PART II – En Route to England, Volume 2: Training on Board the Al-Sabbiyah

The temperature rose rapidly with each passing day as the Al-Sabbiyah continued southward. Soon after we entered the South China Sea, the heat became so intense that the crew was compelled to turn on the air conditioning in the cabin. The view from the deck showed nothing but a vast, boundless ocean below a sky filled with cumulus clouds. The bow of the ship created huge crests as it cut through the dark blue waters, and I saw many flying fish – sometimes groups of them – flitting away through the waves; their movements rekindling childhood memories of the clouds of locusts that would rise and fly off as I walked through the grasslands of my home. Their prismatic wings reflecting beautifully in the bright sun, the fish would sail just above the surface of the water for 10 yards or so and then like tiny airplanes glide smoothly back to the ocean again. I watched this poetic fantasy tirelessly. For the sight of it gave comfort to the heart of this traveler.

After nightfall I stood at the stern of ship and gazed at the sky filled with stars from horizon to horizon and at the moonlight as it shattered upon the crests of the waves. In the water were millions and millions of lights rising from the depths of the dark sea like glittering, whirling clouds that crashed against the side of the ship as it surged forth. The clouds of light were a magnificent and breathtaking fantasy of beauty created by the nautiluses living in the water. Everything: the lights of the stars, the moon and the nautiluses moving together in perfect harmony with sway of the ship in huge waves was like listening to a great piece of music – a rhapsody of the ocean – or perhaps like witnessing the endless flow of an avalanche with the violent heaving and crashing movements arising from apparent calm.

The lights of the nautiluses seemed to me a perfect reflection of the stars, ands as I gazed at them with fascination I was suddenly struck by intense emotion when I remembered that this region was where many fierce sea battles had taken place during the Second World War. I realized then that the lights in the water were the spirits of the soldiers who had died in those battles. I ran back to my cabin to get my harmonica and the bottle of sake I had planned to open after I settled in Great Britain and returned to the prow of the ship. I poured some sake into the ocean, recited the Heart Sutra, sang songs both in Japanese and English (translated from Japanese that I had learned in school) and I drank the sake I had saved for myself and played the harmonica to comfort the spirits of the fallen soldiers.

As I pondered the battles that had taken place in this ocean, I remembered that my father had been severely injured in one of them, and I realized that I was on my way to Britain – a country that had been at odds with Japan during the war. The war had only ended 20 years previously, and I had no knowledge of how deep were the scars left by the war on the psyche of the British people, so I did not know what to expect. Nevertheless, it is part of Bushido (the Warrior Code) to erect a memorial column and give a prayer service for the fallen soldiers of foreign enemies as demonstrated by Hojo Takimune, the head of the Kamakura military government who led the war against the Mongolian invasions of Japan (1274 and 1281). I feel it is a great shame that this beautiful custom and tradition weakened and has been completely forgotten over time.

The Akasaka battle, October 1274

On April 1st (1966), at the request of the captain, I began training with five of the young British officers. We prepared the lounge space for training by laying out the 50 pieces of tatami that Mr. Logan had acquired for the dojo I was to establish in England. I was not familiar with the body type of the Englishmen, so I decided to put aside any formal teaching plan and experiment within the classes in a freestyle manner. I declared at the beginning that there would be no punching or kicking from my end. It was a valuable lesson for me to encounter various forms of attack with which I was not very familiar, though I did have some previous experience with unusual attack forms when I was assigned to teach the Japanese wrestling team as part of their preparation for the 1964 Olympics (1).

The common form that wrestlers would use involved approaching me in low, wide stance with their hands raised in front of their bodies. Then they would grab my wrist, arm or shoulder, and sometimes even dive under and grab my kegs or hips. At other times they would advance towards me using rhythmic footwork and then strike at my face like a boxer. I was able to counter these attacks thank to my brief training with a senior member of Hombu Dojo who had once been a professional boxer. My experience with the wrestling team and the ex-boxer had been valuable, but I found that these were not enough to help me deal with a live situation I faced later on.

While training with the British officers, I found the most useful techniques to employ in a semi-freestyle situation to be ikkyo, sankyo, kotegaeshi, gokyo and occasionally nikyo. I eventually avoided using shihonage out of regard for the safety of the crew members, as they would cry out or scream when it was applied. This was all much to the amusement of the spectators in the lounge – the captain, his wife and the other officers would join in the laughter and cheering from the seats, and the atmosphere in the room was quite uproarious. The training proved to be an altogether valuable and enjoyable way to pass the time during the long voyage.

Toward the evening of Aril 4th, the Al Sabbiyah passed through the Malacca Strait and entered the Indian Ocean. That evening, I was invited by the captain to join him, his wife and the senior officers for dinner. During the meal, the captain asked me to conduct a special demonstration for their traditional celebration of safe passage across the equator that was to be held few days hence. I agreed.

The demonstration was held on April 7th in the lounge where I had been conducting training. Present were all of the crew with whom I had been training, the captain and his wife and all of the officers who were not on duty. The demonstration was carried out in the same fashion as my previous classes, and I did not encounter any significant difficulties – that is, until I was faced with a knife attack.

Toward the end of the demonstration, the tallest of the officers picked up a huge, knife- like implement and advanced toward me in a low, wide-spread stance while rapidly switching the knife from hand to hand. This was a style of attack I had never encountered before, and for a moment I regretted the prohibition I had placed on kicking as a response option. He approached me steadily, forcing me to retreat until my back was nearly to the wall, then he charged and struck at me with the knife. I did not know from which hand the strike was coming, however I instinctively raised both my hands and cut down and outwards in both directions (gedan barai) to defend two sides at once.
When I saw that it was his right hand which held the knife, I wrapped my left arm around his right, and cut down in kata gatame. The technique worked well enough, but very barely as his knife had touched my front and slightly cut through the thick, sweat-soaked cotton of my Iaido obi. I was fortunate. After 45 minutes or so the demonstration was over, and I was unhappy to realize that I had not attended seriously enough to my study of this particular style of attack.

Kata gatame

As I pondered the events of the demonstration, I remembered Tai Chi Chuan master by the name of Wong (Oh Jukin in Japanese) who had come to Japan from Taiwan. He was a huge man with a beautiful Buddha belly like a soccer ball sticking out under his shirt. He came to the Japanese Martial Arts Exhibition that was being held at the Hibiya Hall in the early 1960s and challenged any karate experts present to come up to the stage and strike his belly with any form of attack they wished. His challenge was accepted by many high-ranking karate practitioners – mostly from the various university karate clubs – who were in peak physical condition, high spirits and had strong confidence in their abilities. They all failed to inflict any damage or effect on Master Wong. Whatever the technique of attack, he stood smiling and unmoved. The audience was amazed to witness his endurance, especially after seeing the karate demonstrations of tameshiwari (test breaking) wherein the practitioners effortlessly broke through 2-inch-thick boards and piles of roof tiles. After that day, Master Wong’s name and reputation spread far and wide throughout Japan.

Around the time of Master Wong’s appearance in Japan, I was training two American private students, one of whom decided to also become Master Wong’s private student. Master Wong had rented a mansion near the Imperial Palace in the Akasaka district of Tokyo – one of the richest residential areas in Japan – and was using the carpeted lounge as his dojo. One day I was invited by my student to meet Master Wong and watch a class, and I gladly accepted. After the class was over, Master Wong looked at me and pointed to indicate I should challenge him. He spoke no Japanese, but his intentions were clear to me, so I stood up and stepped into the practice space.

The Practice space was a large room in which all of the furniture had been pushed into a corner, providing enough space for approximately 20 practitioners. We stood silently facing each other at a distance, and he initiated the move toward me in a low posture, wide stance and both hands in front of his chest. He looked like a tank coming toward me, but I didn’t move – in reality, I did not know what to do. In general, aikidoists are trained well in grabbing attacks or those that come in a single, straight line like shomen, yokomen and tsuki, but unfortunately not otherwise. He continued moving toward me, and when he was close enough to touch me, I took his left fist and apply a strong kotegaeshi (without footwork). I heard the sound of a cracking wrist joint, but he did not move or fall down. Instead, he quickly pulled his hand out, raised it, shook it and said in English, “This is the kind of injury I can heal within two weeks!” He did this all with the same smile I saw when he received blows from the karate men at the Hibiya Hall exhibition.

We parted again, and then he charged me, so I moved forward to meet him without really knowing what to do next. I knew that the only effective attack would be to aim a kick at his testicles from below, but I hesitated momentarily, and the next thing I knew I was flying backward through the air. Before I could touch him, he had grabbed me by the waist, lifted me up in the air, and throw me forward with unbelievable force. My body flew horizontally for about 3 meters, but I managed to get my feet under me to land with good balance.

Posture de Tai Chi Chuan

He charged me again, but by then I knew the only thing I could do against his attack was to dive under him in sutemiwaza (sacrifice throw), bring him down and choke him out. As I began to move forward, a number of his students (all foreigners) intervened by shouting, “That’s enough!” and the challenge was over.

In my self-reflection on that encounter I concluded that I had lost, as I realized that if I had chosen to do so, he could have easily struck me with his fists when he lifted my body up high. How a move like that would have affected the outcome is unknown. The only credit I could give to myself was that I landed on my feet in good balance when I was thrown backwards. I missed the chance to test my skill with the sutemiwaza – the result of which resides in the unknown with the fist-strike that Master Wong could have used against me.

My recollection of the encounter with Master Wong, combine with the narrow escape from injury during the knife attack from the British officer, motivated me to engage in serious study of effective responses to those types of attack. My doing so ensured my success against aa knife attack in Paris many years later – the higher technical dimension of which may appear in a later issue.


(1) The 1964 Games were held in Tokyo. (Translator’s note)

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