I wonder how many times we encounter a scene which makes such a deep impression on us that we remember it for the rest of our lives? We surely experience such feelings in our childhood, but for a man over 30 years old, like myself, the feeling that something is of any value comes only once in a rare while.
However, I am now experiencing this inexpressible feeling daily in my relationship with Yukiyoshi Sagawa Sensei of Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu.
What I am going to record here are indisputable facts which I have experienced myself, although some may find my account hard to believe because it seems far beyond the realm of ordinary reality.
Encounter With Daito-Ryu Aiki Jujutsu
It was in March of 1987 that I first saw Daito-ryu. I had never imagined that I would be what I am now when I first experienced the art. I was brought to the dojo in the Tsukuba University gymnasium by Mr. Susumu Nagao, a research assistant at Tsukuba University, who is now training Daito-ryu with me.
Both Mr. Nagao and I work in the Institute of Health and Sport Sciences of Tsukuba University. Mr. Nagao specializes in the history of martial arts, while I specialize in the history of the philosophy of martial arts, and we both practice Kendo (Mr. Nagao is a 6th dan and I am a 5th dan). The two of us are considered to be specialists on martial arts in general. One day, Mr. Nagao said to me, “I have heard that there is a club at the Tsukuba dojo which practices a jujutsu called Daito-ryu. It seems that this art is different from Aikido, so I will go and see what it is like.” What Mr. Nagao had to say the next day was quite unbelievable, even though I knew that Mr. Nagao was not the kind of man who would tell a lie.
According to Mr. Nagao, the person who was instructing this art was a man named Tatsuo Kimura, an associate professor of mathematics at Tsukuba University. Although Mr. Nagao attacked him forcefully many times, Mr. Kimura threw him easily, using virtually no power.
I thought to myself that this was not likely because Mr. Nagao was usually quite confident in his strength due to his weight training. Even if what Mr. Nagao said was true, how effective would the art be on me? “Well,” I thought, “the techniques are being performed by a mere mathematics teacher, so I should be able to handle him.” But I also recognized that one never knows what one might encounter in this world. The art might be of some use for my Kendo. With all these stupid thoughts, which are so embarrassing to me now, I was brought to the dojo by Mr. Nagao the following week and participated in practice.
After I greeted Mr. Kimura at the dojo, we soon began practice. At first, Mr. Kimura taught me the basic practice method of aiki age, a technique where you sit in seiza facing your opponent who grabs both of your arms and holds them down while you try to raise them. Mr. Kimura grabbed my hands and told me to raise them in any way I liked. I tried to raise them but couldn’t move at all. Then he threw me freely to the back or sideways over 100 times. But I was not just being thrown during this time. I tried to raise my hands the moment I was grabbed or to alter the timing or raise my hands after pulling them a bit down in the opposite direction, but all in vain. Then after I had struggled for a while, it was my turn to grab. But, the result was the same. No matter how hard I tried to press his hands down, my arms and my body were lifted, my balance was broken, and I was thrown, without feeling hardly any power from Mr. Kimura. I tried everything I could think of—using my force, releasing my power and relaxing, changing the direction of my attack—but it was completely hopeless. Mr. Kimura continued to smile as he faced me. At first I thought what I was experiencing was very strange and impossible, but later I became irritated, and in the end I could find nothing else to do except grin in embarrassment and be thrown.
I entered the Tsukuba dojo that day. Since then, I have learned various seated and standing techniques (zadori and tachidori), which are included among the ichigen techniques, and have experienced the greatness of the art every time I practice. However, what fascinated me most were the stories of Yukiyoshi Sagawa Sensei that Mr. Kimura would tell me when I practiced at the dojo or visited him. Surprisingly, according to Mr. Kimura, anybody who attacked Sagawa Sensei was thrown hard the moment they touched him. Every time I heard these stories, my wish to see this Sagawa Sensei increased.
Meeting Sagawa Sensei
January 3, 1987 is a day I will never forget. It was the day I entered the dojo of Yukiyoshi Sagawa Sensei of Daito-ryu Aiki Jujutsu.
After I waited for a while in the dojo, Sagawa Sensei entered from a back room. My impression of Sagawa Sensei then was that he looked like a person who would give no openings, but I felt a warmth emanating from his whole body. He didn’t look like what we would usually call a “martial artist.” The word “natural” (shizentai) was the most suitable word to describe Sensei, and this was exactly what I had imagined he would be.
A while after we began to practice, Sensei, who had been watching, gave a couple of pointers to Mr. Kimura and then started throwing him. I couldn’t believe that this was the same Mr. Kimura who had always been just like a rock whenever we tried to move him. At first Sensei would repeat the technique his students were practicing as a model, and then he would begin to execute all kinds of techniques, from complex techniques I had never seen before to techniques where you were thrown as soon as you touch him. His students were thrown any way he wanted, and they looked as if they were rubber balls or puppets. Seeing this unbelievable scene with my own eyes, I was stupefied. My mouth hung half open and I felt as if I were dreaming. Although I had heard about him before I went to the dojo, I had never before imagined that such an incredible, sophisticated art could exist in this world.
It was at this moment that I felt instinctively that I had finally encountered a true martial artist for the first and probably last time and knew immediately what I must do. Since that day I go to Sagawa Sensei’s dojo from Tsukuba twice a week and the more I practice, the more I feel the depth of the art. However, I feel I am not really qualified to say this because I have not practiced the art long enough yet.
Recently, together with Mr. Nagao, I was able to receive two months of direct instruction in the nigen techniques from Sagawa Sensei. In this seminar, the techniques for the next rank were taught directly by Sensei. My long-cherished desire was fulfilled when I was allowed to take ukemi for his technique every week.
When I finally took ukemi for Sensei, I was thrown to the mat without knowing what had happened. For example, the moment I grabbed his hand with all my might, he moved his hand just a little forward and this took away all the power in my body, bent me fully backwards, and I was thrown backwards two or three meters. Another time, when I went to choke Sensei from behind (ushiro hagaijime), his shoulders moved as if they were separate living creatures, and in a flash, my body was up in the air in front of Sensei. What was even more mysterious was that in the beginning, I didn’t even notice that my balance had been broken because I didn’t feel him use any power, and I only realized how strongly I had been thrown by the force of my impact on the mat.
Since Sensei can control the speed of his techniques freely, he executes slow-motion techniques, too. For example, when I grab his arm with all my might, he moves my hand easily, while breaking the balance of my whole body. I can see this whole scene as though I were watching a movie. What I mean is that because I feel absolutely no power from him, I have the illusion that the hand which Sensei is moving is not actually mine. And what is more, despite the fact that his movement is so slow, I cannot thrust at him with my other hand or kick him with my legs. I am even thrown just by holding his gi. When I grab his collar firmly, he can throw me simply just by shaking his upper body without using his hands or legs. Even if I grab the front of his belt tightly and stand in a stable position, Sensei can completely upset the stability of my hips simply by advancing half a step forward, and then throw me directly back preventing me from taking a satisfactory fall. Thus, he is able to throw us even when we have no direct body contact with him at all, except through inanimate things, such as his clothing, which usually cannot transmit power. I have seen Sensei execute these techniques on my seniors many times, but ever since I actually experienced them myself, I find them more and more mysterious. They can only be called miraculous.
About Sagawa Sensei’s Aiki Techniques
Here, I would like to discuss Sensei’s techniques in a little more detail, based on the experience and knowledge I have so far.
The amazing thing is that his students (including myself) truly attack him all out. Sensei is 87 years old. This is unthinkable in other martial arts or sports. Although Kendo, which I also practice, is said to be one of the few martial arts in which older practitioners can continue to improve themselves technically in spite of their advanced age, there can be no comparison with Sagawa Sensei. Usually when we practice with older people, we try to use less of our power. Also, all weaponless arts conduct demonstrations as performances where the person who throws and the person who takes ukemi are previously decided. The person taking the falls practices timing his ukemi well with his partner’s technique. Thus, all these arts are choreographed, and because of this, you don’t usually find people who really try to attack or resist all out. Rather, there is a tendency to avoid such an attitude in practice. The emphasis is placed upon how accurately and correctly one can perform an already chosen kata technique and also on how one can express Japanese traditional beauties such as wabi (taste for the simple and quiet) and sabi (elegant simplicity) in the technique. This tendency is not something new, but has been evolving since the middle of the Edo era. Although in one sense a martial art can be developed in a peaceful period, in the truest sense, the value of it decreases. This is because in general the more one tries to combine various philosophies or religions into the art in order to make it into a culture, the more its martial value decreases. In this art, which is generally considered to be the least practical fighting method, Sensei can always execute techniques on anyone who genuinely attacks him or seriously resists him.
The seniors who make these all out attacks on Sensei have been practicing the art for between 10 and 30 years and many of them hold high ranks in other martial arts as well. At first sight, they appear to have ordinary physiques, but their power and their rock-like stability is beyond any ordinary level or quality of which I have ever seen, and their techniques are also extraordinary. Naturally, they throw me without effort. Even so, Sagawa Sensei controls these senior members with an absolute strength. Normally, if you practice a martial art or sport, it is quite easy to surprise an amateur and show off your overwhelming superiority. For example, if I practice Kendo with an amateur he will be immediately defeated, and cannot fight back at all. In a familiar example demonstration, I can extend my relaxed arm, resting on my partner’s shoulder, and tell him to try to bend it with both his hands using all his strength, and my arm will not bend at all. What I am trying to say here is that although Sagawa Sensei can handle all these senior members as easily as one can twist a baby’s arm, they are all men of an overwhelming ability rarely seen in other martial arts.
Sagawa Sensei can control these vigorous men with perfect ease 100 percent of the time. However, it is probably meaningless to compare them with Sensei. Whatever art we practice, once we master the art to some extent, the differences in our levels become quite small, and it is within these subtle differences that we struggle for superiority. Therefore, especially in the case of the fighting arts, if you and your partner fight seriously with each other, it is almost impossible for you to throw him 100 percent of the time. There are some arts where techniques are demonstrated based on prearranged agreements such as Aikido, Koryu no kata, and Kendo kata. There are also schools whose techniques rarely work on amateurs and beginners but become possible at advanced levels where one can be thrown without being touched. Apart from these, in the arts where techniques are genuinely executed there are many obvious differences. For example, in the case of Kendo, Judo, and amateur wrestling, if you and your partner both have achieved a certain level of technique, it is then subtle differences in ability, the condition of the day, congeniality, and even luck, that determines victory or defeat. It is for this reason that the winner changes every time a match is held, and also the reason competitions are held.
However, Sagawa Sensei passes beyond this common concept of victory and defeat completely. Anybody who experiences his techniques cannot help feeling that Sensei’s body, as well as his techniques, are on a totally different level, and is forced to admit that no one can compare with Sensei.
Where does the absolute difference in techniques come from then? It is because Sensei has mastered the technique of aiki, which was transmitted to him alone from Sokaku Takeda Sensei, and which he has since further developed. Although no one other than Sagawa Sensei can truly understand what this aiki is, I can at least explain how wonderful and how unprecedented the technique that results from it is.
I have seen and experienced various arts outside of my specialties as an expert on physical education and sport since my school days, and most of these arts consider themselves to be the best. Each art does have various techniques of its own, but as far as power is concerned, one of the important deciding factors in determining superiority is how much more power you have. Thus, in the field of modern sports, a great deal of emphasis is placed on how we can increase this strength. However, aiki technique is something epoch-making which explodes this common knowledge. This aiki, which is a basic principle of Sensei’s techniques, is in simpler terms, a bodily technique which instantly negates the power of your opponent. Sensei can draw away all the power of his opponent the moment they touch any part of Sensei’s body or when Sensei touches any part of them. Therefore it is pointless to attack him with great power. Rather, the stronger your power is, the harder you are thrown. Sensei’s aiki is, of course, nothing like the technique which requires the efforts of the person being thrown to be effective. Nor is it something which can work only in a certain psychological state or in a specific human relationship (for example, the relationship of teacher and pupil). It is effective on everybody. True aiki is not something ideological or abstract as people usually think, but is practical and concrete. It is unique in the sense that Sagawa Sensei is the only person in the world who can execute aiki, universally, as well as ultimately, in the sense that it is effective in all cases.
I think the fact that I do not feel any power from Sensei even when he pushes of throws me is also intimately related to aiki technique. Sensei describes this power as “transparent or crystalline power,” which I understand to mean that our power is “cloudy or opaque power.” When I am on the receiving end of one of Sagawa Sensei’s techniques, I don’t feel any power from the point at which we are connected, but I feel an energy which penetrates my whole body to affect my center and break my balance. Because my body does not sense Sensei’s intention, it is unable to resist it. This is how I lose my power and am thrown easily by Sensei.
Incidentally, I learned that Sagawa Sensei mastered the aiki techniques against katatedori and ryotedori when he was only 17 years old, just a few years after he began to study the art under Sokaku Takeda Sensei. He is clearly a genius. However, what makes him even greater is the fact that he has continued his extraordinary training from the time that he mastered aiki until today. This effort is a tribute to the mastery of aiki which enables him to throw his opponent the moment he is touched.
Sensei often says: “There is nothing perfect in this world. I am not yet perfect, myself. You are finished the moment you think that things are just perfect.” We hear other people say these things often, but the words become dignified when they come from a person like Sensei. I feel that every technique and word of Sensei is a symbol of the wisdom and efforts of humanity. Although his world is nothing I can ever reach, I have been able to see at last what a true martial art is, and have also learned about human possibilities through Sagawa Sensei’s instruction. I also feel that I have now found a new view of life as well as of the world.
Since I have this opportunity to write, I have had the audacity to write about Sensei. I feel strongly my inability to express even one ten thousandth of the greatness of Sensei’s techniques, but I also feel that it is impossible to express his technique in words from the beginning, and so I would like to end here. [July 1989]
Yukiyoshi Sagawa Profile
Born 1902 in Yubetsu, Hokkaido. Began formal study of Daito-ryu under Sokaku Takeda at age 11 and received the kyoju dairi (instructor’s license) from Sokaku in 1932. Subsequently, he accompanied Sokaku to various locations in Japan as his assistant. One of the most prominent deshi of Sokaku Takeda, he is 88 years old this year. Presently he is teaching at a dojo attached to his home in Kodaira City, a suburb of Tokyo.
Kiyokazu Maebayashi Profile
Born June 9, 1957. Received master’s degree from Tsukuba University. Presently a technical educational adviser (Theory of Martial Arts) at Institute of Health and Sport Sciences of Tsukuba University. Kendo 5th dan and coach of Kendo Club of same university. Recipient of Japan Martial Arts Institute award.
The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Nathan Scott of the USA.