Way of the Warrior

Gaku Homma found his domo on the range.

"We never go, 'You do this, this and this,' never. You are prompt, you organize, and just leave alone," Homma says. "Not teaching is also teaching."

More than anything else, though, hochi is designed to help the uchideshi candidate remove his "backpack," the metaphor Homma uses for a person's expectations. If a candidate continues to speak of his past or thoughts for the future, he is left alone longer. "Too much people carry backpack, the other stuff," he says. "Dreams, or ŒI want to do.' First job here, how to take off this person's backpack. Make them kind of empty, no anything."

At the end of hochi, the candidate is brought before the sempai for a stern interrogation -- the sakurei, or confirmation of will. This is a traditional initiation, and the exchange is carefully planned in advance. The sempai point out the candidate's flaws and wonder openly about his ability to be an uchideshi. If the candidate becomes defensive or blames the sempai for not giving him enough attention during this initial period, it will ruin his chances of staying on. According to the book, the sympathetic sempai always tries to convince the others to let the candidate continue despite his shortcomings and offers to take responsibility; this sempai will inevitably be the one the uchideshi bonds to -- if he stays.

Sensei and sensibility: Gaku Homma throws two 
students at once.
James Glader
Sensei and sensibility: Gaku Homma throws two students at once.

If he does, the practice schedule is grueling. "For me, the most difficult thing was the physical training every day," Austad says. "Being 35 doesn't mean I get to take time off when I don't feel up to it. I don't heal as fast as I used to."

An uchideshi is required to practice by himself for an hour each day, and then an afternoon class specializes in weapons and their relationship to open-handed movements. Homma has continued Ueshiba's study of weapons relationships, and the bokken (wooden sword) and jo (wooden staff) are important to Aikido. "It all comes from weapons work and the sword," Austad says. "The line between defense and offense is blurry. If you stop a person before they attack you, is that necessarily self-defense?" The underlying premise of Aikido is not to stop your opponent's energy, but to flow with it and redirect it. Though there are some competitive forms of Aikido, Nippon Kan and most other dojos do not engage in sparring.

After the class, the uchideshi practices with regular dojo members from 5:15 to 9 p.m. every night, although he's occasionally called away for chores. "I'm always learning," Austad says. "Sometimes in the beginners' classes, I'll help other beginners learn. I'm a little more advanced than they are. But generally, I'm learning and working with people who are more advanced than me."

Although he'd achieved a sixth kyu ranking at his previous dojo, Austad started at Nippon Kan as a white belt; the ranking system varies between organizations and dojos. But total training immersion improved his Aikido quickly. "It is like a tsunami wave," he explains. "It starts out small, and you add things every day. After a while it begins to grow. Being uchideshi, it grows a little faster -- or a lot faster, depending on the student."

Austad brought an acoustic guitar with him to the dojo, but he's never had a chance to play it. "There's kind of a general outline of chores that are to be done every day," he points out. "And it's just general, like the museum needs to be cleaned, it needs to be dusted, it needs to be mopped. The dojo needs to be cleaned and mopped and swept. The foyers, the office and bathrooms, each day has a specific task. I often have several tasks to do. If something breaks down, I fix it." Homma doesn't drive, so the uchideshi often chauffeurs him in Nippon Kan's pickup as he does errands around town.

When the restaurant gets busy, the uchideshi may be called on to help out -- busing tables, cleaning dishes, aiding the waitstaff. Homma pays them "beer money" for their work. "All uchideshi need spending money, a little bit," he says. "They make too much money, they're going every night somewhere."

The uchideshi aren't restricted to the dojo. Some attend college classes; a few even hold down part-time jobs. They sightsee around the city, go out for a few beers after their chores are done. "We drink, we eat, we go play," Homma says.

But mostly they work. At Nippon Kan, practice doesn't end at the mat; every duty is an integral part of the training. Scott Roney, who went through the uchideshi program after his discharge from the military last year, wrote about the relationship of restaurant work to Aikido: "The kitchen area is small, yet when the restaurant is at full capacity, it is crammed with employees moving about to prepare food, fill drinks, wash dishes, and take out orders. Although space is limited, everyone seems to naturally avoid collisions and move around to stay out of each other's way. Just as Sensei explained, it does not take special technique or premeditated thought to move off-line or blend with others. People already have this capacity innately within themselves."

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