Aikido Journal Home » Articles » Bowing to Reality Aiki News Japan


It seems incredibly obvious, yet I continually come across people who appear unable to tell the difference between training and fighting.

Some insist, for instance, that you should keep your eyes fixed on your partner while bowing, in case you are whacked on the back of the head, kneed in the face, or subject to some other dastardly attack.

It boggles my imagination, however, that anyone would bow in a real fight—leaving aside whether “fight” is the right word to apply to aikido— so I cannot understand where these people are coming from. Unless, of course, it is a question of upholding some archaic code of honor in which combatants bow to one another before buckling down to a life-and-death struggle.

In a contemporary version this would involve an elaborate flourish of the baseball cap: “Fred Bloggs, of the noble family Bloggs, at your service, Sir. Permit me the honor of a fight to the death. Flick-knives or bicycle chains? The choice is yours.”

I think it is ludicrous to confuse dojo training, i.e., the learning of techniques and the principles behind them in a safe environment with a cooperative partner, with some kind of free-for-all.

In the dojo courtesies are observed, lines are drawn, and it is understood by all concerned (surely?) that you are training, not fighting. How else could you learn potentially deadly techniques? How else grasp the mental and spiritual principles of the art?

If training in the dojo is supposed to equate to a “real fight” there would be little point in wearing a uniform and training in bare feet on mats, using (worse still!) prearranged forms of attack. How very unrealistic!

Could it be that the confusion over this comes from the fact that so many martial arts have become competitive sports? Or is it that the Hong Kong movie industry has so saturated the public mind with scenes of heroes and villains slugging it out to prove whose dojo is the best, that this celluloid image has become the only one that some people can relate to?

Dojo etiquette is taken seriously in aikido, and bowing is regarded as an important part of this, complementary to the martial aspect. The act of bowing originated, like the handshake, as a gesture of respect and trust. To bow with nothing but mistrust in your heart would completely negate its meaning. It would also be extremely bad manners, and the logic of those who insist on doing so completely escapes me. I am open to correction, but I feel this is another example of a misguided competitive attitude, which is particularly inappropriate in aikido training. We see it also in those people who continually resist techniques.

Where does this desperate need for “realism” come from? It seems to be a modem development, judging from its complete absence in the older forms of training, including aikijujutsu.

I have no great experience of “street fighting” (I am generally in my car when out on the street!) so there may be something I am missing. The view that there are a lot of nasty, untrustworthy people “out there” may underpin this negative approach to training. But constant mistrust of one’s fellow man would be a pretty pathetic way of life—or rather way of death—and society surely has not yet reached that dismal level.

Training in “awareness” (an idea with as many interpretations as it has advocates) is important but this does not depend on the eyes alone. In fact, many budo masters specifically instruct their students not to look directly at their opponents’ eyes. I see no conflict between cooperative aikido training and training in awareness. Instead of competing with one another we should be attempting to increase our awareness during training so that our every movement becomes alive and not just a mechanical repetition.

Rote learning of technique could lead to inappropriate reactions in some situations (which is why we are warned against getting stuck in form) but I cannot imagine anyone going so far as to automatically bow to an attacker seriously intent on harming him. There is the joke about the villain, held securely in a wrist-lock by a police officer, who gives the orthodox dojo signal of submission by tapping with his free hand, and immediately runs away when the officer reflexively releases his hold. It seems possible, though unlikely, that such training habits could assert themselves at the wrong moment.

I must admit, though, that I once benefited from a similar reflex action at a training camp where I had been “set up.” On the final day of the camp volunteers stepped onto the mat to deal with multiple attacks by varying numbers of ukes. When I took my turn someone had secretly spread the word, and the entire group of 50-odd people jumped up simultaneously and started to rush at me. After a few busy seconds avoiding the front-runners, I let out a loud kiai, of the “Hi, eee…” variety, and prepared to meet my doom. I thought I would at least go down fighting.

To my astonishment, everyone suddenly stopped attacking me, knelt down and bowed politely. Apparently they thought I had shouted “Yame!” (“Stop!”), it was the most effective kiai I could have wished for, although I felt a bit silly when the overwhelming opposition suddenly evaporated.

We are creatures of habit—products, no doubt, of our environment, from which it is not easy to detach ourselves.

I observed this fact recently, from a different angle, when I questioned a high-ranking Japanese instructor about how he applied his 40-odd years of aikido to his daily life.

His answers were fascinating: “When I get drunk, I come home and perform aiki breathing exercises to lessen the next morning’s hangover.” And: “I have run up huge debts, but my training has enabled me to be philosophical about this, whereas an ordinary (untrained) person would probably worry himself sick.”

Apparently, it had not occurred to this sensei to use his knowledge to stay sober or better manage his finances. His environment evidently still exerted a considerable influence on him.

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