.3.2 Yurusu Budo – Life

Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.3.1 Yurusu Budo – Death

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

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

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

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

Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Martial Arts of Submission

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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