I didn’t find David’s words as amusing as he did. But they did cause the idea to arise that perhaps, just perhaps, I was wasting my time trying to comprehend Kancho’s aikido by walking in Chida’s steps, that maybe there was a more suitable path that I should take.
Naturally, the best course of action would be to cut out the middle man, and learn straight from the source, from Master Shioda Gozo himself. However, this was impossible since the only time the Master taught was the black-belt class on Thursdays—which was far too advanced and complex for me to fully understand.
Research seemed to be my only recourse, and I sought guidance from the past, renting, borrowing and buying every video of Kancho sensei that I could get my hands on, reading all of his works that were translated in English, and recollecting things I had personally heard him say or that I was told he had said.
What struck me as amazing was how close he was to the stereotypical image of the old martial arts master, a man that could, with a word or gesture, change the course of the lives of those who crossed his path. There are many famous stories to support this claim but I will use a couple less familiar examples, events that I viewed and experienced for myself.
One of those ‘one liners’ occurred a few weeks after I finished the senshusei course, on a day when Kancho sensei, during an exclusive lesson about the deep meaning of the art, used such a ‘one liner’ to enlighten the students as to why it is risky to give too much meaning to the shape of our aikido postures. He began by asking two of his senior instructors to step forward and face each other in kamae. The instructors he chose were known for the grace and beauty of their postures.
“You see,” Kancho laughed, after letting us marvel their kamae for a minute or two. “When you over dwell on the shape of your aikido, you inflate your ego. An inflated ego stinks!” he concluded, a repulsed expression decorating his face. Although I felt sorry for the instructors in question, I appreciated the lesson he was trying to convey. My priorities changed from that day on, no longer preoccupied with how my technique looked and instead focusing on the way it felt.
The other incident occurred in my second month at the Honbu Dojo, during one of the many general classes that I used to take. In the general class, the most popular practice at the dojo, the training hall would be divided into two sections, with the beginners practicing in front of the wide mirror while the advanced students took over the rest of the hall.
Most students on the beginner course were very friendly, Japanese and foreigners alike, but there was one young guy who seemed to be in desperate need of company. His outgoing and non-conformist attitude, which stood in absolute contrast to all the Japanese I had met up to that point, immediately drew my attention. He seemed to notice my curiosity and began to hang out with me during the breaks between the classes.
I nicknamed him ‘Elephant Boy’, after learning he was the son of an elephant trainer with a travelling circus. He was seventeen years old.
Elephant Boy couldn’t speak much English but he showed a lot of enthusiasm trying to convey his few words in a language I might comprehend, using hand gestures and comical facial expressions in order to create fully formed sentences. The more I got to know him, the more I realised his behavior was not outgoing, but simply rude. He demonstrated little to no respect for his fellow students, played pranks on his elders, and worst of all, showed complete contempt to all figures of authority – meaning the instructors.
Paradoxically, the instructors seemed to ignore or turn a blind eye at Elephant Boy’s behavior. They only reproached him when he became extremely loud and disruptive during class, but it was clear he cared little for their words. I was quite shocked to learn he lived at the dojo.
“Are you an uchi-deshi, (live-in student)?” I asked him one evening, and he burst out laughing.
“I am, but I’m not,” he said and added in a whisper. “Want to have some bieru with me?”
“Bieru,” he said and pretended to hold a glass to his lips.
“Yes,” he nodded excitedly and pointed at the clock on the wall, lifting nine fingers in front of my face. Finally, he pointed at the fire escape exit.
“Meet you downstairs at nine?” I asked and his face brightened.
“OK!” he cried while jumping up and down on the spot, his hands clapping. “OK, OK.”
I wasn’t overly keen to socialize with him, but was curious to learn about his circumstances, of how he had become part of the dojo, part of the magic I was so eager to touch.
I waited in the shadows of the exit and watched Elephant Boy sneaking down the stairs. His face was bright red, as if over-cooked in the shower. His whole body radiated spicy aftershave, the kind you could smell from miles away. We shook hands and walked toward the main road where he suddenly stopped and stood beneath a streetlight, pointing at himself. I studied his dress code. He wore tight jeans, worn out leather shoes and a tucked-in shirt that was buttoned all the way to his chin. His hair was drowning in gel and neatly brushed to the side. All in all, he looked like a total geek.
“Good?” he beamed at me.
“Very good,” I smiled back.
“OK. Let’s go.”
He led the way to the nearest convenience store where he asked me to buy a couple of cans of beer. He was very specific and wanted only the Sapporo beer that came from Hokkaido.
“Arigato,” he said and opened one can right outside the store.
“Kampai!” he cried when I opened my can. We banged cans and he began to dance and sing:
“Ho, Ho, Hokkaido, Hokkaido -ho, Hokkaido…”
I recognized the song from the advertisement on the television. I couldn’t keep myself from laughing.
When the song was over, he motioned me to move along. As we walked through streets, I finally got a chance to learn a few things about him.
“Why are you an uchi-deshi?” I asked.
“Because I hit teacher,” he smiled.
“Teacher? What teacher?”
“At school, before I come here. It made my father very angry. My father is a Yoshinkan Aikido shihan for a long time. He talked to Kancho Sensei for me to be uchi-deshi.”
“To teach you some manners?”
“Make good boy out of you.”
“Good boy?” he pointed at himself and laughed again. He stopped in front of a gaming arcade and went in, heading towards a specific machine. He pushed his way through the young men and women who filled the narrow spaces between the machines, growling at those who didn’t step out of his path as quickly as he wished. He reached the far corner of the arcade and stopped.
“My machine,” he said and dropped a hundred yen coin into the slot. The machine came to life in an outburst of flashing lights and loud music. An animated, sleazy looking female figure filled the screen, pouting her lips and reaching forward with her slender arms, tempting us to play a game of strip poker with her. Elephant Boy wailed in delight, and began to press the buttons on the machine.
Most of the Japanese customers had moved away from our immediate area. I couldn’t blame them as I wanted to move away from him as well, feeling uncomfortable with his obnoxious attitude. Still, his position in the dojo intrigued me, and I wanted to learn more.
“Did you meet Kancho Sensei?” I asked and had to repeat myself twice before he answered.
“Not meet, but I looked him. Very ojiisan, (old man), neh?”
He seemed amused by the horrified expression on my face. He chuckled and returned to the game, clapping when his cards won the round and the lady on the screen had to drop another layer of clothes.
“Do you like aikido?” I asked. He stopped playing and sharply shifted his gaze toward me. He was frowning.
“Me?” he said. “Me like aikido?”
“I hate aikido!” he declared, loud enough for the whole block to hear. “And I hate my father too!”
His words wiped away the glow that I found in his situation, and suddenly, all that I saw in front of me was the hooligan that he was—a small-time ruffian who couldn’t appreciate the amazing opportunity he had been given. I remained with him for another hour before I could excuse myself and walk to the station on my way home. I promised myself never to hang out with him again.
In the following days, I tried to keep my distance from Elephant Boy but continued to observe him from the side. His behavior became worse, and he seemed immune to the warnings, threats and punishments that the instructors inflicted upon him. The situation continued to deteriorate and then, one Saturday afternoon, Kancho Sensei stepped onto the mats.
Master Shioda, despite his illnesses and old age, occasionally came to observe and participate in the training. He would arrive fully dressed in his gi and hakama, watch his instructors at work, walk around the floor, help and socialize with the students, and sometimes even take part in the training.
There was nothing to suggest that his intention was any different from usual when he came to the class that afternoon. I remember training by the mirror when he arrived, bowing at the entrance, the whole class dropped to their knees at the sight of him, eyes on the ground as to avoid accidental eye contact. A junior instructor aided the master as he left his slippers by the edge of the mats and sat in seiza. For a second he meditated, his gaze far and distant, maybe cutting through time and space as he took in the pictures of his predecessors on the opposite wall. Or maybe he was uttering a silent prayer to the kami of the shrine that was set above the pictures on a high shelf. Master Shioda then turned to bow at the students and the instructors.
The class resumed, but the atmosphere had changed. There was a palpable tension in the area in which Kancho stepped, students stretching their backs as he approached their positions, performing with stern expressions, perhaps hoping to impress the master with their extreme zeal, to the point where he would stop and demonstrate his magic touch on them or on their partners. In the rest of the hall, the students trained, but with far less focus and intent, their eyes kept wandering off, following Kancho Sensei wherever he walked.
The only exception was Elephant Boy. He stood and snarled in contempt at the display of respect the attendants demonstrated towards the master. He became louder and far more disrespectful than usual, especially so when Kancho Sensei came closer to the area by the mirror.
Master Shioda nodded to himself as he observed us practicing the shihonage throw. Like everyone else, I became very aware of my posture when he walked past me, holding my breath as he shuffled slowly to the other side, to where Elephant Boy stood. I frowned when I realised the young ruffian was unusually quiet, a mischievous glint in his eyes. He stood with his back to Kancho Sensei who had his eyes on the students to his left. Elephant Boy’s body tensed when Master Shioda was just behind him. He waited for a second and then, without warning, jumped around and faced Kancho with a wide grin. He stretched his body to its full height, towering over the master and blocking his path. His mouth opened, maybe to laugh, as Kancho stared at him for a second in complete disbelief.
However, the sound of Elephant Boy’s rolling laughter never rocked the hall because Kancho, as quick as lightening, extended the index finger of his right hand and shot it forward, poking Elephant Boy right in the throat. The power of the blow caused his eyes to bulge, the air trapped in his lungs. He collapsed to the floor a second later, coughing and choking.
As for Kancho Sensei, he only shook his head and moved around the youngster as if nothing had happened. The class continued while Elephant Boy spent the next half hour on the floor. Needless to say, from that day on he demonstrated caution and respect whenever dealing with his elders.