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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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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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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Aikidō – My Spiritual Journey

Aikidō – my spiritual journey

Gozo Shioda throwing two uke in a dark dōjō

塩田剛三の『Aikidō – my spiritual journey』を読みました。『合気道修行』と『合気道人生』の本が組み立て音訳したほんです。全然面白かったです。

I have read Aikidō – my spiritual journey by , this is the translation and assembly of the books Aikidō Shugyo and Aikidō Jinsei. Extremely interesting.

J’ai lu le livre Aikidō – my spiritual journey de , c’est l’assemblage et la traduction des livres Aikidō Shugyo Aikidō Jinsei. Une lecture très intéressante.

Aikidō – My Spiritual Journey

Foreword: Yasuhisa Shioda
Translators: Jacques Payet & Christopher Johnston
Kodansha USA
ISBN: 978-1-56836-411-7

Gozo Shioda was among the earliest students of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikidō. He trained with o-Sensei before the war, and founded his own dōjō, Yoshinkan, in 1955. This book gives an overview of Shioda’s perception of aikidō, and what he learnt from Ueshiba.

While there was always a mystical component to aikidō, and the book’s title suggest something mystical, Shioda appears as a very pragmatic person, explaining his experiences, how they relate to the various aspects of aikidō, and the teachings of o-sensei. The book reminded me a lot of the Book of Five Rings, with its no nonsense approach to Būdo, and the ideas are pretty consistent: the plan of no-plan, de-emphasising techniques and an insisting on the importance of a good posture. The book also has five chapters.

Besides the principle of Aikidō, the book, through its anecdotes, gives a glimpse into the adventures of Morihei Ueshiba in Mongolia, which sound like something you could do an adventure movie out, but also the rough relationship between dōjō before the war, the scuffles with the yakusa, it felt like a grimmer version of Ranma ½.

Yoshinkan is known as the aikidō that is taught to the japanese cops, and reading this book, you understand why, this is the aikidō that branched off when o-sensei was young, the practice rough, and japan very disorganised. There is certainly a huge effort to change a mystical experience into something structured that can be taught, even while admitting that techniques are not the real thing.

While certain ideas, like the fact that aikidō is 70% atemi would probably make my teachers cringe, nothing written in the book feels inconsistent with the practice I have done. Shioda admits that he really understood aikidō when he was in a fight in China, and wonder how people living in less troubled times will get that experience, but I felt no regret, no nostalgia, just a teacher pondering on some fact and how to teach best in those circumstances.

One section I found very interesting is Shioda explaining why there is no competition, as this is one thing that sets aikidō apart from other martial arts, like Judō or Karate. He makes a pretty good point that a sport cannot be a martial art, as competition will always impose rules that warp the martial idea. I also found interesting the fact he stated there would be not static principles that would be repeated often, something I experienced during my short practice of Shōlin-ji kempō.

The text is pretty short, 200 pages including ≈15 pages of afterword by Gozo Shioda’s son, Yasuhisa, which I found moderately interesting. One thing I must say is that the paper and the printing are gorgeous, making it a pleasure to read.

All in all I found this to be an excellent book about aikidō, which gives a pretty sharp picture of the characters and the idea that underlines this martial art, certainly a much more concrete narrative than what I read in the Shambhala Guide to Aikidō or the Wikipedia. I really recommend this book if you are interested in aikidō, in particular the non mystical parts, and I think it is a worthy read, even if you are training in other branch of aikidō, like I do.

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Myamoto
Musashi
The book of five rings
Translation by William Scott Wilson

The book of five rings (五輪書)

Myamoto
Musashi
The book of five rings
Translation by William Scott Wilson

五輪書を英語で読みました。面白い本です。武道だけに当てはまりないと思います。プログラムも。

I have read the english translation of the book of five rings, a very interesting book. I don’t think it is only applicable to martial arts, but also to coding.

J’ai lu la traduction anglaise du livre des cinq anneaux, un ouvrage très intéressant, qui ne s’applique à mon avis pas seulement aux arts martiaux mais aussi à la programmation.

The book of five rings is considered by some as the second book of strategy after Sun Tsu’s Art of War, and Musashi is some kind of legend in aikidō circles, so when I found a copy of the book of five ring I bought it. These days I’m reading a lot of stuff about martial-arts, so it made it to the top of the pile.

The book of five rings

William Scott Wilson
Kodansha International 2002
ISBN : 978-4-7700-2801-3

While the text present itself as a martial art reference, it borrows a lot of metaphors from other workmanships, a carpenter in the introduction, a sailor later on. To a large extent, the text is about management and focus, and a no nonsense approach to things, and I found a lot of ideas could be applied to programming: understanding the problem, aligning oneself with the rhythm of things, and changing approaches when ones does not make progress. Musashi advises against any form of preferences, be it for stances, techniques, or weapons, such preferences prevents one from choosing the right approach for the problem at hand. The same could be said about the various techniques, languages, frameworks and paradigms that pullulate in the computer science world, and probably many fields of human endeavour.

In the martial arts, when your opponent is going to use some technique on you, it is important tat you let him do it if it’s useless one. But, if his action is functional, suppress it and keep him from completing it.

Another important notion of the book is the void ([ MU]), not having a stance, not thinking the martial-art part, instead having your mind observe the situation gathering information. The underlying idea, to be part of the flow, and not let the intellect interfere with that flow, seems to be recurring thing in my life these days, both for work (getting myself and the team in flow of coding) and in aikidō.

While I felt the translation by William Scott Wilson was pretty good, and the provided notes were insightful, the text still has the heavy handed feeling of religious texts: while short, there are many repetitions, and each section finishes with a sentence explaining that this section is very important and needs to be studied further.

One last note about this edition, while the assembly of the paper jacket was pretty weird, the book itself is quite well made, good paper, and a nice layout, not intrusive, but very elegant with a few nice illustrations. All in all I think this book is a worthwhile read, in particular if you are interested in martial arts.

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