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text  by Grigoris Miliaresis

 

“This is Kendo, The Art of Japanese Fencing”

I don’t remember when I bought it (probably in the mid-80s) but I do remember how excited I was: my first book on kendo -which I’d never seen live. It was “This is Kendo, The Art of Japanese Fencing” and in its 160 pages, one Japanese teacher, Junzo Sasamori and one American, Gordon Warner were explaining what “Japanese fencing” was all about, I think for the first time in English. I could write a whole article about that book and perhaps one day I will but for now, I’d like to take you to its page 38. There and on the next three pages was an amazing set of illustrations depicting a fight between nine samurai: one against eight. The caption of the sequence read “Toshiro Mifune, Japan’s leading actor of international fame displays samurai virtuosity with his sword in a sequence from the film “Sanjuro””.

So here was a book about Japanese fencing, written by two renowned teachers which in its history and tradition section was illustrating real-sword samurai fighting using an actor! Incredible, even if he was “Japan’s leading actor of international fame” -weren’t any swordsmen available from the real classic schools that I’ve already read were still surviving? Those being pre-Internet days and in Greece (i.e. “Sanjuro” wasn’t available at my local video-rental place), I had to wait a few years for the answer. Which was that 1962 “Sanjuro” wasn’t just any film. It was created by one of the most important filmmakers in the art’s history not only in Japan but worldwide, Akira Kurosawa, and it was one of three black and white samurai-themed masterpieces of first period of his career –the other two being, of course, “Seven Samurai” (1954) and “Yojimbo” (1961).

Flash forward to 2020: I am in Japan, I’m writing for a Japanese martial arts’ magazine and I’m practicing those old schools after having practiced enough kendo and iaido to be able to understand what Junzo Sasamori and Gordon Warner were writing about in that book that was published three years before I was born. Or rather I would be practicing if it wasn’t for the Covid-19 pandemic that has swept the whole world and, among other things, made us close our dojo and stay at home. Everybody has turned to their screens for something to help pass the time until the lock-down measures are lifted so perhaps this is the best time to re-evaluate those films –after all, this past month we had the double anniversary of 110 years from the birth of Akira Kurosawa and 100 years from the birth of the star of all three films, that Toshiro Mifune guy!

http://mifuneproductions.co.jp/update/?p=232

 

First Act: Seven Samurai


Seven Samurai (七人の侍 © 1954 Toho Co., Ltd.)

The story in a nutshell: During Sengoku Jidai, the time of civil strife, a poor farmers’ village gets raided by renegade bushi who have become bandits. To avoid their next invasion, which will happen after the rice harvest, the villagers hire six down on their luck ronin (masterless samurai) and an eccentric farmer-turned-samurai to defend them. The ronin manage to win the battle but not without severe casualties.


From a martial arts’ point of view –and I’ll be sticking to this in this article because I’m no film critic!- “Seven Samurai” is amazing. It contains swordsmanship, especially in the character of master swordsman Kyuzo who is selected by the villagers because he wins in a duel, spear fighting with actual yari and bamboo spears (the ronin teach farmers how to use them), archery, utilized by two of the samurai, among them by their leader, Kambei, matchlock gunnery (the bandits have three guns and at some point the samurai manage to seize two of them), horsemanship (the bandits are riders), and strategy, fortification techniques and tactics, all by the mastermind of the seven, Kambei. I haven’t been in a Sengoku Jidai setting but as a martial arts practitioner, I believe this is one of the most realistic depictions of such a situation.

Shooting of Kyuzo’s duel (Photo ©Yuishinkan Sugino Dojo)

Sugino Yoshio (1904-1998, Photo ©Yuishinkan Sugino Dojo)

Kyuzo’s duel when we (and the villagers) first meet him is one of the best swordsmanship scenes in cinema: first he duels with a bokuto but his opponent doesn’t accept he lost, claims it was a mutual destruction hit (ai-uchi) and presses for a redo with real swords. Unperturbed, Kyuzo takes his sword, the scene is repeated and the opponent gets cut down in one forward move –no sword clashing, no jumping around and no fancy moves. And how it could be otherwise when the sword choreography was done by non other than Yoshio Sugino, licensed teacher of Tenshin Shoden Katori Sinto-ryu and aikido student under the art’s founder Morihei Ueshiba? This isn’t stage fighting but as close as it gets to the real thing, taught by a real sword master!

But realism doesn’t stop there: the test the ronin leader performs to test possible recruits (he has another one waiting inside the house ready to hit anyone coming in with a bokuto) is a classic go no sen/sen-sen no sen scenario that could be taken by any classic ryu’s playbook; as a matter of fact, this is how, according to Ono-ha Itto-ryu records, Iemitsu Tokugawa tested Tadaaki Ono and Munenori Yagyu. The first samurai reacts to the attack, gets offended and leaves but the second doesn’t even enter and just laughs at the leader –the leader laughs back, asks him to join and he becomes one of the seven. And when the ronin get to the village, their whole deportment, their awareness and their understanding of what needs to be done before being told to, even though most of them have just met, shows the results of severe training and experience in conflicts, on and off the battlefield. The big fighting scenes are fine but the best budo bits of this 3,5-hour epic are in the details!

As a matter of fact, what I find less appealing both as a martial arts’ practitioner and as a viewer is Toshiro Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo: he is the film’s comic relief but also the voice of conscience of the ronin when he delivers a monologue accusing the samurai class for making the lives of farmers miserable. But he is too physical and too farcical and from a 21st century perspective a little too much. Which makes the next film, “Yojimbo” a real surprise, because it’s a Mifune tour-de-force!

 

Second act: Yojimbo


Yojimbo (用心棒 © 1961 Toho Co., Ltd.)

The story in a nutshell: In the late Edo Period, a ronin gets to a countryside town torn from the fight between two clans/gangs. His sword skills and presence make him look like an attractive ally to both groups that attempt to hire him as a yojimbo (bodyguard) but he manages to play both of them and make them destroy each other.


Mifune takes the lead in this film but his character is the complete opposite of his “Seven Samurai” Kikuchiyo –actually he’s closer to the “Seven’s” sword fighter Kyuzo. Sanjuro, the name of the character here, is also a master swordsman ronin who will draw his sword only when he can’t do otherwise. Most of the time he wins “saya-no-uchi” i.e. without actually using his sword but with being aware of the action, both seen and unseen (he understands people’s thoughts, motives and agendas) and knowing how to use it in the most profitable way. He is the perfect realization of the idea that swordsmanship is also strategy and the principle of preservation of one’s fighting resources until absolutely needed.

Yoshio Sugino teaching Katori Shinto-ryu’s “Gyakunuki-no-Tachi”to Toshiro Mifune. (Photo ©Yuishinkan Sugino Dojo)

But when he does take his sword out, his movement is masterful. Again guided by Yoshio Sugino, Mifune doesn’t waste time clashing swords or flailing his hands around like the gangsters do. Each cut is powerful enough to take an opponent out (and when it isn’t, the second is -which makes even more sense from a real sword fight standpoint) but can also be light enough to slice through an opponent’s clothes or a comrade’s restraining ropes without even touching the skin and he moves with speed and efficiency like an aikido master doing a multi-opponent randori, utilizing the terrain, available objects and mostly, the opponents’ bodies. And when the time comes to stay low and regain his powers, he practices with the only available weapon, a kitchen knife which he uses as a shuriken on leaves fluttering in the wind –as luck (and script) would have it, this proves useful when the time comes to face the gangsters’ main warrior who is carrying a Western revolver. Cool-headed, laconic, realistic to the point of cynicism, skillful in the arts of war, those fought with weapons and those fought with wits, Mifune’s Sanjuro is the ultimate samurai. And one year later, he returns with what could very well have been called. “Yojimbo v2.0”: “Sanjuro”.

 

Third act: Sanjuro


Sanjuro (椿三十郎 © 1962 Toho Co., Ltd.)

The story in a nutshell: Sanjuro, the character from “Yojimbo” meets a group of young samurai who have become pawns in a power game between their leader and another han (fiefdom) official. Reluctantly, he becomes their leader and helps them restore their leader and punish the corrupt official and his men.


If seen right after “Yojimbo”, Mifune’s character in “Sanjuro” has grown –now it isn’t just strategy that makes him use his wits instead of his sword but also the realization that not everything in life can be solved with a drawn sword. (The samurai leader’s wife mentions that and in the end he accepts that she was right.) Like in “Yojimbo” his power lies in having a good understanding of the terrain, the players and the allegiances and he uses the fascination of others with him and his skills to make things move in the way that best serves his purpose. And like in “Yojimbo”, his actual motive isn’t greed for money or power: he does want to fight evil but he’s too proud (and, let’s face it, cool!) to admit it.

Ryuu Kuze and Toshiro Mifune during the shooting of “Zoku Miyamoto Musashi” (Photo ©Yuishinkan Sugino Dojo)

 

This time sword work comes from Ryuu Kuze, who worked with Yoshio Sugino in “Yojimbo” so there are no seams: from Sanjuro’s trademark shrug when walking around (something that every kendoka will acknowledge comes from too much sword practice) to his kiri-age and ichimonji giri (rising and horizontal cuts, respectively) to his tai sabaki especially in the midst of many opponents (remember page 38 from the “This is Kendo” book?) everything is there, masterfully choreographed and executed. And when the time comes for the final duel with the bad guys’ head swordsman, Hanbei, it’s just one move-one cut, again like Kyuzo’s duel in “Seven Samurai”. As for the cartoonish blood explosion ending the duel, it might have been so the nine young samurai will realize the path of the sword was bloody but it became a standard for every bad samurai movie for the next 20 years!

 

Last act: Kurosawa’s samurai

Perhaps “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” aren’t masterpieces –“Seven Samurai” certainly is and cinema history has been pretty straightforward on that. But they aren’t simple swashbuckling chambara either and there is a thin line of realism running through all these films although it’s easier to see in the “Seven” and less in the other two. With these films, Kurosawa made people see the ronin under a different light (until then, they were basically the villains) and understand that they could have a personal code of ethics that sometimes could be more solid than that of the samurai serving under a lord. And for someone practicing martial arts, and especially sword arts, they draw a picture that even though would be overshadowed by the next 50 years’ endless acrobatic choreographies, is probably much closer to the reality our ancestors in the classic ryu lived in.

Yoshio Sugino teaching Toshiro Mifune “Kiriage”(Photo ©Yuishinkan Sugino Dojo)

 

The relaxed style of the main characters (and especially Sanjuro) and their instant explosion when there’s real action, like cats who go from nap to hunt in a fraction of a second, their awareness of the situations unfolding around them and their ability to lay down plans and adjust them according to changing circumstances, their calm demeanor against difficulties, even when these become life and death issues, are all excellent depictions of the qualities found at the core of almost all traditions and which all martial artists strive for. Add some great, and for the most part realistic, swordsmanship created by one of the 20th century’s most renowned classic martial arts’ teachers and some messages that could go as deep as anyone would like to –from deep philosophy about the nature of conflict to just everyday ethics as parameters of living one’s life, as true in the Edo Period as they are today (black and white they might be but there are countless shades of gray in them!) and you have something that anyone interested in the martial arts should watch at least once –or five times. Oh, and they’re damn fine cinema too!

Yoshio Sugino teaching Katori Shinto-ryu’s “In-no-Kamae” to film actors. (Photo ©Yuishinkan Sugino Dojo)

PS
Remember that illustration in the kendo book? I’ve watched “Sanjuro” over half a dozen times and still haven’t managed to locate it. Go figure…

 


About the author

Grigoris Miliaresis has been practicing Japanese martial arts since 1986. He has dan grades in judo, aikido and iaido and has translated in Greek over 30 martial arts’ books including Jigoro Kano’s “Kodokan Judo”, Yagyu Munenori’s “The Life-Giving Sword”, Miyamoto Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings”, Takuan Shoho’s “The Unfettered Mind” and Donn Draeger’s “Martial Arts and Ways of Japan” trilogy. Since 2007 his practice has been exclusively in classic schools: Toda-ha Buko-ryu under Ellis Amdur in Greece and Kent Sorensen in Japan and, since 2016, Ono-ha Itto-ryu under 18th headmaster, Yabuki Yuji.
http://about.me/grigorismiliaresis

In the April 2020 issue of Hiden, I wrote about the life of André Nocquet, who was the first foreign uchi deshi of Ueshiba Morihei from June 1955 to October 1957. Nocquet passed away in 1999 and he entrusted his close student, Mr Frank Decraen as the caretaker of his belongings. Shortly before his own passing, Decraen designated me as his successor and asked me to find out as much information as I could from those items. I accepted his request and started to study them very carefully. Last month, I discuss my findings on a mysterious keikogi that O Sensei supposedly gave to Nocquet. Today, I would like to describe some selected parts of a private diary that Nocquet wrote during his stay in Japan, so that you can discover some of Nocquet’s inner thoughts, aspirations, and as for all humans, some of his intrinsic contradictions.

Before going further, I need to clarify that it is a very easy and foolish thing to do to criticize the misguided views of pioneers when one has the benefit from hindsight. In this article, I am not trying to undermine André Nocquet’s work nor personality, but on the contrary, I would like to respectfully shed some more light on his thought process based on my own meager Aikido experience and decade spent living and training in Japan. It is a worthwhile exercise as more than a window into a pioneer’s heart, this diary holds some of the keys that explain how Aikido is understood in the West today.

The first entry in the diary is dated August, 28th, 1956 and the last is from November 3rd, 1957. Even though the end corresponds to Nocquet’s departure from Japan, the entire period between his arrival and July 1956 is missing, which suggests that there either exists an earlier volume, or that Nocquet only started writing halfway through his stay in Japan. Either way, we are unfortunately missing the entire first year of his stay.

Aikido and Religion

Cover of André Nocquet’s private diary

The first thing that struck me when I received the notebook was the large black cross on its cover. Interestingly, many of the Japanese people to whom I showed it thought that this cross represented the bridge between heaven and earth that O Sensei used to talk about. Indeed, O Sensei used to call aikido “十字道”, the Way of the Cross, and he would also use an alternative way of writing it such as: “合気十”, the “Aiki Cross” [Note: For more information on those concepts, I encourage the reading of this article.] . It is of course very possible that Nocquet was told about this by O Sensei, but there is no reference to this particular symbolism in the rest of the document, nor in any of the writings of Nocquet that I have in my possession. For a westerner however, this cross has an obvious Christian meaning. Nocquet was indeed for his whole life a very devout Catholic, and those who knew him agree that there is no tdoubt that this cross is a reference to it. In fact, numerous parts of the of his diary feature excerpts from the Christian bible, such as this one, which is written on its very cover:

He who loves the Crucifix often guards himself with its sign
Canon John Mirk (c. 1400)

For a French person, the presence of this large black cross on a notebook that supposedly contains all sorts of secrets about the Far East is both unexpected, and possibly also a source of some unease. In fact, my friend Odilon Regnard, who acted as my witness when I was made the custodian of Nocquet’s belongings, strongly argued against publishing openly pictures of that front cover, for he feared that it might be misunderstood. I think that even though it likely has very little to do with O Sensei’s use of the symbol, this cross is actually the key to Nocquet’s thinking and his understanding of Aikido, and possibly, that of a whole generation of non-Japanese practitioners.

Nocquet formally addressed the question of religion in Aikido in an interview that he gave on a French radio show in 1988:

One day I asked my master, Master Ueshiba, “You always say that Aikido is Love. Then, isn’t there a very tight link with Christianity? ” He told me, “Yes, there is a very tight link with Christianity, but when you return to Europe, never say that Aikido is a religion. If you practice Aikido well, you may become a better Christian, but if a good Buddhist practices Aikido, he will also become a better Buddhist. Aikido is a way, a path, it helps to better understand religions and philosophies, but it is not a religion.” This is what he told me.
Interview with André Nocquet – France Culture, 1988

Here it is clear that Nocquet took O Sensei’s answer as a sign that his Catholicism and the spiritual ideals of Aikido were not mutually exclusive. He went further later on though, arguing that Ueshiba Morihei was actually advocating a sort of syncretism between the world religions and the spiritual ideals of Aikido. As a result, in his own writings, Nocquet later often attempted to merge Christian concepts with Ueshiba’s ideals.

To reach this aiki, it is necessary to “build the divine soul in the human body”, that is to say, to associate with universal Ki, which is quite difficult, by the practice of shin-kokyu and then everyday life in God. “Let your light shine in the darkness around you”. If God – Christ is always present in us, we will live divinely, and our Ki will then be able to penetrate everywhere, “Through doors, walls, rocks, anything”; it is an enormous power to have Ki in oneself, it is quite natural then that the malicious attack is quickly thwarted and absorbed, annihilated, erased, destroyed. We must go forth without hesitation.
Entry from André Nocquet’s diary dated 27 September 1956, following a class with Ueshiba Morihei

In particular, Nocquet makes frequent parallels between breathing (shin kokyu) exercises and prayer.

Breathing. Prayer. Two important elements of aiki.
Entry from André Nocquet’s diary dated 17 April 1957, following a class with Tohei Koichi

Through his lectures and writings, it is evident that Nocquet seems to have taken this as a licence to adopt a largely ethnocentric point of view when analyzing and describing what the philosophical principles of Ueshiba Morihei’s art were. As an example, I have discussed elsewhere the differences in the concept of harmony between Japan (和) and the west, and the potential misunderstandings that may arise if one looks at harmony within the framework of Aikido based on an ethnocentric and/or contemporary interpretation of the term. Like many early practitioners, what Nocquet wrote was often based on such misunderstanding.

Nocquet praying with O Sensei.

One can actually argue that this may have led to some misinterpretations about Ueshiba’s art and intentions, since Nocquet did not have a particularly sophisticated understanding of Japanese mind, culture, or language. He was also a very experienced man when he arrived in Japan, very far from a blank slate. Therefore, he read everything through the prism of his own Western philosophy, and as we all are, was often prone to confirmation biases. For instance, Nocquet often omitted to highlight that the dogmatic nature of the claims that a religion like Roman Catholicism makes are mutually exclusive with that of other religions, even those, like Buddhism, which are not based on dogma and therefore more malleable.

Master Ueshiba explains the beginning of the world in the same way as the bible (without knowing it). There is a point at the beginning. It is Ki, that is to say, a universal spirit – God – the spirit of God. Then Ki manifests itself by a sound, the verb which has the power to create, which explains the rhythmic movements of the Master with accompanying sounds. It means that by emitting sounds the Master absorbs the beneficial (universal) cosmic energy.
Entry from Andre Nocquet’s diary dated September 27, 1956

A little further in his diary, Nocquet draws one of the numerous clear and direct parallels between scriptures and the practical interpretations of Aikido.

I read in the Bible today (Luke 8:39): “Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.””
God acted in Jesus, it was total aiki; similarly, Jesus can act in us who are alive if we let ourselves be guided by him, our body being a simple instrument in the service of Jesus. It is not we who speak, act, it is Jesus who is in us who does everything, this is the real aiki.
“When you are brought before the synagogues, the magistrates and the authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourself, or what you will say because the Holy Spirit will teach you right now what it will take say.” Luke 12:11
When you are attacked by the opponent in real combat, do not worry about how you will defend yourself, or the technique you want, because Ki = Holy Spirit will teach you right now what to accomplish it.
Entry from Andre Nocquet’s diary dated November 3, 1957

The other side to this observation, which gives some more insight into Nocquet’s character and thought process and set of values, is that on a number of occasions, he made rather derogatory statements regarding scientists or the scientific method itself. He often resorted to the appeals to authority and cited as models scientists whose views have been largely disproved since, such as here:

As for Sir Fred Hoyle, Founder of the Cambridge Institute for Theoretical Astronomy, knighted by the Queen of England for his work, he rejects most of the theories on which our knowledge of the Cosmos is based. He sends Darwin, Einstein and Carl Sagan back to their studies.
André Nocquet – Maître Morihei Ueshiba Présence et Message p 250-251

As expected from such a statement, Nocquet’s writings often contain pseudo-scientific and new age concepts. One should therefore always keep those observations in mind when reading Nocquet’s words, for they can otherwise lead to gross misinterpretations about Aikido or Ueshiba Sensei’s intentions. I am afraid that those misinterpretations have permeated deeply through generations of practitioners, especially since for reasons I briefly explained in Hiden issue of April 2020, almost none of Nocquet’s own students ever went to Japan, nor studied Japanese culture, thought, or language.

Incidentally, since Nocquet mentions the famous scientist Carl Sagan, it is interesting to note that Sagan was also read and cited by none other than Nidai Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru. In his book “The Spirit of Aikido”, Nidai Doshu wrote the following:

“Cosmos” is not a philosophical treatise, but it contains a wealth of information on the most recent data in space science. And it does remind us once again that the universe is the source of our life and that our lives are intimately connected with its order and change. On this very point, although from entirely different perspectives, there is agreement with the intuitive understanding of life in East Asian thought.
Ueshiba Kisshomaru – The Spirit of Aikido p. 28

The contrast in approach is quite fascinating.

Daily practice and study

The entries in the notebook offer very valuable information about the practice and day-to-day life of Nocquet during that period. The notebook is indeed, to a large extent, as much of a technical memorandum as it is a diary.

Technical sketches made by Nocquet in his notes

Before delving into specific passages, it is important to note one last sentence taken from its cover, which perhaps illustrates better than anything, the all too human, intrinsic contradictions of André Nocquet. Keep in mind that Nocquet has been one of the most prolific writers to ever write about Aikido.

Should one write about Aikido?
For centuries we have written about physical love. The greatest personalities would learn nothing from it, physical love must be executed to understand it, that is to say feeling in silence the union with the partner. The art also, must be practiced, the understanding of this art is intuitive, this is why the greatest founding masters have never written much. If you write in a notebook, it is the notebook which will remember, but not you.
From the cover André Nocquet’s diary

This may also explain why Nocquet might have started writing only halfway through his stay in Japan. Note however that regardless of his fluctuating opinion on the matter of writing, he was expected to produce a report upon his return to France, and I would find it very surprising if he had not kept a record, albeit a loose one, of his first twelve months in Japan. Unfortunately, I was unable to confirm if any other notes than the ones I received ever existed (annexes to the diary exist but they are mostly posterior to that period). It must however be noted that as prolific a writer as he was, Nocquet never published any technical manual per se. There are however films that were shot towards the end of his life and that were intended for the making of an instructional video, but it was never completed for reasons I don’t know.

Excerpt from an unfinished technical video by André Nocquet (uke : Bernard Boirie)

A native French speaker cannot but be struck by the deep feeling of isolation permeating from Nocquet’s journal. Though he does actually explicitly mention his isolation in a couple of sentences, it is in a later text that Nocquet expresses the full extent of his loneliness at the time:

My ignorance of the Japanese language has, for almost three years, locked me in near solitude. As painful as it was for me at times, it placed me in ideal conditions for meditation.
André Nocquet – The Strength of Japanese Spirit (published June 1983)

It seems that this isolation would only be broken in 1956 when Tohei Koichi returned to Japan after a year spent in the United States. Even though the philosopher Tsuda Itsuo sporadically attended meetings to translate O Sensei’s words for Nocquet, he was not with him on a daily basis, so Tohei would have been the only instructor at Hombu at the time with whom Nocquet would have been able to communicate in English. Interestingly, Tohei’s return date also coincides with the beginning of the diary.

André Nocquet with Tohei Koichi at the Hombu Dojo (photo kindly given to me by Kobayashi Yasuo Shihan)

If one assumes that the notes that Nocquet took were based on the materials that most connected with him, or that he understood best, it gives us a very interesting perspective on what his main influences were. Even though Nocquet attended most of the classes of Ueshiba Kisshomaru Sensei, Okumura Shigenobu Sensei, and Osawa Kisaburo Sensei, the overwhelming majority of entries in his journal report on the teachings of Tohei Sensei. Tohei was probably the one who made the most effort to adopt a Western-like pedagogical approach and he seemingly also took it upon himself to explain the techniques of O Sensei to Nocquet. Indeed, Nocquet reported that Tohei told him the following:

Master Ueshiba is a genius in what he does. He cannot explain to you. I can explain it to you.
Interview with André Nocquet – Aikido Magazine – February 1984

The diary also helps us understand that Nocquet did the majority of his training at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. Even though there is a relatively large collection of pictures that show him in Iwama with O Sensei, which has led some people to assume that he trained there extensively, they were all taken during a single, 5-day trip to Ibaraki. I asked the Aikikai Ibaraki Branch’s Isoyama Hiroshi Shihan about Nocquet, and he responded that Nocquet was indeed not a regular of the Iwama Dojo, even though he may have visited at times.

Ueshiba Morihei and André Nocquet in Iwama

This further reinforces the idea that like for most of his contemporaries, Nocquet’s learning was placed under the responsibility of then Hombu Dojo-cho, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, as well as that of the Shihan Bucho, Tohei Koichi.

Future plans for the spread of Aikido abroad

In his diary, Nocquet often reflects on the teaching and organisation of the Aikido that he learnt in Japan, when he would return to France. He seems especially preoccupied by the establishment of a pedagogic system in order to ensure that Aikido would not be lost or denatured during the transmission and expansion process.

One might respond that Aikido changes every day and is going to go through more changes. Nevertheless, with its current degree, which is close to perfection, it is possible to establish a system now so that the instructors can teach it, always in contact with the Aikido Headquarter, which will update them on the various modifications made to perfect the art. A newsletter can also be created to serve as a link for all teachers.
Entry from André Nocquet’s diary dated 28 August 1956

Incidentally, Nocquet’s assumption that Aikido will keep evolving under the guidance of the Aikikai is quite interesting, and at odds with the rather rigid conception that many Aikido practitioners, including Nocquet’s own students, have of the art.

It is unclear whether things were explicitly expressed in those terms in Japanese during the classes at Hombu, but throughout Nocquet’s journal, the applicability of techniques for self-defense is often at the forefront. He also constantly refers to the way he would apply what he learnt in Japan when he would teach police forces and the army once he would return to France. This is obviously in stark contrast with practice at the Hombu Dojo today.

Nocquet often opposes the self-defense based on aiki to that of Kawaishi Mikonosuke (founder of French Judo). Even more fascinating, Nocquet never mentions Kawaishi’s full name, referring to his method as “Judo method”, “Kawa method” or “K. method”, almost like a secret code. The psychoanalytically-inclined may read a great deal into this of course.

Returning to France, I will have to be armed with a knife and provoke some experts of normal self-defense; they will all defend themselves according to the blockages of the K. method but I will yield to these blockages according to the universal principle of nonresistance.
Entry from André Nocquet’s diary dated April 1st, 1957

André Nocquet taking ukemi for Kawaishi Mikonozuke. This demonstration performed during the first edition of the European Judo Championship that took place on the 5th and 6th of December 1951 at the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris in front of more than 10,000 spectators.

This is yet again another contradiction in Nocquet’s character, who throughout his notes and public writings, speaks of not competing, letting go of ego and confrontation, yet explicitly describes in his private journal his intention to accomplish what the Japanese reader might call dojo yaburi (dojo storming).

Those who knew him know that Nocquet was a proud man. One section of his journal gives an interesting illustration of this. It contains a transcript of a speech that he gave to a foreign audience on the occasion of a celebration of the end of the First World War. Some crossed out and edited sections appear within the text:

Speech to foreigners on November 11, 1956
[…]Eastern and Western minds are diametrically opposed, for that reason it is not easy to grasp, but we I foreigners in Japan have good chance to learn in close contact with the Master himself and the best teachers and I think it will be our my duty when we I come back in our respective countries my country to make one clever adaptation little by little, to the western people ; it is my special purpose today in arranging this round table talking.[…]
Entry from André Nocquet’s diary dated 25th November 1956

Given that the date of transcript is posterior to that of the speech itself (written in English in the diary), it is unclear why he would have transcribed the original version and crossed it out. Did he pronounce the original version a few days before and decided to modify a transcription meant for posterity? Who knows. It is undeniable however that Nocquet was not the only foreigner to train at the Hombu Dojo at the time, though he was the only one to live there. He wasn’t the first foreigner to be exposed to O Sensei’s Aikido either. Could this be seen as an attempt to direct the attention to himself? I guess we will never be able to tell for sure.

Transcript of Nocquet’s speech given during the November 11 celebrations in 1956. Note the passages that were scribbled using a different pen and that change the plural pronouns into the singular.

What we know however is that when he returned to Europe, Nocquet expected that he would become the head of Aikido on he continent. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case, partly due to his peculiar character, but also because of the refusal of some locals to accept his leadership, and to some extent, to the Aikikai’s decision to send other Japanese experts to take over this leadership. I won’t go into details but this caused a lot of issues, some of which had to be dealt with in front of the tribunals. It is one of the reasons why Aikido is as segmented as it is today in France. Kisshomaru Doshu writes a very interesting account of this:

A heart-to-heart communication that keeps on living
After extending his initial two-year stay to four, diligently devoting himself to the training of Aikido, Mr. Nocquet left Japan in 1959. Though I trusted his good faith, he did not always meet my expectations after he returned to France. Indeed, after Mr. Abe returned to Japan, the subtle differences in the way of thinking between the East and the West, the conflicts between the newly sent Japanese teacher, and the varying conflict of interest between French people resulted in him distancing himself from the Aikikai. However, I stayed calm and did not complain about it nor hate Nocquet for it. Aikido is about always caring for the other person and refusing conflict. I thought to myself: “When the time comes, they will eventually come to an understanding”.
A few years later, when the International Aikido Federation was established, I unexpectedly heard from Mr Nocquet that he wanted to visit Japan. Hearing this news after such a long time brought up familiar feelings to me, my wife and children. The warm heart-to-heart interactions that we had fostered between human beings was still alive, no matter what happened. After that, Mr. Nocquet settled his disputes with the local Japanese instructors and became closer to us once again as an organization.

Ueshiba Kisshomaru, Aikido Ichiro (p.229-230)

The path ahead

The study of Nocquet’s diary has been invaluable and extremely enlightening on many levels. It made me realize that just like Ueshiba Morihei, and by extension all humans, André Nocquet was full of contradictions. In fact, is Aikido also built upon those contradictions. Though our art proposes to avoid or resolve conflict, it holds at its very core the sources of discord that it offers to solve. Notably, it is a deadly art that aims at doing no harm. It is a revolutionary and flexible philosophy, yet it is culturally very anchored in Japanese mindset, all the while also being meant to be spread worldwide. No wonder then why there are so many different interpretations of Aikido, not only abroad, but also in Japan. This, however, is precisely what makes it worthwhile to dedicate one’s lifetime to the study of Aikido.

This study of Nocquet’s life and belongings also resonated on a very personal level. I wrote in the previous issue (June 2020) that I used to dream as a child to follow in the footsteps of my heroes André Nocquet and Christian Tissier, and come to study Aikido in Japan. I fulfilled that dream and over the past ten years, I have learned tremendously on the tatami of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. However, I also found out that it would be a mistake to cut myself off from those men. Indeed, the careful study of the pioneering journeys of my seniors through the reading of André Nocquet’s personal journal, or my private conversations with Christian Tissier, the analysis of their understanding and their characters, hold invaluable leads and lessons on my own path in Aikido.

To conclude this analysis, I would like to offer one last citation taken from Noquet’s journal, one to which I wish to adhere as I humbly follow in their footsteps:

Our path
I solemnly swear that for this one day, I’ll not get angry, nor feared, nor grieved.
I’ll be honest, kind and cheerful, fulfilling my duty to my own life with force, courage and eagerness, and living always as a respectable man with a mind of full peace and love.
Excerpt from André Nocquet’s diary dated 24th January 1957, following a visit at the Tempukai

Many thanks to Odilon Regnard for his help in the analysis the many documents from André Nocquet’s archives. Thanks also to Frank de Craene and Claude Duchesnes for their trust. This series of articles is dedicated to the memory of Frank, who asked of me only one thing: “The truth, nothing but the truth. “


About the author

Guillaume Erard is a permanent resident of Japan. He trains at the Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. Guillaume regularly gives Aikido seminars throughout Europe as well as lectures on its history. He studied with some of the world’s leading Aikido instructors, including several direct students of O Sensei, and has produced a number of well regarded video interviews with them. Guillaume also holds the title of Kyoshi in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu and serves as Deputy Secretary for International Affairs of the Shikoku Headquarters. He is passionate about science and education, and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology. Guillaume’s work can be accessed through his website.

I have known the name André Nocquet for almost as long as I have known about aikido. Indeed, the picture of him standing in front of an old Japanese man was the first thing I saw when I entered the dojo of Michel Desroches, my first teacher. As it happened, I started my practice of aikido in André Nocquet’s federation and consequently, I was told many fantastic stories about his life and pioneering journey to Japan to study with the founder. As a young boy, it made a strong impression on me and I often dreamed about following in his footsteps and study in Japan with the masters. As I started my work as an aikido historian, I took the opportunity during my various interviews and projects to gather as much information as I could about Nocquet. I published a number of elements in my articles, and eventually was able to write a biography, which was published in Japanese in a recent issue of Hiden.

André Nocquet and O Sensei in Iwama. This is the picture that was in my first teacher’s office.

My efforts were also noticed by a number of people, including some of the closest students of Nocquet, Messrs Frank De Craene and Claude Duchesne. They asked to meet with me and to my surprise, chose me to become their successor as custodian of Nocquet’s personal belongings, which contained countless items such as a diary, letters, scrolls, films, photographs and wooden weapons. I will always remember that moment when Frank placed the keikogi jacket on my lap and said: “As you are all here to witness today, I am handing over this jacket to Guillaume Erard so that he becomes its guardian.” My blood froze as I immediately recognized the keikogi jacket that I had seen many years ago, and which according to him had been offered to Nocquet by Ueshiba Morihei in person.

The keikogi that André Nocquet brought back from Japan.

Indeed, during his seminars, Nocquet Sensei used to say that when O Sensei gave him the keikogi, he told him the following:

Take this keikogi, I have worn it and sweated in it. Now it is your turn to wear it so that our sweats mix during your practice as you work towards developing aikido in Europe.

The truth is actually that no one knows exactly what the story of this garment was, so once I became its caretaker, I decided that it was time for it to return to Japan. I wanted to show it to knowledgeable people, including some of the last living students of O Sensei, in order to find out if they knew anything about it.

André Nocquet teaching in France. He is wearing the keikogi given to him by O Sensei.

Though given its age, the vest is in remarkably good condition, it is clear that it has been worn a lot. It has in fact been patched a number of times at different periods, as indicated by the difference in brightness in some of the threads.

One of the numerous areas where the keikogi has been patched

I first wondered whether the jacket had been used regularly by O Sensei and mended before he gave it to Nocquet, or whether it was Nocquet himself who had used it the most. At first glance, it’s obvious that some of the patches seem to be as worn as the keikogi itself, so it is likely that they were added many years ago, but an interesting detail lies however in the reinforcement made on the collar.

Collar of the keikogi

The reinforcement on the edge of the collar sits above the embroidery, so it must necessarily have been added after fabrications. Given the similarity of color though, I assumed that this had been made in Japan, but if we compare it with the image of Nocquet wearing the jacket, we can see that the reinforcement is not yet present at that time. This addition can therefore only have been made after the return of Nocquet to France.

On the left hand side is the keikogi’s collar as it is today, with the patch. On the right hand side is a closeup of the picture of Nocquet wearing the keikogi after he returned to France. The patch must therefore have been made afterwards.

The weaving

The first person I showed the vest to was Jordy Delage, who is the founder of Seido Co. Ltd. and one of the world’s foremost experts in Japanese budo equipment. He gave me some very interesting information about the structure of the keikogi and how it was made. According to him, the keikogi itself is made in the same way as a judo keikogi, that is to say that the top is composed of a thick fabric with a sashiko grain of rice pattern and the lower half is fitted with a hishisashi diamond motif. Interestingly, the two types of weaving are done on the same piece of fabric, suggesting that they were hand woven from a single piece of cotton cloth.

The sashiko and hishisashi weaving are made in the same piece of cloth.

Still on the weaving, I noticed an interesting detail at level of the sleeves, which seem to have been lengthened, as suggested by the presence of a seam line at the wrist. I assumed that perhaps, the keikogi had been made to fit O Sensei, and then enlarged for Nocquet. However, upon further examination, this seam appears to have been made during manufacture and it may have been due to the fact that the cotton swaths used were not wide enough to allow one-piece weaving. This process also still exists since if you order an aizome cotton hakama and ask for longer straps, it is quite possible that you will find a seam at a point of the length.

Keikogi sleeve with a seam line near the wrist.

Jordy added that the keikogi was obviously handmade, probably by someone with great sewing skills. Given the quality of the weaving and embroidery, he felt that it must have been a fairly expensive item. He said, however, that the cut was a bit unusual and that the person who made it may not have been very experienced in weaving a budo keikogi. For instance, the sides of the jacket do not close very well, especially compared to the fairly wide shoulder width.

Jordy Delage and I discussing about the structure of the keikogi.

Iwata Shokai was the first company to start making keikogi for aikido around 1956. However, in comparison to a keikogi made by them for O Sensei, which is exhibited in a museum in Hokkaido, it seems clear that the one in my possession was made in a very different way, so I suspect that Jordy could be right and that the keikogi could have been made by someone else. The keikogi I obtained did not bear any label or trademark, so the identification of the maker is impossible.

The embroidery

The embroidery is made up of seven very high quality characters, with very tight weaving, which descend along the left collar of the jacket. Jordy pointed out that the characters sit behind the seam lines, indicating that they were added during the manufacturing process rather than sewn afterwards.

The embroidery is placed under the lines of stitching

About the embroidery, it says: “Doshu Ueshiba Morihei” (道主植芝守平), followed by a last kanji that was unknown to me. I first assumed that this last kanji could be some archaic honorific title added by the person who had made the jacket in order to offer it to O Sensei. However, I did not find any similar kanji in any of my books. I was steered in the right direction by my friend and fellow budo researcher, Baptiste Tavernier, who suggested it might be O Sensei’s kao. A kao (花押) is a stylized signature that can be used instead of the seal (判子, hanko) usually used in Japan. So I delved into the various calligraphy of O Sensei that I knew of and I quickly found the same character on several of his writings!

The last character on the keikogi’s embroidery (left) and O Sensei’s calligraphy bearing his kao (right).

This discovery had serious repercussions on my previous assumptions since it made it virtually impossible that the keikogi would have been a gift made for O Sensei. In fact, it meant the opposite. O Sensei either made this keikogi himself, which is unlikely, or he got it made by someone and had his seal affixed to it. More importantly, under those circumstances, he would never have worn routinely a garment that had his signature on it. In fact, I have never seen any picture of O Sensei showing him wearing an embroidered keikogi. I therefore started to doubt Nocquet’s story.

Getting the opinion of the masters

After the excitement, I realized that I had not advanced very far in my research, many questions were left unanswered and some more had come up. I decided to inquire with Tada Hiroshi Shihan with whom I had the chance to discuss about the history of aikido several times, and in particular about André Nocquet.

André Nocquet in front of the Hombu Dojo with Tada Hiroshi and Yamaguchi Seigo (c. 1957)

Although Tada Shihan does not remember ever having seen the jacket, or any other similar to it, he let me know that from the moment O Sensei had started to learn calligraphy from Abe Seiseki Sensei, he was often asked to sign personal items such as fans and wooden swords. According to him, this jacket could have been such an object. Tada Shihan also seemed to suggest that it was entirely possible that Nocquet had this jacket made for himself and requested that the name of O Sensei be embroidered on it. This is certainly possible but personally, I think that the fact that the embroidery sits behind the stitching lines, which Tada Sensei probably did not see since I only had photos to show him, makes that unlikely.

Demonstration on the roof of the Toyoko department store in Shibuya (kindly given to me by Kobayashi Yasuo Shihan).

I decided to ask the question of another contemporary of the time and I went to Kodaira to show the keikogi to Kobayashi Yasuo Sensei, whom I had also interviewed before. He had never seen this particular keikogi either, but he immediately noticed that it looked handmade. He said it was fairly common at the time because there weren’t any big manufacturers yet. Mihaly Dobroka, who had arranged the meeting, reminded us that there was a tradition where the person offering a garment used to wear the garment once to make the gift more personal. Kobayashi Sensei replied that he did remember that such a custom existed and that it could well have been the case for this particular garment. He said that given the jacket’s relatively large size, it was unlikely to have been made for O Sensei, who was only about five feet tall.

Kobayashi Yasuo Sensei and I studying the keikogi

What does such an item represent?

Thanks to the help of all of the above-mentioned people who were kind enough to help me, we now have a clearer idea of ​​the circumstances under which André Nocquet could have received this priceless object. It is likely that O Sensei had the keikogi made by hand and embroidered his signature on it during the manufacturing process. He probably wore it once, symbolically, before offering it to Nocquet before he left for France. According to the many people who saw it in France and the numerous patches made, Nocquet seems to have used this keikogi on numerous occasions.

In my opinion, this keikogi represents the friendship between France and Japan (remember that Nocquet was commissioned as part of the recent Franco Japanese Cultural Agreement signed in 1953) and the keen interest of the French people regarding Japanese budo. I hope that in the future, the link between our two nations through the practice of aikido, which was initiated by O Sensei and his son Kisshomaru, and continued by a number of pioneers in Japan and abroad, will remain strong and continue to grow. In future articles, I will talk about the contents of André Nocquet’s personal journal.

I would like to sincerely thank Tada Hiroshi Shihan, Kobayashi Yasuo Shihan, Jordy Delage, Hara Jouji, Baptiste Tavernier, and Mihaly Dobroka for their help with the study of this keikogi, and Claude Duchesnes and Frank Decraen for entrusting me with the care taking of those invaluable artifacts.


About the author

Guillaume Erard is a permanent resident of Japan. He trains at the Aikikai Headquarters in Tokyo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. Guillaume regularly gives Aikido seminars throughout Europe as well as lectures on its history. He studied with some of the world’s leading Aikido instructors, including several direct students of O Sensei, and has produced a number of well regarded video interviews with them. Guillaume also holds the title of Kyoshi in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu and serves as Deputy Secretary for International Affairs of the Shikoku Headquarters. He is passionate about science and education, and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology. Guillaume’s work can be accessed through his website.

text and photo by Grigoris Miliaresis

Cliche exist because they serve a purpose: when writers select their tools, there are times when they reach for the obvious because, well, only the obvious will do. Tennen Rishin-ryu’s relationship with Shinsengumi, the Bakumatsu-era special police force patrolling the streets of Kyoto, is so well-known even to people not involved with classic martial traditions that it can’t be ignored –even here, in “Hiden” we included this installment of our “experiencing a koryu” series focusing on this school in a feature about the Shinsengumi. But I want to make it clear up front: having a chance to be introduced in Tennen Rishin-ryu and especially as taught in Kato Kyoji’s Bujutsu Hozonkai dojo has been a five-year old wish come true.

Tennen Rishin-ryu and me

Kato Kyoji and Sandro Furzi

The reason? They are two, actually. The first is that since I came to Japan I developed a deeper interest in (and, I’m not shamed to admit it, a deeper respect for) kendo and its roots. “Hiden” readers know that I’m practicing Ono-ha Itto-ryu at Reigakudo and Itto-ryu’s relationship with kendo is well-known so having a chance to see from up close a school focusing on gekiken, kendo’s more recent ancestor is something I’ve wished for a long time. And even more so (and this is the second reason), since I met Sandro Furzi from Italy, one of Kato sensei’s older students and was introduced to his teacher.

You see, this visit at the Bujutsu Hozonkai dojo wasn’t my first contact with Mr. Furzi and Kato sensei: I had met the former socially and was instantly charmed by his demeanor, character and dedication to Japan’s culture and through him I had been invited, back in 2016, when they started their dojo, not only to watch their practice but also participate if I wanted. I did watch (personally, not with “Hiden”) and was in turn charmed by Kato sensei’s warmth, joyfulness and deep love for the tradition he has been studying and teaching. Being a martial arts’ professional (of sorts!) I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of martial artists and I can honestly say that Kato sensei and Mr. Furzi are easily in the Top-10!

Grigoris Miliaresis putting on the kendo bogu

So doing a Tennen Rishin-ryu “experience” article was inevitable for both personal and, well, historical reasons. And now, as I write about our visit I can say it was undoubtedly worth it! Not only I had the opportunity to put on again my kendo bogu after over ten years, but also to practice in a way very different from present-day tournament-oriented kendo involving, by Tennen Rishin-ryu practitioners’ estimates, 70% sword techniques (using the school’s trademark extra thick and heavy bokuto, regular bokuto and shinai) and 30% unarmed techniques, most of them while in armor! Because, and this is what many don’t realize about gekiken, in its context you can’t practice the one without the other: you go from long distance to short distance to body collision to standing grappling to ground grappling as would happen in a real fight.

Tennen Rishin-ryu’s trademark extra-thick and heavy bokuto

The history -and Shinsengumi (of course)

Kondo Isami (1834-1868)

First let’s get the Shinsengumi connection out of the way: Tennen Rishin-ryu was created by Kondo Kuranosuke Nagahiro in the late 1700s after a musha-shugyo (quest for knowledge) around the country which included study of Kashima Shinto-ryu. Kuranosuke had to take into account the demands of late Edo-period people for a swordsmanship style that allowed safe competition between different schools by the use of some rules and some protective equipment (i.e. gekiken, i.e. kendo). He was active in Edo and Kanagawa and during the times of his third successor Kondo Shusuke (1792-1867) and Shusuke’s adopted son, Kondo Isami (1834-1868) the school became quite famous. Kondo Isami, becoming commander of the Shinsengumi and other three of its thirteen core members (Hijikata Toshizo, Okita Soji and Inoue Genzaburo) also practicing the school certainly added to its fame.

Tennen Rishin-ryu Menkyo

Shinsengumi didn’t survive the Meiji restoration and neither did Kondo, Hijikata, Okita or Inoue. But thanks to the school’s popularity several Tennen Rishin-ryu teachers kept it alive in the broader Edo/Tokyo area and through Kondo Isami’s adopted son, Yugoro and his dojo in Chofu, Hatsuunkan, it was transmitted during Taisho, Showa and Heisei periods and up to the time of Hirai Tasuke, teacher of both Kato sensei and Mr. Furzi. And to anticipate the standard question “How much of the Shinsengumi times’ Tennen Rishin-ryu is Bujutsu Hozonkai teaching today?” the answer is “Who can really tell?” And that doesn’t only apply to Tennen Rishin-ryu: I couldn’t answer that even for the two traditions I am studying but I trust my teachers and their teachers that they did their best to keep alive their essence. And I’m certain Kato sensei does too!

Moving on to gekiken -and staying there

Bokuto-no-kirikaeshi

We started our practice at the Bujutsu Hozonkai with bokuto-no-kirikaeshi, a warm-up exercise where partners run towards each other doing kiai, strike three times at men level and retreat. It sounds easy but doing it with Tennen Rishin-ryu’s 100cm/3’2” long, 6cm/2.3” thick and 2kg/4.5lbs heavy bokuto and with kiai coming and going makes it quite exhausting –which is exactly the purpose! From there on, we moved to the first kata of the school’s Kenjutsu Omote, called “Jochuken”, again performed with the big bokuto. In Jochuken, shitachi in seigan approaches uchitachi who is in jodan, they attempt a mutual men cut, disengage and return for a second mutual men; this time shitachi pushes uchitachi who retreats to jodan and shitachi closes the distance and finishes with a solar plexus thrust. This is classic kenjutsu but like the warm-up, the extra-heavy, extra-thick bokuto makes it quite challenging!

Kenjutsu Omote “Jochuken”

The next thing we did before wearing the bogu (which, incidentally in Tennen Rishin-ryu also includes under-hakama shin protectors: shins are also targets) was “Yokozuki” from Mokuroku’s “Kogusoku” section. Here, shitachi blocks with his kodachi uchitachi’s sword and then grabs both uchitachi’s arms and brings him down illustrating how natural is the passage from armed to unarmed techniques. Kato sensei was kind enough to demonstrate several variations to what follows the take-down, explaining that during free sparring, practitioners are encouraged to use whatever feels appropriate each time.

“Yokozuki” from Mokuroku’s “Kogusoku”

Practice continued with various techniques from different parts of Tennen Rishin-ryu’s curriculum: First from Kirigami (first level) were “Sen-no-koto” (men strike from jodan), “O-no-koto” (deflecting a men strike), “Shiaiguchi” (a sequence of mune tsuki, three kendo-style kirikaeshi, another mune tsuki and a final mune tsuki from jodan) and “Soi-kirikaeshi” (kendo kirikaeshi but with ayumiashi footwork); as is obvious, in Tennen Rishin-ryu tsuki isn’t limited to the throat like in kendo but can also target mune and the face –and the latter can be really nasty!

Kao tsuki

Mune Tsuki

Leg strike

Then, from Chugokui Mokuroku followed “Oken” (uchitachi strikes at shitachi’s left kote when he’s in jodan; shitachi lets go of the left hand and strikes men with the right),

Oken 1

Oken 2

Oken 3

“Hienken” (both are in jodan, shitachi deflects uchitachi’s men and strikes do while stepping out of range -and possibly kneeling)

Hienken 1

Hienken 2

Hienken 3

“Muitsuken” with shitachi holding the blade part of the shinai, in mugamae (regular stance with the shinai held horizontally in the front) from where he uses it to block a men attack either directly from the front or moving to the side, hitting uchitachi’s wrist and following with a powerful jukendo-style two-handed tsuki to the face or blocking and then grabbing both uchitachi’s arms in his armpit like the technique used in Yokozuki with the kodachi

Muitsuken 1

Muitsuken 2

Muitsuken 3


Muitsuken 4

Muitsuken 5

Muitsuken 6

and “Ten-chi-jin” where shitachi also holds the shinai with his two hands but in naname-no-gedan kamae –this is a side stance where shitachi tries to hide the shinai and at some point whips it like an arrow towards uchitachi’s inner kote or face.

Ten-chi-jin 1

Ten-chi-jin 2

The final technique, Otaiken, came from Menkyo and it was a more realistic reaction to kendo’s tsuba-zeriai: shitachi pushes uchitachi’s kote away and strikes men with the other hand while pulling back –simple and extremely effective!

Otaiken 1

Otaiken 2

Otaiken 3

Ken-Tai-Ichi revisited

Because of a left shoulder pinched nerve, I thought I’d stay away from the unarmed techniques; 15 minutes in the practice, after the heavy bokuto kata, I realized that in Tennen Rishin-ryu this is impossible. As I wrote before, their curriculum is 70% sword/30% taijutsu and passing from the one to the other is so smooth and natural that either as a viewer or as a practitioner you can’t see or feel the seams: if your body placement allows you to use your sword you use it –if not, you use your body and you do it in the most effective way. When at some point we asked Kato sensei about a hip throw, he said that while wearing armor (real bushi armor or kendo bogu), a hip throw would be hard –kneeling down and having the opponent tipped over would be more realistic. And when he demonstrated it on Mr. Furzi, it really was.

Gekiken grappling 1

Gekiken grappling 2

Pushing the opponent to the wall

The Shinsengumi captains’ famed fighting skills notwithstanding, there’s little doubt that Tennen Rishin-ryu’s techniques were created in an era where the shinai was much more in use than the real sword. Edo in the end of the Tokugawa bakufu was a hotbed for shiai-kenjutsu and for reinventing the training and practicing paradigm through various combinations of kata and free practice leading to the creation of hundreds of new dojo, especially in the cities and dozens of “New Ryu” created by samurai and commoners alike, all exploring and developing what would become today’s kendo. Kato sensei’s Tennen Rishin-ryu (incidentally there are other lineages, but not having visited them I can’t speak about their interpretation) is true to that spirit and its kendo shows its roots with its throws, expanded target areas and “unorthodox” techniques like using the opponent’s do or men to choke him. Interestingly, the school’s curriculum also includes 12 iai kata, nine in seiza and three standing –quoting Mr. Furzi, “they are simple applications/basic sword drawing actions that people carrying swords were supposed to know.”

Gekiken grappling 3

Gekiken grappling 4

Bujutsu Hozonkai

There’s a phrase going around martial arts’ circles: most people come to the dojo because of self-defense but most stay for any other reason than self defense; paraphrasing this, perhaps most people are drawn to Tennen Rishin-ryu because of Shinsengumi but most of them should stay for any other reason. Tennen Rishin-ryu might be younger than some extant schools but certainly doesn’t lack depth or sophistication. It has a very realistic, well-rounded curriculum within the assumptions/restrictions/parameters of the Bakumatsu era (and probably of those immediately following it) and I have no doubt that its practitioners would have been able to hold their own even at those times of heavy inter-school competition; I won’t even mention today since many schools don’t practice realistically anymore.

Gekiken Shiai 1, tsuki

Kato sensei’s teaching methodology is also indicative of the importance of reality-based practice (i.e. gekiken) in Tennen Rishin-ryu: students are introduced to various techniques from the school’s curriculum not in sequence as usually happens but through gekiken; this way they can learn them as they would work with shinai and bogu and when time comes to perform them in the kata with bokuto, not only they already know them but they know their functionality and applications. This knowledge informs their kata and imbues them a vitality that sadly many schools lack.

Gekiken Shiai2, grappling

Gekiken Shiai 3, grappling on the ground

In closing, I would like to say with absolute sincerity (and with enough years in journalism to be able to keep my personal feelings aside) that if I’d come across Tennen Rishin-ryu as Bujutsu Hozonkai practices it even 20 years ago, I probably wouldn’t have searched any further. It has a very well-balanced combination of kata and free practice, weapons’ work and empty-hand work and historically it is old enough to be a koryu but young enough to be influenced by the big-city culture of later-day Edo which I find fascinating. Furthermore, the dojo’s approach (credited to Kato sensei and his understanding of budo but I’m sure with Mr. Furzi’s input too!) is conducive to more evolution and development in the way these traditions should be; by “approach” I mean as much the knowledge and the understanding as the atmosphere and the mood. Kato Kyoji’s Tennen Rishin-ryu isn’t just “the school of the Shinsengumi” and it isn’t just the legacy of Kondo Isami: it’s much, much more.

Kato Kyoji’s Bujutsu Hozonkai

PS
As always, I owe a combination of gratitude and apology, first to Kato Kyoji sensei and Mr. Sandro Furzi for being such perfect hosts and second to Bujutsu Hozonkai students for upsetting their practice and keeping their instructors busy. Please, accept this brief account of our day in your dojo as a consolation prize.


About the author

Grigoris Miliaresis has been practicing Japanese martial arts since 1986. He has dan grades in judo, aikido and iaido and has translated in Greek over 30 martial arts’ books including Jigoro Kano’s “Kodokan Judo”, Yagyu Munenori’s “The Life-Giving Sword”, Miyamoto Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings”, Takuan Shoho’s “The Unfettered Mind” and Donn Draeger’s “Martial Arts and Ways of Japan” trilogy. Since 2007 his practice has been exclusively in classic schools: Toda-ha Buko-ryu under Ellis Amdur in Greece and Kent Sorensen in Japan and, since 2016, Ono-ha Itto-ryu under 18th headmaster, Yabuki Yuji.
http://about.me/grigorismiliaresis

text  by Grigoris Miliaresis

photo by Grigoris Miliaresis

It was the 11th International Aikido Congress’ last day. Many had left the previous day, either after the Doshu’s class or after the sayonara party that followed it; many had planes to catch and long flights until they returned home with keikogi still wet and heads full of memories both on and off the tatami. But a good part of the crowd –probably more than five hundred people- were still there to see what, in one sense, can be considered the true essence of aikido: a demonstration of various styles from teams from all over the world and from practitioners of varying levels and concepts of what aikido means and how it is executed.

Brazilian team

People had gathered in a square –on the top side were the desks with the International Aikido Federation’s heads flanking the kamiza with Ueshiba Morihei’s portrait, on the left and bottom sides were the spectators (most of them were seminar attendees who didn’t participate in the demonstration or who had participated already and then changed and sat to watch) and on the right side the participants, still in their aikido attire. Most were carrying cameras or video cameras to record the demonstration and there was a lot of lively chatting even though everybody tried to keep their voice low so they wouldn’t interfere with the actual event.

Norwegian team

It is impossible to record all the different things presented in this demonstration; furthermore it wouldn’t make much sense since the diversity that characterized the demonstration is synonymous with aikido itself. Even in classical martial arts were the transmission is being done through kata there are variations –how can there not be in an art as open to interpretation as aikido? How can the techniques not vary depending on different body types, levels of practice and distance (literal and figurative) from the art’s source? Among the people demonstrating one could see people who have been only doing aikido for two or three years and never under a Japanese teacher (let alone a teacher close to Ueshiba Morihei and his lineage) and people who have trained for decades under direct students of him; people with backgrounds in various martial arts and combative sports and people who have never done anything but aikido; people who live in Japan and people whose first exposure to the country and its culture was this seminar.

Swiss team

Seeing more than a hundred people in teams from thirty three countries demonstrating more or less the same techniques these differences were glaringly obvious: right there, on the same tatami there were people with techniques harder than the most combative army self-defense system and people whose softness could match that of the most soft tai-chi; people with a firm grasp of aikido’s basics and people whose comprehension of the fundamentals of the art was clearly lacking; people who demonstrated the most by-the-book version of the techniques and people whose implementation only marginally resembled aikido; people extremely powerful and people exceptionally weak; people blindingly fast and others glacially slow. But it was all aikido: more than a hundred interpretations from more than a hundred individuals coming from dozens of different teaching methods and understandings.

English and Scottish team

Even though my view of the martial arts differs from this approach, I can’t but admire the way aikido has managed to use this diversity to its benefit; how it has able to build upon it and thrive in an age where abundant communication has made hundreds of martial arts and combative sports available to almost everyone on this planet. And above all, how it has been able to continue its course in history without succumbing to the usual sirens of competition and blatant commercialization –at least in the majority of cases. Personally, I can’t think of many martial arts that could bring more than a thousand people from so many countries in such a remote corner of the world just to study for a week and then stage such a varied demonstration without the backing of a big athletic organization and without the motivation of a tournament of sorts. That it achieved doing so is, I believe, a testimony to the quality of the set of values envisioned by Ueshiba Morihei sixty years ago and to their endurance over time, distance and people’s preconceptions. Maybe that’s why there were moments that I could swear I saw a very faint smile in the old man’s portrait in the kamiza: that demonstration was the realization of his dream.

Thai team

About the author

Grigoris Miliaresis has been practicing Japanese martial arts since 1986. He has dan grades in judo, aikido and iaido and has translated in Greek over 30 martial arts’ books including Jigoro Kano’s “Kodokan Judo”, Yagyu Munenori’s “The Life-Giving Sword”, Miyamoto Musashi’s “Book of Five Rings”, Takuan Shoho’s “The Unfettered Mind” and Donn Draeger’s “Martial Arts and Ways of Japan” trilogy. Since 2007 his practice has been exclusively in classic schools: Toda-ha Buko-ryu under Ellis Amdur in Greece and Kent Sorensen in Japan and, since 2016, Ono-ha Itto-ryu under 18th headmaster, Yabuki Yuji.
http://about.me/grigorismiliaresis