Changes in Aikido’s Curriculum: Is it Really Warranted?

In an intimate room, painted with large wall posters and filled with recording equipment and small computer monitors, two men sit at opposite ends of a table donning headphones and conversing through microphones. To one side sits Joe Rogan, the comedian/martial arts podcaster and on the other, sits neuroscientist Andrew Hill. In the course of the interview, the two men touch upon the subject of aikido. Rogan, in previous episodes, has made his opinions of aikido clear: though it is a beautiful martial art, it lacks the effectiveness of other martial arts. In their discussion, Hill attempts to define and defend aikido to no avail. According to Hill, aikido’s goal is not “face to face combat,” but “to control yourself” through the partnered-based techniques. Rogan then summarizes bluntly that aikido “works great when the guy doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.” Hill yields in response, and then acknowledges the fact that the art is not as “practical” as judo, karate, or Krav Maga.[1]

Aikido was officially coined in 1942 in Japan with Morihei Ueshiba. The ultimate goal of the art was and still is to achieve harmony with one’s self, one’s training partner(s), and the universe.[2] By the 1950s, high-ranking aikidoka began making their way around the world to disseminate the art’s practice and message. The art thrived but, by the early 2000s, what awe and interest onlookers once had towards aikido’s mysticism now became criticisms. Any internet search of the art today results in many voicing their skepticisms and sometimes condemnations of the art, much like the interaction between Rogan and Hill above. Such criticisms focus on aikido’s effectiveness, or ineffectiveness, as a martial art. In those never-ending debates, many practitioners have, as well, voiced their opinions on what aspects aikido can grow, evolve, and adapt to the current martial arts climate here in the United States. Some of the biggest advocates have come from within aikido itself. The late Aikido Journal founder Stanley Pranin asserted in both 2012 and 2015 that aikido training needed some inspiration and some new vigor from outside martial arts. Others, like Swedish aikidoka and blogger Stefan Stenudd and aikido blogger Guy Hagen agree with Pranin’s assertions, pointing out that aikidoka train with “collusive partners,” which does not garner a real encounter outside of the training hall.[3] Many others, both inside and outside of aikido, concur with and advocate alongside the aforementioned that aikido needs to update its curriculum and training methods to be suitable for the modern world.

Still, there are others within the aikido community that do not want to see their art change. Bill Witt, dojo-cho of Aikido of Silicon Valley, supports his former instructor’s perspective, the late Morihiro Saito, in that modifying Morihei Ueshiba’s aikido would be considered a disrespectful action, citing the “profound influence” the founder and the art had on their respective lives. Witt further compares aikido to the koryu (old style) martial arts that still exist in Japan, relaying that the practitioners are interested in “keep[ing] the art alive [and] don’t feel the need to modify or modernize,” thus keeping close to the art’s tradition. Further, according to researcher Josephine Fan, the aikido community does not want a curriculum change, as such a change does not align with the community’s overall goal for training in aikido.[4] From this generalized picture, it seems as though the aikido community is split on this topic.

We then come to a crossroad where the entire aikido community must ask itself, is a curriculum change really warranted? And if so, would it make a difference? More importantly, who should make such a change? Would a curriculum change in aikido wash away the criticisms and condemnations from others and would it also garner more potential students? Perhaps not. Perhaps practitioners are more concerned with the physical form of aikido rather than its true purpose, which transcends the physical aspect. The context for the changes in curriculum is a focus shift away from aikido’s core philosophy – where the art’s core philosophy as a self-study/budo – to solely subduing and controlling an assailant, which does not align well with the art and philosophy that the founder Morihei Ueshiba laid out for his students.

At the heart of the curriculum change/addition argument lies in the physical training of aikido. Essentially, the argument comes down to what additional context(s) certain individuals want to include into aikido’s curriculum. For Pranin, who voiced his dismay at times with his chosen art, he pointed out the weak attacks from uke (to which he suggested learning “basic punching skills” from karate and boxing), the neglect of atemi (strikes/striking) in techniques, and the failure to unbalance an opponent (or notice when the opponent is or is not off balanced) plague aikido training, thus wanting to reexamine the training approach to improve the aikidoka’s martial skill.[5] Indirectly, Pranin called for aikidoka to cross-train in other empty-handed martial arts like judo and/or karate, following the path of Morihei’s early students. Other aikidoka voiced similar opinions; practitioners like Josh Gold of Ikazuchi Dojo and his team of instructors implement such methods in his dojo, as they feel cross-training provides a different perspective not only on the “functional techniques” but also the henka waza he teaches at the early ranks. Many a martial artist have mentioned that cross-training allows for different perspectives and ideas to progress through a practitioner’s mind. Such training then develops a practitioner’s situational awareness and his/her understanding of the techniques and their varying levels of effectiveness in certain situations.[6]

This situational awareness becomes more feasible when the role of uke becomes active in creating “roadblocks” or “problems” for nage. According to aikidoka and crisis intervention trainer Ellis Amdur, “the role of uke has to really change,” to where uke is noncompliant and offers a level of resistance that can offer learning to both partners. For nage, if performed slowly at first, this can help him/her execute a more effective technique, develop more efficient movements and more applicable techniques, and become more aware of uke’s movements (for use of atemi and/or implement henka waza). On the flip side of the coin, for uke, such an exercise can help develop efficient resistance, better ukemi skills, and see spaces and areas that would become advantageous. This would battle against the “collusive partners” that Stenudd and Hagen advocate against. In short, Amdur and the others above suggest rediscovering where these early students came from in their martial arts training and reapply the backgrounds and training methods to the aikido of today.[7]

It should be noted, however, that this drill or exercise should not divulge into a crude wrestling match, pitting uke’s pure strength against nage’s. Such diversions from both the path of aikido and the art’s philosophy goes against what Morihei wanted his art to be – a “means of harmonizing between cultures [and] between individuals.” Some may view the above resistance drill in a similar light as a wrestling match. Though, on the surface, these practitioners may be correct, Buddhist priest and aikido author John Stevens, in his book The Philosophy of Aikido, states that Morihei wanted aikido training to resemble daily life in some fashion, using the art’s principles in a myriad of ways that may not be orthodox. Additionally, Stevens discusses the concept of muteiko, or non-resistance, in nage, as a way to achieve harmony with nage’s surrounding environment, using the “natural flow” to accomplish such means. In a similar fashion, sparring or randori forces a practitioner to be non-resistant and use the energy given by his/her opponent to create harmony, or technique.[8]

With sparring, however, there is a clear winner and a loser, something that manifests from the outside of the practitioners, not from within. Randori and sparring-type drills, as mentioned previously, must be placed into certain contexts for students to understand. What is the purpose of doing these kinds of drills? – to better understand not only the movements of uke, but to better understand the movements of nage. Moreover, it is to better understand one’s self when placed into a difficult or uncomfortable situation. Does one tense up when encountering resistance or does one take a step back before executing technique? How can you apply the principle of ikkyo when one is on the ground or against the wall? For those wanting to better themselves within aikido’s self-study, these are some of questions one must ask one’s self during training.

Such is the context that aikido training should be – to discover more about one’s self in relation to others, not if one can dominate another with purely aikido techniques. To argue otherwise, seems to be folly. Aikidoka and blogger Nick Porter asserts two important points about the argument. Firstly, the debate has been raging on the Internet continuously since early 2000s on one of Aikiweb’s forums with no end in sight. Secondly, Morihei’s first and second generation uchideshi had their own doubts about aikido’s effectiveness. Porter relates an episode of Minoru Mochizuki, aikido pioneer in Europe during the 1950s, and his worries. Porter shares that Minoru was concerned when he could not prevail solely relying on aikido techniques while the European judoka attempted to best him. He only achieved victory by relying on a combination of judo and kendo techniques.[9] If this then paints any sort of picture, it should at least demonstrate that Morihei did not develop aikido as a fighting martial art in the way of judo, kendo, or even karate.

Therefore, if aikido was not designed or intended to be a fighting art, why try to make aikido into a fighting art? Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Morihei’s son, and the Aikikai, essentially expelled Kenji Tomiki, founder of Shodokan/Tomiki Aikido, from Hombu Dojo after creating a style of aikido that allowed for competitions. It should be noted that, from this author’s perspective, the advocates of curriculum changes are concerned only for the physical aspect of aikido. These proposed changes then do not come from a philosophical background of paralleling aikido training with daily life challenges or attempting to learn more about one’s self through aikido movement and principles. Pranin, though focusing on the physical training aspect of aikido, understood that aikido was to enrich an individual’s life in the “ability to transform and elevate spirits beyond the plane of dualistic thinking.”[10] This “dualistic thinking” is that of a winner and loser in the competition setting, to where aikido training is intended to establish a learning experience for both parties, creating a win-win situation for all involved.

It should be mentioned that many of the curriculum advocates are advanced students and practitioners of aikido, i.e. beyond the beginning levels of black belt. These are practitioners who have become proficient in both aikido’s principles and techniques, and perhaps would like to further expand their own martial arts knowledge. This similar occurrence can be found in a famed American martial artist’s early career, Bruce Lee. Lee and his friends and contemporaries (kung fu author James Lee (no relation), American Kenpo Karate founder Edmund Parker, and Small Circle Jujitsu pioneer Wally Jay) attempted to and ultimately succeeded in taking their primary arts (mainly kung fu for Lee) and modifying them, making those systems easier to learn by removing the “fluff” and emphasizing the practical aspects of their arts. These modifications were to better help the practitioners “navigate” street fights and efficiently and effectively use the lessons s/he learned that same day. These men knew and understood the basics of their selected systems and wanted to, to some extent, forgo a prolonged amount of time on the basics, specifically kata and the horse stance. The only people who had a real problem with that were the Chinese kung fu teachers in San Francisco’s Chinatown, who stood by those basics as a crucial aspect of their martial arts.[11] Pranin, Ellis Amdur, Hagen, and other curriculum change advocates want to expand their knowledge and understanding of aikido and the martial arts, much like Lee and company wanted back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It must be reiterated, however, that the basics and fundamentals should not be forsaken, especially when one wants to build upon a foundation.

Keeping their focus on the fundamentals of aikido, much like the early kung fu instructors of San Francisco’s Chinatown, there is a good portion of the aikido community that thinks a curriculum update is not warranted. More specifically, according to both researcher Josephine Fan and Aikido Journal’s 2019 community survey, 50.6 percent of the 2214 survey respondents felt that their art does not need a curriculum upgrade, reasoning that aikido is a complete system. In addition, 59.4 percent of the respondents felt that training in aikido is suitable enough for self-defense. However, in seeming contrast, 72.3 percent of respondents want aikido to be suitable for self-defense and a majority of respondents think/feel that aikidoka cross-training in other martial arts and other martial artists cross-training in aikido provides positive benefits (85.1 percent and 89.5 percent respectively).[12] How can a majority of respondents want aikido to be a self-defense system (by adding more to the art) when roughly half of the respondents felt the art was a complete system and suitable system for self-defense as it stands now?

For one, as Fan points out, the higher the rank one holds, the more the aikidoka want to see from aikido – be it self-defense or something from another art which is much like what Pranin and his fellow curriculum advocates support. These are high-ranking or deeply engaged practitioners of aikido and after a certain point, they would like to individualize their training to better suit their needs. Another factor, to which Fan points to professors Yong Jae Ko’s and Joseph S. Valacich’s 2010 article, is the initial motivator(s) found in practitioners. From the results of the survey, the top three motivations for the aikido community include mastery of the art and its techniques, better health and fitness, and fun and entertainment that comes from the first two motivations. Surprisingly, self-defense as a motivator appeared closer to the bottom of the motivation list. Similarly, Ko’s and Valacich’s article include fun, physical fitness, aesthetics, and personal growth as the main motivators for martial arts practitioners to either join or continue their training. To Fan, the above motivation factors are more “tangible benefits [for] someone who has no experience in aikido [or martial arts] would latch onto.” In addition, Fan, Ko, and Valacich mention, however, that potential practitioners who want an art for self-defense seek out judo, jujitsu, tae kwon do, and/or karate schools, whereas those who want the aforementioned motivators with the addition of social facilitation and/or affiliation gravitate towards aikido and similar arts.[13]

As demonstrated throughout this piece and despite the views from both inside and outside of the aikido community, aikido was not designed as a fighting style to overcome another opponent in a ring or a match – it is quite the contrary. Aikido is an internal art, where it uses the physical means to help aikidoka learn about themselves, i.e. a self-study. The aikido community steps away from what the founder Morihei Ueshiba created when they shift the training’s focus solely to subduing and controlling an assailant, i.e. fighting.[14] Though there are similarities in judo, karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and aikido, but to go as far as requiring current and new aikidoka to begin cross-training and earning a black belt in one of the aforementioned martial arts seems counterintuitive, especially when cross-training is done at the individual level. Why put all that time and effort into obtaining a black belt in one art to only begin a new art at a white belt without the desire and willingness to do so? There are certain martial art practitioners who want to find the similarities in all of the arts, attempt to understand them, and pass them on to other like-minded practitioners and students. These certain types of practitioners are not every aikidoka, so why implement such changes if, as we have already seen, most of the aikido community does not want to implement? Many of them, as we saw from Aikido Journal’s survey, want to enjoy their training, attempting to master the techniques and become healthier – all of which are part of the art’s self-study, the individual’s choice for their own training.

Though I may agree with some of the criticisms mentioned throughout this article, there is a time and place for everything. Aikido can include the usage of more atemi, ground grappling, and pressure testing, but such material must be placed into certain contexts for students to understand and flourish. Without that, aikido will divulge into a hodgepodge of different and sometimes unrelated concepts, themes, and principles – something that is a giant step away from what the art’s founder created.

Notes:

[1] Bay Events, MMA vs Aikido Debate, 2016, accessed May 9, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9W4Khn078w&feature=youtu.be.

[2] Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Spirit of Aikido. (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1984), 15–16, 36–37.

[3] Guy Hagen, “Aikido Vs. MMA: The Unflinching Comparison,” Elegant Connections: A Martial Arts and Spirituality Blog (blog), March 21, 2017, accessed April 29, 2019, https://tampaaikido.com/articles/aikido-vs-mma-the-unflinching-comparison/; Stanley Pranin, “Aikido down the Tubes? Hold On… Here’s How to Reverse the Trend!,” Aikido Journal (blog), November 24, 2015, accessed February 19, 2019, http://aikidojournal.com/2015/11/24/aikido-down-the-tubes-hold-on-heres-how-to-reverse-the-trend-by-stanley-pranin/; Stanley Pranin, “The Virtues of Aikido and Realizing Its Potential,” Aikido Journal (blog), May 13, 2012, accessed June 22, 2019, http://aikidojournal.com/2012/05/13/the-virtues-of-aikido-by-stanley-pranin/; Stefan Stenudd, “Aikido as Self-Defense – the Problem of Realism,” Aikido, accessed April 29, 2019, https://www.stenudd.com/aikido/aikido-as-self-defense.htm.

[4] Bill Witt, Interview with Bill Witt Sensei, interview by Antonio Aloia, Email, May 5, 2019; Aikido Journal Team, “2019 Aikido Journal Survey Data Results” (New York, 2019), 10–12, 15–16, 28.

[5] Pranin, “The Virtues of Aikido and Realizing Its Potential”; Pranin, “Aikido down the Tubes?”

[6] Josh Gold, “Making Our Aikido Effective,” Ikazuchi Dojo (blog), April 12, 2016, accessed June 17, 2019, https://ikazuchi.com/2016/04/12/making-aikido-effective/; Jonathan Wilson, “The Waning Popularity Of O’Sensei’s Aikido,” Nihon Goshin Aikido, NGA Experience (blog), October 16, 2015, accessed May 1, 2019, http://www.ngaexperience.com/aikidolosingstatus.html; Christina Kelly, “Bruce Bookman: On Cross-Training and Artistic Expression,” Aikido Journal (blog), February 21, 2018, accessed July 5, 2019, http://aikidojournal.com/2018/02/21/bruce-bookman-cross-training-insights/; Josh Gold, “Matsuoka and Yamaki: The Power of Cross-Training,” Aikido Journal (blog), June 30, 2018, accessed July 11, 2019, http://aikidojournal.com/2018/06/30/matsuoka-and-yamaki-the-power-of-cross-training/.

[7] Josh Gold, “Ellis Amdur: On Aikido,” Aikido Journal (blog), March 25, 2018, accessed May 2, 2019, http://aikidojournal.com/2018/03/25/ellis-amdur-on-aikido/; Hagen, “Aikido Vs. MMA”; Stenudd, “Aikido as Self-Defense – the Problem of Realism.”

[8] Kelly Muir, “The Great Disappearing Act,” Black Belt, March 2, 2014, 74; Steve Armstrong, “Why So Many Karate Schools Have Folded: A Master Promoter and Concerned Karate Instructor Gives His View,” Black Belt, September 1976, 51–52; Ken Teshima, “Competition and Budo – Oil and Vinegar?,” Aikido Journal (blog archives), October 31, 2014, accessed July 9, 2019, http://aikidojournal.com/2014/10/31/competition-and-budo-oil-and-vinegar-by-ken-teshima/; John Stevens, The Philosophy of Aikido (Kodansha International, 2013), 22–23, 64–71.

[9] Nick Porter, “Aikido, Past Present and Future. Part Two, Present: The Never-Ending ‘Effectiveness’ Debate,” The Way You Practice (blog), January 13, 2019, accessed February 14, 2019, https://thewayyoupractice.blogspot.com/2019/01/aikido-past-present-and-future-part-two.html.

[10] Stanley Pranin, “Can Competition Enhance O-Sensei’s Aikido?,” December 29, 2012, Aikido Journal (blog), accessed June 8, 2019, https://aikidojournal.com/2012/12/29/can-competition-enhance-o-senseis-aikido/.

[11] Charles Russo, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America (London: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 2–5, 16–17, 75, 119–20, 124.

[12] Aikido Journal Team, “2019 Aikido Journal Survey Data Results,” 10–16.

[13] Aikido Journal Team, 20–21, 28.

[14] In a sense, one moves away from the spiritual, moral, and character development associated with many of the do arts and approaches the jutsu, the ancestor or root arts. These arts focus more on the actual techniques and their effectiveness against an opponent. In aikido’s case, moving towards the jutsu would create aikijutsu, or to some purists, Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu.

2 thoughts on “Changes in Aikido’s Curriculum: Is it Really Warranted?

  1. Nice work, Antonio! I took aikido for awhile myself many, many moons ago. Actually fellow Exquisite Noise artist Frank Medley is the one who got me into it, he’s been into aikido for at least 30 years. Great writing, though – I just found out about this blog via Mick’s newsletter!

    Like

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