Nippon Kan Kancho
June 15th, 2007
*suwariwaza is technically defined as “seated techniques”, but” kneeling techniques” is a more accurate description.
On June 30th, 1966 the music of the Beatles was introduced to Japan and by 1967 Twiggy had landed. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the Beatles popularity was at its peak and English influence on Japanese popular culture was at an all-time high. Mini skirts were the latest fashion craze, but looking at old photos now, this fashion phenomenon looks a bit awkward and out of place in Japan. Short skirts on Japanese teens showed legs that on average were not long and skinny, like Twiggy, but sturdier with calloused knees from generations of living a Japanese lifestyle; kneeling on the floor.
To the thousands of mini skirt-clad Japanese young ladies and their counterparts, this craze did not seam odd because everyone else was wearing them. I guess that’s part of the definition of “fashion craze.”. It was a time of cultural change, westernization, challenge and liberation; especially for Japanese women.
One result of this blossoming new exchange between countries was that many first-generation Japanese Aikido instructors left Japan to teach Aikido abroad during this period.
I remember those days only vaguely as I was 10 years old when this cultural revolution began. What I remember most in those early days were black-and-white television sets with rounded corners.
As the years passed I grew tall for a Japanese boy and remember that by the age of 16 I could see over the tops of most everyone’s heads on the trains. Today when I return to Japan, I stare at the knots in people’s ties or at the jewelry adorning women’s necks, as both men and women have grown taller in subsequent generations. Both diet and lifestyle has changed in Japan, which has resulted in a change in average body shape and size for the Japanese people.
As a martial artist who still practices actively, I would like to speak in this article to the issue of “knees.” Especially for Aikidoka, knees have been a part of the body that have suffered maybe the most damage and are a cause of problems for many. During my travels to countries around the world, I constantly meet people who can no longer sit in seiza, or who wear braces and supporters because of knee injuries suffered while practicing Aikido. I have met students whose knees are so damaged they can’t really bend them any longer, much less sit in seiza. Aikido students suffering from knee injuries are fortified with medications and wraps just to make it through a class. I question the purpose of our practice of Aikido if these are the long term affects of our practice .
In most developed nations today homes contain western-style furniture, so life in these countries is not lived on the floor as it was in Japan not so long ago. Technical and economic developments in our modern era have made hard physical labor obsolete as a means of livelihood for most. Generally speaking, it seems our bodies have become physically less conditioned as our lives have become more technologically enriched.
Knee problems are not the sole property of students outside of Japan. There have been famous high-ranking Japanese Aikido Instructors both living in Japan and abroad who have suffered knee injuries during their Aikido careers. It is one thing to develop knee problems due to aging, but there are many Aikido instructors who have developed knee problems through the over-practice of suwariwaza… and they had the advantage of a cultural heritage that prepared them for the practice. Actually, I consider this kind of over-practice to be a form of physical abuse. My concern is that instructors promote the practice of suwariwaza techniques by students whose lifestyle do not support enough proper development of their legs and knees to sustain this kind of use.
The practice of suwariwaza (kneeling techniques) requires very strong hip, back and leg muscles. Without these physical attributes, undo strain is placed on the knees which can result in long term damage or injury. Some instructors claim that suwariwaza practice builds and conditions leg muscles and joints. I say no, it is the opposite; good conditioning builds legs capable or suwariwaza practice. Suwariwaza can be a dangerous practice if a student does not have a good instructor to practice with regularly or even more dangerous if practiced unsupervised with only suwariwaza videos as a guide. Students, who think that suwariwaza techniques look “cool” on tape, may not remember that the video they are watching was scripted, filmed over a period of time and edited. It was not shot in one consecutive sequence. Beginning students trying to simulate suwariwaza techniques at the level of the instructors highlighted in a video are setting themselves up for—at least—serious strain on their knees. It’s like kids watching Superman movies trying to fly by jumping off buildings!
About six years ago, a student of mine brought me a suwariwaza video and asked me what I thought of it. I told him, “If your knees, ankles and Achilles tendons are sufficiently stretched and your leg, hip and back muscles have been properly developed and conditioned, there is no problem practicing suwariwaza techniques in moderation.” If these conditions have not been met however, copying the techniques on this video could lead to serious knee problems; if not now then possibly in the future.
The practice of suwariwaza was developed in Japan by people who lived a lifestyle that predisposed them for kneeling techniques. Historically in Japan, much of everyday life was lived on the floor in seiza (kneeling position). This lifestyle background laid the foundation for the practice of suwariwaza. An American lifestyle does not include much sitting or kneeling on the floor, so extra care needs to be taken if you practice these techniques.
Japanese students and even the Japanese instructors making these videos that DO have the genetic and life style background for this type of practice can suffer long term knee problems by practicing suwariwaza extensively.
“This practice, while one of my favorites,” I told my student, “can be dangerous.”
Privately, I still personally practice suwariwaza techniques, but I stopped requiring my students to practice shikko (knee walking) or suwariwaza techniques in my dojo 15 years ago. Students are only asked to sit in seiza briefly at the beginning and end of class or while bowing to their partners before and after practice. After I discontinued these practice requirements the number of knee injuries or problems was greatly reduced at the dojo.
Eight years ago, I doubled the amount of cushion under the mat to cut down on the stress to students’ bodies during ukemi practice. It cost me the same as buying new tatami mats but I chose more cushion under the mat instead of new tatami. While tatami would have made the dojo a little more “martial” and traditional, I chose the cushion for the safety and comfort of my students during their practice.
Our dojo is a “town dojo,” meaning that it is open for practice to students of different ages and physical abilities. It is not a university or military Aikido club where all of the students are the same age and physical ability. My priority was to think of the long-term physical condition of all my students. For me it was an easy decision to make and compounded by my belief that suwariwaza is not a critical study from a practical martial art point of view. In any confrontation, why would someone stay seated in seiza if attacked? It seems more realistic that a person would stand up to take care of an approaching attacker, not stay in a kneeling position. The study of suwariwaza is interesting, but should be looked at in a more historical than practical perspective.
Current sports medicine dictates that we avoid extra pressure or stress on our knees and take care to properly stretch and condition our ankles, hips, other joints and muscles. For instructors who themselves have suffered knee damage from overuse to teach the virtues and benefits of suwariwaza techniques to a student audience whose cultural backgrounds do not prepare them for this type of wear on their body I think is wrong .
When I was 15 and 16 years old practicing in Japan, I practiced under one instructor that had a particular affection for suwariwaza techniques. During his classes it was not unusual to practice more than an hour of suwariwaza in a class. My keiko gi pants wore thin at the knees from his classes and I spent hours sewing on layers of patches over the threadbare areas. My knees cracked and bled, blood soaking through my patched pants and gluing them to my knees. Sometimes the cracks in my knees would get infected and would take the entire week to heal. Just as my knees had grown a layer of fresh new pink skin, it would be time for this instructor’s class and it would start all over again. So for me, suwariwaza techniques bring up memories of patience and pain. I think I did not suffer permanent damage to my knees because of the physical chores and work I did daily in Iwama. Working in the garden was one of my chores, and Iwama had a distinctive short handled hoe that was commonly used. Using this hoe and all of the other daily chores I did in Iwama helped me to develop the body strength, especially in my legs, that supported my suwariwaza practice.
As a child, I also loved to walk. As a young adult, the death of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba brought an end to my time as an uchideshi and I took to travel; walking all over Japan for over a year. In my younger days I did not know anything about sports medicine theory on how to develop strong legs and joints, it was just hard physical labor, walking and a traditional Japanese living style that prepared me for practicing Aikido and especially for practicing suwariwaza technique.
Eventually I opened my own dojo in the United States. By that time, some of the high-ranking instructors I had known in Japan were having difficulties with their health, especially with their knees. It was then that I decided that even though suwariwaza was one of my favorite techniques, I would not teach it regularly to my students.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, many young Japanese martial art instructors ventured out into the world to teach Aikido in the late 60’s and 70’s. The lifestyle of these instructors in Japan at that time naturally developed the flexibility in their legs and knees. On this foundation the flexibility and strength in their legs was further developed with ample amounts of suwariwaza practice.
According to a senior Hombu instructor based in Chicago, many of these instructors were counseled by their superiors prior to leaving Japan to use suwariwaza practice as a way of “leveling the playing field” with their American students.
“Remember that many of the new students you will be encountering will be bigger in stature than you. Suwariwaza techniques will be difficult for them, so practicing suwariwaza will put you at an advantage despite your size difference. To gain control over your students, practice suwariwaza. And during examinations, if there is some individual testing that you are not fond of, have them test last, and make them wait in seiza until it is their turn.”
The results proved far reaching. Many students who tried this new martial art of Aikido had to stop after a year or so due to knee injuries. Their bodies were not ready for this kind of practice. For any instructor to use techniques to intimidate or boost their own standing is not good teaching on the part of the instructor.
In the United States, it is not uncommon for a student to weigh over 200 pounds.
Additionally, American students were not raised living on the floor—with chairs, beds, tables, etc. being an integral part of American décor. Being raised in an American lifestyle does not naturally develop the knee strength and flexibility needed for suwariwaza practice. For American students to practice suwariwaza with the pretense that this kind of practice will make their legs strong is dangerous .
I truly believe that for Aikidoka to have a good technical background, practicing suwariwaza and shikko (knee walking) extensively is not necessary. Understanding the historical relationship is interesting, but if you develop knee problems in this pursuit it might limit your ability to practice Aikido at all.
If you injure your knees, you will not be able to do suwariwaza techniques correctly and knee injuries can effect the execution of standing techniques as well. One late high ranking shihan in Japan ended his career teaching techniques drastically different from the way he taught techniques before he himself suffered from damage to his knees.
For example; before the condition of his knees became debilitating, this highly respected shihan would explain while demonstrating katate tori ryotemochi kokyunage: “End this technique by completely twisting your hips to throw your partner, facing him directly.” After he developed severe knee problems he would teach the ending to the same technique facing away from your partner, “checking the opposite direction for other attackers” instead.
Technically, I believe that if you do NOT twist to face your partner at the end of this throwing technique you will open yourself to a counter kick or punch. The only reason this instructor adjusted the ending of the technique was that his knees no longer functioned properly and he was unable to execute the technique as originally intended. To compensate, he changed the technique. A play on words but this really is henka waza (An alternate technique executed to complete a throw when the initial technique is unsuccessful and therefore abandoned) only it was executed by the instructor to adapt to his own changing body condition.
This highly respected shihan also modified his technique with a bokken to accommodate his painful knee condition by not using his full body power to strike all the way through. His execution of a tsuki (thrusting cut) was also modified to use only his upper body and arms which limited the power and vitality with his strike. What becomes historically interesting is that students emulate their instructor. Even though they are not limited in their own range of movements, they copy the execution of the technique of their instructor. Therefure, some of our Aikido techniqes have endured widespread modifications based on injury and not efficiency with explanations added as theoriorized justifications.
The Founder Morihei Ueshiba was a master with a jo (staff), and anyone who witnessed his demonstrations in person will speak to the power and the big movements he used. One of the reasons his movements were large and powerful was that he had strong knees. If you have a chance to view an old video of the Founder, you will see the power in his execution of a tsuki, especially a low to high strike. Popular jo kata movements taught today do not often emulate the power and large movement style originally demonstrated by the Founder as they were passed down by others who did not share the Founders physical condition.
Some contemporary instructors today use a minimalist technique style that relies mainly on hand movements. To an observer, this technique style might look powerful or mysterious; almost “magical.” I have heard this style described as wonderfully pure; free of extra movement or excess muscle. Closer to the truth of the origin of this style is that the instructor himself is working within limitations of movement dictated by his own physical injuries.
I do understand and applaud all Aikidoka who have overcome disabilities to practice Aikido and have adapted the execution of techniques to fit within their physical abilities. This I think is wonderful and is worth commendation. What concerns me are instructors who do not disclose the reasons behind their style and teach others to copy their technique without thinking about their students’ long-term welfare.
I wish to speak in this article to all leaders in our Aikido community. We have a responsibility to be open and honest in our teaching about our own physical injuries or limitations and the causes for them. We have an obligation to disclose if our techniques have been adapted to accommodate personal shortcomings and an obligation NOT to teach techniques that could cause unnecessary bodily injury in the first place .
In consideration for the integrity of the techniques that we are passing on to future generations we must disclose the facts of our own practice, injuries and limitations and not try to conceal them in “magical” execution without proper movement. If we do not do this, the original techniques will be lost to generations of Aikidoists to come.
Fifteen years ago I had surgery on my lower back— twice. As an instructor, I know how much I worried about my own body condition. I remember how I felt when asked to sign a waiver before surgery releasing the doctors from liability should my physical abilities not return after the procedure was completed. I greatly feared at that time that I would no longer be able to continue my practice of Aikido; a practice I have spent most of my life pursuing.
I was very good at ukemi when I was young, and being big made me an in-demand uke for many of the high ranking shihan of the day. I was very proud of this fact at that time and did not mind doing break falls on hardwood floors, concrete, anywhere I was asked. I innocently did my best at the time for my teachers; many of whom have now passed on or retired from teaching Aikido. What I am left with now are my memories and serious revenge from some of the discs in my spine!
Now that I am the instructor in my own dojo, I do not ask my partners or ukes to take hard ukemi falls out of concern for injury to them now or in their future. My recorded demonstrations might not be as flashy as some, but thinking long term I believe my students can understand where my heart is.
The bottom line is:
There are not ANY Aikido techniques that truly, physically force a person to fly into a break roll, even without any resistance. The true reality is that ukemi in our Aikido practice is a partnership.
Hollywood has made popular a particular interpretation of iriminage where the uke is “clothes lined” under the neck “causing” his legs to swing out almost horizontally before he is slammed to the mat. Please remember that the purpose of ukemi is to fall in a way that protects ones own body, and this style of ukemi does not achieve this goal. It is theatrics and nonsense and if done incorrectly can be extremely dangerous to the uke (especially if he lands on his head).
For any instructor to validate his own powers by teaching this kind of ukemi is in danger of bringing hardship to his or her students… if not now, then possibly in the future. This attitude toward teaching will be reflected in the life attitudes of this kind of instructor and I would not count on help from someone who teaches in this manner should any accident or problem occur.
Eleven years ago when the current Nippon Kan Headquarters facility was under construction we spent a lot of time dealing with city code requirements. Since our building is multi-use, there were many different code requirements to follow. We have a residential living area, museum, dojo, office, classrooms and a restaurant and each use has its own set of requirements. Since our facility is open to the public, the entire facility had to be compliant with regulations for individuals with disabilities. We had to make many modifications to our original plans that were costly as well as difficult, and to be honest I was thinking at the time that it would be easier to carry individuals through the building myself rather than build all of the handrails, sloping access incline ramps and special capacity exits!
Now that I am 57 years old, I am thinking that those handicap modifications made to the building were a good investment for my own future; a future that (one never knows) might be right around the corner! I look around today, and realize how many times I have had to say goodbye to the many powerful instructors and senior students I have trained with that have now passed away.
As I am still an active instructor, I hope to leave my students the skills for a safe and healthy practice that does not promote injury or future health problems. To that end, as an instructor I must maintain my own health through my own safe practice. Too many times when someone becomes an instructor they do not “practice what they preach” or even practice at all. Even though I do get busy with AHAN activities or with the restaurant, I always try to practice at least basic suburi, and jog one hour every day. I have no car and rely on my own two feet for my transportation. My hard drinking days are long behind me now, and my body is still in fairly good condition for my age. Good enough at least to be able to climb the 2,750 step Tepoztlan-Tlayacapan pyramid outside Cuautla City, Mexico with Korean Aikido Federation’s Chief Instructor Ikam Yoon Sensei and his wife Miae this past May. On top of that pyramid I felt sincere gratitude and appreciation for my health and the physical conditioning I have invested in since I was a boy.
At Nippon Kan headquarters in Denver, Colorado, our most senior active practicing member is over 84 years old. We have many “senior” members who out-rank their junior partners in age by decades. Our younger members joke that the advanced age of our senior members raises the average age of our student population way too high, but this is a complaint I am happy to take; it confirms that the decisions I made 15 years ago were correct.
During practice with the Founder Morihei Ueshiba in Iwama, if he ever were to find a spot of blood on the white canvas he would stop practice immediately to see who was bleeding. “Do not hurt yourselves or each other” he would counsel. “You are children of the gods, and your parents entrusted me to look after you. What will I tell your parents if you have an accident?” I remember hearing these warnings repeatedly during my years of training with the Founder and for me it was another one of his lessons I took to heart. I think it would benefit us all to think deeply again about the Founder’s words.
I wrote this article for Aikido instructors and students who practice Aikido outside of Japan. But today people in Japan live a more western lifestyle which has had its influences on body condition there as well. We all need to learn from those who have passed before us, think about our fast-approaching future, and the future of new generations. Today we may be very skilled at practicing suwariwaza, and be greatly admired for our technical accomplishments. But later in life if we are unable to walk, we have not understood the meaning of our practice. So, don’t sit while you practice, stand up and MOVE! This is our Aikido life.