“What are those special characteristics of O-Sensei’s art that set him
apart from the generations of students who followed in his footsteps?”
One of the realizations I came to fairly early in my career of researching the origins of aikido is the fact that few teachers of aikido today are aware of the specifics of the Founder’s art. More so than Morihei Ueshiba, aikido pioneers in the postwar era such as Kenji Tomiki, Gozo Shioda, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Morihiro Saito, Seigo Yamaguchi, Michio Hikitsuchi and others are the key figures that have left the strongest imprint on the way the art is practiced today.
Morihei Ueshiba’s teaching methodology that was out of synch with postwar Japanese society, his strong religious orientation, his frequent travels and irregular schedule made it difficult for most of his students to receive in-depth instruction from the Founder. To this can be added the fact that aikido developed and spread in Japan during an era of peace that later blossomed into a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. In such a societal setting devoid of the constant specter of war and a sense of physical danger, aikido training in a period of peace lacked the intensity and focus of the uneasy times of the prewar era. Also, the practice of judo and kendo was widespread before the war and taught in school. This meant that those students who learned from O-Sensei in the prewar era had a much better level of physical and mental preparation when embarking on their training compared to those after the war.
To be sure, there have been some excellent technicians and inspiring teachers during aikido’s early years of growth starting in the 1950s. There have been those, too, who have spoken of the moral dimension of aikido and its role as a vehicle for the betterment of individuals and society. Nonetheless, the hyperawareness, sharpness, and unbridled exuberance displayed by the Founder while demonstrating his art can hardly be seen anywhere. In a similar vein, the Founder’s religious perspective and view of himself as an instrument of the “kami” whose purpose is to realize peace and brotherhood on earth is too grandiose a vision for most aikido teachers who see themselves mainly as providing self-defense and exercise training for the public.
No one will argue that there is no substitute for long years of dedicated training, the Founder being an outstanding example. But beyond that, what are those special characteristics of O-Sensei’s art that set him apart from the generations of students who followed in his footsteps? Using still frames extracted from several of his surviving films, we would like to capture key moments that illustrate the dynamic principles of the Founder’s aikido.
To begin with, when viewing footage of the Founder one is struck by his excellent posture at all times. Good posture is, of course, common sense in martial arts and nearly any physical or sporting activity one can mention. Practice of the sword develops good posture and we have written elsewhere about the Founder’s keen interest in the sword that dates from the mid-1930s.
Obviously, correct posture is inextricably linked to good balance and the ability to relax. The Founder’s free and flowing movements begin from an erect posture absent any trace of rigidity. He is therefore free to move in any direction, enter or turn in the execution of techniques.
The concept of “blending” with one’s opponent in aikido is frequently used when teachers describe the mechanics of a technique. By this what is usually meant is a movement timed to coincide with the speed and direction of uke’s attack. Once this has been achieved, as the idea goes, nage then brings uke into an off-balanced position and executes a throw.
Actually, this is quite a superficial explanation of the concept of blending as understood by the Founder. The reason is that, in this scenario, it is uke who controls the timing and direction of the attack while nage “reacts” in an attempt to blend or match uke’s movements. Against a skilled opponent capable of very rapid movements, there is simply not enough time to respond in this manner.
A much higher level is for nage to seize the initiative by forcing uke to match nage’s “psychic” lead. Uke cannot muster a meaningful attack against the psychological pressure applied by nage. Examples of the strategy referred to here might be a natural stance accompanied by subtle body shifting, metsuke or eye contact, or alteration of breathing rhythm to name a few possibilities. Under such conditions, uke must deal with a changing energy field and alter his attack to compensate.
Kiai / Atemi
The term kiai is sometimes talked about in conjunction with aikido training and refers to a “combative shout” used to disrupt or neutralize the attack of an opponent. The use of this powerful vocalization technique corresponds to the exhalation of breath and concentrates the body and spirit of nage at a specific point. The end result of a well-executed kiai is a disruption of uke’s ki flow and a dissipation of his attack. Often uke’s movement will be frozen for a brief instant thus presenting nage with an excellent opportunity to apply a technique.
O-Sensei frequently used kiai as a tool to set up and control his uke. He used it particularly often when demonstrating with the sword. Ironically, the Founder’s use of this technique is so effective that his uke’s attacks often appear half-hearted because they have been interrupted by his well-timed kiai.
The Founder can be seen applying atemi or “preemptive strikes” right up until the end of his life. But today, atemi have fallen into disuse in aikido. I believe this is due to a misunderstanding of its purpose. Atemi is an action used to preempt uke’s aggressive intent through a distractionary manuever in the form of a strike. The use of atemi is not for the purpose of hitting or “softening up” uke prior to performing a technique. Its role is similar to that of the kiai in that it disrupts uke’s concentration.
Beyond “Sensen no Sen”
A traditional explanation of strategies in a Japanese martial arts context often involves a discussion of three levels of combat initiative: “go no sen,” “sen no sen,” and “sensen no sen.” These strategies are defined as follows: “Go no sen,” meaning “late attack” involves a defensive or counter movement in response to an attack; “sen no sen,” a defensive initiative launched simultaneously with the attack of the opponent; and “sensen no sen,” an initiative launched in anticipation of an attack where the opponent is fully committed to his attack and thus psychologically beyond the point of no return. The latter strategy is generally considered to be the highest level in the classical martial arts scenario.
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