Monday, 19 November 2012

Aikido, Martial Art or Self Defence?


“Aikido,” said Koichi Tohei in his book ‘Aikido, the Co-ordination of mind and body for self-defence’, “is known by the general public as one of the best arts of self defence”.

So there you have it. Aikido is a system of self-defence. But Aikido is also a martial art. Which raises the interesting question: so what’s the difference?

If you look up “martial arts” in the online dictionary, Dictionary.com you will see it is defined as:
“Any of the traditional forms of Oriental self-defense or combat that utilize physical skill and coordination without weapons, as karate, aikido, judo, or kung fu, often practiced as sport.”
I find this definition profoundly unsatisfying. Let’s dispense at once with the most glaring error – the assertion that martial arts are “without weapons”. This is simply untrue. Many of the free-hand martial arts, including Aikido, also use weapons sometimes, while some martial arts such as kyudo (archery) and iaido (sword drawing) use weapons all the time.

I’ll also gloss over the sport element. Some martial arts are competitive, others are not. Most Aikido is not. And I won’t even enter into the debate about whether or not martial arts are necessarily Oriental (though it seems clear to me that not all are).

The bit of the definition that troubles me the most is the assertion that a martial art is a form of self-defence. Now, if you’ve never done a martial art, maybe you won’t understand why anyone would query that statement. Surely, you might think, it is self-evident that a martial art is a form of self-defence. Well, yes, they are – up to a point…

Now let’s then ask a different question: if all martial arts are forms of self-defence, are all forms of self-defence martial arts?

This question is easier to answer: NO!

The point I’m trying to make is that while a martial art such as Aikido certainly embodies a systematised form of self-defence, that is not necessarily its most interesting feature. There is more, much more, to Aikido than learning how to win a fight. Moreover, if you want to defend yourself against assault, Aikido is neither the fastest nor the most effective way of doing so. It’s not fast because it takes years of study even  to master the very basic elements of Aikido. It’s not the most effective because the philosophy that underlies Aikido is fundamentally non-violent. Aikido will teach you all the things that you should not do in a fight: you should not deliberately try to hurt someone, you should not initiate a fight, you should do everything in your power to avoid using the most damaging techniques available to you. In short, when it comes to unarmed combat, Aikido puts all kinds of barriers in your way. If you just want to win a fight and you don’t care how much you hurt your opponent, Aikido is not the art for you.

Unarmed Combat?

Let me try to illuminate the difference between self-defence or ‘unarmed combat’ and a martial art such as Aikido, with a few quotations. These include quotations from two supreme martial artists:  Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, and Koichi Tohei who was at one time Ueshiba’s chief instructor and later went on to found the style known as ‘Ki Aikido’. Contrast their words with some quotations taken from manuals of self-defence for members of the armed forces.
"The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. … To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love."
(Morihei Ueshiba)
“In many cases, every man and woman may be called on to defend their lives in sudden emergencies. This defence can only be achieved by killing the enemy. To conquer our repugnance to killing at close quarters is essential.”
(‘All-in Fighting’, preface by Lt.-Colonel J P O’Brien Twogig)
“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury in the Art of Peace.”
(Morihei Ueshiba)
“The majority of the methods shown are drastic in the extreme. In contrast to judo, they recognize no accepted rules…”
(‘All In Fighting’ by Captain A E Fairbairn)
“The martial arts begin with gratitude and end with gratitude. If there is an error at the important starting point, the martial arts can become dangerous to others and merely brutal fighting arts.”
(‘Aikido, the Co-ordination of mind and body for self-defence’ by Koichi Tohei)
“The edge of the hand blow and the chin jab, if applied as demonstrated in this manual, will quickly convince the student that in a matter of days he has developed a blow that is not only as effective as a good punch with the fist, but one which permits him to obtain a knock-out…”
(‘All In Fighting’ by Captain A E Fairbairn, British World War 2 army fighting manual)
“It takes time to train the mind and body to react to each set of conditions instinctively and in the prescribed method. This is one of the weaknesses of the jiu jitsu technique. By certain manoeuvres and movements, a jiu jitsu expert can place an antagonist in the proper position; but for the layman it is much too complicated and, according to American standards, takes too long to learn.”
(‘Kill Or Get Killed’ by Lt. Colonel Rex Applegate, US Marine Corps manual)
“Do not be in a hurry, for it takes a minimum of ten years to master the basics.”
(Morihei Ueshiba)
How, then, can Aikido be both a martial art and a system of self-defence? Consider this:
“The art of self-defence must be one that can be used in a real fight. … If your opponent wants a no-holds-barred scrap, it will be he who decides how he should attack you and you cannot call foul at anything he does…. In Aikido, you practise always to adapt yourself to real fights.”
(‘Aikido, the Co-ordination of mind and body for self-defence’ by Koichi Tohei)

Self-Defence in Aikido

Last weekend I attended a very enjoyable course given by Sensei John Gaynor, the President of the Aikido Union of England. His style of Aikido is slightly different than the style (Ki Aikido) which I normally practise. Actually, it is not as different as you might think. In Ki Aikido we spend more time working on the ‘inner’ aspects – the calmness, relaxation and so on – and we generally don’t emphasise certain self-defence elements such as atemi (punches, kicks etc.) until students are quite experienced. But in essence we are all practising the same art and the differences are more a matter of differing emphasis rather than a fundamental disagreement.

I found this short video in which Sensei Gaynor illustrates the use of atemi. Bearing in mind the topic of the discussion above, I think it’s interesting how he makes a distinction between the “lovely movement” used in the martial art and the somewhat more brutal approach to the same technique if you had to do it “for real”. It’s a good example of both the martial art and the self-defence aspects of Aikido and the subtle difference between the two…

4 comments:

  1. An excellent and eloquent discourse on the truth of this matter. I started training in 1974 and would consider it an honour if one were to think me a martial artist, it is a cherished acolade. However, I am not too sure about the self defence bit, I am not sure how I would react in a dangerous situation and not sure which of any of my skills might come to the fore. I prefer not to have to test this difference and I suppose that is the martial artist in me speaking. In a similar vein I wonder how many followers of O'Sensei are actually following what he did. I watched an old video of O'Sensei recently and observed his body language and movements, including postures and how his body was 'connected', we see this rarely in high ranking Aikidoka, we usually see something else. . . whatever that is. . . in my opinion, Richard Small 3rd dan TIA Europe and trying to teach good Aiki weapons practice in Devon.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Richard. Personally, I like to try to aspire to the "art" more than the "martial". But if I ever manage to combine the two, I'll be very pleased! ;-)

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  3. I agree, another thought provoking article and I found the video clip especially interesting. Thank you.

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