The following is a comment left by my fellow comrade Ethan Weisgard about a video of tai no henka by Morihiro Saito which was recently posted on TAI’s YouTube channel:
Saito Sensei always used the term tai no henko, 体の変更 meaning “body turn”. Turn = henkō 変更.Henka 変化 means “change”. Other Sensei use the term tai no henka but Saito Sensei never did.
I have always used the pronunciation tai no henka instead of tai no henko for a simple reason: I have always heard master Saito pronounce it as such. Although it is true that the “a” was not the short sound that we hear in katana for instance, but a more open o [ᴐ] that can be found when pronouncing words such as « lot » or « what ». It was an intermediate pronunciation between the a and the o.
I knew that Anglophones used tai no henko in preference to tai no henka, but I always credited this slight disparity as being a difference in intonation feeling that occurs between French and English speakers. English speakers tend to hear “o” in master Saito's henkᴐ, while French speakers hear “a”. I never attached more importance to it than that.
I was wrong.
Ethan's remark would indicate that there is a difference in meaning between tai no henko and tai no henka. Henko (変 更) would mean to turn, while henka (変 化) would mean to change. Tai no henko, "to turn the body", would then have an indication of pivot, of rotation, more precise than tai no henka’s simple "change of the body", with master Saito using the first meaning, unlike other masters of Aikido.
My first task was to verify that the expression tai no henka is used in Japanese in the vocabulary of Aikido. It is the case, master Nobuyoshi Tamura for example wrote 変 化, like his teacher, the first Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and John Stevens also writes tai no henka in his English translation of the book Budo of O Sensei, done under the supervision of Rinjiro Shirata.
This point being established, it was then necessary to verify whether Master Saito indeed wrote henko in the manner indicated by Ethan Weisgard.
First surprise: this is not at all the case.
This is how Ethan writes tai no henko : 体の変更
This is how Master Saito wrote tai no henko : 体の変向
And here is the irrefutable proof I believe of what I advance, page 61 of the first of the five volumes "Traditional Aikido" by Morihiro SAITO, published in Japan in a bilingual Japanese-English version in the early 1970s:
The kō of Ethan Weisgard ( 更 )is not the same as the ko of Master Saito (向).
Why ? As things got more complicated, it became necessary to take a closer look at the meaning of the ideograms composing this expression.
変 Hen, kaeru, has the meaning of change.
The lower part of the kanji is a hand that strikes or coerces, the upper part represents threads tied together, so the kanji originally had the meaning of coercing someone to untie threads that are knotted together.
The meaning expands over time, evolving into the idea of coercing someone into reversing something complicated.
Finally the notion of coercing disappeared to leave only the sense of change.
更 Kō, sara, fukeru
In this kanji we also find the hand that coerces, this time combined with the idea of an altar firmly anchored to the ground on two solid feet, an ancient reference to the guard of a combatant. The old meaning of the kanji is therefore: an enforced change of guard. The reference to martial art is interesting, but there is no direct or even indirect idea of rotation in this kanji.
The concepts of constraint and guard disappeared over time to leave a more general sense of changing, renewing.
更 (Kō) therefore does not at all have the sense of rotation invoked by Ethan in his explanation, it only has the sense of change, the same sense which ironically can be found in the ideogram Ka (化).
To sum up, Hen (変), Kō (更), and Ka (化) all translate the idea of change, but not change by turning. The idea of rotation does not appear in any of the three kanji.
Now let's take a look at the Ko that Master Saito used:
向 Kō, muku/kau
It was originally the design of a window in the gable of a house, with the idea of the direction towards which the window faces. To face also having in Japanese, as in French and English, the sense of opposition to something or someone, we find in this kanji the idea of opposite direction, and therefore to face the opposite direction.
From the point of view of Aikido, we can then make the following reflection: it is not possible, from an initial hanmi position, to face the opposite direction without triggering a rotation of the body. In other words, when using the ideogram 向 to describe a movement in Aikido, there is necessarily the idea of a change of direction by means of a rotation of the body.
It so happens that Master Saito used to write tai no henko with an ideogram whose pronunciation is ko, but this ideogram has nothing to do with the explanation given by Ethan.
Where did Ethan Weisgard, who was a student of master Saito, find this way変更of writing henko, which he claims to be authentic, when it is not the way of his master?
It seems that this writing was adopted by Aikikai because it corresponds to a modern form of translation that is approved by dictionaries today. Tai no henko 体 の 変 更 "change, modification, variation of the body".
Ethan Weisgard, who presents himself as a defender of tradition is therefore actually making a major concession here by adopting the choice of the Aikikai. He who seems so intransigent with the authenticity of his master's teaching, he who pushes integrity to the point of correcting the pronunciation of his peers, does not hesitate to replace the original ideogram of master Saito by the modern ideogram adopted by Aikikai.
Is he aware of the distortion of meaning that this substitution imposes on his master's speech, and that such a distortion is much more serious than a divergence in pronunciation?
This unjustified concession to a pseudo-modernity is very closely linked to another statement by Ethan Weisgard, answering the question of one of my Georgian students about irimi-tenkan. Because it is precisely in and by tai no henka that the irimi-tenkan principle is manifested for the very first time (this is why tai no henka begins each Aikido class, as if to repeat tirelessly: this is the heart of things).
Ethan so explained, when speaking on irimi-tenkan, that these were old and obsolete terms, and that it was better today to prefer the more modern terms of omote and ura.
The explanations necessary to perceive the mind-boggling nature of such an assertion can be found ten times over on the TAI website.
Irimi-tenkan is indeed the founding principle of Aikido, the root cause of movement, prior to any technique. The omote-ura bipolarity only appears afterwards, it only concerns the modality of techniques (and not necessarily of all techniques), and only after these have been generated by the principle.
If you put it in philosophical terms, irimi-tenkan is the essence of Aikido, the techniques are its existence, and omote-ura are only the accidents of this existence. The concepts irimi-tenkan and omote-ura therefore express fields of reality which are without common measure, these concepts are neither equivalent nor interchangeable. This is not a problem of vocabulary or linguistic fashion, a quarrel between the old and the modern. It's like saying that the "principle of gravitation" is an obsolete term, and that it should be replaced by "falling apples". No, in a million years, the fall of an apple will be again and again only an accident of the principle of gravitation, a random consequence (apple trees can disappear), it cannot replace this principle, any more than omote-ura can replace the irimi-tenkan principle.
To think that omote-ura is another way of naming irimi-tenkan, a more "fashionable" way, is therefore nonsense. When this absurdity is taught by one of the highest responsible for the development of Aikido for Scandinavia, by a person invested with authority, and whose words are listened to, the image that comes to mind is that of the wreckers, these 18th century wreck looters, who lit fires on the coast of Britany during foggy nights, making boats believe that they were at the entrance of a port, and thus causing them to shatter on coastal reefs. Like them, Ethan Weisgard brandishes a lantern which only has the appearance of the truth, he actually condemns all those who entrust their fate to this lantern to sink between the Charybdis and Sylla of Aikido.
Be careful, I do not mean that there is anything deliberate in such an attitude, and I do not impugn motive.
Having said that strongly, which I believe needed to be done, I would now like to express my deep gratitude to Ethan.
By forcing me to work on this subject to provide a well-argued response to his comment, he allowed me to understand the important issue of meaning that lies under the henka of tai no henka.
It is deliberately now that I write henka and not henko, let me explain:
The discoverer of Aikido being Morihei Ueshiba, I obviously wanted to know how he was writing tai no henka. With all due respect to "modern" Aikido, which no longer sees O Sensei except in the aspect of a founding myth, and let's say it, of a bearded relic, it seemed to me that such information could still have some interest…
The word tai no henka appears clearly several times in the book Budo by O Sensei, I have framed it twice below on the page dedicated to this movement:
體 Tai, tei, karada
That in which bones are plentiful, in other words the body. O Sensei was still using this old kanji, later replaced by 体.
This is the old way of writing の, a simple bond particle.
變 Hen, kaeru
O Sensei used the old form of Hen. In the upper part, the threads are linked around the ideogram signifying the speech. As if the constraint (represented by the lower part of the kanji) was to release a captive speech. It is not the place here, but it would be interesting to explore how such a meaning could provide metaphysical information about the essence of the tai no henka movement.
This old ideogram has been simplified in 変, the meaning of which has already been analysed.
It is useful for what will follow to note that there is something to do in this ideogram with the notion of transformation, it is this ideogram that appears for example in the word hensei, metamorphosis.
化 Ka, Ke, bakeru
It’s a person standing next to a person that has fallen. This indicates a change of state.
But then ... O Sensei Morihei UESHIBA, the founder of Aikido, was saying tai no henka ...
It is for this natural reason that John Stevens, although an English speaker, wrote tai no henka and not tai no henko when he translated O Sensei's book into English. Ethan is therefore absolutely right, "other Sensei use the term tai no henka" ... and O Sensei was one of them.
The following question then immediately arises: if O Sensei said tai no henka and wrote it with 化, why did Saito Sensei say henko and write it with 向 ?
Why did Master Saito change the expression of O Sensei ?
I do not have a definite answer to this question, but I can give two different leads:
1 - Master Saito never understood exactly what O Sensei was saying, and interpreted it. It is not at all impossible, Master Ueshiba was difficult to understand for the Japanese themselves, and the transmission was oral. It was very late, many years after the Founder's death, that master Saito discovered that he had written a book, when Stanley Pranin offered him a copy of Budo in 1981 (see the details of this story in "Much obliged Stan "). It is likely that it was only then that he could see for the first time how O Sensei wrote tai no henka. However, the publication of the five volumes "Traditional Aikido" by master Saito is prior to this date.
2 - Master Saito knew that O Sensei used 化 for henka, but found that henko written with the ideogram 向 made implicit the need to look in the opposite direction, implied the idea of rotation, and therefore he preferred this writing to that of O Sensei who seemed to him less educational.
This also is not at all impossible, Master Saito sacrificed many things for the purposes of pedagogy. And he insisted in his teaching on the need to look in the same direction as the opponent for techniques such as irimi nage or shiho nage. He insisted on the importance of the gaze in general, during the rotations, the body was to be guided and pulled by the gaze.
One last question remains.
O Sensei was a literate, a spiritual man, he had read a lot, and from very varied authors - I can testify personally of this for having stored his books in Iwama, in his library, during the long days of Tsuyu, the rainy season in Japan.
O Sensei, it is less well known, was also a philosopher with original thoughts, and I would like to use the opportunity here to express all my consideration to Bruno Traversi, who accomplished a remarkable work in the study of these thoughts (cf. Editions du Cénacle de France).
O Sensei was also a very talented calligrapher, he knew perfectly well the multiple and sometimes hidden meanings of the oldest ideograms, which he had studied in the Kojiki, the founding work of the myths of Japanese cosmogony.
Lastly, he was also a poet, author of many doka.
This brilliant mind, this subtle man, would therefore have chosen an expression as banal and general as "change of the body" to name the sacred heart of Aikido, tai no henka, the movement by which manifests for the first time, and in its most stripped form, the founding principle itself: irimi-tenkan!
I cannot believe this. So let's dig deeper, let's clear out a little more of this ideogram 化, as we do for the stump of a tree we want to uproot.
It is undeniable that the most general translation of 化 (Ka) is change or variation, but this elementary meaning hides another, buried more deeply. There is indeed a second classic and recognized translation of 化, which is to bewitch, mystify, mislead by deception.
Tai no henka 體 ノ 變化, is therefore in Aikido to deceive the adversary, to mislead him by means of an unexpected displacement, which transforms the body and makes it disappear as if by magic. The idea of metamorphosis that we mentioned above, present in Hen 變, reinforces this idea in henka 變化.
And we must then put such a meaning in relation to the words of O Sensei:
Surrounded by enemies, you will be able to draw them out to attack in the direction you want, turn in the appropriate manner, and then throw them down from behind. – O Sensei – Budo
The appropriate manner is tai no henka of course, as tai no henka is the first manifestation of the irimi-tenkan principle. Obeying the principle gives wings, and tai no henka becomes the means of transporting oneself as if by magic behind the back of a bewildered opponent, at the very moment when he thinks that his strike is on the blink of succeeding.
It is quite conceivable that O Sensei had in mind the magical meaning of 化 (Ka) when choosing this ideogram to name the movement tai no henka. Saito Sensei, who was far from having such a complete understanding of ideograms as that of O Sensei, may never have perceived this particular nuance.
In any case, since O Sensei was talking about tai no henka and not tai no henko, I will continue to call this exercise tai no henka. As great as my loyalty to Master Saito is, if I have to choose between his teaching and that of the Founder, I choose O Sensei.
Unwillingly, Ethan Weisgard, allowed me to see in this expression a meaning much more fundamental than that of "variation" which I had granted until now to henka, and I thank him for that. Because - and this is one of the secrets of Aikido - the deep awareness we have of the movement we do determines its good execution.
I hope that I have sufficiently developed here the arguments which justify my position.
Philippe Voarino, Easter 2020
Translation from French into English: Lugh Voarino
Thank you to my younger son for this good job.