I first saw an Aikido class in the UK in late 1983 and was immediately fascinated by the Art. I was returning to Japan from Los Angeles where I had been on a two week training course with Berlitz Translation Services. I had been given the task of setting up Berlitz Translation Services in Tokyo as a division of Berlitz Schools of Languages in Japan. Not bad for a guy who did not speak any Japanese, which would have been helpful, but in no way did that stop me from doing the task I was assigned.
When interviewing freelance interpreters I met a rather big American guy who was a 3rd Dan in Aikido, following the interview he and I spoke about Aikido and he invited me to come to the dojo and watch the class. I was very keen and as arranged I met him at the Dojo where he gave me a rather large Dogi and told me to put it on. I was then taken into the Dojo where I was introduced to Asoh Kinjo sensei, a 7th Dan Aikikai Shihan teaching at Minato-ku Aikikai in Tamachi chi, Tokyo. Asoh sensei was 76 at the time and had started Aikido when he was 53 years old. Although Asoh sensei spoke English fluently, the Aikido training was all in Japanese and as mentioned above I could not speak Japanese. You might think this was a bit of a disadvantage, I certainly did at first, but soon changed my mind. Throughout that first class all I did, under the direction of Akasaka sensei, the Dojo Cho (manager), was to fall down and stand up again occasionally leaving the Dojo to throw up in the changing room.
Because I could not learn through my ears I had no option but to learn through my eyes, by carefully watching what Asoh sensei was doing and trying my best to mimic what he and my Sempai were doing. Because I could not understand what was being said I had to pay much closer attention in class than the students who spoke and understood Japanese. This turned out to be a huge advantage for me, not least because when the teacher told me off I could not understand what he was saying and could not therefore take any offence. My Sempai would later, in a more polite manner, show me what I was doing wrong and help me to correct my errors.
Through my close observation I was also able to see which of the students most closely resemble the way the teacher was doing Aikido and tried wherever possible to train with them. At the end of the class the teacher allowed the students about 30 minutes of free time to practice Aikido. Later he would come out to observe and give some informal advice, at that time he would speak in both Japanese and English.
In Japan one of the traditional ways in which the student learns from the master is to ‘steel the art’. The master does not formally teach, but allows the student (apprentice) to work alongside him and allows the student to ‘steel’ the art, when the student has picked up something in a ‘wrong way’ that is when the master will correct him.
During those free practice periods I tended to take uke from a Japanese Sempai called Kisawa san, a 3rd Dan, he was a Japanese traditional carpenter, he looked and behaved very much like a Japanese Yakuza (mafia) and did not seem to be very keen on foreigners, but he could not refuse if I asked him to practice with me. As uke you learn a lot from your Sempai, but you have to first learn to be a good uke. I tended to go before I was thrown. Kisawa san had a word with Akasaka sensei who told me what I was doing wrong, gradually I corrected this and the relationship between Sempai and his uke grew. I am very grateful to Kisawa san for his guidance and patience. Kisawa san had very kind eyes and smile when he smiled which was not a lot at first.
We students had the privilege two or three times a week to share food, drinks and great conversation with Asoh sensei. He said three things to us about training two of which sound contradictory, but were not when you understood the point he was making.
He said ‘you cannot see Aikido you can only feel it’ what he meant was that the power of an Aikidoka cannot be seen, but can only be felt, this power is known as Kokyu Ryoku (the power of breath) moving from the centre and lower body, with the arms soft and free of strength and using one breath through the movement.
He also talked about the power of Aikido coming from the legs, the turning of the hips, while maintaining your centre. What he was saying was that when looking at Aikido you have to have the “eyes to see” to know what to look at and what to emulate, this is the power that is generated from the lower body movements. Asoh sensei often spoke fondly about his favourite Sumo Wrestler at that time a Yokozuna (highest sumo rank) named Chiyonofuji Mitsugu who died at the age of 61. See link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDSpiTma6Kk Asoh Sensei always said he was not the biggest Sumo, but he had the most amazing lower body power and that was why he was such a successful Yokozuna.
Asoh sensei also talked about Miru Keiko (to see practice). When you are injured and cannot train you can always come and watch the training which can often be very beneficial for an Aikidoka as long as you know what to watch.
Billy McAuley, Asoryu Aikido Club, Huddersfield, UK. 30/10/2016.