Maybe its because Aikido has positioned itself as a martial arts with a different values system... maybe its because many of its practitioners are arrogant when they talk about the art, maybe its because so many of its practitioners are woefully ignorant about other martial arts (although any more so than the practitioners of those arts are of Aikido)... whatever the reason, Aikido seems to come into more criticism for not being an effective fighting style than any other art.
First of all, I question the assumption that the only measure for a martial art is fighting effectiveness. Who would maintain that Kendo and Judo aren't martial arts? Who would maintain that either is an "effective" fighting style? Are Iaido and Kyudo not considered martial arts? They are done solo and have no emphasis whatever on winning over anyone other than oneself. Are they not worthy practices for their own sake without considerations of whether they would defeat another art?
It has been stated many times, by many people, that non-violence without the ability to defend oneself is just wishful thinking. I think that history would indicate that something else entirely is required for non-violence, or pacifism. The practitioners of Gandhi's satyagraha
had no martial skills. They were ordinary people from various walks of life yet few would deny that they were peaceful warriors of the first order. The Freedom Riders of the 1960's had no fighting skills nor would they have used them if they had had them.
What is required to be non-violent is depth of character. What is required to be a pacifist is the ability to over come the fear of death. The followers of Gandhi and King walked unhesitatingly into situations in which they KNEW they would be beaten, perhaps killed, and they marched anyway; without the back-up of great destructive martial skill or weaponry of any kind other than their moral force.
Why does everyone hark back to the 1930's when talking about what Aikido lacks? Why do so few people look at how O-Sensei changed the techniques he had learned and taught as Daito Ryu and then, later, as Aiki Budo into what became Aikido after the war? The Founder taught actively until his death in 1969. He frequently resided in Tokyo and taught at Headquarters, in addition he lived and taught in Iwama as well as traveling to the dojos of his various soto-deshi like Hikitsuchi Michio in Kumomoto and Tanaka Bansen in Osaka. Whatever happened to Aikido after the war, O-Sensei was an integral part of it.
There seem to be two ideas which come up frequently in discussions of Aikido's so-called "failure" as a martial art. First, is the idea that somehow O-Sensei's son and the other post war teachers of the art took the art in a direction that the Founder either wasn't really aware of or didn't approve of. O-Sensei's statement towards the end of his life that "no one is doing my Aikido" is taken to mean that he felt that the art had gone wrong somehow in losing its martial character.
Actually, I personally take an opposite approach to that statement... I happen to believe that what he meant by that statement was that the various people he saw doing Aikido were too focused on technique and not enough on the spiritual side if the art. I think that, human nature being what it is, it was easier for many practitioners to focus on hard physical training and mastery of technique than it was for them to really try to understand statements like "Budo is Love" or the Founder's assertions that the art was not about fighting and that fighting destroyed the spirit of Aikido.
The second idea that seems to form the foundation of the critique of Aikido is the belief that post war Aikido represents a degenerate form of the art that existed in the pre-war period. I would maintain that it was intentionally different, not a degeneration, but an evolution. Japan's defeat in the war was a traumatic event for old school Japanese like the Founder. So much of the Founder's thinking placed Japan at the center of the spiritual universe. Additionally, he was a man who had spent his entire life as a martial artist. It stretches ones credulity, really to the point of absurdity, to think that the defeat of Japan, the abdication of the Emperor, and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would not have shaken this man's assumptions to the core.
In an age in which real fighting involves high technology, in which a city can disappear in the blink of an eye, how could one not reassess ones vision of what training was all about, what it purpose really was, or even did it still have a purpose? It is clear from reading the Founder's post war statements that he saw Aikido as the perfect martial art for the post war world. I see absolutely no evidence that this was because he felt it was a superior fighting system. It was precisely because what he believed was the transformational nature of the practice and its philosophical and spiritual underpinning that Aikido was an art that fit the new, modern, post war world. It is also clear that he believed that the art had the power to change the world for the better in a way that would prevent a repetition of the nuclear nightmare which Japan had just endured.
Unquestionably, the post war teachers who inherited the responsibility for making all this happen knew that they would need to translate the Founder's extremely esoteric expression of this vision to something that was comprehensible to a modern Japanese audience and even an international community of practitioners. Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Osawa Kisaburo, Yamaguchi Seigo, and others developed the training of the young deshi who would eventually go forth and spread the art around the world. Teachers like Hikitsuchi Sensei, Abe Sensei and Sunadomari Sensei in particular tried to pass on an Aikido that contained the essence of the Founder's spiritual perspective. I can't think of one of these teachers who seemed to think that martial application against another trained fighter was the central purpose of training in the art.
Now I am not what anyone would call a pacifist... I am non-violent up to a point. I actually do believe that ones Aikido should "work" at least within the stated context of the practice. But the practice has a form. If that form is absent, it becomes something else. The Founder quite consciously did not have a ground fighting component in his art. It wasn't that he forgot... it was purposeful. The techniques of Aikido got larger than their Daito Ryu antecedents. This also wasn't just some random occurrence, the move away from martially applicable small technique to a larger type of execution focusing on internalizing certain principles both in the body and in the mind was done, I think, specifically to take the practitioner away from the fighting mind. Aikido was meant to be less practical for fighting.
The alternative is to believe that the post war transmitters of Aikido, many of whom had some background in koryu or competitive styles like judo or kendo, accidentally created a less practical art that lacked many of the components required by a system that was geared for fighting. As if they didn't know any better.
Aikido is a practice that stands on its own. It has its reson d'etre. There are a million people world wide practicing Aikido, more in countries like the US and France than in Japan by all accounts. It would certainly benefit from an infusion of influence from outside the art,not to make it a better fighting art, but simply to make it better at what it purports to be, a transformative practice which focuses on balancing forces, external and internal, emotional, social, political, whatever. It is a practice that, should, help to make us less fearful. While the practitioners of the various martial arts out there can all do certain things that I cannot do, I can do all sorts of things which they cannot. The fact that they do not care to do the things that I can do is of little concern to me. Aikido folks do not need to let the folks from other martial arts set the criteria for how we value our art. It is quite possible that I could defeat every mixed martial artist in the neighborhood and still have Aikido that isn't very good and isn't fulfilling on any level the mission set for the art by its Founder.
(Original blog post may be found here