Monday, September 24, 2007

More Tojima sensei and sword

In the last blog and video we focused on Tojima sensei's extended cut. He also had a deeper cut. He would raise the bokken with the handle about up to the third eye position, with the tip more or less straight up then back, and cut swiftly and powerfully past the hip. There was absolutely no wasted motion in the cut. I hope this comes across in the video. There was extreme speed and also extreme power in the cut. There is a story of this cut in the dojo website. It was perhaps the most impressive thing I witnessed while I was in Japan. And now for a tale of times past ...
I believe this took place around May of 1973. I had been about a month in Japan and almost a month training at the Kumano Juku Dojo in Shingu, Japan. One of the main teachers at the dojo was Yasushi Tojima (or simply Tojima sensei), a 6th dan. His nickname among the foreigners was "Don Gennaro" from Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan books. He had an incredible sense of humor and a way of teaching through an abrupt, unsettling sort of drama. His way of moving and general mannerisms reminded me of the actor Gene Sheldon, who played the role of Zorro's supposedly deaf and mute assistant on the old Disney television series. In other words, he had a demeanor about him that suggested equally that things were not as they outwardly seemed, and that he was privy to a secret that few others had access to. Altogether, he was a very interesting fellow, and the more you got to know him, the more interesting he became.

There was an American Aikido teacher who was at that time also training at the Shingu dojo. He was well over 6 feet tall, which made him much larger than any of the Japanese training at the dojo. He was then feeling his way around the dojo training, part of which is always evaluating who and what are good and visa versa. This story takes place after an evening class. Tojima sensei was giving a demonstration of atemi (strikes) and suki (openings). The American instructor was struggling to put all of this into some mental framework or another.

Suddenly, Tojima sensei asked the tall American to get a bokken from among those on the wall of the dojo. Tojima sensei himself also proceeded to get one. He issued the American a challenge, telling him to grip the wooden sword with both hands as hard as he could. "I'm going to knock the sword out your hands and you won't feel a thing," Tojima sensei said.

The American crouched very low, gathered his elbows in close to his body, and braced to resist whatever attempt Tojima sensei made to move his bokken. He was not going to let the sword out of his hands. At the very least, even if Tojima sensei were to move the sword, surely he could not do it without the American feeling some of the force of Tojima sensei's blow.

Tojima sensei calmly raised the sword above his head, the tip pointed upward towards the ceiling of the dojo. Suddenly he kiai-ed and cut. My senses struggled to contain what then happened, although some aspects of it were crystal clear. Not only was the bokken knocked out of the American's hands, but the focus and power of Tojima sensei's strike broke it. Half went up and bounced off the ceiling and the other half rebounded off the tatami mat with such force that it bounced up almost but not quite to the ceiling itself.

Through this sudden shift in reality, the American was unchanged. He was still in a resistant position, crouched low, elbows in, with his hands tightly wrapped around absolutely nothing ... He later came over to me and said, "Jack, I'm usually not impressed by people who talk a lot (Tojima sensei could be very verbal) and I wouldn't have been impressed, but I honestly didn't feel a thing!"

What of Tojima sensei? He realized that the bokken he had demonstrated on belonged to someone. The next night before class he sheepishly sneaked into the dojo with a new bokken and clandestinely put it where the now broken one had been.

One thing you will notice in the video is the extreme focus at the end of the cut. Tojima sensei would often times have us cut very quickly. At high speed we would all be pretty much just bouncing the cut. This means at the end of the cut the bokken would go down then up and there would be no finishing focus. For Tojima sensei, no matter how fast he cut, there would be a finishing focus. If you slow the video down, you'll see that there is a double bounce at the end of his cuts. When he really gets going, it appears that the cut almost starts from the end. Without and end and focusing, there can be no real new beginning. Most people go from cut to cut without this finishing focus. Tojima sensei could almost call up the end of the cut right from the beginning, adding to his speed and power.

To my knowledge, he did not do a regular suburi practice. On one occasion on his visit to America, the next day after a sword class he remarked how sore his arms were. Once I visited him at home the day following a sword class he taught, and he was contorted up lying on the floor. I got the feeling that he had called up so much energy the night before during the bokken class that this might have been the result the day after.

So even if he did not practice the sword daily(Yanase sensei by contrast daily did hundreds of cuts as a part of his daily personal training)Tojima sensei could get to the place where the cut was coming from almost instantaneously. My thought was that at that level whether one chose to swing everyday was largely inconsequential.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Tojima sensei and suburi

Tojima sensei was known at the Shingu dojo for his weapon’s work. His bokken was amazing. I was told by people there that his sword was the most like Osensei’s in that area. Of course that can be debated, because there were others, most notably Hikitsuchi sensei, who were also exceptional with the sword. This is in no way meant to demean any of them.

Tojima sensei’s sword was notable for it’s speed. And that speed was achieved partly by the fact that his cut was very compact. No wasted motion, flowery or otherwise. In fact that would be a great description of his aikido in general. He didn’t emphasize complicated paired sets with the sword. With him the sword began and ended with suburi. When he picked up a bokken after class, it was as if a great violinist had just picked up his Stradivarius. He got everyone’s attention. His cuts were notable for their lightning/thunder effect. Many people get a whoosh sound with there cut. But Tojima sensei’s sound cameAFTER his cut. And the sound was different in that it was less sharp than most others.

I got to do a some paired work sword to sword with Hikitsuchi sensei, but not a lot with Tojima sensei. I am including a new video I put on youtube of a sword class Tojima sensei taught at UC Santa Cruz in 1979. Notice the incredible relaxed yet very focused power in his cut.