Without a first strike whether it be proactive and/or a strictly defensive measure, aikido without proper hard atemi is useless. Now the real question remains; what is atemi? Is it a punch? Is it a distraction, as in the way O-Sensei taught. Or do you really need to give that attacker that first punch to the head to be really effective. In my mind, the answer is yes. This may make aikido a little more than boxing with flourish, but this is the conclusion I've come too.