The Virtues of Aikido by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

“Most of the criticisms of aikido today arise because the modern
forms of aikido have strayed from the Founder’s main precepts.”

stanley-pranin-encyThe popularity of aikido both in Japan and abroad is a post-World War II phenomenon. Early students of Founder Morihei Ueshiba such as Koichi Tohei, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Gozo Shioda, Kenji Tomiki and others, followed by their students in turn, were mainly responsible for the growth of the art on an international scale.

What factors are responsible for aikido’s broad appeal? Many people observing the art for the first time comment on the beauty and gracefulness of aikido techniques. The attacker is thrown in a seemingly effortless manner yet suffers no apparent harm from the encounter. The promise of a self-defense art that protects the individual while sparing the aggressor is an attractive concept in philosophical and moral terms in a world where the specter of warfare seems ever present. Aikido’s ethical basis appeals to man’s deep-seated instinct for survival. At the same time, the art provides a unique alternative to the violent techniques of other martial arts—techniques that elicit moral repugnance in many.

On a physical level, aikido has much to offer for the health conscious. The accumulated benefits produced by warm-up, stretching, throwing and falling exercises are considerable. Many practitioners have undergone dramatic physical transformations through aikido training on their way to a fitness lifestyle.

1989 All-Japan Aikido Demonstration in Tokyo

1989 All-Japan Aikido Demonstration in Tokyo

The social milieu that develops in aikido dojos is an important part, too, of the training experience for many practitioners. Aikido tends to draw from a wide age range and students continue longer than practitioners of arts centered on competition, primarily the domain of young people. Also, I think it would be accurate to say that, as a percentage, aikido has a higher ratio of female participants than any other martial art. All of this contributes to a strong sense of community. For many students of aikido, the dojo is an extension of or even a substitute for their family.

Aikido: the non-martial art

For all of the positive benefits of aikido training, the art has not yet realized its great potential as a social force for promoting harmony among peoples. Although the relationship may not appear obvious, I think this is due in large part to the art’s distancing itself from its martial roots. It is the martial atmosphere of the dojo setting that allows students to develop real-world skills and elevates the level of training beyond that of a mere health system. The neglect of the martial side of aikido can be explained in part by historical circumstances.

Japanese society in the postwar era rejected the military mentality that led to the country’s involvement in the Second World War. Given this inhospitable climate where the practice of martial arts was forbidden for several years, the martial nature of aikido was suppressed. As a consequence, what remained of the art that was embraced by hundreds of thousands of practitioners was—with few exceptions—something quite different from the original concept of the Founder. The techniques of aikido retained only the outer form of a martial art and tended to be practiced in a setting devoid of martial intensity. Let us look at some of the factors that cause aikido to fall short as a martial art.

Weak attacks

The root of the problem as I see it lies in the weak attacks that are commonplace in aikido dojos nowadays. Students are seldom given training in how to execute an effective attack, be it in striking, grabbing or the occasional choking or kicking techniques. The situation is further exacerbated by a lack of committed intent or focus during attacks. This absence of firm intent on the part of the attacker affects his mental state and that of the person executing the technique. Both sides are aware—at least subconsciously—of the minimal risk of injury in training under these circumstances. Accordingly, the focused mind-set needed to develop realistic self-defense skills is absent from training.

Neglect of atemi and kiai

A study of the art of the Founder will reveal his emphasis on atemi (preemptive strikes) and kiai (combative shouts) as an integral part of techniques. O-Sensei can be seen executing atemi and kiai even in films from his final years when his aikido had become much less physical.

Atemi and kiai go hand in hand and are important tools for stopping or redirecting the mind of the attacker and successfully unbalancing him. Even if a physical strike is not actually employed, a mental state that preempts or disrupts the attack is a vital component of the aikido mind-set. Yet in many dojos today, the use of atemi or kiai will draw scorn from the teacher in charge who regards them as crude, violent means that have no place in an art of “harmony.” This common misconception bespeaks a lack of understanding of the martial origins of the art and the theory and practice of the Founder.

Failure to unbalance attacker

The combination of weak attacks, lack of atemi and kiai in aikido practice lead inevitably to practitioners attempting to execute techniques without first unbalancing the attacker. An uncommitted attacker having foreknowledge of the technique to be applied is not easily brought under control. This introduces an artificial element of collusion into the interaction between practitioners and results in a training atmosphere that is fundamentally different from the intensity of a real encounter.

Use of force and “make-believe” throws

The logical consequence of the above training lapses is the execution of sloppy, imprecise throws and pins. Since full control of the attacker is not achieved, it often becomes necessary for the person throwing to resort to physical strength in order to complete the technique. This leads to clashing and raises the risk of injury.

Another scenario is that neither of the two partners put any serious effort into the technique and the interplay between them is little more than choreographed collusion.

The progress of practitioners taught in a setting in which the “martial edge” is absent and where sound training principles are not observed will necessarily be retarded. What is worse, some who are products of this kind of training environment will entertain the illusion that their skills would be viable in a realistic situation.

Premature physical decline of instructors


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