Forget What You “Thought” You Knew about Aikido

This week I started reading a book, Aikido Shugyo: Harmony in Confrontation, that my friend and mentor Robert Mustard Sensei gave me. Written by the founder of Yoshinkan Aikido, Gozo Shioda Kancho, it provides a personal and direct experience of the man as though he were telling us his stories right in front of us. Each story describes a different principle of Aikido. Some of the principles featured would surprise many a martial artists who “thinks” they know what Aikido is all about, including those listed below.

“Atemi are 70% of a Real Fight.”

This is one of the first principles listed in this book. Atemi, for those of you unfamiliar with the Japanese word, translates to “strikes to nerve centres or vital points.” Ueshiba Morihei himself, founder of Aikido, once said, “In a real fight, 70% of Aikido is atemi and 30% of is throwing.” There is a philosophy of striking that it’s not simply about learning to punch and kick, but to use any part of the body to affect specific contact points. But wait… there’s more.

“The Straight Punch Comes off the Front Knee.”

Whether you’re using a right lunge punch, or reverse punch or any other strike for that matter, Shioda Sensei says that the body’s centre of gravity should ride on the right foot. He says that one must use the knee when generating power by the forward movement of the centre of gravity or else the energy stops there without being transferred into the upper body. This leg engagement is something that is practiced in every Aikido training session. But wait… there’s more.

“Atemi is all timing.”

Citing boxing as an example, Shioda Sensei goes on to explain that oftentimes it is only a very casual looking punch that knocks a guy out. He says that striking effectively is more about “judging an opponent’s changing movements and punching with absolutely perfect timing” and that “if it is timed perfectly, you do not need a lot of power for the punch to be effective.” Apparently Mike Tyson himself saw the benefit of Aikido principles and even travelled to Japan to visit Shioda Sensei’s dojo to learn what he could from the style’s body movements.
These are but a few examples. If these statements intrigue you, I suggest you pick up this book. It is excellent. A great read for any martial artist. I can’t believe I only found it now. It’ll give you a perspective on Aikido that will make you rethink what you thought you knew about it. It is giving me an itch to train in Aikido myself. Good thing I’ll be attending Mustard Sensei’s monthly Kenshu Aikido class at his dojo in Burnaby this Friday. He is also going to teach a special class at my own dojo on April 3, which is an excellent opportunity for my students to experience his knowledge and skill.
Comments (15)

15 thoughts on “Forget What You “Thought” You Knew about Aikido

  1. I, in fact, did not take the liberties. It was the translators of the book who did. I quoted their translation word for word. There are many words in Japanese that don't have an exact English translation and when you translate it directly, it's not being used in the same spirit as the Japanese use it. They chose to translate the spirit of the usage of the word rather than the literal translation, as per discussions with Japanese heads of style.

  2. "Atemi are 70% of a Real Fight": excellent statement, too bad the practice in most dojo's (those I visited at least) does not reflect this principle. Aikido is a very technical art and it can be very potent in application but you need to know the finer points of the technique and strategy and that is what's left out in a lot of western dojo's. Probably due to the ignorance of the sensei. To truly learn aikido visit Japan and train with the grandmasters, the second best is to find a highly skilled western master but those are quite rare. In any case make sure they were trained in Japan and got their belts there, otherwise it's likely they'll only know the basics of the technique – the omote or outward manifestation – and not what makes it work for real (ura).

    I once visited a dojo with a Japanese sensei and upon politely expressing my disbelief in the wide, graceful movements as an effective response to violence he smiled and invited me to test him. First he told me he would predict my attack before I could actually strike, which he did: pointing at the limb I intended to strike with before I could finish the movement. Then he told me I could attack him full force, after bowing I did and he sent me flying without me even knowing how on earth he did it. I know a thing or two about boxing so my punches are pretty good yet somehow he got past them and I ended up back first on the mat. Upon asking how he did it he showed me that based on his reading of my body he knew how I'd attack so he could enter upon anticipation. This, combined with a fingerlock, effectively eliminating all resistance, led to a flawless victory… Truly impressive and a show of great skill and deep knowledge.

    It's true aikido is probably one of the most misunderstood arts, this is in large part due to bad instructors and incomplete transmission. True application is the key to true knowledge and one musn't forget aikido stems from Daito ryu which was an art meant to be used in combat, not mere show or exercise. The quote by O-Sensei clearly shows this dichtonomy, then again Ueshiba was an accomplished master in various Japanese war-arts (bujutsu).

    Good luck with your training.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your very interesting story. The Sensei I'm going to train with, Robert Mustard Sensei, trained in Japan at the Yoshinkan Aikido Hombu dojo for 10 years. He was also one of the primary trainers for the Tokyo riot police course offered at the dojo. He is a fascinating man and I am privileged to have the opportunity to train with him.

  4. Lori,

    I'll be adding the book to my list of 'must-reads'. I've always been interesting in Aikido, and it's similarities and differences from Jiu Jitsu. I understand that striking techniques were always an important part of Aikido. Some schools have taken them out and I feel this often leads to watered down versions of the art, or at least misunderstood versions.

    I've seen 'hard styles' advertised or 'Combat Aikido'. I imagine this is just a more accurate or traditional take on the art and its teachings.

    When I watched Steven Seagal in 'Above the Law' (was that really the late 80's??), I saw that there was a lot more to the art than just big circular throws. It was actually a major influence on my journey and I've been a fan ever since. Of Aikido, that is. Ok, I still like Seagal too, what can I say?

    Enjoy your training with Mustard Sensei. I'd love to hear about the experience.

  5. Seagal is a black belt in Tang So Do too (Korean karate) so I imagine a lot of the striking in his films is taken from that art. I do believe Ueshiba created aikido not primarely as a combat art to be utterly practical and nothing else but to reflect his religious beliefs and pacifist convictions. The main aim of the art, especially in his later years when he moved away from Takeda's Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu, was to deflect attacks with the least amount of effort and the least amount of damage to the opponent. Striking forcefully would seem to negate that purpose so it's at least likely he meant for atemi to be used as distractions to effectively enter into the opponent's defensive sphere, finishing him with nage and kansetsu waza using the soft way to preserve and control him.

    I wouldn't put much stock in advertisement, rather go to the source(s): the words of the founder and the testimony of his closest students. There are too many people out there looking to cash in on a great legacy and play into the macho fantasies of certain weak-willed, insecure individuals.

  6. The book I refer to in this post written by one of Ueshiba Sensei's closest students, so you can put a lot of stock in what he considered to be the original ideas behind Aikido. That being said, the way that is practiced/was practiced did not incorporate a lot of strike training (according to this book). The idea is that if you fully grasped the "fundamental principles" behind the style, you didn't need to actively train in striking. You would just be able to apply those principles to whatever fighting techniques you needed in a defensive context.

    Please note that these statements do not necessarily reflect my own beliefs, just what Shioda Sensei said in his book. I do, however, think it's interesting food for thought for any martial artist.

  7. I was referring to Journeyman's comment about how aikido is portrayed by certain people, I'm aware Gozo Shioda is a leading authority on aikido. As to the comment about punching: I certainly don't agree. Knowing theoretically how to do something doesn't mean you can actually do it in practice and I believe true understanding only comes from practice. Why else would we be sweating all those hours?

    You say your vieuws aren't necessarily does of the author of the book: may I ask what those vieuws entail?

  8. Thank you for clarifying. As for my own views, I think it is possible to be able to be able to punch learning the way Shioda Sensei suggests, but it is certainly not an efficient way of doing it. If someone were to learn from those methods, I would imagine it would take decades of training to learn grasp their fundamentals so strongly that it transfers into skills a person did not directly learn or practice. But we're talking a high level of mastery were the practitioner goes beyond form into "formlessness". I believe that if you want to learn and apply striking skills, the best, most efficient way is to actively learn and practice those skills. That's my two cents, for what it's worth.

    Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  9. Hard to imagine, but possible I suppose. Then again almost everything is possible. Very strange that a skill that is supposed to win fights is practiced so little if at all, then again aikido isn't primarely a fighting art. In fact I sincerely doubt a lot of aikidoka would be effective at all when needed, save for the chosen few who attained a truly high level of skill. As you said there are far better methods to learn how to fight, boxing being one of the best imo, without the need to train for decades and master high level physical and mental skills. In terms of dropping a would be ruffian I found a stiff cross to the chin or a swift kick to the nether regions does the trick just fine (hasn't failed me once), all the rest I learned was interesting but hardly necessary. In fact with the proper training you can learn to fight decently in a matter of weeks. Some might even say martial arts programs are actually detrimental to fighting ability since a lot of them focus on complex, intricate movement (like aikido) at the expense of direct, simple strikes and they tend to overload the mind with useless clutter. Fighting is generally a very simple affair, yet most people without any real experience in it seem to think otherwise and so they are attracted to showy forms of martial arts. Learning to fight isn't everything of course but in my mind it is the means to an end and all other benefits flow from good, honest, practical training. Some martial artists actually look like ballerina's when practicing: whatever suits them of course but I can't imagine it counting for much against an experienced guy. What is effective rarely looks cool and vice versa.

    Just my opinion of course, nothing more and nothing less.

  10. To clarify, in the 'Above the Law' movie, there was none of the flashy sped up striking of Seagal's later films. Any striking was usually a set up for Aikido techniques.

    To Anonymous, if you haven't seen it and you can stand the soundtrack, I recommend you watch it.

    I hesitate to speak too much about Aikido as I am in no way any authority on it, but I can see the argument for not training heavily on striking, if this is based on the assumption of loosening up your opponent or distracting them from the intended technique. Yes, striking is also an art, but most people sort of know how to hit someone, whereas a throw takes specialized knowledge and training.

    To be fair, this may not be what is referred to in the book at all, as I've yet to read it.

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