Akuzawa Minoru : The Body is a Sword
I first met Akuzawa Minoru in Seattle at the family home of Rob John, one of his long-term students. We spent a long evening in conversation – finding ourselves to be kindred spirits in many areas. We’ve had quite different training histories, and had studied very different disciplines, but we found that we shared a passion, bordering on insanity, for training – that core understanding that, with enough work, we could get stronger and better, each day.
Previous to this meeting, I'd spent the afternoon training with Rob along with a training brother. Previously, I’d certainly seen individuals with extraordinary abilities in internal strength, among them Wang Shujin, Chen Xiao Wang and Feng Zhiqiang, and even had brief physical contact with several others, but I had no idea what they were doing. I’m sure Rob will not be offended when I say that he was not in the same universe as these luminaries, but no matter. Even as a mere beginner, he showed me some abilities that didn’t make sense to me, based on my understanding of how bodies should work. What was more exciting was his presentation of some of the basic elements of a logical, coherent training system, developed by Akuzawa, to develop a martial body.
Although this may seem to be a paradox, martial arts systems, despite their many benefits, can obscure the development of the martial body, as one becomes preoccupied with the techniques, kata sequences or ideology of the school within which one is enrolled. In other words, the system, an outcome of the founder’s understanding of, among other things, the martial body, can obscure the way to the skills that they had.
Akuzawa was a gymnast in his younger years, something that certainly endows one with strength and flexibility. He was also a sanda competitor (a modern competitive Chinese martial sport, that includes kick boxing techniques along with throwing methods), and had some experience with xingyi ch’uan. He studied for about two years at the Daito-ryu Dojo of Sagawa Yukiyoshi - however, Sagawa, himself, passed away after his first year of enrollment. His primary influence, however, was personal study with a teacher of old Japanese kobujutsu, an expert at Yagyu Shingan-ryu, Yagyu Shinkage-ryu, Jikishinkage-ryu and Maniwa Nen-ryu. Rather than formal study of the techniques of any of these disciplines, Akuzawa acquired information on how the body is structured and moves, regardless of what martial system one might be involved. As he began to understand the "postures/shapes" and movements that are common to all bujutsu, he developed a number of unique exercises - or interpretations of exercises - designed to organize and train the body. He developed a progressive instructional method, which he refers to as Aunkai. He writes: "What hit home to me was the importance of training the body through specialized conditioning and how to use force in a specifically martial manner. From my own point of view, studying the body intensely boils down to how one understands three basic factors, namely: standing, sitting and walking. The exercises I teach at the Aunkai are simple, but require that one deeply understand how to organize the body in order to achieve results. I find the true essence of bujutsu lies in a body that is able to contain strength and softness simultaneously within itself." He describes his discoveries on his own website far better than I could do:
By studying the shape of our normal standing posture, we learn to feel how gravity works on our balance and work to eliminate any excess from the body. This refers to unconnected muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, as well as harmonizing internal physical movement so that one movement does not overpower another. By understanding our skeletal structure, we learn the optimal placement of our joints, and how they interact against an incoming force. This is a direct way to recognize your axis as you adjust and harmonize your balance against a resisting force.
Akuzawa emphasized to me that the source of power is not only in using the muscles but rather by using jiku (axis) as a central point, thereby connecting the joints, allowing one to move and create energy, which flows through the properly trained body. He stated, "While there are many different methodologies and patterns within budo, I firmly believe that unless one effects 'internal change' within the body, one cannot have jutsu (refined skill). It is the creation of jutsu that sets bujutsu apart from other methods." Akuzawa emphasized that his is a work in constant development. "The exercises are not set, and change from day to day, as one's understanding changes, something that applies to myself as well as my students, as I train and continue my own research."
So What’s Going On?
Subsequent to my meeting with him, I visited Akuzawa’s school in Japan. It was their usual night for sparring, but without my requesting it, he shifted the class to a focus on fundamental practice, so that I could get some sense of how they train and what they accomplish through it. The class was a combination of some of his solo training regimen, followed by two-person practices: postural stability tests, both on one’s feet and on one’s knees, and sparring similar to t’ai chi push hands.
Please take what follows with more than a few grains of salt. I only had one chance to experience Akuzawa’s training, and therefore, only got a circumscribed view. The limitations were not only on what I was shown, but on what I could perceive.
It seems to me that the first step of training could be likened to framing a house. The basic exercises serve to eliminate weaknesses and in-balances that would make it difficult to learn internal skills. These exercises are rigorous, slow movements with deep postures, including his adaptation of sumo wrestling’s shikko, movements from a very low 'horse stance,' and an exercise called tenchijin. I found myself wondering, however, if the long, slow, rigorous standing postures could lead one to rely on the 'scaffolding' that one has so rigorously built. I think of this as 'Terminator Body'– imagining the scene in the movie, where, flesh burned away, all that is left is a titanium skeleton, that perfectly ratchets from one position to another, always perfectly braced through joints and skeleton to manage any incoming forces. This is in contrast to pure internal strength where one has the ability to absorb and redirect incoming forces, as well as instantaneously exert power oneself, with a relaxed body. It was my perception that most of his students seemed to be using this bracing principle to some degree, but definitely not Akuzawa himself. His 'relaxation' is not limp. Grabbling his arm, for example, I had the sense of a flexible hose, filled with high pressure water. Akuzawa noted to me, "My students still only understand the importance of the 'shape' of the exercises (hardness); however, if they continue, the internals will be affected and trained as well."
It was my sense that the first stage of his work is the mastery of the static postures – fluidity and adaptability with an integrated body come later. He focused on a vertical stance, with some “pressure” throughout the body, but without tension. At the same time, he emphasized that I should bring the scapula together and downwards. I do not know if this is an integral part of his use of the body at the highest level, or part of the 'framing process' (my phrase, remember). This does puzzle me, however, it seems to me that one should be able to keep the chest and shoulders relaxed without drawing the shoulders down, which seems to bring an element of rigidity into one’s stance.
At least in the class that I participated, Akuzawa did not seem to focus on the tantien, the middle area of the body that, properly trained, functions as a kind of differential gear redirecting, absorbing and amplifying force. I am not asserting that this absent from the Aunkai training system – simply that it is not see it emphasized or even referred to in the single class I participated.
I had just come off a knee operation, so was not able to do the classic exercise where one, kneeling, faces another kneeling person who attempts to pin one’s arms and one raises one’s own arms with relaxed power and no localized tension. Akuzawa and I engaged in this while standing. He has the ability to explode spontaneously, without apparent preparation or wind-up. It felt the same to me as when, a young man, I had a firecracker explode in my hand.
What struck me in Akuzawa's movement was a 'luscious' tensile coiling of his limbs, creating reciprocal tensions throughout the body which, when released, simply explode. For those of you familiar with Chinese martial arts, it seems like bagua ch’uan performed by a baji ch’uan expert: not the pure 'dragon-body' of great bagua, but still, a kind of enormously powerful wringing, as if the body was composed of interlaced rubber strips.
The result of this was, when I grabbed hold of his arms, it was as if I was punched through my skeleton at the point of contact, wherever that was. Thinking of his tenchijin exercise, he seems to make his body in a kind of star-fish/five-point star, in which the arms and legs twist, storing energy, around a central axis – the spine - which, when released, explodes. He moves very fast and hits and kicks with truly frightening power (I held a Thai pad to feel a few kicks). I trained at Koei gym in the 1970’s, where my sempai (senior) was Igari Genshu, the great middleweight muay thai champion. Up to that date, I’d never felt a kick as hard as Igari’s. I won’t say that Akuzawa’s was 'harder,' but it was exponentially heavier, and it appeared to me that he was still holding a lot in reserve.
On the question of how such internal training relates to combative skills, Akuzawa recently wrote to me:
Currently my students are not prepping for any particular competitions, and therefore, are not doing any training related to that. However, the preparation work that is contained in Aunkai, and in Japanese koryu that is designed to prepare for for shobu (situations that put one's life on the line, be it dueling or combat), does overlap with competition, in that, if done properly, such training can be used to prepare for that objective. Raising the body's potential (foundation work which includes conditioning, precise alignment, etc.) is something that every style of kobujutsu must do. However, for whatever reason, many styles chose to keep such foundational work a secret, calling them hiden or gokui. In reality, the principles governing truly efficient human mechanics are the same, boiling down to what my instructor of twenty years ago said:"Stand, sit, walk. Master these three things and you have bujutsu. That is the origin of my perspective.
Personally speaking, where Akuzawa really astonished me was his understanding of the use of weaponry and the body. Aside from my own training of nearly forty years in two classical martial traditions, I believe I have observed, on numerous occasions, just about every extant koryu remaining in Japan.
Akuzawa proved his understanding of weapons usage without a sword in his hands. We were standing around at the end of class, talking and he said, “Of course, all of this is, in essence, kenjutsu,” and clasping his hands, he made contact with my forearms, and began moving from one side to the other, disrupting my balance at each move, uprooting me slightly, then suppressing me further, in fluid continuous movements. This was not the clackity-clack type of kenjutsu, where one clashes weapons together, one point after another, or the subtle raptor-like slashes of such schools as Komagawa Kaishin-ryu or Shinkage-ryu. Rather, it was a breaking of the foundations of the stance of one’s opponent, each move levering me deeper into a 'double weighted' situation, where my own options to counter became more and more limited. His methodology is a very powerful method that would be extremely useful, particularly for armored fighting, a training method that would also be adaptable to the needs of modern warfighters, who must function with the weight of weaponry, packs and ballistic armoring.
I can only think of Ueshiba Morihei’s formulation that "aikido is a manifestation of the sword." I am convinced that he did not mean something as simple as aikido techniques are kenjutsu techniques without a sword in one’s hands. I have discussed, in my book, Hidden in Plain Sight, the spiritual implications of likening oneself to a tsurugi, the Chinese straight sword that has such symbolic import in Shinto cosmology. In addition, I think that Ueshiba was also referring to aikido as tanren, the forging process where the body is tempered like steel, a flexible, layered structure with incredible strength and a cutting edge. Akuzawa is living proof that this possibility always existed within Japanese martial arts – and that it still exists today.