Aikido training in Japan

Visiting 8th Dan

This week Sensei mentioned that an 8th Dan (8th degree black belt) was coming to visit, and we could join a training session on Friday at 1:00 if we wanted to meet with him. The only problem was I had school during that time. But because my high school is so close to the dojo and my Fridays are not very busy, I could manage to sneak away for an hour unnoticed and visit the dojo; which is exactly what I did.

To make things more interesting than this visiting Sensei being a 8th Dan in Aikido, was that he was also an 8th Dan in Kenpo! I learned that my Sensei here is a 3rd Dan in Kenpo as well, which explains a lot about his approach to the martial arts. His path is not just about Aikido, but about something much bigger.

I arrived at the dojo around 1:45 and discretely took a seat to the side to watch. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my gi, so I didn’t physically participate. Before arriving, I was trying to imagine what an 8th Dan in Aikido and Kenpo would look like, and similar to my experience with Tame the tea man, this visiting Sensei was far from some ultra-reserved sharp disciplinarian I envisioned. When I first saw him, he reminded me immediately of Masaaki Hatsumi, the current grandmaster of ninjutsu. The Sensei (I forgot his name, but I’ll get it later and post it) was a short man of average Japanese build. He was probably about 5’5” and weighed 130 lbs. As soon as he recognized my presence, he walked over to me with a hand in the air and a big smile introducing himself. I formally introduced myself in Japanese and then shook his hand exchanging smiles. He was a very kind man who teaches his life work of martial arts with enthusiasm, and probably loves to drink sake. Again, I don’t know where the ultra-reserved sharp disciplinarian Japanese master is, but I have seen nothing of it while I’ve been in Japan, and find the reality much more interesting. If I had seen the Sensei just standing there, I would guess he would be about 50, but he moved better than most fit 30 year olds, and is actually 72 years old. This is an amazing testament to the effects martial arts training can have on longevity. To become an 8th Dan in Aikido and Kenpo takes extreme time and dedication, and this has given him great physical benefits.

Anyway, on to the training. There were only three other participants: my Sensei, Hosogoshi (best buddy black belt in class), and another guy who earned his black belt with my Sensei earlier, but left and has been training in Kenpo with another Sensei lately. A couple months back I met him at a barbecue and talked to him for a long time about varieties of martial arts. Everyone was dressed in their gi, but no hakama as it wouldn’t fit the more Kenpo oriented training they were doing. I have to say, it was really strange to see Sensei and Hosogoshi without their hakama on.

There were long periods of talking, and then the three participants would practice movements for a few minutes with each other with comments from the Sensei. For the time I was there, they were working on irimi movement against snap kicks. As one partner would execute a snap kick, the other partner would move toward the opponent to one side with the opponent still facing the direction of the kick, and the person doing irimi facing the opponent’s center square on. That is irimi. This is a very common movement in Aikido, and is present in many other martial arts. In my experience in Hawaiian Kenpo, this is seen in moving to a forty-five degree angle to counter an attack. But in Aikido, recently I have been practicing the lateral movement much smaller, and ending almost 90 degrees to the opponent with my center towards his. It was interesting to watch the varieties of movements executed by the participants. My Sensei did movements I have seen him do before, which he does very well. In class we usually do irimi and then step through the opponent with our shoulder which is very Aikido-like, but for practical reasons, Sensei says that if this happened in reality, he would do irimi and shoot a right cross right into the opponent’s face. When he does this, it looks extremely powerful and effective, though I have questions about the rotation of the hips in this. When it was Hosogoshi’s turn, his movements were very fluid and relaxed like a good Aikidoka should be, but he had trouble finding more practical applications because he doesn’t have much experience in other areas compared to Aikido I think. As for the other guy, his movements were far too big, and when he loaded up to deliver a punch, his arms was crunched up and wrist limp, which in reality would result in breaking your own bones. From this I see the need to practice striking by making contact with pads or boards and not just practicing waza in the air or holding back with an opponent. Also, the potential drawback to internalizing such large movements that are prevalent in Aikido.

What the visiting Sensei had to say about this was that we must practice irimi with the smallest angle possible. This is made especially clear in practicing jo (short staff) movements. By using the smallest angle possible, we are using the least amount of motion and thus effort, and getting as close to the opponent as possible. The proximity made has great advantages for striking the opponent with punches, elbows, knees, headbutts, and also throws. This is where the Kenpo really came into view and dominated the training session. If we evade and make large movements making a big gap between you and the opponent, it is very difficult to end the confrontation. Nothing can happen when there is distance between you. When fights are physically ended, they are ended in close quarters. Here we find a great rift in opinions about the purpose of training martial arts. I think it’s safe to say that in most martial arts, when there is confrontation, the desirable end is to end the confrontation (Interesting that in sport, the martial artist seeks confrontation in more matches). One possible view (probably used in Kenpo most often) is to end the fight with force; physically disabling the opponent with force. Perhaps in the philosophy of Aikido, force is not used to end a fight, but more so time or by successful evasion through executing throws and body manipulation. If that is the case, then space is good, and practicing striking is contrary to the aim. Perhaps if someone attacks you, with Aikido you evade the attacks until the opponent decides to give up.

I guess you have to find your own opinion of the best way to end a fight.

At one point while the participants were practicing, I talked briefly with the Sensei, and mentioned that I understand we should use as small of movements as possible, but it is difficult to manage because so often we practice such large movements in Aikido. The Sensei mentioned that these big movements in Aikido are beautiful in their grace and idealogies, but are not effective in physically ending fights. Take a look at the hakama Aikidoka wear, they look very cool and make the movements seem even more beautiful, but can be very inconvenient and impractical in physical confrontation. (I still want one though). Here I saw very clearly how dangerous it is to only practice Aikido. A couple nights ago, Sensei told me the goal of practicing Aikido is practicing Aikido. If this is your only goal, then only practicing Aikido is fine. But if you are seeking self-defense or a wider understanding of the movements of the body, one should supplement their training with another style. For me, that is incredibly necessary. I look forward to a time that I return to a broader training in different styles, but for now, it’s just Aikido, Aikido, Aikido.

From this experience, I was able to remember my own past martial arts experiences, and that is very important. I should not forget all of the time I have worked on striking, and not submit everything to Aikido.

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One thought on “Visiting 8th Dan

  1. good breakdown; good honesty from Sensei, too… i have seen the flow and movements of aikido mixed with both goju and japanese jiu-jitsu and it was very effective…

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