VII. “Modern Discipleship in a Martial Way,” by Charles A. McCarty

“One of the several influences of the increased availability of martial arts training is the lack of emphasis on the combat effectiveness in the modern budo…”

The contemporary role-playing utilized by teachers such as Terry Dobson to reaffirm the validity of the principles upon which Aikido is built contrasts with the traditional methods by which classical martial forms have been taught, as well as with the modified teaching techniques more recently used to disseminate a modern art such as Aikido. Each of these tools for teaching, from classical to contemporary, are appropriate to the given cultural setting and age. It would be well to consider some of the more traditional forms of teaching, for they may reflect and illuminate the foundations of the martial arts and of Aikido itself.

Human society is characterized by systems of social relationships which define and give meaning to all of the individuals and groups within the society. Certain of these have existed in communities of all eras and cultures from recorded time until the present. One of the most versatile of these cultural institutions has been the learning relationship.

In its most ancient form the learning relationship often took the form of direct transmission of history, traditions and skills by oral means and by demonstration. As a way of ensuring the survival of specialized knowledge and skills this form of cultural transmission was recognized and formalized by society at least as early as the Code of Hammurabi about 2100 B.C. This concept, known as apprenticeship, has been reaffirmed and restated in numerous guises, formally and informally, until today.

Cause for this success and universality may be found in several characteristics of the institution of apprenticeship: it serves so well its purpose o£ the preservation of specialized skills and knowledge; and it has proven to be a sufficiently flexible relationship to adapt successfully to the various qualities and needs of the widely diverse cultures and ages in which it has thrived.

Concerning the effectiveness of apprenticeship, the direct learning relationship of a master to one or a very few apprentices has generally been recognized as superior to the mass education techniques which have been utilized in many cultures, including our own. The degeneration of formal education from a pattern of spontaneous apprenticeship for the love of learning in favor of the spread of compulsory mass education has been linked to the downfall of the Tsin and Ban dynasties of the Chinese Empire, the Roman Empire, and possibly to the deterioration of our own society as the traditional direct teaching roles of family, church, and craft guild are supplanted by institutions of mass education,(131)

And yet in various forms, apprenticeship situations are still an important factor in our society, as it has been in nearly all societies to a greater or lesser extent. The Japanese bujutsu and budo, the martial forms and ways already discussed, are characteristic of traditions passed down by apprenticeship in some form, rigid or modified. The state of discipleship in Aikido, as representative of a modern budo, has grown out of the historical traditions of the purely warlike bujutsu.

The bujutsu themselves were traditionally taught through a tightly controlled system of apprenticeship. The true military arts were carefully controlled for political reasons, for to arm and train the peasantry would have endangered the strict vertical hierarchy of Japanese pre-feudal and feudal society.(132) In general, the acceptance of a trainee by a master originally required membership in the bushi, or hereditary warrior class. Sympathy with the classical warrior’s way of life was also necessary, as well as a recom-mendation by a respected figure and such personal qualities as patriotism, courage and the willingness to submit to rigorous discipline over a protracted period of time. On acceptance, a blood oath of loyalty, secrecy and the ethical use of skills was exacted before study began. The novice then embarked on a regime of severe physical exercise designed to remold the mind in the spirit of cooperation and to tune his intuitive processes to high acuity. The result went beyond technical skill with weapons; a sense of inner peace and security which affected all aspects of the classical warrior’s life was the goal.(133)

Apprenticeship in a classical martial art consisted of experience through action rather than words. The relationship between master and apprentice required absolute docility before authority and acceptance of direct personal experience as the focus of training. In addition to exhibiting an unquestioning attitude, the trainee was often expected to serve the master personally, much as Uyeshiba did during his training under Sokaku Takeda. The relationship was one of true apprenticeship, with one or a relatively few students receiving constant direct instruction from the master. If the master had no sons to continue his lineage he would often adopt his most talented student in order to ensure the transmission of his martial heritage.(134)

The result was accurate reproduction of the special martial skills and style of the master. Total stagnation in the development of style and technique was avoided by the innovation of skilled practitioners and an occasional infusion of new weaponry and skills from outside of Japan. At one time there were 9,000 separate traditions being taught for sixty separate weapons systems, from an iron folding fan to the artillery barrage.(135)

Under the changing influences of modern society the major trend has been for change to the study of more spiritually oriented budo under a modified system of apprenticeship, but the traditions are still vitally preserved by practitioners of the classical bujutsu.

Much of what has been said about the apprenticeship relationship in the bujutsu applies to the budo of this century as well, including the pre-war Aikibudo. The differences between these and modern Aikido, however, are great and of considerable importance in understanding the changing roles of modern budo. One striking difference is the ease with which training is made available to anyone who has enough interest and motivation to allot the necessary time and effort, and meet the relatively light financial obligations incurred by doio fees, uniforms and wooden training weapons.

One of the several influences of the increased availability of martial arts training is the lack of emphasis on the combat effectiveness in the modern budo, which, together with the altered social and political climate reduce the former need for exclusivity and secrecy. Another justification for the spread of arts such as Aikido is their potential role as a tool for self-perfection, and resultant value to humanity.
The change in the cultural setting, philosophical goals and openness of training have resulted in extreme modifications from the strict apprenticeship situation with purely physical training to one which, particularly in the United states, caters to group involvement and the analytical Western mind. Training in Japan is still much like that of a traditional martial art, with silent practice involving endless repetition of forms. In the U.S. there is a great variety of training, depending on the instructor, and often on the level of skill of the students. In general, beginners are given more verbal explanation than those who have studied for a few years. The relationship of the instructor and his students is usually grounded in formality and the recognition of the hierarchy of rank and experience, but off the mat the informality and equality of the society in general prevail.(136)

The Japanese have a term for a student who apprentices himself to a master in the traditional sense. The uchi-deishi, literally “house follower”, is a student who trains faithfully and exclusively with his master, serves him personally, is responsible for the training of novices, lives in the training hall and sees to the cleaning and maintenance of the grounds. Even in Japan this concept largely disappeared following the death of Uyeshiba, but the term deishi, or “follower”, is used here to refer to any devoted senior student. The deishi will frequently receive additional personal attention from the instructor, and have such responsibilities as assistance in demonstrations and the guidance of beginners in both technique and etiquette. In a common pattern of discipleship, a student will often train with one instructor for a number of years, their relationship more closely approximating that of apprenticeship as the years pass. Often the student will acquire through modeling as well as parallel development some of the habits and moral values of his instructor. When he feels that the student has gained all that he can from him, and/or before a major ranking test, the instructor may advise the student to begin training more frequently with others.

This pattern of training approximates the state of apprenticeship in a number of important ways. Among these is the direct transmission of physical skills through demonstration and imitation, a phenomenon which becomes more pronounced as training continues beyond the novice stage. Another factor is the sense of solidarity and lifelong commitment to the master and his way of life that is promoted, as is the respect and the willingness to tolerate imperfection in the instructor. Certain characteristics of the modern budo that differentiate it from the classical apprenticeship systems are the strictly voluntary nature of the training as opposed to the economic, social, and spiritual obligations that could almost dictate martial training for an individual born into the warrior class; and the increased use of mass teaching methods, particularly at the novice level, that are typical of most Aikido training situations.

Pivotal to discipleship in Aikido, as in the classical arts, is personal commitment. It is required that challenges be met, physical danger be faced, exhaustion and disappointment be overcome, personal motivation and emotions be examined; literally, that the aikidoist conquer his own limitations and self-imposed barriers. In a world in which ease seems to be the primary goal, it is a challenge of the self and an act of purification. Apprenticeship as a social institution in each cultural setting can thrive and survive only as long as it meets the needs of and is compatible with the society in which it exists. As a highly modified form of apprenticeship the study of Aikido serves as an apprenticeship to life itself, unifying the practical, the mystical and the martial qualities of the spirit; it is a microcosmic expression of the flow of the universe itself, and is literally an apprenticeship to the universe as an expression of all that is potential in creation.

(131) George B. Leonard, Education and Ecstasy (New York:
Delta, 1968), p. 11.
(132) Draeger, Bujutsu, pp. 42-44,53.
(133) Ibid., pp. 105-108.
(134) Ibid., pp. 20,21.
(135) Ibid., p. 21.
(136) Tohei, Aikido in Daily Life, pp. 180-183.


  1. Jacket on…jacket off…or was it wax?

  2. Chuck McCarty says:

    I think it was wax.

  3. …sorry Dobson sensei is no longer with us. was pleased to get a lesson in sutemi waza from him. a seldom taught area, he wasn’t interested in doing the kochinage which was being taught that hour at the aikido summer retreat in San Rafael once upon a time. somebody ought to consider reprinting his “Giving In To Get Your Way”. it doesn’t cost much to do short-run books. did mine at about $25 each or so without even shopping too hard…

  4. Chuck McCarty says:

    Dobson Sensei led a day seminar for us once at the then new Aikido of Diablo Valley, then in a back room at a local dance studio in Walnut Creek, CA. To get from the changing rooms to our mat room you had to pass through the main dance area, which was then occupied by elderly men and women in tuxes and ballroom gowns, doing the foxtrot and two step. Once he got on the mat he stood for a while, with a puzzled look, and said “and they think we dress funny.”

  5. “Giving In To Get Your Way”…Google it.

  6. Chuck:

    Another great writing!

    I so appreciated my times as an uchideshi in Iwama with Saito Morihiro Shihan that we included four uchideshi rooms in the dojo we built here in Virginia. Recently, one of our young uchideshi performed a fantastic shodan test after just 1.5 years of intensive study!

    • Chuck McCarty says:

      Aviv Sensei,
      This was actually one of the chapters from my Masters Thesis, written in 1980 under the supervision of, among others, George Leonard, one of my thesis advisors. I’m glad that it is still relevant, and appreciate your feedback! I haven’t yet heard back from Witt Shihan in regards to my latest project, the “role of the uke” paper (Poor Daddy). I won’t formally release it until I get some indication from him that it is OK. So far the others I have sent an early copy to have shown a positive response. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Tahoe again this coming year!

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