Katageiko : A Necessary Cooperation Between Uke and Tori
While some martial arts emphasize the solitary development of both form and physical qualities, respectively through the practice of kata and suburi, aikido is practiced almost exclusively with a partner. What derives from this observation is that most of the learning in this discipline is therefore dependent on the willingness of a person (uke) to put his body at our disposal in order to facilitate our progression. What is even more specific to aikido is that even when one assumes the role of uke, one remains very much within a process of learning. In fact, as we shall see, it is within this role that a large part of the learning takes place. Unfortunately, this often leads to a number of misunderstandings, partly because of the antonymic notion of the opponent / partner, but also because of the fact that etiquette serves as an underlying framework within which all interactions between the two take place. In this article, I would like to discuss the nature of the relationship between uke and tori in aikido and to investigate the parameters that govern it.
The partner in budo
Traditionally, koryu bujutsu (古流武术, traditional martial arts) refer to the partner using the terms of aite (相手, partner) or uke (受, the person who receives). More specifically within the practice of weapons, one often uses the term uketachi (受太刀, receiving sword). Even though these terms originate from the world of koryu, they are also well represented in gendai budo (现代武道, modern martial arts). There is however one term that is absent from modern budo such as aikido, but which is frequently used in koryu, it is that of teki (敌, enemy). Whether or not this term is used in a given discipline is significant because it fundamentally changes the dynamics of the relationship taking place between the two practitioners.
One should not assume however that the difference between old budo and new arts such as aikido resides solely in the the influence that terminology bares on our perception of the opposing force. One of these differences resides in the fact that in koryu, uke is almost invariably either the teacher, or at least someone who is more advanced than oneself. As a consequence, in this context, the notions of antagonism and danger always come from someone whose level is higher compared to one’s own. This is also why most of the time in koryu demonstrations, we see the less advanced practitioner throwing his senior. In these circumstances, one will refer to oneself as ware (我; defender) and it is uke who will dictate the intensity, the distance, and the severity of practice. Since it is Japan, the eldest is also someone with whom one has a strict hierarchical relationship. This forms the basis of the tori / uke relationship in martial arts. What follows from this observation is that if one wants to address the issue of the relationship between uke and tori, one must also necessarily talk about the relationship between student and teacher.
The partner in aikido
In aikido, teki: the enemy, becomes uke: the partner, the one who will be the receiver of our technique (uke is derived from the verb ukeru; 受ける, which means receiving). It is because of this reversal of roles between attacker and defender that we see in aikido, in particular during demonstrations, the senior practitioner throwing the junior. One must not think however that this is specific to aikido because in fact, such reversal of roles also exists in Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu, which is the discipline that the founder of Aikido Ueshiba Morihei learned from his own Master Takeda Sokaku, and which forms the bulk of the technical curriculum of aikido.
Nevertheless, this situation is fairly unique in the world of traditional martial arts and it makes the relationship between tori and uke a little more complex because of the fact that during the Daito-ryu and aikido training sessions, the roles of uke and tori are regularly swapped instead of being strictly defined by the rank of the practitioners.
Kata, the basis for learning the principles
What does not vary, whether one practices aikido or any other Japanese martial discipline, is the presence of kata as a framework for the learning process. Indeed, contrary to what many might think, the kata is actually present in aikido and if one looks closely, one can realize that it constitutes the essential part to our practice. The masters Abe Tadashi and Andre Nocquet explained kata to their French students as a formal way to perform the first five “principles” of Aikido (ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, gokyo). In reality, the true kata, that which aims at developing the principles of aikido, is much more than that, it encompasses the entire curriculum of aikido and serves as the foundation for its practice.
In the context of aikido, the meaning of the kanji kyo (教) closer to the idea of “teaching” or “technique” than to that of “principle“. If one takes an interest in the origin of techniques, one can see that the ikkyo movement (一教) of aikido closely resembles ippondori (一本捕), which is in fact the first technique within the first set of Daito-ryu techniques called ikkajo (一ケ条). This first set contains 30 techniques, all governed by the same “principle“: the control of the shoulder. This underlines the essential differences between the two arts, which resides in the fact that aikido proposes only one technique (ikkyo) to enable us to understand the underlying principle (the control of the shoulder) while Daito-ryu has 30, the first of which being ippondori.
The question that immediately follows is: “If ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, and gokyo illustrate principles, then, what about techniques like kotegaeshi or shihonage, which seem to fall outside of these “principles” in the curriculum of aikido?” Again, a close look at the curriculum of Daito-ryu gives us some valuable insight. In Daito-ryu, techniques such as kotegaeshi, shihonage, etc. are present within one or more kajo. They can therefore be governed by one or several principles, just like ikkyo or nikyo. This means however that there is no single correct way to perform each technique and that they can be done differently depending on whether one decides to apply them according to one principle or another. This debunks the ideas propagated by some misinformed people who argue that there is only one correct way to do a technique. Besides the fact that in reality, those who say this are just demonstrably wrong, such kind of statement suggests that they have only partially been exposed to the technical repertoire of Aiki. In other words, it is not because one has not been taught a form that it does not exist, just as an absence of evidence is no evidence of absence. That being said, I have to concede that there are sometimes some preposterous inventions that are presented as “variations” or “applications” and as always, only a deep knowledge can allow one to distinguish between narrow-minded attitude and meaningless invention.
When I teach aikido, I always try to keep an unifying thread for all the techniques that I demonstrate. For example if my course is centered around nikyo, I make sure to show the kotegaeshi as it is performed in nikajo, because it would be illogical, assuming that one cares about consistency within principles, to demonstrate either of the ikkajo or sankajo kotegaeshi within that context. This fundamental work has allowed me to better understand what are often considered as differences in the work of some masters of the Aikikai, but as it turns out, are not necessarily so upon closer scrutiny. I do not know whether these teachers have learnt the extended curriculum of Aiki or if they just understood these principles through practice, but I am excited every time I see this kind of consistency displayed during a class. Conversely, those who make technical changes without reason and according to the latest fashion leave me totally cold.
Ippondori on shomenuchi (uke : Jordy Delage)
Obviously, when one is talking about kata, one is not talking about solitary practice such as that seen in karate, but as a practice in duet within the context of what is called the katageiko (形稽古). Regardless of this distinction, the word means that aikido training consists in the repetition of the form until perfection, just like what happens in karate when one repeats movements in front of the mirror. This may offend the proponents of resistance and no-compromise, but what follows logically from this observation is that we necessarily find ourselves in a situation of collusion between consenting partners of the kata, almost like in dance. Essentially, the tori / aite relationship is based on cooperation.
This concept of katageiko is far from recent, it is central to all learning processes in Japan, regardless of the discipline. In its non-solitary form, it is also found in older arts such as Daito-ryu. Katageiko is the only learning method that should be considered during the shu period of shu ha ri (守破离, 3 periods of learning: obedience, digression, and finally separation). Shu is the period when one tries to master the form. On the scale of a lifetime, it represents a very large part of the training time, especially since in Daito-ryu, just like in aikido, there is no shiai (试 合; competition), that is to say, no controlled environment where cooperation explicitly ceases.
Ueshiba Morihei hated form
Originally, Takeda Sokaku, the teacher of Ueshiba Morihei, sold his techniques individually, and it has therefore become necessary for his successors to classify them and fit them within an educational system in order to remember and pass them on. Inevitably, since this process was taking place in Japan, the receptacle and means of transmission could only be the kata. This has resulted in the efficient preservation of the form, but it has led in making the understanding of the principles become a by-product of the formal work.
The kata is supposed to change a practitioner, a bit in spite of himself, by infusing his body with the principles of the discipline via a strict observance of the form. Therefore, the approach that consists in making one’s own grub by mixing several forms of martial arts (or inventing variations) is probably counterproductive to the understanding of the principles, precisely because it goes against what the kata is trying to achieve. One can of course study several arts upfront, but one should not mix them until one has mastered the katageiko in each of them.
Unfortunately for his successors, Ueshiba Morihei was as terrible as his own master Takeda and he is said to have hated the practice of the form, going as far as not naming his techniques and considering them only as anecdotal manifestations of the overarching Aiki phenomenon. He completely mastered the principles and every of his movement was a principle being implemented. This is one of the unusual characteristics of his transmission system (assuming that the term system can really be applied here); he put the principles in the forefront and considered the techniques solely as tools of understanding, a bit like one would learn a mathematical theorem first, and then perform various problems in order to refine one’s understanding. This method was quite unusual in Japanese martial arts and since the old master explained nothing, his students have had to rely on the familiar ground of katageiko in order to internalize the substance of what they had seen him do.
Entry on yokomenuchi (uke: Nicola Rossi)
Where does the kata come from?
The pioneer of martial arts Donn Draeger said:
“Kata became… the central training method for all bujutsu… [because] it is the only way by which the action that characterizes the bujutsu can be practiced without the practitioners being wounded or killed.”
One has to understand with this statement that a notion of mercy underlies the education system. The use of kata probably dates back to the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), beginning the Muromachi period (1337-1573) but this merciful mindset is neither a revelation nor a specificity of Japan. Over 50,000 years worth of evolutionary pressures have slowly shaped our behavior and encouraged the development of a strong mutual empathy, the reason being that it is favorable to the survival of social animals such as ourselves. This empathy implies that we cooperate and tend not to do to others what we would not want them do to us. More broadly, this sort of behavior can be found in many social species. It is therefore logical that even the arts of war contain a notion of mercy, at least among members of a same group, and even if the ultimate goal is to get rid of this mercy when dealing with people outside the group.
Shihonage form that does not allow the partner to fall (tori: Olivier Gaurin)
Within Daito-ryu, this consideration for the partner has resulted in a change in the way techniques were performed during training in order to allow the fall. In its original form, the technique always resulted in a break, a dislocation, or even death. Therefore, the ample projections of Aikido are merely an exaggerated form of this leniency, but not really a novelty, and those who are offended by the fact that technique were altered in Aikido in order to give a chance to Uke should also target their criticism towards Daito-ryu, as well as all other koryu for that matter, since if it were otherwise, there would be no one left standing to practice with.
Shihonage form that allows the partner to fall (tori: Olivier Gaurin)
The kata is actually a codification (attack distance, guard, etc.) and an attempt to rationalize an event that has proven useful on the battlefield, either anecdotally, or repeatedly. The context and the situation are therefore crucial to the success of the technique and outside of this specific context, such technique may well be countered or returned (返し技, kaeshi-waza). This explains the encyclopedic sizes of the technical records of koryu bujutsu since that depending on the Soke (宗家; leader) or the time, additions and variations were incorporated to the curriculum, often the fruit of an empirical study of the technical or technological progress of the opposing force, but also sometimes for less rational reasons that were more related to physical limitations, or social and stylistic preferences. This technical enrichment in Koryu still takes place today.
Regarding Aikido, this means that whatever the degree of mastery, the technique is not a universal and unstoppable tool. To be clear, any Aikido technique can be blocked if it is not performed in its proper context of attack, or if one knows in advance what technique will be performed. It is obvious, however, that many forget or chose to ignore this. Within katageiko, one is therefore in a context of study and this requires a degree of collusion, but beyond the empathic and didactic aspects, the goal is also to preserve the integrity of the technique itself and this is why the scenario imposed by katageiko must be followed to the letter.
What is there to be found outside of kata?
As explained above, this intrinsic complicity found in the katageiko is generally attenuated in the randori (乱取り, free practice) or shiai, but one should not think that this is the answer to all the limitations of katageiko because even during a randori, we still change quite a bit the projections so that the partner / enemy comes out relatively unscathed and during shiai, it is the technique itself that will be redesigned in order to take advantage of either loopholes in the rules, or the protections afforded by the equipment (helmets, foam weapons, etc.).
In both cases, although the freedom and spontaneity will be greater and the cooperation less obvious, the richness of the techniques will tend to decrease due to the fact that the conditions of the randori or shiai will dictate what can be used what cannot. A rough example of this is the fact that the techniques of Daito-ryu that make use of umbrellas, as well as those in armor of the Kashima Shinto-ryu, do not necessarily find their place in a ring or on a competition tatami. In addition, the assumption that the genitals will not be targeted during a shiai will make any technique that target this area not be considered during preparatory training.
At the price of a certain collusion, katageiko allows us to develop and maintain a large range of different techniques, often more for a historical than purely practical value if we consider the conditions that you and I face every day. More importantly, the katageiko also allows us to ask deeper questions and develop more interesting answers than those developed in a restricted context of who wins / loses.
The cost of resistance
If one accepts the context of katageiko in Aikido, the question that one should concern oneself with is: Under what circumstances is there a collusion, and how far should it go? I remember a story about a practitioner in his 30’s who reported going to a seminar with Tamura Sensei while he himself was already quite old. Tamura Sensei, at some point, came to grab the young man and blocked his technique; this was one of his ways of teaching. The young guy, either forgetting or completely ignoring the context which I described above (the eldest changing the settings of his ukemi to guide the youngest in his work), began to strain the shoulder of the old Sensei. He succeeded and then went on to brag about it on the Internet, going as far as publicly calling Tamura Sensei an impostor. This story shows the low level of reflection of some practitioners, but it is especially important in that it illustrates very well the fact that without a certain degree of acceptance and humility, one cannot learn anything in Japanese martial arts. If the brute had acted differently, this brute might have learned something valuable from Tamura Sensei, who at the time was offering him something incredibly precious: his time and his body, in the aim of transmitting something. The brute chose to abuse this privilege, and even risk injuring a teacher in his 70’s.
This variable balance of power is a characteristic of practice, both in Aikido and in the koryu. When I am in Japan in the dojo, it is obvious that I provide a degree of cooperation to my teachers. Knowing the technique in advance, and given that I am 1m 83, 86 kg, and 50 years younger, it is obvious that I could counter many of the techniques demonstrated by my teacher who is 85 years old. I do not do it because I am trying to provide favorable conditions for him to teach me something. In addition, a student who blocks a master exposes himself to a risk of immediate (and deserved) sanction, most often in the form of an unanticipated technique, or even a simple but sore atemi.
Cooperation to facilitate transmission (tori: Kobayashi Sensei Kiyohiro)
Should one punish an uncooperative partner?
I am resolutely not a proponent of punishment in modern martial arts because I think that their purpose is to develop the body as well as the mind, and that the punishment is often a negation of development and learning. Education research has demonstrated this in a very robust way and any school that that deserves this title now applies a restorative rather than retributive justice. Aikido is not only an education system, but it is also a social activity, and therefore I think that punishment should not be a vector of the day-to-day interactions. However, there are some specific situations where the punishment should be applied.
First, if there is an immediate danger for a partner or the other, it is possible that the sanction is the most appropriate response to remove this source of danger as quickly as possible. It will in this case take the form of an atemi or a strong joint lock. Then, the punishment may be necessary in cases where one or more partners, by their attitude (attack, technique, etiquette, behavior, etc.), violate the unspoken rules of katageiko. Again, it is silly to punish a Kohai who makes technical errors, but it seems necessary to correct someone who either breaches etiquette or the conventions of katageiko because doing so jeopardizes transmission, and by extension, is threatens the essence of the art.
Despite this apparent rigor, there is another scale of values that is equally important, and which may serve to illustrate the level that one has reached. Have you ever wondered how many people in your dojo like to practice with you? Be they more or less advanced than you, more or less athletic, more or less large, heavy, and depending on what they are looking for, do you provide them with something interesting, challenging, or even fun? Do you inspire them? It is the role of an experienced practitioner to bring something relevant to every person he has in front of him. Some challenge and intensity of course, but also a protective attitude that helps to build trust and facilitate progress in the kata.
Why teach ukemi?
It is sometimes said that ukemi should not be taught so as not to create practitioners who are conditioned to fall. The argument seems reasonable, yet invariably, we see that the greatest teachers spend a lot of their time teaching just that: ukemi. One might ask why they do it and whether it is only in the aim of conditioning their students to fall as they so desire.
From a purely practical standpoint, on the mat, if one does not belong to the 0.6% to 1.2% of sociopaths individuals within the population, one quickly realizes that the speed and power of one’s techniques is directly limited by the ability of the partner to to cope with it. Therefore, one cannot really develop one’s technique unless the level of ukemi increases proportionally with these technical qualities.
Developing ukemi to allow application (uke: Jordy Delage)
When I travel to teach, I often notice that the limitations in the technical abilities are directly correlated with limitations in ukemi. Not only does a dojo where the level of ukemi is low sees its overall technical level limited, but it is also at this stage that one sees recurrent injuries multiply, the hallmark of which being the presence of practitioners who have more to do with band-aid commercials than with budoka. This is also where one hears things like, “Please, not this wrist, it hurts a little…” etc. Conversely, when in the presence of practitioners who take good ukemi, one does not have to worry because the wrists will not sustain unreasonable strains. I am not talking about breakfalls, even if they are sometimes necessary (see below), but for me, a good uke is a strong practitioner in the sense that he can take anything from anybody.
To receive anything from anybody (uke: Nicola Rossi)
Some argue that the learning of breakfalls constitutes a drift towards demonstrative Aikido. Even though the abusive use of aerobatics clearly can undermine the practice, one should not forget that when the technique is applied in its most incisive form, it either does not allow any ukemi at all or at best, only a breakfall. When I started Daito-ryu I was very surprised to see that people sometimes took breakfalls, but the difference with those of Aikido is that the in Daito-ryu the breakfall were only executed when the technique is performed in its most realistic form, hence leaving only the minimum exit door: a breakfall.
However, I must admit that despite my substantial ukemi experience at the hand of some of the greatest masters of aikido, I have never found the ukemi of Daito-ryu to be pleasant because a Daito-ryu technique lets just enough room for the fall, but it has no concern for harmony or comfort. The fall is also usually followed by a painful joint lock. If I had to compare the sensation of ukemi in Daito-ryu to something else, I would compare it to the projections in Greco-Roman wrestling; you only go when there is no other choice, but in general, you would rather avoid it!
The uke / tori relationship as a way of understanding
If you ask great masters how they learned their craft, most will respond with something like: “by being thrown“, which should be understood as: “I made sure to develop the best possible ukemi so that the teacher often threw me.” The benefit is mutual because the teacher needs a good uke to apply the most realistic technique possible, but he also selects the students he throws as a means to convey something more to the chosen ones, via direct contact. I have mentioned this earlier, a typical example of that is someone like Osawa Sensei who makes it clear to the few people that he regularly takes as uke that he does so in order to give them extra instruction through sensations. One can clearly see this at the Hombu Dojo; only the people who know how to fall properly are solicited during the classes, and therefore, they progress faster than others.
I hear you say: “Yes, but during a seminar, a teacher should take everyone and not just his own students.” I agree, because during a seminar, the teaching process is different (assuming that there is actually any teaching done during a one off seminar), it is not really katageiko. In these cases, the goal is not to build skills through repetition over time, but to convey ideas and feelings in a quick snapshot to the greatest possible number of students present. We thus find teachers seeking more readily beginners and strangers.
A delicate balance
One cannot seriously consider writing an article on uke / tori relationship without mentioning its pitfalls. It is obvious that without some barriers, and without a developed maturity, the cooperation and the human bonds can lead to many issues. In a closed master-student environment, one can quickly find oneself within a system of positive reinforcement. A uke who obediently takes falls is more likely to be solicited as uke by a master and in return, the teacher will tend to feel comforted in his own technical choices due to this docile behavior. Without safeguards, one can clearly see the devastating potential of this vicious cycle on complacency of the student, and the sometimes preposterous technical form of the teacher.
Through the years, I have ahd the chance to be able to assist to many demonstrations of koryu and gendai budo and I fully realize that while this phenomenon is not only restricted to Aikido, Aikido seems to have more than its fair share of circus numbers. I have absolute respect for the old masters of Aikido, living or dead, but it is very clear that some of them have left in their wake several generations of students who have lost sight of the limits of this necessary collusion. Kuroiwa Sensei, a lesser known student of O Sensei, put it eloquently when he said:
“Uke’s role is to adjust himself / herself to the movement of tori and tori learns his / her movement with the cooperation of uke. Failure to understand this will lead to the misunderstanding that uke was thrown or pinned because tori’s technique was excellent. Uke absorbs the movement of tori with his body by taking a pure fall. In other words, uke is not thrown but rather is practicing a form in which his role is to be thrown. Thus, the central character in practice is uke.”
“Practice is possible only due to the existence of a tacit agreement and failure to understand this is a tragic mistake […] Otherwise, this merely leads to conceptual games and self-satisfaction.”
I would go further and say that even when knowing the terms of this agreement, the danger still exists. Personally, the only way I found to avoid falling into this trap is to not to train under some teachers, because for me, the cost of having to indulge into this positive reinforcement is too high. While I would truly love to develop some of the technical and visual prowess displayed by some of these masters, the price is too high, the concession in terms of the level of convenience is too much for me.
Obviously, I do not judge the merits of a particular type of practice over another and everyone is free to choose, but for my part, I know exactly how far I am willing to go on one side or the other, between blind complacency and sterile resistance.
Uke: Nicola Rossi
The tori / uke relationship as a method of selection and transmission
The fact that one enters a dojo does not guarantee that the teacher will give or teach anything. In fact, I would say that Japan, the majority of practitioners do not receive everything, and that only a handful of disciples are given access to the profound teaching. It has always been so, as evidenced by the very small number of holders of Menkyo Kaiden (免许皆伝, certificate of complete teaching). This is also true in Aikido.
Regarding my personal experience, despite the fact that I make the effort to travel to see the master of Daito-ryu Chiba Tsugutaka several times per year, and that I was allowed to make a documentary about him, it has taken him a very long time to teach me his technique. Before that, he never refused me the entrance to his dojo, and he always was very affable, but he did not throw me or correct my technique. From the day he officially accepted me as his student though, his way of teaching changed completely. He now comes regularly to make me feel his technique and invites me to participate to special courses that he give to very small groups of students. Beyond the desire of transmission, and given the severity of his techniques, it is clear that if my ukemi had not been not good, perhaps I would still be on the sidelines right now. If this were the case, I obviously would learn some things by visual mimicry, but if I were to try to teach what I had seen, and despite years of practice, what I would be teaching would have very little meaning. It took three years of diligent training before Chiba Sensei began to teach me anything, I let you to draw the necessary conclusions regarding the claims of those who return from Japan after a few months pretending that they have learned a great deal…
Guillaume Erard and Olivier Gaurin alongside Tsugutaka Chiba Sensei, a direct transmission established through time and dedication
This stringent selection process and voluntarily incomplete teaching is, I think, why some people consider that the level in martial arts getting lower nowadays. In reality, I think that the level is still very high, but it is only visible in a very small proportion of practitioners, whose mediocre base comparatively grows much more quickly. Because of the democratization of martial arts, there is an explosion in the number of students, and these are necessarily poor, not because of a lack of potential, but because they are not being taught anything really substantial. These students however, are equally, and perhaps more visible than competent people. Note for example that in Japan, one is not asked to participate in a demonstration because of one’s competence. Often, the mere fact of being a dojo member is sufficient to get this right, which in turns explains the distorted perception of what we thought would be a “top level” demonstration. This also coincides with the fact that in the koryu, as was said earlier, tori is not the most experienced practitioner, but the junior. Also, contrary to what we see in the West, the purpose of demonstrations in Japan is not to display excellence, but to show keiko at every level of the sepctrum. In a sense, it is a truer form of exhibition of an art than the finely choreographed demonstrations of virtuoso athletes. I also suspect that historically, schools preferred to show poor or even false waza in order to avoid putting its secrets out in the open… It is also quite common for Japanese teachers to show “errors” or “variations” of the original technique during training or demonstration. This is called damasu (騙す; to deceive), and the goal is to both hold back on the teaching and make it easy to expose pretenders falsely posing as recipients of the art school. Depending on how one performs a technique, insiders can clearly perceive where and how it has been learned; with a professor, during a seminar, or on a DVD… Even more interestingly, the same technique might bear different names within the Ryu’s syllabus. The avowed aim is to muddy the waters and make understanding for people outside the Ryu more difficult. A striking example is the technique that is known in Aikido as shihonage, which can be found in the ikkajo syllabus of Daito-ryu sometimes under the name of shihonage, sometimes under that of iriminage! It therefore makes it obvious why having a Sempai or Sensei to help us decode all of this is so crucial.
Learning on DVD?
Speaking of DVDs, I recently saw an interview of a prominent French Aikido teacher where he was saying that he recently got an interest in Daito-ryu and started learning via watching Kondo Sensei’s DVDs. Indeed, given the extremely limited number of qualified people outside of Japan, such people often have to resort to DVD or YouTube to fill what they consider as gaps in their knwoledge. Some of these teachers actually believe that to do Daito-ryu, one just has to apply Aikido techniques a little bit more sharply. This is obviously doomed for failure because of the fact that the initial premise is wrong. That said, it is very interesting for me to hear their interpretations, because although they may include some outer forms of Daito-ryu in their practice, I can clearly see that key points of Daito-ryu (at least, the few that I know) are absent. Besides the fact that most published documents do not present the true technical forms (damasu…) it especially shows that without the benefit of a teacher-student, uke-tori relationship, even highly skilled people in Aikido cannot find important points by themselves. This is also why I could easily persuade Chiba Tsugutaka Sensei to let me shoot a documentary about him because he knew that even if his technique was put on video, there was little chance that anybody would “steal” it without direct contact.
Tori / aite, giving / receiving
It is only at the price of a personal investment through the establishment of a uke / tori relationship over time, a “heart to heart” communication, as the Andre Nocquet put it in his time, that a transmission can take place. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that this type of relationship will establish itself during seminars, or even during short stays in Japan, and unless one has experienced this relationship, one cannot know what it represents. Talking about Master Nocquet, I think that this is the reason why some people have tried to undermine the significance of his experience in Japan, because they could not imagine for one second what it could represent live under the same roof as the Ueshiba family. Moreover, Nocquet was not Japanese and as the saying goes, no man is a prophet in his own land.
Because of the elitism of the Japanese education system, the views that most practitioners hold upon their own martial art are often really not much better informed than that of someone outside of it (外; soto). With the media’s help, people’s perception is also limited in its referential to a handful of over over hyped masters or well-known competitors, while they are completely unaware of the living treasures who pass on their knowledge in a more confidential manner. It is not by staying at home, reading books, blogs, bulletin boards, or columns of martial arts magazines that one can learn that these people exist, let alone learn anything from them. One must make the effort to go and live with the masters. I very regularly get email from people asking me how they can learn Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu and my answer is always the same: “Give up everything and come to study in Japan for a few years“. Interestingly, in spite of the expression of their “burning desire” to learn, I never hear from them afterwards. Again, not all of Aiki can be taught to everybody, and that is just fine like that, most of the times, just liek n the letter I get, the selection operates itself before even entering the dojo.
Heart to heart transmission
Onishi Sensei is one of the most amazing masters of Daito-ryu that I have ever met. He is well over 80 years old and he still grows his rice in Shikoku in the middle of nowhere. You can never learn from such a master if you do not get very close to him, so close in fact that you can for example, while you thought yourself on the way to the dojo, end up at the hospital where his wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease resides. Once you get there, the old lady gratifies you the purest and at the same time saddest look that you have never seen, this incredible sadness leaving way for just a moment, to a childlike wonder when she realizes that the two foreign giants who enter the room are with her husband and that they are coming especially to see her. After 15 minutes, you are on the road again, this time for the dojo. The old lady has probably already forgotten everything about you, but you, will treasure her expression forever somewhere in your heart. The old lady died a few months later. I do not know what Onishi Sensei had in mind that day we he took Olivier Gaurin and I there, and we have never spoken about it since. Did he do that for her? For us? Both? I may never know. A heart-to-heart relationship…
Onishi Sensei always ready to share some his techniques in the most unexpected moments
Most great teachers are not found in books or magazines and deep learning does not occur in seminars or masterclasses. If one wants to receive (受ける; ukeru) anything, one must give (上げる; ageru) more than a few dollars or a few hours on the tatami, one has to give oneself, a lot of ukemi of course, but also parts of one’s heart. This is the true relationship between tori / uke.
- Erard, Guillaume. Biography of Kisshomaru Ueshiba.
- Draeger, Donn F. Classical Bujitsu (Martial Arts and Ways of Japan). Weatherhill.
- Hall, David A. Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts. Kodansha USA.
- Erard, Guillaume. Interview with Ellis Amdur Part 2: The essence of koryu and transmission.
- Erard, Guillaume. What is the relevance of the Hombu Dojo in the current practice of Aikido and why go there?
- Kuroiwa, Yoshio. A Common Sense Look at Aikido. AikidoJournal.com
- Murumoto, Wayne. Damasare: Hidden in Plain Sight. The Classic Budoka
- Erard, Guillaume and Gaurin, Olivier. Documentary Chiba Tsugutaka and the Daito-ryu Hombu Shikoku.
Many thanks for my Sempai D.j. Lortie whose guidance has sparked this reflection.