(ed. note: this blog post was trapped in software limbo for an unpardonably long time. we apologize to the author for the extraordinary delay)
By Michael Weber
Four sharp claps announced the opening of my first class at the Aikido Kumano Juku Dojo in Shingu, Japan. Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei, who would be my teacher for the next three years, bowed to the shomen, then to a picture of O’Sensei, the shomen again, and then turned to the class. After a brisk warm up and a session of misogi exercises (shin kokyu), Sensei demonstrated our first technique: katate dori tenkan. There was no explanation. No words of advice. We just began. I quickly turned to the person next to me and leapt to my feet.
Twenty minutes later, I was struggling to hear through the blood pounding in my ears. The pace of training in Shingu was furious: no breaks between techniques, no adjusting of uniforms, no pauses as the role of uke and nage changed. I gasped for breath when Sensei clapped for us to sit down. My mind reeling with culture shock, there was no way I could focus on Sensei’s lessons. Before I knew it, his instructions were over, and I was back on my feet, just trying to stay alive. My partners offered me hints, but between the exhaustion and not understanding Japanese, everything was just a blur. In the United States, teachers offered detailed, technical instruction, techniques were repeated eight to twelve times, and I could ask questions that my American teacher could understand and answer; learning in Shingu was nothing like that for me. Later, after I could speak enough Japanese to understand him, I learned that Sensei was offering detailed instructions, as well as advice regarding how to conduct myself as an Aikidoka. But in the beginning, all of his words were lost on me. Fortunately, I picked up a skill early on that helped me greatly.
Since I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying when I first arrived at the Kumano Juku Dojo, I was forced to watch and listen, and my observations changed the way I trained. For example, in Shingu, my partners didn’t wait between techniques, and I learned to copy them. If my elbow drifted up or I left my face exposed, my partners tapped me, and I learned to close my openings. My partners never looked me in the eyes, but kept their heads turned in the direction they wanted to go. I learned to do the same, and my posture improved.
Day after day, I watched, learned, and copied Sensei and the senior students until one day, I noticed my Aikido, and my attitude toward training, had dramatically changed. I sincerely believe the depth and rapid pace of the change was directly linked to the manner in which I learned. Since I couldn’t ask questions and couldn’t understand the instruction, I was forced to “steal” information, and this mindset kept me invested in the learning process. Looking back, I wonder if my growth in Aikido would have occurred at the same pace if I hadn’t experienced training in Japan.
In the United States, we are used to a completely different system of learning, which applies to schools as well as dojos. Like the Japanese, teachers here develop learning environments for their students. The difference is that American students are encouraged to ask questions when they are stuck. It is not uncommon for Americans to challenge their teachers when they don’t understand. This is the system we grew up with, and there are benefits to it. For instance, American students develop a willingness to speak out and the courage to voice an opinion that goes against the grain. However, there are also weaknesses to this system. Since we are so willing to ask questions, we often ask the question before even trying to answer it on our own, which affords us the luxury of zoning out if we are tired. This creates a kind of mental laziness that is not conducive to training in the martial arts.
The solution I am finding in both the high school and community Aikido classes I teach is to recreate a small bit of Shingu right here in the States. My classes now look something like this: I call out an uke and only demonstrate the technique four times, doing my best to offer a clear, physical demonstration. When I do speak, it is to refer to basic points about Aikido: close your openings, don’t wait for your partner, don’t look at your partner, and mind your posture.
After the fourth example, we bow, and students go to work. I let them struggle for a bit, and then ask them to sit down where they are. I tell them to think of a specific problem they are struggling with and tell them to look for the solution in the next demonstration. After calling out another uke, I demonstrate four more times, and send the class back to practice. This time, I do my best to work with every group so students can feel the technique. I generally don’t speak, nor do I answer questions with words. Rather, I let them steal the information from me.
This way, they have the chance to pick up a lesson I wasn’t intending to teach them. We repeat this process several times, and by the end of class, students show great improvement in whatever area they were working on. Personalized learning for the martial arts! It seems to be working with both the high school students and my adult students because, when I ask them if they want me to tell them how to do a technique, they almost always say they would rather steal it. This is just the sort of student I am hoping to develop.
After three years in Shingu, I needed to head back to America. About three weeks before I left, I was moping about after class and a senior instructor came over to me. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’m kind of sad.”
“I’ll never be able to train like this again,” I said with an arm sweep, indicating the dojo. “Every morning and night, I get to train with some of the best martial artists in the world. The training here is so focused and intense. We don’t have training like this in America.”
My sempai nodded. “We have given you what you need to know to continue your training. Go to other dojos. Train with them. Do Aikido the way their teachers demonstrate it, but keep the principles you learned here at the forefront of your mind. Close your openings. Stay connected to your partner. Don’t look at your partner. Do this, and your Aikido will grow.”
I sighed, and he patted me on the shoulder, a rare display. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “You’ll be fine.”
Turns out, he was right.