“The Martial Artist on Stage,” by David Lynch

Gozo Shioda in scene from 1958 film

“Aikido demonstrations should have a clear purpose; they should be educational; they should reflect the actual daily training of a dojo; they should not be merely for entertainment or the promotion of a school.”

This was the gist of an Aikido Journal bulletin board essay by Patrick Auge, veteran aikidoka of the Yoseikan school. Most other contributors to the discussion agreed with him.

Mr. Auge divides demonstrations into four different categories, which, paraphrased, (with apologies) are: “Mindless” (having no clear purpose), “Entertaining” (just to please the crowds), “Promotional” (to increase membership), and “Educational” (truthful).

Demonstrations should, he felt, also reflect the true personality of a teacher and the ethos of his school. They did not need any special preparation.

The four divisions above are fine in theory but I find it difficult to pigeonhole in this way some of the senior teachers whose demonstrations I have witnessed in Japan.

In the first place, there is more to a demonstration than entertainment, promotion or education. There is also artistic expression. In this respect, the martial artist is like any other artist, and his audience is likely to judge him by the impact his art has on them on some deep level, regardless of other factors. He need not be motivated by mundane considerations at all.

It is from this largely subjective viewpoint that I recall the demonstrations of Gozo Shioda in the 60s when I was living in the Yoshinkan Hombu Dojo as an uchideshi. Some of Shioda Sensei’s demonstrations, both in and outside the dojo, seemed to me awesome (in the original meaning of the word). They lifted the game, so far as I was concerned, to a high level.

They were not planned, though they usually followed a similar pattern: Sensei would begin by outlining the history of aikido starting from “600 years ago” with Shinra Saburo Yoshimitsu, not with Morihei Ueshiba, although the latter’s vital contribution was always acknowledged.

He would then use one or two ukes to illustrate basic principles (non-resistance, “concentrated power”, etc.) in a dynamic way. While talking to the audience and cracking jokes he would toss his ukes around, sometimes using his whole body in a kind of atemi to “bounce” an attacker backwards. There would usually be a weapons segment including sword-to-sword, and empty-handed defenses against sword and tanto attacks. Ukes would be replaced as he worked his way through his repertoire, until the finale when five or six ukes would attack him at once.

Shioda Sensei responded to these multiple attacks with exquisite timing and rather frightening atemi and nagewaza, making one feel a mixture of excitement and concern for his ukes. Backstage after the demonstration he would always kneel and bow deeply to his ukes and thank them for their participation, then everyone would relax, though we all felt we had been part of something extraordinary.

For their part, the ukes took the demonstrations very seriously and seemed to be prepared for any possible outcome.

I remember one of them coming away with his face muscles twitching uncontrollably as a result of receiving at atemi to the neck. When someone said this could be serious and recommended calling the doctor, he replied, “I don’t care if I die!” Perhaps this was sheer bravado, perhaps not, but it illustrates the serious atmosphere surrounding these demonstrations.

Uke would attack hard and fast and then have to be skilled enough at ukemi to save himself from the consequences, like a racing driver going into a corner at 100 m.p.h., knowing he had to come out of it even faster to stay in control.

Injuries did occur, some of them serious, but they were accepted philosophically and they were not deliberately inflicted. In fact there was a standing joke about it being “just as well” there was a hospital practically next door to the dojo.

I remember one demonstration in which Shioda Sensei threw his uke heavily, then immediately turned around to talk to the crowd. Several members of the audience began to stare open-mouthed, as they could see uke still lying, motionless, where he had landed! Sensei turned back and quickly revived him with katsu resuscitation, to a round of relieved applause.

I was Sensei’s uke only a few times in public demonstrations, as I was not experienced enough to take ukemi from his techniques, and I certainly wasn’t breaking my neck to participate. I probably would have if I had!

As I say, the difficulty I have is which of the four categories Shioda’s demonstrations would fall into. A Zen priest who witnessed one of them said it was an example of “mushin” (“no mind”) but he obviously did not mean “mindless”. He was referring to the ideal Zen state of mind in which thought and action are not separate, the mind and body are one, and things just “happen” without any effort.

The better demonstrations by Shioda Sensei in those days were superb expressions of a master artist at work.

And yet there were other demonstrations by the same sensei that seemed to me to fall well below this standard. Sometimes the timing was a bit off and the multiple attack sequences less convincing, and there was a lot of “playing to the audience” that I found embarrassing.

He would apply a strong nikyo or yonkyo, and have his ukes writhing in pain while he grinned and made jokes at their expense. Certainly, it appeared sometimes that the ukes were “putting it on” and need not have made such an overt display, but that only made matters worse. One was left wondering why this sort of “show” was necessary.

Despite the sincere backstage acknowledgement of uke’s role after most demonstrations, there were times when it appeared to me uke was treated with scant regard. Like the time we did a demonstration at a TV studio and one of the ukes came away obviously concussed, literally asking who and where he was. He had done his level (or aerial) best to make Sensei’s performance look good, and was already on his way to the mat from one throw when Sensei applied a thrusting tsuki to his jaw, in such a way that his head struck the mat hard. There was no way uke could have saved himself from this.

Afterwards Sensei simply said, “Are you OK?” and then, “Where can I get another driver?”

I took the victim back to the dojo in my car, stopping for a coffee en route, and he gradually recovered. Perhaps Shioda Sensei anticipated this outcome but, if so, he showed little sign of concern one way or the other. He seemed more interested in getting to his next appointment.

When it comes to demonstrations not needing any preparation and truly reflecting ordinary dojo training, Patrick Auge’s own sensei, Minoru Mochizuki surely departs from both principles in one of his demonstrations that I have on video. I refer to the one in which half a dozen of his students on the stage attack him with a variety of weapons, including a coffee table and a folding chair!

It is hard to imagine the “table and chair act” was spontaneous, unless the students took a sudden dislike to their sensei and decided to show their feelings in this rather unique way. It is equally hard to imagine this sort of thing being a normal part of daily training.

Not that I have anything against preparing for a demonstration. After all, a concert pianist would expect to rehearse for hours, if not days, before a major performance, so why not a martial artist? An overly choreographed aikido demonstration can certainly look false, but some practice in preparation for a demonstration is quite legitimate.

Certainly the personality of the demonstrator is reflected in the demonstration, and this accounts for the very different types of performance. No doubt, also, the nature of a demonstration is influenced by the audience.

On the latter point, I always found it odd that Koichi Tohei would bother demonstrating and explaining things that must have meant little or nothing to some of his audiences. In fact, the situation sometimes seemed a complete mismatch.

For example, elaborating in fine detail on advanced ways to use a sword before an audience of housewives and others who almost certainly had never handled a sword before!

Similarly, when Tohei Sensei was in New Zealand, we arranged a series of demonstrations at the Auckland Easter Show where the audience consisted of ordinary people of the sort who would take their kids to the fair. Yet Tohei Sensei explained the need to be “one with the universe” and other philosophical concepts before every demonstration. Perhaps he felt it was worthwhile trying to get the message across if even a small percentage of the audience understood, but I felt, as I translated his commentary, that it was largely wasted effort: a case of casting pearls before swine.

I have seen Tohei Sensei dispatch his ukes in demonstrations with a smooth power and efficiency that made nonsense of the theory that his teaching was more of a “health system” than budo. I have been thrown that way by Tohei Sensei myself and have no doubts about the effectiveness of his throws.

When it comes to “promotional” demonstrations I suppose the Ki no Kenkyu Kai would be one of the best (?) examples. Tohei Sensei used to give “lecture-demonstrations” for which the audience paid around $20 per head to attend, and there was a degree of salesmanship involved that I found distasteful.

I was called late at night by a sempai asking how many tickets I was going to buy for Sensei’s next lecture, and when I said I wasn’t quite sure, I received a follow-up call a few days later asking if I had decided yet! This happened more than once, until, one night, my wife answered one of these calls and gave it the standard treatment she gives to telephone-marketing people, as a result of which we weren’t bothered any more, though I may have soured my relationship with the dojo a little. Perhaps I overreacted, as there were probably hall-hire fees to be paid for and so on, but even so…

There was a great contrast, of course, between the demonstration styles of Koichi Tohei and Gozo Shioda, just as there was between their teaching methods and their personalities. The verbal delivery was markedly different. Tohei Sensei would invariably wax philosophical on the deeper meaning of aikido, man’s relationship with the universe and so on, and elaborate on his famous “four principles of mind-body coordination”. He had the “gift of the gab” and could hold an audience for hours in his lectures, without actually doing much more than talking. I am not saying these lectures were not interesting, in fact I found them fascinating after my rather physical introduction to aikido at the Yoshinkan.

Shioda Sensei, on the other hand, would give a running commentary, using very basic language, while he was actually tossing his ukes around, usually with a small microphone pinned to his dogi: “All you have to do is get the hell out of the way!” “Look out!” “Well, as you see, he would love to let go his grip, but unfortunately he can’t!” “Watch out!” “That hurts, doesn’t it?”

There was eloquence in his movements, but his speech was rudimentary. Apart from the abovementioned reservations about pearls and swine, I never felt that either Shioda or Tohei gave “fake” demonstrations, at least within the limitations imposed by any demonstration. Each man was an accomplished artist and this was obvious from their demonstrations.

I shall not speak here of those senseis who”throw” people from a distance without touching them. I have not been close enough to any of these teachers to lose my basic skepticism of such demonstrations.

If demonstrations are to be an accurate reflection of the actual teaching in a dojo, we come across a problem, again, with O-Sensei himself! Assuming reports on his attitude towards demonstrations are accurate, he would probably get an “F” for this category.

To quote from Stanley Pranin’s recent editorial on the life of Morihiro Saito:

“Sensei told me that the reason for the difference (between O-Sensei’s demonstrations and his actual teaching) was that O-Sensei was conscious of being filmed in public and would purposely not demonstrate techniques in the same way he would teach in Iwama.”

I find it hard to visualize O-Sensei deliberately perverting his art in this way. Surely it would go against his every instinct to purposely change his natural way of doing things? Perhaps he was a good actor; but you would think that if he felt so unhappy about being filmed he would simply refuse to demonstrate at all.

But perhaps this is yet another assumption about O-Sensei made from a sketchy knowledge of the man behind the myth. The idea of showing one thing to the public and actually teaching something entirely different doesn’t sit very well with the image we have of O-Sensei as a man without guile, dedicated to spreading the “art of peace” throughout the world. And it clearly breaks Patrick Auge’s second rule.

I guess I shall simply have to file this anomaly away, together with the stories of O-Sensei’s fierce temper, until some further illumination of his actual personality, as distinct from the popular image, comes along.

Meanwhile, O-Sensei’s demonstrations certainly were filmed, whether he liked it or not, the films became videos, and probably every dojo in the world now has one. Did O-Sensei foresee this situation when he was putting on these “fake” demonstrations?

If so, he certainly has the last laugh.

Contact for David Lynch’s New Zealand Dojo


  1. Thank you Mr. Lynch for reopening this case. I agree with your comments. I would write that essay differently nowadays.

    I would add another category of demonstrations: the narcissistic displays in which tori (nage) over and over again scornfully “mop” the tatami with their uke. Another type of narcissistic performance consists in doing techniques that students will never be able to accomplish truly, either due to the fact that they are fake or that the students will never be able to reach the teacher’s level – although I have doubts about the latter.

    By mindless, I mean “unaware, brainless, etc.,” which has nothing to do with mushin, as you explained it. That was missing in my essay and certainly as a result led to confusion.

    Mochizuki Sensei taught us that budo practitioners should be educators on the street. As a result, a demonstration should be primarily educational. Taking away the two first categories (narcissistic and mindless), I think that demonstrations should include some entertainment and promotion, this in order to get the spectators’ attention.

    We should learn from commercials (without falling into that trap) which give us a good indication of people’s present mentality. Our attention span is very short. If the acting is too good, then we forget the product, but remember the acting, just as we may remember a good story but miss its teaching.

    In the case of budo, the problem is that many demonstrations tend to fall only into one category. How many prospective students watch a budo demonstration, go to the dojo, sign up and find out that the demonstration was just a teaser, like a software demo version?

    As budo teachers, we are educators. Our demonstrations should reflect our daily training, something that inspires others.

    I attended the three Aiki Expos and could get a better view and understanding of the balance between those elements (narcissism, mindlessness, entertainment, promotion and education) as I discretely observed and listened – on and off the mats — to the various teachers (and their students) who were present. When you are unknown, it’s when you can see people truly as they are.

    My conclusion: don’t be fooled by appearances.

    By the way, regarding Mochizuki Sensei’s demonstration you referred to: I think it was the Yoseikan’s fortieth anniversary demonstration in 1971 at Shizuoka City Hall. The demonstration was on a Sunday morning. On the night before, Sensei announced the program: “so-and-so, you do this kata, so-and-so, you do that. Take the little table, this suburito, and this and that to attack me!” I was frustrated and embarrassed: “we had months to prepare!” “Expect the unexpected! No time for victim mode” was the reply. That was all for the preparation.

    During the demo, one of the senpai picked up a folding chair and attacked Mochizuki Sensei with it. It was part of his teachings: use the environment, transform anything into a weapon…

    Demonstrations should also be an opportunity for participating students to improve their techniques as well as their self-confidence. In my own experience, a demo had the same effect as a (judo) shiai. Just a few minutes of giving it all mentally and physically was equivalent to several months of training. I think that teachers should also think about that: demonstration is a part of practice.

    There is no perfect way and plenty of improvements to be made. Teachers are human beings, not deities, whatever their levels. We should bear that in mind in order to cultivate a healthy teacher-student relationship.

    Thank you again Mr. Lynch for your contribution. I really hope to meet you some day.

    Patrick Augé

  2. O’Sensei’s cultural mindset was different to that of the modern suburban dweller whose freedoms long fought for are now taken too much for granted. He still had at least one foot in the old world and its protocols, where to refuse a demo would be considered an insult. And to reveal dojo secrets publicly absolute and suicidal folly. That not a “perversion” but common sense and strategically impeccable.

    In any event, any serious trainer should still be able to extract what’s behind the veiled techniques from the way O’Sensei moved.
    “A man without guile dedicated to spreading the art of peace.” Where do you get this nonsense from?

  3. Joe Peterson says:

    Thinking this over for awhile, not to dispute, but rather to add or extrapolate on the blog and following comments.

    What comes to mind, is the quality of interpretation and opinion, and the accuracy that relates to both. When in the dojo a composite of us made of sempai and kohai will talk about our sensei’s lectures or after demonstration he has planned in his head and not explained verbally to anyone. Where the expectations of the students are not to question, but just be ready to respond when he signals you. A sensei who is Japanese and we aren’t, you can image all the different interpretations and opinions that fly around the room. Even more so, is the additional element of his personality and his personal interpretations and opinions (both of which he doesn’t address openly and in a manner prescribed to his background and upbringing).

    Anyone can imagine the variety of speculation and interpretations by us based on what Sensei means etc, never verified by fact. It is not Sensei’s constitution and inclination to discuss the accuracy of our interpretations and opinions an unnecessary bothersome task he is not inclined to perform. He feels (like a satori) over the course of time you will figure it out on your own or the truth will reveal itself. It isn’t his responsibility to go around correcting those who still are in the dark.

    As anyone can imagine when these two schools of thought and culture come together, adding a generational cultural gap, it can be one hell of a train wreck of communication. My years of experience under these conditions has given me insight to what has been blogged and commented on. I understand, for example, even between Shioda and Osensei, communication was highly subject to interpretation by Shioda. It can be safely said, no sit down discussion took place to correct any misunderstands and opinions between Osensei and Shioda. Factor in also personalities and generational gaps between Osensei and his Japanese students. The frame for their conversation and protocol is not that of the modern western communication, which of us in the western tradition are accustom or expected to happen. Simply put, it is easier to decode hieroglyphics without the Rosetta stone, then get any accuracy on what Osensei said or the ways of doing what he did.

    Secrets, they build strong relationships within organizations, providing organizations with advantages.

    When it comes to information being withheld, secrets are only powerful if you believe they exist. For instance, my sensei always held secrets, I thought. Well until I realized I was lacking in my perception, imagination and intelligence. If I kept thinking that secrets existed, that information was being held from me then it was. When suspending my notion of secrets I was no longer held back by the paradigm of secrets. Upon that satori, I no longer held jaded resentment toward those who I felt deprived me of information. How can secrets exist if you don’t believe they exist , but rather it is a matter of opening new doors and possibilities.

  4. Joe Peterson says:

    About skepticism. In some Aikido circles you dare not utter the word in reference to the sensei’s demonstration. If you are skeptical it is an unforgivable slight against the sensei, his position, and his authority. Being openly over skeptical is rude, but have some skepticism when seeing a demo shouldn’t be considered an infraction.

    Skepticism has its purpose, and the opinion need not be set in stone. Skepticism needs to be flexible upon the arrival of fact and truth. In my mind there are two types of demos. It is good to be skeptical to a point as it can invoke a curiosity and an interest.

    Not to discredit the categories that have already been brilliantly laid out, but I subscribe to two larger categories demos fall into. First is the type done for those with no or limited understanding of Aikido. The audience is there to be entertained, and the demo’s purpose is to entertain and educate. These demos are open to the public and done at a public venue. Adept instructors curtail and edit the wazas to the audience. There is a repertoire of eye catching wazas used repeatedly allowing for some change. The other type of demo for those skilled in Aikido or other martial arts where the audience is there to learn or critique. This one gets tricky, I have seen my sensei plot though such a demo very carefully, ever so vigilante. He carefully doles out information. Not everyone watching is equally skilled or knowledgable. The audience is not homologous. Therefore, he has altered wazas accordingly. Many unseasoned students of his would criticize him for changing the techniques, not understand why it was done. Being Japanese and the type of traditional personality he possessed, he would not bother to address, what he felt as, sophomoric criticism. He felt in time they would come to their own understanding of why he did what he did. The other issue was those in the audience are also composed of highly knowledgable martial artists there for correct reasons or unsavory reasons. It was my sensei’s mind set, which I didn’t find unique among Japanese, to subscribe to the idea there is a reason for everything they do. In terms of a demonstration a measurement standard of a demonstrator would be how well the demo was planned. To include, the traditions of budo and the demonstrator and demonstrations are within the context and frame of tradition and budo. Meaning, that approach held more importance over the accuracy of technical accuracy in terms of changes made in waza. Being carless and not mindful of who is in your audience during your demonstration can come back and bite you in the ass.

    Speaking specifically of the audience being knowledgeable and skilled martial artist peers, and being mindful of that. I am guessing this may be applicable to Osensei as well in Japan during his time. In contrast, for the younger generation and non-Japanese that may not be the case. For the Japanese it would be less of a concern to so careful as their peers can be considered more liberal than the older generations. As for non-Japanese it falls under a different cultural standards in dealing with peer approval.

    I will stick my neck out and say his behavior and attitude wasn’t uncommon among men of his generation or background. Men heavily influenced by the view intellectualizing the art, giving explanations of actions and so forth was not their habit. In the same breath I will say, I am wise enough not to foot assumptions or apply stereotypes to what I just said.

    Demonstrations are also affected by time and place, and personality. Placing too much emphasis on them as being a standard of truth will cause frustration. Demos in my opinion should be looked at as go-bys or as a means of communication separate from a lecture-even though some will lecture during a demo. To be clearer, a lecture or instruction may have incorporate a demo as a tool of explanation. They also should be looked at depending on the audience as a means of showing off talent or skill, with a mind set of being careful not to have the demo bite you in the ass later. It was my sensei’s mind set, which I didn’t find unique among Japanese, they subscribed to the idea there is a reason for everything the do. In terms of a demonstration a measurement standard of a demonstrator would be how well the demo was planned. To include, the traditions of budo and the demonstrator and demonstrations are within the context and frame of tradition and budo. Meaning, that approach held more importance over the accuracy of technical accuracy in terms of changes made in waza.

    I will close with saying again it is probably easier to decipher hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone than decode Osensei doing what he did and why. I think it really gets confusing when we try to decode such things. I think it is better to look at these things Osensei did objectively. For that matter Osensei I look at him objectively on a whole. By doing so I have saved a lot of money on Alka-Seltzer.

  5. Patrick Auge

    Just came across your comments, for which I thank you.

    I think we are on the same wavelength and am pleased by that.

    Best regards.


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