Aikido Journal Home » Articles » Defense of the International Aikido Federation Aiki News Japan

Defense of the International Aikido Federation

by Peter Goldsbury

Aikido Journal #115 (1998)

I have tried to show that the question whether a martial arts organization succeeds—fulfils its aims—is very difficult to answer. For example, in one sense the Aikikai is a very successful martial arts organization, for both inside and outside Japan the art, as inherited by Doshu and developed and interpreted by him, is growing. On the other hand, the disciples of the founder went off to create their own dojos and these also developed into fully-fledged organizations. Thus the aikido world split into competing groups even during the founder’s lifetime, the fragmentation of aikido happened in Japan, the “mother” country, and not only abroad. So, in another sense the Aikikai has not been successful in its aim of maintaining unity in aikido and the question whether such unity is possible is a valid question which needs to be asked.

Furthermore, as I have suggested above, the success of an organization which emphasizes an unbroken vertical line between the founder and the current head of the dojo or organization depends on the constant supply of able people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a particular vision. I believe that it is extremely unlikely that the Aikikai Hombu will be able to rely on a steady stream of young shihans willing and able to reside overseas and teach aikido. Thus, when the present generation of overseas Japanese shihans passes away, their replacements will have to come from within the countries where they have been teaching (At this point it will also become clear to what extent these Japanese shihans have been successful in building a suitable organizational structure, which will ensure the development of aikido in their adopted countries.) In the next fifty years, the Japanese aikido shihan residing overseas will become an increasingly rare figure and aikido will be in the hands of non-Japanese shihans, aided by occasional visits—at summer schools and international congresses—from the shihans sent by the Aikikai Hombu in Japan. This, however, assumes that the Aikikai Hombu and other dojos in Japan will be successful in attracting a constant supply of able recruits. If the martial arts clubs in Japanese universities are any indication, this cannot be taken for granted.

Western vs. Japanese Organizations

I think it would be difficult to apply the “democratic-autocratic” distinction to many aikido organizations outside Japan. Other factors are also relevant. I have lived in Japan for nearly twenty years now and I do not believe that Japan is a truly democratic society. By this I mean a society in which the members conceive of themselves as individuals with certain responsibilities and rights, who are able to choose representatives by vote and also to have a direct influence on the policy made by these representatives. Of course, this is democracy in a Western sense, but I do not believe that there is any other sense of the word. I do not intend any disrespect to Japanese by the above observation and I consider that the comment about martial arts organizations, “In a martial arts context, the Japanese naturally set up an autocratic structure controlled by a small inner group that supports a central figure,” is completely true. However, without some qualifications it might be misunderstood by many non-Japanese. A democratic organization of the Western sort rests on a set of unstated abstract principles about the individual. The Japanese do not operate on such principles. Nevertheless, a non-democratic society such as Japan’s rests on a general principle of harmony and even in such a supposedly autocratic structure, if it really follows the Japanese pattern, those who have the power have an obligation to take account of the feelings, if not the articulated views, of those who do not. This relationship between the sempai (senior) and kohai (junior) is firmly embedded in the cultural fabric of Japan. It is taught to all Japanese from around junior high school age onwards (the age of 12), but there are no formal rules stating what these mutual obligations consist of. Of course, it is true that “those who do not conform either leave or are ostracized from the group,” but the point is that these persons never constitute a majority of the group, for the power holders will always make sure that the general principle of harmony will prevail and will try to evolve a consensus which takes account of as many views as possible. If the minority ever became a majority, the organization would either cease to function or undergo radical change.

The autocratic style of organization, which is rather repressive of individual views, can be compared with the style supposedly favored by Westerners, which places greater stress upon the individual viewpoint. But, as I have implied above, very many aikido organizations in the west have been created by Japanese disciples of the founder, who have created organizations based on their own (Japanese) experience. The first dojo of which I became a member, in Britain, was controled by the Japanese instructor. The organization was totally autocratic, in the sense that there were never any decisions reached by a consensus of all the members. Our instructor did everything because we were total beginners and had no idea how to organize a dojo. As we practiced more, we developed a general idea of what a dojo should be like. However, we never felt that we were at the mercy of an autocrat and there was never any jarring of mood. Friendships formed in that dojo, nearly 30 years ago, still continue to flourish today. The second dojo where I practiced on a regular basis was controlled to an even greater degree by the resident Japanese Instructor. His policies were accepted without any question, though many of the other aikido groups were run by ex-students of this particular instructor. There was a similar pattern in the U.S.A. The shihan surrounded himself with a small group of the more senior-ranked students and the rank and file students simply accepted the situation with reactions ranging from bright-eyed adulation to sullen resignation. Where there is no resident Japanese shihan (in countries like Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands), then the organization tends to be more democratic, but this is usually because there is no one of shihan rank, or even because the resident Japanese shihan was not successful,

The I.A.F….

It is true that the I.A.F. was created in response to an initiative from Europe. Before the I.A.F. there was an organization in Europe called the A.C.E.A. (the European Cultural Aikido Association), which later became the E.A.F. (European Aikido Federation). Many of the members of this European Federation were aikido sections of judo organizations, wherein most of the power was firmly in the hands of the judoists. I do not think that the decision to put aikido under the protection of judo was free of controversy in the Aikikai, but I certainly do think there is something to be said for it. Mr. Nobuyoshi Tamura, who was the first Japanese representative of the Aikikai to reside in Europe, probably felt that judo groups could provide good organizational support for what was a new and unknown martial art. However, it is a curious fact that this example was not followed by any other Japanese Aikido Instructor who went to reside abroad and teach aikido. I want to stress that I am not saying that Tamura shihan was wrong to attach his aikido organizations to judo. It is well-known that Japanese judoka were instrumental in introducing aikido to Europeans and thus many European judoists also practiced aikido. It might have seemed the natural thing to do at the time. It was also a courageous decision, since, for the first time, Tamura Shihan tried to lake account of the cultural attitudes of the people he had been sent to teach.

I was not present at the first I.A.F. Congress in 1976, but some very important issues arose at the third I.A.F. Congress, held in Paris in 1980, which I attended as a delegate for one of the I.A.F. member federations. As I have suggested above, the spread of aikido abroad was culture-based and in many cases the Japanese shihan established an organization that was nationally based, with a name such as “The Aikikai of Great Britain.” The congress was the scene of a major conflict within European aikido over an apparently simple issue: what is a “national” aikido organization? The I.A.F. statutes unfortunately do not define this term, since they did not need to when the federation was founded. At that time, everything was in “harmony” and there was only one aikido organization in each country, namely, the one created by the Japanese instructor and recognized by the Aikikai. (The U.S.A., because of its size, did not have this system and the rather complex situation in Japan also escaped notice.) Alas, this problem of definition was related to another, more fundamental, problem concerning aikido’s independence from judo and this problem was one of the unforeseen consequences of the fact that Tamura Shihan’s aikido organizations were under judo control. Independent aikido organizations in Holland and Spain wanted recognition from the Aikikai, and also membership in the I.A.F., in preference to the established aikido department of the national judo organization. The Paris Congress could not even start because there was no clear decision on who had the power to vote. Since the 1980 Congress the split in Holland between judo based and non-judo based aikido organizations spread to France and Mr. Tamura lost about half of his students. As I understand it, the Aikikai organizations in France are now Independent of judo, but the division into two large groups still remains.

It is important to understand several points about the issues which arose at the abortive 3rd I.A.F. Congress. First, the issue which paralyzed the Congress was a European issue and one which had split the European Aikido Federation. Between 1978 and 1980 there had been a grassroots revolt of Japanese instructors living in Europe exercising autocratic control over the federation. The Japanese instructors in Europe generally remained on the sidelines. However, the I.A.F. was in no position to deal with this crisis in one of its sub-federations. The founders had probably never imagined that such conflicts could occur in an aikido organization. After all. aikido is all about harmony, isn’t it? Certainly the Japanese were taken by surprise at the force of the dispute and had no idea what to do. One might argue that they should have known that this would happen because disputes in some form or other have existed ever since martial arts schools were created and the seeds for these disputes lie, as I suggested above in my earlier sketch, in the vertical organization of the martial arts, with its emphasis on the unbroken line between the founder and the current head of the dojo, rather than on a framework of rules or procedures.

The second point to note is that, while the Japanese in Europe generally remained on the sidelines during the crisis within the European Aikido Federation, there was a parallel dispute within the Aikikai itself about the recognition of overseas aikido organizations with judo groups; should the Aikikai recognize a judo-affiliated group in a country, when there was also an independent group? Now it is commonly supposed that only non-Japanese, or only Europeans, have disputes about aikido and this might be something that Japanese teachers like to stress, for the picture of Japanese senseis squabbling over a Japanese martial art that is supposed to bring peace and harmony rings somewhat hollow. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that Japanese instructors in Europe affiliated to the Aikikai revolted en masse against Mr. Tamura’s leadership also shook the Aikikai Hombu. The point I want to stress is that the problems which faced the I.A.F. in 1980 and after can be seen as a consequence of disputes within the Aikikai Hombu concerning the organization of aikido overseas. They were not created by the European alkldoists themselves.

Finally, the dispute was not merely about something discussed at the supposedly ethereal heights of an International congress, but reached right down to the local dojo, for it concerned qualifications for dan grades and teaching diplomas There was a possibility that aikido instructors in some countries would also have to have grades in judo or karate. The U.S.A. (and also Japan) is very lucky in that few restrictions are placed on the martial arts by the national government. Anyone can open a dojo and issue his/her own dan grades (which might actually be worth no more than the paper they are written on). The situation is quite different in some European countries, with governments laying down precise regulations about examinations and dan grades. France has a system of national dan grades and no one may teach aikido in a municipally-owned dojo without a state diploma. Someone might receive a dan grade in France and later find that it is recognized only in that country. In the U.K. no one may teach in a municipally-owned dojo without a national coaching qualification. With the rise of the European Union (EU), such government interference is likely to increase, rather than decrease.

Many aikidoists have the feeling that they can “just get on with practice” and that aikido “politics” (i.e., worrying about the organization of the dojo and its relation with outside bodies) is an undesirable and largely unnecessary business which can be left to those who are good at talking, or who like that sort of thing, the implication being that they are not really true aikidoists. I think this attitude is rather naive and in my own experience of aikido in three different countries, I have found that “political” issues are never far away from the tatami. Questions about the organization of one’s own dojo, or the affiliation of that dojo to a national or International federation, or the registration of one’s grade and its international standing, are often debated and not just outside Japan.

(The full article is available for subscribers.)

Subscription Required

To read this article in its entirety please login below or if you are not a subscriber click here to subscribe.

Remember my login information.