It was just before 7 a.m., bright and early on an August morning in south-western France. I was scurrying to catch up with an old man, Itsuo Tsuda, Tsuda-sensei, head of the dojo “Ecole de la Respiration” in Paris where he taught Aikido and Seitai. In Japan, he’d been a student of legendary Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, and of Seitai founder Haruchika Noguchi. I had arrived in Japan too late to see either of these masters, so I felt fortunate to have a chance to practice with one of their students.
“Practice starts at 7. I’ll knock on your door at 6.30,” he’d said the night before. No problem, I thought. But I was a newly wed, and my wife was here with me. ‘Nuff said.
When a young man, before WWII, Tsuda had studied sociology at the Sorbonne. Then he had returned to Japan when war broke out. He had returned in 1970 to open his own dojo. A friend of his back in Japan, also a student of Ueshiba and Noguchi, Peter Shapiro, who’d introduced me to Seitai, had given me one of Tsuda’s books to read. It was in French and I had come to France to meet Tsuda and ask for his official permission to translate his book.
Knock-knock. Hmmmm? Damn! “Yup, I’m up!” I shouted, and scrambled to dress in my “gi” for the morning Aikido practice, my first time to practice with Tsuda. I was out the door in minutes, not forgetting to kiss my wife goodbye (damn she looked good, all sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired and warm). There he was, 100 yards ahead.
I’d falling in love with Aikido at first sight at university, then after graduating, I’d come to Japan and had been practicing in a dojo in Kobe for about a year. Tsuda and I had corresponded, and he’d invited me to his summer training camp in Niort. I remember him smoking his cigar after dinner, both of which he enjoyed with a gourmet’s delight.
I was hurrying but somehow he still seemed always ahead of me. That bumbling old man whose gait reminded me of Chesterton’s line “the rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road”, though Tsuda was as sober as a judge.
I finally caught up with him at the door to the dojo. I joined the others on the mat. It was full-house. After the usual exercises, he started demonstrating some techniques. One was Ushiro ryote dori. Having both hands held behind your back by someone is an obviously disadvantaged position. How to get out of it? Forget the hands held behind, said Tsuda. Focusing on them means you are “aiki’d”, your attention has been caught, imprisoned. If you’re big, strong and heavy, you might struggle successfully to free yourself, but otherwise, forget it. Instead, imagine you are a kid at the beach. You see a beautiful sea-shell on the sand in front of you, and you simply step forward and reach down to pick it up. Visualization is an important part of Aikido, Tsuda said, something I remembered reading in his books, too. Then he demonstrated, first by struggling, then “Oooh! Look! A pretty sea-shell!” and he effortlessly bent down, dragging the big brute holding him with him. It all seemed so easy. I turned to my partner, bowed, and we were off.