“Is ‘Stealing’ Really the Best Policy?” by Stanley Pranin


“What’s the point of coming all the way to Japan and spending years trying
to master something that was not well explained and poorly organized?”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninOne of the things that stood out to me during my years of practicing aikido in Japan was the fact that the majority of Japanese instructors — including some of the most famous names — spent almost no time explaining their techniques during practice. They would simply demonstrate the technique 3 or 4 times and say, “Hai, dozo!” (Ok, go ahead and practice!).

If you talked with the senior students about wishing that the teacher would explain more clearly, often you would get an answer something along these lines: “You have to pay close attention and STEAL the techniques.” The implication was that you were a westerner, and that the oriental approach to learning was different. You would have to adapt to their way of learning since you were in Japan. Shades of the inscrutable Japanese!

Well, this kind of reply satisfied me for a time, but then I noticed something…

The senior students — and most of the other students too — couldn’t do the techniques at anywhere near the level of the teacher! I thought, “What’s the point of coming all the way to Japan and spending years trying to master something that was not well explained and poorly organized?”

You could counter this sentiment by saying that westerners miss the point, and that they expect everything to be handed to them on a silver platter. They have to pay close attention to what the teacher is doing, and then they’ll understand if they are sincere and dedicated.

This did not satisfy me for very long either. Here’s why… If you have very few students who are willing to spend the necessary time to “steal” their teacher’s techniques and become skilled in their own right, what do you think happens to the school after his passing? Remember, none of the senior students can perform at the same level as the teacher.

The answer is that the school tends to fragment and enter into a state of rapid decline. By the second or third generation, the teacher fades into the annals of history even though he may have been an important figure in his day.

Morihiro Saito was an exception to this rule. That was one of the main reasons I choose to move to Iwama and study with him. He would clearly explain what he was doing and demonstrate the correct execution of techniques so that students could make quick progress. Moreover, he wrote many books and left a wealth of videos where he introduces his technical system in very clear terms.


Through a simple interface, you’ll have the ability to quickly access over 500 empty-handed and weapons techniques via 1,100 links to videos and technical explanations in book format. This is the most extensive technical reference on aikido ever compiled!

Click here for information on Morihiro Saito's &ldquoComplete Guide to Aikido”


  1. Well, Stanley, I will say what I think and believe about this subject.

    Once one of my teachers that influenced me most said that in the past, the beginner were accepted in the dojo and would remain there until the point the master would tell him to leave, and develop his own dojo.

    It was given to him the licence to teach, but this does not mean that the person knew everything the master knew. On the contrary, the master always kept just to himself his own secrets.

    I do not think that Sokaku Takeda taught everything he knew to O Sensei, but just to a certain point, he had by himself to evolve, and he did it and in my point of view he reached a higher level cause he could see the relation of Budo with Spiritual matters, with kododama creating a “Aiki no Michi” (Using Aiki as a Way of Life).

    But he had do it by himself, of course, probably Onisaburu Deguchi from the Oomoto Sect helped him a lot in this regard specially in the spiritual relations between the forms and the “spiritual ki”.

    Anyway, I do not believe that Sokaku Takeda and O Sensei have similar techiques. In that book you produced about with about the visit of Sokaku to the dojo of Takuma Hisa, he clearly say that the techniques were different.

    Only very few disciples, that through the years proved to be trustable, were, (and still are ), taught by the master the more deeper secrets. Many times, they married the master´s daughter and became members of the family and after that, even started using the surname of the family. In the history of Aikido it happened this fact as you know the details better then me, the name of the chosen was Nakakura Kiyoshi. (http://www.aikidojournal.com/article?articleID=444 )

    Organizations, are other stuff, they are in fact in a joining of Dojos, a kind of Federation, under the creed that when people join and work, together they become stronger and more productive to produce a bigger “cake”, and then this “cake” afterwards, can be shared among the members with the additional value. Of course the shared part is now always of the same amount to all members, once the responsibilities and attributions in favour of the group varies. (USA was created as a Federation of States, as well as they are trying to do in Europe join countries, but the basic idea is similar).

    Anyway there are always a kind of “competition” for reputation and influence of dojos in a “federation”. If one observes Saito Sensei speech in the end of the film showed in this blog it is clear that he is saying that in Tokyo certains things were not practiced like it was in Iwama letting in the air the idea that “Iwama was better”. Look for example what it is said in the site of NY aikikai (http://www.nyaikikai.com/beginners.asp).

    By the way, in spite, there are very good masters among Saito Sensei students, I don’t feel that any of them are as good as Saito Sensei was , neither his own son. They are very good, but something is lacking.

    About the teaching of technical details, Saito Sensei really taught things in details, but just the forms.This is not sufficient to mastery.

    What many aikidoists in the world has not noticed is that the core of Aikido is “Aiki”, or “kokyu”, forms are irrelevant once “Aiki ” is got. And this “aiki” , is not taught, each teacher keeps it secret.

    They teach movements but not what the student can do to get the feeling of “kokyu”.

    For example, compare the explanation of the techniques involving movement with the one of zagi kokyu ho in the end, and he explains very few. The “crème de la crème “ is always kept hidden.

    They show…..like in the time from 13 minutes and 18 seconds until 5 minutes and 15 seconds , but he does not taught how he was doing it.

    If someone is not able to “steal” how do do the “kokyu”, (Aiki) , it is not shown.

    The same most masters do all the time…..so one must have the luck to be student of a master that really knows do do “kokyu” (and they are few) and second once must be able to “steal it” or he will not learn.

    Finally, I am in doubt if it is possible to teach Kokyu…..I believe that (unfortunately) it only must be grasped….(or stolen) . My point is that with a correct training one takes less time to grasp it.

    But this special training( or kata) , it is not taught to others, since it is a secret of the family, that sometimes even those members that are trustable, are not able to get it. Aiki, Kokyu, is something really difficult to grasp.

    I believe that after 44 years training and searching Aikido I started to understand what Aiki is , but will I have health and life time, or dispositon , to learn it well in terms to apply it as Sokaku Takeda or O Sensei did???? If I could have had this information in the first decade of my training things would had been much more different, but unfortunately I had not.

    Besides, there is the job, the family, and other expectations in life , that demands that one uses their waking time with many other endeavours then just practicing AIkido .

    Few are those that can really just dedicated to training all his time like O Sensei when he was young did for example.
    In other words……really top masters will be always rare in any Budo……..

    To not be totally negative, there is one reward… we can always progress practicing Aikido, neither if we will not get mastery, and this, I believe is more then sufficient to keep on trying and practicing.

  2. Yes, but hasn’t the same process of “fragmentation and decline” happened to Iwama aikido?

    Apart from the books and videos I get the impression the school has begun to fade away?

    • Mr David Lynch,

      The Iwama school – the school led by Saito Sensei – is growing strong in numbers, especially in countries outside Europe. Indeed the demands for local seminars of Iwama Aikido are difficult to fulfill.

      We also have many instructors who are willingly teaching for free in poor countries, for they firmly believe that aikido is for all. The results are overwhelming.

  3. Michael Richardson says:

    Beautiful. Clear. Precise.

  4. Dear Stanley,

    While reading your words I felt like someone is expressing my thoughts for many years. I started Aikido in Brazil under Shikanai Shihan, who was a senior student of Yasuo Kobayashi Shihan and Hombu representative. After Seven years I received my Shodan and emigrated to Israel. I have stayed in Japan two months and trained in Hombu Dojo and also in Kobayashi Dojos and then returned to Israel. Many teachers have arrived here to conduct seminars but I made the choice to continue learning from my first teacher and all these years I have invited him to visit me and continue to be my teacher.

    Once Sensei said to me: Jose, I as your teacher want you to become like me. I give you all the necessary instruction to the best of my ability because this is the Japanese way. People who I would invite to participate in Sensei’s Seminar would always be amazed with all the details and personal care he would engage dealing with anyone. So when you wrote these words I would like to thank you that you made clear in a public way that a Art should be passed in a direct manner as accurate as possible.

    Thank you.
    Jose Magal

  5. I came to aikido with the attitude of stealing the technique but got that idea from what tap-dancers would do. They’d watch each other and try to “steal” the steps they liked from others. Eventually, they’d make the step their own. If they were good.

    The same is true of any art. The expression, “Good artists imitate, great artists steal” seems to be apocryphal (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/03/06/artists-steal/) but certainly has gained currency over time. You imitate until the imitation becomes something individual and different from the original. “Fake it till you make it,” one of the slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous has some of the same flavor. Pretend you’re not addicted until you actually are not addicted, one day at a time.

    This is not to say that explanation in aikido is wrong or better than the accustomed Japanese system of demonstration without any explanation at all. This is to say that the idea of “stealing the technique” has little or nothing to do with East/West.

    After over 30 years of practicing aikido, I am teaching. Not because I want to but because my dojo needs a senior student to lead a class. When I teach, I try to explain things as well as I can and demonstrate techniques to the best of my ability. But I know that I am a pale shadow of my teachers, Mitsunari Kanai and Paul Keelan, primarily. They gave me so much and I absorbed so little. Yet, I keep practicing.

    I did practice once at Iwama with Saito Sensei. I remember the feeling of the class which was a brilliant exposition on kotegaeshi, on the variations through the decades of that one technique as taught to Saito Sensei by Osensei. “Here’s how he did it in the 20s, in the 30s, in the 40s, in the 50s, in the 60s, and just before he died.” I wish that I remembered each of those variations but I could fathom only a very little of what was taught, being a fourth kyu at the time and not having a mind that works that way. Yet, I keep on practicing and try, try to keep on learning.

  6. I think one of the key elements of teaching is to continue to learn by analyzing everything that you are doing and that you were taught and working on Kaizen (continuous improvement, I hope I used the right term). In the Nishio articles I read him stressing that you should be always trying to improve.

    An article by Henry Kono contained a huge clue of what O’Sensei was doing. He told Henry, “You don’t understand yin and yang (In Yo in Japanese terms). I have been looking for this and I find it everywhere. It’s wonderful to discover this in so many techniques at so many points.

    I find it in both the Iwama (O’Sensei) techniques and the Nishio techniques. Just last week I returned from a week visit in Japan to attend the Nishio Remembrance Seminar at Kannon Onsen about 70 miles south of Tokyo. I had the chance to ask a number of the sempai who practiced a long time with Nishio Sensei if he ever talked about In Yo. Surprisingly the answers were instantaneous, “No, never.” from each person I asked. Nevertheless, I see the influences of Yin and Yang in practically everything, even in the Aiki Toho Iaido.

    Just last night I was teaching Jo Dori and discovering Yin and Yang as I was teaching. Sometimes it’s a small sphere in the movement of the hands. Sometimes it’s a combination of the bodies moving together. Sometimes it’s the end of the jo tracing the teardrop shape of one side of the Yin and Yang. Last night I saw the jo as the diameter of the sphere with uke’s hand as the center I was turning it around and the ends of the jo tracing the boundary between the yin and yang.

    I find this tremendously exciting!

    Tom Huffman

  7. Lizzy L says:

    Not all teachers can teach systematically. There are multiple teaching methodologies just as there are multiple ways to learn. I have been fortunate to study from some instructors who developed a strong and systematic teaching method, but I have also learned much from teachers whose presentation is spontaneous, eclectic, and mysterious.

    The danger of too much systematization is in rigidity. Spontaneity and fluidity, on the other hand, can be mystifying. We are fortunate if we encounter the best of both approaches.

  8. Jet Arensman says:

    He was a genius..
    Thank you so much, for keeping his legacy alive Pranin Sensei..
    Best Regards.

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