Origin and Intent
Aikido and other samurai derived martial arts are properly referenced with the understanding that everyone is armed, or has the potential to be so. For this reason, authentic aikido training is ideally suited for military, law-enforcement, and high-risk security personnel.
Aikido was chiefly informed by Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu, which was a descendent curriculum of the Takeda Clan’s “oshikiuchi” techniques for maintaining security inside the castle. It was reserved for the most elite warriors in service to the lord.
A castle or palace frequently welcomed high ranking visitors of the samurai class, who were always armed with at least one, yet usually more, edged weapon. Similarly, the working staff at the castle were all armed in some way. Cooks, gardeners, farmers, and stable hands all had sharp tools as a required by their duties. Even the courtesans and ladies in waiting had kaiken blades and sharpened hairpins to be used in their own defense or to take their own lives rather than living in disgrace.
The samurai inside such a castle needed a system for neutralizing armed aggression while minimizing disturbances to ceremonies or raising alarm with guests in neighboring rooms. Keeping up a dignified appearance was essential for saving face in samurai society.
Similarly, restraining a high ranking samurai who may be acting impulsively, perhaps from imbibing excessively on “sake” rice wine, required a high degree of finesse. A security guard could not just beat, maim, or kill a higher ranking samurai.
Appropriate caution was needed to prevent repercussions from claims of excessive force by an outside clan, and the perception of the incident among the community of clans. Therefore, the techniques used in such a situation were efficient yet proportional to the threat as well as the social restraint required.
Applications For Today
In modern society, informed by the Enlightenment, Natural Rights tradition, and Constitutional government, every citizen is viewed as sovereign and worthy of equal respect. The highest and the lowest born are endowed with the same degree of humanity and are, ideally, afforded equal justice under law.
However, when they threaten the lives, liberty, or property of others their actions may provoke a defensive response, up to and including deadly force if necessary. Still, caution and minimum required uses of force are the expected standard for treating everyone with dignity.
Each individual, being endowed by their humanity with certain inalienable rights, deserves to be treated with respect, even when they forget their true nature and act to forfeit their membership in a civilized society. A reasonable degree of restraint and proportionality governs the use of force in pursuit of just human interactions.
Further, and regardless of what legislative prohibitions dictate, weapons are ever available in virtually every environment. Even in the absence of firearms or tactical blades, people can improvise and use just about any sharp object or blunt instrument to supplement their physical attributes. The biblical story of Cain killing his brother Abel with a rock is useful for illustrating this.
For this reason, appreciating the armed potential of each individual serves to ground our awareness and discipline our actions with due caution.
The samurai also had a useful phrase in this regard: Courtesy is not for the benefit of the other person, but serves as a check on one’s own right-mindedness. Even when someone disrespects us and dishonors themselves, acting with courtesy ensures our own rectitude.
It is with this in mind that aikido, as an heir to “oshikiuchi”, can be applied to modern life. Particularly in contemporary society when armed attacks occur suddenly in public places and where events are likely to be video recorded. We need to ensure that our actions are both tactically sound and reasonably justifiable.
Conversely, taking aikido and other samurai related martial systems out of the armed environment from which they derive removes all context that provides them with relevancy for modern use.
The first step toward rightly applying aikido to the present world is to adopt the understanding that everyone is, or at least potentially is, armed.
In the United States, as the first nation-state to adopt a governmental structure based upon Enlightenment and Natural Rights philosophy, each citizen is a member of the militia corresponding to their locality within the federation. As such, they are rightly armed and disciplined for service to the union in executing the laws, repelling invasions, and suppressing insurrections. All Americans are, or ought to be according to the Constitution, ready to deploy fully equipped as to execute the laws, repel invasions, or suppress insurrections when called into service.
Even, or especially, in jurisdictions where individual sovereignty and Natural Rights are disrespected by politicians and bureaucrats, armed violent attacks occur frequently. One can readily make the case that attacks occur more frequently in areas where such legislative infringements occur.
Whether it is a firearm, explosive, knife, or motor vehicle, civilians are subject to the predations of anti-social actors on a frequent, yet unpredictable basis.
Circumstances demand that everyone must act with the understanding that anyone could be armed in some way and that an attack can occur at any moment.
The first line of defense in such an environment is situational awareness, for self and other, that manifests as a courtesy that offers no offense or provocation.
In other words, an armed society is a polite society.
This is why, after a thousand years of warrior dominance, the Japanese are renowned worldwide for their respectful nature and the lengths to which they will go to uphold social harmony.
The Proper Role
For those of us interested in restoring aikido’s martial efficacy (those appealing to #TakingAikidoBack), our training must also incorporate this understanding of armed culture.
Fortunately, these underlying suppositions are already embedded within authentic aikido training. If people actually understood the martial lineage of aikido and trained with the fundamental understanding of edged weapons combat, its reputation and practice would exude a martial character.
Unfortunately, aikido has developed a reputation contrary to its martial heritage and efficacy. There are a number of teachers and exponents that present aikido foremost as moving meditation, energy work, alternative communication, a health system, or a means of self-development.
While aikido is all of these and more, placing the tangential benefits of training ahead of prevailing in armed interpersonal conflict has misrepresented the curriculum and rendered an empty shell of form without realistic function.
Such approaches have forgotten the nature of conflict while neglecting the need to address the underlying causes of it. Only by addressing the root cause can those devoted to peace transcend conflict.
Combat always involves a conflict over property. Whether it be about land, territory, natural resources, or compelling an action by a human body, all conflict involves a struggle of divergent wills over the use of material property.
Enlightened warriors understand that conflict is always about control over physical resources and act in defense of justly held property, which is the basis of civilization and the mainspring of elevating living standards.
As Sun Tzu pointed out in the Art of War, “One must keep it whole when contending for all under heaven”. It is better to preserve the lives and property of our opponent rather than spread destruction and senseless death.
Because nature endowed human beings with significant intellect, yet provided little in the way integral weaponry (such as sharp claws, long teeth, thick fur or hardened skin) humans must use their minds and bodies to transform natural resources into usable tools in order to compensate for what they lack physically. Again, humans must extract property from the natural world for their exclusive use in order to protect themselves and sustain their lives.
This leads us back to the inevitable role of property in conflict and how real combat naturally involves the use, or at least awareness, of weapons.
8 Points For Realistic Training
With this in mind, consider how training would look if aikido were practiced as though everyone were armed:
1. Grabs are properly understood as actions to prevent an opponent from deploying their weapons. This is especially true for the uke, or attacking partner that ultimately receives the techniques. Grabbing a wrist is done so as to control the hand and prevent it from gripping a weapon that is more than likely carried somewhere along the belt line. Grabs to the shoulder are done to the outside of the sleeve, and not the shoulder pockets or lapel, so as to prevent the subject from raising their arms. Again, the idea is to prevent them presenting a weapon with their arms, not to shove or pull them as in a double lapel grab.
2. The grab is the first action an attacker takes to achieve some other desired end. The grab is not the end in itself. What begins with someone preventing us from accessing our tools is usually followed by some other infringement upon our freedom of action of physical integrity. The grab prevents us from deploying our weaponry so that they might cause further harm with a strike, takedown, kidnapping, or forcefully taking our property. Aikidoka need to keep this present in their minds while training in order to understand the mechanics of proper technique. The grab is merely the prelude to further attack.
3. Since most samurai weapons were deployed from a cross-draw, the kosa-dori or ai-hanmi katate-dori grabs are the most logical and most frequent type of attack. This not only prevents the subject from unsheathing the weapon without a major body movement, but also puts the attacker out of range from the “nage” subject’s free hand. The cross-hand grab also provides access to the rear of the subject and the “shikaku” dead angle that allows for maximum advantage.
For this reason, the cross-hand grab is also ideal for restraining the hand of someone drawing a firearm with the hand on the same side as the weapon. We thwart their aggression while getting out of the line of fire by moving to the outside and rear. Learning the reason behind the attack is just as important as how to mechanically perform an attack. Attacking and receiving the techniques from “nage” is at least half of the training value provided by aikido.
4. A grab is conducted with full commitment on the part of the “uke” attacker because it is the one chance to prevent the subject from deploying their weapons. It the grabbing attack fails to firmly control the subject, they will most likely disengage, create space, and counterattack with the weapon in hand.
With this in mind, uke is disinclined from letting go once engaged in a grabbing attack. At this point, they have a tiger by the tail. They either effect the arrest or fail in their mission and likewise must of themselves also disengage, create space, and either escape or escalate their attack, most likely with a weapon of their own.
5. Aikido pins hold the subject face down on the ground so as to prevent them from deploying the weapons carried along their belt line. During the samurai period the ko-dachi, wakizashi, tanto, tanken, or kaiken were most often worn close to the center line of the body’s vertical access along the belt. In a modern context, people carry pocket knives or tactical folders in their front pants pocket. The aikido “osae waza” remain relevant, when applied correctly, toward preventing weapons deployment. Contrast this to contemporary sport fighting where most pins and tap-out techniques are done with the opponent face up. Weapons involvement and multiple attackers are not even considered in such an environment. The aikido curriculum of osae waza is uniquely suited to contribute to effective arrest techniques in an armed environment.
6. Throws are conducted to create space so as to deploy a weapon. The attacker has already demonstrated their intent to deny us our liberty and the throwing action is oriented on restoring our freedom of movement. While an aikido throw in application leaves no room for a beautiful roll and, when properly executed, will likely debilitate the attacker, we must be ready for whatever other threats remain. Therefore, as human beings that use their intellect to fashion tools that amplify their physical capacity to perform work, the prudent action to take is to deploy a weapon that prevents any further encroachments.
7. The “remaining mind” moment of “zanshin” in training, just after executing a technique, is the place where we maintain our situational awareness and energetic dominance over all known and potential opponents. In the “real world” after engaging in a violent enforcement action, armed professionals scan their environment while covering down on the subject with their weapon at the ready.
Zanshin, incorporated into every technique during authentic aikido practice, is readily transferable to modern applications such as this. In combat fighting is not done until the sound of a bell or the scoring of a point. The terms and conditions are not fixed by contract or enforced by a referee. Training for the real world requires “tightening the helmet straps”, as the samurai maxim admonishes, even after the appearance of victory.
8. Aikido assumes more than one attacker is likely involved. The techniques are organized to consider movement across the front as well as to the rear of the opponent. This not only offers flexibility to respond to the type of energy involved in the attack, but also allows us to see what other threats are within our immediate environment.
The oral instruction bequeathed by the founder, Morihei Ueshiba O’sensei, advised us to enter deeply and turn. This not only allows us to align with the attacker’s energy while avoiding injury, but also allows us to adopt a different field of view from where we were before the attack began. From here, we can see what else we have to contend with.
Similarly, pinning techniques are conducted from either a kneeling or standing position. This allows us to keep our head up and scanning for additional threats while maintaining control of the opponent we are aware of.
People in the real world, and armed professionals in particular, cannot countenance going to the ground but in the most grave extreme. Because weapons are likely involved and other attackers may join in, returning to a place of mobility and visual dominance of the scene is imperative. In the event that circumstances place us struggling with someone on the ground, the only choice is to escalate, to the point of deadly force if necessary, in order to regain our footing and freedom of movement.
This freedom of movement is essential to maintaining situational awareness. Effectively using combat geometry, reinforced by the triangular half body stance (known as sankaku hanmi no kamae, or simply “hanmi”) allows the aikidoka to cut through attackers approaching from multiple directions. The head up and level posture, combined with a “soft eye” gaze, embedded in the hanmi stance of aikido supports a wide field of awareness. Practicing this posture during training, along with proper breathing technique, also dispels the onset of “tunnel vision” and other physiological stress responses characteristic of combative engagements.
These eight points are not meant to be exhaustive, yet offer some insight on what aikido has to offer for dignified human beings in the real world who seek to serve society by protecting themselves, their loved ones, and their justly held property. It also informs how training can be conducted with martial intent and practical application.
Aikido training involves placing the power of life and death, as well as the potential for debilitating injury, into our partners’ hands. For this reason, a mature approach with due caution is essential.
We should all remain cognizant of the founder’s first admonition for training:
“Since the original intent of bujutsu was to kill an opponent with a single blow, carefully follow the instructor’s guidance and do not engage in contests of strength.”
A martial approach to training opens the field of possibility for creating a more civilized, secure, and enlightened world where everyone can live with dignity and ever increasing standards of material abundance. The need to guard against anti-social actors will remain as long as there are those that act upon greed, envy, and avarice. This may have been what Ueshiba O’Sensei was alluding to with the statement:
“Aikido is none other than the sword of pacification, the sword that brings peace and prosperity to the world.”
While both lofty ideals and baser emotions may be part of the human condition, it is only through a willingness to take action that we can promote the virtuous while discouraging the degenerate. The willingness to do what is necessary for the protection of life, liberty, and property is what sets the warrior apart. Good intentions, lofty goals, and higher ideals are all for not without tangible action.
Training for application in the real world needs to be grounded in principle. Fortunately, aikido inherits a legacy of realism that, when properly understood, readily applies to modern life and the realm of actual conflict.