“A Moral Paradox of Martial Training” by Charles W. Wright, Ph.D., Nidan Aikido

An essay presented to the Society for the Study of Philosophy and Martial Arts at the 2009 meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Society.

Abstract: It is widely accepted by practitioners that at least one aim of martial training is moral development. It is equally well known that proficiency in a martial discipline often fosters egocentrism. I propose to examine this tension between the moral aspirations of martial discipline and the all too familiar failings of many advanced practitioners from the perspective of evolutionary biology and social psychology. First I will review the origins of what I call the moral imperative of Aikido and the role that perspective taking in Aikido training can play in opening the door to moral development. I’ll then consider how certain evolved propensities that organize human behavior – the pursuit of social status and in-group solidarity – can commandeer martial training that could be directed toward moral self-cultivation. The capacity of Aikido to support the development of empathic awareness of others will be, so to speak, bypassed while the discipline is pressed into the service of status seeking and in-group solidarity. I will conclude with some reflections on the significance of these evolved dispositions for the project of moral self cultivation.

I start with what I hope is a relatively uncontroversial claim, which is that responsible practitioners of traditional martial arts suppose that one aim of martial training is the cultivation of moral character. Needless to say, there is quite a lot packed into the qualifiers “responsible” and “traditional”. Implicit in them are claims to the effect that, for example, training in mixed martial arts as preparation for competition in the Ultimate Fighting Championships or some such will not share this goal. I could be wrong, though. Despite my prejudices, there could well be some kind of morally commendable development of character taking place in such training venues. Still, I don’t want to get bogged down just now in parsing the varieties of moral virtue that different martial forms and aspirations might or might not cultivate. So I shall simply and hopefully assert that some martial practitioners explicitly endorse the aspiration that their training should foster some kind of moral development. It is to this aspiration I want to turn my attention.

Let me now also quickly narrow the scope of my discussion to Aikido, because this is the martial art with which I have most extensive experience. It may be the case that the dynamic that I describe here is equally true of practitioners of other martial arts. I strongly suspect that it might be, but I have neither the experiential or evidentiary basis for making such claims.

I. The Moral Imperative of Aikido
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“Keeping It With You: The Hardest Part of Training,” by Gary Ohama

“Keeping it with you; now that’s the hardest part of training. Not losing it. Having it there when you have to use it.”

This was the response from life-long martial artist Norman Carr (Shotokan and Doshinkan Aikido(1).) We were discussing the benefits of physically “hard” training, sort of reminiscently. The normative age of this Black Belt class was around sixty years old. Realistically speaking, throws and breakfalls are now a long-term disability should anything go wrong. (Plus, it seems to take quite a long time just to get back up!) As martial artists an injury directly jeopardizes our ability to protect ourselves and loved ones. We will have defeated ourselves in this primary aspect of martial art training. As advanced Black Belts we really don’t need to do the breakfalls, or the throws, whether practically speaking or symbolically.

Our martial art quest of “continually seeking” required that we maintain our effectiveness despite the natural aging process. We are still looking forward, and not back. Our path took us to what many proclaim as the correct way to go. We went to internal methods. Our dojo has gone to a more intense emphasis on internal and breath methods.

The training is no longer anywhere near as physical as in our younger days. Yet we are more effective, not less. We have proved for ourselves the adage of internal benefits: we are now faster, more balanced, and more powerful than before. (Norman still is doing no problem, full-speed Aikido against Tae Kwan Do practitioners.) The essence of what we have discovered is that “the forms are fairly easy to duplicate, the path of creativity is not.” (2)

In practice it is very rare to execute a technique at 100% speed, power, or technique. Practice training is done in a manner that permits a breakfall or a tapping out release to occur. In the dojo there isn’t the likelihood of an unexpected attack. Remaining in an alert “condition red” is easy to do for the few hours of a practice session. Plus the initial response to the fear factor of a sudden violent encounter/trauma can’t be duplicated in the safety of the training atmosphere and circle of training partners.
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“Meditations on Violence” by Nick Lowry

“Some retreat from violence and instead become immature pacifiers; this is the one who puts up with it all, the one who suffers in silence, the one who hides from conflict…”

Some starting points: How do we hold the realities of violence? How do we interact with the suffering and trauma of violence? How do we transform and heal in the face of violence? What do dojos and budo (martial arts) have to do with all this?

We are all touched by violence. No one comes through the door of a dojo who has not been marked by this fact. Some are victims, others are victimizers. Some want relief from fear, others want to gain more power and control over their world in the face of chaos. Some dream of becoming a hero, wielding power like a weapon and doing violence for “good and just” purposes; vanquishing evildoers for the greater cause. Others just enjoy the paradoxical dance, the dance that turns so beautifully on the edge of something so ugly– the dance that somehow, transcends.

All must look deeply into the shadow of violence in order to transform it. To Heal. This is the price we pay for the power that we gain by learning this potent dance. The price is high, but necessary, for what we do not look into deeply, what we keep in our shadow and continue to neglect will inevitably come out— too often in some sideways and tragically inappropriate way, and we find ourselves asking, “Why did I just do that?”… “What is wrong with me that I would do That?” “How could I be the perpetrator of violence?”

So, how do we enter this dance? Insight requires reflection.

Some may pursue the path toward becoming the Ultimate Bad-Ass — As my friend Larry’s old t-shirt said, ”For yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, Because I AM the Baddest S.O.B. in the Valley!”–a tragic response to deep fear that plays out as an immature, posturing warrior. The bully archetype–cowardice and impotence dressing up like power, and it is sadly true that dojos certainly can play into these fantasies. Young men climb into octagonal cages every day at an alarming clip. Ultimate warriors abound. How sad.

Some retreat from violence and instead become immature pacifiers; this is the one who puts up with it all, the one who suffers in silence, the one who hides from conflict, the one who embodies fear under the guise of “keeping the peace,” but who is really just keeping the status quo. “Don’t rock the boat, stay quiet, we don’t wake the sleeping dragons. It will all work out some day.” Stoic and long suffering, dying inside by degrees. Tragic as well.
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“The Iwama Aikido Conundrum,” by Stanley Pranin


“How could such an elaborate technical system have developed in the isolated countryside of Iwama if Morihiro Saito were its creator?”

I have always felt that the origin of “Iwama Aikido” presents a conundrum for students of the history of modern aikido. For those unfamiliar with the subject, Iwama is a small town in Ibaragi Prefecture where Morihei Ueshiba relocated during the war. It remained the Founder’s official residence until his passing in 1969.

Founder with Morihiro Saito, c. 1955

What is commonly referred to as Iwama Aikido is a vast technical system consisting of taijutsu, aiki ken and aiki jo techniques. The taijutsu component alone includes somewhere in the vicinity of 600 techniques. Add the various weapons suburi and paired exercises and you have well over 1,000 distinct forms. This curriculum is far more elaborate than those of the Yoshinkan, Aikikai, or that of Koichi Tohei prior to his departure from the Aikikai. It is these latter systems that provide the basis for the styles of aikido that spread in Japan and overseas after World War II, rather than that of the Founder. This is not to imply that the Iwama system is superior but simply that it differs in important ways in content and scope compared to the other major aikido styles.

A fair question to ask is how could such an elaborate technical system have developed in the isolated countryside of Iwama if Morihiro Saito were its creator? Saito had only a middle school education and, aside from a short work assignment in Tokyo as an employee of Japan Railways, spent his life up to the age of 46 years in and around the town of Iwama. His studies of judo and karate as a teenager were brief and superficial, his main influence being his apprenticeship under the Founder starting from 1946.
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“The Legendary ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell,” by Patrick Parker

Patrick Parker: Your bio on your webpage says that at age 20 you had 14 years of hardcore training behind you, including some grappling with Ed “Strangler” Lewis, who is credited with inventing the sleeper hold. Is that where you got your fabulous rear choke?

Gene Lebell: The 1st time I learned it, yes it was from Ed Lewis. Since then there have been many variations in the world, from which I have learned to do it from the sides, the front, etc. They are in my Encyclopedia of Grappling, Finishing Holds for those who want to learn them…

Patrick Parker: You mentioned your Godfather of Grappling and Encyclopedia of Grappling books… What do you think is the role of books in training? Since you’ve got to lay hands on a real guy to learn to grapple, how much of what kinds of things do you think folks can learn from a book or a website? What is the best way to learn something when you don’t have face-to-face access to an expert?

Gene Lebell: Of course it is always better to work with an expert, but how often can you do that or afford it. As an alternative you use students of the experts, then videos or books. And there is no substitute for getting on the mat and experimenting and trying things to see what works for you and what doesn’t.

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Excerpt from Radio Interview with Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido

The above is an excerpt of a rare interview with Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. The entire interview from which this extract was taken runs about 15 minutes and was broadcast on radio in Japan sometime in the early 1960s.

Listening to O-Sensei’s actual voice will give you a totally different feel for his personality and mode of expression. He has a terrific sense of humor and speaks very straightforwardly. Notice how he mentions the effect of World War II on his thinking and the future direction of aikido.

This audio clip was taken from “The Founder of Aikido” DVD available through this website. This DVD is the final installment of a six-part series on the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba.

The first section is the uncut version of a Japanese tv documentary titled “Aikido” produced in 1961. This film focuses on the life and techniques of Morihei Ueshiba, and was shot on location in Iwama and Tokyo. It contains beautiful footage of the Founder in his daily life and during training. There are many marvelous action scenes, including an incredible display of empty-handed techniques, defenses against multiple attacks and a live sword!

Click here to find out how you can get this rare document for your video library.


“The Science of Interception” by Nev Sagiba

Pat Hendricks Sensei of Aikido of San Leandro executes iriminage

“Aikido is all about attack. But it is about correct attack:
Attack by interception.”

The whole of Aikido is interception and the follow up of interception. The forms and flow follow the intercept. Certainly, in order to teach beginners we strive to inculcate some forms, but without understanding the principle of interception and its function there can be no Aikido, or anything meaningful. Form without interception is but a dance.

I recall the magnificent Saito Sensei poking fun at “the dancers” and constantly referring to what Ueshiba Morihei taught him with a gentle urgency that suggested the importance of never forgetting the vital principles of Aikido he would expound.

The very few times I met Mr. Saito I was measurably impressed by the quiet depth of precision in his teaching.

Interception relies on the proper understanding of maai and deai.

There are identifiable steps in the process of intercepting an attack.

The desire to attack itself and to cause harm, comes from a predatorial warp of consciousness, an imbalance that believes the so called “silver rule” as some call it, is to “get them before they get you, just in case they might want to.” It is a left-over from the less than mythical bygone ages of ancestral cannibalism based on paranoia. It is most often in error, and by initiating aggression preemptively, in fact crosses the line that determines criminal activity.

The jails are full of people unskilled in timing for authentic defense. In short, that of pre-emptive aggression. The rest often find their way into politics or other positions where they can abuse the illusion of power they like to imagine they have. Either way, this is the path of the sociopath who leaves a swathe of suffering in the world.
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Review of Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s “A Life in Aikido” by Robert Noha


This is an important book on Aikido. It is a detailed biography of the founder of Aikido by his son and successor.

Moriteru Ueshiba, grandson of O Sensei and the current Doshu, summarizes the value of the book to Aikido practitioners in his preface:

“At present Aikido has spread to over 90 countries all over the world…given this wide dissemination, it is extremely important for Aikido to be correctly understood by its practitioners. In particular it is essential to trace the footsteps of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. The publication of this book, and its translation into English, are very significant in that regard.”
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“Morihei’s ‘Ueshiba Juku’ — Launchpad of a Martial Arts Career,” by Stanley Pranin

Morihei in Ayabe c. 1921

Early in my career as a researcher into the life of Morihei Ueshiba, I was misled by two prevailing myths concerning the history of aikido. The first was that Daito-ryu jujutsu was merely one of a number of older martial arts that influenced the technical development of aikido. This proved to be a misrepresentation of historical fact in that Daito-ryu was, technically speaking, by far the predominant influence on aikido. The second myth was that Morihei Ueshiba had something akin to a “star” status within the Omoto religion that placed him almost on a par with Onisaburo Deguchi, and that he was somehow a “non-member” member of the sect. (1) This view, too–in retrospect absurd on its face–proved easily refutable after a cursory research into Morihei’s involvement in the religious sect. Both of these viewpoints were promoted by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in the postwar years to enhance perceptions of Morihei’s status and originality as the founder of aikido, by downplaying the pivotal roles played by Sokaku Takeda and Onisaburo Deguchi in Morihei’s career.

In this article, I will focus on the events surrounding the launch of Morihei Ueshiba’s career as a martial artist on opening his “Ueshiba Juku” in 1920, and the role of Onisaburo Deguchi, co-founder of the Omoto religion, in introducing the aikido founder as a “martial art kami (deity)” to the rapidly growing Omoto religious network.

Morihei in Hokkiado

First, a bit of background information. Prior to Morihei’s relocation to Ayabe in 1920, he had lived in a remote area of Hokkaido for seven years as a settler, together with a group of families from his hometown of Tanabe in Wakayama Prefecture. From the standpoint of the development of aikido, the most notable aspect of his stay in Hokkaido was Morihei’s meeting with famous jujutsu master, Sokaku Takeda, and his subsequent training in Daito-ryu jujutsu. Morihei trained intensively in Daito-ryu under Sokaku for a period of about five years. In other articles and books, I have made a case for the substantive role of Daito-ryu in the evolution of Morihei’s martial techniques that would eventually culminate in modern aikido.

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1st Aikido Friendship Demonstration with Saito, Nishio, Sunadomari, Kobabyashi, Saotome, and Kuroiwa Senseis!

Our special for this week offers you an incredible value… You get the classic “1st Aikido Friendship Demonstration,” a 2-DVD set featuring outstanding performances by six Aikido greats: Morihiro Saito, Shoji Nishio, Kanshu Sunadomari, Yasuo Kobayashi, Mitsugi Saotome, and Yoshio Kuroiwa. All of this delivered to your door for the price of $24.95 during this sale.

Why should you want to own this DVD set? This is one of the most significant Aikido events ever held. The demonstration took place in Tokyo in 1985 and was sponsored by Aiki News, the predecessor of Aikido Journal. It attracted more than 900 open-minded aikido enthusiasts who spent the better part of the day glued to their seats.

What was unique about this demonstration? These six teachers had an opportunity to express their training philosophies, and display their technique in depth, each one in turn. No three-minute, bam bam bam demonstrations, and off the stage! In their respective lecture demonstrations, each instructor lays out for you the best of his art.. the product of decades of training under the tutelage of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. You will have these moving images and their words—completely translated into English—at your fingertips whenever you need guidance and inspiration in your training.

Here is the roster of demonstrators, most of whom need no introduction:

MORIHIRO SAITO – One of Aikido’s most famous figures, 9th dan expert in taijutsu and the Aiki Ken and Jo. Famous for his authoritative technical books on aikido, and world traveler in pursuit of the spread of O-Sensei’s art.

SHOJI NISHIO – One of the art’s true innovators, possessor of a dynamic style built on long years of study in other disciplines melded superbly into his unique aikido. Speed, effectiveness, and elegance are the hallmarks of Nishio Sensei’s aikido.

KANSHU SUNADOMARI – An unknown gem in aikido’s history. Did you know Sunadomari Sensei also received an oral 10th dan from O-Sensei? His aikido is amazing and his skills blew away the audience!

YASUO KOBAYASHI – A unique man, very charismatic, who built a huge organization within the Aikikai network in Japan and abroad. His aikido style is classic Aikikai. He still takes ukemi for his students even though he in his 70s!

MITSUGI SAOTOME – One of the most highly regarded of contemporary aikido masters. His style of aikido is minimal and powerful. Razor sharp technique with superb control!

YOSHIO KUROIWA – A little-known aikido genius and former boxer captivated by O-Sensei’s aikido. As a young man he was notoriously strong… Also, an excellent essayist with a compelling message. His aikido is like no other!

In addition, the DVDs contain five rare bonus films featuring Morihiro Saito, Yasuo Kobayashi, and Mitsugi Saotome. This is amazing historical footage you’ve never seen before!

Check out the descriptions of this 2-DVD set jam-packed with some two-and-one-half hours of brilliant content:

Part 1 – Demonstrations by Yasuo Kobayashi, Mitsugi Saotome, Kanshu Sunadomari, Yoshio Kuroiwa.
Part 2 – Demonstrations by Shoji Nishio and Morihiro Saito.

Order link for special: Complete 1st Aikido Friendship Demonstration DVD Set for $24.95

Please click on the above link, place the 1st Friendship Demonstration DVD Set in your shopping cart, and proceed to checkout.

The clock starts NOW!

We again look forward to this opportunity to serve you!

Stanley Pranin


Autobiographical article (2): “Koichi Tohei – Training in Japan” by Stanley Pranin

In my last article I covered the circumstances under which I began my practice of aikido in 1962 and some of my strongest memories from those first few years. I would like to pick up the thread of my narration where I left off last time. The year is 1965 and I am a student at the University of California at Los Angeles. In the intervening two years I had been promoted to ikkyu by Takahashi Sensei. Although the demands on my time for studies were heavy I managed to continue training on Fridays and weekends. Also, my interest in aikido had grown to the point that I began to take Japanese language classes as an elective at the university.

At that point in time I did most of my training at the Los Angeles Aikikai. It was one of the first dojos established in the mainland U.S. and continues to operate today. Besides the chief instructor Isao Takahashi Sensei, most of the senior students were nisei or sansei and several of them had moved to California from Hawaii where they had earlier begun their aikido training. As I recall, more than half of the dojo members were of Japanese descent. Some of those early aikidoka did much to spread aikido in California during the early years and such names as Clem Yoshida, Rod Kobayashi, Dan Mizukami, Francis Takahashi, and Daniel (Kensho) Furuya stand out most in my mind.

That summer at the dojo was a very exciting time for everyone as we were anticipating a visit from the Head of the Instructors’ Staff (Shihan Bucho) of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, the famous Koichi Tohei Sensei. Tohei Sensei was at that time perhaps the most well-known aikido teacher in the west due to his frequent travels to America and the publication of his early books in English. He had introduced aikido to Hawaii in 1953 and remained there teaching for about two years. At that point in time, the image of aikido in the minds of most foreigners was primarily shaped by his concept of the art which emphasized ki and, in this sense, Tohei was more influential outside of Japan than even the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Tohei was known for his unrivaled technique, and easy-to-understand, entertaining teaching approach. For those of us who had never met him, we were anticipating a man almost bigger than life.

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Gallery of screenshots from Morihiro Saito’s Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo DVDs!

Take a look at this wonderful selection of screenshots from Morihiro Saito’s Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo DVDs that we have prepared for you on our facebook page!Our special for this week is the famous Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo DVD set by Morihiro Saito Sensei, 9th dan. These DVDs cover all of the basic Iwama weapons forms of the aikido sword and staff curriculum as taught by Saito Sensei over a period of several decades. These are the forms that Saito Sensei learned from Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba during the years following World War II in Iwama. Saito Sensei gradually systematized these practices resulting in the Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo forms we practice today.

We offer this set at the special price of $24.95 for both the ken and jo DVDs, allowing all serious practitioners to build their video libraries.

Click here for more information and to order the Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo DVD set at special price of $24.95

Album of screenshots from Morihiro Saito’s Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo DVDs on Facebook