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Home > Columns > Peter Goldsbury > November, 2006 - 'Sincere' Attacks: A Platonic Dialogue

'Sincere' Attacks: A Platonic Dialogue by Peter Goldsbury

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Here is a conversation between A, a martial arts enthusiast who is considering taking up aikido, and B, an aikido enthusiast. Like most of Plato's dialogues, it is inconclusive.

A: "I have heard that aikido is a very effective martial art. However, there are no competitions, so the effectiveness of the techniques cannot be measured objectively in controlled conditions. The attacker attacks and is thrown or pinned. Is it really that easy? In aikido, when is an attack judged effective?"

B: "Aikido does not have competitions because we would need rules and that would diminish the creative aspects of the art. In any case, you are assuming that the effectiveness of techniques can be measured in a competitive environment and I think you are also assuming that attacks are more effective in competitive martial arts. I would think that in aikido an attack is judged effective when it is sincere -- an honest attack, done with real intent."

A: "Oh, what does this mean? What would be a 'dishonest' attack like? And what difference would 'unreal' intent or lack of intent make to the quality of the attack? Would a feint be an honest attack?"

B: "Well, with a feint you are seeking openings in the defence, so there is still the intention to attack. In aikido, many attacks are half-hearted, perhaps because of the emphasis placed by aikido on not harming the attacker. Nevertheless, you have to really intend to attack your partner. Otherwise he/she cannot do the technique. Usually attacks never reach the stage of feints, since in most dojos the pattern of cooperation between attackers and defenders is maintained right up to advanced training by the higher dan ranks."

A: "OK, so how do you make 'honest' attacks with 'real intent' when you are grabbing a wrist or doing the attack called shoumen uchi?"

B: "I have always learned wrist grabs as preliminary for other attacks like strikes and kicks. Shoumen-uchi is based on the sword, which is why the hand is called te-gatana (hand-sword) so when you raise your hand to attack, you have to imagine that you have a sword and really aim to slice your partner down the middle."

A: "What, with your bare hand?"

B: "Well, in some dojos people do attack with swords, usually wooden bokuto or bokken. I have found by experience that if you practice doing shoumen-uchi with a wooden sword, this also helps your strike with te-gatana. On the other hand, as I suggested earlier, O Sensei (our Founder, Morihei Ueshiba) really created aikido as a martial art dedicated to peace and this is sometimes interpreted as having an aim not actually to harm your partner. So people don't use real swords and you would have to stop the attack if your partner did not move out of the way, for he/she might be injured and there should be no injuries in aikido. There is a diagram somewhere in Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere that captures this idea of aikido beautifully. What is forgotten is that O Sensei trained very hard and his dojo was nicknamed the Hell Dojo. Most of his students were expert in other martial arts, so they knew how to attack and I would think the attacks were 'sincere' attacks, done with 'real intent', and sometimes caused injuries."

A: "I am not talking about harming the attacker. I AM the attacker and I am talking about causing as much harm as possible to the defender. I would think that this is the most 'sincere' type of attack."

B: "Sorry. I misunderstood you. However, any martial art has to restrict the attacks to controlled conditions. So, if your intent was really to cause as much harm as possible in the attack -- and you succeeded, you would soon have no students left in your art, for if the attacks were effective, the students would all be dead or injured. You can say the same about the techniques."

A: "Yes, but in karate and kendo, with which I am familiar, there is a balance between the sphere of attacking and the sphere of defending. The punches, kicks and strikes are essential to the arts and are therefore taught. Students do sparring with a degree of control appropriate to their proficiency and this proficiency is tested in matches. So attacking is an essential part of the whole package. This is why I think the attacking seems to me to be more realistic than in aikido. In aikido the balance seems wholly in favor of the defender. Do you have sparring in aikido?"

B: "Well, we have practice called jiyu-waza (free practice, sometimes called randori) and another type of practice called kakari-geiko (repeated attacks by one or more attackers against the same defender). I suspect that there is little free sparring in aikido because it requires a very high level of expertise and without this level of expertise it can quickly degenerate into ordinary wrestling."

A: "I am still not quite clear about the crucial role intention is supposed to play in 'sincere' aikido attacks. How can the 'intention' affect the 'sincerity' of the attack when it is artificial anyway?"

B: "Well, I also think that to stress intention and sincerity exclusively, as the only essential elements in an attack is incorrect. But I doubt that competitive martial arts, where attacking is taught as part of the scenario, would necessarily be any more effective than aikido in the street. It is sometimes believed that real fights, in the street, are the ultimate tests of whether a martial art is effective or not. However, there are so many variables here and each martial art tries to go some way of taking account of as many variables as possible. Thus, there are many kenjutsu arts in Japan, which use Japanese swords. There are also many jujutsu arts, where the aim is to disarm someone, a soldier, perhaps, who has other weapons. These are traditional arts and are less able to deal with expert knife users or gun users.

Take the following example. How would you deal with sudden unforeseen attacks from behind? I mean something like an attack on a crowded railway station platform, when some crazy person comes up behind you and tries to push you on to the tracks in front of an approaching train? His 'sincerity' is very clear: he actually wants to push you off the platform. His 'intention' is not in doubt either: if he is successful and is arrested, he is accused of murder or manslaughter. I mention this example because the Founder of aikido in his writings specifically mentioned attacks from behind. How would training in a competitive martial art prepare you to cope with such attacks?"

A: "It would not, specifically. But to return to what I stated above about the attacks and defences being balanced. In competitive martial arts there is a form or frame of sorts. Attacks are fully-committed within the framework of what is permitted and this also allows the defence to be fully committed."

B: "Well, there is also a form or frame of sorts in non-competitive arts like traditional koryu. In Japanese this form or frame is called kata. Actually, kata are fundamental to the traditional arts like kenjutsu, where both attackers and defenders have weapons. In aikido, the waza are one step removed from kata, but still embody the form found in kata. Kata with weapons like the staff, spear and sword can be quite elaborate and the complex movements are based on responding to possible moves made by an attacker, who also has a weapon.

Aikido waza are less elaborate and do not depend on continuous attacks made during the waza. Nevertheless, traditional aikido 'attacks' like shoumen-uchi and yokomen-uchi can also be understood as kata, in the sense that they are vehicles for discovering and exploring other things, beyond the kata themselves. They can also be done with varying degrees of proficiency or expertise.  In some types of aikido a large proportion of training is devoted to training in kata and the reason is quite simple: training implies many repetitions of predetermined actions or moves, such that they become so internalized that they can be performed immediately, as a conditioned response. I think this is also fundamental in the arts you have in mind, like kendo or judo."

A: "I see. I have noticed a lot of variation in the ways that aikido is practiced and taught."

B: "Yes. There is also much variation in what I would call the 'ideology' of aikido. There was much less variation when the Founder was alive and training in just one dojo, but a number of factors have led to the huge expansion of aikido after World War II and, since O Sensei's disciples were individuals with their own ideas, it is inevitable that the original uniformity will disappear.

For example, it is sometimes stated as a fundamental principle of aikido that an attacker will inevitably lose his/her balance if really committed to the attack, but I think that this is not necessarily the case, if the attacker has a low centre of gravity and is well connected to the ground. In more advanced training there is a subtle interplay between attacker and defender, such that the roles are blurred.

However, the principles of aikido are quite subtle and the Founder did not teach these principles so much as create them (in aikido -- they exist in other martial arts) and manifest them in his own training. This is not his fault: he was a man of his time and believed that students should be required to 'steal' knowledge from him. It has to be acknowledged that stealing, like every other skill, admits of varying degrees of expertise. This is why aikido practitioners have to train so hard and continually explore the limits of their training."

A: "So it's back to the dojo".

B: "Yes, every time there is a problem."

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