The Myth of Being Hurt and Deserving It

‘If someone tells you you’ve hurt them, or done them wrong, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.’

The essence of this tiny proverb is that, no matter the grievance, and no matter the provenance of that grievance, there is always a reason for its existence. Even if, to an observer it is the most unreasonable or trivial, piddly little thing to be upset about, there is always a reason. Especially spoken in the defence of the aggrieved, this statement calls for the taking of responsibility; a person cannot simply step away from the suffering he has caused, even if, to him, it is no suffering worth bothering about. This statement demands, on behalf of those who feel unjustly treated, that their concerns be taken seriously.

This does not mean, however, that all grievances are acknowledged as fully ‘the fault’ of the sufferer’s accused interlocutor. Just because there is a reason for a grievance, it does not therefore follow that causality is established. It is too easy, to my mind, to take this statement as an unchallengeable defence of the wronged, which leaves those who feel they’re been unjustly accused with plenty of ill content of their own. When certain quarters suggest that it is increasingly the case that younger generations believe that their feelings are more important than anything else, it plays into the hands of such parties to misinterpret a statement like this as a catch-all irrevocable justification of indignation and outcry. Yes, this statement speaks against such parties: ‘you cannot claim that the hurt of another does not exist and that you have no part in that hurt if you stand accused’. It does not, however implicate the accused necessarily in the wrongdoing: ‘you are guilty!’. As already highlighted above, there is always a reason for grievance, the grievance cannot be invalidated. At no point does this establish what that reason is, who should take responsibility for its causation, and what qualifies as a justification for that chain of causality.

The easy, naïve, and perhaps even intended use of the above proverb is to claim that every human has the inalienable right to feel unhappy when wronged and noone can diminish that right, or claim that there was no wrong done. This amounts to little more than ‘I am hurt and you must pay attention!’. This is not incorrect, but to stop at this point is to take the proverb literally to the point of reducing it to trite, which in turn divorces it from both its usefulness, and its emotional elegance. At the very least in terms of writing style, five of eight (don’t, get, decide, that, didn’t) of the words of the proverb’s punch line are ferociously spiky and barbed, a delivery which carries the weight of the demand the statement calls for. That demand, as mentioned above, is for responsibility, but this is no one-sided demand, this is no aimless petulant rage. Yes, the proverb has a tinge of anger to it, but that anger is not, to my mind, aimed only at those who claim to have done no wrong: It is aimed just as much at those who claim to be wronged. The call to responsibility here is for the wronged and the wrong-doer, for the hurt and the hurtful. Those who have a part in causing grievance are summoned to be accountable for their acts, to take unhappiness seriously, no matter the occasion. Those who claim to be hurt are equally called to take unhappiness seriously; you can’t claim someone has hurt you and not be willing to defend that claim and justify the consequences it may have on another person. Nor can you claim to be hurt and not be prepared to be responsible about that claim. If you’re going to declare yourself unhappy and demand to be taken seriously, it is your duty to take yourself seriously to begin with, to be prepared to explain, support, and substantiate, why exactly you feel this is a wrong which should be justified by the offending parties.

This proverbial witticism demands that grievances of any order be taken seriously by all concerned parties, which, for me, suggests that not only is the accused obliged to stand and justify her hand in the acts of wrongdoing, but the accuser also has the obligation to detail, in sincere and confident terms, the nature of the grievance itself. If someone claims to be hurt by me, it is not my place to decide that that is not the case, it is true. However, if I claim to be hurt by someone, it is an imperative that I, myself, am able to ratify that claim to some extent if I am to be taken seriously at all. In this way, my choice of title is aimed at both the one who says ‘you deserve what you got’, and also at the one who says ‘I am suffering and I deserve the right to suffer’ – the call to take responsibility for grievance belongs to them both.

* * *

This little statement appeared in the realm of my social media-sphere a few weeks ago from one or another of the innumerable ‘inspirational messages’ pages that exist in the wide web. Many like them appear continuously,  in fact, from all kinds of sources. This form, this kind of ‘soundbite’ informational nugget, has become more or less ubiquitous, what with the full acknowledgement of the force of ‘virulent’ media from all quarters (marketing departments can spend all four seasons of every year trying to make their product ads ‘go viral’ if that’s anything to go by). A small chunk of text which strikes the reader with the a sense of truth, or even if it doesn’t strike him with truth, it’ll strike him with defiance in its own certainty, sometimes accompanied by an image or gif – twitter, tumblr, imgur, these platforms epitomise this style of delivery. The power of this mode lies in its proverbial nature; it makes its statement in absolute terms, as if it has been true and will be true for all time and for all people, in short, it appeals to universalism. This type of proverbialised statement offers no explanation for itself, it declares its truth as self-evident, and it appeals to an unalterable (yet unknown) body of knowledge as its only necessary support; common sense (and there are plenty of scathing things to say about the idea of ‘common sense’).

However, I’m not writing now to explain how this type of language works in the most gritty details (if you want to read that, please try the wonderful book Mythologies published by Vintage, the most recent edition being in 2009. The original articles were written by Roland Barthes in French and he is a marvellous writer even in translation. The sections at the end of the book, Myth TodayMyth as Stolen Language, and Myth on the Right, detail what I discuss above). I am writing about this (apart from my own enjoyment of the process) rather, because I feel that statements of this type always contain an exposed sliver of truth amongst the assorted truisms. I think for these truths to stand, or at least to be properly engaged with, proverbial sayings of this type should be given some due scrutiny, attention, and be given some of the contextuality they lack in order to gain something more fruitful than an idle reblog or share. It is my experience that it is all too easy for a person to disseminate these proverbs, more often than not, because he feels the proverb has a resonance with something in himself. However, when challenged it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the statement itself because of its own rhetorical method, leading to the torrid comment-section arguments which spread despair far and wide across the online sphere. In order to go beyond this depressingly familiar routine, I’d like to take a more rigorous look at this type of speech.

Some readers may note that I have used the tag Deconstruction in this piece. While I do not pretend to be carrying out any true deconstruction here in the lineage of the post-structural thinkers and deconstructionists of 1970s Europe, I do consider my writing to be heavily influenced by such thought and thus, see fit to use the tag here.

.3.1 Yurusu Budo – Death

‘Certain people in the world of Japanese martial arts began to doubt that Aikido was a martial art. This was only natural because people at that time blindly followed the same training practice as their younger days.’

‘In martial arts, the key to defeating the opponent is to advance a half-step rather than a full step.’

‘Martial arts is to be able to, at any time, defeat and destroy the opponent that confronts you and not doing it. It is to make sure not to destroy the opponent but to greatly spare the opponents life.’ – Shoji Nishio.

Shoji Nishio’s training at the Aikido headquarters school in Tokyo began in the 50s. He approached Aikido from a background of Karate and Judo and later would incorporate all three approaches and also dedicated training in the sword and the jo into a single system he called Yurusu Budo, or, ‘forgiving martial arts’. While Nishio never considered himself outside Aikido, it is arguable, and clear to see from his demonstrations and technical catalogue, that the technical syllabus, its practical applications, and the philosophy that Nishio taught are all a far cry from the standard Aikido practised today and in his own time. In what follows, I will consider Nishio’s ‘forgiving martial arts’ from a technical, practical, and philosophical standpoint in order to explicate what, I believe, are key elements of his particular style, and elaborate on why I believe this conception of martial arts contains inconsistencies which I find untenable. I will also suggest which regions of Nishio’s method I build upon and believe can be carried forward in advancing a further discussion on martial arts in the future.


            Nishio’s work arises from death – the death of Aikido as a martial art, the death of the Founder, the death of the martial traditions in Japan, the death of militarism and violence, and the encounter with death itself. This may appear unclear to the reader as it stands, but will be elaborated upon most clearly through the birth of Nishio’s technical forms, which I am examining in this section. In his own lifetime, Nishio experienced a generalised doubt over the efficacy of Aikido as a martial art. He certainly states that from other quarters in the public eye and in other arts themselves, many were sceptical as to the martial practicality of Aikido techniques. He never says this outright, but I believe that he also experienced this doubt in his own mind. Certainly, as a martial artist who was never constrained by one style or form, I believe he would have had to continuously doubt each style on its own from one aspect or another, else why would he have continued to push for new configurations and combinations of martial arts? Why would he have continued to question and explore if not for doubting even his own understanding of his arts (he does express that numerous times in his life he found himself unable to comprehend the Founder and Aikido’s teachings)? Indeed, Nishio did speak on his fear that one day the accusations laid at Aikido’s door would one day become a reality; that Aikido would fade into the same realm that much exported Tai Chi exists as now – a health practice or general wellness/fitness form of exercise: ‘We are finished if we only do “Aiki Dance”’. It is from this starting point that Nishio begins to develop his technical syllabus.

As I see it, there are two fundamental concepts which undergird Nishio’s technical curriculum: techniques are identical with or without a weapon in hand, and they all emerge in a single entering step known as irimi. These are both tenets that he credits the Founder with discovering, and thinks of himself only as a vessel for transmitting. Yet, when compared with the vast numbers of students who also studied under the Founder in the same time period and with the same teachings, Nishio’s approach is still unique amongst them. The obvious point of comparison would be the Iwama school of Aikido, disseminated by the Saito family, which also believes in rigorous weapons training and the application of striking techniques within Aikido, or the various schools growing out amongst the students of Seigo Yamaguchi, who was vastly influential in his time at the Tokyo headquarters school, and is cited by Nishio himself as an inspiration. The Iwama system has its own completely formalised set of fundamental and paired practice kata (forms) for both the sword and the staff, which are derived directly from how the Founder taught Morihiro Saito during his lifetime. The Iwama school’s use of striking is also more or less entirely confined to the use of striking within Aikido technique as disseminated by the Founder in the 50s and 60s. Yamaguchi’s techniques had a heavy resonance with the sword techniques, though I do not believe he taught a formalised sword or staff system amongst his Aikido students, instead focusing on how the sword form and empty-handed form were intimately linked. He was also famed for having an uncannily light touch, when throwing, pinning, or striking a partner, but was altogether rather orthodox (if exemplary) in terms of the technical syllabus he followed.

Where Nishio’s art differs is in its breadth and rigour when confronting problems universal to all martial arts, and in exploring other arts in conjunction with Aikido. Nishio openly taught and encouraged the practice of other martial arts in his dojo, particularly sword-drawing techniques (iaido), jo techniques (jodo), and striking and grappling methods from Karate and Judo. As opposed to Saito’s system which was completely ‘in-house’ so to speak, Nishio’s was sourced from masters in other styles who had little or no experience of Aikido to begin with. Nishio’s Aikido, therefore, contains a technical breadth which outdistances plenty of other schools across all styles of martial arts. Within Aikido, it is arguably also the style which contains the most direct correspondence between sword movements and empty-handed movements, some would even argue it is the only style of Aikido where the body movements between empty-handed and armed are truly identical. However, this does lead to some angles of entry which appear as bizarre and unnatural to the average Aikidoka. Nishio’s ikkyo from shomen uchi requires entering to the outside before cutting back to the inside in order to rotate back to the outside again to apply the technique. The angle of entry on katatedori kaitennage is unusual too in its obliquely diagonal engagement, and plenty of Nishio’s applied techniques simply don’t exist in other schools of Aikido (choking techniques or shimewaza, for example). Where most Aikido is taught with the essence of a single entry point which takes balance and allows the immobilisation of your partner, Nishio’s sometimes appears unnecessarily convoluted, leaving the practitioner open to counterattack, particularly in some iterations of his shihonage and kotegaeshi.

Nishio explains these movements through his experience in Karate, Judo, Iaido, and Jodo. Interpreting the Founder literally, every movement in empty-handed technique can be identically replicated with sword or staff in hand. This makes impossible certain movements in conventional Aikido, where the length or unwieldiness of weapons in close quarters makes it impossible for the technique to be carried out without some variation on its direction or fluidity. Thus, as a practitioner experienced with the sword and jo, not only does Nishio map his empty-handed techniques onto weapon-taking techniques and armed-vs-unarmed techniques, but also teaches sword-vs-sword, sword-vs-jo techniques, and even solo iai (sword drawing) forms corresponding to his entire curriculum. Further, he takes special care to make sure his Aikido movements are compatible with the principles he takes from Karate and Judo such that the spacing and distancing particular to his style allow for Karate-style strikes and Judo-style throws at any point in the technique. As if this wasn’t enough, Nishio also ensures that counter-techniques or continued attacks from Karate or Judo types of martial arts are unable to interfere with his techniques. In the aforementioned version of ikkyo, he demonstrates the outside-to-inside movement is necessary to allow the possibility of two or three throat and rib strikes and negate the chance for the attacker to reach tori (the thrower) with a follow-up punch or kick. In his katatedori kaitennage, his obliquely-angled entry puts him at a distance which allows him to deliver his own strikes, but puts him outside of uke’s (receiver’s) reach. It is the same with turns and rotations which seem odd or unnecessary – they negate the possibility of a counter move from a practitioner experienced in striking, throwing, or grappling styles outside of Aikido, or even the possibility of a counter from within Aikido itself.

Such an unusual variation on standard technique, no matter how rigorous, drew plenty of criticism from those in the mainstream, with such highly ranked masters as Koichi Tohei even suggesting that Nishio’s martial art no longer resembled Aikido at all. Additionally, plenty of martial artists in the competitive scene, or combat sportspeople still have no issue deriding Nishio’s particular training method for its own lack of a competitive element, suggesting that without competition or oppositional combat, there is no way to directly test the reliability of the art. This, in some ways, is precisely the point of such technical rigour. Since throughout Nishio’s career he drew together multiple disciplines, finding fault with one to repair that fault with another, to evolve his art to no longer resemble any traditional style, and equally to continue to court criticism from other bodies from which the style may enrich itself, would not have been against the technical goals of Nishio’s Aikido at all. Was Nishio a ‘mixed martial artist’? In the sense that he did indeed blend arts together, yes, certainly, this was the case. Would it be fair to call his work ‘mixed martial arts avant-la-lettre’ in the vein of Bruce Lee, who is credited with the same? I do not believe Nishio would not have identified himself with MMA for reasons I shall cover later, and I do not believe his technical repertoire resembles that of the conventional MMA ring, particularly given how many of his techniques are designed to be executed with the bladed sword, or strike to the eyes and groin (which are all, of course, not permitted in MMA competitions). I actually think the same of Bruce Lee’s art, which I hold is actually more similar to Nishio’s style than either, I think, would acknowledge. In a way, despite identifying himself staunchly as a follower of the Aikido of the Founder, Nishio’s Aikido is technically much more akin to something whose ultimate goal is to transcend the boundaries of any single school of martial arts and act as a unified martial art encompassing the whole world of martial techniques.

This is embodied especially in the technical principle of irimi which is the singular entrance from which Nishio used to say the entire technical possibilities of his system sprung. For Nishio: ‘one step […] irimi lets innumerable techniques emerge’, ‘it is to lead the partner’, ‘it is possible with the principle of irimi issoku [entrance in a single step] to instantly destroy the opponent’. It is evident here that from this single step, this irimi, Nishio’s whole technical syllabus is simply a way of expressing and achieving that entrance, that possibility of destruction where ‘at the very moment of contact [… you] can control the opponent’. Though for Nishio, this is an aspect native only to Aikido, even from his own inclusion of innumerable other arts, it is evident that this is a concept which crosses multiple practices and traditions. This is also clear in Nishio’s use of no distinct stances in his training, which is also inherited from the Founder: ‘if you stand naturally, you can enter immediately when your opponent is about to move’. Yet when looking at Karate or Chinese forms like Xingyi Chuan or Baji Chuan, even in spite of the extensive training in low stances, one finds the more experienced practitioners reducing and reducing their use of stance in both practice and form. In competitive environments too, Karate practitioners, Kung Fu practitioners, even those in Muay Thai or Silat and Kali tend to adopt ‘free stance’ when fighting – a far cry from the technical and fundamental practices they go through using horse stance, cat stance, back stance, front stance, etc. Nishio’s method forgoes the idea of the use of singular stances to begin with in order to be able to better execute his ‘one-step entrance’ – irimi, which is, in my contention, a concept applicable to, or even at the heart of, all martial arts. Nishio’s martial arts could, in its technical essence, be boiled down to nothing more than these concepts: The irimi issoku in which the opponent is instantly destroyed, the absence of stance, which allows the multivalent execution of irimi, and the mutability which unifies armed techniques with unarmed ones. Why I have called this section ‘death’ is for the reason that Nishio’s technical syllabus, as I believe I have demonstrated above, is utterly preoccupied with existing on this boundary between living and dying, sparing and killing. The fully realised ideal form of Nishio’s technique is a painstakingly constructed effort to gift the practitioner complete immunity from harm while allowing them to deal mortal blows to their enemy (a horizon which not just Nishio’s art, but innumerable others also gesture towards). The martial artist is placed in the position of a God, or, if you prefer, of the Reaper (there is no difference between the two here for my purposes), one who delivers and withholds death at will. This is the spectre at the heart of Yurusu Budo – its forgiveness relies upon omnipotence.

This is my understanding, roughly put, of Nishio’s technical method – the ideal form. The astute reader will have already begun to pick up on inconsistencies within my outline of Nishio’s method and indeed, though I very much admire this way of training, I have my own reservations about the implications of the model of Yurusu Budo outlined above. I will explore these in further detail in the discussion of its underlying philosophy, which I turn to next.

.2 An Ally In The Defence of The Martial Arts

It will be necessary, however, to intercept an inevitable obstacle from the outset. Those particularly interested in Aikido, as I myself am, will notice resonances between my own argument and that of Mr. Pranin, the editor of Aikido Journal. I wish to highlight some of the similarities and differences between my thought and his in order to pre-empt objections which may arise from this coherence later, and to make my own position eminently clear. In his article: Are You An Unwitting Participant In The Demise Of Aikido?, Pranin highlights what he believes are the reasons for the decline in Aikido’s popularity in particular, and proposes his own solutions to these problems.

What does Pranin see as the source of Aikido’s declared demise? There are two main thrusts to his thesis. The first thrust gestures towards both a lack of historical engagement and technical inconsistency in the teaching of Aikido itself. Especially in the earlier publications of Aikido Journal, Pranin declared himself an historian of the martial art, an individual dedicated to examining and preserving the roots and grounding of Aikido through thorough and impartial inquiry within the global Aikido community. This project is one that I find both admirable and necessary. Pranin is correct, to my mind, to suggest that the transmission of Aikido from generation to generation, from teacher to future teacher, has been inadequate to maintain some of the most dear principles of the art in widespread practice. Pranin suggests that there is ‘an almost universal tendency to resort to physical strength when attempting to make techniques work – when Aikido practitioners get stuck, they tense up and try to force their way through the technique’. I do not believe his claim that this is ‘almost universal’ is true, but I do believe that this is more widespread than it has any reason to be, especially given that Aikido is a martial art specifically built on the principle of not relying upon sheer physical opposition to be effective. I concur with Pranin insofar as I believe this is primarily an effect of poor transmission. Aikido teachers (and teachers of all martial arts) have very little in the way of standardised pedagogy, and where governing bodies and teaching structures do exist, they very rarely manage to well negotiate the line between rotting artistry through rigidity and becoming so esoteric as to be useless.

A prime example of this failure can be found in the lineage of the late great master Kazuo Chiba. Spoken about in tones of awe and fear during his lifetime, even amongst his most devoted students in the UK and USA, he was nevertheless reputed to have exquisite timing and such a commitment to martiality that none could doubt the effectiveness of his technique or its faithfulness to his time spent learning under the Founder and other staff at the Aikido headquarters in postwar Tokyo. Chiba is also known to have studied Karate, and spent a large part of his career on the sword and jo (four-foot staff), ensuring that his art was effective both armed and unarmed, and faithful to the principles of the Japanese sword on which it was based. The problem with this was, when Chiba was sent to the UK, and later the USA to establish Aikido communities in those countries, the transmission of his skills to his students was not only incomplete, but in some cases nonexistent entirely. Throughout his career he continuously developed and redeveloped his methods, thus teachers who remained in the UK when he left for the States would find themselves practising sword and staff forms which were in some cases half complete or completely different to those practised in the US, which is not to mention disputes within the UK alone about who should be left to lead the associations Chiba set up, or act as caretaker of his technical tradition. In the present day, Chiba has passed and the British Aikido Board and the UK Aikikai are hardly on friendly terms between who is more faithful to Chiba’s teachings or who disseminates the more ‘true’ form of Aikido, not to mention the independent organisations and schools which riddle the country’s Aikido scene. It is plain to see that, even within just one of these associations, let alone between them, the Aikido taught varies wildly in technical focus, practical application, and philosophical consideration, each teacher a law unto him-or-herself.

Of course, I do not mean to single out the UKA and BAB for criticism here, and I believe that both contain many teachers who, in their own right are talented Aikidoka who faithfully disseminate the Aikido they have learnt throughout their careers. What I am highlighting here is Pranin’s point that the dissemination of Aikido is inconsistent, its transmission is flawed, leading to the decay of technique and instead the reliance upon strength which he decries. This is a phenomenon which is global. I only mention this example because I am familiar with it and have trained within it for a number of years. Pranin’s and Aikido Journal’s work as ‘historians’ of Aikido is well placed to tackle this difficulty. Understanding the birth, life, and ongoing position of Aikido is vital to pinpointing the development of one’s own practice. Knowing what stage of training your teachers are at, and what stage their teachers were when they were learning, and how these different phases and styles mesh together is key to being able to critically evaluate not just the differences, but the bonds and commonalities between one type of Aikido and another. Studying the lineages of Aikido since the Founder, and at the very least, knowing that there are many other valuable approaches to the art in the world, opens the possibility for organisations banding together and learning from each other, rather than bitterly fighting about the variations in their teaching methods. More organisations communicating and sharing leads to a more rich and well-rounded martial art, and in the future, will tend towards pedagogies and principles enriching each other and being standardised in a productive, rather than punitive way, across multiple schools. This is how I believe the first thrust of Pranin’s argument stands – Aikido is not united globally, it is fractured from teacher to teacher and student to student, causing the dilution of technique and the loss of integrity from the art. The investigation of Aikido’s context and history (in my terms, a greater study of the art’s philosophical elements) will develop a broader, more open-minded, and united understanding of the art and how each practitioner fits into its larger structure and contributes to it. This richer understanding gives direction and meaning to technical study, serving as a guide for where the practitioner’s personal abilities and preferences fit within the art and offering role models to aspire towards. Just as conversation and education require the inclusion of more than a single viewpoint, so too does the Aikidoka profit from engagement with the wider environment of martial arts practice within and without their own style.

The other thrust of Pranin’s thesis is that current society’s point of conjunction with the martial arts exists as ‘a world filled with flashy martial arts focused on competition, the more violent the better’, and that current Aikido’s public image is unable to gain sustained interest within such an environment. Pranin is largely critical of combat sports and martial arts which include competitive elements, as is evident from the statement cited above alone. His perception is that such arts perpetuate a culture of violence and sensationalism which pervades contemporary society. For Pranin, it is not only that humanity in this era fetishises and valorises conflict and bloodshed, but that martial arts which engage in competition actively serve as conduits through which already violent individuals may learn more effective ways to harm others. While it is true that Aikido is fundamentally non-competitive and does not encourage conflict in any sense, I believe that Pranin’s stance on this matter is incorrect, misguided, and prejudiced. Such an accusation warrants quoting him at length:

‘Young people prefer the sensationalized martial arts they see depicted on the movie screen in gory displays of violence. They want something they can learn quickly and turn themselves into superb fighting machines in record time. They have no moral compass to guide them in the meting out of techniques designed to kill and maim. For them, if the other guy starts a fight, then he is fair game to be taken down a notch.. If he gets hurts in the scuffle, then was happens to him is well-deserved. Aggression inspired by arrogance lead to destruction and humiliation, a lesson learned by Japan in the aftermath of World War II. […] Action scenes by some of the biggest names in Hollywood and China, not to mention the uber violence portrayed in video games, simply reinforce this mentality.’

(Pranin, 2015/09, Aikido Journal Blog)

This representation grievously and grossly caricatures competitive martial arts, martial arts cinema, video games, 1940s Japan, and young people in an attack which, if not entirely unfounded, does Pranin’s cause no good whatsoever. It is true that combat sports such as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Vale Tudo, and perhaps even the humbler boxing and kickboxing can make idols of violent individuals and violence itself (Mike Tyson serves as a well known example amongst many others). It is true that films such as Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak, and The Raid, appear to celebrate gore and disregard human life in their portrayals of battle and murder. It is true that the power fantasies courted by many videogames involve the single-handed destruction of thousands of lives and that there have been multiple cases of videogame inspired violence amongst young people since the turn of the century. It is true that Japan suffered ‘destruction and humiliation’ at the end of a war which they had entered with imperial ambitions. Finally, it is true that there are plenty of young people who are quick to anger and who, knowing a little something about martial arts or combat sports, are also quick to hurt others in order to validate themselves or claim vengeance for supposed wrong-doings.

However, Pranin is too quick to generalise these traits to represent the majority, or even the totality of these entities. It would be a stretch to call champions such as Georges St Pierre (MMA) or Manny Pacquiao (boxing) ‘violent’ people, and what of all the disenfranchised and struggling individuals who find a productive outlet for their troubles in combat sports? Would Pranin paint Karate masters such as Hirokazu Kanazawa and the whole of the art with the ‘violent’ brush for having a competitive element? Though recent martial arts films by such artists as Donnie Yen or even the Hollywood action films by Jason Statham and the like are easy to view as carnivals thrown in honour of the unrestrained hypermasculine need to validate ego through violence, what of Jet Li’s Hero or Fearless? What of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or even Kung Fu Panda? These are martial arts films which use the violence which comes with martial arts to tell fantastic stories and explore characters in ways which, if not always profound, are certainly valuable. Hero, Fearless, and Crouching Tiger openly use the martial arts to discuss the importance of ending conflict, of abandoning the sword, and of abstaining from vengeance along with the consequences of ego and bloodlust in the martial arts. Hollywood films like American Sniper or The Hurt Locker (though they both have other problems which I won’t go into here) both use war and its harrowing backdrop to discuss the consequences of violence and conflict, and humanity in such an environment. Videogames too, such as Spec Ops: The Line, or Darfur is Dying are specifically dedicated to studying violence and its consequences in games and in real-world conflicts, and there are massive swathes of games which encourage and reward non-violent play (Metal Gear Solid, Undertale) or teach the player to value cooperation and compassion (Ico, Journey). Will Pranin throw these all out wholesale for the ‘gory displays’ and ‘uber violence’ of some members of the set? It is unclear from his prose whether his comments regarding Japan are his own views or meant to be attributed to ‘the young’. Even so, Pranin’s comments on Japan here seem to imply that, through the nation’s military actions in China and against the USA (‘aggression inspired by arrogance’), the country somehow brought the nuclear attacks upon itself, as if the detonations of the only two nuclear devices to be used against humans in history were somehow deserved. Meanwhile he fails to mention the uncountable instances of other nations throughout history which have only profited from their imperial ambitions, arrogance and aggression (Britain, France, Holland, Spain, the USA itself). If he believes this himself, it serves no purpose to bolster his argument (I reserve any ethical commentary as personal attack is not my project here). If he attributes this to ‘the young’ then he does them a great disservice, portraying this indeterminate ‘young’ as completely dispassionate or even morally corrupt with regard to human life. This is perhaps the most disappointing part of his argument: Pranin decides to alienate the group of people he should be appealing to more than any other. Where will the future of Aikido, or of any martial art or any discipline at all lie, if not in the hands of today’s young who are tomorrow’s masters? Being in the 18-25 demographic myself (at time of writing), and most of my acquaintance and friends also being so, I find it absurd to claim that ‘the young’ generally, the world over, ‘have no moral compass’ – but even supposing it were true, would such a statement help make any steps towards providing ‘the young’ with a moral philosophy, as Pranin suggests Aikido should? Even supposing all of the young people in the world did entertain themselves with gore and long for the power to quickly learn ways to violently dispatch their enemies, all the while revelling in an egotistic sense of justice, fuelled and brainwashed by hyperviolent media – what purpose does it serve to vilify and shame them? If this imaginary ‘youth’ were not against Pranin’s project before, they certainly would be now! At no point in Pranin’s article does he make any attempt to court the interest of younger generations or those who he supposes ‘have no moral compass’ who he believes would be most in need of Aikido to educate them! That aside, should any young person read Pranin’s article and happen not to resemble the caricature he draws of them, how likely is that person to approach the community Pranin is writing to, or involve herself in their art which declares itself so hostile to the entire generation? How can Pranin write an article on being ‘an unwitting participant in Aikido’s demise’ and continue to repel the very people who would save the art from despair and irrelevance? If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, I am acquainted with plenty of young martial artists who are enthusiastic, dedicated, curious, and hungry to explore the potential of their own bodies in both competitive and non-competitive environments. All they are searching for is a community which is friendly and open to them and teachers to guide them. I might add that I find many to be the most sincere and honest practitioners I have had the joy of training with, their cups still empty, as Bruce Lee might say. My most major disappointment with his project is that Pranin makes no offer of friendship to this particular demographic after so vehemently declaiming them in an unfounded attack which alienates and disenchants the reader. To repeat myself for emphasis: If the young reader was interested in Pranin’s Aikido before, she certainly won’t be after reading.

Not only is Pranin’s diagnosis of the plight of Aikido misguided, however, but his solution is equally flawed. ‘Go back to the source!’ he cries, advocating a return to the Aikido of the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei. It is true that there is much to be gained from studying the technique of Aikido’s founder and perusing the technical manuals handed down through the Iwama-ryu lineage of Aikido and the Saito family (a school and lineage of which Pranin is a member). I, myself, own copies of some of the Saito manuals and have lost many hours viewing the extensive video material published by Iwama-ryu and Aikido Journal available online. There is definitely a place for those who preserve the technique of the Founder and who catalogue and document and rigorously reconstruct those teachings, but this is only a part, not the whole of the future of Aikido, or of any martial art. For Pranin: ‘basing ourselves on Morihei Ueshiba’s example, we can rescue aikido from its slow descent into oblivion’, as if all it would take would be for everyone in global Aikido to sing from the same hymn sheet declaring the Ueshiba-Saito lineage of the art the ‘one true Aikido’ to make us unified, relevant, and appealing and valuable to all comers.

I find this supposition to be bizarrely optimistic, if not staggeringly naïve, as well as ill-developed and uncritically handled. The call to ‘return to the source’ is riddled with its own problems and inconsistencies from the outset. Why should the Aikido that Morihiro Saito received from the Founder in the 1950s and 60s be a more true source than the Aikido of, for example, Kenji Shimizu, who trained with the Founder at the end of his career and life? Or perhaps the style of the Yoshinkan school, which was inherited from the Founder in the 20s and 30s, and is now taught to the Tokyo Riot Police is the most true and original form of Aikido? It is extremely effective and combat tested by the law enforcement services, after all. What about Minoru Mochizuki who trained with Ueshiba in the 30s and was known to hold rank in Jujutsu, Karate, Judo, the sword and the jo and is supposedly the first person to teach Aikido outside of Japan? How about Koichi Tohei who was very close to the Founder in the 40s and 50s and established the Ki style of Aikido known as Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido? What about the living Ueshiba family, Moriteru and Mitsuteru who run the Tokyo headquarters? Shall we adopt the technique and philosophy of the Founder when he was a bodyguard in the Japanese military in wartime Manchuria? Should we go even further back and study the Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu of the Takeda family which was taught to Ueshiba before he founded Aikido? The list goes on interminably with no way of saying any one path is better than another. For Pranin to call for a return to ‘the source’ of Aikido he has to sustain the idea that one type of Aikido is better ‘source material’, is more original or more ‘what the Founder really meant’, than any of the others – a task which is impossible, especially given that the Founder changed his teaching style and beliefs multiple times throughout his career. Even if the Founder were alive today for us to ask him, there’s no guarantee his word on Aikido would reflect his teaching of it in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s, and then how would it be possible to decide which Aikido was the most true to ‘the source’? The appeal to Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu, too, is futile, as there are internal divisions in Daito-ryu as well between Takeda and Kondo lineages amongst others, not to mention that Aikido developed from Daito-ryu specifically by stripping away many of the more elaborate, esoteric, and irrelevant techniques of the art. It seems Ueshiba himself was no fan of remaining with ‘the source’, or Aikido wouldn’t have come into being at all!

Why does Pranin make the claim then, that the Iwama-ryu school and the Saito lineage of Aikido is the ‘way’ which will save the art, as opposed to any others? While I do not wish this to constitute a personal attack or a smear campaign against Pranin, I do believe that it is very much his own prejudice which leads him to this conclusion. Given that Pranin himself was a close student of Morihiro Saito and is a devotee of the Iwama school, it is unsurprising that he feels this teaching is the most ‘right’ way along the path of Aikido. After all, any faithful student who believes in the teachings of their master would espouse the same. Leaving aside the fact that Pranin stands to make financial profit from Aikido Journal’s publications of various training materials in the Saito lineage (once again, I wish not to cast aspersions on character or make personal attacks), if it is the case that Pranin simply is faithful to his master, that is, believes those teachings and those teachings alone to be ‘the way’, then I think his prejudice is understandable. Saito was indeed an authoritative figure in world Aikido and a great master of the art in his own right. There is much that the Saito lineage does have to learn from, not to mention that it contains the most formalised sword and jo system of any of the large Aikido schools to my knowledge.

Unfortunately, I believe that there is more to Pranin’s prejudice than devotion to Iwama-ryu. In his article he criticises the delegates at the annual All Japan Aikido Demonstrations comparing them to ‘circus performers’ and naming their demonstrations as ‘hollow performances’. In another article; Martial Arts Practice and The Deceived Mind, he has this to say: ‘the realm of sports and competition […] appeals to the lust for blood and violence that is instinctive in much of mankind. Those that participate and those that spectate at these events share a common mentality and morality.’ These sentiments, to me, suggest that Pranin, rather than simply following his teachers’ path faithfully and honestly, instead, actively looks down upon other members of the wider Aikido community, and the martial arts community at large. The logic of his argument here follows that not only is his Aikido the truest form, but that other Aikido is definitively inferior and should be disregarded; there is no space for negotiation or coexistence here. Not only that, but all sports and competitive martial arts turn out to be nothing more than arenas celebrating bloodshed, no different to the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. The idea that this desire for bloodshed and violence is ‘instinctive in much of mankind’, and that anyone involved shares ‘a common mentality and morality’, excludes not only martial artists the world over from Pranin’s Aikido vision, but ‘much of mankind’ as well. The argument could easily be made that Pranin’s argument follows therefore, that Aikido is the salve to mend this ill morality, but I do not believe this is Pranin’s thesis at all. In this article, Pranin is attacking ‘an inexplicable phenomenon in the thinking of many martial artists’. It is the martial artists themselves he is attacking; he locates the malaise within them as human beings, not within learnt morality or ethical structures. Indeed, when he says that ‘the lust for blood and violence […] is instinctive in much of mankind’, what Pranin is really doing is extending the elitism of his Aikido to all humanity. Not only is Pranin’s Aikido, so the argument goes, the superior martial arts form philosophically, technically, and practically, but it also makes its proponents superior human beings (as even those with an idle spectating role in sports are complicit in some kind of moral evil). Pranin’s argument builds a tower on which it can stand and look down on the rest of humanity. His earlier assaults on the young, the film and games industries, and other martial arts schools and styles are all swept up into one all-encompassing wave: that ‘much of humanity’ is fallen, we are lesser beings, by this reckoning. The world over, we have neither morality nor any proper competence in self-defence, and it is only the light of Pranin’s Aikido that will save us from ourselves.

Whether Pranin meant for his argument to support this view or not is unclear. What is pertinent, is that this logic demands a ‘with us or against us’ approach. The reader either identifies with Pranin’s interpretation of Aikido scripture and considers himself ‘inside’ Pranin’s Aikido, as separate from the realm of the uneducated and morally unenlightened populace, or reject’s Pranin’s thesis and condemns themselves to moral ignominy. Not only does this logic reject Pranin’s imaginary ‘much of mankind’ from involvement in Aikido at all, but serves to draw an ever stronger line between those who identify with his cause and those who do not. With the vast swathe of humanity no longer fit to involve themselves in Pranin’s elite, it does beg the question how he proposes to ‘rescue Aikido’ at all. This reads much more like a type of ‘the chosen righteous will be delivered from evil, but the sinners shall fall’ scripture than the very essence of Aikido that is familiar: ‘the way of harmonising energy’. I tend to interpret the ‘ki’ in Aikido as ‘intent’, or ‘feeling’ more than ‘energy’, and as such believe that the principles of Aikido are very much executable outside of physical altercation. I find that Pranin’s approach largely fails to embody the spirit of Aikido in the above discussion. There is no attempt made to unify with alternative approaches to Aikido, other martial arts, or varying perspectives on what social life in the 21st century consists of. Pranin’s argument elects a position of opposition rather than one of openness to engagement and sincere exchange. Rather than negotiate (read: blend) and involve itself with differing views, a binary ‘with us or against us’ ultimatum is posited which rejects all deviations from the singular ‘right’. Despite suggesting at one point that the practitioner should maintain a ‘beginner’s mind’, it appears that Pranin’s line of thought couldn’t be farther from the clear and curious emptiness of the beginner, but instead is committed to the idea of defending a ‘return to the source’, a source which turns out to be within itself, the very Aikido it espouses and which is disseminated by Aikido Journal. Not only is this argument sheer dogmatism, the slavish repetition of an already established mantra, but it is egocentric dogmatism – it finds the only path worth pursuing is something already within itself. I opened this work with a quote from the Founder: ‘What use is it to just copy my technique?’. In his later, more esoteric years, Ueshiba also spoke of Aikido as a force for dispelling conflict, unifying humanity, or unifying the practitioner with the universe. I believe that Pranin’s project is very, very far from not just my own thought (which encompasses all martial arts, not just Aikido), but also from some of the most sacred principles of the very art he is trying to defend. In the twin thorns of dogmatism and egotism, Pranin’s project finds itself hamstrung. In his attempt to save his particular brand of Aikido, Pranin damns it with the very evils he attributes to the rest of society: he commits the violence of rejecting others and their viewpoints unilaterally and absolutely in order to validate a singular justified self.

However, for all the problems I have with his argument and his logic, I do not wish to reject Pranin’s work. I still believe he has much to contribute that is useful to revitalising and reinvigorating martial arts in the 21st century. Beyond the narrow confines of Aikido, his critique of the dissemination of martial arts and its lack of engagement with its own philosophy and historicity is something I believe is important and largely accurate. I have already spoken about how within Aikido there is little consistency in teaching method, or in interpretations of the philosophy of ‘Aiki’, issues which are additionally compounded by the discord between institutions and individual teachers who cannot resolve their differences harmoniously (the very essence of Aikido itself). The same is true of global Karate, to my mind. Though the teaching structure of Karate is more formal (in that the set techniques, forms, and stances are all rigorously documented and syllabised), the depth with which those forms are explored and the focus of that exploration (for practical combat, for competition, for grading) varies wildly even amongst schools in the UK, which differ again from associations in Japan. The leadership of Karate in Japan is itself divided between the JKA, WSKF, SKIF, ISKF, and various others and that is only within the Shotokan style. The Okinawan style of Karate which pre-dates the Shotokan style is more or less completely separate from the Japanese schools of Karate. Okinawan Karate in turn makes itself distinct from its ancestor arts in China such as Fujian White Crane style, which shares identical forms and techniques yet is institutionally unrelated. Chinese martial arts styles on the whole are less organised than Japanese ones, as centralised organisation and global dissemination is much less stable in these styles to my knowledge. Even taking some of the more well-known styles such as the recently repopularised Wing Chun Kung Fu or Tai Chi Chuan, infighting amongst students and teachers and students of students of students over who should inherit, lead, or break away and set up their own school makes it nigh impossible to reach a unified consensus on the art’s direction. This is indicative in how styles like Wing Chun (and indeed, Aikido and Karate) are often figures of derision to professional fighters in boxing and MMA, and in how Tai Chi is most widely exported as a health and wellbeing practice rather than a martial art. The Jujutsu school I studied under (and without any aspersions cast on their integrity, they are an excellent school) itself was a recently founded organisation, which had split from its UK governing body for reasons of irreconcilable technical, practical, and philosophical beliefs.

As a student, it is very difficult, to my mind, to engage with and involve oneself in any of these disciplines this way. Given that a student is putting their faith in their teacher to pass on knowledge and skills, yet equally not indoctrinate them into a limited way of thinking and practising, making an informed decision on how or where to train is an immensely troubling task. I think Pranin’s historical task as both investigator and preserver of martial arts history and historical techniques can be used to help greatly ease this passage. If martial arts schools were able to clearly elucidate to students, both new and returning, the technical and philosophical foundations of their art, each practitioner would be able to make much more well-informed decisions towards the direction of their training. Not only this, but schools themselves would be able to enter into dialogue with each other more freely with the commonalities of a more solid and formal base to work from, rather than endlessly nitpick over the more glaring differences in style and taste. Of course, none of this is an easy task in the practical sense, but I do believe that there is much to gained from a more transparent, clear, and most importantly, cross-disciplinary and unified documentation of martial arts history, philosophy, and technique. If martial arts itself is, at its core, peaceful conflict resolution, individual schools and artists cannot seclude themselves in the shackles of a well consolidated bureaucracy, surrounded by already-devoted followers. This is nothing more than preaching to the converted, when really, the arts should be going out and engaging with those who specifically do not agree with their perspectives for the purposes of mutual enrichment and nourishment. Even if it were possible to bear out Pranin’s assertion that ‘young people’ lack a moral compass, if martial arts itself contains the tools to provide moral education then would it not be the duty of the martial arts community to offer this education to those who are in need of it?

Make no mistake, this is not a matter of ‘bringing the lambs into the fold’, my argument is not to bring people into the good church of martial arts, so to speak. What I believe is, that for martial arts to be relevant, interesting, engaged with, and useful to society (which will in turn save its waning popularity), it must look at itself with critical rigour, honesty, integrity, and acquire a better philosophical understanding of how the different arts and styles sit in relation to one another, and can feed off each other in the respects of technique, beliefs, and application. The arts must equally involve themselves with contemporary society and with people. There is no hope if the practitioners and senior governing bodies of martial arts see themselves as secluded from the everyday churnings of living, or if they elect to stand on pedestals and sneer down at the everywoman. We can discard the idea of the martial artist as the elite, or of martial arts as a ‘true’ way of living as opposed to an imaginary ‘false’, floating somewhere in the wider culture of the world. Once again, if martial arts are about peaceful conflict resolution, then within this philosophy, the various arts and styles should seek to resolve the differences and incompatibilities between themselves and society as a whole. This too, is why I prefer to see Mr. Pranin as a potential ally rather than a figure of opposition. I do not agree with plenty of the sentiments expressed in his argument, as I have detailed above at length, but I do believe that our projects are, on the whole, united. The essence of both his and my own line of thought is that the martial arts which we consider to be important and valuable to ourselves and to society are on the wane, and through our own investigation, cooperation, and open-minded receptivity, it will be possible to revitalise them. To summarise, I have little interest in Mr. Pranin’s arguments with regard to human morality, society at large, sports and competitive martial arts, films, media, videogames, young people, or even the future of Aikido, which I believe are largely uncritical, ill-conceived, prejudiced, laced with hypocrisy, and ultimately harmful to the martial arts. Why I choose to consider his work allied to mine even so, is because of the richness and value of the historical approach that Aikido Journal once espoused. Having a platform which catalogues and brings into conversation multiple perspectives and methods within any discipline is a great boon, and extremely valuable to the sustained unification and relevance of any art form, martial or otherwise. Continuous interdisciplinary conversations and exchanges in technique, application, and philosophy are things that platforms like Aikido Journal are best at offering (let us not forget that Aikido Journal once organised the Aikido Friendship Demonstrations and Aiki Expo events, which included interdisciplinary seminars and lectures from the most orthodox Aikido to Daito-ryu, Karate, innumerable styles of Kenjutsu, and even Russian Systema). It is this spirit which I believe should be salvaged from the arguments above, as the curious, open, and supple ability to learn is something to be encouraged in any individual human being as well as institutions such as the martial arts, specifically concerned with a form of teaching and education. To paraphrase the inimitable words of Bruce Lee, it is the role of the martial arts to fit itself to any vessel, whether that be the concerns of an individual practitioner or an unevenly globalised neoliberal informational society, the principle remains the same: to survive, be like water.

A Martial Arts of Submission

‘Sheathing the sword without hurting anyone is the future of Aikido’ – Shoji Nishio.

‘Help your partner live and thrive’ – Seishiro Endo.

‘What use is it to just copy my technique?’ – Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei.


Where does martial arts practice start for practitioners of the second decade of the twenty first century? Does it begin in fear – the fear of death, the fear of being out of control, the fear of powerlessness? Does it begin in wonder – wonder at the brilliance of screen legends like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, wonder at the apparently miraculous power of the martial artist who performs seemingly unnatural feats of blended grace and brutality? Does it begin even by chance – the chance which makes the curious bystander pick Jujutsu class instead of aerobics at the gym, the chance which allows the evening jogger to stop in a Karate class while out on a run, the chance which introduces a friend of a friend to a teacher? All of these and many more are ways in which students can be introduced to the martial arts, I only pick such examples because I know of them in my own life and amongst my friends and acquaintances. I do not believe any of these are enough to count as starting points for the practice of martial arts proper, that is: a grasping of what it means to be a martial arts practitioner and what the martial arts themselves represent. Anyone can come into class and doggedly repeat movements and there is certainly skill and value to this (I have even said before that I take great pleasure in watching kata [forms] championships in Karate because of the uncanny precision and dexterity of the performances, and who doesn’t marvel at the obscene feats of control the Shaolin monks can bring to bear on themselves?). Nevertheless, doggedness and dogma do not the martial artist make. It is easy to hop on the mat and rattle off copy-paste techniques, but in doing so, one may never access the essence of martial arts itself. In what follows, I wish to demonstrate that, far from the desire for a perfect self-defence (fear), the allure and grandeur of the miracle-working sage master (wonder), or the joyous happenstance of turning up and having a great time (chance), what makes martial arts practice what it is, what defines the practice as technically, philosophically, and practically coherent and sound, is a martial arts which begins with what I shall call submission.

It should be noted that in previous work, I have discussed and advocated the idea of a forgiving martial arts, one which is based upon the idea of forgiveness as irrevocable power and unlimited mercy. This was an idea espoused by the late Shoji Nishio, who was known to have held dan ranks in not only Aikido, but Iaido, Karate, and Judo as well, and in my formulation, encouraged a forgiving martial arts (yurusu budo) which held the potential for the practitioner to strike down their opponent at any time, yet always refrained from doing so. I no longer find this formulation of martial arts adequate. While I believe that this concept may yet be useful in the martial arts, I wish to move away from it for the inconsistencies it produces between the technical, philosophic, and practical sides of the martial arts, which I will begin to explain my view on in due course. Unlike sport or fitness (which is not to say that sports and other forms of exercise cannot also be practised in a martial way or be just as valuable), martial arts are concerned with ‘do’ – the notoriously difficult-to-translate-effectively suffix which usually denotes ‘the way’. The use of this term (Ju-do, Aiki-do, Karate-do, Ken-do, Bu-do) as opposed to the older jutsu (Ju-jutsu, Aiki-Jutsu, Ken-jutsu, Bu-jutsu) denotes the transformation of martial artistry from pure technique and use of technique in combat (jutsu) to the development and cultivation of lifestyle. Many martial arts were reorganised and renamed into ‘do’ rather than ‘jutsu’ structures in the period after the second-world-war in order to reflect the peace-oriented attitude of the time and to move away from the conservative and militaristic connotations the old martial arts schools had held, and in some cases even openly endorsed. In this way, it is my understanding that to practice the martial arts must be more than the idle, or even the meticulous or fervent learning of movements for fighting and killing; it should just as much be the investigation of the purpose of those movements, the circumstances of their proper use, and the place of those skills in their historical context. As a side note, it is easy to see how these attributes can apply to any physical activity, or any activity at all, which is why I say sports or fitness can be practised in a martial way – it is really only for want of a better term that I use ‘martial’ to denote this style of practice; I do not actually believe that sports or fitness are separate from the realm of the ‘martial’ insomuch as I believe that there is a difference between the quality of practice (of anything) as martially sincere and as only barely engaged.

It will not have escaped notice, either, that I have drawn only on Japanese or Japan-related martial arts in my discussion so far. I do not wish this to exist as a commentary only on the Japanese martial arts, and I equally do not wish to express the idea that the Japanese arts hold any kind of supremacy or priority over martial arts of other denominations, only that my personal history and experience is limited to those arts and it would be remiss of me to discuss other arts without proper investigation or authority. I do believe, however, that the principles under discussion apply to all martial arts and perhaps to all disciplines in general, with martial arts, particularly those of Japan, simply being my best lens through which to view them.

I should also take this opportunity to make clear some terminology I have been using. My use is not indicative of any wider use or standard but simply the way I am choosing to express myself given the lack of common nomenclature across the arts. I have spoken of the technical, philosophical, and practical aspects of the martial arts:

The technical refers to the study of the ideal and perfect form of any given movement. The practice of the technical is necessarily somewhat separate from its application in combat; it is the learning of technique, of the ‘how to’, in a safe environment where learning and experimentation are possible with some reduction of the risk of real injury.

The philosophical refers to the underlying ethical principles of the martial art at hand and how they are reflected in the technical and practical elements of the art. The practice of the philosophical is perhaps the most neglected of the practices of the martial arts. Most practitioners indeed never sit down to read about or write about the purpose or significance of what they study, or question the efficacy of the teachings handed down to them. The difficulty with the philosophical is that martial arts classes are not lectures, teaching is rarely in the form of oral discussion or debate, and rightly speaking, the technical aspects of the art are much better communicated through experiencing technique and exploring it rather than reading about or speaking about it. This leaves the philosophical element of martial arts as a more or less individual pursuit, unless the practitioner is blessed with like-minded friends, and thus this aspect ends up developing often in a vacuum and without the guidance of teachers or fora for the sharing of ideas. Nevertheless, it is a vital component to proper martial arts, to my mind, and the martial artist who never discusses or questions their technical and practical elements in conversation with others will be forever impoverished in their development.

The practical refers to the use of the technical in the emergence of an unscripted and unpredicted event calling for martial intervention. Few martial artists in history (if any) are able to translate the elements of their technical practice completely unchanged into the messy environment of unanticipated violence. There is therefore a disjunct between the technical (the ideal form) and the practical (how it manifests in combat). Battles bastardise forms, and make clumsy the smooth and practised machinery of technique. The practice of the practical is the exposure of the artist to a situation of genuine vulnerability where, unlike in technical practice, the risk of harm is pressing and urgent.

In the martial arts, the link between the practical and the technical is usually considered, I believe, to be the overwhelming majority of training. Indeed, most of the martial artist’s career can very well be spent reducing the separation between the two aspects; transforming your ‘O-goshi’ hip throw into nameless instinct, turning the ‘Tekki shodan’ form from awkward sideways shuffling into instantaneous solidity under pressure, realising your complex and laborious attempts at the wrist-lock ‘nikyo’ as a functional and immediate response to danger. This is the business of everyday training. The continuous examination, critique and re-evaluation of the student’s habits and movements in order to unpick and restitch them together, weaving the threads of technique into the tapestry of living.

The next most explored link is typically the one between the technical and the philosophical. Practitioners who attain a certain level of technical prowess, or who find themselves particularly invested in the minutiae of technique itself are those who most commonly investigate the implications of their techniques in a wider social, moral, ethical, or sometimes theological context. This will be familiar in the evolution of the teacher to the sage, a phenomenon common in older masters of almost any style of martial arts. Ueshiba O-sensei, Aikido’s founder, indeed became extremely esoteric and waxed lyrical about the Shinto gods constantly in his later career. Karate masters such as Kenji Ushiro have undergone ‘ki’ turns in later work, re-examining their techniques through the lens of intentional energy. Sensei such as Hirokazu Kanazawa focus their martial arts teaching on their global social impact and doing good for the Karate community around the world. Plenty of practitioners who begin the more philosophical exploration of martial arts also become founders of their own schools, usually because of decisive splits between their own beliefs about the art they practice and the beliefs of their teachers and governing institutions. This exploration of the logic which undergirds the techniques and methods that any given style chooses to teach is what really constitutes the link between the philosophical and technical aspects of martial arts. Whether these lines of questioning add up to cause division or union in the arts is a matter of individual taste and interpretation, but the process remains constant as a thorough investigation and interrogation of both the performed technical minutiae and the rhetorical justifications of the art as a whole.

The link which is least explored, to my mind, is the one which exists between the practical and the philosophical. While it is common to examine how technique can be practically used, it is not common to examine how the philosophy of martial arts is practically used. While it is common to look at how technique, the ideal form, embodies the philosophy, it is uncommon to look at how the uglier manifestations of technique and its effects in practicable situations embody the philosophy. Even amongst those with a great deal of martial arts pedigree, I feel there is little detailed scrutiny of how martial arts philosophy holds up or breaks down in the discordant event of hostilities. There is plenty of exploration of philosophy and practicality in what I call ‘ideal conditions’ (one on one, against an enemy who is presumed to be a similarly rational agent) or in ‘fantasised conditions’ (two on twenty, specifically with the odds stacked against the martial artists to demonstrate a particular point) and precious little else. Unfortunately, I run an unfair argument here: it is actually a sheer impossibility to begin with to examine the conjunction between philosophy and practicality without actually going and picking fights, and if the martial artist is picking fights to begin with, she is already influencing the conditions of the event, thus undermining the neutrality of their exploration to begin with. My critique here is not aimed against speculation about how to apply martial arts philosophy in trying situations in the first place, but rather designed to criticise the narrowness and repetitiveness of the speculation and experiments that exists currently. It is vitally important to speculate on how martial arts philosophy stands up outside of neat and tidy outcomes and ideal techniques, and there is nothing wrong with doing so, but it needs to go further than the tired-to-the-point-of-comatose question; ‘what if the guy is bigger than you?’.

Given then, that the idea of martial arts itself, as we have discussed, connotes the commitment to a ‘-do­’, a way, a coherent technique, philosophy, and practical application, my undertaking here will be as follows: I will look at my former interest in the idea of yurusu budo (forgiving martial arts) and demonstrate how it cannot sustain a suitable coherence between technique, practice, and philosophy. I will then look at how I have come to the idea of ‘submission’ as a productive alternative, building on the work of Nishio and Endo amongst others along with my own experience in various schools of martial arts. It will then become necessary to consider how ‘submission’ as the starting point of martial arts can manifest a coherent technique, philosophy, and practice and in addition, to consider how counterarguments may be put or problems arise from within this model itself. Finally, throughout this process I hope to speculate on how this principle can engage a martial arts that is no longer an isolated or separate realm from the concerns of contemporary society. In many ways, the martial arts act as escapism, as a power fantasy for the disenchanted to find themselves through, or as an environment where friends can be made and cares forgotten, in some cases, a field specifically encouraging an esoteric detachment from wordly concerns, or a way for human beings to believe themselves somehow exterior to – or worse – superior to other human beings. If martial arts is concerned with a ‘way’, that is, a ‘way of living’ then it must engage with the entirety of the lives of its practitioners and cannot seclude itself within the hallowed halls of the dojo or end when you bow off the mat. Just as the warriors of the sword and staff once fell to the shame of irrelevance in the face of the musket and Gatling gun, martial arts in contemporary society is itself, becoming irrelevant in the face of the more sensational and more dynamic combat sports like MMA (Mixed-Martial-Arts), yet even MMA is hardly a cultural phenomenon, barely touching the lives of massive proportions of society and dwarfed by the more well-developed sports industries. If the age of the warrior died with the birth of the gun, martial artistry has been slowly withering and receding from worldwide life ever since (aside from sporadic revitalisations in line with phenomenal personalities like Bruce Lee, The Karate Kid, and the more recent Ip Man movies which sparked a brief yet passionate renaissance for Chinese arts like Wing Chun). Martial arts needs to adapt itself too to the contemporary imagination and contemporary life. In order to avoid falling to irrelevance it requires a paradigm shift. I am not suggesting that my efforts here will define that shift, but I hope that they can perhaps offer something which may stimulate, if only through their refutation, the building of something new within this most dignified of traditions.


When you call a child names what reaction does this usually elicit? An impassioned ‘don’t call me that!’, a furious ‘I’m not [x]!’, a tantrum of sorts. Certainly hostility and anger, especially if you’re in a role of authority over the child in question (a parent, a guardian, simply someone older). It is the child’s powerlessness in the face of what is essentially bullying which leads to this intense response. In a tantrum, the child asserts dominance over the only things it can (its toys, its clothes, other inanimate objects, even its own body) hurling things and itself on the ground, tearing down nearby structures like curtains and tablecloths. In a teenager, or even a young adult, such instances of failed self-actualisation take more internal forms – sulking, brooding, long periods of seclusion, angry diary writing, secret drinking, substance abuse, self-harm, sometimes even the abuse of others and those close to them. In the adult whose sense of authenticity and identity is eroded and constrained by circumstances outside her control, it is easy enough to find solace in drink, perhaps to fall into depression, or lose yourself in work and the rhythm of the everyday – keeping on keeping on. And of course, the adult, too, much like the child and teenager, exerts his anger in an attempt to escape his out-of-control-ness, on whatever he has power over, including children and teenagers.

For the thinker of ethics and politics Simon Critchley, one of the foundations of politics is the nominalisation of a political subjectivity (2012). Without a political subject, a unified identity around which to articulate political and social struggles, a body politic dissolves into inefficacy and impotence. The act of naming is the act of defining political autonomy, the act of claiming agency. In denying Daesh the name of its own choosing, what is denied is the right to exist on its own terms, it is the right to self-define, self-actualise, and remain autonomous. The threats issued by Daesh to those who use the term only serve to affirm the fragility of the group’s political subjectivity. Yet, even still, Daesh is a name, a name which unifies and designates a group and, even though it is not one of their choosing, it does reinscribe their solidity as an entity.

And it would be grievous to forget that Daesh also has a name for its enemies too, one of them being ‘The West’. This name is itself riven from within with innumerable cracks and inconsistencies making it as shattered and ineffectual a political entity as if it had not been named at all. ‘The West’ does not and never has referred to a concrete political body – its political subjectivity is segmented across Europe and the USA with wildly varying degrees of influence, not to mention each individual nation is composed of enormous swathes of heterogeneous people, many of whom would not necessarily identify with many of the others. In this light, Daesh is a much more concrete and locally well defined political entity than the lumbering, massive, and nebulous ‘The West’.

Within this nebulous ‘West’, what Daesh has succeeded unsettling well in doing, is encouraging xenophobia, racism, and discrimination, leading to an upsurge in a small yet vocal extreme rightism. Whether or not this group is representative of the vast majority of society, it speaks loudly enough that it deepens the cracks already evident within the societies of ‘The West’. Those already disenfranchised and isolated are further frightened and segregated. Those already denied a name, denied self-definition, are further imposed upon; ‘immigrant’, ‘alien’, ‘foreigner’, names which themselves may not be derogatory become burdens when imposed on the subject, a shackle rather than the freedom that naming and self-determination should confer.

When David Cameron claims that the ‘real problem’ is the ‘extremist ideology’ of Daesh and that there is a moral obligation to destroy it with airstrikes, he makes a number of distressing errors. The first is that Daesh’s ‘extremist ideology’ is not the ‘real problem’ and the second is that ideology has never been vulnerable to airstrikes (much like terror has never been harmed by wars waged against it). Radicalisation does not happen because a belief system worms its way into a subject’s brain like a parasite or a slug and transforms them into an helpless, brainwashed radical. Those who are targets of radicalisation are not unthinking, hapless victims, they are thinking and feeling human subjects. How does such a subject then, decide that murder and martyrdom is a sensible course of action?

Like the child called names but denied its own, or the youth split between belonging and not belonging, or the fully grown member of the workforce disenchantedly persisting, automatic but not autonomous, the subject which is isolated, disempowered and afraid seeks validation, seeks an environment where it can exert its selfhood, where it can claim a sense of sovereignty. The vulnerable of society are nameless, ‘the subaltern’ as Gayatri Spivak [famous postcolonial and deconstructionist writer] would call them. They have no name through which to politically articulate, and no dignity or autonomy as a sovereign subject in and of themselves. Spivak would speak of India’s caste system and the ‘untouchables’ – who really become ‘unspeakables’ – those who fall outside of a caste, outside of a group who will identify with them, and who therefore belong nowhere in society, detritus. The ‘developed’ ‘West’ has vulnerable people too, all the moreso because it fails to acknowledge their existence. When an individual looks at their life and feels as if they do not belong in their society, a society which appears to reject them at every turn, and Daesh offers an alternative which seems somehow better, which seems to give them purpose and justice and a raison d’etre at all, it is the duty of government to question how conditions have been allowed to develop which make that possible.

Daesh is like the tantruming child or moody teenager of its region. It hurls its weight around, harming everything in its way in a bitter plea for both attention and validation. Like the rebellious youth, it claims it would have its dad in a fight (an appropriate analogy, given that, father like, Euro-American intervention did provide the conditions to birth and nurture Daesh in the first place), but shrinks from open conflict, instead choosing to pick on the vulnerable and weak. The group is made of such individuals, a gang of the disempowered and disillusioned who see no place for themselves in contemporary society and instead choose to attempt to destroy it in a final bid for self-actualisation. Critchley says that a politics of fear assures the order of the political unit through appeal to the threat of an enemy. In order to end such a politics of fear which pervades both Daesh (who names ‘The West’ its enemy) and our own societies (who name Daesh) and end the conditions which make radicalisation possible, the political undertaking is to offer people dignity, self-determination, a sense of belonging, and a sense of justice in their political and social life. It is to offer the silent, deprived, and isolated a community, a commonality, a name for themselves, an identity. Like when speaking to a child, government, and society as a whole, will have to get down on its hands and knees to look the lost and found in the eyes and treat them as equals. If, as was suggested earlier, the act of naming is the act of claiming agency, the perhaps ironic truth is that what will serve as lethal anathema to Daesh is the act of giving those vulnerable whom it preys on, the chance to find a name.

On Creativity

This post was originally published on the Exeter Creatives blog ( If you’re interested in creativity, writing, music, and finding ways to be a bit more than humdrum then give them a read, they’re interesting!

Due to all of us being rather busy with our own affairs in the lead up to Christmas, we haven’t actually be able to have a meet up and agree on a blog topic for a couple of weeks, but since I felt I’d like to continue writing, I’d like to write a little on creativity itself – fitting for a group calling ourselves ‘creatives’ don’t you think?

To begin then, how to define creativity? We’ll skip the rather grand way of interpreting: ‘the power to create’, since it is not my intention to discuss whether it is the part of Gods or humankind to ‘create’ or ‘bring things into being’. Instead we’ll take ‘originality, expressiveness, imaginativity’ as a starting point.

The problem of producing something original is well known to anyone who has ever tried to carry it out – in most any field (unless you’re fortunate enough for your field itself to be relatively new) it’s impossible to produce something which is entirely original. At least in literature (which I would say is the closest thing I have to a ‘field’) the themes that are written about haven’t changed since more or less forever. They’re so concrete in literature that there have been pretty solid genres in Euro-American writing since as long ago at least as the Greeks and Romans (let’s forget that there’s a fuzzy area between oral traditions and literature for now). The Tragedy and Comedy were populated by tropes and themes which commonly identified them just as today anyone can easily identify a novel’s (or film’s, or song’s, or painting’s) genre without much more than a glance at its legion of features which identify it. In today’s cynical language they’re generally called ‘clichés’;  the clumsy-yet-well-meaning-and-deep-inside-complex protagonist who leads the rom-com, the coming-of-age-but-desperately-struggling-with-the-melodramatic-weight-of-responsibility teenager who heads the young adult novel, the gruff-and-nasty-and-cold-and-gritty-yet-surprisingly-morally-firm-and-tenacious-and-occasionally-very-funny-ex-military-cop who sits in the main character chair of the crime noire. Tobacco (or galactic equivalent) chewing (space) cowboys, naive and straightforwardly bold (princes, princesses, hobbits, jedi) knights, mysteriously appearing sagely (wizards, fairy godmothers, goddesses, masters) elders, that one moody (love interest, exile, former spy, ninja, guitarist) girl/guy – these images are so set in stone that they could have conjured a hundred different stock settings and narratives in the reader’s imagination at this point and we’re barely scratching the surface (incidentally, cover art is so formulaic you almost really can judge a book by its cover), and this is for literature alone not to mention music or film. How to be creative in such a saturated environment?

Many try to set out and make something new by using new forms or new configurations of old forms. A rarer few attempt to write about new themes entirely or reimagine tried and tested themes in new variations. The use of new forms or variations on forms is constantly hampered by the prejudices, whether intended or otherwise, of audiences – the most overwhelming examples being in modern and digital art. The resounding cry ‘that’s not real art’, ‘my five year old could have done that’, ‘it’s all digital, where’s the engagement with the real world?’, ‘those things are trivial and facile and childish’, rises as if from the graves of generations of dogmatic conservatives to choke the use of new form. Contemporary forms from films, paintings and sculptures to hypertext art and videogames all face these criticisms which, in turn, lead those who do appreciate the new forms for their attempts at innovation to be branded as snooty elitists or worse, outright frauds who ‘just make it up’ – as if the interpretation of something ‘traditional’ like an impressionist landscape was any simpler than that of unpicking the textual nature of hundreds of lines of code of hypertext, or a novel any more intrinsically insightful than vast and painstaking installations. New attempts at themes run the even greater risk of being labelled as vulgar or elite or simply being boring on account of readers (listeners, watchers, perusers) simply not understanding how to engage with them. Can you imagine a book written not about love between two humans, but the relationship between an headphone jack and the auxiliary port on a laptop? Can you imagine a story about a noble slice of bread on a quest to become toast by any means necessary? A film about what it’s like to be a tongue? Maybe the bread’s toast quest is almost recognisable since it plays on such a strong theme (epic quest), but can you even imagine writing a hundred pages on the headphone jack? What would a feature-length about being a tongue even contain, and would you stay to watch all two hours and fifteen minutes plus commercials of it?

The new is reviled in its irruption, a problem the modernists confronted by embracing the ‘elitist’ label and creating works built for only the highest of high culture moguls (generally speaking of course). Novels too were hated when they first appeared (the ‘one true literature’ was poetry back then) and only overcame the prejudices of time by, well, time. Now, novels are celebrated (at least commercially) for the vulgarity that they were originally hated for (can you honestly tell me you’ve never read an airplane paperback or can doubt their widespread popularity?). Film, when it first appeared wasn’t considered art or artistic, and now it’s a massive global industry. Videogames still mostly aren’t considered artistic and that industry rakes in more than film per annum (not that money is an indicator of art, just that the medium’s growth and widespread popularity is undeniable)! And let’s not even talk about hip-hop, rap, EDM, or Metal as artistic. Whenever the new appears, historically it has been denied the status of art, and thus the potential for being creative, for being ‘original’ and making the ‘genuinely new’ is stifled by the very audience the creator tries to reach. True, if something truly drives itself into the imagination, it’ll survive the test of time and become the norm in 100, maybe 200 years. If you’re willing to wait for your creativity to be acknowledged until long after your death then I guess you’d best start bucking trends and hope for the best. It’s true that life expectancies are increasing I suppose so maybe one day that’ll be fine, but even then, by the time you’re acknowledged for your work, your style will have become dogma, will have become the boring cliché that everyone else is copying – and you’re denied the right to ‘originality’ again. The techniques that were once experimental and radical and hated by everyone turn into commonplace markers of the form (free-indirect-discourse was new when Joyce did it and now it’s everywhere – heck, the first novels didn’t have chapters or paragraphs, imagine how chuffed the person to invent those must have been, and how uncreative (s)he’d seem now!).

Is it possible to be creative in one’s own lifetime? Is it possible to be groundbreaking in your own age and also hailed as ‘original’, ‘expressive’, and ‘imaginative’ in ages to come? I know some would simply recoil at the idea of using this example, but due to its universality, if for no other reason, let’s talk about Shakespeare. Even those who turn their nose up at the archaic language, hated it in school, or simply don’t like theatre, there isn’t anyone who’s taken an English Literature class who doesn’t know who William Shakespeare is to some degree and who hasn’t at least heard of Romeo and Juliet (sweeping statements alert [as if I haven’t made enough already]). Imagine that, almost 400 years after your death being considered ‘the greatest poet in the English language’, theatre groups and students still squeezing relevant, dramatic, and ‘original’, ‘expressive’, and ‘imaginative’ richness from your work. Imagine being considered so ‘creative’ that 400 years later many still consider you foundational in (read: the creator of) massive swathes of a whole culture’s literary tradition. Not to mention you tended to pack out the theatres in your own lifetime, the biggest show in town, appealing to everyone from royalty to the lowliest street urchins who could afford to chuck your theatre a coin. Now, true, not everyone can be The Bard, but if we, who consider ourselves creative could ask him how in the world he did what he did (Elizabethan English notwithstanding), would any of us pass up the chance?

Here lies the crux of the discussion. What we cannot do, is find out from the man himself what his ‘creative process’ was. What we do know is that he was considered not only pathbreaking and revolutionary but also masterful and enormously skilful within the ‘traditional’ disciplines of the time. The sonnet form of poetry pre-existed Shakespeare by many centuries. Tragedy, Comedy, and indeed, even Tragicomedy had been around since Aristotle in 300 BC. Shakespeare didn’t just come out with new things by endlessly mixing and remixing these media which had been around for hundreds of years – in some ways he wasn’t very creative at all, he just produced, in a very traditional way, some of the best material there had ever been in a certain form while adhering to its conventions.

Beyond here lies speculation.

I believe that, broadly speaking there are two main ‘types’ of creativity. One is inspiration, the other is mastery. Inspiration is the blissful visitation of the muse, the descent of the gods from Olympus to bless the mortal pen with divine and eternal beauty – it’s the flash, the ‘Eureka’, that one evening where you sit down and for no reason you can think of, just keep writing until the sun comes up and have something remarkable. Mastery is slow and bottomless process of study, it is searching each hay stack in the barn for a needle, it is slapping the camel’s back with straw hoping it will break (not that we wish harm on camels), it is playing those scales and arpeggios one more time, it’s doing that last push up and going out for that drizzly Sunday morning run again. It’s that training montage that doesn’t happen for only as long as Eye Of The Tiger lasts but carries on until you’re heavyweight champion of the world, and far beyond.

Of course, it’s absurd to think of these two as separate, I don’t think anyone does either in isolation, but I do think these can be heavily polarised. Some writers will be familiar with the notorious fickleness of inspiration, of how standoffish the muses can be. One day, the divine is before you, blinding, and you’ve never written better in your life – the next three months your pen might be drier than a Triassic creek, your picking fingers fat and clumsier than horse trotters, your cinematic eye and panoramic imagination more stale than a month-old baguette. That’s not to say that those devoted to mastery do any better though. Another day slogging through another exercise, another day forcing myself to study and learn and scrutinise and practice in ways which don’t let me express, which don’t let me be free, which might even be (dare I say it?) lethally boring (seriously though, scales and arpeggios…). I do believe that there is a difference though. One who reaches mastery, who does break the camel’s back with straw, who finds a needle in every haystack and keeps on searching, their mastery will never leave them, it will never forsake them like the erstwhile muse. One the other hand, the inspired artist may create in a day, a month, a year, what the student dedicated to mastery never accomplishes in fifty years.

I can’t say for certain whether Shakespeare leant towards one or the other – maybe he was blessed with both? I do favour the idea that he was of the type who leant towards mastery, however. He was beloved in his own generation for being a brilliant poet of all the most traditional styles (Shakespeare did not, contrary to the naming sense, invent the Shakespearean Sonnet). He did not, as far as I believe, begin his career with outlandish or experimental work, or by attempting to break with the theatrical traditions of the era. He was, to all intents and purposes, what one might analogously call, a ‘pop playwright’. True enough, the academic elite playwrights  of the time are believed to have criticised and decried his early work – sound familiar? I believe that Shakespeare’s (and most all creative) genius is ultimately not just the product of miraculous awakenings and flashes of brilliance, but rather, a rigorous and developed, studied, and learnt quality which is enriched and refined through investment in forms and traditions, through deliberate limitation of creativity.

Anyone who is vaguely familiar with my beliefs on martial arts practice will know that one of my favourite martial arts sayings comes from one of the great Aikido masters of this generation; Master Seishiro Endo. It goes like this:

There is no such thing as freedom just like that. It is an aim to become free. Freedom is often referred to as being free of something, but that kind of freedom, to be free, for example, of a duty, or a person, is not real freedom. So what is? – That is an important question. It certainly is nothing you get just like that. There is no easy-going freedom.  I think, in order to become free, you have to restrict yourself at first to a very unfree form. By practising within that form, you will learn to be free – step by step. You practice within a restriction, but in the course of the repetitions within that restriction – it may happen that the restriction rids you of itself. And then the whole practice suddenly, becomes egoless, light – and free. Practising a form thoroughly will, at some point rid you of the form. To reach that stage in a practice means to have acquired freedom. –But within a form.

What Endo says of freedom is, to my mind, true of creativity. If creativity is originality, expressiveness, and imaginativity, then I believe it should follow the same structure as the freedom outlined above. Plenty of people are wildly imaginative – they can picture a scene or a story, an object or a sentence or a concept which others would be awestruck by and which would be uniquely their own. But to realise that imagination, to transform it into expression, will not happen without mastery, or rather, submission to form. By submission to form, I mean learning. I mean becoming so immersed in learning poetry that you end up breathing verse, being to invested in music that you dream in lyric and melody, being so captivated by and dedicated to painting that you see the sky like your own version of van Gogh’s Starry Night, and yes, being so extensively drilled in martial techniques that even the cadence of your step is as intimately martial as your most flamboyant throw. Then your work becomes ‘original’. There is no creativity ‘just like that’: I can’t just turn my idea for a wonderful novel into a book. My imagination is constrained by my technical limitations. In mastering, or rather, being mastered by a form, in ridding myself of ego, I gain expressiveness – my native mode of expression becomes form, I can transform my inner imagination directly into expression. This is ‘originality’, this is creativity. Whether I’m remixing and sampling a sick beat for a brand new experimental mixtape or asking my violin to show my audience how I feel about the Dvořák violin Sonatina – this is true creativity. It’s what happens when you can say someone who might be doing something ages old ‘makes it their own’ – not in the way Simon Cowell idly applauds his stagelings on X-Factor, but in the way everything from Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet to Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker gives you chills. In the way that both Eminem’s Lose Yourself and Nicola Benedetti shredding a Shostakovich solo take your breath away, and in the way both T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and the 1982 cartoon The Snowman accompanied by We’re Walking In The Air are both profoundly moving experiences. Even the way water droplets play across the floor of Teshima Art Museum or Amazon’s drop-down menus elegantly and smoothly opening and closing when moused over have this character.

In this way, creativity has little to do with ‘the new’ in the sense of breaking away from things that are dogmatic or ‘traditional’, but rather has to do with sincerity. The sincerity of expressing an aspect or character of something (of yourself, of your medium, of a specific form, of a moment, of an object) which is thoroughly native to that thing is creative – it makes something new happen, even if that’s not in the sense of being genre defining or groundbreaking in the sense that might be more commonly accepted. Creativity is self-expression of the most appropriate order. That which is creative expresses its inner ‘selfness’, its ‘vision’, its ‘imagination’, if you like, through the form of something else. Indeed, it isn’t non-newness which is really the s(c)eptic that rots pop culture – it’s insincerity, the deepset feeling that the ‘artists’ in the big industries aren’t really committing anything sincere to their work at all. It’s not a matter of there being ‘nothing new’, but a matter of there being ‘nothing true’. To begin with creativity relies on there being something non-new there to be expressed through. To reiterate: creativity is expression through form. The violinist expresses themselves through their instrument, the conductor expresses herself through the orchestra, the composer expresses herself through the orchestra, and the conductor, and the paper she wrote the notes on, and the contemporary musician expresses herself too, through all of the above, by sampling and recombining their work. Just because any one of these artists use methods and media that they did not invent (how to play the violin, a conventional orchestra, the conventions of a sonata, someone else’s sonata) does not make them less creative. It is the imagining of one thing through the profile of another thing which is creative and which, in the end, is what makes the whole of aesthetics churn like a geyser from the muses’ fountain into fiery life.

If you have managed to read this far and still not be convinced – I dare you to not at the very least marvel at the technical skill, the artistry if you will, and the inspiration, vision, and expressiveness of this:

Thankyou very much for reading. I hope this has proven an interesting and compelling read! Some of you may have noticed two rather odd tags on this post: OOO and Object-Oriented-Ontology. I haven’t actually written on OOO (the acronym of choice for Object-Oriented-Ontology) here, or anywhere else on the blog properly, but I would be lying if I said that these ideas were not heavily influenced by the thought of particularly Timothy Morton and Graham Harman on causality. If you care for philosophy, I certainly recommend them, especially Morton’s Realist Magic and Harman’s The Quadruple Object. They’re fascinating. They also have their own blogs at: and They’re actually very regular updaters and very entertaining bloggers. Given that they’re dedicated to bringing philosophy out of the dry and prohibitively elite/complex dogma it’s been stuck in (amongst other projects), it’s not really that surprising, I suppose! Once again, thanks for reading!


Attitude; Known Aliases: Form, Style, Spirit, Intent, Artistry, Reality

In the 2010 film The New Karate Kid, Jackie Chan takes on the spiritual role of Mr. Miyagi as he trains the young Jayden Smith in the martial arts. Mysterious, reserved, terse, in some ways even ascetic, and deliberately unhelpful, Jackie puts his student through a dogged and unrepentantly eccentric training regime. After a long period of lessons which involve Jayden doing nothing but taking off, dropping, hanging up, taking down, and putting back on his jacket, the young student is at the point of despair. Having taken up the study of Kung Fu in order to overcome his fears and protect himself from a gang of school bullies led by an especially belligerent martial artist (Zhenwei Wang), Jayden is looking for an art he can use in real combat, a fighting system that will teach him how to fight back against his enemies. Jayden makes to leave Jackie’s tutelage, disillusioned and frustrated, but Jackie stops him. In the sequence that follows, Jackie (in a somewhat contrived manner) demonstrates to Jayden how the movements he has been learning are actually the heart of his martial arts. He tells Jayden that “Kung Fu lives in everything we do; in how we put on a jacket, how we take off a jacket, and how we treat people”. It is no coincidence that earlier in his training, Jackie informs Jayden that “there’s something missing… Attitude”.

* * *

It is common for one of our teaching staff at Exeter Aikido to remind students who are struggling or labouring hard with their technique that “you’re forgetting to smile”. I remember during my earlier days at the club furiously resisting the desire to smile whenever this happened. I had my pride and such a suggestion undermined my dignity and was embarrassing besides. Anyway, martial arts was serious business, to be treated with respect and imperious stiff-upper-lipped-ness at all times. To smile on the mat would practically be a disgrace to the very essence of martial arts. Around the mat I went, from partner to partner, stony eyed and resolute, refusing to learn Aikido every step of the way.

* * *

In the Karate class I was part of in my younger days, we were informed every day we went to class that ‘spirit’ was the most important part of training. Indeed, the dojo kun of Karate emphasises this, ostensibly with every verse (! Most of the kids failed to understand really what this meant, and most of the adults were trying their best to regulate the (their own) kids. The essence of this particularity of our school, I fear, passed over more or less everyone’s heads. I, for one, was convinced that it meant bowing sharply, holding low and rigid stances, loud kiai, and exerting complete effort into every movement of every kata as if I were fighting my most hated enemies. I scowled my way through many a class believing this to be most ardent truth, secretly looking down on anyone who didn’t uphold these sacred standards of martial arts conduct.

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Mr. Peter Brown, headmaster of Kyushinkan Aikido dojo, is known in the UKA (United Kingdom Aikikai) for his particularly dynamic and powerful movements which he has inherited from the illustrious teaching heritage of the late masters Kazuo Chiba and Bill Smith. These days, he can be found preparing for his hip operation by training with such esteemed teachers as Christian Tissier of France and Toshiharu Sawada of Nagoya (and I wish him the best of luck with the op!). I recall once he told a story while teaching uchi-kaiten-nage. He said that during a class with Chiba long ago, Chiba had stopped the class to point out a mistake his students were making. He said words to the effect of: “don’t take tiny mincing steps like you’re geisha! Aikido is a martial art, complete your movements in a single stride!”. Sensei Brown to this day opens uchi-kaiten-nage with a single, rapid, spiralling turn which has enormous torque and a deep long entrance (which is very difficult to take sincere non-preemptive ukemi for, I’ll add!). Like Jackie Chan, Sensei Brown sometimes also tells his students that what they are missing is Attitude, though not in such uncertain and damning terms as his late master Chiba…

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In contemporary martial arts schools which teach mixed styles of martial arts, self defence classes and fitness and function just as much as gyms as dojo, it is common to see posters and banners bearing training mantra and slogans lining the walls and ceilings. I have known students of such schools to push themselves exceptionally hard and as a result become extraordinarily physically fit and intimidating as well as technically skilled. I have also known such practitioners to have uncommon dedication and commitment to their schools, the long hours single mindedly sweating and drilling and grinding forging a viciously strong bond between the student and their parent organisation. Here is a striking example of how attitude has a vast transformative power to the martial artist (and to anyone else for that matter, but we’ll stick to martial artists here). Particularly in this type of martial arts school (and I am making sweeping generalisations here which are by no means absolutely true and should not be taken as such) students don’t start out as the hardcore aficionados or the idealists seeking a legendary master who may be more common in “traditional” martial arts schools or schools which teach a single style. Students here tend to be the type who had only a passing (sometimes literally, “I was passing by”) interest in martial arts itself and became dedicated later.This is due entirely to the depth of the spirit that such schools as these are able to foster. By not being invested in a single martial art or beholden to the trappings and traditions of an older ‘classical’ system, such schools are able to attract a wide audience and give them a relatively recognisable ground from which to start their training. The ‘blood, sweat and tears’ ethos which resembles the regimes of sportspeople, professional trainers and even relatively casual gym-goers works well here to transform the layperson into a capable martial artist through the sheer diligence and grit of hard work. That’s the actualisation of spirit; straightforward, direct, what could be simpler? It really is a matter of ‘those who believe shall receive’.

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There is another thing that our aforementioned Exeter teacher who advises us to smile does: he poses. What I mean by this is that he will go to great lengths (sometimes purposefully exaggerating to the point of slightly absurd) to emphasize the posture your body should take during a technique and he will happily demonstrate these postures repeatedly for you should you so request it. Throughout this process, he will also crack jokes, make puns, and smile, chuckle, and on the whole be extremely expressive. Despite (or perhaps because of) this seemingly lighthearted and relaxed approach, his Aikido is precise and keen and his posture is exceedingly stable yet fluid and flexible. On (eventually) learning to loosen up in class, I found that my body did just that; it loosened up. My shoulders stopped aching, my stance became less wooden and stick-in-the-mud clumsy, and I started feeling my own centre, as if all the knotted fury in my muscles from before had prevented me from actually connecting my limbs together through my centre of gravity. Approaching training openly lets my body be open, which is the very technical and philosophical point of Aikido. Smiling and enjoying training lets my body relax, which, as anyone in Aikido knows, is a touchstone to learning Aikido at all. Being free and expressive makes our aforementioned teacher’s Aikido equally free and expressive. Attitude is the form you take. Very directly, the emotional load you bring transforms into the movements you make. Style is substantial, intention begets actualisation. Just as any seasoned sportsperson will tell you that confidence can make or break a match and that the elusive groove of “good form” will come and go as unpredictably as your own mood, so it is here that the very thing that makes a martial artist’s work ‘art’ at all is the style with which they perform it. It is common for schools of martial arts to tell students that ‘martial arts is not about being stylish, it’s about technique’ and they are right in the sense that a Bruce Lee flying kick to the head looks great on screen but isn’t exactly what we should be training all the time. However, style and the aesthetics of martial arts isn’t something that can be discarded so easily; ‘being stylish’ isn’t secondary to technique – it is technique.

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There is an (in)famous demonstration (which can be found here in the Yoshinkan school of Aikido. The story behind it goes (and I have not been able to verify this, but such as my sources are, I believe it is largely reliable with some embellishment) that during the 2008 All Japan Yoshinkan demo, the new head of house set his demonstration to music. Whether he believed that this was a better way to encourage interest in the art for new students or a better marketing ploy for the sponsors attending the event is unknown. What is believed is that Takeno-sensei, who had been very close to the former head of Yoshinkan, the late Gozo Shioda, did not like this. Feeling that this particular style of demonstration was a disservice to the martiality of Yoshinkan Aikido and displayed a weak, populist, and undignified attitude towards the art in general, he proceeded to a roughly 3 minute demonstration in which he repeatedly smashed his uke into the ground on the back of their heads and necks. The uke were (thankfully) very skilled and sincere and as such, able to take the punishment without any serious injuries. There are obvious occasions, nonetheless where they appear visibly and quite badly hurt. Their ukemi becomes rapidly slow and wooden within just two or three techniques, you can see their knees shaking and them panting for breath and struggling to return to their feet. I expect Takeno was unrepentant about this; not because he doesn’t care for his uke, but because what he wished to communicate about Yoshinkan Aikido was absolutely clear from this demonstration. With unwavering conviction he made his intent known. There was no need to voice his disapproval of the new head’s demo, it was completely evident from the precise and pitiless fury etched into Takeno’s form that day what he thought of setting Aikido to music.

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In an old Aikido Journal issue there is an article by William Gleason (now 7th dan) on his time training with the late great Seigo Yamaguchi-sensei. In this article he describes how, ‘Sometimes he [Yamaguchi] would throw Takeda Sensei very hard and then walk away as if to say, ” No big deal after all.” This was difficult to accept for someone who was already known as a high level teacher, yet later Takeda Sensei would say, “Yamaguchi Sensei is a man of great spiritual fortitude.”’
(Full article here:
I cannot pretend to be anywhere near as accomplished as Takeda-sensei, but I am familiar with the stinging pain and humbling feeling of being thrown hard out of my own technique. I do most certainly feel like ‘no big deal’.

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The late Kazuo Chiba-sensei is often talked about in tones of fear and awe. Indeed, the picture that Peter Brown-sensei paints of Chiba is a man of iron-hard commitment and resolve, utterly devoted to the cultivation of Aikido. The book The Swordmaster’s Apprentice by Edward Burke details further how studying with Chiba meant being prepared to take ukemi which involved regularly being punched in the face for mistakes, having your hands and wrists and forearms continually stinging from bokken and jo strikes, and living in an atmosphere of constant alertness to Chiba’s irascible temperament. Burke tells how, through forging in such a hot fire, he felt his body develop not only an entirely new style of Aikido, but also his alertness, emotional sensitivity and philosophical outlook change. Indeed, the subtitle to the book (‘Or how a Broken Nose, a Shaman, and a Little Light Dusting May Point the Way to Enlightenment’) suggests that Burke felt that the extremes of his uchi-deshi (in-house-student) experience, under the constant pressure of examination by Chiba, led him to significant lifestyle changes. His astonishment and perhaps even wonder is obvious then, when he records Chiba later in the book saying ‘I am not usually angry, I just pretend to be’.

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Seishiro Endo-sensei, when asked about his Aikido and freedom, said words to the effect of: ‘There is no freedom just like that. When we think of freedom usually as “being free of” something, but that is not freedom at all. Only within form, within working through, testing and refining ourselves and eventually, after a long time, mastering form, only then do we become free:- that is keiko (training)’. In this way, all martial arts is self expression. What I mean by this is that the idea of mastering the form is not subservience to it and simple meticulous operation of it. To begin with, a rich and deep understanding of the form does not mean a robotic recitation of prescribed movements, it means a fusion of the form and your own body. When Endo says mastering form he doesn’t mean becoming encyclopaedic; he means becoming creative, that is: having the technical ability to string the units of basic forms together to create art. Like a musician, performance is more than simply knowing how to play the instrument. Like a chess player, the game isn’t about know how each piece moves. Like a poet, beautiful writing isn’t to do with knowing just what words mean and how a sonnet’s rhyming structure exists. All these art forms are creative because the artist is expressing themselves through the form, but only having mastered the form can such expression occur. This is why I have said that Attitude is your form, that style, intention and ‘spirit’ are indeed the really real heart of martial arts. Even the most basic novice can tell that training angrily makes their movements different to training happily or sadly or apathetically, lazily, or intensely or flamboyantly. Though they may interpret this as emotion ‘getting in the way’ of technique, it really is the case that the technique is simply expressing the artist’s feeling – just not in the way she wants it to. This is why masters like Chiba, Yamaguchi, and Takeno have all been known to have vicious and terrifying moments where their Aikido expresses an awesomely sharp anger, yet at the same time have also known to be extraordinarily genial and pleasant, both on and off the mat. Particularly Yamaguchi’s Aikido was revered as wonderfully light to the touch and subtle, a trait inherited by Endo, who perhaps epitomises the idea of feeling-as-form and form-as-freedom. What is Endo’s Aikido without the mild and almost self-deprecating smile he cracks now and then? What is, for example, Christian Tissier’s Aikido without the neat and crisp panache with which he delivers his teaching? Gozo Shioda was known to devastate uke as badly as Takeno but with a rough and rogueish grin. Even the humourless downturned corners of Steven Seagal’s beard are reflective of his martial arts. As Jackie Chan rightly puts it, Martial Arts does live in everything we do, but the reverse is equal too:- everything else we do also makes our martial arts. Attitude is not simply the idea that you come to training honest, sincere, focused, and committed, it is the very thing that changes martial arts from the dogged recitation of movements to something creative and artistic at all. Without form, there is no freedom, without style, there is no substance.

This one has been rather long, but also has been brewing for some time. I hope I have not made it difficult for my readers in this instance! Thankyou very much for reading and all feedback is welcome.
My thanks to: Exeter Aikido,
Kyushinkan dojo,
Exeter University Jujutsu