I had never heard of Master Gozo Shioda until the day I entered the Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo. In fact, I knew very little of Aikido, and had never heard of the Yoshinkan. Back in Israel, where I used to practice karate and boxing on a regular basis, aikido was virtually an unknown art. My only exposure was a short video clip of Saito Morihiro sensei performing free techniques in nature, the first Steven Seagal movie and a paragraph in a martial arts magazine.
Still, these next-to-nothing details were enough to inflame my imagination and send me on a twenty-four hour journey to Japan. I arrived at the end of August,1989 and was fortunate enough to land in a guesthouse where one of the tenants happened to study at the Yoshinkan Honbu dojo. He said I must come and observe Master Shioda in action. He guaranteed it would change my life. Two days later, I arrived with him at the Yoshinkan Headquarters to observe a Korobikai – a class for the black-belts.
We took our shoes off next to the entrance and walked to the training area. There we found seats among the hordes of spectators who gathered at the back of the hall. In front of us, on the mats, a line of enthusiastic black-belts sat motionless in seiza. My friend explained in a whisper that most of them were instructors. All was quiet, everyone waiting for the Master to arrive. After a couple of minutes, the sound of shuffling feet came close to the opening. The tension in the hall became nearly unbearable as Master Shioda bowed to the shrine on the wall and walked to the center of the mats. He bowed again to the front, turned on his knees and bowed to the students who bowed back. Then he stood up and the show began.
What I observed was beyond all my expectations. It wasn’t martial arts as I knew it, but a class of magical feats. Master Shioda, a tiny old man, was effortlessly throwing around a group of young black-belts by softly touching their bodies with his fingers and hands. The hall was filled with his joyous laughter as he performed, and I couldn’t help thinking what his superpowers might do to a mere human such as me if he so easily could destroy seasoned black-belts. I was so moved that when the lesson ended, I went straight to the office and joined up. I wanted nothing, but to learn his secrets, to become like Master Shioda, a sorcerer who could subdue any opponent.
After a few weeks, I asked one of the foreign instructors, "How does it feel to take his ukemi?"
"If you truly want to know, then you'd better take his ukemi," he answered.
"But only black-belts are allowed to do that."
"Only black-belt instructors!" he corrected, thereby elevating the bar and the level of my anxiety. "Normal black-belts get the chance to occasionally grab the Master's arm, or rarely, may feel his techniques while we, the instructors, serve him all day long." He moved into a lengthy explanation about the nature of that role. He said that a true uke manifests himself through all aspect of the Master's life. "We're dedicated to serve him," he said. "We make his tea, buy his food, open doors for him and drive him around. We bathe him, dry his body, prepare his clothes and dress him. We must read the particularities of his moods, to know what clothes he wishes to wear on what day and even guess the desired temperature of his bath water. Being a true uke is a life of dedication."
Inspired, I took the first step in the direction he was pointing, signing up for the 'Senshusei Course:' the year-long course for the Riot Police. Being a senshusei was a requirement of all students who wished to become a part of the Honbu Dojo staff.
I became an uchi-deshi, a live-in student in the dojo. These were intense times for me, training from morning until nightfall and using the breaks between the aikido sessions to perform millions of cleaning and maintenance jobs. I also had to serve the instructors in the office, make their tea, fold their hakama and keep their work space clean and tidy. I had to stand still and straight in a corner of the room, invisible, out of the way but ready to perform my duties at any given moment. I was, essentially, an office-boy, a boring task, no doubt, but it taught me how to be patient, alert and attentive. I learned how to read various teachers’ moods, behavioral patterns and habits.
"I'm being trained to becoming the perfect uke," I thought, and already envisioned myself being thrown by Master Shioda in front of thousands of spectators. However, I was still far away from that goal, something that was brought home to me by a couple of incidents.
One of the uchi deshi in the Ochiai Dojo was Nishida sensei, a gentle, soft-spoken young man from Hokkaido. Nishida used to teach the kids and beginner classes, but mostly spent his days as Kancho's driver. Even when he wasn’t driving Master Shioda, he would stay alert, keeping close to the phone in case Kancho called and asked for his services. Since my knowledge of the Japanese language was very poor, I was told to keep away from the phone at all cost. However, one morning, when the phone rang for couple of minutes and no one came to pick it up, I was suddenly filled was an urgent sense of purpose, and reached for the receiver. Naturally, I understood nothing of what was said on the other end. I bit my lip and remained quiet. There was a pause and then the voice was raised.
"Chyotto mate – just a moment," I answered innocently, trying to pacify his anxiousness. I stood bemused as a barrage of angry words exploded in my ear. "How rude," I thought and at that moment Nishida Sensei burst into the office. He pulled the receiver from my grip, squinting behind his glasses, bowing to the air as he kept apologizing.
"It was Kancho," he informed me when the conversation was over. I turned pale.
"What did he say?" I mumbled and I now spare readers from repeating the obscene reply.
On another occasion, while I was walking past the corridor leading to Kancho's office, the door suddenly opened and I saw him step out. He turned left and moved toward the toilets that stood across the corridor, his glance sweeping over me. I froze, bowing, waiting for one of the teachers to step out of their office, as they always did, waiting for someone to run forward and serve the man. But no one came. No one noticed he was out. Meanwhile, Kancho had nearly reached the entrance to the toilets, two more steps and he would be forced to open the door by himself, to turn on the light, put on the toilet shoes by himself….
I was the only one to save the moment! My time had come! I took a deep breath and ran forward, in my mind running over everything I needed to do, acts I had seen performed so many times: turn on the light, open the door, step in, prepare the toilet shoes, wait for the Master to slide his feet in; stand by while he relives himself and pray it’s only number one; replace the shoes, turn on the tap, hold out a towel, replace the towel on its hook, turn off the tap; turn off the light, run to his office and open the door.
That's all. A piece of cake. Anyone can do that!
I managed to reach the door before Master Shioda, and I served him like a machine. He never acknowledged me as I shuffled about in his service, not once looking at me until all was done and he was half way back to the office where I stood at attention, ready to open the door. Then he stopped and looked back, muttering to himself. He brushed me off with a gesture of his wrist and walked back to the toilets to turn off the light that I had forgotten to switch off. I had failed again.
Every Thursday, at two o'clock in the afternoon, the Senshusei had to sit in Seiza and observe Kancho delivering his Korobikai class. The class was a treat, despite the excruciating pain we felt in our knees. It was an opportunity to watch the Master perform his magical tricks on the instructors, our tormentors at the time. It was during these sessions that sinful thoughts regarding the role of uke began to creep into my mind.
Since Kancho was a celebrated Martial Artist in Japan, there were many occasions where politicians, famous sportsmen and TV presenters would come to observe and interview the man. Many of them would also ask for a private demonstration and Master Shioda would always oblige. I remember the first time I watched one of these sessions, how I was certain Kancho would demolish the skinny TV personnel who held his arm with a cocky expression. I thought the poor bastard had no chance – he was not a black-belt, definitely not an instructor. I remember sneaking a glance at the office window, wondering if anyone was already calling an ambulance to evacuate the remains of the man.
Kancho applied a lock on the wrist, and for a moment I held my breath, expecting his opponent's body to freeze where he stood and then crash down to the ground in a heap of flesh and bones. But nothing dramatic happened. The man slightly bent forward from the pressure while giggling and complaining of the pain in his arm. The same happened to all the other outsiders who came for a demonstration. I was puzzled. Could it be that I had been wrong all this time? Could it be that the amazing feats of the Master only worked on trained instructors? Was it magic applied only on those who really wanted it to happen, to those who committed their lives to read his every move in order to react to his touch? The implications of this thought were huge. It could completely change the way the art presented itself.
In my distress, I approached Mark Baker, a New Zealander who was also part of the Honbu Dojo staff. Mark was one of Kancho's favorite uke. He listened to my heathen suggestions, laughed heartily and then patiently explained where I had gone wrong. "Believe me," he said. "When Kancho touches you with full intention, there is no other option but to comply. If it didn’t happen to the people you observed then it's only because Kancho decided not to inflict his full power on them."
Then he presented his arm and asked me to poke his outstretched palm, which was one of Kancho's favorite tricks at the time. I followed his instruction, and suddenly his whole body locked. A scream escaped his lips as he flew through the air in a perfect ukemi. He crashed to my feet, still attached to my finger, his body twitching on the floor as if electrocuted by some unseen force field that extended from my finger. "Just like that," he concluded after he jumped back to his feet. He left me staring at the mats and walked off giggling, allowing my confusion to reach new heights.
David, my partner during the Senshusei Course, had had enough of my complaints. "Why can't you have some patience?" he cried. "Soon we'll have our black belt test and you'll feel his technique yourself."
During the next few months I was consumed by the preparation for the black-belt test. Training was intensive, the body and mind pushed to the limit. I had no time to indulge in my sinful thoughts. However, they returned to haunt me as soon as the test was over and I tied the black belt around my hips.
The next Thursday, I lined up with the Black-Belts on the tatami. My heart was pounding in my chest when, after five long minutes of waiting in seiza, I heard the shuffling feet of the Master approaching. We bowed low when he entered the dojo as if a god from Olympus had just landed in our midst. We remained motionless, with our heads touching the floor as he knelt on the mats in the middle of the dojo. He bowed to the shrine, bowed to the students and moved straight into a short lecture. The talk was followed by a demonstration with one of the instructors. It was an unusual application of Nikkajo. When he finished we got up, found partners and began practicing. We tried to mimic him, but of course, none of us succeeded.
All the while, Kancho walked among us. He fixed postures, corrected mistakes and sometimes demonstrated on the students. Although I trained with David, I couldn’t concentrate on the technique, my eyes roaming the room, searching for the Master. When he finally came over, I found it hard to contain my excitement. He stood behind me and chuckled as I held David's wrist and tried to apply the technique. He came to my side, smiled and placed his little hand on my spine, right between the shoulder blades. A sigh escaped from David's lips. His whole body tensed for a second and then he dropped to the ground. I frowned and stared at him, deep in thought and confusion. Kancho laughed and moved on.
"What just happened?" I whispered to David.
"I'm not quite sure," he said with a blank expression. "All I know is that one second, I was standing here in front of you and in the next I found myself on the floor."
A few more times during the lesson, Kancho came to our side and helped us materialize his tricks. He touched our backs, corrected our postures and even demonstrated directly on our eager hands. It always worked, no matter who applied what or how badly the performance was. The sensation or rather the lack of sensation that I felt was similar to the one David described. All I knew was that one second I stood and the next I was on the ground. For the life of me I couldn’t remember what happened in the space between the two.
"So what do you think now?" David asked when the class was over. "Does it work or not?"
"It definitely works on me," I smiled shyly.
"Good," he smiled back. "Now all that is left is to try to assess how he does his 'Thing'."
But the 'How' was not my main concern. I wanted to know the 'Why' and 'What'. Why Kancho's amazing technique worked? Was it due to technical merit alone, or because we so desperately wanted it to happen, because we are trained to make it happen?
During the following weeks, my partners in the Korobikai changed, but the outcome remained the same. The techniques worked only when Kancho intervened in the process and it didn’t matter whether it was Chida shihan or David who happened to be my partner. What also remained the same was the fact that I couldn’t assess what Kancho did. All I could remember was the beginning and the end – the middle part – a misty and impenetrable cloud in my mind.
Sadly, three months after I joined the Korobikai, fate put a brutal end to my research. It came in the shape of an illness that forced Kancho to cancel the classes until the day he recovered. But he never recovered, the disease slowly consuming his vitality, and in the end, it took his life.
I was left without answers. It had to be felt – it was felt – but I still can't fully understand the 'What', the 'Why' and definitely not the 'How'.