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…
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Stanley Pranin talks about relaxation and positioning at aikido seminar in Mexico

In this Spanish-language video, Stanley Pranin talks about the importance of relaxation, body unification, and positioning. This katatedori unbalancing movement followed by an entry into uke’s blind spot, puts one in an excellent position to execute ikkyo through yonkyo.


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Watch where you put your hands! “Shihonage Revisited,” by Stanley Pranin

“A subtle, but key change took place in the execution of
shihonage between the prewar and postwar eras.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninI recently uploaded a video titled “Fine Points of Shihonage” dealing with one of aikido’s core techniques. I covered a number of technical issues relating to shihonage that prompted many of you to participate in the discussion. Given the amount of interest in the topic, I would like to broach it once again, this time through the lens of historical photos of some of aikido’s greatest figures.

Actually, there is a subtle but important difference on the part of the major teachers concerning the way to grip uke’s wrist when executing shihonage. This difference can be clearly seen by examining Morihei Ueshiba’s description in the 1938 “Budo” manual, and in the way of execution of Kenji Tomiki and Gozo Shioda, both prewar students of the Founder.

This approach to shihonage stands in contrast with the methods Morihei’s son Kisshomaru and Koichi Tohei who were the main instructors at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in the postwar years. Not surprisingly, Moriteru Ueshiba, the present Doshu, also follows this approach.

Let’s take a look at this series of photos culled from various old publications of some of aikido most important historical figures.

budo-shihonage-640In this first photo taken from Morihei Ueshiba’s “Budo” manual, note O-Sensei’s hand position, his right hand on top holding his son’s wrist, and his left hand capturing uke’s thumb and fingers. This is how Morihei taught shihonage before and after the war. Notice how uke’s balance has been broken as a result of this powerful grip, positioning and hipwork.

kenji-tomiki-shihonage-grip-575Here is the famous Kenji Tomiki Sensei, a student of both Morihei and Judo Founder Jigoro Kano, executing shihonage. These photos are much clearer. Tomiki Sensei executes this technique in a very similar fashion, especially with respect to his hand grip. His left leg has advanced forward as he enters for the throw. In the inset photo, you can clearly see his grip and how uke’s thumb and fingers are controlled by Tomiki’s left hand.

gozo-shioda-shihonage-575Next, is Gozo Shioda Sensei, the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido. In this early Yoshinkan technical manual from the 1950s, we have yet another view of shihonage with Shioda Sensei’s right hand controlling the wrist and his left hand uke’s thumb and fingers.

Both of these prewar students of Morihei Ueshiba do shihonage as they learned it from Morihei Ueshiba.

kisshomaru-shihonage-grip-575Now, moving to the postwar era, we have Morihei’s son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba executing shihonage in this close-up photo. Here the shihonage grip has changed. Kisshomaru Sensei’s fingers are interlaced together holding uke’s wrist. Notice here that uke’s right thumb is free. This grip is quite common today, but does not afford as much torque on uke’s arm or control of his center compared to the Founder’s approach.

koichi-tohei-shihonage-grip-575Next, is Koichi Tohei Sensei, then chief instructor of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, from his 1960 book, “Aikido: The Arts of Self-Defense.” Tohei Sensei’s left hand is not clearly visible here, but I believe he uses a grip very similar to Kisshomaru’s. You will also notice that uke’s thumb and fingers are free. I remember that Tohei Sensei did not grip uke’s thumb and fingers in shihonage when I learned from him in the mid-1960s. Later, when I began studying with Morihiro Saito Sensei, the method of gripping uke’s thumb and fingers in shihonage felt very odd to me indeed, but more effective in the execution of the technique.

moriteru-shihonage-grip-575Then, we have a photo of the present Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba who performs shihonage in essentially the same manner as Kisshomaru Sensei and Tohei Sensei. Again, the thumb and fingers are not grasped here either. Thus, the approach to gripping uke’s hand in shihonage appears to be uniform in the immediate postwar era and beyond in the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, and by extension, within the Aikikai curriculum adopted worldwide thereafter.

thumb-capture-grip-575Finally, for purposes of comparison, here is a screenshot from my recent shihonage video where I demonstrate the shihonage grip taught by Morihei Ueshiba.

In these last two photos below, I show another variation of the shihonage grip that I learned early in my aikido training. In performing shihonage against a katadori or yokomenuchi attack, for example, nage grips uke’s wrist with the inside hand. This is the same. However, in this instance, nage’s outside hand grips further up on the forearm — not uke’s thumb and fingers — making it difficult to generate leverage on uke’s arm for shihonage. This method can be seen in some dojos today. I personally don’t find it nearly as effective as either of the two methods described above.



I have adopted somewhat of a forensic approach in studying the minutiae of a key component of the shihonage technique, one of aikido’s core basics. Here we see that an important specific of Morihei Ueshiba’s shihonage was abandoned in the postwar era within the Aikikai system. If this were an isolated phenomenon, it would not be of great importance. However, the reality is that the same thing occurs in many instances in other techniques as well. The end result is that much of Morihei Ueshiba’s technical input was lost in the modern aikido curriculum as many significant changes were introduced in the postwar years. For those wishing to understand the historical rationale for this shift, you may wish to read my article “Is O-Sensei Really the Father of Modern Aikido?”

Please join in the discussion by posting your comment below!

[I would like to acknowledge David Bone for providing the scans of the Kenji Tomiki and Gozo Shioda photos shown in this article]


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Video: Stanley Pranin — “An Aikido Life”

“If those elements that formed part of O-Sensei’s aikido were reintroduced into the art, I think the general technical skills of aikidoka would greatly improve.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley Pranin presents an overview of his career in Aikido focusing primarily on his lengthy experience in Japan as a researcher and publisher. Pranin conducted hundreds of interviews with many of the luminaries of the Aikido world who were responsible for the postwar development of the art.

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley Pranin interviews Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba in 1977

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley Pranin interviews Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba in 1977

The results of his historical research and these interviews appeared over the years in the Aiki News and Aikido Journal magazines, and in the various books he published on Aikido in English and Japanese.

Stanley Pranin with Koichi Tohei, Founder of Ki no Kenkyukai in 1995

Stanley Pranin with Koichi Tohei, Founder of Ki no Kenkyukai in 1995

To Pranin’s way of thinking, there are many things missing in today’s aikido. If those elements that formed part of Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei’s aikido were reintroduced into the art, he is of the belief that the general technical skills of aikidoka would greatly improve.

Stanley Pranin with Morihiro Saito Sensei in Canada in 1979

Stanley Pranin with Morihiro Saito Sensei in Canada in 1979

Those interested in arranging an Aikido seminar with Stanley Pranin make contact him through Aikido Journal.

Click here to watch Stanley Pranin — “An Aikido Life” on youtube.com


“Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei Electric,” by Stanley Pranin


“Although photos can only capture the essence of a fleeting moment, I have selected a few remarkable images that I feel will convey the amazing energy and electric presence of the Master!”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninI sometimes am myself surprised at the fact that my interest in Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba has never once waned even after all these years of involvement in the art.

O-Sensei cut such a dashing figure… electric, mysterious, hypersensitive, compassionate, fiery, are just some of the words that come to mind.

I was hooked the first time I saw an old 8 mm film of O-Sensei at the local YMCA where I was practicing. There was such an inherent power, beauty and humanity in his movements. I had never seen a human being move like that. I wanted to become like that.

As I began to learn about the Founder’s epic life over the years, my interest in probing deeper into how he trained himself and acquired his extraordinary skills and spiritual powers only grew greater.

That search has been the overriding focus of my professional life and has been manifested in our publications, events, and now our activities on the web.

Although photos can only capture the essence of a fleeting moment, I have selected a few remarkable images that I feel will convey the amazing energy and electric presence of the Master.

A dynamic still from the rare Asahi News film, Osaka 1935

A rare photo of O-Sensei partnered by Morihiro Saito Sensei from c. 1954

A rare photo of O-Sensei partnered by Morihiro Saito Sensei from c. 1954

The amazing photo of the Founder throwing Hiroshi Tada used for the
cover of the Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s first published book on aikido, c. 1956

Another sword demonstrating by the O-Sensei with Nobuyoshi Tamura as uke, c. 1957

O-Sensei brandishing a heavy bokken while training with Morihiro Saito in the fields of Iwama, c. 1958

The Founder off the line of attack covering Nobuyoshi Tamura’s shomen strike with a fan, c. 1960

Night training with the bokken in Iwama, 1961

Night training with the bokken in Iwama, 1961

O-Sensei wielding the nuboko at the old Aikikai, c. 1965


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The Morihei Ueshiba Founder’s Course is O-Sensei’s video legacy starting in 1935 and covering a span of 34 years until just before his passing in 1969. Besides the more than 30 films of the Founder, the course includes three rare audio interviews of O-Sensei with complete subtitles. These are wonderfully intimate conversations with the Founder that convey his bright personality, playfulness and sincerity. In addition, the course includes a series of video documentaries by Stanley Pranin on the life of the Founder and the spread of his art worldwide.


Killer Shihonage: “Escaping serious injury or even death!” by Stanley Pranin


“Shihonage as one of the techniques causing
numerous deaths in university clubs in Japan”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninMartial arts techniques are designed to damage the human body. Misuse or carelessness can result in serious injury or death. As a result, we have to take precautions during training to allow participants to practice safely.

Among the hundreds of techniques in aikido, there are several that are particularly dangerous. One of them is shihonage, “the four-direction throw.”

In his seminal article titled “Aikido and Injuries: A Special Report,” Waseda University professor Fumiaki Shishida implicates shihonage as one of the techniques causing numerous deaths in university clubs in Japan. Here is an excerpt:

As can be seen from the above cases, shihonage and iriminage stand out as techniques causing the accidents. In both techniques, it is easy to hit the back of one’s head with the inherent danger of a cranial hemorrhage. Let us first of all consider the case of shihonage. In this technique, the tori holds one hand of the uke and turning his body, causes the uke to fall backward. If the tori does this continously, it becomes increasingly likely for the uke to hit the back of his head depending on the speed, strength and point of release of the hand hold.

In these cases, it was repetitive head injuries in the university clubs where hazing is common that caused the deaths of the unfortunate students.

Morihei Ueshiba executing a "safe" shihonage that does not cause injury (1936)

Morihei Ueshiba executing a “safe” shihonage (1936)

Shihonage is the culprit in another kind of serious injury in aikido. Although not lethal, improper execution of shihonage has led to numerous serious shoulder, elbow and wrist injuries. The way this usually happens is when nage doesn’t make a complete turn when performing shihonage leaving uke’s arm hyper-extended and unprotected. Experienced ukes may avoid injury by taking a high fall to escape the intense pressure on the arm. However, practitioners who are less advanced may be overwhelmed by the pain caused and lack the skills to escape injury to the wrist, elbow or shoulder. In some cases, promising aikido careers have been ended as the victims have been left with chronic pain and loss of function in the injured areas.

In shihonage, it is important to fully pivot bringing uke’s arm back to his shoulder controlling the wrist. From here a safe back fall is possible. A rapid, incomplete pivot where uke’s arm is extended away from his body — as pictured in the color photo above — will leave him exposed to serious injury.

One other point I feel must be mentioned is the fact that there are are occasionally violent people who practice aikido. They train very hard pushing their uke to the limit and leave a trail of injuries in their wake. Some of these injuries are caused intentionally. Anyone who has practiced aikido for a long period of time has encountered such individuals in their careers and knows well what I am talking about here.

It is my personal belief that the dojo-cho is ultimately responsible for what goes on in the dojo and must be eternally vigilant to prevent this sort of dangerous activity under his watch.


Watch these videos for insights into solving the
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“Someone please explain the logic of this iriminage throw!” by Stanley Pranin


“The completion of the throw involves nage “allowing”
uke to stand back up only to be thrown down again.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninI have seen the iriminage throw executed this way for most of my aikido career. Using a shomenuchi attack as an example, nage meets uke’s arm and leads him around circularly applying pressure to his neck lowering uke’s body to the position shown in the photo or even lower. The completion of the throw involves nage “allowing” uke to stand back up only to be thrown down again. From there, the ukemi is usually a high fall. This particular iriminage is commonly seen at demonstrations, especially within the Aikikai system.

A few observations and questions:

  • Nage is controlling uke with one hand.
  • Uke must be very skilled and have a fair measure of control over his body to be able to take the fall.
  • Is there any potential for uke to counter using his left hand, for example, by attacking nage’s rear knee or foot?
  • Why does nage allow uke to come back to an upright position before downing him a second time?
  • Is this technique martially sound?
  • Added questions: Did Founder Morihei Ueshiba perform iriminage this way in the prewar or postwar eras?
  • Who popularized this type of iriminage throw and during what time frame?

Your thoughts, please!


October 5-6, 2013: Weekend Seminar with Stanley Pranin in Las Vegas!


Aikidoka: “The Apologetic Martial Artists,” by Stanley Pranin


“Who anyway is the superior martial artist… the guy who’s never been defeated
with a record of 0-0, or a formidable ring champion with a 35-2 record?”

For years I have heard a vociferous chorus of naysayers lambasting aikido as an “ineffective” martial art. Even among those who practice aikido, one can hear criticism of aikido’s techniques as unrealistic. I confess that I too have been among those who have lamented much of what goes on in aikido dojos all over the world, as misdirected and contrary to the basic principles of the art.

I have often felt frustrated with the standards used by aikido’s critics to disparage the art. To begin with, if we wish to discuss the merits or demerits of aikido as a martial art, does it not make sense for the detractor to define what he means by a martial art for the benefit of his audience? Absent this, how can we hope to have any kind of intelligent conversation about the subject?

Let me pick at random the definition of “martial art” offered by an online dictionary, “Merriam-Webster,” in this instance: “any of several arts of combat and self defense (as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sport.”

Yikes! I can’t believe it! This is a ridiculous definition to begin with. It also reveals an ignorance of the root of the term “martial” referring to Mars, the god of war. Then we are told that these arts are for “combat and self-defense” and that they are practiced as “sports.” I missed something. Just when did combat arts become sports? Unless we are talking about gladiators in Rome, fighters do not normally risk their lives while engaging in sporting competitions.

Another observation. Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba forbade competitions in aikido in the strongest possible terms. Kenji Tomiki, the man who did introduce a form of competition for aikido, became a persona non grata at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo for having taken this egregious step. He also became estranged from the Founder from that point on.

So, if we’re going to use Merriam-Webster’s definition, then aikido is certainly not an effective martial art because it is not a martial art at all! What is there to talk about? Where is the disagreement if this is what we mean when we banter about the term?

Ok, I’ll take my own advice and make a stab at a definition of “martial art” for purposes of this article. I think I have a better definition than the one above, one that gets closer to the way that martial artists use the term “martial art” when they talk about an art’s effectiveness in a “real” situation. Then perhaps we can conduct a meaningful discussion as to whether or not aikido can be classified in this category.
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Las Vegas Seminar Musings: “Tension vs. Relaxation,” by Stanley Pranin

“In each and every case the person had failed to unbalance uke, and was attempting to apply the technique against a partner with a stable structure.”

Back in 2013, I conducted a joint seminar together with Pat Hendricks Sensei in Las Vegas. For me, it was a wonderful experience as I had an opportunity to reconnect with many aikido friends and make a number of new acquaintances with some delightful people. Allow me to make a few observations that I have taken home.

The elusive concept of relaxation

The first has to do with the tension-filled body state of the attendees — most of whom were yudansha and teachers — when executing techniques. This was especially the case for techniques involving hand grabs, that is, katatedori techniques. As I have experienced elsewhere virtually without exception, students will tense their arms at the start of a technique. Even when I explained that that the tension in their body alerts uke to their intent, timing, and direction, it was very difficult for them to grasp this concept and apply it to the technique.

It was not that they were ignoring my instructions to move without tension in their body, but simply that they were unfamiliar with the mental and physical state of “martial relaxation” I was attempting to describe. They could recognize and feel the difference between relaxation and tension, but not reproduce this state in their own body. As a result, one of the areas of research I wish to focus on is how to take this abstract notion of “relaxation” in a martial context and teach students to translate it to their aikido training. My goal is to devise a series of exercises and imagery to enable students to produce this relaxed physical and mental state in movement. The principles involved are quite subtle, and seemingly counterintuitive to how we have trained our bodies to function in daily life.

Getting stuck and what to do about it

During the last few minutes of my final class, I encouraged students to speak up and show examples of problems they were having with specific aikido techniques. We had time for three people to demonstrate in front of the group and indicate where in their movement they were having trouble.

What was interesting to me, yet hardly surprising, was that in each and every case the person had failed to unbalance uke, and was attempting to apply the technique against a partner with a stable structure. Also, they ended up standing in front of uke, well inside his range of vision and within easy reach. This was the “sticking point” where they were prevented from continuing their technique.

Uke still balanced

What I did was suggest that they focus on their first action to be sure they unbalanced uke before attempting to apply a technique. This means getting off the attack line and usually executing an atemi to achieve this result. My impression was that the attendees did not use atemi much in their training. When they did perform atemi strikes to neutralize uke’s attack, their movements tended to be tentative and therefore had little effect on uke who continued to resist. They were “stuck” at this point in their technique.

Forgetting atemi

I believe there is a lot of potential for improving students techniques if we can teach them to incorporate well controlled, vigorous atemi while remaining relaxed. If atemi are effectively delivered, it is possible to completely reverse the encounter with uke to allow nage to gain and retain control over the outcome.

I would like to sincerely thank Pat Hendricks Sensei and all the participants for making the effort to attend the event and bringing an abundance of positive energy that resulted in a thoroughly enjoyable experience.


Watch these videos for insights into solving the
technical problems that hold back your progress!

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Video: Have you ever seen this nikyo before? It hurts!

In this video, Stanley Pranin explains and demonstrates a very unusual katatedori nikyo oyowaza that you have probably not seen before. Pranin is the founder of Aikido Journal and will be conducting a joint seminar with Pat Hendricks Sensei of Aikido of San Leandro, one of the highest ranking female aikido instructors in the world, in Las Vegas, March 9-10, 2013.

Click here to view the video of this unique nikyo technique


Video: Impromptu Aikido Demonstration by Stanley Pranin

This is a short impromptu demonstration I gave at a private aikido seminar in Las Vegas on October 6, 2012. The occasion was a private workshop I gave titled “Exploring Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei’s Aikido.” Over the weekend, I presented some historical background information that attempted to explain how it is that we came to practice the aikido we do today, who was responsible, and what is the nature of the curriculum and pedagogy. For an explanation in article form, please see “Towards A Reform of Aikido Technique (1): Background.”

I will be conducting an aikido seminar jointly with Pat Hendricks Sensei, 7th dan, in Las Vegas on March 9-10, 2013 for those of persons interested in these ideas and how they translate to training and technique.


“Towards A Reform of Aikido Technique (1): Background,” by Stanley Pranin


“What was done instead was to de-emphasize the martial pedigree of aikido’s techniques, and eschew practice conditions that led to the cultivation of a strong martial spirit.”

Kisshomaru Ueshiba demonstrating at Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1962

Revival of aikido after World War II

The typical aikido practitioner — this also includes many instructors — has only the vaguest of notions of how the art took roots in Japan and abroad following World War II. This is not due to a lack of availability of information on the subject. It is possible to study about the events of this period, but the necessary information is scattered among multiple sources, which require a reading ability in Japanese, English, and other European languages.

Certainly, the Internet has facilitated this task, but it is still difficult to gain a basic perspective of how aikido reemerged, first in Japan, and then abroad, after the cataclysmic events of the Great War. There is little incentive for scholars to do the necessary research because only a relatively small number of people are interested in such historical matters pertaining to aikido.

Who were the Prime Movers?

It is a fairly simple matter to identify the main persons responsible for aikido’s emergence as a modern Japanese martial art since so few people were involved in the art’s early years. Here is my list: Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, Gozo Shioda, and Kenji Tomiki. These names will be immediately recognizable to most experienced aikido practitioners. There are others who played roles of varying importance, but these four figures stand out as the key figures that shaped postwar aikido. Among the four, Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Koichi Tohei were far and away the most influential during the 1950s and 60s. Yet neither of the two had an extensive background in martial arts prior to stepping into their leadership roles within the Aikikai.
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