Tamura Sensei - a Remembrance

by John Brinsley

Tamura Nobuyoshi sensei died July 10 at the age of 77. He entered Hombu dojo as an uchideshi in 1953 and move to France in 1964, spending the rest of his life teaching aikido there and throughout Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere. He was a giant in the post-Osensei world of aikido and anyone who came into contact with him could not fail to be impressed with his technique, timing and kokyu, which was overwhelming.

I was not his student, and cannot claim much of a relationship with him, but he came to Hombu frequently in the dozen or so years I have trained here, and would like to recount a couple of memories. My first encounter with Tamura sensei was in 1996, during an International Aikido Federation seminar outside of Tokyo. At least a couple hundred people lined up in seiza before his class started, many of them from Europe and the U.S., and I was in the front row. One of the young Hombu instructors came up to me and asked me to translate for his class and, in something of a panic, I said (in Japanese) 'But I don't speak French.'

'No, Japanese to English,' the instructor said, with some exasperation.

'Oh, right, okay.'

An American friend sitting next me turned his head and said, 'I don't speak French?'

'Shut up,' was my witty reply.

Tamura sensei bowed in and began one of his long warm-ups, which included, among other things, using fingers and thumbs to massage various parts of the body, explaining how it improved circulation elsewhere. I was in front facing the crowd, with Tamura sensei behind me, doing my best to keep up with his explanations. I think we were sitting down at some point, and he explained something that I thought involved the stomach. `No, the liver,' Sensei said behind me in perfectly understandable English. So much for my interpretation skills.

The other memory I have sort of blends together. Tamura sensei would often attend Doshu's morning class, sometimes dropping in midway through and wandering around the class practicing with various people. `Practice' usually meant his grasping your wrist and inviting you to throw him, which was completely impossible. He was perhaps 5 foot 4 and weighed maybe 130 pounds. Moving him was futile; his kokyu and position was such that no matter what you did, nothing worked. There's a video somewhere from the New York Aikikai's 30th anniversary with Shibata sensei trying to move Tamura sensei - nope. After struggling for a while, he'd take pity on you and then start throwing you around, and that was fantastic. He was so fast, and his technique so precise, that you could learn a lot as long as you kept up. People would do their best to attract his attention so they could take ukemi for him.

He sometimes forgot his keiko gi and hakama and would wear a brand-new gi and Miyamoto sensei or Osawa sensei's hakama. He came into one of Miyamoto sensei's classes once and took it over so completely that Miyamoto sensei gave up and asked Tamura sensei to teach. Which he did, finishing with a few minutes of throwing around Miyamoto sensei, whose ukemi was impeccable as always. Watching that is a memory I will always treasure.

Miyamoto sensei made it a point to ask Tamura sensei to dinner on Friday nights with some of us after class. He would talk about Osensei and taking ukemi for him, never lecturing while we plied him with questions. Sometimes his wife Rumiko would accompany him, and share her perspective of Hombu in the 1950's.

My last contact with Tamura sensei was through Mrs. Tamura. She came to Hombu sometime last year - apparently to visit relatives, without her husband. I practiced with her in Kobayashi sensei's class, who hovered around her. At some point, Osawa sensei poked his head in, saw me practicing with Mrs. Tamura, and nodded his head, smiling. I understood: he wanted to make sure she was being taken care of. After class, I asked her how Sensei was, and she said fine, if getting a bit old. I asked her to pass along my respects; I am sorry I didn't get one more chance to take ukemi for this amazing martial artist.

May he rest in peace.