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He slams into the practice mat for the eighty-ninth time. An integral part of Aikido training is ukemi, learning how to receive a blow and take a fall. So Jason Austad gets up for the eighty-ninth time and faces his attacker -- who slams him to the ground again.
Then another attacker steps up.
Ninety-one. Falling can be tiring even once, and Austad is not a young man anymore. At 35, his body takes twice as long to heal as it did when he was twenty. Ninety-two. Exhausted, he lies on the mat a second, gazing at the lights on the dojo's ceiling. But not for long. Through sheer force of will, he gets up again to face his attacker, to take the throw again and again.
A hundred throws. This has to be the strangest graduation present ever.
Gaku Homma's father, a high-ranking officer in the Japanese army, was held prisoner in Indochina after World War II. Even after his release, he was prevented from holding a government job, and his family was very poor. But he gave his son a rich legacy: He'd practiced Aikido with its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, and when Gaku Homma was a teenager, he went to practice Aikido as an uchideshi -- a live-in student -- at the famed Iwama dojo.
By the mid-'60s, only Ueshiba, his wife and his maid were still living at the dojo. Homma would draw Ueshiba's baths, help with the gardening and prepare the breakfasts of congee (rice porridge), mochi (sticky rice cake) and fresh vegetables picked from the garden. He was the last uchideshi Ueshiba trained before he passed away in 1969, at the age of 86.
A sickly child, Ueshiba had practiced martial arts as a way to improve his constitution, spurred on by his own father's stories about how he was related to a prominent samurai. When he saw his father beaten by thugs dispatched by a local politician, Ueshiba redoubled his efforts. By the time he was a young man, Ueshiba was a well-known martial artist; bare-handed, he bested a military officer wielding a kendo sword.
Ueshiba joined the army after the Russo-Japanese War and remained a soldier until his father died, when he moved his family to Hokkaido. While teaching martial arts at the royal military academy, he started studying Omoto-kyo, an offshoot of the Shinto religion that believes in beautifying the world through art. Ueshiba's conception of budo, or the way of the martial artist (as opposed to bushido, the way of the samurai) began changing. He now saw that the true budo was a way of peace.
Ueshiba grew disillusioned with the government, which was persecuting followers of Omoto-kyo, imprisoning them and destroying their shrines. So he taught martial arts to Omoto-kyo devotees at the same time he taught their oppressors.
Finally, in 1942, Ueshiba retreated to Iwama and built the Aiki-shrine. It was here that he developed the more humanitarian philosophies of Aikido. On the day that the Japanese surrendered, Ueshiba told his students not to fear, for this was the dawn of the age when the true Aikido would emerge -- a peaceful form of martial arts that was a humanistic reaction to the violent events of Japan's past.
During the post-war occupation, the Shinto religion lost popularity and martial arts were banned in Japan. Aikidoists continued to practice, but they made an effort to prevent Aikido from looking martial. To quell the suspicions of occupation forces, they practiced weapons work in secret, using wooden hoe handles or soup ladles. But as Aikido developed under Ueshiba, the roles of the aggressor and the victim were almost interchangeable; in fact, they would trade places in training so that both would throw an attack and receive it. They needed to feel empathy for each other.
After Ueshiba's death, former students split off to create their own schools and organizations. Yoshinkan Aikido, which is popular with the Japanese police, focuses on rigid basic movements and solo kata (sequences), while styles like Ki-Aikido feature softer, more flowing techniques and concentrate on developing spirituality. The largest Aikido organization in the world is Aikikai, led by the descendants of Morihei Ueshiba. Although there's no unified philosophy of Aikido, most who practice the art today identify with a commitment to peaceful resolution and self-improvement through Aikido training.
By the mid-'70s, Homma was teaching Aikido to U.S. soldiers at Misawa Air Force Base. When their tour of duty was up, so was his commission -- and he decided that this presented an ideal opportunity to bring his knowledge of Aikido to his students' home country. Homma's timing was perfect, since the films of Bruce Lee had created a martial-arts craze.
In 1976, he bought a $400 van through a community newspaper he picked up in San Francisco's Japantown. It didn't have registration papers, but it was his ticket to exploring the vast land of America. Traveling with some of his students, he decided to let fate decide where he would open his dojo. "If this car die, we stay there," Homma told them.
Driving through the Rocky Mountains killed off the van. His students offered additional incentive for Homma to settle here, he recalls: "They say, 'Sensei, there are lot of women's colleges in Denver.'"