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Coping In A Violent World

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by Mike Mello

Aikido Journal #100 (1994)

Random acts of violence seem to be on the increase, at least in the United States. Although many of us hope to improve our self-defense skills as part of our aiki training, just how realistic is this hope? Aikido Journal has asked four law enforcement professionals to answer a series of questions about how each of us can cope when confronted by violence.

Using as a starting point the December 1993 Long Island Commuter train incident, in which a gunman gone berserk killed and wounded dozens of his fellow passengers, we asked our experts the following:

What advice would you give to a passenger seated in a train car in which someone has begun shooting? Should the untrained individual attempt to disarm the gunman? What steps might you personally take to deal with the gunman? Are there any distracting maneuvers that could divert the gunman’s attention in another direction? Are there techniques taught in the dojo that might be of use in such a situation? What steps should be taken by bystanders afterwards, while waiting for the police and emergency personnel to arrive? Is there any way to minimize the panic among passengers? What common sense steps can we take to protect ourselves in crowded public places such as a train, subway, or bus? Do you favor banning or placing restrictions on the sale of handguns in an effort to reduce the number of gun-related incidents? What should Japanese traveling abroad keep in mind when visiting large cities with frequent violence?

“When the enemy advances, we retreat! When the enemy halts, we harass! When the enemy seeks to avoid battle, we attack! When the enemy retreats, we pursue!” from Sun Tzu’s Art of War

As Colin Ferguson awoke on the morning of December 7, 1993, what were his thoughts as he prepared to board a Long lsland commuter train and open fire on the occupants with a semi-automatic handgun? From the notes found in his pockets, it has been speculated that he was filled with rage over what he felt was racial inequality. But why take that rage out on innocent people? The individuals that he shot were not connected with him in any way other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

With what seems to be a rapid rise of violence in our societies and the inability of law enforcement to be everywhere to protect us from violent outbreaks, the question comes to mind. “What can I do to avoid or prepare myself for such a situation?” I think it would be safe to say that most of us who began training in martial arts did so for the purpose of self-defense. We believe that our training will give us the skills to handle most situations effectively. But what if that situation is not one that has been addressed in the dojo!

Most of us live in reasonable comfort. We rarely encounter circumstances where combat skills are required for self-preservation. Many feel that our civilized society is past the stage of our ancestors who were confronted with the need to act to survive on a daily basis. Yet many in the United States and in other areas of the world feel a pressing need to change their lifestyles to insure the safety of their families and themselves.

When you discuss any type of a response to a violent encounter, you need to think in terms of using the correct tool for the situation. To stand here and say that every individual who is confronted by an armed assailant should react in a specific manner would be unrealistic. Our training offers us a variety of tools to utilize in our lives, and prudent persons should have a wide range of options at their disposal. If your training has centered only on unarmed, standing techniques, maybe you should expand your training to include combat on the ground, or in confined surroundings. In all of my police and budo training, I never anticipated that I would have to try to fight a drugged-up male suspect, while standing in the bathtub of his home - but it happened! Training should include all defensive ranges, and in different surroundings.

Those of us in the law enforcement field have developed skills through training and daily experience that differ markedly from those of the average citizen. These are habits that we have incorporated into our professional and private lives that are intended to give us an advantage when our safety is threatened. These skills are not just in marksmanship or self-defense as you might suspect, but rather, knowing where to sit in a restaurant! A restaurant, you ask, what on earth is the significance of that? In a violent lifestyle where law enforcement personnel see more than our share of violence, there is one skill which is absolutely vital to develop. Awareness.


Jeff Cooper, the leading authority on handgun combat, considers awareness the overwhelming priority for self preservation. As practitioners of martial arts, we often use the term zanshin, which refers to a lingering spirit, or a constant state of situational awareness. We have just thrown our training partner and our attention remains on their position to monitor the possibility of additional attacks. This is an excellent example of awareness training. In training police recruits we often use the expression “developing eyes in the back of your head” to describe the level of awareness that one needs working the streets in a police uniform. Awareness is the ability to recognize an environment or circumstance as potentially threatening. It is the skill of placing oneself in a continual position of readiness, both mentally, physically, and environmentally.

Now why the fuss over where to sit in a restaurant? Training officers teach young recruits that the best place to sit is towards the rear of the restaurant, with one’s back to a wall with a clear view of the front door. If something unexpected does happen, such as a robbery, while the officer is in the restaurant forethought has given the officer at least a positional chance to react. Good fighters are often very careful individuals. Other examples of daily survival habits include never traveling to work or home from work along the same route, and never carrying objects in your weapon hand.

Many of us need to change our outlook on martial arts training. Traditionally, training wasn’t confined to the dojo, but with the changes in civilization, the need for martial arts in daily life has lapsed. Awareness training can begin the minute you step out the door in the morning. When was the last time a friend or acquaintance walked up behind you on the street and took you completely by surprise? Challenge friends to test one another’s skills with a friendly game of “I saw you first!” Wager a free lunch on it.

With any skill or tactic, you will need to expand and take into consideration family members that may be with you and how you must adapt to include them in your plans. For example, in an armed confrontation, you may choose not to become involved at all in order to protect your family.

Strategy and tactics are the skills that build from a level of awareness. Strategy is your daily survival prciples, such as the officer sitting in the back of the restaurant. Tactics are the skills for the encounter, which include our martial arts training.

Presented with the scenario of being seated on a crowded subway, what preparation can you take prior to any incident? First, where do you place yourself in the subway car? Did you choose to sit or stand (sometimes you don’t have a choice)? Do you have a clear view of the other occupants of the car? Can they see you? Where are your avenues of protection or escape? Doors and windows are the obvious escape routes, are there others?

Have you taken the time to look at the others on the subway car? Is anyone displaying nervous agitated behavior, sweating or muttering? Are they wearing heavy bulky clothing on a warm day? Are you watching the actions of such a person’s hands? Since it takes hand movement for most individuals to inflict injury, they provide good clues to a person’s intent.

If the circumstances that you see make you uncomfortable, get off at the next stop and wait for the next train. Being on time for a meeting is not worth risking your life. Be sure to tell someone in authority about anyone whom you feel presents a risk

Cover and concealment are two terms well worth knowing. If you find yourself in the line of fire, your first action should be to move to either one. Cover is anything which will hide you from the threat and protect you from the rounds being fired. A brick wall is an excellent example, but something as small as a fire hydrant would also work. Concealment will only hide you from the threat, it does not offer protection. On a subway, an opportunity for concealment can be the seats, luggage or the floor. The floor is most often the closest position available, taking you out of eye level of the gunman. This position may offer you a chance for escape.

If you have the misfortune (or fortune, depending on how you want to look at it) of being seated behind or next to the gunman, you have two tactical choices. The first is escape. If the odds are against you (armed vs. unarmed defense) and you can safely move, escape is a practical option. If you decide to take aggressive action it must - and I repeat must - be quick, determined and ruthless. Compassion cannot play any part in your thinking at this time, as your goal is to totally stop the assailant. Disarming with versions of kote- gaeshi and nikajo is an option being taught in several police academies. Both methods incorporate atemi, with the strikes often directed to the face and eyes.

In any gun takeaway method you must be aware at all times of the lethal end of the firearm. Be aware during the entire time of contact with a firearm that it can go off. Shime-waza (strangles) are also useful tools to consider in any situation. Law enforcement has found that choke holds are excellent methods because if they are applied correctly, they render the subject momentarily incapable of fighting. A rear attack would provide the time to apply this technique. I cannot stress strongly enough the point of “momentarily incapable of fighting” - a violent subject is not “completely” under control until he or she is deceased. I have seen officers attacked and injured by individuals who at the time were handcuffed, in jail, from wheelchairs, and strapped to hospital beds.

What to do after the smoke has settled? Communication is vital in these circumstances. Someone needs to assume the role of leader. Issue orders, direct others to act, establish other lines of communication. Often during a panic-filled situation, people look for someone to take charge. The first two priorities are treating any wounded and contacting the authorities. Again this is a good time to delegate by giving orders. Tell someone in the crowd to contact the police - if by telephone, tell them to stay on the line and not hang up until officers arrive. The police dispatchers will have several questions to ask while officers are responding to the scene. Basic first-aid skills are also a must. Such training can be easily acquired through local colleges, hospitals, or at Red Cross centers.

Would gun control help to avoid situations such as this? This is a complex issue currently being debated in the United States. Violence is a mental state and regardless of the implement of destruction, if an individual wants to hurt another, they will do so. In the prison systems of the United States assaults occur on a daily basis, and none of the inmates have firearms. What do they use? Anything they can get their hands on - handmade knives, kitchen utensils, belts and clubs. Anything that might help reduce the level of violence would be beneficial, but we must not look for one answer that will solve the entire problem. Violence in our society is far too complicated for one simple answer.

For Japanese natives traveling to the United States, a few recommendations. It is obviously best to travel with a group or host who is extremely familiar with the area you are planning to see. If you wish to see an area not on the group’s itinerary, try to do so during the daytime rather than at night and with someone familiar with the area. In the large metropolitan areas, one wrong turn could place you in a part of the town that even local residents avoid. If you have any doubts or questions, do not hesitate to contact the local police department for advice.

Unfortunately, there are very few police agencies with officers who speak Japanese, so English is a necessity. If you are on the street and find yourself in an emergency, go to the nearest pay phone and dial 911. In most cities in the United States, the address and phone number of the pay phone will be displayed on the screen in the police station. Even if you are unable to communicate with the police dispatcher do not hang up the phone. The dispatcher will send officers to the address of the pay phone to offer assistance. Always travel in groups if you can. Try to dress casually, and be less formal in behavior when you travel, so as to be a less attractive target. If someone feels that you have money, based on what you are wearing, and if they feel you are unfamiliar with the area, you may be a target. Some businessmen in the U.S. are now carrying their personal effects in inexpensive back-packs rather than briefcases in an effort to reduce their chances of becoming a victim.

While writing this article, I couldn’t help but think that some may perceive my ideas as those of a “war monger.” None of us, I believe, truly wish to cause conflict or violence in our world, but there are times when the actions of others force us to take drastic measures. Do not fall into the mental trap of believing that you are no longer a good person if you have decided to physically intercede in the violence of another. Turning the other cheek works great until you run out of cheeks.

Some may ask where prevention ends and paranoia begins. Can you become so cautious in your life that it takes the pleasure out of day-to-day activities? Human beings are still creative creatures, who can make choices and decisions for any circumstance. If you consider these ideas of prevention as a form of training maybe they won’t appear to be such an inconvenience. Even the image of combat with an opponent can take on a different meaning if you change your attitude.

For Further Reading

Principles of Personal Defense by Jeff Cooper. This little book gives an excellent overview of what it takes to survive violent encounters. In fact, any of Cooper’s books are worth reading. Available from Paladin Press, P.O. Box 1307, Boulder, Colorado 50306 USA, tel. 303-443-7250.

Tactical Response is a quarterly publication that offers information on urban terrorism. This information is geared towards emergency professionals, but their book list has some excellent resources for the private citizen. Varro Press, P.O. Box 8413, Shawnee Mission, KS 66208, USA, tel 913-432-5856.


Mike Mello Profile:

I am currently a detective with the Special Enforcement Unit of the Huntington Beach Police Department, California (USA). For the past seven of my twelve years in law enforcement, I have been involved in training officers in defensive tactics, firearms, and SWAT tactics. I have trained officers from local, state, federal, and international agencies through my association with the Heckler and Koch International Training Division, and Armament Systems and Procedures Inc. In addition, I am a lecturer on street gangs, white supremacist groups, and violence in schools.

My budo training began in the early 1970s in Yoshinkan Aikido under John Bowen and Walter Foster. Currently, I am training with Geordan Reynolds in Huntington Beach, supplemented by an occasional training trip to Japan to the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo. I have dan ranking in karate and taekwondo, and a background in Kali, Muay Thai, and Jun Fan Kung Fu with Daniel Inosanto. Bill Fettes and Meik Skoss currently have infected me with a desire to train in Shindo Muso-ryu jo and Chinese internal arts and I am grateful to call them my teachers.

I can be contacted for questions care of the Huntington Beach Police Department, 2000 N. Main, Huntington Beach, CA 92646, USA.