Some memories of Tamura shihan

One day I was practicing with my friend near the front corner near the door close to the stairwell in Hombu. We were doing suwari-waza shomen-uchi ikkyo. I believe it was midway through the class, when a man came near to join us. He paired with me first. When he did shomen-uchi, he didn’t bring his hand close to my forehead, or even form a hand-blade. He made a brief, quick shomen-uchi movement, but ending with his hand more or less in front of my face and his forefinger out.

I immediately didn’t like this behavior or this guy. I resigned myself to trying out some ways of doing the technique that he would find acceptable. I tried by making contact with his hand, then his forefinger. Each time, he took his hand away, motioning me to try again. My ASU-ness came out at that point, and I moved slightly to his front-side and hit him (lightly) in the face/head with my hand-blade. He did not respond at all, instead keeping his hand there. Not only that, the next few repetitions of that were just repeats. (I might have hit him incrementally harder.) I was exasperated. I think we mutually gave up on each other at that point. I resolved to start doing  ikkyo with the circumstances I was given, to the extent that I could maintain my physical composure, and not even consider completing the technique or even communicating anything to him (eg one-upping him somehow). On his end, he stopped doing anything else except “take ukemi” and more or less fall over as if I had done ikkyo.

After the class was over, and we were folding our hakamas, my friend comments to me, “You were angry today (at that person), weren’t you?” I paused for a second to realize what my friend might have seen from her perspective. I replied, “Yeah. I mean, what the hell was that all about?” Then she says, “You didn’t know that was Tamura shihan, did you?” Pause. (“… Oh.”), but I decided that it was still ridiculous behavior, that there was no way we could have practiced with the way he was sticking his arm out.

At the time, I had only a vague knowledge of Tamura sensei while I was living near and practicing at Hombu. I knew he would drop in on keiko once in a while, but I had no interest. I had this prejudice that so many middle-aged and older men – even shihan – in aikido were arrogant yet unskillful and consequently a feeling of jadedness and dismissiveness toward such folks.

Tamura sensei would continue to visit periodically, but I hardly noticed. One time, my mother happened to be visiting Japan and was observing a class. At the end of class, what do I see but my mom chatting up Tamura sensei. Before I can magically disappear, my mom waves me over and more or less says, “Hey, this nice man’s child is studying in such and such a place in the US, near where we live. How about that?” I have no idea if he remembers me smacking him in the face. Not only is it a situation of, “Do they remember me? Do I act like I’ve never seen them before?”, but also in the mix is parent-embarrassing-their-child-in-a-way-only-parent-can and “This time I know who he is, so I can’t act like he’s just another dude”. In the end, he didn’t let on and I just waited for the awkward moment to end. (As it happens, my mom did a similar thing when Yamada sensei visited, I think twice, but I did not get drawn in to those conversations.)

As I attended Miyamoto sensei’s keiko and hung out with his group on Friday evenings more and more, I gradually dropped my dislike for Tamura sensei. It helped to see that Miyamoto sensei seemed to be on pretty good terms with Tamura sensei. Also, I paid more attention to Tamura sensei’s aikido, including what I could see of it at Hombu.

(Another side note: it was likely after the IAF seminar or some other period when there were a lot of visitors to Hombu. During one of Yasuno sensei’s morning classes, there was this guy visiting from Europe somewhere. He sort of blocks my technique and slaps me on the shoulder, smiling, indicating clearly that I’m using too much strength in my shoulders. The way he did this and moved generally, I was left with the impression that he was a Tamura sensei student. At the time, I keep it together and proceed executing the technique in my way, not throwing him harder or blocking him or anything. Shortly after that, Yasuno sensei calls me up for ukemi in the way that he does, when basically he’s throwing a bunch of people one after the other, and he’s three feet in front of you when he indicates you’re next. Bam bam bam bam. When we’re off to the next thing, my partner is wide-eyed and pale. After keiko, I think on that and realize, maybe this guy got intimidated by all the hard falls. Or that I would start doing that to him? It just went to show, don’t go into some stranger’s house and start telling them what to do.)

I’m pretty sure it was not the first time I was out socially with Miyamoto sensei and company when Tamura sensei was there. In any case, one evening it was in the small sushi place at Nukebenten intersection near the dojo, and pretty few of us: other than the senseis and Tamura sensei’s wife, it was me and one or two others, with some people later. As would be typical for me, I was just focused on enjoying the food and sake.

I was slowly and intermittently invited into the conversation, but for the most part listened. Close to the end of dinner, for some reason I felt the compulsion to share with Tamura sensei my new found grasp and appreciation of his aikido. What I tried to say was that there seemed to be a lot about his aikido that I could not grasp, and that I needed to keep thinking on it more deeply. What came out was something along the lines of, “Sensei! I have my doubts about your aikido!” Miyamoto sensei slaps me upside the head. Tamura sensei turns to him and goes, “Geeeez! What is up with this guy?” In my drunken state I don’t fully appreciate how poorly my intended message got out. In the end, though, Tamura sensei did not seem to mind in any substantial way – maybe he could tell I had drunkenly fumbled my words – and Miyamoto sensei heard me out later as to what I had been trying to say.

One night, in Miyamoto sensei’s Friday keiko, with me approaching my move back to the US, Miyamoto sensei convinces Tamura sensei to take over his class from the start. I totally perk up at this. I had had a revelation midway through my experience in Japan how much my mind and body had become something of a vessel to be filled through a large mouth, through ukemi. I knew I would get something out of it if Tamura sensei would throw me even once. As it happened, other than Namba, he used as ukes all of the foreigners who hung out with Miyamoto sensei. When he motioned to me, I did my best to wipe away any excitement or preconception that could make my attack and response biased or obscured. I don’t know why – maybe it was sensei’s atmosphere – but I felt no reservation about striking as hard as I liked, as well as taking my time to strike properly, despite his being visibly smaller and skinnier than me. But the way he executed the technique felt like it was all somehow completely irrelevant. I wasn’t bewildered or unaware in the moment, but it was definitely a feeling of moving a lot and falling down but not being able to discern the reason for this. I’m at a loss for words to describe it other than to say it was a very good ikkyo omote.

(The choice of ikkyo had several additional layers of meaning for me. For one, I’ve felt it exemplifies most clearly the biggest potential opposition of force, and I’m always curious to see how teachers execute it and whether there’s any true reconciling of energy. Accordingly, this technique feels like it reveals to me, as uke, very clearly the nage’s use of strength and any lack of skill. There is no getting out of the way and using of momentum, like in iriminage.)

As I’ve looked back on the course of events, I can’t say whether it was any of us trying to do or be anything – it was just how things played out. I’m no less grateful, selfishly, that I went from smacking Tamura sensei in the face to receiving a precious technique from him.

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