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Aikido Merely A Pastime?

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #86 (Fall 1990)

I have alluded in recent articles to our estimates of the degree of growth of aikido both in Japan and overseas. While our figures concerning the number of practitioners are lower than various official estimates, I think they nonetheless represent solid evidence of the penetration of aikido into the world’s major cultures. With this in mind, I have some thoughts about the way aikido is practiced in many schools today and its implications on the long-term development of the art.

Aikido is often referred to as a sport when brought up in conversations with non-practitioners. When this happens we sometimes object to the use of the term “sport” and point out that aikido is actually a “martial art.” But if we look a little closer, we find that people often use the term “sport” in the loose sense of the word, and that what they really mean is something like a leisure activity or pastime, rather than a competitive activity. If we stop and reflect for a moment, many of those engaged in the practice of aikido today do in fact treat it as a pastime, hobby or form of exercise.

How is this attitude expressed in training? One area that immediately comes to mind is that, as aikido is practiced in most dojos, uke’s movements are little more than caricatures of an attack. This is due to the emphasis on the execution of techniques to the exclusion of instruction on the basics of how to execute a controlled, sincere attack. Sloppy, weak attacks are also a major cause of criticism of aikido by practitioners of other martial arts. Apart from it being difficult or impossible to execute a proper technique against a half-hearted attack, such a relaxed attitude contributes to the development of frivolous or lackadaisical training habits on the part of both uke and nage. These are, in turn, counterproductive to the development of muscle and joint strength and overall conditioning necessary for the safe practice of the powerful techniques of aikido. I think that the main responsibility for this casual approach to aikido practice lies with those instructors who have failed to grasp the essence of the founder’s methods and intentions in creating his art.

Need Aikido Techniques Be Effective?

It is sometimes also argued that aikido techniques would be of limited use in a real-fighting situation anyway, and that even if they were, how effective would they be against a lethal weapon such as a pistol. The underlying premise is that it is not terribly important that the techniques we practice have a martial application. Therefore, by extension, say advocates of this viewpoint, there is nothing wrong with practicing in a relaxed, enjoyable manner.

The major fault I find with this way of thinking is that it overlooks the deleterious consequences of such practices on succeeding generations of aikidoka. If we use the aikido taught by Morihei Ueshiba following the end of the war as the measuring stick by which we judge the present-day art, we already find that far fewer techniques are taught today and there is little emphasis on such fundamental areas as atemi, the use of weapons, and the practice of whole groups of techniques such as koshiwaza and hanmi handachi which were part of the original curriculum of the art. This is to say nothing of the almost total ignorance of the source and content of the founder’s spiritual message. Should this process continue for much longer, I fear that in the future what passes by the name of “aikido” in many dojos will become unrecognizable as such.

Aikido has a rich heritage as one of the most important and dynamic expressions of Japan’s long martial tradition. Morihei Ueshiba, the originator of aikido, infused the complex and sophisticated techniques he learned in his youth with a humanistic vision of the martial arts as instruments for the peaceful resolution of conflict. It is this unique blending of form, utility and ethics which is responsible for aikido’s impact on modern generations. In one respect, the founder’s approach was perhaps too revolutionary. It seems to have been too much to expect the world to make the considerable conceptual leap required to transform the tools of war into implements of peace. Viewed in this light, the present state of aikido as a light form of exercise to be pursued in friendly, relaxed surroundings, is but a sign of the times we live in where whatever is easy and fun holds more attraction than activities yielding rewards only as a result of applied effort over prolonged periods.

The Aiki News Encyclopedia Of Aikido

Now that our English-language Encyclopedia of Aikido has finally appeared we have been most gratified by your response to it. That you are purchasing the book in such numbers is a great encouragement to the Aiki News staff to work harder and produce more works intended to make your pursuit of aikido deeper and more rewarding. Our basic plan is to offer revised and expanded versions of the Encyclopedia every two or three years and we are currently considering the possibility of publishing Japanese and French versions as well.

We welcome suggestions from your part as to how we can improve future editions of the Encyclopedia and make it more useful to aikidoka. In addition to increasing the number and scope of entries in the next version, we hope to more fully incorporate the features of a Who’s Who for active instructors and are considering the feasibility of offering a comprehensive dojo directory with thousands of listings. As in the past, we look to you for input and thank you for your support of our efforts.