Interview with Aikido Shihan Nobuyuki Watanabe, Part 2

 Nobuyuki Watanabe SenseiNobuyuki Watanabe sensei (渡辺信之) at Aikikai Hombu Dojo

Nobuyuki Watanabe is a senior instructor at Aikikai Hombu Dojo and a Japanese bonesetter (接骨 / Sekkotsu – a form of joint manipulation similar to chiropractics). He was instrumental in making Isogai Dynamic Therapy (a chiropractic method of treatment to compensate for functional leg length differences) known in Germany, where he frequently travels to instruct in Aikido.

His famous “no touch” Aikido demonstrations at the annual All Japan Aikido Demonstration (全日本合氣道演武大会) are highly controversial, but always elicit an enthusiastic response from the crowd. The late Sadateru Arikawa used to watch those demonstrations each year with a scowl on his face!

This is the second part of a two part translation of an interview with Nobuyuki Watanabe sensei. You may wish to read Part 1 of this interview before reading this section.

This interview originally appeared in the August 2007 issue of Gekkan Hiden (月刊秘伝 / “Secret Teachings Monthly”), a well known martial arts magazine in Japan. It was also published in a collection of interviews with students of the Founder published in Japanese as 開祖の横顔 (“Profiles of the Founder”) in 2009.

There was a short introduction to this work in the article “Morihei Ueshiba – Profiles of the Founder“. I previously posted an English translation of interviews from that collection with Nobuyoshi Tamura sensei (Part 1 | Part 2), Hiroshi Isoyama sensei (Part 1 | Part 2) and Shigenobu Okumura sensei (Part 1 | Part 2). 

Nobuyuki Watanabe senseiNobuyuki Watanabe sensei teaching at Aikikai Hombu Dojo

Interview with Aikido Shihan Nobuyuki Watanabe, Part 2

(translated by Christopher Li)

The Breath of Aikido is Inhaled in a Circle.

Q: Were you ever scolded by the Founder?

A: Once when I was training with a young woman, he yelled “You, just take ukemi! You must treat young women with care!”. (laughing) I ended up taking ukemi for an hour. It was good training! Since the young woman didn’t have much strength, if I were to stop in Shiho-nage her hands would come off. Since it was right in the middle of the technique it was quite dangerous, so I stayed attached until the very end, leading her slightly with my movement.

Q: So it becomes practice in sensing the connection of power?

A: People nowadays can’t do this. They end up just trying to throw. It’s important to use your body softly and sense the power. Also, although it didn’t happen to me, he would scold the people in the office when they walked behind them – “Say excuse me and pass in front!”. Budoka don’t like it when people are behind them, but nobody understood that at first. He was strict about things like that.

O-Sensei TanabeO-Sensei’s Statue in Tanabe
Watanabe sensei often sees important hints in the hands of the Founder

Q: I understand that you get a lot of hints from photographs of the Founder?

A: That’s right. I wasn’t able to see the Founder from the front very often, so I would stare at the pictures and wonder “Why does he hold his hands like that?”. I just kept on wondering “Why? Why?”.

Q: Did you notice something in the photographs from the front?

A: When you look at photographs of the Founder carefully you’ll see that his chin is lifted slightly upwards. That bothered me for a long time – normally in Budo they say “pull in your chin”, but when you actually try it you find that your breathing becomes more comfortable. The Founder would say “Breath out while breathing in, and breathe in while breathing out”, but I understood that from the photographs – there are many hints like that.

Q: Did the Founder say anything in particular about Kokyu (breathing)?

A: He never said anything about special breathing, but I was told “for Budo breathing inhale in a circle while exhaling in a circle”.

(Translator’s Note: some students of Morihei Ueshiba have expressed the opinion that this is referring to a form of abdominal breath training.)

Q: In a circle?

A: That’s why I fill both lungs at first and then move while filling one lung and emptying the other. Of course, the opponent comes towards the side that is inhaling.

Q: Is it difficult to breath out while breathing in?

A: Not at all – if one vocalizes while moving it happens naturally, so I teach students “Say ‘Wa–‘ while you do it”.

Q: Did you think of that way of explaining it on your own?

A: Yes, because O-Sensei’s lectures were almost all about the Gods, and you couldn’t ask any questions. (laughing) However, in private classes there was sometimes a little explanation. The Founder would sometimes train one on one with people in private classes, and I sometimes participated as Uke. Those people were relatively free to ask questions. There was no way that the normal students could ask questions. (laughing)

Q: Is that right? (laughing) Is there anything that you remember from that time?

A: The Founder would move his hands when they were resting on his knees in Seiza. One person asked “Sensei, why are your hands moving?”, and they were told “I breath in with this (the right hand) and close it, and breath out with this (the left hand)”. At the time I just listened without paying any special attention, but now I think “Ahh, of course…”. But anyway, there was a lot of talk about the Gods. (laughing)

Nobuyuki Watanabe teachingNobuyuki Watanabe sensei teaching at Aikikai Hombu Dojo

Aikido is the Work of Knowing Yourself

Q: You often make an important point of the hands…

A: The provide the biggest hints! Most people just use their hands very carelessly. Hands are not just for grasping and releasing, they are important for transmitting sensation to the opponent.

Q: Sensation?

A: After the hands open wide they pucker slightly, don’t they? That’s suction. At that time one feels the sensation of air on the hands and moves with the intention of throwing that air towards the opponent’s face. If one continues to hold the feeling of that sensation then they become able to move without pulling or pushing. It is the hands that create that kind of sensitivity.

Q: What kind of training do you use to develop that?

A: Many things. For example, striking a wall with a ball of air and visualizing it dispersing in all directions. When you do that you will find the place that you can strike with the best feeling. You’ll understand where the ball of air explodes with a bang. When standing up and sitting down, if you sit slightly when standing up you’ll be able to stand up very quickly and firmly. It’s a subtle sensation.

Q: Why did you begin to think of things like that?

A: Hmm…I guess it was after I started teaching. When you start to teach students their movement starts to become like yours after two or three years. At first I was happy about it, but when I thought about it I realized that it was no good. I realized that it meant that I wasn’t changing, and I thought “This is no good.”. If I don’t continually improve then they won’t improve either.

Q: Is that right?

A: The I went to teach Aikido to the Maori in New Zealand, but when I tried to start my explanations with “O-Sensei….” they said “We don’t know O-Sensei. We are being taught Aikido by you, so teach your Aikido.”. “Ah…that’s it!” I thought. Naturally, O-Sensei and I are different so I can’t say “O-Sensei is like this”. From that time on I began to think of my own Aikido.

Q: Did the way that you teach change as well?

A: It changed. “I do it this way, but all of you are free to do as you wish.” – everybody’s body and mind are different, so you can’t do the same thing.

Q: What about the Founder? Did you notice the Founder changing?

A: From what I saw I don’t really know, but once in morning practice he said “I’m sorry, what I taught you yesterday was mistaken. The Gods scolded me in my dreams.”.

Q: The Founder?!

A: Yes, and then he showed us, but we couldn’t understand what was different. (laughing) The form was probably the same, but mentally the inside must have been different.

Q: I’ve heard that the Founder disliked being asked “could you show me that one more time?”.

A: That’s right. So he was strongly opposed to Kata practice like “do this and then do this”.

Ii NaosukeChief Administrator of the Tokugawa Shogunate Ii Naosuke (井伊 直弼), 1815 -1860
also a Tea Master, he coined the phrase “Ichigo ichie” (一期一会 / “once in a lifetime”)

Q: It was OK if each time was different?

A: Yes, it was. “Ichigo ichie” (一期一会 / “once in a lifetime”) – from moment to moment in the technique the body is moved by the mind so one cannot do the same thing twice. At the moment that O-Sensei entered the Dojo his body would expand in a flash and the vibrations of his presence would spread through the room. He wasn’t teaching, it was his own personal training, so he would expand his feelings firmly in all directions. It’s different if one is trying to teach. For that reason I don’t try to teach either. It’s training. When one tries to teach the level of training goes down.

Q: Your own personal training?

A: But you can’t train by yourself, you know. A long time ago I was training at Hombu and everybody said that I felt heavy. Even O-Sensei said “You’re heavy. You’re just practicing for yourself. That’s why it’s no good. First, become an iron ball. Next, become a golden ball. Gold melts easily and is soft. That’s why it good to work with.”. That’s why you must stretch out your senses each time and think about what you’re doing.

Q: Do you mean that O-Sensei didn’t do things out of habit, but followed his senses each time?

A: Where are the people who can develop that kind of sensitivity today? Everybody gets too fixated on Kata. The Founder’s favorite saying was “Throw a thousand as one, throw one as a thousand” (千切ってはなげ、投げては千切り). Like in the Samurai movies. He really liked that one. (laughing)

Q: Aren’t Aikido techniques Kata?

A: They are techniques for conditioning your body and developing your senses. So if you think “what is Aikido?”, in the end it must be to know yourself, to live your life.

(Gekkan Hiden February 2007) 

Christopher Li

13 thoughts on “Interview with Aikido Shihan Nobuyuki Watanabe, Part 2”

    1. Christopher Li Post Author

      I always enjoyed attending his classes, he’s personable and approachable, but he never threw me with the no-touch stuff – so far as I could see he only did that with his own inner circle of students.

  1. Michael Geisner

    Thank you for this wonderful article! I wanted to learn more about Watanabe Shihan after watching him at a demonstration in ’92 and then when I recently saw him again on Youtube and reading the animated comments there. I half-agreed with them, but thought it worth more research.

    I told my FB followers that Koichi Tohei Sensei once showed us at Ki Society H.Q an example of throwing with Ki and that one could not control uke “Star Wars” style. He demonstrated how even he (10th dan and previous chief instructor of the Aikikai) could not stop an uke with “the Force.” Leading was more like perfect timing, presence and being one with uke’s mind and movement. He invited one of the beginners, a Canadian lumberjack, with a body mass that could afford to be sceptical, to strike him. When David lifted his hand, Tohei gesticulated with his hands and made weird noises and David stood aghast. Then Tohei suddenly stopped and asked David if he were going to strike or not. “Oh, right!” said David who charged at Tohei with shomen uchi. With impeccable timing, the old master stepped slightly offline and with one finger helped David’s shomen uchi into the mat. David almost did a face plant.

    After all my years in Aikido, I realise there is much more to learn and I have posted this article up on our FB page so that people do not judge others by merely watching a Youtube video – they need to dig deeper. It would be fascinating to learn more of Watanabe Sensei’s insights – sometimes it looks “fake” but one could also say that of many Aikido masters – it is often because of genius and deep insight!

    If Watanabe Sensei and his ukes are demonstrating “no touch” Aikido to show how to be sensitive to each other, then it is not fakery.

    But perhaps if it is shown as a way to stop an insensitive uke in a self defence situation then of course there will be other experienced Aikidoka who frown on it. Certainly, the acrobatic ukemi are beautiful, but I doubt someone like David would fall that gracefully.

    I like to be an open minded sceptic. Looks unreal, but if it’s true like you say, then show me how to do it, too!

  2. Johannes

    Dear Chris,

    thank you for sharing this great interview!

    I have been training Watanabe Sensei’s Aikido for the last decade, becoming what I would consider a serious student in the last year.
    Here’s my humble opinion on his Aikido:
    I think, from Uke’s perspective, whether a no touch throw works or not is depending on the seriousness of the attack and Uke’s awareness. Sensei likes to use the metaphor of magnets, which I remember like this: He’s like a magnet. If the other person is a magnet as well, Sensei can use the polarization to stop or invite him. If however the other person is like a paper, without electrical charge, there is no effect.
    His classes are developing all the time and he encourages every student to do the same. His techniques are very direct, there’s no unnecessary pivoting. Tsuki is important. There are precise lines and a great emphasis towards keeping the body straight and standing on and walking over one point. One must take good care about oneself and keep the body balanced.
    Afer an gasshuku with him I feel calm, happy, powerful and full of life. I’m very thankful for his Aikido.


  3. Ian

    Hi Chris,
    Thank you for this wonderful article. I have the same view with regards to the last answer of sensei Watanabe that Aikido techniques are for conditioning your body and developing your senses. When I am training, my focus is to be able to sincerely flow or blend with the uke’s energy/ki with the proper tai sabaki. That is to develop more my senses to feel uke’s energy flow or direction at every instant. And of course that will come with proper body condition and tai sabaki. Some of the students that I partnered with will discuss to me during practice things like “this movement is not practical”..”you should just directly do this way…more effective outside”. What I think was happening is that they are always thinking of the practical application rather than focusing to learn and develop aiki or blending and in the other concepts of Aikido. They end roughing up when they do techniques, muscling their uke and they will tell me this is what happens in real fights. I think if that’s the case, then it means you failed to execute your aikido well. Then we should focus more how to execute our aikido movements well so that in whatever situation you can adjust your movement to complete your aikido technique. IMHO, that can be achieve with a well develop senses and body condition to feel the changes in energy and position of uke. Then that would be a practical training; able to adjust to whatever attack or situation.

    With regards to no touch aikido, I have yet to read articles that the sensei doing it explained why they are doing no touch or for what purpose. (If anybody know any article please send me a copy). I can only guess that they are doing that to train for sensitivity and not for practical technique. I think it should be explained by the senseis doing that practice for other aikidoist to clearly understand what they are doing.

    1. Christopher Li Post Author

      Thanks for the comment Ian. My hunch is that Watanabe sensei would relate no-touch throws to a kind of sensitivity training, but perhaps he’ll speak out about it himself some day.



      1. Bernd Lehnen

        Hello Chris,
        Again, thank you for your good work.

        If he was doing kind of ” Sangenkai” solo-training, using his partners as a visual aid, developing and strengthening “Intent”, i.e. creating and controlling opposing forces inside himself, his no-touch-approach would indeed provide a lot of sense to me..


  4. Christian Stewart-Ferrer

    Having trained under Watanabe Sensei in 1994, I am sad to learn of his passing – which has also, for me, been a nudge towards reflection upon his aikido once more.

    I fully concur with your hunch that the no-touch segment was a form of sensitivity training – not only towards one’s partner, but also towards one’s own way of moving.

    My recollection of Watanabe Sensei was that he was immensely connected internally and that the no-touch versions were both a way for him to practice maintaining his inner connection while moving, and a way to demonstrate this aspect to his students.

    Looking back, I get the impression that there is a great risk for aikido students to focus on external technical specifics (“Does Sensei have a secret wrist angle making his nikyo more powerful?”), rather than on whole-body movement – and the no-touch way of demonstrating reduces this danger, making the movement domain much more visible.
    In my view, the same principle applies to uke, which I believe was the very point Watanabe Sensei was making when recounting the time Osawa Sensei had him do ukemi for one hour:
    Spending the “uke half” of a lesson as a rag doll, waiting for the next “tori stint”, would seem to me as missing out on not only the opportunity to practice moving with inner connection twice as much (without an increase in membership fee 😉 ), but also as missing out on important honing of defensive skills, because (again, IMHO) ukemi is learning how to receive a counterattack without losing one’s connectedness, especially in regard to a technique that is aimed at taking one to the ground (which is where aikido people, as a whole, would very much prefer not to end up!).
    I also recall that Watanabe Sensei’s inner circle students attacked everybody cleanly and earnestly, with no expectations that anyone else [e.g. yours truly] would be capable of executing no-touch techniques – so the way I see it, Watanabe Sensei’s formal demonstrations were not attempts at displaying Yoda-ha Aikido, but manifestations of the point that aikido is about integral movement, and of an example of how to practice with that focus in mind.
    Incidentally, an old aiki brother of mine spent some time at Hombu Dojo (also a few decades ago), gaining the opportunity to become the demo uke during class. His curiosity drove him to firmly snatch-grab Watanabe Sensei’s wrist, thereby circumventing the no-touch invitation. Watanabe Sensei did not blink, let alone show signs of disapprovement – he simply performed the technique without the slightest alteration, sending his attacker flying and making it abundantly clear that the technique was impeccable and in no way dependent on uke complicity.
    My friend described the feeling as that of having grabbed a major branch of a respectably proportioned oak tree which had apparently acquired to ability to move freely. My fellow Tolkien fans might arrive at the same internal image as I did – that of what happens when trying to pin down an Ent in motion. Or Dan 😉 .

  5. Wagner Bull

    “Non touch” techniques are only possible when the Uke feels Nague energy. It is like a Radio Station and a radio device, they work perfectelly in those conditons making happens the so called “Kon no Budo”, because they happens because of the KI (elemagnetic waves) that departs from nage reaching Uke .
    I can do it with 50% of my students, almost all from nikyu until higher level yudansha. He higher level they are the easier. So I came to the conclusion that AIkido really develops sensility in general and is a good “religion” in terms that the practicioners really can learn how to pray getting in tune with the inconscient vibrations that fullfill the universe, specially the ones of human beeings , animals and plants.
    With the other 50% and among then people that pracice just TaiJitsu, (Not internal martial arts), it is possible to do techniques in then even if they resist, but it is necessaryly to do the techniques very fast and learn to hypnotize then in the moment of contact (De AI). Being able to fullfill this possibilitym will be controled by the brain of nague like in Kon no Budo. But there are some I believe around 20 % more or less that there is no way to stabilish Aiki with then. So once I live martial art ,not just martial way, i do and train my students to learn how to it strong using the Whip Theory, when speed can create more power then muscular force. Of course some nague waza , and kansetsu waza is good to practice too. BUT ONE POINT I BELIEVE IS VERY IMPORTANT, THOSE WHO DEVELOP BIG SENSIBILITY DOING NON TOCH WORK, NAGUE AND UKE BOTH, CAN DO THOSE HAKU NO BUDO TECNIQUES MUCH MORE PRECISE AND EFFECTIVE. THIS IS MY FINAL CONCLUSION AFTER DECADES THINKING ABOUT THIS SUBJECT. i am 72, maybe l have two decades ahead, to find out something new,,,,lets see…..!!!

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