Japanese Martial Art

Those giant mazes, made of hedges or carved from cornfields and designed so that you have to wind your way through, are a simple stroll compared to the maze presented when working your way through the Japanese language.

The word empi presents a good example. Many Black Belt readers will be familiar with it because it was Gichin Funakoshi's name for a karate kata originally — and, in Okinawan dojo, still — called wanshu.

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Any martial artist who watches the films of the Star Wars franchise will spot the references: Japanese swordsmanship, gi tops, chi energy in the form of the force, and so on. Find out where these components came from and how they all fit together.

Now that the furor has subsided, I thought it would be a good time to talk about Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens and the martial arts it contains. Before I begin, however, allow me to share the fact that I've been an avid fan of the franchise since it debuted in 1977. In 1980 I was actually mistaken for Mark Hamill at the Taiwan premiere of The Empire Strikes Back. As such, I was among the millions around the world who were dying to see and, hopefully, enjoy The Force Awakens. The film has already earned $1.95 billion worldwide and is on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. Even better, the next installment boasts Donnie Yen as part of the cast! Considering that, how could I not blog about Star Wars? As you read on, please keep in mind that it’s not my intention to malign The Force Awakens; rather, I want to examine the film’s action from a martial arts perspective.

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Learn how this iconic martial arts researcher was introduced to judo, jujutsu, kendo, iaido and other budo and bujutsu — and how he immersed himself in each discipline.

On October 20, 1982, the martial arts world lost one of its most dynamic and charismatic figures. Donn F. Draeger, USMC (retired), budo kyoshi (full professor of Japanese martial arts and ways) and ranked martial artist in perhaps a dozen combative systems, passed away from cancer at age 60 in his home state of Wisconsin. Draeger is remembered today chiefly as the author of more than 30 books and numerous articles about the Asian martial arts, as well as for being one of the best-qualified and most experienced Western exponents of the combative arts. The oft-repeated legend that he either had or possessed the equivalent of some 100 black-belt ranks is perhaps apocryphal, but he no doubt was among the most accomplished martial artists of his generation, possibly of all time. He held a sixth-degree black belt in judo; a seventh degree in jojutsu (Japanese stick fighting), kendo and iaido; and a menkyo license in the tenshin shoden katori shinto-ryu of bujutsu. Yet Draeger was a private man, and little has been published about his background and how he came to be such a pioneering figure in Western martial arts history. More intent on studying and analyzing than on promoting himself, he made perhaps his greatest contribution to combative studies in the form of the reactivation of hoplology — the scholarly study of weaponry and human combative behavior, a field with which he became familiar by reading Sir Richard Francis Burton’s The Book of the Sword. This volume, first published in 1882 (and available today from Dover Publications), is a seminal hoplological text devoted to a cultural history of the sword from the earliest times to the Roman era, and it had a profound influence on Draeger’s thinking concerning weaponry, systems of combat and their place in global culture.

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Dr. Nick Hallale concludes his analysis of how the concept of aiki fits into aikido, which is often viewed as a nonviolent martial art, and aikijujutsu, which is regarded as more aggressive.

When comparing aikijujutsu and aikido, some generalization is necessary because several styles of aikido and branches of daito-ryu aikijujutsu exist. Although the technical influence of daito-ryu on aikido is still clear, according to Antonino Certa, a daito-ryu teacher in Milan, Italy, the two are now separate arts with different outlooks. Certa, a longtime student of aikido prior to taking up daito-ryu, stresses that genuine aikijujutsu is not simply “hard aikido” or “aikido plus strikes and weapons.” For one thing, Certa found that the number of techniques in aikido is far fewer than in daito-ryu. Morihei Ueshiba distilled a core of about 20 main techniques — including shiho-nage, irimi-nage, kote-gaeshi, ikkyo and nikyo — as the basis for aikido. United Kingdom-based aikido instructor Dave Humm agrees but points out that aikidoka can use those core techniques to generate an infinite number of variations based on circumstances, situations and methods of attack. The ethos, he says, is to be able to make any one of those applications fit any given situation. In daito-ryu, however, the approach is very different. The techniques number several hundred, and each is performed only in a small number of situations for which it’s deemed most suitable — for instance, when kneeling, when standing, when attacked from behind, when attacked by a taller person and so forth. No attempt is made to fit a technique to all situations. Sogaku Takeda’s son and successor, Tokimune Takeda, sits with students in their dojo in Hokkaido, Japan. Certa found that aikido practice is generally conducted in a more “free” way than aikijujutsu, with a continuous flow and the use of circles to bind movements and applications together. In contrast, daito-ryu uses mostly formal, two-person kata practice. The techniques are short and direct, and tend to be more linear and angular than circular. Daito-ryu also tends to favor throwing with a dropping motion, rather than an outward projection as in aikido. The objective in daito-ryu is to keep the thrown enemy close so he can be finished off, if need be. Also, where aikido often favors controlling (osae) the opponent without causing excessive pain or injury, daito-ryu leans toward breaking (kansetsu). Relative Lethality Another important point is that daito-ryu doesn’t claim to be a purely defensive system: There are several formal techniques in which one makes a pre-emptive attack rather than waiting for the enemy to strike first. Although much of aikido seems to be practiced as a defensive form, Humm believes that it can be employed proactively in real situations simply by changing the mind-set. His experience as a prison officer serving in high-security establishments has shown that while the application looks nothing like the techniques in the dojo, the principles behind the techniques (distancing, blending and unbalancing) are definitely valid and have served him well when he’s had to initiate encounters. The martial and often brutal spirit of daito-ryu is illustrated by the explanations of Takeda’s son and successor Tokimune Takeda. In an interview in Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu, by Stanley Pranin, Tokimune states, “The essence of daito-ryu is to keep alert until you have cut the enemy’s throat.” In modern times, health and safety regulations and the hassle of lawsuits make it a little impractical to actually cut the throats of partners in training. Therefore, the essence of the final kill has been preserved in a symbolic way: The practitioner delivers a sword-hand strike to the downed opponent, accompanying it with a sharp kiai. Daito-ryu features more use of atemi waza (striking techniques) than do most aikido styles. In the early days, aikido training did include a large amount of striking — Ueshiba is famously quoted as saying, “Atemi is 99 percent of aikido” — but this seems to have been de-emphasized in many styles as the years progressed. The atemi in daito-ryu use the fist, the edge of the hand, the elbow and the feet, and are crucial parts of many techniques. There’s also a difference in the use of weapons. Some daito-ryu branches incorporate the classical sword style of ono-ha itto-ryu and consider kenjutsu important for understanding the daito-ryu system. In addition to the sword, some techniques involving the tessen (iron fan), jutte (truncheon), tanto (knife), shuriken (throwing stars) and other weapons are taught at the higher levels in some branches. A few substyles of daito-ryu are alleged to contain aiki nito (two-sword) and spear techniques, but they’re rarely seen today. Aikido, on the other hand, is largely an unarmed art, although some styles, notably the iwama style, do include some sword and jo (staff) training. The advanced teachings of daito-ryu also include aiki no jutsu, which are throwing techniques that appear to have been one of Ueshiba’s specialties, forming the basis for the kokyu nage (breath throw) of aikido. Certa regards aiki as an important part of daito-ryu but eschews the kind of fantastical interpretations described earlier. In the above-mentioned interview, Tokimune Takeda remarked that, “Aiki is to pull when you are pushed, and to push when you are pulled.” Certa met and studied under Tokimune prior to the latter’s death in 1993 and seems to share this pragmatic view. In his opinion, aiki is but one of the tactics a skilled fighter can use. At a mechanical level, it’s a particular way of meeting force that differs from simply opposing or yielding. He offers this illustration: The opponent attacks and projects his force against the defender, who momentarily resists. That makes the attacker react in the opposite direction, and the defender yields in that new direction using the force of both people to execute a throw. Rather than being a secret “no contact” power, it’s an application of physics, physiology and psychology. Conclusions Daito-ryu aikijujutsu and aikido are very different arts, despite their technical and historical links. Neither can be called better than the other, as they have quite different objectives. It would be wrong to assume that aikijujutsu practitioners are automatically better at fighting. A good way to summarize things is to say that aikido is a modern philosophy and way of life that can also be an effective defense system, while aikijujutsu is a classical combat system that can also lead to self-improvement. As for the exact meaning of aiki, it has proved difficult to pin down with a single definition. In fact, interpretations vary enormously from art to art and even from teacher to teacher. But returning to the question posed at the beginning of this article — namely, What’s so aiki about peace, love and understanding? — the true answer must be: Originally, nothing! Read Part 1 of this article here. About the author: Dr. Nick Hallale has practiced the Chinese and Japanese martial arts since 1988. He has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and taught for several years at the University of Manchester in England. He has written freelance articles about the martial arts for the past 10 years. The author is grateful to Antonino Certa and Giacomo Merello of Milan, Italy, for providing much of the technical information about daito-ryu. He also wishes to thank Dave Humm of the Higashi Kaigan Aikido Dojo in England. (Photos courtesy of Antonino Certa)

Aiki is a key component of aikido and aikijujutsu, two martial arts that have very different fighting philosophies. Journey back in time and find out how that came to be.

What’s so aiki about peace, love and understanding? Aikido is one of the best-known martial arts in the world, yet the meaning of the word aiki is not well understood. Most people, including many of the 1 million who study aikido today, are probably familiar with Morihei Ueshiba’s famous interpretation — namely, universal love and harmony. In the classical Japanese martial arts, however, it has a different — and definitely more combative — meaning. Ueshiba’s own jujitsu teacher Sogaku Takeda defined aiki as “the ability to defeat an enemy with a single glance.” So which one is right? Hanza hantachi techniques performed from a seated position against a standing opponent (above) are found in daito-ryu aikijujutsu and aikido. They’re said to have originated from methods used to fight inside a palace, where much time was spent seated. Koryu Bujutsu and Aiki The concept of aiki can be found in some of Japan’s koryu bujutsu, or classical martial arts, and should not be thought of as unique to aikido. However, the interpretation of the word changed significantly by the time aikido was formed. The koryu bujutsu were the arts in use during Japan’s feudal era beginning around the 15th century and ending in the late 19th century. They were primarily systems of combat practiced by the professional military classes rather than the civilian population. They included arts such as jujitsu and kenjutsu. The modern budo — which include karate-do, judo, aikido and kendo — don’t focus on combat to the same extent. They’re considered vehicles for spiritual development and self-improvement, although great skill in fighting may certainly be achieved, as well. For a better discussion of the differences between the koryu arts and the modern systems than is possible in this article, Donn F. Draeger’s three-part series The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan is recommended. The word “aiki” literally means a fusion or meeting of energy. It’s no accident that it’s an anagram of the word kiai (focusing the spirit), and indeed the distinction between the two is blurry. In the koryu arts, the application of aiki first appeared in kenjutsu schools (see Aikido: Tradition and the Competitive Edge, by Fumiaki Shishida and Tetsuro Nariyama) and referred to a contest of wills between combatants. Some other interpretations include the ability to gain the initiative and to use physical and psychological techniques to unbalance a foe. Over time, more esoteric meanings were offered, which would make any Jedi knight proud. They included the ability to see in the dark, to bring a walking man to a stop and to read minds (see The Fighting Spirit of Japan, by E.J. Harrison). Several jujitsu and judo schools also teach the concept of aiki, but the first one to formally include it in its name was daito-ryu aikijujutsu. Two Remarkable Men Daito-ryu master Sogaku Takeda may not have looked anything like Tom Cruise, but it would be apt to describe him as the real “last samurai.” Takeda was born in 1859 in Aizu, Japan, and lived through the Meiji Restoration, the ending of the feudal age and the final days of the samurai caste. From childhood, he was trained in several of the bujutsu of the Aizu clan, including the ono-ha itto-ryu style of kenjutsu and the family art of daito-ryu aikijujutsu. According to oral legends, aikijujutsu was created around 1100 and passed down secretly within the Takeda family. It’s said to have originated from sumo wresting and unarmed sword strikes. Daito (“great east”) was the name of the area in which Yoshimitsu Minamoto, the alleged creator, lived. One of the fighting arts Sogaku Takeda learned as a child was the ono-ha itto-ryu style of kenjutsu (above). Despite standing less than 5 feet tall, Takeda was a formidable fighter and personally pressure-tested his skills in several life-or-death encounters. The most notorious incident occurred when he was in his early 20s and fought a gang of construction workers in Fukushima. Takeda killed around seven of them with his sword after they attacked him with weapons and tools. During his lifetime, Takeda taught thousands of people. His most famous pupil, however, was undoubtedly Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido. Ueshiba met Takeda in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, in 1915. Ueshiba was already a strong fighter with considerable training in other jujitsu styles, but he found he was no match for Takeda. Consequently, Ueshiba abandoned all his activities to study with his superior. Contrary to the beliefs of many aikidoka, Ueshiba studied daito-ryu for a long time — Takeda’s meticulous records indicate that he trained for more than 20 years. Ueshiba would later modify the daito-ryu techniques he learned and combine them with the spiritual teachings of the Omoto-kyo religion to create what we now know as aikido. In the later stages of his remarkable life, he played on the fact that the character for love was pronounced ai, the same as the first syllable of aiki. His proclamation that “aiki is the manifestation of love” signified his conversion of aikido from its combative bujutsu roots into a budo system that could reconcile human beings and avoid conflict. This probably gave rise to the vision that many aikidoka of today are familiar with and have as their ideal. But not all aikido teachers agree that this is being pursued in the best or most realistic way today. Dave Humm, a British aikido instructor and prison officer, believes that reconciliation and conflict resolution without violence are high ideals that are overemphasized in many organizations. While he ultimately agrees with the ideology and philosophy of the art, he also believes that many aikido schools don’t fully condition their students for dealing with aggressive physical confrontation. He holds that spending many years training to control physically uncooperative aggressors is a necessary step on the path to achieving Ueshiba’s higher ideology. That doesn’t seem like such a radical doctrinal departure when one considers that even Ueshiba defined aiki in a less-than-altruistic manner in the early part of his career. In Dueling with O-Sensei, koryu and aikido teacher Ellis Amdur describes how Ueshiba reportedly said, “Aiki is a means of achieving harmony with another person so that you can make them do what you want.” In the same book, Amdur writes that Ueshiba purportedly taught combat methods at the infamous Nakano Spy School during the war. The former headmaster is said to have recounted how Ueshiba would demonstrate killing techniques, saying “This is how you finish them off.” Given the nature of the academy, the era and the activities of its members, he probably wasn’t teaching students how to love people to death. Read Part 2 of this article here. About the author: Dr. Nick Hallale has practiced the Chinese and Japanese martial arts since 1988. He has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and taught for several years at the University of Manchester in England. He has written freelance articles about the martial arts for the past 10 years. The author is grateful to Antonino Certa and Giacomo Merello of Milan, Italy, for providing much of the technical information about daito-ryu. He also wishes to thank Dave Humm of the Higashi Kaigan Aikido Dojo in England. (Photos courtesy of Antonino Certa)

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