Thoughts on Aikido in the Modern World

Aikido’s role and purpose in today’s age has become a bit of a conundrum with such vast perspectives on its form and function. Is aikido supposed to be a meditative art or something that someone can use in a self-defense scenario? Is the art just used as a teaching method for personal development or self-improvement? Is it even meant to be a fighting art? Or do we as practitioners have the whole concept wrong and have been following a completely different path and curriculum since the 1950s, when Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Koichi Tohei standardized what is now modern aikido? I have been pondering some of these topics as of late and, given the discussion of aikido surviving this pandemic and whatever comes afterwards, and how aikido will look in a post-Covid society. As with all history, context is key to understanding what possibilities the future holds. How should aikidoka and those outside the art view aikido and how should it be practiced in a modern context? I am unsure if there will be any concrete and conjoined answers in the near future from anyone who the community considers pillars of the art, but what practitioners can do is review the historical record and context and see how past practitioners and pioneers trained applying that to their own training and goals today. From there, perhaps, practitioners can find more similarities than differences, taking one more step towards a unified community.

Starting with Morihei Ueshiba, without a doubt, he changed and modified the varied martial arts he trained, including his approaches to them, and the purposes he gave to them over the years of training, teaching, and rubbing elbows with higher Japanese society during the 1920s and 1930s. Readers, researchers, and practitioners can thank people like Stanley Pranin, Guillaume Erard, John Stevens, and others like them for uncovering the life and times of O-Sensei, and sharing said found information to the world. This is where people see the changes O-Sensei experienced and charged himself with before achieving an evolution of aikido to Takemusu Aiki in his later years in Iwama. Additionally, there are plenty of stories – either true or farse – that demonstrate O-Sensei facing off against challengers/would-be students of various martial backgrounds, and emerging triumphant. Was aikido not meant for fighting if, at times, O-Sensei goaded some people to challenge him? Yet we can see this confrontational attitude change as he grew into a more mature martial artist and as he began teaching more frequently Japan.[1]

It is important to note that one of the earliest demonstrations of O-Sensei is in 1935, filmed by Asahi News in Osaka, Japan. This footage exhibits a rough and unrefined outline of what modern aikido practice would later be based on. Perhaps this was also how his Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu teacher Sokaku Takeka structured his training sessions, but that is for another conversation. Also, how O-Sensei taught throughout his years rarely changed, as his students noted in interviews with Pranin and others. The only thing that did change was his reportedly endless lectures on his spiritualism, influenced by his time in the Omoto-kyo Shinto religious sect. These lectures appeared in more frequent during the years after the Second World War, as he was already in his sixties and the United States Occupation issued martial arts ban would not be lifted until 1952. This stay in Iwama during the War gave him time to possibly reflect on himself, his training, and the overall purpose of his constantly changing art.[2]

After O-Sensei, come his students, both from the prewar and postwar periods. Why did these students ultimately train with him? Perhaps one major reason is that aikido – or one of the many names of O-Sensei’s art used during the prewar years, i.e., Ueshiba-ryu Aikijujutsu – was the newest martial art to arrive in the Japanese martial arts community; the sparkle of something new attracted many to the training halls. Another possible reason to consider was that the new students wanted to learn how to fight. But why fight? Many of O-Sensei’s students came from judo, karate, kendo, kenjutsu, and even sumo backgrounds – all of which established a sense of fighting spirit and knowhow in their respective students. Why come to aikido and O-Sensei to learn how to fight if one knew how to throw, cut, slash, or push somebody with force and precision?[3]

Perhaps the answer can be found in how Japanese society was established in the prewar years. Throughout the country, there was a heightened sense of nationalism and pride that warped many minds into thinking that the Japanese race, ethnicity, and culture were far superior to that of their geopolitical neighbors and the rest of the world. One of the best ways to demonstrate such superiority and ultranationalism is to conquer others; the only way to instill such perspectives onto citizens is to create a militaristic environment, pushing military and martial culture above all else. Every aspect of daily life became a military metaphor and whatever a citizen did was ultimately in service to the emperor and Japan. It is that background that may have fueled many potential students to seek out O-Sensei and his aikido as training in any martial art would suffice in this hyper-military atmosphere.

Another possible reason deals with O-Sensei’s reputation, more so his martial prowess in subduing challengers of any and all martial backgrounds. Koichi Tohei, Gozo Shioda, and many others retold stories of such challenging attempting to outwit and overpower O-Sensei and how their attempts failed with them lying flat on their backs. It was from these incidents that his students quickly swore loyalty to him and endeavored to learn everything they could from him.[4]

An additional important piece to note is that most of the students who ultimately stayed with O-Sensei came to him with the knowledge and ability to fight. Perhaps “fight” is the wrong word; they knew how to compete against others in a controlled, martial environment. Tohei, Shioda, and Kenji Tomiki – to name a few – were either competent judoka and/or competed regularly in regional and national competitions. Students who had a background in kendo and were of similar stock.

Suffice to say, O-Sensei did not condone the testing of one technique over another, or if his new martial system worked at all in the context of street fights or duels. While it could be speculated that this rule was based on moral, philosophical, and religious/spiritual grounds, it would be ultimately ironic that he would readily accept challengers. However, without splitting hairs, many of his students did go out into the now hyper-militaristic Japanese society of the time, trying to either prove to themselves that their aikido worked, or they were trying to demonstrate its validity to others. From interviews conducted by Pranin and others, these students took what they learned from those experiences and used them to help grow in better understanding of aikido. However, once O-Sensei passed and the title of doshu fell to his son, Kisshomaru, many of these prewar students did not incorporate an aspect of testing or validating training or techniques within their own schools or styles, second Doshu included. Rather, these new sensei and dojo-cho stayed within the confines of aikido practice that was laid out in the years before the 1935 Asahi News film reel. The only student who incorporated fighting or competitions into aikido who had some success was Tomiki, who was ousted from the 1948-founded Aikikai.[5]

While Tomiki included a one-on-one randori akin to judo, he, like many others of his generation, and even those students of the postwar years who had extracurricular martial arts experience, worked to preserve what O-Sensei had taught them. Evidence for this preservation can be seen from a tertiary look at each style of aikido that exists today; from Tomiki to Shin Shin Toitsu, from Iwama-ryu to Nishio or Yamaguchi style, the fundamentals of aikido these styles teach are similar in nature and can trace their respective origins directly back to O-Sensei. While O-Sensei’s aikido grew and changed as he became older, his students, by comparison, seemed to have not done the same. No matter, there were new countries and places to take the art, and it is here that the United States comes into the conversation.

With aikido making its permanent US stay in the 1950s and 1960s, a new type of practitioner began entering the dojo. There was a certain sense of intensity in American schools. Many sensei like Terry Dobson, Yoshimitsu Yamada, Rodney Grantham, Dennis Hooker, Mitsugi Saotome, Kazuo Chiba, and others attempted to place validity on their practice, training with an eerie and vague intention of causing a little more harm than harmony to their training partners. In interviews with Dobson, Sam Combes, and others who participated in security and law enforcement positions, such intensive training that best suited the needs for these individuals was required. It also should be noted that most of these individuals who would later help pioneer aikido in the United States also participated in other martial arts before arriving to the Way of Harmonizing Energies, much like their earlier Japanese counterparts. And, much like their Japanese counterparts, many adhered to the training methods and aspects of aikido that O-Sensei laid out and Kisshomaru and Tohei later cemented.[6]

Of course, one cannot speak of American aikido without referring to Steven Seagal to some degree. With his popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was this aggressive style of aikido, actively and often indiscriminately putting down foes left and right, without a problem. Such portrayals led to more combat-centered aikido in a community that was beginning to focus on the spiritualism and philosophical aspects of the art, all trying to understand and uncover the answers and epiphanies O-Sensei found in his later years in Iwama. With this new sense of confidence and an alleged combat-readiness, some of the more zealous aikidoka participated in cross-style competitions, either interschool or in underground “anything goes” fight clubs that were beginning to materialize in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Unfortunately, many of these aikidoka were beaten – some more brutally than others. Such events have now become an Achilles’ Heel for the art some thirty years later. This negative image of aikido has become something of a permanent stain that even the heaviest of bleach cannot clean away. And with the advent of YouTube, the stain continues to grow to the point where almost everybody in the martial arts community makes aikido the butt of every useless-themed joke.[7]

As an aikidoka, in the last ten to fifteen years, there was a discussion that gained popularity but now, has receded into small, isolated pockets of committed practitioners regarding changing aikido to make the art a more functional and valid form of self-defense and self-preservation. YouTube personalities like Lenny Sly, Rokas Leonavicius, and Christopher Hein come to mind as they advertised and branded themselves as functional aikidoka, sometimes creating waves and controversy in their statements and conclusions. However, their cause of creating functional aikido seems to have gone to the wayside of the mainstream aikido community. Granted, there is nothing wrong or inherently negative or bad in expecting more from a martial art and committing the necessary time, effort, and experimentation to achieve those goals. These aikidoka should be allowed to walk their own martial path and should not be ostracized for their actions and goals alone.[8]

Similarly, there has been a growing concern in the past five years, especially before the pandemic, regarding the overall decline of aikido and what actions the community can and should do about the situation. These voices of concern came from Aikido Journal, which has conducted surveys, published various editorials, and allowed well-known practitioners a platform to voice their opinions, in an attempt to “rally the troops” and face the issue head on together. More recently, Aiki Extensions, an organization that attempts to apply aikido principles in daily life while promoting the art, hosted a virtual conference in September 2021 geared towards attracting and maintaining younger aikidoka, as a way for the art to survive in the coming years. On the subject of children and pre-teens, some on the first panel suggested creating campaigns that revolve around bringing in the students’ friends and parents, even to the point of using games with some aikido skills. Others on the panel suggested challenging the children, including them in seminars, make them feel included, and create structure as they transition from children’s and teens’ classes to the adult class.[9]

The second panel talked of retaining teen practitioners and keeping them involved while in high school and college. Regarding high school-aged students, all agreed on a structured transition system/model from their children/youth class into the adult class, while other suggestions ranged from instilling a rewards system, demonstrating that focus is fun, creating an instructor’s program for these students, and going out into the community to establish an aikido class at a high school. For college students, forming a club or a class at a local college or university was one of the best ways to reach that audience; furthermore, the panel suggested creating a summer camp or seminar that is led by aikidoka in their twenties and thirties, as a way for young people to support other young people, something akin to Evolene Premillieu’s Aikido for Tomorrow.[10]

Lastly, the third panel touched upon the adult population and how to reach and motivate them to train; this panel was the most detailed. The panelists suggested learning web design, using photographs of people who represent the demographic one is trying to attract on said website, create a one-on-one connection with the younger students, and use analogies while explaining principles that relate directly to them, i.e., reference activities and technologies they would know, like using cell phones. Lastly, the panel suggested to clearly define the specific learning objectives and be able to measure the outcomes, especially when reaching out to local schools and universities.[11]

This issue seems to be the new focus of the mainstream aikido community. As one of the Aiki Extensions panelists mentioned, any talk of martial integrity or validity that aikido does offer to its practitioners, i.e., keeping center towards nage while performing the role of uke, is lost on the younger generations as their interests do not pertain to a martially inspired mindset. The martial aspects of the art that were the focus of many of the early and pioneering aikidoka, stretching from O-Sensei’s original students to the former military and law enforcement American students, has faded for many of the younger generations. The hardcore martial integrity and focus has cracked and, in some sense, shattered over the last thirty or so years among newer students, maybe even with the older, more senior aikidoka. This break in martial focus led Ron Cicero to publish his article on aikido’s “branding problem” in Aikido Journal in 2018. In it, Cicero discusses the many different focuses aikidoka place on the art but often teach something completely different than that focus. A school may claim to teach self-defense with their aikido but instead lean more towards a cardio-fitness or conflict resolution type of training. Anyone coming in from the streets could realize that cardio-fitness does not have a direct application to self-defense and that school would lose out on a potential student because the instructor/school did not advertise their own strengths correctly to maximize their reach into the potential student pool.[12]

This is not to say that aikido does not have the potential to become a self-defense-based martial art – it can if one chooses, but some approaches need to change. Without practitioners, instructors, and schools being honest with themselves about what they are good at and what they want to become, that “brand” will always be mismatched, thus creating further confusion for current and potential students. And with a confused customer base, a brand will quickly become irrelevant, obsolete, and nonexistent.

From my research, conversations with veteran and younger aikidoka, and observations of the American aikido community, I can assert that aikido’s modern practice and manifestation is focused on being a moving meditation and, perhaps, a more zealous form of partnered tai chi. With its emphasis on connection between partners and nonresistant training methods from the third Doshu to notable practitioners and instructors, the total martial application and brutal implications of earlier aikido practice has greatly faded from the art’s mainstream focus. This mainstream aspect of aikido is not a negative route either. The modern practice and incarnation of aikido is what can be considered the baseline for aikidoka; it teaches the fundamentals of the art while allowing practitioners to further explore that connection between partners in the physical techniques. However these practitioners want to experiment, explore, and study aikido for the rest of their martial journey is wholly up to them and should not be penalized if their outward manifestation or interpretation of aikido differs from what the mainstream deems as the only way or method. If an aikidoka recalls correctly, O-Sensei experienced many different interpretations of what would become the final product – aikido. But even that changed, adapted, and evolved towards the end of his life. Perhaps, there needs to be more openness among the mainstream and “fringe” practitioners. In doing so, the aikido community can become closer together, create a unified front, and attempt to overcome the modern obstacles it faces as a whole community.

To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.


[1] Stanley Pranin, “Is O-Sensei Really the Father of Modern Aikido?,” Aikido Journal (blog), June 11, 2015, accessed April 10, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2015/06/11/is-o-sensei-really-the-father-of-modern-aikido/; Stanley Pranin, “How War and Religion Shaped Modern Aikido, Part I,” Aikido Journal (blog), September 19, 2012, accessed April 10, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2012/09/19/how-war-and-religion-shaped-modern-aikido-by-stanley-pranin/; Stanley Pranin, “How War and Religion Shaped Modern Aikido, Part II,” Aikido Journal (blog), November 7, 2020, accessed April 10, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2020/11/07/how-war-and-religion-shaped-modern-aikido-part-ii-by-stanley-pranin/; Stanley Pranin, “Kobukan Dojo Era, Part 1,” Aikido Journal (blog), December 10, 2014, accessed April 10, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2014/12/10/kobukan-dojo-era-part-1/; Stanley Pranin, “Kobukan Dojo Era, Part 2,” Aikido Journal (blog), November 18, 2002, accessed April 10, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2002/11/18/kobukan-dojo-era-part-2/; “Articles,” GuillaumeErard.Com (blog), accessed April 10, 2022, https://guillaumeerard.com/category/aikido/articles-aikido/; Stanley Pranin, Aikido Pioneers – Prewar Era, First (Japan: Aiki News, 2010), 141; Gōzō Shioda, Aikido: My Spiritual Journey (New York: Kodansha USA, 2013), 80-1,151-153; Stanley Pranin, “How War and Religion Shaped Modern Aikido, Part III,” Aikido Journal (blog), November 7, 2020, accessed April 10, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2020/11/07/how-war-and-religion-shaped-modern-aikido-part-iii-by-stanley-pranin/.

[2] Simone Chierchini, Morihei Ueshiba – Asahi Shinbun Video (1935), 2020, accessed April 30, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZWvMgMyAYU; Stanley Pranin, “Who Were the Shapers of Postwar Aikido?,” Aikido Journal (blog), May 11, 2016, accessed July 5, 2017, http://aikidojournal.com/2016/05/11/who-were-the-shapers-of-postwar-aikido-by-stanley-pranin/; Pranin, Aikido Pioneers – Prewar Era, 53, 138, 152, 187, 256; Josh Gold, “Interview with Kazuo Chiba, Part 2,” Aikido Journal (blog), November 18, 2002, accessed April 10, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2002/11/18/interview-with-kazuo-chiba-2/; Stanley Pranin, “Interview with Seiseki Abe (2),” Aikido Journal (blog), November 6, 2011, accessed April 30, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2011/11/06/interview-with-seiseki-abe-2/; Stanley Pranin, “Interview with Hiroshi Tada, 9th Dan,” Aikido Journal (blog), July 24, 2012, accessed April 30, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2012/07/24/interview-with-hiroshi-tada/; Pranin, “How War and Religion Shaped Modern Aikido, Part II”; Pranin, “How War and Religion Shaped Modern Aikido, Part III”; Guilliaume Erard, “A Provocative Interview with Morihei Ueshiba,” Aikido Journal (blog), March 25, 2019, accessed April 30, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2019/03/25/a-provocative-interview-with-morihei-ueshiba/.

[3] Stanley Pranin, “Ueshiba Ryu Jujutsu 植芝流柔術,” Aikido Journal (blog), August 27, 2011, accessed april 30, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2011/08/27/ueshiba-ryu-jujutsu/; Pranin, Aikido Pioneers – Prewar Era, 34, 76, 137, 170, 174, 273–74, 304.

[4] Pranin, Aikido Pioneers – Prewar Era, 137, 218, 274–75.

[5] Shioda, Aikido: My Spiritual Journey, 64–67; Pranin, Aikido Pioneers – Prewar Era, 137, 218, 274–75; Pranin, “Who Were the Shapers of Postwar Aikido?”; Simone Chierchini, “10 Famous Aikido Challenges,” Aikido Italia Network (blog), March 30, 2015, accessed April 30, 2022, https://simonechierchini.wordpress.com/2015/03/30/10-famous-aikido-challenges/; Simone Chierchini, “10 More Famous Aikido Challenges,” Aikido Italia Network (blog), April 27, 2015, accessed April 30, 2022, https://simonechierchini.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/more-famous-aikido-challenges/.

[6] John Stone and Ronald C Meyer, Aikido in America (Berkeley, Calif.: Frog : Distributed by North Atlantic Books, 1995), 38–42; Susan Perry and Ronald Rubin, Aikido Talks: Conversations with American Aikidoists (Claremont, Calif.: Areté Press, 2001), 149–60; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Californian Aikidoka Robert Noha: Aikido’s Spiritual Aspect,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), February 17, 2021, accessed May 2, 2022, https://maytt.home.blog/2021/02/17/interview-with-californian-aikidoka-robert-noha-aikidos-spiritual-aspect/; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Todd Jones: Thomas ‘Doc’ Walker and Growing Aikido in Florida,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), June 24, 2020, accessed May 2, 2022, https://maytt.home.blog/2020/06/24/interview-with-todd-jones-thomas-doc-walker-and-growing-aikido-in-florida/; Antonio Aloia, Aikido Comes to America: A Brief History of the Art’s American Pioneers and Their Journey to the Present (Tambuli Media, 2020), 38–40; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Longtime Aikidoka Jane Ozeki: New York Aikikai and Family,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), May 12, 2021, accessed May 2, 2022, https://maytt.home.blog/2021/05/12/interview-with-longtime-aikidoka-jane-ozeki-new-york-aikikai-and-family/; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Aikido Shihan George Kennedy: Rodney Grantham and Southeastern Aikido,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), March 2, 2020, accessed May 2, 2022, https://maytt.home.blog/2020/03/02/interview-with-aikido-shihan-george-kennedy/.

[7] Christopher David Thrasher, Fight Sports and American Masculinity: Salvation in Violence from 1607 to the Present, Illustrated edition (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2015), 201–2; Aloia, Aikido Comes to America, 64–68.

[8] “ROGUE WARRIORS TV – YouTube,” 2022, accessed May 2, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/; “Martial Arts Journey – YouTube,” 2022, accessed May 2, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/; “Hein’s Approach to Aikido – YouTube,” 2022, accessed May 2, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/.

[9] Aiki Extensions, Panel One   Aiki Extensions Passion in Action Roundtable  September 12, 2021, 2021, accessed March 20, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4cV4j10klY; Stanley Pranin, “Martial Arts in a State of Decline?,” Aikido Journal (blog), November 30, 2006, accessed December 5, 2017,  http://aikidojournal.com/2006/12/01/martial-arts-in-a-state-of-decline/; Martial Arts Journey, Aikido’s Loss of Popularity (Music Turned Down), 2015, July 10, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66l0NGDuXas&feature=youtu.be; Josh Gold, “The Future of Aikido,” Aikido Journal (blog), March 2017, accessed December 8, 2017, http://aikidojournal.com/2017/03/28/the-future-of-aikido/; Josh Gold, “Aikido: Confronting a Crisis,” Aikido Journal (blog), December 7, 2017, accessed December 8, 2017, http://aikidojournal.com/2017/12/07/aikido-confronting-a-crisis/; Josh Gold, “Community Insights | Ikazuchi Dojo,” Ikazuchi Dojo (blog), April 3, 2017, accessed December 6, 2017, http://ikazuchi.com/2017/04/03/community-insights/; Pranin, “Martial Arts in a State of Decline?”

[10] Aiki Extensions, Panel Two   Aiki Extensions Passion in Action Roundtables   September 2021, 2021, accessed March 20, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dliEXsYCZks; Josh Gold, “Aikido for Tomorrow,” Aikido Journal (blog), April 8, 2020, accessed April 10, 2022, https://aikidojournal.com/2020/04/08/aikido-for-tomorrow/; Antonio Aloia, “Interview with Evolene Premillieu: Aikido for Tomorrow,” Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (blog), May 22, 2020, accessed April 9, 2022, https://maytt.home.blog/2020/05/22/interview-with-evolene-premillieu-aikido-for-tomorrow/.

[11] Aiki Extensions, Panel Three Aiki Extensions Passion in Action Roundtable,  September 12, 2021, 2021, accessed March 20, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyqBPtoWR8A.

[12] Ron Cicero, “Aikido’s Branding Problem: Will Aikido Become the Kodak of the Martial Arts?,” Aikido Journal (blog), September 4, 2018, accessed May 23, 2019, https://aikidojournal.com/2018/09/04/aikidos-branding-problem-will-aikido-become-the-kodak-of-the-martial-arts/.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s