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Aikido and Nationalism

by Peter Goldsbury

Aikido Journal #118 (Fall/Winter 1999)

Aikido, as we all know, is a non-political martial art which does not distinguish between different nationalities and beliefs. On the other hand, as a worldwide organization, aikido is divided mainly according to national boundaries and many of the problems affecting the art seem to be disputes (over grades, for example) which arise because of such national boundaries. The issues discussed below involve serious questions of cross-cultural understanding, which lie at the very roots of our understanding of the art and why we practice it. The discussion is an expansion of matters discussed earlier in AJ114 and is intended to examine possibly cherished beliefs and to provoke thought and reactions, rather than come to any definite conclusions.

Probably the best place to start a meditation on aikido and nationalism is Japan, the country where it all started. Japan is unique in two ways. It is the birthplace of aikido and, since the “spirit” and techniques of the art are expressed in Japanese, it will therefore always have a special place in the world of aikido. Secondly, the concept of nationalism is taken very seriously. Japan is unique in the way it regards its own history and culture. For a Japanese, being born into a certain “unique” race and being a fully paid up participant in a highly traditional culture are not one and the same. The possession of a comparatively heavy amount of “cultural baggage,” in the form of knowledge of (particularly written) language subtleties and awareness of one’s place in a quasi-tribal social structure, is an essential feature of “Japaneseness,” but there is also something else, about which a huge volume of literature known as nihonjinron (study of the Japanese) has been written and this cultural burden affects the dealing of the Japanese with outsiders.

In 1920 Morihei Ueshiba opened a dojo in Ayabe, Kyoto Prefecture, which was dedicated to the practice of his new and as yet unnamed martial art. The previous year, Ueshiba had a crucial meeting with Omoto-kyo founder Onisaburo Deguchi and so the practice had a distinctly spiritual dimension, which was added to the rather more physical training he had received from Sokaku Takeda, whom he had first met in 1915. Later, the term “aiki” came to be used when people described the art, but it was not until around 1942, when Japan was well on the way to collapse in World War II, that it was given its present name.

The gestation period of aikido thus lasted for about 30 years, and during the development of his martial art, Morihei Ueshiba was strongly supported by the Japanese Imperial Navy and especially by a very high ranking officer, Admiral Isamu Takeshita.

We do not know what Admiral Takeshita’s aims were in supporting this new martial art, but it seems unlikely that they were simply for the support of aikido as such, with no other considerations. We do know that Morihei Ueshiba opened a dojo in Iwama in 1940 and it has been said that he did this to register his disapproval of the military takeover of the martial arts. On the other hand, 0-Sensei was born in 1883, in the middle of the Meiji era and was at his most creative during the turbulent years when the foundations of military expansion were laid. To me it is highly unlikely, in view of his education and training at the hands of two exponents of traditional Japanese culture, that he would have dissociated himself from the rise of Japanese nationalism.

Of course, a history of the origins and development of aikido, based on an objective and dispassionate survey of all the available evidence, has yet to be written and perhaps it is still too soon for such a history. In addition, since aikido has become recognized as a powerful means of peaceful self-development, it is certainly unfashionable nowadays, and would perhaps be rather self-defeating, to portray the Founder as an ardent supporter of Japanese militarism. But militarism and nationalism are not quite the same and there is a danger that 0-Sensei is taken out of his proper historical context and made into a kind of icon. I do not think there is anything wrong in accepting 0-Sensei as a man of his time and as a patriot, who wanted to make his own contribution to Japanese nationalism, as he understood it.

This opinion received some oblique support from an unexpected quarter. A few years ago, after one of the regular training courses in Hiroshima given by the late Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei, there was some general discussion about the Founder. The discussion was, of course, conducted entirely in Japanese and I was the sole foreigner present. It was remarked by my aikido teacher, and generally agreed to, that I would have never been allowed within a hundred miles of an aikido dojo in prewar days. It was only after the war, and Japan’s defeat, that aikido was opened up to foreigners. There was a very awkward pause and the ice was broken when someone laughingly noted that I had been in Hiroshima so long that I should really be countered as a Japanese (almost!). I gather that my teacher lost most of his family in the 1945 atomic bombing, but has no axe to grind as a result. He is noted for speaking his mind directly, regardless of the consequences. It is a fact perhaps not widely known outside Japan that to practice in the prewar Ueshiba dojo, a candidate had to be recommended by two eminent persons connected with the military or politics. Foreigners simply would not have entered into the equation.

“But,” you might protest, “you have equated culture with nationalism and this is not right.” Cricket is a traditional English sport (though one which the English are currently very bad at) with rather arcane rules, but anyone can become proficient at the game. Expertise at cricket can be had without even a glimmer of knowledge about English culture and the integrity of the English nation has never been threatened by foreigners who are expert at cricket. Though the sport appears to be governed by old white Anglo-Saxon males, males of other varieties and age groups have always been very welcome and, in fact, since cricket in England seems to be in a state of terminal decline, the continued development of the sport rests largely on their shoulders. Soccer, which the English also created, is an even more cogent example.

In Japan, though, the situation is somewhat different. The experience of Konishiki in sumo has shown that there is a very strong link between culture and nationalism. Konishiki, it will be remembered, stormed his way up the ranks in a very short time and eventually stood on the threshold of promotion to yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo. Both the more conservative elements in sumo and the Japanese sporting media joined forces in opposing Konishiki’s promotion, on the grounds that foreigners did not possess, nor could be expected to understand, the special quality called hinkaku, (which means something like “grace”, “integrity”, “dignity”) considered essential in a yokozuna. He was called a “black ship”, a xenophobic reference to the wrestler’s great size and to Admiral Perry’s vessels which appeared in Japan in 1853. Konishiki himself put the point in a more direct way: he was denied promotion because he was a foreigner. Of course, the fact that he opened his mouth and said so was taken as definite proof that Konishiki lacked this essential quality.

Konishiki was in fact proved wrong. The promotion of Akebono and Musashimaru to yokozuna is evidence that foreigners can possess hinkaku, even though they might only have the vaguest notions about the prized quality they possess. Their situation is probably similar to that of many non-Japanese practitioners of aikido concerning the understanding of ki. Occasionally, I have been told by Japanese acquaintances (who invariably know nothing about aikido) that I cannot understand ki because I am a foreigner. However, (1) understanding something and being able express the contents of that understanding concisely in another language are quite different and (2) the notion that people are prevented from understanding certain concepts because they are foreign should be seen for what it is: nothing more than a prejudice.

Thus, even in Japan, aikido is more open to foreign participation than sumo, but its organization is more conservative. Though the two foreign yokozuna became Japanese citizens, they reached the top ranks through competition. This way is not open to aikido and, though practice in the Hombu is leavened by regular foreign input, all decision making is firmly in the hands of the Japanese. I think it is very unlikely that they would ever allow aikido to bear even the faintest resemblance to English cricket. The reasoning is very simple: aikido originated in Japan (true), therefore its management should be in the hands of the Japanese (false, or, at least, not true for this reason). But what about aikido overseas?

It was the late Kisshomaru Ueshiba who took the momentous decision to make aikido an international martial art, available to anybody. However, I am not sure that the late Doshu fully realized the consequences of this decision.

One consequence is that the international development of aikido as a “new” and “peaceful” postwar Japanese martial art expanded at about the same hectic pace as that of the postwar Japanese economy. Judo experts like Kenshiro Abbe taught aikido techniques to their own prized foreign deshi abroad, who later requested the Hombu to send Japanese aikido instructors. The late Doshu did his best to comply with these requests and a succession of very able (and highly individualistic) instructors arrived in Europe, the US and Australia during the 1960s and began to teach aikido. These “missionaries” had to open dojos and create a grassroots organization, the overriding premiss being that, in principle, the instructor was a professional and would have no other means of economic support. Doshu himself gave a strong lead to this international expansion by making frequent trips abroad.

The new instructors received no special training in language skills or intercultural communication and I suspect that not a great deal of thought was given by the Hombu to the organization of aikido in the “missionary” countries. Of course, to say this is not to lay any blame at the feet of the instructors involved. A shihan like Yamada Sensei, for example, would have arrived in New York with very little idea of what to expect. I am sure he will correct me if I am mistaken, but I would think that creating an aikido organization in the entire eastern USA was the last thing he considered. Yet he did so, and in fact was instrumental in creating a national American aikido organization. By virtue of its great size and the fact that in 1964 Yamada Sensei was the only Hombu shihan resident in the USA, the USA did not immediately have a national aikido organization, but it was an exception to a general tendency. Generally, the development followed the Japanese pattern and the result was a network of national aikido organizations.

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