FACE to FACE with Ulf Sensei
In 2001 Ulf Evenas Sensei visited and taught a seminar in
Malaysia for the first time. A native of Sweden, Ulf Sensei is 1 of
only 2 Shihans in the world who are fully certified to teach
Taijutsu and Bukiwaza (weapons) by Saito Sensei. He holds 7th
Dan Iwama and Aikikai ranks; he also holds the highest possible
rank of 5th Dan in Iwama ryu Jo and Ken. Here, he talks to
Raymond Kwok about Iwama Aikido and related issues. In
reading this, one should bear in mind that this Interview was
conducted before the passing of Saito Sensei.
Some excerpts from the interview which first appeared in the 2002
issue of the Kuala Lumpur YMCA Aikido Club Magazine:
RK: When did you start doing Aikido?
UE: I initially learned Aikido from an old man in his '60s. He had a
background in Judo, Ju-Jitsu. He had been a top athlete in
Gymnastics. I started Iwama-style Aikido in 1969 under Takeji
Tomita Sensei; he was a student of Saito Sensei and Nishio
RK: This was in Sweden, of course?
RK: How long in Sweden did you train before you decided to go to
UE: I went to Iwama in 1973 and became an uchi deshi for about 6
months.There were only a couple of Western students then. This
was right after O’Sensei had died. So it was very authentic at
that time. Saito Sensei kept up all the traditions and we had to
do whatever was required from Uchi Deshis.
RK: Could you give us a few names of Senseis who started out with
you and are still around?
UE: There was Inagaki Sensei, and Umesawa Sensei who became
a son-in-law of Saito Sensei later, he was uchi deshi at the time
together with me. There were some Westerners: Dave
Alexander, Professor Anderson, Bill Witt, Hans Goto.
RK: In those days, did the Iwama curriculum include farming as it did
in O’Sensei’s time?
UE: Not to the extent that had been done before but we had to
upkeep the property ... it was a big property.
RK: How many training sessions did you have in a day?
UE: At that time, Saito Sensei was still working for the Railway
company. He worked for 24 hours straight, and then he was free
for 2 to 3 days. When he was free, he came around on a regular
basis to teach us in the mornings and sometimes at other times
as well. The evening class however was together with everybody.
RK: Apart from Saito Sensei at that time was anybody else teaching
UE: Occasionally, when Sensei was not there, there were Sempais
around to teach - Inagaki Sensei - Hirusawa Sensei. There were
some not high ranked Sempais that taught - but mainly Saito
Sensei that taught.
RK: Were you expected to work in the fields too?
UE: Yes, weeding - taking care of the garden, the jinja ... the area
surrounding the jinja. There was a lot of work so we worked for
several hours a day.
RK: How many people at that time would be uchi-deshis in the Dojo?
UE: When I arrived for the first month, there were only 2 of us
together with 3 Japanese uchi-deshis. We arrived in early spring
- a little later on there were some people from the United States.
So altogether there were like 7 or 8 of us.
RK: Was there very strict discipline in those days?
UE: Yes, there was ... we were expected to obey the rules. But on the
other hand, Saito Sensei and his wife had a big heart and were
also understanding. They took very good care of us. When we
first arrived, Saito Sensei pointed at his wife and said, “Well,
from now on, this is your mother and she will take care of you so
if you have any problems you come to her". Of course we made
a lot of mistakes - as foreigners - but he was very patient with us
RK: Can you tell us what are the differences between Iwama-style
Aikido and Aikikai-style Aikido?
UE: First, it is important to realise that there are a lot of styles or
interpretations of Aikido - within the Aikikai or Iwama - whatever.
There might be a big difference between what one teaching the
Aikikai style teaches and another teaches ... it is difficult to make
a general approach to saying what the differences are. There are
differences within the Aikikai as well.
The way we look at it in Iwama - as Saito Sensei says - we are
trying to preserve the Aikido that was taught by O’Sensei in
Iwama from the mid - 40s up until maybe 1960 or so. This was the
period when he developed a lot of his Aikido. The other approach
is not to copy what he did but to make interpretations of it and
teach it to his students. We do not look at ourselves as being
outsiders. I have a high ranking in the Aikikai; Saito Sensei is the
top Sempai at Hombu Dojo - he is the number 1 Sempai there.
We are very close. We are in the Aikikai.
The only difference is that we are very strictly preserving the old
Aikido. A few basic things about that is for instance the RIAI - the
relationship between Ken, Jo and Taijutsu - where we put an
equal value on each part - and they are integrated so that
whatever you do with the Ken, you benefit from that in Jo, Taijutsu
and vice versa. This is one part of it. Another part is that some
teachers prefer to start teaching the Ki no Nagare form. We do
not do that. We start with the basic form - the Kihon - and from
there we gradually move to the Ki no Nagare form. So you might
say that what we are doing in Iwama is a support system to any
style of Aikido.
So it’s not a style in itself, it’s a basic foundation to stand on while
you are doing any type of Aikido. We are not looking at it like we
are doing the only correct thing. On the other hand what we are
doing is to preserve what was done .....and of course we want to
be part of the family, and we want to make available what we can
provide - and also to see what others can provide us.
RK: Is there any difference between the " maai " in Taijutsu as
opposed to that in Buki waza? I mean, we all know that in Taijutsu
when someone does a Shomen Uchi or Yokomen Uchi attack he
must be able to hit Uke if Uke does nothing and stands there.
Obviously you cannot have the same in Buki waza?
UE: Of course, basically when we make a strike we are supposed to
hit. But for different reasons we are deliberately, for learning
purposes, adjusting the distance a little bit. One thing is safety - if
you are striking hard with a sword or Jo you might severely injure
your partner, that is one aspect of it. For safety, we increase the
distance. Another point is that when we are practising Awase, it
is not necessary to make contact, we have another purpose -
learning ourselves how to blend with a partner’s attack. Another
reason is that if you have an increased distance, you have the
possibility to cut through, you can do the full technique from start
to finish ... with full power. When we simulate the real situation,
when we go to more applied movement we can come closer, by
then we have learned how to be in control - so there is no risk and
we know what we are doing.
RK: Can you tell us about the weapons systems that you practise in
UE: Well, we have a clear relation between Ken, Jo and Taijutsu and
this is very important. We always start out in Hanmi. The Hanmi
poses your body in a correct way. We are trying to achieve correct
body movement and develop power from the centre.With the Ken,
we start out with the 7 Suburis which develop the hips, our
movement, breathing, our ability to centre ourselves. We then move
into Awase - blending techniques - and from there we go into more
advanced Kumi Tachi.
We have the same system with Jo. We start with the 20 suburi. To
make the proper movements, correct stances. Then we move into
Awase techniques and to Kumi Jo. We also have 31 and 13 Kata.
And we also have partner practice with the 31 Kata, so we call it
31 Kata Kumi Jo. It is not possible to do Kumi Jo with the 13 Kata.
We have the Awase form there.
Then we also have Tachi-Dori, Jo-Dori and Jo Nage. This is
basically how the system works. When you do the Jo for instance if
you do the Uchi Komi with the Jo, you find out that you do the same
Uchikomi as with Ken, although there are very very small
differences. The only difference actually is that the Jo is longer so I
have to keep my hands further apart. Then we have the relation
between Ken and Jo ... Ken Tai Jo where the Attacker, Uchi Tachi
is attacking with Ken and the Defender uses Jo. We have 7 of
them and there are some variations.
With Ken systems we can also identify a lot of movements or
basis for Taijutsu. So practising with Ken shows us how to
position ourselves for Kotegaeshi or Shiho Nage. There is a
strong connection to Taijutsu. We do for instance, Ken forms of
Kotegaeshi, Shiho Nage and so on. The system is very clear, we
have a certain number of techniques and we can do a lot of
RK: Saito Sensei, having been a direct student of O’Sensei and the
guardian of the Iwama shrine has a very strong connection to the
past. Do you see Iwama ryu’s distinctive style changing when
Saito Sensei retires, especially when someone who has never
trained under or met O’ Sensei then becomes leader of the
Iwama school in Japan?
UE: We don’t know about what will happen when Saito Sensei
passes away in future. What we know is for now, he is still only
73. We have not discussed what will happen after. Of course
there will always be the risk that some people will make their
own interpretations. Mainly, I will say that people doing that have
very shallow knowledge of the system. So they are jumping to
their own conclusions from a very little base of facts; so that
makes it easier to change or they want to make themselves
more popular more available to their students in order to be rich
and famous - that might happen.
What has happened to the Aikikai - people making their own
interpretations or starting their own style, it might happen but
hopefully very few people will do that.
RK: Who would be the successor?
UE: At this time we have no idea if there will be a successor. Today
Saito Sensei’s son - Hitohiro Sensei is teaching at the Dojo but
whether he would be the successor or not, we don’t know. Saito
Sensei has appointed some people as his direct
representatives; in Europe, it’s me and Corallini (Paolo), in the
U. S., we have Bill Witt.
RK: I know I am not likely to get an unbiased opinion but is it
possible for anyone to learn and understand Aikido without also
UE: I don’t think so, that’s my opinion. Based on the facts I know, but
there might be, I don’t know.
RK: Sensei, this is a question on many people’s minds, does one
automatically become a Shihan on reaching 6th Dan? I mean,
you are 7th Dan now. Can I refer to you as a Shihan?
UE: Yes, I am an Iwama Shihan and I have been directly appointed
that by Saito Shihan. So it’s not a general rule that someone
who reaches the level of 6th Dan or so automatically becomes a
Shihan, not even in the Aikikai, that’s for sure.
RK: Is there a separate certification or is it an oral appointment?
UE: Yes, so far it’s been an oral appointment, but I know there has
been discussion about making some kind of certification for
that. It’s easy if you do this in Hombu dojo. But we have Western
teachers now, like 6th and 7th Dan who supposedly should be
Shihans. As I understand it at least one, Christian Tissier Sensei
has been appointed Shihan. There might be more, I don’t know.
But it has to be clear that Shihan is not just a person who
received a 6th Dan.
RK: Is there a minimum age that one must attain before being
allowed to practise weapons in your Dojo.
UE: Not really, in children’s classes we do not teach weapons for 2
reasons - one is that we have a limited amount of time, we teach
the kids only once a week. The other thing is it’s difficult for a
child to understand when it is ok to practise with a weapon. It
could easily happen that they bring it to school and injure
someone - that will give us a bad reputation. That would be a
bad thing. For these reasons, we wait until they reach something
like 15 years or so.
RK: Recently we’ve seen quite a lot of foreigners being promoted to
7th Dan: Harvey Konigsberg, Bill Witt, Bob Nadeau, Frank
Doran, yourself. Do you see the glass ceiling slowly being
UE: I think so, yes, these are very competent people. These are not
young people promoted very quickly. We’ve been around for a
very very long time and these people have been working very
hard to improve themselves and of course they have also been
doing a big job for Aikido.
Without many of these people Aikido would not be what it is
today. So definitely I say that hopefully the glass ceiling has been
broken and hopefully more people will achieve this - that really
deserve it. I think that we are looking to new times.
RK: Thank you, Sensei.
|. Ulf Shihan relating his
experience in IWAMA
Ulf Shihan performing Ikkyo