Aikido, Past Present and Future. Part Two, Present: The never-ending "effectiveness" debate

Part One of this series is available here.

There is a thread on the old Aikiweb forums called “Aikido does not work at all in a fight”. It was posted over 18 years ago, on 10/17/2000. At the time of this writing, it is still the top post on Aikiweb and has 2034 replies.  I know about this thread because, in my True Believer days, I commented on it often, defending Aikido and its martial efficacy. This debate has been going on online for decades. What my research has shown, however, is that this debate has existed since the art’s inception. It’s never stopped, and never been resolved. Honestly, it never will, but it’s at the heart of the identity crisis that, even now, is turning Aikido in a niche art and crippling its continued growth.

My thought had always been that there had to be something to Aikido back in the day that, perhaps, had been lost. Jigoro Kano was a huge fan of Ueshiba’s, and sent many of his students to train with him. Martial artists from all over Japan (and then the world) sought out Ueshiba, and I’ve been unable to find a single contemporaneous report accusing him of being a fraud. Much of the first and second generation of Ueshiba’s uchi-deshi spread Aikido throughout the world, fielding (and winning) many challenges. However, even those students had their doubts. From an interview with Minoru Mochizuki, who spread Aikido throughout Europe (emphasis mine):

I went overseas to spread Aikido and had shiai matches with many different people while there. From that experience I realized that with only the techniques of Aikido it was very difficult to win. In those cases I instinctively switched to judo or kendo techniques and was able to come out on top of the situation. No matter how I thought about it I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that the techniques of Daito Ryu Jujutsu were not enough to decide the issue. Wrestlers and others with that sort of experience are not put off by being thrown down and rolling away. They get right back up and close for some grappling and the French style of boxing is far above the hand and foot techniques of karate. I’m sure that Aikido will become more and more international and worldwide in the future, but if it does, it’s technical range will have to expand to be able to respond to any sort of enemy successfully.

Ueshiba and Mochizuki

Having said all this, Sensei said to me, “All you ever talk about is winning and losing.” “But one must be strong and win. And now that Aikido is being spread throughout the whole world I think that it is necessary for it to be both theoretically and technically able to defeat any challenge,” I said to Sensei. “Your whole thinking is mistaken. Of course, it is wrong to be weak but that is not the whole story. Don’t you realize that it is no longer the age where we can even talk about whether we are winning or losing? It is the age of “Love” now, are you unable to see that?”

–Minoru Mochizuki 

I had, at first, considered including only the emphasized part, but ended up putting in the entirety of the quote because it helps demonstrate how, even in its infancy, Aikido suffered from an identity crisis: a fighting art that didn’t emphasize fighting. This also speaks to the duality of its Founder, Morihei Ueshiba; a man who emphasized love and harmony while sheltering and protecting pro-war ultranationalist zealots before and after WWII. When I was younger, I (of course) idolized him because it seemed I should– but even when I was Aikido’s truest believer and #1 fan, the demos I could find online were never that impressive to me. They’re just falling down for him, I thought, before the rationalizations began; that he was obviously such a great master that he has an infinite reservoir of internal power to draw upon that lets him do the things he’s doing.

I began to realize my own hypocrisy when I first started seeing Systema videos online. Systema claims to be a martial art derived from the Spetsnaz, or Russian special forces. In reality, it’s a bunch of no-touch woo-woo. I would watch the videos and laugh at the ridiculousness of an obese man in camo pants “fighting” three attackers who would fall down at the lightest (or no) touch. Then a realization hit me like a ton of bricks: What makes these demos different than Ueshiba’s?

If you changed the camo pants for a hakama, and a fat Russian man for a wiry Daoist ascetic type, they’d look remarkably similar. This is not comparing the two men as martial artists per se, but based solely on their demonstrations, since I’ve not had the opportunity to train Systema, nor to train with Ueshiba, since he died 17 years before I was born.


Another early voice of dissent was Yoshio Kuroiwa. A boxer who then came to Aikido, I took these quotes from the excellent Dueling with O-Sensei by Ellis Amdur:

In boxing you move around the opponent, so he gets stuck and can’t move— it is at that moment that you hit them. And even though aikidō people talk about circular movement, they tend to use straight lines and extended arms. I found that any and every aikidō movement should follow the path of either an uppercut or a hook. What about a jab? People think a jab is a thrust, and so is a straight punch. But when you do them properly, they spiral as well, just not so much as an uppercut or a hook. Most people’s aikidō resembles a roach motel— the person grabs on and both people pretend that they are stuck like cockroaches, and then they run around in circles. When I do aikidō, I grab the opponent, rather than him grabbing me.

Yoshio Kuroiwa

And

I did go to one of the all-shihan meetings recently. Nidai Dōshu asked if anyone had any more questions, and I said, “We should stop doing tachi-dori and jō-dori in public demos. There are lots of real swordsmen in the audience, people who’ve really trained with weapons, and they know that we can’t really take swords and staffs out of people’s hands when they are attacking us. We are making fools of ourselves.” There was dead silence in the room. Finally Dōshu changed the subject. Later, Saito-sensei came up to me. I thought he’d be angry, but he slapped me on the back and said, ‘Yoku itte kureta.’ (“ Thanks for saying what needed to be said”). Well, maybe it needed to be said but nothing’s changed, has it? They are still doing the same stuff, Saito sensei included.

Kuroiwa’s quotes are remarkable to me becaus they demonstrate that Aikido’s greatest weakness (a curriculum that doesn’t change even as fighting does) has stretched back for half a century. Despite early successes and Aikido catching fire internationally, the part that truly resonates with me is “Well, maybe it needed to be said but nothing’s changed, has it? They are still doing the same stuff.”


This debate is not new. It was not resolved, and it likely never will be.

This leaves me, and anyone who still practices Aikido, with a few questions to answer.

Was Morihei Ueshiba a charismatic con man, taking people in the way Uri Geller did in the 70s? Did he leverage his natural charisma into a very popular martial art based on Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu but that he could separate from Sokaku Takeda, a verifiable crazy person with whom his relationship had grown sour?

The short answer to this is, I think, no. If we take a very cynical tack toward him, at best we can conclude that Ueshiba was a man who was certainly not a pacifist; his son famously laughed and said “my father was never a pacifist” when asked. He fought for the Japanese Army and led an expedition with his cult leader  religious mentor Onisaburo Deguchi to create a state in Mongolia– this almost led to his execution.

 
Ueshiba, third from left, in shackles in Manchuria.

In the later years of his life strongly played up the Daoist mystic look and aesthetic and used that to appear more legitimate to a world that was looking for answers he was more than willing to give them. However, even that very cynical view does not make him a fraud. While there’s no way to judge Morihei Ueshiba by anything other than the writings, recorded demonstrations, and teachings he left behind, I think it’s shortsighted to say the entire art was built upon a fraud. If he was a fraud, then he conned literally every prominent martial artist for a generation. This is not impossible but I feel it is highly unlikely.

That said…

Was Morihei Ueshiba an invincible, unbeatable martial artist who dodged bullets?

Give me a break. Give me a (censored) break. Stories like that may have been good salesmanship, but to believe the more outlandish stories you have to sacrifice your credibility.  Unfortunately, a lot of aikidoka are willing to do just that: see this poll from Aikiweb in which an astounding 40% of the respondents said they believed that Ueshiba literally dodged bullets.

Was Morihei Ueshiba an effective teacher?

The answer to that, based upon my discussions with many of his later uchideshi, is also no. My understanding of post-war Aikido based on in-person conversations and interviews that I’ve read is that his son Kisshomaru and Koichi Tohei organized a lot of the curriculum that defines Aikido today– At least in his later years of life, Morihei would come to the dojo, often unannounced, throw a willing uke around for a while, and then either leave or pontificate about the harmony of the universe before leaving. As one of his students put it to me when asked about Ueshiba’s warmups: “He didn’t have a warmup. He would talk for a very long time. My feet were very cold.” It was up to the senior students to try to piece together a cohesive martial art from that, which is why, even if Morihei possessed a wellspring of unbeatable martial technique and infinite internal power, neither outlived him through his students.

Why are you judging Aikido through the lens of its Founder, who died almost 50 years ago? Isn’t the current “State of the Art” more important?

Yes, but the truth is that, if we look at recorded footage, mainline Aikido hasn’t changed all that much since 1969. The Art hit its first “golden age” when it spread outside of Japan in the late 50s and early 60s to a world that was ready to hear about a martial art concerned with Peace and Love (maaaaaaaan). The second surge in popularity was (gulp) concurrent with rise of Steven Seagal. Unfortunately for Aikido, it has fallen out of grace internationally just as Mr. Seagal has, though (thankfully) for very different reasons.

This leads, finally, to our very last, ultimately unanswerable question to which I will offer my somewhat educated opinion:


Is Aikido an effective martial art?

If you are trying to become a fighter who can overcome in physical combat another fighter of even moderate skill, then no, Aikido training on its own is not effective. Combined with other, more efficacious arts, Aikido can provide a decent base upon which to base ones’ martial training. But at the end of the day, it’s not as effective as other delivery systems. Even if it was effective at its inception, fighting has changed in the past 70 years– for easy proof, compare even the great Joe Louis to, say, Wladimir Klitschko. Aikido training has not, and it suffers for it. To give a concrete example: one of the many reasons Aikido is mocked online is the ridiculousness of its attacks. “Aikido’s great,” I’ve heard many a YouTube video begin, “so long as you’re attacked by someone who runs at you with their hand over their head and then chops directly down at you.”

I think the traditional attacks utilized in aikido (shomenuchi, yokomenuchi, mune-tsuki, etc) are fine for a beginning student. They teach vectors of movement in an “if/then” scenario: if the energy you’re given comes from here, you move there. This is fine.

The problem is that this never, ever evolves into something resembling what even a novice karateka or kickboxer would do. If a new student needs the slow, compliant energy that a ryotedori or yokomenuchi  provides, that’s fine. However, once I got in front of a senior instructor, threw a yokomenuchi and was chided when he was unable to perform the technique because I started with the wrong foot forward. This was not a new student. This was someone with over a decade of martial arts training unable to defend against a slow, compliant attack because the scenarios for which he was prepared did not prepare him for someone who stood in a southpaw boxing stance before still throwing the exact attack as prescribed.

My above answer of no, unfortunately, is where the community at large gets bogged down. People get defensive, flame wars start, and forum threads persist for 2000 replies over 18 years.

After all, how can something that feels so real be ineffective? As I noted in Part One of this series, my first day on the mat (and truly, my first several years) were filled with amazement– how could someone throw me like that? How could that energy, that sent me flying through the air, be anything but real? A long-running column on Aikiweb is titled “It had to be felt”. I understand the sentiment; but the hard truth that splits the Aikido community (and creates a lot of hand-wringing and name-calling) is the difference between what they feel and what the rest of the martial arts world sees. The truth is that what many aikidoka feel, they feel because they want to– they are willing participants in a method of art in which they are a participant. Is it a martial art? Yes. Is it a fighting art? Still, sadly, no.

We live in an era where these ideas can be safely tested. No, the MMA rule set is not perfect. No, it does not plan for every single variable in a self defense scenario– not by a long shot. However, what it does (the distillation of single combat with a ruleset favoring freedom of technique to the bounds of athlete safety), it does very well. Under this ruleset (or any other involving a fully resisting, trained opponent), Aikido falls very short. You don’t have to go into the UFC to see this, though. If you really feel your Aikido works– test it. Put in a mouth-guard and have a friend (wearing 7 oz MMA sparring gloves) throw light to medium-power shots and actively resist your throws. If you do well against them, find a boxer or jiujiteiro with 6 months to a year of training and have them do the same. Maybe it works– that’s great. I’d love to see video. What you may find out, though, is that someone who has never been trained in what to do may not do what your ukes in class do. This is not a bad thing. Losing is a gift, because it allows you to grow. Many Aikidoka (and, for that matter, many “senior” martial artists) refuse to place themselves into situations where they can lose in any sense of the world. They are afraid to grow. This is why Aikido has such a bad rep in the greater martial arts community. It’s possible that the entirety of the martial arts community is wrong, but if you smell shit all day, check your shoe.

Does this mean that I feel that Aikido training is useless? Not by a long shot. Obesity and heart disease are far more likely to kill a middle-class person in a first-world country. If Aikido gets you up and moving, it has value. If the spiritual teachings of Aikido, piecemeal and vague as they can sometimes be, help you ground your life, it has value. If the camaraderie and friendships you’ve made in your dojo are meaningful to you, Aikido has value. 

I know that everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph is true because it applied, and applies still, to me personally. Aikido allowed me the chance to get and stay in shape. It gave me structure in peace when I was young and angry, and it gave me lifelong friendships that I keep to this day. That’s why, 5 years after I stopped training, I’m willing to write so much about Aikido. That’s why, while I rail against its martial efficacy (or lack thereof), I still keep Aikido close to my heart.

In Part Three of this series, I will discuss why I feel the Aikido community has to come to grips with some of these uncomfortable truths if they want Aikido to remain relevant as a martial art. I look forward to your feedback, and to another 18 years of argument.

9 thoughts on “Aikido, Past Present and Future. Part Two, Present: The never-ending "effectiveness" debate

  1. aikido the martial art. its techniques and principlesaiki-jutsu, the conceptand aikido dojo's, their communities, their cultures, their curriculum's. all different thingsalso aikido took many different forms at different stages of morehei ueshiba's life. you say aikido hasn't changed much since 1969, but what about 1930 to 1969? it changed alot. aikido can help you be a better fighter. but only if you aren't brain washed into thinking that people actually try shomenuchi in a fight. its not about the techniques, its about the principles. this is coming from someone who spars and uses aikido while going to bjj. but what ever. aikido sucks right? \”just film it dude\”. yea, just bring a camera to my dojo, get everyones permission to just film all day, and have it trained on me without a camera man while i'm sparring with someone in the event that i might succssfully use an aikido technique as if filming a specific technique against live resistance like that is ever that simple no matter what the martial art.

    Like

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