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Aikido and Injuries: Special Report

by Fumiaki Shishida

Aiki News #80 (April 1989)

[Editor’s comment: This article was originally published in Aiki News back in 1989. On a recent trip to Japan, I had an opportunity to meet again with Professor Shishida. The subject of injuries and deaths in aikido again arose in our conversation and I was appalled to learn that the type of incident described in this article has continued unabated in subsequent years resulting in more aikido-related deaths. In one extreme case, Professor Shishida related that two deaths occurred at the same university within a relatively short time span. He also mentioned that despite the fact that parents of the victims have sued the concerned universities on various occasions, the courts have consistently found the schools blameless. I feel this situation is intolerable and would encourage readers to post their comments on the Aikido Journal bulletin board with an eye toward exposing this horrible situation in the hope that even a single life might be saved!]

This section of the complete thesis was printed in the Nihon Budo Gakkai Gakujutsushi. (Scientific Journal of Japanese Martial Arts Studies) was published in Volume 21, No. 1, 1988. The bibliography has been omitted.

Waseda University Professor Fumiaki Shishida

Chapter Two: Cases of Serious Accidents Resulting in Death and Serious Injury

The cases contained in the documents in Chapter 1 and other materials and testimonies offered by the individuals in question such as alumni who responded to my requests for data are listed in the table included. I chose to reproduce all information in cases where data was limited and attempted to select information for its instructional value in those cases where space limitations caused me to omit details where the data was ample. I have omitted the names of the victims and universities in consideration of the persons involved. I have assigned numbers to the cases according to the date of occurrence of the accident.

III. Proposals for Countermeasures for the Prevention of Serious Accidents

(1) Recognition of Danger - Inherent Characteristics of Kata Practice Method: In aikido in general, a training method is adopted where the uke (person taking the fall) and tori (person throwing) practice a predetermined technique. This kata method was also adopted by the Japan Aikido Association which employes the randori method in competition. The method appears to be safer than the randori method used in judo since it requires less physical contact even though methods of kata practice differ slightly depending on the school. What about the case of aikido?

First, I would like to mention the fact that out of the cases of serious accidents in the chart of Chapter 2, all except 3 and 4 occurred in sport clubs affiliated with aikido schools which do not practice the competitive randori method. The schools involved in cases 3 and 4 are not known because of a scarcity of documentation. This writer who has experience in both the Association kata and randori method considered that the randori method was much more dangerous than the kata method. Hence, I was extremely surprised by the nature of accidents cited.

Why are most of the victims physically weak such as university freshmen or sophomores or female students? Why weren’t the senior students or leaders able to prevent the accidents? Naturally, we must seek the reasons in the descriptions of the accidents. However, I believe that there is a common cause to the accidents in all 11 cases. Therefore, I wish to point out the inherent danger of the kata method of practice which is a conclusion I have arrived at as a result of an examination of the cases.

The point is that the safety of the uke is one-sidedly placed in the hands of the tori. In the kata, the uke and tori are generally decided beforehand, and the tori can decide the intensity and sometimes the type of technique according to his purpose. On the other hand, not only is the first action of the uke limited, but it is also tacitly assumed that he will not offer any resistance to the technique. In this way, both can perform their roles. In this sense, it can be said that the kata method is safer than randori training where one can be thrown with an unexpected technique.

However, even in kata practice it must be recognized that serious accidents may occur, a) if the uke is inexperienced; and b) if the uke is very tired, and even more importantly; c) as a result of the intensity and application of the tori’s technique apart from categories a) and b). In the 11 cases cited, the victims are all uke and, except for several sophomores, are freshmen and thus fall into category a). Insofar as concerns category b), except for cases 4, 8 and 9, the accidents occurred during training camps. That is, fatigue under unusual circumstances can result in accidents. The case of category c) is not clear. However, if we assume in principle that accidents never happen for categories a) and b) alone without category c), then we can control the proper behavior of the tori given a) and b), that is, attention to safety and the method of practicing techniques.

One must assume a heavy moral responsibility if he places the uke in a situation where he is not permitted to resist in a kata practice which results in an accident. The tori must practice keeping in mind the inherent dangers of kata practice and proceed carefully. Furthermore, I think aikido leaders should reexamine the present practice and teaching methods in order to make this approach a custom.

Next, I will present specific countermeasures and medical opinions of experts based on the accidents described in the above cases.

(2) Countermeasures against shihonage and iriminage and expert opinion: As can be seen from the above cases, shihonage and iriminage stand out as techniques causing the accidents. In both techniques, it is easy to hit the back of one’s head with the inherent danger of a cranial hemorrhage. Let us first of all consider the case of shihonage. In this technique, the tori holds one hand of the uke and turning his body, causes the uke to fall backward. If the tori does this continously, it becomes increasingly likely for the uke to hit the back of his head depending on the speed, strength and point of release of the hand hold. I have come to know this through personal experience.

The following seems to be the case. Since the time between the release and impact is so short, the muscles of the neck which should support the head at the time of impact are not utilized, or even if they were utilized, they cannot function sufficiently to support the falling head. Therefore, when practicing this technique, it is important that the uke’s wrist be released before the falling angle of the body becomes too great. Of course, factors such as the falling skill of the uke and his height come into bearing. Also, it is effective to pause the motion of the technique for a moment before releasing the wrist. Since the uke is placed in a position closer to that required for the breakfall through these measures, practice becomes safer.

Next, we will touch upon the subject of countermeasures for the iriminage technique. In this technique, one allows the uke to strike with the side of his hand or to seize the wrist. The uke is then pulled downward being led into an arcing movement. He is finally thrown backward using the power of the strike with the side of the hand or the movement of the body. The point in the movement from the downward pull of the uke to the backward throwing movement is similar to osotogari in judo. The main differences are that in aikido one does not hook the leg, but uses the power of the tegatana (hand blade) without holding the opponent’s training uniform as in judo. It goes without saying that it is very dangerous to execute this technique forcefully. However, it is necessary to pay attention even under light practice conditions. As seen in case 11, even continuous light impacts may cause accidents. Although the situation varies depending on the skill of the uke, the tori is expected to make allowances, for example, when executing the entering arm movement with tegatana to take the opponent down backward.

Moreover, a point to be kept in mind for both techniques is that it is difficult to discern the moment when the opponent hits the back of his head. Generally speaking, advanced practitioners have already experienced light impacts in the past so they tend to think that these impacts won’t cause any problem and continue to throw their partners even if they know that the uke is hitting his head. This is beside the point. Since it is possible that the tori cannot understand the circumstances of the uke, it is necessary to create a habit of observers checking practice. Cases 2, 9 and 11 suggest the necessity of taking this precaution.

Finally, with respect to acute subdural hematoma which is the name of the disorder in many of the accidents, I would like to summarize the study of Mr. Takashi Suzuki who wrote an article appearing in Clinical Sports Medicine in which he observed the following:

There are two kinds of subdural hematoma, a) those attended by brain contusions, and b) those without brain contusion. a) includes “cases where the artery and vein of the cerebral cortex are injured due to brain contusion causing a hematoma between the dura matter and surface of the brain, that is, beneath the dura. This injury happens where the kinetic energy involved is large as in the case of a fall, collision or blow. Moreover, as I mentioned above, there are two kinds of brain contusions, one which occurs in the immediate area of the impact, and the other which occurs on the opposite side as a counteraction.

The latter seems to occur because of a rupture of the vein running from the surface of the brain into the dura or the connecting vein. That is, “the gap” between the skull and brain caused by the shock bleeds resulting in a hematoma. Usually this occurs due to a shock involving a small amount of kinetic energy, that is, one strikes the back of his head falling from the standing position. The characteristic of this injury is that it is more often seen where a soft surface is involved like a tatami or mat. This is usually not found where the back of the head strikes a hard surface such as in skating. It is said that “the gap” of the brain becomes somewhat larger in the case of a soft, surface like tatami. In judo, this hematoma occurs easily because practitioners fall in most cases on their backs and hit the back of their heads.

The point I wish to make to all connected with aikido is that even tatami is dangerous although it is thought to be safe because of its softness. We must keep this fact firmly in mind in addition to the following comment by Mr. Suzuki from a different passage. “In sports where slight blows to the skull may occur from the front and rear, we must be very careful of the mistaken concept that there is no cause for concern because a blow is only slight.” Recognition of this fact might have prevented the accidents which occurred in cases 1, 7, and 11. This writer was warned by Mr. Koyo Kawamura (Tokyo Women’s Medical College) against this attitude of lack of concern who said: “The distribution of the connecting veins inside the skull varies according to the individual, and whether or not there exists a subdural hematoma is determined by both the impact and the physiological condition of the individual receiving the blow. Therefore, great concern is called for with respect to blows to the head.”

(3) Preventive Training: First, I strongly suggest that persons directly involved in practice initiate exercises for developing the neck. The reasons for this are described in Mr. Suzuki’s essay entitled, “The Prevention of Head Injuries in Boxing.” He writes: “In order to lessen the shock to the brain, one should train the neck which supports the heavy skull,” and “in the Sumo world, though butting practice is frequent, cerebral disorders are rare.” The reason for this is sufficient training of the neck. I believe it is important to train the neck muscles so that they can support the skull quickly in order to lessen shocks to the brain.”

These passages were written as a description of preventive measures for strikes and blows to the head. It is easy to understand the usefulness of training the neck to make “the gap” between the skull and brain smaller to protect against a blow to the head caused by the impact of one’s head striking the tatami mat in aikido. Therefore, I would like to introduce an exercise for neck training which I have used in our aikido class at Waseda university since 1985 as part of our warming up exercises.

It is an isometric exercise in which one partner pushes the head of the other using the base of one or both palms against the forehead in eight directions: left, right, forward, back and to the four corner angles. Each time one pushes for about six seconds using full strength with sets being repeated several times. If this exercise is done at the university in classes only once a week, it is not particularly effective. However, if it is introduced as an exercise practiced as the daily activity of a sports club it is very effective. Part of the above-mentioned training method was introduced by Mr. Noboru Kubota in “Budo and Muscle Training” which appeared serially in Budo magazine. Naturally, the less skillful one is, the more likely it will be that the cause of an accident will be lack of basic training. Thus I believe an effective way to avoid accidents is to incorporate neck exercises in a physical strength development regime which forms an important part of the class or lesson.

(4) Significance of compilation and publication of an accident description report: One of the reasons this writer began this study was a request to provide precautionary measures by a publishing company with reference to cases 5 and 8. Subsequently, as I mentioned in chapter 1, I collected materials from the available literature, but they were insufficient concerning the subject of serious accidents. Hence I gathered data regarding the three cases which occurred in the Kansai area together with information I knew by hearsay. I have attempted to write this report based on my personal experiences as well as the aforementioned materials and data.

I would like to thank those concerned who complied with my request by providing information. Frankly speaking, some universities were not particularly cooperative. The following incident relates to an accident not included in the above chart. When I learned of the occurrence of a serious accident at a university involving a student member of an aikido club in October 1987, I went to the department in charge and obtained information orally. At that time I learned there was a videoape which contained an reenactment of the accident, but the authorities refused to show it to me and I have not yet been able to examine it.

During the investigation of one case contained in the chart I came across a typical way that club members or alumni cope with accidents. When I learned there was someone who had a copy of the association magazine which contained a special edition concerning the accident I asked him to provide it and he willingly consented. However, a few days later he told me he could not offer it because he was strongly urged not to do so by the association. I was obliged to meet the leaders of the association to request the magazine and explain that I intended to use it for research purposes. They, however, refused due to a strong objection on the part of the alumni and teachers. (They explained that at that time the survival of the association was in doubt and they did not want outsiders to meddle.) Later I was able to see the magazine through another source. The contents were commendable in that there was a sincere attempt to assure that such an accident never occurred again.

As a result of these experiences, the first thing I felt was that, except for the families of the victims, the parties involved such as sports clubs (including alumni) and higher-ups including university authorities and shihan of each school generally hope to settle the matter of the accident privately. I would imagine the reasons for this attitude include the following. First, there is an attempt to prevent the information from becoming public since the matter of responsibility might arise resulting in the punishment of the people concerned or the university club (discontinuance of the club, etc.). This type of behavior results in the tragedy recorded in case 9. Club members moved the victim by themselves without calling an ambulance and made visits to two hospitals in vain with the victim dying in the end. University authorities are concerned about such problems as damaging the social image of the university, adversely affecting the number of applicants, or raising financial problems (especially in the case of private universities) which might arise from publication of the information or the aggressive news gathering tendencies of the mass media. The same is the case for the governing authorities of each aikido organization. To the extent that the financing of the organization is maintained by a registration fee or examination fee for higher ranks paid by practitioners, the publication of accidents leads to a decrease in the number of practitioners and may result in financial difficulties.

In sports like aikido, most of the victims are individuals while the parties concerned are groups. Unless those involved sit down and try to analyze the causes and effects of the accident and make the information public by putting it into a report, it will be difficult to prevent such accidents from happening again. I would like to strongly emphasize the above point. Accidents can happen even if detailed reports are compiled as in the case of air accidents. However, in the present aikido world we have a situation where we have no reports, or if there are reports, they cannot be used by instructors or researchers. This situation should be immediately corrected.

Table: Summary of Deaths and Serious Injuries In Aikido