“The hero of American western movies, so popular in the same period,
was the fastest gunslinger, the one who killed them all, the avenger…”
We live times of great uncertainty, tension, worry. Fear of being attacked, robbed or physically abused is widespread. Many feel the urge of learning how to defend themselves, and this request may often be addressed to Aikido teachers.
As I like to put it, Aikido offers very good self-defense basics to practitioners, but this is not its primary goal. Honestly, almost invariably, Aikido training involves predetermined attacks to be countered by predetermined defense techniques. More simply, the attacker is ordered to attack in a certain way, and the defender is ordered to respond with a certain technique that the attacker also knows in advance. The attacker knows exactly what is going to happen and prepares to experience that reaction. Everything is established in advance. This is the typical Aikido training scenario. More than 90% of the time it works that way. But since everyone is free to experiment, there also is “surprise” training, with free attacks and free counterattacks. But why, in normal conditions, is everything predetermined? Why do all attacks appear so false and strange to the unfamiliar observer? What’s the use of learning how to defend oneself against someone who attacks with his/her “little hand” striking feebly from above, something that will never happen in real life? What kind of training is this if I know in advance that the attacker will come forward with that “little hand,” and I also know what technique I’m going to use to immobilize or throw him/her?
This is what the vast majority of people who do not train in Aikido or train in other martial arts (the latter also laugh about it) wonder about our discipline, maybe some Aikido teachers, too. Comments to videos posted on Youtube often span from very ironic to aggressive and derogatory, even towards highly regarded masters. Many do not understand what the two guys are doing, and what’s the big deal with Aikido since everything is known in advance?
Why is this all happening? I have some ideas about the subject and I’d like to share them here, stating in advance that I totally respect those who have different ideas, and I expect the same towards me. I intend to write about it here especially for those readers who are training with me or who, approaching this discipline for the first time, are asking themselves these kind of questions.
One other thing I often refer to when discussing this subject is the profound difference between the two Japanese disciplines of bujutsu and budo. The latter derive from the former. The former involves combat techniques used by the military (samurai, in Japan’s past), techniques useful to destroy the enemy in war, or to defend oneself in battle in order to save one’s own life. Today it could involve the use of guns, rifles, bazookas, etc. An expert of what the Japanese call (or called?) bujutsu would today be a soldier of the special forces, like a Navy SEAL, a SWAT policeman, and so on. The word bujutsu literally means combat arts or techniques (in Japanese, they are the same). “Bu” is for war and warrior is “bushi”. In English and other languages, the word bujutsu has been translated as “martial arts.” We translate the word “budo” also as martial arts, although “do” means way or path of life. In fact, the Japanese masters who created budo used the same combat techniques (bujutsu) they were so familiar with to transform them into an exercise that will improve the practitioner. The hard work (note that it translates into Kung Fu in Chinese), the infinite repetitions of the same movements, the respect of the martial essence of the gestures and of the correct attitude, ensure that the exercise will go deeper than the physical level, down to our inner being, spurring self-improvement on both psycological and spiritual levels. All this is achieved through the same gestures once used to knock an opponent down. But in Budo, we must completely put aside the original goal, lest the training become useless from the self-improvement point of view, and the risk of hurting someone will grow. The problem here is just the words budo or bujutsu becoming simply “martial arts,” We are usually led to think of the martial arts expert as the “tough guy”, someone you’d better not mess with, or worse, the deadly killer with knowledge of deadly oriental secrets. Given that the aikidoka could also be someone you don’t mess with, maybe it could be worth translating the word “budo” as “martial way” rather than “martial art,” in order to minimize the chance of misunderstanding. Aikido would become the Japanese way of Aiki. Or, on the contrary, we could stop calling combat techniques “martial arts” in favour of “martial techniques.”
Who’s to blame for all this? Bruce Lee and Hong Kong movies? Chinese martial arts movies from the seventies created the icon of the violent martial artist, who provides for his own justice through unending fights; hence martial art = overpowering. Schools were overbooked. What is so irresistible about the ability to defeat someone else? The fear of being defeated. It appears that the happiest human being would be the one who can defeat anyone. If such a “champion” should really exist — think about it — he would be the only one to fear no one! The hero of American western movies, so popular in the same period, was the fastest gunslinger, the one who killed them all, the avenger who finally arrived in the small village where the bad guys had abused the dwellers for years by applying the strategy of terror. Basically, this is the same pattern of Japanese samurai movies: the normal people are paralysed by fear and defenseless against the bad guys. Then enter the one who can really use the gun, or the katana (or his bare hands) but on the poor guys’ side; he puts things right by scaring away the ones who used fear to overwhelm the poor guys.
Fear. If we want to learn self-defense so desperately it is out of fear that someone might attack us. I would be scared, too, if a huge guy wanted to attack me, no big deal to admit it! Even worse, if it were a gang, and everyone were larger than me. Even more terrible is the thought that it might happen to my family. The point is I don’t live with this thought. Luckily, I’ve never experienced violence or aggression in my life. My family was not violent, nor were the groups in which I socialized. In general, I’ve never lived with the constant feeling I had to defend myself. As a boy, I also frequented the so called “street,” alongside people who probably would have chosen certain ways of life as grown ups. In middle school, some fellow pupils physically terrorized some teachers, laid their hands on consenting girls (in classroom), and showed them their “private parts” during classes. Being the son of a cop, a shy and polite skinny boy wearing glasses, always doing all the homework and getting the highest scores, I had to work hard in order to be accepted by such a group. I used all my innate aiki, totally unwittingly at the time, to “harmonize” myself with my classmates. In the end, it proved really useful having them on my side when someone else tried to abuse me! But we’re talking about adolescent skirmishes here, from which I learned something anyhow, but that didn’t lead me to live in fear. I lived for years in the countryside with my wife and our little boy. Many people advised me to buy a firearm for protection. We used to leave our door open when we were away, car doors also, almost always. Nothing bad ever happened, and we hope it will always be like this even now that we live in an apartment building in the city center. We don’t live with the nightmare that something awful may happen. Funny how many could think we’re crazy. On the contrary, I believe we are simply serene.
What I mean here, is that if we lived in terror, besides having bought a gun, I would also shut myself up in my house with aggressive dogs and alarm systems connected to the police (like many do in towns like Rome). Maybe I wouldn’t do Aikido, but rather boxing. If you really have the problem of living in a dangerous area (with no possibility of moving out), I think you should ask for police protection, not Aikido. If we are sure someone will attack us sooner or later, let’s seek out professional experts in self-defense and combat, not Aikido. One other thing I would like to say: in case of aggression, it is better to have had some Aikido training in the past than nothing. Would Jujutsu be better? Maybe yes, in such a case, but also Aikido techniques, if we are able to apply them in a way that doesn’t respect the other’s safety, may be really harmful and would leave no way out. But to tell the truth: how many of us do really need anything like this? I remember a story about a Chinese immigrant in Italy. Newspapers reported about thieves, maybe three of them, who entered in his house. They tied him and his wife up and started robbing what they could find in the house. Then it was clear that they were also interested in his wife. The Chinese guy, a martial arts expert, had stood put as long as they were just robbing them. He knew well the hazards of self-defense and, compared to the robbery, it was of no real importance. But when his wife’s life was at stake, he untied himself (he could have done it earlier) and killed them all with his bare hands, hunting the last one on the steet.
Now I think of all kinds of martial artists picturing themselves in the Kung Fu expert’s shoes: what would have I done if it happened to me? I asked myself, too. Everyone shivers in admiration for the “colleague” who commanded respect. We are proud of being part of the limited circle of possessors of powerful oriental secrets. Let’s be clear, the Chinese guy murdered his aggressors. I can even understand that in the terror mixed with rage when we think that someone may hurt our beloved, we could completely lose control. But murder and Aikido (or budo) are are total opposites. But I also think: what are the chances that a hypothetical reader of this article has of being just once in his/her life in such a danger? Maybe they are close to zero. Others have said this before but I would like to repeat it: what is the sense of training an entire life for something that has a 99.99% chance of never happening? I can understand if you are a professional soldier or policeman, if you live in a dangerous urban neighborhood. But if you are simple employees or college students, why are you preparing for war? The issue here is fear, the general concept of fear, indefinable but deeply rooted in human beings. This is just what the typical budo or Aikido training are meant to fight.
That’s what they mean when they say in Aikido we fight against ourselves, against our fears and limits. In theory, years of budo practice should eliminate the fear of being attacked, and consequently the need to train for a combat that will never happen. I’ll say it again, so that I’m not misunderstood: I know there might be someone who really needs to defend him/herself. In that case, you don’t need budo, but bujutsu: defense against knife (the real one), gun, chokes, etc. But take into account all the hazards involved, including that you might face someone good, or better than you, more evil, with no fear of hurting or getting hurt. Being confident of our martial techniques, we might unknowingly face a professional killer while fighting for a parking spot or in line at the bus stop. Are you willing to take courses and earn a black belt?
That’s why Aikido training is predetermined: our goal is not learning deadly techniques to knock an attacker down. We don’t practice surprise attacks (not always) simply because we don’t need to. We are training something else, something barely visible from the outside. The absence of combat and competitions is required in order to reach this goal. It is possible to train the spirit through competition, but in my view it is harder: the risk of being distracted by the wish to prevail is too high. That’s why in Aikido we need constant repetition, changing partners, falling and standing up again, being on the receiving end of safe (but potentially harmful) joint locks. And to sweat! Yes, pointing this out is necessary, since in some interpretations of Aikido it is possible to train without even sweating. Everybody is free to do and think whatever they like, but we sweat, you can count on it! This is the basis of everything.
From there, we aim at much more. We don’t train just our body, it should be clear. If we’d train for combat (the real thing), there would not be many of us left for the next class. Soon the “strongest” would be alone, with no one to train with. What would he/she have achieved? A position among the Navy SEALS? For that the path is different. I’m not stating that combat does not train the spirit, too, but it is not for everybody, not for all ages. One can start aikido when very young and practice a lifetime. It is a path of life, not an easy task. If we were training for combat, to use destructive force, that would be impossible. From the time I began practice — from personal experience — every single time I train even today, no matter how tired I am after the working day when I go to the dojo, after Aikido class, even if the training has been particularly hard, I always feel better than before. Physical fatigue disappears… It happens every time, invariably. The only time this did not happen was when we tried some wrestling on the mat, just to have some fun. I was more tired than before training; it was, yes, funny, but I didn’t feel better than before class. If you like this, I have nothing against it, but I can’t help you, nor can Aikido, lest it loses its own nature. It does not mean that in Aikido we just stand there, gently touching each other while dancing. Training is hard, often to the psycho-physical limits of everyone, which is, clearly, different at 20 or 50 years of age. Sometimes you need to experience that limit. Everyone must give their all, or else this training becomes useless.
One evening, two police officers came to visit during one of my Aikido classes. They were interested in Aikido’s self-defense side. I smiled in surprise, naively saying that for self-defense problems I would have called them. I never saw them again. Did I lose two students? Maybe. Some people would advise me to “sell” a bit of self-defense, even if I really don’t teach it. The ones who approach Aikido for that reason will later understand the futility of violence and we’ll have gained some more aikidoka. They’re probably right, but I am not able to teach self-defense and I’m not interested in it, with all respect for those who teach it. I am may be able to make you “feel” my passion for Aikido and possibly pass it down to you, so that you too will “catch the bug” and enjoy all the benefits of this kind of practice. I know and hold in high esteem an Aikido teacher who also happens to be policeman (on the street, not behind a desk). He is a big guy, built like an athlete. Sometimes he teaches self-defense in his dojo, but he asks the trainees to wear a gym suit, not the keikogi: on those days they train self-defense, not Aikido.
Once I heard an aikidoka say: “Aikido is useless, but it’s so beautiful I can’t quit”. It sounded like a contradiction to me: if it is so beautiful but you can’t stop, it has been very useful, indeed! It is a widespread belief that a martial art that “works” is one that allows you to overpower someone else. Aikido is constructive, not destructive. I repeat, Aikido techniques can really hurt. But what’s the point of hurting people? Aikido should ensure the attacker’s safety. The ideal technique would be the one that leaves our aggressor in awe and unharmed but safe. He/she might be prompted to begin the path of Aikido, resulting in one more person free from violence. Dreams? Yes, I don’t think this is really possible, but the theory is completely correct. I think that in order to be able to defend oneself in that way, using Aikido only, one should have reached indescribable skill levels. Daniel Goleman, in his book “Emotional Intelligence,” writes about an aikidoka friend of his, the late Terry Dobson (1937-1992), among the first westerners to train with Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba. He was in Tokyo in the 60s to train at Hombu Dojo. One day he was in the subway when a large man reeking of alcohol stepped on the train. He was harassing everybody and tension was rising. The young American was in his best shape and was beginning to evaluate the situation in order to neutralize the big guy with his Aikido techniques. As soon as he’d made up his mind, a little old Japanese man — whom I invariably picture as Morihei Ueshiba — stands up between the two, similing at the big guy. He started to talk to him sweetly, explaining how he understood him, how he knew life must have been hard on him, etc. When Terry Dobson got off at his station, the guy was weeping in the old man’s lap. The American understood he had just seen real Aikido in action and how he still had a lot to learn.
The author used this as an example to explain the concept of emotional intelligence, something that was highly developed in the old Japanese man, but less developed at the time in Goleman’s aikidoka friend. That’s the skill level at which we can defend ourselves with just Aikido: we should acquire a very high emotional intelligence quotient. Who has reached this level? Isn’t it easy to think of how to rip an arm off of someone who’s threatening everybody for no reason? It could also happen that the Aikidoka would apply an ikkyo by surprise, immobilizing the unfortunate one with no effort, fascinating the attacker to the extent of beginning Aikido him/herself. But this is probably a less refined solution and a much easier one to apply. Let’s say that a younger Ueshiba would have applied the latter, the older Ueshiba the former. Only beacause he would be older and weaker? Or maybe because he would be further ahead on the Path, and therefore free of certain behaviours?
I’d like to make this clear: one thing is the old man feeling too weak to use a physical technique and, regretting not being young any longer, he is forced to use other abilities; a different thing is the old man who, thanks to his experience, is convinced that some methods are useless, so he avoids physical clash, not for fear of being weak. I imagine Ueshiba this way, but wouldn’t it be better to reach certain levels before the old age? I admit it, I am no aiki saint, I can lose my temper — not easily, at least! — and sometimes I wish I could use my hands; sometimes I daydream about what I would do if someone threatened me or my family’s safety. With my back to the wall, even I would wish my hands could become lethal weapons. But this is something that most likely will never happen to me, and I really hope so!
Aikido is of a different use, and I need different things. Aikido has surely helped me in my life, even in creating the family I have now, and achieving the job I dreamed of. A certain way of life has always been innate in me, a way of behaving and doing things, which Aikido has certainly supported, moulded and improved. Aikido’s philosophy and spirituality have nothing to do with it. They say not even Ueshiba spoke about those things on the mat, and nobody has ever done it with me. This is all about practicing hard, in a certain way. Automatically, the physical effort reaches deeper parts of our being.
In order to reply, once again, to those who claim Aikido is false practice, if we’d train to win a cage combat, none of this would be possible. Aikido is practiced by people who have family responsibilities, work duties, school or college deadlines. None of them could afford not to live up to their commitments because of injuries caused by “real” techniques. A bodyguard has other responsibilities, this is a different matter. We need a kind of training that will make us feel well in both our body and social relationships, at work, at home, at school, among friends, or at the shopping center. This training is possible with Aikido and that’s what I try to convey during my classes.
A mother taking her son to the dojo says the kid’s asthma problems have notably decreased since he started training. A practitioner’s boyfriend, after some trial classes, chose to start training in Aikido instead of continuing with his beloved soccer. A girl discovers she can’t be without Aikido; another guy says it’s gotten into his blood. These are results that make me happy; I don’t try to be those people’s sensei, but I only do whatever I can to allow Aikido to be worth as much to them as it has been to me. I happened to train in schools that displayed a newspaper article reporting that one of their practitioners had neutralized a robber with a knife. I don’t say the guy wasn’t good, certainly not, but in this article I prefer “advertising” as I did above.
A practitioner my age says he’s finally found the activity he enjoys doing. He tried all kind of sports and then he quickly quit… always. The new passion for Aikido induced him to buy a katana, which he has on display in his office. One of his clients, a Jujitsu practitioner, immediately spotted the sword and soon, because of his attitude, he understood the guy practices Aikido, in his words the most beautiful martial art…
Because of his attitude…
Perhaps I am on the right path?
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury Publ.
Terry Dobson on Wikipedia.org