“Trains are dangerous in Japan… You need Aikido!”, by Stanley Pranin

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about an experience I had on a train in Japan many years ago that involved a violent altercation. Actually, I was involved in a second incident that took place a few years later that I’d like to relate.

One day, I was on the train heading to a city in Northern Japan to do a film show. It was a rainy day and many people were carrying umbrellas as is the custom–and necessity–in Japan. As I was seated relaxing on the way to my destination, I noticed a drunk man a few steps away from me disturbing other passengers.

This fellow would turn to different passengers making rude comments and trying to provoke a fight. He was a little fellow, not at all imposing, but he was certainly making a nuisance out of himself. I kept watching him carefully because he made me uncomfortable, and I was concerned he might attack someone. As in the previous episode I described, the other passengers were watching the man, but sat there doing nothing. No one dared intervene.

Shortly thereafter, the man went up to a middle-aged woman, and tried to engage her in conversation. She simply turned around hoping that the drunk would leave her alone. He then grabbed the lady’s umbrella and took it away from her. She was angry, but did not dare to try to take it back.

I could feel my body and mind kicking into a ready state. I knew that the drunk’s actions were totally unpredictable, and that he now had a weapon in his hand in the form of an umbrella.

The drunk, for his part, was angry with the woman who attempted to ignore him. Suddenly, he raised the umbrella as if to strike her. At that instant, I moved quickly from my seat because it did not take any great leap of imagination to see that he might hurt the woman. I felt no hesitation. It was almost like training in the dojo.

I moved toward him quickly and extended my arm under his chin as we do in iriminage. Having secured his head, I pushed on the small of his back and pulled him backward off balance. From there, it was an easy matter to take the umbrella away from him.

While still controlling the drunk, I gave the umbrella back to the woman, and moved him toward the sliding door. Soon, the train arrived at the next station and I ushered the drunk out of the train onto the platform. As I had all of my gear with me, I quickly reentered the train, and sat down to resume my journey.

The woman looked at me and bowed her head in thanks. I was relieved it was over, and a little upset by the fact that no one else nearby took any steps to defuse the situation.

I must say that I at no time felt any personal danger. I was huge compared to the small, drunk man. His coordination was impaired by his condition, so physically he was no match for me. Also, I was in Japan where the possession of a weapon in a public place is a rarity. In reflection, I might not have chosen to intervene in the way I did had I been in another country. If the person was large, or had companions, and possibly had a weapon, that would have changed everything. I felt that it was very important to be able to rapidly assess your surroundings and gage the probable level of danger.

I was really thankful that I had been doing aikido for a long time and could respond unhesitatingly in such a situation. Just another day in Japan!


  1. Great story, showing the rule to also defend others.

  2. Entering the fray and protecting the elderly lady was certainly necessary…but your statement “I must say that I at no time felt any personal danger. I was huge compared to the small, drunk man.”…O’Sensei was small as was Takeda sensei…i would not have wanted to tangle w/either of them if they were or seemed to be drunk.
    Great story none the less.

  3. Hi Stanley, I read the article about “Train are dangerous in Japan” very entertaining. I also lived in Japan from 1988 to 2008. I studied Shin-shin Toitsu Aikido with Iwao Tamura as his private student, until he past away in 2008. Regarding your article, I know it was your experience and no one can take that away from you. However I don’t like the title. This is very negative and may result in causing people to be more nervous and stressed out, when they travel in Japan. If you focus on danger then two things happen. 1. You feel bad and 2. You will attract the danger into your life. As you know, you and I both have traveled many times around Tokyo, Yokohama etc. The number of bad things that happen on the trains can be counted on one hand. So please don’t be a scare monger. Japan is a beautiful country with a few not so nice people, so why focus on the negative, when there are so many other positive things you could share. I love your work but I just feel it’s important to share my thoughts on this. I am now teaching Aikido in Northern Ireland. I wish you well in all that you do. Sincerely Martin Acton

    • Martin, Maybe I rode trains in Japan more than you did. I witnessed more than a handful of violent episodes, even though percentage-wise the number may be small. I failed to mention the daily groping episodes perpetrated against women. Talk with any woman who has lived in Japan if you want their perspective.

      The title of an article or blog can affect the number of readers by 300% or more. I want you to read our stuff, so I will look for ways of grabbing your attention. It’s just common sense in the business/advertising world. Look at the titles of articles in successful blogs, newspapers, etc. for numerous examples. I make no apologies for this. I want Aikido Journal to stay around and be read by many.

  4. It is in every country. The lady could have struggled with the drunk slipped and hit her head and rendered her self unconscious.

    No one has the right to enter your personal body space. You did well.

    Thank you for the true tale.

  5. Martin Abrahams says:

    Great story illustrating the deep feeling to protect others that aikido encourages. Great title too. Your unique contribution to aikido is a blessing, Stan.

  6. I understood the headline in a semi-ironic sense where it could have read “Trains Can be Dangerous Even in Japan”, so I don’t think it was unduly alarmist.
    It is important perhaps to contemplate the psychological block that makes one hesitate to take action in public like that, and perhaps, mentally at least, rehearse appropriate action should one be in the same boat (or train).

    There was a public experiment here just the other day when a psychologist verbally abused a woman (playing the victim role) on a bench in a city square. The “victim” already had a (fake) black eye and was looking miserable, but not asking for help. People around were watching, but took no action till the “aggressor” dragged the woman off her seat onto the ground, at which point two men stood up ready to intervene, both (interestingly) foreign visitors and not locals.

    It could have turned very nasty for the “abuser” until the set-up was revealed as an experiment. The conclusion was not really new: the more people around, the less the individual is inclined to intervene. So long as the situation remains ambiguous (Does she really want help?) people are reluctant to get involved, but once the situation is unambiguous some will (hopefully).

    It may be an unlikely event, but it could be useful to be prepared mentally.

  7. I wonder how much you owe to Saito Sensei for your ability to intervene.-

    I started Aikido when I was working in forensic psychiatry, and I had a Sensei who would advocate initiating the technique sometimes.

    Now, in the dojo where I train I have many students who regard the lessons I learned as “not Aikido.”

    I was rarely the target or instigator of violence when I was working, but I was required to protect other patients or coworkers. I found I needed to learn to initiate, or I would fail as both a nurse and an Aikido student. I am sure security and police forces would find the same thing. This is in stark contrast to many schools where Aikido only responds to violence aimed at ourselves and “going on the attack” is seen as against the ultimate spiritual goals of Aikido.

    • I agree with you totally, John. Many people don’t understand where Morihei Ueshiba was coming from with his aikido. This particular point is emphasized in his 1938 “Budo” training manual that we’re always talking about.

  8. Very good story. As an LEO for 30+ years, I have had to initiate contact with drunks and others who were intending to hurt someone else. The initial contact was always to immediately take them off balance and control them. I believe this is absolutely within the principles taught in aikido, and resulted in less violence than if I had waited for them to attack me or someone else. I train other LEOs now, and encourage them to do this very thing.

    Thanks for the story.

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