“A subtle, but key change took place in the execution of
shihonage between the prewar and postwar eras.”
I recently uploaded a video titled “Fine Points of Shihonage” dealing with one of aikido’s core techniques. I covered a number of technical issues relating to shihonage that prompted many of you to participate in the discussion. Given the amount of interest in the topic, I would like to broach it once again, this time through the lens of historical photos of some of aikido’s greatest figures.
Actually, there is a subtle but important difference on the part of the major teachers concerning the way to grip uke’s wrist when executing shihonage. This difference can be clearly seen by examining Morihei Ueshiba’s description in the 1938 “Budo” manual, and in the way of execution of Kenji Tomiki and Gozo Shioda, both prewar students of the Founder.
This approach to shihonage stands in contrast with the methods Morihei’s son Kisshomaru and Koichi Tohei who were the main instructors at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in the postwar years. Not surprisingly, Moriteru Ueshiba, the present Doshu, also follows this approach.
Let’s take a look at this series of photos culled from various old publications of some of aikido most important historical figures.
In this first photo taken from Morihei Ueshiba’s “Budo” manual, note O-Sensei’s hand position, his right hand on top holding his son’s wrist, and his left hand capturing uke’s thumb and fingers. This is how Morihei taught shihonage before and after the war. Notice how uke’s balance has been broken as a result of this powerful grip, positioning and hipwork.
Here is the famous Kenji Tomiki Sensei, a student of both Morihei and Judo Founder Jigoro Kano, executing shihonage. These photos are much clearer. Tomiki Sensei executes this technique in a very similar fashion, especially with respect to his hand grip. His left leg has advanced forward as he enters for the throw. In the inset photo, you can clearly see his grip and how uke’s thumb and fingers are controlled by Tomiki’s left hand.
Next, is Gozo Shioda Sensei, the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido. In this early Yoshinkan technical manual from the 1950s, we have yet another view of shihonage with Shioda Sensei’s right hand controlling the wrist and his left hand uke’s thumb and fingers.
Both of these prewar students of Morihei Ueshiba do shihonage as they learned it from Morihei Ueshiba.
Now, moving to the postwar era, we have Morihei’s son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba executing shihonage in this close-up photo. Here the shihonage grip has changed. Kisshomaru Sensei’s fingers are interlaced together holding uke’s wrist. Notice here that uke’s right thumb is free. This grip is quite common today, but does not afford as much torque on uke’s arm or control of his center compared to the Founder’s approach.
Next, is Koichi Tohei Sensei, then chief instructor of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, from his 1960 book, “Aikido: The Arts of Self-Defense.” Tohei Sensei’s left hand is not clearly visible here, but I believe he uses a grip very similar to Kisshomaru’s. You will also notice that uke’s thumb and fingers are free. I remember that Tohei Sensei did not grip uke’s thumb and fingers in shihonage when I learned from him in the mid-1960s. Later, when I began studying with Morihiro Saito Sensei, the method of gripping uke’s thumb and fingers in shihonage felt very odd to me indeed, but more effective in the execution of the technique.
Then, we have a photo of the present Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba who performs shihonage in essentially the same manner as Kisshomaru Sensei and Tohei Sensei. Again, the thumb and fingers are not grasped here either. Thus, the approach to gripping uke’s hand in shihonage appears to be uniform in the immediate postwar era and beyond in the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, and by extension, within the Aikikai curriculum adopted worldwide thereafter.
In these last two photos below, I show another variation of the shihonage grip that I learned early in my aikido training. In performing shihonage against a katadori or yokomenuchi attack, for example, nage grips uke’s wrist with the inside hand. This is the same. However, in this instance, nage’s outside hand grips further up on the forearm — not uke’s thumb and fingers — making it difficult to generate leverage on uke’s arm for shihonage. This method can be seen in some dojos today. I personally don’t find it nearly as effective as either of the two methods described above.
I have adopted somewhat of a forensic approach in studying the minutiae of a key component of the shihonage technique, one of aikido’s core basics. Here we see that an important specific of Morihei Ueshiba’s shihonage was abandoned in the postwar era within the Aikikai system. If this were an isolated phenomenon, it would not be of great importance. However, the reality is that the same thing occurs in many instances in other techniques as well. The end result is that much of Morihei Ueshiba’s technical input was lost in the modern aikido curriculum as many significant changes were introduced in the postwar years. For those wishing to understand the historical rationale for this shift, you may wish to read my article “Is O-Sensei Really the Father of Modern Aikido?”
Please join in the discussion by posting your comment below!
[I would like to acknowledge David Bone for providing the scans of the Kenji Tomiki and Gozo Shioda photos shown in this article]