Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What Makes Great Aikido?

At his outstanding blog, Kogen Budo, Ellis Amdur has a terrific article examining some of the great Aikidoka from history and dissecting just what it was that made their Aikido so great. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here

Mr Ellis has authored many books on a variety of topics. They may all be found here at one location.

This essay is a composite of a number of mini-essays that I uploaded to a Facebook discussion forum: “Aikido —The Martial Side.” It also includes some of my answers to questions raised by members of the group.
Because aikido is a principle-based martial art, systematized around certain philosophical ideals and very specific physical parameters, many critics over the years have questioned its effectiveness. Aikido is particularly vulnerable to criticism because, for the most part, its practitioners do not do ‘live training,’ (pressure testing against unpredictable attacks, or freestyle competitive training).  Such critics come both from inside the art and without. Even though I share the perspective of many of the critics, at least in regards to much of the aikido I have experienced or seen, something bothers me about such discussions—I wonder if the critics do justice to the art. It is similar to criticizing expressionist art, using a popularizer like Leroy Nieman as an example. Whether one likes expressionism or not, it should be evaluated by its greatest proponents, such as Franz Marc or Maqbool Fida Hussain. Expressionist art may not be a style you enjoy, but criticism should be based on exemplars of the art, not the common mean.

There are some martial arts that one can become relatively effective as a fighter in a short period of time; aikido is not one of them. Yet there are, undeniably, aikidoka who have become quite effective as fighters. My friend and teacher, Terry Dobson, working as a bouncer in a Vermont bar, was once attacked by a guy with a chainsaw—he stepped inside the arc of the attack and threw him with a kokyunage, the saw flying one direction and man another—both hit the pavement hard, with the saw inoperable and the man now unwilling.

Many other aikidoka were known as formidable fighters, taking on people from other martial arts in challenge matches or simply engaging in street-fights. Among them were Abe Tadashi,  Shirata Rinjiro, Kato Hiroshi, Saito Morihiro, Watahiki Yoshifumi, to name only a few. Please note that I’ve deliberately named individuals who did not come from a judo, karate or boxing background—rather, their primary martial practice was aikido  (not to say they may not have done a little cross-training). I am fully aware that stories grow over time, and mundane scuffles become legendary. Nonetheless, unless they are all lies, these men had something special. Perhaps before one improves aikido, it’d be worthwhile to examine what one intends to repair, through examining the best of its possibilities—those who are great.

What I don’t mean by ‘great’ is those who are spiritual exemplars, those who are great teachers, or those who show artistry and grace in enacting the two-person choreography of aikido. In this essay, I am only concerned with individuals who are physically superlative as martial artists—who could fight with this art. And by fight, I mean hand-to-hand civilian altercations—street fights and dojo challenges. (1)

I wish to tease out the components that I have observed among those who were able to – and did – protect their training hall against dojo breakers or people who challenged them on the mat, striving to embarrass them or worse; those who handled taryujiai; and those who had or have a particular brilliance that has garnered them true respect, not only among other aikidoka, but among practitioners of other martial arts as well. I am making as clear a distinction as I can between the excellent aikido  practitioner, whatever their rank, and true virtuosos. Were we talking about music, this would be a discussion about what makes Hélène Grimaud, Emil Gilels, Martha Argerich and Marc-André Hamelin incandescent musicians, rather than merely ‘excellent.’

When I refer to ‘components,’ I do not mean the usual principles that are enumerated by teachers in every dojo worldwide: irimi, irimi-tenkan, musubi, awase, enten no ri, ‘moving off the line,’ centering, extension, etc. Everyone learns these principles—at least to some degree. The virtuoso, however, is able to actually enact them against opponents who are not colluding in mutual kata practice. They are able to enact these principles at will against a struggling or combative opponent. And they are able to do this due to certain attributes they possess, that none of these leading lights has ever discussed—except perhaps over a long evening drinking Suntory whiskey, or Otokoyama Sake.

Two individuals (among many) whom I think exemplify this are Takeno Takefumi (of Yoshinkan) and Bruce Bookman (of Tenzan Aikido). Takeno is ‘classical,’ whereas Bookman is extremely innovative, integrating components of both boxing and Brazilian jiujitsu, but they both possess the qualities I will enumerate below. These qualities number five (followed by two other components which potentially take one beyond the abilities of even the modern virtuoso).
Two objections may be raised to this essay, that what I discuss below does not encompass the complete martial art and training regimen of aikido’s founder, Ueshiba Morihei, and that it is also, to some degree, at variance to the vision, not only of his son, Ueshiba Kisshomaru, but also to the legacy of other leading lights of aikido, such as Tomiki Kenji, Shioda Gozo, or Tohei Koichi.  I will discuss Ueshiba Morihei at the conclusion of this essay, talking briefly about his own training methodology that was largely abandoned after the 1st generation of his successors—and for the most part, even the leading lights each focused only on a part of what their teacher did, not its entirety.

As for the latter objection, one of the things that makes Ueshiba Kisshomaru, the son of the founder, such a great man, is that he ushered in modern aikido , a martial art of the ‘grey zones.’ What I mean is that just as something like archaic martial traditions like Araki-ryu or Kashima Shin-ryu focused on the inculcation of the values of the warrior class of medieval Japan, as well as the question of one’s survival ( your own, your family, your clan or some larger political entity), aikido is an embodiment of modern society, where few situations end in mortal combat; rather, they are conflicts where some kind of resolution is possible. Therefore, modern aikido provides a place for just about anyone who wishes to enhance their lives through practice of a martial art that is not primarily concerned with life-and-death questions. (2) This has enabled aikido  to exert a much greater, positive influence on people’s lives than Ueshiba Morihei’s narrow, sectarian cult of excellence that was his Daito-ryu, aikijutsu, and aikibudo, some of the names of his martial art’s pre-WWII incarnations.

Nonetheless, my question here isn’t what makes one a comfortable participant in an idealistic martial art, or even a very dedicated student of a physically demanding, even dangerous discipline that has become a centerpiece of your life. My question is not what makes one a good teacher, a great leader of a dojo or someone who can apply the principles of aikido in other social settings. Finally, it is not the reverse—an unfounded claim that these great practitioners are the best martial artists on the planet through their practice of aikido. My question is what makes one a virtuoso practitioner, regardless of one’s other qualities (and this include morality or spirituality)—it is the same question I would ask regarding such karateka as Kanazawa Hirokazu or Higaonna Kanryo, or judoka such as Kashiwazaki Katsuhiko or Ushijima Tatsukuma.


Alexander Strauffon said...

It's a tough discipline to learn, that's for sure. Even if you've got some martial arts background already.

Rick Matz said...

When I trained in Yoshinkan Aikido under Kushida Sensei, our training was very rigorous. I would have stacked us up against any karate or judo dojo.

Unknown said...

In our Dojo we had it all. Even a hell's night. No holds barred.

Travis Whitman said...

Mr Ellis has no idea what he's writing about here. Aikido (and Bagua) are not martial arts, try thinking of them as graduate level degrees for people that already know how to throw down. And the ‘purists,’ accomplished fighters raised in aikido only schools actually were taught aiki jiujitsu.