Twenty years ago, Fujimaki Sensei nurtured a breakthrough for Filipino aikidoists
Posted 2018 August 27
When aikido teachers seek to encourage struggling students, they urge patience and perseverance. They urge regular and intense training. They also warn that improvements will occur only in small, almost imperceptible ways. They tell us that breakthroughs occur very rarely.
This is the story of one such breakthrough, a breakthrough that single-handedly raised the game for my generation of aikidoists.
In 1998, Japan Aikikai and the Japan Foundation sent Hiroshi Fujimaki Sensei to Manila to conduct a 6-month aikido training course. Fujimaki sensei was just a little past 30, a shidoin, 4th dan, the lowest rank allowed to teach at Hombu Dojo.
During these six months, along with several other basic practices, he introduced his students to five distinct footwork exercises.
Throughout that last semester of 1998, he would start off each class by running his students through the five footwork drills: okuri ashi, tsugi ashi, ayumi ashi, tenkan, and tentai.
This was novel material in 1998. For years we’d heard the scolding exhortation, “Watch your footwork! Watch your footwork!” But this was the first time anyone ever trafficked in useful, usable detail about the how of footwork.
One of the steps – tenkan – was already well-known to us; beginners learn it at their first class. Another step – tsugi ashi – is a staple in kendo but was totally new and exotic to us.
The other three steps were not exactly new footwork; we had long been doing these steps in training, it was just that we had never thought to give them names until then.
At the time, these five steps did not feel like a breakthrough. They felt like just one more set of technical information to keep in mind. They were a chore, a not very exciting way to start a class.
But over time, practice and familiarity gradually changed our attitude from indifference to respect for the five steps.
The first realization was stunningly basic: that it's important to give names to phenomena. In the Judaeo-Christian creation myth, God brings the beasts and the birds to Adam to see what he would name them. Naming a thing or a phenomenon is the beginning of control, of mastery, over it. And this is one reason why Judaism prohibits the casual uttering of God's name. The Jews consider that to write G*d's name, or to say it out loud, even in a non-irreverent way, is to begin a presumptuous quest to know, and therefore master, Him - Him Who cannot be fully known, much less mastered, by His creatures.
By the same token, naming the five steps proved an epiphany. It made us realize that giving names to subtle aspects of our training experience is crucial. It strengthens our ability to perceive. If an action remains unnamed, chances are it doesn't register on our imperfect consciousness. And if we're not even aware of an action, we certainly won't practice it deliberately. And without deliberate practice, we can't hope to master it.
For example, we had never recognized tsugi-ashi consciously as a distinct step until it had a name that we could note down, recognize in action, and discuss over beer. Until we had a name for it, tsugi-ashi seemed like an accidental blip in a dojo-mate's footwork, an unremarkable adjusting step in his effort to get a technique...done.
Same with tentai; before we had a name for it, we couldn't even see that step in the execution of a technique. It was just so fleeting. We were effectively blind to it. Or in the moments when we did notice tentai, we semi-awarely dismissed it as a debased version of tenkan.
But when tsugi-ashi and tentai were given names - as well as okuri-ashi and ayumi-ashi - we could begin to do what we had never done before: we could do them deliberately, rather than just accidentally. Or unwittingly. And we could do them repeatedly. And we could refine the quality their execution through repetition. And everyone knows that a movement repeated is a movement mastered.
And the second realization was again stunning: that there is a world of difference between approximating the sensei's movements - performing a "reasonable facsimile" - and actually replicating them.
The beginner's dilemma
When a new student starts out in aikido training, everything is bewildering. The body movements are complex. The mind-body coordination demanded of the student is daunting.
The student doesn’t know where to begin. And so he grasps at straws.
The typical straw that he grasps at is to ape the external appearance of the teacher’s movements. And so for the beginner, aikido is pure choreography: performing gestures that have little meaning for him, other than that the teacher has prescribed them.
Which is all fine. As long as the student doesn’t remain stuck at this stage. Because this stage is all about rote memorization – kabisote, in Tagalog slang. And that was precisely the problem: before July 1998, all of us remained stuck at this stage.
Kabisote meant stilted, dead movements. Kabisote meant presuming and expecting cooperation from uke, rather than authentic responses to the energy flows of attacks. Kabisote meant an unsophisticated, dumb wonderment at the dynamic movement of visiting aikido masters ... but very little understanding. “Amazing! How’d he do that?” - like a rube gaping at a circus act.
For the beginner, the problem is this: replicating the external appearance of a sensei’s movements is a very iffy endeavour at best. Though doing his level best to copy the sensei's movements, the beginner is hobbled: he's working from a fleeting impression of how the sensei moved, but with no visual vocabulary with which to capture and store in his brain the movements he has just witnessed. And so most of the time the student produces only a crude facsimile of the sensei's movement.
Painful and humbling experience shows that beginner aikidoists simply fail to capture the exact movements that a sensei is showing. And if we're being honest, even experienced aikidoists are almost as guilty, present writer not excepted.
And it’s crucial to capture the exact movements that a teacher is demonstrating. It’s crucial because a particular way of executing a movement calls into play a distinct set of muscles, and triggers distinct bodily sensations in the person performing the movements. And this is where learning occurs. This is where kinesthetic insights emerge. There are a dozen ways to do iriminage, and each one deploys a slightly different combination of muscle groups.
Substance, not just appearance
The reason the sensei wants us to replicate his movements exactly, and the reason we should want to do so, is that we want to experience the bodily sensations that the teacher himself feels when he does the movement, and that he wants us also to feel – mainly, exactly how energy is deployed, exactly how a balance-taking is effected in this current execution.
If you don’t do the movement exactly the way the sensei does it, if you are unable to do it, you don’t get to experience the same muscle group deployment, and the resulting bodily sensations, that the sensei wants you to experience. And when that happens, the sensei’s mental-and-kinesthetic insight sails right over your head.
What the five steps did was to give us a starting vocabulary for breaking down aikido’s complex movements into their component parts. And by being able to break down movements, we increased our chances of capturing the sensei’s exact pedagogic intent. (In 2012, the American sensei Donovan Waite gave a seminar in Quezon City. His most frequent exhortation, delivered in a soft-spoken undertone, was “Break it down! Break it down!”)
Therefore, by giving us the power to more accurately replicate teachers’ movements, the five steps helped us capture the substance, as opposed to just the appearance, of their movements. And not just of our teacher, but of any teacher.
Of course the five steps were just a starting point. After training for a long time, aikidoists come to realize that the art is about integration of many bodily and mental skills. Aside from footwork, there is also posture, stance, alignment, wrist rotation, relaxed shoulders, leg-centric power deployment, explosiveness, timing, angles of entry, rhythm, exploitation of momentum. And so on.
For our generation of aikidoists, Fujimaki Sensei, with his gift of the five steps, opened a gateway to these other possibilities. - rsreyes