A lesser known side of Aikido history: famous Aikido teachers accepting challenges and often fighting the way any common mortal would
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
1. MORIHEI UESHIBA vs TENRYU
“You are probably thinking that we cannot possibly do these techniques without some sort of collusion between us. Since you are all martial arts practitioners, if there is a man among you, come and test this old man.”
However, no one stepped forward. At 35 I was the youngest among them. I had recently arrived in Manchuria and several government officials were observing the demonstration. I thought that I should test my own ability and said, “Yes, I will try”.
“You are Mr. Tenryu, aren’t you? You too are probably imagining that an old man like me won’t be able to throw you very well. However, budo is much more than what you think it is. He offered his left hand saying it was weaker than his right and continued: “You must be quite strong physically. I am not putting strength into my arm so you can do anything you want with it. Try!”
I thought that this old man was speaking nonsense and slapped his hand down as I grabbed it. But the moment I touched him I was startled. I felt as if I had taken hold of an iron bar. Of course, I knew very well from my experience in Sumo that it would be useless to struggle against him. I immediately knew I had been defeated. However, I couldn’t just leave things like that and attempted to twist his arm up and out. He didn’t move an inch. I tried again with both hands using all my might. But he used my strength against me and I fell down.
What technique did he use on you then?
It was kokyunage. I didn’t have any particular problem with the fall since we take ukemi in Sumo too. But I was really amazed to know that such an art existed. That night I visited the lodging house where Ueshiba Sensei was staying and asked permission to become his student. He told me to come to his dojo in Ushigome in Tokyo. He said that three months of practice would be enough for me. I then requested official leave from the Minister of Manchuria who had also observed the demonstration. I entered the dojo in Wakamatsu-cho in April 1939 and stayed through June.
2. KOICHI TOHEI vs ARGENTINIAN WRESTLERS
What about Master Koichi Tohei of the Ki Society?
Yes, Tohei Sensei is very good. He is small but very powerful. I saw him take a challenge from a wrestler once.
Sumotori or Western style?
Western style. Two brothers – Germans I think from Argentina – and they were enormous! They had to bend over to avoid hitting their heads on the gatepost of the Hombu.
This was the only time that O-Sensei accepted a challenge for Hombu. These people were travelling the world with a film crew and were challenging different martial arts masters. They had been to the Kodokan, (Judo HQ), but the Judo men had not been able to handle them. So they challenged the Aikido Hombu.
When they arrived I met them and brought them in. Inside the dojo were O-Sensei, Kisshomaru Sensei, and Tohei Sensei, who was then the Chief Instructor to the Aikido Foundation. O-Sensei nominated Tohei to go first, as he was so strong.
So the wrestler crouched in a low posture with his hands out stretched in front of him, and just moved in a circle around Tohei Sensei for a long time. Tohei Sensei was very relaxed and just followed his movement, and eventually cornered him. Just as the wrestler began to move Tohei leapt upon him, threw him to the floor, and bounced his head for him. Tohei Sensei then pinned him down with his hand blade extension, which, as you may have heard, is very powerful. This guy could not move, and his brother declined to try Tohei for himself, so that was that.
Apparently at the Kodokan the Judo men advised them not to make a grab for an Aikido master. That is why he circled Tohei Sensei for so long.
3. MORIHEI UESHIBA vs MILITARY INSTRUCTORS
Several captains who were instructors at the Toyama School invited me to test my strength against theirs.
They all prided themselves in their abilities, saying things like: “I was able to lift such-and-such a weight,” or “I broke a log so many inches in diameter”.
I explained to them, “I don’t have strength like yours, but I can fell people like you with my little finger alone. I feel sorry for you if I throw you, so let’s do this instead.”
I extended my right arm and rested the tip of my index finger on the end of a desk and invited them to lay across my arm on their stomachs.
One, two, then three officers by themselves over my arm, and by that time everyone became wide-eyed.
I continued until six men lay over my arm and then asked the officer standing near me for a glass of water.
As I was drinking the water with my left hand everyone was quiet and exchanging glances.
4. KAZUO CHIBA vs Mr. WANG
As we are talking about challenges would you mind telling me about your confrontation with Mr. Wang, the Tai Chi master from China?
(…) I was in a big demonstration of martial arts in Tokyo in the early 1960s, and Tai Chi Chuan was being shown by Mr. Wang. He was from Taiwan and he was very big indeed. He became quite famous later in Japan.
Well, at the end of his display he had a number of Karateka line up in front of him, and each of them punched him in the belly. It had no effect on him. I was not impressed. I would have done something else (Sensei demonstrated a groin kick and face punch whilst saying this).
So, anyway two of my private students were also studying Tai Chi under Mr. Wang, and they were very impressed with him. They invited me to come along and see him. Eventually I accepted and went to watch his class. At the Dojo my students introduced us, and he politely asked me to show some Aikido. Even though his words were warm it was still a challenge!
Well, we faced each other, and Master Wang made something like a Sumo posture with his hands outstretched. I stood and waited for an opening. This went on for some minutes until he moved forward to push me. So I met him, made Tai Sabaki (body evasion) and took his wrist with Kote Gaeshi… his wrist made a loud snapping noise as I applied it.
Even though I applied Kote Gaeshi strongly and injured him, he did not go down. Master Wang snatched his wrist from me, and challenged me immediately. So this time he pushed me with both hands in the belly, and threw me quite a distance across the room. I landed, but I also did not go down. It was an amazing throw.
My students then came between us, and that was that.
5. MORIHEI UESHIBA vs KENSHIRO ABBE
While travelling on a train Abbe noticed an older man staring at him who then asked if he was a 5th Dan Judo.
Abbe replied “Why yes, how did you know that?”.
“Because you have the build of a 5th Dan. So who are you?“
Kenshiro replied: “Everyone knows who I am, I am Kenshiro Abbe, Judo champion of all Japan!“
“Yes, I can see that.“ the old man replied. The old man continued to talk to Kenshiro much to his annoyance as he wanted to get some sleep. Eventually, the old man put a finger in Kenshiro’s face, “You are so powerful, break my finger!”. Kenshiro was only too happy to oblige. He took the finger, expecting to snap it like a twig, and wham! He found himself on the carriage floor under the full control of the old man.
The old man allowed Kenshiro to get back into his seat.
“Who are you?” Kenshiro Abbe asked.
“I am Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido.” Kenshiro Abbe was astounded at the technique of the old man and requested that he become his student.
Ueshiba agreed, and Kenshiro Abbe studied with Ueshiba for 10 years.
Source: Rogers, D., Ellis, H., & Eastman, D. (2004): Positive Aikido. Victoria, Canada: Trafford. (ISBN 1-412-04668-8) in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenshiro_Abbe#cite_note-RogersEllisEastman2004-15
6. KAZUO CHIBA vs SAILORMAN
On your voyage from Japan I believe there was an incident…?
Ah yes, we had a party on the ship when we crossed the equator, and I was asked to demonstrate.
So I agreed, however there was no-one on board with any Aikido experience to act as my partner. (…)
So one of the ship’s crew was asked to assist me, and he attacked me with a knife.
At Hombu Dojo, in knife work, we made a positive attack with a Tanto. But this guy was crouched low, moving around me, changing the knife from hand to hand. This was difficult, as when he made his attack I would not know which hand had held the weapon.
So when he came at me I made Gedan Barai with both arms, and I was able to deflect his attack. The point of his blade actually went through my Obi and just touched my flesh.
From Gedan Barai I moved to a counter technique and broke his arm.
7. MORIHEI UESHIBA vs JUNICHI HAGA
“Haga Sensei was an All-Japan champion in Kendo when he was around 24 or 25 years old. At that time, I understand that he was a Kendo instructor of the Imperial Guard. He often visited the Aikikai and was invited to meals by O-Sensei. He said that he thought O-Sensei must have been a phony because he was hospitable to a young man like himself.
It seems that there was a time when he decided to make the rounds drinking in Shinjuku late one night and even asked Mrs. Ueshiba to lend him O-Sensei’s clothes since it would have been inappropriate for him to go out in his Imperial Guard uniform.
At the time, he was to be transferred to a police department in Korea, and he thought he would force O-Sensei to show his real ability before leaving Japan. So he challenged O-Sensei to a match.
O-Sensei immediately accepted his challenge and both of them went into the dojo. O-Sensei said to him, ‘Take any wooden sword and come to strike me.’
Then O-Sensei is supposed to have begun to walk around the dojo. Haga Sensei was said to have tried to strike him but was totally unable to succeed and finally gave up.
He laughed when describing this incident and said that he regretted then not to have learned anything after a year and a half of practice. He finally realized who O-Sensei really was after it was too late.”
8. ROY SUENAKA vs OKINAWAN KARATEKA
As a result, those who came to the Okinawa Aikikai expecting to put another notch in their belts were dealt with harshly:
“These two guys came in… almost all of the challangesges began the same way. They’d walk in, crossed-arms… most of the time they were trying to intimidate me or impress me, with black belts, red belts. red-and-white belts. Very few came in street clothes.
I was standing in the corner. and one of these guys was standing in the doorway, the other was standing beside it. The guy in the doorway said something like, “I think you guys are all sissies.“
And I said, ‘Oh, you do? That’s good. Thank you. Good-bye.”
But he wouldn’t leave, he said, “No, I think I’ll beat you all up tonight.” just like that, matter-of-fact.
He had moved in and was standing really close to the wall, so I moved in fast, irimi, and hit him in the temple and his head hit the wall, and I grabbed his head and turned it and smashed his face into the wall a second time. It was rough concrete. and his face scraped down it . . . oh, he was a mess.
Of course, by that time he was out cold and the other guy jumped out of the dojo into the middle of the street. We had a benjo ditch, an open sewage ditch, which ran right in front of the building along the street—it was covered with concrete in front of the door so you could walk over it, but to either side it was open.
I picked up the guy from inside the dojo and deposited him into the ditch, then I turned to the other guy and said. ‘Take him and get out. Tell everybody about this, will you?”
Source: Roy Suenaka, Complete Aikido: Aikido Kyohan -The Definitive Guide to the Way of Harmony, 1997, Tuttle Publishing
9. STEVEN SEAGAL vs GENE LEBELL
Well Seagal was being a dick to the stuntmen, but that is his normal behavior according to them. Well he is talking about how bad he is and the stuntment says “Yeah, well we got this old guy back here who could choke you out!”
Seagal stated that nobody could get close to him to choke him out; he also had never heard of Judo Gene LeBell before that encounter.
Well Gene came over and said that he could choke him out and Segal said that he couldn’t it, so Gene grabbed him real quick and started to choke him.
Seagal tapped and said that that wasn’t fair: he was talking and wasn’t ready for Gene.
So Uncle Gene waited for Seagal to get “ready” and when he said that he was, Gene grabbed him and started to choke him out and Seagal couldn’t do nothing with the old guy. Well Gene was pissed off because Seagal was being very rough for no reason on the stunt guys when doing the fight scenes with them, and was upset because Seagal said he wasn’t ready and wouldn’t admit that Gene hooked him.
So as Uncle Gene would put it “there is 2 ways to choke a person out, one way they go out nice and wake up ok, the other is they go out quick and they piss and crap on themselves”. Gene did the latter! Then he dragged Segal over to a closet and put him in there uncouncious.
10. MORIHEI UESHIBA vs HIDEO OHBA
It was Hideo Ohba who took ukemi for Ueshiba for the demonstration. He later talked about this event as follows: “Since the Emperor of Manchuria was in an exalted position at that time like the Emperor of Japan, I thought I should not take ukemi for Ueshiba in the way I usually did. If Ueshiba Sensei were a true master, he could freely handle a true punch, thrust or grab.
Therefore, I decided to attack him seriously.
When we stood on the platform, I saw many martial arts masters present in the large dojo of the Shimbuden. When I glanced at Ueshiba Sensei, his beard was sticking out towards me, his hair was standing on end and his eyes were glittering. I thought to myself that he was indeed a true master.
Then I concentrated on taking ukemi for him, thinking how different it was to face a master. After the demonstration, we bowed and sat in the corner of the dojo and were supposed to walk over to the seats where the masters were sitting. However, I heard someone thunder, ‘You idiot!’ Ueshiba Sensei was short-tempered. He couldn’t wait until we returned to our seats. He shouted at me in that way in front of everyone.
Until then, I thought he was a wonderful and truly great master, but his shout made my spirit pop like a bubble. We sat down. Ueshiba Sensei didn’t even smile. He was in a bad mood. So I felt tiny.
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