Thoughts on ‘Interview with Aikido Shihan Nobuyuki Watanabe’

Q: Do you remember your impression of taking the Founder’s hand for the first time?

A: Well…I couldn’t grab it. (laughing) I was already sucked in and thrown. He would slip right in, and at the moment our eyes met my body would be moving and I would be thrown.

This is consistent with the other-worldly experience I’ve had with Saotome sensei. Something was happening to my mind and my movement without physical contact and without anything evident in what he was doing. One of the clearest memories I have was going toward him to do a front kick, being very conscious of the speed and force because a) I was not used to kicking, b) I wasn’t sure what he wanted, c) I wasn’t sure I could handle just anything – that is, if I went very forcefully, I might not be able to handle his proportional response. In the midst of kicking about medium speed, the sensation was that of knowing my speed hasn’t changed, nor had my mind perceiving things in real time, yet I felt I was moving in slow-motion and he was moving leisurely.

More generally, this experience is one where you feel that what’s actually happening isn’t proportional nor does it even really correlate to what you can see and perceive.

Q: Like iron sand drawn to a magnet?

A: That reaction is a Budo reaction. Reaction moves right into movement. People today don’t have that sensitivity. The Founder would suddenly look at your eyes, and people whose reaction was slow wouldn’t be used for a while, so there was a sense of tension that we always had to be watching the Founder’s hands and feet. The Founder would make skillful use of the energy of people’s watching.

Q: Is it different nowadays?

A: It’s different. When I was there it was just at the time when the number of students from the general public were beginning to increase, and the atmosphere gradually changed. Originally Aikido was something practiced by people who had already trained in another Budo and were seeking to improve their skills. When the focus became people without any athletic experience things changed. So now when you say “grab my wrist” there are people who ask “Why should I grab it?”. (laughing) For that reason, in times past ukemi was not taught, everybody just took it naturally.

Q: Who among your Sempai influenced you the most?

A: Of course, Osawa sensei.

Kisaburo OsawaKisaburo Osawa sensei (大澤喜三郎) at the All Japan Aikido Demonstration in 1979

Q: Osawa sensei’s name has come up quite a few times in this series of articles, what kind of a teacher was he?

A: He was like a Zen Buddhist monk. (laughing) Maybe you could call him the head clerk – at the time he was the Dojo organizer. His Aikido was soft, but severe. He taught the Kenpei Tai (“Military Police Corps”) during the war, so there was severity in the midst of his kindness. I took ukemi during a demonstration at the Hibiya Kokkaido, but after the demonstration was over he took me to Hombu Dojo and made me take ukemi for one straight hour. “What you’re doing isn’t ukemi. Ukemi isn’t being thrown.” he said.

I myself have heard Osawa sensei’s name mentioned a lot, and from the little video footage I’ve seen (of him moving relatively slowly and delicately/nimbly), he is an enigma that holds my interest. But hearing the different words that different people use when talking about him feels like a big piece of a puzzle.

Q: What did he mean?

A: He meant that just because one is thrown doesn’t mean that it is ukemi. Just flying away isn’t ukemi. “Ukemi is to feel the technique of your partner and detect where they are trying to drop you” he said.

Q: Does that mean that ukemi is training in grasping a sense of your partner?

A: If you think about it, that’s it. Being thrown is that kind of training, that’s why Aikido training is made that way. It’s no good if you are just throwing or being thrown like an object, and being proactive and throwing yourself doesn’t work either. It is training in feeling and detecting a sense of your partner at the time. Now we have training in throwing and training in being thrown. Both sides ought to be working on their sensitivity, but they just cut it off and throw. I didn’t understand that at the time. That’s why I got thrown for an hour straight back then while being scolded “No good! No good!” – but at the end I was told “OK!”. I’ve never been scolded for that again since that time. It was a valuable experience.

Q: He was a very interesting teacher, wasn’t he?

A: Yes, he was. It wasn’t just the physical practice, it was training in seeing things. For example, when we entered a coffee shop together he would point at one of the customers and say “Hey, who do you think is stronger, you or me?”. When they said “Huh?” and looked confused he’d say “It’s no good unless you understand right away. Train until you understand right away!”. (laughing) Or he would say “If you think that I’m stronger than you then train again!”. (laughing)

Q: It certainly seems like a Zen Mondo (*Translator’s Note: question and answer dialogue). What words of the Founder do you most remember?

A: He mostly spoke about the Gods. What I most remember is “It’s the navel!”. But I didn’t understand at first, there were many things that I only understood after studying bonesetting. The navel stands in the center, when walking or sitting. The navel is history, it connects you to your parents and your ancestors.

Q: You have often said “Move like a ball around your navel” in your explanations, and “Lift up your shoulders and breathe firmly”.

The idea, or image, of a ball has come together for me in two different ways, primarily in relation to my experience with Ikeda sensei.

One is the ball as the center, and accordingly, the ability to “move” 360 degrees, in all directions. Striving to realize the small waza that Ikeda sensei was working on for a long time helped to realize this.

The other is more recent, connected with his teaching not to let the opponent feel or see what you’re doing. If your wrist is held, while betraying no change to your partner, you imagine a ball bearing rolling down your body into his. Where and how in your body, and where and how in his? These latter questions were up to the student to figure out, but Ikeda sensei’s words seemed to make sense anyway to me.

A: That’s right. It’s because one raises their shoulders slightly than their shoulders can move easily. It is because one breathes firmly that they can stand firmly. If you think about standing normally, one rests on the surface standing like a stick. If you think of the navel, it is the line of the pelvis. Everything above the navel stretches upwards, everything below stretches downwards. This is the real way to stand. That is why we can walk in the shape of an “X”.

Q: You mean standing actively rather than just as an object that has been placed there?

A: That’s right. Then one can move because their back is filled with air. If you don’t have that your knees won’t move. The place where you are standing is “The Floating Bridge of Heaven” (天の浮橋), and I believe that place is alive. For that reason it is important to first become like a ball and stand firmly.

The idea of “michiru”, or to fill / be filled, has been important to me. Often you hear of dropping your weight or your center, of being relaxed and empty, and of not doing things i.e., the negative. However, I’ve been finding that a certain way of being full, extending, expanding, and being tense or having tension has been crucial. In regards to O-sensei’s words (which I was initially hearing through the Hikitsuchi sensei lineage), the idea of being between and connecting heaven and earth i.e., extending up and down at the same time, seems to support all of this.

Q: The Founder often spoke of things related to the Kojiki.

A: That’s right. Once the Founder brought a human anatomical chart and and explained with the Kojiki in one hand. He said things like “the Naohi (“correct mind” / 直霊) is here” while pointing to the muscles and bones – he really explained quite clearly. At the time, however, I just thought “What is this?”. It was just the one time so I don’t really remember many details.

Q: Perhaps for the Founder the structure of the Kojiki and the structure of the human body were the same?

A: Rather then anything that he said, what I remember well is the Founder’s Kiai.

Q: His Kiai?

A: I remember it well. It wasn’t the normal “Ei!”, first there was an intake of breath like drawing a bow, then there was a “Iei-ei!” sound that felt like it was pulling at you. His voice wasn’t a straight line, it was a spiral voice. His abdomen would rotate and issue his voice. I remember that well.

Q: What about the Founder? Did you notice the Founder changing?

A: From what I saw I don’t really know, but once in morning practice he said “I’m sorry, what I taught you yesterday was mistaken. The Gods scolded me in my dreams.”.

Q: The Founder?!

A: Yes, and then he showed us, but we couldn’t understand what was different. (laughing) The form was probably the same, but mentally the inside must have been different.

Q: I’ve heard that the Founder disliked being asked “could you show me that one more time?”.

A: That’s right. So he was strongly opposed to Kata practice like “do this and then do this”.

Q: It was OK if each time was different?

A: Yes, it was. “Ichigo ichie” (一期一会 / “once in a lifetime”) – from moment to moment in the technique the body is moved by the mind so one cannot do the same thing twice. At the moment that O-Sensei entered the Dojo his body would expand in a flash and the vibrations of his presence would spread through the room. He wasn’t teaching, it was his own personal training, so he would expand his feelings firmly in all directions. It’s different if one is trying to teach. For that reason I don’t try to teach either. It’s training. When one tries to teach the level of training goes down.

Q: Your own personal training?

A: But you can’t train by yourself, you know. A long time ago I was training at Hombu and everybody said that I felt heavy. Even O-Sensei said “You’re heavy. You’re just practicing for yourself. That’s why it’s no good. First, become an iron ball. Next, become a golden ball. Gold melts easily and is soft. That’s why it good to work with.”. That’s why you must stretch out your senses each time and think about what you’re doing.


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