The “Sensei” Enigma

Author: Eddy Wolput °1948 – 7th dan Aikido (JAA-Tokyo/Japan) – 5th dan Iaido – 5th dan Jodo.
In collaboration with Tim Wolput……as the illustrator and provider of ideas .
Part of the material in this article is not directly linked to the Japan Aikido Association (NPO) program or Shodokan approach. Other concepts are incorporated into the study of the subject presented.

Enigma comes via Latin aenigma from ancient Greek ainigma. Hidden in this is the word ainos “narrative, fairy tale”.
Enigma mainly translates as “riddle” but it is also referred to a coding device.

The Enigma machine is a cipher device developed and used in the early- to mid-20th century to protect commercial, diplomatic, and military communication. It was employed extensively by Nazi Germany during World War II, in all branches of the German military. The Enigma machine was considered so secure that it was used to encipher the most top-secret messages.


The purpose of being a Sensei

Sometimes you will read that a Sensei is a rolemodel. But what rolemodel?
Defining rolemodel is as muddy as the relationship of Sensei-Tori/Uke.

In the past when Japanese martial arts were introduced into Western society, a Sensei was a superhuman. Sensei could beat everyone and had an answer to all the questions.
When Chinese martial arts were imported, the same happened with the equivalent of a Sensei. The Chinese use the word Sifu.

Nowadays, Sensei became more human and is not any more superhuman. Although some groups still rever their Sensei almost in a divine manner.

So, what is a Sensei?

A Sensei is an educator and a motivational role model. This is the starting point.
To become an educator and a motivator, you need to have knowledge and skills of the subjects you like to teach. This is the first item to take into account.

Do you know your subject and do have have skills?

Although in the beginning of this post the definition of Sensei:
“person born before another” or “one who comes before”
As a Sensei you must believe in yourself and you need the knowledge and practical skills of the subject you like to teach.

Teaching Japanese martial arts is mostly done by the “Kata” method.
Knowing and practising the Kata is a lifetime work. The study of a Kata is never finished, you will always find something new .

But what is a “Kata”?
Kata an be seen as “the method” to teach people how to perform a certain task or job. We can distinguis 2 kinds of kata.

  • Kata in a narrow sense
  • Kata in a more broader sense

In Kodokan Judo, 2 kinds of Judo were mentioned by Jigoro Kano.
The cultivation of a strong physical body (through rentai-ho) and the development of contest skills (through shobu-ho) together resulted in kyogi judo, or judo in the narrow sense. Kano intended that judo practitioners were also to go on to achieve a higher level of self-actualization through shushin-ho and thus achieve kogi judo, or judo in the wide sense.

Kano’s ideas are not unique because on other fields we can see the same concepts, the method in a narrow sense and the method in a wider sense.

It is believed that Budo can cultivate both the mind and body. However, if the meaning of Budo is unclear, then it is impossible to know what to train and indeed what method to utilize. In identifying Budo, it is important to understand why Judo (“the way of Yawara/Jujutsu”), Kendo (“the way of the sword”), Kyudo (“the way of the bow”), Aikido (“the way of Aiki”) and the like, are considered to be Budo (“martial ways”). To aid this clarification, the difference between “Michi (way)” and “Jutsu (technique)” should be known. Good guidelines and tuition have become indispensable for this aim, but if each person does not grasp what Budo is individually during practical training, then focus, concentration and discipline in Budo is not achieved.

Meiji Jingu – Tokyo

Relationship Sensei and Tori/Uke

Sensei is literally translated as “person born before another” or “one who comes before”. In general usage, it is used, with proper form, after a person’s name and means “teacher”; the word is also used as a title to refer to or address other professionals or persons of authority.
Tori is the one who performs the technique –
Uke is the one who receives the technique.

Sensei and martial arts

In modern Japanese martial arts, specifically Kodokan Judo or similar systems, tori is the one who performs a technique against the training partner, or uke. Sometimes tori is associated with winning, while uke is associated with losing.
The difference between the two people is very obvious during “Kata” or so-called formal exercises. During “Randori” or sparring, the difference becomes misty because each person may be Tori/Uke as an individual.

When one of the practitioners is also the teacher or the Sensei, the situation becomes more muddled. How the teacher gets to be the loser if the sensei act as Uke?
Such a situation is the perception of someone who don’t understand the classical methods of Japanese martial arts. It is very difficult to compare martial arts seen as a sportive activity (for example aikido-kyogi or sports-aikido) and martial art (Budo/Bujutsu) as a development of your body and mind.
Some martial arts of course, can be practised as a sport activity and as a method for selfdevelopment.

Martial arts with a strong Budo/Bujutsu connection have a different name for Tori and Uke, but from an educational point of view the words have the same meaning when a teacher is involved.

  • Shidachi – someone who performs the technique
  • Uchidachi – someone who receives the technique

Uchidachi is leading shidachi with sincere attack. This allows to learn proper body movement, battle distance, appropriate mindset, and perception of possibilities. In the past, the role of Uchidachi was reserved exclusively to expert practitioners who were able to carry out meticulous techniques and possessed the right spirit and an understanding of their role.
The roles of uchidachi as senior and shidachi as junior are always maintained, though the role of uchidachi is played by someone at a lower level. The mindset of uchidachi is always sincere but humble. Kata is practised so that they can learn to give and receive together. This is what makes possible the improvement of technique and the development of the mind.

Shu-Ha-Ri & Jo-Ha-Kyū

Shu-Ha-Ri roughly translates to “to keep, to fall, to break away”. (From Wikipedia)

Shu (守) “protect”, “obey”—traditional wisdom—learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs
Ha (破) “detach”, “digress”—breaking with tradition—detachment from the illusions of self
Ri (離) “leave”, “separate”—transcendence—there are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms; transcending the physical

Shu-Ha-Ri is related to another Japanese phrase -Jo-ha-kyū (序破急)- to define the strategy someone uses during practising his art in his life. This concept has to be seen as a macrocosmic and microcosmic event.

Jo-ha-kyū (序破急) is a concept of modulation and movement applied in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. It essentially means that all actions or efforts should begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly. This concept is applied to elements of the Japanese tea ceremony, to the samurai sword art of Kenjutsu, to the bamboo sword training art of kendō, and to other martial arts, to dramatic structure in the traditional theatre. (From Wikipedia)

Shomen-ate Kata

When performing kata, there is a structure that we cannot ignore. This structure contains all the basic concepts for performing an effective movement related to an opponent.

Jibun no tsukuri and aite no tsukuri are the building blocks proposed by Kenji Tomiki. Each method of “tsukuri” can also be divided into more distinct parts necessary for an effective technique. These elements have to be integrated in your actions.
The danger exists of giving too much attention to an item with the result of less efficiency due to a lack of fluidity and integration in the overall action.

For instance, the first technique of “Basic 17” in the Aïkido Tomiki system.
When Tomiki wrote “Judo and Aikido”, the first movement with the front hand is just a sweeping action.

A Sensei’s duty, explaining the alternative

Alternative in this case is another view about executing a certain technique. This is a different use of the term ‘alternative’. In another article, the term “alternative” is used in a different sense: The simplification of Ueshiba Aikido.

After striking Uke’s arm, the opponent is destabilized as in the picture. The danger exists of having a too mechanical technique as a result of a tunnel vision.

“Tunnel Vision”, a  metaphorically way of expressing the reluctance to consider alternatives to one’s preferred line of thought.

Original or alternative?

Look at the picture of Tomiki and Ohba when executing sweeping the front arm as explained on the page of Tomiki’s new method of randori (Judo and Aikido). Uke’s balance is directed more forward.
The posture of Uke is different as in the picture with Shishida. Uke’s balance is directed to the side and slightly back.

Hitting the wrist or sweeping the wrist are 2 alternatives of many solutions. A good sensei will insist on one method for beginners. Later on, multiple possibilities can be used for advanced persons.

Senta Yamada is clearly demonstrating a sweeping action.

Practising – The Sensei Way

As said before, a Sensei acts mostly as Uke in the traditional way of martial art training. Unfortunately, many sensei only perform “mouth” waza or embu with a willing partner. In order to be a Sensei, you have responsibilities to your students. You should communicate with them through your mind and body. Teaching your student is a bodily experience and speaking is just an add-on to give some additional guidance.
Many Sensei are older than their students and as a result, the “personal” training program is slightly different from that of the student.

From a western point of view, we have to take into consideration that an older body needs a different physical training program.
From a more holistic perspective, the concept of “Ki” has to be taken into account. We cannot deny the existence of bioelectricity (Ki) and the ability to manipulate Ki in some exercise programs.
Hachi Danken or eight brocade exercises is but one example. Another important training tool for senior and experienced practitioners is the Ritsuzen method, the way to stand like a tree.

And keep in mind, Tomiki’s Tandoku Renshu*. Of course, a deeper understanding is needed to understand and acquire the skills of this unique training method.
Tomiki’s Tandoku Renshu is not performed as college students do. It is practiced according the older methods, for example, taught by Senta Yamada.
And of course, you must take into account your own experience.

*Original Tandoku Renshu

Published by

Eddy Wolput

A passion for Martial Arts since 1964

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