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?

UE:        Yes.

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
 in Iwama?

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
             practising weapons?

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