Aikido’s Strange History

Part of Aikido’s weirdness comes from its strange history. Aikido is a modern martial art that evolved out of Daito-Ryu Aiki-Jujitsu, a deadly, no-holds-barred fighting form taught secretly to the Japanese samurai. The principal aim of the art was to teach samurai how to quickly kill opponents on the battlefield if they lost their weapons. Like other types of jujitsu, it involved joint locks, throws and “pain compliance” techniques.

The last master of Daito-Ryu, Sokaku Takeda, was a mean, nasty SOB who allegedly killed dozens of men in unarmed “duels.” In the early 20th century, he taught his samurai jujitsu to a strange Shinto mystic and dreamer named Morihei Ueshiba, who had founded a rural commune in northern Japan and then spent his entire inheritance on private lessons from Takeda. Ueshiba eventually learned enough from Takeda to receive a “license” to teach Daito-Ryu but, instead, used what he learned as the base to create a new martial art which we now call Aikido – which means the Way (Do) of Harmonious (Ai) Energy (Ki).

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Just as the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, modified the throws of classical jujitsu to create the modern sport of judo, so, too, Ueshiba took the brutal, bone-snapping techniques of Daito-Ryu and created a martial art that, he believed, promoted peace rather than mayhem. Ueshiba also added a whole new approach to doing the techniques of Daito-Ryu that involved circular movements that, his followers believe, made them far more effective and powerful – but which his detractors believe actually weakened the techniques and made them less effective.

In any event, Aikido evolved as a martial art that seeks to use circular movements and precise timing in order to “neutralize” any attack and use an opponent’s strength against him. In practical terms, it involves learning a variety of throws and joint locks that take literally years to learn well but which, if done by an expert, are actually quite effective. Many of the coolest moves you see in spy movies – like in the Jason Bourne films — are actually Aikido techniques. Modified versions of the techniques are also used a lot by police, especially the joint locks.

Does it work? I am asked that all the time.

The easy answer would be, well, that depends. The more honest answer is: In a street fight against a hardened criminal, probably not.

But then again, karate or tae kwon do or any other after-school pansy martial art wouldn’t work, either. Any bouncer will tell you that real fights are brutal and quick – and no place for anything fancy, whether spinning wheel kicks or Aikido throws. Real rights are where the toughest, most ruthless, usually most experienced bastard wins.

If you want to train for that type of fight, the best training is probably a good Brazilian Ju-Jitsu (BJJ) or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) dojo that tries to be as realistic as possible and where people regularly get their ribs and noses broken – and even that probably wouldn’t really prepare you to face the average, run-of-the-mill convict.

But the reality is, most people don’t square off in the street against Jean Claude van Damme. What the average person encounters, and which Aikido is actually quite useful for, is the drunk in the local pub… or the too-friendly groomsman (for women) at a wedding. Some oaf grabs your lapel… or tries to push you. For these types of real-life encounters, the joint locks and simple throws of Aikido can actually be quite effective.

For most people, though, Aikido training really isn’t about fighting. It’s about not-fighting, about winning through non-resistance, about redirecting aggression so it doesn’t hurt you. The esoteric side of Aikido is that the techniques are most effective when you don’t try to use muscle at all but timing, gently knocking someone off balance enough so, with hardly any effort, you can guide him or her face down on the mat. That is why Aikido people whirl their opponents around in a characteristic circular motion that takes away their balance.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).

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