Aikido Journal Home » Articles » The IAF - Some Reflections Aiki News Japan

The IAF - Some Reflections

Available Languages:

by Peter Goldsbury

Aikido Journal #114 (1998)

The withdrawal from the IAF of one of its member federations has been the occasion for much pessimistic discussion about the future of the federation. I think the occasion offers a chance to take stock of what the IAF has accomplished and also to reflect on its future tasks. I do not think that the IAF has failed as an international aikido organisation. In fact, I believe it can claim several notable achievements.

Some Preliminaries

First, since its foundation in 1976, the IAF has provided a means by which aikidoists from all over the world can meet together and practise the art under the direction of high-ranking teachers, especially those having a direct connection with the Aikikai Hombu.

Secondly, the IAF has provided a forum in which aikido organisations affiliated to the Aikikai can meet in a spirit of friendship and discuss matters of common interest.

Thirdly, it has provided a forum for reasoned discussion between these aikido organisations and shihans, whether Japanese or non-Japanese, who are affiliated to the Aikikai Hombu and reside abroad.

Fourthly, and very importantly, the IAF has, through its congresses and other meetings, provided a means of official communication between aikido organisations and the Aikikai Hombu.

Fifthly, through its member federations and especially its European continental federation, it has helped to sow the seeds of aikido on new ground: to introduce and spread the art in countries where previously it did not exist.

Sixthly, the IAF has engaged in official contacts with various international sports organisations and has thus shown the face of aikido in places where the art risks being misunderstood, since it does not hold competitions and is thus not a sport in this commonly-recognised sense.

Finally, the IAF’s status as a recognised international federation has enabled some its member federations to gain recognition from their own government authorities. Not all members need such recognition, but a significant number do.

When the IAF is mentioned in some quarters, an air of desperation sometimes descends on the discussion and I am asked, as Chairman, what is going to happen to the federation. Of course, it will continue — it must continue — and I hope it will continue to flourish.

I think that the IAF is a pioneering organisation in many respects. It is attempting to do something never before attempted, namely, to be a worldwide federation which combines two distinct patterns of organisation: a vertically structured pattern, since aikido is a martial art; and a horizontally structured pattern, since the IAF is democratic. Nevertheless, a fundamental aim the IAF is also to retain, or, rather, protect, the original essence of the martial art. Furthermore, the IAF is an organisation which has probably not yet reached a form best suited to its aims and objectives. Certainly, the present organisational structure is not something set in stone. However, the fact that many aikido organisations want to join the IAF, despite the recent departure of one member, and the fact that there is much discussion, even vigorous argument, about what form the IAF should have does not, in my opinion, presage its impending death. Rather, it is a sign of health and vigour — and a reason for optimism. Of course, some people want quick results and if these results are not forthcoming, they immediately conclude that there is no future in the federation. I think that this attitude is rather short-sighted.

Rather than glib condemnation of the I.A.F. for failing to conform to certain preconceived ideas, I think that there is a need for some serious reflection on the problems which will face aikido, and especially the Aikikai Hombu, during the next century. I believe that as more and more non-Japanese gain high ranks and become aikido shihans, the balance will inevitably shift away from Japan to the rest of the world. It will then become even more essential than it is now to have an international aikido organisation capable of supporting the growth of aikido while also retaining its essential Japanese heritage. To find a suitable organisational structure, which is — like the ideal aikidoist — well-centred, balanced, mentally and physically supple, and possessed of a certain practical wisdom, is not something which can be achieved quickly.

Of course, the Aikikai Hombu is a Japanese organisation and I think it is not possible to disagree with the general thesis that Japanese organisations tend to function differently from those in the ‘west’. (NOTE: In this essay, I have put ‘west’ and ‘western’ in quotation marks because I think it is an artificial concept, used by the Japanese to lump together the cultures in a certain geographical location. The contrast between ‘Japanese’ and so-called ‘western’ cultures, the latter always lumped together in one general category, invariably fails to take account of the important differences among the ‘western’ cultures and I believe this fact is of great importance for aikido and the IAF.) Whether the difference centres simply on autocracy vs. democracy is a debatable point. I think that there is much more to it than this. The suggestion that organisations in Japan, especially martial arts organisations, tend to be autocratic, whereas those in the west tend to democratic, might be illuminating for those who do have little understanding of Japanese culture, but it will ignore much that is of importance for the proper understanding of the actual development and existing organisational structure of aikido. The danger in making the above distinction is that it adopts a rather simple model (Japanese organisations = autocracy; western organisations = democracy) and then concludes that the IAF does not fit this model and thus somehow fails. I think that the basic issue facing the IAF is not simply whether its organisational structure is democratic or autocratic, but rather what sort of aims and structure it, or any other cross-cultural aikido organisation, should have and how these aims can be accomplished.

The structure of the organisation is just one of the problems facing contemporary martial arts organisations. The rise of the Olympic movement, with its current emphasis on telegenic, visually attractive, competitive sports, and subsequent heavy dependence on lucrative financial deals with the media, has also had an effect on the martial arts and will certainly affect the development of aikido. Judo, kendo and karate have become international sports, with the emphasis on ‘western’-style competition, and the organisations have also become ‘western’ in the sense alluded to above. The original Japanese martial arts are now of relatively minor significance and there is good reason to believe that these sports have actually lost their Japanese roots. One cannot fail to wonder whether the same will happen to aikido — and whether this matters.

I had originally planned to write this essay, not as the current IAF chairman, but as an aikidoist with some 30 years of experience who has also spent nearly 20 years teaching philosophy and comparative culture in a Japanese university. But this is not really possible. When discussing the IAF, I cannot simply ignore the fact that I happen to be the present leader of the federation. Nevertheless, I would like to supplement the above defence of the IAF with some individual reflections of a more philosophical nature on the general nature of martial arts organisations and the problems facing them. I will conclude with some more extended comments on the IAF as an organisation.

The Dynamics of Organizations…

To illustrate the point about the organisation of the martial arts, I would like to sketch a hypothetical case, which might or might not bear a close resemblance to an aikido organisation, and in so doing discuss the possible factors involved in the creation of a ‘martial arts-style’ organisation. The aim of this exercise is to point out some of the potential problems facing such an organisation, which may well become actual and acute as the organisation develops. The sketch is meant to precede — and override — the distinction between ‘western’ and ‘non-western’ patterns of organisation, though some of these latter features will obtrude and will be noted in passing. Of course, the organisation so described is at many stages removed from a worldwide federation like the IAF. However, some of the characteristics of the organisation in these earlier stages will be at the root of problems which will arise in the later development of organisations like the IAF.

1. A remarkable person, who has great ‘charisma’ attracts disciples in virtue of particular exploits or abilities, such as the creation of a new way of looking at the world rooted in a particular practice or activity. (‘Charisma’ is perhaps not the best term to convey both the person’s magnetism and also the attractiveness of the ‘message’. I intend the term to be noncontroversial and morally neutral. It simply denotes whatever physical or spiritual qualities the person has which attracts disciples. Thus ‘charisma’ is something possessed by people like Christ, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, as well as less desirable types such as Asahara Shoko, the leader of the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group, currently on trial for mass murder by poisoned gas.) The disciples enter into a relationship with the person, but this relationship does not involve intimate knowledge on the basis of equality. Of course, the disciples have very close daily contact, since the relationship involves living together and sharing the same general lifestyle, but the charismatic leader is always someone ‘other’, and never an ‘ordinary’ person. The disciples may have various reasons of their own for following this person, but one of the reasons they all share is the sheer ‘charisma’ he possesses. The students become disciples because they believe that the person possesses what they are seeking for and that they can share in it. Thus the mission, or art — the particular type of activity or practice created or expounded by the leader — is the fundamental basis of the relationship.

It is important to notice here that the leader of the group has a teacher-pupil relationship with each of his disciples, but the relationship is different in each case. The relationship differs according to personal chemistry and also to the degree to which the disciple understands the art. It should also be noticed that, since the art or activity is open-ended — in the sense that it admits of differing degrees of progress or accomplishment over a (usually long) period of time, such different relationships might well depend on the degree of commitment from the disciples. Thus, even as a single organism, the group has several tiers, rather like concentric rings organised round the founder at the centre. Those in the rings closest to the centre have the greatest commitment; for those at the periphery such commitment is difficult or impossible, and they practise the art or activity to the best of their ability. The differing degrees of commitment will surely become a major factor in the subsequent development of the art, but one of the marks of the relationship with the founder, even for those at the periphery, can be characterised as an intense and personal loyalty.

2. The art becomes known and attracts more and more people. Accordingly, several crucial decisions have to be made, either by the founder or by the more perceptive disciples.

(a) The first choice is whether to expand. The original group was a single organism gathered round the leader — the disciples might think of it as a family and the bonds between leader and disciples might well be stronger than family ties. However, as the group expands, it becomes more and more difficult for the increasing numbers of disciples to enjoy continuous and unbroken direct contact with the leader and his/her ‘charisma’. Thus the group develops from being merely a single gathering of individuals around a leader and becomes an organisation. The fact that the art which he/she has created has great and lasting value — i.e., the value of the art and the benefits which it affords should not be allowed to disappear with the death of the founder — will usually ensure that the decision is made to continue the art. However, the fact that ever increasing numbers of aspirants will make close daily contact with the founder impossible becomes a fundamental problem.

(b) Another choice is how rapidly to expand. The transmission of the founder’s ‘charisma’ is entirely dependent on the availability of disciples who are qualified to undertake the task of following in the founder’s footsteps and passing on his ‘charisma’: surely a daunting undertaking. The creation of an ‘inner group’, which will bear the main burden of passing on founder’s ‘charisma’, is assuredly an essential factor here, regardless of the ‘western’ or ‘non-western’ character of the organisation.

(c) The third choice is how to expand. Since the founder’s ‘charisma’ is based on the practice of a particular activity which he or she created, the practice admits of varying degrees of knowledge or proficiency, with the founder having the highest possible level. As the group expands and as direct contact with the founder diminishes, a way has to be found of transmitting the founder’s ‘charisma’ to the newer members of the group, who have not had this apparently essential close and continuous contact with the founder. Thus, the need arises for a systematised method of passing on the founder’s ‘charisma’ and for recognising those who are thought to possess it. In some cases, this system is a set of rules of conduct, sometimes personally drawn up by the founder, adherence to which is supposed to form some kind of guarantee that the disciples will achieve a similar ‘charismatic’ state. In this case, the rules themselves define the purpose of the organisation. In other cases, practice of the art or activity itself is the defining purpose of the group and the set of rules constitutes a system for recognising levels of proficiency in the art, it being somehow understood that the higher the level, the greater is the possible access to the founder’s ‘charisma’. The system can be either a set of grades of proficiency (X has reached a certain level of proficiency), or of teaching licenses (X is officially qualified to teach certain techniques — or reveal certain ‘secrets’). Of course, those who were original disciples of the founder will tend to have higher grades, or to be able to teach the entire range of techniques. Whatever the activity, the more experienced members of the group will be teachers of the less experienced and will perhaps become officially recognised as such.

2. 1. The transformation of the organisation from one small group gathered around its founder to something larger is the point when fundamental differences of organisation tend to appear. A ‘western’ approach is to have a system of rules and this fits in very well with the western devotion to abstract principles considered to have a general or universal application. (Examples could be the rules which govern the activities of some Christian religious orders.) A potential problem with this approach is that the rules themselves might become the defining aim of the organisation, rather than what following the rules is supposed to lead to. Thus, the organisation tends to ‘ossify’. An ‘oriental’ approach is to leave everything in the hands of the individuals who lead the various parts of the organisation, rather than to rely on the system of rules itself. A potential problem with this approach is that it assumes that all the disciples will be able to replicate the founder’s ‘charisma’ simply on the basis of the training they have received, i.e., it places a very heavy responsibility on the shoulders of certain individuals who, of course, do not have any system of rules to guide them. These problems might become very acute and prominent, where a disciple of an ‘oriental’ art attempts to teach it to non-orientals, who expect a system of abstract and objective rules.

2. 2. It is worth noticing here that in cases where the aim of the organisation is to practice a certain activity or art, a system for recognising proficiency is not intrinsic to the art itself, for it is quite possible to become highly proficient in the art without obtaining grades or licenses. It rests more on the quite separate belief that the art embodies goals which admit of objective measurement and that such a system of objective measurement is desirable or essential in an organisation, for not all prospective members are capable of distinguishing between genuine practitioners of the art and charlatans. However, the differences of approach alluded to above are also relevant here. The ‘western’ approach will place greater stress on the rules which have to be followed, or the conditions which have to be fulfilled, for recognising particular levels of proficiency and these levels will have an ‘objective’ validity throughout the organisation. The ‘oriental’ approach will place greater stress on the fact that the grade or license has been given by a particular person and its ‘objective validity’ will have less importance than the fact that it has been given by this person. Both approaches have drawbacks which are likely to become evident in an organisation which tries to combine the two.

3. Despite the undoubted fact that they have actually attained various levels of proficiency, the disciples go out and create their own ‘replica’ groups, sometimes with the active encouragement of the founder. The replica groups operate on the quite reasonable basis that, e.g., “I was taught personally by the founder and have a mission to pass on to others the vision he/she has afforded me and the skills that he/she taught me”. There is an assumption — usually stated — that the disciples have a (close or even intimate) relationship with the founder, and usually a (high) level of skill based on this relationship, that others do not possess. There is also an assumption — usually left unstated — that each disciple has a different perception of the founder’s vision and perhaps a different level of skill. Thus, a whole group of satellite groups or groups of groups emerges, whose function is to transmit to the members the vision afforded by the founder to the particular disciple who leads the group, or, rather, the content of the disciple’s understanding of this particular vision. The disciples tend to model these organisations on their experience of the original group. The effect is a whole group of miniature ‘original’ organisations, all claiming to be ‘authentic’ in some way. Of course, the outsider might well assume that they are all working in harmony and this might indeed be the stated ideal, but the unstated reality is sometimes quite the reverse.

3. 1. In such an organisation, the presence or absence of any system of universally binding rules has the potential for creating severe problems. Each satellite group focuses on the disciple’s understanding of the particular vision afforded to him/her by the founder, and any entrant to the group will practise the art in accordance with the parameters defined by that disciple’s interpretation of the founder’s vision. The effect is to induce a kind of ‘tunnel-vision’ or clannishness. The responsibility placed on the shoulders of the individual disciple leads to undue emphasis on his or her particular interpretation of the founder’s vision. The channels along which understanding of the founder’s vision is supposed to run are vertical — from the founder, to first-generation disciple, to second-generation disciple etc. The neophytes in the organisation are supposed to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the particular disciple they have chosen, for he/she has a direct link with the founder and thus has the answers. They are never encouraged to wander from one group to another. One of the less welcome consequences of this multiplicity of vertically-structured ‘satellite’ groups is that they tend to see themselves in competition with each other. Being a student of A’s group, the practitioner is taught to feel that B and C have nothing to offer. They might, of course, be very good, but they are not A. The clannishness is occasionally given a mystical flavour, with some disciples arguing that finding the right teacher is an all-important task, probably of equal importance to that of pursuing the art at all. (Such clannishness or factionalism is a common feature of a vertically-structured society like Japan’s, where there is a special term for it. Habatsu-shugi exists in all spheres and at all levels of Japanese society and it especially flourishes in the martial arts.)

4. The founder is unfortunately mortal and has to provide for the continued existence of the group or organisation. A successor has to be designated. There are various ways of choosing a successor, which correspond with the level of autocracy in the organisation: the founder’s enlightened (but arbitrary) choice of a successor; a fight to the death of his disciples (a proven method which ceased to be socially acceptable many centuries ago); the automatic succession of the oldest son in the founder’s family; an election by an ‘electoral college’ of the most senior disciples; or an election by all the disciples regardless of rank. Since the transmission of the art is supposed to have the highest priority, all the ways have to make assumptions of one kind of another. For example, an assumption behind the third way would be that the son has inherited the founder’s vision and can transmit this vision in a better way than any of the other disciples. The history of the martial arts in Japan has demonstrated quite clearly that this assumption is not always borne out in practice. The last two ways represent increasingly ‘democratic’ ways of passing on the ‘charisma’, but also assume that many other people apart from the founder and the closest disciples are able to make enlightened decisions.

5. At some point, the founder or his chosen successor creates a system for defining the limits of the new organisation and the disciples then have a choice to make: to join the organisation or to remain outside it. Once the organisation, as defined, is created, the levels of proficiency are controlled by the organisation. The ostensible aim is to transmit the ‘charisma’ possessed by the founder, but also to authenticate it: to distinguish ‘true’ charisma from its false imitations. If the organisation is ‘western’ in spirit, the development of the ‘charisma’ will depend on the nature and flexibility of the fundamental rules governing the development of proficiency within the organisation. If the organisation is ‘oriental’ in spirit, the development of the ‘charisma’ will depend on wise decisions made in choosing the disciples. Given the essentially fluid structure both of the organisation itself and of the ways of determining the levels of proficiency within it, there is an inevitable tension between the organisation itself and the ‘charisma’ which it is supposed to transmit. Of course, the founder and his successors act from the purest of motives, but the tendency for the organisational channels which transmit the ‘charisma’ to become progressively restrictive is inevitable. Certainly no organisation, to my knowledge, has ever solved this dilemma successfully and those that have flourished as worldwide organisations have undergone periodic reform or revolution.

5. 1. In some cases, the process for defining the limits of the organisation also involves establishing relationships with outside bodies, such as education or sports ministries and other national organisations. This will depend on the political structure of the particular country, but it is probably safe to assume that there are very few countries where a ‘charismatic’ organisation which attracts a large number of members and operates on a nationwide or worldwide scale will be allowed to flourish without any interference. At the very least, the organisation will have to be established on a legal basis and this establishment might also have to conform to a complex set of cultural norms.

6. It is about at this point that the question might arise of creating a worldwide federation such as the IAF. The art is flourishing, in the sense that many people practise it, and there are worldwide networks of satellite organisations & groups, but there is also much splintering and fragmentation. As I have tried to show by the above hypothetical sketch, the success of a worldwide organisation dedicated to nurturing and spreading the ‘charisma’ of a single individual will depend on wise choices made at a much earlier stage of development.

…And the Consequences

Now it might be true that the main motivations for creating aikido organisations are to exercise control and to obtain a source of income, perhaps for the founder’s family. However, I think that the progress from a small band of disciples to a fully-fledged organisation (note that this happens in order to transmit a vision, or an art) is far less cold and calculating. It is certainly culture-based, in the sense that the founder will usually create an organisation based on the culture in which he or she was brought up, even if the vision itself has a universal application. Thus, the early history of aikido both inside and outside of Japan is the history of the halting and unorganised development of embryonic groups based on the original pattern. The groups were created by first or second generation disciples of the founder, who received no preparation for these tasks other than their training in the art. I have lived in Japan long enough to realise that most Japanese are totally unprepared by their education for prolonged and intense exposure to other cultures and this problem is an enduring legacy of the two centuries of sakoku — forced seclusion in the Edo period. The ‘culture shock’ of university students who do go abroad to continue their academic careers is severe enough, but they have supposedly had four years of preparation in their universities — institutions most likely to feel the effects of cultural exchange. Much greater will be the shock of disciples who have been sent abroad to create ‘replica’ aikido organisations, whose only preparation has been severe training in the intense but narrow cultural confines of the dojo.

I have tried to show that the question whether a martial arts organisations succeeds — fulfils its aims — is very difficult to answer. For example, in one sense the Aikikai Hombu is a very successful martial arts organisation, for both inside and outside Japan the art, as inherited by Doshu and developed and interpreted by him, is flourishing. On the other hand, the disciples of the founder went off to create their own dojos and these also developed into fully-fledged organisations. Thus the aikido world very early on split into groups — competing groups, even during the founder’s lifetime. It is important to realise that this fragmentation of aikido happened in Japan, the ‘mother’ country, and not only abroad. So, in another sense the Aikikai Hombu has failed to maintain unity in aikido and the question whether such unity is possible is a valid question, which needs to be considered very carefully. The question is especially relevant for the IAF, since the federation has been criticised for failing to achieve its stated aim of maintaining unity in the aikido world. I will return to this important question below.

Furthermore, as I have suggested above, the success of an organisation which emphasises an unbroken vertical line between the founder and the current head of the dojo or organisation 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 instructors 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 organisational 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 instructors, aided by occasional visits — at summer schools and international congresses — from the instructors 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 certainly cannot be taken for granted.

Western vs Japanese Organisations

I think it is very difficult to apply the ‘democratic - autocratic’ distinction to many aikido organisations outside Japan. But even within Japan, the distinction needs to be handled with great care.

For example, 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, or those who believe in ‘Asian values’, by the above observation and I consider that the comment recently made in a magazine about martial arts organisations, “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 true. However, as I have stated above, to call Japanese society autocratic without some important qualifications risks misunderstanding by many non-Japanese. A democratic organisation 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 very important general principal 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 (around the age of 12), but there are no formal rules stating what these mutual obligations consist in. Of course, the sentiment expressed in the same magazine, namely, “those who do not conform either leave or are ostracised from the group”, is also true, but the important point is that these persons never constitute a majority of the group. The power holders will always ensure 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 organisation would either cease to function or undergo radical change.

The autocratic style of organisation, which is rather repressive of individual views, can be compared with the style supposedly favoured by ‘westerners’, which places greater stress upon the individual viewpoint. But, as I have implied above, very many aikido organisations in the ‘west’ have been created by Japanese disciples of the founder, who have created organisations based on their own (Japanese) experience. The first dojo of which I became a member, in Britain, was controlled by the Japanese instructor. The organisation 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 organise a dojo. As we practised 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 the general atmosphere of harmony and pursuit of a common aim. Friendships formed in that dojo, nearly 30 years ago, still continue to flourish today. The second dojo where I practised on a regular basis was controlled to an even greater degree by the resident Japanese instructor. His policies were accepted without any question, though it has to be admitted that many of the other aikido groups in the country were run by ex-students of this particular instructor, or by non-students who had no particular desire for any contact with him. 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, the Netherlands and many other members of the IAF), then the organisation 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 IAF…

The IAF was created in response to an initiative from Europe. Before the IAF there was an organisation in Europe called the ACEA (Association Culturelle Europ