“Applying aikido in real life on the train in Japan,” by Stanley Pranin

“I immediately stood up and ran to the other end of the car. Neither man saw me coming. One was in a rage and the other dazed.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninMany people who practice aikido have read the famous story titled “A Kind Word Turneth Away Wrath” written by Terry Dobson about an incident that occurred on a train in Tokyo. This tale gained fame due to its publication in “Reader’s Digest” sometime in the 1970s. It appears all over the Internet and is pointed to with pride by many aikido practitioners as an example of the lofty principles underlying the art and true conflict resolution. You can find the story here. I heartily recommend you read it.

Actually, I too have a true story to tell about a violent incident in which I was involved that took place on a train in Japan.

The incident took place in the early 1980s one morning when I was riding on a Tokyo subway. I was seated lost in thought when I noticed a commotion at the other end of the car in which I was seated. Two men had come to blows, and one was clearly dominating and had by that time thoroughly bloodied his adversary.

No one made any effort to stop the fight, or for that matter, do anything. My fellow passengers stared as if hypnotized by the violent spectacle unfolding before their eyes.

After a few seconds, something horrible was about to happen. The aggressor grabbed his hapless opponent by his collar and hair and started to bang his head against an upright steel post that people grab to steady themselves when standing. I don’t remember thinking about much of anything other than the man could be critically injured or even killed as a result of what was happening.

I immediately stood up and ran to the other end of the car. Neither man saw me coming. One was in a rage and the other dazed. As soon as I approached within a couple of feet of them, I let out probably the loudest kiai shout I had ever mustered in my life. The man who was inflicting the damage looked in my direction in a state of utter shock. He back away slightly.

Again, I don’t remember thinking about anything, but I reacted without hesitation and grabbed the arm of the victim and started quickly leading him away from the scene of the fight. He offered no resistance to what I was doing. I frankly doubt that he could even think coherently in the sad state he was in. I moved him quickly out the other end of the car and walked him down further about three cars away from the scene of the fight. I wanted to get far enough away in case the other man tried to follow.

By that time, the train was pulling into the next station, and I walked the poor man off the train and asked him if he was alright. Apart from being bloodied, he seemed to be okay. To be honest, I can’t remember much of what happened after that. The train we were on pulled away, and I waited for the next one to come to continue my journey.

I never saw either man again. I have no idea what happened to either subsequently. All I did was move unhesitatingly with full intent. I acted tactically to distract the two fighting men with a loud, unexpected shout, so that I wouldn’t have to get entangled in their fight. I chose to deal with the victim as I didn’t anticipate any resistance on his part. The attacker was as if paralyzed by the unexpected turn of circumstances.

Was this an application of aikido? I suppose so. I didn’t actually apply a technique. I personally did not feel endangered, but I was fearful of the fate that may have befallen the weaker of the two men.

That’s my story!

Please share yours…


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  1. Clark Bateman says:

    Hi Stan… Hope you came away with your watch and wallet… 😉

  2. Yes it was Aikido…you intervened and helped some one w/out having to engage in physical contact.

  3. This is going back a few years during my time as New York City Detective. I was fairly new to Aikido but had some years of Jujutsu (not Brazilian) training behind me. My partner and I were looking for a suspect in an apartment and while searching in all rooms found him hiding inside a closet in the bedroom. When he was told to slowly get out of the closet he lunged for a knife that was laying on a piece of furniture. It would have been very easy to shoot him at that point but my instinct was to grab his wrist and apply a technique to remove the weapon. What I noticed afterward was that my partner was directly behind me with his gun drawn, thankfully not taking a shot at this suspect.

  4. Yes, you used Aikido and averted more serious injury, possibly death! Unlike the Dobson story where, I believe, the author was only an observer…

    The potential of the kiai should not be underestimated. I learned kiai with karate prior to Aikido. Taking the class I was young and stupid and used a kiai against two boys jeering at us from behind the brick wall of our gym/dojo. I jumped up to the window and let out a kiai which froze one of the boys with shock and actually knocked the other one over.

    More recently I used a kiai on a woman across a street who was about to walk in front of a bus. She was really out of it, but the shout caused her to freeze just in time.

  5. Hello Stan,

    This is really an answer to the 7/20/11 article about testing your skills “Martial arts practice and the deceived mind.” But it can also apply somewhat here.

    I agree with you that many people take up the art to defend themselves and perhaps think of defending others as well. The Teddy Roosevelt theory of “Walk softly and carry a big stick”, whether literally or essentially appeals to me. I also subscribe to the “Patton’s Warfare Theory” which was “Your job is NOT to die for your country. Your job is to make that other poor dumb slob, to die for his country.” If you never have to use it, the big stick just collects dust in the corner, but it’s there if needed. The situation that would call for use of the big stick, in my opinion, would essentially be the same as an ambush. The Marine Corps teaches, even in boot camp, that the way to get out of the “killing zone” of an ambush is vicious, violent counterattack immediately towards and moving through the direction that fire is coming from. Therefore, I have realized for some time, that my speeches about Aikido being peace, love and harmony would appear to be ejected out the window if the excrement hit the rotating blades.

    I had a situation where I teach that festered for a number of years. The MMA group, which to me was thug central, had a kid (about 27) who ran it, who wanted to fight me. He tried to goad me into this by deliberately doing things to make me angry enough to attack him, so he could justify his response as “self defense”. This is beyond a regular assault on the street. This is a professional fighter (he has been in various MMA prize fights) trying to pick a fight. The background intent of this was to test MMA techniques against Aikido and then tout that Aikido doesn’t work. To him, the result was a foregone conclusion (he’s half my age).

    I remember our short conversation about Gozo Shioda testing techniques by picking fights in the red light district to see what worked. Shioda’s conclusion from his “research” was that 70% of Aikido had to be atemi. 70% atemi would mean that much of the encounter would not be the “dojo mat” Aikido. With that memory, I studied the “Bubishi” (bible of Karate), specifically the meridian strike zones and the effects of strikes. If I’m facing a professional fighter out to beat me up, there is no “fair fight”. To me it would be an ambush, anything lethal becomes “fair”. He finally did enough stupid things and the whole group was thrown out by the managers, mainly for not paying rent. By that time, my thoughts of reality were well solidified. Thankfully, nothing has ever happened.

    If he or anyone else wants to follow “real”, then join the Army or Marines or Navy. The Army and Marines have plenty of places where you can test your courage and perhaps you will pass or fail = death. In the Navy, go into engineering or aviation jobs that work on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. When you go to sea, those jobs are “real”, mistakes can cost lives. Both fields are the main fire fighters as well. In civilian venue, join the fire department. Fires are “real”. I was a Marine for two tours and was an engineer in the Navy serving in either the engine room or one of the auxiliary equipment rooms with 1,200 PSI steam at 700+ degrees and finished in O2N2 and fought in one fire. O2 (oxygen) production can be very dangerous. 20 years was enough.

    I think there are really very few martial art places that come close to reality, maybe Systema or Krav Magra and yet, I know almost nothing about these other than the words.

    Thanks for your articles Stan. I wish you would finish the Gozo Shioda story that was cut off when Aikido Journal became Tomiki Journal. That was a very interesting story and I was very disappointed by the abrupt termination.

    Tom Huffman
    Aikido of Gainesville, Florida

    • Jose Arves Santos says:

      I agree that true skills are tested in actual situations. It boils down to what comes out naturally or what you call “instinctively” (engram-based) or through a thought process based on your training at a given moment. In Stan’s case he did not think about it, he just did it. I would say in emergency situations a lot of our actions are “instinctive”, how much of that reaction is based on actual training would be dependent on the frequency and duration of your training.

      With regards to the situation presented, if the guy had mentioned that he’s beating up a thief, I bet a few other guys would have jumped up and joined him in the process. What would you do then?

  6. Hey Stan,

    Have you ever broached the subject of truth or honest practice on the mats? I’m sure that’s a very subjective can of worms.

    Tom Huffman

  7. Kit Leblanc says:


    Good Job!

    Both in what you did, and the fact that you stepped up and did it to begin with!

    Kiai is very important, whether done with a shout, a voice command, or simply presence. It avoids/stops many situations.

  8. Finally some responses to Applying Aikido.

    I’m not heartened by 47 quickly getting excited about violent potentials, and only 6 slowly commenting about REAL AIKIDO!

    Are we missing some salient points perhaps?

    And to mitigate lots and lots of hot air, yes, the backup, when the art of peace fails, is sure to be a necessity. But fools rush into violence at great expense.

    I hope this self-evident response statistic I’m looking at is not a reflection of the state of the human mind in general and we are not still in the planet of the Neanderthals!

  9. Removing the victim from the danger (where possible) is concurrent with best practice security procedure. To engage the perpetrator not only risks escalation but adds risk to all concerned. It could possibly remove the intended protector, thereby degrading the situation to an increased level of risk and harm.

    If Aikido teaches a person nothing more than to think clearly at high speed, to act decisively and correctly to minimise violence, it has done its job.

  10. The kiai is not unique to eastern martial arts. Stories of the ‘yell of a Scottish warrior” abound. The gist of them is that a single committed person stopped an attack with a scream/yell/roar with some stories actually describing the attacker as being paralyzed. In my family ‘the voice’ is a centuries old characteristic. I had to learn to ‘tone it down’ from a young age. Learning to do so also made my use of kiai more effective. My father and grandfather as military officers were at times misunderstood as being insubordinate because of their voices. Other times they were intentionally taking command with a peaceful, effective tool.

    As a uniformed patrol deputy sheriff I used my voice to control violent encounters more often than I used physical force. By vocal ‘explosion’ (kiai) I have stopped fists in mid-punch to a spouses face, had knives and guns fall from hands and bystanders fall to the ground for cover (oops). Command, confidence, bearing and demeanor go very far as your story illustrates. As Huffman Sensei teaches (as he was taught by Nishio and Saito Senseis and others), Aikido was always intended by O’Sensei to be an EFFECTIVE martial art.

    I had a supervisor present on an incident (he was a skilled martial artist) where I was in a negotiation with an armed man. The man made a motion toward a child, my handgun was drawn and on target, on trigger–I let out a Kiai before I thought to do so. He dropped the knife and fled (caught within the hour). My supervisor asked what I had done and in the ‘let down’ which occurs after such incidents I was a bit ‘giddy.’ I threw him my car keys which he caught with a puzzled look. I said “key (Ki) toss.” He got it.

    My mother was a healer (RN) and beautiful, peaceful person. By example, she taught me to always act with the ‘highest degree of love.’ I told her I did so. And that sometimes the highest degree of love means you have to shoot the bad guy. That is reality. That is EFFECTIVE Aikido. Failure to act effectively is as much an insult to O’Sensei as acting brutally. As to the issue of Ukemi, dishonest Ukemi is also an insult to O’Sensei. Nage and Uke are partners in learning–thus each by stepping on the mat has made an agreement to learn and teach the other. Honest Ukemi is as important as properly scaled technique application by Nage.

    • Stephi C. Varjan says:

      Hello Friends in Aikido!
      This is a very interesting discussion, and if I may, I’d like to insert my few words.

      The editor asked, as I’d understood it, if he’d applied a “technique”. I feel too much attention has been focused on “the technique” in question, and not enough on what really transpired in that brief moment. Certainly the “KIAI” did have some effect, like a “psycho-Atemi”, in the mind of the aggressor. But I for one, believe something even deeper and more effective was happening.

      When we speak of Ma-ai, the correct distance, is that a technique in itself? Stanley took the victim to a safe distance away from the aggressor / violence. At that moment, the aggression was neutralized in my opinion. Stanley, unselfishly intervened in place of the victim, and moved them both to a safe distance. But, this is only the surface of what really happened.

      The “quality” of the situation is what interests me. The selflessness of the editor’s actions is what I believe to be a truly Aikido experience. As an instructor of Aikido and Aiki To-Ho Iai, I often speak to my students of “cutting” with the mind before you cut with the sword. I believe, the editor released his “Sword of Life” with the compassion of a true practitioner of Aikido and “cut” the mind of the aggressor and the violent situation, not only by means of the Kiai, but with the “Sword of Compassion” and Love for another human being. They were also shielded by this, as he ushered the victim to safety.

      Then, there is the selfless “release” of both the victim and the entire situation. I remember a moment where I was approached by some people, while I was strolling along the beach, as the undertow was quite strong that day, shouting “Please help, my friend is drowning!” Why did they ask my help? What did I have to do with the situation? I didn’t have time to reflect on such questions, and threw myself into the turbulent surf without a thought, and swam out to the hapless swimmer, grabbed him and returned him to his friends. I wasn’t a trained lifeguard, or an especially skilled swimmer, so why did I have to engage in this “selfless act”? I don’t know, I just did. They thanked me as I walked away and that was the end of it.

      Today as I read the editor’s story and compare it to my own personal experience, I see the thread that makes them both similar and unique. Both instances were “gifts” to us! The gift of being truly human and the opportunity to express selfless love, without thought of personal gain, personal injury or reprisals. You just do it, because you are there to do it. It is the universe’s gift to you, to be human in all its intricate simplicity.

      I believe Soldiers, Policemen, Firemen, or any emergency personnel all do the same thing. We were just “lucky” to have been a part of what being truly human is all about. This is Aikido’s gift to us also, to remind us what our purpose and duty are, as human beings. Aikido is our “exercise” in being human. This IS why we train and what we are training for. When we do things in this selfless manner, out of true love for another, Aikido becomes irrelevant! I think O’Sensei would just smile.

  11. In the dojo we practice our techniques with a large amount of space between us, and one of the reasons for this is “Timing.” Take the Front Strike First Control, for example, when we strike we raise our hands in front of the body together, then boom!!! We “STRIKE.” This gives you the chance to see and feel the timing in a technique.

    Well, let’s get back to the incident in question. I was out with one of my friends, also a doorman/bouncer. We had a great night full of fun and I was ready for home and a good night’s sleep. We walked back past the club as my friend wanted a ciggie and didn’t have any, as usual.

    I waited outside for him while he went in and got his fix (a cigarette). As I waited, this guy caught my eye. The reason was just the fact he didn’t look right to me, as he walks toward me I know something isn’t right. So I move out of his way to save any confrontation. As I move, he turns back and comes toward me again. I thought any minute now he’s gonna say something.

    I didn’t know who he was, but for some reason I got the feeling he knew me. As he comes toward me for the third time. He stops and said “You kicked me out the other week, not so hard now are you?” Then came the name calling. I thought “big deal” you’re not the first and you won’t be the last to call me names, but then he starts to get very aggressive telling me how much it;s gonna hurt when he drives his fist in my face. With that he dipped his head backwards I quickly employed a Metsubishi (eye smash) as he came forward to head butt me BANG!!! He was clean out for the count, he had just head butted my fist. I didn’t feel a thing, and I do mean nothing. It was as if I had just punched thin air the timing was spot on, a second before or a second after the outcome might have been different, it was then and there I realised the importance of good timing, especially in self defence.

  12. Regan James says:

    I have long been interested in the possibility of both ‘learned spontaneity’ and ‘centered ego-less action’ arising from long practice on the mat. It seems to me that in the healthy dojo (the ‘crucible’) the student can work on such issues (the ‘impurities’), in particular the connection between fear and aggression. Out of such practice there comes the possibility of ‘right action’, in Stanley’s case, a spontaneous non-violent solution leading to peace in a violent situation.

    Aikido can be seen as the study of conflict in all its forms (even in the church choir there is conflict and struggle for dominance) with the concomitant effort to find a peaceful solution if at all possible – rather than one’s ego exacerbating the situation with more aggression. I cannot say I have evolved all that far along that path, but occasionally get evidence of having moved a bit. Would Stanley have been successful if his intent was to insert himself in the situation and dominate the attacher? Probably not.

  13. keith gates says:

    Another kiai moment.

    I witnessed a bar fight outside a nightclub. A disgruntled patron who had been evicted from the nightclub was hanging around outside when suddenly from about 5 metres away he threw a glass bottle at the doorman. The bottle smashed on the wall behind him only about a foot from the doorman’s head. The doorman rushed forwards him and shunted him hard, the man fell backwards. To my horror as he was falling backwards I noticed a bus coming around the bend, as the man fell back his head bounced over the edge of the curb as the rear wheels of bus rushed past his head bounced up. It is a tight bend and the wheels must have missed his head by only a matter of 10th’s of a second. In the following seconds the situation escalated rapidly to about 5 patrons and 5 doorman brawling.

    I was shocked horrified and bemused, at what I was witnessing. I let out a guttural kiai, exclaiming with all the fire from my belly. Can’t recall what I said, but this isn’t important. The kiai caused all of the men to stop fighting, basically mid punch. The key doorman looked up with a dazed look on his face, he looked as if he had woken from a dream. Still holding the collar of the man with one hand and his other fist raised above his head.

    I am not sure whether they thought I was the police, or whether it just jolted them out of the rage states they were in. Either way it was more effective than I ever could have been if I had physically intervened, which was never going to happen in this particular situation.

    Throwing a forceful kiai can be all that is needed to distract, to get people to snap out of a rage state. I consider the highest ideal of a budo as an ability to negate violence without harm, I guess sometimes a well-trained and ki filled voice can be all it takes. The violent man in full control of his faculties, calm, considered and deliberate in violent intent is perhaps, a very different story.

  14. mel. willin says:

    I’m not trained in aikido. I’m sat in a quiet Chinese restaurant in a quiet (!) part of England. 2 girls (15 yrs.?) rush in. Both singing rather too heartily I presume through drink/drugs. 1 sits down, the other starts running up and down the tables yelling, etc. Everyone freezes. She rushes towards me so I stand up and gently lift her off her feet and carry her to the exit where she is joined by her friend. They leave. I’m trained in krav maga but I don’t use it. Common sense and care prevails.

    Mel. Willin

  15. I had a similar experience in San Francisco which I related elsewhere. If kiai wasn’t effective, it wouldn’t have remained in the repertory.

  16. Alvin Nagasawa says:

    I was told of Ki atasu , There were masters of Ki ai that lived in the old Plantation Homes in Hawaii. That had mastered the Arts for their masters. These individuals never passed on there techniques, It was passed down only with in the family. This Ki ai is a blood curdling shout that can kill. The old timers used it to kill the rats that ran around the rafters in their home. With a directed shout the rat would stop in its track and die. Of course theirs no way of retrieving the dead rats that die. So the smell had to be endured. But sadly these old timers died without passing down their techniques. One can Kill with a focused Ki ai shout like a katana cutting through the air. A focused energy thought from one’s point. A vibration a wave of energy that shocks the human mind like a time warp. It’s like s directed energy weapon the government has in development that has the ability to disrupt the atoms in ones body and can cause death.

    But we as martial practioners use it to give a shout reigniting from our one point to stun your attacker mind so one can enter. If done right a physical confrontation could be diverted. a peaceful resolution without anyone beeing hurt. Shock and awe. No mind, no conflict take away his intention.

  17. David Dempsey says:


    the Aiki concepts displayed in your action include connecting with a conflict (as opposed to disconnecting and ignoring the problem); moving with one mind – focus; breath; irimi – entering the engagement from your centre with a vocal atemi to disrupt intention and lead the mind; minimising the damage while dealing with the conflict; protecting the vulnerable; de-escallating the conflict through maai and moving to a safe place in the movement.

    Technique is often explained in terms of physical leverage, steps, balance breaking, control through pain etc. There are many more subtle aspects demonstrated, sometimes missed or ignored, sometimes noticed and practiced and sometimes understood in some groups and dojos.

    An elegant example of irminage or kokyunage if I ever saw one.

    I appreciate the suggestion to focus on removing the victim – my natural inclination might have been to make the other back down before focusing on them.

  18. terrell gibbs says:

    Once at work, I was confronted by a co-worker. He was not somebody that I had any conflict with; in fact, I rather liked him. But he was a big, aggressive guy and he was standing blocking a door I was trying to get through, with a challenging expression on his face, and I didn’t appreciate such dominance games at work. So I placed my fingertips on the middle of his chest, and very gently applied force at right angles to his stance, forcing him to take a step back, while simultaneously saying “Excuse me” as I walked through the door. He never did anything of the sort again.

  19. Keoni May says:

    You encountered a violent situation, using a higher form of the martial arts. The ability to fight, without physical contact, is an aspiration, of almost all of the classical martial arts.

    Having a martial skill and/or fighting reputation, to back it up, does come in handy.

    Genghis Khan, had many people surrender to him, without a fight.

  20. What is it about crowded trains and overly aggressive passengers?

    My short story involves two such characters who were bullying their way to claim four seats when they were entitled to sit in only two. One fellow was loud and obnoxious. He was dressed in smelly fatigues and carried a backpack. In one of the mess pockets to this backpack was a weapon. A knife fully visible to anyone who could see the pack. His side kick was a bit more complacent but wanting to impress this bullying-buddy by acting out and sitting sideways on his seat raising his legs up on it as well to prevent another passenger from sharing the bench. He to was dressed as a street thug.

    These two spoke between themselves and boasted about how other passengers were standing and too afraid to sit by them. This rude behavior continued to the point where a couple of ladies actually stood up and moved to another car on the train. Without embellishing this story and in fairness to our two rude bullies, I cannot say that the women moved because of the rough language or because of the poor hygiene of bully #1. So know these 2 passengers were occupying or had tied up six seats.

    So what did I do?

    Well, no physical techniques were required. No kiai was uttered by me. I simply extending my hand, introduced myself. and asked if the first fellow had served in uniform. After learning he had NOT, I asked him if he was from a family of veterans. He was NOT. But he suggested that his gang was tougher than any army.

    This boast I took with a straight face and a smile. We chatted a bit more in a normal tone of voice. The sidekick joined into the conversation. Two other commuters sat in the vacated seats once the noise level subsided.

    Now I must admit that I was able to quietly and secretively remove that knife from his backpack. And I handed this weapon to the conductor so that he might either “claim it as lost & found” or confront the bullies.

    When the train arrived at my stop, I departed for work.

    I heard the next day from one of the regular commuters that the conductor had approached these two and simply asked them to depart the train at the next station. He said that they could do so peacefully or that he could have the authorities meet them at the next station. I’ve no idea if the conductor returned that blade.

    Let’s call this action an example of a “mental atemi.”

  21. Mario Forget says:

    One morning while commuting to work by bus, a lady in the back of the bus started yelling and swearing but at no one specifically and the aggression in her voice attracted my attention. I could sense she was ready to hit someone. SO I bent and looked down the aisle to make eye contact with her… immediately, she walked up the aisle and came right at me… but instead of hitting she kissed me… That was an attack I was not ready for… LOL Then she asked me “Francesco… why did you leave me you know I loved so much!” For one, I’m not Francesco and second I didn’t know this lady. But she sure looked intoxicated. So I calmly asked her to sit with me. But she turned around and slapped the lady that was beside me telling her that she hated her for steeling me away from her… When she came about a second strike, I caught her wrist and put her arm in her back and with my other hand grab the opposite shoulder… suddenly the bus had stopped and the doors were opened. I calmly led the lady out and someone brought her purse out for her. I came back in the bus. And the bus driver called the police while the lady sat by the bus stop. Then the bus left. I apologised to the lady because I did not see the first slap go. She smiled and said neither did she! The next day the bus driver said that he had followed up on the lady at the bus stop. She had overdosed and she was hospitalised.

  22. Stan,

    I was a teacher in Baltimore County, MD. I often went into altercations between students and had a calming effect when other teachers were screening or just in the cafeteria. Was never hurt but and no fame but did what was needed to stopped the fight. Like our military, I teach my students to go to fight if imminent .

    Thanks for your post,


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