Aiki Kai Australia
National Aikido Association of Australia
Olivia Giovinazzo from Victoria, sent in this article which a friend of hers discovered. The article may provide AKA students with some insightful research into Sugano Sensei and may help the study of Aikido.
This article has also been sent in by Janene Godden at Bendigo Dojo. Thanks, Janene!
Our Glossary of Aikido Terms has recently been updated! This is a useful document for new students to help them become familiar with much of the basic Japanese terminology we use in Aiki Kai Australia.
Here's an old Australasian Fighting Arts article from around 1982, sent in by Janene Godden at our Bendigo Dojo. Despite the hairy creatures and not a female in sight, in the article photos, she decided to train with us anyway!
I have to own up here, the image on page 3 with Sensei holding one person down and throwing two others is him having fun, it was a setup for the camera.
Submitted by: Geoff FreemanThis question was asked during dinner one evening at the 2017 Belgian Summer School. I had not given the question much thought before I was asked, so I have since.
Basic aikido practice is commonly a set of known exercises (ikkyo etc.) done by two people, with uke attacking nage. The pattern of training is that nage successfully defends them self and “defeats” uke. Usually we consider our aikido is improving if we get better at the nage part of the exercise. So, it follows that the role of uke is to help nage improve.
How can uke help nage improve? Firstly, by providing the correct attack. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe attacks in detail, but it should begin with the named attack (e.g. kata tori) and, importantly, should continue in a direction suitable for the technique being practised. For example, a (non-aikido) attacker can use kata tori for a variety of things. The attacker could grab the shoulder so they could push you backwards. They might equally use the grip to pull you forward and down to the ground. Perhaps it is used to hold you still while they punch or kick. Aikido has a response to any of these so, if the technique being practised is a response to being pushed from kata tori, then the “correct” attack is to push after gripping the shoulder. As well as this initial attack uke should be looking for opportunities for follow up attacks. The speed of attack should be appropriate for nage’s ability. Although difficult at slow speeds, uke’s balance should replicate the balance of a fast committed attack.Of course there is a large variation in athletic ability and experience of students, consequently their ability to offer a correct attack varies enormously. Students new to aikido commonly have no preconceived idea of what movement might be “correct” after the initial part and will usually provide an instinctive and natural response to nage’s movement. A common example is beginners doing a pirouette under their arm with shihonage. This movement may not be the expected (“correct”) response but is it still helping nage? Perhaps not for everyone but for an experienced nage it is an invaluable opportunity to practise responding to natural, possibly unexpected, movement. We get few chances to do this.
Beyond the beginner stage, I see two basic cases. If nage is more familiar with the exercise than I am then, as uke, I try to do the best initial attack that I can at a speed that I think nage can manage. Then I will try to follow nage’s movement looking for a further opportunity for a follow up attack. If nage does well I will, to quote Harvey Koningsberg, “get a nice ride”. I will also get a first hand look at how this nage executes the technique well. If nage seems quite comfortable then I try to offer a more challenging attack, maybe a bit faster, perhaps a bit slower or maybe just change the rhythm. My hope is that I am enabling nage to practise at their maximum capacity.
On the other hand, if nage is not familiar with the exercise, then uke needs to help. As uke I try to attack slowly enough to allow nage time to think and possibly to experiment. Importantly, I try to continue to move to places I believe I would go if I was following an experienced nage, but hopefully slowly enough to give nage time to adjust. My belief is that nage can then follow a correct path and hence learn good movement for the exercise. This usually allows both uke and nage to get useful training with very little verbal explanation.
So, as uke, I start with the intention of helping nage but, in doing so, what benefits are there for me? When I am training with an experienced nage and following their lead I can discover many things. For example, did I lose balance? How did nage manage this? Could I do the same? Could I find an opportunity for kaeshi waza? Also, because I get to train with a variety of partners I get to see a variety of methods and I can compare the effectiveness of each of them. Partners also vary in many ways, for example height and athleticism. If I am a responsive uke I can notice the adjustments which can help me handle such variations. It is also possible to discover things which are not particularly effective.
In short, I find the more I help nage practice the more I discover what is effective as nage. But what to do as nage is a different article.
Editor's Note: This article was published in the magazine "Australasian Fighting Arts" around 1974.
Seiichi Sugano, 6th Dan chief instructor of Ueshiba Aikido in Australia, began his martial arts training at an early age when he was accepted by the founder of modern Aikido, the late Morehei Ueshiba, as one of five apprentices to study directly under him at the headquarters in Tokyo. With more than 20 years of martial arts training behind him, 35-year-old Mr. Sugano is now acknowledged as one of the world's foremost instructors of Aikido. Australian Aikido practitioners - and martial artists in general - are fortunate to have such an accomplished master in their midst.
Well, I went from my birthplace (Hokkaido, Northern Japan) to Tokyo, intending to further my education but ended up studying judo for three years at the Kodokan. I had read a lot about Aikido and was very interested so I went directly to Mr. Ueshiba to see if I could be apprenticed to him to study Aikido. I was 15 at the time.
Although I hadn't completely lost interest in judo, I saw no point in the competitive aspect of this art. In judo they are much more interested in competing against someone else, rather than studying the art.
Mr. Ueshiba accepted me as an apprentice and I lived in the dojo. There were five of us living there. Actually, the headquarters could not afford to keep anyone but they gave us our food and board and taught us, in return for our helping them with different jobs around the headquarters.
First of all partly because I approached Mr. Ueshiba personally and also one of the senior assistant instructors also recommended me to be an apprentice. He was, in fact, the one who talked me into studying Aikido.
That is difficult to say. We used to train at least six hours every day starting at 6:30am. We slept in the dojo so we had to get up and clean up the dojo before the class began. At that stage in the Hombu, they had five regular classes. In the early part of training it was more concentrated around ukemi (breakfalls). Also when we used to train in outside dojos we used to carry Mr. Ueshiba's or Mr. Tohei's bags. Often we used to accompany them around to other schools in the Tokyo area, e.g. the universities.
Practically the same time that I star1ed. Mr. Ueshiba used to teach classes. At that stage he lived about two hours outside Tokyo. When he came into the headquarters we used to train under him. At that stage he was about 60 years old. He used to teach the morning class and occasionally ran some special training sessions during the day.
Very hard to describe. He seemed very much like a strongly religious man or philosophic type. Physically he was small but very solid. His appearance was not like someone who had been training hard in the martial arts, but more like a master or a teacher of a religious group.
No. Sometimes when he was in Tokyo, at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning before training he used to pray to his God. He was a very strongly religious person. In the beginning, studying any of the martial arts, including Aikido, we were more concerned with attaining physical accomplishment. Once you pass that stage you must believe in something - not necessarily a religious philosophy but you try to make one total being, both the physical and the spiritual. Mr. Ueshiba was very strong in this area.
Yes he did. He didn't give you much meditation in the dojo but put more emphasis on integrating his spiritual philosophy into the way he explained and taught techniques. I think that is probably the whole attitude of Aikido.
Before the Second World War the training was a lot rougher than today because there was a much stronger emphasis towards personal combat. Although the technique is similar to what was practiced then, the main difference was in the mental and spiritual approach. This also explains the existence of some other groups of Aikido that look the same, but follow different mental approaches to it.
Maybe this could happen. But when you look at the total martial art, one way of solving this particular problem is having competitions. Another way to develop is to practice techniques, and another method is to practice the essence of a martial art in everyday use as an alternative to wanting to fight all the time In the sporting aspect the aim is to win. But once you have accomplished this result, it becomes meaningless to fight. Aikido tries to eliminate this desire to win attention. This also benefits students who do not participate in competitions, where there must always be a loser. This way a student does not gain negative feelings about himself or the art because he was declared a loser.
I guess in the beginning all students try to throw someone showing superiority, but through training they change their opinion. In most arts they train to try and take points -whether throwing in judo, punching in karate and striking in kendo. We are seeking more to harmonize with someone with any movement they do. This attitude is completely opposite to "point taking". Of course this does not mean that the throws and other techniques are done softly. People still can have accidents and be hurt.
In the headquarters they have five kyu grades before black belt. In Australia we have eight. Usually in the Hombu it takes about two years to get your black belt and to pass each grading you have to pass tests of basic techniques. In Australia we have a little more emphasis for gradings on how often you train and how hard you train and the circumstances pertaining to each individual - old age, for example.
In Western countries the students take much more interest in the gradings. Therefore if you only have five kyu grades there is a much longer time between gradings and the western student will often feel discouraged. They tend to respond more to incentives and to encouragement. Also at the headquarters we don't have any colored belts, just all white belts up to black
I don't think there is much difference, but possibly in Japan students tend to follow what their instructor says more in blind 1aith, whereas the western student wants to know why with practically everything he does. The western instructor participates more during training than some of his Japanese counterparts, who tend to run a class without any active participation, just based on their seniority in rank. Unless the instructor tries to improve himself his standard becomes very bad.
No trouble at all. Most of the students of Aikido, even when they get to black belt, just keep training rather than showing off they have their black belts. I have been very lucky with the types of students I have training with me.
There would be several hundred registered students but of course these are not all active. There are many students in other states that I visit, especially in Melbourne.
Just over one year.
No, it was primarily the concentrated training that we had to do. Most of the gradings that I did I did not actually do the exam. As we were there all the time we were recommended for the grades only when our instructors thought we had reached the standards required. In those days most people were not particularly interested in doing the tests, which were about two or three times a year. In fact most would not even turn up for the tests and they were hardly worth holding. Then they became rather meaningless.
Now everyone takes tests for all grades. When I left Japan there would be sometimes over 200 doing tests on a particular day. Now there are standardized requirements to fulfill for each grading exam.
The basic principle relates to its literal translation -- "the way of harmony with spirits or universe" or just "harmony".
Ki is a force, a life force, using your body and mind together e.g. when you extend your arm you are extending your Ki. You are trying to use your mental strength.
There are three main methods of demonstration which were developed by Mr. Tohei to try and demonstrate Ki. These are:
I don't think all instructors use the same methods of demonstration. These demonstrations are not actually showing Ki; they only try to help a person to understand the principles involved.
Any demonstration, according to Mr. Ueshiba, is a fake because after throwing someone they should not be able to get up. But to show what we do in Aikido training, we try to demonstrate what we do in class, i.e. with a person on constant attack. We do this to create movement but in reality one would in fact create the movement oneself by moving in on an attacker rather than standing static. There are three ways of training in any martial art. One is form practice. Two: free-style, where either party can initiate an attack. Three: one defends and the other keeps up a non-stop, continuous attack.
We don't take that much notice. It is more or less natural. We do use a breathing method during meditation training which is used as a concentration method. We also don't have anything much like a kiai. Kiai is not used very much in Aikido unless it is created naturally. It is not brought on specifically as in karate. When you kiai you are usually concentrating your body at a particular instant. Aikido movements are not expressed in one instant but take more time. For example, a strong fighting dog does not bark when it attacks, it just uses its own natural breathing, e.g. growling.
The main thing was that your whole life and training was Aikido, with no outside diversions.
We did no actual weight training, but we practiced with items like the Bokken (wooden sword) and Suburi which in fact gave a similar result. Also we did a bit of running and from time to time we even had a makiwara (punching board) on which we practiced atemi (striking) techniques. Mr. Ueshiba never suggested that we do these things but we were young and experimented with some of these methods. We even practiced with the throwing knife or shuriken and various other things. Also we used to watch other martial arts demonstrations to gain a wider knowledge of the arts. We used to do training at the university dojos, which generally had much harder training. Also, we participated in 10-day summer camps which started off early in the day with running, push-ups and jumping as extra training apart from the normal Aikido techniques.
She just came along to training. She was at the headquarters in Japan. Apart from the class for overseas students she used to come along to the regular classes. Originally she came over to practice Kodokan judo.
We were married in 1964 and came to Australia the following year. This was for a couple of reasons: My wife's family was in Australia and at that stage there was no Aikido here at all.
The first class was held in part of a gymnasium at West Ryde in Sydney. The class was made up of about 20 students and half of these had come from a yoga class. At this stage there are two students still training from those very early days.
Slowly but now we have schools in most states. Although we do not have as big a number of students as some of the other martial arts, we certainly have the quality.
No I don't think so. Quite often we have telephone enquiries wanting to know if we teach karate and Kung Fu because a lot of people do not know what Aikido is.
No, not yet, although I will be very shortly. I will be leaving my present job in the next few days to go to Darwin for two weeks of teaching and then off to Japan.
In Darwin they have a Northern Territories Martial Arts Association which includes an Aikido club, run by one of my old brown belt students. They have been wanting me to come up for about the last year but I have been unable to do so due to prior commitments. Previously they had a judo instructor up from Sydney to teach them.
After that I will be going to Japan for three or four weeks but before going to Japan I will be spending two weeks in India. There I will be staying mostly in the temples in the Himalayas, primarily to improve my knowledge of and devote time to meditation.
I think the main point is that I try to explain and show Aikido in a manner that is more adaptable to Western students.
Yes we do, although we have fewer training now than we used to. But they are starting to show more interest in this art now.
I think movement is nicer by women because in Aikido you don't use much physical strength. Sometimes they work very hard. Just the same as some men work very hard if they take their art seriously.
We just roll, whereas in judo they use their arm to stop their fall In Aikido we don't really break our fall; we do more tumbling and rolling to come back on our feet Also, in judo someone usually has to obtain a hold on the opponent in order to use leverage to throw him, whereas in Aikido one aims to redirect the opponent's movement so as to stop his attack.
No. Although we do have some sword and stick techniques that we practice in a pre-arranged fashion, but still not kata in the accepted sense.
No, we feel that training is the best method in which to improve in this area. What weapons do Aikido students practice with? As we mentioned before they are the Bokken (wooden sword) and the Jo (short staff). The weapons that we teach are ones that, if you are caught without or lose your weapon, the movements that the Aikido person does are exactly the same whether armed or unarmed. The students are able to learn these at any grade level whenever the instructor teaches these weapons. One does not have to be a black belt or senior grade before you start to practice with these weapons.
It is one way of keeping more interest among the students. The main thing in it is to realize the importance and similarity between the method of moving and executing techniques with weapons as compared to without weapons. Sometimes when executing just hand techniques. you are unable to see the full meaning behind the hand positioning. But when executing the same techniques with these weapons, yare able to more fully understand the applications.
The weapons style that we practice involves a more flowing circular movement with more follow through with each technique than in some other systems.
The only people who would gain an benefit from going to Japan are those people who are very serious about their training and who would wish to train all day, every day. This facility is not yet available in Australia. For the casual trainee it would be preferable to stay at home as the quality of training is just as good and in some aspects better. For example, there is no language problem and one is more likely to obtain answers to any problem that the student has.
No. We don't use it, although we do practice finger pressure techniques which are related.
Probably the training is not hard enough that they would be able to use it to its fullest effect if a self-defense situation arose. This is because most students do not take Aikido as professional, full-time fighting.
No. Not in the street. But in the early days we used to have matches against students of some other arts. e.g. Nippon Kempo. Although they use some techniques similar to Aikido, most of their training is based on striking techniques. They wore full contact head and chest guards etc. but at very close quarters more throws were employed
Due to my time limitations, up to now I did not have much spare time interest for extra training. I make the most of the classes by actually trying to participate as much as I can in the class. About two or three times a year we have mountain training but this concentrates more on meditation and practice with the use of the Jo and the sword.
It is very difficult to teach meditation. First of all the student should try to experience meditation by doing it rather than just talking about what is meditation and how does it work. Actual participation brings much more worthwhile results. This is one of the main reasons for the mountain training.
They are still growing. With Aikido we seem to cater to a different type of person, mostly those who are more interested in the mental side.
Only if the quality of instruction and the quality of the students could be maintained at the present level. But I don't think it will reach these proportions, mostly because of the type of student we attract. Also, Aikido does not have competition, therefore this limits the amount of publicity and interest in it.
I very much want to widen the established Aikido organization here. I don't necessarily wish to have many students but would like to spread the art more, while keeping a very high standard amongst them.
Submitted by: Bodhi McSweeney (originally written in 2006)
Editors note: Since this article was written there has been extensive activity by the association with regard to gender equality and The Aikido Foundation has sponsored a book outlining the training experiences of a number of female Aikidoka.
(2013 update - Currently AKA has 250 active female members across the country, about a quarter of the total active membership. Four are ranked 6th Dan and four ranked 5th Dan, which are very senior grades. The ratio of black belt holders to training students is twice the number for females than males, 6% of female students hold a black belt rank to only 3% of male students. Go girls!)
Recently a number of women have begun training in the dojo where I practice and I am enjoying the company in the change room as well as the more balanced energy on the mat.
Most of my training years have nearly all been with men, who fortunately were sensitive and caring. I could imagine if they didn’t have these qualities and had been more ‘blokey’, I may have found it harder in the beginning, as I was insecure and lacked confidence. I did have some strong female role models for which I am very thankful.
I have often pondered why so few women train in Aikido. For those women who do take it up I see that there is a need for what I would call a “woman-friendly” culture within the Dojo and for mentoring.
We are taught that there is a no discrimination (or special consideration) made for sex difference — only recognition that individuals have different body types and personalities. I do appreciate this, but feel we must also acknowledge that there are differences between men and women.
Women, for example, have menstrual cycles, and might want to train during pregnancy. A woman trainee might have a baby after starting training and actually be breast feeding during the critical year between 1st Kyu and Shodan. And through all this women will still want to practice authentically.
I wonder about the confusion for men training with us under these conditions. In my experience men want to protect and care for the bearers and nurturers of children; but these men will still want to train authentically with everyone on the mat. Such a situation raises issues for us all to consider. I know we’re addressing this in many places because of the number of trainees I now meet who are women and also mothers.
To me it comes down to caring for others along with respecting their desire to train with you even if they are not as big, small, old, young, strong, fluid or soft as you are. Because we’re all different (and different at different times in our life) the answer probably lies in finding the appropriate training for “this person at this time”. If it’s not right for you or you’re worried about your training partner then please mention your concern so that you both can practice with confidence.
If you do have a problem that you feel isn’t to do with the nature of Aikido but more about someone’s behaviour towards you (another student, instructor or beginner) then my understanding and experience suggests that you can safely take this sort of personal issue to a senior instructor or someone else you trust and it will be treated seriously.
I understand that the Aiki Kai has employed a barrister experienced in equal opportunity issues for sports to help draw up appropriate guidelines for Aikido. She is currently working on this and I think that’s great!
These are my thoughts. In the coming issues I will present reflections from other women in Aikido as well as discussing issues pertinent to women.
If you have anything to say or wish to contribute please contact me, Bodhi McSweeney,
C/O PO Meander 7304, Tasmania.
Through the Aikido Foundation, we will shortly be making available a fascinating book of articles submitted by female Aikido students, 'In Conversation with Aikido Women', recounting their view of the training and their experiences in various dojos around the world. Ed
Submitted by: John Watson Sensei
Recently the Teaching & Technical Committee (TTC) was asked to clarify whether T-shirts, singlets or other similar garments, could be worn underneath gi tops. For normal training in the dojo, the tradition is that men don’t wear anything under the gi top and that women do wear a T-shirt.
However, for cultural, religious or medical reasons it is permissible for males to wear a T-shirt under their gi. Therefore, in those cases, it is polite for males who are required to wear a T-shirt to explain to their instructor the reason for doing so. This notification is particularly important when they visit another class or attend a special training with someone other than their usual instructor.
In that situation, a person should advise the new instructor before the class, that they are aware of the traditional dress code, and then give their reason for not being able to follow it. For both women and men, the T-shirt should ideally be white and plain, and not stand out underneath their gi.
Submitted by: John Rockstrom
At the request of the TTC, Victoria began a pilot shugyo specific class aimed at 18 to 35 year old students. The idea was to replicate the high intensity training that Sugano Shihan often did as part of his early instruction in Sydney. During this training he would wear everyone out to almost complete exhaustion, to empty them of their physical strength and then what was left at the bottom of the well, was Aikido. It was in this space that many of us first began to get a glimmer of what Aikido was really about .
The why of shugyo
Shugyo is often translated as ‘austere training’ meaning a deep, concentrated study period and, in an Aikido sense, continuous intensive training of the techniques. The term shugyo perhaps began in a Buddhist context, describing a sincere, intense level of study of Buddhist scriptures. Highly skilled samurai would undertake ‘musho shugyo’, where they left the comfort and safety of their home dojo and would wander Japan perfecting their technique against all comers. If they were bested they would often join the dojo and learn everything they could from that person. Again, a period in their lives of really intense, continuous study of their form. Sensei didn’t use the term ‘shugyo’ very often but he often included this style of training as part of his early dojo regime
He explained it as the ‘forging’ process where you moved from conscious, analytical or basic training to a more natural, instinctive understanding of movement. In the early days, when he was a dojo instructor, he said this process (shugyo) was necessary to truly understand the nature of Aikido.
How does shugyo vary from normal class training? Answer: It shouldn't! Having said that you need to be aware of what the shugyo mindset is and how it can often differ from what the average student thinks and reacts to training. This may also reflect western and eastern (specifically martial training) views on education.
The how of shugyo
In the west we receive education like hungry baby birds, our beaks wide open, chirping for someone to throw something down our gullet. It is, to a large extent, a passive style of learning, we turn up and expect someone to teach us something, be mentally fed.
In eastern philosophy and in particular shugyo, imagine yourself with a catchers glove and the balls of information/understanding are rapidly flying through the air in all directions. You need heightened concentration, to focus and catch a ball before it whizzes past you. By the time you see it, it may have already flashed past, so you must know to instinctively grab it in flight and then be instantly prepared for the next one. This level of alertness cannot diminish during the whole class, otherwise what gems of information might pass you by?
This metaphor may give you a clue as to the physical and mental agility required when in a shugyo mindset. Your mind is really alert, your eyes searching for every visual clue, where are the instructor's feet and hands positioned, where is the body placed, what was the demeanour of the instructor when the technique was performed, is your body prepared to copy it all as exactly as you can, moving and following naturally. Copy every aspect of the instructor's movements, even to the facial expression.
During a 'normal' class you may turn up and (unintentionally but mindlessly) perform the rote movements you did last week or a year ago. It may be hard physical training but are you really learning all the lessons that are flying past you with every second of the instructor's demonstration and during your own and your partner's movements?
Originally, O Sensei conducted his classes without specific instruction, just demonstrating what he wanted the students to do. The techniques didn't even have names back then! The student had to use his/her eyes, watch everything, copy exactly and concentrate very hard to learn what it all meant. There were no lengthy explanations. When reviewing any texts on martial training by old masters they usually finish a written point with something like..'you must study this intently!' The explanation given was just the starting point for your training, to truly understand it you have to train hard, and constantly look for the real meaning in the movement. During training Sensei would punctuate a movement with the same admonition - 'study this hard!' There are many points to study hard.
Smibert Shihan often says in classes, you don't study Aikido in order to learn it, you learn Aikido in order to be in a position to study it!
In Aikido you could easily confuse 'hard' training with just intense physical effort. The physical nature of shugyo is to be sure your body is obeying the mind, is it adopting the correct posture and position, are the body parts where they should be? Or, is your body doing a vague approximation of what you'd like it to do? Are you really making sure you have the right distance, the hands focussed where they should be, the whole body moving in the correct direction. This is the 'physicalness' of shugyo and Aikido training. Sensei never used physical strength to throw people, although he was very strong, it was always a natural consequence of movement and his energy leading yours. Like a wave picking you up and taking you further towards the beach. When that wave broke on the beach things could get quite exciting. The wave is following a natural course, it is not specifically throwing you on the beach, you are simply caught up in the movement.
The 'power' of the technique is in your understanding of the dynamic of the energy flow between yourself and your partner. If you have to use strong physical force you know you've missed the point! Study harder! Look to see where the energies work together so that one leads and directs, not pushes, the other. There should be no effort. This has to happen at a sub-conscious level, much faster than the conscious mind can step through the process. It has to be instant, reflexive and natural. To gain this level of understanding you need to perform the techniques over and over in a continuous method until the two persons training become one movement, the light and dark, the yin and yang of each other.
Munen, mushin (No thought, no mind). Shugyo.
Shugyo and ukemi
To do all of the above requires good ukes. It is only because uke completely gives of herself/himself that nage can learn to move in this fashion. Once the lessons are internalised, nage will be able to perform the movements regardless of uke's abilities. But, in the early days we all need to be really good ukes. We have to give of ourselves to create movement, follow nage's directions (not ahead or behind them) and be able to fall well and safely. Good ukemi is a essential for shugyo training, it allows you to maintain continuous contact between the two partners. Uke receives the movement, falls and in one flowing motion is back up on the feet attacking again, there is no pause, no loss of connection, between the two partners. Shugyo training should produce excellent ukes. Light and dark, yin and yang.
Submitted by: Annalise Bennett
Magic on the Mats – watching training (mitori geiko) Watching class at Hombu was a beautiful and challenging form of training. Early in the week my body gave me a clear signal that I needed to pay attention to my practical limits (migraine), and so I relaxed into my own pace for the week, watching nearly half the classes for the week. At the back of the main dojo is a beautiful section of wooden flooring. The boards are level with the tatami surface. There are no seats or cushions, so this wooden floor is where people sit to watch. The paper sign on the back-wall requests watchers to sit in a ‘polite’ posture, that is, seiza or cross-legged. Now, I confess, I struggled to always sit politely, especially once I was a little battered and bruised from the training. And yet, the harder it became for me to sit correctly, the more Zen this mitori geiko became for me. From these various states of Zen, there was a potential moment each day that took my breath away.
At about 5:45pm each clear evening, the setting sunlight would begin to shine through a window on the western wall. As it did, it would bathe the entire space in a vibrant orange hue as in a daydream. Gracious and energetic Aikido glowed in this magical haze for a mere ten minutes each day. Lines and edges became soft and blurred, and sound just faded away. The afterglow of this phenomenon had an interesting effect on me too. During the peak of the glow, the hazy light was so bright in my eyes on couldn’t focus on technical details, so I started to watch movement, almost like watching energy flow. Once the sun had set below the window and the glow had passed, I would often stay watching movement rather than technique for quite some time. It was almost like I couldn’t refocus my eyes to technical detail.
This way of watching didn’t last too long either, before the left half of my brain took control again and I started watching for details again, but the enrichment from the glow and afterglow were my most memorable moments of my entire Japanese experience on this trip.
Gomen…?During one class at Hombu I blundered badly enough to have the teaching Sensei chasten and correct me. As I was thrown by this Sensei during class I accidentally clipped his head with my elbow as I rolled past – for which I instantly felt terrible! Mid-air, by default I garbled “Gomen!”. As I finished the roll and turned to face him again, he stopped and looked at me.
‘Gomen’ is not something you say to a teacher. I would never say ‘Gomen’ to Doshu. The correct words would be ‘Gomennasai’, ‘Sumimasen’, ‘Shitsure shimasu’. Just ‘Gomen’ is impolite and can only be said to those of equal or junior standing.
You can perhaps imagine my horror in that moment. And it didn’t stop here. The teacher then stopped between techniques and lectured the entire class, first in Japanese, then in English, expanding on what he had already told me directly. During this lecture, beyond what he’d said to me at the time of incident, he continued on to say that trying to speak by copying Japanese language is a good thing – but certain attention must be paid to specific styles and phrases of speech. This incident had quite an impact on me. In honesty, I was mortified with myself to the point that I nearly lost all confidence to even attempt speaking in Japanese. But as I stewed on this lesson, I began to recognise the honour in it. How fortunate was I that I made this mistake with a teacher who would honestly and openly correct me – so that I could grow. It also curiously opened me to another spiritually impactful moment during the week. After class one morning, I was helping a local woman clean blood off the tatami, and we got chatting. I confessed I was the one who had said ‘gomen’ to that instructor but I then went on say that I was very grateful for the lesson. She was more surprised at my gratitude than I expected. She herself had an experience with this same teacher previously, which had left her very discouraged. As we discussed first my experience and then hers, I could see her beginning to understand what had actually transpired with much more clarity. She had asked a question about a technique, and had been given no direct answer by the teacher and had felt deliberately ignored. The very next morning, he had lectured the class about the subject of questions. She’d been left feeling chastened and discouraged, nearly resolving to never ask a question of him again. Yet by the end of our conversation, she had begun to see the lesson he had tried to teach, and outright acknowledged the flaw in her original question.
This incident and following conversation reaching for clarity became a crystal-clear memory and spiritual moment that I expect to remember for a long time to come. Firstly; pride in myself for giving myself an opportunity to learn a beautiful lesson, and secondly, in sharing that lesson, seeing clarity and peace spreading across features of a new friend. It warmed me to the very soul.
I found the class was gentle, warm and fun. And I mustn’t neglect to mention that it was also wonderful technical training, as every class I witnessed. The teacher during this class was much more descriptive in his demonstrations than I had seen at all in the advanced classes. I also really enjoyed seeing him nurturing and helping the beginners as he moved around the dojo.
He then went on to introduce me to a local Tokyo man and the 3 of us hit a cafe for a chat one morning. The man had originally lived close to Hombu and had trained regularly, but had now married and become a father. To better accommodate his growing family, they had moved far out of the city into a larger home. Where he now lived was a full 1.5-hour commute from Hombu, crossing a mix of buses and trains. He spoke how this new distance from Hombu had challenged him – as he lost most opportunity for his most favoured stress relief (Aikido). His stress had actually progressed to the point where, when we met, he was on a full month of paid stress leave from his job – and he was fully capitalising on using the time to get some extra training in, despite the commuting time and complexity.
At one point during our conversation, he mentioned he was really keen for his daughter to train Aikido too. Out of curiosity I asked him to elaborate his reasoning. For him, Aikido teaches women confidence and self-defence, marvellous skills for a woman to have in a still largely patriarchal society. He truly wanted this for his daughter, and I appreciated how closely it matched reasons some women have for joining Aikido in Australia.
A friend from Taipei.At the completion of the women’s class, I got talking with a yudansha who turned out to be from Taipei. She’d studied in America and her English was flawless, so we had a really good chat. She was in Tokyo for a week due to work, and had scheduled her meetings to allow her to attend the women’s classes. I was curious to hear the reasons why these women only attended these women-only classes, so I quizzed her for her own. As anticipated, it was a “confidence thing”, but not in the shape I’d expected.
She had graded to shodan some years earlier, then a life event had stopped her training completely for a number of years. She had returned to training in recent times and now lacked confidence in her technique. She avoided training with men as she had the impression that men felt limited/held back and thus didn’t want to train with her. She’d also briefly tried the beginner classes which had also left her very uncomfortable. The beginners had mimicked her movements as she trained with them, and she was left feeling horribly lacking as they followed her even when she had done something quite poorly. Left feeling caught utterly in the middle, the women’s classes were the safest option, as the broader range of grades participating and the smaller class numbers left her feeling more supported and less likely to lead juniors astray. I felt her story was worth sharing here, as a very specific and fascinating example of why someone would attend the women’s classes. She was quite capable of attending the advanced classes, and had no fear of men. She simply wanted a safe space to re-familiarise herself with Aikido.
Ultimately, my entire time in Japan was delightful, challenging, and a complete and utter joy and honour. I met wonderful people from all over the world, while getting to know some fellow Australians a whole lot better too. Thank you!