“Who anyway is the superior martial artist… the guy who’s never been defeated
with a record of 0-0, or a formidable ring champion with a 35-2 record?”
For years I have heard a vociferous chorus of naysayers lambasting aikido as an “ineffective” martial art. Even among those who practice aikido, one can hear criticism of aikido’s techniques as unrealistic. I confess that I too have been among those who have lamented much of what goes on in aikido dojos all over the world, as misdirected and contrary to the basic principles of the art.
I have often felt frustrated with the standards used by aikido’s critics to disparage the art. To begin with, if we wish to discuss the merits and demerits of aikido as a martial art, does it not make sense for the detractor to define what he means by a martial art for the benefit of his audience? Absent this, how can we hope to have any kind of intelligent conversation about the subject?
Let me pick at random the definition of “martial art” offered by an online dictionary, “Merriam-Webster,” in this instance: “any of several arts of combat and self defense (as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sport.”
Yikes! I can’t believe it! This is a ridiculous definition to begin with. It also reveals an ignorance of the root of the term “martial” referring to Mars, the god of war. Then we are told that these arts are for “combat and self-defense” and that they are practiced as “sports.” I missed something. Just when did combat arts become sports? Unless we are talking about gladiators in Rome, fighters do not normally risk their lives while engaging in sporting competitions.
Another observation. Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba forbade competitions in aikido in the strongest possible terms. Kenji Tomiki, the man who did introduce a form of competition for aikido, became a persona non grata at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo for having taken this egregious step. He also became estranged from the Founder from that point on.
So, if we’re going to use Merriam-Webster’s definition, then aikido is certainly not an effective martial art because it is not a martial art at all! What is there to talk about? Where is the disagreement if this is what we mean when we banter about the term?
Ok, I’ll take my own advice and make a stab at a definition of “martial art” for purposes of this article. I think I have a better definition than the one above, one that gets closer to the way that martial artists use the term “martial art” when they talk about an art’s effectiveness in a “real” situation. Then perhaps we can conduct a meaningful discussion as to whether or not aikido can be classified in this category.
Let me define a martial art this way: “A system of fighting techniques and strategies designed for use in a dangerous encounter.” In other words, if one practices a discipline that can be characterized as a “martial art”, his expectation (real or imagined) is to have some hope of prevailing against an opponent or opponents in an adversarial situation.
Then the question becomes, which of today’s so-called “martial arts” instill their practitioners with the expectation of a favorable outcome if they should find themselves in a realistic scenario. Judo, karate, mixed martial arts, taekwondo, aikido, etc., do any of them qualify? Can we even answer this question in a meaningful way?
Well, let’s put them to the test. Suppose that a martial arts practitioner of (fill in the blank) finds himself surrounded by a street gang armed with weapons in a dark alley. Is there anyone out there that can tell me what will happen in this scenario? How many gang members are there? What is their intention? What kind of weapons do they have? Is the martial art practitioner himself armed? My brain refuses to function when trying to process such a scenario given its entirely hypothetical nature.
Let’s change tack. We’ll make it a little easier this time. Imagine a martial artist minding his own business while nursing a drink in a crowded bar. He is approached by an inebriated man who attempts to provoke a fight. Ok. In this situation, will the martial art practitioner of (fill in the blank) be able to successfully defend himself? What? You still can’t answer the question?
Ok, then. Let’s flesh out the details a little more so that we can better predict the outcome, and by extension, the effectiveness of (fill in the blank). Let’s imagine the “martial artist” is a big, well-trained guy with a lot of rough-and-tumble experience. The drunk is about the same size and strong looking, but obviously not in possession of his faculties due to the effects of alcohol. Then it’s decided! Of course, the martial artist will prevail. And therefore (fill in the blank) is a bona fide martial art! Simple!
Now we can take this one step further and request submissions — the more detailed the better — hypothesizing dangerous situations, describing the art, the protagonists and the setting, and then tabulate the probable outcomes to determine “scientifically” which arts are worthy of being classified as “martial”” Then the argument will be settled because we have an objective standard on which to judge. Argumentum ad absurdum…
My point here is that there can be no rational discussion of the relative merits of different arts because we can’t even come to an agreement about the meaning of basic terms. All we can do is sit around throwing out hypothetical scenarios and supposing the results. These discussions are invariably emotional, visceral, and quickly veer out of control. There can be no consensus.
The undefeated martial artist
Let’s keep a cool head and look at the subject from an entirely different angle. We will now assume that the goal of a martial art, or “budo” to use the Japanese term, is not to be defeated… not to fight. We’ll imagine a person who practices an art for decades, and who never engages in a “real” fight, and therefore has never been defeated. Do such people exist? Of course, they do. I have known hundreds of them, and so probably have you.
Have these “undefeated martial artists” wasted their time training because they have never even found themselves in a life-threatening situation? Can they be called “martial artists” when they haven’t even tested their mettle? Who anyway is the superior martial artist… the guy who’s never been defeated with a record of 0-0, or a formidable ring champion with a 35-2 record? You must decide that for yourself. You are the one who chooses the art, and also the one decides how you conduct your life on a daily basis.
This idea of the “undefeated martial artist” is not mine, of course. I don’t know that anyone can lay claim to having been the first to come up with the concept. But one thing is sure, Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba espoused this principle in the most vigorous terms. This is one of the core tenets of his budo philosophy. Start with this if you wish to explore the subject further.
I chose the title of this article in an attempt to capture the state of ambivalent feelings of many aikidoka toward the art they are studying. Does aikido really work, they ask themselves?
I think the vast majority understand that they would be defeated if thrown into the ring with a monster mixed martial artist because they have never trained for such a situation, nor is it the goal of their practice. Likewise, they naturally feel fear at the prospect of finding themselves alone and surrounded by gang members on the street at night. But would not the mixed martial artist who could hand the aikidoka his head on a plate in the ring feel fear in the same situation? Would not a police officer accustomed to violence, or an elite soldier be similarly in deep trouble in the scenario described above? Why apologize? Anyone would be lucky to survive.
But what if you choose to live your life taking care to avoid such dangerous encounters altogether? If you never had to use your skills, even though you trained diligently. Would it be merely a matter of luck, a fortuitous coincidence, or might it have something to do with your training and decision-making abilities honed through your dojo practice? In any event, this was the Founder’s cherished goal for aikido, the martial art of peace.
The next time you’re at the dojo for practice, ask your training mates if they have ever had to use their aikido in a “real fight”. Ask them what their training goals are. Let me know what you find.