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Aiki: A State of Union

by Ellis Amdur

Aiki News #97 (Fall/Winter 1993)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Pavel Rott of the U.S.A.

A note on terminology: In this essay, I am using the terms aikijutsu and aikido to refer to two distinct psychophysical states of being, not to the specific martial art traditions of these names. Jutsu (meaning art/artifice/technique) has the implication of calculation and skilled means; do (meaning Tao or Way) has traditionally had the implication of spontaneous unreflected action in the service of a higher aim.

In the 1920’s Morihei Ueshiba Sensei taught his martial art to a group of high-ranking military officers, among whom was Admiral Isamu Takeshita. Some years ago, I spoke with Masao Muto Sensei, a noted kobudo teacher and researcher of Japanese martial history, who possessed a copy of Admiral Takeshita’s diary of his training sessions. According to Muto Sensei among Ueshiba Sensei’s statements quoted in this diary was the following: “Aiki is a means of achieving harmony with another person so that you can make them do what you want.”

This is a statement that I have “sat with” for many years. It is remarkably similar to the teachings of other martial arts which explain methods of using kiai(aiki with the characters reversed) to the same end. Kiaijutsu is usually assumed to be a loud shout, but that is only its most trivial expression. First of all, kiai is always a psychophysical method to organize one’s own energy and will. At the same time, it is a method of affecting another’s inner world. This can be for a variety of purposes: to understand another’s intentions, to deceive them as to your own intentions, or to neutralize an opponent’s strong points by manipulating spacing, timing, even breath. Kiaijutsu can be amazingly sophisticated, taking many years to master. For example, in the Jikishinkage-ryu, a mid-Edo period school of kenjutsu (sword fighting), there are four kiai each of which embodies a season. Not only do they sound different (winter, indeed, is silent), but the processes engendered within and between the expressor and opponent are as radically dissimilar as the seasons themselves.

Among the methods that I was taught was to pick out an individual and think, “Look at me” over and over again until they did, without making any “move” other than thinking kindly of them. Conversely, I would think “don’t look at me” while doing things that would invite a look. I could vary my study by expressing another emotion, or changing my somatic organization.

Another technique would be used in sparring (or combat), particularly with someone from another system. This is a form of kokyu-ho. Breathing is not a solitary activity, and, of course, breath (kokyu) is not the simple inhaling and exhaling of air. A relationship of any sort, be it friendship or murder, has its own rhythm, its own breath. As our relationship develops, so does our breath - both its physical and spiritual manifestations. Any change in the kokyu of one individual within the relationship will affect the other. This is always happening on an unconscious level, but one can alter kokyu intentionally. The degree that kokyu becomes subject to our will is the degree that the other individual becomes accessible to our influence. In this method, I would mirror my opponent’s breathing until we were in sync, and then, catching my breath or even my thoughts, create the same “catch” in my opponent, if only on the most subtle level. However, the “break” in my breathing pattern (or psychological state), would be under my control. I could thereby move into the suki (opening) and defeat my adversary.

Other kiai were used to freeze an opponent, to appear suddenly larger, to seem vulnerable, or to actually be vulnerable and use that weakness to win.

Let me offer a single example of the use of weakness as kiaijutsu. Its grotesqueness is chosen deliberately to illustrate how much larger and inclusive is the concept of kiaijutsu beyond a mere loud shout; it illustrates that any psychological or physical state can be expressed in such a way as to create a controllable relationship between two individuals.

You are confronted by a large man who holds a knife to your throat, all the while screaming threats and obscenities that smash like blows. Your fear is so great that you feel your eyes tear and your bladder sphincter loosen. You could fight a losing (or winning) battle with your own body, thinking “I will be shamed for life if I piss on myself. I’d rather die.” Instead of focusing on saving your life, you are centered upon keeping your shorts dry.

On the other hand, you could embrace both your fear and shame, and encompass it into something larger. You hold both fear and shame within a will to survive, thereby accepting them as givens (and therefore gifts) of what it is to be alive. So you deliberately let go of your bladder. Seeing the evidence, your attacker may laugh at you or curl his lip in scorn or draw back in disgust, whereupon you move into the “opening” between you, and hurt him devastatingly, or simply run away. Your pride would have gotten you killed; this kiai uses your weakness as a weapon rather than as something to fight within yourself.

In one martial tradition, I spent the first six months learning how to formally serve a mistrustful individual sake or tea, and at the fraction of a second that their guard was down, leap in and kill them. I had to learn to hide any movement or energy which would communicate my intention to attack; instead, I had to express a deep and sincere welcome to an honored guest, and at the moment I was trusted, destroy them.

Sounds awful, doesn’t it? And yet, about ten years ago, a deranged speed addict took a five-year-old child hostage at knifepoint in Tokyo. After a long standoff with the police, he demanded food, which was brought to him by the child’s 70+ year-old grandfather - who just happened to be a 6th dan in kendo. At the moment of handing over the tray of food, he “dropped” it and slugged the kidnapper with a dub he had concealed, saving his grandchild.

Kiaijutsu is a field of amazing complexity and subtlety, and there are as many forms of expression as there are martial traditions. However, it is, in essence, synonymous with Ueshiba Sensei’s concept of aiki as quoted by Admiral Takeshita, and I will hereafter refer to this essential state as aikijutsu.

The martial traditions that Morihei Ueshiba Sensei studied, including the Daito-ryu that he taught in his early days, were first and foremost arts of survival, both for the individual and even more importantly, for one’s socio-political group. One was taught to do whatever one had to do to insure survival, and fair play was not a part of the ethos. In fact, fair play would be looked upon with scorn, if not incomprehension. One would be regarded as nothing less than a complete idiot if one were so irresponsible to give warning of one’s intentions to someone who meant to kill one’s family, clan, or political faction.

As some of you may have noticed, however, there is something psychopathic about all of this. Empathy and spiritual intimacy are evoked for the sake of manipulation of another. It is important to understand, however, that this is not merely lying. This state of being can only occur through opening oneself up fully to the other person, and yet somehow bracketing off a part of oneself which is both involved and apart, in the service of one’s own aims.

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