The Other Half of Training…

PHS  [Philippe Salgues]  Every year you offer a one-week summer aikido workshop in Hendaye. The morning is dedicated to intensive physical and technical practice. The afternoon is reserved for more relaxed practice where you reveal in great detail both external and internal movements of the body and their self-defence (goshin-jutsu) applications according to the principal of aiki. These summer workshops, for students and teachers alike, are privileged moments because they allow one to settle into a teaching relationship that is long enough to deal with the essentials, and with important concepts. A lot is said, movements shown and explained, and much of value is is passed on to the students for their future daily work.  What belongs to the mat, belongs to the mat: and there is there a powerful sequence of training. Nevertheless, there are other extremely powerful moments, little known by us in the West, which consist of conversations – more or less formal conversations – during which masters and disciples, teachers and students discuss the practice of the art. This is not at all a simple repetition of what was said on the tatami, but rather an extension and a completion of what happened there, which places the art in a larger context, or illuminates it throught the personal experience of the expert or the master. It is this part of the teaching process that you have chosen to shed light on in this chapter.

PHG:   Yes. I find it important to extend the teaching given on the tatami through free discussion with the students in, for example,  a café,  or sitting in a hotel lobby after a restaurant…

These moments encourage conviviality, tongues are loosened, and the conversations that result explore problem areas and answer questions that the students have…..Moments like these motivate me. I return to particular aspects of my own education which are close to my heart, or to questions that the students have about movement shown on the tatami. These are also opportunity for the students and myself to  have the time to really “take time” to broach subjects and dig into them from other angles: for example, historical, cultural, ki-related, or in comparing aikido with other martial arts, etc.  On the mat, it is impossible to get into  conversations like this, it is a place reserved for practice, and not for talk and discussion.

By contrast, in a  café  or in some other quiet spot, we have all the time we need to talk about technique, the history of the martial arts, or about everything that revolves around these arts, and, obviously, about aikido, about my history and about the Japanese masters with whom I have studied.

In this connection, it is, for me, extremely important to talk to my students about my teachers. To tell their story, to talk about their character, the teaching methods that they used, etc.  In this way, [my students] can form a slightly more objective idea of these things, based on more than the exaggerated stories passed on in books, for example….

PHS:   This, let-us-say,  “conversational” side of teaching the martial arts,  is practised regularly in Japan?

PHG:  It is a time-honored practice in the Asian martial-arts world.  For my part, I have experienced it, of course,  with Japanese teachers, but also with Chinese and Korean (notably with my friend, Kim Min-Ho). Often the training is extended to a restaurant, with the group and the master, and, during the meal, the discussion is, naturally, of the martial
arts.

Here are some examples.  At the beginning of my stay in Tokyo, with an introduction from Bernard Bleyer, I followed for a season the teaching of Kato Hiroshi Sensei. This is someone who had worked for a number of years under the supervision of O’Sensei. Kato Hiroshi was born in 1935. He started aikido at Hombu Dojo in 1954. He was a printer by profession, and for that reason never became an uchi-deshi, but he trained  enthusiastically every day. At the time that I met him, by the way, he still used to train as a simple student at Hombu.

His little group of students, made up almost entirely of yudansha, was very highly motivated. I recall in particular Sasaki Takashi, Bernard Bleyer’s first teacher in Germany, who looked after me with some care.

They were not caught up in an aesthetic or formalized practice. Their training was without concessions. The martial aspect was very present in their training. The training consisted of an hour of empty-handed work, followed by a half-hour of work with jo or ken. Training with them was rough but precise, with a great concern for honesty. It is in their company that I began to become aware of the existence of a certain mechanics of the body.  Parts of the body that connect with each other like gears. I remember how Kato Sensei said to me one day: “So, you go to the basic [or: easy] class!”  This remark led me to believe that there were principals contained in the techniques which were not usually taught. So it is thanks to Kato Sensei and his students that I started to observe Yamaguchi Sensei in a less superficial manner. These people [- Kato’s group – ] were researchers – or seekers.

I remember how Kato Sensei always used to say to his students: “Don’t be kind to me” [OR: “Don’t hold back for me”]  The class was on Saturday evenings,  or Sunday mornings, in a gymnasium in the Ogikubo quarter, in Suginami. We had to lay down the tatami and put them away again after training. As there were quite a few of us (between 8 and 12 at that time) that served as our warm up exercise: and warmed us for real during the winter. I should say that these gentlemen were careful to open wide the side doors of the large room in order to admire the snow-flakes.

After class, Kato Sensei used to take his little group to a nomiya (a typically Japanese bistro where one enjoys simple dishes accompanied by beer and sake – or, rather, the reverse). As this was towards the beginning of my time in Japan, I didn’t understand much, unfortunately, of what he was saying. But, vaguely aware of the importance of these sayings, I tried not to forget the slightest crumb of the little that was within my grasp. In the course of these discussions, he passed on much of his experiences with the Founder, and of his understanding of aikido. I felt that he was trying to pass on to his students what he had absorbed from O’Sensei. The topic of conversation was invariably aikido: so you see, this is the tradition. I think that it is particularly prevalent in small dojos. Although I didn’t work with them for any great length of time, I have never forgotten them, and I can assure Kata Sensei and his students that the little that I was able to learn from them has not been forgotten.

As for the Aikikai, I experienced this sort of encounter with Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei and with Endo Seishiro Sensei. I would regularly find myself with them in a café, or in a restaurant, in the company of several fellow-students. In general, this would happen on a Tuesday morning, after Yamaguchi Sensei’s 9 o’clock class, and Wednesday afternoon after Endo Sensei’s 4 o’clock class.  I remember in particular the Café Tabassa and the Café Dahlia, and later the Mizuno Kichin, which still exists, by the way. The subjects which Yamaguchi Sensei happily discussed with us extended to the Japanese economy – and in particular the notorious bubble of that era which, when it burst, caused such damage from 1990 onwards. Also, the comparison of Japanese and French cuisine, the French way of life and customs, and, of course, the way to train in aikido. Sometimes, sitting at the café table, he would perform sword cuts. Unfailingly, he would exhort us to be supple, to keep our center firmly, to not force things with the upper part of the body, to keep our knees supple and to use the strength of our inner thighs [? tr: koshi ??].

One time, at the Dahlia, when I was the only one there, he remarked to me that the current practitioners at the Aikikai were very serious people. He found them more assiduous than their predecessors of his own generation, who often gave O’Sensei occasion to reprimand them between classes. He told me that on breaks, they would go outside to smoke, and have to be dragged in by the ear by O’Sensei in order to continue the lesson. It was true: in our time, the Aikikai students would arrive before the lesson time, and would patiently await in seiza the arrival of their teacher (for some, that has lasted more than thirty years, I think). This remark surprised me greatly at the time. I said to him: “And even so, you all learned a lot faster, it seems.” He replied: “That’s because we were working with great masters.” What he was trying to say, I think, was that they had been serious in their own way, but not in the way one generally imagines. Current practitioners train seriously, but in a mechanical fashion, and without any real thought. The old-timers had a free-er spirit, and less academic with regard to the practice of budo. How many times, after all, did Yamaguchi Sensei get mad, and tell us that we were like robots. His era was different. Structuring the catalog of techniques made teaching easier, and helped the development of aikido in Japan and in the world, but it has probably made practitioners less free and creative than before….

Ichihashi Norihiko Sensei, in the same café, used to lecture his students in a very paternal fashion. I remember fondly  his students in black uniform, sitting upright in their chairs like an “i”, listening with great respect, to their Sensei’s words….

….I must equally add my experiences with Su Dong-Cheng who is my teacher in the Chinese internal art of nei jia quan. While I was in Japan, he would take the  time to explain much, not only during class-time, but afterwards – and sometimes for the entire day, in a whole variety of places, such as parks, or gymnasium rest-areas – in particular at the Shinjuku Sports Center where we trained most of the time, and also in cafés and restaurants.  So that these discussions, often punctuated by technical movements, could last for hours during which time he would talk about the history of Asian martial arts, techniques and the principals behind them, and the influences of different schools on the martial arts.

He would also talk about fights that he had had. These fights were of three kinds:

First of all, sporting fights (sanda), when he was very young. He had been champion of Taipei in 1970. Then of Taiwan in 1973, at the age of twenty, when, in the final, he had masterfully beaten a champion boxer from the Taiwan marines.

After that,  confrontations with this expert or that expert,  come to test him. Because the Japanese of the sixties did not appreciate representatives of the Chinese martial arts who came to live on their territory.  Also, the Chinese martial arts at that time had a reputation for weakness in comparison with the Japanese martial arts.  Having never been beaten in those encounters, it is partly due to Su Dong-Chen that the Chinese martial arts have gradually come to be respected in the Tokyo region and in all of Japan.

And, finally, street fights: sometimes one against twenty – and retold, by the way, in a book:  Kenka no Tetsujin…  Most of these encounters took place in Taipei when he was young, or in a notorious place, known throughout Japan, and even beyond: the Kabuki-Cho. From the nature of this place, you will understand that the people who gave him trouble there were not tenderfeet (chinpira, recruiters, yakuza etc.)

Quite simply, he never stopped talking. What I want to say, and what may seem unbelievable to many practitioners, is that I very much completed my education, not just theoretical, but also practical, away from the tatami, in these restaurants, these cafés, and in those parks. The transmission of knowledge was not limited to the lesson in the classroom. Never should we let our attention slip, even when we were eating and drinking. In any case, the presence of the master, and the force of his presence, were such that it was not at all difficult to be undistracted! It is in these privileged moments that I was able to acquire extremely important abilities for the martial disciplines that I was studying….
I realize, at a distance, that I owe an immense amount to these intense moments in the company of this extraordinary master. We worked on ideas in multiple areas: from strategy, to ki-studies, to health, using the objects that were there on the table of the restaurant or café. We’re talking about a table, a bench, a glass, a bottle, chopsticks, a pen, etc. We had been practising martial arts for a long time, but this was a new experience for us, and hugely enriching. And when it is a great expert who is talking to you with such passion – who could ask for more!….

PHS:   And yet I have heard that in the traditional teaching of martial arts, the teacher would only give information to those students who asked him questions. So that, a student without curiosity, and little disposed to ask his teacher questions, could be in a class for years, or months, without acquiring knowledge. Nothing was owed to him. …Do you agree that this is true?

PHG:  Absolutely. Of course, it depends on context.  The Aikikai is a very special case…it is a large dojo with many teachers who each teach for only one to three hours a week….Nevertheless, along with four or five comrades, I was lucky enough to regularly spend time in a café listening to Yamaguchi Sensei. I think that this happened in the same way for other students…

When I came back to France, I missed tremendously this aspect of the martial arts, because, with the exception of my friend Kim Min-Ho in Bordeaux, I never met anyone with whom I could discuss the martial arts and related subjects.

– – from Le corps aiki –  La pratique interne de l’aikido,  Philippe Grangé,  pp.57-70

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