of the most celebrated Aikidoka in the world.
But that very reason, I soon I realized, was actually the cause for the mountains of worries that over shadowed my pinnacle of joy.
Being Chida's Uke meant first and foremost responsibility, the ability to represent Yoshinkan Aikido in the most honorable and spectacular fashion. It meant performing to the highest standards and doing so in front of a multitude of spectators, it meant rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of society at formal and highly renowned events.
What made matters worse was the fact that Chida Sensei is a conservative person who likes everything being strictly Japanese. He only communicated in Japanese despite his knowledge of the English language and expected his Uke to follow Japanese etiquette.
"This is a recipe for disaster," I thought miserably. I had never been cut out for respectable conduct in any society, not to mention the fact that my Japanese had hardly improved since the day I arrived in the country.
In my distress I contacted Mark Baker and asked for some tips. He had many pieces of advice to share.
"When Chida Sensei attends demonstrations and clinics it’s not just about Aikido training and techniques," Mark said. "What he does is perform a formal duty, almost like a politician, and it's your responsibility to make sure he enjoys full comfort when he does that. You must be attentive to his needs, carry his bag, stand by him when he talks in case he asks for anything and at meals, supervise that he is served first and that his cup of drink is always full. At demonstrations you must prepare his slippers when he steps on and off the mat, and once the performance is over, you must fold his dogi and Hakama. Oh, and don’t forget, he's got a unique system to tie the ribbon of his Hakama. I showed it to you in the past – don’t you remember?"
I broke into a sweat when Mark finished the long list.
"Man," I moaned. "Sounds like a real pain."
"It's not easy," he agreed. "I used to start panting during demonstrations just from all the stress of the formalities. It’s worth it, though."
"I surely hope so."
"It is, I promise you. I know you have taken his Uke a few times before and that you even had the pleasure to train with him a whole evening class, but this is different. To be his personal Uke is the ultimate achievement. In comparison, your past experiences will feel dull, almost like scratching the surface. Now stop worrying, good luck."
"Will give it my best effort," I said and with that, the conversation was over.
Chida Sensei never openly declared my new position. The only real confirmation came when he approached me one morning and asked if I would like to join him on a teaching trip to Gifu. I agreed and he said we would leave on Friday after the two o'clock class.
Friday came, and as agreed, I waited for him by the office when the class was over. He came out of the teachers' changing room a few minutes later. He was dressed in a dark-blue suit, had his glasses on and was holding a sports bag. He took one look at me and a smile formed on his face.
"You look red," he said. "Are you hot?"
He suggested I should take off my jacket and loosen up the tie that choked my neck.
"It's OK," I said although there was nothing more I would wish for at that moment. I never felt comfortable in a suit.
Chida Sensei produced a small map from his pocket and showed me where we were going. I looked, listened, but in my mind I was running through Mark's to-do list: slippers, filling cups with drinks and plates with food, folding dogi – the Hakama with a special knot to the ribbons. And carrying bag, oh no, how could I forget the bag?
I launched forward to grab his bag but he pulled it back, holding it tightly to his chest.
"I've got it," he said.
We went out of the Dojo and walked to the train station. I strolled beside him, my eyes sneaking peeks at his bag, wondering what had gone wrong, why wouldn’t he let me carry it?
At the train station I saw an opportunity to redeem myself and I jumped straight for the ticket machines while pulling out my wallet.
"I don’t need a ticket," Chida Sensei said and showed me his monthly pass. "And I'm buying your ticket," he added disarmingly.
I had to step aside and observe him taking his place in the queue. I felt hot and frustrated, disturbed by his unwillingness to allow me to fulfil my formal duties. We reached the platform and I took a final attempt at his bag. Again he pulled it to his chest but this time he added an explanation.
"You’re not very good with Japanese customs," he said bluntly. "I saw you try many times but it’s not you. So don’t bother. Be natural. Be yourself. Understand?"
He spoke mainly in English to make sure I understood. I gaped at him for a moment then hesitantly opened my mouth.
"I don’t understand."
"Exactly," he sighed and began to elaborate, saying I should basically stay away from his bag and slippers, that I shouldn’t fold his Dogi and never make tea.
"Hakama?" I dared raise the suggestion.
"Don’t touch my Hakama!" he warned with a stern expression.
I lowered my head, feeling sorry for myself. He tapped me on the shoulder.
"Relax," he smiled. "Be yourself."
The train arrived and we stepped in. We had a long trip ahead of us, two hours travel and two trains to change. We found seats and I sat quietly, my cheeks burning with shame from the fact he knew how terrible I was, that I was exposed.
I watched him take his jacket and tie off and it suddenly occurred to me that he must have known all about my formal disabilities even before he decided to make me his Uke. The thought immediately elevated my mood.
"Relax," I whispered to myself. "If he wants me to be natural then that’s exactly what I must do."
He smiled and nodded his approval as I took off my jacket and tie. He then leaned back into his seat, closed his eyes and fell asleep.
The Headmaster of the Yoshinkan Aikido branch in Gifu waited for us at the station. He had two Uchi Deshi accompanying him. They bowed deeply and the Headmaster exchanged a few words with Chida Sensei. Then they took our bags and led us to their vehicles. We drove to a fancy hotel and they escorted us each to his luxurious room. They left us to get organized and went to wait downstairs. They treated us with the outmost respect, as if we were royalty, as if Chida Sensei was a king and I, the crown prince.
When we were ready we drove to the sports hall that they had hired for the event. I managed to get a quick glance inside as we were ushered to the changing room. The hall was packed with students and spectators.
As I was commanded, I kept away from Chida Sensei and his belongings. One of the Gifu Uchi Deshi was by his side to serve him. Five minutes later the other Uchi Deshi popped his head in. It was time to step onto the mats. I followed Chida Sensei to the hall, my heart thumping in my chest, panting as if I had just run a marathon. The magnitude of the situation suddenly hit me. Chida Sensei stopped and looked at me.
"A good Uke knows how to relax," he whispered and I nodded while grinding my teeth. He sighed and moved on. We got to the mats and Chida Sensei took off his slippers, the Uchi-Deshi kneeling beside him and rearranging them. We walked to the middle of the mats, bowed to the tiny shrine on the wall and to the students. Chida Sensei motioned me to sit in Seiza while he addressed the crowd.
While he spoke I sat tense on my knees, my eyes focused on his face, ready to take his Uke. He stopped talking and ordered me to stand up, whispering the attack and demonstrating a technique which he broke into sections.
My heart was racing in my chest all through the move, respiration strained, my vision blurry. I felt senseless and twice almost made mistakes. I exhaled in relief when the demonstration was over and the students began to practice.
All through the class I took his Uke but never managed to fully engage in the performance, the need to satisfy the crowd putting unexpected stain on my mind and muscles. At the end of the lesson the main demonstration took place.
Chida Sensei started by throwing me gently, no more than five times, but I was already exhausted. He stopped and bowed, right before I was about to collapse, and gestured with his arm to the mats. I dropped to one knee but kept the tension in my body, alert and waiting for the next sequence of attacks. He rolled his eyes and lectured for a couple of minutes then performed a few more moves.
He continued to operate in the same manner for the next fifteen minutes, a quarter of an hour that felt like years. In fact, I was so tired near the end that he ordered me to sit aside while he used one of the Gifu Uchi-Deshi for his final moves. When the demonstration was over I had to muster all my self control to walk rather than crawl behind him as we left the mats. In the dressing room I collapsed onto a wooden bench. I felt defeated, a failure by all accounts. He glanced at me and shook his head. He came to stand beside me.
"I told you to relax," he said.
"I’m sorry. I was very nervous."
"I know. That’s why I gave you the opportunity to catch your breath between throws. I don’t speak that much normally, you know."
"Never mind, next time. Now get up, have a shower, get dressed and prepare yourself."
"Prepare for what?" I asked hesitantly. He studied me for a tense second and then a smile spread across his face.
"For a few good drinks. What else?"
The Gifu trip marks the worst demonstration that I ever had with Chida Sensei but it also celebrates my most significant lesson in being an Uke. In Gifu I was taught the ground-rules for the first time, my responsibilities as an Uke clearly defined. And I learned that being natural and relaxed is the only state of mind for superb performance and the best way to evolve as an Uke. No less important, in Gifu I learned that Chida Sensei liked to party and that when he drank, he would blare out secrets and in perfect English as well.
I could write for hours about all the other demonstrations I had with Chida Sensei, analyse his surgically precise techniques and openly glorify the sheer power behind his every throw and pin. But what I believe made Chida Sensei so special was not the technique but the air of trust he created around him, an atmosphere which brought the best out in me.
There were others who threw me just as hard as Chida Sensei, maybe even harder, but none that I held so willingly, none that I so joyously wished they would exercise all the power they possessed. I was never injured by him and after Gifu, never out of breath. I trusted him to throw me as he willed and under all circumstances, fully engaged even during occasions in which his behaviour would be best described as naughty as hell.
That was another vital lesson that I learned in Gifu.
It happened at the end of the party that the Gifu crowd threw after the demonstration. The party took place in a wide sports hall that was modestly decorated with aikido banners and pictures, tables loaded with food and drinks spread around the floor, a platform at the far end of the hall serving as a makeshift karaoke stage.
Most attendants were heavily intoxicated at this point in the evening, some standing in small groups and chatting loudly, others laughing heartily while watching the brave amateur performers who dared climb up to the platform and sing from the top of their lungs. There was no music or lyrics to accommodate their act. It was raw karaoke, a stage, a microphone and that’s all!
Since I’m not a big drinker I was fairly focused and stable compared to the rest. I kept to myself, silently standing by the wall while firmly holding a half full beer bottle. It was the only tool to fend away those who walked around the hall with fresh bottles – the only way to combat the Japanese custom of drowning guests with alcohol.
"Gadi," I heard Chida Sensei’s voice and saw him waving at me. He was standing a few feet away from the stage with the Gifu Head Instructor and a few other respectable looking men.
"Gadi!" he called again, smiling mysteriously, his face bright and red. I detached myself from the wall and walked toward him.
"We would like you to sing for us," he declared and I stopped dead in my tracks.
"I don’t think so."
"Come on, everyone here is dying to learn something about your culture."
"You can ask anything you want."
"What we want is to hear you sing."
"Yes, please sing," intervened the Gifu Head Instructor.
"But I’m not much of a singer."
"We don’t care."
"Sing," prodded another member of the gang.
"Sing," interjected another and then everyone chanted together:
"Sing! Sing! Sing!"
Chida Sensei exhaled loudly and came to my side.
"Be polite," he whispered with a serious expression. "Don’t insult their hospitality. Be respectable – they’re really interested to know about you and your culture."
"If you put it that way."
"Come on, don’t look so miserable, you’ll be OK. Just go up and sing a little. They’re looking at us. Come on, hurry, don’t embarrass me."
He kept pressing the point of honour until I felt I had no other choice but to comply. The group cheered as I climbed up on the stage. I moved slowly, like a condemned prisoner walking towards his execution.
"Sing! Sing! Sing!"
I got to the top and looked down at the hall that suddenly went dead quiet, all eyes pinned on me. I felt the blood draining from my face and I stood glaring back at them, my mind empty of words, songs and music.
"Sing! Sing! Sing!"
The stressful situation kept my mind blank for a while longer and then, out of the darkness of my subconscious, an old familiar Hebrew tune emerged. A song that I hated with all my heart, that I refuse to sing, that I would never sing – oh what the hell…
To the cheers of the crowd I opened my mouth and began to sing.
"Hava Nagila Hava," I whispered into the microphone, gaining courage with the first few words and slowly increasing the volume. Chida Sensei nodded his approval and I relaxed further, forgetting the embarrassment and getting into the music, my voice bouncing from the walls.
Then I heard the laughter and looked down at Chida Sensei who stood in the middle of the group. His finger was pointing at me, a bemused expression on his face.
"Wakaranai, (I don’t understand)," he kept repeating as I sang, and each time he did, the whole gang would burst out laughing. My face turned burning red, my voice fluttered but I kept singing until the bitter end.
When the song was over I climbed down, hurried to one of the tables, picked up a beer bottle and swallowed its contents with one long gulp. Chida Sensei came over to me.
"Good show," he said and tapped me on the shoulder. "What was the name of that song?"
"Hava Nagila," I growled but he didn’t seem to notice my distress.
"Haba Nagiba?" he tried to repeat and together with his gang burst out laughing again.