Four Principles of Aikido

The following is an excerpt from my recent book, Aikido Comes to America. This originally appeared on Tambuli Media here.

At the heart of aikido lies something more than just martial technique or a peaceful and harmonizing philosophy. What lies beneath the surface of normal and routine aikido training is budo – the martial way. Budo is not a martial technique or a particular style; it is the essence of one’s character and a way of life. Aikido reflects this idea of budo in its core philosophy. It is not just aikido that demonstrates budo however, but all modern Japanese martial arts, all gendai budo. Judo and karate-do share similar philosophical points with some of aikido’s core beliefs, yet their methods are different – one mountaintop but different pathways to the same peak. Within these differing methods, all help create a sense of character, a sense of self, and a sense of purpose in the budoka. At the core of these philosophies are four principles that not only build upon one another but can apply themselves in both the dojo and everyday life: masakatsu agatsu, mushin, non-resistance, and randori. Courtesy and etiquette weave through these principles, forming a complete concept of character. Furthermore, these four principles, along with courtesy and etiquette, are elements of budo’s life-enriching philosophy which brought the early American aikido and martial arts pioneers to their respective arts. These elements of budo drove them not only continue learning but also to teach and disseminate their arts to the greater community at large.

Masagatsu agatsu, or “true victory is self-victory,” hangs at the front of Asahikan Dojo as a reminder to students to overcome the battle within. Courtesy of the Asahi Dojo Collection.

The first principle, masakatsu agatsu, translates to “true victory is self-victory.” In John Steven’s 2013 book, masakatsu agatsu is a “triumph over one’s inner demons.” Likewise, O-Sensei explained that aikido is a vehicle to “learn about ourselves,” showing the way to “self-victory,” and the “ideal state of perfection and completion.” O-Sensei said, “in the Art of Peace, we never attack. An attack is proof that one is out of control.” If one is “out of control,” then they do not know themselves well enough to not strike first and moves away from attaining the concept of budo. Karate-do has a similar philosophy on attacking.

These four principles – masakatsu agatsu, mushin, non-resistance, and randori – form the content and the methods for which the budoka can control not only themselves, but situations outside of themselves. These are just the raw materials that need to be polished to create gems. By including courtesy and etiquette to the above principles, the budoka creates a stronger character and sense of self. Damon Young asserts that the combination of Japanese Shintoism, Zen Buddhism, and Confucianism created the reigi (etiquette) and teinei (courtesy/politeness) that is apparent in all forms of budo. Likewise, Californian pioneer Frank Doran stresses that aikido and other traditional martial arts provide a reference point for manners and courtesy in everyday life, stating that courtesy and consideration are some of the “aspects [of the] Japanese culture that [Americans are] really drawn to.” Florida aikidoka Todd Jones agrees with Doran, saying that the “virtues espoused [by traditional martial arts] are generally compatible with Judeo-Christian ethics,” the fundamental cornerstones in American ethics.

Therefore, having good morals and ethics is something that is not inherently Japanese, but universal. Young draws a comparison to the Japanese due to Aristotle’s (384-322 BCE) ethos. Ethos, much like the do, encompasses one’s “life as a whole,” and requires an “ongoing engagement with the world at large” to obtain all the “appropriate virtues in relation to others.” In other words, being a better person takes a lifetime to hone. Aristotle’s ethos, in this respect, could be the West’s version of Confucianism.

Mushin, or “no mind,” reminds students to stay in the present. Courtesy of the Asahi Dojo Collection.

From this then, Doran argues that Americans are short on the do, or the ethos in their own lives. The evidence presents itself in web articles entitled “A Lack of Manners in the Younger Generation,” “The Lack of Manners in Today’s Society,” “Disrespect is a Growing Problem in Society,” and others like them cite people’s growing selfishness and lack of empathy and respect towards others. From this, according to Yoshinkan aikido pioneer Sam Combes, some Americans are drawn to the organized discipline and “respectful attitudes.” Aikido Shimbokukai leader Lisa Tomoleoni and Aikido Center of Atlanta dojo-cho George Kennedy refer to these “respectful attitudes” as the life-enriching experiences they themselves experienced in their own training. Florida aikidoka George Clark concludes that the continuous training in martial arts is not to control others, but to control one’s self through masakatsu agatsu, saying, “one must learn self-respect before respecting others.” Traditional martial arts, like those of aikido, judo, and karate-do, create positive effects on the budoka and essentially offers the budoka a template to build a better sense of self. According to Jim Lantz’s 2002 article, martial arts helped increase self-confidence, self-respect, concentration, moral development, ways to overcome challenges, respect for life, build and maintain friendships and a sense community, and self-control in adolescents to grown adults. In Jikkemien Vertonghen’s and Marc Theeboom’s 2010 historiographical article, the duo concludes that earlier research coincides with more recent research, resulting in “positive effects, going from a higher level of self-regulation and an increased psychological well-being, to a decreased violence level” in budoka.

These positive effects, the four principles, courtesy, and etiquette found in training create many reasons for Americans to enroll themselves in the martial arts. As mentioned in the “Aikido Comes to America” chapter, America has held a fascination with the Far East and Japan since the nineteenth century, coming to a head in the 1980s. Chen Kangling comments on America’s fascination with Japan in his 2014 article, asserting that Japanese culture grew in the United States because “Japanese [culture] has become fused with American pop culture.” Kangling further explains that Americans embraced the products of Japanese culture – anime, food, martial arts, and aspects of the culture itself – because “these have attracted attention and enriched lives.” Tomoleoni agrees that her martial art, aikido, “brings a richness to [my] life, and enhances [my] life.”

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