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.