Ellis Amdur, an accomplished martial arts master and researcher, asked me to contribute to a column he hosts on AikiWeb called “It Had to Be Felt.” The concept is to have an aikidoka give a firsthand account of their experience taking ukemi from a great master. I have been fascinated by others’ accounts of taking ukemi from the legendary masters of aikido. Chiba Sensei, Nishio Sensei, and other greats were brought to life through these stories. I humbly and enthusiastically accepted Ellis’ request to share my direct experience taking ukemi for Haruo Matsuoka Sensei.
Following is an account sharing some of my experiences with Matsuoka Sensei through the years as he’s transitioned through three distinct phases in his aikido.
I began my aikido training in April 1991. I walked into Tenshin Dojo in Los Angeles California to observe a class. It was the first time I’d seen aikido in person and I was fortunate enough to watch Haruo Matsuoka Sensei teach. I left in complete awe of his technique, as well as the sincerity and spirit of everyone on the mat. After that introduction to the art of aikido, I became his student and continued on as his direct disciple for over 25 years.
Ukemi was taken very seriously at the dojo under Matsuoka’s guidance. He was Steven Seagal Sensei’s top student and primary uke. Those who were around during Matsuoka’s days with Seagal know that he developed his legendary ukemi skills through trial by fire.
I had a recent conversation with Jeff Imada, a kali master and world-class action choreographer. Jeff has done stunts and action choreography for over 400 films and TV shows. He told me a story of one of his early encounters with Matsuoka Sensei back in the 1990s. Jeff was designing action sequences for Marked for Death. Some of the stuntmen hired for the film complained to Jeff that Seagal was bringing in “his own stunt people” for the action scenes. As professionally-trained stuntmen, they felt they were the best qualified to produce compelling on-screen action. However, as soon as they saw Seagal iriminage Matsuoka, then throw him ballistically through the air into a jewelry case, the stuntmen looked at each other and collectively told Jeff they were “totally fine” not executing those stunts. I’ve seen videos of Matsuoka Sensei taking ukemi for Seagal’s full power throws on hard floors (no tatami) and come out the other side uninjured. The video clip below, for example, shows a segment of a demo performed on a hardwood floor.
Most of Matsuoka’s senior students felt inspired and compelled to keep upping their ukemi game. I was no different. I first had the opportunity to take ukemi from Matsuoka as a young brown belt, which I consider my first exposure to feeling his aikido.
Phase 1: The Blade Flurry, 1991-2004
Over this 13-year period, Matsuoka’s aikido became increasingly fast and efficient. Sometimes even scary. He moved like lightning. He used speed and angles to out-position and throw. Matsuoka was at Tenshin Dojo Osaka in the 1970s when an elaborate system of hand movements, parries, deflections, and atemi were developed. He refined this system over the years and was able to employ it impressively.
Attacking him often felt like walking into a blade flurry. I needed total presence and focus to leave a demonstration without suffering injury. Although serious injuries were rare, you wouldn’t leave unscathed if you were slow or lost focus for even a brief second.
During this period, Matsuoka used ukemi as a way to cultivate the resolve and determination of his students. When demonstrating techniques in class, he would often throw us to the point of exhaustion. When I first began taking ukemi for Sensei, I asked one of my senpai “So, when he’s throwing you, do you just keep going until you can’t stand up anymore?” My senpai replied, “No. You keep going until he’s done.”
That was a paradigm shift for me. It allowed me to break through a number of my psychological barriers. One time, Sensei threw me with kokyunage until my legs felt so numb I was sure I couldn’t stand up. He just looked at me, waiting for me to attack again. I was certain I couldn’t get up, but trusted that he knew my limits better than I did. So I got up. And attacked. And attacked again. My limit was much higher than I thought, but without Matsuoka Sensei’s attunement and guidance, I would have never known this to be the case.
As an uke, Sensei always kept me on my toes. He might be narrating details of a technique and showing the movement in slow motion. Then, without warning he’d dial it up to 100% speed and power. Every time I was called up for ukemi, I was afraid and never lost sight of the imminent danger posed by his incredible speed and power.
Despite that dynamic, I only ever experienced profound compassion and control from Sensei. He forged me through hard ukemi, but he always cared deeply for his ukes and never hurt anyone with a display of ego. After taking his ukemi, I’d leave the dojo with heightened senses. I felt sharp as a razor walking out of the dojo and experienced an almost euphoric awareness for hours afterwards. It was an experience unlike any other and I have countless golden memories from this time.
Matsuoka Sensei parted ways with Seagal in 1998 and later became a direct disciple of Seiseki Abe Sensei, who was one of the founder’s closest students in the later years of his life (and also O-Sensei’s calligraphy teacher).
Phase 2: The Transition, 2004-2007
It was in the 2002-2004 time period that Matsuoka’s rate of change began to plateau. He was at the height of his capabilities with the techniques and movement system he’d embraced for the past 30 years.
Seeking ways to break through to the next level, he began experimenting with the things he’d felt and learned from Abe Sensei. We would sometimes practice Abe Sensei’s techniques and kokyu exercises. They were challenging in a very different way and much more static than the type of movements we had come to know and expect.
Matsuoka also met Yoshinori Kono Sensei around this time. An old student of Yamaguchi Sensei, Kono left the Aikikai to pursue more generalized budo research and invest focus into building an understanding of internal power generation and movement efficiency.
Inspired by these influences, Matsuoka’s aikido went through a metamorphosis. Taking ukemi from him during this phase was a very different experience. With a commitment to breaking through barriers, he experimented and struggled with new methods and movements. His aikido felt different. Sometimes there would be an explosion of power. Other times it was disjointed. As uke, I felt a rapid, though inconsistent evolution. He could always fall back on his old movement patterns, but rarely did. Never provoked by ego, he insisted on putting himself in situations that forced him to fail so he could learn. We all knew he could still unleash the blade flurry at will, but he didn’t. He knew it would slow his path to finding a new way.
Phase 3: The Aiki Engine, 2007-Present
“Aiki: a principle that allows a practitioner to negate an opponent’s power on contact through application of internal dynamics or Ki energy to affect technique.” (Wikipedia)
By 2007, Matsuoka’s new aikido had taken form. He’d transformed into something entirely different. He still has the same portfolio of movements but now moves more slowly (generally) and more simply. Instead of relying on speed and timing, he uses subtle positioning and movement efficiency to create advantage.
He moves without sending a signal. He used to move so quickly you couldn’t react in time to counter. Now he moves more slowly, almost casually, but you simply cannot react in time because he betrays no tells in his movements. It feels like a master magician performed a sleight-of-hand trick that you just can’t figure out.
Sensei can now can project tremendous power into a single point. He can sledgehammer me on contact. His kuzushi (balance breaking) can be so sudden and disruptive it almost knocks the wind out of me at times. If he puts full intent behind a shihonage or nikyo, I know it will devastate my body frame.
He can move through my resistance freely. From his perspective, his movements are light and effortless. As uke, when I grab him as hard as I can, it’s nearly always impossible for me to resist his movement. Sometimes it feels like trying to stop an industrial robot on a factory floor. All you feel is smooth, seamless movement that has consistent power at a level a human just can’t challenge. Other times, I feel like someone has opened a trap door under my feet and I just can’t find anything against which to resist.
The tone and atmosphere of his demonstrations and instruction are much different now, as well. He generally teaches slowly in classes, choosing to focus on movement quality. Ukes are not often pushed to their physical limits, but instead pushed to learn by feeling and experiencing his movement principles in action. Sensei will still turn up the intensity, but usually he does so outside of class demonstrations in a more private setting.
He now spends a significant portion of his time seeking and learning from other martial arts masters, many of whom are outside the aikido world. He learns from from Yoshinori Kono, Kenji Yamaki (former kyokyushin karate world champion), and Dan Inosanto (Bruce Lee’s top student and successor.) Getting input from world class masters in different disciplines gives him a radically different perspective on the martial arts that allows him to continue to evolve and transform his aikido.
I’m not sure what the next phase of his development will be, but I’m excited to experience it as an uke, seek a deeper understanding of his aikido, and find more effective ways to help transmit his discoveries to our students.