Miyamoto Sensei’s ukemi is the best I’ve ever seen. Thanks to the internet, there’s no shortage of footage of him taking ukemi, mostly for Kisshomaru Doshu, but also for Yamaguchi Sensei and Arikawa Sensei. Didier Boyet Sensei, Okamoto Yoko Sensei and Chris Mulligan Sensei, among others, have talked with me about how Miyamoto Sensei seemed to be completely in tune with his nage: heavy but light, soft but strong, able to take anything. And he got back up faster than seemed possible.
Of course, I’m referring to when he was taking ukemi for Doshu and the Hombu shihan. Practicing with him was a different story. Suffice it to say that he was not a fun partner to have, according to several of my sempai, because throwing him was often an exercise in frustration. I’d repeat Didier’s comment on the matter, but it’s unprintable and I’d get in trouble.
Anyway, what Miyamoto Sensei didn’t do was fly away or jump for the sake of jumping. There is a lot of that these days, it is bull----, and it’s one of many reasons for the decline in the martial aspect of aikido. Ukemi isn’t performance. Chiba Sensei defined ukemi as “the art of recovery from crisis, or, more specifically, the development of power and skill to recover from situations of disequilibrium by mastering right action in conflict.” Miyamoto Sensei’s ability to “recover from situations of disequilibrium” was phenomenal.
By the time I started practicing at Hombu, Kisshomaru Doshu was in failing health. The last year he demonstrated at the annual All-Japan Aikido Demonstration was 1997, and everyone knew it was the end of an era. “We were all in tears,” Miyamoto Sensei remembered. It’s on YouTube, so my memory of watching it live has pretty much been subsumed by the video. He moved very little and looked frail, but his extension was still there, his technique the embodiment of a lifetime of dedication to his father’s creation. And his five uke, Miyamoto Sensei, Yokota Sensei, Osawa Sensei, Horii Sensei and Kanazawa Sensei, were all incredibly attuned to his movement.
So, since Doshu wasn’t teaching very much and Yamaguchi Sensei had passed away, I hadn’t been able to see Miyamoto Sensei’s ukemi very much in person. But then Tamura Sensei showed up.
Tamura Sensei visited Japan from his home in France at least once a year in the first decade I lived in Tokyo. He sometimes came to the 6:30 a.m. or 8:00 a.m. class, usually after the warm-up. At least once, I remember him wearing Osawa Sensei’s hakama. He’d walk up to a couple of people practicing, grab some hapless person’s wrist, and urge him or her to throw him. This was impossible. I mean, absolutely impossible. Tamura Sensei was maybe 160 centimeters or so and he couldn’t have weighed more than 55 kilograms. But he was immovable, at least when he had his hands on you. So you’d struggle for a while, cursing under your breath, and finally he’d take pity and let go. Then it was time to attack him, and that was great. His timing and position were uncanny: no matter how hard I attacked, I never even got close. He was lightning fast, with tremendous kokyu power, so you had to be truly in the moment while taking ukemi. Whenever he showed up, I did everything I could to attract his attention except put a neon sign over my head that said “Please Throw Me.” Because that’s the only real way to learn.
One Sunday morning, Tamura Sensei came into Miyamoto Sensei’s class and started imposing himself on everyone’s practice. Miyamoto Sensei would teach something and Tamura Sensei would either do that or whatever came to him as he wandered around the dojo. Eventually, Miyamoto Sensei gave up. “Sensei,” he said. “Why don’t you teach?” Then he turned to the class. “Wouldn’t everyone like to have Tamura Sensei teach?” “Oh no, I couldn’t,” Tamura Sensei replied. “No, no.” After a minute or so of this back and forth, Tamura Sensei acquiesced. I have very little memory of what he actually taught, but it was a blast.
What will stay with me was the end of the class. Tamura Sensei finished a few minutes early. Then he called Miyamoto Sensei over (“Miyamoto kun?” “Tsuru chan?” – I don’t remember), put his hand over his head in that “attack shomen uchi” gesture, and started throwing Miyamoto Sensei all over the place. It was amazing to watch; Tamura Sensei in complete control and Miyamoto Sensei’s ukemi completely in sync with whatever technique it was. The whole thing probably lasted only a couple of minutes, but it was fantastic. Years later, after Tamura Sensei had passed away, I reminded Miyamoto Sensei of that class. “I remember it very well,” he said.