“Aikido demonstrations should have a clear purpose; they should be educational; they should reflect the actual daily training of a dojo; they should not be merely for entertainment or the promotion of a school.”
This was the gist of an Aikido Journal bulletin board essay by Patrick Auge, veteran aikidoka of the Yoseikan school. Most other contributors to the discussion agreed with him.
Mr. Auge divides demonstrations into four different categories, which, paraphrased, (with apologies) are: “Mindless” (having no clear purpose), “Entertaining” (just to please the crowds), “Promotional” (to increase membership), and “Educational” (truthful).
Demonstrations should, he felt, also reflect the true personality of a teacher and the ethos of his school. They did not need any special preparation.
The four divisions above are fine in theory but I find it difficult to pigeonhole in this way some of the senior teachers whose demonstrations I have witnessed in Japan.
In the first place, there is more to a demonstration than entertainment, promotion or education. There is also artistic expression. In this respect, the martial artist is like any other artist, and his audience is likely to judge him by the impact his art has on them on some deep level, regardless of other factors. He need not be motivated by mundane considerations at all.
It is from this largely subjective viewpoint that I recall the demonstrations of Gozo Shioda in the 60s when I was living in the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo as an uchideshi. Some of Shioda Sensei’s demonstrations, both in and outside the dojo, seemed to me awesome (in the original meaning of the word). They lifted the game, so far as I was concerned, to a high level.
They were not planned, though they usually followed a similar pattern: Sensei would begin by outlining the history of aikido starting from “600 years ago” with Shinra Saburo Yoshimitsu, not with Morihei Ueshiba, although the latter’s vital contribution was always acknowledged.
He would then use one or two ukes to illustrate basic principles (non-resistance, “concentrated power”, etc.) in a dynamic way. While talking to the audience and cracking jokes he would toss his ukes around, sometimes using his whole body in a kind of atemi to “bounce” an attacker backwards. There would usually be a weapons segment including sword-to-sword, and empty-handed defenses against sword and tanto attacks. Ukes would be replaced as he worked his way through his repertoire, until the finale when five or six ukes would attack him at once.
Shioda Sensei responded to these multiple attacks with exquisite timing and rather frightening atemi and nagewaza, making one feel a mixture of excitement and concern for his ukes. Backstage after the demonstration he would always kneel and bow deeply to his ukes and thank them for their participation, then everyone would relax, though we all felt we had been part of something extraordinary.
For their part, the ukes took the demonstrations very seriously and seemed to be prepared for any possible outcome.
I remember one of them coming away with his face muscles twitching uncontrollably as a result of receiving at atemi to the neck. When someone said this could be serious and recommended calling the doctor, he replied, “I don’t care if I die!” Perhaps this was sheer bravado, perhaps not, but it illustrates the serious atmosphere surrounding these demonstrations.
Uke would attack hard and fast and then have to be skilled enough at ukemi to save himself from the consequences, like a racing driver going into a corner at 100 m.p.h., knowing he had to come out of it even faster to stay in control.
Injuries did occur, some of them serious, but they were accepted philosophically and they were not deliberately inflicted. In fact there was a standing joke about it being “just as well” there was a hospital practically next door to the dojo.
I remember one demonstration in which Shioda Sensei threw his uke heavily, then immediately turned around to talk to the crowd. Several members of the audience began to stare open-mouthed, as they could see uke still lying, motionless, where he had landed! Sensei turned back and quickly revived him with katsu resuscitation, to a round of relieved applause.
I was Sensei’s uke only a few times in public demonstrations, as I was not experienced enough to take ukemi from his techniques, and I certainly wasn’t breaking my neck to participate. I probably would have if I had!
As I say, the difficulty I have is which of the four categories Shioda’s demonstrations would fall into. A Zen priest who witnessed one of them said it was an example of “mushin” (“no mind”) but he obviously did not mean “mindless”. He was referring to the ideal Zen state of mind in which thought and action are not separate, the mind and body are one, and things just “happen” without any effort.
The better demonstrations by Shioda Sensei in those days were superb expressions of a master artist at work.
And yet there were other demonstrations by the same sensei that seemed to me to fall well below this standard. Sometimes the timing was a bit off and the multiple attack sequences less convincing, and there was a lot of “playing to the audience” that I found embarrassing.
He would apply a strong nikyo or yonkyo, and have his ukes writhing in pain while he grinned and made jokes at their expense. Certainly, it appeared sometimes that the ukes were “putting it on” and need not have made such an overt display, but that only made matters worse. One was left wondering why this sort of “show” was necessary.
Despite the sincere backstage acknowledgement of uke’s role after most demonstrations, there were times when it appeared to me uke was treated with scant regard. Like the time we did a demonstration at a TV studio and one of the ukes came away obviously concussed, literally asking who and where he was. He had done his level (or aerial) best to make Sensei’s performance look good, and was already on his way to the mat from one throw when Sensei applied a thrusting tsuki to his jaw, in such a way that his head struck the mat hard. There was no way uke could have saved himself from this.
Afterwards Sensei simply said, “Are you OK?” and then, “Where can I get another driver?”
I took the victim back to the dojo in my car, stopping for a coffee en route, and he gradually recovered. Perhaps Shioda Sensei anticipated this outcome but, if so, he showed little sign of concern one way or the other. He seemed more interested in getting to his next appointment.
When it comes to demonstrations not needing any preparation and truly reflecting ordinary dojo training, Patrick Auge’s own sensei, Minoru Mochizuki surely departs from both principles in one of his demonstrations that I have on video. I refer to the one in which half a dozen of his students on the stage attack him with a variety of weapons, including a coffee table and a folding chair!
It is hard to imagine the “table and chair act” was spontaneous, unless the students took a sudden dislike to their sensei and decided to show their feelings in this rather unique way. It is equally hard to imagine this sort of thing being a normal part of daily training.
Not that I have anything against preparing for a demonstration. After all, a concert pianist would expect to rehearse for hours, if not days, before a major performance, so why not a martial artist? An overly choreographed aikido demonstration can certainly look false, but some practice in preparation for a demonstration is quite legitimate.
Certainly the personality of the demonstrator is reflected in the demonstration, and this accounts for the very different types of performance. No doubt, also, the nature of a demonstration is influenced by the audience.
On the latter point, I always found it odd that Koichi Tohei would bother demonstrating and explaining things that must have meant little or nothing to some of his audiences. In fact, the situation sometimes seemed a complete mismatch.
For example, elaborating in fine detail on advanced ways to use a sword before an audience of housewives and others who almost certainly had never handled a sword before!
Similarly, when Tohei Sensei was in New Zealand, we arranged a series of demonstrations at the Auckland Easter Show where the audience consisted of ordinary people of the sort who would take their kids to the fair. Yet Tohei Sensei explained the need to be “one with the universe” and other philosophical concepts before every demonstration. Perhaps he felt it was worthwhile trying to get the message across if even a small percentage of the audience understood, but I felt, as I translated his commentary, that it was largely wasted effort: a case of casting pearls before swine.
I have seen Tohei Sensei dispatch his ukes in demonstrations with a smooth power and efficiency that made nonsense of the theory that his teaching was more of a “health system” than budo. I have been thrown that way by Tohei Sensei myself and have no doubts about the effectiveness of his throws.
When it comes to “promotional” demonstrations I suppose the Ki no Kenkyu Kai would be one of the best (?) examples. Tohei Sensei used to give “lecture-demonstrations” for which the audience paid around $20 per head to attend, and there was a degree of salesmanship involved that I found distasteful.
I was called late at night by a sempai asking how many tickets I was going to buy for Sensei’s next lecture, and when I said I wasn’t quite sure, I received a follow-up call a few days later asking if I had decided yet! This happened more than once, until, one night, my wife answered one of these calls and gave it the standard treatment she gives to telephone-marketing people, as a result of which we weren’t bothered any more, though I may have soured my relationship with the dojo a little. Perhaps I overreacted, as there were probably hall-hire fees to be paid for and so on, but even so…
There was a great contrast, of course, between the demonstration styles of Koichi Tohei and Gozo Shioda, just as there was between their teaching methods and their personalities. The verbal delivery was markedly different. Tohei Sensei would invariably wax philosophical on the deeper meaning of aikido, man’s relationship with the universe and so on, and elaborate on his famous “four principles of mind-body coordination”. He had the “gift of the gab” and could hold an audience for hours in his lectures, without actually doing much more than talking. I am not saying these lectures were not interesting, in fact I found them fascinating after my rather physical introduction to aikido at the Yoshinkan.
Shioda Sensei, on the other hand, would give a running commentary, using very basic language, while he was actually tossing his ukes around, usually with a small microphone pinned to his dogi: “All you have to do is get the hell out of the way!” “Look out!” “Well, as you see, he would love to let go his grip, but unfortunately he can’t!” “Watch out!” “That hurts, doesn’t it?”
There was eloquence in his movements, but his speech was rudimentary. Apart from the abovementioned reservations about pearls and swine, I never felt that either Shioda or Tohei gave “fake” demonstrations, at least within the limitations imposed by any demonstration. Each man was an accomplished artist and this was obvious from their demonstrations.
I shall not speak here of those senseis who”throw” people from a distance without touching them. I have not been close enough to any of these teachers to lose my basic skepticism of such demonstrations.
If demonstrations are to be an accurate reflection of the actual teaching in a dojo, we come across a problem, again, with O-Sensei himself! Assuming reports on his attitude towards demonstrations are accurate, he would probably get an “F” for this category.
To quote from Stanley Pranin’s recent editorial on the life of Morihiro Saito:
“Sensei told me that the reason for the difference (between O-Sensei’s demonstrations and his actual teaching) was that O-Sensei was conscious of being filmed in public and would purposely not demonstrate techniques in the same way he would teach in Iwama.”
I find it hard to visualize O-Sensei deliberately perverting his art in this way. Surely it would go against his every instinct to purposely change his natural way of doing things? Perhaps he was a good actor; but you would think that if he felt so unhappy about being filmed he would simply refuse to demonstrate at all.
But perhaps this is yet another assumption about O-Sensei made from a sketchy knowledge of the man behind the myth. The idea of showing one thing to the public and actually teaching something entirely different doesn’t sit very well with the image we have of O-Sensei as a man without guile, dedicated to spreading the “art of peace” throughout the world. And it clearly breaks Patrick Auge’s second rule.
I guess I shall simply have to file this anomaly away, together with the stories of O-Sensei’s fierce temper, until some further illumination of his actual personality, as distinct from the popular image, comes along.
Meanwhile, O-Sensei’s demonstrations certainly were filmed, whether he liked it or not, the films became videos, and probably every dojo in the world now has one. Did O-Sensei foresee this situation when he was putting on these “fake” demonstrations?
If so, he certainly has the last laugh.