Friday, 5 September 2014

What is Aikido - "do", "jutsu" or baloney?

After much thought I have decided to start a blog in order to share my thoughts about Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu with my students in the hope that I can help them to better understand the martial arts that they are studying.  I would stress that a lot of what I know, I know because I have one of the best teachers in the world – namely, Toshishiro Obata Kaiso, the founder of Shinkendo.

I have decided that my first topic would be, what is Aikido?  Is it a ‘do’, 'jutsu' or just baloney?  What prompted this was an article that I recently read in which the spiritual side of Aikido was praised and the ‘jutsu’ side of it reduced to a side note.  Before I begin I must clarify my position, we live in the 21st century where science shows us that ki, inner energy and other mystical mumbo jumbo just doesn’t exist.  Sport, and by extension the Martial Arts, are simply reducible to bio-mechanics and simple physiology.  There is nothing more to it.  Anything other is explainable as a simple placebo effect.

Let us then consider the differences between “jutsu” and “do”.  Prior to World War II all martial arts in Japan were suffixed with the word “jutsu”.  “Jutsu” as a word simply means technique.  Add the word “bu”, meaning military, to it and you get military technique.  Add the word “ju”, meaning gentle, and you get gentle technique as in Jujutsu.

After the Japanese defeat in WWII, Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur banned all association to Japan’s Military past.  The upshot of this was that all martial arts, then connected to the military, were banned as part of his reforms.  The only way for these martial arts to continue was for them to reform.  In doing so they changed their central focus from bujutsu, or the military, to “do” meaning the “way of”.  The “way” adopted tended to either be sports based or spiritual.  Jujutsu and Kenjutsu both adopted sporting elements becoming Judo and Kendo.  Meanwhile Kyujutsu and Aikibujutsu/Aikijujustu adopted spiritual elements becoming Kyudo and Aikido.

The above however should be qualified in so far as not all Aikido became “spiritual”.  Kenjo Tomiki, the founder of Tomiki Aikido, chose instead to take his Aikido down the sporting path, a path still followed today by the Shodokan.  The result being, this qualification shows that only Ueshiba based Aikido tended to be spiritual in focus.

We are reminded that all Aikido traces its roots not from Ueshiba, but instead from the teachings of Sokaku Takeda.  Sokaku himself was a last generation Samurai having learnt the original secret techniques of the Aizu clan.  After the restoration of the emperor and the banning of the Samurai, Sokaku found himself unemployed and so resorted to teaching his clan secrets for a living.  Sokaku would later found Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu; the pre-cursor to modern Aikido.

Sokaku and Ueshiba met in 1915 at the Hisada Inn in Engaru, Hokkai.  Their time together would last over 20 years and was often described as a “love-hate” relationship.  The difficulties essentially emerged from Ueshiba’s association with Onisaburo Deguchi which began in 1919.  Onisaburo was a spiritual teacher who would have a great impact on Ueshiba’s life.  After meeting him Ueshiba promptly proclaimed that he wanted to renounce his previous life and follow the Omoto religion and the teachings of Onisaburo.  Given Japan’s continual military path, unsurprisingly, Onisaburo suggested that Ueshiba continue to teach martial arts as this would allow the Omoto religion greater exposure to senior military officials who were at the time seeking out martial arts instruction from Ueshiba.  Reluctantly Ueshiba agreed but we are reminded that what Ueshiba really wanted was to be a spiritual disciple and not a martial arts teacher.

In 1942 Onisaburo and Ueshiba travelled together through Manchuria with the eventual goal being Mongolia.  However, their party was captured and subjected to court martial.  The majority of the party was executed with Ueshiba being spared last minute due to his associations with senior military officials.  Shortly after the Omoto religion was banned in Japan with Ueshiba being forced into exile.  Ueshiba would later move to Iwama, Ibaraki where he would live the remainder of his life.

In the aftermath of the Manchurian incident Ueshiba was no longer free to manifest his spiritual beliefs.  It is therefore unsurprising that he would conceal these ideas into his martial art and disseminate them as part of it.  With time and age the art came to reflect more characteristics of the Omoto religion than the original Aikijujutsu techniques taught by Sokaku Takeda.  Techniques which we are reminded were originally taught as counter methods to existing schools such as jujutsu and taijutsu; were reduced to stylised dance often reflecting a shimmer of their former glory but not quite reaching it.

Against this backdrop we once again ask ourselves; what is Aikido – “do”, “jutsu” or just baloney?  

Many who see Aikido demonstrations on Youtube, with attackers flying all over the show at the merest of touches would answer in the later, i.e. the baloney category.  Others would say that such demonstrations show the harmony of two individuals coming together, working towards something special, demonstrate a merging of two spirits co-operating through peaceful means which allows this blossoming to occur.  I find neither answer satisfactory.  At its historical reducibility Aikido is nothing more than a “jutsu”.

However, being a jutsu requires further clarification.  Primarily Aikido holds its roots in the military history of the Samurai warrior.  These techniques were employed in one of two situations, the battle field or the castle.  Warriors on the battle front would often be clad in armour meaning that body strikes would have little impact.  These warriors would be wielding swords and would often charge/lunge their opponents in a way similar to the over committed attacks often seen in Aikido demonstrations today.  Likewise, these attackers would often have their wrists exposed, which explains why many Aikido techniques concentrate on the hands as a weak spot.
In the castle warriors where subjected to different rules.  Whilst in front of their superior the samurai could not stand or raise themselves higher than the lord.  They were also prohibited from drawing blood in front of the lord even if attacked.  Failure on both fronts could mean the forfeit of their life.  The kneeing techniques often seen in Aikido demonstrations, and the locking controls often employed owe their origins to these onerous castle laws.

So then is Aikido reducible to nothing more than ancient historical techniques of the Samurai, techniques meant for the battle field and the castle?  - in essence yes, in reality no.  As a technical system Aikido could probably be learnt by someone with complete mastery of their body within 30 days.  Ueshiba himself is thought to have learnt it within this time period.  

Unfortunately the reality of modern life means that few have this kind of mastery anymore.  As such, Aikido as a system teaches core skills often lacking in individuals.  These skills are taught through a series of forms, known as Waza.  These skills include:  balance, weight distribution, timing, distancing, body positioning, and basic anatomical structuring.  By training in these techniques side benefits are also achieved such as improvements in basic fitness, endurance, flexibility and body conditioning. 

Aiki as the overriding martial principle behind the system effectively means to merge my timing with the attackers thus allowing me to increase the energy behind the attack which should overpower you causing you to defeat yourself.  However, achieving this without the skills described above is impossible.  It is therefore unsurprising that the majority of Aikido training tends to focus on developing these core skills rather than employing the central concept of Aiki itself.  Developing these skills are life changing and beneficial to all.  In a world overrun by computers and technology sports are often neglected.  Aikido allows us to regain some of our body control and re-teaches ourselves how to use this ever important, and continually rendered redundant, tool.

Let us now reconsider the original question; what is Aikido - “do”, “jutsu” or baloney?  

Against its historical backdrop Aikido is nothing more than a “jutsu”, or set of techniques, based in the Samurai’s history.  The overall school of Aikido enables practitioners to develop central skills vital to any martial artist through the use of the training waza employed.  When these skills are unified and the practitioner gains control of their body they can employ this in the overriding aim of Aiki, which is to merge our timing with that of another’s thus causing that person to overpower themselves.  Ascribing anything more than this to Aikido is unnecessary.  At its core Aikido is a military school and should remain so.  


  1. Interesting perspective, however historically inaccurate as Judo was formed at the Kodokan in 1892 and karate- do was introduced into Japan in 1916 by Funakoshi and codified into schools (ryu-ha) in the 1930s, both of which were of course before WWII.

  2. Untrue. The original Judo system created by Kano was meant to be combative. This Combative Judo served as an official system of the Japanese Imperial armed forces and police till the defeat of Japan in WWII.

    You'll note I didn't reference Karate as this is not a Japanese Koryu.