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Martial Integrity in Aikido

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by Todd Jones

Published Online

In response to a request from the editor, the following thoughts are submitted for consideration and/or debate. No offense or disparagement of anyone is intended. By way of qualification, the author would like to emphasize that the written word is likely not up to the task of properly communicating these arguments; moreover, this piece is an introductory, conceptual overview, at best. As such, your tolerance and patience is requested and appreciated. For a more discerning explanation, see the author at the Aiki Expo in 2003.

Todd Jones

How the problem started

There is ample evidence in the record to support the contention that the nature of aikido training was modified after the last world war; more so in the cities, where Allied troops were concentrated, due to the ban on practicing martial arts. This, in part, explains O Sensei’s retirement to Iwama. The modification of training methods has a long and ancient tradition in Asian martial arts, (e.g., the refinement of Naha-te during the Japanese annexation of Okinawa, or the covert training conducted during the Japanese occupation of Korea.) These facts, combined with a philosophically driven ethical imperative of “permit no harm,” has led to a widespread dilution of aikido’s practical applicability that has been noted by many prominent exponents of various martial disciplines. Could it be that the definition of “harm” has simply altered over time?

As a result, today, generally, there are two ideological factions among aikidoka. One group favors practical application; the other prefers to express the art as a graceful and harmonious articulation of the Founder’s philosophy. It is critical to recognize that a broad continuum exists here and that, while many practitioners begin in one place, they may well end up in another. Is aikido a dance, or is it a martial art, and who is qualified to judge? Can both factions be correct? If so, why is there so much political discord among the shihan?

Ethical differences?

Philosophically, karate and aikido espouse similar ethics, but approach the issue from different perspectives. In the words of the Founder, “Aikido is a way to reconcile the world.” While that may be true, his ability was widely regarded as exceptional, in no small part due to the many traditional challenges he successfully overcame. It is human nature (i.e. survival instinct) to avoid conflict, and to actively seek harmony with an overwhelmingly competent opponent. When that opponent proselytizes an open-armed policy of acceptance and non-violence, only a fool refuses.

One could rightly argue that the ethical prerogatives of karatedo are consistent with, and in some respects more clearly stated, than those of aikido. In Karatedo Kyohan, Gichin Funakoshi, the Founder of Shotokan karatedo wrote, “to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.” Moreover, the prime tenets of Shotokan karatedo are expressed in its dojo-kun (dojo creed): seek perfection of character; be faithful; endeavor; respect others; refrain from violent behavior.

Judo’s dojo kun, written by Kyuzo Mifune, is longer, but somewhat less ambitious:

Have no falsehood in mind. Reluctance and deceit are not conducive to the inner harmony required by judo practice. Do not lose self-confidence. Learn to act wholeheartedly, without hesitation. Show reverence toward the practice of judo, by keeping your mind in it. Keep your balance. The center of gravity follows the movement of the body. The center of gravity is the most important element in maintaining stability. If it is lost, the body is naturally unbalanced. Thus, fix your mind so that your body is always in balance. Utilize your strength efficiently. Minimize the use of strength with the quickest movement of body. Acknowledge that what is called stillness and motion is nothing but an endlessly repeated process. Do not discontinue training. Mastery of judo cannot be accomplished in a short time. Since skills depend on mental and physical application, constant training is essential. Keep yourself humble. If you become self-centered, you will build a wall around yourself and lose your freedom. If you can humble yourself in preparation for an event you will surely be better able to judge and understand it. In a match, you will be able to detect the weak point of your opponent and easily put him or her under control.

This is clearly, good, practical advice for decent people.

The codes of all budo offer good advice, to be sure, but nothing approaching the grandiose aspirations of O-Sensei’s intentions (that predictably dovetailed with those of the Omoto religion). Nonetheless, all three of the aforementioned focus on improving the character of adherents. Why then, is there so much political discord among aikidoka as compared to judoka?

In contrast to aiki dojos, students in judo and karate dojos learn that their budo can be interpreted as an art, as a sport, or as self-defense. These clear distinctions have permitted karateka from otherwise widely varying styles to participate in joint training, competition, and good fellowship. As an art, karate and judo express their beauty and defense-oriented philosophies through their kata. As sports, both judo and karate provide safe venues for personal growth and the development of friendships that span all levels of society worldwide. In self-defense, judoka and karateka merely implement different tactics than aikidoka. Karateka generally recognize that most hoodlums (because who else would attack a decent, law abiding citizen?) lack sufficient cognitive awareness to grasp the gravity of their situations before it is too late. And while the ethical prerogatives of karate and judo may be generally consistent with those of aikido, expectations for the physical manifestations are remarkably different. Why?

Some argue that the physical interpretation of the solution by the karateka or judoka is repugnant and that that of the aikidoka is beautiful. This is an aesthetic argument. Would that identical outcomes might be assured, this argument is indisputable; unfortunately, outcomes are never certain. The physical expression of aikido is beautiful, but can it be both beautiful and practical?

Ideally, aikido is benevolent, but that articulation is difficult to achieve. To be benevolent (i.e. kind, compassionate, and/or giving), an individual must first have an emotional inclination and be capable of caring for his/her “partner.” A sociopath, for instance, could not care for his/her partner, thus, could never be benevolent (an extreme example, just to make a point). Historically, the screening process of formal introduction of new students, and their acceptance or rejection, by a dojo-cho (head instructor) generally satisfied the issue of character (but certainly not always, for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article).

So, extreme examples aside, the next requisite is that one must be in control of the situation, both psychologically and physically. If you cannot take control, then you are fighting for your life, or at least struggling to establish parity. Survival instincts almost exclusively override ethical considerations. Thus, to be in control physically requires talent, experience, conditioning, and a certain degree of luck. As importantly, to be in control psychologically requires intellect, savvy, and maturity. Simply put, you must be able to take control of the situation if you intend to be benevolent.

Thus, benevolence is a luxury. It is also open to interpretation. Some would say that spanking a child is benevolent (e.g., the spanking will curtail dangerous behavior); others would say that it is child abuse. Some would say that forcing a “high-fall” is cruel, but what if the only alternative was a killing blow? Only someone with sufficient experience and direct observation is in a place to judge (most often, that leaves only nage to self-evaluate). It is a matter of character.

True justice requires impartiality, honesty, integrity, and fairness. This is the heart of the matter. Did uke get proper treatment under the circumstances? It is up to the teachers of the art to constantly advocate proper ethics in practice. For example, when uke offers his or her body in training, that trust should be respected and appreciated. Too many abuse it, unwittingly putting their good health at extreme risk. It is up to the sensei to discipline such character flaws.

So, if karate, judo, and aikido share generally similar philosophical aspirations, what really differentiates them? The answer is physical expression of the ideological approach and transmission of the art. The difference is, at least in part, pedagogical.


It is a fact that karate, judo, kendo, and iaido are much easier to learn than aikido. Students of these arts need only focus on learning to control their own bodies. Kicking, punching, and blocking are, essentially, discrete skills. Pushing and pulling are innate, if not instinctive, responses. The mechanics of swordsmanship are straightforward. Learning to effectively deploy those skills can take decades, but aikido practice requires an almost immediately interactive skill-set. Unlike judo, aikido practice requires substantial cooperation on the part of uke, for beginners to progress. Experience clearly dictates that deshi progress much more successfully if they already have a command of their own physicality prior to undertaking aikido; even better if they understand physical interaction (e.g., judo competition, karate kumite (free sparring), or freestyle wrestling competition.) Maybe this is why O-Sensei reportedly accepted no students below third dan before WWII. Despite the preceding, modern aikido is frequently taught sans anything beyond a perfunctory training in striking or holding skills. Could the current situation be improved?

Theoretical foundations

In judo, kata provides a master template for the proper, or ideal, application of each of the art’s forty basic throws. In karate, kata provides a technical underpinning for the correct, maximally productive execution of fundamental skills, which must then be transitioned into application during kumite. In aikido, most dojo spend veritably all training time on kata-waza and do not even realize it. This raises the question, what is kata? More importantly, what is its purpose?

Simply put, kata is theory. Kata is a pre-arranged set of technical exercises intended to provide the adherent with a functional comprehension of the fundamental concepts requisite to mastery of a particular art. In other words, kata is the theory behind the reality of the application of the art. If the kata is executed correctly, there is no opportunity for reversal of the technique. The reality of any specific art’s interpretation of the kata will, of course, vary, given circumstance and individual competence. In kata, each participant knows, in advance, exactly what is to transpire during the exercise. Each participant knows, exactly, what his or her role is to be. Thus, virtually every aiki dojo that teaches by defining the attack and defense is practicing kata-waza… nothing more.

Shomenuchi ikkyo omote is a kata. The kata can be executed at a static, kihon level. It can be executed in a blending (awase) form. Or it can be executed in a flowing (ki no nagare) fashion. Regardless, each of these is still a form of kata-waza, so long as each participant’s role is known or declared in advance. Even executed during randori, a strong argument can be made that shomenuchi ikkyo omote is still kata, because the attacks are limited (i.e. predetermined) and committed. The difficulty lies in safely moving beyond kata to jiyu-waza (unrestricted techniques). There are two avenues that can be taken at this juncture; this is the point at which ideologies often clash. For those content with expressing the art as an exercise in harmonious interaction, the focus is on maintaining a “connection” with their partners. For those intent, or insistent, on maintaining martial integrity, the challenge is much greater and the issues are multivariate.

Practice objectives

Clearly, much of the disagreement in aikido circles stems from divergent training objectives. If aikido is to be practiced as a health or exercise system, then maintaining a “connection” with a partner during unrestricted practice (i.e. jiyu-waza or randori) would suffice. Maintaining this connection is certainly not in opposition to the goals of the Founder; but most people are attracted, at least initially, to aikido as a martial art. If we are to describe aikido as a martial art, the first, self-evident, objective must be survival during dangerous encounters. If martial integrity is to be paramount, the second objective would be technical efficiency with minimum physical effort in the minimum amount of time, preferably executed with some panache.

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