Interview with Minoru Akuzawa by Tim Fong with Robert John

“You have to relax and still hold the shape of the exercise
properly. It has to have rigidity to it, but it can’t be stiff.”

aunkai-01Recently Tim Fong made a trip out to Japan and was able to catch up with Akuzawa-sensei (he often tells westerners to call him “Ark”) over drinks. With the assistance of Robert John, he prodded him on his views on training, his perspective on how the body should be used and how he undertook his journey through the martial arts.

So I’m going to come right out and say it – what do you consider to be the most important basic exercise? And does this exercise give you conditioning to do the skill, or is it the other way round?

It’s not really conditioning. The way I see it, I think it’s more about deepening your understanding (awareness) of the body and how it works. This includes asking questions such as “how do you place a load on the body, how do you handle it and how do you control it?” Basically, the exercises I formulated – you know them as Tenchi, Maho, Shiko form a single group. You need all of them since the exercises emphasize different aspects of the same skill.

For instance, Tenchi teaches you how to use the legs and middle connected to the spine to move up and down. Maho is about fine-tuning the body so that the joints take the load off the major muscle groups, and the load is balanced between the front and back of the middle/core, removing any effort from the upper body to hold up the arms.

Shiko takes the elements from Tenchi and Mabu, but now you move the middle from side to side without breaking any of the elements of the previous two exercises – I think you get the general picture. But, doing solo training is only half the work. They’re important, but you still need feedback, which is where a partner comes in. If he/she pushes your fist while in Mabu, where do you feel the load? Is it the back? Is it the middle? Is it the feet? Do I feel it catch in the shoulder? These questions are hard to answer by yourself – well with a little ingenuity you could use a wall to get feedback, but still the feedback provided by something static is completely different from feedback provided by a person. This process is absolutely critical if you want to understand how to load the joints, use the spine and subsequently connect the body as one unit.

So what do you think about the spine? I know there’s lots of talk about it on various forums but what is your take on its role?

The spine is what connects the entire body. I used to do gymnastics competitively and competed in Sanda fairly intensively once – and in my experience many of the top athletes I used to work with didn’t focus much on how the spine functions. You can use it like a bow to store a force, and it must be aligned properly within the pelvis in order to connect the upper body with the middle – which of course is where the exercises come in , but I’m getting away from the main point.

Here’s another way to look at it, think of a four legged animal walking. It uses its spine to walk, the spine is suspended and the middle is used to operate the spine which in turn operates the extremities. Take the four legged model, now apply it to a bipedal motion. This alignment and suspension, is the most effective way to use the body and deal with forces or generate forces.

You’ve demonstrated a skill where your body looks and feels rock solid, but still remains flexible at the same time – I believe you coined this as the “Gou” or “hard” way to use the body, how did you realize it? When did you realize it, and was it shown to you?

Well, no one ever taught me anything in particular. I guess the best answer is that there were two individuals that influenced me martially. One was a CQC combat instructor for the JSDF, and the other was a person who was exceptional at several sword styles including Yagyu Shinkage.

But the first thing that struck me was that both of these individuals were small, but felt “connected.” They felt substantial, certainly they felt “larger” than they looked, and they were never stiff. They could move quickly and still retain this substantial feeling to their body while still retaining softness.

My experience with these individuals was a major influence in how I shaped my training. Over the course of my training – at some point, maybe my late twenties, I realized that the more I brought a load into my body and loaded my joints and brought the force low within me, the more a force would manifest itself outside externally. Externally the force would feel solid, but still allow me to remain mobile. Since the force was “hard” I coined the term “Go.”

Does this mean that you’re just using structure and alignment to create this?

aunkai-03-joAlignment is important, don’t get me wrong, but if you hold the alignment rigidly, you reduce your ability to move. The real question is, can you use it when you’re moving around freely? It takes time to link the practice you do (the slow training), increase the solidity of your connections, and then merge it with real applications, fighting, what have you. There’s a lot of people that can perform some aspects correctly in a set exercise, but ask them to move randomly and it all disappears. It takes diligence and consistent training to make this a default way to move.

So you mean there’s more than just “structure”? And I bring this up since the term has been thrown around a lot with reference to your explanations.

That’s a good point. But let’s back up a bit – I think the main problem lies in the fact that my understanding of what is “structure” and what most people think of “structure” are two different animals.

So what do you mean?

Well, if I were to guess, and again I could be wrong, when people refer to structure, they’re referring to holding a general shape of the body, (straight back, head held upright, knees slightly bowed out etc), and as long as they hold it they have good “structure. ” But I’d say that’s getting away from the real concept. In Japanese, the nuance is that I’m referring to a specific way of holding the body that has little to do with the shape. The posture creates a connection throughout the body. This posture needs to be held in a very relaxed manner. But it can’t be limp. This explanation can be frustrating because the second I tell people to relax, they go limp. You have to relax and still hold the shape of the exercise properly. It has to have rigidity to it, but it can’t be stiff. If I were to use a car as a model, you wouldn’t want to have too much play in the rear wheels when you take a turn, otherwise you’d be thrown off the curve. But if you have a certain amount of rigidity in the suspension, then the car turns as a unit. Rigidity is fine, but you need softness as well, otherwise you brace and lock out.

So would it be fair to say that by loading the joints you mean relaxing and opening the joints?

That’s part of it. My idea of structure is twofold. One is that the joints open, this gives you a stretch throughout the body that handles incoming loads. Now you have to stack the skeleton using an alignment that drops the body weight directly down. Initially when you do this it makes the feet heavy – and when you think about it physically that’s what should happen if the weight of your upper body is carried by your legs and middle. So when I punch, like how I showed you earlier – you should feel no feedback in your upper-body when you connect. The recoil on impact should feel like it bypasses the upper-body entirely.

What about breath power and the dantien? Aren’t they important?

They are important. I think people get the idea that I don’t use the Dantien. If your alignment is correct, that is where the load must settle, especially in basic exercises like Mabu. You must move that part in order to move the rest of the body. A lot of people mention the tanden, and when they do they most often refer to the lower tanden. But in reality all parts are important. For me the tanden is the ENTIRE belt area. It is hooked up to the chest tanden etc. So when I say that I move it when I walk in say, the walking mabu exercise, in reality I move everything at once.

This is a bit of a detour, but can you talk about Bojutsu and why you place a lot of emphasis on it?

During my thirties I spent a lot of time training with a 6 foot bo staff. The rigidity of the bo required me to soften and align my body to the bo itself. The bo wouldn’t algin to me. When I did this, I realized I had to move my whole body to operate it efficiently, and that the mechanics that drove a weapon were fundamentally different from the Sanda training I’d done earlier in my life. As far as I’ve experienced, Chinese spear training has a similar goal for those that understand it. Getting back on point though, as I practiced, I realized that the more I relaxed and held a specific alignment, the more I could hold the weight of the bo “inside me.” By that I mean, I would feel the “weight” of the Bo within me, but my upper body, and the bo itself would feel light. So I realized I could integrate an external weight into myself. The way normal athletes work with weights they may partially load the weight into themselves if they’re smart, but they would still fight the weight to lift it.

So I would work out with my friends using the bo, and they’d try and fling me around. I realized that I could integrate their force into my body much like the bo, and then manipulate them through this integrated force.

Most people took this to mean that I was really strong – they just didn’t understand that I was using a fundamentally different principle. This lead me to focus on solely transmitting forces. As long as I could transmit a power created by a force being placed on me, I figured it was more correct. This is as I see it, part of the essence of exercises like Agete.

Let’s look at it another way– so if someone applies a force to me, we have an incoming force “A.” I combine it with my own body weight “B”, so in reality the force the other party would feel is my own body weight combined with their own incoming force. When that happens, I feel the force in my feet and pelvis. At least understanding this aspect is crucial if you want to progress.

Thank you very much for your time, I know it’s getting late, but I do have one last question, and that is – what is your opinion on the state of internal/bujutsu training in Japan?

I think most of them are turning into ways (michi) and the real pursuit of actually obtaining these skills, is on the downturn. I think it will be extinct soon in Japan. There are some people that say they are researching bujutsu, but that doesn’t mean they are actually practicing bujutsu.

AUNKAI SEMINAR with Akuzawa Minoru, September 21-22 in Orange, California

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