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The Day We Met John Stevens

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Martial Arts of Japan

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by Robert Wolfe

One of the most interesting days we’ve had was in July 2004, when John Stevens, the noted instructor and author, visited Itten Dojo to present an overview of classical aikido. The seminar came about when good friend Ron Tisdale mentioned he was looking for another venue, preferably one outside Philadelphia, to add to the Stevens seminar tour that year (at the time, Ron coordinated an annual visit). I figure any time a prominent instructor can teach at the dojo it’s a good thing, and I’m always looking for another chance to get a book signed by the author, so I volunteered. I’m very glad I did.

An image of John Stevens instructing

The Stevens entourage had more than a two-hour drive from Philadelphia, but even with one slight excursion from the optimal route they arrived in plenty of time for the 10:00 a.m. start. Two, two-hour sessions were planned: the morning class addressed taijutsu while the afternoon practice focused on aikiken and aikijo. Both sessions were preceded by a 15-minute lecture that was both interesting and completely pertinent to the physical training that followed. The initial lecture covered some history and insight to Stevens Sensei’s instructor’s (Shirata Rinjiro) approach to training, and provided an introduction to kotodama, a form of chanting derived from the belief that sound can directly affect reality. Despite the fact none of us had ever experienced kotodama, Stevens Sensei led us in a number of different chants as part of our warm-up and preparation for training — I was amazed at the way the dojo resonated and by the eeriness of the effect. I don’t know whether it did anything for our aikido, but it certainly sounded good.

Other than that it would likely be very different from anything we’d experienced previously, I didn’t know what to expect of Stevens Sensei’s technique. As it turned out, Stevens Sensei’s aikido was quite unlike our normal fare, but impressive. There was an emotional exuberance to his practice, but a spiritual calm, as well as a dynamism that was usually understated but which manifested on occasion in very sharp atemi. Several times the uke did something unexpected (having limited experience with Stevens Sensei and perhaps not having quite understood what he wanted to demonstrate); Stevens Sensei responded seamlessly with an appropriate technique and then just laughed and told uke to try again. When one of the uke apologized, saying, “Sorry, my mistake,” Stevens responded with, “No, not at all. That’s the great thing about it: There are no mistakes in aikido.” Now, these guys weren’t trying to kill him with their attacks, but clearly he was completely up to whatever happened. 

Stevens Sensei also demonstrated a wide range of applications of the fundamental techniques he reviewed. Since Shirata had trained with Ueshiba across virtually the entire spectrum of the development of aikido, Stevens Sensei was able to demonstrate techniques in terms of, “Now, this is the more modern form of X; this is how they did it pre-war; and this is how they did it in between.” And Stevens Sensei had some chops. He was invariably careful of his uke, but he demonstrated some serious atemi and could have done appreciable damage with the more “martial” (as he put it) versions of the techniques. I was impressed by the variety of practice the Shirata Sensei approach to aikido afforded. If students were looking for a relatively light and relaxed workout, they can find it; if a couple of guys wanted to get together and knock the stuffing out of each other, they could do that, too.

The weapons training in the afternoon was interesting from a number of perspectives. We were introduced to the 45-movement misogi-no-ken and the 75-movement misogi-no-jo, neither of which we’d ever seen. In his introductory lecture, Stevens Sensei pointed out that Shirata Sensei insisted on an equal balance of taijutsu, aikiken, and aikijo. Despite the fact aikiken and aikijo are not primarily combative, let alone the fact these forms are intended as purification rituals, Stevens Sensei was able to demonstrate a variety of both unarmed analogies and more combative, paired-practice sets derived from the misogi forms.

John Stevens himself was a gentleman, delightful to talk to, unaffected and seeming to take great pleasure in simply having the opportunity to share what his sensei had passed on to him. We count ourselves very fortunate to have had the chance to train with him.

Read previous blogs here.

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