Let me start off my saying that this article is intended more for those personally invested on my journey to becoming a dojosei. It is a brief explanation of the art and where is comes from and will not go into any huge technical detail. That is for a later date!
Aikido is a martial art, founded by Morihei Ueshiba in Japan in the period leading up to the Second World War. In his youth, Ueshiba was a keen student of the martial arts, most famously studying under Sokaku Takeda, a legendary master of the Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu. Daito-ryu was a samurai art, used by disarmed samurai against armed and unarmed opponents in a variety of situations. The techniques are linear and incorporate many blows and attacking movements. Many throws and pins in Daito-ryu, end with the practitioner ending the life of his assailant, usually by the use of a knife or short sword, an item always carried by the Samurai of Feudal Japan. Ueshiba incorporated the techniques of Daito-ryu he’d learned from Takeda, along with others from various schools into his own new art which he called aiki budo
Ueshiba, whilst a superb martial artist, was also a deeply spiritual and religious man. He was a follower of Omoto-kyo, a newly revived form of traditional Japanese Shinto worship. Ueshiba’s faith had a deep impact upon his life and his way of viewing the martial arts. Over time he removed many of the aggressive and lethal techniques from his aiki budo and emphasised his martial art as one where the practitioner avoided aggression be it physical, or in any other form. This is what many today would recognise as aikido.
Aikido plays down greatly the traditional emphasis from Jujutsu schools on attacking moves: punches, kicks and so on. Instead an aikido-ka (one who practices aikido) attempts to redirect the force of an aggressor’s attack into a pin or throw. The focus, in practice, is on harmonising with the opponent’s energy rather than trying to meet it head on and attempting to produce an outcome where neither party to the conflict is seriously injured or killed.
One of the most common questions that I am asked about aikido is if it really works. The high flips and graceful, dance like movements seem impossibly incongruous with any sort of fighting art. Indeed, even in the world of martial arts where men claim that they can cripple opponents with a shout or knock people out without touching them, Aikido has a rather poor reputation. Many say that its techniques are over flamboyant and, in the case of some aikido-ka, downright impossible, the spectacular flips being performed by their attackers merely the result of the personality cult that a particular practitioner has built up. It pains me to say it, but this may very well be true. One only needs to look briefly around the internet to see many examples of bad and dishonest aikido with students flipping left right and centre for no apparent reason.
The admission that there are bad aikido practitioners out there, however, does not necessarily reflect on the art itself. These are, after all, underlying techniques passed down to us from the Samurai, who would not have preserved them if they were not useful. This is the point at which someone normally points out that they never see aikido in MMA. Connor McGregor never uses it, therefore it must all be fake or rubbish.
To say that aikido doesn’t work in MMA, however, is akin to stating that submarines are awful at flying. Putting aikido into the context of a one-on-one cage fight is taking it completely out of the context for which many of the techniques were originally created: the streets and battlefields of feudal Japan. The masters of Daito-ryu aikijujutsu, from which aikido is descended, were not training to deal with an attack from a half-naked man trying to bash their noses in, they were training to deal with fully committed attacks, possibly involving weapons of one sort or another. Take the example of the grabbing of the arm or hand as an attack within aikido. Critics argue that this is unrealistic and, yes, maybe it is in the modern world. In Feudal Japan however, this attack makes a lot of sense. Samurai were often well versed in battojutsu, the art of drawing and killing with the sword in one movement. To avoid getting caught by this move, an attacker would have to restrain the Samurai’s sword arm before delivering his own attack, be it a punch to the face or a knife to the gut. Not so unrealistic in this context.
The fallacy that I am attempting to highlight becomes obvious if one reverses the roles and attempts to situate an MMA fighter in the middle of the battle of Sekigahara, for instance. What good would his kicks and punches be against even an unarmed but fully armoured warrior? The rebuttal I’ve heard time and again consists of saying that people today don’t wear armour, and subsequently situating both mixed martial arts and aikido in self-defense situations. At this point I accept that aikido is not a modern self defence system but guess what, neither is MMA. A street fight has no rules, no referee is going to pause the match for fish hooking or downward pointing elbows. Much as MMA might like to think itself superior, it is not! Sure it provides you with a load of skills that would be useful in a self-defense situation, so does aikido, but neither is teaching you self-defense.
While its techniques are effective under the circumstances for which they were created, aikido is more than a martial art, it is a living embodiment of the non-violent philosophy of Ueshiba. To him, removing the lethal elements from the older jujutsu styles was not making them redundant, it was allowing them to continue to be relevant in modern life as an art of self-perfection rather than self-protection.
Jack Horatio Buckley Sharp 2015