I first heard of sensei just before my second visit to Hombu Dojo. (I think it was the trip the summer before my senior year in college; the other was the summer before starting college.) I mentioned to Martin, who had trained in Japan when he was in the Navy way back when, about my trip and he reminisced about his teachers. He asked me to say hello to Endo and Ichihashi sensei. I was young and socially still uncomfortable about everything, basically, but I took his request somewhat seriously. During that visit, I vaguely remember having attended Ichihashi sensei’s class at least once but it was in the morning and at the time it didn’t leave me with a strong enough impression to commute all the way from Kashiwa, where I was staying.
When I moved to Japan I tried to attend as many of the teachers’ keiko as possible. Ichihashi sensei actually talked a bit in his keiko. He was also the person in charge of grading examinations. When I tested for 2-dan, a fellow student, an Israeli named Yarlon (sp?) also tested for 4-dan. He is tall and his style is very relaxed and his movement long and expansive. His test was very smooth and beautiful, everyone who saw it agreed. However, to everyone’s surprise, he did not pass. At the end of the examinations, sensei gave his usual speech about how we should always be practicing basics, that those basics allow us to grow and learn more, like learning basic math allows us to proceed to more difficult operations, and that he is always telling us this. He also said that he was available later if anyone wanted to asked about their test. Although I passed, I wanted to know what sensei was thinking and why the man seemed so perpetually exasperated with everyone.
The next Wednesday morning, after sensei’s keiko, while I waited downstairs for him, Yarlon showed up also. (Of course it was more obvious why he was there so we just waited quietly for a minute or two.) When we finally sat down in front of sensei, the main thing I remember him talking about was how people lacked “meri hari”. He may have also implied how Yarlon’s test did not sufficiently exhibit basic technique. Near the end, I wanted to confirm what I thought I was hearing, which was that in a higher rank examination, such as for 4-dan, one should still do techniques in the same way as in their earlier tests, and that one should not think about moving the opponent, but only think about moving oneself.
This piece about whether to focus on moving the opponent was directly contrary to what I had heard from Ikeda sensei, and in general the instruction in the US, so it was something I had to make an effort to wrap my head around. I now understand that sensei’s view was traditional in the sense that one should strive to not deviate from the basic forms, and that one’s level and progress would simply “leak out”. Regarding “meri hari”, which means something like “hustle and bustle”, I think that, according to sensei’s sense of aesthetics, aikido should look a little more sharp, fast, and possibly erring on the side of being rough.
There was a related concern, which didn’t come up for myself or Yarlon but did often arise for others who were anxious about testing: weapons. Everyone lamented that we never practiced weapons in normal keiko nor did we have opportunity to learn anything from the instructors. So, how unfair was it to demand that we be capable in examinations with respect to weapons? Sensei’s opinion, as he explicitly stated repeatedly, was that our normal everyday practice of basics should be done in such a way that it is applicable to all situations, whether it is katate-dori, ryote-dori, striking, or weapons takeaways. I understood the rational and agreed with it for the most part, but I could also see the obvious fact that most students are not up to using their imaginations in such a way and that it is helpful to have opportunities to practice a distance that is so far from the opponent’s body and/or an extension of the opponent’s body, the weapon, that may involve a different sensation than that of a human body, even considering the variety of partners e.g., stiff, tall, etc.
In sensei’s keiko, Namba-san would regularly attend and be the first uke, the first technique being shomen-uchi iriminage. At this point I’ve made a mental note to ask Namba-san why he attended Ichihashi sensei’s keiko. Sensei only threw me once. It was one of the very few times I had no idea what happened and I hit my head on the floor. I had both my hands holding his wrist, this arm started to point up as for iriminage, then whoom! More than anything I wondered why he didn’t throw more people around. I think it would have made his point, that basic or basic-looking technique can be very refined, much clearer.
One of my last memories of sensei was at the lastor one of the last grading examinations. As he made his usual post-exam speech, he actually demonstrated a little bit with the shidoin who was there, which was rare. He looked thin and his skin bluish. After demonstrating that little bit – maybe one throw, two tenkans – he started to lose his breath and actually became bluer. I remember sitting there thinking, “Ohmygodohmygod, he’s going to die right in front of us, he’s going today.” He had not been teaching his usual keiko – Takezawa sensei had been subbing for the past few months – so that was the last time I saw him in the dojo. I saw him once walking toward the Tokyo Women’s Medical University Hospital, which I lived next door to and so passed in front of in order to go to the dojo. It shocked me to see him look even unhealthier than when I had seen him previously. I won’t say that that time I saw him in the dojo at the exams was my last chance to see him. I could have made myself the opportunity to find him just to thank him for challenging my thinking and having a primary influence on my perspective on basics and the pedagogy of aikido.