Sunday 2 November 2014

Aikido – change and decay…

(…or maybe not?)

What is the ‘true’ path of Aikido? Did O-Sensei define all of Aikido from A to Z for all time? If that is the case, are we wrong to practise techniques in ways that were not precisely defined by O-Sensei?

I know that many people feel that only by performing each technique in a precisely defined manner are we being ‘true’ to Aikido. But there is an alternative point of view which sees the practice of Aikido as a process of constant discovery: since no person and no attack can ever be quite the same as any other person or any other attack, each defence may change subtly in response to (or ‘in harmony with’) each attack. While both arguments have merit I must admit that personally I feel more inclined towards the latter point of view. But am I right? After all, by allowing techniques to change don’t we risk straying away from the heart of Aikido and just ‘making it up as we go along’?

“I must not inject my own opinion or in any way distort the direct transmission of O-Sensei’s Way.” --- Michio Hikitsuchi (Aikido Journal Interview)
Some Aikido masters have indeed voiced concern about the potentially damaging effect of making changes to Aikido. This concern was powerfully expressed by Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei (10th dan)  who said in an interview with Aikido Journal: “I must simply convey to the world exactly what I learned from O-Sensei. That is my responsibility. So, I must say only what O-Sensei said and teach only what O-Sensei taught. Nothing else. I must not inject my own opinion or in any way distort the direct transmission of O-Sensei’s Way.”

Morihiro Saito Sensei was equally concerned with maintaining the true transmission of the techniques taught to him by O-Sensei. This is how Saito explained himself in an interview with Gaku Homma: “I feel it is my obligation to teach the Founder’s Aikido to as many students as possible. When I die, a direct link to his technique will disappear. I have been given the gift of 23 years of experience with the Founder…What I have learned, I have learned from him, and what I have learned, I feel compelled to teach. “

Should we not then accept the views of these two great masters?  They considered it important to transmit faithfully the unmodified practice of Aikido just as they were taught it by the Founder. So are we to regard it as fundamentally wrong, decadent even, to introduce any changes to that purest form of our art?

“I think it is insufficient – unforgivable, in fact – for us to simply maintain the status quo.” --- Shoji Nishio (‘Aikido Yurusu Budo’)
But let’s consider an alternative viewpoint. In his book ‘Aikido Yurusu Budo’ (available from, the great master Shoji Nishio argues that we should not be afraid of the idea of Aikido changing and evolving over time. On the contrary, he says that “Budo techniques are not permanent and unchanging; if other things change, then naturally budo change in response. What does not change, of course, is the spirit of Aikido as it was taught by the Founder.”

This reminded me of a story Koichi Tohei Sensei tells in his book “Ki In Daily Life”. One of his students, a man who had only recently been graded to 1st dan, had moved to the island of Guam. At that time there was no Aikido club on Guam and he asked Tohei Sensei how he would be able to continue his training. Tohei told him that if there was no teacher on Guam, the 1st dan must become the teacher. The man felt he was too inexperienced to do so but Tohei persuaded him that even though he only held the rank of 1st dan, he understood the guiding principles of Aikido and that was sufficient. In other words, Tohei was saying that the principles are more important than the precisely defined form.

Nishio Sensei says this in his book: “Before the Founder passed away thirty-four years ago he told us, ‘This old man has brought [Aikido] this far; all of you must take it from here.’ In light of these words, I think it is insufficient – unforgivable, in fact – for us to simply maintain the status quo.’”

“Like language, [Aikido] has room for an infinite variety of creative uses of its elements and great elasticity of structure.” --- Mitsugi Saotome (‘Principles Of Aikido’)
Mitsugi Saotome Sensei in his book, ‘Principles Of Aikido expresses a similar idea; “I worry about the conflicts that I see arise between different styles and schools of Aikido,” he says, “People fight about which school is right, which one really represents O Sensei’s teaching. Some of these schools try to be claiming Aikido as if it were a brand name. This seems so unnecessary to me. No one can be an exact replica of O Sensei. Likewise, later generations of Aikido students cannot be identical copies of their teachers.”

Saotome argues that technical details do not mark out true Aikido. “If the principle and purpose are present,” he says, “any technique can be Aikido. If they are absent, so is Aikido.” He expands upon this idea in the book’s introduction: “No style – no particular set of forms – is, in and of itself, Aikido. You might think of Aikido as a language. As such it has its grammar and its rules, but that grammar is very broad and accommodating. Like language, it has room for an infinite variety of creative uses of its elements and great elasticity of structure.”

So what are we to make of this? Who is right: those who attempt to practise the techniques as closely as possible to the way they were taught by the Founder? Or those accept the principles but allow themselves great freedom in changing and developing the techniques?

In my view, this apparent conflict of ideas is false. It is simply the case that some people find it more satisfactory – more personally fulfilling – to practise and perfect what they might regard as the ‘canonical form’ of Aikido while others find equal fulfilment in experimentation, adaptation and evolution. And as Aikido is, for each practitioner, a personal journey, what is right for one person may by no means by right for all others.

I’ll give the final words to Saito Sensei (once again from his interview with Gaku Homma): “I would never say that Iwama-style Aikido is the only valid form of Aikido. Each instructor has his or her own individual character that is built on his or her cultural background and environment. It is only natural that different styles and different organizations have developed. Traveling all over the world has helped me to understand this, as I have come in contact with many different people, places, and cultures. I think it is good for students to learn from many different instructors and to practice at many different dojos.”

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