A way out of an apparent contradiction… “Morihei Ueshiba’s Aikido to the rescue!” by Stanley Pranin


“Morihei Ueshiba’s philosophy offers a visionary approach to many of life’s thorniest problems and innovative solutions aimed toward peaceful resolutions.”

stan-pranin-closeupOf late, I have been preoccupied with what at first glance seems an irresolvable dilemma. Let me describe the elements of this perplexing problem. It has to do with the notion of self-defense and what assumptions necessarily attach to it which we may not have fully considered.

Of necessity, if we are defending ourselves, we must be the target of an attack of some sort. If we are the target, the perpetrator of the attack has arranged the circumstances of his aggression to his advantage, and we are forced into a reactive role. Whether the aggressor is armed or unarmed, he enjoys a great advantage because the time necessary for the defender to respond after the fact is very short. In addition to the physical response time window which may only be fractions of a second, there is the mental processing time required to recognize the attack as as threat that must be dealt with. How can one expect to prevail under such unfavorable conditions? Except perhaps in the case of the highly trained individual, there is not sufficient time or opportunity for the less skilled to escape, and most end up victims of violence.

What alternatives are there to this seemingly hopeless dilemma? Well, we might consider taking on the role of the initiator when we have determined that an attack against our person is imminent. That is to say, we might decide to launch a preemptory attack when we believe that someone is about to physically harm us.

Unfortunately, this leads us down another slippery slope which should give us pause to reflect. For example, if we had a “hunch” that someone was about to strike us, and instead struck him first, what would our legal standing then be? Could we say after the fact to the judge, “You see, he was about to hit me, so I got in the first punch instead. I’m so sorry I broke his jaw!”? How would the legal system treat us in such a scenario when we have outright admitted that we struck the first blow and caused injury to the would-be attacker? Surely not kindly. Once again we have hit a wall.

So, if we wait to be sure that we are being attacked before defending ourselves to be legally in the right, we are likely to become victims and be injured or killed. If, on the other hand, we launch a preemptive attack to better the odds of our prevailing, but in the process injure our presumed attacker, we end up in hot water with the law. What to do?

Enter Morihei Ueshiba’s aikido…

Let’s revisit the same situation of impending violence assuming this time that the target of the attack is skilled at aikido and has internalized the ethical system advocated by Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba.

Now having determined that he is about to be attacked, the intended victim becomes the initiator and explodes with a kiai and controlled atemi, followed by a joint-lock or throw, and a pin. Here the aggressor has lost the element of surprise and the roles have been reversed.

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969)

The aikido adept, having both throwing and pinning skills, now has a choice as to what to do at this point. He has chosen not to violently punch or kick, both percussive actions whose damage is very hard to control, and can immobilize or render unconscious the assailant without causing serious damage. In such a circumstance, one now chooses what the appropriate level of response is, and can “own” the consequences of his actions with confidence. I would venture to say that such a person would have a much stronger legal standing if the other party has suffered no serious injury.

Although perhaps idealized, this is an “aiki” response, potentially lethal but tempered by skills acquired through years of training and a life-protecting morality. This is akin to the “katsujinken” or life-giving sword, a metaphor often used by the Founder to emphasize aikido’s moral imperative to respect and nurture life.

Aikido is truly unique as a martial art in terms of the set of skills it provides and the moral outlook it inculcates in the dedicated practitioner. In this sense, Morihei Ueshiba’s philosophy offers a visionary approach to many of life’s thorniest problems and innovative solutions aimed toward peaceful resolutions.


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  1. The apparent dilemma of Waiting – or moving First to defense yourself, is an important issue which Stan brings up. Your legal concerns must be resolved or: 1) You lose your house and/or end up in jail 2) Your confusion causes hesitation or indecisiveness which costs you your life.

    Fortunately, most states have addressed the issue well. In most states you will find the “Defense of Justification.” Consult your state’s penal law and you will probably find the same or similar language to my state of New York:

    Article 35.15, Section 1: Use of Physical Force

    ….a person is justified in using physical force against another person when he/she “reasonably believes” such to be necessary to defend them self or another person against what he/she believes to be the use
    “or imminent use” of unlawful physical force………. Unless: You provoked situation / You were initial aggressor / It is “combat by agreement” ……..All force must end when threat ends……

    Article 35.15, Section 2: Use of Deadly Physical Force

    …..a person may use deadly physical force against another person when he/she “reasonably believes”
    that unlawful deadly physical force is being used “or about to be used” against them or another person…
    ….Unless: You can retreat with “complete safety” …but defender has no legal duty to retreat

    The term “reasonable” is crucial to your defense, actions must be reasonable based on the situation, and may not be “reckless.” The burden is on you to >>ARTICULATE IN DETAIL – WHY – you perceived and felt that pre-emptive actions were necessary. If you do that, the law will usually protect you. If you are within your state’s laws of “Justification” then you are probably safe from civil liability as well as criminal.

  2. Nice.
    ASU style teaches putting down attacker slowly and staying in control, rather than throwing Uke
    10 feet away with force.
    Some people’s throws are devastating and can break a neck or kill, worse than breaking a jaw.
    This is because some use force and do not do the ZONE or KUZUSHI that Pranin Sensei
    talks about.
    I have seen concussions , a broken neck… and a broken elbow (there is no treatment for a broken
    “joint” elbow, I mean no treatment that can return normal function…).

    P. Ghassibi, MD

  3. The law and ethics and common sense: what a hornet’s nest! Let our consideration begin at the top and utilize sayings from our practice.

    1) “If you are attacked you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Apologize.” . The apology may take the form of an Aikido technique. Yes, there are obvious exceptions but for those of us who are not police, security guards or something similar the saying holds. Wyatt Earp said that in the wildest times when he was a city marshal in Dodge City, most citizens never saw or even heard a gunfight because they were sensibly home in bed at night. Despite and occasionally violent past, I have never had a fight since beginning Aikido. Our hypothetical civilian Aikideshi should be able to smell trouble and “avoid [the] falling rock.”

    2) If one is attacked, the beginning must be irimi. “Never back up. Your attacker can move more quickly forward than you can backward.” Even new Aikideshi should be able to throw both hands up and to the front while entering such that his one point describes a path shaped like a flattened “S” or a twisted paper clip. Irimi is not a “reaction”; it is an action. Accompanied by a KI-filled kiai such irimi may be almost all that is necessary.

    3) “Run away” is a fine Aikido technique.

    4) Aikiatemi is not meant to cause damage but rather to upset the attacker’s co-ordination and as such may be used effectively against any soft tissue and occasionally bone.

    5) “I have no right to inflict damage upon another human being.” Since any Aikideshi will know umpteen ways to injure of kill an attacker, it is completely immoral to do so.

    6) Never fight. If one be foolish enough to watch videos of “Aikido versus (insert the name of the hard art of your choice)”, if is inevitable that the supposed Aikidoka will begin to bounce around like a boxer. “Fighting is for fools.” If Aikido does not work at all times and in all places it is not true Aiki. Leave the fighting to the ring. Not only do Aiki but BE Aiki.

    7) Always remember that there is neither enemy nor opponent in O-Sensei’s Aikido. “Treat any attacker as you would treat a sick friend.” How can I care for this sick person? Not by breaking his limbs. Although I have not had a fight since beginning Aikido I have been attacked by mentally disturbed people and have rescued folks from groups of young men. A confident demeanour, a slight smile and an Aiki mentality will always lead to “instant victory” without violence. Remember the old story of O-Sensei and the drunken tough on the train. This is Aiki. I could go on but these few ideas have proven completely practical for many Aikideshi of my acquaintance. My biggest problem was overcoming the pre-Aikido training, which included training as an army MP. When I changed myself, the universe changed.

  4. I don’t think it will matter much in court if you find yourself there. Even if you have completely controlled your erstwhile assailant without injury, you’ve done “something” before the other guy did “something”. Irimi without a followup technique, however, may be sufficient to defuse the situation. It’s worked for me more than once. Winning in your opponent’s mind is even better than defeating their strategy. Both are ever so much better than defeating “your opponent’s army”. Loosely from Sun Tzu.

  5. 98% of Aikido is Atemi

  6. Great subject for contemplation. When I read the title, I immediately thought of how O Sensei wrote about drawing the attack where he wanted it (keeping in mind the flexibility of translators). A kind of “Sensen no sen”. Like a pre-emptive move, exposing an opening or closing off a side to allow the attacker to come in the way he was already leading. So less of a pre-emptive violent punch and more of a leading the attack as it begins to manifest.

    In theory, interesting. In practice, well… I hope we all have enough real mat time to begin to develop this possibility. Seems like one of those things that are mostly considered over beer and the actuality of which is pretty rare. But then the rarity just creates a vivid gap for us all to train to close.

  7. Devin Hammer says:

    I would go a step further in saying that the “preemptive” action need not even be pseudo-violent or even martial in nature. An enthusiastic “Hello” or reaching out to shake hands can often diffuse the situation.

  8. This varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

    Where jurisprudence has advanced, “a reasonable belief that an attack was imminent,” is tested against actual and factual presence of Pre Incident Indicators (PINS). Or other indicators of intent.

    For example; was the the intended perpetrator carrying a loaded weapon. This may not apply where weapon carrying is customary. In that case other indicators apply in context to the situation.

    Where budo training is real and not fake, PINS forms a conscious and defined part of the training.

    A generic and vaguely used term for PINS but without the clear, defined identification of symptoms is Zanshin.

    “Relaxed alertness” being futile unless you know what to look for; or it is staring you in the face and you have no scientific conception of what the indicators mean.

    Good law takes PINS into account.

    If you live in a country where little law prevails; or law is subjectively based on opinions, hypotheses, ideas, wishes, “beliefs” and “deals” then heaven help you.

    Whatever you do you will be made “wrong” by imbeciles who want to live in a fantasyland that does not exist.
    Subjective law is no law at all.

    The reading of intent is not a “mystical” faculty but a science that can be learned.

    It forms a wake and leaves a trial. It is identifiable from its details.

    Unfortunately the word, “I believed” can be used by a criminal mind who in fact knows that there is no cause to attack in the name of defence.

    Seldom are people attacked out of the blue. That’s largely an urban myth. Whilst it does happen that is by far a very small percentage.

    Intent of the attacker is usually linked to a prior concatenations of events.

    Either of relationship or of failure to live consciously taking precautions and preventive measures.

    There is more to an event than may meet the unpracticed eye and things may not be as they appear.

    In advanced legal jurisdictions the concept of “who hit first” has become obsolete.

    The evolution, put simplistically, goes something like this:

    In the jungle it was survival of the fittest, strongest and most cunning. The weak, slow witted and injured, if they survived, did so buy virtue of serendipity or a strong protector who loved them or could use their other skills.

    In the feudal era, if your were a serf you were born “wrong,” stayed “wrong” and everything you did was “wrong” and you lived and died at the mercy of the privileged at all times and this was backed up by the mental tyranny of religion, fear of pain, death, hellfire and other superstitious thinking. Some people to this day have not evolved out of this paradigm.

    Right up until relatively recent times, and continue now in some backward regions, various permutations, often clinging to a variable of the feudal model were perpetrated on the unthinking.

    Whilst “a belief” per se carries no weight (although some still try to get away with this) the sciences of identifying fact, pre, or post event have evolved and continue to improve and are being incorporated into law (where people give a damn sufficient to bother) on a daily basis as it is being refined in an attempt to make law more precisely concur with the justice it should be serving.

    Correct budo practice takes the identification of the actual and factual in the present moment and practices it. On this basis, a cosy, padded, well lit square room should never be your sole practice area.

    The study, understanding and practice of Pre Incident Indicators and that in context is integral to budo practice at all levels. And law.

  9. Very helpful information, Tom! Thank you.

  10. Just correcting the error I made giving my web site address earlier. Thanks, Tom

  11. Keoni R. May says:

    There is a Law Enforcement Exception Rule.

    Action, is faster than, Reaction. LEOs can’t risk physical injury. LEO Administrators, can’t have LEOs, constantly in medical care or medically retired.

    Is it the fear of the unknown? Is the person bluffing and just menacing? Or, is that person going to do physical harm?

  12. in august i had this problem. A local hooligan had misinterpreted a tweet from my girlfriend and set out to attack us. I didn’t know the character but he cornered me one night, several months after. I wasn’t practicing Aikido at the time. The verbal attack that coupled his cornering of me was very close to my home, the words included ‘sorting out my misses and burning my house down’.

    Maybe if this occurred further away from my home i may of pushed by him and walked. But it was a threat to close to home. His position of strength was that he had his two friends with him. I felt the moment and struck at his throat which meant he fell back somewhat. His friends were not sure whether to attack so I tried to calm the situation. His second attack was rushed. I waited till the moment he sent his punch and dropped my weight into a kind of crouched position, his weight fell on my shoulder, weirdly i could feel his swing go over me and reach its end, i could feel him loose his balance at that point, so i stood up and pushed him in the direction he was going and he fell to the ground. His friends stopped him from carrying anything on. The police said i could be arrested if i asked them to arrest him and that i could be charged for assualt. It’s a tricky situation. I joined Aikido the following week which has settled my anxiety that i’m going to get any more grief from local idiots and has built my confidence up as well as my concentration. I believe if it happened again i would do the same but with more style!…i believe a pin may of invited a kick in the head from his friends!

  13. John Gillespie says:

    I am not a legal expert, however in my country the rule of minimum force would be applied. Preemptive attacks could not be ruled out, but I’m reasonably sure any physical ‘attack’ would be frowned upon in court. This would include restraining someone. It wouldn’t necessarily get you jail time, but you might be cautioned.

    As to the post that attacks out of the blue rarely occur, sadly this has not been my experience. I cannot number the amount of unprovoked random attacks I have either witnessed or suffered myself.

    I have practiced aikido for over 14 years, and I have a well developed awareness of my surroundings. In the past, I have been able to able avoid violent situations by either walking away or by defusing It. The attacks I’m referring to had no build up.

    Also, retreating in the face of an attack is a valid tactic. By simply moving offline you provide yourself with thinking time and it can have a psychological affect on your attacker. In the end the “prepared mind” is the only option. Whether you wait for the attack or preempt it, situational awareness is key.

  14. Harun Itachi haupt says:

    I myself landed in court bout 15 years ago.
    To defend yourself and comes free of lawsuits,
    You need to turn the odds in your favor. I was attack by 4 to 5 guys
    And it turn in my favour coz I looked liked an innocent victim

  15. John L Herr, ND BCND says:

    This becomes an even greater problem because many altercations begin with the intended attacker right in your face or the attack from behind. With the attack close in front of you, you can try and get the person to two arms length distance by stepping back, but do it so that the individual is at a 45 degree angle. If this is not possible, then the position of San Chin in Uechi Ryu is good (to protect your groin also) but the hands in a relaxed manner, palms facing the attacker, but elbows low to protect your floating ribs. Also from this position you can quickly step back and turn to flow with your attacker’s forward motion. With a startle response (a sympathetic mode of flight or fight where your hands come up in front of you) you can still get your hand in the attacker’s face, but not touch them. Remember you can defend yourself by not even touching your attacker, but sending the message that this may work out badly for them. If they jump back to avoid what they think you may do, this may end it here. However if they continue the altercation you have greater justification for using technique that will cause him/her to take a fall. Falling is very psychologically damaging as well as physically, but this still leaves you in the area of justified force and defense of one’s self and others. Also keep in mind that their friends may join in when they think that their friend is losing. In such situations, the principal of a competently clear mind (no thought of attack or defense) and practice of techniques so that they have become reflexive may be necessary (rule of 5K).

  16. krav maga says:

    krav…..attack the attacker first

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