Haruo Matsuoka and Stanley Pranin Discussion Series: Part 3: The Essence of Aiki

At the end of the previous section of this discussion, Matsuoka Sensei was reflecting on his impressions of Guro (Sensei) Dan Inosanto. Matsuoka Sensei was strongly impacted by his humble energetic sprit, and his ability to maintain a pure beginner’s mind after 60+ years of martial arts training.

Matsuoka and Pranin
: Many years ago I had a conversation with Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei, who is a good friend of mine. He said something to me that I’ve thought about a lot. He said that one way of looking at etiquette is that it’s actually a strategy, a battle strategy. In other words, if you conduct yourself in a gentlemanly way with people, and blend with them, and you’re not aggressive, you don’t cause problems; it’s easier to live life without having to fight, or have conflict with people.

So even if you just think about it from a military or martial standpoint, humility, good conduct, observation, listening, beginner’s mind… these are all good things for developing a warrior. Somebody who is effective in society, and in times of crisis or wartime can defend the country, families, and things like that. When you describe Dan Inosanto in that way, the way he treats you, and shows interest in what you were doing, it makes me think that he is a master of this concept. I think he’s a wonderful example.

Pranin: Moving on to another topic, I’d like to share one thing that for me personally is very important. One of the early most important teachers of Aikido after the war was Koichi Tohei Sensei. He was the first 10th dan of Aikido. And for many years he was at the Aikikai, and he taught alongside Ueshiba Sensei’s son, Kisshomaru Sensei. He was a very direct person, and he would say what he was thinking. He had a lot of confidence, and he was a very good martial artist, a natural athlete, a very important leader. I knew him, I first met him when I was 20 years old, and I had some contact with him over the years. One day he even came to my home for dinner, so he met my parents. I have pictures.

Tohei Sensei at the Aikikai in 1965
Tohei Sensei at the Los Angeles Aikikai in 1965

But after he withdrew from the Aikikai in 1974, he developed the Ki Society, and he changed the art somewhat. When he talked about O-Sensei, he actually criticized his teaching methodology. He said that O-Sensei talked about things that no one could understand, not the Japanese, and of course, not foreigners. But he said the one thing he learned of value from Morihei Ueshiba was relaxation. He said he didn’t listen to what O-Sensei was saying, but watched what he was doing; he noticed that O-Sensei was relaxed. So Tohei Sensei’s ki methods emphasize relaxation a great deal. I was thrown by him, not a lot of times, but quite a few times. And I remember he was very powerful, but it was not an aggressive power. You would be overwhelmed, controlled and enveloped. But it was hard for his students to develop that. I couldn’t get it, it was too subtle. We were trying to either maybe extend in some way, or really relax so that we weren’t using any power at all. Neither way worked very well, so there was no other way. Tohei Sensei used the word relaxation to describe what O-Sensei was doing. But it’s not what we normally think of. There’s some other condition, a body-mind state, that can’t be described accurately as “relaxation”. Have you ever thought along those lines about a different body state?

Matsuoka: When I met Yoshinori Kono Sensei in 2004, I experienced something similar. Not relaxed, but not too tight. Somewhere in between. It’s about creating a neutral position and feeling.

Pranin: I haven’t heard it described that way. Because it’s like we’re looking for a name or a word that we can call this condition, this state of martial alertness. If we say relaxation, people don’t understand. So what is it then? We don’t have a word for it. So we look for words to try to give people a hint.

Matsuoka: That’s right. Because when you move, a few of the muscles look like they’re not relaxed, but they move naturally. Natural means that I’m not relaxed, but don’t use the strength of a single muscle. The strength comes from everywhere. So it’s about linking muscles and body parts. You have to maintain that connection when you move. And if you can use that as a technique probably you can use your whole body. That’s my theoretical approach. Of course, getting it to work practically is very difficult. I’ll have to practice and figure it out. But there’s something there. That’s what I’m seeking.

Pranin: Yes. In my personal training I’ve done actually lots of practice with katatedori hand grabs. I’ve been experimenting with different hand positions. I try moving my hand in a certain way to see how it affects my partner’s body. Or if I change my position, I try to see how it impacts my partner. When you make some change – because you’re connected, it produces a change in his body. Sometimes you can transmit energy from your arm through their arm and body, and affect their center. It’s a transmission of energy.

Stan Shihonage
: Through the connection. That’s right. Strength is necessary, but not a lot. It’s about using the legs, the hips, and everything in coordination to move one direction. It’s a bit difficult to explain.

Pranin: I have some notion of what you’re talking about.

Matsuoka: Yes. And that’s why I like the Kokyu Dosa exercise. This is one way to test how much my body understands. So this exercise is my favorite and I’m still using to understand my movement.

DSC_0559 crop

Pranin: What are the things on your mind now? What are you working on? What are you testing and trying out? Can you describe your research?

Matsuoka: I’m studying theory, of course. It’s logical, the human brain works that way and we are able to understand concepts through theory. But I’m also seeking practical application of the theory. My focal point is developing ways to move past an opponent’s resistance by coordinating the body and using its structure properly.

Pranin: On Friday when we were able to exchange our ideas on the mat, I wanted to be able to take your hands, and feel your technique. The first impression I had is that it feels like Kono Sensei. That feeling- a very powerful feeling where it just takes you down all the way. It’s not coming from just one thing; it’s a totality. So it’s very powerful, because you’re unifying the body. It’s not just using the hand, or applying pain. You’re really controlling, and displacing your center to take your partner’s balance…

This short video was shot during Pranin Sensei’s group QA session. In it, he shares his thoughts on the concept of aiki.

In the fourth and final part of this discussion series, Matsuoka Sensei shares his approach to teaching and mentoring and Pranin Sensei talks about his current research focus and goals.


  • These ideas about relaxation and power sounds very much like the work of Dan Harden, Mike Sigman and Minoru Akazawa. Pranin Sensei have you ever felt or met any of these gentlemen? Or met students that train with them?

    • I met Dan Harden about 20 years ago at a Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu seminar. I did not train at the event but served as interpreter. We had a few short conversations. I thus far have not met Mike Sigman or Minoru Akazawa that I recall.

  • Stan Sensei,
    Thank your for bringing these insightful discussions to us. I would like to share with you something about the idea of “neutral” because that’s what came up in our Feldenkrais Method training recently. One of the things we try to do in the Feldenkrais Method is to “equalise the tonus” throughout our bodies so that we are ready to move in any direction any time. Usually some parts of our bodies are unnecessarily tense and others are lax and we need to make extra adjustment to get ourselves “ready for action”. Some practitioners don’t like to use the word “neutral” to describe this condition because it has the connotation of “disengagement” in the mind of many people. Then an engineer in the class assured us that “neutral” means “ready to engage in either direction” (as in the gearshift); the common understanding/usage of the word is not quite right in this case. Anyway, our trainer thinks “equipoise” may be a good word for this condition. Moshe Feldenkrais was a judo man and clearly thought that “martial alertness” would be rather useful in our daily activity.

    • I understand the concept of “neutral” very clearly as you explain it. I think “martial alertness” captures it. “Equipoise” might be a good word, but I’m sure it would elicit a lot of blank stares!