During my Senshushi course, which was the last course to mix foreigner students with the riot police, there were only three foreigner students and an even number of policemen. It proved problematic when we started practicing the techniques and had to divide into partners. The riot police, being an organic unit, were divided into partners among themselves, while the other two foreigners, being similar in height, were hooked together, leaving me without a steady partner for a long period of time. It meant that the Hombu staff had to train with me, usually the lower grade instructors but sometimes the high level as well.
I remember the first class we trained in pairs, a Shihonage lesson, where my partner was no other than the terminator himself, Sensei Roland Thompson. Roland, an extremely powerful Australian who graduated from the previous course, was the first to take the role of Shite when we began practicing.
I remember how I moved in to the command of Chida Sensei, the Yoshinkan Head-Master who took the class, and grabbed Roland’s wrist, staring at his stern expression and preparing for his strike. I felt calm and confident as it was a technique I was familiar with, one that I trained diligently during the months I spent at the Hombu Dojo before the course.
But nothing prepared me for the powerful blow that was shot toward my face. I swiftly lifted my forearm in order to block and the strike hit the arm with such force that it caused the limb to fly to my nose and crunch it to my face.
Tears filled my eyes, blurring my vision, but there was no time to indulge in the pain, my whole body twisting to the powerful lock that Roland applied on my wrist. He took me to the edge of my balance and then threw me to the floor, my head hitting the mat, my arm lifting instinctively as he dropped another strike to my face, cutting through my block and smashing the arm again into my throbbing nose.
“You have to do this,” he whispered as I slowly lifted from the ground, my expression probably demonstrating the shock and worry that encompassed my mind. “Come on,” he added. “The sooner you get used to it the better.”
It was fortunate I had already known the technique and could focus on survival rather than on the moves. It took all my will power to conclude the lesson. I felt beaten and there were voices in my head calling me to quit
“Are you alright?” asked Sensei Mark Baker who stood by the office as I shuffled through the corridor, on my way to wash my face at the dressing room. Mark was a highly gifted Aikidoka from New Zealand who devoted his life to the study of Aikido. Mark finished the course a couple of years earlier. Since then, he spent most of his time at the dojo, not only training, teaching, doing all the paperwork concerning oversea Dojo, but also being Chida Sensei’s personal Uke.
Mark listened patiently as I stated my worries to him. He smiled when I finished and said:
“You have no idea how fortunate you are.”
“Fortunate?” I frowned. “Why am I fortunate?”
“Because the best way to learn how to execute a technique is to take the Uke while the instructors perform it. They are the ones who know how to apply the techniques most accurately and the ones possessing the sensitivity to feel the abilities of Uke and perform accordingly.”
“Sensitivity?” I whined. “But Roland nearly tore my arm out, not to mention the fact that he would have probably broken my nose with his strikes.”
“But he didn’t,” Mark smiled. “See? Sensitivity.”
“Sensitivity had nothing to do with it,” I said and pressed down on my nose, flattening it toward my cheek. “He failed to break it because it was already broken.”
“And Roland probably knew it,” Mark concluded and sounded as uncertain as the expression on his face.
Roland was my main partner in the following week, his deadly strength and resolve keeping me on my toes. He continued to demonstrate little regard to the medical condition of my nose, or any other anatomical structure of my body for that matter, but his tough attitude proved beneficial for my progress. My instincts turned sharper and my body got stronger with each passing day, to the point where I could react swiftly and in perfect timing to the punishment inflicted by him. After the first two days, the experience was no longer terrifying but tolerated and even enjoyable. More than anything else, it placed me in a perfect state of mind for studying. I could absorb and process an incredible amount of knowledge in comparison to my ability before the course.
After the first week I got to train with other instructors and the experience changed dramatically.
“You were right,” I told Sensei Baker after a particularly enjoyable and eye opening class with Payet Sensei, the senior foreigner instructor at the Dojo. “It was amazing how he adopted his technique to the changes of my Uke. Man, did he drop me hard or what?”
“Dropped you hard?” Mark chuckled. “How come you don’t complain about the pain and danger?”
“Because I felt none. Payet Sensei can throw me as hard as he likes. Strange, isn’t it?”
“Not really. Roland is a young instructor and his quest is technical in essence. He must tackle many subjects, such as the power, sensitivity and flow of the technique. He is too absorbed by his studies to notice whether the experience of the Uke is pleasant or not. Payet Sensei, on the other hand, is a seasoned martial artist. His focus is beyond the technical details. He devotes his time to the bigger picture, to the intention behind the technique. What, Gadi? Why are you frowning?”
“Because I have trained with other instructors already, some of which far more experienced than Payet Sensei, yet none placed me in the same peaceful state of mind as Payet Sensei did.”
“Because the bigger picture is different for everyone, varying according to the personality and philosophy of each instructor. Some tend to focus on the strength while others on the artistic, sensual or even spiritual aspect of the art. Take Chida Sensei and Nakano Sensei, for example; Chida, who is all about accuracy, perfection of movement and beauty, so very unlike Nakano Sensei, who tends to focus on the power and self defense elements of the art.”
“And the bigger picture for Payet Sensei is the intention behind the technique,” I nodded and then frowned again. “But why?”
“Maybe you should ask the man himself,” Mark smiled, his eyes traveling to a point behind my back. I slowly turned around to stare at the beaming expression on Payet Sensei’s face.
“Sensei,” Mark said and I could hear the jest in his voice. “Gadi wants to know why the intention behind the technique is so important to you, or in other words, why did he feel so calm and at ease when you smashed his poor head onto the mats?”
“At ease?” Payet said and I felt my face was burning. “Is that the reason his face is so red?”
“Oh no,” Mark chuckled. “That must be uneasiness. Gadi tends to look like a ripe tomato when embarrassed.”
“Thanks, Mark,” I said.
“Happy to help,” he laughed and walked away.
“You have some questions?” Payet said when Mark disappeared behind the door to the office.
“Only the one Mark presented.”
“A fine question it is,” he nodded. “Come with me.” He led the way to the sitting room by the drink machines.
“Do you want a drink?” he asked as he inserted a hundred yen coin into the slot.
“Coffee flavor or milk?”
He pressed on the button for coffee and the small glass bottle dropped down. He handed me the bottle and inserted another coin while I stabbed the cardboard lid with the long nail that was attached to the machine with the string. I twisted the nail and the round lid came off. I handed the nail to Payet and he opened his milk bottle while I took a sip of mine.
“So where were we?” he asked.
“You were about to explain to me why the intention behind the technique is so important.”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “It’s easy enough to understand. Lets start with a question first. What do you see when you observe Kancho Sensei perform his techniques during the Korobikai class?”
My initial drive was to call out “O, toh, toh, toh,” and laugh. I had to summon all my will power to keep my mouth shut.
The Korobikai was a black-belt lesson conducted by master Gozo Shioda every Thursday afternoon. It was an inspiring spectacle, a lesson filled with deep insights into the art and amazing demonstrations. During the lesson, Master Shioda would focus on a small number of locks or throws. His students would gather around him, sitting in Seiza, listening to his words and watching him throw his instructors around as if they were mere children. As a student on the Senshusei course we were committed to sit in Seiza and observe the class. It was a bitter-sweet experience; bitter – due to the pain in our legs from an hour long sitting on our knees; sweet –because we had the best seat in the house to observe the magical feats of the master. The fact he performed on many of the instructors who tormented us during training was a bonus we cherished as well.
Each instructor had a unique style to deal with Kancho Sensei’s tricks and Kancho had many tricks to share. My favorite to observe was Nikajo, or Nikyu as it is more commonly known in the Aikido world, because on this technique Kancho would normally apply the lock and then maintain it on the Uke while explaining the technique in the finest detail. Needless to say it could be a prolonged demonstration, the master lectures and laughs as his Uke moved around in a bizarre chicken-like dance, forced to obey the binding touch of Master Shioda.
Chida Sensei and Mori Sensei would take the Uke in a rather cheerful fashion. They would groan and smile all through the play. Chino Sensei, on the other hand, looked like a man straining under the weight of a heavy boulder. He would usually call out, “ouuu shooo,” and would slowly crumble down, lower and lower, collecting momentum then leaping into the air when Kancho finally released him.
Ando Sensei would put a complex display. He would smile to begin with, inhale laboriously through his clenched teeth and squint his eyes, groaning and muttering throughout, as if having a loud personal debate while swaying on his wobbly legs, or while hanging from Kancho’s wrist, his feet ceaselessly tapping the Tatami.
And Payet Sensei would always look astonished, calling out, “O toh, toh, toh,” while moving to the beat of the master.
“Any thoughts?” Payet said when I took my time to answer. “What’s going on? You look very cheerful.”
“A few thoughts,” I smiled. “When Kancho performs I feel inspired by his moves and entertained by his joyous mood, by the way he laughs heartily when executing his unearthly techniques. And I’m also amazed by how enthusiastic everyone seems to be, especially his Uke, no matter how hard he throws them.”
“But if he throws us so hard why do you think we jump up to our feet and rush to grab him so he can do it again?”
“I don’t know, maybe the desire to learn?”
“That’s part of it, no doubt about it, but the truth of the matter is that we actually enjoy the sensation.”
“Enjoy?” I frowned. “But why? It must be very dangerous. I’ve seen him throwing people on their heads!”
“And yet we always feel safe.”
“I’m very confused now, Sensei. I mean, if Kancho Sensei knocks you out how can you say you feel no danger?”
“Because Kancho Sensei, unlike some Aikidoka, isn’t captivated by the sensations of power and control. He can throw you ten times harder than the most aggressive and violent Shite but you never feel in danger.”
He paused and took a long sip from his milk bottle, as if giving me time to register the information.
“So?” he said and placed the empty bottle inside the plastic bin that stood next to the machine. “Can you guess where I’m going with this?”
“Something to do with the intention behind the techniques?” I whispered.
“Precisely! You see, with Kancho Sensei you never worry for your wellbeing because he never tries to harm you. All Kancho Sensei does is react to the attack with perfect timing, connection and flow. The force he applies, the direction he moves and the technique he executes is in complete harmony with the assault. As such, it feels pure and magical whenever he touches you and whatever he does to your body. If you get injured it usually happened because your Uke is over zealous and nothing else.”
A validation to Payet Sensei’s words came from an unexpected source a few days later. It happened one Sunday morning as I sat on a bench in Yoyogi Park, drinking hot tea from a can and watching dogs and their owners playing on the lush green lawn.
One of the dogs, a particularly large Husky, was playing roughly with its owner. It jumped on him, pretended to try and bite him, and sometimes raced around then banged the side of its body against the man’s legs. The latter returned the favor, pushing the dog back or hitting it with his hands and legs, sometimes quite forcefully. The dog seemed oblivious to the strikes, his tail wagging away as he kept pouncing its owner.
After a few minutes the overexcited dog hit the owner’s leg so powerfully that it knocked him off his feet. The dog froze where it stood as the man got up, clearly not hurt badly but with bright red face and a fuming expression.
“Idiot!” he bellowed and towered over the cowing beast, smacking its face twice while shouting. The dog whined with its tail hidden between its legs, so terrorized that it shook and even produced a small puddle of urine.
The reaction of the dog surprised me at first, especially since the power of the blows was far from the force that the owner inflicted on it not a minute before.
“Intention,” I nodded to myself and in my mind saw Payet Sensei smiling in confirmation.