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Is Aikido Teachable?

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by Peter Goldsbury

Aikido Journal #120

“What a silly question! Of course aikido is teachable. The fact that there are probably a million past and present aikido practitioners in Japan and overseas is eloquent testimony to the fact. Since Morihei Ueshiba actually taught relatively few of these million practitioners, the phenomenal growth of aikido can be due only to the hundreds of dedicated teachers who trained at the hands of the disciples who were taught directly by O-Sensei.”

This response is plausible, but unconvincing. It is undeniable that the million past and present aikido practitioners (estimates of the actual numbers vary wildly) have learned the art at the hands of these dedicated disciples; whether they have been taught and, if so, how they have been taught, is another question entirely.

Teaching vs. Training

The issue is not just a matter of words, or yet another example of the conflict between eastern and western cultural traditions and the limitations of both. It is obvious that these cultural traditions are quite different, especially when it comes to matters of teaching and learning. Nevertheless, the differences, though important, are not absolute.

On the one hand Aristotle, the inventor of western logic, the university, western educational methodology and much more besides, was every clear on the matter of what was teachable and what was not. In the work known as Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states that morality, or the awareness of the importance of an ethical system, has to be learned from experience; all one can do is to present the student with learning opportunities and hope.

On the other hand, in the Japanese scheme of things, aikido shihan are not teachers in the commonly understood sense. In fact this title, so beloved of a certain class of aikido practitioners and such a source of anguish to those members who not do not have it and think they should, is unknown outside traditional Japanese arts. A shihan is a model or archetype of the art in question and the title is given (usually on payment of a large sum of money) to those who are considered outstanding exemplars of the art. Completely different titles are used for people in the Japanese educational world, who spend their time teaching the young and/or inexperienced.

The commonly accepted assumptions of the Japanese educational world are also relevant to the question of teaching in the martial arts. A young Japanese is socialized to become a member of a cohesive social organism or tribe; the development of individuality is never seen in opposition to membership of this social organism. Thus education has a more instrumentalist and utilitarian aim than it does in western countries, where the overriding aim is to develop individuality. Students in schools and universities passively receive from those perceived as elders or betters an extensive body of knowledge, much of it learned by rote. This is where textbooks and syllabuses come into play and at the Japanese junior high school level every school in the entire country is following the same syllabus, probably the same part at the same time.

Training, however, is rarely undertaken in the Japanese classroom. On attaining junior high school, a young student will join a sports club and such clubs also exist in the high schools and universities. The student learns by practice such matters as how to address seniors in polite Japanese and how to be a dutiful cog in a larger machine. The training can sometimes be very severe and absolute obedience to the rules is demanded. Anything less can result in problems and has sometimes led to severe injury or even death. Nearly all the student aikido clubs in Japan are organized on this model. The training is led by senior students (usually in the 3rd year) and a common complaint is that the process is very stifling. The weight of tradition is very strong, with the blind usually being led by the blind; students learn how to be polite and dutiful but not much else. Very few of those who graduate continue aikido practice after they have graduated.

Nevertheless, the high school sports clubs do instil certain assumptions that are of great use when practising the martial arts. A student will approach an art like aikido with certain basic assumptions. (1) The aikido world is completely different from the classroom, with syllabuses and textbooks. (2) The world is vertically structured and in no way depends on the interests or explicitly stated views of those at the bottom of the structure. (3) Practice of the art is overwhelmingly a matter of training, success at which involves the ability to learn techniques through repetition. (4) There is no explicit intellectual input, in the sense that the goals are not presented beforehand as an intellectual structure to be explained through the medium of language, though verbal instruction and explanations are very occasionally given. (5) Senior students are presumed to know much more than the beginner and this knowledge is not to be questioned in any way. (6) Techniques are shown and the students are there to practise them, usually with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, a basic level of proficiency is demanded and is usually attained.

The Ki of Barberism

These very same assumptions operate in other activities, like hairdressing, for example. In my local shop there is a student, a deshi, whose entire training consists of watching in silence what the barber does. In the years I have been a customer I have never seen him cut a single hair, other than give a customer a shave. Eventually, he will be able to do this, but only on selected heads and always under the very watchful eye of the barber. I have no doubt that he will become a very good hairdresser, but this will not be the result of any explicit teaching on the part of the barber. I have been told that O-Sensei used to require of his deshi two years of ukemi practice before being introduced to techniques and in one of his books Saito Sensei suggests two years of suburi before beginning kumitachi. To my mind this is barbershop training par excellence.

I think it needs to be stressed that students brought up in a western educational system do not have these assumptions and that to approach a Japanese martial art like aikido, especially if it is presented according to the above assumptions, requires an intellectual “paradigm shift” of considerable magnitude.

The idea that the deshi has to “steal” the knowledge or techniques from the teacher is often mentioned by disciples of O-Sensei and there is the implicit suggestion that so-called western ways of teaching based on rational explanation have no place in aikido. This might have been the case in O-Sensei’s day before World War II, but it is clear that aikido’s “centre of gravity” has shifted somewhat. It might be too much to say that this centre is no longer in Japan, but the mere fact of thousands of dedicated and technically able aikido practitioners outside Japan must surely add a dimension to the art that O-Sensei cannot have imagined. In the rest of this article, I shall discuss the question of whether the actual dissemination of aikido has been “westernized” since O-Sensei’s time and if so, to what extent this matters for the future.

Primordial Chaos?

In the present state of objective studies of aikido history, it would probably be impolite to suggest that O-Sensei did not think very much about the teaching of aikido. However, a very large number of interviews in AJ with O-Sensei’s direct students (and my own private conversations with some of these students) suggest that O-Sensei was so filled with the uniqueness and magnitude of his vision that he did not spend a great deal of time thinking about how to put this vision across to other people or explain it in a systematic way. Of course, there are the so-called training manuals Budo and Budo Renshu. The former is supposed to have been written by O-Sensei himself and the latter to have been approved by him. However, (1) they were only given to certain students, probably those who passed certain unspecified tests of martial virtue and were in no sense general aikido manuals available to anyone, and (2) the explanations would be incomprehensible to anyone who did not possess a thorough knowledge of Japanese culture (in particular, of the contents and significance of the collections of Japanese myths known as the Kojiki and Nihonshoki) or who did not already understand the various techniques which O-Sensei practiced at the time. Even then, many immediate students of O-Sensei have confessed that they had very little understanding of the more esoteric explanations he gave relating to the “unalterable” laws of the universe etc. These students continuously trained under O-Sensei’s direction and would surely have been in the best position to acquire such understanding. But this does not appear to have been the case.

Judging from the written records and his own statements, it is highly probable that O-Sensei had experiences which might properly be termed mystical and these formed a central element in the creation of his art. Mysticism is a highly respected element in the Western religious tradition and it is clearly not the exclusive preserve of religions like Christianity, with its western intellectual background. The great mystics like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross were, like O-Sensei, both major reformers in their chosen spheres of activity. Unlike O-Sensei, they both left copious records of their mystical experiences, but these records bring us no closer to an actual understanding of these experiences and they are in no sense a means of replicating these experiences in ourselves. O-Sensei composed some poems that are incomprehensible to most aikido practitioners. But perhaps we have no right to expect O-Sensei to present such experiences in words that we can understand?

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