Some of us Aikido practitioners often dream of going to Japan in order to perfect our skills in the art created by O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. Many actually eventually make the trip for a few weeks, some for a few months. Fewer of these individuals decide to settle there for an indefinite period of time, that is my case. This long term pilgrimage allows us to explore the roots of Aikido, make the acquaintance of many masters and, if we are lucky enough, to establish solid and enduring relationships with them on and beyond the tatami. However, the normal order of things is that we always find ourselves assuming the role of the student. In fact, one would never think in Japan to transgress this position. There are some cases however when, a bit in spite of our own will, this situation can change quickly and dramatically. The account I am going to give today describes precisely one of these occurrences. During several months training intensively at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, I have had the opportunity to make a lot of acquaintances and I even got the opportunity to develop real friendships. It is from one of these precious friendships that the adventure I will relate today started.
Everything starts on a hot June day while I am cleaning up my lab. It is shortly after my last students have left the school for a well-deserved summer break marking the completion of their last tests for the International Baccalaureate exam. As I am finding my way in the middle of cardboard boxes containing brand new glassware, my phone starts to ring. On the other side is my friend Jordy Delage, the owner of the martial arts equipment shop Budo Export. Without wasting much time, he starts a confused explanation about Hoshi-san, his father in law, a chief inspector in the Tokyo police and renowned 7th Dan Kendo practitioner. Jordy tells me that Hoshi-san wants him to give an Aikido class in the police station dojo in order to prepare his troops for an upcoming Aikido demonstration. Jordy has called me because he reckons he does not have what it takes to face a police squadron on his own and he therefore wants us both to lead the operations...
I don't know if this is due to the intense summer heat or because of the tiredness resulting from dealing with entire classes of Japanese teenagers but I can still hear myself say "sure", well before having received the slightest explanation on the how, why and when of this assignment. I am indeed a little bit more experienced than Jordy and I have indeed already had the opportunity to teach to the police and trained under several army instructors but frankly, I really wonder at that stage why one would ask me to do this when so many very high ranked Shihan are present in the Tokyo area. Well, I guess that within the framework of a demonstration, there might be an interest to summon me but still, the whole things sounds a bit strange.
Shortly after hanging up, another massive consideration hits me as I remember the very entertaining book by Robert Twigger "Angry White Pajamas". Indeed, I now recall that the Tokyo police force exclusively practices the Aikido from the Yoshinkan created by the late Shioda Gozo. Moreover, the Yoshinkan has cut all diplomatic relations with the Aikikai a long time ago. From this point on and until the day of the course, I slowly, but seriously start to worry about the whole thing. Japan is one of these countries where inquiry and questioning are not necessarily welcome everywhere and even if one grants himself the right to ask "why", it quite seldom yields any useful answer anyway. This is very much the case here and even upon asking many questions to Hoshi-san, we only manage to learn that the class will be given to a majority of female police officers and that it is in prevision of the most important competition (yes, competition, NOT demonstration) of the year which will gather all practitioners of Aikido within the police force. Although I am quite pleased to hear about the first piece of information, the latter one actually gives me shivers. Well, at least it should be an interesting experience...
Well, I gave my word and I figure, "in for a penny, in for a pound" so I dutifully start to reflect on the content of my class. Fortunately, I have already had the opportunity to practice Yoshinkan Aikido whilst living in England. Indeed, at the time, there were no Aikikai dojos located at reasonable distance from where I lived and I therefore registered to a Yoshinkan dojo. I am aware however that it is a way too sort an experience for me to be pretending to reproduce the precise and peculiar Yoshinkan repertoire and therefore, I reckon that it is probably more pertinent for me to teach an Aikikai style class and run the session in a spirit of mutual exchange.
On day-D, under the oppressive humidity of the Japanese summer heat, Jordy and I make our way towards the Ebara (Ebara Keisatsu Sho) Police Station. After spending a little while walking back and forth in order to locate the place (the addresses in Japan are renown for being difficult to find, especially in Tokyo, where most streets don't even have a name...), we finally arrive (late) in the right place. It is a good thing because I was seriously contemplating the idea of pretending to rob a 7/11 convenience store in order to encourage the cops to bring me faster to destination...
Thinking back, I wish I had brought a camera with me to take a snap of the police officer's face when he noticed two gaijin weirdos with gigantic bag packs invading his police station at 9 am. After several seconds of absolute bemusement, he finally decides to ask us the reason of our presence on this glorious morning and in response, Jordy does best to explain the situation to him in Japanese while trying hard not to crack up. It seems that we arrive at a rather bad time. At this precise moment, a man of a very official disposition steps out of the station followed by an impressive police escort before embarking into a massive black car while all the officers of the station are standing to attention. They are easily identifiable as they wear the number linked to their function on their uniform, 001 for the chief, 002 for the second and son on. Despite my best efforts, I fail to locate the Nippon homologue of agent double-O seven who must be busy, either sorting out an international crisis, or making out with the lovely Koyuki (that is, if she is not busy filming an advert for Suntory or Sharp).In cinemas everywhere this summer brought to you by Toho studios...
Once the car is out of sight, the attention immediately shifts back toward us and we are escorted, slightly disorientated, inside the police station. I have never in my whole life been greeted so politely in a police station (idem for the exit, which is even more unusual!). Every single one of them, from the chief to the most humble agent salutes us formally just like if we were some sort of dignitaries from a foreign power. No doubt our hosts are still under "protocol" mode after the preceding visit and even if we are not foolish enough to think much of the formality of this attention, it remains quite pleasant if not a bit surreal. In fact, I catch myself thinking "as long as it lasts". We are led to the office of agent 001, the chief inspector, Hoshi Norio, who immediately orders us to undress. I will not expand on the sudden impression of being in the film "Midnight Express" and fortunately, I realize that it is just my bad Japanese playing tricks when Jordy explains to me that he has just told us to get changed into our keikogi. A cup of good coffee (unlike the one served in most French police stations) is brought to us by a very charming female police officer. The view of two hairy Frenchmen wearing nothing but boxer shorts in her boss's office does not actually seem to surprise her that much.
Quite strangely, once I am inside my heavy keikogi vest and hakama, I feel significantly more confident and I am a lot more at ease in presence of Tokyo's finest. After a second passage in front of the incredulous eyes of the people in the police station, we are led towards the police dojo in the basement. We are awaited there by a group almost entirely composed of women, about half of which did not actually put on the keikogi on. These ladies are going to spend the whole class looking at us, suspiciously first, then with more enthusiasm, and finally even start applauding and cheering when we start randori. Japan is really a world of it own...
We are introduced to the class and I am told that their teacher, Arai Sensei, is a fifth Dan Shidoin of the Yoshinkan school. He will take part in the class this morning. It is too late to run away so I start my class with a quick warm up. I will learn later that it seemed to them quite light on the physical side but I am also informed that the pace of the class itself was felt as quite intense. I am glad to hear that even if I failed to be of any pertinence to them on the technical aspect, they at least got a good work out of my class. Well, I did hammer-in the techniques with the regularity of a Swiss clock and this left our dear officers in quite a state of physical exhaustion (I like to call this the Gouttard effect...).
Besides their typical postures and guards, I notice that, like in all Yoshinkan dojo, only the teacher is wearing the hakama and therefore, Jordy and I are the only ones wearing the ample black trousers today, even though Arai Sensei is technically our senior. This really shows the open mind with which Arai Sensei came to the practice today and I am genuinely impressed, even though a little bit embarrassed too. During warm-up, I realize that the majority of the practitioners is wearing the black belt and therefore, I decide to put an emphasis on advanced notions like contact and presence, concepts that I have developed in length with Philippe Gouttard and Cyril Lagrasta. I also decide to introduce some of the virtuosity I have experienced under the teaching of Christian Tissier, Marc Bachraty and Michel Erb. Of course, would never consider myself as a representative (or worth) of either of these teachers but I cannot deny that their teaching has influenced me more than anyone else and I am doing my best to pass on what I have learned from them.
The class is going very well. In a moment of pure craziness, I see myself asking for a bokuto in order to demonstrate a technique, only realizing that I am about to do so in front of commissioner Hoshi, who is one of the top Kendo practitioners in the country. Too late to go back so I continue my explanation, rather nervous. I am glad to see however that after a moment, his scrutiny becomes softer and I think to myself that he probably acknowledged what I was trying to explain through the use of the wooden sword in spite of the incredible technical gap that separates us.
After a few minutes, I realize that the pace at which I am running the class, going from technique to technique, might be posing more difficulties to the practitioners than I had expected. I know that Yoshinkan Aikido has very distinct features and a particular technical syllabus compared to the Aikikai branch and I realize that I have to significantly slow down the pace in order to explain the basics of Aikikai Aikido on techniques such as katatedori iriminage or kotegaeshi. The two schools have been separated for over 50 years and today, I really understand the full extent of what this schism means. It is during that moment that I also realize what is happening to me right now. I am actually living in Japan, teaching Aikido to Japanese people... cops... This brings back to my memory all my childhood dreams, when I was a 5th Kyu, when Japan seemed an inaccessible Eldorado. Thanks to Jordy, I am now in a position to share with Japanese people the techniques and the Art I love so much. I must admit that these thoughts get me quite emotional and I quickly speed up the waza in order to avoid whipping like a big sissy.
I must admit that I will forever remember the mind openness and the good will that these men and women; law enforcement professionals; practitioners from another style; are displaying today. It brings into perspective the sometimes uptight attitude that we might have in our respective dojos over in Europe. Japanese people really love and respect when one is showing interest or knowledge in an aspect of their culture. Contrary to a common misconception, if you are able to demonstrate, in humility, your proficiency they quickly consider you as an equal or a senior. In this atmosphere, the two hours really go very fast. After a few initial difficulties, everyone finds their marks and it is a real pleasure to practice together. The moment that I will remember most is the intense final jyu-waza between Arai Sensei and myself when, in spite of all our differences, we manage to practice in a very intricate, fast, intense and yet relaxed way. This is only made possible thanks to a fantastic communication and a deep mutual respect. The applause and cheering from the students and spectators at the end make me understand what it means when our teachers talk about the universality of Aikido, going far beyond nationality, gender, social status and technical sensitivities.
It is almost noon when Hoshi-san suggests that it is time to conclude the class. I initiate one last jyu-waza and I approach every student so they can throw me at least four times before stopping the class. Philippe Gouttard always told me that in Aikido, we should always give just as much as we receive and I guess this is my way to bring this point across. It feels like everyone had a good time and a good sweat and I believe that I have accomplished my mission today, even if the modalities of it have never been made clear to me since the beginning. In a very relaxed and casual atmosphere, we all line up for the traditional group picture, rejoined by the rest of the police officers present, including Hoshi-san. I then leave the dojo under the formal salute of all present. After a very necessary shower considering the brutal summer heat, Hoshi-san leads us once again towards his office and he presents Jordy and me with four massive bottles of nihonshu (sake). He then takes us for lunch in a nearby restaurant. I am very impressed by the feeling of strength and authority that this man inspires and I feel very honored that he chose to entrust us this morning with the task of teaching his men.
Over lunch, we obviously discuss about martial arts and Hoshi-san invites us to assist to the annual Yoshinkan Aikido championships of the police force taking place the following week.
This morning was full of colorful experiences, smiles and martial exchange. I can't thank Jordy and Hoshi-san enough for giving me this rare opportunity to practice with practitioners from the Tokyo police and most importantly, to discover yet another aspect of Japan, quite inaccessible to foreigners.
First row from left to right, Guillaume Erard, Jordy Delage, Hoshi-san and Arai Sensei
Photos: Shinoda Kouji