Dojo: Aikido Eastside
Location: Bellevue, WA
Join Date: Jun 2000
Re: Aikido - Martial Arts - Fighting
There is a difference between the issue of what constitutes an "effective" martial art or an "effective" practitioner of that art.
As Ikeda Sensei says, "It's not Aikido that doesn't work; it's YOUR Aikido that doesn't work.
Ellis Amdur once defined "martial arts" as one warrior training to fight another professional. In this sense of the words, clearly the term "martial art" connotes a combat training system used by warriors for combat. "Martial arts" are combat systems.
Combat systems involve weapons. Empty hand is a secondary or tertiary training used as a last resort when ones weapons system fails. This was certainly true for the samurai. It remains true for the military, law enforcement, security professionals, etc.
I would maintain that none of the styles mentioned above, no matter how rough or practically oriented they might be, is a "martial art" under this definition. Judo, no matter how wonderful an art it is, no matter how good a foundation for other practices it provides, is clearly not a combat system. Muy Thai has antecedents which were about combat and they involved swords. But I would maintain that no primarily empty hand system is truly a combat system.
Now "self defense" is an entirely different term. It is not the realm of the professional warrior but rather is the domain of the civilian or a professional whose job is something other than fighting. In law enforcement and security empty hand training is called defensive tactics. It is intended to dovetail with and / or augment the various weapons they carry. In no case is empty hand training considered the primary element of the defensive system.
In the civilian realm self defense can constitute anything from sole reliance on firearms or various weapons all the way to reliance on a few empty hand techniques and no weapons at all. Civilians who attempt to create their own "combat" systems, usually do so by training in a variety of areas and trying to create something approaching a coherent system out of these disparate elements. Seldom do they have access to the training afforded by true "combat" systems.
Clearly, "self defense" is a much broader term than "martial art". Surely no one would maintain that Aikido is a "combat system". The training is formalized, not applied. The weapons work is remedial. Yet, many people have successfully used Aikido for self defense. The forums abound with examples in which an Aikido practitioner used something he had learned on the mat, in the dojo, to defend himself or herself against a threat from some violent offender. Doesn't that make Aikido "effective" as self defense? I have personally taught Aikido techniques to law enforcement and security personnel who then used them on the street against resistant and sometimes violent offenders. In all cases the techniques produced the desired result. Doesn't that constitute "effectiveness"? Of course, in self defense or defensive tactics we are not talking about fighting a professionally trained martial artist. Self defense "systems" usually train one to deal with commonly encountered threats and generally are not geared to the sophistication level of dealing with highly trained attackers. Even in law enforcement, the only folks expected to handle high level threats are the SWAT teams, who do get vastly more training than the average officer. And that training is 95% weapons with a bit of empty hand thrown in.
So, while I would say that the roots of Aikido lie in a combat system practiced by professional warriors for use against other professional warriors it certainly is not such a system itself. On the other hand it is equally clear that back in the twenties and thirties the expectation was that one could handle himself against practitioners of other arts. Effectiveness was measured by the ability to successfully apply the techniques of the art. The students of the art, which was Aiki Budo in those days, were almost entirely members of the law enforcement and military communities. In other words, the art was being taught as a tool for professionals to use on the job and the main concern was that the training work.
This wasn't strictly speaking "martial arts" as it had been when samurai fought other samurai but so much of the ethos of the thirties was getting the nation ready for war, I think the expectation on the part of the practitioners was that the training prepare them on some level for combat against trained soldiers. Early Aikido made its reputation by the ability of its main proponents to defeat even highly ranked practitioners from other styles. Since these matches were not life and death encounters, I think they should be placed in the category of sport competition. The stakes were high, certainly. Not only was ones own reputation on the line, but the reputation of ones teacher's art was on the line. Practical ability was first and foremost because the establishment of Ueshiba Aiki Budo as a recognized and respected style was at stake.
Then comes the war...With the defeat of Japan the whole nation underwent a national identity crisis. Initially, the martial arts were banned by the occupation authorities and lost favor in the imagination of the public. But, just as they had done during the Meiji period, the martial arts had a resurgence. Why, because people realized that training in the martial arts had tremendous benefits for the individual that had nothing to do with prevailing over another warrior for survival. Aikido in particular had only been taught privately to small groups of individuals before the war. Now it was opened up to the public,
Once the art went public world wide after the war, the focus on effectiveness was not in the forefront of concerns for the training. Safety came high on the list of priorities. Also, at least in terms of marketing the art, philosophical and spiritual concerns seemed more important than the ability to defeat the practitioners of other martial arts. The fact is that the vast majority of people studying Aikido will not use it professionally, will not ever fight someone from another martial art, nor will they ever, in their entire lives, use an Aikido technique for self defense. This is the reality of martial arts training in a modern society at peace.
The emphasis in Aikido has been on making the practice more accessible to the public so that a wider range of people can benefit from doing the training and take the accrued benefits into their lives outside the dojo. This has meant that various standards have been applied to evaluate the training aside from pure "effectiveness". If effectiveness were the primary goal, there would be very few women in the art ( as in judo in which the vast majority of practitioners are men), there would have to be weight classes as there are in other sport martial arts because larger, stronger practitioners would always prevail over smaller weaker ones. And so on… Aikido is meant to be an art in which one gets better with age rather than losing ones abilities as ones strength deteriorates. I can't think of a single competitive sport martial art in which this is true.
Those who loudly denounce the demise of martial effectiveness in the art either privately or publicly regret that the art has been made so "accessible". They would like to see absolute standards of performance maintained, regardless of sex, physical size, temperament, etc. The Aikido they would like to see would be closer to the elite practice done by an extremely small number of incredibly devoted, very tough men (only a few women trained before the war and none became a prominent teacher, at least of the martial arts). Generally, these folks don't give a rip about the philosophical / spiritual underpinnings of the Founder's Aikido. They just want a return to the "effectiveness" of pre-war Aiki Budo.
Despite the appearance given by the stance I find myself taking frequently on the forums, I do actually think Aikido should be "effective", at least within certain parameters. I have had to come to terms, first with the reality that, very few people wish to train the way I was trained. I once told my teacher that my model for my own dojo was the dojo in DC at which I had trained with him in the seventies. His response was to look a bit wistful and reply "Probably can't do… not on West Coast." In other words, if I tried to duplicate my own training with my students, my doors would be closed.
Now that reality, and the need to develop a practice that has enough broad appeal that it delivers a perceived benefit to the students and has enough integrity that I can live with what I am teaching and the progress my students make, has allowed me to observe the benefits that folks derive from a style of practice that is different from the way I trained, and vastly different from how the pre-war generation trained.
I've seen students take ten years to get to Shodan. These people are never going to be heavy duty martial artists in this lifetime. Yet they used the training to make jumps in their lives that have made their lives better, in very major ways. The average age of folks training is older than what it would have been had we been training far more physically. These folks are professionals with families… their concerns are completely different from fighters, professional law enforcement folks, people living in bad neighborhoods who fear for their lives every day. Conflict for these people comes with raising a teen, dealing with an irascible boss, coping with being laid off, getting divorced, etc. They train to help them handle their lives better. They love the complexity of the art because they are all extremely smart, well educated people, and they find it really interesting. They love the practice because the focus on mental and physical relaxation and maintaining a calm but strong focus in the midst of chaotic is exactly what they need to perform in their demanding careers every day.
So, while I do care about whether my Aikido is effective, and my teachers absolutely maintain that Aikido should function as a practically applicable form of Budo, for most of my students, their lives would not be made one iota better if the could execute that irimi nage against some BJJ or MMA guy or a visiting karate practitioner. I get to see, on a daily basis, what Aikido training can do for people; how it can change their lives, how it can develop their confidence, deal with aggressive personalities, stay centered during crisis, and so forth.
Now if some practitioner from another style wants to come in to my dojo and see if what I do works, he is welcome to do so. My training was different than what most of my students have had. I'm happy to play if someone really wants to do that. But the justification for the art doesn't come from my ability to do that, it comes from the hundreds, and thousands of people who love the art, feel they have received so much from it that they give back on a level that would be hard to find in any other martial art, certainly one with such a wide following… I think that we as Aikido practitioners need to really step up and look at our art and how many people do it, love it, spend all their leisure time practicing it, use all their vacation time traveling for it, etc. What they are getting out of this art has little or nothing to do with the ability to defeat other martial artists. Some care whether they can, others don't seem to. But I don't think many at all stay with the art because they think that fighting is what it's about.