Relevance Of Aikido Techniques In Today’s World
by Stanley Pranin
Aiki News #87 (Winter/Spring 1991)
In my last editorial I touched upon the subject of what I regard as poor training habits prevalent in many aikido dojos both in Japan and abroad. I pointed out that the execution of techniques against slow, weak attacks had disastrous consequences on their effectiveness and the quality of practice in general. I consider this subject to be of extreme importance and have some additional thoughts to express.
To review a bit, let us remind ourselves of the origin of aikido techniques and the historical rationale of their predecessor arts. As is well-known to readers of Aiki News, aikido inherited its techniques primarily from Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu. Many techniques were eliminated from Daito-ryu by Morihei Ueshiba as too dangerous or complicated, and of those retained, most were simplified. This process of modification and simplification accelerated after World War II mainly due to the influence of Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei Sensei and other leading students of the founder. What remain today are a few score techniques including joint-locks (kansetsuwaza) and throws (nagewaza). The traditional approach to aikido of Morihiro Saito, which still retains hundreds of techniques and an elaborate weapons system, is the exception.
Daito-ryu techniques themselves, like the curricula of other classical jujutsu and weapons schools, came into being as a process of gradual refinement based on the actual combat experience of the Japanese military caste. In a military context, unarmed techniques were designed for soldiers who were deprived of their weapons or unable to use them. Hence the existence of unarmed versus unarmed techniques and unarmed techniques versus weapons.
As late as the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese fighting systems did not include karate-like punching and kicking techniques. Karate originated in China and took root first in Okinawa before being transplanted to the rest of Japan due in large measure to the efforts of Gichin Funakoshi. Jujutsu and judo were taken beyond the shores of Japan prior to World War II but were not widely practiced. However, after the end of the global conflict and the occupation of Japan by the U.S. Military, many servicemen joined judo and karate schools which subsequently led to the large-scale export of these arts to America and later Europe. Karate eventually achieved a greater degree of popularity in the west than did judo and has been glamorized in film and by the mass media to the extent that it and its Chinese cousin, kung-fu, have become the stereotypes of oriental fighting arts.
How does this relate to aikido practitioners? Since judo and aikido have common roots in traditional Japanese martial art forms there does not seem to be too much concern among practitioners of aikido about the effectiveness of their techniques against judo. Karate techniques are, however, a different story. Many aikidoka doubt that their skills would hold up against a well-trained karate practitioner. I think there is good cause for concern due to the lack of emphasis on strong attacks in aikido practice. Many exponents of aikido even at the black belt level would, I think, find themselves overwhelmed by the powerful, linear attacks of a skilled karateka. I don’t think it would be too farfetched to state that aikidoka would only be able to defend against the sorts of attack they practice in the dojo. Hence we might safely assume that practitioners could hold their own against lapel and hand grabs, round-house or frontal strikes of the yokomenuchi and shomenuchi variety, delivered with the intensity which is customary in the dojo where they practice.
By comparison, how would judoka fare against karate exponents? A judoka would probably be vulnerable to a rapid series of punches and kicks delivered by an opponent, but would immediately gain the advantage if the combative distance were to close or the fight were to end up on the ground. Unlike their aikido counterparts, judoka, although engaged in a sport, regularly confront opponents who resist in practice and competition. Both arts clearly have their strong and weak points. Of course, the above analysis is based purely on abstractions. In reality, martial artists are often trained in more than one discipline so the issue is not a simple one.
The Importance Of Atemi
The problem with aikidoka is, as I see it, that they lack familiarity with offensive forms. The weak attacks used in aikido dojos simply are not realistic and do not prepare practitioners for the speed and power of real attacks. Moreover, in Daito-ryu and aikido as it was practiced during its early years, atemi played an important role in the execution of techniques. Not surprisingly, the founder can often be seen executing atemi in his earlier films. Aikido techniques generally will not work well against a strong opponent unless he has first been unbalanced. One of the main functions of the atemi is to neutralize the opponent’s attack and destroy his balance. Aikido techniques which do not include judiciously applied atemi are, in my opinion, largely ineffectual. I suspect that the virtual disappearance of atemi is due to the fact that the early teachers of aikido either did not learn them from the founder or continued the process of simplification of aikido techniques which resulted in their gradual elimination. Another contributing factor is, I believe, that atemi, which are strikes to vital points, are considered by some to be contrary to the ideals of aikido in that they are intended to inflict damage.
Such a belief demonstrates, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of the roots of aikido and its evolution. A strong argument could certainly be developed for aikido as the most humane of the martial arts. However, the nature and mechanics of aikido techniques contain the potential for inflicting great pain and damage. This essential fact cannot be altered without a dramatic departure from the original teachings of the founder. The important thing then is for all of us to keep in touch with reality when practicing aikido. That is, we must keep in mind such obvious things as the mechanics of the human body and the physics of aikido techniques. We must find out what works, how and why it works, and what doesn’t work. We must realize that any attack we may encounter will be by a resisting opponent whose purpose will be to thwart our every effort and consider what this implies for our daily practice if we truly wish to have at our disposal an effective response to violence. What is unique about aikido is the handling and execution of these powerful techniques by enlightened individuals guided by ethical principles which proscribe the use of excessive force.