Is Aikido a Martial Art?
Sensei Henry Ellis – 2001
Co-author of Positive Aikido.
At first sight of the above title I am sure that a lot of Aikidoist’s will be angry, they will assume that this is yet another attack on the credibility of Aikido by other martial artist’s.
On this occasion they are totally wrong, I have been a student of Aikido since 1957, In those early days I first started Judo in 1956 at the Kenshiro Abbe School of Budo, I studied Karate with Harada Sensei and Kendo with Tomio O’Tani Sensei, so with my background I feel that I have something to offer to this debate.
The Aikido that I first saw being demonstrated by Abbe Sensei in 1956 was without doubt a positive martial art.
I was immediately impressed by its positive techniques and power, and in those days my fellow martial artists and I were in no doubt that we were witnessing a devastating new form of self-defence as demonstrated by Kenshiro Abbe Sensei.
Abbe Sensei had begun his martial arts career at the age of five and became a legend in his own lifetime. At eighteen he was the youngest ever all Japan Judo champion and also the youngest ever 5th Dan at the world renowned Kodokan. He later became the oldest ever all Japan Judo champion at the age of thirty three.
When Abbe Sensei arrived in the UK in 1955 he was 8th Dan Judo, 6th Dan Karate, 6th Dan Kendo, 6th Dan Kyudo, 6th Dan Aikido,
the question must be asked; would this Budo master have studied Aikido if he did not believe it to be a martial art?
It is my opinion that Abbe Sensei would not have studied Aikido as it is today.
Please break my finger
As a direct student of Abbe Sensei I asked one day whilst we were traveling to a seminar
“Sensei, how did you first become a student of O’Sensei and Aikido”?
He smiled as he reminisced for a few moments; then told me the following story:
He said that he was a young man at the time and the Judo champion of all Japan and traveling on a crowded train across Japan to yet another Judo competion.
Sitting opposite him in the same carriage was an old man who was trying to make some conversation with him, Abbe had his eyes closed as he tried to sleep.
The old man said to him ” I know who you are” Abbe Sensei replied rather modestly ” everyone knows who I am, I am Kenshiro Abbe champion of all Japan” he politely asked the old man who he was, the old man replied
“I am Morihei Ueshiba founder of Aikido” Abbe Sensei nodded politely and suggested that they now try to get some sleep, the old man suddenly stuck his hand forward and offered the smallest digit to this powerfully built young man, Abbe was stunned as the old man said “
please break my finger” Abbe thought I will break his neck if he doesn’t go to sleep, he was now becoming irritated by this old man, he immediately grasped the old mans finger in an attempt to shut him up, he freely admitted that in his frustration it was his intention to break the offending digit. To his total amazement he was suddenly slammed onto the carriage floor. As he lay prostrate and unable to move he knew he had to study with this master. He asked O’Sensei if he could study with him, O’Sensei agreed and Abbe stayed with O’Sensei for ten years.
O’Sensei had spent many years studying various martial arts, I believe that the art of Daito-ryu and Ju-jitsu had more influence on the development of Aikido than anything else he had studied, and we know he went to Mongolia to fight and this would be the perfect opportunity to test his many skills in a real situation, so we can be in no doubt that this incredible man was a true warrior and modern Samurai.
A knife for my enemy
It was this early positive style of Aikido that Abbe Sensei brought to the UK in 1955, at this time there was also the first Japanese master to Europe, this was Tadashi Abe Sensei 6th Dan who was based in France, he was a small man even by Japanese standards, but to my mind he was the hardest man I have ever met.
He was very similar to Kazuo Chiba Sensei who I met with in London’s West End last week, When he traveled he always carried a knife with him, this was not for his own protection but to hand to his shocked opponent, he would say “please, this is for you”.
He said that an opponent with his bare fists was no challenge, but a man with a knife was “very interesting”.
I think we can safely assume that as these teachers were so hard and positive then this must have been the style of Aikido that was being taught at the Hombu dojo in Japan, this was the Aikido of O’Sensei as a young man, the Aikido being taught today is that of O’Sensei as an old man, there is no doubt that as people get older they lose the spirit of their youth and become more philosophical in their approach to life.
My father who was once regarded as the toughest man in town later in life found his peace taking his dog for long walks. I believe that we now have two aikido’s, traditional aikido which if truly traditional (this word is much abused) is the martial side of Aikido, the soft fantasy and dancing style of Aikido should simply be categorized as an “Art”.
Those who are true traditional Aikidoists will take no offence at this article, yet the dancers will probably be offended and I care little for their feelings as I honestly believe that this soft Aikido has no more right to call itself a martial art than has synchronized swimming has a right to be in the Olympics.
In my previous article, I attempted to establish the hard style of Aikido that was first introduced to the West in the 1950’s. I would like to emphasize the fact that I get no satisfaction from publicly criticizing Aikido and I get a great deal less satisfaction when I see Aikido being brought into ridicule.
To continue from part one…..
The training in and exercises in those early days were very hard and physical, with karate style kicking and punching a very integral part of our warm up, followed by 200 press ups on the backs of the wrists, with fingers pointing both inwards and outwards, very often while you were in the raised position Abbe Sensei would instruct another student to sit on your back, as we were the only group of five Dan grades in the UK and all in the same dojo then this was the training in all the Aikido dojos in the UK and today we are the only organization in Aikido still doing these press ups.
The purists say “these press ups are bad for you” what they really mean is they can’t do them, this is all part of the watering down of traditional Aikido.
Aikidoists are often accused of practicing ” Choreographed Aikido” and to be honest I must admit that these claims are very often justified, with Uke (attacker) preparing to break fall long before he makes his attack, and most of them attack off balance , therefore making any multiples of techniques possible with the minimum of effort and of course this makes Tori (defender) look “fantastic”.
What is really sad is that these people believe that this is good Aikido.
Kenshiro Abbe Sensei would always say to us that “two” students are training at the same time, one is Uke who is learning and improving his attacking techniques and his
opponent Tori is also learning and improving his defensive techniques, whilst we were training with Abbe Sensei if Uke’s foot or heel came off the mat as he attacked Abbe Sensei would give the offending leg a good whack with a shinai (bamboo sword) he would then say ” My English is very bad but my shinai speaks fluently!”.
If Uke attacks on balance then it is obvious that Tori’s technique must be good and strong to throw him, and as Abbe Sensei said so many times ” two students are training” .
Mark Eastman a strong young Dan grade with me went on a seminar recently where there was a 6th Dan. The 6th Dan refused to use him as Uke stating ” I can not use you as you do not harmonize with me”, he was not being awkward or difficult just attacking on balance.
Today all of these traditional exercises and training methods have now changed to a simple warm up routine with jumping up and down on the spot and lots of deep spiritual discussion.
Hard exercise is now considered to be aggressive and not in harmony with the true spirit of Aikido.
Abbe Sensei said that hard training developed the spirit, he also referred to Ki during those early days as he demonstrated the power of his technique, when asked to explain the meaning of Ki, he said not to worry about Ki as that would be a part of our training and development.
He then said “Only when you reach first Dan will you be able to understand the true concept of Ki as a further extension of your Aikido.”
I still believe that line of thought, and the instructors in our dojo’s very rarely speak of Ki although it is taught as a important and integral part of our training and study.
Although Ki is generally recognized as the spirit and breathing during the application of technique, every teacher and student will offer a very wide and varied and sometimes bizarre interpretation of the meaning of this much abused word.
The main problems arise and are created by the teachers themselves, who very often mislead their students to the extent that they almost believe that Ki is a form of magic. The following is one prime example from a very prominent Aikido magazines letters section.
Title: The Spirit of Protection
I am a carpenter and 2nd kyu in Aikido. I was working in a large new home doing repair work, I had finished my job and was heading for a long staircase when I noticed the owners two year old son was heading for the same stairs from the opposite direction.
As he approached the top of the stair he was watching me and not where he was going. I was too far away to grab him, so I shot to him (irimi) and stuck my arm straight out to him, my “Ki” went through the little boys’ face and out the back of his head, he fell backwards and started crying.
His mother heard the crying and came up the stairs, when I told her what had happened, she thanked me,
I said “Don’t thank me, Thank Aikido”.
That poor child may well now be as disturbed as the writer.
Harry Potter Ryu
There are many such misguided examples which I will refer to in future articles, it is this kind of nonsense that brings Aikidos credibility into doubt I am fully aware that every martial art has its own version of ” Harry Potter” in their ranks, what I fail to understand is that there are more of them in Aikido than all the other martial arts combined.
The reason that I am so critical and vociferous about Aikido is that every day I see these people watering down this great martial art that I have spent most of my life studying, teaching and promoting for the past 46 years. I am often asked “Sensei, which do you think is the best and worst martial art”.
I always make the same reply ” All the martial arts are good, if there is a problem with any martial art, then it can only be the people who represent that particular art who misrepresent their art
In articles parts one and two I have covered the introduction of Aikido to the West, and the impact on other Martial Artists, Aikido progressed and developed in the UK by visiting existing dojos of all the various Martial Arts and offering to demonstrate and teach for free in the hope of starting a small class in the more receptive dojos, as one can imagine this was no easy task as more often than not our efforts were not an open invitation to most dojos.
In the end the positive style of the early Aikido won through, and this is a very important point to make in the early development of Western Aikido was that most of the new students of Aikido were from other Martial Arts. I do not believe that we could have converted other Martial Artists to Aikido had it not been so strong and effective.
I have referred to the many changes in Aikido over the past 46 years from its history to training and choreography and Ki Aikido and also the many Harry Potters of the Aikido world, as a direct result of these articles I was contacted by a Aikido student in the UK to tell me that she had now stopped training in Aikido because her teacher stated that he was now going to teach the students “To breath through their toes”.
The most important of all the changes that have taken place in the past 46 years have to be the changes in technique and its application, the early style of Aikido was very compact and powerful. From the day of its introduction to the UK, Aikido was always taught as a circular moving Martial Art with Tori at the centre of all movement.
As Uke (the attacker) made his attack, Tori would turn within his own circle making it possible to carry out the technique in a very small area of maybe four square feet. Today the fantasy aikidoist need a football pitch.
I have seen some so called “masters” twirling Uke around on the end of one finger and pirouetting several times before being thrown the full length of the mat.
Kenshiro Abbe Sensei always taught that Uke would only “go” if the technique was effective. I often hear and have seen some of these people who say they can throw an opponent without touching them, sometimes by breathing and projecting their “Ki”. I have also had the misfortune to see very high grades with several “*attackers*” 🙂 making a breakfalling attack at them, amusing? not really, as most of them really believe that the projectile uki is a serious attack.
You cannot do that if someone is attacking on balance, I have never seen anyone do that to a student of mine. Of course if you do attack on balance you will then be accused of “Not harmonizing”.
Aikido for real
I have read various accounts of the first Americans to practice Aikido in the early 60’s. There were Americans practicing Aikido in the UK in the late 1950’s at “The Hut” The Abbe School of Budo.
The Americans were members of the USAF stationed in the UK. they were always questioning ” How would that work in the street?” and we would often finish up in the car park of The Hut after class and engage in some real Aikido.
Afterwards everyone would be in good spirits and have a few beers.
Sunday mornings were always the best practice sessions with the dojo doors being locked to all but the Dan grades. It was then that the Dan grades would fight each other for real. This was the only way to truly evaluate your technique.
On one occasion I was fighting with Sensei Ken Williams (The British National Coach) he hit me hard and I went down clutching my chest and moaning loudly in agony.
It was known that I didn’t go down and I never made a fuss, so now everyone was concerned for me and as Sensei Williams leaned over me asking “Harry, are you OK” I lashed out with my fist at his head, just making a glancing contact, he then stepped back and kicked me in the head putting an end to my cunning.
The smallest of all the Dan grades was Eric Dollimore, he was only about 5ft-6in in height and around 130 lbs.
I always felt that Eric was avoiding me on these Sunday morning sessions, as he was about to leave the mat I said to him “Eric, would you like to try against me” he just turned and said “Sorry Harry, I have to be at my girlfriends home for lunch”. As he left the mat I smiled to myself and thought “That’s what I expected” the smugness did not last long as I heard a voice behind me say
“OK then Harry, can we make it quick as I must get away”.
It was Eric; for a moment I was surprised then I thought to myself if you want it quick I will accommodate you.
I moved in to take him out with the one punch and the next thing I knew I had gone through the dojo office partition wall and I was still lying stunned the office floor when I heard Eric’s voice call out
“See you Monday Harry, gotta go”.
That was a very important lesson to me, I have never underestimated anyone since the little guy taught me a lesson.
The Grading Lottery
If in the 1950’s and 60’s you saw a 5th or 6th Dan you would be in awe of him. I now see so many multi grades and to be honest they would not be graded first Dan in the old days. They make these claims knowing that if they are ever challenged and prove their mettle they know they can claim that this is against the principals of Aikido.
Another favourite of these people is to juggle around with their grades and come up with multiples of matching grades, for a prime example of this abuse check out the article British Aikido-The Controversy.
Mitsusuke Harada Sensei “5th Dan”
Harada Sensei was my Karate teacher in the 1960’s, he was then and still is a 5th Dan at the Shotokan dojo in Tokyo. he was graded by the founder of modern day Karate Gichin Funakoshi Sensei.
He taught Karate to the USAF at the Kodokan dojo after the second world war. He was graded 5th Dan by Funakoshi Sensei in 1957 and is still 5th Dan after 45 years, stating that “Any grade above 5th Dan is totally pointless”.
This is exactly the feeling of Sensei Derek Eastman and myself, although we are two of the only remaining four of the original group left of Kenshiro Abbe Sensei’s group from the 1950’s, we both agreed that there were too many “Harry Potter” grades around, we then decided that like Harada Sensei we would make 5th Dan the highest level in our organization.
I will take a break now that these articles are complete and do some serious “Toe breathing”.
This will be my last article for CyberKwoon for a while, I would like to thank Master Fabien Sena for allowing me to air my views on a subject most would try to avoid.
I do not know what direction the Martial Arts will take when all the “Old Timers ” are gone.
As one of the comments (to the Cyberkwoon site forum) said “We can still make a difference”.
To the one who asked after my father, he was not a martial artist, just a hard man who started working at the age of 13 years two miles underground in the South Yorkshire coal mines.
Sensei Henry Ellis. 5th dan Traditional Aikido.