Below are the six tenets I use to define my Aikido practice. These six statements sumerise what I believe Aikido should offer those interested in practicing it:
Aikido is not a fighting system. It is a system for self defense that seeks the safest possible resolution to conflict for all involved.
Aikido should be practiced in a joyful manner, and include anyone who is seriously interested in its methods.
Aikido uses an opponent’s desire to attack against them.
Aikido’s technical methods should always account for multiple attackers and situations where we are not the most physically dominant force.
Aikido’s technical methods are based around weapons conflict.
Aikido is a martial art of Japanese descent. This fact should be recognized and respected.
I use these six tenets to create a basic philosophy for Aikido that I use.
Aikido is: A system that teaches one to deal with overwhelming conflict, while seeking to keep all parties as safe as possible. This system is taught as an enjoyable practice, offered to anyone interested in Japanese-style martial arts training.
The early days. Not a tough guy. Trying to be one.
I grew up with lots of problems in my life. Early on, there was trouble at home. I had a big mouth. I was super opinionated. I was always shorter than the other kids and had a last name that sounded like a bottle of ketchup. I had flaming red hair.
To say I got into a few fights when I was a kid is an understatement.
I also loved mysterious things. I loved magic and spies and ninjas … Oh did I love ninjas. For awhile, those close to me thought the only word I knew was “ninja.”
This combination of things led me to have a strong interest in the martial arts from a very early age. I would work for, beg and borrow money to buy martial arts books, weapons and uniforms. I owned all kinds of swords, “ninja stars,” nunchucks, throwing knives and any other martial arts weapon I could buy, scrounge or make. I snuck around the town (unbeknownst to my family) late at night dressed like a ninja.
I also learned as much about the martial arts as any kid living in pre-internet America in a town with a population under ten thousand possibly could. I made it my goal to learn the martial arts. I did some Kung-fu at the local Kung-fu school but as soon as I had my own car, I would drive myself to martial arts seminars and camps to learn more. I wanted to be the most serious, tough guy martial artist I could be.
Aikido: If you get over the sissy stuff, it’s probably the toughest thing ever.
The first time I really thought about Aikido, I was talking to a priest. He had seen a demonstration of Aikido when he was younger where they had blind folded the Aikido practitioner and had some of his students try to hit him with a stick. They were, of course, unable. I was pretty impressed by the story and the idea of a system that could teach this. It’s still impressive to me, as in all my years of Aikido, I’ve never seen a demonstration like this. But I didn’t put any real interest into Aikido until I read “Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere.”
“Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere” was published by Adele Westbrook and Oscar Ratti in 1970. This book made Aikido seem both otherworldly and completely practical. It focused on not only the organization of Aikido’s syllabus (with more than 1,200 beautiful illustrations from Ratti), but also the non-physical aspects of the system. The book outlines Aikido as a system with tremendous power that comes not from muscular force or speed, but from an ingenious way of dealing with conflict. There was also some talk about morals and a humanistic approach to conflict … But if you got past all that “sissy stuff” the system sounded powerful and was just what I wanted.
The book made Aikido pop up on my radar in a big way and in the fall of 1998 the opportunity to train in Aikido presented itself and I took it. I began training in a dojo that was kind of a hybrid between Iwama style Aikido and Aikikai Aikido, with a bit of Ki Aikido thrown in for good measure. The sensei at this dojo was a former uchideshi (live in student) of Morihero Saito Sensei (head of the Iwama system) and had spent seven years training in Iwama, Japan. He was a small man with a commanding presence. His technique was praised by his peers and he could do all manner of cool martial arts stuff. I was sold.
I became uchideshi at Aikido of Fresno (the very school at which I would later become Dojo Cho). For a solid year I trained at least 5 hours a day, 6, sometimes, 7 days a week. I was completely immersed in the training, taking every possible opportunity to study, learn and help.
I was ranked 3rd kyu inside of six months and tested for Shodan in less than three years. I got really good at Aikido real quickly. This padded my ego … for a few months.
Then, while minding my own business at a local drinking hole, I got into a fight. This wasn’t surprising. I had been in lots of fights in my life. What was surprising, however, was that I didn’t do Aikido during the fight. I was a freaking black belt in the art, and yet when it came down to it, I used none of the stuff I’d learn in this fight. Instead, I just kind of did what I always did growing up. Later, I thought “I should have thrown a kotegaeshi on that fool, or tossed him across the bar with a koshi nage!” So, what was wrong with my Aikido skills? The question really motivated me to figure out what was going on.
Aikido. It didn’t work. Must suck.
I began to go around to all the local martial arts schools to figure out why my Aikido didn’t work. I thought that I just needed to see some real attacks coming at me (at that time I didn’t have the language to describe “live” training). I figured I’d go mix it up with the local Karate guys, go to the boxing gym. I even went to train with the local MMA/BJJ guys (this was the first such group in my area at the time, around 2001). They all had cool stuff to offer, but none of it really fit what I was looking for.
My search for a new school ended when I found Tim Cartmel’s Shen Wu Academy in LA. Tim was a traditional martial artist who had spent twelve years in Taiwan studying Chinese internal martial arts, before moving back to the US. He then studied Brazilian Jiujitsu under first Joe Moreira and then Clebber Luciano, eventually becoming a celebrated black belt. Tim’s school had everything I was looking for; someone who had spent time with a traditional martial art, but also had practical experience in modern martial arts like Brazilian Jiujitsu and MMA.
I uprooted my life and moved to Southern California to train at the Shen Wu Academy.
To say this was a humbling experience is an understatement. I was already a black belt in Aikido, I was good with my body and knew quite a bit about different martial arts. Yet everyday my classes consisted of me being easily overcome by my fellow students. I was everyone’s favorite whipping boy. I tried hard, but just didn’t have the skill set to stop any of them from manhandling me.
So, I completely immersed myself in training again, made it to every class I could, arrived early and stayed late to work with other students. My learning curve shot through the roof.
It wasn’t too long before I was tapping the other white belts out, then the occasional blue belt and before too long I was a tough roll for the purple belts. One day after I rolled (some light BJJ sparring) with a good purple belt he asked me how I got so good so fast. Tim quickly answered, “Chris already knew how to use his body. He just had to let his technique catch up.”
I was a little over a year into my training at the Shen Wu Academy. When I first got to the school, I tried some Aikido stuff, but that quickly fell away as I learned there were better ways to do things. That was one of the most impressive things about the training I was doing now; I could learn something new in class, then drill it semi-live, and by the end of the week I’d be using the technique in sparring sessions.
This was not the experience I had with Aikido, where I had worked on techniques for years and still couldn't pull them off. I started to think that Aikido sucked - or that it sucked for fighting at least. From Aikido, I had learned how to use my body, how to move and think about martial arts stuff, and that was nice. But I had to face the fact. Aikido simply didn’t work in a fight.
What the hell? Did that just work?
As my training in Brazilian Jiujitsu continued under Tim’s tutelage, I would also stop by Clebber’s place and roll when we were getting ready for tournaments.
I competed in several BJJ tournaments, some submission wrestling and a small MMA event. I even had a chance to do Sumo with the Southern California Sumo group. Training in BJJ and MMA was great and I started to let go of the idea of getting anything practical out of Aikido.
I was generally eager to compete in any tournament or martial arts match that came along, so of course my good friend Maynard Anchetta suggested I go with him to a Dog Brothers Meeting of the Pack. I didn’t know what this was, but Maynard explained it as a full contact stick fighting tournament. There are almost no rules: you compete full contact, full force with rattan sticks. This sounded insane to me. What did I know about stick fighting? Maynard insisted it would be a good opportunity to try out my Aikido jo (short staff) training. I already knew how my Aikido empty hand training worked out. I couldn’t imagine how badly I would get beaten at an event like this. I told him I’d pass.
At ten a.m. the morning of the Dog Brothers gathering I get a call from Maynard.
"Hey I set up a match for you with this guy from Switzerland. He's got a Jo here and wants to fight you. I've already taken care of everything, just get down here quick."
The next thing I knew, I was getting in my car and trying to figure out how to get to El Segundo.
Maynard had fought at many events and was sure something good would come out of my attempt here, even if it was just him getting a good laugh. I figured he might get his laugh as I was pretty sure that Aikido didn’t work in “fights.” It seemed I would be easy prey for my competitor.
In the end, I faced a very skilled, full-fledged Dog brother and not only survived but, to my suprise, did pretty well.
During the match, all of my Aikido training in Jo work came out naturally. I understood how to distance with this guy, how to time my strikes and block, and most importantly how to read intent.
That came naturally to me … because of Aikido training? We fought hard and fast, trading blows and grappling too. During the match I hit a perfect "harai-men," straight out of Saito Sensei's third kumitachi. It landed exactly as taught in the form. I had never sparred with a Jo before, yet here I was up against a skilled stick fighter, someone who had been in dozens of stick fights, and I held my own.
So wait, did Aikido just "work?”
The garage days.
This experience was mind blowing. You have to understand, I came into MMA with the idea that inside of a month I’d be pulling off Aikido techniques. That didn’t happen. The things I had spent years learning and perfecting in Aikido just didn’t work in my MMA sparring sessions. Meanwhile, the MMA techniques I was learning came off beautifully, every time - with only a week of training.
It was clear to me that in the kinds of sparring sessions I was doing, Aikido didn’t work. That had been proven to me day in, day out for more than a year. But, in a stick fight, against a good competitor, at an event, all of the sudden the Aikido stuff that I had learned just came out. This seemed impossible. I had spent way more time working with the unarmed techniques of Aikido than the armed ones. Yes, I had trained full time with weapons as well as doing the unarmed techniques, but I spent about a quarter of the time on weapons training that I did with unarmed training. There was no way that I was better at Aikido weapons than I was at Aikido’s taijutsu (unarmed techniques). So how was I better at applying weapon technique than I was able to apply unarmed technique? I couldn’t let this question go. I thought about it all the time.
I stopped training with Tim. It was a very hard decision. I had learned so much from him. But I couldn’t let go of the idea that Aikido worked. I moved back to Fresno to start training Aikido again. I needed to figure this out.
I took a position as an assistant instructor at Aikido of Fresno and started teaching Aikido in the park on the side. I didn’t manage to keep my assistant teaching position for very long, because the Aikido I was now teaching was pretty “radical." More than a few times I was caught teaching punching combinations and ground grappling. It was all too much for a traditional Aikido school. So, I teamed up with a local Aikidoist named Michael Varin, and together we formed “Central Valley Aikido.” I got a house with a full sized garage that we converted into a Dojo and we set to training and figuring out how Aikido really worked.
At times, the garage was more of a fight club than a dojo. In fact, we usually referred to it as “the garage” instead of the dojo. It was where we went to beat on each other. Lots of different people came through, but mostly six or seven of us smashed each other into the walls, trying to solve the mysteries of Aikido. At first, my attempts were at hybridising Aikido. I felt Aikido weapons “worked” and Aikido unarmed “didn’t work.” So, I set about adding all kinds of stuff to Aikido’s unarmed training. I would still teach the traditional forms, but add different punching combinations, or show how an Aikido technique might work off of a kick, or a punch from modern MMA.
This was 2006-2011. YouTube was just getting going, and there were very few Aikido people I could see doing what we were doing. I would often video our sessions and put it out for other Aikido people to discuss. The responses I got were mostly negative: “That doesn’t look like Aikido,” they would say. Or, “your Aikido is terrible. It looks so rough.” I knew that these people had never tried to do Aikido against someone who was trying to resist. Everyone criticizing us was under this delusion that if someone attacked them,
they were going to pull off this magical technique because they had done some forms. I knew for a fact they were wrong. I had this truth beaten into me over many hard hours of training. For the most part, I dismissed what they were saying as ignorance to the reality of a motivated attacker. Yet, what they said also bothered me. What we were doing had started to look less and less like Aikido and more and more like MMA.
We trained everything with vigor in the garage. We used weapons hard; we sparred with weapons, hard. We sparred unarmed, hard. This was the theme of the garage. When we worked multiple attackers, again we did that hard, and it usually ended up with the “nage” smashed up against the wall, or swarmed upon on the ground. One time, while working multiple attackers with two smaller students, both around 120 lbs, they grabbed me and took me down, ripped the weapon from my hand and won the scenario. Here were two guys, about half my size, both less skilled than me, both of whom I totally dominated when grappling individually, smashing me to the ground and ripping the weapon from my hand like I was a baby. It dawned on me that I couldn’t fight two people. From deep in my unconscious mind it came to me: “Aikido is not about fighting.” Had I been looking at this whole thing wrong?
A professional Dojo.
This realization got to me. I started listening to people who would look at our stuff and say it didn’t look like Aikido. They were right. It didn’t look like Aikido and maybe that was because Aikido wasn’t about fighting. There is an important point of clarification I need to make here. When I say that I had a realization that Aikido wasn’t about fighting, I didn’t think that Aikido was simply a wonderful philosophical way to view the world and in no way related to self defense. On the contrary: my thinking then, as it is now, is that Aikido is a way to defend yourself when someone wants to attack and harm you. That way of defending yourself just doesn’t involve fighting.
I started spending more and more class time sifting through Aikido’s forms, trying to practice Aikido exactly as it was taught to me, but now with a focus on why the forms were put together the way they were. I held weapon use and multiple attackers as my key factors and believed all forms were concerned with these factors. I realized that in multiple attacker situations grappling was nearly useless, but Anti-grappling was key. I also realized Aikido had to revolve around weapons work because that was the only way you could realistically deal with multiple attackers or anyone physically greater than you. As I was starting to put this all together a most wonderful opportunity came my way -- Aikido of Fresno needed a new Dojo Cho.
In Spring of 2011, I was informed that the current head of Aikido of Fresno was planning to leave the city, and the dojo needed a new leader. After some talks, some great encouragement from Michael Varin, and a bill of sale, it was decided that I would be that new leader.
I expected to roll in there with all my new understanding of Aikido and my evolved ideas about drilling and training “what was really important” and have a hugely successful school. I was in for a surprise.
The first thing I had to come to terms with was the fact that I couldn’t be as picky about students as I once was. The dojo, and I by extension, was completely dependent on how many students would pay dues to come train. I remember distinctly a phone conversation I had with a potential student. It consisted of me telling him that he should study more about Aikido, that he didn’t know enough about it yet and that he wasn't ready for the training. One of my other students overheard the conversation and asked what I was doing. The dojo needed more students and I was scaring them all away. I realized right then that being the head of a school that was open to the public was going to be very different from the Aikido-fight club I hosted in my garage.
So, I had to learn to work with different kinds of people; people from different walks of life, whose reasons for studying Aikido differed from my own. I had to teach with more focus on them and less on myself and what I wanted to do. It was a great lesson in Aiki.
My own code of ethics dictated that I needed to teach these people what they were coming to me for -- Aikido -- and not whatever thoughts I wanted to work on at the moment. This forced me to delve even deeper into understanding what Aikido really was, and how that was of interest to the community I was serving.
After a few years of owning a professional Aikido school, I started to get into the swing of it. I realized that my job as Dojo Cho was to serve a community, and not focus on my own skill development. It made me a better teacher and a better martial artist and forced me to be able to understand and explain what Aikido was/is.
But I still had a problem with a few things.
The realization I had about weapons during the Dog Brothers fight was huge. It gave me the ability to start understanding why Aikido technique looked and functioned as it did. The realization I had with multiple attackers allowed me to understand the kinds of tactics an Aikido practitioner needed to use. But there were still problems I had with the system, parts I didn’t fully understand. One nagging problem I had was the Do Dori (torso grabs). They didn’t fit into the weapons work very well and it also didn’t fully work into multiple attacker stuff. It kind of made sense, but still I didn’t fully grasp it.
So, I did what I always do. I started working with Do Dori -- like, a lot. I realized more and more how the techniques could play into weapon work, and how having clear escapes from them was a must in multiple attacker situations. This led me to more clearly explore the Hodoki (disentanglement techniques), and understand their value, which in turn led
to a clear understanding of how the forms themselves were actually describing the context of Aikido.
It was something I had misinterpreted. I had always seen the forms as attempts to show us overcoming an attacker. But as I clarified my understanding of Hodoki, I could see that as a system, Aikido doesn’t want us to overcome anyone. It simply doesn’t want us to be overcome.
Aikido is about self defense and not “self offense.” Aikido, as a system, is about keeping others from hurting you. The more I explored the concept of quickly escaping a grasp, I realized the true potential of what Aikido as a system could do. And the only thing I had to change, was my own desire to be a guy who beats people up.
It is the thing that all of us learn on day one of Aikido training and also the thing that keeps coming in to mess up our understanding of the art.
All of a sudden I could see Aikido completely and I could answer, systematically and line-by-line how Aikido worked.
The point I’m making here is a tricky one. It can easily be dismissed, if you’re not paying close attention. The point I’m making is that Aikido totally and systematically works as a martial art; meaning that it is a system that can help weaker people defend themselves against bigger, more violent people. But it only works if you can let go of one thing -- the desire to “beat up” someone who is trying to harm you.
This is not a philosophical point, but a strategic one. This is the mythical Aikido concept that takes 20 years to master. In fact, it took me just about 20 years to fully understand. I remember attending a class with Robert Nadeau Sensei(a direct student of Ueshiba) in which he told a story. Ueshiba had once told him “if you could grasp the true concept of Aikido, it would only take you about three days to master the art.” Sensei Nadeau joked that he spent “over 40 years looking for those three days.”
My realization is one that I believe anyone could master in three days, if they would just let themselves. It is a simple, yet totally elusive concept that has boggled thousands of Aikido practitioners.
As a responsible Aikido teacher and student, it is my responsibility to disseminate this philosophy. So, I created a structured way to look at Aikido’s lessons and understand them through a new set of eyes. The Aikido I teach is not drastically different than that of most practitioners. There is no magic in the techniques -- the magic is in the approach, one I believe to be as completely revolutionary as it is mundane. I now spend my time trying to devise better and better ways to understand and teach this approach to Aikido.
The possible impossibility of the “no touch throw”.
There are a lot of things in Aikido that seem mystical, but nothing more than the “no touch throw”. The ability to throw someone without touching them seems amazing to some, and impossible to others! Before this article is done, I’m going to prove to you that the no touch throw is completely possible and how training to do it can prove Aikido to be an effective martial art. Think it’s impossible- read on!
So you think a no touch throw is impossible? The problem you are having is first in your head and second in your training methods. Because we can’t understand how it’s possible to throw someone without touching them, we can’t begin to understand how to train it. Since we can’t train it, we can’t do it. It is a mistake to assume that throwing someone without touching them is a magical thing, so the answers I will present in this article will not be magical in nature. They will require some long hours of training, but no magic. Let’s break the problem down a bit more and see if we can find an answer to our question that doesn’t require magic powers.
What is a “throw”? A throw is basically a projection of some sort, a way to make something fly away from you. You could throw something down- sending it onto the ground, at something like a person or wall, or simply fling it out into space. We throw things all the time: balls, car keys, paper airplanes, light objects of any kind. However, if you had never seen a Judo throw, throwing something like a person would sound nearly impossible- even if you could touch them! It would sound difficult because people are heavy. Even so, as martial artists we know that it is quite possible to throw someone by lifting them. We understand that even a small person using proper leverage is quite capable of throwing someone up to 300 lbs! Judo players perform this task quite regularly, and can even do it when their opponent is trying to resist them.
When Judo and Jiu Jitsu first appeared in the United states, many were mystified. A small person throwing a much larger person seemed like a real act of magic! Many didn’t believe it could be done- however, many early competitions showed us that a throwing art like Judo was indeed very real and its throws could be learned by even small children. Once we started to understand the principles of leverage and timing that were employed by Judo, we started to accept that it wasn’t magic at all, and throwing arts stopped being mystical and started to sound practical. In the same way, once you understand the workings of a no touch throw, you will no longer believe that it is an act of magic. Hopefully, it will also open your mind to Aikido’s other possibilities!
One of the ways to throw someone is to lift them. Arts like Judo show us how to pick someone up using good leverage and our bodies’ framework. However, this is not the only way to throw, since to throw something is merely to make it fly away from us. Another method to throw an opponent is to trip them. While not quite as fancy as a lifting throw like a big hip or shoulder toss (as seen in Judo and many other grappling arts), tripping techniques are an equally effective way to throw someone. Tripping works on a slightly different principle than a lifting throw, and understanding that principle is key to understanding the no touch throw.
Normal walking requires us to fall and “catch” ourselves regularly. When we walk, we shift our weight forward until we start to fall, at that point we pick up our leg and set it down again to catch ourselves. We have all been practicing this since we were 1 or 2 years of age, so we are quite good at it. We are so good, in fact, that we forget that we’re falling at all. What a trip does is interfere with our ability to extend our legs after the weight shift, and this is what “throws” us. Though tripping is a great way to throw someone that doesn’t require lifting, it does still require touching them, in both the way you move their body weight and the way you interfere with their leg (so they can’t catch themselves). In order to use tripping methods you’ll definitely have to touch your opponent; but have you ever tripped when no one is touching you?
As a fellow bi-ped, I’m sure you are all too aware of the dangers of walking, ha! Due to carelessness or unknown footing, we’ve all sent ourselves tumbling off into space many times. We know all too well that it doesn’t take someone touching you to make you to fall down, it’s quite possible to trip all on your own. It’s not magic- it’s physics! But falling isn’t someone throwing you- is it? What’s the difference between someone throwing you and you falling all on your own? The difference is if they intended to make you fall. If someone plans to make you fall down and you can’t help but fall, in essence, they’ve thrown you.
So, it is this ability to throw with intention and not physical contact that makes a no touch throw possible. Many would say, ‘yes, but in a serious situation like physical conflict, I’m not going to be careless- I wouldn’t let myself be tricked like this’. Watch this video of sport competitive situations where the attackers and defenders were trying very hard not to get thrown, and yet they still were! In this video you can see everything from professional athletes to school teachers falling for a no touch throw. Children, athletes, old, young, even four legged creatures can be seen falling (literally) for a no touch throw.
No touch throws are very real, and competitive athletes use them all the time. In fact, they are considered a high end skill that many professional and top level amature athletes have used to make a reputation for themselves. It’s not magical- but it does take a keen understanding of our opponent’s mind and many, many hours of training to do! Aiki can be translated as the way of fitting energy, and intent is a kind of energy. In the no touch throw we find a way to fit our intentions (to throw our attackers away from us) with our attacker’s intentions (to attack us) in a way that makes them fall- no touching required.
Now the part you probably don’t want to hear. Because there is no magic involved, learning how to do something like a no touch throw is going to take a lot of work. You’ll need to improve your footwork, and not just slow methodical footwork, but fast explosive movements. The footwork taught in Aikido is excellent: as a student of many martial arts, the footwork training I learned in Aikido is still the best I’ve found. But the way we train it needs to be improved. Aikido people tend to practice footwork in a very mellow and casual way; instead, we need to start training our footwork more intensely. The kind of footwork drills that football, soccer, basketball players and other professional athletes use are ideal for this.
In addition, the typical Aikido Uke doesn’t attack in a way that lends itself to a real no touch throw. You need to be working with opponents who are actually trying to get you- not just simulate tackling you, but are really trying to do so. This live attack action is what is needed for a no touch throw. Simulating the actions of the attackers is good when you are just starting to learn Aikido, but if you want martial skill, you’re going to need to step up the attacks! The overcommitment on the part of the attacker can’t be faked, you’ll have to actually convince them to overcommit naturally, due to their desire to get you.
Lastly, you have to understand that your attackers are not going to fall everytime they attack you. In Aikido because we simulate attacks instead of really attacking, Nage tends to get the idea that every time he engages with Uke, Uke will be thrown; nothing could be farther from the truth. You need to change your focus in Randori practice from being the person who is always going to throw, to the person who allows the attacker to attack. If you do your job correctly as Nage, most of your time will be spent blending with Uke, and not throwing them. It is only when Uke becomes overconfident in their attack that they will over commit- this over-commitment is when a no touch throw happens.
For those who are looking to ensure Aikido’s status as a “martial” art, the “secrets” to the no touch throw are exactly the same “secrets” or skills we will need to make Aikido an effective martial art. In our art we allow the attacker to undo himself, rather than jumping in and forcing him down- the no touch throw should be the epitome of Aikido technique. In my style of Aikido, we call the “no touch throw” Aiki nage or Aiki otoshi (depending on how it’s used) because we believe strongly that this kind of action is ideal Aikido. A perfect no touch throw requires the perfect use of Aiki!
I look at Aikido the same way I look at the no touch throw: it seems magical until you understand how it works. Aikido is an art designed around movement and understanding our attacker’s mind. It’s not a system of struggling and fighting. The more we can embrace the idea of using mind and spirit instead of trying to physically enforce our will, the more we’ll understand Aikido. This might sound like it would require magical powers- but that’s only if you don’t understand it yet.
Recently, more and more members of the Aikido community have been asking questions about Aikido’s effectiveness as a martial art system. As someone who makes his living as an Aikido professional and has competed in MMA, BJJ, Sub-Wrestling and HEMA, I can tell you flat out- The Aikido community is starting to look in the wrong places for answers.
I started Aikido in the late 90’s. Aikido was quite popular then. Steven Seagal was a box office hit and MMA was just starting out. In short- people were intrigued by Aikido. Fast forward to today: Aikido is a little known martial art, Steven Seagal has revealed himself to be a less-than-ideal representative of our system, and MMA is clearly the most popular “martial art”. After years of neglect, it seems like those who were responsible for continuing the Aikido tradition- and were too busy enjoying the spoils of Aikido success in its heyday- have finally started to worry about how the world sees Aikido. Many want to know how Aikido “works” and if it is indeed an effective system of martial arts training.
If you’ve read my past posts you probably know, I’m a big fan of clarifying terms. If you ask me if something “works” the first thing I’ll ask you is- “what do you want it to work at?” While this might seem like a silly question to ask- this question is right at the heart of the problem with the general Aikido community. Aikido practitioners at the high level have for years worried more about the money their Dojo is making than about the preservation and development the art they expound. Years of neglect has put the Aikido community well behind the pack of popular martial arts systems. Now that it’s hitting us in the pocketbook, many of these figurative heads of the Aikido-state are being forced to realize that the modern person seeking martial arts training wants to know how Aikido works, and the answers they have just aren’t cutting it!
I have been seeing lots of blog posts and videos recently that show Aikido as “ground grappling” or how “Ikkyo works from a clinch,” for example. These are very interesting ideas to the current generation of Aikido practitioners. It is interesting because they know from decades of MMA and BJJ popularity that ground fighting and other MMA or BJJ style fighting “works”. They log on to Youtube and see MMA and BJJ practitioners putting their techniques to use against fully resisting opponents. They can see how these systems “work”. Unfortunately, the old Aikido guard has been too preoccupied with making a buck or gaining popularity. Now that systems like MMA or BJJ are gaining popularity, many Aikido schools are trying to retrofit our system and cash in on this new trend. They are trying to sell Aikido as something it’s not and was never meant to be. They are trying to sell Aikido as a dueling system.
What is a duel?
A duel is a one-on-one struggle, held between two people in order to decide who is “better” or “right”. If you think of an old timey story where one guy slapped another and said “I challenge you to a duel”, you understand the concept. Dueling is what one-on-one sport competition is. An MMA match is a duel, a BJJ match is a duel, a boxing match is a duel, Kendo and of course Olympic fencing is also dueling. When people want to gauge themselves and their skill they will often use a duel as their test. When you see a video titled “MMA v.s. Aikido” or “BJJ v.s. Boxing” you are seeing videos of duels. Modern sport systems are designed for dueling. Judo matches are throwing duels, Muay Thai is a kickboxing duel, BJJ is a grappling duel, et cetera. These duels are what I would call symmetrical physical conflict. Symmetrical conflict is when two parties struggle against each other with the same victory and defeat goals. For example, in Judo if you throw me, you win, if I throw you I win, if either of us is thrown we lose. In Boxing, if I knock you out or make you stop I win, if you knock me out or make me stop I win. This equality of goals is what draws us to duels and gives us the idea that the winner in a duel is the more skilled of the two.
An important question for us to ask ourselves as Aikido practitioners is: “is Aikido a dueling system?” If Aikido is not a dueling system, should we try to force it to be one because all the other “effective” systems we know of (BJJ, Kickboxing, Judo etc.) are dueling systems? I believe this is what the old-guard of Aikido is now doing, in an attempt to promote their own popularity and increase their revenue. Instead of trying to make Aikido into a dueling art as is the current vogue, we should better seek to understand what our art is.
“I tried Hozoin-ryu sojutsu and kendo. But all of these arts are concerned with one-to-one combat forms and they could not satisfy me.”- Morihei Ueshiba
The founder of our system can be quoted as saying one-on-one systems were not satisfactory to him. To me, this alone is strong evidence that Aikido was not meant to be a dueling system. While Mochizuki Sensei was teaching in Europe, he had many opportunities to spar with local wrestlers and boxers. Upon returning to Japan and speaking with O-Sensei, Mochizuki Sensei told Ueshiba that the techniques of Aikido were not enough to defeat the boxers and wrestlers. Aikido needed a larger syllabus in order to deal with these kinds of fighters. Ueshiba was unconcerned with this, and told Mochizuki Sensei that he was missing the point of Aikido training. (paraphrased from Pre-war Aikido masters, Stanley Pranin, Aikido Journal)
We can see from this that pitting sport martial arts (dueling martial arts) directly against Aikido is not a new thing, but happened in the lifetime of the founder. He was well aware of the dueling arts of the time, yet he was unconcerned with developing a system of dueling to deal with these kinds of styles. Why?
One could take all this to mean that Aikido has a deeper spiritual meaning beyond winning and losing a duel. I personally would agree with this. But does having this spiritual aspect mean that we can’t have practical skill? As a practitioner of dueling martial arts, I can tell you that there is WAY more to practical martial training than a duel. In fact, I tell my self defense students (people who come to me for only pragmatic self defense skills) that dueling is detrimental to their self defense skills. If we are speaking of practical self defense, learning only how to duel can be very dangerous!
Are there examples of practical martial skill that has nothing to do with dueling? If we take someone like an Army Ranger (a U.S. elite infantry soldier), I think few would argue that an Army Ranger has practical martial skills. Does this mean that Army Rangers are great at dueling arts like Judo, Boxing, BJJ and MMA? If an Army Ranger decided to enter an amateur boxing match would he be great at boxing because of his training in the Army? Army Rangers training involves very little boxing and wrestling, so it is likely that most Rangers won’t fare that well in amateur boxing, wrestling or MMA (unless they had previously trained in those things on their own). Why is it that the U.S. Army is not concerned with the fact that Army Rangers are not expert at dueling arts like boxing or wrestling? If you told Colonel Brandon Tegtmeier (current head of Ranger regiment) that his Rangers are not the best boxers and wrestlers and that more boxing and wrestling training should be added to their program, what do you think he would say? Much like Ueshiba, he’d probably shrug and say that you’re missing the point of Ranger training. Practical skill for a Ranger doesn’t mean being a great duelist. I think you can understand that world class skill in something like light infantry tactics doesn’t give you world class skills in other fighting arts like boxing or wrestling. Similarly, skills in a asymmetrical physical conflict system like Aikido won’t give you special skills in symmetrical systems (dueling systems) like MMA.
Let me explain further. One of the main things Aikido is known for is its handling of multiple attacker situations. The founder was often seen in video showing attacks from multiple attackers. In order to best handle multiple attackers you can not spend a lot of time squaring up with one attacker and dueling with them to find out who is best. You can’t do this because while you are involved in your duel, the other attacker is coming to get you! You must adopt a system of movement and allowance, you must allow the attacker to come at you as in a way that they think is beneficial, while you lead that energy back at them. This is another common Aikido concept, to let them defeat themselves. Again it might sound like I’m speaking of mystical special powers, but understanding the power of asymmetrical conflict can help us understand how this works.
If we compare martial arts and sports, Aikido is much more akin to football or bull fighting than it is to boxing or wrestling. Boxing and wrestling are both symmetrical conflict (dueling) systems. Symmetrical conflict systems function on the basic assumption that we have the same win criteria and same loss criteria. An asymmetrical conflict, however, involves us both having different win criteria. If a bullfighter’s victory could only be achieved by him running at the bull and smashing the bull, there would be no bullfighters left alive. Instead, the bull fighter allows the bull to rush at him, and moves away safely, not contesting the bulls strength with his own, but instead letting the bull tire himself, all the while allowing the bull to work into a poor position. This is when the bull fighter strikes. Similarly, in football, if the running back tried to tackle the defensive ends that were trying to tackle him, he would be a very poor running back. His job is to run to the goal line, not tackle people. He achieves victory by moving, not by fighting. In this kind of action we often see running backs make those trying to tackle him fall down of their own volition. He uses their desire to attack (tackle him) against them. This is the power of asymmetry, and Aikido technique abounds in it!
If Aikido is not a dueling art and there is evidence to prove that it was never meant to be, why should we try to force it to be one simply because dueling is in vogue at the moment? Perhaps this is because we cannot be bothered to understand a martial art system that is not about a duel. To think that martial arts only exist in the world of one-on-one, identically goal-oriented individuals is to narrowly understand the concept of conflict.
Aikido as a system has faced organizational challenges from day one. These problems with Aikido’s organization have led to much infighting, and as a result of this infighting, the major Aikido groups have spent more time tearing each other down than helping our system grow. I’d like to look at some things that we can agree on instead of looking at what makes us different.
Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido’s founder, was a martial artist and a mystic. His method of talking was enigmatic and filled with religious imagery. This made clearly understanding what he was saying a very difficult thing. Because of the founder’s heavy use of imagery and stylized speaking, even his closest students argued about what he was teaching. The varied interpretations and the desire of those making the interpretations to be “correct” has led to much bickering among high-ranking Aikido practitioners. Where did the founder want to take the art? There are lots of very valid opinions but no way to clearly know who is right.
During Aikido’s early years, these arguments may have served a good purpose. Our art was new, and clearly representing this original art to the uninformed public was important. Today, it has been nearly fifty years since the founder’s death, and Aikido has definitely taken on its own flavor! Perhaps it’s time to look beyond guessing what the founder wanted from the system and start looking at what the thousands of people who practice daily want from Aikido.
What would the majority of current Aikido practitioners agree are the things that Aikido training is about? I believe these are the things we should start to work on, and find the similarities between our styles and groups, instead of quibbling over the details. Aikido is in a desperate state, and we need to start working together!
Next year I will have spent 20 years studying Aikido. During my years studying Aikido, I’ve spent a lot of time with fellow Aikido practitioners of all styles. I have read, written, and thought about Aikido for thousands and thousands of hours. In this time, I would say that across styles there are a few things that the vast majority of Aikido practitioners agree upon:
Fostering a strong connection to Japanese martial heritage.
Studying and practicing Ki and Aiki development.
Redirecting the attacker’s force/aggression back towards them.
Causing no undue harm to the attacker.
Developing the ability to deal with multiple attackers.
These are some of the key points that the majority of Aikido practitioners would agree are important parts of Aikido training. I’d like to take a second to talk about these, what they mean to me, and what they might mean to us, as a community.
The first the list is “fostering a strong connection to Japanese martial heritage”. This is so obvious we often forget about it. The names we use for our techniques, the way we dress, the way we decorate our dojos and the foundations of the ceremonies and practices we do are all inspired by our strong Japanese martial heritage. Aikido practitioners at one point or another were very interested in Japanese martial lore. Maybe it was Samurai movies, or stories of invincible swordsman. Maybe it was in interest in the idea of a warrior monk or a meditative soldier. All of us feel a connection to Japan’s warrior caste of old! Regardless of style or affiliation we all love to put on our hakama, bow deeply to our uke and train in the old ways! It’s important to note, however, that Aikido is now a global martial art. Aikido is not a koryu (old traditional art) but a modern global art that loves to embrace the Japanese roots of Aikido, but is truly a world art at this point!
Second on the list is “studying and practicing Ki and Aiki development”. This point has been the hotbed of much Aikido infighting. From Koichi Tohei leaving the Aikikai to the more recent “Ki wars” on Aikiweb, this subject has been the focus of much fighting. The reason this subject brings so much hardship is that it is important to all of us! The problem is that we don’t agree on what Ki is or what Aiki means exactly. We love to argue the subtle points we love to enter our opinions and quote the founder or the early students to make our points. After all, the name of our art is the “way of Aiki”, so it must be pretty important. I will admit that I’ve gotten my hands dirty in these arguments quite a few times. It can feel so personal when someone else tells you they know the real meaning of Aiki and you and your group know nothing. This subject is a personal one for most of us. I think on this subject we need to keep an open mind. We need to acknowledge what other groups would call Ki or Aiki and try to see their point and why their interpretation seems correct to them or their group. In some cases we need to agree to disagree, but I think overall we should seek to understand each other’s’ viewpoints- I would suspect we are closer together than it might seem!
Third is “redirecting the attacker’s force/aggression back towards them”. I don’t know that the founder of Aikido directly spoke of this at all. I have seen his students talk about this idea and the idea of non-resistance quite a bit, but some might argue that this idea didn’t really come from the founder. Whether this is the case or not, I think it’s something that 90% of all Aikido practitioners would say is an important aspect of Aikido training. To me this is a good example or where Aikido as an art has grown organically and on its own. This is a good thing! As a group I would say most Aikido practitioners believe that Aikido techniques should use the force or aggression of the attacker.
“Causing no undue harm to the attacker” is fourth on my list. This can also be a tricky thing to discuss in mixed Aikido groups. To some undue harm means not to take a life, to others it means not to punch someone in the face or cause any pain! Undue harm is definitely a relative thing. This idea, however, gets at a larger core idea that most Aikido practitioners share- moral responsibility. While we may argue about the severity of action that a situation requires, I think we can all agree that Aikido is not an aggressive or cruel martial art. We don’t want to cause anymore harm in the world, simply be able to defend ourselves and those we love in a tough situation. This idea says a lot about us as a group, and why we are the kinds of people who would choose a martial art system like Aikido. We want to make the world a better, safer place, not make everyone fear us!
The last on this list is “the ability to handle multiple attackers”. Seeing multiple attacker practice in Aikido is probably something that caught all of our eyes. It is something the founder practiced regularly and the vast majority of us that have followed after have been interested in working on. This is an important factor for may reasons. It shows that we as a group are interested in overcoming great odds and we are thinking about a system outside of sport (while we should still be very accepting of sport). The amount of time that Aikido training spends on multiple attackers is interesting and rare in the martial arts world. It is definitely at the core of what most of us think a high level Aikido practitioner should be able to do.
I think that these five areas of focus are important to a great many of us. These five things start to outline the general motivations of our training culture. These are areas where we can start to agree and work together. Personally, I am very interested in helping the Aikido community start to work together instead of arguing about details, because our art is disappearing. Our seminars and classes get smaller each year. If you care about Aikido, as I do, let’s work together. Let’s put our differences aside and start to find the common ground!
Understanding the difference between traditional Jujutsu, modern Jujutsu and Aikido
As an Aikido practitioner, my experience with Aikido and other martial arts has been a long road. As a young man, I looked to martial arts hoping to find a way to defend myself, and prove myself as a competent martial artist. First, I studied Aikido and found it lacking, as many have, and I moved on to modern Jujutsu (BJJ). When I eventually found that lacking, I moved to traditional Jujutsu, hoping that it would finally answer the questions I had. Once again, though, I found myself dissatisfied. After studying three different arts that were respected by many, why couldn’t I find what I was looking for? After some time thinking about these arts, I finally realized that each art is complete in its own way, and I didn’t need to pit them against each other or try to find the “best” one. This article will explore these three systems, what they have in common, where they differ and why all three are necessary to be a well-rounded martial artist.
There are three closely related practices revolving around grappling that all originated in Japan. These three systems are often compared, confused, and misunderstood: modern Jujutsu (Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu etc.), traditional Jujutsu (Takenouchi Ryu, Yoshin Ryu, etc.), and Aikido (Aikikai, Iwama, etc.). Each of these systems revolves around grappling, but their specific interests and approaches to grappling differ greatly. By understanding these differences, it is easier to see practicality and function in all three. Before delving into the differences of these systems, however, it is important to clarify some history.
The history of traditional Jujutsu, modern Jujutsu, and Aikido
The origin of all of these systems can be found in Japanese Jujutsu- which has no single origin but was a general term used for the kind of grappling soldiers would use on the battlefield. Battlefield grappling was commonly called Yawara (柔), Jujutsu (柔術), or Kumiuchi (組み打ち ). While historically all three have been used to describe battlefield grappling, the term used most commonly today is Jujutsu. The exact origin of the word is not known, but is often attributed to Sekiguchi Ujimune Jushin, the founder of Sekiguchi Ryu, who used the term in 1630 AD. The word Ju ( 柔), means flexible, yielding, supple, or soft. The use of the word is often attributed to a classic Chinese saying “Ju yoku sei go” or, “softness controls hardness well”. This alludes to the idea that something soft can control something hard. However, others have suggested that the saying does not mean to be soft oneself (which in Japanese would be “Yawaraka”), but instead means to soften one’s enemy, which would be “Yawaragu” (to make soft). No matter the exact origin of the word, Jujutsu became the popular term for this kind of battlefield grappling in Japan in the 17th century.
As Japanese civilization became more peaceful, the fighting samurai of Japan found themselves with little work to do. The skills of a battlefield soldier were no longer necessary and many of these old soldiers found themselves out of work. These samurai began to find other occupations, including teaching martial arts to civilians. There is a poem written in 1875 from Saigo Tanomo (Aizu chief military councilor) to Sokaku Takeda (founder of Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu) that translates to something like:
With the beginning of the Meiji period, the age of the sword has ended, and no matter how skilled a swordsman might be, he can no longer make any mark and will amount to nothing. Therefore, it is time to pursue and make your way with Jujutsu.
This was the time when we saw the very beginning of what became modern Jujutsu. No longer were battlefield grappling skills necessary- instead, regular people wanted to learn how they could defend themselves in their civilian lives. Many of the close quarters skills of Jujutsu were ideal for handling civil disputes, and many samurai became teachers of this budding art.
In February of 1882, Jigoro Kano opened the first school of his modernized Jujutsu variant which he called “Judo”. Dr. Jigoro Kano was a student of traditional Jujutsu, which he modified into a western style sport competition, by taking the techniques of traditional Jujutsu and modifying them specifically for unarmed one-on-one grappling matches. He popularized his art by making sure his school was represented in the Jujutsu challenge matches that were popular in Japan at the end of the 19th century. Kano was very interested in modernizing Jujutsu and making it more “Western” in nature. His modern Jujutsu school (which he named “Kodokan Judo”) did very well against the other Jujutsu schools under a one-on-one unarmed grappling rule set. This was probably due to the fact that Kano was a very intelligent man who recognized the most successful training methods and techniques for this new emphasis on unarmed grappling. This quickly made Judo very popular among non-military citizens of Japan. By June 10, 1886, Kano had opened a large school in the Tokyo police headquarters and the die was cast for modern Jujutsu.
Not long after, Judo competition became hugely successful in Japan and quickly got the attention of the west. Judo instructors were requested abroad, and the Kodokan was happy to send out representitives. One of those represenitives, Mitsuyo Maeda, eventually ended up settling in Brazil and was befriended by the Gracie family. This, of course, lead to the development of Brazilian Jujutsu. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, like Judo, focused on unarmed one-on-one sport grappling, but where Judo specialized in stand-up grappling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a live art specialized in grappling on the ground. Both of these styles are hugely successful examples of modern Jujutsu.
Like Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Aikido had its start in traditional Jujutsu. Aikido was founded by a man named Morihei Ueshiba. Ueshiba was the student of several traditional Japanese martial arts, but was particularly fond of Jujutsu. He fought in some challenge matches and gained a reputation for being very skilled in Jujutsu. In 1925, Ueshiba fought his famed challenge match with a swordsman using a bokken (wooden sword), while he himself didn’t use a bokken. While accounts of this match vary, it was apparently a very long bout that ended in the swordsman throwing down his sword and quitting out of frustration. After the match, while Ueshiba was pondering what happened, he had a great revelation which helped him understand a new approach to martial arts. This approach was not about attacking and overcoming those trying to harm him, but instead focused on making it impossibly difficult for them to do damage to him. While Ueshiba was a practitioner of Jujutsu, this experience led him on a new path to develop a martial art that wasn’t about defeating others, but instead about making oneself unbeatable. Ueshiba passed his ideas on to his students, who systematized his ideas and pursued many different focuses and interpretations of Aikido. However, each of those students’ lineages still hold this idea of nonresistance as key. These students spread this unique idea of nonresistance in martial art and it was quickly embraced by the world.
Context and ‘effective-ness’
All three of these systems focus on grappling of Japanese descent. However, they each have a distinct specialization. Traditional Jujutsu focuses on armed grappling (as one would see on a battlefield), modern Jujutsu on unarmed grappling, and Aikido on “anti-grappling” (not letting the attacker control one). Depending on where one’s interests lay, one or another of these systems may seem more important or effective than the others. There is a great interest today in unarmed grappling and many believe systems like Judo and BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) to be superior. Sport competitions often seem to prove this to be true as they focus on one-on-one unarmed grappling. However, other professionals like law enforcement, security and military often find more application in traditional Jujutsu and Aikido, many of them citing on-the-job experiences where they used training from these systems. So why is there such a disparity in what is “effective”? Understanding what distinguishes these systems will help us understand what it means for a martial art to be “effective”.
One of the most important things to talk about is live training. Live training is a practice where those training go full speed, or very near full speed and actively work to overcome the other training partner(s). Matt Thornton, in “”, argues that:
An Alive training method must incorporate Movement, including spontaneous footwork and the active resistance and intent of all parties during drills orsparring; Timing, in which there is no “predictable rhythm… pattern, [or] repeatable series of sets” which would lead students away from acquiring applicable skill; and Energy, the practice of committing, with intent and realism, a given technique during sparring, “bag work”.
When discussing which type of system is best, it must be understood that there are two parts to martial study. One part is the syllabus of the system- what kinds of techniques, tactics and strategies it employs, and also the methods by which one trains those techniques, tactics, and strategies into the unconscious mind. When talking about training the unconscious mind, live training is superior to all other training methods. Static forms are undoubtedly valuable, but without live training that one finds in something like sparring, students of the system will not ever learn how to actually apply the system. If the system one trains in does not have some form of live training, they will be at a serious disadvantage. Technique selection and refinement is much better when one is able to use live training to test out and improve their techniques. Modern Jujutsu lends itself to this kind of practice very well, as its unarmed nature and sport-like qualities make understanding how to train like this very simple. Traditional Jujutsu and Aikido have a lot of work to do in this area in order to catch back up to modern Jujutsu.
While many traditional Jujutsu and Aikido practitioners might be interested in live training, it is not as simple as copying the methods of live training used by modern Jujutsu. Live training methods must be tailored to the context of that particular system. Attempts to simply copy the methods of live training found in modern Jujutsu will lead practitioners of the other systems to believe that the techniques found in modern Jujutsu are simply the best to use, because they are custom made for that situation. If traditional Jujutsu and Aikido are going to add live training methods to their systems, these live training methods will be unique to the context of each.
Distinctions between modern and traditional Jujutsu
It must be understood that traditional Jujutsu had a very long period of development and was tested and perfected on the battlefield. When Judo was first invented it seemed that Kano had improved on the system of Jujutsu. However, what he actually did is focus more heavily on what had previously been a less important aspect of traditional Jujutsu- unarmed one-on-one grappling. He eliminated many technical aspects that were important to traditional Jujutsu and had his students focus only on the techniques for one-on-one unarmed grappling. He created a practice that allowed his students to use live training methods to help them master these techniques. When older Jujutsu systems where pitted against this new system that was better streamelined for unarmed one-on-one grappling in unarmed grappling matches, Judo generally won out. Traditional methods of Jujutsu came from the battlefield, where they were facing a context much different than they were facing in these unarmed sportive matches in which Kano’s approach showed itself to be more successful.
In Judo, techniques focus much more on core control, and much less on arm control than do traditional Jujutsu schools. Core control, such as a standing clinch or body to body ground pin is a far superior way to control the opponent’s body, when compared to attempting to control opponents through their arm. Traditional Jujutsu schools focus more on arm and wrist controls and less with body to body control than does modern Jujutsu. The favoring of arm control in traditional Jujutsu is done because battlefield grappling dealt with armed opponents, while Judo players do not. Even though modern Jujutsu and traditional Jujutsu are both grappling systems, the presence of a weapon changes the way one must apply technique. Wrist techniques are of no importance in Judo as they do a poor job of controlling the opponent’s body. However, wrist techniques in traditional Jujutsu are of great importance because they enable direct weapon control, disarms and give the ability to damage the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints, taking away their opponent’s ability to manipulate weapons.
As Judo has continued its evolution, there has been more and more emphasis in competition on body control and less emphasis on appendage control. This is because the appendage controls are not as useful as direct body control for their modern application of unarmed grappling. This same evolution can be seen in historic German wrestling manuals. As German grappling called “Ringen” left the battlefield and became a sport focused on one-on-one unarmed grappling, there was a de-emphasis on hand and arm control, and an increased emphasis on body to body and leg holds. While Judo has only recently (just over a hundred years) been removed from battle field grappling, Ringen had several hundred years to develop. It seems the longer a grappling system is kept away from weapon conflict, the less arm control will be seen in successful technique. This can also be seen in Folk, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman wrestling; these modern systems focus mostly on body to body control and much less on arm control. This is because all of these systems share an interest in unarmed grappling and not armed grappling. If a weapon is present, the arms must be accounted for first and the body second, failure to do this will end in the practitioner being mortally wounded. This is the opposite in modern sportive grappling systems, where the hands and arms are generally considered to be of little importance and gladly released to gain better body control. While there are still many useful arm techniques for unarmed grappling (Seoi Nage, whizzers, arm drags, two-on-one) they are of much less importance in unarmed grappling when compared to armed grappling. Techniques that involve hand and arm control might be of more use to modern law enforcement or security officers, as the context they are in often requires them to deal with armed attackers. If traditional Jujutsu focused more on live training, few professionals of this type would choose modern Jujutsu over traditional Jujutsu- as their context requires a skill set better represented by traditional Jujutsu.
Many think that hybridizing traditional Jujutsu and modern Jujutsu will improve them. Hybridizing techniques and training methods from modern Jujutsu to traditional Jujutsu is not ideal, because of the context of each system. Modern Jujutsu focuses on unarmed grappling while traditional Jujutsu focuses on armed grappling- these different contexts require different technical syllabus, and different live training practices. One cannot simply hybridize these two systems to get a better result, they require separate training methods for each. This hybridization with modern Jujutsu techniques and live training methods will also not yield good results for Aikido, as it has its own unique context.
Distinctions between Aikido and Jujutsu
Unlike both traditional and modern Jujutsu, Aikido’s context is not about physical domination- instead is it simply about self-protection. Ueshiba, commonly known to Aikido students as “O-Sensei” had a unique and innovative approach to martial arts. A system based on pure defensive action, it is often heard in Aikido circles that Aikido has no attack. O-Sensei can be quoted as saying:
In Aikido we never attack, an attack is proof that one is out of control. Never run away from any kind of challenge, but do not try to suppress or control an opponent unnaturally. Let attackers come any way they like and then blend with them. Never chase after opponents. Redirect each attack and get firmly behind it.
In Aikido the idea is not to “get” your attacker, but instead to not allow them to “get” you. Aikido’s predecessor, traditional Jujutsu, does not have this same philosophy, and neither does modern Jujutsu. This makes hybridization of Aikido with other Japanese grappling arts nearly impossible.
Because Aikido is so closely related to traditional Jujutsu, and the concept of not attacking one’s attacker (asymitry) is a hard concept to understand, those trying to work with Aikido as a “martial” art usually practice the system like traditional Jujutsu. Further complicating the issue, because current martial arts culture is preoccupied with unarmed one-on-one grappling, Aikido students attempt to apply what basically amounts to traditional Jujutsu in a context involving primarily unarmed grappling. This is a very poor fit and yields problematic results. Adding to all this difficulty, Aikido students do not have a serious live practice that keeps them informed about how to apply their system in the proper context. All of these factors lead to two separate camps of Aikido practitioners. One group is essentially practicing traditional Jujutsu (these are often known as “Hard Aikido” styles), but attempting to use this traditional Jujutsu type practice for unarmed one-on-one grappling. Conversely, the second camp, often called “Soft Aikido” styles, try to adhere to the philosophy of nonresistance and no attack, but have no live practice, so they have no real way to manifest this philosophy into martial application.
I have spent a lot of time studying all three of these systems. I enjoy that modern Jujutsu delivers exactly what it says it does, is a fun practice and has application in unarmed grappling, which has some practical use in conflict. The commonality of live practice in modern Jujutsu makes the general level of practice high, and because the idea of unarmed grappling is so apparent, most people can quickly understand how modern Jujutsu might be useful to them. On the other hand, traditional Jujutsu has material that I personally find much more useful when I think of actually defending myself. It’s hard for me to picture many situations, outside of sport, that I would be defending myself unarmed. As someone concerned with personal safety, I am almost always armed, so it is unlikely that I will be unarmed in a conflict. I also expect anyone who is serious about attacking me to be armed. If I had to grapple with someone in a self-defense situation, I’m sure there will be a weapon present. Overall, I find traditional Jujutsu techniques more practical, which is why I personally prefer traditional Jujutsu to modern Jujutsu. However, my traditional Jujutsu includes live training- which is indispensable.
As practical as I find both of the above systems, I find Aikido most practical of all. The general philosophy of not attacking people fits my civilian lifestyle best. Also, because Aikido is focused on anti-grappling, it is the only art of the three that allows for multiple attacker situations- which I personally find to be a very real threat. Though most Aikido schools don’t have a reasonable way to understand Aikido as a martial art (because of its lack of a useful live practice), the potential for Aikido is great, and much more useful in the modern world than either modern or traditional Jujutsu.
If you take the time to understand all three of these system types, I think you too will grow to appreciate them each on their own level and realize that all three hold practical promise. I think it is very easy for modern Jujutsu practitioners to criticize traditional Jujutsu and Aikido- and in many ways they have a point- traditional Jujutsu and Aikido are not good at unarmed one-on-one grappling. However, I think if modern Jujutsu practitioners would start to open up to these other ideas (armed grappling and anti-grappling), they could find other areas of training they may be interested in. Similarly, if traditional Jujutsu and Aikido practitioners would stop trying to morph their systems into something they are not, and work on good live training methods, I believe they would find more personal contentment with what they are practicing.
When people want to study martial arts, what they are looking to study is conflict and the ways one can deal with conflict. It’s important to understand that conflict has many stages and each stage requires a different skill set. As a student of Aikido, understanding these different stages and where our martial art fits on this gradient will help you to better understand what Aikido is trying to help you learn.
When people study martial arts, they will often say “I’m learning to fight”, but in a martial art like Aikido we often specifically say “Aikido isn’t about fighting”. So how can Aikido both be a martial art and not teach about fighting? All martial arts are about conflict- specifically systems of dealing with conflict in a personally beneficial way. Aikido is no different- in Aikido we are training to deal with conflict in a way that is personally beneficial, and, if at all possible, not too damaging to the person that attacks us! It’s that last part- doing our best not to harm our attacker- that leads us to form this opinion that Aikido is not fighting. Aikido can be a martial art and have nothing to do with fighting because all not conflict is a fight!
All conflict isn’t a fight. It’s kind of like how a rectangle is not a square but all squares are rectangles. Conflict isn’t always a fight, but all fights are conflict. Thus, conflict is a larger category than fighting is. Fighting denotes a struggle between two (or more) parties, while conflict is simply an opposition of ideas, motives or actions. Conflicts often become fights, but humans have learned other ways to solve problems, ways outside of fighting. For example, compromise is a way to avoid having to fight. A compromise happens when differing parties make concessions and blend together their different ideas, motives or actions in order to come to an agreement. Another word we often use to describe this idea is “accord”. Accord is the word I would say best describes Aikido training. Accord means making certain concessions in order to achieve a desirable agreement. An accord is in no way a fight- but is born of conflict. Accord is a way of arresting conflict before it degenerates into a fight, or to put it more simply, struggle.
When I say arresting conflict before it degenerates into struggle, I’m eluding to a spectrum of conflict. Conflict doesn’t start at struggle- it ends there. There are many opportunities before struggle to resolve conflict. Aikido seeks to do just that- resolve the conflict before it becomes struggle. Below I have illustrated the gradient of conflict- take a look at each of the stages and notice how they all require different skills of resolution. Also notice where Aikido sits on this spectrum.
Having looked at the spectrum, I want you to stop and realize how powerful it is. If you understand what the spectrum is showing you, you’ll see that by understanding these stages and the tools you’ll need to resolve problems at these stages you can be well ahead of struggle! This model can help you to organize the information you’ll need to be most successful at each stage of conflict.
Let’s talk for a minute about the spectrum and exactly what it’s showing us! All conflict starts with “Proximity”:
Proximity simply means being close by- in this article we are talking about physical conflict, so physical proximity is essential for conflict to arise. However proximity could also mean proximity through correspondence like on the internet or broadcast, et cetera.
Relationship. Conflict will truly start to arise at the stage of “Relationship”. While it might sound strange, every time you are close to someone you enter into a relationship with them, the first rung on the ladder of this relationship is “stranger”. Through various means we move up and down on the ladder of relationship with people- if our interaction is pleasant they become someone we “Like”, if we trust them with details of our life and that goes agreeably they become a “friend”, and so-on. If our interaction is unpleasant they become someone we “Don’t like”, worse still is someone we hold in “Contempt”, as we go further down this ladder, we begin to have physical impulses towards harming this person- here is where we enter into the stage of “Intent”.
Intent is where I start to actually plan out what I want to physically do to the other person. Whether this plan is as simple as visualizing punching them in the face, or as complex as manipulating or trapping them down the road, the stage of intent always comes before “Action”.
Action has two phases, “Speculative” and “Certain”, but both stages require physical action on the part of the attacker. This action is what they use to achieve their goal- it could be sneaking up behind you two days from now, or directly lunging at you. The stages of “Intent” and “Action” is where Aikido works the most, this is why we are required to have Kokyu (relaxed ready), Musubi (binding of intent) and Awase (blending of physical action). If we can not resolve the problem at the level of “Action”, we move down the spectrum to “Contact.”
Contact is the first time the body is physically met. This meeting could be a punch or a grab, it could come from a foot, or a bullet, it is simply making a point of contact, be it soft or violent. If the conflict isn’t resolved at “Contact” we will move down to “Struggle”.
Struggle is the last stage of conflict, here we will reach a resolution one way or another. While all conflict naturally moves towards struggle, it’s important to realize that there are many ways to arrest this progressions before the struggle happens. Struggle requires more work and has a higher potential for danger than any of the other stages. Struggle is the least ideal way to end conflict, and should be avoided if at all possible.
This spectrum can also show you why many of these skills you learn in Aikido are much more practical than those you might learn in other martial arts systems. I say more practical because for most of us, solving a problem before it comes to physical blows is much more ideal than having to headlock someone! However it is also important to understand when looking at this spectrum that Aikido is limited (as are all things) in its area of effectiveness- if you want struggle skills, you’ll need to learn a system that teaches those. As I see Aikido, it works mostly with Intent and Action. We do some work in contact, but mostly we’d like to avoid it. By doing this we limit the amount of physicality needed- why children and old people should be able to do Aikido.
Understanding this spectrum can help you to understand our art and, even better, martial arts as a whole! Go study!