47. The trouble with aikido
Got your attention, aikido folks? Okay, let me soften the blow and clarify my statement. SOME people doing aikido suck. Big time. Majorly. Like a Hoover vacuum cleaner sucks.
I’m not a complete aikido basher. Heck, there we were, me and a small coterie of like-minded friends, minding our own business, and one of us gets an email to a link depicting an “aikido master” who was deigning to give a seminar to mere mortals. When we saw it, reactions ran from sarcastic bemusement to full-on fulminating and foaming at the mouth mad as hell and not going to take it any more. It was bad. Not bad as in ghetto lingo bad is good, but bad as in Lady Gaga in a meat dress fashion gone evil bad.
Now, of the five of us that I counted in this email circle, ALL of us practiced aikido at some time in our lives. And I don’t mean doodled around the edges. We spent a combined several decades’ worth of training in aikido. So I would argue that we have some idea of what we’re talking about. One person went to Japan specifically to train in aikido, and before he left aikido and entered koryu training due to personality and political conflicts, he was one of the few “foreigners” teaching it in Japan to Japanese students, Steven Seagal notwithstanding. Another started training when he was in elementary school, and he learned how to tumble by having to do forward rolls down an inclined asphalt road next to the aikido dojo. If you scraped and skinned yourself, the instructor had not an ounce of pity for you. It was your fault your ukemi was bad. I myself studied under several instructors who were my judo and aikido teachers. At the time, Bruce Lee and the TV series “Kung Fu” were all the rage, so we used to get all sorts of “show me” punks and jerks (all male, for some reason) showing up at the college dojo acting like thugs. My teachers would take them apart and have those miscreants crawling out the door (this was, mind you, before the fear of litigation put a halt to being able to physically show that aikido wasn’t a sissy martial art). It helped that the chief instructor trained at the Aikikai hombu, while also practicing judo under Mifune Kyuzo, and karate under Oyama Masatatsu. He was TOUGH. The other instructor also studied at the Kodokan judo center and the Aikikai hombu for years. I saw them dismantle pugnacious weight lifters, arrogant karate novices who thought aikido was for wimps, and judo players whose idea of judo and aikido was to ‘rassle, not use techniques. Their aikido was smooth, flowing and remarkably, when applied if necessary, deadly.
And then we moved on, for various reasons.
The video illustrated one of the reasons why we moved on. We saw too much of this kind of “aikido” and it disgusted us.
The instructor in the video was reputed to be a highly ranked aikido instructor that was so much in demand she was going to give a seminar soon. She was demonstrating several techniques against a pliant uke, then several uke at the same time.
What I quickly picked up was that, in my opinion, she was bad. Really bad. Her sense of space (ma-ai) and timing and rhythm were off kilter. That was accompanied by a peculiar, odd, klunky way of moving, in which her body below the hips seemed to move like a limp noodle, while her trunk and head was as stiff as a board. As my past aikido teachers, jujutsu teachers, iai teachers, judo teachers, papermaking teachers, karate teachers, tai chi teachers, tea ceremony teachers, paper craft teachers, Japanese gift-wrapping teacher would all say, there was no sense of koshi; no strong center point that kept her entire body physically pliant but strongly rooted. She was, oddly, rooted weakly with her hips and legs, but stiff as an Arnold Schwarzenneger Terminator robot from the hips up.
She got away with it by having very pliant uke. They’d run at her full blast, leaning forward already off-balance, she’d shift her weight and do some “woo-woo” movements with her hands (or not at all, in some cases), turn around like a spinning marionette, and the uke would all faw down go boom.
Call me crude and lewd, but that kind of shit won’t work if the guy was a real punkass looking to cause you harm. Turn around in a pirouette without grabbing the guy’s wrist or body, and the punk won’t fall down. He’ll simply turn with you and hit you in the back of the head. Or worse, if he had a knife, he’d shiv you in the back.
One person in my circle surmised, “Well, I think the problem here is Ueshiba Morihei himself (the founder of aikido).” He explained: a lot of people see videos and illustrated techniques of Ueshiba as an old man throwing people around with a flick of his wrist, and they think they’re Ueshiba. They’re not. Ueshiba spent decades and decades refining his concept of aiki theory to a point where he could do that. Plus, he ended up an old man. If you were an old man and could move like that, great. If you’re a vigorous middle-aged practitioner, that’s like you’re moving like an old fart. And they’re NOT Ueshiba. Where Ueshiba COULD throw someone with one finger, these guys are faking it through the use of a very pliant uke who will fall if you even look at them cross-eyed.
Other people look at Shioda Gozo, my friend continued, the late master of Yoshinkan style aikido. Videos of him depict a very short, wiry little man who could toss big, burly judo players around at will. It looks like fakey stuff on cursory examination. But if you take apart his technique, he had incredible timing, balance and sense of space. And his aikido was scary. If you weren’t ready as an uke, you could really hurt yourself because the force he generated in your disbalancing was very strong. I can see Shioda sensei easily dislocating wrists or knocking people out when their bodies slammed into the mat.
THAT kind of aikido was truly both an art and martial, at the same time. It was beautiful, but carried with it a sense of “martial”-ness. It was not that far removed from its budo roots. It could easily be turned into an art that could serve as the basis for effective self-defense against a non-compliant attacker hell-bent on doing you harm.
Another friend couldn’t stomach the video at all. He had enough technical knowledge of aikido (before stopping the practice) that he sometimes was invited to aikido seminars to guest teach. He couldn’t take more than ten seconds of the video. He kept trying to watch more but he kept shutting off the video because it literally made him nauseous.
Another friend went bonkers. Having been around some aikido people of that ilk, he called such aikido folk in the video “aiki bunnies,” a particularly virulent strain that originated somewhere on the West Coast and fanned outward like a devastating social disease. They turned aikido into a soulless, pretty dance. But that’s all it is to them, he said. A dance. With no martial meaning. Them thar West Coast granola-crunching, navel-contemplating hippie dippie aiki bunny types wouldn’t know real aikido if it went up to them and kote-gaeshi’d them in the arse! Boy, my friend was wound up.
No wonder aikido gets a bad reputation. It’s stuff like this that, when a judo player, MMA player, karateka or koryu person sees, they shake their heads in disbelief, disgust, sadness and/or all of the above. People see stuff like this, and they will rightly say, “That shit don’t work.” It won’t.
REAL aiki, as one of my friends said, CAN stop an attacker instantly, because it’s the combination of the attacker’s movement with one’s own body, at the right moment, at the right angle, at the right distance, with the right intent, and at the right time for the application of MARTIAL technique. Real aiki, he said, is the same as the proper throw in a sumo bout, or the well-timed counterpunch in karate or boxing, or the sudden and effective application of an arm lock or choke in judo or MMA, or the moment the bat hits the ball and scores a home run. Real aiki is devastating, and is apparent when someone is doing real aikido because it’s like seeing a velvet glove hiding an iron fist. But what we saw on the video, THAT was not real aiki, and that was not real aikido.
I still see some real aikido, practiced here and there in earnest, devoted dojo. They don’t do silly ah-kee-doh dances there. They don’t get involved in the ridiculous personality politics rife in the aikido world. They just train hard and develop clean, strong, beautiful but practical techniques. No ego, no trappings or airs. Just good aikido.
So let me amend my first sentence. Real aikido doesn’t suck. But a whole lot of stuff that CLAIMS to be aikido does.