“Have you thought through the implications of defining aikido as a ‘self-defense art?'” by Stanley Pranin

“The aikidoka would have no chance against a rapid attack
because the time window to respond is too small.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninI can’t count the number of times I have read that aikido is a “self-defense art,” or that “aikido doesn’t initiate the attack.” These sorts of utterances are commonplace when one attempts to define the essential characteristics of the art to the general public. I must confess that for many years early in my career, I parroted the same statements reflexively without carefully analyzing the implications.

Consider one of the obvious — at least to me — implications of such statements. Taken at face value, this implies that an underlying principle of aikido is “go no sen,” that is, a situation where the attacker seizes the initiative and the aikidoka responds in self-defense.

If you pause for a moment and think, you might see some problems in operating on this basis.

If the attacker seizes the initiative, the defender has a greatly reduced amount of time to respond. The defender must attempt to get off the line of attack, unbalance the attacker, and execute a counterattack in fractions of a second. Given the compressed time frame available to the defender to respond, this is a tall order indeed!

There are some further implications of thinking of aikido in such terms.

If the attacker has gained the initiative, the aikidoka has been caught unaware of the impending attack. This would suggest a lack of situational awareness.

Assuming a scenario where the attacker has the initiative, the attack must be executed slowly in order to practice. The aikidoka would have no chance against a rapid attack because the time window to respond is too small.

Practicing slow attacks leads to “no attacks” in the sense that the attack is devoid of intent and commitment. It is difficult to apply aikido techniques on an uncommitted uke due to the absence of attacking energy to animate a counterattack.

The consequences of thinking of aikido in these terms are far reaching. I would suggest to you that Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba viewed the art he created in an entirely different manner. Take a look at this video and see if you think that Morihei Ueshiba’s ukes have seized the initiative and the Founder is responding after the fact.

I look forward to your comments!

Click here for information on the complete collection of Morihei Ueshiba films in downloadable format


  1. Dear Stanley,

    In my point of view it is all about interpretation. There is nothing more real than learning first hand in a direct teacher to student transmission.
    Saying this, we can watch thousands of videos and never get close to what O-Sensei intended or meant. Even his direct students who became true masters showed different Aikido from their teacher and from each other. It was like an explosion diverging out and out from the source.

    The truth is that it is a mistake to try to imitate a grandmaster. Mozart, Picasso, they were unique and anyone who wants to be an artist this big has to work hard in a path that may give results.

    Copying will not give much. But everyone is willing to copy O-Sensei as if there is an instant model ready. O-Sensei spent his whole life changing and improving, and he did not leave a clear form, for instance, Morihiro Saito Sensei made a big effort to organize and systematize what he absorbed from O-Sensei’s Jo and Bokken techniques. Shoji Nishio Sensei developed his own skills and so on.

    One of the foundations of Aikido is the sword. O-Sensei learned Kashima Shinto Ryu which is a Koryu art. All the Koryu arts do not take the attacker for granted. In this matter, I have to agree with you that the strategy of attack and defense is not so simple as it seems sometimes in Aikido training. You can watch the video but only those who know a little bit about the arts he relied upon can truly understand what he meant.

    With friendship,
    Jose Magal

  2. Once again – lost in translation! Aikido is not about swapping punches, kicks, or anything else. It is seizing the initiative, which isn’t that hard most of the time.

    Derail your opponent’s script. Responding to it in a predictable way is playing his game. It is a challenge to see the setup behind a confrontation. Once seen, though, there are many options. Just don’t “get into it” unless 1 – you want to fight and 2 – you think you have an excellent chance of winning. The Romans learned the hard way not to fight battles with Hannibal. So, he wandered around Italy almost at will for years… without the ability to successfully besiege any major city, lacking secure lines of supply. Finally, he was defeated when Carthage was threatened by Scipio. He had to go home to defend, but with new and unfamiliar troops.

    So, Rome gained the initiative, and final victory without winning much in their home territory for 15 years.

    Dojo aikido is VERY often weak in teaching this essential skill.

  3. Jason Wotherspoon says:

    Go no sen as Stan points out is “responding” to an attack, i.e., attack then response. However, Aikido also has two other timings practiced as basic…”sen no sen”, and “sen sen no sen”. We learn sen no sen in the ken awase, for example, and we learn sen sen no sen in the shomen uchi techniques where nage initiates.

    “Sen no sen”, is what we know as awase, or blending (matching time). Taking the initiative is sen sen no sen, “responding” before the attack. These 3 timings are the spectrum of possible ways to react to attack.

    However, when one understands all three of these timings, one can develop an ability called “go te no sen te”, which my Sensei translates as “depart late but arrive early”. This is what gives one the seemingly magical ability to not just move fast, but move perfectly. This ability is not automatic, one has to learn it through intense training, as it manifests when the intent of both uke and nage are strong. ie. full power training.

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