The Irony of Aikido

I have to write about aikido today, mostly because I passed my black belt test yesterday, and I now have an excuse to puff myself up.

I am 55 years old, so it became a race to see whether I would reach this goal I’d set for myself or whether it would be time to start thinking about a walker. My knees, for one thing, aren’t quite as spry as they used to be, although I will be the first to deny that.

Aikido is unique as a martial art in many ways. To the casual observer, it displays movements resembling the throws in judo (although actually much different) and the joint locks and pins of jujitsu. It has many similarities to the capture techniques of chin na from the Chinese tradition.

It’s Japanese in origin, founded by Morihei Ueshiba, known as O Sensei, Great Teacher, to everyone in aikido.  A phenomenal martial artist, he stood less than five feet high, and approached the martial arts as a deeply spiritual pursuit. He apparently first used the word ‘aikido’ to describe his art during the Second World War. In Japanese, ‘aikido’ means Way of Harmony.

It always sounds a little strange to those who don’t practice that any martial art could be considered a peaceful or harmonious pursuit. This is a paradox that draws people in: often young men, for example, full of ego and male competitiveness are matured into something else by the discipline and the example of their elders. This is not just aikido, of course, but applies to any serious martial art. One becomes drawn to the spirit of protection.

But aikido, especially, because of its non-competitive practice method and the martial rigor of its elder statesmen, leads to a sense of practice for its own sake. It’s good for you: it requires mental and physical alertness, the long-term practitioners are almost always fine people, and getting up quickly from flat on the mat to your feet hundreds of times in a training session provides surprising conditioning. The reason you’re prone on the mat of course is that you’ve been thrown or pinned there.

I’m a slow learner. I’ve practiced aikido off and on for about 15 years. Several times I stopped for school or work reasons for years at a time. I came to it after studying tai chi chuan as a martial art (not as a charming form of oriental dance) for quite a few years, and which I still practice (I love ‘push hands’). And I still practice fencing of course, although never as seriously as the other two.

There are ironies here, for me, practicing aikido. I’m not terribly sympathetic, for one thing, to the conformity of the Japanese mind set. I’ve read in the history of Japanese politics and martial arts, the history of the samurai and the shogunate, and please believe me that most North Americans would find it barbaric and stifling in the extreme to live in those times. And this is the soil from which all the Japanese martial arts have grown. It is also the source of their greatness.

There is a very hierarchical structure to a Japanese art such as aikido, with its grades and tests and constant bows of respect, which is in contrast to the more free form structure in much of tai chi chuan. In tai chi, I’ve never thought about belts.

The traditional Aikikai form of aikido I practice is still governed largely from Japan and uses exclusively Japanese nomenclature… I’ve had my internal struggles with the Japaneseness of it although I now appreciate, for instance, the precision of the technical vocabulary.

The biggest irony is that my father fought as a Marine in some of the toughest battles of the Second World War against the Japanese: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and many other more nondescript Pacific islands. Surviving that, I think he always felt that the only true security rests in having a clear field of fire.

In our home growing up, we had the carbine he was issued during the war: he dismissed it as useless at stopping a man, and apparently while in service immediately replaced it with a more effective weapon. We had manuals and papers he took from Japanese he killed during many battles. Not only papers… we still have the samurai swords that he took as trophies of war from the Japanese officers who wore them as a mark of their rank.

He never liked to reminisce about the war and its cruelties and would rarely speak of it. He died at an age about 10 years younger than I am now. I often wonder what he would think about aikido. I wish he were here to talk to about it.

Getting a black belt in aikido is not such a big deal, although I’m proud today. It merely marks one as a beginner who may be starting to get the drift of it.

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19 Comments on “The Irony of Aikido”

  1. secretmojo Says:

    That is huge.

    Congratulations, Yudansha.

  2. qazse Says:

    Congratulations fencer. I think more than a physical accomplishment it is a mental and spiritual accomplishment. So many times you could have continued to stayed away but instead you went back through the doors to bow and practice the art.

    The words about your Dad are touching.

  3. fencer Says:

    Hey thanks, secretmojo… Do you practice too?

    Thank you as well, qazse. There’s something about the movement and working with your own and other people’s bodies and awareness that gets in your blood. I like to think that my father would understand, although as a fighting man he might tend to pooh-pooh it.

  4. secretmojo Says:

    In another life, I learned a little tai chi at a William C. Chen branch. Ran out of money for it, though, and I never regained enough drive to continue. I loved push hands, too, because it was “applications,” not forms, that intrigued me, but I’m probably not as advanced as you (doubt I even know how to do it today).

    I’ve had many friends along the way who did practice japanese arts (among others); from the admiration of them I vicariously acquired the terminology.

    Once again, congrats. Any father would have to resist quite diligently not to be proud of that.

  5. qazse Says:

    I believe your dad is at a different level of consciousness and being. He is free of his earth thinking. I believe he is always loving you in a way he was unable to before. You are a good man and a good son.

  6. wujimon Says:

    I used to train a bit of aikido back in the day, but I switched to focus more on taiji. The main reason is b/c I can practice taiji by myself, whereas I found that quite difficult with aikido.

    Congrats ;)

  7. bloglily Says:

    Hello Fencer, That sounds like a wonderful spiritual and physical accomplishment. Congratulations. I read about your father with great interest. Children do indeed watch their parents and, although it’s not always easy to chart the path of this transformation, they often become much of what’s finest in their parents. You certainly have. Best, BL

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi secretmojo,

    That’s the same lineage of tai chi (Cheng Man-ch’ing) that I’ve returned to after many other explorations in Chinese internal martial arts. It sounds like you got a ways along in it… try again someday!

    Thank you for your kind words.

    ——–

    Hi qazse,

    Thank you so much for your compassionate thoughts.

    ——–

    Hi wujimon,

    Yes, I know that quandary. It is difficult to practice the techniques of course by yourself in aikido, although there are a lot of movement exercises, and the weapons do have forms that can be practiced. In preparation for my test, I even practiced my side of whatever technique I was working on. Probably a good thing I didn’t do it in public!

    But that is the lovely thing about tai chi… it gives you the opportunity to continuously refine the movement on your own.

    ——

    Hi bloglily,

    My father and his absence have played a role, sometimes great, sometimes much less so, in my life. I write of him from afar and I hope with some understanding. Thank you a lot for your good and encouraging words.

  9. sputnki Says:

    Hey Fencer, a great entry very appealing to me as a person who was always interested in the more harmonious martial arts from afar. Congratulations too on your passage to black belt. Speaking as a father you cannot help but be proud when your child applies themself to something they really want and then attains the goal through hard work!

    Doug

  10. fencer Says:

    Thanks, Doug… much appreciated.

  11. Laurel Says:

    Congratulations on the black belt. It is a wonderful achievement that reflects your determination and willingness to confront your own imperfections.
    My Dad was in a sub during the war and now refers to the men he killed sinking their ships as “those poor devils”. I think he has forgiven them.

    I hope that you enjoy many more years of aikido.

  12. fencer Says:

    Hi Laurel,

    Thanks!

    Our fathers who survived the wars had a lot to deal with…

    Regards

  13. Gumby Says:

    Congratulations! I know I’m a little late; I just did a blog search for ‘aikido’ and yours came up. I’m getting ready for my 1st Kyu test, myself. :)

  14. fencer Says:

    Hi Gumby,

    Thanks for stopping by… and good luck with that 1st kyu test!

    Regards

  15. Pavel Says:

    Congratulations on the black belt! It’s very big deal for me, cause I’m a beginner :-)

  16. fencer Says:

    Hi Pavel,

    Good for you for giving aikido a whirl. I found the practice gets into the blood… there’s something essentially rewarding about it. Even if I stopped for a year or more, I always wanted to start again.

    Regards

  17. Pavel Says:

    Thanks, I hope I’ll never quit, or even stop :-)
    Anyway, even outside the dojo, in regular life I think about it very often.

  18. Takeshi Says:

    fencer, I’m coming in late; probaby because my ‘re-ai’ is bit off with finding this post.

    Let me say Congrats on your recent award of rank. I sincerely hope you continue with your studies. As you are all too familiar, your study has only just started. You may discover the more you study, the less you actually know!

    Achieving ‘shodan’ is nothing more than an indication of where you have been. Where you journey from here is left squarely on you.

    Studying any martial discipline is about the process of training; the journey of self-discovery. If people (with well-meaning intentions) could take their minds off the illusive dan rank, trying to be another Jackie Chan, and a number of other things, they may find their path of study more enjoyable. And too, they might actually learn something.

    I enjoyed the read and I thank you for sharing.

    Rei!

    Mata ne…

  19. fencer Says:

    Hi Takeshi,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Yes, I still continue with aikido, although the rest of my life, especially work, seems to get in the way sometimes…

    I’m pretty sure I don’t know anything!

    Regards


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