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Aikido - Hierarchy versus Rhizome

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by Garth Stiebel

Published Online

Aikido is a world-wide phenomenon with thousands of adherents, practising a variety of styles under the tutelage of instructors whose skill ranges from transcendent to adequate. A certain amount of networking between practitioners takes place, this forum being a prime example and the annual Aiki-Expo being another, but most aikido-ka in one style rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to absorb the positive features of other styles on a regular basis. This is the direct result of the hierarchal nature of the organizations that, in the main, propagate the art. Contrary to the intent of maintaining purity and a high level of expertise wherever Aikido is taught, I believe that the dilution or, at least, the fragmentation of the art, complained about here and elsewhere, is a consequence of that structure and, further, that it contradicts the Founder’s philosophies in fundamental ways.

I will make a distinction here between hierarchy and rhizome as organizing principles. Hierarchy shall be defined as ‘a ranking system ordered according to status or authority’ (Oxford Dictionary.) The concept of ownership plays an integral part in the power of hierarchy. Ownership implies exclusive control of limited resources; in this case, sophisticated knowledge of Aikido or the claim of such knowledge. A rhizome is a web-like structure of connected but independent nodes. The power of the rhizome lies in its incompatibility with the centralization of power. Each node, the dojo, is functionally self-sufficient but not isolated and co-operating with umbrella organizations but not controlled. The primary roles of individuals are to be transceivers of data and the status of each is in direct proportion to their capacities to transmit and receive quality information, in this case relating to Aikido. Their rank, lineage, family connections or economic status play no part in this type of organizational structure.

In Aikido’s early history, intensification of the art — in other words, expansion of the skill-set to more and more individuals — led to conflict, division, stratification and, though we don’t like to admit it, competition. The idea of what constitutes the ‘true’ Aikido became a concern, a matter of ‘ownership’ in many people’s eyes and still plays a major role in current discussion of the art. This is a clear indication that the problem is more subtle than determining which schools best embody O’sensei’s intentions. In my opinion, this clouds the real issue; that it is the power-structure of Aikido that is slowing innovation in the art and self-actualization of the individual and is fragmenting the discipline and isolating its devotees.

A recent entry by Karl Friday, “The Whole Legitimacy Thing,” encapsulates it. Although he excluded so-called ‘modern budo organizations’ like Aikido from his argument for the means of preservation of traditional koryu through legitimate lineage, he states that “it makes no difference how skilful the individual doing the teaching is; even the most qualified teachers are beyond the pale unless they are teaching through a specifically authorized arrangement.” This is a realistic perspective when speaking of traditional arts whose form and content are not meant to change. For all practical purposes, however, this is being also applied in the evolving art of Aikido through whatever organization a dojo is affiliated with. Bluntly speaking, ownership of the brand determines the type and quality of one’s instruction and, more importantly, one’s chances for personal growth. In fact, the odds of learning Aikido outside this structure are slim to none. This would be acceptable if one was assured that the best learning opportunities are available through this system; we don’t know if that is the case because there are no other venues for the art to which to compare it.

What we do know is that we are part of Byzantine organizations whose first duty is their own prolongation and only then for the benefit of their individual members. Granted, the heads of the various arms of the Aikido world probably believe strongly that the perpetuation of their federations is the best hope for Aikido’s continued improvement and growth but policies and practises of exclusivity and possessiveness seem to mitigate against the possibility. Many of the various organizations that dominate Aikido were formed by students unhappy with the direction their sensei was taking and determined to put their own stamp on the art. Unfortunately, the parting of the ways nearly always resulted in a severing of the relationship and the loss of opportunities to enhance Aikido by mixing new ideas with old. How often have too many of us been told that we should not attend so-and-so’s seminar because they belong to a different style and when has any aikido-ka been encouraged to study more than one style at the same time? Even if we concede that it does the learning process no good at the beginner’s stages what harm would this do at the higher ranks, where we can be expected to be able to discriminate better between useful and non-useful technique? O-sensei himself drew from a variety of martial arts and made their ways his own, saying “This is how we do it in Aikido.” In effect, we are now saying, “This is how we do it in Aikikai,” or “This is how we do it in Yoshinkan.” Is this really how O-sensei wanted it to be? Didn’t he say we must all find Aikido in our own way but through and with each other? If Aikido wants to demonstrate its ideals of unity to the world it can’t do it when its own house is divided.

We talk of bettering the human family through Aikido; I believe that Aikido, as a living organism, has outgrown the Japanese culture that birthed and nurtured it. It has reached a crossroads where, for its universal values to gain in relevance, the various organizations that spread the budo across the planet must now relinquish their roles as gatekeepers and let the now-mature practitioners of the art make their own judgements as to where and what to study. For the traditional koryu, faithful preservation is the highest ideal. For Aikido to pursue that objective will only lead to ossification and sterility.

The natural world is composed of a web of relationships, no one organism dominating the rest. This order contributes greatly to greater diversity and complexity in an ecosystem, along with greater resistance to permanent injury or distortion; in other words, the optimization of survival and evolution. Hierarchy, while centralizing control and co-ordination more efficiently loses efficiencies when it comes to distribution and communication. Aikido needs these qualities in order to thrive - the capacity for clear and quick transmission of new innovations and individual contributions to the art. The current hierarchal power structures must become subservient to a new way of thinking — rhizome.

Note of the editor: This article was originally posted as a blog.