Stanley Pranin’s Video Blog: “Why No Competition in Aikido?”

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

“Tomiki Sensei’s decision to turn aikido into a sport ran contrary to
O-Sensei’s strongly held convictions about the true purpose of martial arts.”

Stanley Pranin explains why it is often noted that there is no competition in aikido. Actually, some forms of competition have been introduced in aikido, the most prominent example being Tomiki Aikido. Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba was strongly against this attempt to convert aikido into a sport. He came to have deeply held spiritual beliefs on the correct role of martial arts having seen the horrific effects of World War II on Japan.


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  1. Thank you for posting Stanley. I enjoy your blogs very much and look forward to future videos and articles.

  2. I would think there are two good reasons, omote and ura, if you will. Omote – people can get hurt that way, the better the nage the more the risk to a reluctant uke. Ura – is nobody listening? “…There is no time and space to Ueshiba of Aikido… I am never defeated, however fast the enemy may attack. It is not because my technique is faster than that of the enemy. It is not a question of speed. The fight is finished before it is begun.
    When an enemy tries to fight with me, the universe itself, he has to break the harmony of the universe. Hence at the moment he has the mind to fight with me, he is already defeated. There exists no measure of time — fast or slow…” Now, I grant that IS subtle, but setting up a competition seems a poor way to approach the problem.

  3. John Meakin says:

    Thank you for the post Stanley.
    Very thought provoking.
    I believe there is a good case for competition.

    Masakatsu Agates – (victory over oneself)

    If in True budo there is,
    No Engagement in competition.
    No winning or losing.
    No defeat.
    No opponent or foe.
    Neither fighting or killing.
    Life giving and nurtures all things in nature.

    Then there is no better a reason, then, for competition!
    Putting philosophy into practice. Exposing our true nature with
    one of our trusted friends or enemies in combat!
    To go into combat and retain these qualities must be the goal!
    Otherwise, we would not have the opportunity to grow/recognize any traits in
    specific circumstances.
    It would remain an intellectual exercise only!

    I have a system that I believe could work.
    Uke would attempted to acquire something from Tori rather than Tori protects
    himself from, a soft knife attack, from Uke – The Tomiki way.

    Many thanks.

    • In one fundamental sense, the main issue is not about competition. As I see it, Morihei Ueshiba was the creator of aikido and one of his core principles was that of not entering into competition, be it on an individual or nation-wide scale. What Tomiki Sensei did was to completely contradict this essential tenet of Ueshiba’s aikido philosophy and cling to using the word “aikido” to describe his art. The Aikikai was willing to go along with Tomiki’s plan — after all, Kisshomaru Ueshiba was also a Waseda graduate — as long as he did not act under the banner of “aikido.”

      What is your view on this issue?

      • Keith McInnis says:

        Were Japan to have intellectual property laws similar to ours the use of of the term ‘Aikido’ would be more easily defended (and we’d all have to pay fees, never display its kanji etc.). This feels like a money and power struggle not unlike the WWF debacle a few years ago. It looks to me like Tomiki wanted it both ways–he wanted Aikido and he wanted to be a founder of a sport to rival Judo.
        How does this issue reverberate in the current trend to make Aikido ‘sports combat’ compatible? Is there any real difference?

      • Dear Stan,

        My question here is, was Morihei Ueshiba, at least in the pre-war era, not regularly engaging in competitive activity? Are there not lots of examples of him accepting and offering challenges to martial artists of different styles as a way of testing his ability?

        Training and testing against various levels of resistance provided by uke, with the most extreme end of that resistance scale being a competitive match, is a very valuable experience for all Aikidoka.

        Given that I read with interest on Aikido Journal commentary that there is too much ‘Aikido dance’ where uke passively flops around and performs uke’s moves regardless of whatever happens to them, is there a way to challenge and test someone’s form without resorting to an overly fetishised competition system such as used by the Shodokan?

        • I don’t think that there were really a lot of formal challenges in the sense you mean it, especially after Morihei began teaching professionally in Tokyo. In such a situation, his strong uchideshi like Rinjiro Shirata, Tsutomu Yukawa, etc. would take care of the challenger. Most of the other stores are anecdotes about his earlier days where we don’t really have reliable information.

          The Founder never did anything like formal competitions but training was hard in the prewar era.

    • At least as I see things now, a competition with rules is going to constrain timing as well as action. In a certain sense, I see aikido happening in the moment the referee reaches for the bell to open the first round. If you wait for the bell, you are following the rules of the sport, but that would be less effective than intercepting, interrupting and disrupting your opponent’s intent. Fundamentally a contest involves strength, physical and/or technical. Aikido, at least as I presently see it, involves a superiority of perception, avoiding a situation without, generally, retreating; moving in areas of your opponent’s weakness just as he targets you. John Boyd, the American master strategist, might have said ‘Move inside your opponent’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop.’ O Sensei said, if I’m well informed, “Never defeated is ever victorious.”

  4. Even if we invoke the martial, and not the spiritual side of aikido, the conclusion is the same. What karateka and judoka do in their respective sports is not real competition. In the words of the founder, real competition in the context of budo would mean life or death in a single blow. Sport practitioners are merely playing, not really fighting – which would mean killing each other, which is also the reason why there is no lethal technique in judo for instance – they were all removed. So even if we dont see aikido as a mystical path promoting life and creativity, the conclusion is the same. In daito ryu and other traditional martial arts there is also no sport competition, though hardly anyone would doubt their efficiency in real life

  5. Wasn’t it during the Kobukan era that all techniques were applied to the finish? Isn’t that fact that appealed to young Tomiki, Mochizuki, Shioda, Tohei, all well-trained judôka? Wasn’t it the fact that there were no rules to stick to or exploit that allowed them to push their training to the edge?

    Ueshiba Sensei was against competition. So was Mochizuki Sensei. But the latter made it clear that he was opposed to “organized” competition. Inside of the dôjô shiai was encouraged AS A PART OF PRACTICE, NOT AS ITS PURPOSE. Otherwise how can we forge our character together with technique and body (SHIN-GI-TAI)?

    Familiarity is the antidote to fear. Only by exposing ourselves to fear can we learn how to manage it.

    One problem is that most teachers and students started aikidô as a finished product, without any previous serious budô training. They hear their teachers say: “In aikidô, there is no competition!” Some take the literal meaning of the teaching; others search for its deeper meaning.

    I always questioned the motivation behind such a statement. Am I a pacifist because I can’t defend myself or because I know that peace is the best solution while being able to fight if necessary? Am I against competition because I want to take the easy path to a black belt (or whatever other reason motivated by fear and convenience); or am I against it due to my understanding that aikidô is a noble path that must be protected against greed and vulgarity?

    Or am I in favor of competition in order to make aikidô into an Olympic sport? Or am I using competition as one of the means of developing myself as a budôka?

    There is no final answer to the question and everyone has to find for himself. As a sogobudô, aikidô provides us with different approaches to match our age, gender and physical ability.

    Thank you for keeping the dialogue open.

    Patrick Augé

    • Excellent comment!

    • “Familiarity is the antidote to fear. Only by exposing ourselves to fear can we learn how to manage it.”

      Agree. That’s why its very important that inside the dojo, during keiko, the students train themselves under stress. In a relatively safe environment training how to conquer fear is part of the keiko itself.

      “One problem is that most teachers and students started aikidô as a finished product, without any previous serious budô training. ”


      Some teachers would even go to the length of saying there is no attack in aikido. But then attacking properly is the first thing we need to learn. This brings me to ask myself, if you train Aikido and you were told and you believe there is no attack in Aikido, what would you do if your love one is attack? Watch? Beg that they attack you and not them?

      Thanks Sensei for your nice and thought provoking post.

  6. Fantastic comments, particularly Patrick’s. There is a lot of truth and experience in every sentence of that comment.

    In regular training, new Uke will resist at stupid occasions as they don’t know the kata. So, I watched someone playing with Ne-waza who dislocated his own shoulder when he didn’t know enough to submit. When I tried ne-waza, I ended up in a throw that was illegal in Judo as the person being thrown can get a severe neck injury. I had to chose if I was going to “win,” or if I was going to not finish the technique – I got hit hard in the face for the decision I made to be nice, but the other option could have had my partner get hurt. There are reasons competitions have referees and judges!

    Even for arts like Brazilian Jiujitsu which do use competition heavily, training in kata style still happens and is still encouraged. Kata is the foundation a competitor builds from.

    On a daily practice on the mat, just because we “don’t compete” doesn’t mean egos are frequently out of control, frustration and accusation flies freely, and Uke causes extra trouble out of pride. Really, I have more respect for someone who gets the occasional trophy but has a truly good character versus the “holier-than-thou, I-am-too-superior-and-spiritual-to-allow-you-to-beat-me” wannabe guru.

    I also wonder about what our Art globally would look like if we actually had a means of measuring ability. We cannot agree on what is “good Aikido” so our development technically is now more based in politics than measurable skill.

  7. Peter Howie says:

    Great comments and opening up of this ‘swept under the carpet’ area, Stanley and others.

    As an adult educator I have found myself delighted by the quality of training I have received. Sensei Alan Higgs has matched my speed of learning so that every time he instructs me it is like a new aikido unfolds. I aim for this in my professional life and find myself using my lived aikido instruction metaphorically when working with senior executives.

    This said, I am aware that all arguments are propositions made for a point of view. The point I argue will select certain information while ignoring other information. And if I cannot ignore certain information then I will give that information a different inference than other may be doing. This selection process is based almost entirely on my beliefs and is one result of my beliefs. In other words, I argue my beliefs, as though the arguments made my beliefs, when really the beliefs were there first, and the argument comes to support them. In the trade (adult education) this is called the Ladder of Inference which can be found all of the web.

    As a committed Shodokan Aikido practitioner I will naturally make arguments supporting what I have learned. If instead of going to my local aikido dojo which was Shodokan style I went elsewhere I would be arguing differently. It was a matter of ‘which was closer to home’.

    Recently it has been made clear that Tomiki Shihan did not want this style called ‘Tomiki’ and preferred the term Shodokan to describe what he created.

    Tomiki created not only a competitive style, similar to Judo, he systematised aikido so that people could understand it more easily, learn it quicker, and practice properly right from the start. He continued to do this right up until he died, launching his final version months before his passing. OF course, having learned this and not any other, I am not sure what others do, in terms of learning the method. As I understand it Ueshiba taught one technique at a time and charged per technique in the early days when Tomiki was around.

    While I and others do enter into competition we are tasked with a number of things. One is that we need to not become dominated by our aggression as we compete. This is hard work for many, including me. Another is that we are attempting to use aikido against an uncooperative opponent. This really tests my aikido (which is very average in these circumstances) and I return more committed to the aikido practice and training my mind and body. Another is that we see ourselves within Ueshiba’s legacy and at the recent (2013) international competition were told stories of Tomiki and Ueshiba practicing sword work together at different times. While knowing we are pushed to the fringe, we are accepting of others who want to compete (as there are free kata competitions that anyone could enter). Another is that by our competing we are improving how the competitions are done, as well as how aikido can be used. The competition is still often scrappy and the whole process continues to improve, with adjustments to rules and judging.

    If Ueshiba had enjoyed the competition and perceived the Japanese defeat as part of the demagoguery and despotism of the times rather than anything as simple as competition, then perhaps this discussion would be about how there is this strange group of aikido practitioners who use their art as a spiritual practice.

    Cheers Stanley and well done as a historian collecting and refining your material.

    Peter Howie

  8. Atsushi Honda says:

    Once you face an opponent to complete, you lost the competition.
    There is no more pureness and ego gets to you.
    Always yourself is the enemy.
    Aikido without Aiki Shrine has no meaning.
    It is spiritual and true budo is spiritual.

    Misogi and zen give you foundation of it.

  9. Interesting for me to note: we are discussing Shodokan Aikido, while not all USA organizations for Shodokan actually endorse competition.

    What about Tohei Sensei’s Taigi competitions for the Ki Society? Or Shioda of Yoshinkan launching his career by winning prizes for “most outstanding demonstration”?

    Or, the IAF joining political bodies that exist to promote sport?

    Kano decided to deploy people to study with Ueshiba. Tomiki was involved in competition while studying with Ueshiba. Did O Sensei have his anticompetitive view all his life? Did he bring an openly competitive group of students into his school out of ignorance, or a belief that he would convert them, or were his views more liberal initially? Are there other reasons for the political divide between Shodokan and Aikikai, just as we are not separated from the Ki Society because of their competitions?

    • I am focusing on events that occurred during Morihei Ueshiba’s lifetime. The forms of competition developed by the Yoshikan and Ki Society do not involve two competitors fighting against one another.

      I’m not sure what you mean by saying Morihei brought an openly competitive group into his dojo. The people who came to learn at the Kobukan Dojo came to learn O-Sensei’s techniques. Kano regarded what Morihei was during as an important part of Japanese martial heritage that was in risk of being lost in the modern era.

      • I guess I was referring to Judo already being a competitive art. I understand Tomiki continued to compete while he was Ueshiba’s student, I’m guessing the other Judo students did as well. Bringing students to Aikido and respecting the art doesn’t necessarily mean Kano was changing his teaching methodology which did involve competition.

  10. Kevin Monte de Ramos says:

    I am surprised that we are discussing right and wrong with respect to Aikido. It is like arguing whose Ki is stronger.

    Perhaps more valuable is to discuss the context around which competition was introduced; namely, a requirement by the university to allow for an official ‘club status’ versus Aikido being just an activity. Who can argue with Tomiki’s desire to access university resources that improve the popularity of your club by turning a pastime into a sport?

    While we can argue against the introduction of competition into the Aikikai, who can dispute the tendency of any advanced aikido practicioner’s desire to test his/her competence with the art? I have heard, from an individual that trained with O’Sensei for four years, that he encouraged a small group of deshi ‘to go out and give it a try for yourself”; meaning to test their newly acquired skills in a local tavern known for its dust-ups.

    Of course, he was not advocating violence. He was simply encouraging individuals to trust Aikido in the martial sense and rely on its ability to resolve conflict. I believe O’Sensei would have supported Tomiki in forming the club (even with the requirement of competition) and also support its (and his) prohibition within the Aikikai. Was he not a pragmatic man, as well as a spiritual leader?

    In short, I think there is no contradiction between acknowledging human tendency to measure themselves competitively and the spiritual journey towards that realization that competition is unnecessary (and potentially unhealthy).

    Can we allow individual practitioners to test themselves’ as they see fit, while agreeing that it should not be part of our curriculum? If yes, how can we betray the accomplishments of Tomiki’s to promote Aikido?

    • O-Sensei as well as the principals of the Aikikai were upset with Tomiki because of his decision to introduce competition into aikido in such a high-profile institution like Waseda University. The bone of contention was that Tomiki continued to use the term “aikido” when asked to use a different name if he was going to introduce competition.

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