Can Competition Enhance O-Sensei’s Aikido? by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #102, 1995

“I seriously doubt that the would-be “samurai” of the twentieth century will find a satisfactory solution to their quest for ultimate combative effectiveness through martial arts competition.”

The martial art of akido has enjoyed a steady growth since its quiet introduction in Japan following World War II and subsequent spread abroad. While the art has earned much respect for its ethical tenets, the techniques of aikido are often criticized as being too soft and impractical to be of any real use in an actual engagement. I have frequently added my voice to this chorus and maintain that the casual nature of practice in many schools today leaves students with unrealistic expectations of what they can expect to accomplish if their skills should ever be tested in a real-life encounter. I still believe that practice against lifeless, “ceremonial” attacks without the application of atemi and convincing finishing techniques leaves one highly vulnerable in a life-threatening situation.

This having been said, how specifically to go about adding a strong element of “realism” to aikido is altogether another question. Various improvements have been proposed such as teaching attacking skills, incorporating liberal use of atemi, adding self-defense techniques, etc., all with the aim of making up for aikido’s perceived technical deficiencies.

Another of the most frequently advocated solutions to this thorny issue is the introduction of competition to add a realistic dimension and provide a quantifiable way of measuring one’s skills against an opponent. The argument is often framed in such a way that the measure of a martial system is based on how exponents fare, or presumably would fare, in a match situation. For example, who would come out on top if fifth dans in judo and karate were to match skills? Is taekwondo superior to kung fu? Can an aikidoka with no cross-training in another art hold his own against an exponent of any of these more combat-oriented martial arts? Such speculation is endless and has failed to lead to any sort of consensus.

The most prominent example of the concept of competition applied to aikido has been the Tomiki system, which was philosophically inspired by the thinking of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. Kenji Tomiki, a prewar disciple of both Kano and Morihei Ueshiba and a successful judo competitor in his own right, devised a sport system of aikido which was launched via the aikido club of Waseda University in the 1950s. Matches in this style consist of one opponent armed with a mock knife while the other acts as the defender. The roles are reversed after a specified time and points are tallied to determine the winner. In addition to matches, this system of sport aikido includes kata competition. Tomiki Sensei experimented with various modifications to his system and, since his death in 1979, his senior students have carried on under the banner of the Japan Aikido Association, There are perhaps one hundred or so schools and clubs that follow the Tomiki system worldwide. The results of this continuing experiment with competitive aikido have been mixed, and even within this system there are those who prefer to emphasize more traditional practice methods and forego matches altogether. The Tomiki method has come under attack from proponents of other aikido schools who hold that the principle of competition itself runs counter to the central principles of aikido. Because of this fact, Tomiki Aikido remains to a certain extent isolated from more mainstream approaches.

Two other widely-practiced styles of aikido have embraced competition, albeit to a limited degree, in conjunction with demonstrations. Both the Yoshinkan Aikido and Shinshin Toitsu Aikido organizations conduct demonstrations where participants are graded on their performance, based on the execution of technique, balance, ability to blend, and other such criteria. Winners receive awards at the end of the event much as in other sports. The sort of “friendly competition” this approach has spawned seems to encourage performers to intensify their practice at least in preparation for these events, My impression is that aikido purists who frown at the Tomiki approach are not particularly concerned by these forays into competition by the Yoshinkan and Ki Society since neither conducts matches or bouts that pit two opponents against each other. I doubt very much, however, that this sort of performance competition by itself will be enough to satisfy those who call for training reforms designed to give aikido techniques “teeth” so as to render them effective in a realistic selfdefense situation.

Still another attempt to restore an “aiki budo-like” dimension to aikido through the introduction of competition has been recently launched by Fumio Sakurai. In the view of Sakurai, a former Yoshinkan Aikido shihan, aikido should rediscover its roots and be practiced with vigor as it was in the prewar days. He recalls the rigorous training undergone by his teacher, the late Gozo Shioda, in the “Hell Dojo” of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba in the 1930s. In an effort to achieve this goal, Sakurai has begun experimentation with a new form of competition in which two opponents square off in an empty-handed match. Each competitor dons protective padding covering the knees, shins, and feet, and kicking is allowed. Punches are, however, prohibited as are attacks to the face, kicks to the outside of the knee, attacks to the groin, and various other dangerous moves.

I recently attended the inaugural tournament of Sakurai-ryu Aikido, as this new approach to aikido has come to be called, held on September 15. Sixteen competitors participated in this intraclub tournament and, with one or two exceptions, there were no aikidoka with tournament experience. Most of the attacks were very tentative since atemi were not permitted, and those who fared the best succeeded in closing the distance with their opponents to score points. I saw only one or two clean “aikido-like” techniques, one a kotegaeshi and the other an armbar. The winner in the heavyweight division was the largest, most muscular and well-trained athlete of the lot. However, he sustained an injury during the tournament that afterward kept him sidelined for several weeks.

The challenge for Tomiki advocates and people like Sakurai Sensei who favor competition is how to preserve the essential attributes of aikido—taijutsu system with specific ethical principles—while devising a sport that is both safe and interesting to spectators. What if the rules and nature of competition itself do not encourage the execution of aikido techniques? How does one avoid having the objective of “victory above all”—clearly the antithesis of Morihei Ueshiba’s vision—becoming the participants’ main inducement to compete as in so many other sports? If these conditions are not satisfied by these fledgling sports, then what is the justification for calling them “aikido?”

As a result of our promotion of Sakurai Sensei’s activities in the Japanese-language Aiki News, I have been recently invited to attend two fighting tournaments that featured exponents of the popular Gracie Jujutsu system. In the first tournament, Rickson Gracie won his three matches effortlessly by forcing his larger opponents to the ground and applying a decisive choke. Everything was over in a matter of seconds. This is the trademark of this unique system, which has gained a widespread and much-deserved reputation for its effectiveness under match conditions.

What impressed me most was the ease with which Rickson downed his adversaries and how his victories resulted in no injury to either his opponent or himself. That should grab your attention! Two of the winners of other bouts managed to break their hands in the process and their victories were rather bloody and artless by comparison. Gracie Jujutsu will surely be of interest to many aikidoka because of its humane approach and effectiveness in certain combat scenarios. The top exponents of this system are experts in grappling and knowledge of this skill would be very complementary to any martial art. Parenthetically, we will have an interview with one of the Gracie brothers in the near future and will do our best to present in detail this innovative martial system.

The opportunity to attend these matches was a real revelation for me coming as I do from the aikido world. With the exception of Rickson Gracie’s bouts, I found most of the matches to be animalistic and, quite frankly, repulsive. It occurred to me that competitors are required to develop a particular mindset in order to do well in such tournaments, Such fighters must learn to be aggressive and ruthless, and attempt to exploit the rules fully to achieve victory. I doubt that such character traits can be easily switched on and off. I also wonder if these attitudes, deeply ingrained as they are through rigorous training, might not come to dominate an athlete’s personality and prove a liability in personal interactions. I felt that the controlled, harmonious nature of aikido practice—even though it might not prepare one for tournament fighting—is much preferable to these other dog-eat-dog fighting styles from the standpoint of learning to live peacefully in society.

I also noted that these athletes, many of whom are or aspire to become professionals, live in constant fear of injury. It was obvious in several matches that certain defensive maneuvers were designed to protect a vital part of the body from attack. Although fatal injuries might be infrequent in these tournaments, the accumulation of physical punishment over a period of time can leave a person with serious medical problems, disabilities, not to mention losing one’s means of livelihood. Shades of boxing and football!

Seeing these tournaments set my mind thinking along lines I had not explored previously. I asked myself, for example, did the victors in these matches demonstrate an ability to overcome an opponent in a “realistic” situation by besting their rivals in the ring? Surely, there were skilled martial artists in the competition. However, even though the first bouts I saw were billed as “no-holds-barred,” still the opponents fought within the confines of a ring. There was a single opponent, no element of surprise was involved, and naturally no concealed weapons or firearms figured in the fights. So though it was an “anything-goes” situation as far as fighting matches are concerned, the conditions were far removed from reality.

Even the marvelous skills displayed by Rickson Gracie provide no clue as to how he would handle a “real” situation against multiple attackers who are more than likely to be armed. Obviously his chances could be considered superior to those of an untrained person, but a confrontation involving firearms—the scenario most feared by the average citizen—is an altogether different matter both tactically and psychologically speaking.

To sum up my thoughts on this issue, I seriously doubt that the would-be “samurai” of the twentieth century will find a satisfactory solution to their quest for ultimate combative effectiveness through martial arts competition. I believe rather that the skills required to become a peerless warrior in a modern society are far different from those of the earlier and simpler times in which these arts were developed. Today’s warriors are people like the police and elite military instructors who contribute to the “Coping with Violence” section of Aikido Journal. These dedicated individuals have vast knowledge of the many manifestations of violent behavior and what to do about it. They bring to their jobs a detailed understanding of weapons, tactics, and psychology. They are men who have looked death in the face on numerous occasions and who cannot afford to relax their alertness for even a moment in the fulfillment of their duties.

Aikido’s main contribution to the enrichment of individual lives lies not in the mechanics of techniques but rather in its ability to transform and elevate spirits beyond the plane of dualistic thinking. I genuinely believe that those seeking “the ultimate fighting system” are destined to forever pursue an illusion.

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