by Nick Kraus
Lament has been expressed that Yamaguchi Sensei (1924 – 1996) did not leave behind instructional material such as a video or book. I certainly agree with that. William Gleason and Stan Pranin have discussed the remarkable technique of Yamaguchi Sensei. It occurred to me that I had some material to offer about Yamaguchi Sensei from notes I kept while practicing at Hombu Dojo from 1973 to 1980. Yamaguchi Sensei taught a yudansha (black belt) course annually. The figure and text given below were taken from material distributed at one of these courses in 1973. The first attempt at translating the figure was done by my wife, Kinuyo Kraus, a native Japanese language speaker. Then, I prevailed on colleagues originally from China to review and interpret the figure, because some of the Kanji are quite old. I would like to thank Professor Sam Wang and Dr. Yan Ding (who lived in Japan for three years), both of the University of Mississippi, for their kindness in offering interpretations of some facets of the figure.
Translation of Yamaguchi Sensei’s Explanation Accompanying the Figure Distributed March 1973
“O-Sensei often said that the Aikido symbols △ ▢ ◯ have deep philosophic meaning. I will never completely understand their meaning. However, in an attempt to make them clear to myself, I prepared the accompanying figure. It is my hope that it will help you understand the meaning of the symbols. The great Zen priest Sengai created poetry and paintings. One of his drawings shows the figures △ ▢ ◯. In any case, a great philosopher always makes us think deeply. The △ means “basic.” The ▢ means “variation.” ◯ means “total.” The figure, giving an overview, is a spiral.”
1) Follow guidance from Heaven (God) to create.
2) Develop body and weapons as one unit.
3) Use breathing to strengthen inner force.
4) Use variations to enhance the effectiveness of body movements.
5) Resolve skepticism by analysis and comprehension based on Yin-Yang philosophy.
6) Use appropriate techniques such as soft or hard to achieve “to let live or kill.”
7) Consider all directions before releasing your force.
8) Whether seated or standing, always be ready to act decisively .
Dr. Ding’s Interpretation of the Sketch
1) Following guidance from Heaven, gain the skill of aikido.
2) Execute variations by using your body.
3) Direct your strength.
4) Answer questions, analyze, and comprehend.
In addition, according to my notes, on March 4, 1978, a Saturday, I happened to be seated opposite Yamaguchi Sensei at a coffee shop booth after one of the yudansha classes.
Here are some points he discussed, transcribed onto a napkin, and then into my notes:
- One needs to have naivety or innocence to improve.
- The most simple (correct) movement is done if the skeleton moves unhindered.Overuse of muscle impedes movement.
- The front (of the person doing a technique) can deceive, but the back cannot.
- One must move on the balls of the feet, breathing (flowing?) through the heels.Do not bounce.
- Sit in the middle of the dojo and expand your mind to its perimeter; if do that,you will have no openings.
- When finishing a cut with a sword, don’t squeeze the hilt at the end, but letit fall freely.
I wrote notes about the start of the class that day, which must have been the opening class of the annual series. Yamaguchi Sensei talked humbly and said he would do what he could to teach us during the course. He could really yell at the class and at individuals. Then, when he laughed, it was like sunshine coming through large storm clouds. Some people have written about his technique. Let me mention that you had to have excellent ukemi skill to receive Yamaguchi Sensei’s techniques. Although he appeared to perform them without effort and often as if magically, taking his ukemi could, in fact, be dangerous. When I (try to) teach his style, I first review ukemi with the students, or else they think the techniques are too rough.
NOTE: ABOUT NICK KRAUS (1942-2011)
This small essay was forwarded to me by John Driscoll, to whom it was entrusted by Nick Kraus. When I arrived at the Honbu Dojo of the Aikikai in 1976, foreigners were more or less divided in two groups: the French and everyone else. The French contingent, rather numerous, had many dedicated students among them, most notably Christian Tissier. Among the ‘everyone else,’ the senior and most respected person was Nick Kraus. In his early thirties at that time, he was a mature man, with none of the insecurities so many budo people have–he was warm to newcomers and generous. He had a strong eclectic style, training with a lot of the senior instructors. Shortly after I received my shodan, Nick was designated as the representative foreign practitioner to present his own enbu as part of the All Japan Aikido Demonstration. He asked me to be his uke. I tried to refuse, saying that there were lots of people senior to me, but Nick said simply, “I like the way you take ukemi.” We did a fine job of it–his style was strong but clear. It was very easy to follow his intention, and he conformed to that ideal of being ‘just a little better than the best that I could be,’ so I had to extend myself to be his equal. He later trained in Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, and after returning to Vicksburg, taught aikido. He was an engineer by trade, and had the respect of his professional colleagues, just as he did of his colleagues in martial arts. He died far too young, in 2011.