“Schism and Disharmony – The Bumpy Road to Aiki,” by Alister Gillies

Yukiyoshi Sagawa demonstrating his explosive “Aiki”, c. 1985

“Martial effectiveness is often trotted out as the ultimate arbiter, in spite of the fact that within the system of Aikido, this is ideologically taboo from the outset.”

Aikido arose from the ashes of post-war Japan, but there was a time when its survival was in serious doubt. It almost didn’t make it, and there have been some serious issues to face along the way. Have those concerns been resolved, or is the baggage still there trailing along behind and stunting Aiki growth? More importantly, perhaps, are we clear about what that baggage consists of and can we cut it loose? Do we need to, or is it all part of the birthing pains of Aikido that will resolve itself in the fullness of time as Aikido reaches maturity?

Let me start out by being provocative and stating from the beginning that Aiki and Aikido are not the same thing. ‘Heresy’, all might cry, but this is something I am going to insist on as a way of moving the discussion forward. My reasons will become apparent as I proceed.

Aiki is a term that is used quite frequently, almost glibly, but what does it actually mean? When reviewing the literature, it does seem to mean different things to different people. For some it is about love, for others it is about harmony, spirituality and peace. People often argue about it and disagree, quite passionately at times to the point of futility and mutual intransigence – fighting for peace?

Research, of course, is on-going and I am sure there will be many arguments over its findings, but early indications would suggest that China is the point of Aiki’s origin. This should not really surprise us, after all China exerted an influence in the region that is comparable to the Greco-Roman civilisation in European culture.

Naturally, like all cultural assets imported into Japan, this ‘skills set’ was assimilated and given a Japanese flavour by the dominant Samurai caste system of the time. The same thing happened with Ch’an Buddhism brought by Dogen from China, and Shinto, the national religion of Japan, is made up of many disparate elements that include Taoist cosmology. Why should the martial arts of Japan be any different in that respect?

For historians and pragmatists concerned with facts and martial efficacy Aiki is a skills set. It is not, contrary to received wisdom, the gift of Morihei Ueshiba to the world, nor in all probability is it something that was gifted to the Founder by Sokaku Takeda – time and research will tell on that issue. In any case, Aiki is not something that can be given to anyone; it takes time and effort to develop and having the appropriate training methodology is critical.

At the heart of Aiki is ‘in’ and ‘yo’ (yin and yang) and how those principles are utilised in a martial context to help create a structure that integrates mind and body. And this is the nub of the problem. There are profound and deep seated disagreements about what is the most efficacious training methodology.

The problem is further compounded when the criterion of comparative martial efficacy is introduced into the picture as a means to evaluate competing training paradigms. Martial effectiveness is often trotted out as the ultimate arbiter, in spite of the fact that within the system of Aikido, this is ideologically taboo from the outset. Aikido is not about competition, or is it?

In reality, Aikido is full of competition, riddled with politics and factional disputes and interests. There are in excess of some thirty styles of Aikido, and from what I can see, they all have a ‘good conceit’ about themselves, with each believing they are on ‘the cutting edge’ of Aikido – a busy blade indeed.

But how do we decide? Do we really want to see all the top teachers getting together in a gladiatorial arena and slugging it out to see who is left standing? I don’t think so. We seldom, if ever, see the ‘names’ in Aikido practicing together and taking ukemi from each other, except during the odd PR exercise.

And there is a good, but unspoken, reason for this that goes to the heart of what is missing in the Aiki debate – Aiki itself. Aiki left the building when the Founder departed. As the Founder exited through the door never to return, schism came in through the window and Aiki leaked out through the cracks.

To illustrate, a quote from Koichi Tohei shows his view of what separated him from Kisshomaru Ueshiba:
“The second Doshu interpreted Aikido as the Way of fitting in with another person’s Ki. However, it seems to me that Aikido is Uniting body and mind and becoming one with heaven and earth. Specifically, the Way of fitting together the Ki of heaven and earth.”

Regardless of whether Tohei or Kisshomaru’s perspective is right or wrong, and I don’t know how this can be judged, it seems to me that even if we accept Tohei’s ‘at one’ view, it still doesn’t alter Kisshomaru’s position: two ‘at one’ partners still need to find a way to practice together. I think what we have here is a case of mutual intransigence, of two individuals who were unable to reconcile their differences. This is not without irony, given what they were arguing about.

Even if we were to introduce, by way of arbitration, the test of comparative martial effectiveness, this crude mechanism would not resolve the issue since both models eschew competition. Like sticklebacks determining territorial boundaries, the lines have been drawn and a head-on confrontation has been avoided. How could they do otherwise without losing face?

In actuality, they were not so far apart. Ki has an undifferentiated and individual character – that’s the yin and yang of it. Tohei did acknowledge this in one of his Principles for practicing Ki Aikido: “Respect Your Partner’s Ki.” Their differences were essentially political, and motivated by reasons that had more to do with material interests than ideological considerations – it was a bun fight.

But what has been the consequence in terms of Aiki? Stalemate. To understand the nature of this ‘Mexican stand-off’ and the consequences for the development of Aiki skills in Aikido, we could usefully borrow some common sense from Yukiyoshi Sagawa and Kuroiwa Sensei, both quietly getting on with their training while empire builders clashed.

Sagawa’s comments from Kimura’s Transparent Power are very relevant here when he talks about students reaching a level where their techniques are no longer effective on each other, and how at an advanced level qualitative differences between higher grades are negligible. The way forward, for him, was through Aiki. This breaks down the deadlock and permits progress and improvement.

In Aikido an opportunity for research and development into Aiki was lost as the main body broke into two camps, each unable to reconcile differences either on the mat or in life. This has left a lasting effect on Aikido, and helps explain why many senior Aikidoka went surreptitiously to other students of Sokaku Takeda to find what was missing and what they needed – Aiki.

The reason why – mentioned earlier – that the ‘names’ of Aikido do not openly and freely practice together, as Sagawa suggests, is because without Aiki they would not be able to do so very successfully. Their practice would be limited in every way, with each unable to have much effect on the other.

In relation to Ki, Koroiwa Sensei pointed out: “Ki is not something you take out and put back in. Ki is something that manifests spontaneously depending on the degree of one’s training. If you practice for one year, then you will have one year’s Ki. Ten years, ten year’s Ki.”

The baggage that Aikido carries is of its own making, and prevents Aikido from reaching maturity. But the road of Aiki can be less bumpy. All we have to do is recognise what we are carrying and put it down. There are some who are already doing this.


  1. Charles Humphrey says:

    Cheers on some more thoughtful contributions. This is why I avoid organizations like the plague. When there is an organization, there are organizational politics, and much wasted time. My answer to the question “how to determine who is good?” is far from the usual answer. Look at the personality. The issue of martial skill is impossible to determine within a civilized context. To truly determine who is “the best” in this sense is nearly impossible.

    Even the most extreme imaginable situation of you sticking them in a limited space and saying “to the death!” You eliminate the possibilities of positional advantage and foresight that are the mark of true skill. In any case, it is unnecessary. Want to see who’s the best, just look at the life they lead. Do they belittle others? Do they repeatedly stress that they/their teacher/their style is the only one true way? Do they have a sense of humour, particularly about themselves? Do they laugh? Do they fart a lot? Do you feel comfortable around them? Are they good husbands/wives/children/parents? Do they accept people in all their limitations, do their best to be tolerant and yet admit that they experience natural human frustrations with certain people or circumstances? In essence, are they truly human, neither presuming to be a god nor laxing into an animal, and are they comfortable with this lot? What else do you expect?

    Such a person is not an invincible warrior. No one is invincible, but they can live a quiet and content life knowing that if they are such a person they will have no more regrets than they should, and live neither a longer nor shorter life than they were intended. The highest level of skill is to be truly natural, foibles included. I have seen examples of this in teachers but none of them are part of organizations. They are obscure men because they are naturally disgusted with organizational politics. They don’t judge those who are involved in such organizations and if asked by someone to whom they feel they owe something they will assist these organizations, but will then promptly retire once their work is complete. I have seen such examples in the most senior students of great masters who humbly try to learn something from the second most senior student without resentment, recognizing that although junior, the other student understands some things they don’t. This second most senior student, in turn, continually attends lectures and reads books from other arts in order to expand his knowledge. I’m in a rambling jetlagged state of mind but it’s obvious. Look for lack of pretension, mellowness is the acme of true skill.

  2. The Buddha twice uses the simile of blind men led astray. In the Canki Sutta he describes a row of blind men holding on to each other as an example of those who follow an old text that has passed down from generation to generation.In the Udana (68–69)[3] he uses the elephant parable to describe sectarian quarrels. A king has the blind men of the capital brought to the palace, where an elephant is brought in and they are asked to describe it.

    “When the blind men had each felt a part of the elephant, the king went to each of them and said to each: ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?”

    The men assert the elephant is either like a pot (the blind man who felt the elephants’ head), a winnowing basket (ear), a plowshare (tusk), a plow (trunk), a granary (body), a pillar (foot), a mortar (back), a pestle (tail) or a brush (tip of the tail).

    The men cannot agree with one another and come to blows over the question of what it is like and their dispute delights the king. The Buddha ends the story by comparing the blind men to preachers and scholars who are blind and ignorant and hold to their own views: “Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.” The Buddha then speaks the following verse:

    O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
    For preacher and monk the honored name!
    For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
    Such folk see only one side of a thing.

  3. L. Novick says:

    You make some interesting observations and I enjoyed your post.

    In my experience, awareness of the dynamics of in/yo/yin/yang is important, especially in terms of reading certain subtle elements of an unfolding attack, and what I call the “breath of the release.”) However, if In and Yo are at the heart of Aikido, as you say, (which in-and-of-itself is open to interpretation) for me it is in the understanding that response and resolution from Aiki(do) comes about through the Transformation and ultimate Trandscendance of In and Yo, Not from remaining within their dynamics and reacting to their manifesting elements. It is by Not “playing that game” that, to me, a very high level of Aiki can be experienced. I feel this is something greatly misunderstood in Aikido.

    • Thanks for your comments, I’m glad that you enjoyed reading this piece. I say that in yo is at the heart of aiki, but not not as you appear to have read of Aikido. I also think that it is pretty useful for Aikido practice and quite naturally leads on to the development of aiki in Aikido, with the appropriate training and instruction – not as available as one might think. There is in fact little systematic methodology specifically designed to impart aiki skills. Most people have to go outside of Aikido to find it. The main thrust of this article is to point out that the Aikido establishment, whatever the complexion, missed an opportunity to research, develop and create training structures designed to help develop aiki skills due to political preoccupations. What is commonly referred to as aiki in Aikido is a matter of interpretation precisely because it is so woolly, lacking in replicability and often tied up with notions of spirituality. While there are some teachers who have ‘caught’ on to something, this has largely been through trial and error and their own research and innovation. There may well be more ineffable aspects to aiki and I would not discount that as a possibility, but this is not something that I am interested in discussing to any great extent.

  4. Organizations may persist. If the persistence of an organization counts as survival, aikido has a pretty good chance, at least for this generation. Styles may persist. Think of anything stylized, bound by rules and conventions, forms of religious worship or, in the Japanese context maybe kabuki. Aikido as a martial path is a bit like the path of a bird in the air or a ship on the sea. As it is a way of life, it terminates with death. We all die. How far we get along the path is dependent on how diligently we follow it.

    As for the right or wrong path, on the high sea it’s a bit hard to tell right from wrong. Even when the departure and destination are given, as in an ocean race, the right or wrong path is open to debate. On the Pacific Cup, SF to Oahu, there are three basic options, all of which have produced winners, and as many variations on those themes as boats, crews and vagaries of the wind.

    But how do you define success in aikido? I thought about elaborating on that, but maybe that’s best left as a question.

Speak Your Mind