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Aikido and the Traditional Japanese Martial Arts

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #29 (April 1978)

One of the tasks I have set for myself during the course of research into the birth and development of Aikido is to clarify to what extent O-Sensei drew upon traditional elements of Japanese martial culture and philosophy and to what extent he opted to abandon past modes in favor of new approaches suitable to 20th century living. That the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, owed much to the martial traditions and ideologies that preceded him is self-evident. That he modified or rejected entirely certain other features is equally certain although the scope of his originality has, I think, not yet been well articulated. In order to provide a context for the ideas to follow I would like to comment briefly on some of the salient characteristics of classical Japanese martial arts and the bushi (=warrior) class, more popularly known as the samurai.

I am by no means an authority on Japanese traditional martial arts, but the reading I have done has yielded an understanding of some general historical lines which shed interesting light on the raison d’etre and uniqueness of Aikido. It must be understood, for example, that the emergence of an aristocratic warrior class in Japan in the 9th century was in answer to political and military exigencies. The high-level martial skills exhibited by the bushi class were developed over many generations under actual combat conditions. Zen Buddhism, whose philosophy was particularly suited to the needs of the danger-filled existence of the bushi, was readily embraced by the warrior class following its transplantation in Japan in the 12th century. Of the relationship of Zen to the bushi, noted philosopher D.T. Suzuki wrote:

…It was, therefore, natural for every sober-minded samurai to approach Zen with the idea of mastering death. Zen’s claim to handle this problem without appealing either to learning or to moral training or to ritualism must have been a great attraction to the comparatively unsophisticated mind of the samurai. There was a kind of logical relationship between his psychological outlook and the direct practical teaching of Zen.

Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 72.

Nonetheless, Zen, given its adaptable nature, did nothing to alter the historical and political function of the military class, nor did its philosophy condemn the bushi’s violent acts. Rather, it provided the individual samurai with a “spiritual technology,” as it were, to better cope with his life. The “amoral” Zen viewpoint was concerned with the individual’s attaining a state of enlightenment and remained, for the most part, aloof from politics. The emphasis in Zen was rather on the cultivation of attitudes and behavioral patterns commensurate with the realization of spiritual goals. Moral questions regarding the acts of violence and bloodshed to which the bushi was party in his professional capacity were not an issue since it was his solemn duty to obey his superiors even though he might personally not be in agreement with a particular course of action. He carried out his duty but did not define its nature or scope. The samurai’s attitude toward this matter is captured in this passage translated by Suzuki, where a certain master swordsman named Seigen is reluctantly drawn into a duel with another boastful warrior: “… I have no idea of hurting anybody. I have simply accepted the challenge because I thought it was not, after all, gentlemanly to keep on refusing so persistent a request from the lord of the province.” (Ibid. p. 211). The overriding principles which guided the bushi’s life were those of loyalty and service, and to this fate he resigned himself.

With the advent of the Tokugawa bakufu (=shogunate) in 1603, Japan entered a long period of peace under the iron hand of a succession of military dictatorships. This is known as the Edo period and it spanned more than two-and-a-half centuries before finally drawing to a close with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Without the stimulus of war to serve as a focal point, the bushi class, which now owed loyalty directly to the Tokugawa shogun, became restless and was forced to seek new outlets for its energies. It was under these historical circumstances that many of the combat-oriented bujutsu (=martial arts) gave rise to the so-called budo (=martial ways) forms conceived as vehicles for the attainment of self-mastery in an age of peace. Regarding these new disciplines, martial arts historian Donn F. Draeger comments:

Though they stemmed from the technical basis of bujutsu, the classical budo were not designed to serve the warrior in combat. Certain, but not all, of the bujutsu were modified for budo training by recasting them in a metaphysical mold. Whereas the bujutsu emphasized form to be used for bringing about an effective combative result, the budo stressed form to be used as a means for gaining an understanding of the self, of being, and of nature, and for gaining self-perfection.

Classical Budo, p. 33

This trend was actively encouraged by the government, as it provided new means for releasing the energies of the military class who were also urged to temper their military zeal with literary pursuits. The birth of the classical budo did not, however, represent an ideological departure from the ethics of the bushido code. This stems logically from the fact that the founders of these forms came from the military class as did its practitioners, at least initially. Later on, as commoners began to take up the practice of the various budo disciplines (particularly the weapon-less systems), the traditional martial mentality continued to prevail. Although in actuality few individuals managed to follow to the letter the strict warrior code, what is significant for our purposes here is that this vertically-structured class behavioral model came to represent an ideal for the culture as a whole and was passed down to successive generations of Japanese intact. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the impact of this philosophy of self-sacrifice and obedience on the general population was even greater as its principles were reinterpreted in terms of allegiance to the emperor and the Japanese nation. In fact, in permuted form, it was an essential concept underlying Japanese mentality during the rise of nationalism in the first part of this century and was deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Japanese soldier of World War II.

The figure of the samurai has come down to us as the symbol of the Japanese martial tradition and, although vastly different in many respects from his western counterpart, the feudal knight of Europe, his mention likewise evokes a swashbuckling image of courage and daring. Yet, at the same time, given his philosophical orientation and his professional function, the samurai’s name further connotes “death.” Militarily speaking, the warrior represented the most sophisticated weapon on the feudal military scene and he would, frequently, hasten to meet death on the battlefield as, in this manner, his honor was firmly secured. At times his desire for death reached fanatic proportions. In this respect, the famous Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, whose sensational death by ritual suicide in 1970 had wide social repercussions, commenting on the Hagakure*, wrote:

“The occupation of the samurai is death. No matter how peaceful the age, death is the samurai’s supreme motivation, and if a samurai should fear or shun death, in that instant he would cease to be a samurai.”

Yukio Mishima on Hagakure, p. 27.

The samurai-warrior was an amoral character that regarded life as a momentary, transient phase fraught with temptations and pitfalls. It was to his personal advantage to live a short life and hope to distinguish himself as a skilled, fearless fighter who ventured unflinchingly into the clutches of death. Death in combat brought purification of the spirit and, where necessary, the cleansing of one’s personal record. It further ensured honor everlasting to the individual name.

History has shown us that there are glaring dangers and opportunities for abuse in the indescriminating embracement and perpetuation of this bushido ethic. This class model of social conduct which demands absolute unquestioning loyalty (often equated with patriotism) of the individual has repeatedly been the subject of political manipulation to satisfy the requirements of political authority. The most flagrant examples of the consequences of this process were the abuses of the military class in Pre-Edo Japan and the rise of nationalism in the late 19th and early 20ty centuries culminating in World War II.

Let us briefly summarize the formula giving rise to this phenomenon: the existence of a potent, cohesive social unit whose class ethic does not exclude acts of violence under appropriate circumstances and the action of whose individual members are subject to control by a superior authority. When these ingredients are present in a given social structure, the ruling authority can be expected to act in the service of its self-perceived best interests. It is all too obvious that this state of affairs, which has occurred in countless forms and social contexts from time immemorial, has characteristically resulted in acts of violence and bloodshed being committed. Herein lies the principal weakness of the Japanese bushido ethic and, indeed, the ethic of any individual or group which surrenders totally or partially its decision-making function to the will of another.

It would be a futile exercise to attempt to label anything as complex as a social structure “immoral” and I wish to make it clear that that is not my intention here. After all, even the briefest acquaintance with history demonstrates that “morality” is a relative term and governments always find plausible reasons to justify their actions be it under the banner of “religion,” “national defense,” “human rights,” etc. Indeed, in some quarters, it is conceded that man, whether by nature or by social conditioning, will forever continue to war against his own kind, or even that war itself is an “ennobling” experience:

…[H]istory is a path of blood, and it would seem that if combat were to become impossible, or if it became a lost art, man would have to rediscover it in order to redeem his life from a course of boredom and degradation.

Classical Bujutsu, Donn F. Draeger, p. 12.

However, whether or not the use of force to achieve personal or political goals can be tolerated from the viewpoint of global survival is quite another issue. Think for a moment of the implications of World War II and the use of the atomic bomb. Douglas MacArthur stated the question most eloquently in his speech at the signing of the armistice:

The destructiveness of the war potential, through progressive advances in scientific discovery has in fact now reached a point which revises the traditional concept of war. War, the most malignant scourge and greatest sin of mankind, can no longer be controlled, only abolished!

O-Sensei echoed the General’s comments when he observed:

The next time men engage in war, mankind will perish from the face of the earth as a result of his fighting. This is an atomic age…War-like activity is totally out of place.

The war demonstrated in dramatic fashion that man had arrived at the point where, because of the devastating potential of his weaponry, he had to learn to use self-restraint in settling disputes between nations. Nevertheless, this realization on the part of the world’s political and military leaders has led only to a modification, not a cessation of warfare, with the specter of atomic warfare hanging menacingly over our heads at all times. Five years after uttering the above words, General MacArthur was commanding the United Nations forces in a “non-war” against North Korea.

The defeat of Japan left the Founder of Aikido in a state of disillusionment and caused him to withdraw within himself. “I myself taught martial arts to be used for the purpose of killing others to soldiers during the war. I became deeply troubled after the conflict ended.” He retreated to Iwama where he rejected almost entirely the early form of Aikido and launched himself upon a search for a new path. This period led to a profound and permanent change in his thinking. The Founder of Aikido surely understood that the main difference, in a military and philosophical sense, between the highly skilled sword-wielding samurai and the crew of a B-29 bomber armed with an atomic warhead was one of degree and that their social functions and justifications were the same. Moreover, O-Sensei was conscious of the historical misuse of martial arts in feudal Japan:

If we look back over time, we see how the martial arts have been abused. During the Sengoku period (1482-1558) local lords used the martial arts as a fighting tool to serve their own private interests and to satisfy their greed.

Even the later budo of the Edo period, despite their increased emphasis on spiritual goals, were often very much concerned with fighting and strong inter-school rivalry replete with contests and dueling existed in the absence of actual warfare. It was likewise clear that these classical bujutsu and budo forms were social anachronisms in the 20th century, and that the highly conservative, elitist attitudes of many schools doomed them to slow but certain extinction. It was based upon an acknowledgement of these inherent dangers and limitations that O-Sensei sought to redefine the role of martial arts and their relationship to the individual and modern society. How could martial arts be preserved and maintain their vitality, yet be denied their historical function? Was there no way to harness their powerful potential while redirecting them towards permanently peaceful, pro-life ends without in the process destroying their very essence?

O-Sensei’s solution to this dilemma was multi-dimensional in nature. He not only continued to refine the rich technical heritage which stood at the base of Aikido techniques, creating the concept of “Takemusu Aiki” to embody the spontaneous execution of technique of the highest level but also completely redefined the notion of “martial arts.” O-Sensei’s new definition represented a clear departure from traditional views: “True budo is the loving protection of all beings with a spirit of reconciliation.” The Founder also urged viewing martial arts in terms of nonopposition: “You are mistaken if you think that budo means to have opponents and enemies and to be strong and fell them. There are neither opponents nor enemies for true budo.” Further, it was incumbent on one not only to defend himself but also to endeavor to protect the attacker from injury. What this amounted to was a complete rejection of a “world-in-conflict” model in favor of a “never fighting, always victorious” psychology where life is a value to be honored and protected.

At the same time, as we pointed out in our introductory remarks, Ueshiba Sensei incorporated essential features of the classical bushi model into his Aikido which make it a “budo” in the true sense of the word. The personality traits that characterized such a formidable individual as the master samurai were invariably linked with his having come to grips with the fear of death. It is a concern for this issue that is at the very heart of the concept of budo. Zen provided the metaphysical perspective necessary for the attainment of this goal, which, having been realized, led to one’s living life fundamentally indifferent toward matters of life and death. (As we have seen, the moral difficulty involved with this approach was that, in its application, it not only referred to the warrior’s attitude toward his own life, but also meant that he felt justified in taking another’s life “indifferently.”) In such a psychological state, crisis situations and daily life events were confronted with the same serenity of mind. O-Sensei experienced life-and-death confrontations firsthand on a number of occasions: as a foot soldier during the Russo-Japanese War; while in Hokkaido facing severe climatic conditions and outlaw assaults; when imprisoned for treason in Manchuria with the ill-fated expedition of Reverend Onisaburo Deguchi. His character, too, bore the indelible mark of one who has transcended this most basic of human fears. The Founder was fully aware of the import in terms of spiritual development of the psychological tension produced under crisis situations and conceived of training in the dojo in that light:

…Training, in every respect, (can be) described as a time of extreme crisis, of severe trial, and of intense study. Therefore, its principal object is the attainment of the Way (whence) one may skillfully journey to and from the arena of life and death, transcend the concept of life and death, (whence one may) even enter into the jaws of death whatever situation of extreme crisis (may arise), acting easily and clearly just as if under ordinary circumstances.

The Secrets of Aikijujutsu, Moritaka Ueshiba, 1933, privately published.

I believe that the qualities of loyalty and service, so noble in concept, yet so readily abused in reality, prominent in the traditional martial arts are still relevant in the context of Aikido. However, in Aikido, “loyalty” and “service” are instead rendered to the ideals of personal and social betterment, not to superiors or governments, where the individual never forfeits his decision-making responsibility. In summary, then, O-Sensei conceived of Aikido both as a “Way” to promote individual growth and as a means of propagating a model of social harmony. The socio-ethical implications of such a humanistic philosophy attached to a viable martial art form practiced by significant numbers of persons are far-reaching.

Tsuchiura, Japan, April 1978

*Hagakure: a collection of 18th century writings containing moral and practical instruction for samurai as well as information on social history and the exploits of specific warriors.