“Is Aikido a traditional martial art,” by Francis Takahashi


“One need not prepare for a fight, if one resolves
never to be near one or can walk away from one.”

Per Wikipedia, the following definition is one of many interpretations and beliefs, but arguably the most identifiable and accepted version by most cultures of what the notion of “martial arts” has meant over the ages, and what it means today.

The martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices. They are practiced for a variety of reasons, including self-defense, competition, physical health and fitness, as well as mental, physical, and spiritual development.

The term martial art has become heavily associated with the fighting arts of eastern Asia, but was originally used in regard to the combat systems of Europe as early as the 1550s. An English fencing manual of 1639 used the term in reference specifically to the “Science and Art” of swordplay. The term is ultimately derived from Latin, and means “Arts of Mars,” where Mars is the Roman god of war.[1] Some martial arts are considered ‘traditional’ and are tied to an ethnic, cultural or religious background, while others are modern systems developed either by a founder or an association.

Based on this definition, I cannot consider Aikido to be a “traditional” martial art, one consistently and primarily associated with combat, competition or comparative skills assessment. Since Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido, has repeatedly, clearly and emphatically denied that his Aikido was founded for fighting purposes, we need to take him at his word and cease trying to compare and contrast his Aikido to the combat efficacy, existing examples of martial integrity, or any history of success in battlefield conditions of other martial arts systems. We are comparing agates to diamonds, which is totally ludicrous, a waste of resources, and fully ignorant of what Ueshiba’s Aikido truly was intended for, or of why it enjoys the popularity it has genuinely earned.

For the 60 years that I have been involved with the study of the Aikido of the Founder, I have wondered almost daily as to whether the system I was studying would actually help me in a physical altercation or fight. Fortunately, I have never had to answer that question, probably out of dumb luck, and perhaps due to the fact that I was larger than most, and acted as if I was not an easy mark. Now, as I draw nearer to the end of my journey of self discovery, and can better assess what I have actually achieved, the answers are no easier to find than before. Nonetheless, the myriad questions and doubts themselves have dwindled quite a bit, disappearing to merely a few.

Although I feel that I have developed martial skills to some degree, this is far and away NOT the take away I have garnered after all these years of training. Among the most valuable results of my association with Aikido has been the wonderful contacts with the awesome human beings I have fortunately encountered and met. Their example of class, true grit, courage and tenacity merely living their daily lives, has inspired me to no end, and continue to do so.

One need not prepare to be a parachutist when one is on solid ground. One need not prepare for space flight if not an astronaut. One need not prepare for Phd exams, if one is not going for a degree. One need not prepare for a fight, if one resolves never to be near one or can walk away from one. I have already admitted to SH in my life, where Shit Happens, but I will not be enslaved or morbidly preoccupied with the possibility of violence while living my normal life. What comes, comes, and I will simply let it go on without me. My Aikido training and personal discoveries have given me the wisdom and strength to maintain the attitude above.

Then too, I recall my relationships with the Ueshiba family, the numerous top direct students of the Founder, the succeeding generations of devotees of the Founder’s art, all of whom I admire, not for their martial skills, but for their genuine knowledge of people, amazing sense of self containment and genuinely acquired confidence. They invariably have made peace with what they can do and what they cannot, living lives relatively free from unreal notions of negativity, and finding joy in their families, friends and the freedom to live creatively and free from unfounded fears.

To me as well, the need for my aikido to protect me in any potential conflict or fight, is mostly irrelevant as to how I walk my journey, and insignificant as to priority. What skills I do retain are imbedded in my very body, mind and soul, and I remain confident that this will be enough, even as it has for 69+ years. I will continue to enjoy the rigors of sincere training, knowing that mutual advancement is the goal of the day. I will smile constantly, and laugh when appropriate, for I am indeed amongst friends.

For those who think and act otherwise, I salute you for your uneasy decision, even as it was for me. The Founder’s admonition for each of us to define and develop our own interpretation of Aikido holds true, regardless of the choices made, especially when made with integrity and self honesty. I understand when strong beliefs and the need for exclusivity beckons, but I can also hope that we can still be brothers and sisters in Aiki, and towards the Founder’s greater vision of his fabled Silver Bridge.

Aikido is the way to make peace with one another, said O Sensei. How to do just that seems to have escaped the vast majority of those who profess to practice the Founder’s vision and his ideals. Do we not have to first make peace within ourselves? If Aikido training is to have any lasting purpose and utility, it has to be taken far beyond the tatami, and into the lives we live on a daily basis. The gentle politeness of maintaining proper maai in relationships, the taking of different angles in any conversation or argument to find yet another solution, the principle of irimi to meet the problem head on without passive compromise or useless denial, the ability to use kuzushi, not on each other, but on the obstacles to reasoning and true reconciliation, all are part of our training that desperately needs to be practiced daily, and with simple kindness and compassionate regard for one another.

Yes, Aikido can be a devastating martial art, but not in the traditional sense. For we can now allow that the real opponent does not approach from outside ourselves, but from within. It can very well be the misuse of ego, the succumbing to appetites, the unwillingness to listen and to comfort, the ignoring of real signs of imminent danger and threats to our loved ones and to ourselves, etc. We must find innovative uses for our martial skills in dealing with the internal struggles, conflicts and challenges we all must face each day. This, I do believe, is what is worth the training, the growth of character, and the necessary and uncompromising allegiance to the Principles of Aiki, and to our very own aikido.

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  1. Wow! What a wonderful article for the end of this year, you just described the Aikido I feel and apply myself but in nice words.
    I agree with you that Aikido has nothing to do with combat, competition or comparative skills assessment with others outside of us, but with ourselves.
    Yes, by regular and constant Aikido training we will find out what O Sensei meant by saying the way of peace. How beautiful you described it in your second last paragraph” The gentle politness of maintaining proper ma ai….” That’s it.. for that I’m training and that’s it what I found out, but how difficult it is to describe to those who just think of it as an art for self defence or competition.
    Thank you for this brilliant description Takahashi Sensei!

  2. Thank you very much for a wonderful article that describes well the original intent and purpose of Aikido. Through practice we learn much about our true selves and how we relate to others, to nature, to the world as a whole. We learn gradually through moments of insight how to improve ourselves. This has nothing to do with preparing for combat, but rather with preparing for and experiencing happiness, gentleness, peace and enlightenment.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this article and for sharing it with us.


    Tom Verhoeven

  3. “Based on this definition, I cannot consider Aikido to be a “traditional” martial art, one consistently and primarily associated with combat, competition or comparative skills assessment. Since Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido, has repeatedly, clearly and emphatically denied that his Aikido was founded for fighting purposes, we need to take him at his word and cease trying to compare and contrast his Aikido to the combat efficacy, existing examples of martial integrity, or any history of success in battlefield conditions of other martial arts systems. We are comparing agates to diamonds, which is totally ludicrous, a waste of resources, and fully ignorant of what Ueshiba’s Aikido truly was intended for, or of why it enjoys the popularity it has genuinely earned.”…..Really?,Then I think most of us would move on to something that IS a TMA/MMA.

  4. I become highly concerned when people force themselves to imagine that they will never be beset with unavoidable violence. There exists no cloister on the planet that good. EVERYONE wants to avoid violence! No sane individual “enjoys” it! Sure, walking around paranoid is a waste of mind. Just as hiding from living life to the full, “just in case,” is a sterile desecration of the gift of life. Budo exists to enable when the unavoidable you will not be able to walk or talk your way out of happens. Just for your reference, it does. And this when you least expect it. If you’ve been training, it may help you to survive.

    (Those things you can walk and talk your way out of are not “fights.” but ego contests. Only fools participate when there is a choice.)

  5. Carina, thank you for your kind words.

    Tom, your sense of balance and fairness is much appreciated.

    Nev, the interpretation given is but one of many choices one must review. I was simply summarizing what I felt the Founder meant by choosing wisely. Each life environment will require different attitudes, and different preparations to survive. Granted, if you are afraid that you are inadequate of life’s unpredictability, by all means train as if you die tomorrow, and arm yourself to last out the week. Good luck.

    Bryan, feel free to move on to what makes you feel secure, and allow us with a bit more faith in Aiki Principles who feel strong enough to shun idiotic choices such as the crass and commercial MMA hype, dog and pony shows, and the mob mentality that often is in sad attendance. Nice knowing you in Aikido. Good luck.

  6. Didier Chatelain says:

    Sensei, Carina said exactly how I feel about Martial Arts in general and Aikido in particular, except she said it better than I ever could. Your great leadership inspires and guides me in my humble journey to truly be at peace with myself and not sink into fantasy scenarios and what ifs almost always caused by paralyzing fears and insecurity. Again, thanks for your rare wisdom and extensive Aikido experience. It benefits us all. Didier

  7. Jack Burke says:

    Sensei, I am touched by the beauty of your words and the sincerity of your insights.

  8. Is there another way of viewing aikido that resolves this perennial argument over its paradoxical definition as a “martial art of love”?

    How do we reconcile these obvious opposites? Or should we bother trying to?

    Did Osensei do so, or is that idea a myth?

    Are we obliged to keep reading the passionate outcries of those who believe we must take one side or the other or be forever doomed?

    I have known martial artists dedicated to swordsmanship and other potentially lethal “war-like” techniques who have been more gentle, dignified and egoless than many, though certainly not all, of the aikido people I have encountered.

    Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of what you practise but of how you practise it and what you get out of it. It may not be as simple as “Make love not war!” but should we not seek a different approach, rather than getting bogged down in argument?

    Personally, after 50 years of aikido (not quite as many as Francis) during which I have never had to use the physical techniques outside the dojo, I agree with Francis it would be absurd to make the physical “self-defence” aspect a priority. There have to be other reasons for training.

    It seems to me, too, the “elephant in the dojo” is the fact that most people (male, female, young or old) living normal lives have no need for self-defence!

    It is not surprising that non-budo people, living normal, happy lives, sometimes look upon those of us who go to a dojo regularly for years as a bit weird. They would be right to do so if we focussed solely on self-defence or so-called “martial integrity”, which is also a tricky term, considering the number of obsolete types of attack involved. (The layman’s question, “When were you last attacked by a samurai sword?” does have some validity.)

    We are dealing with words which mean widely different things to different people.

    Human beings are neither invincible nor invulnerable, in fact I suggest the more we realise our vulnerability the more human we become, and vice-versa. Those who deny this appear to make little progress in compassion. (There’s nothing like a sword coming at you to bring this home, of course!)

    It would be nice if we could rise above the simplistic argument of whether aikido is a martial art or not, for it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, and find a solution on a different wavelength altogether.


    • Great post, David.

      I’d like to draw light to a few things I disagree with (there’s too much I agree with so rather than echo-chamber that, I’d like to make a friendly discussion/disagreement).

      You said:

      >Personally, after 50 years of aikido (not quite as many as Francis) during which I have never had to use the physical techniques outside the dojo, I agree with Francis it would be absurd to make the physical “self-defence” aspect a priority. There have to be other reasons for training.

      There certainly has to be other reasons for training aikido, I agree. However I think calling self defense priority absurd is going a little too far. We prepare for unlikely scenarios every day. If you drive a car, do you carry a spare tire or wear a seat belt? Do you maintain the smoke detectors in your house? Keep several fire extinguishers on hand? These are all preparations for exceedingly rare circumstances and yet no one would say they are absurd. In a similar vein, I think having a high priority of martial efficacy is just about as absurd. That is, I don’t think it’s absurd at all. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is part of our art for those who choose that flavor of tea.

      Granted, we all would probably agree, as Francis wrote about, that our main focus is on conflict avoidance and de-escalation, but sometimes it does not stop there. Sometimes either your own health is at risk. Sometimes someone you care about is at risk. I’m not sure it’s in one’s best interest to begin speaking about the pointlessness of martial prowess in such a situation, just as speaking peacefully to a fire will not stop it from taking down your house or family. Or an incoming car you cannot avoid. These are superficial and not very good examples, but I feel they are applicable enough to convey my point. Of course preparing for a martial situation is preparing for something that’s not likely to ever happen to us. That’s not reason enough, in my opinion, to discount its practice. I received a lot of strange looks both in USA where I live and in Japan when I traveled there for speaking in such ways, but I believe it to be true. It seems that when it’s a fire or a flat tire it is perfectly reasonable to prepare for the unlikely, but when it comes to the potential for violence, things change suddenly. I never understood this line of thinking.

      In my opinion aikido is fantastically adaptable and while we use “stylized” attacks, utilizing out dated weapons to assist in our practice, they are but simple training tools. They help us analyze attacking angles and concepts that can be deployed in numerous applications. They help us take aspects of martial situations, remove them from the real world and put them in a “laboratory setting” for further study and refinement so that we may better understand them, practice them, and do so within the safety of our dojo atmosphere. That is one area where I feel aikido is so incredibly adaptable, as it allows us to look at things step by step, situation by situation, and see the commonalities and how to best prepare for them. This, of course, is assuming that we’ve gone beyond the point of de-escalation and avoidance and are forced into a situation we cannot ignore any longer.

      I’m not quite sure what working with a shomenuchi or yokomenuchi attack, or taking falls, or basically any aspect of our physical training, has to do with conflict de-escalation and avoidance, but there it is in our training. I notice far too often that teachers gloss over the conflict avoidance so integral to our philosophy only to launch into “fighting preparation,” for lack of a better phrase. I think aikidoka in general would probably be better served if more class time was devoted to this, but still I do not discount the importance of martial training. To me the actual training is a tool that can be utilized to develop martial prowess, whether one chooses to go down that path or not. If one does not, it does not detract from their training or aikido as a whole. However for those that do treat in such a way, I think it is a bit misguided to dismiss them. which is an impression I get from both Takahashi-sensei’s original article and your reply here. If I read too much into that, I deeply apologize for my misunderstanding. I wish I could say I had the years of practice that people such as yourself have.

      To give a more modern example, part of what I do involves firearms training, most of which actually does involve a huge emphasis on conflict de-escalation and avoidance. It’s surprising how much of aikido’s philosophy applies to this type of training, and as I began to learn it I was pleasantly surprised at how prepared I was because of my aikido background. Now, most all of this training entails shooting at cardboard or steel, whether it’s simple marksmanship, dynamic training with stress, emphasis on weapons manipulation, moving targets and other tools used by trainers and trainees. Obviously we can’t shoot at each other, so I find striking ideological similarities between aikido’s “symbolic attacks” and this . These are about as artificial as some of our attacks in aikido, in my opinion, though they serve very important functions that tie into martial prowess, the same as aikido. In a similar way I feel aikido has that potential. I certainly doubt Morihei viewed his extensive Daito Ryu study and later development as purely an aesthetic approach, with no real emphasis on martial ability. Similarly, I think it’s appropriate even in this day and age to reflect back on Morihei’s life and training. That includes his many, many years spent developing *martially* effective techniques, concepts and approaches to training. I don’t think he drew a strong distinction between his moral and philosophical development and his martial application, and neither do I, be it on the dojo mat or on the shooting range. They are so intertwined so as to be inseparable.

      Perhaps I misunderstood, but it’s interesting to see this disconnect between modern aikido and that of the Founder, with a huge de-emphasis on the martial efficacy of what we do. I should state, though, that I don’t feel his emphasis on this (which seems to have remained throughout his life, even as he began to focus on expressing himself in more and more esoteric terms) detracts from the absolutely wonderful pursuits mentioned by Takahashi sensei and yourself. I’m just confused as to why these approaches cannot all exist together. As I hinted at, I don’t feel they can be separated, not even a little bit.

      For full disclosure, I do train with a very strong emphasis on martial application, surpassed only by my own constant focus an re-evaluation of how to better improve my chances of never having to use such skills in the first place, as well as developing my own philosophy of conflict (including avoidance). To de-emphasize the importance of martial development, though, I think is to dismiss a very wonderful ability that aikido can teach us if such skills ever had to be deployed in defense of one’s life or the life of a loved one.

      >It seems to me, too, the “elephant in the dojo” is the fact that most people (male, female, young or old) living normal lives have no need for self-defence!

      I disagree with this because it seems to presuppose knowledge about the future that one could not possibly have. I see no elephant in the dojo there. Most of us have no need for it in our lives for the most part, but it is that exceedingly rare chance that one might need it that makes it applicable, the same way one would be prudent to keep a spare tire and fire extinguisher around. It reminds me of the old adage of “it’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.” I never plan to fight in my life and will run screaming like a school girl if at all possible, but if my child or other loved one is there beside me then I simply cannot do that, and that is where a firm grounding in martial efficacy is useful if all else fails.

      I love the ethical, spiritual and moral dimensions that modern aikido has come to include, but again I hearken back to the practice and life of Morihei and his teacher Sokaku, where martial prowess was never far from the forefront of their minds, despite whatever philosophical goals pursued. If one simply wants philosophy, conflict avoidance or health practice, there are far better practices than aikido to achieve these things. Not that one should leave aikido for that, but the fact remains that aikido/Daito Ryu has always had and (hopefully) always will have a strong martial component that, while used to help develop good character and proper human conduct, can be summoned when needed for self preservation.

      Just one man’s opinion, though, and you know what they say about those…

      All the best, my friend.

  9. Daryl Berlie says:

    In my experience, we have two options. One is to close and fill up which is driven by fear and seeks power. The other is to empty and open up, which is motivated by love and is all about relationships. Both options result in the experience of power; however, one is very different than the other. In a combat or war situation, neither insures survival. We have been given free will and we are always at choice. If we explore the depths of our own human nature, we will inevitably see beauty and ugliness. The only question is are we willing to explore the depths of our own fears, see how they drive us, and instead choose to love and to build relationships based on inter-dependence rather than co-dependence. I think that is what this martial art called aikido is truly about. By working together as partners rather than opponents, we can allow for a depth of vulnerability that opens us up to incredible insights. What could be better?

    Thank you Francis Sensei, for your willlingness to put yourself out there and share.


  10. Dear Takahashi Sensei,

    You are an eloquent writer and have captured the essence of what I think we all seek in our Budo study and in life; that is to find peace, balance and happiness within ourselves, and to share this life with our loved ones and community. It is a life long pursuit, I believe, as everytime I climb to the top of one mountain I discover another. Perhaps the realization and acceptance that life is such a journey is part of the peace I am feeling; the understanding that there is no final answer nor does the learning ever stop….. feeling comfortable being uncomfortable, and always expecting the unexpected. Giving back and sharing with others, developing relationships, living a meaningful life by making a contribution to society is the joy and balance I am experiencing in these “silver” years of my life.

    Thank you for taking time to write. I always enjoy reading your papers.

    Warmest Aloha,

    Ken Teshima

  11. How long did it take Ueshiba Sensei to come to his conclusion?

    Can we start from his conclusion without going through our own process of evolution?

    Ueshiba Sensei and his early students/training partners had a strong foundation in martial skills that focused on effectiveness for the purpose of developing character.

    In our present consumers’society, aren’t many of us looking for shortcuts to safety and peace of mind? Aren’t we tempted to skip the process our teachers went through? Isn’t our materialistic approach to spirituality evident of our search for entitlement, not enlightenment?

    Thank you Takahashi Sensei for this thought provoking essay. I recommend reading your book “Mental Keiko” for all Budo students who think for themselves.

    Patrick Augé

  12. There is a paradox. If one wants to focus on deescalation, there is no need for me to practice deescalation of someone with peaceful intent. But, train to be constantly paranoid and you are very unlikely to defuse anything.

    I have seen more people get injured by falls than fights, so ukemi is, IMHO, a highly practical martial skill.

    Staying calm and able to function in the face of anger or some form of stress is perhaps the most practical skill there is. This is hard to develop without being challenged during training. Physical structure is useful information that affects your whole life, but this is difficult to learn with Uke who do not give feedback. Despite our willingness to have people find their own way and interpretation of the Founder’s Aikido, some things will be mistakes and corrections will be necessary – but the “kindness” of Aikido can be misinterpreted by some to mean that the teaching method should be peaceful, painless and never stressful. And, never saying something is wrong. A martial artist learns to act anyway, despite the situation. Peace is a choice, and one that takes work.

    I never sit Seiza out of class. I train Hanmi Handachi to have a taller Uke, or to have my mobility impaired. I train Tachidori to have an Uke with longer reach. I learn to be more peaceful when I stay calm under stress, so I enjoy stressful training.

  13. Simply, thank you Francis for your willingness to speak and draw comments. I appreciate the “stance” of your thoughts on this Aiki way. I am grateful for the strong base training in Aikido has engendered, for it supports my way in the world. With deep love and appreciation.
    Lovely 3breath embrace… Molly

  14. phillip owen says:

    If you want peace ?, then prepare for war, the theory and fact of the matter is that if everyone carried a gun, then people would think twice before picking a fight, the martial arts are for preparation for war, the intention of martial arts is to kill if necessary and the mind has to be attuned to do this, knowing in mind and body that you are capable of killing the opponent means that the disciple is at peace with himself and will not falter in battle preferring death to dishonour. At this stage of training, the disciple is one with nature and acts accordingly only as danger presents itself, the enemy has made his decision and one is ready to act with mind and body as one weapon…

  15. Ive had this ongoing inner debate’and witnessed online discussions that always spiral into a heated argument, basically concluding that aikido is a waste of time for self defense. Then I see videos teaching aikido techniques and talking about atemi this and pin throw joint lock that.

    If its not a martial art, if it”s useless for self defense, then all it is is a glorified fitness/dance class.

    Martial, not very martial, this style, that style… what is aikido? I’ve practiced it on ánd off for a few years and still have no idea or why I bother turning up each week.

  16. Still here, and with Stee, and have not changed my mind.

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