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Does Aikido really work? Part 1

by Peter Goldsbury, Professor of Philosophy at Hiroshima University and Chairman of the International Aikido Federation
// Источник: B.A.F. Newsletter, Март 2001, No 38

This seems to be a question which has been asked for as long as aikido has existed and the fact that it continues to be asked suggests that there is no satisfactory answer. I think the question really has several aspects and I propose to separate them. One aspect is about the end result of the process: does aikido really do what it is supposed to do? Are the claims made for aikido genuine? Can an accomplished practitioner hold his own against all comers? Another aspect is about the process itself: is aikido practical compared with other martial arts? How long would it take for me to be able to actually use the techniques I have learned? Note that these questions are really asked only outside Japan. Japan is a martial arts culture and here no one would seriously doubt that an accomplished aikidoka could handle a conflict situation very satisfactorily indeed, if, that is, he or she actually had to use the techniques. However, the question beloved of armchair martial artists (what would happen if an 8th dan aikidoka met an 8th dan karatedoka one night in a dark alley...?) is never asked here. Even university students, who have a wide range of martial arts to choose from, never choose a martial arts club on the basis of which art actually works or which art is more practical. In Hiroshima University, there is judo, kendo, aikido (3 different clubs with three different 'styles'), karate, taekwondo, shorinji, sumo, and kick-boxing to choose from. It is clear from watching practice that each club has a severe training schedule, but that even after four years of intensive practice, graduates find it very difficult to do very much at all, even within the protected and artificial environment of the dojo.

Does Aikido Work as a Means of Self-Defence?

Yes, it does. Absolutely. My own reason for starting aikido was not that it was a martial art affording the acquisition of fearsome fighting skills, but a much more pacific reason. There were no competitions and one's progress did not depend on winning or losing matches. One practised with a partner and the fact that both would take turns as uke and tori was a great leveller. The question whether aikido actually worked as a martial art was not one I took seriously until I was around 3rd or 4th dan and in a position to look at high-ranking instructors with some degree of objectivity. In my 'aikido life', I have had the chance to practise under many teachers who are household names in aikido: Senseis Osawa (Kisaburo), Okumura, Yamaguchi, Arikawa, Tada, Fujita, Yamada, Chiba, Kanai, as well as spending a number of years training under our own Technical Director, Kanetsuka Minoru Sensei. Each of these advanced aikidoka has his own ways of executing the basic techniques, even his own preferred techniques and movements, and this fact makes it very hard to define aikido objectively. Nevertheless, from my encounters with shihans like Yamaguchi, Arikawa, Tada, Chiba and Kanetsuka in actual practice, I am convinced that aikido is effective as an art of self-defence and also has other benefits.

A few years ago, I took part in a seminar in Katsura, Japan, organised by the Nippon Budokan. It was an international budo seminar at which nine martial arts were represented and which has since become an annual event. The martial arts were: judo, kendo, aikido, karate, naginata, jukendo, sumo, kyudo, and shorinji kempo. Spectacular demonstrations were given by the experts in each art and on this occasion aikido was represented by Fujita Masatake Sensei and karate by Kanazawa Hirokazu Sensei (who was the pioneer of regular karate practice in the Ryushinkan Dojo). All the participants in the seminar were of at least shodan level and one of the features of the seminar was that each participant had to practise a different martial art. I chose naginata and it was a daunting experience. Naginata, which uses what looks like a very long jo with a blade on the end, is practised in Japan mainly by women (the unofficial reason is that men are too physically strong in their upper bodies to handle this halberd effectively). The experience taught me to beware of so-called 'objective' comparisons between the martial arts and also to beware of obatarian: pushy Japanese old ladies who are famous for always being first in the queue for buses and tramcars, who might just happen to have an 8th dan in naginata and be capable of using an umbrella as a lethal weapon. In fact, this seminar was the perfect place to explore the question of whether each martial art actually 'worked' objectively, but this question was never asked. It was tacitly understood that whichever martial art you chose to practise would be effective in doing what it set out to do.

Nevertheless, an accumulation of years of training puts one in a position to look at the techniques in a progressively objective fashion and I offer a few comments as the residue of my aikido practice so far.

  1. When I started practice in the AGB Chiswick dojo and practised later in the old B.A.F. Ryushinkan Dojo, it was accepted that the attack should be genuine and that the technique should actually work. In Chiswick you had to commit yourself to an attack (otherwise bad things would happen to you) and in Ryushinkan the basic technique was usually katate-dori or shomen-uchi, applied very strongly. I still believe that if basic techniques like 1-kyo or 2-kyo do not work against 'clumsy' beginners, then there is something wrong.
  2. All basic techniques are supposed to be equally effective, but I think it is a fact that some techniques work better than others and this is due to the nature of the techniques. For example, it is very hard for a non-expert to do 4-kyo on anyone with strong and flexible wrists who has learned to accept a high level of pain. On the other hand, shiho-nage, even executed by a beginner, can be quite devastating and this is the technique that has caused the most fatal injuries in aikido so far. However, I think that hanmi-handachi shiho-nage ura is very difficult, if not impossible, to do effectively against an opponent who understands what is coming and moves with the technique.
  3. It is possible, even at a very high level, to make mistakes, but I have rarely seen high ranking shihans do so. On the other hand, the practice of using chosen uke is problematic, for an accomplished shihan should be able to demonstrate a technique against a partner of any level. Using young, supple, uke is very attractive and does wonders for tori's ego, since they will throw themselves very beautifully, but it is also very dangerous, since it suggests to the unenlightened that the tori is better than he/she actually is. On the other hand, even the best uke sometimes cannot keep up with a master and this is very clear from the demonstrations given by Tada Hiroshi Sensei, who is a 9th dan.
  4. 4. Aikido is supposed to be a blend mainly of Daito-ryu ju-jitsu and Omoto-kyo beliefs, plus whatever other martial arts O Sensei experienced. In using Daito-ryu, I think O Sensei made a wise choice. However, in Sokaku Takeda, he came into contact with one of the last old-style martial artists who wandered around Japan challenging other martial artists to a duel, possibly to the death. I gather that Takeda was never defeated in such encounters: his opponents simply gave up and ran away, or became his students. At the time he lived, duels were still possible, but one of the first things I was told when I arrived in Japan 20 years ago is that I should never, ever, use aikido techniques outside the dojo. Not that I had the slightest idea of emulating Mr Takeda, by the way. Thus it is now impossible to answer in a practical way the question of which martial art is most effective. In any case, if a hypothetical 8th dan aikidoka lost an encounter with an 8th dan karatedoka, what would this actually prove? That the aikido expert had a bad day? Would it really prove that karate was superior to aikido as a martial art? I doubt it very much.
  5. 5. Aikioists are notoriously bad attackers and I have noticed that some instructors make tori initiate the technique by forcing uke to react to the attack. But this leaves the basic problem unresolved: aikido is supposed to be a defensive martial art and the unfortunate corollary is that practitioners are not taught to attack properly. In my opinion, this is foolish. Simply because aikido is a defensive martial art (i.e., it does not have competitions and thus attacking is never an official part of the martial art), this does not mean that aikidoists should not be taught how to attack effectively. When I was in Boston, tsuki attacks were always very effective simply because Kanai Sensei had practised karate and he expected tsuki attacks to be in karate style. But I think that nearly all older-generation Hombu shihans had practised other martial arts before they encountered O Sensei. Thus the question of how to attack effectively was not really an issue for them. Even now, I am irritated by students who do techniques like tsuki in a totally 'suicidal' way, leaving themselves open to all manner of counter techniques. This is one of the main reasons why I think that practising with weapons is beneficial. Kicking techniques are also controversial. Karate and kick-boxing have a wide variety of kicking attacks and aikidoists should be taught how to deal with kicks. The normal basic aikido diet of katate-dori techniques, for example, seems singularly ineffective. "Ah well, you will learn such techniques in time", seems a very lame answer and so I was very pleased when we actually had some classes against kicking techniques in Hiroshima a few years ago. However, defence against such attacks have never been part of the aikido grading syllabus.

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