‘Hello and good bye, that’s spring’ is an old Japanese saying. On April 7th 2010, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, I meet Haruo Matsuoka at Shosenji aikidojo in Toyonaka, Osaka.
Little known even among aikido practitioners, Matsuoka, who makes aikido and a macrobiotic diet the main pillars of his life, was the man who took the falls for Steven Seagal when they first brought aikido to the US in the 1980s. The dojo scene in ‘Above the Law’ (1988) shows his profile in bamboo-filtered light before he bows to Seagal, opens with a kick and slams onto the mats. Later in the same movie he doubles for an actor, crashing through the window of a Middle Eastern grocery store, exchanging mats for boxes of fruit and veg.
Matsuoka worked behind the scenes of all early Seagal movies in whatever function needed to be filled. He supported his teacher with dedicated loyalty, often without appearing in the credits. Tough love, but falling for Seagal has changed his life, and that of many others. ‘Above the Law’ brought aikido its first major influx of American students. From there, it spread around the world.
Now Matsuoka, looking slim and healthy, is sitting on the edge of the sofa in our dojo, wearing jeans and sweater, watching us train. The only thing that betrays his martial expertise is the way he sits. When famous Zen and Sword Master Sogen Omori first met aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, he saw him sitting in a group of people not knowing who he was. But from the way he sat, relaxed, yet constantly on guard, Omori immediately recognized the Master.
After training, I get invited to an informal question and answer session with Matsuoka at Friendly’s, the neighborhood family restaurant. His reason for coming here? He trained at Shosenji dojo for a little while when he was a high school student and, being in the area, he started feeling nostalgic. Lucky us!
He talks about his early days in the US. He was in his twenties and had no idea where he was going. Being taken with aikido and Seagal, it seemed like a good idea to follow him. When their first movies became a success, they lived large and feasted on the most luxurious foods. But, he adds, if you become hugely successful very early, this can become a kind of failure. ‘We would eat food for hundreds of dollars,’ he explains, ‘and I thought, wow, this will not go on forever, but the danger is that if you experience the luxury of success too early, you start believing it will always be this way.’
After being reminded of fame’s transience, we get to hear about aikido. He has met some outstanding teachers whose expertise reveals the true nature of traditional Japanese martial arts and puts them into stark contrast with their modern sport versions. ‘Whether you practice iaido, aikido, or karate, using your centre, breathing, and ki, and moving without telegraphing your actions mark the truly skilled martial artist.’
He names Kono-Sensei, Kuroda-Sensei, and Ushiro-Sensei as examples of such masters. ‘I tried to put Ushiro-Sensei in a firm bear hug, but it was as if there was nothing to grab. I cannot put this experience into words. They have this mysterious way of moving their bodies I cannot explain. I believe this contains our country’s authentic martial arts heritage.’
When asked about warm-up exercises, he mentions a teacher who used to do tai-chi to warm up, which gave his aikido great fluidity and strength. ‘But for those of us who do not have that option, furi-tama is the most important warm up exercise.’ ‘Furi-tama’ means ‘shaking the soul’. It involves putting your left palm on top of your right, and shaking both hands in front of your abdomen. ‘But like everything else in aikido’, he adds, ‘it takes a long time till you get it right.’
When asked what he considers the essence of aikido, he repeatedly apologizes for not being able to put it into words. But fortunately he tries. ‘Sometimes you think it is impossible to cover the distance between you and your partner. But all you need to do is be confident that your partner is going to enter far enough for you to do to him what you want, and the distance will be covered. So this is one thing.’ He cocks his head and thinks. ‘Another thing is moving without telegraphing what you are about to do. And finally,’ again, he pauses. ‘The key for me was discovering how to make a connection between tanden and fingertips.’
The tanden is the body’s centre of gravity, three finger widths below, two finger widths behind the navel, a focal point in Chinese medicine, Buddhist and Taoist meditation, and all traditional Japanese martial arts, dances, and theater forms. In aikido, too, effective use of the tanden plays a major role in achieving proper movement and technique.
‘When I discovered this connection,’ says Matsuoka, ‘I thought, wow, I can’t believe it is this easy!’ ‘So what is it like, this connection between tanden and fingertips?’ asks my clever senpai Kinoshita. Thanks to this question, we all get to grab Matsuoka by both hands, and he shows us the difference between using the strength of his arms to push us back, which does nothing much, and the effect of connecting his tanden directly with his fingertips, relaxing his shoulders completely.
The difference is astonishing. The latter makes his technique look effortless, yet has the power to throw us 10 ft back. To explain, he makes a gesture as if to wring his tanden, and sending the wrung out energy forward through his fingers. ‘I really cannot put it into words.’ Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.
When people start asking about things they have heard from other teachers, he shows exemplary humility and deference: ‘I will not be rude to other teachers and contradict what they say. The essence of aikido cannot be put into words. I can only tell you about my own experience. But in the end, everybody has to find their own answers.’
And with that, the session ends. When we leave Friendly’s, Matsuoka Sensei has not even had time to finish his cheesecake, having blessed us with his own brand of friendliness, fed us all a sweet, fresh piece of inspiration, and given us one more reason to keep pursuing our own aikido paths.
The naming of his Doshinkai, the friendship society, reflects Matsuoka’s kind, unassuming personality and makes him a great ambassador of aikido, the martial art that cultivates people’s ki, or life energy, and ai, their ability to connect with others and create harmony. Morihei Ueshiba said the ‘ai’ component signifying ‘encounter’ might just as well be written with the character for love, also pronounced ‘ai’.
The next day on my way to the dojo, I see the cherry blossoms and find myself attacked by the typical feeling they evoke: a surge of love for their beauty mingling with the pain of knowing their departure is just around the corner.
Thinking of Matsuoka Sensei’s words, more determined than ever to find my own answer, I enter training in a philosophical mood. What is the essence of aikido? You connect with your partner, next you fly and connect with the mat. A quick, intense encounter. When my partner sends me flying one more time, I enter a large pink ball of energy before I get slammed down. I rise from the mat and see it. Inside every one of these encounters blooms harmony. Love.
Aikido is a never-ending cherry blossom picnic. Where two people’s ki connects, a beautiful blossom opens up, only to fall again when they disconnect. But as we keep trying our best to fully connect with our partner, we keep approaching our own answers.
A few days later, I am on my way to the dojo again, trying to hold fast to my umbrella, which is in danger of being blown away by the wind, or broken by the heavy rain. Tender pink blossoms are perishing all around me, covering the floor beneath my feet. But I keep on pressing ahead and smile.
This spring has brought me Matsuoka Sensei. The encounter may have been short as tradition demands. But thanks to his inspiring words, I have understood a whole new aspect of cherry blossom beauty. With each flower I see, I keep approaching my own answers on the path of aikido, and every blossom that falls is just another step towards fruition. □
About the author: Anna Sanner has degrees in Japanese Studies, Translating, and Interpreting and lives in Japan as a writer and translator. She has published her dissertation Karate as a human survival strategy – an evolutionary perspective on karate in “Uchinadi Karate Journal.” She has been training karate for 10 years, aikido for 5 and is presently studying with Katsuyuki Shimamoto Shihan at Shosenji dojo in Toyonaka, Osaka.