.3.2 Yurusu Budo – Life

Life

If Nishio’s technical curriculum is centred fundamentally on the engagement with death, then his philosophical considerations with regard to the martial arts are firmly situated on the other side of the blade, with life. His philosophic and technical treatises stand as opposite edges of the Japanese sword, an object which he believes is emblematic of the Japanese martial traditions itself. Once again, interpreting this adage in an unusually literal sense, Nishio transposes the form of the katana onto his training method, with there being one sharp edge, which is fragile, and one blunt edge, which is thick and pliable. For clarity, the Japanese sword is usually made of three types of steel: hard and brittle crystalline steel on the cutting edge, flexible and high-tensile strength ‘skin steel’ on the outside of the blade and blunt edge, and slightly softer, shock absorbing ‘core steel’ in the centre of the weapon. The hardened crystalline steel cannot be used in a sword without the other two softer components – it would shatter on any hard contact with another blade. This is a criticism Nishio lays at the door of martial arts such as Karate or Judo and other arts which grow out of the more ancient traditions of war. Nishio’s project is to escape this particular rigidity in the old martial arts (kobudo) whose purpose ‘was to take – suppress, destroy, and ultimately take the life of the opponent’. In a comment uncharacteristically progressive of those in the traditional East Asian martial arts, Nishio states with refreshing lucidity that such an attitude or purpose to martial arts ‘cannot be allowed in modern society’. This is reflective of a deeper anti-conservatism present in Nishio’s thought which is vehemently opposed to dogmatism and the incurious repetition of form and mechanical reproduction of technique, a stance which I follow Nishio in. To be clear, Nishio’s philosophy serves as the soft and pliable steel which supports the cutting edge of technique. It is the depth of Nishio’s beliefs which allows his unorthodox training methods to stand in contemporary society, and saves them from irrelevance. Though Nishio believes that ‘in real martial arts a fight […] is to stand face-to-face with death’, his stance on how a practitioner should approach this encounter with death is clear: ‘people who know the foolishness of destruction and the preciousness of life should not destroy an opponent’.

The question here is how does Nishio marry the two concepts together – that of martiality as a direct encounter with the possibility of death and that of the practitioner who is resolved never to destroy an opponent? It is here that we find the most direct application of the name ‘forgiving’. In Euro-American languages and cultures, the term ‘to forgive’ is inextricably tied to the history of Abrahamic religion, and indeed, I would argue that all cultures which contain a monotheistic entity carry the same load with the term ‘to forgive’. In Japanese yurusu can also mean to permit or allow, which sheds more light on the issue at hand. Put simply: forgiveness implies an absolute law. As already demonstrated in the technique of yurusu budo, the practitioner is absolute, it is their choice and their choice alone which allows them to give or take life, to deal out or protect from death. Philosophically and technically, yurusu budo is completely coherent on this point. The martial artist, the trained and skilled subject, is completely sovereign and autonomous; she has the authority, moral right, justification, and capacity to determine her attacker’s fate in a single stroke without recourse to any other system of judgement. To forgive is to have the right and power to punish, yet choose not to exact punishment. To forgive is to allow or permit life when death is a matter of whim. This is the essence of the unity between Nishio’s technique and philosophy. In a purely technical sense, the practitioner focuses on killing techniques so that she may control them and restrain them. In a purely philosophical sense, the practitioner focuses on the moral imperative to preserve life, to control absolutely the lethality of both her attacker and herself. It is the fact that this is a choice which makes yurusu budo what it is. Just as Kantian ethics is predicated upon a consistent universal moral law which the subject electively acquiesces to under his own will, yurusu budo posits an imperative not to kill or cause harm which must always be upheld under the martial artist’s individual volition. Without offering the choice to also commit murder and grievous bodily harm, yurusu budo loses its ethical character; the fact that the artist chooses not to cause harm in the first place. Just as with a monotheistic God, or an autocratic ruler, death and life are reconciled only through choice. Martial encounters always include death because the practitioner has the ability to wield it at will, as if he carries it around in his back pocket. This encounter is only resolved as forgiving because the artist must always choose life and keep his Reaper’s scythe holstered.

In harkening to this concept of forgiving and forgiveness (the ‘life-giving sword’ [katsujinken] as opposed to the ‘death-dealing sword’ [satsujinken]), Nishio makes the presumption that another’s life is ours to rule and distribute to begin with. For Nishio, the trained martial artist is, by dint of being a trained martial artist, in a position of moral superiority to her attacker. This is expressed not only through the logic of forgiving, but more explicitly when Nishio states that ‘Aikido was founded to lead Japanese martial arts in a better direction’, ‘[Aikido is] a budo that shows the opponent how he/she should live and prosper’, and further, ‘the Aikido way of leading is alive in real society’. Nishio firmly believes his art, his interpretation of Aikido, is apart from other martial arts (‘Aikido was born with a completely different purpose than that of the old martial arts’) and also apart from, or even in a position to lead in, a wider social context. As with many students of the Founder, and plenty of other devotees of the more esoteric martial arts, Nishio entwines his –do with a universal moralism which strikes with a force almost akin to religion. This is not to say that I don’t agree that Aikido and other martial arts have a role to play in society, I believe very much that the martial arts can be extremely powerful forces in the development and enrichment of the young, the old, students, professionals, teachers, parents, children, men, and women. What I do not believe is that any particular martial art, or the martial arts as a whole, should declare itself as a figure of leadership in society. To do so is to re-enact the egotism which I have already criticised in Pranin’s work in the previous chapter; it is to suggest that, on some level, the art and its practitioners are beings above and beyond the average human, somehow transcendent, and closer to a universal moral ‘good’ than everyone else. Though Nishio never says this in such extrovert terms as Pranin does, his logic tends towards the same end point, that his particular art, Yurusu Budo is the one true ‘-do’ in the world which, if only everyone knew it, would grant us all wondrous enlightenment and freedom from the human vices of violence and retribution.

To summarise so far; Nishio’s technical syllabus is a deeply interdisciplinary yet ultimately single-minded pursuit of perfect control over killing techniques. Nishio’s philosophical methodology demands that this technical mastery must be predicated upon the order to never kill an attacker. Together, these two elements unify to produce the concept of ‘forgiving’ martial arts for which Nishio’s style is named. Able to wield killing techniques at will, the practitioner is held by a moral responsibility to never use them for violence, to never take life. The practitioner therefore is placed in a position of effective omnipotence in a martial encounter with any given opponent, able to destroy that opponent at will, but always electing to preserve his life. It is this choice which is vital to the unity of Nishio’s system; the artist is always one who chooses, who is a responsible and compassionate agent in himself. The freedom to choose to forgive rather than kill is an essential characteristic of Yurusu Budo. The problem here is that, while this element of choice does produce practitioners who are able to demonstrate themselves as morally upright martial artists, in the same stroke, it undermines the practitioner’s ethical standing. The practitioner can never engage with their partner or attacker as an equal in this situation, he is always in a position of superiority, one only reinforced by the technique of Yurusu Budo. The martial artist spares her attacker, but in doing so demonstrates her attacker’s insignificance and immorality when compared with the infinite forgiveness of the artist herself (the artist could theoretically receive infinite attacks and spare the attacker each time, according to the logic espoused here). The only way the practitioner, and the art, engages with her opponents is to lead by example, to presume superiority and to mete out endless gestures of magnanimity, equivalent to wagging your finger at a rough child (‘I could have killed you, I am that far superior to you, but I didn’t, aren’t I showing you good morals and haven’t you learnt your lesson?’). Nishio’s moral imperative never to kill is admirable, but the ethical logic which arises from his techniques is untenable, since it does nothing more than situate the practitioner in the seat of God, a kind of accidental egotism which honestly seeks to treat other people, especially opponents and attackers, with respect and dignity (you attack, I forgive), but ultimately reduces them to ignorant and unenlightened creatures there to have their eyes opened by the vast presence of the learned artist (‘now I have spared you, come and learn the way of forgiveness with me’).

These problems are further compounded by a problem of inheritance from O-sensei’s famously cloudy terminology. Nishio cites the Founder as saying ‘one step implies discontinuity. You should take a half-step, there should be contact’. Nishio includes this teaching in the technical sense by dictating that the practitioner should always be a half-step ahead of their partner, such that he is always in a position to lead the attacker’s intent (or, as one of my own teachers, Mr Brown, would say: ‘we let uke think that it’s his own idea to attack’). The essence of this typically opaque saying is that the ‘half-step’ should be understood in the sense of ‘meeting half-way’. If ‘one step implies discontinuity’, or rather, the Founder uses ‘one step’ as a metaphor for conflict, for direct opposition, then the ‘half-step’ is used as a metaphor for non-conflict. I believe this formulation is meant to represent a kind of ‘conversation’ between martial artist and attacker; ‘I offer a half step, which in turn allows you to offer your own, which allows us to reach a conclusion’. In other words, the ‘one step’ is a move which cancels, which opposes and overrides the attacker’s intention, the ‘half-step’ is a move which takes that attack’s intention seriously and is prepared to deal with it in its own terms. ‘One step’ is like a argument, each party has their views but spend little time listening to the opposing ones. ‘Half-step’ is like a conversation, only through listening to, engaging with, and taking seriously your opponent as equal, is a satisfactory conclusion reached. This is epitomised especially when Nishio says ‘I think practice means communication’, and ‘the heart of aiki […] is to reach mutual understanding’ – for Nishio, technique is like language.

This is all well and good, and perhaps one of the most admirable and excellent principles espoused by Nishio’s martial arts, yet it appears to be in direct conflict with the logic of ‘forgiving’ as proposed so far. The logic of the ‘half-step’ is all about equality between uke and tori, between attacker and defender. The martial artist of the ‘half-step’ always takes her opponent seriously, as her equal, and, as her equal, does him the respect of a committed and sincere defence. Yet, as we have already seen, the ‘forgiving’ martial artist is in no way ever the equal of his attacker, he is infinitely superior to her. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the ‘forgiving’ martial artist and his opponent. The artist always holds part of his technique in reserve – the lethal part – such that his attacker is spared, but always exists in a position of impoverished power, the relationship between the two is entirely one-sided, as I have already explained at length. This is even more evident in Nishio’s term irimi isshoku, the one-step entrance (the technical predicate of yurusu budo), which is completely at odds with the ‘half-step’. Whether this is an issue of mistranslation failing to carry across Nishio’s meaning into English, or whether this is a matter of Nishio simply changing his views over time without it being properly documented is unknown. It is clear, however, that Nishio’s martial arts cannot both espouse the idea of being ‘forgiving’ and also endorse ‘technique as dialogue’ at the same time – the two approaches are in direct opposition. ‘Forgiving martial arts’ is absolutely based upon the idea of a transcendent martial arts user who withholds the killing aspects of his techniques. True, there may still be a communicative aspect to this style of martial arts, but it has been demonstrated many times over that only one member of the pair here really gets to speak; the practitioner forgives, that is, places the attacker at her mercy – the attacker is never in a position to express himself here.

Nishio’s schema is caught between two disparate imperatives: the absolute martial artist, and the ethical human being. The artist of yurusu budo must be absolute, be able to kill at will, as Nishio’s concern with the effectiveness and relevance of traditional martial arts amply demonstrates; indeed, the method of forgiving can be argued to be based purely upon this singular ideal. Opposite this, Nishio is very much concerned with respecting the lives of other human beings, with never acting on an impulse to destroy or diminish individual sovereignty. Particularly in his use of the ‘half-step’, his discussion of the ‘life-giving sword’, and his belief in technique as communication or ‘contact’ this is evident. These two principles are irreconcilable as I see it: the forgiving martial artist cannot approach her enemy as an equal, the principle of forgiving forbids it. The ‘half-step’ is incompatible with irimi isshoku, since the latter is a single step which renders an attacker helpless, and the former is an offer which opens dialogue. The forgiving martial artist is never sincere, since she is always holding back some part of her technique; she never takes her opponent seriously, since to do so would be to kill him. If he cannot respond to his opponent seriously or sincerely then no conversation is possible; the forgiving martial artist cannot ever take his attacker’s intentions on their own terms, nor receive them in a sincere exchange. It is for this inconsistency more than any other that I believe the model of yurusu budo cannot be sustained. While I think that, as a technical thesis it has a great deal of merit, and equally, Nishio’s teaching of the ‘half-step’ is something that does have great depth and value for martial arts, I believe the ‘forgiving’ aspect of Nishio’s martial arts must ultimately be dispensed with. For the reasons of its internal inconsistencies and its ethical stance, I do not believe that this particular iteration of martial arts can continue to act as a stable martial method and philosophy.

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.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.

Death

            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.

 

http://aikidojournal.com/2015/09/26/are-you-a-unwitting-participant-in-the-demise-of-aikido-by-stanley-pranin/

http://aikidojournal.com/2011/07/19/martial-arts-practice-and-the-deceived-mind-by-stanley-pranin-2/

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.

 

 

http://nishioaikido.blogspot.co.uk/2008/05/interview-with-shoji-nishio-1984-part-2.html

http://www.aikidosangenkai.org/blog/interview-aikido-shoji-nishio/

Testing

When my teacher at Exeter Aikido sent me a message one evening telling me I should come to training the next day because I was due for grading, I assumed he meant that he meant I would be grading in the near future and the session would be an important preparatory class. I recall a slight sense of unreality coming over me when our headteacher came to class and it became clear that I was the only person on the mat who wasn’t teaching staff. He asked me what I’d like to warm up with and I said I’d like to do some Jo disarming techniques since I’m quite poor at these in general (the change in the distance and timing with the damn thing is perplexing!). Also, since there aren’t any Jo-disarming techniques (usually) included in our grading syllabus, the fact that we continued doing them for roughly half an hour left me in a slightly relieved limbo – “oh, well maybe I’m not grading and it’s just a coincidence that so few have turned up to class today”. Then we all lined up and bowed in for my grading. The first technique was suwariwaza Ikkyo. My uke came at me so fast and strongly on the first shot that he almost had me in Ikkyo myself before I could correct my balance. It did not really start well…

Today I am writing about testing. When I was young (let’s say seven or eight, since I can kinda remember which school I was in when I thought this, but not what age I was) I developed the notion that the point of exams was to test a student’s use of the abilities they learnt in class in situations which came as random applications of those principles. Basically I thought that a maths exam was testing if you could use maths if asked on the spot without any prior warning. I also used this as a justification for doing no revision or preparation whatsoever. If I prepared for the exam that would spoil the whole point of it, so my young self told everyone who tried to make him study. Of course, now I am aware that most forms of standardised testing and examination are for the purposes of quantifying human beings into useful numerical scales of productivity, or collecting marks of approval in order to progress in a more or less (depending on how cynical you are) machinic society which runs on tick-box multi-choice logic. Testing in such an arena is so thoroughly standardised that from GCSE to university degree, that there is almost no point at which a student is advised to learn something interesting for its own sake as opposed to for some future goal, which reduces learning for the entire duration to little more than drilling, with an almost military efficiency, the things which make up the test which will be at the end. This is not to say that there aren’t people who learn things which fascinate them beyond a syllabus, or teachers who may, as individuals, inspire students to seek beyond just passing the next grade, but at no point does education as an institution (in my experience) encourage this. It therefore becomes the case that testing itself is never so much a matter of being exposed to something which might be unexpected, random, threatening, or indeed, truly testing, as a matter of seeing with how much diligence a student has prepared for something they knew was inevitable. Especially with, for example, five or so years’ worth of past paper questions available online for not only your own exam board but all the various boards in the country, it really does become a matter of how much time you were willing to invest in cramming down your information. At the end of the process, if a student has failed, it’s not because they were tested and didn’t overcome the challenge, but because they chose not to prepare adequately for the test in the first place (or worse, were left unprepared by poor teaching). A pass is business as usual. This is how the logic of examination currently operates, at least as far as I have seen it.

What my young self believed a test was, and indeed believed it should be is nowhere to be seen in this formulation. As David Hayter huskily intones in MGS4: “when the battlefield is under total control, war becomes routine”. Thus when the entire institution of education and examination becomes an enormous controlled environment, it is not the case that passing or failing (from the point of view of the institution) is something to be celebrated or mourned, but simply part of the plan. The grade needs a 40th percentile to separate students who pass from students who fail after all, no matter the circumstances. And even worse, the more money a student pays, the less they expect to be able to fail at all. Thus at university level it becomes expected from the start that teachers should prepare students to pass their exams, which therefore test nothing at all, except the compatibility of the test itself with the materials given to prepare with beforehand. When a student is expecting to be taught how to pass an examination she knows is coming, then there’s nothing to examine except the paradox that teaching spends all its time telling you, as closely as possible, exactly how you will be tested, what you will be tested on, and how to produce the correct answers, yet still calls this a test.

This is not to say that tests aren’t hard for individuals, however. Indeed, this institution, to my mind makes the environment of examination more traumatic, despite being less of a test. For in the case that education and examination are a fully controlled and standardised environment, failure is more heavily punished than success is ever rewarded. The successful simply move on to take the next test. Those who fail, or achieve less according to the systems of examination in place, are excluded from certain pathways forever (see medical schools no longer taking A-level retake results for university courses for example). As such, the examination battlefield becomes a desperate scramble for the individual to learn how most efficiently to produce tick after tick after tick on their paper, hence the immense pressure placed on teachers by students to not so much teach, but produce a passing grade at the end of the class. In short, the student is driven by fear of failure and being left behind, not by any desire to learn or accrue knowledge at all (though I reiterate that there may be many individuals who do very much love learning, this is not what the institution of education itself encourages).

Hence, when in martial arts I hear anyone at all say anything about “training for the next belt” I just kinda want to slap them. Noone in a martial arts class (or anywhere else for that matter) should be “training for the next belt”. A different dye in the cotton and nylon you tie around your waist is not a mark of martial skill. Martial skill is a mark of martial skill, and truly martial situations only arise when the student is tested beyond their limits. Yes, martial arts is for everyone, and anyone at all should be able to learn to become an excellent martial artist, but that does not mean that they should have a long list of techniques, forms, and movements they can read out and do in a controlled environment. It means that under threat of attack to themselves or someone else, in a situation which arises unexpectedly and suddenly, and which may threaten their life, the martial artist should be able to apply the skills and principles they have learnt. That is what it means to be tested. We do not train looking only as far ahead as the syllabus dictates. We train, and learn, firstly because we love what we’re learning, and secondly so that when the completely unanticipated does happen, our skills will not fail us. Gradings which are recitations of movements which the student has rehearsed vigorously and systematically for are not wholly a bad thing by any means. They are extremely good ways of levelling up beginners and instilling basic coordination and movement necessary to begin martial arts. They’re also extremely fun in the right mindset. But they are not tests in the sense I have been using the word here.

When, after the surprise grading I was given by my Aikido teachers, our headteacher told me “you struggled, but it is meant to be a test”, I felt something resonate very strongly in me with what I have been talking about here. Our headteacher, in gradings, is known to ask for a syllabus technique (“katatedori iriminage”) and then immediately after you’ve attempted it say something like “no, the other katatedori iriminage”. This can continue until you have performed all the katatedori iriminage you know, after which he may happily pick an uke, demonstrate a variation you’ve never seen before, and say “that one”. Then expect you to pull it off at full speed with a committed attack. Our gradings also include a section where the student is free to demonstrate 8 techniques of their own choosing. In this particular grading, I am certain I ended up performing at least sixteen, though honestly I lost count pretty soon after 8, which, I think is quite understandable given that I still had dan-grade uke attacking me while I had to come up with something new. I more or less had to mind-blank and hope my body could do the rest on its own. All this may seem quite unfair, in fact, it may seem like it’s impossible to pass such a grading. That all depends on what you consider a fair test, however. If, as discussed above, a “fair” test is one which is under a controlled environment, which the student is thoroughly prepared for, and which they believe, by all rights, they should pass, then of course, this is a thoroughly unfair test. If, however, it is your stance that a test should be something which really tests the student’s ability to apply their skills, then this is exactly what a test should be. A pass isn’t that you perform everything flawlessly (though of course if you did under such conditions, you probably would pass). A pass is that the student, under extreme pressure doesn’t buckle, and is able to demonstrate that the principles of what they’ve learnt are deep rooted and can be relied upon. Even if the grading ends up a messy, unrehearsed, and ad hoc application of whatever can be patched together at the time, that is exactly the point. I could watch all Japan champions perform Karate kata all day and find it beautiful and admire the diligence of their preparation. But in training, I’d rather encounter something every day which makes me question my technique and my ability, which makes me work on something different and new, which is more than one step closer to a new certificate, but instead makes me feel like a drop in the ocean of something much more vast I have to figure out.

Once again, this is not to say that standardised testing is unilaterally wrong. In schools and in martial arts, and everywhere else, it has a place. Systematised learning is an excellent way of developing basic skills with a great deal of efficiency (hence the renown of the heavily structured Yoshinkan Aikido, for example). And of course, you can’t expect every single class to be the radically unanticipated situations which really push the student, since if that were so it’d be awfully hard to learn anything at all. Standardised testing is also an excellent way of measuring students against other students, if, as a teaching institution, you wish to know where best to deliver your attention and which students are just fine learning for themselves. However, the lazy bureaucracy of controlled testing structures should never, to my mind, become the focus of training or learning in general. I think there is much more for human beings to do with themselves when learning than spend their lives aspiring towards the next meaningless accolade. It is in the character of being tested and testing oneself to push beyond the limits of what is expected and planned that this potential can be accessed.

***

To anyone who has read me before, thankyou for reading again. Sorry for the long silence. I was, contrary to what the above might suggest, thoroughly enjoying my own higher education and martial arts training (though not without difficulty). In any case, I hope you have enjoyed reading. All feedback is welcome and thanks again!

My thanks to Exeter Aikido : http://www.exeteraikido.co.uk/ https://www.facebook.com/exeteraikido?fref=ts
Exeter University Jujutsu: https://www.facebook.com/groups/196427517092370/

Also, here’s a lovely video from Exeter Aikido:

More Than One Aikido

From what I have written before, it might seem like I have always learnt and pursued one Aikido, and to an extent this is true, but it is also true that I have studied at more than one school. While Exeter Aikido is where I spend most of the year as a student, I am also a seasonal visitor to the Kyushinkan Aikido dojo in Leicester. The only reason I have not written about them previously is because I did not have permission, but now that I do have permission, I have a chance to write about both Aikido schools I’ve studied under, so that’s what I’m going to do today.

But first, something that’s common to all Aikido, indeed to all martial arts, in my opinion. I believe that in the purely technical aspect, all Aikido is for killing. If this were not the case, I do not think Aikido could call itself a martial art in the first place. This most likely sounds somewhat odd given Aikido’s association with peace and harmony, being called the gentle martial art, and Aikido’s highest aim of neutralising any attack without harming the attacker.

So why do I believe this? There are plenty of reasons, but I’ll start with another name for Aikido, one favoured by the late great Nishio Shihan. Nishio called Aikido the Forgiving martial art (or Yurusu Budo which I do not know the kanji for) which, to my mind has a slightly different nuance to “the gentle martial art”. Why does Nishio use the term forgiving instead of gentle? To forgive is usually used to just mean “to let something slide” or “to let something go”, that kind of thing, but what does it really mean? To forgive is to withhold punishment which could be exacted otherwise. It is to give permission for a wrongdoer to continue existing when the forgiver could, and in some interpretations simply has the right to erase/destroy that existence. If you’re talking in terms of divinity and God(s), forgiveness is usually meant to suggest, the deity in question spares the life or soul of one who has sinned or broken their covenants when the deity in question has the absolute right to punish that wrongdoing. That is forgiveness; to hold the absolute power and right to destroy yet choose not to use it.

Therefore, it is my understanding that Nishio’s nuance in calling Aikido “forgiving” was to insert this meaning into the technique and philosophy of Aikido. That is, at the highest level the Aikidoka should at any time and at will absolutely be able to end the life of their attacker and furthermore, the Aikidoka should always choose not to do so. This is why I said that the purely technical aspect of Aikido is for killing. All techniques should have the character of creating an exploitable opening which can result in the uke’s immediate death. The moral aspect of Aikido is such that training partners elect not to murder each other on the mat, and human beings choose not to murder each other if they happen to be in a situation where combat is unavoidable.

To look at it another way, the highest point of Aikido is to be able to choose to neutralise your attacker while doing no harm to them and allowing no harm to come to yourself. If you can’t both kill, maim and harmlessly neutralise then it’s not a choice. If your only capability is to neutralise then very well, you may subdue attackers forever, but there’s no reason for their attacks to ever cease, since they know they’ll be fine no matter what they do. The threat of grave injury or death should always hang over the neutralised, they should feel it, that they’ve survived by the choice of the martial artist alone, and that that privilege could be revoked on a whim. That’s what Aikido at the highest level is, to my mind.

As a side note, I believe that this is also the highest level of all martial arts. Since, if a martial art is a system of movement which teaches the student principles which allows them to defend themselves against any possible attack (within reason, no unarmed person can reasonably defend themselves from a grenade in their pocket, or an unmanned drone missile, or a knife in the back from someone they simply don’t see or hear or smell coming), then a martial art should therefore familiarise the student with every possible method of killing as well as every method of defending. Only once the student has mastered all of the above will their martial arts be complete, hence, at the highest level all martial arts should aspire to this form, where life and death is a matter of moral choice and a technical given. I feel that those methods of attack and defence just happen to boil down to just one or two movements and principles which expose the body to injury and disrupt its balance which can and should be found in the basics of all martial arts, and attack and defence at that point don’t really distinguish themselves from each other. But that’s kindof by the by.

So if this is the highest level of all martial arts, why are all methods not the same? Well, I would say it’s like telling someone who knows no geography, who doesn’t know even the shape of the planet, and who has never seen a map, to go to the imperial palace in Tokyo. Even if you’ve heard “Tokyo” is the destination, you’ve no idea what or where that is or what direction to travel in to get there. So you ask around. You ask someone in London and they might say, “take a direct flight from Heathrow airport”. Ask someone in Roppongi or Akihabara and they’ll tell you to get a taxi or hop on the train or something. If the person you asked in Roppongi told you to take a flight from Heathrow, it’d be an absurd suggestion. So the student has to figure out where they are and not everyone starts standing in the same place, even if the destination that everyone’s looking for is the same. There are lots of different routes, some intersect (if you’re going to Tokyo from Osaka, you’ll probably end up going part of the way with people also from Kyoto and Nagoya) and some never do (a plane flying to Tokyo from Hong Kong has no reason to ever fly the same route as one from Washington D. C.). So each martial art is like that. A different route is all. Some suit different people based on where they were standing to start with. Finding a teacher is like finding a map or a signpost to where you’re going. It might even be like finding someone who’s willing to accompany you the whole way if you’re lucky.

And now I can go back to Aikido, and specifically my two schools, Exeter and Kyushinkan, which are, as I described above, two different routes. I would describe Exeter Aikido as fully Omote Aikido, and Kyushinkan as fully Ura Aikido. Omote and Ura aren’t really well understood terms even within the martial arts as I see it and they tend to be more just a naming convention. But generally in Aikido, Ura techniques involve a spin or a rotation and Omote techniques are direct and “to the point”. In this context I’ll characterise Omote techniques in Aikido as “filling space” and Ura techniques as “giving space” (though that doesn’t necessarily reflect how the terms are used in Japanese or in any school, it’s just how I’m using them here.) Therefore, I feel that Exeter’s Aikido is most characterised by the entering movement as tori (the executor of the technique) moves forward to fill the uke’s (the receiver) space and unbalance them. Kyushinkan, on the other hand, is most characterised by the offer, that is the free space which tori invites the uke to attack, the perceived opening which leads the uke’s movement and the tori can then exploit to produce imbalance. An Omote technique is like running a steamroller over the tube of toothpaste. The toothpaste slowly gets completely squeezed out of the tube because it has nowhere else to go. An Ura technique is like putting a vacuum pump on the end of the same tube of toothpaste. The toothpaste gets sucked out because there is a vacuum, an empty space, and it rushes to fill that space. That’s the idea I’m pushing at.

So in Exeter the tori is always moving, always searching for gaps in the uke’s balance, a weakness to exploit, a pivot point around which uke’s centre can be disrupted and uprooted. Of course, ideally, that unbalancing movement is completed in a single step, all of uke’s balance is completely taken and the technique is complete. This is similar to Bruce Lee’s “be like water” where the rushing flow of liquid fills up all the fissures and crevices in a rock face and can eventually split it open. It’s that kind of feeling. Generally, taking ukemi there feels like a constantly mounting pressure as I have less and less space to move, less and less space to attack, and eventually my own impetus to attack means I cannot take any course but to fall or flip or break. The technique leaves no other space for me as uke to move into. It’s a bit like being cut in half, a feeling which one of our highest ranked ladies often invokes, the balance of my body going one way, my supporting limbs going the other way.

On the other hand, at Kyushinkan tori often begins in stillness. With a katate-dori (wrist grasping) technique the offer doesn’t differ much from at Exeter in that it must be clear and produce a reaction in uke. But something like shomen-uchi (front strike) attack is a bit different, in that where in Exeter, tori might immediately enter to unbalance uke, at Kyushinkan tori once again waits and offers. That is, tori offers their face to be hit by uke, and presents uke with the opportunity to come into tori’s space. the Kyushinkan headteacher is particularly good at this. He bobs his head forward in a way which is immensely inviting and makes wanting to hit him almost irresistible (which may not be a good thing in every situation but in this contexts is great). Of course by the time I’ve attempted to strike him he’s already moved and I have to chase him which leads me to another vacuum and so on. As uke it feels like not so much orbiting something or being sucked towards something as spontaneously faceplanting the floor. I did in fact, take ukemi on my face from ikkyo the other week. Mat-burn isn’t so pleasant on the cheeks, let me say that. It’s that kind of accidental “oops” and splat, which is a bit different to the Exeter feeling which is more like starting a sentence and immediately being cut off. You get time to say “I-” and then it’s tori’s turn to speak and they don’t stop til you hit the ground. At Kyushinkan the sentence runs faster than you can say it. You think you’re leading the conversation but really, tori has the hymn sheet and the conductor’s stick. The more you try to out-talk them the quicker you play into their hands. That’s probably why I hit the ground so fast, it’s cuz I go in fast.

At the end of course, they’re both two sides of the same coin and they both become what I call “binary Aikido”, which feels neither Omote nor Ura to uke in the end. It just feels ‘on’ or ‘off’ hence ‘binary’. I haven’t felt this that often from techniques, and I don’t think I’ve ever done it, but it is quite eerie when it does happen. You get that cold sweat that’s mainly fear and bewilderment, and you get pain. The cold sweat comes in the “off” step where you don’t get any response from tori, which is bewildering since you were certain you hit something, or should have hit something, and initially terrifying because it’s like stepping into thin air when you were sure there was another step on the staircase. The pain comes in the “on” step, because your body has no time to prepare for the technique engaging. There’s no tell, no wind up, no cocking or chambering step and no signal or telegraph to respond to. It just happens. The degree of pain is all down to tori’s choice and in truth, there might be no pain at all. But usually you run into an atemi (strike) or are thrown so abruptly you hit the ground without having time to process how you got there or, with locking techniques, you just experience a very sharp compulsion to drop to your knees and tap out (or flip should the lock call for it). Actually, it’s very exciting to experience too, it’s not just terrifying and painful. It’s like finally realising where exactly Tokyo is in relation to where you were standing (to bear out the directional metaphor). In simpler terms, it’s like going to a concert and being inspired to take up an instrument. Suddenly you know what you’re aiming for and you want to be able to do that, to do better than that, to be the person who other people aim at. That’s the kind of feeling you get from a really perfect technique too. At least on the safety of the training mat. If it’s elsewhere well, you might be dead.

So there’s some stuff about Aikido and whatnot. This week happens to be the UKA summer school, which I’m not attending this year, so all the Kyushinkan guys have gone off to train there so there’s no training for me. I went last year and the year before but I won’t talk about that now. Another time perhaps :D.

Anyway cheers for reading. My thanks to Exeter Aikido (https://www.facebook.com/exeteraikido) and Kyushinkan dojo (http://www.kyushinkan.com/) for giving me permission to write about them.

Later!

威豪