Imbued with the spirit of protecting one’s enemy from harm, aikido is a martial art like no other. It’s also used by the Tokyo police force, so make no mistake, it’ll still kick your butt, as Simon Stanley found out. Photos by Vinh Dao.
As soon as I grab her wrist, she’s gone. At just 153 centimetres tall and weighing less than 50 kilograms, the otherwise-innocent looking Ho Kim Van pivots rapidly around me, vanishing to my blindside and taking my arm with her. Cranking my wrist and elbow into a tight ball she sends me wincing up in pain onto my tip-toes before hurling me backwards and pinning me to the floor. What the…?
Van has only been practicing aikido (eye-key-doe) for just a few months, but the power she manages to summon to uproot my comparatively giant mass is quite staggering.
“It’s about using the other person’s strength to protect yourself,” she says modestly. With a karate teacher as a husband, I ask what made her choose aikido.
“I’m not strong enough (for karate). My husband often gets injured. Aikido is softer – it’s not so heavy-going.”
“It’s much more technical than any other martial art,” says Van’s instructor and third dan black belt Emmanuel Zussy. “You have to use your brain, not your muscles.”
The 49-year-old from Alsace in northern France, has been teaching aikido at Star Fitness since September, delivering three lessons per week to a small band of dedicated students whose aerial antics and traditional Japanese trousers (known as hakama) often attract the curiosity of other gym-goers and staff.
Spirit of Peace
Developed in Japan in the 1920s, aikido is a comprehensive system of 100 percent defence-based techniques, utilising joint locks, throws, pins, levering angles and manipulations. Unlike other martial arts, aikido’s core principles focus on blending and harmonising with an attack, reversing the force of an opponent into a guided spiral of momentum which normally ends up in just one place: flat on the floor. As one of the few martial arts that requires neither superior fitness or aggression, it’s ideal for women like Van.
Zussy first became fixated with the art’s dynamic and visually striking movements over 20 years ago. It was a fixation which eventually took him to Japan and to the Aikikai, the original aikido school, where he studied full-time for six years.
“[When] I was introduced to aikido I fell in love with it,” he says. “I found it very aesthetic, very beautiful. Also, there is not the spirit of fighting. That interested me a lot because I am not a fighter. It’s still a martial art but there is no attacking.”
Zussy demonstrates another technique, known as irimi nage, meaning ‘entering throw’. As instructed, I mimic the action of a knife or bottle attack, slicing my hand vertically down towards the top of his head. Like Van, he’s on the move immediately, stepping briskly to my side then behind me, guiding my arm and overextending my movement. With my head as the pivot point and my arm as his lever, I’m driven around in a spiral towards the floor. Then, stupidly, I try to be clever. Catching my balance I begin to rise up to a stand and oppose his force. But of course, the Frenchman is one step ahead of me and has anticipated my move. After a brief sideways flight across the room, I’m on my back again.
Despite the gentle, flowing movements of aikido, it can quickly become extremely powerful (and dangerous). “Aikido is not a dance,” says Zussy. “It can be very tough. If people expect something tough, they will get it. If they want to practise softly, they can do that also. Everything is adaptable.
“Many people start aikido at a later stage [in life]. We have older people here, 45, 55 year olds for example, and they are looking for something healthy, something helpful and something smart. They don’t want to fight.”
Relying heavily on core strength, posture and balance, a session with Zussy proves to be far more engaging than an hour alone with a balance ball. There’s plenty of cardio too. “There’s a lot of falling down!” laughs Van. The sweat pouring from our faces at the end of the lesson is proof.
As well as a leaner body, Zussy hopes his students will also take away a leaner mind and some added self-confidence. “When you do a martial art,” he says, “even if you don’t have it in your brain yet, you know you are studying a martial art. I think your attitude will automatically change. If someone attacks you, you will see differently. Just your attitude will maybe make them think twice.”
Van agrees. “I think I have more confidence to protect myself,” she says. But is she ready to take on her husband yet? “Maybe later!”