From 98-Pound Weakling to Black BeltPosted by Julianne Chiaet on Friday, January 16, 2015
By Benjamin Boas
Mou ikkai! Do it again!
Punching someone properly is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It was not enough to simply drive my fist forward and connect with the target. No, when selected to play the role of the model attacker for the Aikido training of a Japanese police officer, this is nowhere near sufficient. Hips must be aligned with shoulders. The wrist must only extend at the peak of the strike. And I must always, without fail, put my full weight into the punch, driving my front knee forward, as if it is the last punch I will ever make. “Chigau! Chigau!” my teacher screamed. Wrong, wrong!
Everything I was doing was wrong. I had to focus every fiber of my being on what the Fieldman, the head teacher, was saying to me. In all things his word was final; in all things he was right. “What you are throwing is not a punch,” he said as he towered over me. I knelt obediently on my knees. “What you are throwing is shit!” I planted my face into the mat of the Tokyo dojo in apology.
This was yet another day in the 11-month senshusei (専修生) course, the professional instructor training course of the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu Dojo (養神館合気道本部道場), known to be one of the hardest martial arts courses in the world. Participants are taken from the absolute basics to a black belt and instructor certification in less than a year. The process to become a black belt in most martial arts normally takes several years of training. Yoshinka Akido typically takes four. But the full-time senshusei course is not normal. Training like the live-in dojo students of a foregone age, we braved 8 hours of exhaustion and injury day-in and day-out. My day as a punching model ended like many days did, running around the mats with a rag in one hand and disinfectant in the other. I cleaned the blood that had spattered out of my knuckles, rubbed raw from hundreds of full-contact punches. Far from thinking about the pain, my only concern was that if I did not work fast enough the Fieldman or his assistants would see the red spots and yell at me for having carelessly sullied the mats yet again.
If you had asked me anytime before 2011 if I would consider joining a program like senshusei, I would have laughed. Me? The computer nerd who only started studying Japanese in high school because he wanted to play the video games and read the comics that hadn’t come out in America?
The self-confessed “otaku” who spent whole days in the giant video arcades in Japan hunched over a screen? Prior to Yoshinkan I had never set foot in a dojo, let alone thought I would one day be a certified instructor. In fact, I had pretty much given up on myself athletically.
The mind works in mysterious ways. I had never thought I’d wind up doing athletics again, but after several years working in Japan, my subconscious sprung a trap on me. After a bad breakup and subsequent existential crisis, everything seemed pointless. I was so desperate to get out of my head that I told a good friend that I would try “anything” to get my ex off of my mind. “As long as you’re in Tokyo, why not try Yoshinkan?” he said. The very next day I called the dojo to ask if I could join. After receiving a brief reply in the affirmative, I informed them that I was coming over right then. I did not tell the man on the phone that I had very little idea what Yoshinkan was. But my subconscious seemed to have had a good idea.
Yoshinkan is a branch school of Aikido, a Japanese martial art that is known for being non-confrontational. Founded by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 20th century, it is one of the newest Japanese martial arts and arguably the most unique. Instead of defending by dodging or counter-attacking, Aikido practitioners use the energy of their opponents’ attacks against them, redirecting their energy in such a way that not only is the attacker subdued, but also left unharmed. Philosophically, Aikido is perhaps superior to all other martial arts in that, if done right, it results in the fight never having occurred in the first place. This philosophical side is probably what Aikido is most known for in the West. Most of the time the Aikido that is taught in America is presented as very peaceful and harmonious; many of the techniques looks almost like a martial arts version of ballet.
The Yoshinkan School is a bit different. Founded shortly after the end of World War II, it quickly grew to prominence as the dojo where the Tokyo Metropolitan Police sent their instructors to be trained. Instead of smooth techniques that flow peacefully, Yoshinkan practitioners focus on form and precision, preferring to do a technique powerfully rather than peacefully. Although the school is no different from mainstream Aikido in that the aim is to defend from an attack without injuring the attacker, Yoshinkan tends to cause a lot more pain along the way— non-injurious pain, but pain nonetheless.
As the weeks went along, I continued my twice-weekly pilgrimage to the dojo to huff and puff as the Fieldman continued to chuckle at my attempts to become adept at the basics. Eventually, I progressed to actual techniques, although these were not very effective. “Your technique should be strong, but it’s weak!” the Fieldman would say while pointing at my partner who had been unaffected by my joint lock. “Your partner is supposed to be straining, but he’s relaxing!” He then bent his arm behind his back to imitate being held in my hold and then used his other hand to mime smoking a cigarette, emphasizing how ineffective I had been. Mou ikkai! “Again!”
This routine continued for some time. As I became a regular, I started to become familiar with the other members of the dojo. There was the 64-year-old black belt who loved Aikido for its accessibility, having only started four years earlier at the age of sixty. There were the office staff, who were all black belts themselves. And then there were the senshusei.
Part of a program, which dates back over fifty years, the Yoshinkan senshusei are a special group of students who undertake an Aikido apprenticeship. Unlike regular members of the dojo who can come and go as they please, senshusei must treat their training as a full-time job, coming in early five times a week to clean the dojo before beginning their training, which involves at least four hours on the mats. Made up mostly of full-time policemen with an emphasis on those with riot duty, the senshusei course had opened itself to foreigners twenty years ago in the hopes of spreading Gozo’s teachings abroad.
I soon met two foreigners taking the course that year, a Canadian and a Scotsman. From their heavily battered arms and constant exhaustion, it was clear that the course was not regular training. Whereas I had struggled with maintaining hiriki-no-yosei ni for ten seconds, senshusei from their first month are forced to hold it for close to sixty seconds multiple times an hour. Participants toughen their arms by repeatedly striking them against their partners’ and regularly participate in usagi tobi (うさぎ跳び), rabbit jumps, an exercise so bad for your knees that it was banned in all Japanese schools thirty years ago.
The course is, to put it bluntly, a year of hell. Known throughout the martial arts world as one of the toughest courses on Earth, the dropout rate for the course is close to 40 percent. One day in the locker room I asked the Scotsman what the toughest part of the course was. He looked at me and gave a weary shrug. “It’s not how bad you get beat up. It’s showing up every day. Every damn day. The slog. That’s what gets you.”
Weeks turned into months and I continued my visits to the dojo. January came along and still dealing with my existential crisis, I decided that my job as an academic researcher was pointless as well. I had no idea what to do instead and surprised myself by beginning to consider what would happen if I were to join the senshusei course.