Every aikido student has wondered occasionally whether his or her aikido will work in “the real world.” The question arises naturally because in our practice we do not resist one anotherʼs technique. Doubts also arise because people outside aikido often criticize the art, saying it will not work against a “real” attack.”
While doubts about effectiveness may be natural, in my view, they reflect a dramatic misunderstanding about what we are doing and learning in aikido.
First consider the criticisms of aikido outsiders. By “real attacks,” these critics often mean the kinds of attacks that occur in a competitive sparring situation. Competitions are contrived events. The most effective types of attacks—the ones that can kill or maim-- are always against the rules. One can certainly get injured in a martial arts competition, but participants rarely worry about death or permanent disability. Are such situations “real”? You decide.
Next consider what the terms “out there” or "the real world" mean to aikido teachers and students who use them. We can be sure they are referring to some kind of physical attack. But we are usually left to wonder exactly what scenario they have in mind and how we got there.
Is there one attacker or many? Is escape possible? Must we protect someone? Is there a weapon (e.g. a holstered gun) to protect? Are we at close quarters (elevator) or in a wide-open space (parking lot)? Is the attacker insane, drunk, or high on a drug? Are we dealing with a gun wielding robber, an out-of control child at school, or an enraged spouse?
Each of these scenarios affects how we should respond, and we all hope our aikido will be of use in such situations. But how did such an imagined situation come about in the first place? Surely, avoiding dangerous situations is far more useful than dealing with them. Aikido training can definitely help us avoid danger, because it increases our awareness and sensitivity to our environment.
In fact, most of us will never encounter situations like those described above. Except for certain occupations, physical attacks from strangers are uncommon today. Most of the “real” conflict in most of our lives is not physical at all.
Instead, we are attacked through gossip, insults, cheating, and false accusations. Better physical martial arts techniques are not going to help us with these issues, since they are not physical at all. Our aikido practice should prepare us to deal with, and preferably avoid, any conflict, not merely a "real world" physical attack.
But, some students will argue, Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei, the founder of aikido, was a master martial artist. He was reportedly involved in many combat situations and his aikido handled them all. Surely, “real world” fighting ability must be important to aikido!
What then did our Founder think about aikido practice? What “real world” threat might have concerned O Sensei?
The most obvious answer is the death and destruction O Sensei witnessed in Japan during World War II. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were utterly destroyed in an instant by atomic bombs. Tokyo suffered enormous destruction and loss-of-life because of large-scale firebombing. In comparison, any personal violence any of us may ever face seems utterly trivial.
Understanding as he did the threat of modern warfare, O Sensei developed aikido as a tool to bring about world peace by creating people who could live in harmony with one another.
O Sensei declared many times that our aikido training is about learning to live harmoniously in the world, about making the world a better, safer place for everyone, and about not making enemies. He felt that aikido retrieves the original meaning of “budo”—restoring peace to a community—and abandons later associations with effective killing methods. (Heart of Aikido, M. Ueshiba, trans. J. Stevens).
O Senseiʼs perspective is most clearly embodied in the principle that uniquely characterizes aikido as a martial art—non-resistance. Fighting never ends but rather, escalates. Only non-resistance can lead to peace. This is a principle O Sensei emphasized repeatedly. He is said to have regularly reprimanded students he found resisting one another, and often asked his senior students to work with children when he found them fighting with one another. That is how important this principle of non-resistance was to the Founder.
After World War II, following what he described as a mystical experience, O Sensei said, “That was when I stopped focusing on the physical techniques of aiki. The only thing remaining was sho chiku bai (Pine-Bamboo Plum) swordplay. The single most important technique was misogi practice.” (p102, Heart of Aikido)
Read that first sentence again: “That was when I stopped focusing on the physical techniques of aiki.” Can there be any doubt that O Sensei had other things in mind for aikido than mere physical forms?
But what did he mean by “sho chiku bai swordplay”? John Stevens, the translator of Heart of Aikido, offers no advice. Perhaps the Founder was referring to the solo sword kata he often performed. Elsewhere, he describes his solo sword and jo kata as a form of meditation, and as offerings made in gratitude to the universe. So it seems that action-oriented meditation and deep feelings of gratitude were important parts of the Founderʼs own aikido training.
Regarding misogi, O Sensei explained that “the practice of aikido will sweat out the impurities in your body, wash away negative and malicious thoughts, get you in tune with your environment, and clear your path of obstacles and barriers. Good aikido is a form of misogi for all the people who are training.” (p138, Heart of Aikido) Apparently, the core structure of our practice—non-resistance—is intended to purify our spirits.
In summary, worldwide destruction as a result of human egotism and violence is the threat that seems to have concerned O Sensei. Action-oriented meditation, gratitude to the world, and the regular practice of non resistance were O Senseiʼs response to the perceived threat. Purification of the human spirit is the “real world” goal O Sensei imagined for aikido.
An inordinate focus on personal physical protection completely misses the point.
Next time you wonder if aikido “really” works, please think deeply about what you expect aikido to do. Then contrast your own goals for aikido with what the Founder hoped aikido would accomplish.
Physical self-defense barely scratches the surface.