Aikidō Pioneers – Prewar Era – Stanley Pranin

Aikidō Pioneers – Prewar Era

Aikidō Pioneers – Prewar Era – Stanley Pranin

One of the funny quotes in Angry White Pyjamas is an Israeli doing some aikidō training and asking who’s the rabbi when seing a portait of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikidō (generally called o-Sensei). While most of the dōjō have such a portrait in the shomen, the nature of the founder often remains quite vague: the fact that aikidō has a traditional feel and the analogy with christian religious icons make it easy to believe that it is an ancient art – in fact, when aikidō was created, there was already a railway on top of Jungfraujoch…

When people talk about o-Sensei, they typically talk about the postwar period: most of the teachers who learnt with him did so during that period. The post-war narrative is also nicer: the old teacher who retired in a farmhouse in the country-side teaching a martial art of energy and love with some bit of mystical philosophy.

Aikidō Pioneers – Prewar Era

Aiki News
ISBN : 978-4904464175

As I already mentioned in my review of The Shambhala Guide to Aikidō, the pre-war period is much more contrasted: the art practiced by Ueshiba was rougher, taught to the military élite of the country, and he was involved in a sect which was accused of lèse-majesté, i.e. claiming to be better than the emperor. I hoped that Aikidō Pioneers – Prewar Era, by Stanley Pranin would help me understand that period more.

The book is a sequence of interviews done with various people who were involved in aikidō before the war. Some famous, like Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the son of Morihei Ueshiba or Gozo Shioda, who founded Yoshinkan aikidō (the aikidō style referenced in Angry White Pyjamas), others like Takako Kunigoshi, unknown to me, who stopped training in aikidō. The interview center around training, the character of o-sensei, and Sōkaku Takeda, o-sensei’s teacher.

While it is interesting to get a perspective of people learning aikidō at that time, a large part of the interview is just the head of various faction pushing their vision of aikidō forward: Kanshu Sunadomari the relationship with Ōmoto-kyō, Koichi Tohei the importance of ki (ki-aikidō), Kisshomaru Ueshiba pushing for the unity and the strength of aikikai, berating twice Kenji Tomiki for using the name aikidō in his art. I found the interviews of the lesser known people much more interesting, like Yoshio Sugino who did the fight choreographies for Akira Kurosawa. Of course, there is also a good dose of old people complaining about younger generations.

While o-Sensei lived 86 years, most of the interviewee interacted with o-sensei between 1920 and 1950, many things that happened during this period cannot be talked around seriously in an interview: the two Ōmoto incidents, the occupation of Manchuria, the involvement with the military, the war itself, and it seems everybody feared and avoided Sōkaku Takeda.

Still these indirect testimonies paint a picture that confirms what a read elsewhere: aikido was only taught to a closed circle, with strong ties to the military. What I found interesting is that sword techniques were not common in these days. It also seems that many other ideas were circulating in these circles in those days, many people in particular complain about the brown rice mania of Futaki Sensei. It also seems that the Ōmoto-kyō religious movement sanctified Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof for creating Esperanto.

All in all Aikidō Pioneers – Prewar Era does not contain many information you could not get elsewhere, and some of the interviews are really rambling. It could still be worth reading if you are really passionate about aikidō.

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Angry White Pyjamas

Angry White Pyjamas

Angry White Pyjamas

The first time I heard of Angry White Pyjamas, I was still living in Japan, it was among the list of books recommended by expats to understand the darker side of the country, like Dogs & Demons. Someone was supposed to lend me the book, and then I forgot and left Japan. Recently I have started reading about aikidō, and this book appeared again on my radar, I ordered it and read more or less in one go.

Angry White Pyjamas tells the story of a british poet, who, stranded in Japan, decides to take the Senshusei course, a eleven month Yoshinkan aikidō training taken by the Japanese riot police apprentices. The first person narrative follows the narrator during nearly a year in which he undergoes the gruelling training with various other gaijin (more athletes and military types than poets) and the Japanese riot police candidates.

Angry White Pyjamas

Orion Books
ISBN : 978-0-7538-0858-0

The book is very well written and captivating, the Robert Twigger, the author won the Newdigate Prize and clearly knows how to write in an interesting and witty style. The story seems to be largely autobiographic, the only claims on the aikidō forums is that he either distorted the story or did not get the course. The latter is unsurprising because the book is pretty critical of the course, its military style teaching which the narrator both loathes and embraces, but also Japanese society and the way martial arts are linked to it.

Interestingly, the book made me more think of my army time than of the aikidō courses I’m taking, certainly because aikidō is for me a side-activity, but also because the aikidō I’m doing is under the Aikikai school, not the Yoshinkan, and quite distant from Japan. In a sense this is what makes Angry White Pyjamas so powerful: it is not really about aikidō, but about the struggle of a intellectual person who pushes himself and tries to survive in a militaristic training.

In any case, a very good read that I recommend to everybody, interested in aikidō or not.

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Ikeda throwing

Ikeda Shihan

Ikeda throwing

I have barely returned from the aikidō seminar in Mürren and there was another one, this week-end Ikeda Shihan was in Zürich. This was a very big seminar, with more that sixty people, it took place in one of the big gymnastic halls of the university.

The lessons were about some pretty subtle techniques, with a lot of work on breaking the balance of the partner, the level of mastery of Ikeda-sensei made it look like some parlour trick, but the face of the uke showed that were not faking it. While those techniques are extremely interesting, they are quite hard for me to reproduce, also because the seminar is short, with a lot of participants, you have little time to tune yourself with your partners. I sometimes had trouble connecting what some advanced people were doing with what the teacher showed. Beginners typically try to reproduce what is shown, but sometimes ranked people seem to do, not what the teacher showed, but what they think the technique ought to be, which ads some confusion

Still it was good to have someone explain the core ideas behind the techniques, and Ikeda-sensei did that with a lot of humour, which is good, because it is very easy to get bogged down by frustration as you are unable to do what he showed. The seminar was complemented by a nice party saturday evening, despite the pretty grey weather it was fun. The facebook page of the event has some photos. All in all an extremely interesting seminar, which really extended my perception of aikidō, but now I’m really tired.

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Matthias Wiesmann en tant que uke

Ceinture blanche

Matthias Wiesmann en tant que uke

L’aïkidō est une activité que je pratique plus ou moins régulièrement depuis un bon moment: j’ai commencé aux alentours de 1995 au club des Eaux-Vives, à Genève, où j’ai obtenu une ceinture orange (5e kyū), j’ai arrêté lorsque je suis parti à Lausanne pour ma thèse. J’ai repris la pratique à Meyrin lorsque je suis allé habiter à Saint Genis-Pouilly pour travailler au .

Faute de dōjō, je n’ai pas pu pratiquer au Japon, malgré une tentative d’établir un cours avec un collègue de , j’ai à la place fait du shōlinji kempō, art dans lequel j’ai obtenu une ceinture brune (3e kyū). Lorsque je suis retourné en Suisse, j’ai repris la pratique de l’aïkidō ici, à Zürich, il y a maintenant sept ans. Je n’ai plus passé de ceinture depuis… Techniquement, je suis donc toujours une ceinture blanche, ce qui est un échec assez intéressant, et justifie une nouvelle entrée pour l’été de l’échec. Cela ne signifie pas que je me considère comme un débutant, simplement que je n’ai pas de niveau officiel.

Mes passages de ceinture précédents, que ce soit en aïkidō ou en shōlinji kempō, se sont passé grosso-modo de la même manière : un jour le prof m’a dit tu vas passer le Xe kyū à tel moment, j’ai fait ce qu’on m’a demandé le jour donné et voilà. Mon dōjō actuel a une approche plus scolaire : il faut s’inscrire des semaines à l’avance, trouver un partenaire, et l’attente générale est que l’on prépare le passage de ceinture en sus des cours normaux. Bref, il faut bachoter pour l’examen. Étant donné que c’est un grand club avec de nombreux enseignants, cela n’est pas dénué de sens.

La pratique de l’aïkidō est pour moi un élément stable durant des semaines qui sont assez chaotiques, pouvoir y aller et repartir à heure fixes est important pour moi. Comme il faut parler avec la Californie, j’ai tendance à travailler tard et aller au cours du soir, il me faut encore 30 minutes de vélo pour rentrer, ce qui fait que j’ai le temps de manger un morceau, de prendre une douche et il est l’heure de dormir. Donc préparer l’examen une demi-heure de plus le soir veut dire aller au lit plus tard, pas une bonne idée.

En même temps, je voyage beaucoup, donc il y a des semaines où je ne suis simplement pas là, peut-être que je pratique de l’aïkidō, mais ailleurs (notamment au dōjō Aikido West dans Silicon Valley) cela permet d’aller à des stages et d’avoir une pratique variée, mais ce n’est pas idéal pour préparer un examen.

Ayant fait une thèse, j’en ai un peu ma claque des examens, et mon boulot comporte suffisamment de reviews et d’évaluations à 360° pour que je ne sois pas en manque, la ceinture en soi ne m’intéresse pas tellement ; j’ai assez de titres comme ça ; j’ai le droit de me faire appeler Herr Doctor et de le faire inscrire sur ma boîte au lettre, je suis Tech Lead au boulot. Les grades sont liés aux clubs et fédérations : changez de fédération, et votre belle ceinture redevient blanche. J’ai pratiqué dans quatre clubs en Suisse, trois sont dans des fédérations différentes, le dernier est indépendant.

Je ne suis pas fondamentalement hostile à un passage de grade, simplement cela implique de structurer plus ma vie, d’assoir certaines structures et de planifier plus loin. Après sept ans de vie à Zürich, la notion de que je vais partir sur un coup de tête est devenue plutôt abstraite, mais je ne veux pas non plus trop stratifier ma vie: même si mon expérience de faire du karaté au travail n’a pas été un succès, c’était une expérience intéressante.

En attendant, le seul changement certain, c’est que mon dōjō va déménager, ce qui devrait ajouter 5-10 minutes à mon trajet à vélo. Ce n’est pas un drame, mais cela signifie moins de marge, et peut-être re-penser la manière dont j’organise mes journées.

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Lauterbrunnen

Aikidō in Mürren 2014

Lauterbrunnen

Going to the aikidō seminar in Mürren with Cindy Hayashi and Roland Spitzbarth has been one of my most regular activity: I now have been every year since 2010; doing aikidō in the middle of the alps, with a breathtaking scenery.

This year, a third teacher participated to the seminar: Marcel Schriber, I think this resulted in a very balanced teaching, which I found way smoother than the previous year with Robert Nadeau, as each teacher integrated the course of the other ones. This year the semianar only lasted from Monday to Saturday morning, which was not a bad formula, as there was no interruption for touristic activities, this gave a more compact course. Of course, I ended up being very exhausted.

This year we were pretty lucky with the weather, which was sunny without being overly hot, so we often did the weapon training outside. On a platform used by base-jumpers to prepare themselves. Training with a wooden sword before breakfast seems like a very reasonable activity: we don’t wear go-pros.

It is always difficult to say what I exactly learn in those aikidō seminars, mostly it is an occasion to train more and with more advanced and dedicated people. I mostly notice that things that seems very hard last year are now just hard. Still I found the exercices on the energy levels, and the way we practice when we are tired very interesting. So were the rolls and warm up exercices, which are pretty different of what I do regularly in my dōjō.

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Shihōnage en position han-tachi – nage: Bak László, uke: Czéh Sándor

Portant et Ura…

Shihōnage en position han-tachi – nage: Bak László, uke: Czéh Sándor

Lorsqu’on pratique plusieurs activité, il est naturel de trouver les similarités. À un niveau très abstrait, la voile et l’aïkidō découlent de la même idée : utiliser une force extérieure à soi, dans un cas le vent pour se déplacer sur l’eau, dans le second l’énergie de l’adversaire pour se défendre.

Dans les deux cas, les angles jouent un rôle primordial : le but est de rediriger l’énergie, et dans les deux cas, une direction est bloquée : il est impossible de naviguer directement contre le vent, il faut louvoyer ; attaquer de manière frontale l’adversaire n’est plus de l’aïkidō.

Assez naturellement, les allures d’un voilier se divisent en deux catégorie selon que l’on navigue contre ou avec le vent : le près et le portant. En aïkidō, on distingue les techniques où l’on va contre le mouvement de l’adversaire – omoté – et les techniques où l’on suit ce sens – ura.

Shihōnage Technique © Magyar Balázs – Creative Common CC BY-SA 3.0.

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Hayashi sensei performing an Kochi-nage

Women in Aikidō

Hayashi sensei performing an Kochi-nage

I bought Women in Aikidō by Andrea Siegel, on a whim, it was in the shelf with the other aikidō books, and I felt it could be different from the one I had read until then, which very often centred on some important aikidō figure – although ironically the woman on the cover is one teacher I train with when I’m in Silicon Valley.

Women in Aikidō

North Atlantic Books
ISBN : 978-1-55643161-6

The book was published in 1993 and consists of 12 interviews of various women who have attained the rank of black belt in aikidō. The actual content of the interviews is pretty diverses: some of the interviewees seem completely left the aikido universe, while other are still teaching, their perception of the art goes from pragmatic to very new-agy.

The interviews are pretty general, and while aikidō is the common thread, this is not a book where you are going to learn much on how it works, the book is more about how these woman experienced aikidō, integrated it in their lives, and took control of it. The issue of control and adapting the art to oneself was the most interesting aspect of the book for me, probably because this is something I’m struggling with myself.

While the book has some interesting parts, it also feels a bit lightweight, each interview starts with a description of the place the interviewee lives in, and there is a lot of connecting talk between the interviewer and the interviewee, while I suppose this is supposed to give a more connected feeling, I felt it made the presence and the experience of the interviewer transpire in the whole book, which I felt was a bit misplaced. At the same time, the interviews also feel very unequal, some going into deep questions, while other remaining pretty superficial.

All in all a book with interesting parts, but I found it a bit light on substance: 180 pages in a huge font. Worth a read if you find the book in a second hand shop, like a did…

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Aikido for Life – Gaku Homma

Aikidō for Life

Aikido for Life – Gaku Homma

There is a nice second hand bookstore in Mountain View called , I alway go there when I’m in town, even if it is only for the smell of old books. One book I bought there is Aikidō for Life by 本間 学 (Homma Gaku), a direct student of Ueshiba and Iwama Ushideshi who moved to the US and opened his own dōjō. While the book is basically an overview of his beginner program, I found the observations and the insights around it interesting.

Aikidō for Life

North Atlantic Books
ISBN : 9781556430787

Clearly Homma is an outsider, 日本館 (Nippon-Kan), his dōjō, is un-affiliated and he seems un-impressed by most of the talk about ki or any mystical force, his book concentrates on the pragmatic aspects of running a beginner’s class. There is a quite a bit of work separating aikidō from other, more competitive and/or agressive martial arts, but also quite a lot of interesting insights in how the students behave, how they sit on the mat, how partners are chosen. In that sense, the book is refreshing because it describes what really happens in a dōjō, certains persons preferring cute girls as partners, people being tired, confused, or simply out of sync with their partners.

These explanations are interleaved with a few actual techniques, and some illustrations that help give a idea of what the author is trying to convey. I liked the fact that Homma insists early on that there is not so much right and wrong techniques, but more a sense of consistency between the techniques and that each technique must be adapted for the practitioner (tori) and the receiver (uke). There are also some insightful explanations on the relationship between tori and uke.

With 110 pages, this is a quite a short book and certainly a worthy reading. A scan of the book is available on the web-site of his dōjō.

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Consciousness and Aikidō

🏯

Consciousness is a fascinating subject, and the subject of many contradicting theories. A recent article entitled How the light gets out, generated quite some buzz (meaning: I saw it in multiple social network streams). The article is quite long, but presents some interesting ideas, notably that consciousness might not just be a side-effect of our brains, but a specialisation of our attention and help projecting ourselves on other beings and even objects. I like the idea that consciousness is not a bug of our intellect, but the model of our perception of the universe.

While consciousness is a defining feature of humanity and something useful, it is not without side-effects. While we spend a good part of our childhood and our studies learning consciousness and thought, the fact of the matter is that we humans are really efficient went that consciousness is toned down, nearly anything can be killed by over-thinking.

So we strive to get back to a more natural state of mind, the flow, which is basically the state of a young kid playing, but this is the one thing we were never taught, during one’s study courses of non-thinking are rare, I was lucky to get some yoga while in high-school, but that was pretty exceptional in those days. Generally we were taught to think more, not less.

While yoga was interesting for me, I felt it was too passive, and I need some form of sport and so I settled on Aikidō. I tried other martial arts, shōlin-ji kempō while I lived in Japan, and some karate at work. My main problem with theses arts was that they rely a lot on ( kata ). A kata is a sequence of moves that you learn, a mock fight against an invisible adversary. Because there is no adversary, the moves are not linked to any external input, except maybe somebody counting, so you body has to learn the full sequence, in the correct order, without switching sides.

Aikidō has few kata, in my dōjō they are mostly about body moves (and short) and some sword techniques. For the rest, you do the technique with a partner, an uke so the techniques are about something you body can feel and react to: your partner. What technique you should do is pretty implicit in the context, and if once in a while you do the wrong one, people are very gracious about it. Even when doing shōlin-ji kempō, an aikidō technique would slip out, the teacher’s comment was insightful: 体が覚える (kara ga oboeru ) – the body remembers.

The notion of not consciously doing a technique, but just let the body do the right thing is far from new, Musashi mentions it in the book of five rings as the technique of no-technique. Many martial art teachers have repeated to me the same concept in one form or another. A key aspect of martial art techniques is that they are supposed to work even when I’m busy panicking, thankfully I never had to verify this in a fight, but when falling from the bike, they just happen. This is why I think that mock fights, 乱取り (randori ), are important: this is the moment when the brain must switch off from the tactical problem and learn to think in strategical terms, i.e. figure out where the adversaries are, and not concentrate on the techniques.

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After some time of usage

Aikidō Weapon Bag

After some time of usage

My work is not exactly manual, so once in a while, I like to do things with my hands. I have a weapon bag of the brand Budo Nord for my Aikidō Jō and my Bōkken, whose bottom go pierced. This seems to be recurring problem with weapon bags, as the two wooden sticks eventually pierce the fabric. The fact that in my case, the bottom was just built from relatively soft fake leather did not help.

I had an old leather wallet that I had bought in Japan, the zipper was broken after five years of usage, but the leather was still relatively good, so I stripped away the fake leather from the bag, cut the wallet into a reasonably regular piece of leather and sewed that piece unto the bottom of the bag.

Now this sounds very professional, but my sewing sucks, in particular with leather. I had a strong needle, but I though I still had my sailmaker’s palm from my sailing days, but I seem to have lost it, so I ended up using a thimble. The result does not look really nice when you look closely, but it was sturdy enough to survive a hectic train trip.

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