.3.2 Yurusu Budo – 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.


.3.1 Yurusu Budo – Death

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.2 An Ally In The Defence of The Martial Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Pranin, 2015/09, Aikido Journal Blog)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

There is an (in)famous demonstration (which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqOlHLp0TcA) in the Yoshinkan school of Aikido. The story behind it goes (and I have not been able to verify this, but such as my sources are, I believe it is largely reliable with some embellishment) that during the 2008 All Japan Yoshinkan demo, the new head of house set his demonstration to music. Whether he believed that this was a better way to encourage interest in the art for new students or a better marketing ploy for the sponsors attending the event is unknown. What is believed is that Takeno-sensei, who had been very close to the former head of Yoshinkan, the late Gozo Shioda, did not like this. Feeling that this particular style of demonstration was a disservice to the martiality of Yoshinkan Aikido and displayed a weak, populist, and undignified attitude towards the art in general, he proceeded to a roughly 3 minute demonstration in which he repeatedly smashed his uke into the ground on the back of their heads and necks. The uke were (thankfully) very skilled and sincere and as such, able to take the punishment without any serious injuries. There are obvious occasions, nonetheless where they appear visibly and quite badly hurt. Their ukemi becomes rapidly slow and wooden within just two or three techniques, you can see their knees shaking and them panting for breath and struggling to return to their feet. I expect Takeno was unrepentant about this; not because he doesn’t care for his uke, but because what he wished to communicate about Yoshinkan Aikido was absolutely clear from this demonstration. With unwavering conviction he made his intent known. There was no need to voice his disapproval of the new head’s demo, it was completely evident from the precise and pitiless fury etched into Takeno’s form that day what he thought of setting Aikido to music.

* * *

In an old Aikido Journal issue there is an article by William Gleason (now 7th dan) on his time training with the late great Seigo Yamaguchi-sensei. In this article he describes how, ‘Sometimes he [Yamaguchi] would throw Takeda Sensei very hard and then walk away as if to say, ” No big deal after all.” This was difficult to accept for someone who was already known as a high level teacher, yet later Takeda Sensei would say, “Yamaguchi Sensei is a man of great spiritual fortitude.”’
(Full article here: http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2012/05/16/my-experience-with-seigo-yamaguchi-sensei-by-william-gleason/).
I cannot pretend to be anywhere near as accomplished as Takeda-sensei, but I am familiar with the stinging pain and humbling feeling of being thrown hard out of my own technique. I do most certainly feel like ‘no big deal’.

* * *

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

* * *

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

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



Guts, Konjo, Spirit

The idea of ‘fighting spirit’ is common to much more than martial arts. In most sports there’s an idea of ‘grit’ or perseverance. I’ve heard it said that military basic training is designed to push the body and mind beyond its limits, to produce toughness and resolve. If you’ve seen the Simon Pegg movie Run Fat Boy, Run (or actually run marathons) then you are familiar with the idea that long distance runners hit what’s called “the wall” at some point, and must push through the physical and mental exhaustion with force of will. Aside from these more physical exercises, there are plenty of other disciplines which require a high degree of commitment, precision and dedication in order to become proficient. I reckon it’s just as rigorous an exercise to write a good novel as it is to complete any of the above mentioned challenges. So, because it’s a cool and wide ranging thing, I’ll write a little about having guts and resolve, or as those in Japanese martial arts might say Spirit or Konjo (which I believe translates more or less directly as “guts” in the “gutsy” sense [not the viscera sense, I think]).

At Exeter Aikido we have an exercise known as taninzu-dori or just ‘taninzu’ is what we usually refer to it as. I don’t know the kanji so I can’t actually tell you what it translates as, but the form is basically a multi-man attack with the catch that the tori, the one who is being attacked is limited in the techniques they can use. Or rather, they can use almost no techniques whatsoever and effectively cannot use their hands to parry, block, or halt the motion of an attacker. The point is that the Aikido practitioner has to learn to move amongst three, four, or five attackers who will increase the speed and ferocity of their attacks proportional to the practitioner’s ability. Once basic movement between attackers is ok, then the practitioner should begin to move to positions where he or she can use attackers to block each others’ lines of movement and from there continue to use attackers as shields against each other. Ideally, the Aikido practitioner can continue to move indefinitely without getting struck, but usually, if you can make it three or four (quite slow) attacks without getting hit, then you’re doing pretty well. When you get hit in the chest three or four times in a row (and usually because your attackers are choosing not to hit you in the face) then it gets immensely frustrating. The exercise refuses to allow the practitioner time to recuperate. After being hit, there is no “stop, wait, let me focus”. You are constantly under the cosh and if you can’t weather being hit without breaking your composure then you will be hit again, and again, and again. For the first year or so of trying this thing, taninzu just made me mad because I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t sense any improvement, and I couldn’t figure out what I was learning from it. Of course, what I was really learning from my leaden attempts to lunge out of the way of attacks and having fists plough into my ribs was Konjo and the kind of focus that comes with the resolve to continue moving no matter what. Quite honestly, despite knowing it was good for me, this lesson was an absolutely unpleasant experience.

To those who know me as a gamer, it is common knowledge that I am a fan of the videogame Dark Souls. If nothing else, this game is about guts and perseverance. Like taninzu-dori, the game is designed to deal unrelenting punishment to the player who makes mistakes. If the player refuses to learn the game mechanics through observing enemy movements and correcting mistakes, it is very likely that they will never complete the game. There were plenty of moments when I played through the game first time when I felt that I would never be able to beat a boss, clear an area, or escape a trap. If I may be somewhat melodramatic, I think I felt as close to despair as is possible in a videogame. The game demands and trains the player to persevere. Through the infuriating and indeed, sometimes tedious grind of running through a part of the game for hours on end, just to progress to a boss you cannot yet beat, with equipment which you do not know is adequate or not, the game teaches commitment, dedication, and discipline through the very simple method that if the player has none of these traits, they will never advance. Sure, it might be ‘just a game’, but that makes it no less trivial a pursuit if you intend to pursue it fully. And if you do, I think you learn just as much about mental strength as anywhere else.

In the dojo-kun or training-hall code of Shotokan Karate, there is a verse which reads “doryoku no seishin wo yashinau koto”, which I believe roughly translates as “to foster the spirit of hard work” [or sometimes the more fancy but perhaps a little less accurate; to foster the spirit of endeavour]. This part of the code captures one of the key tenets of karate practice as I knew it, and that is the ultimately dull practice of the same kata or forms over and over and over and over and over again. Certainly Karate as I experienced it was composed primarily of the repetition of movements without any instruction whatsoever except the count: ichi, ni, san, shi! It was left up to the practitioner to extract meaning, to extract learning from the movements, which is a stretch that perhaps does translate better as “endeavour”, rather than “hard work”. The value in this training style is that it forces the student to learn their own body through rigorously examining their movements by repetition before any of the techniques can be at all effective. In this way, Shotokan Karate teases out the spirit of Konjo through, of all things, boredom avoidance. It never forces you to persevere or push through with guts. You can happily just do the movements lazily, or if you’re bored, quit. But in order to gain from the training, however, the discipline that one must learn is the discipline to simply do terribly repetitive and at times esoteric to the point of inexplicable exercises which is certainly a good skill and a good piece of spirit to learn I think.

I used to play chess in school. I believe when I was fourteen or fifteen, I played one of my friends a lot. He and I were roughly even in terms of matches won and matches lost, but I think that overall he was (and probably still is) the superior chess player. Towards the end of that school year, he and I happened to be drawn to play a match to effectively decide the rankings for our school year. Towards the end of the game, he was ahead by a couple of pieces and I felt that based on our skill levels alone, I would not be able to outplay him unless he made some sort of grave error. So instead of taking him on head on, I played an exceptionally boring and defensive game. The resolve or ‘guts’ I think I had to use there were not the kind of guts which let you push through something physically or stretch my stamina to its limit, but rather I had to be resolved that in a contest of pure skill, I would be at a complete disadvantage and therefore have the discipline to null any sense of pride I had in my style of play and shamelessly try to bore him out of the match. In the end I stalled him long enough that the match timed out and the judge decided that our match would be called a draw which would, according to the points system in this particular tournament, place me higher in the rankings than him and make me officially the ‘best’ chess player in my school year, a title I was somewhat proud of at the time. I’m sure he resented me robbing him of the small accolade which I thoroughly didn’t deserve.

Once, I tried to write a novel. For three or four weeks, I think it was, I wrote a thousand or so words every day. The story was an imagining of what divinity may have been like before the war in heaven. There are plenty of well known texts about what happens after that (Paradise Lost, all of the bible, etc.) but I thought it’d be cool to imagine how it was before Lucifer led the army of traitor angels against God, was defeated and cast out of heaven. I very much enjoyed writing it, but damn, writing every day was harder than I had ever anticipated. Plenty of times I just didn’t want to. Major props to people who manage to write a whole novel at any point because it takes more resolve than I reckon I ever managed to muster. I never finished the story. In the end, I had three or four characters who I thought were really interesting, but not a very well written story to link them together. Besides that, the other characters were kinda drab and I just petered out eventually. That’s more a story about a failure of guts than anything else.

In a class while we were practising a technique known as katate-dori iriminage, or the entering throw from same-side wrist grasp, the head of our school at Exeter Aikido came over to my partner and I and invited us to attack him. He threw us both two or three times each and I recall being struck in the mouth (it is a common thing, I find, when taking sincere and non-preemptive ukemi against sincere and committed atemi). I expected his demonstration to end there, but he invited us to attack again; “keep going, I’m enjoying this”. He continued to throw us for a number of minutes. The physical challenge of continuing to get up and attack while exhausted took a fair degree of guts, but even moreso was overcoming the fear factor. Certainly for the first year and a half or so of training at Exeter I was afraid to take falls for our head. Not because I did not trust his technique or his conscience, but because I did not trust myself to keep up with and respond to his various unbalancing strikes and checks. I still find taking ukemi for him intimidating because I have to commit to my attack wholly to have a chance of responding to his movements without premeditating my fall, but at the same time committing puts my safety entirely in his hands. That kind of resolve is the resolve to trust another person with what is effectively the potential to severely injure or kill you and also to trust your own judgement and your own abilities. It takes a good deal of guts, I reckon, to overcome the sweaty-palm fear that makes you want to hesitate or keep lying on the ground after being thrown and get up and throw your safety to the wind and attack again.

When I was 15, I was in the Leicestershire Under 15 county cricket squad. In our winter training sessions, we occasionally were made to run the bleep test. For those unfamiliar, a bleep test is basically a very long set of short runs of increasing speed. You have a set distance, I believe roughly 20 metres, which you have to run before the cassette tape makes its next ‘bleep’, hence the name of the test. I seem to recall that there are ten runs at each bleep interval before the interval shortens, at which point you’ll be told you’re at “level 2” or “level 3” or whatever. The point is to make it to as high a level as you can. Of course, the only way you can get yourself any rest is to beat the bleep, but then you run the risk of getting a stitch from changing your pace too rapidly, so it’s meant to be better to try to match the bleep as closely as possible, if you can consider non-stop running of constantly increasing speed “better” than anything. Anyway, in this particular session, we were running the bleep test, but for whatever reason, everyone was just on poor form. Maybe it was because it was a particularly cold day and our muscles were seizing up, or perhaps we’d all just had a lazy off season and were unfit. Whatever the reason, most people were out before level 9, which is pretty poor, considering that you need to run a 13 to make the academy squad which all of us with professional aspirations were aiming at. I remember touching down behind the 20 metre mark at 10.3 and turning to go for the next sprint and thinking that my lungs would give out and that I should just give up. It’d be nothing to me to just sit down and take it easy like most of the rest of the squad were doing. I’d already outdone most of them anyway. But then I saw out to my left my friend Tom Wells, a lovely chap well liked for his pleasant manner and well respected for his all around fitness and strength and not inconsiderable technical skills. When I saw him begin to pull away from me, I can’t explain why, but I absolutely did not want to lose to him. I believe I was told afterwards that I looked somewhat possessed on the last two turns of that bleep test and I remember very clearly raising my fist and striking myself at least twice in the stomach to give myself an extra burst of adrenalin. I did indeed manage to beat Tom on that occasion, I think I made it to 10.6 after he pulled up at 10.5 then promptly packed it in from exhaustion. I’m not sure if this really counts as guts, spirit, and resolve so much as manic competitive spirit and a mildly psychotic desire to prove myself to the selection panel and coaching staff at the time, but either way, I thought it was a decent story to drop in there.

Once, I tried to tell a girl I had feelings for her. On the monday of that week I chickened out. The day after I had an even better chance to speak to her alone and I chickened out again. On the wednesday evening I managed to go ahead and say what was on my mind, but holy crap that shit’s terrifying. Ain’t no volume of physical and/or psychological training that’s ever gonna make that easy. Or maybe I just don’t talk to girls enough? Either way, she didn’t in the end say whether she requited my feelings or not (which I assumed meant she didn’t, because I was pretty sure she didn’t beforehand anyway) but she did say words to the effect that she thought well of me for telling her straight up to her face even though I knew it was a bit of a lost cause. If by some chance she ever reads this then I hope she doesn’t mind my paraphrasing her. So much for guts eh?

So the moral of the story is, there are a ton of things which require resolve, discipline, commitment and perseverance, which I have broadly put under the term “guts”. I think it is good to do all of these things. If it takes guts, I think it’s probably a worthwhile pursuit for that reason alone. And much as people in the martial arts and people of an academic bent like to harp on about technical precision and beautiful form and the minimalistic elegance of Aikido like good poetic imagecrafting, there’s a lot to be said for straightforward fighting spirit.

Anyway, thanks for reading~


How I came to study martial arts (and why I still do)

Upon observing an Aikido class for the first time and hearing my decision to take up the art, my father’s only counsel was; “This stuff is very dangerous. Be careful.” Which I initially took to mean I should be sure to take care of myself when training and not get hurt and only later figured that he really meant I should be very careful about injuring other people.

At the end of the day Karate is just hitting people. This is what I thought after training in the Shotokan style from fifteen til eighteen and proudly tying a strip of black fabric around my waist and calling myself shodan. Is this all? I felt that there absolutely had to be more. I was restless and would not be satisfied. I attended competitions and freestyle classes and talked to people who I knew who trained in other styles. And I watched an awful lot of youtube and read an awful lot of wikipedia. A teacher once complimented me on my double jump kick. It made me happy that I had taken the time to watch all those Jet Li movies. But I was not as good as Jet Li, and I wanted to be. There has to be more than learning variations on the 540 crescent kick. Martial arts has to contain more than adding an extra 180 degrees onto your spin every time you advance a grade.

When I was 13, a large rugby player and his mates the year above me in school threatened to throw me through a window. I don’t recall exactly what for. I don’t recall exactly what happened either, but I have the suspicion that at some point I punched him in the balls. I did not get thrown through the window. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was unhurt at the end of it. But I did not want to have to rely on ball-punching for the rest of my life if someone nastier came along.

At some point between the ages of four and seven I watched Jackie Chan’s drunken master. As a kid I found it hilarious, even though I had no concept of what it meant to be drunk. It was just funny to see Jackie drink from his gourd and act a bit silly while at the same time laying the smackdown on the bad guys. I did not grasp that the striking sound effects were clearly fake, nor that Jackie Chan was not, in fact, an amazing ventriloquist who spoke English without moving his lips at the right time. Nor did I grasp that at the end of the movie Jackie straight up kills his opponent by crushing his larynx and twisting his head off his shoulders. It was just Jackie Chan being cool.

I do not remember how old I was when this happened, but I used to play a game with my dad. We would sit cross-legged in front of each other and he would tell me to prod him in the chest. Then he would block me and prod me instead. It made me giggle, but it also made me want to win. I loved this game. We played it a lot. I suspect my father let me win from time to time to keep me interested.

In my first year of uni I got into a fight in the student guild club. There was a group of young males who were merrily hurling themselves at the other dancers on the floor. That is, properly taking run ups at us. It annoyed me and I was drunk. With not half a year’s experience in Aikido in me, I had a go at applying one of the basic techniques I had learnt. By some miracle of chance and to my great surprise, it worked and my assailant who had collided with me sharply went flying. It had not occurred to me that his mates would pick him up and he would come back for more. The rest is a bit blurred out, but I know that I kicked one person in the groin, I struck at least one other, I kept moving and I did not get hit. One of my friends swears that I chopped one of my attackers in the neck and he dropped to the floor like a sack of bricks. I think he misremembers the event somewhat. My other friends just told me that I was very frightening. At the end of it I know that on something of a combat-high I danced for the rest of the night and when I got back to my room I felt immensely guilty for getting in a fight that I thought in hindsight was almost entirely unnecessary. I was also disappointed. After all this time is it still just hitting peopleHave I not advanced at all? I did not tell any of my martial arts instructors about the incident.

Back when I was a 2nd or 1st kyu in Karate, I fought a yondan in a local competition. I lost and I was outraged. Being a hot-blooded seventeen year old, I was certain I had been robbed. I had landed a firm side kick under my opponent’s guard into his ribs which I thought surely qualified for an ippon. Both myself and he knew I had landed the kick. Indeed, we both stopped and looked to each other, the referees, and back, waiting for a call of some sort. None of them made any response except to indicate we ought to continue the bout as if nothing had happened. My opponent landed a clean reverse punch on my stomach and it was called ippon and the match was over. Afterwards I bitterly called foul play behind closed doors, blaming one of the referees for being biased against me for dispatching one of his students in an earlier round. Honestly speaking, my opponent just had better Karate than me and beat me because he struck me with a well timed precise attack which I failed to defend. In hindsight, his form was excellent. After I had had some time to cool off, I thought about the match again. The first line of the dojo-kun or code of Shotokan Karate as it was taught to me reads: hitotsu, jinkaku kansei ni tsutomeru koto. This translates as something like “to strive for the perfection of the self”. I did not think my attitude towards this competition embodied this part of the code. I thought about what I should do. How am I to fight someone with many times my experience in the same martial art? I had always relied on being young, fast, and flexible in Karate matches. How am I to win when I cannot outpace my opponent? How am I to win when my speed cannot overwhelm an enemy’s technique? If my Karate up to this point had done nothing more than accentuate and make use of a talent already natural to my body, what ought I to do to go beyond that? What ought I to do to go beyond the limits of my body?

I once took classes at the school Karate club, set up and run by one of my schoolmates, who gave me permission to fill in for him and manage the club while he was busy studying for his exams. The things I taught were not at all similar to the style which he taught. In fact, I am sure most of the things that I demonstrated were quite useless in terms of learning quick self defence (which I suspect a number of students were there for the purpose of). In truth, plenty of the things I taught were experimental to me too, I wanted to test out techniques which were ‘beyond my grade’ according to my school’s handbook and whatnot, which meant that really, I had no right to teach such techniques at all. But I did it anyway, and by god was it immensely enjoyable and a great deal of fun. Not least because the teacher who supervised us ask me to teach him too and I got to chuck him around the room as a sort of payback for all those triple chemistry Wednesday mornings.

My university’s Jujutsu club has an exercise known as ‘the V’. You, as the V candidate so to speak, stand at the point of the V shape. The supervising instructor stands in front of you and manages two lines of potential attackers which form the ‘arms’ of the V, armed or unarmed based on reasons. The instructor sends attackers from each line at you in ones, twos, threes, etc. and you are to dispatch each one as they approach. It is similar to what in Aikido is generally known as randori or jiyu waza. The V is part of every grading test at this club. I recall the first time I took a V in a grading I was so excited I almost forgot to bow to the grading panel and wait for the call ‘hajime’ (begin). I also recall having to consciously insert four syllabus techniques into the flow of attacks and defences. The rest I barely remember apart from moving forward, the sound of breakfalls, and the ‘encouragement’ which the teaching staff at the school are assigned to administer which primarily consists of “come on!”, “you can do it!”, and above all “KEEP YOUR GUARD UP!”. In the pub afterwards when we were all congratulating each other, one of the girls came over and told me that she had been heavily winded after taking a throw from me in the V. I apologised profusely and felt quite bad about it. She didn’t seem to mind and bore no hard feelings. I wondered if anyone else had fallen heavily during my V. In my feedback, the instructors gave a somewhat backhanded compliment about my spirited efforts: “You were very fast, and you had this slightly manic grin on your face. We thought you were going to kill someone”. I took it as a compliment anyway… They also praised my footwork.

The first time I graded in Aikido the headmaster of our school told me “you’re very fast”. He did not mean it as a compliment. I have been told to slow down in every grading since then.

“Zanshin” in the Japanese martial arts is generally translated as ‘awareness’, but I think I am right in saying that it should more accurately be ‘lingering spirit’ or ‘lingering mind’. I suppose the distinction is that ‘awareness’ can be interpreted as just remaining alert to things around you, whereas  ‘zanshin’ is meant to contain the idea of exerting a kind of constant psychological pressure. Not necessarily by mystical means or anything like that, but perhaps just through maintaining a good posture and a sort of ineffable relaxed focus which most experienced martial artists I have met seem to exude. It could just be one of those words which ends up being a bit lame in translation. Like how tattoos of chinese and japanese characters can seem cool, but if I just had a normal font English word written on my left shoulder blade it’d look dumb.

Once, I believe during a break from a morning triple chemistry class back in school, a couple of guys I knew got into a bit of a scrap. One I knew was experienced in Karate, the other knew no fighting arts or combat sports to my knowledge. He was also the taller of the two, so we shall call them tall and small (even though small is actually taller than me). Tall challenged small on the practicality of martial arts, a common “what would you do if I did this?” kind of situation. Except instead of waiting for a response, Tall just went ahead and attacked small with a committed right hand. Taken somewhat by surprise, small defended himself and neatly smacked tall in the face with his somewhat bony fist. It did not sound pleasant. The rest of the class were getting quite up for a fight, with cheers and jeers going up from the gathering spectators. Small, apparently feeling quite guilty, immediately apologised and went to see if tall was hurt, as he was crouched over holding his face I seem to recall. In an embarrassed rage, tall proclaimed “you didn’t have to hit me!” and turned and struck small, effectively repaying him in kind with a punch to the face. The crowd fell silent. Small retrieved his glasses which had fallen on the floor, and with much grace and good manners continued to apologise to tall. Though he accepted the apology, I feel there was very little face for tall to salvage in that situation. By general consensus of the boys he had gone too far. Even in the testosterone cauldron of an all boys’ school it is one thing to be attacked and return the challenge and another entirely to strike a man who is offering you his apologies. They made up before the teacher returned to resume the lesson.

One day, one of the boys headbutted the proverbial fat kid in school. It was much talked about. Everyone assumed the fat kid had brought it on himself. To this day I do not know whether the event was entirely unprovoked or otherwise.

In preparation for my Karate shodan grading, I recall drilling blocking over and over and over and over again. I wasn’t interested in the forms too much, but I was concerned with the free fighting section of the test. I would only have to fight one opponent at a time, but they would all be at least nidan and I was expecting it to be difficult. As such felt that my defence ought to be my priority. When it came down to it, I did ok. I took a backfist at one point. It hurt. After that there was a question and answer section to the test. I was glad I had memorised the names and translations of the basic techniques listed in the book. My teacher asked me what I planned to do with regard to Karate after the test. I didn’t really have an answer for him or know what to say so I said something along the lines of “I’ll continue training and pursuing Karate”. This turned out to be not long before I began searching for other martial arts.

In my second year of studying Aikido I was hit by a palm strike in the mouth. The strike caused my teeth to cut the inside of my top lip all the way along. It was painful, and eating most things, let alone stuff with any salt content was most uncomfortable for two or three weeks. I tried to block the strike the next time it happened. My teacher used my blocking arm to flip and pin me on the ground. “Don’t block”, he told me. “It’s better for your reactions if you learn to be relaxed and move out of the way. But don’t move premeditatively, you can’t move as if you already know the strike is coming”. At the time I was only really thinking about the pain and avoiding it. It took a while for me to break the habit of blocking and quite a bit longer for me to grasp the point of the lesson.

During an Aikido class, our headteacher stopped my partner and I and said to my partner “don’t worry about forcing the throw, the technique really ends here”. With me as receiver he demonstrated. He delivered a punch to my throat and as I moved to avoid the strike and recover my balance I almost ran into another strike, this time with his extended arm. The only reason the first strike didn’t drop me and the second strike didn’t hit me was because he pulled them. What. I thought. So the trick is just to hit people. Or rather hit people properly. It had not occurred to me before that there was a distinction.

When I stepped into an Aikido school for the first time there was a bald man with a beard preparing to take the class. He welcomed me in warmly and invited me to join in. I was very excited and warmed myself up vigorously. My younger brother also wished to join, but unfortunately the insurance did not cover him as he was too young. My dad sat and watched. The first technique we did in the class was called ikkyo. It is one of the most basic and fundamental techniques of Aikido. When I saw the bald and bearded man perform ikkyo I could not understand what had happened. The sequence of motions seemed unfathomable to me, not because they were long and complicated, but because it was so short and simple. In a single step, the attacker had been pinned to the floor with seemingly no exertion on the part of the bald man. I did not know what it was, but I wanted it, I must have this technique, I thought. Somewhere in between the teacher taking his first step and his partner hitting the floor I was sold on Aikido.

I graded to 4th kyu roughly a year and a half after I began studying Aikido. I recall it being the most difficult martial arts-related experience I have had. Afterwards my teacher said “you need to relax and slow down. And look after your partner. Try to find that millimetre of control in your partner’s balance”. He also warned me to keep my temper. It was good advice. The next time I graded he told me exactly the same thing. Minus the comment on my temper. I took it as progress.

We had a visitor to our Aikido class the other week who sat and watched. Afterwards, one of our members mused that our visitor may have been put off by the idea of a class that involved vigorously throwing each other around and applying various painful joint locks. I said that, even as a raw beginner I loved the idea of a class which involved that. She said to me “yes, but you’re not normal”. I think that might be the most accurate summary of my relationship with the martial arts in the end.

And that’s it, more or less. Thanks for reading 😀


The concept of “Shu Ha Ri”

Quite a long time ago, I was affiliated with a school of karate which named itself “Shu Ha Ri Karate-do”. I owe that school and its members the basis of my training in martial arts so I thought I would talk a little about the concept it adopted as its namesake, “Shu Ha Ri”. I think I’m right in saying that the concept applies to more than just the martial arts and can be used in the context of learning in general, but since I’ve never been exposed to it in any other sense I’ll be speaking about it primarily with reference to the martial arts. I should also note that I’ve never studied the kanji for the term so my interpretation will likely lack a couple of nuanced elements through mistranslation and suchlike. If anyone has knowledge which can help fill in the gaps, please by all means go nuts.

So Shu Ha Ri as I understand it is a three part structure for how a student in training is meant to approach learning the martial arts.

Shu refers to learning by rote, learning by imitation, and learning by instruction. The rule of Shu is to adhere to form over everything else. Another way to describe it might be to say ‘having faith’. It’s a kind of absolute belief in your teacher, your school, your training partner and the form itself which leaves no room for doubt or deviation.

Ha can be said to be the opposite of Shu. Ha is to question the form, to question your teachers and your partners and your own technique and body. I think of Ha as an interrogation of everything that Shu teaches you to recite. Where Shu is the devout believer and the obedient child, Ha is the outspoken heretic, the petulant, objectionable teenager.

Ri differs from both of the above in that while Shu and Ha are both concerned with how the practitioner relates to the form (to comply, to diverge), Ri is all about how the practitioner can practice without reference to form at all. I have heard Ri described as a transcendent state and I think this suits it well. Shu obeys form, Ha interrogates form, Ri transcends it or rather reverses its order. In Shu and Ha, form always comes first and the practitioner’s action always follows after. I know the form, therefore I execute it (either to comply with it or refute it). In Ri, the practitioner acts and form emerges from that action. I move and my movement becomes form. It’s an elusive state which a lot of the time “just happens”. The difficulty is capturing it so it can be harnessed at the users beck and call.

When I was first introduced to the term, I was taught it as a sequence. Ri follows Ha follows Shu. I feel now that this is a severe misinterpretation of how Shu Ha Ri functions. Why is it I think so?

I do not believe that it is possible to progress through martial arts training  (or any other learning process for that matter) saying “I must complete Shu before I can begin Ha” owtte. I believe this because I do not think it is possible to ever “complete” Shu. If I pursue the path of Shu alone then I attempt to imitate my teacher and do nothing more. I adhere to his or her technique and nothing more.

Firstly, I’ll never be able to perfectly imitate my teacher’s technique. For one because I have a different body and a different mind and am a different person and for two because every teacher of martial arts I have had has explained to me in one way or another that their technique is not an absolute thing, it alters as they learn how other peoples’ bodies move and react to that technique. From the beginning technique is not so rigid that it can be memorised and repeated like a line from a textbook. Even if I could imitate a technique as closely as possible, it would never sit perfectly in my body (because if I perfectly imitate a technique executed by someone whose arms are three inches longer than mine then all my techniques will be three inches out of range and if I flawlessly reproduce a technique executed by someone who has naturally strong shoulders and try to use my weaker shoulders to do the same thing it just won’t work [overlooking the fact that you never just mash your way through technique with muscle in the martial arts]).

Secondly even if it was possible to turn technique into a rote-learning exercise, I would never finish rote-learning. If I attempted to describe and reproduce every technique in martial arts as a sequence of repeatable instructions for any possible situation in which the technique would be applicable I would need more time than I think I’d probably have in two or three average lifespans. So even if I met a teacher capable of performing techniques as a kind of recital, I’d be dead of old age four or five times over before I’d be able to recite them back pitch-perfect. Now, I’m not basing these time periods I’m coming up with on anything, I’m just suggesting that I believe it’d take more time than is sensibly possible to answer every single “what if” question in martial arts with a concrete answer and learn these responses all as repeatable positions executable as martial technique at the drop of a hat.

So that’s why I think you can’t go Shu to Ha to Ri in the sense of finishing one then starting the next.

But of course it makes just as little sense to try to start at any other point and travel sequentially. I can’t Ha then Ri then Shu or whatever. I don’t think that the concept is sequential at all. I believe it is simultaneous. From the moment you begin training in earnest all three should be in effect.

What do I mean by this? Well, let’s imagine I’m being taught how to throw a punch. I think it’s fair to suggest that most martial arts at some point teach their practitioners how to hit someone. What happens when I learn to strike? Okay I copy the action of my teacher as well as I can. But that cannot be all I do, even on day one class one of training that can’t be it, otherwise I’m not learning anything at all. Shu and Ha must still operate both at once even if I know nothing about martial arts at all and this is the first time I step in the door. Why? Because even if I want to follow the form exactly I meet it with questions. If I’m told to punch the first question that arises is how I form a fist. How tightly is it comfortable for my fist to be clenched? Which knuckles make contact with which part of my enemy’s body? I meet the form with questions. This is Ha. But beginner as I am I’ve no ability to answer any question I have of the form. So I turn to my teachers and training partners and ask them instead. And that’s Shu again. From the beginning a quest for one leads into the other. And what of Ri? Ri is always there as a goal, a point to be aimed for, an ideal martial art form which all training must necessarily move towards which only emerges from the oscillation between Shu and Ha occasionally and elusively.

This process repeats itself no matter what stage of training I may be at. Let’s say I’m no longer a beginner. Let’s say I’ve trained a few years and I step into class again and having done it a thousand times before, I throw another punch. I am still concerned with the form but not in the same way that I was the first time I tried a punch. Perhaps I am now concerned with the alignment of my hips, the structure of my elbows, shoulders and spine. Perhaps I am working on my posture or the stance of the punch. Maybe a few years later I’ll be concerned with the form’s timing and precision or being able to strike while relaxed. Maybe even farther after that I’ll be concerned with cutting out preliminary movements which expose my intention and generating power with very little space for extension etc. etc. You get the gist.

Every time I encounter aspects of the form I must examine them. I must examine the form and how it works for my body and how my body works with a partner’s body and how the form emerges from the two. Shu is always confronted by Ha. Even after maybe thirty or forty years of training this way will I have completed the Shu of punching? Is the form now routine? Only if I have elected to stop learning. Only if I have decided to stop seeking Ri. As I have said Ri is a kind of reversal where the practitioner’s experience is such that movement comes to almost spontaneously correspond to form rather than form dictating movement. When I begin my training I’ve probably no idea what this is meant to be like as I’ve never experienced it before. So I begin by seeking it, a moment where a form emerges perfectly as if by accident from the routine oscillations between Shu and Ha. After experiencing it once I know what I’m aiming for. Now my training continues in pursuit of this kind of perfect form a second time. Then a third. Maybe after a year I’ll be trying to consistently perform this kind of technique one every hundred tries. Maybe after two years I’ll be trying to do it once every fifty attempts. And so on.

In the three part formula of Shu Ha Ri, Ri is always sought and never quite attained. Even if you can, by some miracle, pull off a ‘transcendent’ technique 100/100 times then your next step is to try to do it 1000/1000 times. Each attempt should bring your training back to Shu and Ha and the three can never be separate.

So that’s more or less how I’d explain the concept of Shu Ha Ri and how I think it is applied to martial arts. As I said earlier I believe the concept applies to fields other than the martial arts too and I hope you can see why and how that might work from my description. Once again I owe a lot to my old karate school so I hope I’ve not misrepresented this particular ideal which they aspired towards.

I think this version of Shu Ha Ri describes the way I approach my training (or at least the way I try to approach it) and if nothing else I hope it’s been an enjoyable look at how I try to work out learning in my head. I would say that trying to enact a simultaneous Shu Ha Ri makes the learning curve early on in the process very steep, which can be immensely frustrating not only for the student, but I’m sure also for the teacher and the student’s various training partners. Learning in this style can still be interpreted a few different ways which demand different things from students and teachers alike and should be taken into account by both parties hoping to teach and learn respectively. But that’s another discussion I think… Maybe next time?

Anyway, thankyou for reading. If you’ve had anything to do with martial arts before perhaps this has been a good read for you? If you’ve never done anything like that in your life then maybe you might consider it now?

‘Til next time!