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Has Aikido Journal Lost its Focus?

by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #111 (1997)

We recently received a letter from a gentleman in Argentina. The writer expresses the view that Aikido Journal has abandoned aikido as its main focus while making a number of other rather strong assertions. Since I have chosen to respond in this space to the comments contained in this letter, we have taken the liberty of including it in this issue’s “Letters to the Editor” section. I recommend that you first read through it before proceeding further.

Mr. Nishida, the writer, contends that Aikido Journal has strayed away from its roots as a publication exclusively dedicated to aikido. We have begun to include articles on other martial arts and peripheral subjects irrelevant to serious aikido practitioners. Moreover, Aikido Journal has come to resemble other “commercial” martial arts magazines whose primary purpose is “making money.” There are other remarks concerning the marginal influence of swordsmanship on aikido, criticisms of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu and, more generally, Japanese traditional martial arts and their arrogant practitioners.

I will not attempt a point-by-point rebuttal of the views Mr. Nishida offers, but I will respond to the criticisms that form the core of his argument. First of all, however, I would like to provide for the benefit of our newer readers some background on the beginnings of this publication (then known as Aiki News) back in 1974. After some twelve years in aikido, I had developed a strong personal curiosity about O-Sensei’s life at a time when little had been published in any language on the subject. I wanted to know not only about his later life and philosophy, but also the events of his younger years and his struggles that culminated in the creation of aikido. In short, it was the process leading to the birth of aikido that interested me. This was knowledge I could personally relate to and use in my own life. Thus, the decision to start Aiki News was made as an adjunct to the pursuit of a personal interest. Naturally, the fact that there were other aikidoka who found my research of interest was gratifying and served as a stimulus to continue.

The possibility of the magazine growing to the extent that it could provide a living and have paid employees scarcely occurred to me during this early period. After many years of treating Aiki News as a hobby, when it finally did show some financial potential, I certainly did not feel apologetic about the fact. Perhaps I have fallen behind the times, but I was brought up believing that working hard and starting a successful business was something to be proud of. I would suggest that underlying Mr. Nishida’s comments against commercialism lies a socialist view of a world divided among haves and have-nots where the former exploit the latter and where class-envy is purposefully aroused. I do not subscribe to this view.

Besides, if we accept the premise that involvement in a money-making activity is somehow vulgar or inappropriate for aikidoka, then we have inadvertently leveled a criticism at the large aikido organizations whose yearly operations produce hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue. Are the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, Yoshinkai, and Shinshin Toitsu Aikido then worthy of censure for their blatantly commercial activities? What is to be said of the many skilled teachers the world over who have attracted hundreds, even thousands of students and in the process have achieved financial success? We must be careful here lest we trod on the good reputations of some of aikido’s most respected figures.

The aspersions cast on Daito-ryu aikijujutsu and the classical martial arts of Japan in this letter are, I feel, totally unwarranted. In my thirty-four-year career in the art I have met literally thousands of teachers and devotees of both arts. I can truthfully say that I have not noted any pattern of moral superiority on the part of aikidoka compared to practitioners of Daito-ryu. I suggest that arguing this to be the case would result in one becoming the subject of great ridicule.

While admitting that there is a historical connection between aikido and Daito-ryu, Mr. Nishida proceeds to dismiss it as unimportant. One feels compelled to ask why this should be so when the great majority of aikido techniques are directly traceable to Daito-ryu antecedents. One might further ask if the historical relationship between aikido and the Omoto religion is likewise unimportant? Are the spiritual views of Onisaburo Deguchi inconsequential in the thinking of Morihei Ueshiba?

One of the other points the Argentine gentleman makes is that Japanese swordsmanship had “only a marginal influence on aikido.” Since I have devoted more than one article to the reasons why I believe this to be false, I won’t reopen the subject here. Suffice it to that my arguments have failed to persuade Mr. Nishida and some others. So be it.

Apart from his asides on the evils of commercialism, the thrust of the writer’s comments center on a uniqueness of aikido which allows it to be severed from its historical roots. If my understanding of his views is correct, then I have some questions to ask of Mr. Nishida and others who may share his viewpoints. If we were to revise our editorial policy along the lines you suggest, would our readers be able to answer questions such as these? How did O-Sensei come to create aikido? In what way are aikido techniques original? In a similar vein, what, if anything, is unique about the ethical/philosophical principles of the art? Was the Founder Ueshiba an innovative thinker or did he synthesize and build upon upon the work of his teachers and predecessors?

I submit that readers who focus on the status quo of aikido to the exclusion of its origins and history will be totally ill equipped to field such questions. Further, they will be captive to the views of their immediate teachers and seniors, thus inheriting their prejudices. I like to think that the pages of Aikido Journal are filled with thought-provoking articles that provide readers with the necessary knowledge to come to their own conclusions on various aspects of the art even though these may differ from those held by the staff.

I would like to close with a comment I hope will further clarify our editorial stance. The content of Aikido Journal is not determined through a voting process. We, of course, encourage readers to continue to express their views and wishes. Please keep them coming. At the same time, the whole raison d’etre of this publication centers on my long odyssey to discover the roots of aikido and document the accomplishments of the founder. Therefore, one constant thread in Aikido Journal reflects the current focus of my research, recent encounters and personal experiences. In addition, we have enlisted the assistance of numerous experienced aikidoka and martial arts practitioners, both Japanese and foreign, for our staff and contributors. I believe their collective efforts have resulted in a one-of-its-kind publication that I am very much proud of. Ultimately, it is for you, our readers, to judge whether or not Aikido Journal provides you with worthwhile content sufficient to justify your continued support.