Through the years, I have often wondered what it would have been like to grow up a young boy in Japan. Playing samurai, beating my playmates with limbs cut from trees. Becoming an uchi deshi to a Great Teacher and learning Kendo, Judo and maybe even Aikido. Carrying O-Sensei’s bags, cleaning his home, working in his fields, and taking ukemi for years before he would let me practice. Having peers like Tohei, Abe, Saito, Yamada, Kanai and Chiba.
The training practices of O-Sensei have been described by Chiba Sensei as “katai-keiko” (vigorous training without holding back). Chiba Sensei has many times said the practice left the students bruised and bloody. Katai-keiko included intense conditioning exercises, which O-Sensei would often observe. There was also, general farm work that uchi deshi at the Iwama dojo were required to participate in. Both Morihiro Saito Sensei and Chiba Sensei spent time at the Iwama dojo training.
O-Sensei didn’t have a teaching curriculum for weapons and body arts. He would order an attack with bokken and in an instant, uke would find himself on the floor and O-Sensei would have the bokken. He would order a strike to the face, and suddenly he would strike with an atemi, throw and pin so hard that people reported feeling that their chest was going to explode. Or O-Sensei would direct a strike with a tanto and…well….I’ll leave the result to your imagination.
I have been fortunate to have learned weapon concepts from many artists of the Japanese sword, staff and knife. O-Sensei never documented his weapons so his uchi deshi had to interpret their understanding of his weapons. My training has been influenced by three schools; Saito’s methods, Yasuo Kobayashi and now Chiba Sensei.
Saito Sensei was the first and his commitment to carrying on O-Sensei’s legacy and preserve O-Sensei’s teachings as Saito had learned them was evident whenever he spoke. In the many Saito seminars I attended, I often heard him talk about how the principles of swordsmanship formed the basis of Aikido techniques. These principles are very evident when you view Chiba Sensei’s swordsmanship. However, while the principles are the same, the interpretations are different.
When I first viewed weapons training at Bucks County, my impression was that they were the same principals. Kumi Tachi as taught by Sensei and as taught by Saito Sensei looked and felt alike. Yes and no. The 36 jo movements (Chiba) and the 20 jo suburi (Saito) are foundation movements, very similar, the names are different but then Japanese words usually have different meanings depending on the concept the Sensei is trying to convey. Herein lies the dilemma.
We usually think of the levels of Aikido understanding in terms of form, function and effectiveness. Chiba Sensei describes his goal as being able to face a trained swordsman with an empty hand and take his sword. Most of us would be killed. If you train all your life with sincerity and purpose, you may be able to achieve aiuchi (mutual death). The practice required is Katai-keiko as demonstrated in the Sansho katas. The ability to take the sword from a trained swordsman is that of an artist.
Saito Sensei believed that striking techniques (atemi) are a “vital element” of Aikido, and advocated training to deal with the attacks from other martial arts, such as the kicks practiced in karate. I know firsthand the devastation of atemi delivered by Toyota and Kanai Senseis. Saito Sensei believed that the basis of all empty-handed, sword, and staff techniques was the mastery of Aikido’s hanmi (basic posture) and mai’ai (proper distance). Saito also believed in the development a proper Kiai (spirit shout) which when you heard it, was enough to disarm you (cutting your Ki).
Recently, at noon class, Lyons Sensei has been working on Sansho. I always thought I had a strong foundation, patience, technique to stop most uke and the ability and relaxation to take ukemi from anybody and not get hurt.
The Birankai methodology is intense. In the moment of truth, time stands still, and the technique is explosive and devastating. It is not like the overwhelming technique of Yamada and Toyota, or the precision of Kanai and Tohei. It is well suited for Lyons, Champion and Nour Senseis; Chiba’s influence is clear.
Sansho is slowly revealing its subtleties to me, exposing my openings. I feel the need to go back to the 36 jo movements and the 20 jo suburi to polish my sword and discipline my spirit. It will no doubt take many more years of dedication. I may never be able to take Chiba or Lyons Sensei’s swords. But that does not matter. I am on the path. My journey continues.